It’s a time of year for coming full circle, imbued ancient wisdom concerning crop rotation and vegetable genetics, for the passing of one into another, for rituals both pagan and Protestant.
Sport is an integral part of many ancient, highly Germanic rituals,, filled as it is with ample amounts of both blood and sweat, which are known to appease certain vengeful deities who become restless in this season if certain teams are outside certain playoff positions. Sport is cyclical, the inevitable rise and fall creating deep, tribal narrative as one group of heroes falters and another rises to take their place every three-to-five years. It’s fitting, then, that this is a weekend of sacrifice and prayer; fitting, too, that this is the weekend we write the first obituaries of the season.
In other words, Acadia are already done.
Week 4: L 1-4 @ SMU; L 0-1 v. St. FX
Week 5: L 0-1 v. Dal
Save yourself the trouble and don’t bother watching their game against Dal from this past Thursday save maybe the first five minutes of the second half, when Dal scored. You will not get that time back, and you don’t need to have watched any more of the Axemen’s season. Save yourself, it’s too late for me.
It’s a nice enough goal when it comes from a fairly clever, if not exactly incisive, run across the near post by Dal’s Gracious Kasheke. He missed Will Warren’s rolling cross, but Luke Berryman, who I think had actually given up on the play, had at least checked back to the penalty spot, where there was not an Acadia player within ten yards of him.
This goal was Acadia’s season. They’ve surrendered Raymond Field time and again this year. They can be at least entertaining in attack and probably deserved a goal against Dal, but are so lacking in any commitment defensively that it rarely matters.
Both centre-backs were ball-watching for hours while Kasheke ambled across. Cedric Gravel may as well be in the outer orbit of Mercury for all he’s tracking Berryman off the left. Nobody from midfield gets within five yards of applying back pressure or at least occupying that critical space at the spot. Dal don’t have a big target man–they rely on that space to score, and Acadia just ceded it to them, no questions asked.
It was largely the same story a week ago against St. FX, though the goal came 90 seconds into the game.
In both games, the Axemen responded okay, and Zane Brennan absolutely deserved a goal these past ten days, having been denied by whistles and crossbars and just about everything else, but it’s all too much after the fact, well after the game’s been lost.
That’s how you end up losing a pair of critical games 0-1 at home, and that’s it.
Week 4: L 0-4 @ Moncton; L 1-2 v. Dal
Week 5: L 1-4 v. Moncton
It’s arguable whether the Mounties were ever alive this year, but like wayward ghosts of summer, let’s give them obit anyway to mark their passing back into the long winter night.
The terrible tale here is not so different than Acadia’s (axes being very pagan, after all), even down to the goal they gifted to Luke Berryman: Cody Krocyzinski never checked his shoulder to see that Berryman was no longer there, and Nico Ramirez never reacts despite looking right at it. If you give good AUS prospects free touches in the box, they’re going to score. (The other Berryman goal was ably provided by Rhys Chambers dropping it straight at his feet.)
This kind of defending is just a lack of basic technical and tactical understanding, likely a product of poor youth coaching. That’s why I don’t really like talking about a player’s “quality” as if it’s innate and every player starts as a fully-fledged professional and just makes mistakes more or less often.
No, you learn this stuff, or you should learn it, but in Canada, unless you luck into a decent coach (which is not the same thing as making a top team), you usually don’t, at least not until you get to university, or one of the division three leagues, and even then it’s spotty.
It leaves AUS coaches in a tough spot, because it’s hard to teach this stuff in two months to a group of kids away from home for the first time. That is, however, the challenge–and the concern, for Mt. A, is that veteran guys like Cody Kroczynski and Alex Ponikvar are making these mistakes.
If there’s any hope for Mount Allison going forward–this is still a fairly young group–it’s that they have caused teams problems in spurts this year, particularly through Tevin Lewis, who’s got three for the Mounties’ four goals this year.
They need to believe in themselves a bit more, because their response after going behind–this was particularly noticeable against Dal–isn’t very mature and often ends up bringing them right back under pressure. Too often, Mount Allison play like a team that knows it’s not really good enough, and that’s got to change. Every team, at this level, makes horrendous mistakes. When you’re playing two games a weekend and 12 games in two months, you can’t dwell on them.
They also need to get good enough. More recruitment and retention would help, but at some point they need to develop the guys they have. Most AUS players come in pretty rough around the edges. The ones who dominate in this league, apart from the internationals, are the guys who learn, who are pushed to learn, and who respond to challenges by adjusting their instinctive game to the higher level at which university soccer is played.
Week 4: W 4-0 v. UPEI; W 2-1 @ Mt. A
Week 5: W 1-0 @ Acadia
Since the Tigers are the common element above, let’s give them their due now, near the top, because this was a really good ten days for Dalhousie.
It’s still not quite clicking, but it’s a lot closer. These were must-win games, against the mid/bottom tier of AUS sides, the sort of points that separate playoff teams and non-playoff teams. The Tigers are now back into the picture, albeit still just three points clear of a tricky Moncton team.
Enough math, though. I feel like I haven’t talked enough about how this Tigers team plays, in large part because I think they’ve still been figuring it out themselves under new-but-familiar head coach Alan Jazic.
They don’t really have a true #9 up front, and I think that’s the reason for some of the struggles and should maybe be a recruitment priority some time soon. Even Luke Berryman, the Nova Scotia provincial team prospect, has really been more of an attacking mid or second striker most of his youth career. Likewise, Gracious Kasheke and Will Warren are both creative, flexible attackers who really want to operate in half-spaces, rather than providing a physical target in the box.
Berryman now has four goals in three games, and the goal against Acadia is exactly what they need him to do. If you don’t have a big target, you need guys like Berryman making hard runs to open up those spaces they want to use. Warren made the run to the corner, Kasheke across the near post, and Berryman took advantage of the pocket opened up.
He’s been doing this all year, but this is a new cycle of young, doe-eyed, largely untested Tigers. You usually want a two or three year rotation of recruits in USPORTs, and managed right, you give younger players a chance to learn in an existing system. Dal have always aimed at that kind of cycle, but it can be hard to sustain even when there’s not a pandemic on.
It’s most evident in the back-line, where Jazic has typically started a trio of first-years–all promising prospects but a little unfamiliar as a unit, and a little too easy to play through. There’s a little hesitancy in who’s going to step into a tackle at any given moment, which is how they conceded against the Mounties. It started with a misplay between Larter and Rodriguez, a veteran but unfamiliar duo who just haven’t clicked. Jack Ellis, who was starting his first game, got beat way too easily, and the three CBs were too deep to react to Lewis in time.
The gulf between defense and midfield is what Dal have to figure out if they’re going to make the playoffs, particularly because they absolutely have to beat UPEI in Charlottetown, and the Panthers can exploit that space, especially this year. It’s also why the Tigers couldn’t put up more on first the Mounties and then Acadia, the way they did against the Panthers in Halifax (UPEI on the road are a very different team). The back-line is 20 yards too deep, and there’s no one in central midfield who really wants to advance the ball. They let teams out of pressure, especially once the ball gets past that front re-press. Matt Larter’s is the easy suspect, and he’s not been great, but especially in a back three, one of the defenders has to be willing to step up into space and create a numerical advantage in possession and close down space when out. All of Ben Kischuk, Ben Bruce, and Connor Manuel have the ability to do both, but when one does, the other two have to react. That’s sometimes called passive or predictive defending–not as a negative but rather defending before a problem arises–and it’s another thing players have to learn coming into university soccer, because we don’t teach that well at the youth level, either.
Week 4: L 1-3 @ Memorial; L 2-3 @ Memorial
Week 5: Bye (this was the mid-week set before Thanksgiving))
Ignore the results in St. John’s for a sec. Results in St. John’s are tough, and this year’s Seahawks team is tough, too.
UNB are what you get when you get a group of players who have played together for four or five years and developed a level of instinctive understanding. You know Matt Quigley is going to hit a particular through ball. He knows where Grant Takacs is going to be. Tom Pheulpin is going to whip in a cross for him to attack. Joe Hamilton is going to distribute safely to the runners. That kind of core is what you see in professional teams because professional teams have usually played together long enough to develop that understanding.
Into that you can fit a first-year player like Stefano D’Ambrogio, who’s been excellent this year. Keep an eye on him, by the way–he’s a Vaughan Azzurri alum who could very well have an eye on the draft. You can debate whether a first-year like him should be thrown into the fire or allowed to play a role in a team, but my vote will usually be on playing a role, as he has for the Reds, and the results speak for themselves.
This is a UNB team with a new head coach, but it’s not a new system, and that’s how you can lose 40-odd goals worth of talent and still end up at the top of the league.
Unfortunately, UNB are the only one of this year’s top three who have to go to Memorial, and I wonder if that’s going to cost them the quarter-final bye in the end. They didn’t play badly by any means on the rock, but they did tire–most teams do–and they couldn’t figure out a way to contain Emmanuel Dolo–most teams can’t.
They were visibly frustrated by the end of last weekend, but UNB will be fine. They play three of their last four at “home” (okay, in Saint John, but that’ll be fun), and they’ve been nothing but consistent this year, even creating ample danger in St. John’s.
Replacing guys like Hamilton, Quigley, and Pheulpin next year might be the bigger challenge. It’s very easy for a good group to move on and a program to fall apart. So far, UNB have avoided that, and anyway, it’s a problem can be left ’til next year.
Week 4: W 3-1 v. UNB; W 3-2 v. UNB
Week 5: Bye
Coming into last weekend, UNB were probably the best team in AUS. Certainly the most complete. They’ve not quite been a powerhouse like the Capers of 2018, but they’re definitely pretty good.
The Seahawks, finally back at home after two straight weekends of travel, pretty well thumped them, scoring early and often. It took Emmanuel Dolo only three and a half minutes to jink Tom Pheulpin out of position, Pheulpin recovered, but Felly Elonda followed up. Matt Boem blocked his pass, but Dolo darted in behind him to play a quick little flick to Jacob Grant, who’d just been drifting the whole time off Joe Hamilton’s shoulder, waiting for any of those plays to connect.
This is the best defense in AUS, or at least three of the best defenders in AUS. No one is being caught out by Dolo anymore, either–UNB would have planned for him, and there was just nothing they could do.
I actually think it’s Jacob Grant, who had a brace last Saturday to go with Dolo’s trifecta of assists, who makes it all work. I could see CanPL teams getting blinded by Dolo’s skills (and résumé), but Grant’s actually the more complete player right now, and his movement is just superb, opening passing lanes Elonda never had in Moncton. It is entirely impossible to defend this Seahawks team.
Can they do it in the playoffs? I think they’ll get there–they have two weeks off before hosting two non-playoff teams, but they do have to play a double-header against fellow hopefuls Moncton on the final weekend, which will be worth watching. I think they’ll get there.
It has to come from defending. They were better last weekend, but still cancelled out that wonderful first goal when Harry Carter handled the ball in his own box three minutes later. The fullbacks actually did a better job containing Pheulpin than most teams have done this year, but Memorial still coughed up a lot of chances, chances which will go punished by playoff teams more often than not, chances which you cannot give away on the road.
And unless they can convince AUS to let MUN host the playoffs before Grant and Dolo are gone, they’re going to have to figure out how to win a game on the road..
Week 4: L 0-4 @ Dal; D 1-1 v. Cape Breton
The away loss in Halifax all but ended UPEI’s season, even if they probably deserved better than a four-goal swing. That’s been the case too often, and especially too often at home, where the defending has just not been good enough. UPEI are not and probably never will be a free-scoring team, given their limited recruiting ability (UPEI is a small, Island-centric school): all of those 1-1 draws need to be 1-0 wins.
The draw against Cape Breton will have been more frustrating after-the-fact than it would have seemed after the Panthers got a late equalizer. The Capers struggled to create enough high-danger chances and UPEI were better at staying narrow and smart… but only after they gave up a very easy goal to Kairo Coore off a set-piece.
That they got one back will be frustrating to Cape Breton in equal measure, of course. Sam Akinsola is another of the young, fast attackers coming off PEI, and one who’s probably benefited by playing tougher opposition on the regular in Nova Scotia1Fun fact: Akinsola got precisely zero minutes last Sunday against Cape Breton: he subbed on the stoppage before, scored with his first touch about 15 seconds later, and was immediately subbed off by Lewis Page to throw another defender on and secure the draw. Pretty good for the goals/90 (and indeed Akinsola has three, all off the bench, having never played more than 50 minutes in a game).. This is good for PEI soccer, and good for the Panthers going forward if they can turn this group into a unit that works well together.
I don’t think the same ever happened for the last group of defenders UPEI saw through, most of which is gone now, replaced by a pair of rookies in Max VanWiechen and Jonathan MacKenzie–likewise both local PEI players–with Ottawan Kasper Lasia ahead of them. There have been days where it’s been close to working, and Lasia has looked promising as a deep playmaker, but it hasn’t quite clicked yet, either, which is how you get a dispiriting 0-4 against a struggling Tigers side. The Panthers have a whole pile of fun attacking full-backs, which leaves Lasia being asked to do a lot of defensive work to cover spaces. It’s a transition.
There’s still opportunity for UPEI to do what they have before and go on a run, but it feels less likely with this group, in this season. You can see the pandemic’s effects all across this league, and while the local PEI players have been able to play a bit more than some, the intensity and precision hasn’t been there, and PEI players still desperately need opportunities in a more competitive Atlantic league.2I know I write this every week, but the new BC semi-pro schedule just dropped last week. That’s been in the works for almost as long as people have been talking about an Atlantic league, so it can happen.
Wins against fellow playoff hunters Dal and Memorial at home will be critical, though. Draws won’t cut it.
Université de Moncton
Week 4: W 4-0 v. Mt. A
Week 5: W 4-1 @ Mt. A
Just solid, professional results from Moncton in games I’ll freely admit I didn’t watch this week.
That’s actually a bit different from Moncton, who tend to cause upsets but cost themselves points in winnable games, too. There’s been a bit more dependability to what is really a pretty new group of players. They’re scoring by committee, too, rather than relying on heroics.
Both Phillippe Gallant and Georges Musitu had excellent weekends–against the Mounties, yes, but both have been quietly effective all year–Gallant as a kind of Robichaud-like winger and Musitu as something a bit different, and a little livelier. For the first time in a long time it feels like Moncton can hurt teams in different ways.
They can hurt themselves, too–this is still not a very solid team at the back, having given up the same 13 goals as the Seahawks, and there are some general similarities between the two teams. Fitting, then, that we’ll get to see them close out the season against each other in a game that could have real playoff implications.
Week 4: L 0-3 v. Cape Breton; W 1-0 @ Acadia
Week 5: L 0-1 @ Saint Mary’s
Something’s gone slightly wrong with the X-Men since the start of the month. I’ve watched all three of these games and am still struggling to put my finger on it, exactly. They’ve not played badly in any of them, but equally, they could easily have dropped points in Wolfville and then this recap would be kind of a disaster for them.
I’ll tell you that, as a Wanderers fan, I’m a little concerned that Luke Green is making the same mistakes in AUS as he did in CanPL last year, and I’m a little concerned, as someone who rated him pretty highly on my mock draft a couple times, that Lewis Dye is doing much the same. The number of times both played straight into pressure against the Capers was alarming.3Worth noting Wanderers have had a couple friendlies against the Capers over the years that might also be described as “alarming”.
At the same time, they can’t figure out how to guard against quick counters, which is a bad combination. You can’t give Cape Breton multiple fast breaks unopposed right down your spine. X switched to a back three after Cape Breton’s second, but got similarly ripped apart. Nobody wants to step into space. Nick Aquino is not really a defensively-oriented #8. Gabriel Gaspar had been pretty promising beside him but got injured early against Cape Breton, which may well have been part of it.
Injuries have been a real problem, though an understandable one given how intense the university season is, especially this year. By Thursday, X were hobbling, with Blake Fenton, Dyan Vil, and Jack Kennedy all joining Gaspar on the treatment table.
At some point closer to the playoffs I’ll do a bit of a dive into the St. FX attack, because it’s been interesting and a bit different without Dan Hayfield, albeit with Cameron Shaw playing a slightly similar role. I’ll save that for a later weekend. The X-Men aren’t in any danger, still sit top, and have a fairly easy run-in. They’ll be fine.
They also don’t have to travel for three weeks, which will hopefully help some guys get healthy.
Week 4: W 3-0 @ St. FX; D 1-1 @ UPEI
Week 5: Bye
For a second it looked okay!
There’s something of Stuart Heath to Cian Lynch, and not just in shared Gaelic heritage. The Heath – Charlie Waters combination won Cape Breton a national title. The Heath – Cory Bent combo easily could have. Lynch is similarly a bigger #9, which the Capers didn’t have in 2019 after Heath’s graduation, but like the former star, Lynch also has good pace and good feet, which can open a lot of space for guys like Waters and Bent.
But Bent is in CanPL scoring against MLS teams and Waters is in his final year, and struggling a bit. About 30 minutes in against St. FX, Kairo Coore played him in and Waters just… wasn’t instinctive. He’s not been bad, but the future of this Capers team is really obviously Coore and Lynch.
Credit to Deano Morley, though, for giving Kairo Coore the time rather than sitting him behind Waters for a year. The Lunch-Coore partnership needs more time, but it’s promising, and it lets Waters play as more of a pure creator from midfield.
Balancing that is Loic Gunn, coming from the same Woodbridge program as Isaiah Johnston. He’s a more defensive player, but still scored a lovely curler against St. FX, and more importantly, since he replaced Carson Larabie during Cape Breton’s loss in Fredericton, the Capers have stopped bleeding quite so many chances right up the middle. Gunn hasn’t left the line-up since, and I wouldn’t expect him to–he’s a lovely player to watch, too, with smooth, limited movement and terrific passing range.
The back line is still a work-in-progress, as the soft goal in Charlottetown attests. It still feels like Euan Bauld is the only of the the five or six guys Morley’s had back there who really sniffs danger, and Bauld can only be some many places at once.
Week 4: W 4-1 v. Acadia
Week 5: W 1-0 v. St. FX
This has been a really impressive year for Saint Mary’s, no matter where it goes from here. They’re not blowing teams out (well, they blew out Acadia, but everyone’s doing that), but they’re also not taking themselves out of games the way they were in 2019, and the way they did even on Week 1.
They’re deeper in defense, with Ben Kloppenburg and Woody Bain adapting really quickly to life in AUS. The only game Bain hasn’t started was that first one in Cape Breton; since then, he’s given Saint Mary’s a bit of bite and smart, simple play in possession. He’s not a “modern” full-back–at least not yet–but SMU really just need someone to help cover spaces in wide midfield and release Alex Black.
Or, this year, Sean Freeman, because Black’s been snake-bit. Freeman, who played for the same Dunbrack youth team as Suliman Elomrani, is probably Black’s long-term replacement, and he’s put up Black-esque numbers, with 4g/4a in just five AUS starts. He’s been pretty well locked in since late September.
There’s a lot to like about this Huskies side, and a lot to like about the way Mesut Mert is getting so much out of local youth stars, providing a rung in the development ladder that’s been missing both in Halifax and at SMU in the last decade. It bodes really well for his work with Wanderers, too, and you can see how much Mert’s already learned from this season just in the way his Huskies are that much more ruthless when they get a chance.
Crossbar of the Week
I’ve been pretty hard on Acadia this week, so let’s at least give them some loving attention in our weekly weirdness, not least because they actually tied the game against St. FX last weekend but for one of the more bizarre and inexplicable quirks of AUS soccer.
We all sort of instinctively know, right, that when the ball hits the football uprights, it gets called a goal kick? The thing is, there’s no actual rule about this–it’s pure local custom. Soccer is not really meant to be played with football uprights, but this is Canada, and this is AUS, and yeah, we’re playing with football uprights.4It is still all Acadia’s fault, though, because the uprights at Husky Stadium–mouldy old holy ground of AUS football that it is–actually spin around to face away from the soccer pitch. Snazzy! That’s what a biz school gets you, Ray. Gotta innovate harder.
The Laws of the Game do allow that play is stopped if the ball comes into contact with an outside agent, including an object. However, in this case, the restart is a dropped ball, not a goal kick as is usually given when the ball hits the football uprights.
About 99.9% of the time, a goal-kick is the sensible common-sense solution, and it’s so ubiquitous that it’s the expected thing even in cases like this one, just before half-time, when Seamus MacDonald tipped a corner kick straight up in the air, brushing against the football crossbar before falling on Zane Brennan and bouncing into the net.
Poor guy just catch a break.
You can’t legally let Brennan’s goal stand, because the “outside agent” has affected play. A dropped ball, in the penalty area, would have been glorious, glorious chaos up until 2018, when the Law changed to make it uncontested so it would now just be a glorious argument. You can’t really legally give a goal-kick, either, because the ball hasn’t left the field, but that’s the least bad option, and that’s how we do it here.
It’s our own, wonderfully weird, local thing. Let no-one ever say Canada has no football culture of its own because we do! Maybe one day we can host the World Cup on a multi-use field and… oh, wait….
It’s our contribution to the lore of the world’s game.