Vancouver Island Soccer League executive director Vince Greco is at once filled with a sense of pride and nostalgia for the past, mixed with all the anticipatory feelings that go with looking ahead to the fresh and new.
Not only did the 2018-19 VISL season kick off last weekend, but the league will celebrate its 123-year history with the ceremonial unveiling of wall panels today along the concourse of Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. The soccer panels will join those previously installed and commemorating the history of local hockey, curling, cycling, rowing, Island Olympians and 1994 Commonwealth Games.
“The display will show the full panorama of soccer on the Island, from the Vic West dynasty to the VISL players we had playing for Canada in the 1986 World Cup,” said Greco.
On the current pitches, this banner week for the VISL began with a dramatic changing of the guard on the opening weekend.
“I’ve never seen more player movement over the off-season than I have this year,” said Greco.
VISL stars Paddy Nelson, Cooper Barry and Craig Gorman — who lifted Cowichan FC to powerhouse status the past few seasons — have joined Bays United.
While Bays United has loaded up, “Cowichan FC has gone to a youth movement,” said Greco.
The defending regular-season league champions Cowichan FC began their new era with a 1-1 draw against VISL Division 1 debutante Fernwood Town.
It didn’t take Bays United long, meanwhile, to flex its newfound muscle with Barry scoring three goals and Nelson twice in the season-opening 6-2 victory over defending Jackson Cup-champion Gorge FC.
“Bays United and Lakehill are looking very strong this season,” said Greco.
Lakehill is indeed another team to have seriously upgraded its arsenal with former Plymouth Argyle and Swindon Town professional Blair Sturrock and former University of Victoria Vikes stalwarts Wes Barrett and Tom Mallette coming across from the V.I. Wave, the latter which will not be in the VISL Division 1 this season. That will help Lakehill contend with the loss of 2018 VISL scoring-champion and MVP Ryan Andre, who returns to his hometown Nanaimo to play for the Mid-Island Mariners.
Lakehill got off to what is expected to be a bright season by edging Vic West 2-1 in its opener on goals by Nick Graham and Dorian Colopisis.
Mid-Island, meanwhile, is guided by veteran mentor Bill Merriman and has always made good use of graduated alumni from the Canadian colleges powerhouse Vancouver Island University Mariners program. Having Andre in the house will be a bonus.
Another club of note this season will be Westcastle United, under the mentorship of Scott Strickland and Thomas Niendorf, the latter one of the best instructors of the game on the Island and with numerous connections to the Bundesliga in his native Germany.
Westcastle United has entered into a player-supply partnership this season with the Niendorf-coached Victoria Highlanders of the summer USL Premier Development League. Promising players from the Highlanders’ reserve squad, which plays in VISL Division 2, will be called up to VISL Division 1 with Westcastle United for development.
“With that Highlanders arrangement, Westcastle is going to have a lot of young, quick kids who can really play,” said Greco.
“Speed and youth kills. If they can keep this young core together, they can do big things in the years ahead.”
That youth was served in the opener as Westcastle United defeated Mid-Island 2-1 in Ladysmith on goals by Jonathan Walter and Simon Stacey while the ever-dangerous Andre replied for the Mariners.
Nanaimo United is always a factor and appears it will remain so by blanking Comox Valley United 3-0 in its opener, with 2017-18 VISL goaltender of the year Geoff Hackett recording the clean sheet.
Mainstays Vic West and Gorge FC will be competitive again, but seem to have their work cut out for them in the dramatically changed landscape of the VISL Division 1.
The VISL, meanwhile, has joined the Greater Vancouver and Fraser Valley leagues by hiring a paid executive director, with Greco stepping into the role for VISL after doing it the eight previous seasons on a volunteer basis.
Greco oversees 72 teams with 1,800 players and about 200 coaches and managers in VISL divisions 1 through 4, along with the U-21 and masters VISL divisions.
“It has become a full-time load with all the work involved in running all three of the major men’s soccer leagues in B.C.,” said Greco, who joined the VISL board in 2000, and has also been the league score recorder and disciplinary chairman.
It was also a big personal decision for Greco, who has entered the casual pool in his former full-time job with Island Health, to take on the challenge of running the VISL on a full-time paid basis.
“While somebody is needed to handle the administrative load on a paid basis, the VISL is still fuelled by the many volunteers that make it happen,” said Greco.
“They remain pivotal. Without the volunteers, league soccer doesn’t happen.”
All that effort seems worth celebrating in the VISL, which was established in 1895.
This weekend, Cowichan is at Gorge FC, Mid-Island at Comox Valley, Vic West at Nanaimo United, Bays United at Fernwood Town and Lakehill at Westcastle United.