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COLUMN: Underdog Rovers hope to slay TFC giants tonight

'It’s the ultimate David-versus-Goliath moment that rarely exists in sports today,' says sports columnist ahead of game at BMO Field
The Simcoe County Rovers FC practice at a pitch in Aurora on Sunday, April 21 in advance of their match against Toronto FC at BMO Field on Wednesday night.

There was a symbolic but telling moment at a recent Simcoe County Rovers training session.

Motoring along in an atmosphere that by turns went from friendly to intense and then back again a few times, head coach Zico Mahrady sensed a moment to make an emphatic point.

“You may only get one shot,” bellowed Mahrady in single-digit temperatures where you could see his breath. "Make it count!”

Mahrady could have been speaking about what awaits his club tonight at BMO Field in downtown Toronto.

That’s when the defending Ontario League1 champion Rovers will play Toronto FC (TFC) in the Canadian Championship. Kick-off is at 7:30 p.m.

It’s the ultimate David-versus-Goliath moment that rarely exists in sports today: a team of amateurs taking on a fully professional side, one that is chock full of players making six- and seven-figure salaries and many of whom have tasted competition at the international level.

Toronto FC’s coach is John Herdman, who in 2022 led Canada to its first World Cup berth in 36 years after building the country’s women’s program into a global power. The Rovers have Mahrady, a former assistant who took over from the departed Jason Beckford, who left after leading his upstart squad to its league title.

Simcoe County Rovers FC head coach Zico Mahrady (left) puts his players through their paces during practive at a pitch in Aurora on Sunday, April 21 in advance of their match against Toronto FC at BMO Field on Wednesday night. | Kevin Lamb/BarrieToday

For one man and his team, it may be the lone time they get to play in the national spotlight. For the established club and its manager, they are trying to avoid slipping on what Herdman called a “banana skin” in a wire service report, the football term that describes cup competition upsets.

“They won’t want to get embarrassed,” said Mahrady, who added he expects Toronto FC to field a team of more than half of its available starting 11.

Beyond the gulf in talent and resources, the Rovers have yet to play a league game this season – the schedule doesn’t begin until this weekend – and could be rusty.

On the other hand, the Reds are nursing a handful of injuries to some of their top players and are amid a three-game week, as they travel to Florida this weekend to play in Orlando.

It’s not as though the Rovers don’t have talent and spending even a single training session in Mahrady’s presence, it’s obvious that the Simcoe County boss is going places. A few Rovers were once members of TFC’s overarching academy/reserves set-up and more still are trying to gain notice after graduating youth clubs here and/or college soccer in the U.S.

There are also Rovers who have come from tiny Caribbean countries to, like their native-born Canadian teammates, try and climb the North American soccer ladder.

Comparing and contrasting sports is tricky, but Rovers players are probably more collectively accomplished in soccer than those on the Barrie Baycats are in baseball, but less so than members of the Barrie Colts are in hockey. The average age of the soccer team is more in line with the local baseball squad and are typically a few years (at least) older than a member of the Colts.

From a purely local sports perspective, it’s a nice development to have three different sports competing at such a respectable level.

And let’s face it, the Baycats will never be playing the Blue Jays, nor will the Colts ever suit up against the Maple Leafs, or even their American Hockey League affiliate, the Marlies.

Tonight’s match-up came about by Rovers earning a berth in the Canadian Championship because of last fall’s title win. Two other League1 winners, one from Quebec and the other from British Columbia, are drawn with the country’s eight Canadian Premier League clubs. Toronto FC, one of Canada’s three Major League Soccer (MLS) sides, were made to start in the preliminary round because it was the bottom of that trio in last year’s competition.

In that sense, the Rovers have been handed the toughest assignment, but the best opportunity.

The winners of the six preliminary knock-out games proceed to the quarterfinals, a two-game home-and-away format. The TFC-Rovers victor takes on the winner of Halifax Wanderers-Saint Laurent, last season’s Quebec League1 champs.

Whatever takes place tonight, it is plainly obvious the growth of the club that plays out of J.C. Massie Field behind Georgian College in Barrie’s north end. Atmosphere at team games have a certain vibe that is only getting better, especially given the national exposure afforded by playing TFC. Ownership includes national team stalwarts who have all played key roles in Canada’s dramatic rise in both the men’s and women’s game.

That group includes former national team captain Julian de Guzman, who has since moved on to be sporting director of Red Bull in New York/New Jersey.

De Guzman’s ascent, or Beckford’s, who has since returned to his native England to resume his coaching career, could be a metaphor for the type of opportunity that awaits Rovers players/staff if they continue to perform and improve.

Mahrady acknowledged the natural desire for players to want to gain notice, but he also said it’s a delicate balance when stacked up what his team faces.

“You need to focus on the task, not the occasion,” he said.

More than a thousand Rovers fans are expected to make the journey to Toronto for tonight’s game. Total attendance is expected to be respectable but small by TFC’s normal standards because it conflicts directly with the Leafs-Bruins playoff game and the MLS club did not make it a mandatory purchase for its season-ticket holders.

The Rovers open their regular-season schedule Saturday in Vaughan against the Azzurri. Their home opener is next Saturday when Alliance United visit Barrie.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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