Previewing the 2022 USPORTs Nationals

I am all in favour of USPORTs hosting nationals only in stunningly beautiful places.

The 2022 university men’s soccer championships could easily be heading for a rematch of the 2017 final, which was held in Kamloops in 2017.

Cape Breton won its first national title that year, on penalties, over the Montreal Carabins, who have since won two of their own. The two top teams of the past half-decade in university soccer, coached by arguably the two best coaches in university soccer, find themselves on opposite sides of the draw this year.

The two schools couldn’t be more different in their approach to building a soccer team. Montreal is the largest university in a hotbed of Canadian and international soccer. Cape Breton currently doesn’t even field a team in the Nova Scotia Soccer League, the largest Maritime amateur circuit, and the Capers compete in only a handful of varsity sports.

They’re also the two schools that, along with Carleton and UBC, have seen the most players drafted into the Canadian Premier League, kicking the draft off with their wild rematch in 2018. Both teams will feature current CanPLers (including Kareem Sow, Jose Cunha, and Kairo Coore) as well as a handful of 2021 draft picks (Julien Bruce) and a former CanPLer (Emile Legault).

Neither is guaranteed to get to the final, of course. There are eight teams in this tournament — two from each conference except Canada West, where Thompson Rivers qualify automatically, though the Wolfpack had a very good season and will be hoping to make a deep run this week, in the snow, in front of hometown fans.

This whole tournament, which last year saw a record turnout for the final in Ottawa, is a demonstration of what smaller towns can do for soccer in this country if given the chance. Kamloops, Sydney (which will host the tournament next year), and Guelph have all hosted excellent recent tournaments with impressive crowds. Of those three, only Sydney now lacks a D3 semi-professional side for these players to play locally in the summers.

This preview will be necessarily brief but here’s a couple lines on what each team can expect. Liveblogs will start 2:45pm (Atlantic) on Thursday and go ’til very, very late.

St. FX

The AUS second seeds open the tournament against Montreal. It’s a very tough draw for the X-Men, who were probably the better side in the AUS final but lost it on a pair of goalkeeping errors.

Why they’ll get through

If Samuel Diltz bounces back from a tough weekend, this is a team that’s organized and hard to break down. Everyone, even star man Kyle Cordeiro, an Oakville Blue Devils product, presses as part of the midfield unit. Plus, X are good on set-pieces, which is a decent way to go deep in this thing (both Montreal and Cape Breton have done that gauntlet).

The X-Men are one of those teams that can overcome a fair bit just by being very cohesive — everyone on the team is good enough that they can collectively play at a higher level than any single player might be at.

Reasons for consolation

The trouble is X lack high-end talent, particularly offensive talent. Once you hit national competition, every team is decently organized. Teams in Kamloops will compete with professional intensity. CanPL will be watching.

St. FX win the games they should, and they’re better than they used to be in big matches, but they dropped that final because they couldn’t generate enough chances against a top team, nor could they finish the ones they did get.

Realistically, they’ve been done very hard by the draw and will probably have to aim for fifth place. (The losers of each quarterfinal goes into the consolation round, which sometimes results in a.) some weird final standings, and b.) some wild quarterfinals.)

Cape Breton

Coming off a record sixth-straight AUS banner, the Capers will play Universite du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres — or UQTR — in the late game on Thursday (ugh1An 11:30pm Atlantic start. We hope.). It could be the pick of the days games, though, so do stick around. At least one team that doesn’t deserve to is going to go out early.

Why they’ll get through

Cape Breton under Deano Morley find a way. This is a team that adapts to circumstances — they dominate AUS, but often play on the counter at nationals, where the level of play is much higher.

This makes them tough to beat, and unlike St. FX, Cape Breton have much stronger national and international recruiting. Kairo Coore, who spent the season with FC Edmonton, can score against anyone, and in Cian Lynch, the Capers finally have the kind of mobile, physical forward they haven’t had since Stuart Heath in 2018. In midfield, Jacob Spizzirri is one of the top USPORTs prospects this year and should get draft attention.

Reasons for consolation

Despite all that, this iteration of the Capers has a real problem defending in transition. It sunk them last year and it’s caused problems for them at times in the AUS season, both early on and against Moncton in the semifinal.

Jose Cunha has a wand of a foot and European youth experience but he struggled in CanPL this year with Ottawa and eventually returned to CBU. This is a big tournament to prove he can dominate. While Ben Fortuin is another really good international prospect, he’s still adjusting to this level, too. There are vulnerabilities at the back, have been all year.

I just about give Cape Breton the edge in this on sheer guile, but Atlantic fans should be aware this UQTR is stacked and probably should put the Capers out on paper, which would be a very disappointing end to a record-breaking season.

Thompson Rivers

The hosts, who like Cape Breton are beloved locally, surprised a lot of people in 2017, going on a run to the bronze medal, which is a very nice accomplishment for a smaller school off the beaten path of BC soccer.

Now they’re back, once again as host. Most of the very experienced (it had a 33-year-old, to give you an idea) 2017 team is gone. This year’s Wolfpack is drawn much more heavily from local sides, though there are a bunch of professional academy prospects in there, too.

Why they’ll get through

Well, they have a reasonably favourable quarterfinal, for starters. McMaster aren’t pushovers, but this is their first trip back to nationals since the middle of last decade, coming off a wild OUA playoff season (isn’t it always?). They’ll be playing in the snow in front of hostile fans. You know how it is.

But enough about them, because TRU have some real talent, too, much of which will want to make an impact after declaring for last year’s draft. Jan Pirretas Glasmacher is the biggest name, having actually been drafted (and then cut) by Pacific, but Akwasi Agyekum is a legit prospect as well, plus there’s a host of solid if unspectacular attacking talent to complement the bigger pieces.

Reasons for consolation

They may have a bit of the same problem as X, in that I’m never entirely convinced who’s going to score, and they only put up 21 goals as a team in 17 games, good for… tenth in Canada West. They’re better defensively, but not so good you couldn’t see top teams breaking them down.

I tend to think that’ll happen more in a semifinal than on Thursday, but I also admit I don’t know a lot about this McMaster team. If TRU wins, they’ll face the winner of Cape Breton and UQTR, which is much tougher.

UBC

Every year, the Thunderbirds find new ways to self-destruct at nationals. On paper, this is one of the best teams in the country, usually breezing through Canada West before going out in the quarters, usually to Carleton.

Carleton didn’t make it this year, so UBC will face fellow dystopian urban nightmare TMU2Ryerson’s fancy new facade. Now with 60% less ram.. It would be best if no one won this game, and I believe UBC can find a way to achieve that.

Why they’ll get through

I mean, they should. The not-Rams went on something of a miracle run to even get here, beating Carleton in a testy match. However you parse out the karma, UBC have an incredible team on paper, including Victory Shumbusho, Nick Fussell, Tommy Gardner, and a whole host of other talent that didn’t quite make Pacific.

They’ve also spent the summer playing actual high-level soccer now that League 1 BC is up and running. That could make a real difference. No more coasting in Canada West (and they went 9-3-3 and almost didn’t make it here) then having to raise the level very quickly.

It’s a veteran line-up, a last hurrah for a group that’s had almost no national success, plus Mike Mosher is a good coach. I almost want to see them succeed at last. If UBC itself wasn’t such an eyesore….

Reasons for consolation

Sometimes teams get stuck in a mental loop. Every year, this group has performed a little bit worse. If they were going to take energy and motivation from some of these defeats — particularly the one at home in 2018 — it would have happened by now. It’s largely the same leadership core.

Plus a lot of these top prospects have had chances and haven’t made it, for one reason or another. That’s a tough thing to take. University soccer is the end of the line for a lot of guys. When the games get tense, other teams get hungry and UBC start to look like they don’t really care anymore.

They should still beat TMU. But TMU is young and full of guys who’ll be primed to showcase themselves in big games. This does not bode well for UBC.

Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson)

They’re calling themselves the “Bold” now, which is closer to a hashtag than a team. Unless that team is marketing a bespoke novelty hotdog-themed T-shirt brand.

But here they are.

Why they’ll get through

What this team, bold or otherwise, has going for it is that Toronto is a massive soccer talent pool and despite the best efforts of every soccer institution in the city not to take advantage of it, there’s a lot of latent talent. Guys you’ve never heard of, who’ve never had a real shot, can really ball. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting the right group together with the right influencers, and it just clicks. Ya know?

Come to think of it, maybe that is bold? In Canadian soccer terms? TMU may have upset Carleton in the quarterfinal, but they hosted the game because they had a better year than the Ravens — 33 points, which trailed only McMaster and perennial playoff disappointments Ontario Tech.

There are some names in this team, too, if you know where to look. Kai Martin was a fringe prospect for TFC. Faisal Ghaffur played briefly for Forge after coming through Sigma. Zakaria Abzi is Diyaeddine’s brother. It’s a below-the-radar group, but not without talent. I believe in marketing they call them underdogs.

Reasons for consolation

This is TMU’s first trip to nationals as a #content #brand, but Ryerson was long ago consigned to the dustbin, having not made nationals since their first and only trip to the tournament in Fredericton. In short, this isn’t a team with a lot of top-level experience. Most of what it does have comes from League 1 Ontario, particularly the sometimes-good-sometimes-not North Toronto Nitros.

Traveling makes for a great insta story but is actually quite hard in athletic terms. They’re going o be playing in dicey conditions against a very skilled team.

Fortunately, that team is UBC so anything could happen. I don’t know that I actually want to see TMU go through, but it’d be a great story, would get them a spot in a potentially winnable bronze medal match, and would make CanPL take some more notice of this tournament because TMU is from Toronto and shares Gareth Wheeler’s fashion sense.

Montreal Carabins

What I like most about Montreal is their name: les Carabins. Medics, basically. I always like a university that’s honest about what its students really want to be and it beats Bold.

Montreal is also the best team in this tournament.

Why they’ll get through

Les Carabins have been in the last four national finals, winning two of them and only narrowly losing the other two.

Interestingly, they weren’t really a force, on the men’s side, prior to the late 2010s, though Pat Raimondo’s been at the helm for more than 20 years now (and is beginning to look more and more like Edward James Olmos as he gets older, which I respect). A lot of the recent success has been driven by the development of PLSQ, Quebec’s D3 league that’s still not that well scouted, as well as international recruitment at the school as a whole.

Montreal beat Carleton last year on a couple of free kick goals — this team can and will hit you on set-pieces if they can’t break you down in open play. At the back, they have Wanderers sometimes-regular 3It depends on how many injuries Wanderers have on any given week. Kareem Sow, playing out one last season with his brother Ismael, who together with Emile Legault, make one of the best back lines in university soccer. Quentin Paumier in midfield is a fringe CanPL prospect and Salim Eliasy was great last year in Ottawa, plus Mo Sylla is somehow still going. There are no weaknesses in this team, save maybe up top.

Reasons for consolation

It’s honestly hard to see them not making the final again — they have perhaps the easiest path to it, too. I think they’ll probably end up against a familiar foe in either UQTR or Cape Breton.

Then? Anyone’s game. Montreal are good enough to roll with anything either of those teams throw at them, but not so good they can coast. If they let games get away from them — and they sometimes do — well, mistakes happen.

They’re also a bit young in goal, but Ethan Assadourian’s been very good this year. I think they probably win it again this year.

UQTR Patriotes

Montreal’s recent dominance in Quebec soccer obscures that a lot of interesting things are happening outside the big city, too. Trois-Rivieries is one of those places, thanks to a local PLSQ side and les Patriotes building a powerhouse program on the back of smart recruitment.

Why they’ll go deep

Most of the 2019 talent is still around, minus a couple of veterans like Felix Clapin-Girard and Max Boucher. The main thing is that Gabriel Balbinotti is still pulling the strings, and he put up 14 goals in 11 games this year. Vincent Lamy, who played for Wanderers in 2019, has been playing creator while nabbing a few from the second striker position.

There’s a lot of talent on this team, especially in key spots, and it’s a relatively set starting group. They can outscore you and, in Guillaume Pianelli-Balisoni, Hugo Raposo, and Thomas Sire, they have three veteran defenders with European experience to lock things down. It’s a very solid team that can, on paper, take anyone in the country.

Reasons for consolation

Aside from their quarterfinal draw being tough, they do tend to play a fairly wide-open, high-risk game, which is the kind of thing Cape Breton can exploit. And while both Balbinotti and Lamy can drop into midfield, they lack the kind of talent in the middle that can steady a game.

I still think they’re actually favourites over Cape Breton, but they were only 7-3-2 in RSEQ this year, with a loss to Concordia in there. They can be had, even if they’re also capable of hanging with rival Montreal on their day.

McMaster

I’ll confess I know almost nothing about this team. They had a good spell at nationals about ten years ago that coincided with my time in grad school when I didn’t watch a lot of university soccer. The rest of the time, they’ve been kind of OUA also-rans behind York and Carleton.

Why they’ll get through

They won OUA? It’s never a good idea to bet against the Ontario champions. Getting out of OUA is a test, and the Marauders beat a very good Guelph team in the quarters. Then they got to an OUA final and dispatched the TMU side that had upset Carleton. They didn’t blink.

That’s a good mindset to take into an opening match against the tournament hosts. These games always, always get out of hand late. I’ll be honest that I don’t fancy McMaster, but if they’re the more composed team, good things can happen.

Reasons for consolation

On paper, it’s a team that’s a bit of a collection of parts. They don’t score a lot and they’re not so good defensively that they can bank for penalties.

The level of play in OUA is generally good, but McMaster, based in Hamilton and not one of the province’s bigger schools, play in the western conference, which is usually weaker than the east, especially with York rebuilding. There’s talent in this team, much of it playing in League 1 Ontario so expect them to be competitive, but they don’t have a lot of clear-cut CanPL prospects. Last year’s draft pick, Mo Alshakman, isn’t actually back this year.

About Dylan Matthias 230 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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