Victoria Highlanders score cool win over Whitecaps U-23

VICTORIA 3 VANCOUVER 2

There are dramatics and then there is what happened Sunday afternoon before 1,461 fans at Royal Athletic Park.

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Former pro Riley O’Neill coolly slotted the winning goal from the penalty spot in extra time to give the Victoria Highlanders a 3-2 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps U-23 to open the 2014 United Soccer League Premier Development League season.

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The winning penalty kick was awarded after forward Carlo Basso, who had been a human wrecking ball all day for Victoria, and Whitecaps goalkeeper Nolan Wirth both went hard after a rolling ball in the Vancouver crease. Wirth seemed to have the ball covered. But in the scramble with Basso, it squirted loose. As Basso got up to try to kick the ball into the gaping net, a prone Wirth reached out his hand and grabbed Basso’s foot and tripped him.

That was game, set, match, as the Highlanders opened defence of their PDL West Division and Western Conference championships with an opening-game victory.

O’Neill, a playing assistant coach, stepped forward to say he would take the penalty shot.

“You go with the confidence,” said Highlanders head coach Steve Simonson, of the common soccer practice of letting the players on the field decide who has the hot foot and who should take the penalty kick.

The 27-year-old O’Neill, selected by the Colorado Rapids 36th overall in the 2007 MLS draft, made no mistake as he shrugged off the pressure to slot the winner low into the corner with next to no time remaining in extra time.

“If you can make a pass, you should be able to get the ball past a goalkeeper from the spot,” said the Campbell River product and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup player, who starred in the NCAA with the University of Kentucky Wildcats before playing pro in the Finnish Premier League and German Second Division.

The Whitecaps looked to have the winner themselves when Ali Musse twisted to unload a sudden and fine shot to the opposite top corner from the side of the box to give Vancouver a 2-1 lead at 82 minutes. But Highlanders midfielder Wesley Barrett, subbed into the game to add offence after Musse’s go-ahead goal, caught the ball squarely on his foot to find the low corner to equalize 2-2 at 84 minutes.

“We weren’t as fluid as we wanted to be — we’re still trying to find that — but we kept our cool and found a way to win,” said O’Neill.

After falling behind late, coach Simonson moved his midfielders up to press on offence. They continued pressing even after Barrett scored the equalizer.

“It was the mentality of go big or go home,” said Simonson.

“We moved more midfielders up higher. We’re always going to go for the win and never going to say die. We’re still finding our feet. But today showed our character.”

Whitecaps U-23 midfielder Cody Cook, off a Reynold Stewart corner kick, opened scoring at 29 minutes. Victoria equalized on a Basso header at 34 minutes off a cross by Cam Stokes.

“Cam whipped in a great ball,” said Basso, a product of SFU and the Coquitlam Metro Ford organization.

It was big a week for Basso headers. Basso, an ample target at six-foot-four, also headed in the winner when the Highlanders shocked the MLS pro Whitecaps by winning a closed scrimmage 1-0 last Tuesday in Vancouver.

“It was good to win that scrimmage against the Whitecaps first team [MLS pro practice unit, which included five starters] and now to officially open the season with a win over Whitecaps U-23,” said O’Neill.

Despite being down twice Sunday, the Highlanders never seemed rattled.

“There was no panic,” said Basso.

“We know we have the ability and personnel to come back at any point.”

That’s in no small part thanks to the addition of the strapping Basso.

“This [playing for the Highlanders in the PDL] is a great catalyst to get to the higher levels,” he said.

Don’t bet against it.

“He [Basso] adds an element with his height. Carlo has got a big frame and our midfielders notice him in front of the net. Plus, he is a great finisher,” said Simonson.

Good enough to finish off the Whitecaps, both pro and U-23.

“I saw the loose ball and the empty net,” said Basso, describing the play that led to the winning penalty-kick goal in extra time Sunday.

“But he [Vancouver ‘keeper Wirth] grabbed my foot from under me.”

The rest was left to the foot of O’Neill.

The Highlanders meet Victoria United of the Pacific Coast League in a friendly next Sunday at 2 p.m. at Royal Athletic Park. The next PDL game is May 17 at RAP against the Kitsap Pumas.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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