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Victoria-bound with UFV men’s soccer team

They are an intimidating group these 16 men in matching tracksuits gathered outside the Envision Athletic Centre. The charter bus stands ready in the corner of the parking lot and each member of the UFV men’s soccer team is anticipating a pivotal game in the provincial capital. For some it’s only another trial in a long career; for some, like midfielders Kree Byrne or Connor MacMillan, it’s the first time they’ve been chosen for the prestigious travel squad. For me, the only one not in uniform, the stranger, the journalist, I feel like the biggest rookie of the rookies.

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By Paul Esau (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: October 10, 2012

They are an intimidating group these 16 men in matching tracksuits gathered outside the Envision Athletic Centre. The charter bus stands ready in the corner of the parking lot and each member of the UFV men’s soccer team is anticipating a pivotal game in the provincial capital. For some it’s only another trial in a long career; for some, like midfielders Kree Byrne or Connor MacMillan, it’s the first time they’ve been chosen for the prestigious travel squad. For me, the only one not in uniform, the stranger, the journalist, I feel like the biggest rookie of the rookies. For a moment I forget that I have a notebook, not cleats, in my travel bag.

I recognize some faces as I approach: Sasa Plavsic, whose minute-to-midnight penalty goal the night before had preserved the Cascades’ unbeaten streak with a 2-2 tie, and Craig Robinson, team captain and fifth-year veteran. Players look up as I approach, not sure what to make of this outsider.

“Guys,” I say, and more heads turn. “I’m your groupie for this trip.” I try to smile. “Not as cute as you were hoping, hey? I’m from The Cascade newspaper.” There’s a little laughter and I know that I’ve been given permission to sit down and listen to the conversation. As a journalist that’s about the best I can hope for, and so for a while I absorb the talk about music, about professional soccer, about road trips and Thanksgiving.

After a couple minutes Sasa comes over to make some small talk about the previous night’s game. I’ve interviewed Sasa a couple times and I’ve been impressed by his integrity, yet it still surprises me when in an act of unlooked-for charity, he offers to let me borrow his official team windbreaker for the day. I put it on and the transformation is immediate.

I’m part of the team. A funny, awkward part to be sure, but at least I don’t stand out.

As we board the bus, head coach Alan Errington makes an official announcement about my presence on the trip, yet the team and I are already admiring the interior of the most modern charter bus any of us have travelled on. The six respectably-sized TVs, reclining seats, and comfy ergonomics draw many comments as 18 athletes, three coaches, one trainer and one journalist spread out down the length of the bus. I look carefully for a pattern, a hierarchy among the seating arrangement, but beyond the traditional ‘coaches at the front’ there doesn’t seem to be one. A debate develops over midfielder JP (Juan) Mora Perea’s perceived lateness but it’s quickly resolved and the team settles in for the ride to the ferry terminal (I find out later that coach Errington fines players $5 for each instance of lateness to practices, games or trips. No mercy and no excuses in the world of football).

Errington slips in The Damned United, a film about legendary British football manager Brian Clough, and we spend a happy hour listening to people curse in old world accents. Craig and goalkeeper Mark Village are in front of me completely engrossed in a golf simulation game on midfielder Koby Byrne’s iPhone, while, to my left, Juan is grooving to dangerously high decibels that are easily heard over both the movie and the bus. Behind me Justin Sekhon and Sahib Phagura are trying to persuade Ravi “The Dark Knight” Singh to text a girl named —–, but Ravi (wisely) isn’t taking the bait.

In other words, it’s like every other sports team trip I’ve ever been on.

The men’s soccer team is unique among varsity teams in that it truly consists of “brothers in arms.” There are three pairs of siblings on this travelling squad, and if last year’s captain Trevor O’Neill wasn’t injured there would be three O’Neill brothers on the team. This provides an interesting dynamic to an already close-knit group, a loyalty that works well on the field.

The usual hotel is sold out for Thanksgiving weekend, and so the team is staying in a back-up that’s a good distance from the downtown core, and (more importantly) food. The players have been consuming a steady diet of pizza, ice cream, burgers and fries since the ferry terminal, but the metabolism of a university footballer seems to have no limits.  In the meantime, Cam MacKinnon, Dalibor Plavsic and I hunker down in the hotel room to watch an episode of what is apparently a team religion: the TV show Storage Wars.

Cam is sporting a black eye and a broken nose from a collision in a previous game, but he’s decided not to wear his facemask in tomorrow’s contest. “It just makes me more of a target,” he says, and then turns his attention back to the TV. “They’re bidding on repossessed storage containers,” he explains, “and everyone hates that Dave guy.”

Dinner happens downtown, and then team is back at the hotel and in the pool by 8:30 for a stretching and sauna session courtesy of trainer Daniel Lewis. Curfew is set at 11 and I know some of the guys are watching an action movie in room 391, but I’m done for the night. I fall asleep listening to Daniel working away at his nursing homework. He’s already explained that he has a degree in kinesiology, but wants a second one in nursing. He’s also, I’ll later learn, a formidable enough soccer player to have played varsity at UBC: a true triple threat of a man.

The next morning I ask some of the players if they have any specific rituals that need to be completed before a game. “Water and Spits,” is the immediate answer from alternate goalkeeper Jacob Kubanski, and Craig and Sahib unanimously agree. In another room, other players preach the importance of the right song to their psychological state. At the moment Connor MacMillan’s essential tune is T.I.’s “Go Get It”, Dalibor’s is “Till I Collapse” by Eminem, and Cam needs “Mercy” by Kanye West. Koby Byrne, by contrast, replies with a quiet intensity that’s an answer in itself. “Nothing special,” he says. “Show up. Warm up. Play.”

Errington and assistant coach Colin Miller gather us around in front of the bus, and suddenly the jovial personalities of the preceding day are gone. “This is the crux of our season,” Errington says, and repeats the fact that many of the team’s playoffs hopes rest on winning the coming game. “You’ve learned how not to lose,” adds Miller, “how to draw. Now is the time to learn how to win.”

The trip to UVic is quiet. The earbuds are in and only a single conversation in the rear of the bus recounts the struggle between Renaldo and Messi in the latest 2-2 draw between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In the last couple of years the UFV team has often lost these critical games, and this time, their faces promise, things will be different.

When we arrive at the field the players drop off their gear in the change room and head onto the field to loosen up. Coaches Errington and Miller exchange friendly jibes with Victoria Vikes coach Bruce Wilson (a man who Miller later asserts is “the best player Canada ever produced”). Then Errington disappears into the change room to put a little more air into some of the balls.  Miller laughs as his partner walks away even as the two of them keep shouting back and forth. “There’s probably not another coaching pair like us in the league,” he admits of himself and Errington. “We just skewer each other.” I admit inwardly that I’m a little in awe of these two Canadian football legends, especially Miller, who occasionally coached me in the Abbotsford youth league.

In the change room a portable speaker is blasting Linkin Park, Skrillex and The White Stripes through the reek of unwashed shin-guards and malodorous gym bags. Daniel is massaging a knot out of a player’s calf while teammates mock the patient’s obvious discomfort. The coaches don’t have any more to say, indeed all that’s left is to play the game.

UFV takes the field with a surprising lineup that includes brothers Dalibor and Sasa Plavsic as the two strikers. UVic has one of the best fields in western Canada and the temperature is a sunny 20 degrees Celsius; no one could ask for a better setting.

It takes 11 men, playing in precise, coordinated precision, to win a soccer game. At halftime Errington will furiously conclude that exactly two of the Cascades eleven “showed up” to play. The Vikes score two goals and outshoot UFV 13-1 during a grueling 45 minutes of turn-overs, penalties and poor play-making. Most damningly, Sasa Plavsic is sent off with a red card for a dangerous challenge in extra time, leaving the Cascades with only 10 men on the field to claw back from a 2-nil deficit.

The coaches are beside themselves with frustration at this desecration of the “beautiful game.” At half the change room rings with inflected four letter words inserted above, behind, and in the middle of adjectives in combinations that North American English cannot replicate. Yet Miller and Errington are masters of the craft, and amidst their own passion the shame on the face of the players quickly hardens into determination. Miller asks a pointed question about the size of his team’s collective manhood, and a transformation is made. Suddenly the Cascades are a different squad.

In the second half, Craig Robinson, as the sole remaining striker, is all over the pitch. Cam MacKinnon fearlessly launches his characteristic arcing passes from his position at centre fullback, and goalie Mark Village is finally given some time to breathe after a stellar performance in the first half (both coaches agree he was the difference between 2-0 and 5-0). The Cascades are hardly dominating, but a beautiful strike by Connor O’Neill in the 74th minute halves the Vikes’ lead and allows UFV to regain some pride.

Juan comes close to tying the game just before the end of regulation time, but in the end Victoria holds on to take the win and three points in the standings. UFV’s unbeaten streak is ended at five games, and I’ve become so involved in the struggle that I’m glad its the players and not me who have to shake hands with the opposing team.

If only, I think, if only the ref hadn’t awarded that penalty kick in the first half off that travesty of a play. If only he’d been paying attention to number 11 diving like a swan throughout the second. If only…

We all get back on the bus, both wearier and surlier than when we’d departed it. Once we’re on the ferry, once the emotions have become more distant, someone will crack a joke and the scar tissue will begin to form. After all, coaches Errington and Miller were satisfied with that performance in the second half.  After all, next week we have another chance. After all, I tell myself, I need to maintain some journalistic integrity.

After all, it’s only a game.

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