UBC Thunderbirds hoping new additions will fire them to another national title after a year of transition and turnover

UBC Thunderbirds hoping new additions will fire them to another national title after a year of transition and turnover

After an absence of six years, the CIS Men’s Soccer Championship (I still can’t get used to calling it U Sports) will call British Columbia home for the next two years. Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops will play host to the best of the Canadian college game for the first time in November, with UBC playing hosts in 2018 for the first time in 11 years.

For long time UBC head coach Mike Mosher, having the Championship in Kamloops this year is great for soccer in the province, but it does make getting there all that much harder for the Canada West teams, who usually see the Champions and beaten finalists advance to the CIS quarter-finals.

“It’s [nice] if you were to make it, but it makes it much more difficult to get there because it reduces [our chances] as there’s only one spot,” Mosher told AFTN. “They get an automatic berth and that takes one of our two spots, but you know what, what goes around come around, because we’ve got it the year after that. We’ve got it in 2018.

“It’s good for Thompson Rivers and their program. It gives you something to build off of and really shoot towards because they get a guaranteed spot. We’re certainly looking forward to 2018 when we get that opportunity.”

The new Canada West season gets underway on Friday, with a new look (see below) and a lot of new faces after many staples have graduated and moved on.

That’s certainly the case at UBC, where the Thunderbirds have lost a number of key pieces, with seniors Bryan Fong and Tyler Mertens leaving the program on the defensive side, and the Chopin brothers (Jules and Titouan) on the attacking side.

Mosher is set for his 22nd year at the helm, and after clocking up his 200th career win last year, his enthusiasm and desire for success is still strong as the Thunderbirds look to bring home a record 14th national title and their first since 2013.

They kick things off this weekend with a home double header at Thunderbird Stadium, with the University of Fraser Valley Cascades making the short trip on Friday and Trinity Western Spartans on Saturday. Both games kick off at 6.30pm, and admission is $10 in advance or at the gate.

So with the season set to get underway, after a pair of losses to NCAA sides in preseason friendlies (2-0 to SFU Clan and 1-0 to Seattle), how does Mosher think his squad is looking right now?

“We’re through another year of pretty considerable transition and turnover, so we’re still finding out about ourselves,” Mosher told us. “We’ve had to move a couple of players around a little bit, and maybe there’s still some more moving to do.

“It was disappointing to lose [against SFU], especially in the manner we did it. We gave away goals really soft and easy early on. But we found out loads about our players, about our team, and that’s why you want to get good tests in preseason games.”

Preseason form has been mixed. A successful trip to China at the end of June, for the prestigious World Elite University Football Tournament, saw them win the silver medal, but they were kept scoreless in the matches against SFU and Seattle.

The trip to Beijing in particular was a good chemistry builder for the squad and was a bit different, and certainly more testing, preparation than their usual summer football in the Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL).

“[This year] we did both, China and the PCSL,” Mosher told us. “China, what it allowed, was a trip, 10 to 12 days away. A lot of stuff done off the field to bring the group together. It’s a young group. Our group overall, this is maybe the youngest group I’ve had in 20 plus years of this, so the China team was good in that regard.

“But the whole China trip and the PCSL was also to find out about some of our players. To evaluate players. Lots of players who didn’t play much last season got to play a lot, either in China or PCSL.”

A number of the players were also key pieces in the TSS Rovers squad this past PDL season, and did themselves a lot of good with their performances.

“We had several of the guys went with TSS and that’s perfectly fine by me,” Mosher added. “It’s good that they go and play at that level, that they hear a different voice, and it opens up spots for some of the other guys to show themselves, for better or for worse.”

The standout Thunderbird with TSS was undoubtedly winger Zach Verhoven (pictured above), who put in a number of electric performances, contributing two goals and two assists in his 11 appearances.

It was a sign of what Verhoven can do, but also a good indicator on the aspects of his game that need to be improved upon if he is to have a shot at the next level. Mosher is now looking for him to build on those performances with the Rovers and a strong rookie season with UBC, where he hit five goals and led the team with seven assists, in this, his sophomore year as a Thunderbird.

“Zach, he showed at the start what he can do with us last fall in his first year,” Mosher mused. “He’s shown what he can do going forward with TSS in the PDL. He’s a very good player going forward and with the ball. If he’s going to go to another level, there’s areas of his game that one hundred percent have to improve or it’s not going to happen and quite honestly, that’s some of his play without the ball.”

Last season was a bit of a disappointment by UBC standards, although with a very young side featuring eight first year players and 12 second years, if anything they punched a little above their weight, wrapping up another conference title before losing to the eventual national champions Alberta on penalties in the Canada West Championship game.

That loss was enough to secure a place at the nationals in Guelph where they lost their quarter-final to UQAM in double overtime, before going on to clinch the fifth place spot.

Scoring was the Thunderbirds biggest issue all year. Titouan Chopin led the way on nine goals, with Kerman Pannu on six, and Verhoven’s five not too far behind. They were just starting to find their groove when the season ended, but the goalfests of seasons past simply weren’t there, with UBC averaging just 1.64 goals per game.

“You’re spot on,” Mosher said. “Every team every year is made a little bit differently. We were fortunate for years where had some terrific attacking players who could score goals. Navid [Mashinchi], Gagan Dosanjh, Milad Mehrabi, Reynold Stewart, and so on. Then we went through a team last year where we weren’t as lethal, so that was the goal this year, to bring in some players that we think can score.”

Verhoven and Pannu are back after a good PDL season with TSS Rovers. They’re joined by Rovers teammate Kristian Yli-Hietenan (pictured above), who makes the switch to UBC after two very successful seasons in PacWest with Capilano Blues. All three will be looking to build upon what they achieved with TSS over the summer, as will Vancouver Whitecaps Residency alumni Patrick Izett, who heads back to BC after a spell in Europe.

But perhaps the biggest difference maker from the new Thunderbirds additions will be Whitecaps Residency alumni Victory Shumbusho. The striker has already impressed Mosher in tryouts and knows his way to goal, hitting four goals in 16 appearances for the ‘Caps before injury ended his season early.

“We started against SFU with a front three of Victory and Zach and Kristian,” Mosher said. “I think those boys can go on and score goals for us, and if they can’t then we think that we have some other boys that can come in and fill some spots. We’ve got okay depth. Some of the boys are still finding their way, some of the young first year kids, just getting used to this level. Some of them, including five boys, have just joined us in the last couple of days because they were at Canada Games with the BC team.

“It’s very much about finding out about what you’ve got within your group and this year is no more true than that because of another year of considerable turnover and transition. Hopefully this is the third and final year of a lot of transition, sort of plugging players into new spots, and new bodies and new faces. We think that over the next spell, now that we’ve got a nice, strong foundation, that we can really be able to build from here.”

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