University soccer in Canada is growing.
It’s actually been growing for a while. USPORTs play, particularly in the Atlantic University Sport conference, is miles beyond what it was when I covered the league as a student at King’s.
Now, the university game–odd as it is–has hit the national Canadian soccer spotlight with the success of its alumni in the new Canadian Premier League. AUS stalwarts Peter Schaale and Christian Oxner not only played for Halifax Wanderers, but led their team, winning starting spots and holding them.
In 2019, more eyes will be on AUS, and on USPORTs soccer as a whole. A sequel to the inaugural USPORTs draft will occur once again at nationals in November, giving players previously known only on a local level (if that) a chance to make headlines nationally and even internationally–a CCAA grad just scored for Forge FC against Honduran opposition.
For years, the Canadian soccer story has been made up of chapter after chapter of developmental failures. But what if we actually do develop players–we just failed to find them a place to play? That was the thesis of the Canadian Premier League, and it’s mostly been proven, but it has always been self-evident to anyone who watched university soccer.
I went to my first game for a journalism school assignment back in 2008. I had no idea what to expect, and was immediately hooked by the skill and tenacity of players like Kerry Weymann, Steph Collins, and Leanne Huck. I went again, and again. It was quickly obvious that this wasn’t bad soccer.
Yes, the Huck sisters were a Dalhousie institution for almost a decade. On the women’s side, USPORTs is still some of the highest level soccer in Canada, and USPORTs has produced national teamers, including Desirée Scott. For the men, universities have tried to bridge the gap between youth soccer and top amateur teams while also creating the only thing resembling a soccer event in many cities and towns around the country.
That dual focus, as well as the inherent mix of athletics and academics, can give university soccer an odd dynamic. It is very much its own thing, with its own cultures and traditions–traditions that Canadian club soccer sometimes struggles to emulate.
Neither is it that much like the American NCAA. For starters, Canadian schools play according to the FIFA Laws, not the often bizarre NCAA rules. And while Canadian schools do dole out a lot of scholarship money1While most Canadian schools don’t have the athletics endowments of even a mid-size American college, most of them also don’t spend outrageous sums on professional-level football and behemoth stadia., most of it is academically-focused. These are smart players, both on and off the pitch.
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Last year, I wrote in one of my weekly recaps about Université de Moncton, the smallish French-language school in New Brunswick. Les Aigles-Bleus have historically been a reliably mid-table AUS side, something close to a Burnley, if you will.
In an AUS that’s rapidly gentrifying, becoming more professional, faster, and more intense, Moncton pose an interesting question about the plight of the small and even mid-size schools that make up the bulk of USPORTs. These schools often can’t recruit like the bigger academic programs and can’t compete on the field with the more dedicated soccer outfits.
They still fill a big role, though, both as varsity recreation for students and as stop-gaps in the Canadian talent identification system. Calling them “recreational” feels like an insult, but I didn’t mean it that way last year, and I don’t now. They’re parts of a puzzle in a university league the charm of which is in how many different things it has to be.
So this is a preview, but since I need a way to organize it and since I’m a big fan of Matt Doyle’s Tiers of MLS columns (which he in turn borrowed from NBA writer Zach Lowe), I thought I’d apply the concept to each school in AUS.
It’s less about breaking down top and bottom. A tiered format better illustrates the different goals these programs have. Some are developmentally focused, even while being competitive on the field. Others fill that community need and battle for local pride, often to some success. And a few behave like professional outfits, moving players in to give them a shot at higher things. (Give you one guess which team tops this group.)
Can any team dethrone Cape Breton? The better question is whether any team needs to. I mean, sure, they’ll all be gunning for the final, and UNB gave the Capers a good run last year. For the first time, though, the Canadian Premier League will be playing at the same time, sometimes just down the road.
We are in a new era for USPORTs and Canadian soccer.
Cape Breton Capers- Tier: Professional
(2018: 12-0-2, won AUS)
No team recruits like Cape Breton, and no team in AUS sees equivalent results. Over the past 10 – 15 years, the Capers have gone from a tiny, fairly rural college group2UCCB, the school’s old name, was quite literally a university college. Now the acronym is synonymous with a child tax benefit, which shows you the extent of the rebrand.–they finished behind Mount Allison in 2004 and barely made the playoffs in 2005–to arguably the top soccer school in the country. The Capers led with four players drafted last year.3Given how successful Peter Schaale was (less so the others), I expect they’ll do well again this year, too; the Akron of USPORTs.
A lot of this is possible because the school only has two varsity sports, basketball and soccer. Cape Breton are always solid in basketball, too, and both sports get the bulk of seasonal varsity resources and attention. CBU advertises heavily on the international market and attracts a wide range of international students, particularly from the Caribbean. The town of Sydney has only a hair under 30,000 residents. All of Cape Breton is still well under 100K.
Deano Morley’s4Whose name I commit to spelling correctly for the first time this year. Though you gotta admit Dino has a certain menace to it. contacts in the English game mean there’s a very home country flavour to the Capers that suits the Scottish east side of the island. Criticize them for CanCon if you want, but they’re here to win, and since the vast majority of high-level Cape Breton players travel to the mainland for both school and soccer, it’s not like there’s a big hole in the development pipeline.
The community always supports the team well because the soccer is exciting and successful, and for all the internationals (this year, the focus seems to be Albania), there’s still something distinctly island about the team. They are called the “capers” after all.
Expectation: Win it. Probably in Montreal.
There is no better team in AUS, maybe the country, and that’s before they got Charlie Waters back from the knee injury that’s kept him out the better part of two years.
Plus they managed to convince Peter Schaale to finish his degree despite the German having made himself one of the better centre-backs in CanPL. Then they went and added an intriguing recruiting class led by a League 1 Ontario prospect and a guy with experience in a professional youth set-up in Albania.
The big loss is Stuart Heath. Waters and Cory Bent up front is still pretty formidable, but it does raise an interesting tactical question because both play a similar game and both had their success playing off Heath as smaller second strikers.
Morley will need to adjust things, since there were times–notably in last year’s national final, though injuries played a role in that–where the Capers became a tad reliant on Heath’s hold-up play. At the same time, this team has the skill to keep the ball on the ground and break lines.
Isiah Johnston was likely recruited with an eye to that. The Woodbridge Strikers prospect can play anywhere in midfield and could play as a deputy to either Marcus Campanile or Caelann Budhoo this year. He both looks and plays a bit like Patrick Vieira, and gives Cape Breton an attacking midfielder capable of playing in the half-spaces, which is not a style they really employed a lot last year.
Defense is also, perhaps, a question–as much as this team has questions. Schaale is back, but Daniel Pritchard has graduated for real so Euan Bauld will likely partner Schaale, who played a lot of right-back last year. Given Wanderers see him as a centre-back–it’s his natural position–my guess is Stephen Hart would rather he gets the reps there.
Very occasionally, Cape Breton were vulnerable to scrambled plays in their box last year. I tend to think Schaale’s experience at the professional level will help there–CanPL is nothing if not a bit scrambly–but either way, the Capers give up so few chances thanks to an utterly stacked midfield of Campanile, Budhoo, and Joel Eckert-Ayensa. Throw in Jack Simpson when he’s healthy and then you can bring NSSL champion Matt Larter off the bench. Oh yeah.
All that, and this team is still absolutely ripping itself for not winning nationals last year.
“I think we learned a lot from that defeat. Mainly about ourselves, it was a tough loss to take,” said Cory Bent in the school’s preview. I have my doubts Bent even remembers that game, given there was a lump the size of a bowling ball growing on his head. “We take the season game by game and will hopefully end up in the national final, then we can assess the situation.” But of course.
They lost to Wanderers 2 – 1 in a pre-season game a couple weeks ago. There are CanPL teams would take a scoring loss at Wanderers’ Grounds and shrug it off. Somehow, I doubt the Capers will, which makes sense given a good handful of these guys will be hoping to be drafted.
Maybe the defense? Either that, or the future. This summer saw the demise of Cape Breton’s NSSL program. It was never a major force, nor a reliable source of Cape Breton talent, and a lot of island players played in Halifax as young as U13. It does mean some of the players, like Matt Larter, have done a lot of travel back and forth this summer.
One could also put a little asterisk over Waters and his knee. He was key in the Capers’ 2017 win, and hasn’t played since after doing his ligaments with Victoria Highlanders in the PDL. That’s a long lay-off. Should he falter, a lot will fall on chase car Mitchell Wong and Tede Lisi, another Albanian who’s been playing mostly left-wingback on the junior college circuit in the U.S.
Much of the roster, really. I expected Budhoo to go to last year and still think Valour would do well to grab the local Winnipegger.
CanPL has adjusted the draft rules so that graduating players aren’t granted domestic status, which complicates matters for either Cory Bent or Marcus Campanile. But given Peter Schaale is a lock to return to CanPL even if he takes up an international slot, that might not matter, and both are good enough.
Lewis White and Jack Simpson were both drafted last year, but both were cut pretty early and both were perhaps slight reaches. A good year from either could still attract interest.
Dalhousie Tigers – Tier: Developmental
(2018: 7-3-2, fourth in AUS, lost to Cape Breton in semi-final)
Full disclosure: I basically grew up at Dal, so I have a natural affinity for their teams, though at this point they’ve broken my heart often enough in the playoffs5Dal’s women’s team, in particular, have had some spectacular exits. Including last year. that I think I can still be savagely objective when need arises.
As such, I have them in the developmental group. The Tigers aim to compete and usually do, thanks in part to the school’s size, academic rep, and their ability to attract fifth-year transfers for graduate programs.
But make no mistake, while Pat Nearing is a winner, he also has a long résumé with the NS provincial program and has coached Dal for over twenty years. His approach has always been about bridging that gap between club soccer and higher levels, and it’s reflected in how this team is built: there’s always an eye to the future, but the young core that beat themselves a couple years ago has matured into a team with a real championship window.
In keeping, Nearing’s added maybe the strongest recruiting class in AUS (it’s definitely the biggest), with a mix of CCAA transfers, USPORTs journeymen, and a selection of the better young talent in NSSL programs. Some of it might have CanPL potential.
For me, the highlight is Obaid Hedayat, an attacking midfielder who’s been ripping up the NSSL youth ranks ever since he resettled in Canada. Often, players struggle to jump from the U17/18 sides to the full NSSL, but Hedayat stepped right into best-of-the-rest Halifax City, scoring four times in ten games. The guy he was feeding? Dal striker Kallen Heenan, who had a superb summer en route to a provincial semi-final.
This year, he’s probably a deputy for the ever-enigmatic Freddy Bekkers. But when players step up a level and keep performing, there are always eyes on them.
Expectation: More of the same, probably another playoff heartbreak
This team is broadly the same as it was last year, without any significant graduates (though regular left-back Michael Trim appears to have moved on). They’ll likely finish broadly the same, but perhaps a bit better as the young core matures into a unit with more structure and discipline.
Where they were last year was good enough to give the Capers a bit of a scare in the semi-final before collapsing. They only had to play Cape Breton because they cost themselves second spot on the last day; they’re good enough to get that this year, and should expect to contend for the banner and the second spot at nationals.
Big Question: Can the defense be as good as last year?
No goals against for the first eight games gave Dal a platform to weather some seriously wobbly late-season form before rebounding in the playoffs. Ben Grondin was a big part of that, and while they probably don’t need him to put up eight clean-sheets this year, they’re not exactly a scoring powerhouse so it wouldn’t hurt, either.
The back-line remains intact, minus Cullen Mullaly. Nyle MacLeod needs to be a bit more consistent, but he’s a fourth-year and that’s expected at this point. They’ve also added two guys with CCAA-level experience–Abdullah Bajunaid and Bradley Mastrangelo–who have played the #6. CCAA is a lower-level league, but it did feature Anthony Novak, so there’s value in there.
More broadly, there’s better competition for spots this year, which should help if and when the main group starts to lose its way. Pat Nearing always has one game where he ends up incredibly frustrated, but I’m sure it’d do him a world of good to be able to steady things with a kid off the bench.
Wanderers have already shown they’ll go local for goalies and Grondin has a similar profile and style as Christian Oxner, a smart ‘keeper who organizes well and never backs down from a physical battle despite his slightly small size. He’s got a couple years of eligibility left, too.
Up front, Kallen Heenan is not a smooth player, but he routinely makes it look like NSSL is lower than his level. There are guys like him doing well in CanPL on sheer muscle, and if Heenan has another strong year, he might generate late-round interest and fight his way onto a team.
Hedayat won’t likely go this year, but watch this kid. If he can find the level consistently, he’ll get noticed.
Acadia Axemen – Tier: Professional
(2018: 7-4-1, 5th in AUS, lost to Dalhousie in quarter-final)
This year was always going to be a big changeover for Acadia, so it makes sense to go all-in and “fire” the head coach as well. University teams don’t really outright turf coaches, but shakeups do happen in typically academic fashion. So it is that long-time head coach Findlar MacRae is moving to associate coach while Amit Batra, previously the women’s head coach, takes over the whole program on both sides.
I like this move, and I think it signals a change in structure for Acadia. The Axemen have always been reasonably good, but MacRae was and is a big Valley guy and the team have tended to reflect that, often well.
In Batra, a former Mount Saint Vincent coach, they’re basically appointing a technical director. That’s common in the world of soccer, but it’s not really been done in USPORTs. Batra will handle recruitment, which given his approach at MSVU and with the Axewomen, likely means looking further afield. MacRae, meanwhile, will take on a development role.
Acadia’s always kept an eye on moving talent through, but usually the end goal is the NSSL Premiership. Does this move suggest a shift of focus towards developing players for CanPL? Either way, it’s probably a rebuilding year for the Axemen, with the departure of Ryan Parris and a couple of their more reliable attacking weapons, so ti makes sense to press the button now.
Whenever a university program reboots, it can take a couple years for recruiting to really build. Batra has an advantage in that he’s already at the school and said school is beautiful. He has a disadvantage in that Acadia doesn’t really offer any graduate programs and the Axemen haven’t even sniffed nationals lately. The top players tend to want both academic options and top competition.
But there is promise already on the roster. Joe Iatrou, a rookie last year, had a fantastic season in NSSL with United DFC. So did Coleman Hooper and Alec MacKenzie.
Exactly how you get those guys to work together is the big question, and one that plagued MacRae last year–the Axemen could be both effervescent and extremely inconsistent in attack. Too many of the old guard didn’t really get the job done in big moments. Good guys, yes, and useful in the right team, but there was no key piece.
That’s what Batra needs to find.
Expectation: Hope for playoffs. If they fade early, think about next year instead.
The Axemen have already been smooshed 3 – 0 by both St. FX and Dal in preseason. Those are the teams they need to beat to avoid a difficult match-up in the playoffs, which has led to a quarter-final exit two years in a row.
More likely, this is indeed a bit of a rebuild. There’s some talent on the roster, and I’d like to see what Ali Jabbara can do in year two, but it may be a case of waiting, then throwing some new scholarship money at more intriguing pieces.
Batra has added OSU Force prospect Cedric Gravel. Other than that, it’s a fair number of local-ish talent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–the Axemen were at their best four or five years ago when they ran out more Valley talent than they have the past couple years.
Big Question: How does Joe Iatrou fit?
Iatrou’s been a long-time provincial prospect and when he’s used well, he can be deadly, putting up 12 in 15, for instance, in NSSL this summer, a big part of why United DFC won.
But he can fade in and out of games, too, and in his rookie year with Acadia he was mostly out. My guess is Batra will give him the creative keys this year and see what he’s got. When you’re turning 20 is the time to deliver.
The other big question is can they get a save? Acadia were one of two AUS teams with real goalkeeper problems last year, and it cost them repeatedly.
At the moment, none, though Iatrou might be on the outer edge of the blinky radar thing you see on ships6I should get me one. after his summer season. But his #10 role is a tough one to break into in the pro game.
At the moment, nobody else really jumps out. There’s some solid AUS-level talent, but not much beyond that.
I still think it’s a sin Ryan Parris didn’t get at least a camp invite last year.
St, FX X-Men – Tier: Professional
(2018: 8-3-1, 2nd in AUS, lost to UNB in semi-final)
You go to X, you play varsity for X, you better believe you are there to win. They don’t give you that ring for nothing.
Whether this team can win anything is a much more difficult question, the sort of question St. FX students might struggle with on an exam. There are parts of this team are downright confusing, others intriguing, but the 2018 season more or less confirmed they don’t work in big moments, and that’s a worry when your aim is glory.
Twice, now, the X-Men7Even the name is very X. have dropped a winnable semi-final to UNB, and as such UNB have begun to create a nationally relevant program and St. FX haven’t.
The good news is last year’s team was sneaky young. Lewis Dye and Ayoub al-Arabi were solid rookies, though the latter has had a miserable NSSL season. Tane Caubo and William Warren are seniors now and should be key players–Warren played well in NPSL for FC Buffalo and Caubo’s been excellent for a mediocre Highland team. Quincy Meh scored nine goals in NSSL, too–where were those for X?
The bad news is they’ve lost a couple key cogs and the recruiting class was underwhelming. Gone is the reliable Liam Elbourne, often asked to do too much but also immensely capable in possession. Gone is tenacious defender Serge Dossou, which may be addition by subtraction if X can find a more positionally reliable left-back who doesn’t rack up so many cards. Gone is unheralded #8 Cole Suart and gone is slow-but-steady defender Joe Edgerton.
So long as they have Dan Hayfield, the theory goes, X will be fine. And indeed, the attack is fairly stacked, with Hayfield finally listed as a midfielder after playing most of last season more withdrawn. Blake Fenton is back to do damage down the left, and Ben Herringer’s come back for a victory lap, too.
A lot of what the X-Men did well last year was about moving the ball through midfield. The centre of that midfield will be new this year.
X have a million wide pieces–Nick Aquino (also had a miserable year in NSSL), Warren, Caubo, and Fenton can all run, but only Caubo can really play through the middle, and none of them necessarily link defense to attack the way Elbourne did.
The goalkeeping was a disaster last year, too, though it’s easy to forget that both Will Veinot and Seamus MacDonald are young and will probably improve. It might do Graham Kennedy some good to pick one and run with him for a while, mistakes be damned.
Because X control games in possession, they didn’t give up a tonne of chances last year. Most of the goals against came off mistakes. They’re also getting veteran defender Liam Harrigan back from injury, which should help with Edgerton’s departure.
None of the recruits boasts the kind of résumé to replace Elbourne so there’ll be a brand new central midfield. Fernando Sato Ramos has played in Mexico’s local leagues and Oliver Storseth got some minutes for that mediocre Highland NSSL team this year. Beyond that, it’s hard to say.
A wildcard could be Damion Simmons, who developed with Devonshire Cougars of Bermuda’s top flight. There’s a wide swathe of quality in Bermuda, but the game isn’t the afterthought it once was there and this is, after all, the same pathway Stephen Hart took to Nova Scotian football fame. Could Simmons follow?
Expectation: Playoffs. Exactly where in the table is wide open
Anything less would be considered a major letdown for St. FX, and might even lead to some sort of shake-up. This is Dan Hayfield’s last year. Best go for it now.
It’s tough to see a path that doesn’t end with another game against UNB, though. Third time lucky? There’s not a lot between those two teams in the end, but those are the kinds of games St. FX just haven’t been winning.
Big Question: How many goals will Dan Hayfield actually score?
The X-Men will go as far as he takes them, but last year he really only scored from penalties (he had a multi-goal game in the last game of the season, at Memorial).
His move deeper into midfield may allow him to open up some space for others, and X are stacked offensively on paper, but too often they run out of ideas and have to commit so many men that they’re very vulnerable on the counter.
Dan Hayfield was the USPORTs player of the year in 2017. I tend to think his professional potential is limited–he thrives on relatively weak AUS defenses–but there’s no doubt he has the technical quality to be worth a shot for a team.
I had Lewis Dye as a sleeper pick in my mock draft last November, and he’s since gone to the NPSL with Josh Read and William Warren. He struggled for minutes with FC Buffalo, but a move like that shows professional ambition. Ball-playing centre-backs are always a tough find, and Dye had a stand-out youth career in Nova Scotia. A team could do worse than drafting him and letting him develop in AUS for a couple more years.
Ayoub al-Arabi had an exciting youth career and could play his way back into the conversation, but on the basis of this summer has currently played his way out.
UNB Reds – Tier: Developmental
(2018: 7-2-3, third in AUS, lost in final to Cape Breton, tied UBC for last at nationals)
The non-Varsity Reds have now been to two straight national tournaments, only narrowly losing to UBC in 2017 and eventual champions Montreal last year.
When I was at Dal, UNB–still under Myles Pinsent–were very much mid-tier, a bit like UPEI. Their recent success has a distinctly Moneyball flavour, which is why I have them in the developmental category, because Pinsent has always been a coach who gets a lot out of slightly unheralded players.
It helps, of course, that UNB is a relatively large school in Atlantic Canadian terms, with good business and science programs. They’ve always picked up guys who were well-known locally but who maybe weren’t the top names–guys like Ben Gorringe, Dan Walker, and Matt Quigley–turning them into a unit that deservedly gets national recognition.
That recognition helps add talent from further afield. Players like Tristan Nkoghe and Maximus Manhu might not have chosen to come to Fredericton three years ago.
Nkoghe came out of Sherbrokke Mistral in the Quebec Elite League, a level and location unlikely to catch too many eyes in CanPL. He came to AUS last year and scored six times as a rookie, set up a few more, and would have attracted more attention at nationals were he not suspended for the quarter-final (very much his own fault; he also wasn’t great in the consolation game).
Still, Nkoghe can be the key piece in UNB’s otherwise workmanlike unit. That unit is led by Ben Gorringe, the captain and a tireless midfielder who lets Nkoghe, Quigley, and Walker wreak havoc in the channels ahead of him before arriving late to provide some finish. He led the Reds in scoring last year and he’s kept that form going in NSSL.
It’s a small but effective recruiting class, with more quality local prospects. Alex Napier will provide some cover in a weak area at fullback and Roan Saengmeng has played forward for the PEI provincial team–the kind of player I bet UPEI would have loved to get.
Expectation: Very much in contention for the banner
UNB scored by committee last year and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. They run, they gun, and they bang their goals in–they’re rarely elegant.
Which is sometimes their undoing, too, because when it comes time to hang with the top teams–Cape Breton and, last year for UNB at least, Dalhousie–they struggled to find balance and consistency between attack and defense.
That all adds up to UNB hitting both highs and lows, and last year too many of those lows came at the end of the year.
Gone are Alex O’Brien and reliable wide man Matt Boem. Those minutes can probably be filled by the likes of Manhu, Napier, and Mario Maldonado, who didn’t see a lot of time last year, but those players need to keep improving.
Grant Takacs and Joe Hamilton can provide some freshness up front, but by the time Pinsent went to them in the AUS final last year, it was too late. It’s hard to shake the feeling UNB could have used one more big name recruit, another player like Nkoghe who could instill some terror in an opponent.
Big Question: Can the kids keep developing?
Being a Moneyball teams means you’re always living on the margins. An injury or two could really hurt this team unless players like Manhu, Luis Garcia, and Jake Martin step up to fill a few more minutes.
That’s the hurdle to overcome against better teams like those they’ll face at nationals. At that level, they can’t afford the casual mistakes from the bench they got too often last year.
Barring that bigger name, though, what a team like this can do is push itself to greater levels internally. There is a higher level they need to reach to handle teams at the national level, but they have the local pipeline and teaching approach to overachieve just as easily as they underachieved last year. If Pinsent can turn one of those more unsung heroes into a stud, then maybe a win or two at nationals awaits?
Gorringe is so much in the AUS mold, but his sheer tenacity would bring a lot to a CanPL camp, at the very least. If the USPORTs draft is about getting guys a like Kouamé Ouattara and Andre Bona a shot before they age out, then Gorringe deserves one on those grounds alone.
Nkoghe has obvious talent, and missing the big night last year hurt him. He needs another big year to gain traction in USPORTs’ weird step-conference–that’s one downside of playing in New Brunswick.
Finally, I think Evan Barker should have been drafted last year. He’s among the best ‘keepers in AUS, he’s from Winnipeg, and he played PDL for WSA. How did Valour miss him?
Saint Mary’s Huskies – Tier: Professional
(2018: 4-5-3, 7th in AUS)
The football team gets the headlines, but the Huskies are always at the top of the list in every sport–hockey, basketball, and until recently, soccer.
Five years ago–a generation in USPORTs–they were medalling at nationals on a team full of strong Halifax talent. It was the beginning of a Renaissance in Halifax soccer that’s culminated this summer.
Because of that, and because this is Stephen Hart’s–and more recently, Christian Oxner’s–alma mater, eyes will be on the Huskies. They always are.
But there’s a change of approach underway.
Gone are the last vestiges of that dynastic team. Christaian Oxner and Dom Gorski cut frustrated figures at times last year, and it always felt like the Huskies were a bunch of different identities jumbled together. Now, this is finally Mesut Mert’s team, and his recruiting class shows a sign of where he wants to take this program.
He probably could have traded on Saint Mary’s history and business program to pull in some bigger names, but instead, Mert, who’s something of a Halifax legend and intimately familiar with the local youth scene, has stayed almost entirely with local talent.
It’s not necessarily the top names, either. There are two players from the league-worst Halifax County team in NSSL. They had a minus-68 goal differential! But these are young players who will benefit from good coaching and the stepping stone that is university soccer.
Mert did add John Wanamaker and Cal Thompson from the title-winning United DFC, where he actually plays as well–Mert is still going in NSSL (and still scoring).
It’s not that the existing core is bad, either. There were promising rookies last year in Cameron Zinn and Adam Dunsworth. They’ve not lost many players, and on their day could take anyone last year. Alex Black is one of the most dangerous direct runners in the league, Cian Tousignant-Osaidhall can hit him over distance, and Nana Korankye controls the tempo. They were the better team in the derby at Wanderer’s Grounds. On paper, it should work. It just wasn’t their day a bit too often.
Expectation: Playoffs, actually. How much they improve determines where they’ll finish
Even if SMU just stand pat, Acadia have taken a step back, so they could easily make the playoffs mostly by attrition–they only missed on the tie-breaker after taking themselves out of contention over the final weekend.
Mert is a smart coach capable of a couple of solutions at least as the season develops, and they’ve been decent if unspectacular in preseason, taking Dal to penalties before hanging with Cape Breton until a power outage cut them off. They beat Mount Saint Vincent, too, a solid ACAA side.
It’s reasonable to assume some of the young players will get better, and that should mean Saint Mary’s are back in contention in AUS.
Big Question: Whither the leadership?
At the same time, it’s hard not to shake that something more intangible went wrong last year, particularly after Christian Oxner got hurt
Jensen Brown did quite well as a debutante ‘keeper, but the team was rudderless. They lost control of games, blowing leads and getting blown out themselves all too often. That’s not on any one player, but it is on one player to step up and guide this team into whatever it is going to be for the next five years, too.
Is Cameron Zinn the kind of player who can do that? Can one of the veterans assert authority in the void left by Oxner? Somebody on the field has to take this team aside when the seas are stormy and drag it back to safe waters.
They also need to finish some of the chances they create.
Lack of consistency hurts–scouts notice that.
Jensen Brown was highly rated as a youth prospect. He’s still largely untested, but could easily follow Christian Oxner’s path. Cameron Zinn could do the same at centre-back.
I’m a big fan of Korankye’s and he’s usually very good in NSSL play, but I wonder about his ceiling. If he or Zinn can drag this team with them, though, that would impress me and perhaps others watching.
Memorial Seahawks – Tier: Recreational
(2018: 1-8-3, 9th in AUS)
It’s a bit odd to call a team that travels more than any other in AUS recreational. Varsity sports at Memorial cost a lot of money.
It’s not even a bad program, or an outright bad team. Memorial aren’t bottoming-out like Mount Allison did. MUN’s low tuition and ocean-specific academic programs have always attracted students, including athletes.
For some reason, MUN the school is attractive but MUN the soccer program is not. Some of it is a lack of prestige; some of it is the travel–but that affects the basketball teams, too, and they’re more successful.
The Seahawks were quite young last year, but didn’t add any recruits this year, and so still haven’t replaced the scoring lost when Tyler Forsey left. MUN scored five goals last year–and four of those came in one game against Mt. A.
The team remains 100% Newfoundlander, which is admirable in a way but in a league that’s rapidly evolving, makes it extremely hard for Memorial to keep up. This is a local team for local players.
Believe me, those local players are ambitious and strong and capable, but you need a better mix to compete. If a CanPL team were to come to St. John’s, it would, like Halifax, have to attract some from aways to compete. MUN aren’t really a recreational outfit–but they look like one on the pitch.
It wasn’t always thus: Memorial teams of yore would never exactly tiki-taka around the pitch, but they could run at teams a bit, widen the field, maybe probe for a gap.
I do think coaching is a problem, at least on the tactical side. Jake Stanford has been in charge for several years and he sends Memorial out in the most Newfoundland way possible: conservative 4-4-2/4-5-1, lots of route one, bash and grab. It’s not actually ineffective, given MUN have some size and speed, but as AUS teams develop technically and tactically, they’re learning to handle Memorial. Home points are no longer a given at King George V Park8Which is a pity, because it remains both a lovely and historic venue for Canadian soccer, the site of our one and only qualification for the World Cup. We did the smart thing, and made Honduras play in Newfoundland in September..
Expectation: Not the playoffs, and potentially sliding further towards Mt. A’s sandbox
Given there are no new recruits, it’s hard to see this group of players getting a lot better.
Newfoundland is at a soccer crossroads. There have usually been good provincial teams in Newfoundland and soccer is quite big in St. John’s–it’s hosting club nationals this year–but an utter lack of professional opportunities has been the hundred-foot wall for players born in Newfoundland. Memorial has done good work to address that, and with occasional rumours of an Atlantic league and/or CanPL in St. John’s, there are possibilities.
That’s the next step for USPORTs programs: are they in this to provide a place to play locally for a couple more years or does this build to something larger? I do think Newfoundland will–at last–get a professional pipeline at some point.
It might be too late for this generation of Seahawks, though.
Big Question: Will they attack?
It’s not so much a question of capability as intent.
Fomba Fambouleh is a fairly lively player. Often, he’d beat his man out wide and there was nobody in the box for a cross.
This meant Memorial kept the goals conceded down–and actually earned several creditable draws against decent sides–but they never looked like winning either.
Against the lower tier of AUS teams, it was like watching another team. Even on the road. At UPEI or Mount Allison, they took the game to their opponents using size and power.
But AUS isn’t that league anymore. It’s becoming something more.
UPEI Panthers – Tier: Professional
(2018: 2-7-3, 8th in AUS)
I have to confess I’ve loved UPEI’s teams ever since I went to cover women’s nationals there in 2010. Everyone involved is 100% committed.
“Last season left fans and players alike stunned and perplexed,” proclaimed the team’s season preview piece. Well, maybe.
The thing is, UPEI are never that good. The city loves them9A CanPL team in Charlottetown would be amazing with the right ownership., the school loves them, and they have the pride of a pack of lions. They will always believe they can win, even when they can’t.
Every so often, they catch a team unawares in the playoffs and go on a run–even to nationals–on the strength of sheer willpower and good defensive coaching from Lewis Page.
But you could see the playoff miss coming last year. Sam Smiley was on an island offensively, then he got hurt, and by the time he was back the whole thing was pear-shaped. UPEI just don’t have the luxury of a margin of error. Such is the talent level.
It’s not entirely their fault. What soccer players do come up on PEI–the island has only a handful of clubs–mostly move away for school. It’s a PEI tradition. They do the same thing for soccer–the PEI provincial team plays in the NSSL U17 division. Plus, UPEI is a small-ish school.
One way around that problem is to recruit from afar, and that’s what Page has done, adding Nathan Chow from the Vancouver Island Soccer League U18 division winners as his main get. Chow’s an attacking midfielder who might be able to help get some service to Smiley, and though there’ll be a step up to playing against men, the VISL is a good development league.
Expectation: Competing for that final playoff spot if they can find some goals
UPEI are still capable of surprising teams–like they did Saint Mary’s on the last day last season, costing the Huskies the playoffs.
The fifth-years have, as they often do, stuck around to give UPEI a bit more veteran depth, though this is the last year for a good chunk of the core. Page is often capable of getting a lot out of his younger and unheralded players, too. On a good day, UPEI look a lot like UNB.
They need to do better, particularly against the nearby New Brunswick teams, especially Moncton, who are beatable for UPEI.
Page has talked about playing more positively, which I like, and Cohen Reddick-Stevens just scored nine goals in 16 games for United DFC in the NSSL, so there’s potential there for this team improve on the measly 10 goals scored last year (with only three coming against playoff teams).
If Chow can adjust quick and given them three dangerous attackers (with Mon Sung Ang out wide as well), they could threaten. UPEI desperately need someone who can work in half spaces to create some space for Smiley–too much of UPEI’s attack went down the wings last year, and often it ended in defenses that were never really threatened.
The Big Question: Can the defense hold up?
When the Panthers did open up last year, they got wrecked on the break. Teams figured out they could draw the fullback into 2v1s and just wait for the backline to pull itself apart.
A lot of the solution has to come from central midfield, which is a weak point for UPEI. Fullbacks need support in wide areas and strikers need balls played where they can be dangerous. It was a very young group for UPEI last year, with rookie Duncan Murray playing a lot beside the veteran Ignacio Sanchez. Page always trusts the kids, which I also like about him, and with any luck, Murray make use of that experience this year.
Page will fix the tactics, but he can’t make Jake Deighan and Chris Sear taller, which may be the bigger problem, because when wide play didn’t work, teams could just float a ball into the six-yard box and watch chaos ensue. Nobody on the team is much over six-foot, and it shows.
Smiley’s the kind of player I like: big, good feet, can play alone up top or in support. Those kind of players are always tough to find. I don’t think he really has pro potential, but he could surprise in the same way a lot of university guys have.
Beyond that, it’s pretty barren of top prospects. UPEI are always a fun, competitive team, but they’re not really about linking to CanPL, at least not yet–that could always change and they’ll never let themselves fall too far behind.
Université de Moncton Aigles-Bleus – Tier: Recreational
(2018: 5-7-0, 6th in AUS, lost in quarter-finals to UNB)
Moncton are the whole reason I came up with this tiered idea. Nothing this team did last year made sense any other way. Sometimes that’s the beauty of sports.
I feel pretty good about putting it down to approach, because Les Aigles-Bleus aren’t a bad team–it’s just a different raison d’être, if you will, along with a different language, different players, and a different style of play.
You can actually see it in the language: there’s no Go Aigles-Bleus Go10And let’s be glad there’s not.. It’s “Service de l’Activite Physique et Sportif.” Bog-standard enough, but it all sounds a bit like gym class.
UdeM actually does recruit pretty well, albeit mostly by leveraging better soccer development elsewhere in La Francophonie, including Quebec. It’s the only French-language school in AUS11Université Saint-Anne plays in ACAA and the community college league. They have an alumnus in CanPL, too, in Kouamé Ouattara. Over the years, Les Aigles-Bleus have had talent.
Right now, and to an extent always, that talent has been a bit all over the place. Last year, it was the top guys not really performing–and they made the playoffs, somehow, mostly on the back of Florian Ntima-Nsiemi giving Félix Robichaud the job up front. Jean-Michael Dako was absolutely forgettable. Felly Elonda got hurt. Saad Mersadi was just average.
Mersadi and Dako are gone. Elonda got better. Simon-Pierre Brideau turned up. Nsiemi simplified the whole thing and it worked!
They still went out in the quarters because this team is not that good, but there is promise. Elonda, Brideau, and Robichaud are all young. So are goalkeeper Christian Masimengo and blue-chip centre-back prospect Gershome Mambo.
Defense undid them consistently, though, particularly out wide. Without major recruits (which Moncton sometimes get; haven’t seen a roster yet, though, and I’m done waiting), it looks to be a problem again. They have similar problems as UPEI with issues at fullback and a lack of height in the middle.
Expectation: Probably just in the playoffs again if they stay focused
With Acadia slipping and Saint Mary’s in, that leaves the last spot for UPEI and Moncton, and I think UdeM has a bit more talent and creativity to out-maneuvre weaknesses, though they lost 3 – 0 to the Panthers in preseason, so who knows? (They also drew UNB and only beat Mt. A by a single goal, which is so very Moncton.)
Everyone will be a year older. Mathieu Sanschagrin is yer average AUS fullback on the left; on the right, they alternated between Tarik Ajjou and a variety of converted midfielders, none of whom managed to be more than disappointing defensively. In the middle of defense it’ll be Mambo and Nikolas Landry again. Mambo was good last year and will improve but that spine is still soft.
A lot of what changed last year was a structural shift. Moncton’s two holding mids in the 4-2-3-1, the “two” line, had been light-years away from the three attackers ahead of them. So Nsiemi benched Dako12He may have been hurt, but he came back for the playoffs, where they resumed being awful. and started running everything to Brideau out wide. Brideau found Robichaud on the break, and boom–they beat Dal 5 – 1 and knocked Saint Mary’s out.
Simple soccer works.
Big Question: How much of that adjustment was made possible by or despite Mersadi?
Saad Mersadi, in theory one of Moncton’s top players, got hurt late in the year. Moncton only managed to play well for about a week and a half, so it’s hard to know on that sample size how much Mersadi, who missed part of the improvement, had to do with it.
Now he’s gone, it’ll be interesting to see if the midfield can move the ball quickly enough or if they miss his vision. He certainly wasn’t the destroyer Moncton really need back there. Kamal Anjorin can probably fill some of the playmaking role, but they still don’t have anyone like what Ouattara was for them.
Probably none, but Ouattara surprised a lot of people and this is a young team that could see some attention if and when a QUebec team enters the league.
Mount Allison Mounties – Tier: Recreational
(2018: 0-12-0, 10th in AUS)
Often quite literally recreational, in that they get a lot of their players from open tryouts, Mount Allison is not a school that recruits along athletic lines–even the football team is more a myth than actual reality.
In truth, they should really be playing in ACAA given the size and financial health of the school, but they’re probably a bit too good for the college circuit while being way, way off the best in AUS. It’s kind of an impossible situation.
George Jenkins is going into his third year of trying to do something with an impossible situation. He’s a Canadian Soccer League veteran, so I imagine the feeling is familiar. There are numerous obstacles, from recruiting to travel. He did manage, I think, to coax some better performances out of the team over the course of last season. There is progress in going from a team that couldn’t score or defend to a team that couldn’t score but could at least handle the lower-tier AUS opponents.
And hold on a sec, they’ve been going out and not only scoring, but looking competitive in preseason? What’s this? Am I about to be very very wrong? Could they–gasp!–win a game this year?
Progress here has to be measured in half steps. Never mind CanPL and the like: can they get to a point, a point this program was at about ten years ago, where they can compete with the other New Brunswick teams? That would mean a lot to the school, I suspect.
I haven’t seen rosters or recruiting announcements yet, which isn’t that surprising. Last year, Jenkins managed to add a fairly diverse list of players, but they still got stomped when the games mattered. It’s very, very tough to keep going when every game’s a blow-out.
It can take ten years to really turn around a university program. You don’t have the luxury of a big red button. It takes careful choices, a good sales pitch, and simple time to repair a team’s image. Nobody wants to play for the Mounties right now.
Jenkins has a strong résumé, which is the first step. Then you work on being hard to play against. Make it unpleasant for teams to come to Sackville and get the points. AUS players go on to become youth coaches. If they can remember a couple bruises from Mount Allison, if they remember having to break down an organized team, they’re more likely to recommend the team to a kid who might be thinking of applying there.
That’s what Jenkins is doing. This is about being competitive two, three years from now–and maybe stealing a result this year.
Mount Allison is still a good school academically with a beautiful setting and rich history. This isn’t impossible–it’s just soccer.
The Big Question: Will they win a game?
On the back of preseason, it looks like they could. That’s deceptive, since other teams also hold open tryouts by way of outreach and often run out the red shirts for chunks of games in August.
A more realistic target, once the games start to count: score a goal. They had four last year. Brogan Skinner, a defender, led the team with six shots and four on target. It would be good if a striker could lead that category yet, though if they can continue to be dangerous from set-pieces, that does at least provide a tactical template.