Rovers’ late strike lethal as Highlanders lose at home

Perhaps the toughest way to lose a soccer game is by having the winning goal scored against you when down to 10 players. Even more so when the red card was controversial.

Chris Rushworth of the Victoria Highlanders was shown a straight red at 62 minutes, following scuffling between both the Highlanders and TSS FC Rovers of Surrey, with the score tied 2-2 in the United Soccer League Premier Development League fixture Sunday afternoon at Centennial Stadium. The Highlanders claim it was a phantom foul.

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Fourteen minutes later, Thomas Gardner found the left corner with a well-placed shot from a few metres above the box for the winning goal in a 3-2 TSS Rovers victory.

“I have no idea what the referee is seeing,” said Victoria head coach Thomas Niendorf.

“There was no elbow given [by Rushworth].”

The call comes a week after another hotly-debated incident, in which Isaac Koch of Victoria went down in the box late in a 1-0 loss to Portland Timbers U-23, with no penalty kick awarded.

“I don’t know what they [referees] see or don’t see,” said a clearly exasperated Niendorf, as his club fell to 1-4.

“It’s getting to the point [shrugging] of what can you do about it?”

The Highlanders still pressed despite being down a man, and missed on at least three good chances from close in to level the game in the late going.

“It comes down to technical execution,” said Niendorf, of the muffed chances.

“You don’t need to complicate things. Sometimes, a one-touch finish is best.”

Cam Hundal and Cory Bent scored the Victoria goals, both in the first half.

“More than technical, it’s about mental focus and concentration in those [late-chance] moments,” said Hundal, the former University of Victoria Vikes star.

And being down to 10 men was sapping.

“It was back and forth on a hot day on a big field and it sure was tough having to do that [for the final half hour] down a man,” said Hundal.

Cory Bent, who helped led the unbeaten Cape Breton Capers to the 2017 U Sports national title, scored Victoria’s other goal Sunday and now has two of the Highlanders’ three goals on the season. But the way Victoria lost still sticks in the craw.

“It’s tough to lose a game under those circumstances, especially because our fans have been lovely and shown us so much support,” said Bent, who hails from Manchester, England.

“It’s hard for the lads and a tough pill to swallow. This is very disappointing and will be hard to bounce back from.”

Hundal said it’s about soldiering on.

“Our heads are not down. We’ve been in each game with a chance to win each one. We’ll keep moving forward and try to win each game.”

The Rovers, the only other B.C. team in the PDL Northwest Division, moved to 2-1-1 and took a one-goal lead in the Juan de Fuca Plate side competition against Victoria. Those are common in soccer among regional rivals. The MLS games between the Vancouver Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, for instance, count for their own three-team Cascadia Cup competition.

The Highlanders, now down a goal on aggregate, have an uphill struggle trying to defend their 2017 Juan de Fuca Plate title in the second and deciding leg next Sunday at Swangard Stadium against TSS Rovers. The next home fixture for Victoria is Friday night against Seattle Sounders U-23 at Centennial Stadium.

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