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Highlanders earn berth in 2024 Voyageurs Cup with dramatic win over TSS Rovers

David Schaefer produces Messi-like magic with last-minute free kick
Highlanders’ Caden Rogosinski, left, battles for the ball against TSS’s Mateo Polisi at Centennial Stadium on Saturday. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Bring on the Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montreal or Toronto FC of Major League Soccer, or the possible Island derby match-up against Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League.

It’s all on the table for the Victoria Highlanders following their from-the-brink 3-2 victory over the TSS Rovers of Burnaby on Saturday at Centennial Stadium. David Schaefer produced some Messi-like magic with a free kick to the top corner at 90 minutes, almost from the same spot taken by the Argentine legend in Miami on Friday, to tie the game 2-2. Schaefer then won it with a penalty kick in injury time after the referee pointed to the spot following a rough and tumble in the TSS box.

“I just took the chances given to me,” said Schaefer, from Berlin, who plays for Mount Royal University of Calgary in U Sports. “We never gave up.”

The 2023 regular-season champion of League1 B.C. earns a berth in the 2024 Canadian Championship tournament for the Voyageurs Cup, this nation’s answer to the FA Cup in England and Copa del Rey in Spain. The League1 B.C. regular-season championship was decided in Saturday’s fixture. The Highlanders and TSS both came into the final game of the regular season on 29 points atop the table at 9-2-2. TSS led in the goal-differential tiebreaker, however, so the Highlanders had to win to claim the league crown and Canadian Championship berth next year that goes with it. They looked down and out at the full 90 minutes of regular time — until Schaefer time.

Schaefer’s face lit up when it was mentioned he had brought the Highlanders into the Canadian equivalent of the Pokal Cup, which is Germany’s version of the FA Cup and Copa del Rey: “That was the goal. This is such a great group. It’s a special thing for all of us.”

The annual Canadian Championship features the three Canadian MLS teams, eight CPL teams and the champions of League1 B.C., League1 Ontario and League1 Quebec. The Canadian Championship winner hoists the Voyageurs Cup and earns a berth in the following year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“We kept believing,” said Highlanders head coach Steve Simonson.

The 2022 League1 B.C.-champion TSS Rovers gave a good account of themselves and made national headlines in this season’s Voyageurs Cup tournament by upsetting Winnipeg’s Valour FC 3-1 in the opening round to record the first victory ever by a B.C., Ontario or Quebec League1 team against a CPL team. TSS then gave Pacific FC all it could handle in the next round at Starlight Stadium before the Tridents of the CPL pulled it out with two late goals. PFC went on to lose in the semifinals to the Whitecaps of MLS.

The chance to become a TSS-like upstart will be there for the Highlanders next year.

“Even with Pacific FC in town now, we’ve proven we’re still relevant,” said Simonson, of the Highlanders club, founded in 2008.

Simonson also coaches the University of Northern B.C. Timberwolves in the Canada West and those conference connections have been key to the Highlanders’ success in luring players such as Schaefer from Mount Royal, and also UNBC star and Victoria product Michael Henman, the 2022 Canada West MVP who set the conference scoring record last season.

League1 B.C. features eight teams, including the Highlanders and seventh-place Harbourside FC of Nanaimo (1-8-4 in wins-losses-draws heading into Saturday). The top four teams advance to the playoff tournament next month — Highlanders, TSS, third-place Vancouver Whitecaps Academy (5-2-6 heading into Saturday) and fourth-place Unity FC of Langley (5-4-5 heading into Saturday) — with the final to be played Aug. 5 at B.C. Place Stadium. The Highlanders will play Unity FC in a semifinal game next Saturday at Centennial Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Highlanders finished in seventh place in the women’s League1 B.C. table and were 3-6-4 heading into their final game against TSS. Harbourside was 5-6-2 heading into Saturday and in fifth place with a chance to place in the top four and make the women’s playoff round pending results over this final regular-season weekend.

Vancouver Whitecaps Academy has captured the league regular-season championship and is advancing to the female playoffs along with second-place Nautsa’Mawt and third-place Unity FC (7-4-3). The fourth-place TSS Rovers were looking for the final playoff spot Saturday.

The women’s playoff final will also be played at B.C. Place on Aug. 5.