VANCOUVER, BC – Jeneva Hernandez-Gray has played a lot of soccer since scoring a curling, precociously dipping shot to win the inaugural League 1 BC title on Aug. 1, 2022.
While the now 16-year-old will likely be back in the league with the Whitecaps Elite REX program, many have moved to the professional ranks or reached national podiums in U SPORTS and the NCAA. Hernandez-Gray and several others have also played international-level matches with Canada and other national teams.
Among the success are the TSS Rovers veterans strutting their way through the Canadian Championship, Danielle Steer regularly playing alongside World Cup winners in the Australian League, and several youth international appearances across many of the squads.
In just one year, BC players have continued balling – both within the provinces’ borders and beyond, as the region begins re-establishing itself among Canada’s finest in developing talent.
Over the last several months, Canadian soccer has only grown in the spotlight, and BC is more than ready to take on the second year of its second tier.
The second season sees League 1 BC take the next step in its evolution, adding Harbourside FC on Nanaimo, creating a Vancouver Island rival for the Victoria Highlanders while bringing the league to eight teams. Meanwhile, Varsity FC has been rebranded to Nautsa’mawt FC, becoming the first Indigenous-owned club in the Canadian footballing pyramid.
The playoffs will also feature the top four from the bracket instead of solely the top two. To say it’s an exciting time in Canadian and BC soccer would be an understatement — 2023, simply, is formative.
With each team getting set to kick off their 15-match regular season schedule, TheThirdSub has three stories worth following this season.
A new look Nautsa’mawt FC
When Varsity FC’s women’s team let the lead slip in last season’s championship match, a clear target remained with their group. Every player and staff member appeared frustrated, as the veteran-laden UBC-heavy squad couldn’t hold off the youthful Whitecaps REX program.
Yet, in 2023, they’ve not only rebranded as a club under Nautsa’mawt FC but have reinforcements that wil make them difficult to beat. While they will be buoyed by returning golden boot winner Katalin Tolnai, among several other current and former UBC players, they will also have former TSS wingback Mia Pante.
Pante was among the standouts in the first season with the Rovers and was widely considered one of the best players in the league as she attacked up the wing, bringing an offensive flare to her wingback duties. After playing for Canada at the U20 Women’s World Cup in August, she returns to League 1, where she can link up with CanWNT U20 teammate Holly Ward down the wing.
On the other wing, look for Sophia Ferreria to further establish herself as one of the top wide defenders at the level, coming off another strong season with UBC and two appearances with Portugal’s U23 Women’s National Team.
The wide play for Nautsa’mawt is tantalizing this season. Yet, the rest of the squad isn’t far behind, with Steer likely returning after her pro season in Australia and UBC veterans, including Vanessa Tome, Jacqueline Tyrer, Emma Hooton, Josie Claypool, Sophie Kramer, Jade Taylor-Ryan, Janika Sangha, Ella Sunde, Ella Nutall-Smith, Dakota Beckett, and Sophie Damian.
Arizona State centreback Andrea Kraetzer joins the group and cold link up in the middle of the defence with Tyrer, while former uOttawa Gee-Gee and current captain of Canada’s Indigenous Women’s National Team Victoria Marchand bring valuable experience as a right-side forward.
After a heartbreaking end to their first season, there’s a clear determination within the Nautsa’mawt FC women’s group, as they hope to return to the League 1 Inter-Provincial championship and capture their first league title.
On the men’s side, it is a very different look for Nautsa’mawt FC, as they hope to rebound from losing in penalty kicks to the TSS Rovers in 2022’s final. While the loss gave TSS their fairytale run in the Canadian Championship, it no doubt stung for the then Varsity players.
This year, key players aren’t with the squad, as former CanMNT striker Caleb Clarke isn’t on the team sheet for 2023, and quick-footed winger Mihai Hodut has joined Langley’s Unity FC. Still, the group has re-tooled and will be competitive this season.
UBC and Nautsa’mawt head coach Mike Mosher has brought in intriguing talents in former Whitecaps League 1 player Tomas Peña and Eric White while adding former Pacific FC left-back Chris Lee. At the same time, striker Ethan Gopaul brings League 1 Canada experience, having played with Peteborugh’s Electric City FC last season.
There is no clear goalscorer among the men’s roster to start the season. However, both UBC and Varsity showed that they can adjust to scoring by committee while leaning on a main man at some points.
Expect a fluid lineup early in the season as they adjust to a new group, but one that will be determined to capture their first-ever League 1 BC championship. Additionally, the men’s side is partnered with Pacific FC, and the CPL club can send up to two outfield players and one goalkeeper to League 1 at any point during the season.
Women’s Head Coach: Jesse Symons
Women’s Key Player: Katalin Tolnai
Men’s Head Coach: Mike Mosher
Men’s Key Player: Chris Lee
A burgeoning island rivalry
Since pre-CPL days, the Victoria Highlanders have had consistent and strong support from BC’s capital city community through the Lake Side Buoys. Now, they’ve finally got a local rival, as Harbourside FC joins the league from the second largest city on the island in Nanaimo.
Although Harbourside has yet to establish itself with a local supporters group, they’ve not had much opportunity without playing matches. Still, there’s a clear community aspect to the club, a focus similar to that of the CPL’s Pacific FC and the Highlanders.
On the pitch, Harbourside fights an uphill battle in League 1, drawing on many players from Vancouver Island University, a lower level than U SPORTS and the NCAA. Still, their underdog mentality could push them to compete for a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, back in the capital city, Highlanders supporters will have the opportunity to cheer on U SPORTS leading goalscorer Michael Henman on their men’s side, as he returns to the island after scoring 19 goals in just 15 games with the UNBC Timberwolves.
Through the CPL and the often well supporters Pacific Coast Soccer League, Vancouver Island has carved out a unique niche in the Canadian soccer market. In 2023, that only becomes more prominent with a League 1 darby.
Can the TSS Rovers do a double?
The TSS Rovers will be in contention to win the men’s and women’s League 1 BC titles, but it will be a battle.
While the men have the experience of winning, their early season heavily focuses on the Canadian Championship, making their first two games against Nautsa’mawt FC and Victoria Highlanders challenging to approach. At the same time, they will need to work with younger players to fit League 1’s U21 requirement, which they do not meet with many of those who featured in the Canadian Championship first-round win over CPL’s Valour.
Among the intriguing additions are former Altitude FC forward Masuud Habibulah, who brings League 1 experience from outside of TSS and his towering frame to the Rovers attack. While left back and former pro-Fugo Segawa also joins with thwarts of experience.
Although additions are intriguing, the primary makeup of the Rovers’ men’s team comes from returning veterans, who will see the bulk of minutes this season, with forwards Erik Edwardson, Connor MacMillan, and Taylor Richardson all likely playing big roles once again.
Winning is key for the Rovers men, and it’s something their avid owners and supporters are nearly expecting at this point. Yet, as head coach Will Cromack has continuously emphasized, the players are the trophies, and their advancement in the game far outweighs the importance of winning titles.
Over on the women’s side, head coach Chelsey Hanneson is back for another season, and although she has lost Mia Pante, she brings in a talented roster that should compete for a title and will surely be in the playoff bracket.
Hannesson has added former Unity FC striker Nikki Virk, who brings experience to the team, having played two seasons with U SPORTS’ Victoria Vikes. At the same time, they add UFV Cascades midfielder Taylor Nekic and former Toronto Varsity Blues striker Brenda Fonderson.
Yet, the most intriguing addition to a large returning class is University of Montana midfielder Emma Pascoe, who featured in eight matches with the Griz as a 2022 freshman and played four years with the Whitecaps Girls Super Elite REX program.
Among the returnees is Kirstin Tynan, one of the league’s stronger goalkeepers, who is coming off a 16-match season as a starter for the OUA’s Queen’s Gaels, where she put her name on eight clean sheets and backstopped the Gaels to the OUA semifinal.
Meanwhile, strong contributors Molly Quarry, Jessica Merk, Kathleen Atchison, Maya Rogers, and Jessica Fennel return to Swangard Stadium.
The Rovers are an intriguing club, Canada’s lone fan-owned organization, and feature two teams that will compete for the League 1 BC title this season. While there will be challenges for two veteran-laden rosters, the culture and compete level, added to the skill on the pitch, could be enough for a Rovers double in 2023.
League 1 BC men’s predictions:
1. TSS Rovers
2. Nautsa’mawt FC
3. Rivers FC
4. Unity FC
5. Whitecaps FC
6. Victoria Highlanders FC
7. Altitude FC
8. Harbourside FC
Winner: TSS Rovers
League 1 BC women’s predictions:
1. Nautsa’mawt FC
2. Whitecaps FC
3. TSS Rovers
4. Unity FC
5. Altitude FC
6. Victoria Highlanders FC
7. Harbourside FC
8. Rivers FC
Winner: Nautsa’mawt FC