The Victoria Highlanders advanced to their first-ever PDL Final Four by edging the Northwest Division-rival Portland Timbers U-23 by a 1-0 count in the Western Conference final Sunday at Ventura County, Calif.
The Highlanders will play the Central Conference-champion Thunder Bay Chill in an all-Canadian PDL semifinal Friday in Austin, Texas. The other semifinal will feature the Southern Conference-champion Austin Aztex against the Eastern Conference champion Ocean City Nor’easters.
The the 2008 PDL-champion Chill are no strangers to the Final Four, making their fourth appearance overall and second in the past three years.
The Highlanders will answer with a high degree of versatility, which was on ample display in the Western Conference playoffs. Victoria won every which way, rallying from behind twice to defeat Ventura County in extra time in the semifinals Saturday before riding an early Brett Levis goal, on a razor pass at 16 minutes from former Plymouth Argyle pro Blair Sturrock, to victory over the Timbers U-23 in the final Sunday as Elliot Mitrou maintained the clean sheet.
“In the semifinals, we chased the game. In the final, we took an early lead and closed down a very good Timbers team the rest of the way. It shows that we don’t have any stereotypical players,” said Highlanders head coach Steve Simonson.
“We have all kinds of players who can play in all kinds of situations. That’s what makes us so versatile.”
Simonson noted that while some think of the Highlanders as a fairly senior team in a U-23 league, that is not an accurate assumption.
“We started only four over-agers in Ventura, but we have good experience in the right places and that’s what makes us special,” he said.
“We also started two 18-year-olds, a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old. Plus, 80 per cent of our team is home-grown. The players really stood up for the Island and have shown there is good soccer here.”
Victoria’s run to the PDL Final Four has been accomplished without a home playoff game. By winning the Northwest Division regular-season crown, the Highlanders advance directly to the Western Conference semifinals and final hosted by Ventura County. Now it’s on to Austin with a Texas-size appetite to prove more.
“It’s just another challenge for us,” said Simonson.
“But this team has proven that the greater the challenge, the more we get up for it.”