It’s amazing what one win can do.
On Monday afternoon at South Surrey Athletic Park, Coastal FC’s under-17 girls team – which plays in the B.C. Soccer Premier League – defeated Quebec’s Lakeshore SC 2-1 to claim a national soccer championship.
It was a milestone victory for a number of reasons. Not only was it the first Canadian title for this particular group of teens – most of whom have played together since the U13 level – but it was also the first-ever national crown for a Coastal FC youth squad, or it’s Semiahmoo/Peace Arch club predecessors, dating back to 1965.
Furthermore, it was the first time a B.C. team had won a U17 girls championship since 1997.
“To be the first (at Coastal) and then to be the first from B.C. (in more than 20 years)… those are two pretty cool things for this group,” U17 head coach Bob Birarda told Peace Arch News Tuesday.
Coastal FC hosted the 24-team tournament – 12 boys teams, 12 girls squads – from last Wednesday until Thanksgiving Monday. Surrey United, which plays out of Cloverdale Athletic Park, had one team participating in each tournament, with the boys finishing fourth overall, and the girls losing in the consolation round.
At other national tournaments across the country, Surrey United’s senior women’s team placed second, losing to Ontario’s Scarborough GS United in that tourney’s title game, while the Surrey-based B.C. Tigers Hurricanes won the 2018 Challenge Cup with a dominant 7-3 win over Ontario’s Caledon SC, becoming the first B.C. team to win that event in 14 years.
Monday’s Coastal FC victory – coupled with a title win on the boys side of the draw by Coquitlam Metro Ford – meant there was a lot of provincial pride on display at the park in the moments after the final whistles blew within moments of each other. Hundreds of spectators were on hand to watch both games, which ran concurrently on fields adjacent one another.
“To do it at home, in front of all these people – friends, family and the soccer community – I can’t imagine a better experience for them. The field was surrounded by all these people they know and love, cheering them on – the support was amazing,” Birarda said.
“I think the girls just fed off of that, playing in their own park.”
Coastal FC executive director Chris Murphy, who was in attendance Monday, was quick to agree with Birarda – former coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ women’s team – and suggested that the momentum could carry forward within the club for years to come.
“It was really special. I spent some time walking among the spectators, and the club pride, it was almost palpable,” he said. “You could see people who weren’t part of this specific team, necessarily, start to recognize that they were part of the club, and you’d hear younger kids talking to people, telling them that they played for Coastal, too.
“Beyond being really proud and happy for the players and the coaching staff, it was just really encouraging to see that this could be a real platform for club culture and club pride, and that’s really important.”
For the members of the U17 squad itself, the victory over Quebec was the perfect end to a long, gruelling week of action that saw them play five games in six days – against competition better than what they are often used to seeing.
Quebec’s team, Birarda noted, was chock full of players who had represented Canada at various levels – including one member of the country’s World Cup team – while Ontario, who Coastal faced in semifinals, had its fair share of talented players, too.
“Playing five games in six days, that’s an enormous challenge for anybody, and we had to play a really good team – and one of our rivals, Surrey United – just to get out of our group,” he explained.
“To come through it all, and then (beat) Ontario and Quebec… well I probably wouldn’t have put money on it, let’s just put it that way.
“But the girls just committed to competing for each other, and they worked so hard and they care so much about each other… I think they really appreciated being on this journey together.”
Both Surrey United and Coastal FC qualified for nationals after finishing first and second, respectively, at the provincial cup in late June. Between then and the start of nationals last week, Coastal stayed sharp by playing a series of games against university teams.
“To be honest, normally, we’re playing against teams (in the BCSPL) that we’re better than, so we’re used to having the ball for 60, 70 per cent of the game,” explained Coastal assistant coach Rob Muter.
“But that wasn’t necessarily the case at nationals, so playing these (university teams) that were bigger, strong, faster and more experienced, I think it really helped.”
Against Quebec, one key to the victory was shutting down top player Latifah Abdu, who led the tournament in scoring with an astonishing 12 goals, but was held off the scoresheet in the final.
In fact, defence was key to the team’s success all week, Muter said.
“Considering we only conceded two goals in five games, I’d say we were certainly defensively focused, and when we had opportunities to move the ball forward and capitalize on some chances, we did.”
Muter added that the tournament itself, and Monday’s win in particular, was “the most amazing experience I’ve ever been a part of.”
“I’m just so proud of the girls. They were so focused, they believed in themselves and this is a huge accomplishment for them.”
Though no doubt tired from their recent schedule – “I don’t know where they got the energy from,” Birarda said – the team won’t get much of a break before they’re back on the pitch. This weekend, they travel to Kamloops for their next game on the premier-league calendar.
“You know when (pro) teams win a championships, and someone asks ‘Where are you gonna go?’ and they say, ‘Disneyland’? Well, we get to go to Kamloops and get right back on the field, then come home the same day,” Birarda laughed. “It might be a little tough.”
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