May 21st, 2024

How David prepared for Goliath. A look inside the Simcoe County Rovers’ locker room

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on April 25, 2024.

Simcoe County Rovers watch a video with messages of support from loved ones, in their locker room at BMO field, in Toronto, on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, ahead of their Canadian Championship tie against Toronto FC. Simcoe, currently playing in League1 Ontario, the third division of Canada's football system, lost 5-0 to the former Major League Soccer Champions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – There were tears in the Simcoe County Rovers’ locker room ahead of Wednesday’s Canadian Championship game against Toronto FC as players’ family and friends offered love and support by video.

“Go Rovers,” was the repeated refrain from loved ones young and old.

“So proud of you and the hard work and dedication that’s got you this far,” was the message for defender Jordan Barclay.

“We love you,” was one chorus. “Have fun,” said another.

Each message hit home, tugging at heartstrings.

The players were reminded that sometimes in soccer as in life, it’s more about the journey than the destination. And Simcoe County has come a long way in a short time.

League1 Ontario champions in just its second season, the semi-pro team from Barrie, Ont., drew some 1,500 supporters to BMO Field on Wednesday. Young Simcoe fans excitedly waited for the players to get off the team bus, hoping for a high-five.

It takes a village, as the video showed.

The messages were unknown to the players, who had been going through their normal pre-game routine in the boxlike visitors’ dressing room to a hip-hop soundtrack by the likes of Strugglechildd, 24Heavy and Justin Rarri.

Some players were getting taped in an adjoining room. Others sat wearing headphones, in their own world as they dressed.

That changed when team officials wheeled in a giant TV to show the video. Sitting on the floor or in cubicles, the players watched each message intently, taking in the love and support.

“Two things that cannot be measured,” Simcoe coach Zico Mahrady told the team after the video. “We talked about it yesterday. That emotion you’re currently feeling right now. No one can measure that. Only you can put a value on it.

“And the second thing is your why, which is you’ve just seen right now. This is what’s going to give us the edge, right here. This is what no one can measure”

The 32-year-old Mahrady then turned to a whiteboard on the wall to talk tactics, moving counters around like he was taking part in a manic game of Go.

The instructions were detailed, what to do what and when. He talked of an opening “15 minutes of chaos.”

“And of course there will be moments where we’re going to have to suffer and defend in our half,” he continued. “We are prepared.”

“The field is massive. Utilize it,” he added. “Very important.”

Mahrady’s final instructions were pointed

“The occasion is here. Get rid of it now. Focus on the match and focus on the process. It’s very important we focus on the process “¦ Focus on the hunt now. That why and that drive are right here,” he said, pointing to the TV that showed the video messages. “That’s going to allow you to fuel your hunt.

“So hunt. Hunt today. Hunt. You’ve got to really smell it, All right? “¦ Are we good? All right, let’s have a strong warmup.”

He finished to loud applause.

Simcoe went out and took it on the chin, beaten 5-0 by Toronto. The part-timers showed flashes of their skills, testing backup Toronto goalkeeper Luka Gavran several times. But the well-heeled MLS opposition had too much for Simcoe, which had not played a competitive game since Sept. 2 when it downed Scrosoppi FC 4-2 to win the League1 Ontario title.

The Simcoe players train four days a week and, if they’re lucky, get gas mileage. Many had gone through the Toronto FC academy before finding their own soccer road.

Midfielder Alex Zis has played for both the University of Guelph and a third-division Saudi Arabian side.

Orlendis Benitez and Alejandro Portal are former Cuban internationals who defected following a 6-0 loss to Canada at BMO Field in September 2019 in CONCACAF Nations League play.

When not playing football, they both work on the floor at a chemical plant.

“My life is good,” the 28-year-old Portal said with a beaming smile. “It’s different between Cuba and Canada. This is a good country. Many opportunities here to make a family, for the future. Every day I try to live my dream. I try to do good things for myself, for my family – help my family back home. Learn about the city, about the country.

“I’m looking forward to getting my citizenship in a couple more years.”

Regardless of Wednesday’s result, Portal – like his Simcoe teammates – can already count himself a winner.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on X platform, formerly known as Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024

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