Mariners primed for PDL season opener

Whether Abbotsford sports fans fully grasp how high the calibre of Premier Development League soccer is, Ian Knight isn't convinced. What he is sure of is, the PDL's reputation is spreading far and wide.

Mariners goalie Andrew Kowan lays his body on the line to thwart a scoring chance against the Victoria Highlanders last season. The Mariners host Victoria in their home opener Sunday.

Mariners goalie Andrew Kowan lays his body on the line to thwart a scoring chance against the Victoria Highlanders last season. The Mariners host Victoria in their home opener Sunday.

Whether Abbotsford sports fans fully grasp how high the calibre of Premier Development League soccer is, Ian Knight isn’t convinced.

What he is sure of is, the PDL’s reputation is spreading far and wide.

Knight’s clogged email inbox is evidence of that.

“We’ve had a lot of player interest from all over the place – from Europe and the United States,” said Knight, who helms the Magnuson Ford Mariners PDL side as part of his head coaching duties with the local soccer association.

“The distance that some of the inquiries have come from is surprising. We could have filled two rosters with inquiries that I’ve had this preseason. It’s been astronomical, really.”

Knight is working on importing a trio of players – two from the U.S., one from England. The club is waiting for international clearances before they can release the names, though it’s highly unlikely the paperwork will come through prior to the Mariners’ regular season debut this weekend.

The balance of the roster is largely comprised of top local university players from the Fraser Valley Cascades and the Trinity Western Spartans. Current Cascades include the midfield trio of Juan Pablo Mora Perea, Ethan Claibourne-Collins and Sasa Plavsic, while strikers Andre Costa and Danfi Parker are among the Spartans on the squad.

Competing in the PDL’s Northwest Division is always a tough row to hoe for a community club like Abbotsford, given the presence of deep-pocketed clubs like the Vancouver Whitecaps residency squad, the Victoria Highlanders, the Kitsap Pumas and the Portland Timbers U23s. The Mariners went 4-11-1 last season, which left them seventh out of nine teams in the division.

But when Knight looks at the players he’ll have at his disposal, he’s optimistic.

“Certainly, I’m enthused by the quality we’ve managed to assemble this year,” he said. “We have huge respect for these other organizations. But at the same time, this is a showcase arena for our players. They have to play their own game, and you never know what could happen.

“Football-wise, we fared fairly well against the vast majority of our opponents last year. The biggest problem was our own discipline, and we must improve in that area. We suffered many games with red cards and playing down with 10 men.”

The local PDL squad opens the 2011 campaign with a high-profile road game, as they meet the Whitecaps residency squad at Empire Stadium – temporary home of Vancouver’s Major League Soccer side – on Friday at 7 p.m.

On Sunday, the Mariners host their home opener against Victoria (3 p.m., Bateman Park).

“It’s a fantastic opening game,” Knight enthused. “It’s another good incentive for our players to go out and show what they’re capable of, playing on the professional stage. And it’s a local derby, so it’s going to be intense.”

As the Mariners build their roster, they’re also hoping to build their fan base, after drawing about 150 fans per game to Bateman Park last season. Knight pointed out the PDL represents the fourth tier of the North American soccer pyramid, behind MLS, the North American Soccer League, and the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division.

Magnuson Ford FC president Brad Nicholl called PDL ticket prices “the best deal in town,” and at $5 for adults and seniors, $2 for youth 18 and under, and $10 for families, it’s hard to argue that point.

“The PDL is a great level of play for players who are looking to break into the professional level,” Knight said. “It’s a great showcase.

“Some players are selected directly from the PDL to the MLS draft. It certainly a fantastic opportunity for players with drive and ambition.”

FREE KICKS:

• The Magnuson Ford FC under-18 boys squad, which won the Coastal Cup title two weeks ago, will serve as the reserve team for the PDL side this season. It’s a beneficial arrangement for both parties – the younger squad is able to stay together and stay sharp until the provincial championship game in early July, and the PDL team has a pool of depth players to draw from.