Tillsonburg FC men's team put together an unforgettable WOSL First Division season, winning a season-ending playoff tie-breaker in overtime to promote to WOSL Premier for the 2015 campaign – the highest level of amateur soccer in the area.
The team, sponsored by Corey's Restaurant and Canadian Tire Tillsonburg, did not cruise through the 16-game season at the top of First Division. Nor did they win the division title. That honour went to London English.
"We had a few games rescheduled, so we had a lot of games at the end of the year," said Tillsonburg FC's Carlos Oliveira. "Because we always had games in hand, we were always near fourth or fifth. At one point we were sixth. But if you looked at the standings, our record was still pretty good."
Playing in League Cup, which is open to any WOSL team from First to Fourth Division, Tillsonburg FC had another amazing run to reach the semifinals.
"We lost to the same team we lost to in the finals last year," said Oliveira. "In the Cup run two years ago, we beat three Premier teams. Both years, our only losses were to the Premier champion. Respectable losses – 2-0 last year, 2-1 in overtime this year. It was big last year, too, when we were a Second Division beating Premier teams – that was huge."
It proved Tillsonburg FC could play with WOSL's best if competing week-in and week-out with a full roster.
"We saw it this year – even though we're moving up we lost to the last place, 9th place team, 3-2 away. And we lost to the 2nd or 3rd last. That's due to lack of players or just not coming out fast enough, being flat. You have to come out every evening. And now, in Premier, it's even more important. We have to come out every game, we have to make sure we have a full roster every game. More commitment from the players."
In recent years, Tillsonburg FC made a push into First Division with help from key Ginga players. After dropping back to Second Division, Oliveira and goalie Brett Harrington took over running the team. They've promoted twice in two years.
"We didn't recruit, but Delhi's team folded and their best player came to play with us (Shayne Tremblay). But we also lost one of our best strikers because Steve Lavier's been hurt the entire season, and he was our top goal scorer the year before."
They also added Malachi Morris, 17, who with 10 goals on the season tied for the team lead with Tremblay, including eight in the regular season.
"The two of them, Malachi and Shayne, they were huge for us. I think the two of them clicked with the whole team this year."
The First Division's success, coupled with the Fourth Division's third place finish, should boost the club's fortunes in drawing new players, said Oliveira, from the local talent pool.
"We have a group of kids that haven't come out to play for us yet – they kind of took a year off. We're hoping they come out because that will help fill in a lot of spots on both Fourth and Premier. We want to have a deeper roster for both teams. There's so many times when guys are missing, it's just vital to have the extra guys."
Tillsonburg won four of its last five games to create the tie-breaker, including a 1-0 shutout of White Eagles on the final night of the regular season (Sept. 20) leaving the two teams with identical 9-4-3 records – 30 points each – and a winner-take-all playoff game in London with the winner moving up. English had already locked up one of two promotion positions, leaving one for Tillsonburg-White Eagles.
"We started talking about it (promotion) about mid-point in the season," said Oliveira. "We said, 'for sure this is possible.' We were like third or fourth place, a couple games in hand. We had just beaten the White Eagles, one of the best in the league. We had lost 1-0 to English, and that was our first game of the year when we had new players and just weren't clicking.
"We lost points – we lost 2-0 Enlgish – and that hurt. But the White Eagles had lost points to someone else. It seemed like every time we lost points, a team we were trying to catch lost points. So it worked out. No team, even the English, ran away with the league. English lost points to multiple teams. Other than our two losses to them, we had the same results."
On Sunday, Sept. 28, at the Hellenic Soccer Complex in London, Tillsonburg was outplayed in the first half of the tie-breaker.
"Not the whole first half," said Oliveira, "but especially in the first 20 minutes when they scored their goal. Towards the end of the first half we were playing better. We had a couple chances – Malachi hit the post on a partial breakaway. A couple opportunities just didn't go our way."
It started getting a little chippier near the end of the first half, and tempers flared early in the second.
"Their first play in the second half, they sent it into the corner and one of our players fanned on the kick. It hit his hand. The ref let play go on, advantage, but it came back as a penalty shot against us."
White Eagles scored on the penalty, and while celebrating one of their players clashed with Tillsonburg FC goalie Brett Harrington. Both were red carded and ejected from the game.
Trailing 2-0 in the 50th minute, without a goalie, Tillsonburg FC called on Max Adam to take over between the pipes.
"At the same time we're subbing the goalie, Trembley decides he's going to yell at everyone to bring them into a huddle for a pep talk. He said, 'we're not out of this, we can still do this. It's 2-0 but both teams are down a man, now there's more room, let's play.'
"And we started to play – with more space, we started to take possession. They seemed to get tired. They were up 2-0 but they didn't change their formation. They only had three guys in the back. In the first half they played a 3-4-3, and when they lost a man they went to a 3-4-2. Us, being down, we changed formation to attack more and we had three guys pushing up. We were essentially 1-3-1 up top, which makes it a bit more in our favour."
Tillsonburg FC scored its first of the night about the 65th minute on a goal by Morris.
"Kind of an awkward goal, kind of a lucky bounce," said Oliveira. "It kind of just fell to him and I think he headed it in. Just one of those weird plays where the bounce went our way."
The intensity picked up and everyone seemed to find their second gear, he said.
"We were playing with possesion. Every pass they tried to make, it seemed like we were able to intercept, and then keep possession."
Oliveira, who was going up for a headball, was fouled from behind – an elbow to the head – to earn the White Eagle player a second yellow card, leaving the Eagles down another man.
"So 10 vs 9, more stuff in our favour, we just kept pushing."
What they were lacking was the 'last touch.'
"There was one chance where I was on the goal-line, passed to Trembley, who trapped it, and was unable to pop it in."
In the 91st minute, playing in injury time, a deflected cross was played in for Brian Teixeira, who at full-speed made a running lunge to beat the defender with his head, knocking it toward the net. The ball fell to Trembley, who popped it into the corner, tying the game at 2-2 with about three minutes of injury time remaining.
"You could hear Brett yelling the whole second half from the parking lot," Oliveira laughed.
In overtime, Tillsonburg FC had all the momentum.
"We kept composed. I said to the guys, 'We have to try to do this right away. We don't want to go to PKs. They're tired, they're down a man. They're not happy with each other.' So we could feed off this energy."
Jason Beard, with control in the White Eagles' zone, remembers hearing Oliveira say 'you've got time, turn.'
"He (Beard) said, "I clearly remember you saying 'turn, turn, turn.' Jason turned, looked up and he had no one in front of him. He looked to see Malachi, who had a guy on him who was much slower – his defender was too tight to him – so Jason fed a pass between the two defenders and Malachi went in behind the slow defender, completely burning him on the play. Their best player, the sweeper, tried to come across to prevent Malachi from shooting. So Malachi took a fake, cut back inside to his right food and the defender slipped. Malachi saw him fall, took an extra touch because he had so much time, and the goalie came out. He slotted it in, short side."
Trembley and Morris sprinted down the sideline, going almost the length of the field before the rest of the team caught up, tackling them in a wild celebration almost near the Tillsonburg net.
"There were almost 200 people there watching," Oliveira noted. "That's what it seemed like anyways. It was great support from Tillsonburg parents and friends. It was nice to see.
"We want to thank both our sponsors this year – Corey's Restaurant and Canadian Tire. Canadian Tire has been sponsoring us for like the last eight years. Corey's is a new sponsor, but they're our main sponsor. We really appreciate everything from them."
The 2014 season was stellar on several fronts in Tillsonburg. Not only did Tillsonburg FC promote, Tillsonburg Titans Middlesex Masters Third Division team promoted, and the U16 boys promoted to OYSL (L1).
"Our club is producing good young players, and with coaches like John Twinem, it's going to help our youth system and players. It feeds up. Eventually, if you're still living in Tillsonburg and you still want to play soccer, it's a perfect spot to be in."