TOWNSHIP OF LANGLEY, BC – Metal bleachers, a BC soccer team and a positive home opening result.
For professional soccer fans in southern BC, opening matches have become a near regularity over the last 15 years. From the Vancouver Whitecaps entering MLS in 2011 at a temporary Empire Field or Pacific FC entering the CPL in 2019 with a then makeshift Westhills Stadium, inaugural games aren’t rarities in the province.
Yet, on Sunday at a windy and sun-soaked Willoughby Community Park, Vancouver FC took the spotlight and wrote their chapter of Vancouver footballing history with a 1-1 draw with Calgary’s Cavalry FC.
“It’s important to really thank all the people that have been involved for a long time to build the stadium and build the club,” Vancouver head coach Afshin Ghotbi said post-match.
“To have the vision, the bravery, and in my opinion, that persistency to build this club. I was really excited and bubbled with all kinds of enthusiasm. I even got teary in the locker room before the game because I felt when you try to build something from the ground up, and you’re a pioneer, it’s so difficult because everything is against you.”
The stadium, right next to the Langley Events Centre, is at the heart of the community. Just steps away, youth soccer games were underway, while lacrosse took place inside the arena and basketball up the street. For a club with Vancouver’s neighbourhoods stitched into their home kit, it’s a perfect place to call home.
“Every day when we train when we walk in from the locker room to the pitch, we see kids coming to school,” Ghotbi said. “I feel right at home, and I feel that this club is going to do a lot of good for the game and Vancouver.”
While the stadium only came together a day before the opening match, and there remain certain aspects to refine, it provided an intimate soccer-watching experience for the sell-out crowd in attendance, bringing the Lower Mainland a sports venue unlike any other in the area.
It’s really quite a sweet setup out here for @vanfootballclub for their CPL home opener.
The pitch is right in the community, steps away from a girls youth game.
A safe standing section for the Fraser Valley Fanatics as well.
Of course, a White Spot TripleO’s too. pic.twitter.com/21WeYEslnk
— Ben Steiner (@BenSteiner00) May 7, 2023
An officiating decision that took the focus in the 29th minute after a strong start with attacking opportunities for both sides. Vancouver centreback Rocco Romeo clashed heads with Cavalry’s Myer Bevan in a 50/50 aerial duel. While Bevan took the brunt of the collision, Romeo came away with a red card, forcing Vancouver to play with ten men for most of the match.
RED CARD 🟥@vanfootballclub are down to 10 men as Rocco Romeo is shown a straight red for… *this* 👀
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 7, 2023
“In my opinion is not a red card,” Ghotbi said. “As a manager, a player, a person, a human being, you have to know the occasion, you have to know where you are in, you have to make sensible decisions. A game like this is so important for the game in Canada. Maybe it could have been managed differently.”
Cavalry found their breakthrough in the 46th minute when Pele Martinez failed to clear the ball from Vancouver’s box, landing right on the feet of attacker Mikael Cantave, who half-volleyed the shot into the side netting and past VFC goalkeeper Callum Irving.
Vancouver’s moment, the one that owner Rob Friend says he envisioned five years ago, came soon after, as a shorthanded response with Shaan Hundal firing home off a quick break to beat Marco Carducci, marking the first goal on home turf for the club, and his CPL-leading third strike of the season.
GOAL 🦅@vanfootballclub EQUALIZE 😎
Shaan Hundal takes the #CanPL scoring lead with his 3rd effort of the season, getting a fortuitous bounce past Marco Carducci 😅
GAME IS BACK ON ✅
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 8, 2023
In the opening half before the sending-off, Vancouver had found their footing in attack, with Tyler Crawford pushing forward to support Gael Sandoval on the left wing before drawing a foul near the top of the box.
While Sandoval’s free-kick effort didn’t beat Cavalry goalkeeper Marco Carducci, yet was the first threat from the home side and sparked an abundance of chances in the moments after.
However, Vancouver’s front three of Sanvoal, Hundal, and Gabriel Bitar failed to play off each other as they had through the two previous matches since finding their form in a win against York United.
In the tight confines of VFC’s new home, the frustration from the group was clear from the back, with Irving shouting at his front three to play more compactly while also spreading the field. But, against an experienced, albeit winless Cavalry, VFC couldn’t break through to clear-cut opportunities. That is, until the match opened up in the early portions of the second half, with Cantave and Hundal finding the back of the net for their respective sides.
Mikaël Cantave opens the scoring at Willoughby Community Park, giving visitors @CPLCavalryFC a 1-0 lead vs. @vanfootballclub with a deft touch in the box 🎯#CanPL | 🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/0wOm39XWyB
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) May 8, 2023
Despite playing a man down, Vancouver adjusted in the second half, as Cavalry controlled the play and spells of possession. Ghotbi didn’t pull a knee-jerk reaction, switching his team to play three defenders while having Kadin Ching drop back into his former role as a right back before his recent switch to midfield.
“It all goes back to the organization being very important. If you create the right playing organization in defence and structure and attack, and everyone knows their role, it can work,” Ghotbi said of the adjustment. “We lost a central defender, so it was easy to drop Ibrahim [Bakare] centrally and bring [Kadin] Chung to right back.”
The switches paid off for VFC, as they kept pace and counter-attacked while reverting to long balls, which eventually paid off in chances, with Bitar and Hundal creating opportunities throughout the second half
As well, the second half saw Vancouver make a little bit of CPL history, with TJ Tahid becoming the youngest-ever player to play in the league at just 16 years and 17 days. He wasn’t just a passenger either, creating a chance with a ferocious pace to pressure the Cavalry backline.
“It’s fun because they give me more of a challenge. They like to keep me on my toes, and I like to keep them on their toes. It goes both ways,” Tahid said post-match about facing older opponents and fighting back from the deficit.
“It’s an amazing mentality from everyone. Obviously, we’re a new team. Everyone in the past few months has just become a family. So when one of us is down, we all get up, get back on together.”
“I believe in youth, and I believe that that age doesn’t play,” Ghotbi added. “TJ has a temperament of a 25-year-old man, he has no fears. If you put them into a stadium with 100,000 in the World Cup, I think he will play just like this.”
Despite the chances, neither side could find a winner, as Cavalry settled for their fourth draw (0-4-0), and Vancouver picked up their fifth point of the season to move to fourth in the CPL standings.
With the draw, Vancouver looks ahead to the rest of their season at home, hosting Atletico Ottawa on May 13, while also putting the finishing touches on the new ground. At the same time, a still winless Cavalry move on to face the HFX Wanderers at home.
Photos: Beau Chevalier/CanPL/Vancouver FC