Yes, three points are at stake, but Valour FC's match Wednesday night at IG Field will be significant for a much more important reason.
For the first time since March 9, 2020 when the Winnipeg Jets hosted the Arizona Coyotes at their downtown rink, Winnipeggers have an opportunity to purchase a ticket and watch a professional sports game in person.
The vast majority of the seats will remain empty as only 2,000 spectators — six per cent of IG Field's capacity — are permitted, but it's a sign the sports scene, and more importantly, day-to-day life for Manitobans, is getting closer to normalcy.
The night will begin with Pacific FC taking on Atlético Ottawa at 6 p.m. followed by Winnipeg's Valour FC squaring off against York United at 9 p.m. Fans must be fully vaccinated to attend the matches.
"It's definitely not about me, or the club and the team, this is the reward for the people on the front lines," said Valour general manager and head coach Rob Gale in a virtual press conference on Tuesday.
"The doctors, the nurses, the social workers, the teachers, the shop workers — like I've said, my daughter has worked throughout at Sobeys — and you need those people... These are the guys and girls behind the scenes, the real heroes who deserve all the credit for us being here where we are today... The beauty of this game for me is just maybe there's light at the end of the tunnel and there's a reward for all the people I mentioned and hopefully the team can give them something to sing and cheer about and feel ... I don't want to say normal, because nothing's normal anymore. I don't want to underplay the huge losses of lives and the thousands we've lost and the things we've gone through together, but maybe it's just a sign of a break from that and a sign of more positive times to come."
While Valour has missed seeing their fans during The Kickoff — the Canadian Premier League bubble in Winnipeg that sees all eight clubs play their first eight matches at IG Field before getting the green light to return to their home markets to play in front of fans — they've still been able to hear them. Valour sits atop of the table with a 3-0-0 record and in all three of their contests, members of the Red River Rising — the team's supporters group — have stood outside Gate 2 at IG Field to watch the game on the big screen and sing and cheer for the club.
Wednesday will mark exactly 600 days since the last time Red River Rising president Nicky Cottee and her fellow Valour diehards got to sit, or in their case, stand, inside IG Field to sing "Allez, Winnipeg Allez" and the rest of their catchy songs. A 9 p.m. start on a weeknight isn't exactly ideal for most, but Cottee, a 47-year-old who works as an admissions co-ordinator at The University of Winnipeg, couldn't say no to staying up past her bedtime to watch her favourite team in person for the first time in what feels like forever.
"It's gonna be amazing. Even just standing outside those gates and watching the game and knowing they could hear us, that felt really special and was so different than anything we've (experienced) in the last 18 months," Cottee said.
"But getting right down there on the pitch, there's players on the team that we've connected with that we've never seen them play in person. They've never gotten to experience us singing down there with them in person. I'm probably going to cry, to be honest, because just the return to normalcy gets me a little emotional, but to be able to get let down there and do this for those guys in the stands is going to be really something special."
Raphael Ohin, Federico Pena, and José Galán are the only Valour players remaining from their inaugural season in 2019, meaning the rest of the roster has yet to see IG Field occupied with fans.
"We've heard that we have the best fans in the league and we're very excited to play in front of them and hopefully get our fourth win in a row," said second-year right-back Stefan Cebara.
"It's gonna be a big relief to see that everything is getting back to normal. We haven't played in front of fans in a long time so it's definitely going to be a good feeling, a relieving feeling, and hopefully as the months go on, we can get more and more fans at the games."
All remaining matches at The Kickoff are open to fans, but it's unlikely the seven other clubs will have anywhere near the same support as Valour which could end up providing the Winnipeg side with a major home-field advantage. Gale admitted that when they had eight Manitobans on the squad in 2019, playing at home might've done them more harm than good, but he hopes this year's group, which features Ohin and Pena as the only locals, will be able to make the most of the crowd wearing Valour maroon and gold.
"I guess we'll find out over the next five games is the honest answer to that," said Gale.
"I thought the first year it affected the Manitoba boys playing at home in front of fans and having friends and family. I think it affected them, looking back now, and not in a positive way... But now with the maturity of this squad, the excitement, the sheer amount of time we haven't had (fans) in, I'm hoping it energizes those minutes when you need to dig in, that extra adrenaline rush, the excitement they give you. I'm hoping these guys utilize it in the right way and it improves the collective."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.