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Highlanders ready for tough first hurdle

Into the eye of hurricane go the Victoria Highlanders. They open the 2018 United Soccer League Premier Development League season with games tonight and Sunday in Calgary, a city that has been making a lot of news lately in soccer.
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Into the eye of hurricane go the Victoria Highlanders. They open the 2018 United Soccer League Premier Development League season with games tonight and Sunday in Calgary, a city that has been making a lot of news lately in soccer.

The PDL disallowed the Calgary Foothills from signing Canadian national team goalkeeper and 2016 Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Stephanie Labbe, saying its rules stipulate it’s a male-only league. Then it was announced that Calgary will be playing in the new pro Canadian Premier League next season in a new stadium at Spruce Meadows. But for now, it’s the two-time PDL Northwest Division-champion Foothills who still headline Calgary soccer.

New Highlanders head coach Thomas Niendorf knows the scene intimately. He is well known in Calgary soccer for building up the sport there over 26 years. Facing the Highlanders will be several Foothills players that Niendorf mentored, including 33-year-old Nik Ledgerwood, who has 50 caps for Canada.

“In 26 years, I pioneered a lot of things in Calgary soccer and a lot of people know me there, so [tonight] will be bittersweet,” said Niendorf, a native of Berlin, who has myriad connections to soccer in Germany.

Niendorf played a key role in the signing of Calgary-born English international Owen Hargreaves by famed German club Bayern Munich and Ledgerwood with 1860 Munich. Niendorf also played a major part when Canadian internationals Adam Straith of Victoria and Kevin McKenna of Calgary signed with Energie Cottbus and FC Koln, respectively.

“I initiated opportunities for high-level Calgary players,” Niendorf said. “I will have a lot of support in Calgary, but [at] the same time, fans will know I am facing against Foothills.”

And with a much-bolstered Highlanders squad that has recruited top-level university players for the summer-league PDL in an attempt to return to the playoffs under Niendorf and the new Victoria ownership group.

They include Marcus Campanile, a former U-20 player for Scottish Premiership side Aberdeen, and Peter Schaale, developed in the youth system of Bundesliga side FC Köln. Campanile and Schaale led the University of Cape Breton Capers to the U Sports national soccer championship last fall. They are joined on the Highlanders by former Canada U-18 midfielder Thomas Shores, captain of NCAA Div. 1 James Madison. A key returnee is defender Callum Montgomery of Nanaimo, who graduated from SMUS, and was named first team all-conference this season in the NCAA Div. 1 with North Carolina-Charlotte and has pro dreams as he looks to elevate his game possibly to those of Highlanders alumni such as Canada-capped Jamar Dixon and MLS pros Brett Levis of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Matt Polster of Chicago Fire.

“We have 23 highly competitive players who are motivated and excited,” said Niendorf.

“Our players have good technical ability and speed. It’s an exciting mix of defensive stability, with midfielders and defenders who are good on the ball, and midfielders and wide players who can attack. We can give many different looks.”

The PDL is considered the top amateur developmental soccer league in North America, with nearly 70 per cent of Major League Soccer draft picks since 2010 having PDL experience. There are more than 220 players who have played in the PDL on 2018 MLS rosters.

“The players in the PDL have ambitions, and that is what makes it so attractive to me,” said Niendorf, who founded the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program in 2008 and was head coach of former USL First Division pro club Calgary Mustangs and head coach of the PDL Calgary Storm.

Niendorf is also excited by the new Canadian pro league coming next season.

“It’s a fantastic idea and Calgary certainly has solid financial backing with Spruce Meadows,” he said.

But that’s all far off in the future. This weekend it’s the PDL and a tough opening opponent against the two-time defending division champions.

“The Foothills are considered the favourites of our [Northwest] division,” said Niendorf.

“The Foothills have their sights set on not only the division, but also the league, title. We will give them all we have this weekend. It will be a good stepping stone for our season.”

The Highlanders home opener is May 20 at Centennial Stadium against Portland Timbers U-23.

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