The Saskatchewan Roughriders may be in the midst of their first bye week of the season, but their home field Mosaic Stadium was still a raucous environment on Wednesday evening.
Sunderland won the match 1-0 courtesy of a Max Thompson touch from inside the box, but this contest meant much more than winning or losing as it showcased a highly competitive level of academy soccer to fans in Saskatchewan.
“Coming over from England you don’t know what to expect,” Sunderland Forward Max Thompson said. “Honestly (it was) absolutely brilliant. I enjoyed every second of it and I think all of the other players did as well.”
The 33,350-capacity stadium may not have been filled with spectators, but the roughly 4,000 fans in attendance provided a level of excitement and electricity that neither side had expected.
“Towards the end of the game it was getting nervy and they were really getting involved,” Thompson explained. “Some of them were supporting us, some were supporting them and you could really feel it on the pitch.”
“We thought it was fantastic,” TFC II Head Coach Gianni Cimini echoed. “For us this is pretty much the biggest crowd we’ve played in fron of and I thought the energy that the crowd gave right off the bat was fantastic, it was really special for the boys.”
“The atmosphere was good,” TFC II forward Hugo Mbongue agreed. “We don’t play in front of these crowds every game so it was nice to come out to Saskatchewan and play in front of the fans.”
The match was a tightly-contested back-and-forth affair that saw TFC out shoot Sunderland 7-4, while the English side led the corner kick count by a margin of 6-4.
The mutual respect between the opponents was displayed both on and off the pitch.
“They were better than I thought they were going to be; they gave us a very hard challenge” Thompson said. “Fair play to them and wish them all the best in their season.”
“They’re a good side, they’ve got some quality,” Mbongue said . “But I feel like we could’ve came out with the (win), it wasn’t the result we wanted.”
The preparation for the match was difficult for both sides, facing opponents in different leagues, from different countries that they’d never played against before.
“It was difficult to find video of the opponent,” Cimini said. “So it just takes a little more adapting on the fly when you see the first 15 minutes of the game and how the opponent is presenting themselves.”
“Honestly it’s very difficult,” Thompson agreed. “You’ve just got to prepare like you do in every other game, train well and just hope that your training comes into the game.”
The province’s appetite for the beautiful game was on full display Wednesday with a fully-engaged crowd. Events like the friendly are something those on the pitch believe will only serve to help grow the game in Saskatchewan.
“It’s nice to se that it’s not only in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec where there’s three MLS sides, but it’s also in provinces like Saskatchewan where the fans come out and enjoy the show,” Mbongue said.
“Bringing that appetite for professional soccer at this level, I think, it’s important to see that players have the opportunity in this province to potentially be in one of these MLS academies one day and to see what the quality is like and to be excited about it,” Cimini added.