2014 had been kind to the Victoria Highlanders FC. In May they won the Juan de Fuca Plate for the first time after two narrow victories over the Vancouver Whitecaps FC U23s, 3-2 and 5-4 respectively.
They finished second in the Northwest Division, since the head-to-head results is the first tiebreaker in the USL Premier Development League. Vancouver had scored more goals and had the better goal differential, but c'est la vie.
On Wednesday night, the U23s had to travel to Royal Athletic Park in an all or nothing affair. After 90 minutes, 120 at most, one team would be moving on to the Round of 16, and the other would be clearing out their lockers.
Clearly, Vancouver came to play, as after eight minutes, they were already up by two, thanks to goals by Cody Cook and Brett Levis. Ten minutes later, Highland goalkeeper Elliott Mitrou would take out midfielder Reynold Stewart in the box.
It was a magnificent performance by Levis, who found Cook at the top of the box for the first goal, seized upon a miscommunication by the Victoria backline for the second, and was involved in the play leading up to the penalty. Cook would treble the score with a cleanly taken penalty kick.
With their season on the line, the Highlanders kicked it into second gear, dominating possession, and creating a slew of chances. Chief among them was a breakaway by former Whitecap Cam Hundal, whose effort went just wide of the goal mouth.
As half time approached, Stewart would find Niall Cousens, who redirected a header to make it 4-0, stunning the 1,531-strong crowd. Many did not return for the second half.
Six minutes after the break, Victoria's Blair Sturrock would end goalkeeper Nolan Wirth's hopes of preserving the clean sheet. Wirth did everything right. He was in position, he narrowed the shooting angle, but somehow, Sturrock found a hole.
Less than two minutes later, Kianz Forese would restore the four goal advantage. It's been said that you're at your most vulnerable after you've scored, and that was certainly the case tonight.
With the Highlanders trailing by four, substitute Jordie Hughes pulled Vancouver back less than a minute after Froese's effort, capping off a period of three goals in three minutes, and narrowing Vancouver's lead to a mere three.
In the 70th minute, Victoria captain Tyler Hughes was shown a red card for a professional foul on Forese just outside the box. Strangely, Hughes received a standing ovation as he left the field. With the score being what it was, and this being the end of the Highlanders season, it made sense. But it was still strange to see a home player ejected to raucous applause.
Undeterred, the Manitoban midfielder stepped up to deliver a wonderful free kick that deflected off Cousens, split the Victoria defence, and found its way into the bottom corner of the net.
Fifteen minutes later, Forese would officially get his second, as a quick counterattack led to a Vancouver breakout to make it 7-2. With the victory, the U23s extended their winning streak to nine.
And while the Highlanders season is effectively over, with no league, cup, or plate matches to play, they do have an upcoming friendly against Rangers FC on July 21st at Centennial Stadium.
Former Whitecap vice-captain Kenny Miller is expected to make his debut for Rangers FC, or third, depending on one's perspective. It's complicated.
As for the Caps, they must now await their opponent in the Round of 16.
"What we've been stressing all season is that, if you get the performance, you'll get the result." Whitecaps assistant coach Steve Meadley said of the match. "Tonight was the perfect example of that. The boys believe in what's going on now.”
"Tonight, on the bus ride home, let them enjoy this one. Come tomorrow, they know that we're back at training and it's all about the next game. The next time we lose, our season's over, and all of us want to play as long as we can."