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Underdog Simcoe County Rovers cherish the moment in Canadian Championship debut

TORONTO — It was a practice like any other at BMO Field. Friendly competition during warm-ups, with pushups for the losers, followed by a more serious training session with a coach barking orders.
Simcoe County Rovers train at BMO field on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, ahead of their Canadian Championship game against Toronto FC on Wednesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — It was a practice like any other at BMO Field. Friendly competition during warm-ups, with pushups for the losers, followed by a more serious training session with a coach barking orders.

But the Simcoe County Rovers showed their true colours — and emotions — before and after the session.

"Wow" was the word on more than a few lips as players came out of the tunnel Tuesday and saw the pristine pitch and the Maple Leaf emblazoned on the east stand. And after training, the League1 Ontario champions took time to mark the moment with photos ahead of Wednesday's Canadian Championship preliminary-round game against Toronto FC.

"It's exciting," said Peter Raco, Simcoe County's president, CEO and co-owner. "I'd be lying to say it wasn't, being in this venue, being in Canada's national soccer stadium, it's exciting.

"But when it comes right down to it, the ball's round, there's 11 guys on the pitch for us. There's 11 guys on the pitch for them. We're here to play football and compete."

The difference is the Simcoe County players might get reimbursed for gas mileage but zero pay. TFC players have zeros too, but theirs come at the end of a generous paycheque.

Simcoe County Rovers FC, based in Barrie, Ont., some 90 kilometres north of Toronto, has wasted little time making news on and off the field.

Its ownership group incudes former Canada captains Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson and current Canadian Internationals Janine Beckie, Doneil Henry and Cyle Larin. And it has made it to the Canadian Championship after just two seasons in existence.

Simcoe qualified by winning the League1 Ontario title last year. The club finished runner-up in the 2023 regular season at 15-4-1 and defeated league-leading Scrosoppi FC 4-2 in the championship game last September.

Simcoe hasn't played since other than pre-season games. But it will be boosted by 1,500 travelling supporters Wednesday.

"I believe in my guys fully, honestly," said Jamaican-born captain Tajay Reid. "And I'm there with them to the end.

"In a three-year program I've seen this team start from the bottom and scale it up to the championship, so without a doubt I know I have guys around me who are ready to fight, ready to put their bodies on the line."

Henry, who helped put the players through their paces Tuesday, brought along three Canadian Championship medals to show what's at stake.

Growing up in England, Toronto coach John Herdman saw plenty of cup competition. He knows the pitfalls that can come with it.

"What you always know is that there's a few banana skins in the opening rounds," he said. "There's always some upsets and surprises."

"If I'm sitting in the Simcoe camp, they'll be pretty excited and, I think, hoping for one of the biggest upsets in Canadian football history," Herdman said after training at TFC's north Toronto practice facility.

Simcoe coach Zico Mahrady liked what he saw in his players at training.

"I'm pleased that they were able to enjoy themselves and kind of soak in this environment prior to stepping on the field (Wednesday)," he said. 

The 32-year-old coach was a bundle of energy, despite working on just 2 1/2 hours sleep.

"Tonight is another long night," he said with a smile. "We keep working. We keep preparing. And we do our best to give the boys the best opportunity to perform well."

The 14-team Canadian Championship, featuring the three Canadian MLS clubs plus the eight Canadian Premier League franchises and the Ontario, Quebec and B.C. champions, kicked off Tuesday with Cavalry FC edging visiting Vancouver 1-0 in an all-CPL matchup. After the Toronto-Simcoe tie, the four other preliminary-round matches go May 1 or 2.

Toronto, coming off a league-worst 4-20-10 season in MLS, currently stands fifth in the MLS's Eastern Conference at 4-4-1. TFC has lifted the Voyageurs Cup eight times, most recently in 2020, and finished runner-up five times.

"Winning the cup is on the agenda for this group of players," said Herdman.

Toronto exited in the Canadian championship quarterfinal last year, beaten 2-1 by CF Montreal.

With the mid-week game sandwiched between Saturday's 1-0 win over visiting New England and a date in Orlando on Saturday, Herdman plans to rotate his roster.

"There have been some players that haven't seen the field and I'm anticipating they'll get a lot of minutes, to again feel part of the group and to take a step forward in a big competition," he said.

TFC will be without the injured Lorenzo Insigne, Richie Laryea, Shane O'Neill, Brandon Servania and Deandre Kerr. Midfielder Alonso Coello is available after going though concussion protocols.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2024.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press