Rovers leave Starlight empty-handed despite spirited cup performance

Original publication: https://www.tssfc.ca/blog

As Matteo Polisi walked out onto the Starlight Stadium pitch on Wednesday evening, a cocktail of emotions must’ve been whirling within his usually cool persona. It was on this patch of artificial turf where Polisi enjoyed two years as a professional footballer with Pacific, winning the Canadian Premier League in 2021, but ultimately departing just a year later.  

In 2023, Polisi returned to the Starlight as an opposing player, captaining League1 BC side TSS Rovers to a Canadian Championship quarter-final defeat. Polisi and the Rovers perhaps felt they could’ve taken more from that game; fast forward a year, Polisi and his team are back for another bite of the cherry.

Everything was in place for an exciting cup game, live TV cameras, a plucky underdog, and, of course, the chance for one of these teams to win this preliminary round tie and reach the quarterfinal of the Canadian Championships. 

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From the get-go, Pacific asserted their presence with tidy play, making the Rovers work hard off the ball and forcing them out of possession. It took 20 minutes for the Rovers to break into the opposing final third, only to be met by a resolute Pacific defence, with Eric Lajeunesse being particularly effective at not letting winger Gurman Sangha get past him.

The match became lifeless as the half went on; another strong challenge gave it some heartbeat. Ali Zohar lunged in on Eric Lajeunesse to the annoyance of Pacific coach James Merriman, who seemed adamant the yellow card brandished was not enough. Rovers may have had a case for stronger action themselves earlier on in the half; Juan Quintana’s rash challenge on Kyle Jones received just a yellow; it could’ve been more. 

With the referee set to blow the half-time whistle, murmurings of ‘we would’ve sold out the Swangard’ could be heard from the Rovers away support. There were just 2,161 fans in attendance at the sparse Starlight Stadium; the 11 travelling Rovers supporters were as loud as the entire home contingent, singing, shouting, and banging their drums throughout.

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Merimman’s frustration with his team’s lacklustre performance led to heightened intensity as the second half began. Pacific hit the post twice in the first ten minutes, putting the Rovers on the back foot. 

Pacific began to boil off around the hour mark, prompting Merriman to bring in experienced substitutes Reon Moore, Steffen Yeates, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, and Josh Heard, all hoping to revive the game and make a breakthrough.

When the Rovers were awarded their first corner in the 71st minute, it signified an important milestone in the game. They had made it this far against quality opposition, and now they had themselves a chance. 

Nothing came out of the corner, but what happened four minutes later was incredible. When Meilleur-Giguère lost possession just within Pacific’s half, Matteo Polisi pounced, passing it to Devin O’Hea, who threaded it through to Michael Hennessey. He met the ball with power, blasting it into the bottom right corner of Pacific’s goal, giving Sean Melvin no chance. Rovers had gained an unexpected lead; they now had 15 minutes to defend it.

The board went up for six additional minutes as Pacific searched for a late equaliser. Reon Moore squandered a fantastic opportunity from a few yards out. The Rovers almost had a second when Kyle Jones caught Sean Melvin off his line from 50 yards out, but the ball landed on the roof of the net. 

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With the six added minutes played and the game surely over, one final Pacific push would break Rovers hearts. A ball sent in by Steffen Yates was helped on by several Pacific players before finding its way to Reon Moore. The Trinidadian striker poked the ball home, sparing Pacific’s blushes and sending the tie to penalties.

A late goalkeeping substitution by Pacific enabled first-choice keeper Emil Gazdov to appear just in time for the shootout. With the momentum now with the home team, the Rovers had to pick themselves up if they were going to get anything from the penalties. 

Polisi stepped up first and coolly slotted home, silencing the row of home fans behind the goal. Rovers goalkeeper Justyn Sandhu saved Pacific’s first penalty, with Kyle Jones blazing over Rovers’ second. Sandhu was the hero once again, as he saved Meilleur-Giguère’s tame effort. Rovers couldn’t capitalise; Devin O’Hea had his kick well-saved by Gazdov. Steffen Yeates, Michael Hennessey, Andrei Tîrcoveanu, Nik White, Dada-Luke, Ali Zohar, and Cédric Toussaint all converted their penalties as the shootout went to sudden death.

Ivan Mejia, who scored in the Rovers’ stunning cup triumph over Valour last season, had his shot saved by Gazdov, giving Pacific the opportunity to win the shootout. It was down to Josh Heard, a familiar presence on this Pacific side and with the necessary experience for the moment. He guided his shot past the outstretched Sandhu, winning the tie for Pacific and breaking the hearts of the Rovers. 

It was through penalties, not a Pacific masterclass, that Polisi and his TSS Rovers side lost out. There is no doubt that some of this team should be playing at a higher level. This performance demonstrated their ability to compete with elite opposition, and while they deserve recognition, they require more professional opportunities.