By Liviu Bird
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Behind two goals from Jordie Hughes, the Victoria Highlanders won their second game of the season on Friday. The 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps Under-23s also gives them an early lead in the PDL Northwest Division.
“We had to be organized against a talented team, and we did that, and we took our chances where we needed to do that,” Highlanders head coach Steve Simonson said. “On the road, I think the result is a good one for us.”
It was the second match of the season for both teams, and their early-season rust shined brightly. Missed connections were the norm in the early going, with combinations lacking a final pass, through balls played in too strong and poor giveaways in the midfield. Other than a handful of set pieces launched into the penalty area, chances were infrequent in the first half.
Whitecaps midfielder Harry Lakhan tried to inject some pace into the match in the 19th minute, streaking down the right wing, but he was brought down just outside the penalty area. Highlanders goalkeeper Elliot Mitrou saved the initial shot on the set piece and the follow-up attempt on the rebound.
Both teams had notions of getting forward, through the air and on the ground. In the 35th minute, Victoria left back Gavin Barrett and left midfielder Tarnvir Bhandal executed a one-two combination, Barrett overlapping on the outside. However, his cross sailed off the mark and over Simon Thomas’ crossbar.
Victoria’s best effort of the first half came in stoppage time. Forward Brett Levis received a long ball outside the box on the right side. After dribbling past a defender, he unleashed a shot from just inside the area that Thomas blocked as he came off his line to cut down the angle.
While the first half lacked a final product in attack, the second half made up for it right away.
“Goals breed the energy in the game,” Simonson said. “The first half was more of a feel-out period. We set up more to frustrate them, and I think we did that.”
Whitecaps head coach Stuart Neely said both teams took more initiative to play better soccer in the second half.
“Both teams started putting their foot on the ball and started trying to break each other down and got the nerves out of the way,” he said. “There was more comfort level.”
The Highlanders took control of the game right off the kickoff. Levis again charged down the field, taking two shots from the top of the penalty area. The first was blocked, and the follow-up deflected wide for a corner kick.
On the ensuing corner, Tyler Hughes whipped a cross in that bounced around after a couple half-clearances from the Vancouver defense. His brother, Jordie Hughes, pulled off the far post to tap in an uncontested shot from two yards out in the 50th minute.
Vancouver answered right away through Niall Cousens in the 52nd minute. The Whitecaps’ target man took a through ball from strike partner Sasa Plavsic on the right side of the penalty area. He was in on goal alone, and he made the opportunity count, sliding it in.
But in the very next minute, Victoria took another corner kick through Tyler Hughes. This time, he played it to the near post, where Riley O’Neil ran across the defense, finding enough space to send a shot through the crowd and into the net.
The Highlanders saw the majority of the possession and scoring chances after the flurry of goals. Perhaps showing their frustration, the Whitecaps picked up two quick yellow cards after going down. First, it was Plavsic in the 62nd minute, followed by Bobby Jhutty in the 64th.
Kalem Scott nearly extended Victoria’s lead soon after. Pushing up from right back, he ripped a shot on the ground from 22 yards out that Thomas had to extend all the way to his left to touch against the post.
Thomas, a Victoria native, again saved his team from going down further in the 72nd minute. Matt Polster played Jordie Hughes into the box, but the Whitecaps goalkeeper came off his line quickly again to smother the breakaway. Moments later, he made another save on Levis from inside the penalty area.
“He’s coming into his own. He’s a good organizer,” Neely said. “He kept us in the game.”
Jordie Hughes would eventually get his second goal of the night nine minutes from time, sealing the result and Highlanders’ victory. Craig Gorman played him through, and Hughes fought off defensive pressure before sliding his shot past Thomas.
“We think he’ll score [often],” Simonson said of his striker. “He’s confident, and he had a confident winter season as well.”
The Whitecaps pulled one back with three minutes remaining. On a corner kick, Cousens putting home his second of the game. That set up a late attacking surge from the home team, including one more free kick and corner kick, but the Highlanders defense held firm.
“At the end of the day, I think they deserved the result,” Neely said. “Fair play to Victoria. … The score line is deserving of Victoria tonight. They took their opportunities.”
Vancouver (1-1) travels to Portland on Thursday to take on the Timbers U23s next. Victoria (2-0) returns home quickly to play the Seattle Sounders U23s on Sunday.
• The Whitecaps can use three players from its MLS squad in each PDL match, if they choose. The first-team players who saw action against Victoria were Thomas, defender Adam Clement and midfielder Aminu Abdallah.
• Friday night marked the first match of the Juan de Fuca Plate competition, contested between the two British Columbia-based PDL clubs. Last season, the Whitecaps defeated the Highlanders on goal difference to take home the trophy. The now-defunct Fraser Valley Mariners finished in third place with zero wins.
The teams meet two more times this season to decide a winner: May 31 at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria, and June 28 back at Thunderbird Stadium.
Vancouver Whitecaps Under-23s: Simon Thomas; Adam Clement (Colton O’Neill, 81), Derrick Bassi, Ethen Sampson (James Farenhorst, 85), Michael Winter; Aminu Abdallah, Cam Hundal, Harry Lakhan, Bobby Jhutty; Niall Cousens, Sasa Plavsic (Marco Visintin, 65).
Substitutes not used: Sean Melvin (GK); Gagandeep Dosanjh, Peter Bow.
Victoria Highlanders: Elliot Mitrou; Gavin Barrett, Tyler Hughes, Ryan Ashlee, Kalem Scott; Riley O’Neil, Matt Polster, Tarnvir Bhandal, Craig Gorman; Brett Levis (Gareth Langdon, 90), Jordie Hughes.
Substitutes not used: Joel Wilson (GK); Jermele Campbell, Tommy Mallette, Craig Taylor, Bryan Taylor, Adam Ravenhill.