It felt almost surreal to witness.
The sun was shining, the food trucks were up and running again, and the fans were slowly streaming in to get their first taste of their local professional soccer team in nearly 2 years, as Pacific FC finally made their return to Starlight Stadium in Langford on Friday, where they took on Cavalry in Canadian Premier League action.
Just over 1 year, 9 months and 12 days since Pacific last played in their home stadium, in a 2-0 win over Valour FC to close out the 2019 season, it was a return that was long-time coming for the Tridents, who looked to give their fans what they’d long been waiting for.
“It’s been a long time waiting for sports, for us, for our fans,” Pacific head coach Pa-Modou Kah said after the game. “As mentioned, the last game we played here was in October of 2019, the scoreline was 2-0 Pacific against Valour, and today, 1 year and 9 months, and 12 days, to be exact, so for the boys get to see the fans, fans that we saw last year in the offseason, but we never witnessed them from P.E.I and in the bubble, it was good.”
For the first time in a long time, the drums of the Lake Side Buoys could be heard across Langford, and the chants of ‘P’, ‘F’, ‘C’ were sung at full-blast, reminding people that professional soccer was indeed back in British Columbia.
Having spent all of 2020 and the first 8 games of 2021 on the road, completed in ‘bubbles’ in both Prince Edward Island (2020) and Winnipeg (2021) due to the pandemic, CPL teams were finally allowed to get back to to their home cities this past weekend, allowing Pacific to make their long-awaited return to their nice little stadium on the Island.
And what an occasion it proved to be. Fans streamed in by the thousands, mostly clad in purple kits or shirts of some sort, returning to stomping grounds that felt so familiar yet unfamiliar.
But despite a name change and a few renovations from the past 2 years, it was still the same venue being filled by the same fans, and Pacific quickly felt the positive impact of that on Friday night, as they picked up a crucial 2-0 win.
“It’s just exciting, we’ve gone a while without fans, 2 bubbles, it’s been a long time waiting,” Pacific’s Marco Bustos said after the game. “I think it was important for us players, to give the fans a win in our first game back.”
“This organization is going forward, and this was a great way to start that, just with the patience they’ve had with everything, and how they came out today, the fans, it was really amazing.”
Right from the get-go, Pacific came out swinging, eager to give something their fans to cheer about, and they did that right in the 3rd minute, all thanks to some electric offensive play. On a swift counterattacking sequence, right back Kadin Chung sprung forward, showing the sort of speed and attacking instincts that have made him one of the talks of the CPL these past few years.
From there, he played a nice ball into Pacific’s Alejandro Diaz up front, and he showed his smart attacking instincts, sliding it over into a space for his teammate, Marco Bustos, to run onto. The pass wouldn’t be perfect, as it deflected off of a few Cavalry defenders before getting to Bustos, but once it got there, the early-season CPL MVP favourite made no mistake with his chance, dribbling past a few defenders before slotting home his team’s opener in just the 3rd minute.
But while the goal was special, it paled in comparison to the outburst of emotion that then followed. As soon as the ball crested the goal, Starlight Stadium burst into a joyous roar, releasing a celebration that was over 18 months in the making, finally doing what they waited so long to do – cheer for their local professional soccer team.
After enduring so much darkness, it was not only a brief shine of light, but felt like a whole explosion of it, making it feel like a weight was lifted off of someone’s backs.
That would just then set the tone for the rest of the game. Feeling much lighter after that early tally, Pacific started to play the sort of free-flowing football that they want to be known for, putting together some silky moves that had the crowd ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ with every pass, backheel flick and nice touch of the ball across the green artificial surface.
They continued to come close to another eruption as they chased a second, with marquee offseason signing Manny Aparicio grazing the outside of the net with a sighter from the edge of the box in the first half, before Pacific veteran Victor Blasco, making his season debut after dealing with a personal matter to start the year, had a few high-quality looks of his own to round out the half.
On the other side, Cavalry seemed overtaken by the occasion, struggling to play through Pacific’s relentless midfield pressure, often resorting to a speculative ball as they tried to get anything on the board.
And to give credit to them, they also came close on a few occasions of their own despite that. 36-year-old midfielder Nik Ledgerwood seemed to turn back the clock for much of the first half, putting up a few good attempts of his own, while elsewhere, whenever he got the ball, Jose Escalante looked dangerous, as did striker Anthony Novak, who had a good sight at goal of his own.
They did even breach the net at one point in the first half, as that Escalante-Novak connection combined for a lovely tap-in goal, but it was ruled to be offside, giving Pacific a break.
So while Pacific was getting the better chances, and seemed in control of the game up 1-0, one could only wonder if Cavalry would find a way to spoil the party, something they have a history of doing in their time in this young league.
With it being Kah’s birthday, something that was marked by the fans with a joyous round of ‘Happy Birthday’ in the 41st minute to mark his 41st year on earth, it almost felt inevitable that Tommy Wheeldon Jr’s side would find a way to put a damper on the occasion.
But then, right at the 86th minute, as Cavalry sent numbers forward in chase of that pivotal equalizer, Pacific found the cherry they so badly wanted to put on the top of their magnificent evening, giving their fans something to remember.
After Bustos picked up the ball in his own half with space in front of him, he sprung second-half substitute, Gianni Dos Santos, with a lovely through ball, playing in the Dutch forward down the right-hand side of the pitch.
Having come onto the pitch less than 60 seconds earlier, Dos Santos’s speed proved to be much too hard for the tired Cavalry defenders to handle, as he slipped into the box, looked up, and delivered a cannon of a shot into the near post, sending Starlight into another deafening roar, all but confirming the special victory for his team.
Sensing the emotion, he quickly ran off to the corner, celebrating acrobatically, well aware of what the moment meant not only to his team, but to the fans, who did what they could all game long to try and help their team confirm the result.
From there, all that was left was to grind through the last 8 minutes or so until that final whistle, putting the bow on a special night for the Vancouver Island club, who managed to not only overcome the Cavalry threat, but do so with conviction, too.
“We talked about it before the game,” Wheeldon Jr said after the match. “There was going to be emotion involved, because the players, the coaches, the fans, they’d all feel it, and it was up to us to try and be the party poopers today, and we didn’t achieve that.”
So when the referee Carly Shaw-MacLaren finally put the whistle to her lips, making it official, Starlight descended into one last crescendo, as they celebrated something that normally seems so simple yet is so special, especially so after this last year – a victory for their local soccer team.
It might not be the biggest victory that Pacific will have this season, and it will almost definitely not be their last, but it was a special one, one that will remain ingrained in the memories of those who attended for a long time.
As we descend into the familiar routine of being able to attend events such as these with increased regularity, it’ll be a while before a win elicits similar emotion, and for those involved, that’s something that they’re well aware of.
After enduring so much just to get here, it was nice to see Pacific give their dedicated faithful something to celebrate, giving them a taste of what they hope is to come as this 2021 season continues.
“Obviously, no player wants to play without fans, because fans are the game,” Kah said. “To have them back in this stadium, to have this beautiful atmosphere, it was fantastic, and the energy they brought to our players was great, they fed off of it.”
So now, sitting 1 point off of first in the CPL after 9 games, they have every reason to believe they can be the team to lift the ‘North Star Shield’ at the end of the year, and backed by their faithful, it’s hard to imagine questioning them in that belief right now.
As Friday showed, when momentum is on their side, and they’ve got their fans cheering them on, they almost have wings beneath them, and they’ll now look to prove that this first game is just a sign of what’s to come for this young Pacific side.
“You take it game-by-game,” Bustos said. “We don’t look too far ahead. We’ll go out and enjoy this win, and tomorrow we’ll be back to the drawing board and look towards the next game.”
“At home, you always want to win, and that’s the mentality we all have as players, coaches, and as an organization. “
Up Next: Pacific FC vs Valour FC, Wednesday, August 4th, 2021, 18:30 PDT, 21:30 EDT (Starlight Stadium, Langford)
Cover Photo via: Beau Chevalier (IG: @shotby.beau, Twitter: @beauchevalier_)