Usually I write obituaries for the teams that are out, but the playoff race this year was a non-event so let’s not bother rehashing all of that and cut straight to the games that matter.
Starting Thursday in what might be Sydney if we can tell through the rain, are the AUS playoffs, the annual event to determine the eighth place finisher at nationals.
I’m being facetious. AUS is not (quite) the pushover conference it once was. Three AUS teams are ranked in the national top ten, and while that measure is flawed1Not quite as flawed as it used to be when it was a coach’s vote. It uses ELO now, but since teams rarely if ever play outside of conference, it skews the ranking., there is growth of the game here.
It’s not just Wanderers, and Peter Schaale. There are players and teams playing good, local soccer in your backyard. This weekend, if your backyard is Sydney, go see it the last hurrah in university soccer for local talent[Or at least, guys from elsewhere who have become Martimers, in that way we do around here.[/mfn] like Dan Hayfield, Ben Gorringe, and Sam Smiley.
It’s not just the Capers. There are a handful of teams this year who could challenge the Capers. Let’s take a look at how they’re coming into the playoffs.
UNB (L 3 – 4 v. CBU)
At the beginning of the year, I thought UNB could rise to challenge Cape Breton. I’m glad they did at least once–this was a great game–but I have my doubts about the Reds heading into the playoffs.
What should have been an offensive juggernaut has sputtered. Tristan Nkoghe is having a brutal second season. Dan Walker hasn’t been able to build on a solid 2017. Next year, many of these players will be gone, so it’s now or nothing for UNB. I’d quite like to see this team at nationals again, just to see if they can manage the upset they’ve come so close to, but ehhhh, this weekend could be tough.
They’ve actually been better defensively, but they shipped a goal four and a half minutes in against the Capers, then did the same to open the second half.
It’s tough to tell sometimes if UNB are just beating themselves or if the mistakes are caused by a problem with their overall level. On Friday, they went down 2 – 0 on an absolutely inexplicable mistake by Dan Walker, who was inexplicably playing at centre-back. They battled back on a couple gifts from the Capers, but couldn’t hold a late lead to see out for points, giving away a dreadfully sloppy penalty in stoppage time.
Sound like last year’s playoffs? Sounds like last year’s playoffs.
They’ll happily run-and-gun with teams, but that was true last year and it’s much, much harder to do on the road, against the best teams in the league.
Cape Breton (W 4 – 3 @ UNB; D 2 – 2 @ Moncton)
Not that the best team in the league has looked it lately.
Up 2 – 0, even on the road, Cape Breton should be cruising. Instead, on Friday, they immediately coughed up a goal and needed some brilliance from Cory Bent and a stoppage time winner.
Then they dropped points in Moncton, which would be funny if Cape Breton hadn’t looked so tired.
Lest you think this was a rotated Capers line-up, it mostly wasn’t. Victor Lyscewek started in goal in Moncton, which he will have to do soon enough anyway. Daniel Williams got a start instead of coming off the bench.
Peter Schaale was sleepy. Marcus Campanile looked like he’d missed the bus. Les Aigles-Bleus woke up for the first time this year, led the game twice, and should have won it but for some massive misses and two of the kind of goalkeeping mistakes that are becoming too much the norm for Christian Masimengo.
What is supposed to be the best back-line in the league–maybe in the country–gave up six goals this weekend. With Schaale in particular, one wonders how much the long, grueling Canadian Premier League season is taking its toll compared to the short PDL season he’s used to.
Next year, Schaale’s gone and Marko Djukic has to lead that line. Gulp.
Never mind the playoffs, which Cape Breton should win on pure skill and home field advantage. I’m less sure they’ll be okay at nationals when teams can hang with them in possession and Cape Breton don’t have a target outlet up top.
I bet teams like Dalhousie and St. FX saw this weekend’s result in Moncton and took some heart.
Speaking of which….
St. FX (W 1 – 0 @ Acadia)
The X-Men closed out the season–and Day Hayfield’s AUS career–doing something they haven’t done enough during Hayfield’s run: beating Acadia.
There will no doubt be some relief in Antigonish that they can’t go out to them in the playoffs this year. This weekend’s result was far from a sure thing, but Hayfield set up Nick Aquino for his second in the past three games and that was that.
Graham Kennedy was able to rest a couple guys and get the injured Liam Harrigan some minutes before a big match, and the win saw off any threat of UNB pipping them to the second-place bye (which they almost did against Cape Breton).
The playoffs have been so unkind to X in recent years that I wonder if Kennedy might switch things up from the usual possession 4-2-3-1.
There’s a very good chance they get the Reds in the semi-final, which is a bit of a double-edged sword: on the one, St. FX have played UNB as well as anyone this year, plus they’re not Acadia. On the other, the Reds handed the X-Men their biggest loss.
If teams key on Hayfield and avoid giving away needless set pieces, the secondary scoring is only ever by committee. Tane Caubo is the main threat. Blake Fenton can be, but hasn’t been lately. William Warren is out for the year. Nick Aquino is intermittent.
Defensively, things are a lot better than they had been even early in the year. It took a bit of time to adjust to losing Liam Elbourne, but Harrigan’s been good. Him being healthy is key, as is Josh Read’s continued good form. It might mean St. FX can sit deep and defend–it didn’t work when they tried it against Cape Breton, but it might work against a team like UNB that will give them opportunities to attack space in behind.
Dalhousie (W 3 – 0 @ MUN; D 1 – 1 @ MUN)
That sound you hear, bit like your washing machine finally cutting out? That was Dal’s season.
The 3 – 0 on Friday eliminated Moncton and put some pressure on UNB. The Saturday result undid, in typical Tigers fashion, all of the good work they had done. With UNB’s loss, third place was available. Instead, the Tigers got suckered into a bunch of silliness by a team that had nothing to lose and now their best centre-back is suspended2It was not, I think I can safely say, a sterling moment for anyone involved. I have some sympathy with Arkin, but I think he’d probably acknowledge he let frustration get the better of him. A veteran player can’t be lashing out no matter what else is going on..
The game was wild. Multiple goalposts. The two goals came within thirty seconds of each other. And for five minutes at the beginning of the second half, it wasn’t clear what was going through anybody’s head.
The good(?) news is that Alex Knesaurek is finally, finally back from an injury that was being called “day-to-day” in September, and Dalhousie have had good efforts from Callum Legge and Adam Murphy. They’re also may well be in the heads of their opponent, Saint Mary’s.
It’s all so unnecessary, though. If there was one objective, after last year’s collapse from second to third cost Dal a semi-final against UNB, and after ill discipline cost them the year before that, it had to be “go to Newfoundland and don’t get in trouble”. Now, St. John’s is a hopping town, but surely you could wrap Jeff Arkin in bubble-wrap, start the little-seen Abdelrahman Abu Osba, and make sure everyone chills? Even if they’d lost, it wouldn’t have changed the calculus–you’d just have more people available.
Oh yeah, and Obaid Hedayat didn’t make the trip. Neither did Enrico Rodriguez, who got hurt against Mount Allison. Dal are markedly better when those two play and link up, and both have particularly eviscerated SMU this year.
Gracious Kasheke and Freddy Bekkers can both do good work out of midfield and might well have enough to see off the Huskies, who are in wonky form and without their best centre-back, too. If Dal are to have any chance in a semi-final against Cape Breton, though, they need their two top strikers.
Saint Mary’s (W 1 – 0 v. Moncton)
Every time I watch Saint Mary’s–which I haven’t since the derby at Wanderers’ Grounds–they have me on the edge of my seat with near-misses and almost-theres.
They’re never outright bad, this team, but since the early part of the season they’ve not been able to quite manage “good” either.
I don’t know what it is about playing Moncton on the final weekend, but Saint Mary’s yet again couldn’t finish, and only won on a penalty from Cian Tousignant-Osaidhall.
The midfielder’s been about the only player in form for SMU in October, which is good because he might be the best pure picker of a pass in AUS. He makes Alex Black and Tyler Dorey far, far more dangerous, and with Nana Korankye and Neil Spires providing some mettle behind him, gives SMU an identity.
Now, Black hasn’t scored since September. Dorey’s got one since Sept. 20th. Adam Dunsworth doesn’t have any all year. James Spence has been better, but didn’t start last weekend. They’re kind of scoring by committee right now, but they’re kind of not scoring enough by committee to offset their conceding by committee, too. No playoff team has shipped as many as Saint Mary’s 23 goals–the better defensive teams are at about half that.
On top on which, they lost Cameron Zinn for the quarter-final to a red card that sums up his entire season: late, on a yellow, he gets chirped by a rookie going out of the playoffs, scissors him down in retaliation, and sits out the biggest game of the year.
Zinn’s had a massive sophomore slump, and the rest of the back-line is young. Beyond fourth-year Jonathan Wentzell, it’s a bunch of rookies. SMU will likely start a sixteen-year-old at CB on Thursday.
The Huskies have now played Dalhousie in preseason, losing on penalties, and to a tight 2 – 1 at Wanderers’ Grounds. I think it’s safe to say it’ll be close.
But against playoff teams, Saint Mary’s have conceded two or more goals in every game. If they fall behind by two in Sydney on Thursday, it’s probably over.
Either way there’s a lot to build on going forward–this has been a much better yer from the Huskies–but it feels like a semi-final berth might be a step too far, too soon.
UPEI (W 5 – 1 v. MTA)
Does anyone remember that UPEI are in the playoffs?
They should. This team has always had a history of upsets. UNB can’t exactly rest easy against them. They needed one thing from this weekend–one thing from this season, really–and they went out and did it mostly comfortably, exploding in the second half to put the only real deciding game this weekend to bed.
It’s Mount Allison, so they don’t get any extra cred, and they still give up more goals than you’d expect for a Lewis Page team, but they have always got the job done.
They’re healthy, too. Sam Smiley and Mo Jaber aren’t limping; Nacho Sanchez is fit and linking play in midfield better. There are still all kinds of worries out wide, but on their day, they can hide that well enough.
Everything will be focused on Thursday–there is probably no team better at taking one game at a time. If they upset UNB, it’s on to the Capers. The in Panthers will in no game be a favourite, or even likely.
I wouldn’t want to face them, though.
Playlist of the Week
I’m tempted to give the weekly mention to Ben Gorringe for daring to pull off a backheel against Cape Breton in his final home game. Not sure how I feel about that, though. Not sure at all.
So instead, credit to Université de Moncton and their in-stadium playlist featuring an eclectic mix of arena rock, Acadian fiddle music, and piped in crowd noise in an empty stadium.
It’s very Moncton.
What I’ll be watching
The schedule lines up perfectly for four days straight: liveblogs, starting bright and early Thursday afternoon, heading through the CanPL final on Saturday and into the big game on Sunday.
Make sure you’re there. Or, not there, but here, if you can’t be in Sydney in November. (And I love Cape Breton, but not Sydney in November.)
Bring you own centre-back.