In a weird way, the return of university soccer this week felt like the return of local soccer.
Wanderers have been playing home games for a couple months, of course, and amateur ball has been back since early July, but there’s something about a university game that’s different for the way it plays on those tiny little regional niggles you have to live here in order to fully understand.
Plus there were some really nice crowds out around AUS this weekend, more so than normal to my eye, anyway, and for both the men’s and women’s games, which is nice to see.
If you’re new to the blog, we focus on the men’s side a bit more here due to the link between university soccer and the Canadian Premier League. However, if a women’s professional league is ever to get off the ground in Canada, it need to both depend and develop from the local game, and this was yet another weekend where some of the most entertaining soccer was played in the earlier games, and I’ll drop notes below where I can. If only there were more hours for watching soccer in a day.
UNB (W 1 – 0 @ Dal; W 2 – 0 @ Acadia)
We’ll start with the Reds because they came out of the first weekend with an impressive six points, including wins over Acadia for both the men and women (and a win at Dalhousie for the men), which would put them on top of the table but for it being unbalanced early on.
They were both consummate road performances of the sort UNB have typically delivered over the years, taking advantage of a penalty in Halifax and an early red card in Wolfville, although these came under new head coach and international toboggan expert Barry Morrison.
A good chunk of the experienced core is back, though, even after the canceled 2020 season. A lot of veteran players have graduated, and the extra stability from guys like Joe Hamilton and Tom Pheulpin showed for UNB over the weekend. Pheulpin, in particular–the always dependable Texan had my play of the weekend against Acadia, hopping back on one foot while desperately cramping just to make sure he got in front of tricky winger Noah Schuurman, even while UNB were up a man.
It was the offense that was more impressive, though. UNB lost a combined 40 career goals over the break, mostly in the form of midfield general Ben Gorringe and veteran striker Dan Walker. They ran out Grant Takacs for 150 minutes in two days, and he scored twice for them in Wolfville.
Takacs, a fourth-year who’s usually been something of a super-sub–he’d only started five games prior to Saturday–is more of a workhorse, and not what you’d call a natural athlete, either, but he’s always been smart about where he puts himself and efficient with his defensive pressing. He’s exactly the kind of player who can thrive with good service in AUS, and exactly the kind of player teams need to round out as they get older.
The more interesting test for UNB will come at home, where they’ve always been a tad inconsistent. I’m curious to see if that changes under Morrison, who’s a local Fredericton soccer institution, and who’s recruiting class featured a number of solid two-way players.
First, they get to be road warriors again in Cape Breton and Antigonish. It’s a tough start to the season, but six points from this stretch would have been a good haul and they’ve already got that. If they can steal points from either the Capers or the X-Men, they’re for real.
Dalhousie (L 0 – 1 v. UNB)
Dropping your home opener in front of 300 fans is not how you want to start your season, or your career as a head coach. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Tigers were led by someone other than Pat Nearing, although long-time assistant Alan Jazic is hardly an unfamiliar face, either.
Dal have a home heavy schedule through September and UNB’s visit was probably the toughest game this month, so there’s no reason for panic after just one game. The AUS season is short, though, and the road-heavy schedule before Halloween is downright scary.
It’s a younger Dalhousie team, and Jazic really leaned on that youth on Saturday. It was a bold and slightly surprising choice, but not necessarily a bad one: the Tigers outplayed UNB for large stretches, and just couldn’t get a finish from either Nova Scotia provincial team prospect Luke Berryman or St. FX transfer William Warren.
There was a lot of good play around that, though, and the three-man back-line of Ben Bruce, Chris Pike, and Ben Kischuk–all rookies–looked plenty comfortable. They were undone by a bad bounce and a handball, which happens. In Enrico Rodriguez and Gracious Kasheke they still have two of the league’s more inventive players, and keeping them healthy will be easier without having to play two games every weekend all season.
They need to beat Saint Mary’s on Thursday, though, to show they belong. They beat the Huskies in pre-season, but boy did SMU look good this weekend….
AUS schedules games based on travel, and the trip up the 104 to play in Sydney and then at St. FX on the way back is at least as punishing as the flight out to St. John’s, and against two top-quality teams to boot.
The Huskies hung with them much as they did in the 2019 playoffs. A good chunk of that team is back, as it was a pretty young group, supplemented by Mesut Mert’s ability to find overlooked local studs like South Shore player Callum Corkum, who had aparticularly impressive opening weekend for an 18-year-old, and Kaveh Worrell,
Abdoulaye Barry is not a local guy, but he was spectacular, especially in Sydney, and set up a gorgeous opener for another veteran, Sumit Malik. For a long time, it looked like the Huskies might catch the Capers.
The way it all fell apart was way, way too familiar. In both games, Jensen Brown got caught out by a combination of the wind and some really questionable positioning on set-pieces into his box. Look, there’s rust here for everyone, and Brown had some fine saves, too, but those are the kind of goals that just break teams.
Is this the wrong time to mention that the women’s team lost 7-2 to Cape Breton and 5-1 to St. FX? Not good.
Saint Mary’s battled back, to their credit, only to miss a late penalty against Cape Breton and concede one against St. FX. Take the mistakes and penalties off the board, though, and SMU beat Cape Breton 1-0 and draw St. FX 0-0 for four points.
It’s no longer a question of whether the Huskies will make the playoffs. They should. They very likely will. How far they go is going to be determined by how and when these youthful mistakes keep happening.
St. FX (W 2 – 1 @ UPEI; W 2 – 1 v. SMU)
Speaking of goalkeeping mistakes… St. FX is back!
It wouldn’t be AUS without X being, well, X. The school as a whole has a reputation to live up to and the varsity soccer program can only hope to do its part.
There was some lovely play, at times, especially against a weaker UPEI team, but also way, way too many of the mistakes that cost the X-Men at nationals in 2019. They went down a man just 25 minutes into the AUS season on Friday night, with two rapid-fire yellows to Josh Read for mouthing off at the ref. Very X. Against Saint Mary’s, they let the Huskies back into the game when Lewis Dye conceded a needless penalty on a long ball Alex Black was never getting to.
The positive is that the X-Men looked a lot more balanced than that 2019 team, with veterans Luke Harrington and Blake Fenton dangerous all weekend rather than just some of it. They controlled the game against UPEI very well despite playing with only ten, even if they did let the Panthers back in when Seamus MacDonald dropped a late cross. It was wet and windy in the first game back at the “Parc de Prince Edward Island” though. Another way you know AUS is back.
Kyle Cordeiro, though, was a revelation, a quick, clever, creative #10 out of Erin Mills SC who’s built for the AUS. He scored X’s second in PEI, off a lovely shifting side-to-side build-up he orchestrated and finished off.
The young back-line, now featuring Wanderers prospect Luke Green, was a bit rougher. Neither of those two is huge, and UPEI caused them endless problems, especially late, just by throwing numbers and the ball into the box. In open play, though, Graham Kennedy’s side can build beautifully from the back, another trait that’s returning from 2019.
This should be a good team, maybe even good enough for another late November trip to nationals in Ottawa. How far they can go is going to be directly related to how good their defending is. You can’t spot the Capers, Dal, or UNB so many ways back into a game, especially in the playoffs, much less Carleton or UBC.
UPEI (L 1 – 2 v. St. FX; W 1 – 0 @ Moncton)
Even without the pandemic, UPEI are a bit of asterisk in soccer terms. The Island’s soccer scene is passionate but small, making local recruitment tough, and local recruitment played an oversized role the past couple of years.
That is, however, how UPEI ended up with Riad Jaha, a Whitecaps Residency player who very likely would have gone somewhere else save for his being from PEI and the province having relatively few Covid restrictions. So he came back to play locally in 2020 and ended up with the Panthers.
This leaves Lewis Page a bit of a quandary: how do you build a team around a very talented fullback and the enigmatic attacking midfielder Nathan Chow? Because beyond those two, it’s pretty workmanlike group, where “workmanlike” should be read as “probably not gonna score a lot of goals”.
That’s pretty much Page’s template anyway, but if you’re going to be a hard-working defensive team you can’t be quite so vulnerable to getting pulled around in defense. Even down a man, St. FX were able to fashion chances out of one-on-twos and one-on-threes, especially out wide. This is not a team that wants any kind of initiative, or even wants to try and get it, which actually makes going up a man deeply difficult–UPEI wanted to be allowed to sit back and counter.
Even then, they gave away a goal six minutes in off a badly defended corner kick, which you just can’t do when you’re that kind of team.
So yeah, it’s very hard to know what this AUS season is going to look like, with so many newer players. There will be a lot of learning, and UPEI are probably well positioned to do that. Usually, you can just about count on the Panthers snagging the last playoff spot and causing somebody problems in November. To do that, they’re going to have be better than one of Acadia or Saint Mary’s, and I’m not sure I saw anything on the opening weekend to suggest that’s the case.
Acadia (L 0 – 2 v. UNB)
You can copy a lot of Dal’s bit above and paste it here. The Axemen, however, have to travel back and forth more, so dropping an early home game will hurt, especially one against a UNB team they should probably be competitive with.
As with everyone, there are a lot of new faces. One of them, Adrien Deveau, got himself sent off early in the first half for a dangerous lunge, which meant we didn’t really get much of a chance to see Acadia go at UNB.
They were effective just by sending Noah Schurrman and Jabu Deng in down the flanks to cause problems. Oscar Marshall and Joe Iatrou managed to wrest some possession at times. Numbers were a problem, as they will be when you’re shorthanded. The young players looked like they meshed well with the veterans and it felt like Acadia had a plan for the first time since about 2018, even if they couldn’t execute it quite the way they’d intended to prior to the red.
Marshall, in particular, is a very solid prospect, a CF Montreal academy player choosing to come to AUS, which might not have happened prior to CanPL and Wanderers. He also looked like exactly the player Iatrou needed beside him, with Marshall bringing energy and quickness to complement Iatrou’s vision and experience.
So there are reasons you can see this coming together for Amit Batra and Findlay MacRae. 2019 was a real step back for a pretty proud program, and any rebuild will have been a bit scuppered by the pandemic. I do wonder, though, if it might have given Acadia time to move on from some veteran players and start bringing in prospects like Marshall with the aim of being a top side in two or three years.
We aren’t going to know on the first weekend, anyway.
Cape Breton (W 2 – 1 v. SMU)
There’s a bit of chatter out there that maybe Cape Breton aren’t going to be as good this year.
I don’t know if I agree. I think Jose da Cunha, who was drafted but not signed by Forge, is that good. Kairo Coore, an NCAA transfer who’s also from Erin Mills, looks like he might be. A meaningful chunk of the old core–Euan Bauld and Charlie Waters–are back, and there are a pile of the kind of recruits you’d expect to have CanPL potential, not just AUS potential.
They do often start slowly, and they did again this weekend. There were flashes against Saint Mary’s, and Waters in particular looked up for it and connected very well with Coore. Daniel Williams was a bit more composed than he has been in the past, and used his always terrific pace to set up Irish NAIA transfer Cian Lynch. Carson Larabie, a League 1 Ontario player, did a lot of the kind of work Marcus Campanile used to do in midfield.
They also just about let Saint Mary’s escape with a draw where previous year’s Capers teams would have finished the game off in an hour. Yeah, the penalty was a bit of a gift and Daniel Clarke did will to make up for being a bit over-aggressive by saving Neil Spires’ shot, but still. There were some hearts in mouths, and it was a quieter afternoon in Sydney than you expect.
The Capers will host women’s nationals this year, by the way, if you’re looking for a fun trip in… late November. In Cape Breton. We know you are.
Memorial (W 3 – 0 v. Mt. A; W 6 – 1 v. Mt. A)
The Seahawks are technically on top of the table after the opening weekend, which has to feel nice. It’s a bit of an illusion, after two home games against the Mounties, but still worth mentioning.
Also worth mentioning is that MUN looked nothing like they had in 2019. They were fast, fluid, attacking. Even against Mount Allison, Seahawks games were often physical affairs with a concerning lack of skill. That’s changed.
Emmanuel Dolo, a Newfoundland rookie but one who, unlike the average Memorial recruit, has spent time in various professional academies, put up two hat tricks on opening weekend (he also missed a penalty and hit the post). Felly Elonda moved from Moncton to Memorial and looked like a much different player–and so did the Seahawks for having a midfielder who could start attacks. Jacob Grant was able to drift unmarked and created two goals for Dolo while scoring another.
And sure, it’s Mount A. They now go on the road for four straight against top teams, and we are going to get a much better idea what they are than a game played in St. John’s in a hurricane.
Both Grant and Dolo have real professional ambitions, and will have an eye on Wanderers, particularly the U23 program. Both have work to do, and need an environment in which they can do it. Memorial can’t do that alone, but it is good to see the Seahawks back as a competitive outfit where Newfoundland players can showcase themselves.
Mount Allison (L 0 – 3 @ Memorial; L 1 – 6 @ Memorial)
If you’ve been following AUS for any length of time, you probably know how it goes with Mount Allison.
Every conference has smaller schools that can’t compete with the larger programs. Mount Allison have been more competitive in the past, and in 2019 it even looked like they might be closer to it than they had been in the past half-decade, but this was always going to be a long-term project about rebuilding the program’s reputation and culture.
They were certainly physical this weekend. Going up to Newfoundland is one of the crucibles of AUS soccer. Learning to match (or even exceed–Mount A picked up six yellows this weekend) Memorial’s physicality is part of that, and this is no longer quite as young a group as it was in 2019. They played like men.
For half an hour in the second game of the weekend, played in much better conditions, they managed to hold Memorial, and even got a lead before conceding six unanswered. That right there is what happens in the second game after a flight, and that, too, is part of learning to compete in this league.
Whether any of that amounts to progress I’ll leave to you. They scored a goal, via Will Fenton, a rookie. They put together attacks as more of a unit. They now go home for three straight, including a maybe winnable game next week against Acadia, and don’t have to do the two-games-in-two-days thing again until the end of October.
Université de Moncton (L 0 – 1 v. UPEI)
The video for the Moncton – UPEI game was late due to technical difficulties. There’s always one game on AUS I just can’t get to anyway.
This isn’t a great result for Moncton, especially at home, but that should be taken with the caveat that it’s been a very weird year. Even places where some sort of summer league was possible didn’t necessarily play a full schedule. Getting consistent fitness and training, especially full-field, has been tough.
Moncton are a slightly less formal program to begin with, with most of the players coming mostly for the French-language education, not that it’s stopped them having some very good players over the years. As with most AUS teams, they’re very young this year, with only Félix Robichaud and Heritier Masimengo as recognizable outfield names.
UPEI rotated some players for this one–Jaha only got twenty minutes–probably to keep legs fresh and avoid injuries. This was not played at the highest of tempos. Moncton held them for 70-odd minutes before ACAA veteran Ehab Moustafa found Kasper Lasia at the top of the box and the UPEI rookie looped a nice shot into the top corner. As is often the case, Moncton got caught without enough guys really committed to defending.
This is often a “who’s going to get in the playoffs?” kind of game, but where it came so early for both teams, there’s not much to read into it. Both are going to have to figure out if they’re better than Memorial, though.
Scorebud of the Week
It’s early in the season, so you need creative solutions to creative problems. Fortunately, this is where St. FX students specialize, so rather than figure out how to put one of those nifty score-clocks in the corner of the webcast, they just pointed a camera at the stadium scoreboard and streamed that straight into the feed.
Never change, X.
It’s good to see AUS is back.