Cameron DaSilva drawing a red card midway through the second half of the League1 Ontario final could have spelled death for the Simcoe County Rovers. In fact, it should have. Despite being 2-1 up on Scrosoppi FC, the lead was as narrow as possible. What had initially seemed like the start of a blowout performance after Simcoe scored twice within ten minutes had been whisked away, and in its place, a back-and-forth, high-tempo match ensued.
As DaSilva was sent off, for nastily pulling back the hair of an opponent while Scrosoppi was in transition, it might actually have given the Rovers some sort of boost. A pause was needed for them to regroup and resettle, and regardless of how many numbers they had on the field, it let them spring long balls and counter-attacks, which is exactly how Jevontae Layne scored his second strike. A pass to the right wing, and then a cross for Layne to hit it home, with inch-perfect precision, leaving Scrosoppi in the dust. Without a wake-up call like the red card, it just as easily could have been Scrosoppi taking home the trophy, and a place in the 2024 Canadian Championship.
Of course, it couldn’t have only been the heroics of Layne and the offence. At the other end of the pitch, Baj Maan was forced into making save after save. And given Simcoe’s backline was being toyed with plenty of times, Maan was a wall. Scrosoppi stretched the defence, but by bringing the ball back into the middle of the pitch, were too quick for the Rovers to recover in time. Khody Ellis and Alexander Zis, operating as two number tens, did so much in the way of creativity in midfield and brought Scrosoppi forward and into the final third a lot, but in possession, they moved the ball around very well. Scrosoppi’s quick passing that evaded Simcoe’s defenders right on the edge of the area was remarkable.
Tomasz Skublak, a talisman in League1 this season, was primed for a goal. It was Maan’s own stellar goalkeeping, knocking away a ball floated into the top corner from afar, that unfortunately landed right for Skublak to smash home. With a player less, would it have been preventable? There’s no doubt, after many instances of frantic defending and sudden counter-attacks, extra legs would have helped. But ultimately, Skublak’s goal wasn’t enough because Maan took the game into his own hands. He and Skublak had a few moments in this match that could’ve been fatal for Simcoe: a first-half collision saw Maan stay writhing around for a while. You can only wonder if it would be different had Maan gone off.
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Much later in the match, Maan was trying to kill off more clock and resorted to doing a few keep-ups while Skublak made a very quick run, but didn’t catch Maan off-guard.
That move was a bit cocky, but the cool confidence of Maan was what shined through more on the day. His saves were enough proof that he’s a goalkeeper that, if anything, you want to be playing entertainer. He hit a rhythm and a stride Scrosoppi couldn’t break, and a sliding challenge on Ellis from way beyond what would be deemed his territory, in the 83rd minute, summed it all up.
Maan made sure that Scrosoppi’s pressure, something they were pouring on relentlessly, was dealt with, but Simcoe’s real answer was their own attacking unit. Star CAM Orlendis Benítez was doing his thing, Even without a goal he made some dazzling runs and dribbles, often sadly cut short but what were tactical fouls, but some rough ones nonetheless. He drew a penalty and was quite the outlet to send balls forward and flip the match on its head. His job, at the end of the day, is to create, and he was ticking just that off his list.
Simcoe, for everything mentioned about their conservative second frame, was absolutely electric from the first whistle. They didn’t bother with possessing the ball or studying the defence, no, it was with all guns blazing. Without spending time to get stuck in, Simcoe looked like they knew exactly what they had to do to bully Scrosoppi from the start. Shawn Claud-Lawson and Paul Karagionakis’ goals were very similar: ball over the top, the runner gets in behind, and ‘keeper Andreas Vaikla doesn’t have the time to go coast-to-coast, resulting in easy tap-ins for both.
The energy vibrating off the Rovers at those early stages was incredible, but it did stop. Scrosoppi needed to get it together and after the second goal captain Victor Gallo, a centre-back, got his defenders in order, and after that, it became evermore difficult to break the line. It took the desperation of being a goal down late in the match for Simcoe to garner chances in the second half, and credit for that does fall upon Gallo and Vaikla for stepping up and getting the defence in a strong shape.
Simcoe County started and finished with passion, determination, and fire, and its ownership group couldn’t be more like those attributes. Julian De Guzman, Janine Beckie, and Doneil Henry are just some of the Canadian football legends who have chipped in with Simcoe. But not in a passive way as we see with so many athletes buying into football clubs, these players are moulding what could easily be the start of a special dynasty. The fan base is incredible, pyro obscured the pitch at points and a raucous following joined the Rovers in Vaughn for Saturday night. All in all, Simcoe County Rovers have turned into the model club of League1 Ontario in just two seasons of play. All will envy, but who can challenge? The Rovers came, saw, and efficiently conquered. No longer the kingdom of the Azzurri, a light blue hue has become the big show of the province. This is Simcoe’s moment. And they’ll have many, many more.
Top photo by Mel Gil
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