The field for this year’s U Sports Men’s Soccer championship may have something of a familiar look to it, but it’s shaping up to be one of the strongest nationals yet, with all eight teams boasting quality-packed line-ups.
Seven of last year’s eight teams are back for another bite of the cherry when the action gets underway at Thunderbird Stadium on Thursday, and for the second straight year, the action takes place here in British Colombia, with two BC schools set to battle it out for the Sam Davidson Memorial Trophy.
UBC will play host to the 46th U Sports nationals this week, the first time the Thunderbirds have hosted the tournament since 2007, and they’ll be joined by Trinity Western Spartans, with both local universities hoping for success in front of what will surely be some large and loud home crowds.
The Spartans are the only change from last year’s nationals, taking the place of 2017 hosts Thompson Rivers. The Wolfpack won their first ever medal at last year’s tournament, beating UBC to come away with Bronze, in what was a highly competitive championships, full of quality and evenly matched teams.
This year’s contenders seem even better.
“We’ve been fortunate to be in the tournament pretty regularly over the last few years,” UBC head coach Mike Mosher told AFTN. “I tell you, every year the tournament gets a little bit stronger and that’s credit to the rest of the country. I’ve seen the Atlantic get a lot better, I’ve seen Ontario get a lot better, and Quebec.
“All three Conferences have gotten a lot better over the last many years and that’s credit to them and that’s credit to the top teams in those divisions because they’ve raised the bar. Teams like York, teams like Cape Breton, Montreal, they’ve all raised the bar and other teams have come and caught them.
“This tournament this year is all the same teams from last year, except Trinity Western takes Thompson Rivers spot, so seven of the eight teams are the same as we saw last year and I thought the quality last year was maybe as good as I’ve seen.”
Number one seeds York Lions lead the field alongside the number two seeds, and defending champions, Cape Breton Capers. Montreal Carabins, UQAM Citadins, UNB Reds, and Carleton Ravens make up the rest, with UBC heading into the tournament as the number three seeds, fresh off their 19th Canada West Championship triumph over Trinity Western on Sunday.
The Spartans, who are coming off an 8-3-4 regular season, come in as the lowest seeds. Head coach Mike Shearon knows no matter where they ended up being placed, it was always going to be a tough road ahead, but feels that Sunday’s Canada West championship game was the ideal preparation for his young squad.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about,” Shearon told us. “Even at half time [of that game], I said to the boys this is what we’re going to play against Thursday. Whoever we were going to be playing, it’s a quality team, and we have to get used to playing in a meaningful game against quality teams, so we’ll be ready to go.”
The team they will be going up against are the top seeded OUA champs York Lions, who are coming off an unbeaten 13-0-3 regular season.
That match kicks off this year’s tournament at 11am at Thunderbird Stadium on Thursdays and while Shearon knows his side will come in to the tournament as the underdogs, he has no doubt that his squad can more than compete with the best that Canadian college soccer has to offer.
“I still think we’re one of the best teams in the country and that was the message,” Shearon said of what he told his squad ahead of this postseason campaign. “UBC are a fantastic team, I’m not going to take anything away from them, but I think we’re a good team. That was always the message. I think we can beat anyone in the country but we can also lose to anyone in the country.
“Canada West soccer has some solid teams. It’s a battle every weekend, so I think we’re battle tested and ready to go. We’re just going to focus in on Thursday and hopefully we come and play to the best of our ability.”
Although it may look like UBC stream-rollered all over the Canada West competition this year, going 13-1-2 and then scoring 12 goals with no reply in the playoffs, they have been tested in a number of games, and the strong showing put up by the Spartans in Sunday’s final was also their ideal preparation for going into the big one.
“You always wants to play as good teams as you can, because that’s what prepares you for the big games and the battles,” Mosher feels. “Trinity gave us a good fight. That second half wasn’t easy. They had a real good push and we were able to match it and deal with it. You want your team going in battle ready for when it counts.”
UBC get their campaign underway on Thursday evening at 6.30pm. The Thunderbirds are the most storied team in U Sports, with 13 national title to their name. But their last one came in 2013 and for a team used to success, that’s far too long for Mosher and his staff to be happy with.
Trinity Western have never won a national title, but both BC sides are stacked with talent and have the ability to take home a medal from this year’s championships.
Talent aside though, both schools will have some home field advantage, with no travel, home comforts, and what will certainly be a vociferous crowd in attendance. It helped UBC lift the women’s national title on home turf in 2015, coincidentally over Trinity Western, and both universities will be hoping it’s a case of home sweet home come Sunday.
“It makes things a lot easier when you don’t have to go anywhere,” Shearon admits. “I was on the staff before when we went various places and it’s a lot harder to go somewhere and play nationals where you’re not used to. We know that we’ve won a few games here before. It’s comfortable and it’s a good environment for us, so we’re excited about Thursday.”
The home crowds, playing in front of both family and friends, is certainly going to give players from both teams a massive lift, especially the Thunderbirds, and it’s those little things that can push a team over the edge and onto lifting a trophy come the end of the four days.
“It’s amazing,” Thunderbirds goalkeeper Jason Roberts told AFTN. “We have great crowds that come out and make a lot of noise. It gives the boys on the field that extra step, that extra jump. It calms the nerves being at home. We’re used to all the settings here. We know what’s going on with the turf, our changing room, and everything. Just being at home makes it so nice.”
You can get a full preview of this year’s championship, with a breakdown of each team, on the U Sports tournament website HERE.
You can get tickets for this week’s nationals HERE.