The Cowichan 49ers (left) and Steelheads will square off one more time this season in a cup play-in game on the Sherman Road turf at 6 p.m. this Saturday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Soccer rivals gear up for their biggest battle

Winner takes all as Cowichan 49ers face Cowichan Steelheads

For the Cowichan Valley’s two masters soccer teams, it all comes down to this.

The Cowichan 49ers and Cowichan Steelheads will take to the Sherman Road turf this Saturday at 6 p.m. for what one clever (and honest) player has dubbed “the battle of A535 and Advil.”

Saturday’s match is a play-in game for the Tony Grover Cup tournament. The 49ers are looking for their fourth Grover title in just four years of existence, while the Steelheads are hoping to play spoiler and make a run at their first cup.

Both teams play in the masters A division of the Vancouver Island Soccer League, where the 49ers are locked into second place behind UVic Alumni and the Steelheads are currently third but can’t drop below fourth. The Niners won both regular-season battles between the rivals, 2-0 in October and 1-0 in January, but they aren’t taking this weekend’s game for granted.

“We are preparing heavily,” 49ers player Neall Rowlings said. “The Steelheads have a hot goalie right now. Preston Johnny is arguably the best keeper right now in over-35 still standing.”

Chris Muller was the 49ers’ stalwart keeper until he went down with a season-ending injury a couple of weeks ago, and the team has scrambled to replace him. Johnny, meanwhile, has been a force for the Steelheads as both Cowichan teams have allowed just 18 goals against in 17 league matches, tied for second in the league behind UVic’s four.

“I believe Preston has a case for league MVP,” Curtis Flynn of the Steelheads said after his team’s most recent game, a 1-0 victory over Vic West. “UVic and the 49ers can miss their keeper, 18-goal striker, skilled midfielder or shutdown defender and still dominate due to their replacement players. We lose Preston, we would have lost this game and most likely a few others.”

Up front, Kevin Smith leads the Steelheads with eight goals, and will need to be at the top of his game on Saturday as the team’s next three leading goal-scorers will be absent. “Sleeper striker” Flynn will move into the support role beside Smith.

The 49ers recently added the tenacious Henry Nelson to their ranks, and will have Matt Arnett available for this game.

Based on the teams’ previous meetings, Rowlings knows this game has the potential to be tight.

“The reality is this game could go the distance,” he said. “If it’s 0-0 at the end it would go into overtime and potentially a shootout. Only one of our two successful Over 35s team will continue in the Tony Grover Cup. It’s not a cup we will take lightly; it’s time to go fishing for Steelheads.”

While only one Cowichan team will continue in the cup race, it won’t be the end of the line for either club. Both sides have one league game remaining on March 7.

The 49ers have already qualified for the provincial A tournament, and the Steelheads will play in either the A or B tournament.

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