Stuart Heath limped off just before extra-time in last year’s national final. Cape Breton haven’t been the same team since.
Their opponents that day, the Université de Montreal Carabins, have also lost a key striker and last year’s tournament MVP, Frédéric Lajoie-Gravelle, who scored the eventual gold medal winner.
Both teams have now reinvented themselves. Both could easily meet again (though it’ll be in a semi-final on Friday, not the final).
Otherwise, the USPORTs championship looks remarkably similar. Carleton are back, albeit as OUA champions this time after beating York, who haven’t been quite right since some time last year.
UBC won Canada West again, because they always do, but Trinity Western fell to the Calgary Dinos, giving us one of three new teams this year along with Université du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres and St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish.
It’s the X-Men’s first national championship this decade, and gives Calgary Foothills’ Dan Hayfield a chance to showcase himself for Canadian Premier League coaches on a national stage.
A change to the draft rules means graduating players like Hayfield–and a large number of other key USPORTs players–aren’t eligible, but make no mistake, this is an opportunity for both seniors and underclassmen to earn a camp invite ahead of the 2020 CanPL season. With players like Joel Waterman, Peter Schaale, and Joel Waterman excelling–all were stand-outs at last year’s USPORTs nationals–CanPL managers will have an eye on this tournament to help fill in gaps in a new league’s scouting depth.
I’ll have more on the draft closer to November 11th1Expect something Saturday, give or take. I hope. Fingers crossed.
Format and such
If you’re new in these parts, I did a run-down on how this all works last year and since most of the teams are the same, I’m tempted to just re-use it. You can substitute everything I wrote about UQAM for UQTR directly–they’re part of the same overall school, after all.
The main thing to look out for is that once a team loses a quarter-final, it’s into the consolation round. Every year, there’s at least one big team drawn against another big team and one has to go out early.
This year, it’s probably York – Montreal–always seems to be the final game of Thursday. Montreal should really win that, but so UBC should have last year.
University of Calgary
The Dinos are Cape Breton’s opponent in the quarters. They’re not favourites, but it would be a mistake to sleep on this workmanlike team.
It’s not quite as full of Foothills guys as the program used to be, but there is a local flavour to the Dinos and a lot of the talent came up through the Foothills’ well-regarded system. They’ll be skilled, organized, and well-coached.
They actually finished second in the Prairie Division, behind Mount Royal, which is not usually the sort of thing one writes about a team at nationals. Then they went on one of those playoff runs everyone loves.
This is a classic underdog story, usually the purview of AUS second seeds. Such stories do not tend to have happy endings at nationals. Calgary don’t score much and are the only team coming in with a negative goal differential. They will bunker and hope for another blinding performance from Jake Ruschkowski.
There’s a playbook emerging on Cape Breton: bunker them and wait.
The Capers are undefeated in AUS play–and have been for four years. AUS is the weakest conference, nationally, and such records do not always translate against the other top sides.
When Cape Breton won gold in 2017, they did it largely by frustrating teams, then looking for Charlie Waters to use the space off Stuart Heath’s shoulder.
They drew two games this year: one against Moncton that came late and probably doesn’t mean much and one against Dalhousie. The Tigers sat deep, put a defensive forward right on Peter Schaale, and it ended 0 – 0.
St. FX tried the same thing in the AUS final and held the Capers for 98 minutes before Schaale finally scored–he’d been playing striker for about twenty minutes by that point.
This does not bode well. Deano Morley’s tried to cover for the loss of Heath by deploying a very fluid 4-2-2-2 that often sees both Cory Bent and Charlie Waters line up out wide before cutting in. A lot of the hold-up play falls on Caelann Budhoo, who had a great nationals last year, has had a solid year, and should end up in CanPL.
When teams have to open up, the Capers will make short work of them: Bent and Waters move exceptionally well up front and Schaale can hit them over distance. They’re solid at the back, too.
When they have to break down a low block, all bets are off. Guess how Calgary will play?
While Lajoie-Gravelle deservedly won all the plaudits last year, he actually had a bit of an off-night in the final, too, only scoring the winner on a deflection.
Omar Kreim was my player of the tournament, and most of the rest of the team is back behind him. Aboubacar Sissoko might be the best d-mid in USPORTs. The Sow brothers are back, along with the piece of Stuart Heath’s ankle they made off with last year. They have some of the best hair in all of USPORTs.
Plus, while I don’t usually give the hosts much of a home-field edge (and Les Carabins were particularly poor this year at the wonderfully-named CEPSUM), the home fans might make Montreal an exception on sheer annoyance alone. Get ready to hear “Allez Les Bleus!” a lot.
Giving the fans much to cheer has been a bit of a problem. Les Carabins are still better than most of RSEQ, but not by as much as you’d think. Nobody topped ten goals. Guy-Frank Essomé Penda, the very definition of an enigmatic winger, led the team with seven in 11 starts. Which ain’t bad, but it ain’t Lajoie-Gravelle.
Much as with the Capers, there’s some scoring by committee. Sophomores Hugh Chambon and Pierre Lamothe are more workmanlike than truly dangerous, but they’ll have service. Basil More-Chevalier, a transfer in from Laval, might also pose a threat, as could Parisian Julien Bruce off the bench.
They’re stingy at the back, but Félix Goulet is not the most confidence inspiring goalkeeper at the tournament. If York want to advance, they might try passing less and shooting more.
UQ @ Trois-Rivieres
RSEQ is such a mystery that USPORTs’ own preview just left Les Patriotes’ section blank rather than wade in to try and find anything on them.2Okay, fair play, they’ve added one now.
Fortunately, I braved the wilds of Quebecois sports websites so you don’t have to.
Interestingly, UQTR actually finished above Montreal this year, by a point, with almost identical goals scored/conceded but an extra draw.
They also lost twice at home to Les Carabins, but that’s okay because the tournament’s being played in Montreal, where Les Patriotes managed to win, confirming my long-held hypothesis that nothing good can happen in Trois-Rivieres3Yes, I’ve been.
Maxime Boucher, who sounds like he should be a hockey goalie, leads the team in scoring from midfield. Félix Bouchard, who at least sounds like a left-winger, is one of those fifth-years who suddenly breaks out, scoring eight after four years of dismal production.
UQTR are a team that want more of the ball than Montreal–more of a traditional 4-3-3, but they’re quite happy to muck it up with you in the middle of the park, hack the ankles, and win the majority of 50/50s, which is a pretty good way to win a soccer game.
Get in behind them, and they’re cooked. None of the centre-backs defends space all that well. So this is another team you can expect to bunker a bit against UBC.
This is also a team that lost to McGill, so yeah. Assume nothing with RSEQ second seeds.
I’d expect to see a lot of this team in CanPL next year, and not just with York. There is a lot of talent in this team, much of it with Canadian youth experience.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the group are seniors–this is really the last hurrah for the team that won back-to-back national gold medals. Players like Eddie Lay, Jorge Nika, and Christian Cavallini will play their final USPORTs games in Montreal, but it won’t likely be the end of their careers.
Now, something’s been off with this York side for a while, and it seems to show up in big games. They can beat the lower tier of OUA West–as they well should. They’ve now gone out in two straight national quarter-finals, and they followed that up by losing the OUA final to Carleton.
Sometimes you have to measure the best university teams’ conference and national form separately–some teams just do better in one or the other. This is not a York team coming in with good national form, and for losing the OUA final they lose seeding and end up against the defending champions.
Never sleep on a Carmine Isacco team, though. There’s too much talent on this roster, one through about fifteen, to leave them without a chance.
The X-Men should be happy to be here. While they didn’t win the banner, they gave Cape Breton as good a run as anyone and this is their first nationals in forever–seriously, I can’t find stats to confirm when they were last here.
The other nice part of this story is that Dan Hayfield gets a chance to go out on a high. He gives them a threat in every game because he really can score from anywhere, and he should get a CanPL camp invite somewhere, though he’s not Canadian, which shouldn’t complicate things, but unfortunately does. Anyone who voluntarily lives in Antigonish should be an honourary Canadian.
Beyond Hayfield, X are a typical AUS side: big, physical, and lacking in technical quality. They’re missing William Warren, a tricky winger who’s always fun to watch. Blake Fenton, of Foothills, can be a threat with direct running, and Tane Caubo can finish if you give him a chance or three, but otherwise it’s Hayfield or bust.
Tactically, they’re a weird hybrid–good enough to hold the ball and use it against the weaker AUS sides but likely to need to bunker pretty deep in Montreal. Josh Read can clear out high balls, so teams do need to pull them apart, but beyond him it’s a young back-line that’s prone to ball-watching and blown coverage.
Realistically, they’re going to get thrashed by Carleton. However, the consolation round starts to open up a bit for them, as they’d likely face UQTR for a shot at the 5th-place game. For an AUS second seed and a team that hasn’t been to nationals in decades, that would be a big accomplishment.
Maybe more importantly, it would be better than UNB did last year.
The Ravens were darkhorses last year, and won third place on the back of some very, very solid football. Fatigue did them, in the end, after they had to go to extra-time on the Thursday.
This is part of the strategy at USPORTs nationals. The change to go Thursday-Friday-Sunday means the semi-finals can get leggy. And because of the way the quarter-finals frequently match good teams against each other, it means extra-time on Day One is very likely.
Paramount for Carleton is avoiding that. The OUA champions shouldn’t have any problem with St. FX, but they will likely have to pull apart a packed defense. Dario Conte will help there: the ex-CanU20 and Ottawa Fury man is a crafty playmaker in his first year with Carleton (but third year of eligibility, thanks to having played pro) who should attract CanPL attention.
The attack can be a bit lacking in size–Gabriel Bitar looked lost against professional defenders this year–but that’s where Stefan Karajovanovic comes in. He was quietly very good last year and is now getting CanPL attention. He’s not huge, but he’s very good at dropping off the line or picking up a tiny bit of space in the box and poaching a goal.
A tasty semi-final rematch awaits if both Carleton and UBC go through–that one could have extra-time. Once past St. FX, Carleton’s defense will have to be big–and a tad better than last year. They’ve been very good in OUA all year, but for one 3 – 1 loss to Ryerson.
If it’s a good weekend, they could go all the way.
How to watch
USPORTs.ca will have a webcast, though last year it cost a pretty penny for only moderately decent production value. I’m generally in favour of supporting local soccer and webcasting costs money, so do head over there if you’re in the mood and can afford to look the other way on your bank statement.
Otherwise, you’re stuck with me. I’ll be live-blogging the quarter-finals and the championship rounds, and I always appreciate the company.
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