Here aboard the Merchant Sailor, we don’t bruck with corrections. Mutineers can expect to be thrown overboard.
By that token, this week’s AUS summary is still a playoff preview. It’s just the teams have changed, is all. Moncton are in, Saint Mary’s are, somehow, not. The goal differential swing needed was, to put it mildly, significant, and so I wrote Les Aigles-Bleus off. So, apparently, did the Huskies. Oops.
Worse things happen at sea.
We’ll get to the playoffs in a minute, but first I owe SMU an obituary.
Saint Mary’s: L 0 – 3 @ UPEI
Seven years ago, Saint Mary’s were national silver medallists with one of the best Huskies teams of all time. Names like Rory Kennedy, Zach Bauld, Jhon Cordoba, and Derek Gaudet. It’s a new generation for the Huskies now, but it includes two 2017 club champions in Christian Oxner and Kwaku Korankye.
It’s also a team that has now missed the playoffs five straight years. Is there improvement? 15 points is better than nine, or six (2017 and 2016, respectively) and there were times this season, particularly early on, where the Huskies earned some creditable results: draws against Dal and St. FX, wins over Moncton and Memorial that put them in pole position for a playoff spot.
I can’t shake the feeling I got watching them at Wanderer’s Grounds, though, a 0 – 0 with the Tigers that SMU could, maybe should, have won. Until they ran out of ideas. That turned into a bit of a trend: the Huskies could grind their way to leaving points on the table. They’re a better team than their record suggests, not just because of Korankye and Oxner (whose injury obviously derailed them a lot) but because of young and young-ish players like Alex Black (third year), Cian Tousignant-Osaidhall (second), Abdoulaye Barry, and Cameron Zinn (rookies).
For whatever reason, though, they all came out flat as a board in Charlottetown. There were no bombing runs from Black. Zinn didn’t track runs well. Korankye looked tired. Jensen Brown, who’d ably deputized for Oxner, had a shaky performance at a bad time. Sure, credit to UPEI, but the Panthers ran out a bunch of graduating bench players–Nathan Ford got a clean sheet and Noah Bitar scored just his third AUS goal. SMU were dreadful.
This is now a lost generation for the Huskies. The young players will improve, but this was Oxner’s last season. Gone, too, is Tyler Dorey. A lot is going to come down to recruitment, because while there’s talent in this core of players, I don’t think there’s enough identity or mental belief.
Some of that rests at the feet of head coach Mesut Mert. I don’t think he’s necessarily a “motivator” head coach–and it may be that’s where Oxner’s loss hurt the most, as there’s a huge difference cheering your teammates on from the sideline and being the orchestrator behind the lines–but Mert was also an assistant for the 2011-era teams, has a pretty solid local coaching résumé, and deserves a good bit of credit for the improvement this team has shown over the past three years of rebuilding.
Certainly, this will be a big winter for him on the recruiting front. This team ought to be good enough to sneak a playoff spot, but they’d not have gone far this year even had they made it. After five years, this team shouldn’t be rebuilding. But if they’re not, what are they? Seventh place.
Université de Moncton: W 5 – 1 v. Dal
It was the third goal that put Moncton into the playoffs, by the way.
They got it, and all the others, by playing like they wanted them. I actually don’t think the “obituary” I wrote last week was necessarily wrong: they decided, very very late in the game, to try and get into the playoffs. Galvanized and carrying that clear goal and identity, they managed to do it.
It’s the sort of story sports are made of.
Les Aigles-Bleus also played like they didn’t care for about 4/5s of the season, and should be easy outs for UNB on Thursday. They still can’t defend high balls into the box, their central midfield is still brittle, and they still don’t shift well to cover in defense. The Tigers were, to put it mildly, not trying very hard and they still got a goal and a bundle of chances. (We’ll get to them in a minute.)
Where I will give credit is to Florian Ntima-Nsiemi for moving Simon-Pierre Brideau out wide and for whatever he did to get this team to believe they meant to play in this league, because both were strokes of genius. Moncton sat a bit deeper and used their pace–I’d bet Ntimi-Nsiemi watched some tape from Acadia’s win over Dal–rather than trying pretty passes and quick flicks. Jean-Michel Dako played Saturday and fit in much better as a complimentary part. He has the vision and skill to find players like Brideau or, Saturday, Felix Robichaud, on the break. Both of them made hay.
Moncton are still incredibly fortunate to be in Sydney this week. A single point from SMU is all it would have taken. UNB will flood the midfield and press relentlessly and any Aigle-Bleu who takes too long on the ball is going to get punished. Their speed, though, could cause the Reds occasional problems.
How far can they go? Realistically, they’re lucky to be here and will enjoy Thursday’s game and be back in Moncton in time for the weekend. UdeM have a long and storied history of crazy playoff upsets, though, so I’d find time to watch that game against UNB. Even with a win, they’d run into Cape Breton, though maybe it’s worth noting Moncton were one of the teams to give the Capers just a bit of trouble at home this year?
Acadia: L 0 – 4 v. CBU
It’s really hard to know which of Dal and Acadia are coming into this game in worse form. The Axemen got absolutely played off the park in their final home game. Sure, it’s against the Capers, but this team still looks like it’s Ryan Parris and a collection of parts.
Parris was brilliant again, though, in hi final home game, and my guess is he’d love to go out with an AUS title. That will involve going through Cape Breton at some point, but first and foremost for Acadia are the Tigers on Thursday.
Acadia won 4 – 0 two weeks ago in Halifax, so the template is there. As I mentioned above, a lot of it was down to pace on the outside dragging Dal’s centre-backs out of position. Speed kills.
That was also one of only two wins all year against playoff teams for the Axemen (the other was against Moncton). After a very strong start to the season, Acadia have looked very shaky for over a month and are not going into this weekend in any kind of form.
A lot of their quarter-final–and the playoff run more generally–is going to come down to how well they can hold the ball in midfield, as well as where they turn it over, both for and against. A big part of that 4 – 0 win over the Tigers was down to Dal playing quick passes straight into Parris. When teams avoid that, and build more slowly, Acadia can get pinned back, Parris becomes almost a centre-back, and despite their size they get overrun in their own box.
Oh yeah, their goalkeeping is also kinda wonky. Lots of pressure on Nic Jeffries this weekend.
How far can they go? In theory, the Axemen are good enough to take on just about anyone save maybe the Capers. In practice, I think recent form says a win in the quarter-finals is the absolute best-case for this team, which might set up a tasty rematch against St. FX. I think they’ll just about beat Dal, though it won’t be 4 – 0. I don’t think they’ll go any further, though.
Dalhousie: L 1 – 5 @ Moncton
In their last five games, the Tigers have given up 11 goals. Prior to that, zero.
I’m a big believer in round-number sample sizes, by the way–nothing annoys me more than “in the last four games…” carefully chosen to omit an inconvenient statistic in that fifth match. Here, for instance, that fifth match was a very, very good 4 – 0 win over St. FX in Antigonish, possibly the best performance I’ve seen of any team in AUS this year.
So what’s with the recent form? Is it resting players? Certainly, Pat Nearing’s been rotating a bit, but he was also hot about that loss to Acadia and I can’t imagine the plan was to flush away a quarter-final bye, either*.
I do think teams and figured Dal out a bit, particularly that their centre-backs are not that quick and that Quinn Park, in particular, doesn’t defend space all that well. When the Tigers have the ball, they use it exceptionally well, maybe even more efficiently than the Capers. Once Enrico Rodriguez and Kallen Heenan have it, they play off each other better than anyone in AUS. So the trick becomes limiting Dal’s first passes. That means limiting your own turnovers and finding good places to turn them over. Do that, and there’s a lot of space behind Cullen Mullaly and Isaiah McCullough.
There are three things, though, that, if the Tigers can do them, I think give them a pretty good shot at winning against Acadia. (How’s three for a convenient number?)
First: make sure James Mathews is healthy and connected. He’s not played a lot the last couple of weeks, but I tend to think he’s Dal’s best defender at stepping out into space.
Second: get the ball wide instead of playing to Freddy Bekkers every time. Bekkers has a bad habit of taking too many touches. Against teams that press less, this doesn’t hurt. Against Acadia, UNB, and the Capers, it’s a turnover.
Third: keep everyone on the field. The last meeting between Acadia and Dal was feisty. Matches against Cape Breton are always feisty. No team is better equipped than Dal to needle the Capers, by the way, but Heenan and Rodriguez need to stay on the field.
How far can they go? A lot depends on Thursday’s game–I’m less than sure Dal can figure out how to slow Acadia down. If they do–mainly through point #2 above, to get the ball away from Ryan Parris–then a match-up with the Capers likely waits. On their day, Dal can upset Cape Breton. They’ll go as far as Ben Grondin takes them.
( * Slight caveat: there is a school of thought says it’s better to play the quarer-final and gain momentum. Prime example of this tends to be the 2010 Dal women’s team, who were one of the best teams in the country before losing to a UPEI team that had momentum coming out of the quarters. I don’t buy it, though, particularly for this Dal team. Fewer games is better.)
UNB: W 11 – 0 v. Mt. A
Since mid-September, UNB are the best team in the league.
They’ve also had almost unquestionably the toughest schedule, opening with a trip to Sydney where they were the only team to take a point off the Capers in Cape Breton this year. (Oddly, the other team was Memorial, in St. John’s.)
Throughout, the Reds have been structured and clear about how they play. Even in the tougher parts–a bad weekend at home to Dal–they’ve stayed true to their pressing and kept faith in their strikers, even when they, at times, couldn’t finish. Head coach Myles Pinsent has tweaked, but never had to re-engineer anything.
They’re the in-form team, but there are weaknesses. Those strikers, for one. Their goal numbers are merely respectable: Dan Walker’s got six, Matt Quigley three, Tristan Nkoghe, who’s really more of a winger, six. They score by committee, and one of the things I love about their attack is how well their different attackers play off each other, supporting and moving into space.
Nkoghe, in particular, is crucial. UNB’s turn coincides with his settling in and starting to produce. He’s a pure attacking winger with great feet and pace. That opens space for the host of other attackers.
Occasionally, the Reds rely a little too much on him, and a little too much on line-busting through balls and crosses–both of which are kinda low percentage players. They can also get overrun a bit on the counter when too many of their players go forward, although they’re quite good about positional discipline and reading danger.
How far can they go? All the way? It’s hard to see anyone knocking Cape Breton off, but UNB already got the result in Sydney this year. They’re a physical, organized team that the Capers won’t be able to easily break down. First, though, they have to get through the quarters–those dropped points against Dal, and at Saint Mary’s a couple weeks ago really hurt when the Reds miss out on the bye by a point. They should beat Moncton. They can absolutely beat St. FX, as they proved last year. A UNB – Cape Breton final is not out of the question. And they drew their one meeting.
St. FX: W 1 – 0 @ MUN; W 4 – 1 @ MUN
There are so, so many questions here.
The obvious one is the goalkeeping. Who starts? For what it’s worth, it looks like Will Veniot has won the starting job back, but they split the games in St. John’s and Veniot got clattered late against Memorial so who knows? Neither of them has been at all steady this year, so it may just be picking a poison for Graham Kennedy.
How tired are they from the Newfoundland trip? The schedule did them no favours with the long trip to end the season. Remember, these are student-athletes–this is also mid-term time, which means you jet off to St. John’s on Thursday or early Friday, you miss a bunch of classes, you get back late Saturday or early Sunday and have to catch up before missing more classes for playoffs.
How well will Lewis Dye, Ayoub al-Arabi, and William Warren hold up in their first playoffs? It’s a bit more physical, plus it’s their first time doing the whole academic slog above. All have become critical cogs in the X-Men system, and they need to be at their best.
Dan Hayfield scored a hat-trick from open play on Saturday–his first three open play goals this year–so that answers that a bit. He’s going to have to be huge for X.
On their game, they’re an attractive side. They pass well, they can score from distance, they combine. The problems start to come when they get countered. It’s hard to know who they’ll play yet, and unlike Cape Breton, that could matter a lot. Dal beat them 4 – 0. They beat UNB 2 – 0. The Acadia game could have gone either way.
How far can they go? As far as their best players take them. Tane Caubo, Warren, Hayfield, Dye. Or, more accurately, as far as their weakest link: their slow centre-backs, whichever goalkeeper plays, their fullbacks. Last year, they got the bye and got bounced by UNB. This year, they got the bye and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they get bounced by UNB.
Cape Breton: W 4 – 0 @ Acadia
There is no better overall team in AUS. On paper, this tournament is more about the Capers punching their ticket to nationals where all the CanPL scouts will be**, even about developing a good run of form heading to Vancouver.
They’ve already been on a great run of form, mostly against playoff teams. Since Sept. 14 against St. FX, they’ve conceded one goal. To Mount Allison, with a very second-string lineup. Corey Bent has started to fully click. The defense solidified. Their midfield play and movement has become more patient, more probing.
Incidentally, that same Sept. 14 match, which they won on a late penalty, showcased a few of Cape Breton’s very few flaws. When teams play against them there is a bit of space to be had in behind. They don’t always scramble so well in the box. But these are minor little potholes, and they’ve largely sorted them out–Dal tried to play long against them, and Ben Jackson swept up well; St. FX tried one-on-ones and the Capers scrambled them away.
There’s one thing I wonder if some coach will try. It’s a page out of the black book, and it’s very much not in the AUS culture, but it’s also a tactic that has worked against Capers teams of yore. That is, needle them. Kick them. Antagonize. Dive a bit, see if you can draw a penalty.
St. FX did this a bit in that first match, and Marcus Campanile, who is the foundation of much of the Capers midfield, should probably have been sent off. In a meaningless game against Acadia this weekend, Cape Breton players were losing their minds at every non-call. Sometimes this happens to teams that get too used to winning. They expect it. Cape Breton are in a position to expect it this weekend. A team that goes at them, that frustrates them, is going to make them make a mistake.
It is, ironically enough, exactly what Cape Breton did to Montreal last year.
How far will they go? Nationals. At nationals, I’d say final four, with at least a decent shot at another final appearance, pending injuries and the like. That’s what this team is built for and as much as this post is a preview of every team’s playoff route, a lot of it is prognosticating how they might not all end against Cape Breton.
( ** Interestingly, a lot of Cape Breton’s players are internationals, and would likely count against CanPL player quotas, making it unlikely any of them will be drafted to the more developmental university/CanPL contracts. I really need to do a follow-up post on this and will before nationals and the draft.)
Referee performance of the week
You know what the hardest part of reffing is. Those damn pre-game walkouts.
So when someone left a ball right in the walkout path of historic King James V Park*** in St. John’s, disaster could have struck. Enter referee Shannon Tobin, who, never breaking stride, launched said ball into row Z before some unfortunate AR went sprawling or Memorial lost another goalkeeper to injury.
Some minor housekeeping
It’s been a lot of fun getting back into covering AUS soccer after a few years absence.
The quality of the league’s event production and online presence has come a long way since the time when I used to send new Gazette contributors to the AUS website with a warning to call me if they got lost and couldn’t find their way out.
There is still a lot that can be done, but we’re in another grade now and a blog like this wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago.
Some of the stream commentary has been a lot of fun, and I’d especially like to drop a shout-out to Allan April at Saint Mary’s whose knowledge of AUS and NSSL soccer is nigh-on encyclopedic, and, having been away for such a long time, I relied a lot his and others’ work to get back up to speed on the league. It’s been a pleasure watching.
My hope is to liveblog both AUS playoffs and nationals, pending some technical housekeeping I have to find time for this week.
If you’ve been reading this university season, or read through in the future, my thanks and I hope I’ll see you around town.