I’m determined to write that headline again and again until it happens.
Until it does, AUS soccer is your best option to something approaching League 1 Ontario or League 1 BC in Atlantic Canada. It’s also the best option for young players looking to push themselves and earn a camp invite to a Canadian Premier League or other professional side.
It has not been an especially great season for the Nova Scotia Soccer League, for reasons we’ll get into below, but NSSL already has to be too many different things to too many different people; it can’t be a U23 semi-pro outfit, too.
Increasingly, university players and recruits are playing in semi-pro leagues in the summer. There’s always been a top echelon that have — Euan Bauld played at Foothills when they were in PDL, Peter Schaale with Highlanders — but now there’s a broader opportunity for young soccer players in this country.
That opportunity leaves university soccer at a bit of a crossroads, too, particularly in Atlantic Canada. Some schools serve as essentially local teams. Some have ambitions to be an event closer to an Electric City or Altitude match. Some are stuck in the shadow of football programs or campus recreation bureaucracies.
USPORTs, the national body formerly known as Canadian Inter-university Sport, hired a new CEO this spring. Pierre Arsenault has deep ties to AUS — he was president of the conference from 2018 to 20220 and Mount Allison’s athletics director from 2011 until last June. His résumé is mainly football of the pointier kind, but in case that didn’t stop you reading, he was also a development coordinator for Hockey Canada in Atlantic Canada and in Saskatchewan prior to his time with Mt. A.
Given the revelations about the culture at Hockey Canada, and Mount Allison’s sideways approach to anything that isn’t football (and, honestly, even to the football), it’s fair to have some questions about where USPORTs is headed. There are challenges for this organization beyond just soccer, but in soccer there is also a real opportunity.
— AFTN (@aftncanada) September 2, 2022
Atlantic University Sport has not particularly been at the forefront of connecting with CanPL despite having numerous draftees from Cape Breton and despite several schools taking the initiative to host games at Wanderers’ Grounds. Despite Wanderers’ regularly drawing thousands to watch soccer, even pulling a thousand this summer to a couple of U23 games, AUS gives the sport precious little marketing compared to its beloved football bowls.1Just in case people are inclined to dispute this: Guelph just played Cape Breton in a marquee pre-season match at the Grounds. AUS Soccer still has stories form last year’s playoffs on its main page and a week later, there’s still no mention of the Capers – Gryphons game. If you are looking for info on AUS soccer, I’d generally recommend checking the individual schools’ websites first. Again, more on that in a bit.
There’s lots of Wanderers U23 scattered through this preview, so if you’re a stressed-out Wanderers fan wanting to look to the future, never fear. And the early success for Wanderers U23 — it is early, mind, with the team only playing a couple games so far — does create a spark for something more. A full league for players like Luke Green, Felly Elonda, and Héritier Masimengo will take time and, most importantly, investment.
But it will also take leadership. The real kind, not the Hockey Canada kind. And if university programs don’t provide that, other parts of the soccer community will.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
2021: 4th is AUS (6-3-3) Lost in AUS final and tied for last at nationals2Absolutely deserved better, though. They gave Guelph a decent run, then lost the consolation semi on penalties to a solid UVic side
It took a while, but I think Mesut Mert has finally got the team he wants, playing the way he wants. It’s a bit odd to say that given the Huskies were such a dominant force in the middle part of last decade, when Mert was an assistant coach, but this is, at last, an entirely different group. That’s how university soccer goes.
In 2021, they finally held onto their new underdog ethos all the way to the AUS final, where they fell apart a bit with fatigue, unfortunately — Saint Mary’s play a high-octane game and it caught up with them, but it also makes them one of the best tickets in town to watch exciting local talent.
They should easily be a playoff team again this year. Now it’s time to start hoping for more, particularly come November in Ottawa.
Departing: Nana Korankye, Abdelaleem Alfitori, Alex Black, Abdoulaye Barry3Shout-out to my old commentary buddy and new Saint Mary’s sport information guru Allan April for being the first to post 2022 rosters.
There are some names in that group of veterans, but the Huskies are overall still a fairly young team. Everyone in AUS has to replace two or three guys a year, that’s how it goes with limited eligibility.
The core is still young, still the group that surprised teams last year with its tenacity and intensity. They still have guys like Sumit Malik and Cian Tousignant-Osaidhail in midfield — those two come in as fifth-years and would like to win now, please.
Replacing Abdoulaye Barry will be hard — I think he was one of the best players SMU has ever had, and I don’t say that lightly. Fortunately, the Huskies have probably the top recruit in AUS coming, a bona fide CanPL player in Scott Firth, who can anchor the midfield while Malik and Tousignant-Osaidhail play as dual #8s ahead of him.
(Update: I rather foolishly forgot the USPORTs rule that forces players who have played professionally in the past calendar year sit out a season, in addition to the rule that makes them lose a year of eligibility. Thanks to Scott Firth’s father Andy for the reminder in the comments. Thanks to this very silly rule, Firth can only train with Saint Mary’s this season.)
We haven’t actually seen that many CanPLers drift out of the pro ranks and end up in university — league’s still a bit too new for that. It’s not a bad thing by any means: one of the reasons the Canadian Hockey League perseveres despite its best efforts is because of the agreement it has with players to fund their schooling if they don’t make pro. CanPL is probably a little way off that level financially, but it makes sense for teenagers like Firth to push themselves, then head to school.
Nor is Firth’s CanPL career necessarily over, thanks to the USPORTs draft. He played with Wanderers U23 and with NSSL champions Suburban FC4This would be my only quarrel — Firth’s got to get himself to a league that’s going to push him more than NSSL can. Hopefully Wanderers can facilitate either a loan or at least get him an in somewhere in Ontario or Quebec. I actually think PLSQ would benefit his tactical awareness and speed of play a lot., and you can easily see he’s at the semi-professional level. He just needs that little bit of extra intensity and quickness that comes from highly competitive matches, the kind he couldn’t get into for Wanderers often enough. He’ll get that at SMU, though, under Wanderers assistant coach Mert no less.
Mert has done a very good job picking up local talent that was… maybe not overlooked but less-heralded. Nobody was talking about Ben Kloppenburg or Woody Bain as professional prospects this time last year5Full disclosure: I know both Ben and Woody through refereeing. Bain actually just went to the Canada Games as an assistant referee, so he’s got potential on multiple paths going., and now Bain’s got a Wanderers U23 camp invite and Kloppenburg probably could have. While both were always solid enough youth players, they were both excellent as rookies for SMU. Bain, in particular, quickly became one of the best attacking left-backs in AUS.
This year, the Huskies have added depth midfielders Noah Comeau-Shantz and Tommy McCormick, both teens who have played in NSSL with United DFC, where Mert still plays himself. I always rate rookies who have gone up against men, plus Mert knows them. Nathan Langille, another versatile midfielder who played for the Nova Scotia Canada Games team, also played for County, where Mert found Neil Spires.
There are only two out-of-province recruits, and both will likely be off-the-bench options, though Tyler Pinsent, out of Fredericton, where’s he consistently been one of the best players in a small city with a big soccer scene, just finished a very respectable fourth with the New Brunswick Canada Games team.
Jaden Loague, meanwhile, is a quick and very, very vertical winger, much suited for Mert’s game, who played in League 1 Ontario with Forest City London. He’s a bit of an off-board prospect in CanPL terms, but he also sounds a lot like Alex Black and SMU will need someone to stretch the field.
Up front, Sean Freeman put up 7g/5a last year, which is terrific in a 12-game AUS season. Most of them came early, and he slowed down a bit late in the season, so SMU might need to rotate him a bit, and if they do, they’ll need some of the younger attackers — Youssef Lakhal and Neil Spence — to continue to develop and, more important, score more.
Lakhal got one in pre-season against St. Thomas and the Huskies battled St. FX to a draw, which is particularly good as X is most of the Suburban team mentioned above. They lost to Dal, though, which will sting. On the flipside, they lost to Dal last year, then went and did much better than their cross-town rivals in the games that mattered.
As much as they need to score a bit more this year, I suspect the ideal will be to stay a bit tighter defensively, too, even when pressing and transitioning fast, which can distort a team’s shape in turn. Wanderers fans will want to keep an eye on fullbacks Bain and Keveh Wornell, and in Cameron Zinn and Adam Dunsworth, the Huskies have two veteran, dependable AUS centre-backs who can and should propel them to Ottawa in November. (Zinn, it’s worth noting, also got a Wanderers U23 camp invite.)
The Huskies have a tricky schedule to start the season, hosting Mt. Allison on Friday before doing the quick turnaround up to Cape Breton for Sunday afternoon. They should beat the Mounties but you never have any idea what they’re going to look like, and playing the Capers on short rest is rough. Four points would be a very good haul from opening weekend for Mert’s men.
If they get there, though, they have a nice easy September that should put them in a playoff position with a chance to push for a first-round bye that would be very, very useful come November.
Pre-season: D 1-1 v. St. FX, W 3-0 v. St. Thomas (ACAA), L 0-1 @ Dal
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
Second, and they’ll upset somebody in the semis again to get to nationals
2021: 7th in AUS (4-5-3)
That record last year has to be taken with a couple asterisks, mainly to do with where this program is at right now. The Tigers went into the post-Covid era with their first new coach in 20 years, after Pat Nearing’s departure.
Nearing built a Tigers team that, while primarily developmental, could be counted on to make the playoffs every year, sometimes more. While there’s a lot of Nearing in his long-time assistant Alan Jazic’s team, the 2022 Tigers are no longer a fresh-faced group coming off Covid.
They are still young, and there should be continuity and growth this year. They will need that to make the playoffs in a very competitive AUS. There’s room for them to do it, but they need to beat out veteran local groups like UPEI, Acadia, and Moncton, which will require several of last year’s younger local starlets to make this Tigers team their own, and it will require Alan Jazic to figure out the team’s identity before October.
Departures: Matt Larter, William Warren, Liam Doiron, Jacob Bolton, Niall Burnett, Emilio Roche, Enrico Rodriguez
That’s a lot of talent departing, but not much of it delivered in 2021, for various reasons. Jazic tried to bring in transfer guys for experience, as has often been the Tigers’ way — Dalhousie is one of the only Atlantic schools with a large selection of graduate programs to attract fifth-years — but Matt Larter and particularly William Warren both disappointed. Both are now suiting up for Thesis FC, but will probably be remembered more for their time with Cape Breton and X, respectively.
That said, by far the Tigers’ biggest recruit this year is technically a transfer student, though much younger. Mykeo Parker-Christmas is also a local kid — that’s a real trend with Jazic’s first real class, and both he and Parker-Christmas are well known in the Halifax soccer scene.
Somewhat a second striker, Parker-Christmas scored for fun at youth level and is very technically strong — a typical Dal player, basically. He trained with Wanderers U23 but didn’t make the final team, which surprised me a bit but he probably lost out to his new teammate Luke Berryman.
Jazic is going to need Parker-Christmas to score against U23s and up, too. The Tigers had only 16 goals last year, and UPEI were the only playoff team with fewer, thanks largely to their sterling defense.
Speaking of which, Dal went with a very, very young backline in 2021 and it showed. Things got better as the season went on, but it was too late to help. A bunch of that group popped up at Wanderers Grounds this summer — I was a bit surprised how many Dal players made Wanderers U23, though neither Ben Bruce nor Connor Manuel played that much, or looked super confident against PLSQ (and RSEQ) players when they did. Aiden Rushenas, whom I do really rate and who was brilliant for Dal last year, also had some wobbles.
The real breakout for Dal last year wasn’t a local guy but a Yukonian, Ben Kischuk. He’s a bit all-action, but well-suited to the physicality of the AUS game, and he scored against Nova Scotia at the Canada Games, too, good man. (Nova Scotia were awful at this year’s Games.)
There’s enough talent there, especially when you throw in Callum Legge, who’s coming off a proper sophomore slump, for Dal to tighten up enough to make the rest work tactically. Because it is going to be a tactical challenge.
In Parker-Christmas, Gracious Kasheke, and Luke Berryman, Dal have three strikers who kind of want to play off a big #9. When Berryman did so with Wanderers U23, off former League 1 Ontario player Ryan Robinson, he completely changed the first U23 game and had a very good St.-Hubert side scrambling. Kasheke would do the same.
Tying them together is either Riley Workman, who’s a good player but has a very appropriate name, or UPEI transfer Mo Jaber, who has 14 goals in 46 AUS games, but is coming home to play his last season in his hometown. He did put up a very respectable 5g/3a with Suburban this summer, though he also missed a lot of time. Admittedly, UPEI are not an offensively-oriented team, but Jaber’s more of a counterattacker than a target man like Robinson. I will believe this combination can work when I see it.
There are a pile of wingers who could help, too — certainly, Dal need someone who can stretch the field and attack the box, even more now Enrico Rodriguez has graduated from injured a lot to no longer eligible at all.6He remains one of my faovurite players of the last four or five years in AUS, just for his ruthless finishing.. Joseph Ndopedro is a New Brunswick provincial team player who was also at Canada Games, and as above, New Brunswick did quite well. There’s a gap, though, between that level and AUS defenses.
There’s a gap between the Nova Scotia provincial team and AUS, too — perhaps a larger one given NS just finished ninth at Canada Games and lost 3 – 0 to the Yukon. While up a man for the last 20. Yeah. There’s a lot of this Dal team looks a lot like the Nova Scotia provincial team of the past few years — it’s heavily Halifax-based, heavy on the Whitecaps program, and while there’s talent there, the reason we need a U23 league is because AUS needs to fill a hole in the local pyramid by bringing in players who aren’t already well-known.
To that end, Jazic, a Halifax guy to his bones (yes, Ante Jazic is his brother), has brought in a couple OPDL guys, a couple Prairie guys, and a BCPSL guy. All are probably more about 2023 or 2024 as Jazic looks to rebuild this program a bit.
If it’s going to work in 2022, it’ll be because Luke Berryman decides he wants to be a CanPL player and just lights up AUS the way he did Wanderers Grounds this summer. Ayoub al-Arabi, too, was very, very good for Wanderers U23 and may have played his way into more attention. He’s bounced around a lot out of high-school, but he really settled this summer and his talent has always been there. He’s added a defensive edge to his game — think Jonathan Osorio — and is now more of a #8 than a pure playmaking #10. I’m especially interested to see how he fits into that spot at Dal, particularly if he can work off former Liverpool academy player Jack Ellis.
Is it enough? I really don’t know. I’m really intrigued to see how this all works, but not completely convinced all the pieces fit together, you know? A bit like Wanderers, actually. In a weird way, I think the biggest departure is probably Jacob Bolton — when Dal needed someone to chase stuff down, Bolton was always there.
Jaber will do that for you — he’s never taken a shift off in four years in AUS — but somebody’s got to put up eight or ten goals.
Dal start very slow, which is probably preferable to last year, when they dropped crucial points early. If they drop the first game against a tired Mount Allison on Saturday, the Tigers are in trouble. They then get the rest of opening weekend off.
Then things get harder. They play away at UNB’s new turf facility twice on week two, which will be the Reds’ home opener. Then the Tigers host UPEI and Memorial. It was those late September games against playoff aspirants that poached the Tigers’ last year. They’ll have to break down tough defenses without a lot of games to gel.
This team’s got to start fast. They’ve got to know what they want to do. They’ve had two good weekends of pre-season play to figure it out, but the buck ultimately stops with Jazic, and he won’t want any excuses.
Pre-season: L 2-1 @ St.FX, W 2-1 @ Acadia, W 3-0 v. St. Thomas, W 1-0 v. Saint Mary’s
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
Seventh, but only because I think UPEI might take a step back, and it’ll be a squeaker even then.
Cape Breton Capers
2021: 2nd in AUS (8-1-3), won AUS Championship, bronze at nationals
No team does “transfer business” quite like the Capers. If you’re looking for a league to follow where deals fly and, “will he be here next week?” is the going conversation among the lads at the local, have I got a team for you!
It’s not inter-league transfers, either. Since Deano Morley took over in 2013 (and even before then, really), the Capers have deliberately set about changing the sporting culture in AUS, bringing in not just student-athletes from the small school’s typical recruiting ground in the Caribbean, but luring footballers from the home countries, mainly through Morley’s connections in the lower levels there and in Europe.
Which is not to say any of them are poor students — they’re not — but they’re here to win, to get noticed by CanPL sides, to develop. And so there is, naturally, turnover.
Departures: Euan Bauld, Charlie Waters, Daniel Williams, Tede Lisi, Anesti Pejo, Carson Larabie, Loic Gunn, Mitchell Wong
Gone is the Albanian duo by way of New Jersey, an experiment that didn’t really work out. Williams and Larabie are big losses. And though Loic Gunn was never healthy, he was a terrific player.
Deano’s gone back to Eastern Europe, however, for Jakub Parizek, who is Czech rather than Albanian, and much more of a sure thing, having already played in the Czech third division and with Ceske Budejovice’s U19s. He’s got a very similar profile to Jose Cunha, but is a.) probably much more ready for the AUS style of play, and b.) a defensive midfielder, which Cunha is not no matter how much Morley played him there last year.
I imagine Atlético Ottawa would like Cunha, who struggled badly early this year in CanPL, to get some more reps as a centre-back, since Carlos Gonzalez has mostly played a back three this year and Cunha’s well-suited to that. As such, he’s back in Cape Breton, and I think Parizek’s the kind of player who can dominate play in front of him, letting Cunha orchestrate rather than put out fires caused by turnovers.
Morley’s hedging his bets, though, having also brought in Ben Fortuin from the English lower leagues. Very much a strong, technical centre-back, he’s every bit the typical Capers recruit save for his taking a short detour through the NCAA with Wesleyan in Div. III, but having also played for Swindon Town I expect he’ll probably fit in much better on the Island.
Remember, too, that Morley has to replace Euan Bauld, and it was always possible — at least prior to May, anyway, and most university recruiting is done before that — that Cunha wasn’t going to come back from CanPL. So there will be competition back there. It’s a good problem to have.
Otherwise, Cape Breton’s recruits are mostly from League 1 Ontario, which is very much what you do when you’re a national contender.
Andre Beecher is a prospect from Brampton, who’s maybe been a bit passed over as a slightly undersized centre-back. He’s fresh out of high school, but has about a thousand minutes in L1O, and attended some NCAA camps and a big combine in Montreal, which is where the Capers caught him. He’s very quick, very athletic, and probably likes to dribble and press a bit more than he needs to, but that can be coached. He’s likely depth this year, but if Cunha struggles again….
Jacob Spizzirri, on the other hand, is a good example of why we have and need USPORTs as a scouting network even above and beyond the League 1 initiatives. He got passed over as a U12 high performance player, and ten years ago he would have ended up at a smaller school without ever having had a chance to prove himself at a level above five feet. Instead, he slowly worked his way through the Woodbridge program, and Deano ends up comparing him to Isaiah Johnston, which is no small compliment.
This is also kind of a template for what the Capers need to do a bit better this year. They struggled to hold the ball in midfield last year, especially in transition, and they’ve never had the pace at the back to cover that. They still don’t, so Spizzirri and Max Piepgrass, a Foothills midfielder who had a cup of coffee as an emergency fill-in for Cavalry, are going to get a chance to dictate things.
Raine Lyn and Mateo Goldsztein are both listed as midfielders this year after being outside centre-backs last year. I think that’s a move that suits Lyn particularly — he’s got such obvious technical ability but never quite developed the strength required to defend in AUS, especially in a three. His aggressiveness gives the Capers the necessary bite in the middle, though.
The other thing that didn’t work last year was Kairo Coore and Charlie Waters as dual #10s flanking Cian Lynch. That was a problem of necessity in that Waters had one more year left, while Coore was very much his long-term replacement. Instead, Coore got signed to CanPL (I still maintain Waters should have been) and he’ll be a very coveted draft pick (or even free agent) this winter, but before that, he’ll be the Capers’ main guy up front.
If you watched any of FC Edmonton this year, you’ve seen what Coore can do, even up against experienced players. He’s got immense talent, and will now have license to drift around and create, and the Capers can keep their structure around him, rather than having two playmakers always trying to get on the ball.
It will be Lynch’s job to finish all the chances Coore creates, but if he doesn’t, there’s a whole host of other attackers — Ousman Cham, Owen Sheppard, and the Capers have brought in Anthony Stolar’s brother Daniel — but I can’t shake that Williams was slowly rounding into being a very good AUS player. They’re going to miss his unpredictable runs from the left.
Cape Breton do pull in a few promising Cape Bretoners each fall, so they don’t ignore the local scene entirely. But there’s no Cory Bent in this team, though, nor even a Mitchell Wong, the local guy who always played the hard minutes. If Coore gets hurt and/or Lynch goes on a dry spell (as he did last year), this team is going to have to win a lot of games 1 – 0.
On the other hand, if Coore scores 12 and adds eight or ten assists, which he absolutely can, it won’t matter.
Wanderers really must sign him this winter.
The Capers start at home, as they often do, and this always helps them lock down four to six points before anyone else gets going. They rarely lose them. UPEI and Saint Mary’s will be tough match-ups, but the Capers should get at least four out of that. Then they go to St. John’s, which will be tough but also a good team-building thing.
They also always start slowly, and last year ended up costing themselves top spot in the league as a result. How much do they care about that versus the semi-final loss to Guelph? Well, they went and played Guelph in pre-season, which should tell you what they think.
And, uh, well….
Pre-season: L 2 – 1 @ UNB, L 1 – 0 v. Guelph at Wanderers’ Grounds
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
First, because they won’t screw up when it matters this year. Probably in the final at nationals because I think Parizek might be that good.
St. FX X-Men
2021: 1st in AUS (9-2-1), whoops in the semi-final again
Strictly on paper, this team should probably be better than it is, by which I mean nationally — they’re already pretty good locally. St. FX are loaded with top Atlantic talent, much of it considered — and not without some reason — to have professional potential.
They’re familiar with each other, mostly play together every summer, and just won AAA provincials and the NSSL with Suburban. And yet, they always seem to play down a bit. They lose control of games, especially knock-out games. There maybe isn’t a true game-breaking talent.
This should be a big year for X. But I said that last year, if I recall, and this time it really is the last hurrah for this group of guys. It’s win or bust in AUS.
Departures: Nick Aquino, Josh Read, Seamus MacDonald
Let’s take a moment, before we start, and address the NSSL thing, too, because it has, shall we say, raised some eyebrows. Not because Suburban won it, that’s not surprising, but because the team then declined the accordant invite to nationals because AUS isn’t breaking for club nationals this Thanksgiving.
Nobody is particularly happy about this. From where I sit, it’s another case of good things in Canadian soccer going in completely opposite directions. The players are in a tough spot, having committed to St. FX, and committed to each other and the ambition they have to play for this year. At the same time, club nationals should matter. They shouldn’t have had to make this choice.
It’s on AUS, in particular, but it’s also on Soccer NS and Canada Soccer. If both club and university soccer are going to be relevant — and they are relevant, and should be — they need to work together.
Otherwise, neither will be.
In a nice demonstration of what working together looks like, four X-Men (insert laser-eye-sunglasses here) were regulars for Wanderers U23 this summer, in so far as anyone was a regular for a prototype team that played two games.
But Luke Green captained them and, after a shaky first half, pulled a very new group mostly made up of AUS talent through three more increasingly impressive halves against top Quebec talent. He may or may not make it back to Wanderers, but he should be and is a leader in local soccer.
Lewis Dye is another who’s never hit his full potential — you can read my take on him from way, way back in the first USPORTs draft here — but he is likewise a very solid AUS defender. I think his CanPL ship has probably sailed, but he and Green make a very good duo, even if they’re vulnerable to pace. St. FX don’t concede much and those two are why.
It’ll be interesting to see if Graham Kennedy goes with a back three now he doesn’t have Josh Read anymore. He’d have to move his son Jack inside, but that looked like what Wanderers were doing with him, so maybe Graham will follow Mesut Mert’s lead.
They’ve also added Suburban U17 defender Ethan Larsen, who was with the SNS Canada Games team but is probably more of a long-term piece. That said, given how light X are on true fullbacks, he might see time if Kennedy does go to a back four.
Likewise, Josh MacKillop makes the move from UPEI’s bench to St. FX’s bench, but you can never have too many decent AUS depth defenders, and they do know how to avoid giving up goals at UPEI.
X have four goalkeepers on the roster for 2022, because this is X and you can never be too sure. All of them were recruited in different years and while I’d guess Will Veinot is the presumptive starter, I wouldn’t put money he will be by October, if you follow. He was actually a lot better last year, but keep an eye on Jae Jeon, who was the third goalkeeper last year but the back-up for CS Saint-Laurent, a top side in PLSQ this summer, and he got a look-in at Wanderers’ Grounds, too. He’s a bit unconventional but very much a pure shot-stopper, which may be helpful if shot-stopping proves an issue for X again.
Max Bodurtha is the guy who shields the backline, and he’s one of the most underrated players in AUS, a guy you never notice who does good little things all game long. He got minutes with Wanderers U23 as a reward for that and his NSSL form, which, fair play, and he did the same against the PLSQ sides. I don’t think he’s ever flashy, bu I don’t think he ever intends to be.
It’s Kyle Cordeiro who makes more exciting things happen for X. He was right up there with Coore as a breakout player in AUS last year, and should shine now he’s going into year two. I never got the sense he particularly clicked with Cameron Shaw, but I think there’s more to come there, plus both guys were carrying injuries by the end of the 2021 season — part of the reason St. FX struggled in the playoffs.
Kennedy is going to have to rotate and manage guys to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Suburban were undermanned for most of the NSSL season, too, but there just won’t be the same leeway in AUS.
St. FX do have depth, though. You throw in Logan Harrington, Blake Fenton, Fergus Hall, Logan Rieck, Dyan Vil, and former Mountie Ziad Abdelrahman and there are a bunch of ways they can line up. They are likely to need all of them at some point this year, however, and I’m not sure, amongst them, that there’s a single player who can win a game on his own.
Suburban had Charlie Waters. Can Kyle Cordeiro be that guy for St. FX?
St. FX host Acadia and UPEI on opening weekend, two teams that X absolutely should beat, especially at home. There’s really nobody frightening until the end of the month, when they host UNB, though X have a good home record against them, too, as indeed they do most teams.
That does set up a road-heavy October with trips to a lot of good playoff teams and a few who might be fighting to get in, as well as the always-exciting St. FX – Capers clash in Antigonish. That one never fails to entertain, so do make sure to watch it.
They’re undefeated in pre-season, but then the injuries haven’t hit yet.
Pre-season: W 2-1 v. Dal, W 1-0 @ UPEI, D 1-1 v. SMU
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
I could actually see St. FX dropping to third this year, though maybe it’s their time to make noise in the playoffs? Even win the trophy?
2021: 9th (an absolutely miserable 1-10-1)
Let’s start by acknowledging, off the top, that I’m writing this less than 24 hours before Acadia’s season kicks off and they still haven’t posted their 2022 roster.
Fortunately, the Axemen were a younger team last year so it’s a fair bet it’ll be fairly unchanged. Recruits? Who knows!
No program embodies the aforementioned status quo in AUS more than Acadia. Despite having what I think are some of the nicest facilities in Atlantic Canada, Acadia Athletics feels directionless at the varsity level, even in football, and soccer is downstream from football. To give you some idea, the football staff listed online is longer than the overall Athletics Dept. staff. The men’s soccer section isn’t even up to date. While I harbour no particular ill will towards Acadia Football — it does have significant roots in the community in Wolfville — I think Atlantic schools chasing alumni pay-days with football events is severely dated thinking. Wolfville is changing. Canadian sports is changing. There’s a new, younger cohort in Wolfville and Kentville who absolutely would come out to watch a soccer game if there weren’t always litter from the football game the previous night strewn all over the main stand.
Departing: Possibly back-up ‘keeper Andrew Nutt? Otherwise, without the rosters, hard to know. I’ll update this if/when it gets posted.
“The Axemen will take the positives from this season after a 1-10-1 finish.”
This was the last line in the last game recap of last year, still proudly displayed on the Acadia soccer homepage.
Now, look, these recaps are filler, nobody reads them. And I have a fair bit of respect for Eric Cederberg, Acadia Athletics’ comms guy.
But this program needs more self-respect. That’s not Cederberg’s job; he has to write something about last year. But contrast what the Capers would be like after a 1-10-1 season. You’d see the specks of paint on Deano Morley’s face from Wolfville, because there were no positives for Acadia in 2021. It was a massive, massive step back for a program that used to have some pride. Everything went wrong.
There are real, respectable reasons for that — Covid, difficulty replacing some really talented veterans, and a shrinking Valley talent pool generally — but no one will want to fall back on excuses, either, and you have to level with the fans you do have and could have.
Any recruits they do have will likely be mostly local. The good news is that that there’s room for last year’s group to grow into something that… doesn’t look like last year’s group. Because there really is talent in Wolfville.
Oscar Marshall, who’ll be going into his second year, is a Wanderers U23 prospect, though he looked like he hadn’t been pushed at a high level in way, way too long this summer. He’s now playing for United DFC in NSSL two years out of the CF Montreal academy. That’s… not ideal.
Zane Brennan was a bit of a surprise inclusion with Wanderers U23 and did put up some really useful minutes, but then that’s what Zane Brennan does. He’s never going to pot 10+ goals in AUS, but he’ll be there in the 94th minute when you need someone.
It’s hard to build around that kind of striker, though, and Acadia don’t really have anyone else to lead the line.
They do have Noah Schurman, who was my pick of the Axemen last year and who tied for the lead in scoring on Valley United this summer. He faded a bit as the season went on and he got very obviously frustrated, but his skill and inventiveness down the sideline is very useful. He is the kind of player who pretty much has to go 1v1, which means someone else has to be making the supporting run into space. Usually that’s going to be Brennan, but if it was a guy who could reliably score the odd screamer and therefore get defenders to back up, Acadia would be a better team.
Jabu Deng was in the initial Wanderers U23 group but didn’t make the final squad. He was electric at the youth level but disappeared into the chasm between youth and AUS last year. He’s got the technical skill to be that attacker, even if I tend to think he’s more of a winger or second striker. Acadia have a lot of wingers and were at their best last year when they could just cook in transition.
That meant their best game was against Moncton, because Monton don’t really defend, as such. The Axemen still lost that 6-4 because Acadia don’t really defend, either, only it’s less a mentality thing than just a lack of ability at the back.
The spine of this team is just so, so weak. I have a lot of time for Joe Iatrou, but he’s never looked as good with Acadia as he can with United DFC and part of the reason is he’s just not surrounded by enough structure. I had a lot of hope that, last year, the infusion of pace around him would help mask the fact that he doesn’t press or tackle much, but I was wrong, in part because Marshall, Deng, and Schurman don’t really do those things, either, which leaves Brennan as the league’s best defensive forward and pretty much the Axemen’s primary stopper, all from the #9 position.
Neither Ali Jabara nor Cedric Gravel, the Ottawa South duo, are necessarily bad defenders but neither is the kind of big, mean guy you build a spine out of. That guy could be Adrian Deveau, but he struggled to find balance and discipline last year — he was out of position way, way too often and by October he’d pretty much lost his spot to a combination of Jack Mercer, Max Rogers, and Tyr Duhaney-Walker.
Duhaney-Walker was interesting, one of those happy surprises as an Ontario prospect who’s very all-action and very rangy, but good enough on and off the ball to be that kind of aggressive centre-back Acadia need, even if he might actually be better as a d-mid or fullback. He needs to sand off some rough edges in his sophomore year, but could be part of the solution here.
I’d be higher on this team but for the way they just collapsed last year after a bad start, and if I saw some sort of (published) intent in recruiting to fix it. Andrew and Findlay MacRae are decent coaches, and proud of Valley soccer, but so long as this team remains Valley United – Fall Edition, it’s going to have roughly the same results as Valley, except AUS is developing faster than NSSL right now, leaving the Axemen well out of the playoff picture.
I think Covid came at the exactly the wrong time for this program. They tried to change direction, giving Amit Batra a director-of-football type role overseeing both the men’s and women’s programs, but the three intervening years have left Acadia with a mish-mash of identities, very little cohesion, and while they’ll always have a reliable work ethic, they haven’t yet been able to fit the local talent that does exist into any kind of system.
Which is how you get 1-10-1 less than five years after an AUS semi-final appearance.
This isn’t going to get better right away. Pre-season results have not been encouraging, either.
The Axemen open in Antigonish, which used to be something of an AUS classic, so probably worth watching, but it’ll be a stretch for Acadia. Memorial will be thinking they can get points on Sunday down in Wolfville, too.
The rest of September is tricky, but it’s where, if Acadia are going to do anything, they need to show it. They’ll be competing with Moncton for a shot at that last playoff spot, and need to win on the 17th, even away.
After that, it’s a bunch of playoff-calibre teams who are going to test just how tough this Axemen group can be when things aren’t going well.
They have to hold together.
Pre-season: L 2-1 v. Dal7This is in Wolfville, too; Acadia dropped way too many home points last year., D 1-1 @ UPEI, W 2-0 v. Holland College (ACAA)
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
Eighth. The best way to read the pre-season results is that they nicked a road point off UPEI, which is a good way to finish above UPEI. The less-best way to read it is that they’re basically a good ACAA team.
2021: 7th in AUS (4-5-3)
A lot of the best rivalries in AUS are Nova Scotia-based, so it’s easy to forget that New Brunswick is actually a pretty big part of this league8And would be bigger if St. Thomas played in it, which I tend to think they probably could if they really wanted to, but it’s a smaller school so they play in ACAA in soccer, at least..
There’s also a lot of soccer n New Brunswick, and it’s improving from one of Canada’s soccer backwaters to a province that just finished fourth at the Canada Games — behind only Ontario, Quebec, and BC. That’s a huge deal.
A lot of that is on the back of the provincial team and its accordant high-performance academy, which has been able to take the best New Brunswick players and get them playing outside of New Brunswick (mainly in Quebec). The population and talent pool in New Brunswick isn’t deep enough to support a high-performance league on its own9Atlantic Canadian league, sure. And I think that, basically, Nova Scotia has a similar problem except it’s harder to acknowledge because we have just enough population, albeit very concentrated in Halifax, to pass off the facsimile of a high-performance league. But there’s not depth, which is why you get NSSL teams barely able to field a full team sometimes..
It’s also split between French and English, even within Moncton, where C.S. Dieppe and Codiac SC are the City – United of southeast New Brunswick’s marshes. They should have hooligans. (Maybe they do.) Then you have Chaleur on the French shore and Fredericton doing its own thing, but doing it well. In AUS, that means you get UNB, up on the hill in Fredericton and busy being the biggest school in New Brunswick, and Université de Moncton, the little but classy French-language college in the largest city. It’s one of the best rivalries in AUS.
So let’s hop the Tantramar.
Departures: Thomas Maillet, Andre Leblanc, Heritier Masimengo
The New Brunswick derby has been slightly muted in recent years because there’s a significant disparity in size and ambition between the two programs. It also doesn’t help that the annual game the two play in Saint John was rather poorly attended last year.
But Moncton beat the Reds at Medavie Stadium in Moncton, the only major venue regularly used in AUS, after it was built for the 2015 World Cup.10It’s fairly sparsely attended, too, as is the natural end-state of stadia built for FIFA events. When I talk above about marketing, I’m not just thinking of Halifax and St. John’s. Moncton could support a semi-pro team, maybe even a CanPL team. But you’d need to market the team in French, and not in French two and a half years after it launches — lookin’ at you, CanPL HQ. Medavie Stadium is one of the only soccer-specific stadia in Canada, it’s more-or-less right-sized for CanPL, and yet there’s been no apparent outreach to try and find an owner in the Acadian region, which would also end up including La Gaspesie, eastern Quebec, and maybe even some of the braver Mainians. (Is Mainians a thing?) They did it largely tanks to Georges Musitu, the former West Ottawa player who was the best player in AUS you never noticed last year. He had nine goals in just eight starts, and was a one-man wrecking ball at times.
That loss at UNB Saint John cost Moncton a playoff spot. Moncton should have made the playoffs; that they didn’t (and Memorial did) is a great sign for the competitiveness of AUS below the top four or so. It’s not that Moncton aren’t competitive — they have a long reputation, along with UPEI, as quarter-final spoilers — but UdeM is a smaller school and it’s Athletics department is more geared to recreation. It’s one of the relatively few AUS schools to offer completely open varsity try-outs — any student can show up. It also means you tend to find out about player news from the team’s Facebook page. It’s actually kind of adorable.
When Moncton have succeeded, it’s usually been because of singularly talented players like Musitu and Héritier Masimengo, the older brother of sometimes-starting goalkeeper Christian. Both are former refugees who came to Canada when Héritier were six, and he didn’t really catch fire until his fourth year. So it is, often, in soccer development.
Then, this past summer, he was the best player for Wanderers U23 against St.-Hubert. I have no idea where Masimengo will end up now. Hopefully in a CanPL camp this spring, if he can stay fit and sharp all winter. Maybe in League 1 somewhere.
This, as well as the fact that Musitu spent the summer playing locally in New Brunswick is why, once again, we need an Atlantic U23 league.
Replacing Masimengo is going to be really tough. He’s not a huge numbers guy, but he creates endless chances with his direct running and agility (hear that, Wanderers fans?), and with Musitu, it was impossible to maintain a balanced shape against les Aigles-Bleus.
Félix Robichaud is a very, very good player, and can be that guy, but in a different way. He’s smoother, more technical — but he had a bit of a down year in 2021, his fourth, though 4g/3a isn’t bad. What they really need from him in his final season is to build on the five goals he put up in 2018, his sophomore season, when he was Moncton’s best threat, and find a way for him to work with the high-pace attack favoured by Masimengo and now Musitu.
The other kind of player Moncton tend to pick up is the French-speaking international coming in for school. That’s how they got Younnes Chibane, the Saint-Laurent prospect who put up 4g/2a last year. It’s also how they got Rayana Ghazaouini.
Ghazaouini, a Wydad Casablanca prospect who’s also played for Moroccoan youth national teams, has a profile wouldn’t go amiss at Cape Breton. He might be Moncton’s first recruit who’s come with an eye on the CanPL draft, something we’re seeing more and more across AUS and USPORTs. If he scores like he should in this league, that Moncton attack is going to be just impossible.
As stacked as the Moncton attack is, the problem has always been defending, and Thomas Maillet, usually their steadiest defensive presence, will be the biggest loss. To that end, there’s Wyllian So, whom head coach Younes Bouida is calling Moncton’s best recruit this year. He’s fresh out of high-school, but 6’3″, and huge, the kind of player who can dominate midfield just with his presence. It’s a very different look than Maillet, but perhaps better suited if Moncton want to run-and-gun more.
There are other recruits, including even more pacey attackers, particularly Robert Kamano, who was part of that New Brunswich Canada Games team, which Bouida coached. Bouida also tried to get Phoenix Roberts and Jared Ndopedro from that team, but lost out, with the latter going to Dal.
Kamano, though, is another pacey winger who Bouida called one of the best 17-year-olds in Atlantic Canada, though he expects him to spend a year adjusting to playing against men in AUS.
I suspect Christian Masimengo will get an opportunity win back the goalkeeping job he lost in his second year. But he’ll have competition from New Brunswick provincial team goalkeeper Brenden Robichaud and New Caledonian Jules Ravez.
As usual with Moncton, it’s not super clear how this all fits together, and everything I’ve written could be wrong when they eventually release their roster, which I’m hoping will have names on it this year, as that is usually an important part of a roster and it’s been missing in years past. I love Moncton.
If les Aigles-Bleus do come together, I think they’ve got a legitimate shot at being the team no one wants to play in the quarter-finals. But they’re going to have to spend some serious time on defensive structure, rather than just running at guys. New Brunswick were able to do it at Canada Games, but we’ll see if they can do it on a rainy night in Moncton, so to speak.
They open at home, and it would be really amazing if they could figure out a way to follow UBC and bring frosh — and maybe even the vast local youth soccer community — out to Medavie for that opener against Memorial, which could be a real classique to boot. Given there’s no schedule even posted on their site, I doubt that’ll happen.
So whatever Moncton make of themselves will have to come, as it usually does, from whoever turns up. I like Bouida as a coach and I like their style of play, especially at home, where they’ll be most of September. If they rack up enough points — and enough confidence — they’ll be a scary team to face come Halloween.
Pre-season: W 7-0! @ Holland College (ACAA, take that Acadia fans)
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
I think they might just about do sixth? It’s going to be really, really tight this year. Take away Ghazaouini and I’d be less sure, but there’s so much talent in attack I think they can out-score the likes of UPEI and Dal and snag that last seed. I’d even put them higher except I don’t know who to bump down. Nobody will want to play them, either, though Bouida’s yet to live up to past Moncton team’s in the playoffs.
University of New Brunswick Reds
2021: 3rd in AUS (7-4-1), lost to Cape Breton in semi-final
UNB should have been back at nationals in 2021. They were easily the second-best team in AUS, with new head coach (and international toboggan expert) Barry Morrison building on Myles Pinsent’s run only to fall in a frustrating semi-final loss to the Capers.
The team’s structure is still noticeably UNBish, with a hefty dash of Fredericton District Soccer that Morrison helped build to its current successes. Then there’s always been smart recruiting on top — Keji Adeniyi, Tristan Nkoghe, Tom Pheulpin — which has helped a big school in Maritime terms but small school in national terms make an impact.
Losing conference semi-finals is the quickest way to erode a national-tier program, though. University soccer is a gauntlet. UNB have never been as good in that playoff gauntlet as they should be, and they faded again down the stretch last year after a very, very strong start.
As such, it’s mostly going to be about depth this year. UNB return most of their top talent — though not all of it — and are a fairly young team overall, with enough key veterans to just about wind up going to out to the Capers again in November.
Departures: Tom Pheulpin, Matt Boem, Matt Quigley, possibly some others I can’t find because the roster hasn’t been posted yet
The reason UNB ended up against the Capers last year? They dropped the second seed late in the season — they were pretty banged up — and limped through a quarter-final against Memorial before running out of gas in Sydney. ‘Tis always thus.
The trick, then, is to get one of those top two seeds and avoid the quarters altogether, which means being better than one of St. FX, Saint Mary’s, or Cape Breton.
Honestly, any and all are possible in 2022 for this UNB bunch. They’ve been excellent in pre-season and most of the talent from last year remains. Joe Hamilton will score on runs beginning all over the province and Keji Adeniyi looks fit and healthy for the first time in years. When those two are going, UNB have two game-breaking talents.
A lot of the rest don’t deserve to be called the “rest” but were mainly overlooked rookies. There were a lot of recruits coming out of Covid — a double class, basically — last year, and all of UNB’s impressed. Stefano D’Ambrogio, a Vaughan prospect, dominated midfield. Luke Rossettani was zippy on the wing and caused all kinds of problems for fullbacks when he came inside, plus he’s already won a penalty in pre-season. Olivier Menard was quietly tremendous as the steady man behind it all.
They got help from sophomores who’d developed over the break — guys like Prince Edward Islander Roan Saengmeng and acrobatic goalkeeper Louis Charles-Vaillancourt. Ben-Orel Mugisha is a national-level talent. Grant Takacs somehow went from workhorse to the best goalscorer in AUS.
That’s a pretty good XI. Replacing Quigley’s rapid-fire creativity and Boem’s steadiness on defense (though he wasn’t great in 2021) will be hard, and I’m not sure there’ll be a better fullback than Tom Pheulpin in AUS any time soon, at least not when it comes to perfectly-placed crosses.
The recruiting class is a bit meh, with a lot more quintessential UNB guys, guys who will probably get overlooked and end up being top AUS players in a couple years. A lot of it comes via FDSA, with Harrison McGinn, who’s also trained in England a bit, being the most interesting.
Liam MacGowan is a #8 who came up through the very well-respected TSS Rovers program. Michael McColl, who is the authority on all things BC Soccer, called him a “dynamic box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal,” which makes him sound like Ben Gorringe, so I wholeheartedly support Morrison’s coming to UNB.
There’s also Angad Panesar, who red-shirted at Canisius, a not-amazing NCAA Div I school. I suspect he and most of the other local recruits are mosty depth, though MacGowan played a big role in pre-season so I’d not be surprised if he plays.
There’s enough talent in this side that they really ought to meet expectations this year, which for me, is making actual noise at nationals. There’s always a sense that UNB have to punch above their weight, and that’s fine, I think they relish that, but they seem to really struggle with knock-out games.
As mentioned, the Reds have been very good in pre-season, nicking results against both Guelph and the Capers. They play the Capers, as well as St. FX, at the end of September, and presuming the majority of their players can walk after those games, they should be in good shape for the back half-and-a-bit of the season.
They open in Moncton, where I bet they’d like to win this year, and then host a double with Dal the following weekend, which I think they can win, and maybe have the satisfaction of all but ending Dal’s season, as they did last year in similar circumstances.
Pre-season: L 0-4 @ Univ. of Maine – Kent (NCAA), D 0-0 v. Guelph, W 2-1 v. Cape Breton, W 3-0 v. UNBSJ, W 4-0 @ St. Thomas (though they play at the same stadium as UNB, opening their new turf)
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
I have them fourth. I just think quarterfinals are UNB’s natural resting spot, at least until they prove me wrong. Plus I don’t believe Keji Adeniyi’s going to stay healthy, though if he does they could go higher. Playoffs, man.
Mount Allison Mounties
2021: 10th in AUS (0-12-0)
The first thing you see on the Mounties men’s soccer page is a fundraising announcement.
It kills me a little every year to write the Mount Allison preview because I end up having to be fairly harsh and it gets hard to give the people there the credit they deserve, working in difficult circumstances to build an AUS program that probably wouldn’t exist if you tried to start it today. Mount Allison, as a whole, is in dire financial straights, so soccer — and athletics more broadly — has to find its own way. And they do. It’s just hard to do that and be competitive in AUS.
Departures: Brogan Skinner, Cody Kroczynski, Bobby Kroczynski, Vicente Ramirez, Vince Bujold, not entirely clear if either Paul Togbo or Robin Weiland are available
It’s also hard for the Mounties not just to attract recruits but to keep them. Most small USPORTs schools tend to offer atmosphere and academics when a player has options, and Mount Allison can indeed offer those things, but it can’t necessarily offer money, which matters, too.11University sport scholarships in Canada are complex, and nowhere near as lucrative as in the US. But they do exist and they are a factor.
As such, most of the new recruits tend to be local guys, and it’s not quite so much that they couldn’t get a shot somewhere else as they might not see as many minutes somewhere else.
They also mostly have experience in U17 leagues and reserve sides, which is kind of how this is supposed to work, actually: U17 to U23 to senior amatuer. Liam Clark-Black and Jonathan Comeau-Shantz both played for Halifax County in the new-ish NSSL AA men’s division, which is moslty a transition league for younger players, but there are other AUS guys in there, too, so they have some prep.
The same factors also make it hard to keep coaches. Derek O’Keeffe goes into his second year, and is now the Mounties’ third coach in the past six years. O’Keeffe is a big force in Sackville soccer, but like his predecessor George Jenkins, he’s also sought out real experience, and is now technical director at Simcoe County in League 1 Ontario to go with a UEFA A license. This is good. A head coach is a big part of attracting recruits — players want to develop — and O’Keeffe can offer just that.
If ge can start finding some more overlooked prospects in Ontario, that could be a lifeline for Mount Allison. He’s already brought in goalkeeper James Welsh, from Waterloo, who’ll probably back-up Rhys Chambers, though I think that job is there to be won if Welsh is good enough.
There’s a fair chunk of talent departing, albeit likely a fair number of Mount Allison’s propensity for ill-timed red cards with it. The Kroczynski brothers were very, very hard-nosed, and their relentlessness will be missed. Brogan Skinner, too, was one of the team’s best defenders, when he wasn’t suspended. It’s not quite clear to me if Paul Togbo is available this year — he’s on the roster but not listed with a number, which often means he’s injured, and the short AUS season can be cruel that way. Hopefully he makes it in, because he’s a solid midfielder in this league.
The Mounties best player last year — and it wasn’t close — was former Bahamian U18 Tevin Lewis. He could start on any team in this league, and is tremendously dangeorus off the dribble. As yet there’s not been a lot surrounding him, though Xavier Tshimpangila offers some nice balance on the opposite side. What Mount Allison really need is a scoring centre-forward.
I don’t know if that’s there in any of their recrutis, though. There are no international additions, like Lewis or Ziad Abdelrahman (who’s now at X).
Mount Allison hasn’t won a game since 2015 — they are 0-59-1 since then, with that solitary draw coming in 2016 against a rebuilding Saint Mary’s squad. It corresponds with the school’s larger difficulties and with new USPORTs CEO Pierre Arsenault’s time in charge of Mount Allison athletics.
I’ve thought they’ve come close, the past couple of years, to a point. They almost got one in Wolfville last year. There’s resolve and energy in this team, always — they’re not necessarily a bad watch as long as you don’t expect a win. I think they should be playing in ACAA, though I understand why they don’t.
They open with the Halifax road-trip, which is unlikely to provide much hope. The schedule is particularly brutal for Mount Allison this year, with home games mostly against top teams. Their best hope is probably Acadia’s visit on the 23rd, though they’ll play Dal three times this year and have given the Tigers trouble in the past couple seasons.
Pre-season: L 0-3 @ UPEI
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
Tenth. And that’s very accurate. This team should be in ACAA.
2021: 5th in AUS (5-3-4), lost in quarter-finals to Saint Mary’s
Fifth is actually the Panthers’ best finish since 2015, when they made fourth with the tail end of the squad that made the 2011 final.
Considering I don’t think they ever got out of second gear last year, that’s actually not bad. They were pushovers in the playoffs rather than the banana peel with which they’ve made their name (and logo, if we’re being honest), but for a school the size of UPEI, that’s not at all bad.
It was also a very young team, so should mostly be back a year stronger and more mature. Nobody in AUS should ever take the Panthers lightly, but this would be a particularly bad year to do it.
The cancelled 2020 season meant UPEI managed to keep local stars like Daniel Mavakala and Riad Jaha, both of whom would likely have gone off-Island except that everywhere else was swimming in coronavirus. So they opted to take classes at UPEI instead, and that’s the Panthers gain.
Both are fullbacks (though Jaha pops up at centre-back as well), and both spent time in MLS academies. Mavakala also played with Wanderers U23 this summer, though he struggled a bit to my eye, especially defensively, and I actually rate Jaha a little higher.
When things worked for the Panthers last year, it was usually those two getting the ball forward and pulling apart defenses. The trouble is PEI has never produced someone to take advantage of those gaps, at least not since Sam Smiley, who is now on to better things. Sammy Akinsola was an attacking bright spot in 2021 even as he battled injuries, but he’s more of a winger or running forward at best. UPEI are very much built to hit on the break or bust. At the same time, that fits how they play.
Lewis Page has always been a defense-first coach. It’s team-first, structure first, and rarely particularly thrilling soccer in Charlottetown, but the locals love ’em anyway. Games at UPEI are always a blast. They just feature a lot of headers.
The backline is pretty steady, with Jonathan MacKenzie and Max Van Wiechen both looking ready enough for AUS in their first year. It’s good to see Islanders, who have no local league equivalent to NSSL to play in and often have to schlep to Halifax for games, still finding ways to elevate their games. A U23 semi-pro team in Charlottetown would be the Martimes’ answer to Electric City.
Given the youth of the squad, I don’t expect any of the 2022 recruits to be particularly relied upon this year — all three are local kids, so you know they’ll be thrilled to play for UPEI (it’s a school that’s very big on local generally). Keep more of an eye on some of last year’s less-seen names — those are usually the players who, once Page has coached them up, can deliver the odd good moment in AUS.
Realistically, it’s going to be tough sledding for the Panthers, especially as they open with the northern Nova Scotia road trip. You wouldn’t bet against them stealing something from Antigonish or, more likely, an early-season Capers side. Still, longshots.
Once they get a home weekend, on the 17th and 18th, we’ll see what they can do. UPEI don’t take a lot of road points, but they’ll give anyone a run in Charlottetown, even and especially St. FX. That one got feisty last year.
They’ve been just fine in pre-season. No more than that, which you wouldn’t expect them to be. UPEI host a growing little mini-tournament every August, and they usually beat the teams you’d expect, which they did. At some point, though, I think they need to be able to beat Acadia and maybe steal a point from X to make the playoffs.
Pre-season: W 3-0 v. Mount Allison, L 1-0 v. St. FX, D 1-1 v. Acadia, W 1-0 v. Holland College (ACAA)
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
Rather cruelly, I have UPEI dropping to eighth as Moncton move up. I dunno, I like offense more than defense, I guess, and I’m not sure Sammy Akinsola can replicate year one. This feels like the projection I’ll be most wrong about, but this could be a really tough league this year.
2021: 6th in AUS (5-4-3), lost in quarter-finals v. UNB
(Update: There’s always at least one major mistake in every preview, and usually I leave them in until the end of opening weekend just to see who’s reading, but in this case: Emmanuel Dolo has apparently left Memorial. So that changes things. Shout-out to the wonderful @CA_AtSchool on Twitter, part of the broader Canucks Abroad family, for the tip, and for providing a place where I could have checked this.)
(Update to the Update: Apparently Elonda is back as well, so this is all very wrong and we’ll get everything sorted out as usual after opening weekend. If you’re a Sport Information Director reading this and annoyed I got it wrong, consider it an incentive to get your roster up more than a week before the season kicks off. I do not have time to call all of you and also write 12,000 words of preview. Cheers!)
I’m really curious where this Seahawks team will end up. Last year had some thrills — Emmanuel Dolo’s introduction to AUS — and some spills — Memorial’s exit in AUS playoffs, which didn’t live up to their new, flashy style even if it was a pretty good reflection of their form at the time.
So much of what this program does is defined by local Newfoundland depth. That scene has been making some small but very real strides, and the school as a whole has gotten better about attracting off-Rock talent, which makes for a fun game at King George V Park.
Balancing the team’s traditional structure and the newer inventiveness of players like Dolo is Jake Stanford’s job. He’s been around long enough to have a solid enough grasp on Newfoundland soccer that he’s able to innovate away from it, too, as he did in 2021 by recruiting former Moncton star Felly Elonda as a transfer player.
That meant Memorial played with an attacking midfield for the first time in forever, which meant a different kind of service and flow in attack. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Departures: Felly Elonda, probably Emmanuel Dolo
Elonda is now gone, but the rest of the team is fairly young and remains intact.
As is often the case with MUN, Felly’s replacement is young and local rather than a bigger name from a bigger talent pool. Antang Achiek was a key part of Newfoundland’s Canada Games team and provincial team the last few years. He’s fast and fun, a slightly different look to Elonda (similar to Dolo, though).
As with most of the local guys, there is going to be a step up, but there is belief now that they can take that step and get noticed in a way Newfoundland players never used to.
Elonda starred for Wanderers U23 this summer — that he made the team wasn’t surprising, but his performance was enough to get at least a camp invite somewhere in 2023. Surround him with solid players, and it turns out a local star can be a professional level playmaker.
Achiek is a more vertical playmaker, but Stanford has added a playmaking #8 in the form of Santi “Wozney”, or rather, Santi Herrera Siordia, who has to have the most Newfie anglicization of a Spanish name ever conceived. He may not play every game, but he at least gives Stanford some interesting tactical flexibility, with two creators rather than one.
Memorial are usually workmanlike, but relied too much on Dolo to make something from nothing. Neither is Grant really a playmaker — he’ll bring others in but it’s not his bread-and-butter, and anyway, you want him between the posts. Elonda, who exuded confidence even when he wasn’t playing well, was very good at bringing it all together.
They’ve added another veteran transfer player this year, too, albeit a centre-back. Troy Petrie played for Northwestern Polytechnic in the ACAC, which is probably the toughest CCAA conference, so he’s going up against NAIT and Lakehead every game. Given MUN return centre-backs Harry Carter and Zach Visser, Stanford will have solid depth and tactical flexibility at the back as well.
Anderson Pritchard is a local youth star for Feildians who can spell Matt Hargest (hopefully literally as well as off the bench). He likes to get forward and can deliver a cross, which is another new development — Hargest is a tenacious defender but deliveries are not really his thing.
Everything this team does — whether it’s out of a more conventional, very direct 4-3-3 or something slightly tweaked — has to be about getting Grant the ball in dangerous spots. He needs some help, too, especially as Grant is prone to running himself into the ground. They need him in November.
As with Elonda, the rest of the team’s structure has to make a platform for the magic tricks.
I think they can do it. I think the Seahawks are a playoff team in 2022. But I do think they have to push themselves a bit — not physically so much as emotionally. There are a lot of big fish in a small pond on this team, and while they’ll never back down, they sometimes take their time figuring out problems and adjusting. The 2021 season, at both ends, was undone by spells when they’d just utterly lose control of games, especially when the big names went for any kind of rest.
The top-end talent is (mostly) still there, and they’ll still be hungry to prove themselves to CanPL coaches. I just want to see the bottom-end talent do it, too, because it’s those guys who’d benefit most from making the case not just for the odd Wanderers U23 call buit for a local semi-pro side.
Memorial start on the road, as they often do, and will do the usual home-stand / road-trip back-and-forth all season, which is extremely hard on the legs even before factoring in tactical stuff.
They open in Moncton, then Wolfville on Sunday, which is a tough turnaround, though both games are winnable if they come out strong. A lot, for MUN, depends on who travels out to the Rock in a given year (schools usually alternate years). This year, it’s Cape Breton, St. FX, and UPEI coming to visit, which is good in that it means St. John’s will get to see some excellent soccer, but a tough schedule for the ‘hawks.
They’ll need to be at their best to get that playoff spot.
The Merchant Sailor Always-Accurate™ Projection
I’ve got ’em fifth. I’d like to see them higher, but the travel is punishing and there isn’t enough talent through the 18 — yet — to think about top two, which means they’re a playoff team with as good a shot in the quarters as anyone.
(Update: This was written before I found out about Dolo and I don’t have time right now to adjust everything. I’d still like to be optimistic and keep MUN fifth anyway, but it’ll be a much bigger challenge with a younger crop of players.)
These are always enjoyable when they turn out to be right.
- Cape Breton
- St. FX
- Saint Mary’s
— Playoff line —
- Mount Allison
There tends to be relatively little upheaval in year-over-year tables in AUS, and even in USPORTs more broadly, though there are often more pronounced shifts in terms of how nationally-competitive teams fare against each other on those finer margins. There, I think the Capers are better positioned than they were last year, but will likely need time to get going again.
What I’m Watching This Week
I’d like to say I’m going out to a game but I have a sprained ankle so probably won’t. I am hoping to liveblog one game a weekend, but we’ll see how that goes.
Most of the tasty opening weekend match-ups are above, and Memorial’s visit to Moncton will be extremely important as well as quite a good game. And an opportunity to see how many of Moncton’s new faces are for real.
Saint Mary’s also just about upset the Capers in Sydney on opening weekend last year, and they get a mulligan this ytear. Let’s hope Jensen Brown has a better showing.
Finally: Go out and support your local team. Tickets are, like, max five bucks, sometimes less. It’s the best deal on semi-pro soccer you’re going to get, and if you want more, it’s up to you to show it.