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Mosaic Stadium was once again a football venue on Wednesday night, but this time the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders weren’t featured.
International soccer took center stage as Sunderland AFC, from England, blanked Toronto FC II 1-0 in an under-23 friendly match.
The game’s lone goal-scorer, Max Thompson, called the atmosphere “absolutely brilliant.”
Regina had previously played host to a friendly in 2017, when the New York Cosmos defeated Valencia 2-0 in front of nearly 15,000 fans.
A smaller but enthusiastic crowd of about 3,000 turned out on Wednesday to enjoy the beautiful game, featuring up-and-coming players, and celebrate the kickoff of the Queen City Ex.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to watch some high-level soccer, which we don’t always get,” said Regina’s Brent Glen, one of the attendees and a proud soccer dad.
Although the gathering was not sizeable, the cheers were easily audible and often robust. That was evident from the outset, as the game’s early scoring chances created a buzz.
The spectators let out a sigh for a Sunderland steal and subsequent scoring chance 13 minutes into the contest. Shortly thereafter, the crowd roared its approval as Toronto volleyed the chance away.
Following the missed opportunity, a lone fan attempted to initiate an “ole!” chant, but to no avail.
Twenty-five minutes into the match, the crowd erupted as Thompson scored what proved to be the lone goal. Toronto might have been playing in its home country, but the audience was also more than happy to demonstrate support for the visitors from overseas.
The halftime festivities included a youth soccer match on the Mosaic Stadium pitch and prize giveaways in the stands.
In the second half, the volume in the crowd rose again as TFC executed a cross-pass, but the shot was a touch high. The crowd lamented another missed chance for Toronto to get on the board.
The highlight of the second half, judging by the crowd’s reaction, came on a solo rush by Toronto’s Nakye Greenidge-Duncan. However, the crowd was again disappointed as the shot was thwarted by Sunderland keeper Adam Richardson.
As the final whistle sounded, the spectators gave both sides a standing ovation.
“The atmosphere was good,” Toronto forward Hugo Mbongue said. “We don’t play in front of these crowds every game, so it was to come out to Saskatchewan to thank the fans.”
In fact, the atmosphere shocked Mbongue.
“The fans were pretty engaged,” he said. “It’s something we don’t usually get, so it was nice to have.”
Mbongue also thinks that an event such as Wednesday’s can help grow the game of soccer in Canada.
“It’s nice to see that it’s not only in Ontario, BC and Quebec, where there are three MLS sides,” he said, “but it’s also in provinces like Saskatchewan where the fans come out and enjoy the show.
“That’s what’s going to help the game grow and we need more of that in the country.”
Toronto head coach coach Gianni Cimilni even felt like the atmosphere gave his players an extra boost.
Every time TFC missed a scoring chance, the crowd would react and Cimilni’s charges would feed off that energy.
“We don’t get the chance to experience that often,” he said, “and tonight we got the chance to experience it.”
The visitors also agreed that Saskatchewan’s football enthusiasts had an impressive showing.
“Coming over from England, you don’t know what to expect,” Thompson said. “But honestly I enjoyed every second of it and I think all the other players did as well.”
Given the talent that Thompson faced on Wednesday night, he said he wouldn’t be shocked if the game of soccer continues to grow in popularity in Canada.
The appeal of the sport is exemplified by Glen’s nine-year-old daughter, Kamryn, who plays under-11 soccer in Regina.
“I would love for her to be able to get a scholarship and get some more opportunities to play in different countries,” Glen said.
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