VISL’s top level again loaded with premier talent

It is a question Vince Greco is often asked.

He administers the rambling men’s amateur Vancouver Island Soccer League, which includes nearly 2,000 players on 77 teams from divisions one through four and also masters and U-21 categories.

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The VISL Division 1 has boasted World Cup players George Pakos, Jamie Lowery, Ian Bridge and other highly capped Canada players such as Bob Bolitho, Brian Robinson and Ike MacKay.

So why not follow the lead of practically every other soccer league in the world, pro or amateur, which labels its top division the Premiership?

But renaming it the VISL Premiership is not a priority.

“We have a well-documented history that goes back to 1895 and we are not going to change for the sake of change,” said Greco, the VISL executive director.

“Premier sounds flashier. But our top flight is our top flight, no matter its name. And soccer fans on the Island have always known it as the VISL Division 1.”

And it’s once again on.

The 2019-20 VISL Division 1 season began this week with a marquee matchup at Royal Athletic Park featuring defending league regular-season champion Cowichan FC and defending Jackson Cup holders Westcastle United playing to a 1-1 draw on goals by Cowichan’s Blaze Roberts and ’Castle’s Abraham Dukuly.

That game also doubled as the Cup Winners’ Cup. While the league portion of the fixture could end in a draw, with each team earning a point, a Cup final can’t. So the Cup Winner’s Cup part of that game went to a shootout with Westcastle prevailing 5-4 on penalty kicks over Cowichan. Ethan Monaghan of Westcastle was named MVP.

It continued Westcastle’s rise. The upstart club, begun by Steven Hodges, shook the VISL establishment by winning its first Jackson Cup last spring loaded with youthful academy players from what is now known as the Highlanders FC Residency Program.

“Westcastle is so young and so quick and could again be a top team,” said Greco.

In a startling opening-week scoreline at Braefoot Park, the Bays United squad recorded a 5-1 victory over Lakehill. Both teams are expected to be contenders again this season in VISL Division 1 — featuring players such as former University of Victoria Vikes standouts Alex Redpath of Bays and Wes Barrett of Lakehill — so the blowout raised eyebrows.

Defending VISL Division 1 scoring-champion Patrick Nelson picked up where he left off by notching the brace for Bays United. Nelson also won the scoring title over the summer with Highlanders-2 in the Pacific Coast League and has enough Golden Boots to fill the Canadian Mint. Nelson is one of only a trio of three-time winners of the VISL MVP award along with former Canada-capped pros Nick Gilbert of Bays and Drew Ferguson of Powell River Villa.

“Nothing slows Nelson down. He is again fit and motivated,” said Greco, of the canny veteran striker.

In another lopsided scoreline, historic power Gorge FC opened with a 6-1 victory over the Mid-Isle Mariners.

Vic West, a former provincial- and national-championship dynasty yearning for a return to glory, got off to a good start with a 1-0 victory at Nanaimo United with Matthias Raps scoring the goal and Ben Chamberlin recording the clean sheet.

“There are a lot of unknowns, as with the start of any season, but also some interesting pieces coming together,” said Greco.

Greco, meanwhile, said the VISL is working closely with Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League with both supporting each other in various ways.

“Having a pro soccer team on the Island is a darn huge deal,” said Greco.

“We have an entire generation that doesn’t remember the Victoria Vistas [of the old pro Canadian Soccer League]. PFC will be a carrot for the Island’s up-and-coming young players.”

Just as the VISL Division 1 has been, at the amateur level, since 1895. It has been Premier in everything but name.

This week’s featured game has Lakehill trying to get back on track after the beat-down by Nelson and Bays. Lakehill has a stellar roster which features former Canada West UVic Vikes notables Barrett, Paulo Dait, Tarnvir Bhandal, former league MVP Jon Shah and former pro Blair Sturrock and visits Cowichan on Friday night.

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