By Graham Strong
The Thunder Bay Chill made history once again by edging out the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency 2-1 in an injury-time stunner.
Fans – a record 1,546 in attendance for the game – exploded when Alvaro Zendejas headed the ball to the back of the net. at Chapples Park. Two minutes later the game was over, and the Chill were on their way to the Premier Development League final.
“That was the last corner, so we crashed it like crazy. And we got it, we got it,” a jubiliant Zendejas said.
For the first time in its nine-year history, Thunder Bay‘s once little-known soccer program is a single win away from its first championship. Next Saturday, the Chill will face the defending-champion Laredo Heat, who advanced to its third-straight league final Saturday night with a 2-0 win over the Reading Rage.
It will be known today whether the Chill will host that game.
The Whitecaps, a feeder club to the United Soccer League’’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC, perhaps had the edge coming into this game. But it was the Chill‘s height and strength that made the difference.
“(The Chill) definitely converted on their strengths which was going for set pieces and from the corner,” said Whitecaps coach Thomas Niendorf. “Those are situations that are tough to defend if you play against a physically very strong team.”
If you ever wondered what it feels like to see a soccer match in Europe, this was the closest Thunder Bay has ever come. Before the game the crowd once again became the 12th player, firing up the home team with drums and trumpets, cheers and screams, and fireworks at the east end of the field.
It seemed to make the difference in the first half.
Corner kicks, close calls, and crossbars were the highlights, and almost all in favour of the Chill as they dominated a lackluster Vancouver team for most of the first half.
Vancouver caught a break in the 14th minute. Wilson Neto was called for tripping up a Whitecaps player in the box, leading to a penalty kick. But Chill goalkeeper and local boy Stephen Peterson guessed right, making a spectacular save to bring the hushed crowd back to life.
The Chill‘s closest chance in the first half came at the 38-minute mark. Jeremy Gold replaced Marcos Silva, and made an immediate impact. A perfectly placed free kick landed right on the forehead of Scott Milroth, who directed it into the net. But the referee quickly called it no goal.
“The first couple of crosses, we didn‘t really get one in,” said Milroth. “We got one in, and I thought I finished it, but it was called offside.”
Thunder Bay would strike first at the 62nd mark. Milroth made another great header into the back of the net from Gold – and this time it counted. The Chill Under 18s – a.k.a the Blue Navy – were parked behind the Whitecap goal, and showered the netting with blue and white streamers after Milroth‘s score.
The Chill‘s best chance to put the game away came at 89 minutes. It was Gold once again, alone with the ball in front of the net. But Whitecaps‘s keeper Simon Thomas came out to challenge, and scooped the ball away.
As it turned out, it was a crucial turnover. Thomas hurled the ball up field, where it eventually found its way to ‘Caps star Randy Edwini-Bonsu. He worked his way down the left side of the field before sneaking it through Paterson.
“Oh man, the 90th minute,” said Milroth, “you got a game in your hands and they score – I can‘t tell you we weren‘t disappointed.”
But disappointment didn‘t get them down. The Chill immediately took back control of the game, and marched the ball back up the field. After the Whitecaps knocked it out of play, Gold once again took the corner kick. This time he found Zendejas for what would be the winning goal.
But what was an thrilling game-winner for the fans seemed to be too much of a nail-biter for Chill coach Tony Colistro to take. “It‘s great for the fans, exciting for sure,” he said. “It didn‘t really end the way I was kind of hoping, but it did end in our favour so I was quite happy about that.
“We had a very confident team all year. Whether we had one man down or two men down, calls going our way or not, we just had to work through all those things,” Colistro said.
Next weekend‘s showdown with Laredo won‘t start looming in their minds until Monday. “Tonight I‘m just going to celebrate with my team,” said Zendejas.
“When Monday comes, we‘re going to be ready to train for the big game.”
The team is optimistic about their chances.
“We‘re where we said we should be at the beginning of the year, we‘re in the national championships,” said Milroth. “Hopefully we can bring it back to Thunder Bay.”