Posted on: Wednesday, December 19, 2012
CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. – Mark deFrias describes the job that he and then General Manager Drew Finerty undertook when he first joined the Victoria Highlanders prior to their inaugural season in the PDL in 2009 as laying the foundation for the organization.
Now, stepping into the General Manager’s position as the club prepares for the 2013 season, deFrias is hoping to build on that foundation.
“We get such strong support in Victoria from our local fans,” deFrias said at last week’s USL Annual General Meeting. “That inaugural season I remember the home opener we had 2,400 fans in the grandstand, it was an absolutely electric atmosphere, and it was such a special moment in my life, but more importantly in Victoria in terms of soccer. Hopefully we can recreate that.”
The Highlanders have become a fixture in the Northwest Division as they prepare for their fifth season, drawing well in PDL terms and offering chances for young players to get a chance to be seen by the MLS clubs that also inhabit the division. For much of that time, deFrias had watched from across town at the University of Victoria, but when Highlanders owner Alex Campbell Jr. approached him to replace Finerty, who stepped down after the 2012 season, he was eager to return to the club.
“Soccer is a passion of mine, and the Victoria Highlanders organization has had a close place to my heart since its first season,” deFrias said. “Speaking with our owner, Alex, he has a very grand vision, and a strong philosophy on how this club should progress and move forward, and I’d like to see that happen. I’m a lucky man to be able to come back to Victoria to help with his project.”
With a number of strong teams, including 2012 PDL Champion FC London, the PDL has grown strongly in Canada until a recent CSA moratorium on new franchises being sanctioned went into place in 2010. Despite that, clubs such as the Thunder Bay Chill, Ottawa Fury and Vancouver Whitecaps FC U23 have all thrived in their respective areas, with newer additions WSA Winnipeg and the Hamilton FC Rage offering high-level competition for the country’s top amateurs.
The Highlanders hope to emulate that soon, and in turn try to boost a national team program that has struggled for consistency since reaching its only World Cup in 1986. With soccer visibility at an all-time high north of the border thanks to MLS sides Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, and standout performances by the Canadian Women’s National Team, momentum appears to be on the side of clubs such as the Highlanders as they try to grow their local fan base while also offering opportunities to young players in their regions.
“I think soccer in Canada is at a tipping point,” deFrias said. “We have the most registered kids in Canada, we have 858,000 registered soccer players in Canada, and when you compare that to our national sport that attracts the most media attention in Canada, which is hockey, it has 560,000 or thereabouts, it’s a stark contrast. I think soccer eventually in this country, I’m not going to say it’s going to gain more attention than hockey, but I think it will be become the sport that fills the gap for a lot of people.”
That, though, will likely take some patience on deFrias’ and the Highlanders’ part, something he says he learned from his time at the University of Victoria. As the PDL gains greater recognition, and should the Highlanders find success both on the field and in the stands, the potential for the club to become a stepping stone to bigger things is apparent.
“I think now there is a legitimate way for someone to participate at a high level in soccer, because of these MLS clubs, and they see our organization in the PDL as pathways for them to get to that level,” deFrias said. “I think that’s what guys like ourselves, like Thunder Bay and even when you look over at the Ottawa Fury and FC London, that’s exactly what we’re trying to create, an environment where kids can develop at a young age, and get themselves to that next level, which might be in our program, might be in the NCAA or CIS where they go to school, come back, play for us, and hopefully one day they can make an MLS squad, if they’re capable of that, or they can go and play in Europe.
“I know on Vancouver Island, where we’re from, there’s only one, maybe two players every 10-to-15 years that makes it off the island and actually goes and plays professional soccer. We’re here to try and help change that. We want to create a little bit of a soccer hotbed on the island where we can develop these kids and hopefully one day help out Team Canada. That’s the ultimate goal for us.”