As regular season play comes to a close, TTP takes a closer look at the four VMSL teams left in the Imperial Cup semifinals, and how they’ll fare throughout the Imperial and Provincial Cup playdowns.

Sporting Club of Vancouver:

An impressive second season in the VMSL top flight for the Portuguese club, highlighted by an Imperial Cup run which has yet to see them face a premier team throughout three rounds of action. Dispatching of Lobbans, Sikh Temple and Richmond United was widely regarded as the easiest route to a Provincial Cup spot in this year’s Imperial draw.

The side is led by player/coach Tony Fonseca, he of Whitecap and Benfica fame, though not necessarily in that order. The team often runs through Fonseca, but can adjust to the opposition’s shadow marking of him by going to another of their key veteran strikers – Carlos Batista. The pair has been quite effective throughout the season, combining for 17 goals between them.

Fonseca has brought a wealth of knowledge to a fairly young side, and managed the goaltending coup of the season by snatching Whitecap Alex Marques away from Sportstown – adding some much-needed stability to the position. The addition of Surrey United’s favorite brothers – Ryan and Steve Dormer – has given Sporting the offensive depth necessary to be one of the upper-echelon teams in the premier division this year; the pair have combined for 16 league goals thus far, with Steve Dormer currently on the short-list for golden boot candidates with 12 of his own.

The core of the team still remains with a group of ex-Langara College players who were instrumental in leading the school to three straight CCAA National Championship finals – Mark and Mike Gomes, Brian Gebbie, Jeff Nolan, Jeff Yoon and John Blair – a solid group of young players who were the driving force behind the team’s promotion from the first division two years ago.

The team plays an up-tempo, speed-oriented game and likes to pressure the opposition when in possession. It works in part because of the pace and fitness throughout the side. They don’t often engage in the physical stuff because, as the old saying goes, you can’t hit what you can’t catch. Several elusive and tricky players make for a nice attacking brand of soccer.

A few obstacles stand in Sporting’s way for Imperial Cup honors. The team has little in the way of bench depth, relying solely on a core of 13-14 players throughout the season. As suspensions and injuries mount – the team must be concerned about the concussion suffered by Fonseca during the dying moments of the Richmond United game, and the subsequent sending off of Batista – Sporting may be forced to dip into a reserve core that has little first-team experience.

The team will also be forced to deal with the inevitable signing of Marques to the Whitecaps sometime this spring – as he becomes ineligible for Sporting, the team will look to backup keeper Brian Brum to step in and compete in some very important matches. He backstopped the team for the majority of their inaugural season in Premier, and was sharp enough to keep them out of the relegation zone.

Sporting have endured their first season in the premiership, and have moved past being content with simply staying up. They’ve got their eyes set on winning side “B” and making some noise in the Provincial Cup. They’ve got the talent to do as much, but at the end of a long season, depth becomes an issue and they lack in this department compared to Westside and Pegasus.

Westside Rino “A”:

Arguably the class of the premiership over the past five years, Westside will be keen to add another piece of hardware to their already-stuffed trophy case. In fact, they’ll be looking to win their third Imperial title in the past four years with a victory this season.

Despite being a team loaded with veteran and youthful talent, the key to the side is Oliver Heald, the midfield wizard who is widely regarded as the one of the most complete players in the VMSL. He’s a dead-ball specialist, a legitimate threat on goal from anywhere inside 35 yards. Heald’s signing with the Whitecaps will most likely prevent him from being available for a deep Cup run, but Westside’s depth should allow them to make the necessary adjustments to minimize the loss of such a key player.

A key group of veterans held over from Rino’s 1999 National Club Championship silver-medal winning team is once again looking for Imperial and Provincial honors. Mike Wicken, James Prescott, Boban Aleksic, Colin Pettingale, Mike Mosher, Markus Felderer and Craig Chiasson have a wealth of talent and experience between them and have all been key contributors to Westside’s clinching of side “A” this season.

Aleksic and Prescott are towers of strength at the back and are integral cogs that keep the Westside machine running smoothly. Chiasson is a deadly accurate striker with a “shoot from anywhere” mentality that has seen him hit the mark 13 times this year, good enough for 3rd in the VMSL scoring race.

One of the few ways to neutralize Chiasson is to encourage a physical presence on him, as he does hold a fiery temper and, like most strikers, doesn’t enjoy taking frequent knocks.

Striking partner Alex Percy, a more prototypical target-man type striker, is nipping at Chiasson’s heels with nine tallies of his own on the year. The two work well off one another, as their contrasting styles do well to keep opposing defenders working for the full 90 minutes. The scoring does not rely on these two, however – a testament to the balanced Westside output is that five of the premiership’s top 20 scorers all wear the red-white-and-black (Chiasson, Percy, Alex Kosanin, Steve Dickinson and Heald).

The team enjoys utilizing a methodical build-up, but have the speedy, go-at-you outside midfielders (Dickinson and Felderer, especially) who can change the tempo in an instant.

The team also features a solid youth base, with UBC star and Canada West POY Aaron Richer and Langara College’s (and BCCAA First-Team All Star) John Chou headlining the kiddie corps. This is a boon for the team – as the elder statesmen may become susceptible to injury or fatigue down the stretch, a strong collection of young and talented players are waiting in the wings to fill the positions.

Westside are probably the odds-on favorites to take home Imperial and Provincial honors at this stage of the game. One problem spot may be in net, where an aging Wicken may force the team to play their 19-year old backup, Jarret Christie. Christie made an appearance in the team’s second-round victory over Metro-Ford, earning a shutout.

But the side seems destined for success – they’re the only premier team with fewer than four losses on the season and are the highest scoring team in the league. Most telling stats? They haven’t lost a game since November of 2002, and only once in their last 11 competitive (Cup and League) matches.

Pegasus FC:

While they haven’t shared the recent successes of Westside, Pegasus is and has been regarded as a dominant VMSL side through the 90s and now into the current decade.

Much like Westside, their success lies with a core of players who have been together for quite some time, and are extremely comfortable playing alongside one another.

The trio of Trevor Short, Dan Mastromonaco and Eddie Cannon anchors the Pegasus back line – the return of central defender Robin Regnier from Club Ireland will often be the fourth piece to the defensive puzzle. Each defender has an important mix of ball-winning abilities and on-the-ball skills, which allow them to obtain possession and play out of the back effectively.

To contain Peg’s offensive attack, most teams will look to shut down midfielder Paul Dailly on a regular basis – a task not easily achieved. A roaming middle man with excellent vision and sublime skills, Dailly’s ability to stray away from the confinements of a single midfield position make him a difficult mark at all times. His nose for goal is also worth mentioning – Dailly is the team’s second-leading scorer with eight goals this year.

The midfield prowess does not end with Dailly – Mike Dodd, Frank Lore, Jim Easton, Adam Costley and Darren Burr all provide depth and options for coach Dave Fiorvento to adjust lineups to a variety of opponents. Peg like to knock the ball around in the middle, and are quite patient in waiting for the opportunity to go forward to present itself.

Opposing midfields will need to stay disciplined and not jump into tackles – this will create the space Peg likes to capitalize on.

Striker Laurent Scaligine could possibly be the quickest player in the VMSL premiership – he sits 4th overall in league scoring with 12 tallies to his name. Scaligine’s game is heavily reliant on the service of his midfielders – his stature does not allow him to become much of a target man, but encourages a lot of tidy through balls into space which allow him to run on, and take defenders to task with his pace. Defenders need to stress the importance of keeping him in front of them at all times. Peg does play to his feet on occasion, but he becomes most dangerous when his lightning pace is utilized to the fullest.

Possible striking partner Randy Celebrini brings a dazzling display of footwork and fitness to the table – always a wildcard to pull a stunning move or strike out of his bag of tricks to turn a match on its head. A game-breaker, if you will.

Pegasus’ one glaring weakness is in net, where Shawn Perry and Luca Dalla Pace have been engaged in a lengthy battle for the starting spot, in which neither keeper has claimed victory. While the two are both solid keepers, they have yet to find their niche within the team and seem to struggle at key moments. A string of unimpressive results in the new year indicates as much (0-3-1 in league play, with 12 goals allowed). Whether or not the two continue their every-other-game rotation down the stretch remains to be seen.

A ray of hope may lie with the possible return of ace keeper Steve London, due back to the team sometime in April after finishing a firefighting program in Texas. London has established himself as one of the premier shot-stoppers in the VMSL over the past few seasons.

Peg will be keen on winning the Imperial Cup, a trophy that has eluded the club since their inception. Their last major accomplishment was winning the Provincial title in 1997, so the team may see this run as one of the last chances the core players have at a final shot at glory.

Vancouver Firemen “A”

A return to glory of sorts for a storied club that has fallen on hard times recently. Despite failing to gain promotion from the first division for the second year in a row, this year’s Firemen squad has done the unthinkable, toppling three of the top eight point-getters in the premiership en route to an Imperial Cup semifinal appearance and, most importantly, a berth in the Provincial Cup.

Coach Garry Wilson has done a remarkable job of fielding a unit comprised of three key veteran presences and a handful of young players surrounding them. The formula seems simple enough – the defensive, midfield and striking departments are each anchored by a talented central figure – and the rest of the team attempts to play up to their level. It is a unique and effective strategy.

It helps, of course, when you can go out and sign three Whitecaps to fill these positions. Sweeper Jeff Skinner handles the back line – for all intensive purposes he is the glue that holds the starting 11 together, using his pace and distribution to guide the team out of the back.

In front of him is Casey Wilson, a surprisingly rugged defender given the fact he’s still in his teens. The Firemen back wall deserves a lot of credit, as they have been instrumental in allowing just three goals in as many Imperial Cup matches thus far.

In the midfield the opposition will find the second of the three crucial cogs – Jeff Clarke. The former national team product is as versatile as they come, with the ability to play a physical, speedy style or revert to a skillful possession game if necessary. Firemen are unconventional in the sense that they don’t sit back like many lower-division teams would against premier opposition – they are confident in their ability to knock the ball around and aren’t afraid to go forward. A testament to their faith in the back four.

Clarke is joined in the midfield by young Jordan Roselund, a former SFU player who has made a decent adjustment from youth to senior soccer, despite being rather small in stature. He understands the importance of moving the ball quickly, to a pair of frontrunners who know what to do with the ball.

Up front is where Firemen can be most dangerous. Led by well-traveled Canadian international Niall Thompson and the tireless efforts of Peter Bergholz, the Firemen striking department is big, skillful and always buzzing around the net. Most of the play goes through Thompson, but teams will find Bergholz a handful to contain – what he lacks in finesse he makes up with dogged determination and the ability to battle against the most physical of defenders.

But Thompson is clearly the key, sometimes sinking back to act as an attacking midfielder, encouraging teammates to play to his feet – creating almost as many chances as he receives.

Key reserves for the team include Trinity Western striker and Canada West All-Star Mark Heinhuis, and veteran utility man Ken Adloff. Adloff’s versatility allows him to enter the match at a variety of positions, providing an immediate physical presence wherever he lines up.

Goaltending is a soft spot. The Firemen’s tidy goals against average would indicate some strength in net, but it’s more a result of the efforts of the backs who do yeoman’s work to limit the opponent’s quality scoring chances. They’re compact in the middle, forcing teams to attack down the flanks – keeper Rob Johnson seems competent at shot stopping, but his judgment on coming for crosses is suspect. Teams will want to test him early and often.

Firemen are obviously the dark horses of the four teams still remaining, but that could be a positive more than anything else. They’ve done the business by qualifying for the Provincials and really, anything from here on in is gravy. If the trio of Skinner, Clarke and Thompson all up and leave upon signing for the Whitecaps, the team will struggle to make any significant impact late in the season – but what they’ve achieved already is outstanding for a first-division side. The experience gained by their cup success will aid the younger players and the future of the club.
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