LAREDO, TX -- The Thunder Bay Chill endured all the elements Saturday night in Laredo to cap one of the most remarkable turnarounds in league history to become the first-ever Canadian champions of the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League. The visitors survived 100-degree heat, an initial deficit and a second half red card as they battled the defending champions to a 1-1 draw before capturing the title in penalties 4-1.
Two years ago, Thunder Bay only posted two wins on the season for a team-worst 2-11-3 record in nine years of play. Saturday night, it was two saves in penalties by Stephen Paterson that put the Chill down in PDL and USL history in front of 3,451 at Texas A&M International University.
You would not have expected the final result given Laredo controlled much of the possession in the match, allowing the hosts to get the initial scoring chances of the game before Thunder Bay began to find their own opportunities.
The slow pace of the scoreless first half was immediately forgotten in the second when the stakes were raised by the opening goal, a play that began with a spectacular effort from the US U-20 international Felix Garcia.
Only 23 seconds into the second half, the Heat stunned Thunder Bay. Garcia received the ball in the penalty arc, chested it down and rifled a shot on the volley that crashed hard off the crossbar. The ball was cleared out to the left flank where Isaac Morales would send a shot back on goal that Stephen Paterson mishandled at the near post. The ball squirted between the netminder's legs as he kneeled on the ground, allowing Juan Ibarra to knock it home from a yard out.
The Heat celebrated their first-ever lead in three consecutive championship games, having fallen behind by two in their 2-1 loss to Michigan in 2006 and battling the Bucks in a scoreless rematch decided by penalties last year, but it would not hold as Thunder Bay showed poise and calmly kept creating opportunities against the run of possession.
In the 63rd minute, the Chill found the equalizer courtesy of second half sub Gustavo Oliveira, a team leader who has seen limited action of late due to injury. A ball played behind the defense from Jeremy Gold on the left side of the box allowed the charging Oliveira to chip the ball just off the endline over Cooper from an acute angle that found the back of the net, stunning the hometown fans, just 10 minutes after entering the match.
For his efforts off the bench, the second-year Chill midfielder was named the Championship MVP. The PDL Assist Leader a year ago battled injury most of the season, but still managed the third most points with four goals and five assists in 409 minutes played over the course of 10 games. He scored twice in the playoff opener, a 3-1 win over Colorado, and netted a penalty in their 4-0 win over Kalamazoo while also setting up two others.
The challenge of claiming the title for Thunder Bay, however, became more difficult in the 75th minute when Milroth received a second yellow for taking down Morales as he raced up the left flank, leaving the visitors a man short for the remainder of regulation and eventual 30 minutes of overtime.
Extra time saw limited chances from both sides as the game seemed destined for penalties for the second straight year.
In the penalty kick tiebreaker, Cooper was unable to summon the heroics of a year ago when he made a critical stop in the sixth round. Instead it was Paterson making up for his earlier error with two saves. In the second round of spot kicks, Carlos Ordaz's stutter step approach did not work as the shot, just off center, was stopped by Paterson. He then rescued the next shot, which came down the middle, with his foot as he dove to the side.
The back-to-back saves combined with goals from all three of their previous shooters left defender Nolan Intermoia with a chance to clinch the title in the fourth round, and the defender did not disappoint, sending the PDL championship north of the border for the first time in league history.
The two-year turnaround from 2-11-3 to PDL champion is one of the greatest turnarounds in league history with only two other teams having won the league title after a losing record in the PDL within the two previous seasons. The Westchester Flames won the title in 2001 after going 15-3-0 the year before and 7-9-1 two seasons prior. The Richmond Kickers won the PDL title, as well as the US Open Cup, in 1995 after having posted a 4-14 record in 1994.
Canadian teams have only won five previous championships in overall USL history. The Montreal Impact have two USL First Division titles (1994, 2004) and the Vancouver Whitecaps have one USL-1 title (2006) and two W-League championships (2004, 2006).
USL First Division
Tuesday, August 5
Vancouver Whitecaps 2 at Atlanta Silverbacks 3
After falling behind 1-0 on a goal from Vancouver defender Luca Bellisomo in the 31st, the Silverbacks pushed back with an equalizer from Tony McManus six minutes later. Then it was star striker Macoumba Kandji providing the go-ahead goal eight minutes into the second half and setting up what proved to be the winner by Jerson Monteiro in the 65th.
Thursday, August 7
Charleston Battery 1 at Minnesota Thunder 2
Alen Marcina set up Ricardo Sanchez seven minutes into the game. After a 78th minute Osvaldo Alonso equalizer, he converted a penalty eight minutes from time to give the Thunder the victory over the league leaders.
Seattle Sounders 1 at Portland Timbers 0
In the final regular season USL-1 meeting between the rivals, the Sounders claimed the last word with the victory on a 20th minute goal from Sebastien Le Toux.
Friday, August 8
Montreal Impact 2 at Carolina RailHawks 0
In a battle of the bottom two, the Impact finally pulled themselves off the bottom. Severino Jefferson gave the visitors the lead 11 minutes in and Pato Aguilera sealed the victory in the 90th.
Miami FC Blues 0 at Atlanta Silverbacks 0
Two of the league's leaders were unable to leave an imprint on the match as defense ruled the day. Miami's Josh Saunders made nine stops to keep the Silverbacks, who had seven in their last two outings, off the board.
Rochester Rhinos 0 at Puerto Rico Islanders 4
The Islanders kept their rolling moving, accelerating the pace with a stunning 4-0 victory over the Rhinos. Defender Cristian Arrieta opened the blitz with a strike in the 12th minute and Edwin Miranda scored the first of two on the night in the 25th minute. Fabrice Noel gave the hosts the commanding advantage in the 61st as the Islanders cruised to the win.
Saturday, August 9
Charleston Battery 1 at Portland Timbers 1
With numerous starters out of the lineup in preparation for Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal, the Timbers took advantage of the Battery's reserves, but Bryan Jordan strike in the 12th minute was still not enough for the win as veteran Lazo Alavanja would find an equalizer in the 69th for the draw.
Sunday, August 10
Puerto Rico Islanders 1 at Rochester Rhinos 1
The Rhinos were unable to avenge the loss from Friday, but stopped the bleeding that saw them give up seven in the previous two matches. Defender Alfonso Loera gave the hosts the lead just before the intermission, but a breakaway by Taiwo Atieno in the 68th allowed Puerto Rico to stay at the top of the league.
Seattle Sounders 1 at Minnesota Thunder 3
The Thunder rolled as Seattle rested numerous starters in anticipation of Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal. The Sounders opened the scoring 15 minutes in courtesy of Jason Cascio, but Melvin Tarley leveled terms in the 26th. Ricardo Sanchez gave the hosts the lead in the 56th and secured the victory with a second 20 minutes later.
Atlanta Silverbacks 2 at Vancouver Whitecaps 3
In a back-and-forth affair, the Whitecaps reversed the result from earlier in the week by rallying twice from two Ansu Toure strikes that came in the 20th and 39th minutes. Jeff Clarke provided the first equalizer in the 25th and Eduardo Sebrango the second in the 72nd. Sebrango then found the winner two minutes from time to push the Whitecaps into a tie for first.
USL Second Division
With three teams in position to possibly oust idle Western Mass from the last playoff spot in the final weekend of the regular season, the odds looks slim for the Pioneers. Pittsburgh and Bermuda both won on the road Wednesday against playoff-bound sides, downing Harrisburg, 2-1, and Crystal Palace, 3-1, respectively. But that is where the chase ended.
On Friday, the Hogges' hopes came to a halt at home against Harrisburg in a 2-1 loss. Then on Saturday, the Hammerheads, the lone team who controlled their own destiny were only able to muster a 0-0 draw against playoff-bound Cleveland, eliminating them from contention and leaving the door open for Pittsburgh. But the Riverhounds were unable to hold onto their early lead at home against last-place Real Maryland, who played the role of spoiler with an equalizer in a 1-1 draw that left Pittsburgh short of the the mark and put the Pioneers into the playoffs officially.
In other results, the Charlotte Eagles clinched the regular season title Friday with a 1-1 draw against Cleveland and second-place Richmond rolled pummeled Palace 5-0 with David Bulow tallying two goals and an assist.