By this point in the short AUS season, teams need to know what they are. What do they do well? What’s their level? A smart coach develops a plan around that and starts tinkering with a couple other approaches to change the game state.
Nobody won the war this weekend, but a couple battles tilted the balance slightly around the top of the table. None of those teams had easy wins, even if each might have been slight favourites. Winning the tough ones is what makes favourites in the post-season.
St. FX: L 1 – 2 v. CBU; D 2 – 2 @ SMU
That’s why I had my eye on St. FX’s weekend, and I didn’t like what I saw. The X-Men had arguably the best opening weekend, with a pair of competent wins.
Friday night in Antigonish was by far the weekend’s marquee match-up, and it lived up to the hype not so much because either team looked particularly good–there were flashes of great play throughout–but because they kicked the life out of each other and then kept doing it.
The problem for X was their approach. Cape Breton are a team that, obviously, require a delicate balance of attack and defense. Too often, though, the X-Men couldn’t get support around Tane Caubo. Dan Hayfield spent a lot of time isolated out wide, and it was scoreless for more than an hour as both teams got half-chances and not much more.
Then St. FX conceded off a long throw. It was the sort of thing St. FX were obviously waiting for themselves–a mistake, a bounce, and a precious lead. But CBU are the better team, and the better team usually gets the bounces. Also, no team should concede off a long throw.
There was controversy, both before and after Josh Read got a red card for handling on the goalline, giving the Capers a penalty and a 2 – 0 lead. Dan Hayfield scored by far the goal of the week to give X a chance, but the hosts spent 70 minutes hoping for a bounce and never had enough time to get back into things.
It’s a tough loss for St. FX, but tough losses are still losses. I could have looked past it if they’d looked better on Saturday in Halifax. It’s a tough turnaround–Friday night in Antigonish, then a 2+ hour drive for a stiflingly hot game at SMU.
It was the kind of game where everything was going to go wrong, and more or less it did for X. They lost rookie Lewis Dye–who’d been a bright spot on Friday night–to a non-contact injury early on. With Read suspended, that meant they were down two centre-backs, and it showed.
Despite a wonderful goal from William Warren, St. FX gave up two bad goals before half-time. Will Venoit did not do particularly well on either of them, first coming for a header he had no hope of getting to and then getting chipped from the edge of the area. He didn’t play the second half, and X rallied but could only nab a headed goal of their own.
A draw’s better than nothing for St. FX, and this weekend won’t hurt their table position too much. They’re the sort of results you look at in the playoffs, though, and think “hey, we can get these guys.” Which is, incidentally, exactly what happened last year.
UNB: D 0 – 0 v. Dal; L 0 – 1 v. Dal
Not that UNB, the team that upset St. FX last year, have much to brag about this weekend, either.
Dalhousie were there to be had, missing two key players to suspension on Saturday [and one on Sunday]. UNB had chances, to be fair, but couldn’t finish. (To be fair, Ben Grondin had another all-star weekend.)
Still, you gotta win the home games. Dal had three outfield substitutes available on a hot day. UNB did a lot of running but had very little end product and often looked like they badly needed a focal point up front–the kind of player they lost in the departed Padilla.
In truth, Dal could have won it late on Saturday. On Sunday, they did, as UNB conceded in the 77th minute. It was a scraggly 360 minutes of soccer from both teams, but good teams find ways to win in tight games.
It’s tough to figure this UNB team, who had two difficult road games in week 1 and looked respectable in both of them. Respectable doesn’t win you many points, though.
Université de Moncton: L 1 – 2 @ Acadia; L 0 – 1 v. SMU
Moncton were another team I thought could build on a respectable opening weekend, but no. They’ve had a punishingly difficult schedule so far, with CBU, St. FX, Acadia away and then travelling four hours back to Moncton to face SMU–and don’t forget these are student-athletes, many of them managing their first week or so of school socially and academically.
They’re still in a hole, though I think they’ll be a bubble team and with only four teams missing the playoffs, there’s room to sneak in as long as they beat the other bubble teams.
I liked their second half against Saint Mary’s, when they finally started throwing numbers forward out of what can sometimes be a too-rigid 4-2-3-1 and into a three-man system that allowed them a little more support from the fullbacks out wide. SMU sometimes struggle to deal with high balls into the box, and Moncton created a few chances that way, including winning a free kick late where they thought they’d scored only to be denied by an offside flag.
I can understand being a bit conservative on the road to probably the best three teams in the conference, and I can understand needing 45 minutes to open up after that. Next weekend, though, they need points. The travel won’t be easy, though: Saturday at Dalhousie and then back home to what could be a playoff-critical derby match against UNB.
Dalhousie: D 0 – 0 @ UNB; W 1 – 0 @ UNB
I was impressed by Dal this week, after what I thought was a slow and silly start last weekend that showed far too many of this team’s lingering issues.
None of those were on display against UNB. Dal were patient, disciplined, and might have taken six points home from Fredericton but for some poor finishing on Saturday (and that itself is beginning to become a bit of a problem).
They put out two first-year strikers on Saturday, and both Duncan Henry and Daniel Pacheco looked quite good–getting onto the end of build-up play and carving out some nice chances with agility and power. Henry in particular is strong in the air and will make an able deputy to Kallen Heenan.
On Sunday, they showed great patience in breaking down a stalwart UNB side. Both teams spent a lot of time looking for counter-attacks and both teams missed about five glorious chances, but I liked the way Pat Nearing shifted tactics in the second half, getting a little more support around the ball, which eventually paid off when Rodtirguez bundled in the bundliest of goals to win it.
They lost Freddy Bekkers to injury again, though, which has to be a bit of concern. On the other hand, Ben Grondin still hasn’t conceded a goal. He was lucky on occasion in Fredericton, but he’s looking like a shoo-in for a first-team all-star.
Cape Breton: W 2 – 1 @ St. FX; W 3 – 0 @ UPEI
There was nothing wrong with Cape Breton’s weekend–two road wins, fair bit of travel, two staunch opponents–but I’m retaining just a smidgeon of scepticism with this team this year.
They wore down St. FX, but it’s also possible to look at Friday night’s game and think they got a bit lucky. Marcus Campanile, who really makes the back half of their midfield work, was certainly lucky in that he could have been off about an hour in. They scored off a long throw and a penalty–make of that what you will.
Campanile was excellent against UPEI, linking play quickly to get Corey Bent and Stuart Heath into space, and heading in an early goal off a free kick. He scored again late, too, but it was his control of the game’s tempo and his defensive positioning that stood out.
The result Sunday was never really in doubt, and the Capers looked stronger defensively than they did on opening weekend, but they were still getting pulled into silly confrontations despite dominating and leading through the entire game. That’s the sort of thing a smart team will take advantage of–last year, that team was the Capers, keeping their cool as York fell apart in the national final.
That can’t be who they are this season, and they still don’t look like a team that’s especially confident in its own ability. Points are points, though.
Memorial: W 4 – 0 @ Mt. A; L 5 – 0 @ Acadia
Memorial’s weekend says more about Atlantic University Sport as a league right now than it does the Memorial Seahawks. I’ve wanted to write a bit more on this and may yet, but there’s a noticeable disparity this year that wasn’t quite so obvious when I last regularly covered this league five years ago.
Memorial are a good example of that, in that I always remembered them as a tough team to play against. MUN’s a great school, but it’s not a big athletics school. They used to be able to travel and steal a point, or even three.
There are increasingly two groups in AUS: a group of regular playoff teams and a group of smaller schools that increasingly struggle to compete. In an awkward way, that’s testament to the sport’s development as a whole on the east coast. The talent pool, particularly in Halifax, is deepening and you see that in rookies like Lewis Dye and Ayoub al-Arabi.
From what I’ve seen lately, the talent just isn’t there this year for MUN. In fairness, it’s a younger Seahawks group this year, and they could well be more of a threat in the next two to three years. This year, though, they look like they might be closer to Mt. Allison than the main pack, despite beating Mt. A 4 – 0 this weekend.
That’s not a result that looks good for the competitive balance in AUS but it does help MUN’s points tally. If they want to eke into the playoffs, they need every point they can get before massive home weekends against CBU and St. FX. (Those UPEI draws are really going to hurt, though.)
UPEI: W 4 – 0 @ Mt. A; L 0 – 3 v. CBU
UPEI are what they always have been: a good middle of the road team that very much will take a point or three if you go to Charlottetown and slip up.
Cape Breton didn’t. It was a credible performance from UPEI, really, who work extremely hard, but they couldn’t generate chances and couldn’t, in the end, contain Cape Breton’s forwards, eventually giving up two quick goals mid-way through the second half to put the game beyond them.
If you’re plan is to dig in and be tough to play against, you can’t give up goals on set pieces. The first Capers goal was a killer: three minutes in and three players were unmarked at the near post. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if you give up those kinds of goals.
There’s not much to say about a big win over Mt. Allison. As with MUN, it’s good points and I’m a bit more confident of UPEI picking up a few more off top-ish teams, but that wasn’t the case this weekend.
Acadia: W 2 – 1 v. UdeM; W 5 – 0 v. MUN
Boy, when Acadia get out in attack, they can rack up goals. Their size and speed are considerable and too much for teams like Memorial and Moncton to handle.
They’ve still had a very easy schedule to start the year, and have shown the odd defensive frailty, particularly on quick breaks. They actually trailed for five or ten minutes after giving up a second-half goal against Moncton, but got it back through some late heroics from Tyler Fenning and Ryan Parris. Eerily similar to last weekend, where they gave up a lead to Saint Mary’s before winning 3 – 2. Come-from-behind wins are exciting but they aren’t exactly reliable.
I don’t know that there’s all that much else to say… yet. I’m really intrigued to see this team go toe-to-toe with St. FX or Cape Breton. That’s the next level for this Axemen group, and I think they have many of the pieces to get there, but it’ll come down to their ability to win the smaller technical and tactical battles in those one-off playoff games.
I’ll cop that I’d really like to see this team snatch a berth at nationals and see what they can do. If only because a player like Ryan Parris deserves it.
Mount Allison: L 0 – 4 @ UPEI; L 0 – 4 v. MUN
I mentioned above about the “tiers” in AUS right now, and a bit last week about how Mt. A are a small school that’s always struggled a bit to compete with the bigger, sportier programs.
This weekend was still one of their better chances to nab at least a point and… ouch. There are occasional bright spots from Hasegawa and their other forwards but this team can’t defend at this level.
It’s going to be a long season in Sackville.
Shooting Practice of the Week:
Bit tough to choose this weekend, but Dan Hayfield’s rocket of a goal on Friday night, even if it was in a losing cause, is going to be one of the best goals scored in university soccer this year.
AUS really needs to do a weekly highlight pack.
What I’m Watching Next Weekend:
A few interesting match-ups rather than any outright “game of the week”. Games like Dal – MUN and UdeM – UNB will help sort out which teams have the advantage going into the second half of the (very, very short) AUS season.
It’s a bit of a light week, in truth, with a lot of games likely to showcase that talent gap between top and bottom half teams.