The Vancouver Whitecaps capped off a perfect League 1 BC campaign on Saturday, as they swept both the women’s and men’s finals to complete a special treble.
Having also won the Juan De Fuca Plate as the League 1 BC side with the most combined women’s and men’s points, they did what Nautsa’mawt was unable to do in 2022, where they won the JDF Plate but then fell short in both finals at Swangard Stadium, to the Whitecaps (women’s) and TSS Rovers (men’s) respectively.
Yet, it was a fitting way for the Whitecaps to cap the season, especially given that the final was at their first team’s home ground, BC Place, the perfect place to mark the special moment for the club, one where their investment and commitment to youth development really came to the forefront.
And with that, it also capped a strong second season of League 1 BC, one that was undoubtedly a success for the circuit. With some great games, good parity, a competitive title race and two tightly-contested finals in both divisions, there was lots to like about how the campaign ended up shaking down.
Plus, with more making the jump up to the professional game on both the women’s and men’s side, it’s also fulfilling its mandate of filling a gap and providing a pipeline for players to develop, which is key.
Therefore, while these finals were a special occasion given that they were, well, finals, it was also a good opportunity to celebrate another strong campaign.
After years of promise, League 1 BC has quickly become a fixture for soccer in the province, and it’s hoped that it continues to bear fruit in the years to come, filling a much-needed hole in the system.
And, as has been the case all season, these games were entertaining, too, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
Whitecaps women continue their League 1 BC dominance in win over Unity:
To kick things off on the day was the women’s final, as the first-place Whitecaps took on third-place Unity. There, the Whitecaps had one goal – defending their 2022 title, after they surprised Nautsa’mawt (then called Varsity) after finishing second behind them in the regular season.
This time, however, they’d enter this final as favourites, especially after Unity surprisingly knocked off Nautsa’mawt 4-1 in the semi-final a week prior, denying both sides of a finals rematch.
Then, picking off where they left off in that semi-finals, Unity would get off to a strong start in the opening final, too, doing well to handle some early Whitecaps pressure. Through that, they’d do well to grab an opening goal in the 35th minute, as regular season standout, Sophie Crowther, found Tilly James on an inch-perfect corner for a second goal in as many weeks from the defender.
Yet, that lead would be short-lived. Eager to not head into the half chasing the game, the Whitecaps would respond nearly immediately, as Kierra Blundell found Kaylee Hunter with a perfect through ball, one Hunter would slide through the goalkeepers’ legs to make it 1-1.
Once again back in the game, it’d be all Whitecaps from that point on, as well. Sensing that Unity’s defence was starting to tire, they started to ramp up the pressure, eager to break down their opponents.
As a result, they’d grab a lead in the 52nd minute. After a dangerous ball over the top from Jeneva Hernandez-Gray, Joy Kimwemwe would use her speed to beat the defenders to it, before calmly stepping past the goalkeeper and slotting it into the empty net for her second goal in as many weeks.
Despite going down, however, Unity wouldn’t let their heads drop. Eager to claw back an equalizer, they really started to push back, as they tried to send the game to penalties.
Unfortunately, though, their dream of winning the final would ultimately end on a penalty, instead. After some nifty footwork from Hernandez-Gray in the box, she managed to draw a penalty, one that Hunter calmly stepped up to convert to make it 3-1, also completing her brace in the process.
From there, the Whitecaps would do well to hold on the rest of the way, doing well to protect their lead.
With that, they were able to successfully defend their title, continuing their dominance of the women’s division. Considering how young their team is, that’s no small feat, yet shows why this team is one to watch for the future.
With Project 8 Sports on the horizon, with the Whitecaps a founding member in that league, one can only imagine what this crop of talent can do in the professional game, as they continue to impress against players much older than them.
Plus, their season isn’t over yet, either – thanks to them finishing first in the regular season, they also booked a spot in the League 1 Canada inter-provincial championships, which kick off next weekend in Langley. There, they can add more silverware to the cabinet, while earning the distinction of being the top team in Canada.
Therefore, while they’ll certainly celebrate this League 1 BC crown, they’ve already got their eyes set on climbing that next mountain, which would certainly cap what has been already been an excellent season for them so far.
Whitecaps men surprise Highlanders with resilient comeback:
After the dust settled on the women’s final, there would be no time wasted as the second final of the day, the men’s division decider, got underway soon after.
There, however, a far cagier game emerged.
To be fair, that’s also expected – the Highlanders finished the regular season as the best defensive team in the league with just nine goals against in 14 games, while the Whitecaps were no slouches with 14 goals against in 14 games – although it was a bit of a change in pace from the quick start to the women’s final.
Because of that, the first opportunity would seemingly come out of nothing, as both teams had settled into a rhythm. Coming off a sloppy mistake in the Whitecaps build-up play, the ball fell to the wrong player, Highlanders forward, Michael Henman, who was all alone with Vancouver’s goalkeeper, Cohen Park.
Yet, while the recently-crowned 2023 League 1 BC men’s MVP seemed likely to score, as he’d done all season, it’d be Park who’d get the better of that duel, bailing out his defence with a fantastic kick save.
But while the Whitecaps were let off the hook once, they wouldn’t be so lucky a second time. Right before half time, the ball would fall to Henman in a dangerous area, and despite having several defenders closing him down, he’d manage to turn and fire a shot right into the top corner, sailing one just past the outstretched hands of Park.
That’d be a huge goal, too, as the Highlanders haven’t been ones to give up many leads this season, meaning that it was going to be hard to imagine the Whitecaps coming back from that.
The Whitecaps didn’t get that message, however. Despite that, they’d keep pushing and would manage to pull one back in the 61st minute.
After a wide set piece, the ball fell to Amir Ghasemi at the edge of the box, and he’d do well to pick out Sidney Wathuta inside the box, who’d carefully slot the ball into the bottom corner with his left foot to tie the game up.
With that, the game then seemed destined to head straight to penalties, as both teams tightened up defensively.
And sure enough, that’d be the case, leaving both teams to decide things from the spot.
There, it’d be an entertaining shootout, too – the Highlanders would miss the opening shot, before the Whitecaps missed one in the fourth round, sending the penalties to sudden death after they converted the rest of the shots through the first five rounds.
Then, after some good penalties from both sides, things would come to an end in the eighth round. There, the Highlanders had their first shot denied by a big save from Park, setting up a Luke Norman winner on the next kick, confirming the Whitecaps victory.
With that, they also confirmed their special treble, in a moment to celebrate for the club, one who has been very vocal about the importance of this league as a pathway for talent to develop.
As for the Highlanders, despite the heartbreak of this final, not all is bad for them – they’ll now turn their focus to next year’s Canadian Championships, where they booked their spot after winning the men’s regular season title.
There, they’ll have big goals, as they look to follow in the footsteps of the TSS Rovers in creating some cupset magic, showing the value of that competition.
So while this final’s loss will sting in the short-term, that’ll be worth looking forward to, as they look to represent BC in Canada’s premier men’s cup competition next year.
(Image Credit: Mark Zhuang)