About that playoff race…. AUS week 5 summary

With only a couple weeks remaining, the AUS playoff race is basically set. So much for the thrill of any race.

It looks like Saint Mary’s will nab the sixth and final spot (more below)–the rest is largely about jockeying for seeding and quarterfinal byes.

Back at the beginning of the season, it looked more like the league would break down into two broad groups: sure-things and bubble teams. Instead, Dal have been better than expected, Acadia and St. FX maybe a little worse, and a bunch of teams got found out.

UPEI: L 0 – 3 v. St. FX

Found out is what happened to UPEI, who never quite rose to the level required. In truth, their season was over before Thanksgiving–possibly well before it, depending on how you read the tea leaves.

They’re not Mount Allison, but they do have some of the same problems, particularly at the back. Like the Mounties, they have a strong coach (though Lewis Page has been around forever) who’s capable of setting up a defensive shape, but like the Mounties, the Panthers have a smaller talent pool and haven’t actually been able to execute defensively. Teams figured out that they couldn’t defend high balls into the box and that they give up too many 1v1s out wide. Bad combination, that.

It’s a bit of a harsh reading, but UPEI don’t score enough goals to overcome it. For a school that’s sports-mad, the men’s soccer program has too long been a bit boring. Their Sunday match against St. FX had few real highlights. The first half penalty was probably a tad unfortunate (Warren was already going down), but a goal had been coming and the X-Men never really looked back. (We’ll get to them in a minute, though.)

This is not a wildly young team. I can’t see them getting results away to Acadia or Dal. Hopefully they can give the fans a decent send-off at home against Saint Mary’s. The Huskies were a model of what UPEI could have been this year, but too many times they couldn’t eke out the result and now there’s not much to say.

Saint Mary’s: L 0 – 6 @ CBU; D 0 – 0 v. UNB

UPEI’s loss was a gift to SMU, whose paltry single point from their last three games–while being outscored 12 – 0–was enough to all but secure the final playoff spot. A single win from Moncton, Mount Allison, and UPEI will seal it.

It’s good the Huskies have such an easy schedule left, because they’ve yet to show any sign of fight back after getting obliterated in back-to-back games. Losing to CBU is OK–losing 6 – 0 is not. The bad news gets worse, too, because Christian Oxner separated his shoulder at club nationals and is likely done for the year.

Where does this leave the Huskies? Back-up Jensen Brown played about as well as he could this weekend, holding the Capers for 45 minutes before the onslaught, and he’s got a nice provincial team résumé with Nova Scotia. SMU will most miss Oxner’s leadership from the back.

Unfortunately, this increasingly looks like a team that’s going to need a couple great saves lest they be an easy out for a team like UNB or St. FX in the playoffs. There are real issues linking midfield to attack–Alex Black and Tyler Dorey are terrific on the break, and Cian Tousiganant-Osaidhail can spray passes around, but the timing is always a bit off, the positioning is always a bit wonky. When they score, it’s usually a brilliant, direct running move, but it doesn’t come often enough that this team can outscore some pretty glaring defensive issues.

Cameron Zinn is a great prospect and he can anchor that backline for years to come, but he needs a CB partner who can better cover for his adventurous pressing. He’s also not especially great in the air, and the Huskies may miss Oxner there, too–he’s not huge but his footwork is so, so good and he gets to balls other goalkeepers his height wouldn’t.

St. FX: L 0 – 4 v. Dal; W 3 – 0 @ UPEI

Nobody at X will want to talk about goalkeeping, either.

It’s quickly becoming apparent that this team has one horrible Achilles heel, and it’s between the uprights. Will Veniot started the season, then got yanked after a couple bad goals against Cape Breton and Saint Mary’s. In came Seamus MacDonald, who gave up two horrible goals against Acadia that are easy to forget in X’s big comeback. MacDonald started against Dal, only to give up two howlers in ten minutes. He was out at half-time, before Will Veniot let a trickler between his legs for Dal’s fourth.

At this point, opposing teams can pretty well spot themselves two goals. Throw-ins and aimless crosses seem to be particularly dangerous.

Somewhat lost in all the mistakes is that Lewis Dye didn’t start. I can’t think that’s performance related after his heroics against Acadia, but surely two weeks off was enough to rest what the X-Men better hope is a minor knock?

Joe Edgerton and Josh Read are both giants, but neither seems to lock down the area on crosses. Where they really miss Dye is playing out of the back, maintaining possession and opening teams up when a centre half jumps into the attack. It’s a terrific weapon, and X need it.

St. FX now sit third, but they have to travel to Cape Breton (they’re not winning that one) and to St. John’s, where the Seahawks could easily cost X critical points. They’ll make the playoffs, but who they face is now wide open, with only two points separating second-place Dal from fifth-place UNB.

None of those teams in Cape Breton are going to miss an opportunity to test whichever of Veniot or MacDonald Graham Kennedy chooses to trust.

UNB: W 2 – 0 @ Acadia; D 0 – 0 @ SMU

The standings are a bit odd right now, but on points-per-game, this was a great weekend for the Reds. Four of six points from by far their most difficult games remaining. They came into the weekend third and somehow finish it fifth because AUS is weird, but they’re beating teams they’ll play int he quarterfinals.

Neither are they out of reach of a bye, with Dal’s loss to Cape Breton. In case it’s not already clear, I really liked what I saw from UNB this weekend.

Earlier in the season, their inability to finish held them back. If this team could hit a barn, they’d be in that top tier along with Dalhousie and Cape Breton. Their movement, chance creation, athleticism (not the same thing as size!), and defensive shape are that good.

Unfortunately, wayward shooting reared up again on Sunday in a game they probably should have won. Dan Walker hit the crossbar twice. Joe Hamilton missed a sitter. Alex O’Brien missed a wide open net. You could cook up a good Twitter bot pairing UNB’s roster with different ways to describe missed chances and let it liveblog games for you.

UNB and Saint Mary’s play so similarly that they almost cancelled each other out. Sunday’s game was not exactly a thriller, though both teams sprung some incredible counter-attacks. There’s a real path that would see these teams meet in the playoffs, too, which could be a track meet.

What’s so positive is that, for 45 minutes against Acadia in Wolfville on Saturday, the Reds could finish! Joe Hamilton had a brace and looked like the clinical striker UNB have needed all year. It’s been a bit of a committee up there with Quigley, N’koghe, and Hamilton. As long as one or two of them gets the job done in the playoffs, this team could repeat last year’s final appearance.

Acadia: L 0 – 2 v. UNB; W 2 – 1 @ Moncton

That loss on Saturday to UNB is everything that’s been wrong with Acadia the past month or so. It’s rare for fortunes to change so much in AUS (though I’ve got last year’s Dal Tigers on the phone), but Acadia have utterly fallen apart after a strong start.

It’s not even injuries. The personnel are fine. It’s just not working. There have been a couple of what I’d call tactical missteps but Findlay MacRae, and Saturday was one of them. I’m a big fan of the 3-5-2 that’s become so popular, and Acadia generally use it well, but it lines up very badly against a 4-3-3 built around direct counter-attacking, and that’s exactly what the UNB Reds are.

The first half was pretty cagey, but UNB controlled way more of the tempo than you’d expect. It started in central midfield, where UNB’s three were a lot tighter than Acadia’s 2.5–Ryan Parris has to sit a bit deeper in a 3-5-2 and the “two” have to drift into attacking positions, too. UNB stayed rigid, and that opened up the counter lanes.

And this is the problem: a 3-5-2 needs those wingbacks to be true two-way players. If Acadia have a weakness, it’s out wide. UNB got N’koghe and Alex O’Brien free out wide time and again. It took a while, but eventually Hamilton got away from his mark and had a tap-in.

But to be clear–the problems aren’t all tactical. The Axemen gave away the first goal off a corner. That just can’t happen for a team with Acadia’s height and strength advantages. While it’s not quite as bad as what’s happening in Antigonish, neither goalkeeper has been especially good for Acadia this year, and Nic Jeffries seems to have won the starting job back from Pietro Nottinger. Read into that what you will.

Université de Moncton: W 3 – 0 v. Mt. A; L 1 – 2 v. Acadia

In theory, Moncton could still make the playoffs. In practice, it’s over, and has been for a while.

Part of it is that they can’t get a save, either. Some of it is what I’ve written about nearly every week, that they never look quite like a unit.

They blew a lead on Sunday against Acadia–that should add a little context to Acadia’s weekend above. Felly Elonda scored–something that hasn’t happened enough for Les Aigles-Bleus. But yet again they couldn’t put 90 minutes together and shipped a brace to Gordon MacLaughlin. Once again they took almost as many cards as they had shots.

There’s not much more to say. I didn’t watch a lot of Moncton this weekend because of their schedule, but also because this team has settled into that bottom tier of non-playoff teams and they’ve made me feel a bit silly for thinking they were more than that early in the season.

At this point, I’ve said enough. Results speak for themselves.

Memorial: Bye Week

Main plus for the MUN? Saint Mary’s only got a point, so their very slim playoff hopes survive another week. It likely won’t be enough–this is another team where that’s been obvious for a while–but the bizarre schedule means they have four games remaining, enough to make up ground should SMU stumble.

They’ll need a win over Moncton next week, and an unlikely combination of points from UNB and St. FX (twice). Draws and moral victories over Mt. A are no longer enough–this team needs to win something.

Cape Breton: W 6 – 0 v. SMU; W 2 – 0 v. Dal

Two strong wins for the Capers this week at home, which would usually leave at least a bit of an asterisk, but given they host AUS playoffs, these are big results.

Obviously a six goal thrashing is not much of a test, but they yet again avoided going behind. This isn’t a team that makes a lot of careless errors of the kind they did earlier in the season.

It also looks like Corey Bent is rounding into form. I really liked his performance against Dal. The Tigers bunkered and rather than run all over the park looking for the ball, Bent found a nice pocket of space off Danny Williams’ shoulder and took advantage of second balls and moving space, scoring the first goal against the Tigers all year in the 13th minute and helping set up the second.

With Charlie Watters out for the year, Bent needs to be the Capers’ man if they’re going to make a dent at nationals. Or even repeat. This is a very strong team, but they still bend a bit more than some when opposing sides go at them.

This weekend, they didn’t bend. Two clean sheets and two more wins mean Cape Breton will likely finish top.

Dalhousie: W 4 – 0 @ St. FX; L 0 – 2 @ CBU

The northern Nova Scotia road trip is more exhausting than it looks on a map. Dal’s big win in Antigonish was legitimately impressive. On Sunday afternoon in Sydney, they looked utterly out of gas.

I suspect some of that was strategic. Connor Mullaly didn’t start, in favour of Ahmed Abokar, who I really like but I don’t think Cape Breton’s first goal happens with Mullaly on the field.

Either way, the shutout streak is over for Ben Grondin, who had no chance on either goal. That puts a bit of a damper on the weekend.

The 4 – 0 win, though, was something else. The first 20 minutes were total domination of a sloppy, then dispirited X-Men side. Enrico Rodriguez and Kallen Heenan are probably the best strike partnership in AUS, and Dal get more from their wingbacks in the 3-5-2 than Acadia do, with Michael Trim and Quinn Park spreading play and making good late runs.

It does mean a lot of running, though, and it relies on smart pressure. Dal have, at times, sat back this year, waiting for good opportunities to hit on the counter. They’re quite good at it. On Sunday, there was zero pressure. Often nobody within twenty yards of a Capers midfielder. Cape Breton took their time, made some nice in and out passes, and pulled Dal’s back-line apart.

It’s a tougher road trip than it looks. The Tigers have to make it again, up to Sydney for the playoffs. Getting that quarterfinal bye should be priority #1 because it avoids an extra game. When they’re at their energetic, relentless best, I think Dal might actually be the best team in AUS. They were on Saturday.

Mount Allison: L 0 – 3 @ Moncton

I already talked about improvement last week, so there’s not much more to put here. I think this was improvement. Only three goals. Only 14 shots against. They will get better. They are already getting better.

Could there be a win this year? Another goal, at least? Things will be bad against Cape Breton, and probably hosting UNB. I’d look at the away game against Saint Mary’s next week. SMU don’t look at all convincing right now. Go for it all there. Nothing to lose.

And hey, it’s easy to forget, because I sit here each week and write about how many goals they lost by: this is a sport played all around the world, by good teams and bad. There are blowouts every day around the world. But it still matters. The games still matter.

I love love loved this tweet from Duane Rollins about Gibraltar’s first-ever competitive win on Friday night. These new Nations League games have had some lopsided results–we’re going to see another one on Tuesday when Canada hosts Dominica. To put it into context: Dominica’s star striker was at the open trials for the CanPL.

None of the Mount Allison players are going to be playing in CanPL next year or any time after that. But the games still matter. Gibraltar were 3 – 3 – 27, including friendlies. They beat Armenia, and here’s what it meant.

The Mounties are improving, and it matters.

Tackle of the week:

Second half of Sunday’s snorefest between UNB and Saint Mary’s. Tristan Nkoghe and Dan Walker counterattack so fast they collide in midfield. Both come off. Walker stayed off, though only because he had a bloody nose.

Kinda sums up UNB’s game, and season. (Parts of it, anyway.) There are times this team cannot get out of its own way.

(Yes, material was bad this week.)

What I’m watching next weekend:

No more playoff races means I’m watching for trends heading into the post-season. Form is everything there.

I want to see how St. FX handle CBU after a feisty and close-fought encounter last time these teams met. That could well get the Most Difficult Match of the Weekend to Ref award, which I don’t do but should.

Most of the best games are Friday night, by the way. Prime-time. Saint Mary’s need a win against Moncton to seal up any flickers of playoff doubt, but Moncton were smarting after losing at home last time. Dal and Acadia meet for the last match at Wickwire Field, and I may even talk myself into going for old time’s sake, not least because it’s two teams that need more consistency heading into the home stretch.

Memorial’s visit to UNB is also a biggie, not just for Memorial’s slim playoff hopes but also for UNB’s chances of grabbing a bye or at least third place and a likely quarterfinal against Saint Mary’s. Third spot is going to be much preferable to what will almost certainly be a blood-bath between fourth and fifth.

About Dylan Matthias 28 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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