When you’re the most successful team in U Sports Men’s Soccer history, you know you’ll always have other programs gunning for you.
It may be five years since UBC Thunderbirds lifted their last national title, but with 13 of them, and 17 Canada West championships, under their belts, the target is still very much on their backs.
This year will be no different, and if anything, it may have even got a little bigger.
UBC host this year’s nationals and they dearly want to add to their record-breaking haul on home soil. To do that, Thunderbirds head coach Mike Mosher has recruited a strong and experienced squad. One that will certainly catch the eyes of other coaches around Canada and put that bullseye well and truly front and centre for UBC.
“Absolutely,” Mosher said knowingly. “I said to them on day one, everybody wants our scalp. That’s just something that we live with year after year after year and we try to explain that to everybody coming in. You’re going to see everybody’s best.”
With the Canadian Premier League on the horizon, and murmurs of a U Sports draft coming at the end of this college season to fill some of those squad places, this is one of the most important years in the fledgling footballing careers for a number of these players.
That may sound a little dramatic, but it truly is. The CPL will change the landscape of the game in this country and a number of the Canadian players you’ll see in U Sports and NCAA action this season are likely to play a big part in it.
That’s likely to see a lot more attention given to the college game here than in previous years, and all eyes will be on the Nationals come November. UBC play host to those this year, guaranteeing them a place amongst the eight teams battling it out for the national title. A fact that surely must have helped Mosher with recruitment when it came to selling the Thunderbirds to some prospective players.
“Nationals is a part of it I guess,” Mosher told us. “I think guys wanted to come in and be part of the group, and once we got one, we got another one, then another one, and then more started to come out of the woodwork it seemed. But it’s not just about nationals. I hope that several of these guys are going to be here for three, four, five, years. So it’s not just about this year, it’s about several years.”
There’s no question the biggest addition to the Thunderbirds roster for the coming season, in terms of pedigree, is former Vancouver Whitecaps and Canadian national team striker Caleb Clarke.
The Richmond native returned to the lower mainland late last year after two years in Germany, playing in the VMSL with CCB LFC United. Now 25, Clarke is looking to both kickstart his career and get an education after failing to catch on with the Whitecaps in MLS.
“I think Caleb will have a lot of success in this league this year,” Mosher said of the former Whitecap. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot from him. Caleb will only be here for one year because that’s just how the eligibility shakes down.
“His contact came out of the blue in December and he’s looking at getting on with school and doing a degree and looking at the next phase of his life. As are many of these guys,”
But Clarke is certainly not the only key big name addition for UBC for this season, and he’s not the only ex Whitecap.
Mosher will welcome in a number of new faces, including former WFC2 midfielders Thomas Gardner and Mitch Piraux, recent Residency graduate Nick Fussell, SFU transfer Riley Pang, and making a return after a couple of years away, the 2013 Canada West Rookie of the Year, Sean Einarsson.
There’s 15 new players on the squad in total. That’s a lot for any team, and as talented as the Thunderbirds will undoubtedly be this season, it’s going to take a few games for the squad to fully gel as a cohesive unit.
“The chemistry can be better,” Mosher readily admits. “In that regard there’s still a lot of work to do.”
But he has no doubt it will come.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time,” Mosher feels. “The beautiful thing is we’ve a heck of a lot of competition, we’ve got a spot in the national tournament, and we’ve got several weeks to figure it out. The pieces are there. How do they fit together the best? That’s our challenge.”
There’s certainly been some early teething issues with the squad, but that’s only to be expected. Preseason saw three losses from their four matches, but two of those were to NCAA Division 1 schools by narrow margins, one of them in overtime.
They kicked off their latest Canada West campaign in Abbotsford on Friday night in an entertaining 1-1 draw with the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades. Clarke got the equalising goal in the 23rd minute after the home side had taken an eighth minute lead from the spot, showing his value already.
The Thunderbirds now head back to UBC for their home opener against Trinity Western Spartans on Sunday (2pm kick off) in a repeat of last year’s dramatic Canada West final. UBC fought back from two down to win that one in extra time, and will have a battle on their hands once again against a Spartans side that just demolished Victoria 7-1 on Friday night.
The national title is always UBC’s goal and they have the luxury of knowing that as nice as another Canada West title would be, they have time to work on getting their team in the best possible shape to go for the glory once again. There’s an exciting season ahead.
[AFTN is proud to be UBC soccer’s broadcasting team once again this season. Gideon Hill and myself will have the calls for every home Thunderbirds match, on both the men’s and women’s side, all season long right up to the crowning of the national champions in November. Catch the action on Canada West TV]