It was 2 a.m. in Ghana, but that wasn't stopping Valour FC midfielder Raphael Ohin's parents and four siblings from tuning in and showing their support.
Ohin was on the team bus Saturday heading to IG Field for a 9 p.m. matchup with Atlético Ottawa when his family reached out."I got a text from my siblings and they said 'Raph, we're watching. Today's the day. Have a good game and hopefully you score your first goal.' It was really special sitting on the bus and getting that message. That day, honestly, I was feeling it as well," said Ohin, who moved to Winnipeg six years ago and is in his third season with Valour FC.
Indeed he was, and he proved it 44 minutes into the match. As rain fell from the dark sky, Ohin took a pass at the corner of the box from Stefan Cebara, turned, took a step, and blasted a shot past Ottawa goalkeeper Dylon Powley to open the scoring. It took 30 Canadian Premier League matches and countless close calls, but Ohin had finally found the back of the net for the first time in his professional career.
An overjoyed Ohin fell to his knees and screamed as if the weight of the world had finally been lifted from his shoulders before being swarmed by his teammates. It ended up being the game winner as Valour went on to win 2-0 to improve to 3-0-0 on the year to put them at the top of the table in the eight-team league.
"I've been waiting for this for so long," the 26-year-old Ohin told the Free Press on Monday.
"To finally get my first goal, it means a lot. I have Winnipeg behind me, I have people back home in Ghana behind me, and me scoring my first goal, it doesn't even feel like it's for me. It feels like it's for the fans and also people back home. That's how it felt, like right away when I scored the goal, I was like 'Wow, this belongs to a lot of people.'"
But long before Ohin showed his goal scoring abilities, he had already solidified himself as one of Valour's most important players. Despite measuring in at 5-6, you can't miss Ohin as he's buzzing all over the field, making key defensive stops, and constantly being a thorn in the side of his opponents.
"It was mentioned on the broadcast he's a heart and soul kind of player and that's definitely the case," said Valour assistant coach Damian Rocke.
"He's been a part of the club for three years and in all three years he's been a huge contributor. Really, his evolution was starting out as a first-year pro and everyone kind of learning what the CPL is all about and then he really got into his stride in the second season at The Island Games and his game really progressed. I think for Raph, he knows he can contribute in a lot of ways... We see him in a very key role in the middle of the park in more of a defensive phase of the game, but we know he can contribute on the other side as well. It's all about picking those moments."
Another significant moment Saturday was 29-year-old Brazilian midfielder Rafael Galhardo making his much anticipated Valour debut. Galhardo boasts one of the most impressive resumes in all of the CPL, but it was a month-long journey for him to join his new club as pandemic travel restrictions and a pair of quarantines forced him to miss training camp and the first two matches. Galhardo, who is expected to be one of Valour's top players this season, was subbed into the game in the 85th minute. He didn't play much, but his presence was felt as he forced Powley to make a tough save on a free kick in the 95th minute. A couple minutes earlier, Galhardo had a shot miss wide.
"It's going to take him time to get his legs back and get him in a position where it's not a risk in terms of injury and fitness," Rocke said.
"Certainly, he's going to be a player we have to ramp up over time and ensure that we're using him wisely and in the right situations. I think in that situation in the last match against Ottawa, it was a perfect scenario where we felt we needed some experience and a player to come in and positionally be responsible in the middle of the park."
While it's taken Ohin until Year 3 to score, it's also taken Valour that long to string together three straight victories. The Kickoff — the Winnipeg bubble that sees all CPL clubs play their first eight matches at IG Field before returning to their home markets — has been good to Valour thus far, but Ohin said no one is patting themselves on the back just yet.
"After every game, we celebrate for 15-20 minutes, but right after dinner, it's done. It's kind of weird. Like after dinner, both captains (Daryl Fordyce and Andrew Jean-Baptiste) will stand up and talk about it saying 'Hey guys, it feels good to win. We've done our job, but as soon as you walk out of here and go to your room, it's done. Onto the next one.'"
The next one comes Wednesday at 9 p.m. against York United (0-2-1). If Ohin scores again, this time he'll hear the roar of the crowd as 2,000 fans are now permitted inside IG Field as long as they're fully-vaccinated. Tickets went on sale Monday.
"Honestly, I'm really excited," said Ohin.
"Without the fans, it's not the same. On Wednesday, to finally play in front of the fans, I can't wait. I'm excited to see The Trench again."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.