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Saanich News: Simpson Primed for Canada

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Local soccer star Josh Simpson is enjoying playing in England, but also looking forward to suiting up for the Canadian national squad in Burnaby next week A long way from home

Saanich News

Josh Simpson is much too busy these days to get very homesick for Canada. He simply hasn't had the chance.

After an eventful summer that culminated in the Canadian national team player signing with the Millwall Lions of the English Championship League (formerly the First Division), the talented 21-year-old is racking up lots of game time these days.

The former Gorge FC and Victoria United midfielder has started almost every one of Millwall's matches so far this season, helping his new club claim ninth spot in the 24-team table.

The transition from amateur summer soccer in Greater Victoria to professional English football - over the course of just a few months - has certainly been tough. But Simpson doesn't seem to be afraid of taking on new challenges.

Simpson has been a part of the Canadian junior and senior national soccer programs since 2002 and has played for the University of Portland for the past three years as well. However, he got the biggest break of his young career when he participated in the inaugural International Pacific Soccer Series (IPSS) this past July.

The international "friendly" tournament brought together Hearts FC of the Scottish Premier League, England's Millwall FC (an FA Cup finalist last season), the Canadian World Cup team, the Pacific Coast Soccer league All-Stars and the Vancouver Metro All-Stars.

The Millwall coaching staff was so impressed with Simpson's strong performance in the games he played for Canada at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium that they offered him a contract to play for the Lions in England.

"I was pretty happy-" Simpson told the ***News*** from his home in London. "Obviously, my goal has always been to be playing professional football. When I went to Vancouver for the (IPSS) games, I felt that I'd played really well - and right away, they expressed interest in me."

Playing for the Canadian national team in the July event, the midfielder scored a goal against Hearts to tie up the game. He followed that up a couple of days later by assisting on the goal that secured a narrow 1-0 Canadian victory over Millwall.

"I think I was well-prepared," Simpson said of his overall approach to the tournament. "I showed them very well what I could do for a team in the Championship League."

But amateur club soccer in Canada is still a far cry from the professional English Championship league, where games at "The Den" can draw thousands of enthusiastic (and sometimes unforgiving) fans.

"First of all, it's been a great learning experience," Simpson says of his time in England so far. "The game is much, much quicker (than) anything I've been used to back in Victoria or even at school in Portland."

But not only has Simpson been able to adjust to the faster pace of the English game, he's also been given ample opportunity to further develop his skills.

"I've come in and started every single game since I've been here," Simpson says, adding that - apart from a couple of matches - he's stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes each time out. He also travelled with the team to Budapest last week for a UEFA Cup match against Ferencvaros. (Millwall lost 3-1 and were consequently eliminated from the competition.)

One of the more pleasant surprises to date has been how quickly the Millwall faithful have embraced the young Canadian, considering their past history of demanding a lot from the club's players.

"They've been very, very supportive," Simpson points out. "Towards me, they've been absolutely fantastic." Not only have Canadian flags been seen flying in the terraces at home games, but a few red-and-white ensigns even made the trip to Hungary with Millwall's die-hard supporters.

"It makes it a really exciting experience, because they always want your (autograph) wherever you go."

But fate has been taking another turn on this side of the Atlantic. Simpson flew into Miami on Monday to join the Canadian senior team that's trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup - and he and his teammates know all too well the difficult task that lies in front of them.

After dropping a disappointing 2-0 loss against Guatemala on Aug. 18, Canada drew 1-1 with Honduras Sept. 4 and lost 1-0 to Costa Rica four days later. Canada will have to pick up some badly needed points in their upcoming games (Oct. 9 against Honduras, Oct. 13 against Costa Rica and Nov. 17 against Guatemala) if the team wants to make it out of their group, advance to the final CONCACAF qualifying round and earn a berth in the World Cup.

Canada seemed to be in a good position to make it through earlier this summer, with the national team boasting some of the best talent its seen in a decade. (A number of Canucks have recently demonstrated that Canadian-born players can be successful on the international soccer stage, including Kevin McKenna, Owen Hargreaves, Jason deVos, Lars Hitchfield, Daniel Imhof, Iain Hume, Paul Peschisolido and Tomasz Radzinski.)

Despite the setbacks of the last three games, however, Simpson seems confident that the current Canadian team can still pull it off.

"It is do-or-die (time). We have to go after them with everything we have," he says. "Obviously, we can't afford to have another loss."

With reduced expectations for the team to win its group on the part of Canadian soccer fans, Simpson says that he and his teammates are feeling a lot less pressure going into this weekend's crucial match. It's a situation that may actually play in the Canadians' favour.

"At the moment, it's not looking hopeful for us-, Simpson says. "It makes it much easier for the team if the expectation on your back isn't so big. Then you can go out and perform, because it's less pressure on you. So it's easier to play well in that situation."

Simpson hasn't yet got the nod from Canadian head coach Frank Yallop to start the game against Honduras on Saturday, but he's eager to make his mark with the team. The midfielder has only started one of the three games in this round so far, but he points out that Yallop has been adjusting the roster to try to come up with a winning formula for Canada.

"He's changed the team quite a bit by the looks of it. For the last few games, he's going to have to."

It's a pretty good bet that a lot of the Millwall player's former teammates in Greater Victoria will be watching the upcoming games with interest - and cheering him on. Simpson hasn't forgotten his roots either, offering the following before having to hang up the phone in London: "I'd like to just send my best to the boys at the Gorge and at Victoria United."

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