It’s playoff time again in Canada West college soccer and UBC Thunderbirds are out to add to their already record breaking haul of 19 Conference Championships when they get their 2019 postseason underway against the University of Alberta at Thunderbird Stadium on Friday night (kick off 7pm).
UBC wrapped up their eighth straight Canada West Pacific Division title, finishing the season with a record of 10 wins, two defeats, and three draws from their 15 regular season matches. That sees the Thunderbirds ranked number one in Canada West heading into the playoffs and 6th overall in the national U Sports rankings.
It was another fairly dominant year for the Thunderbirds but it certainly wasn’t a season without a few ups and downs along the way. Not always expected, but something that head coach Mike Mosher hopes will set his squad up for success now in the postseason.
“There’s been a few hiccups along the way,” Mosher admitted to AFTN. “Things maybe didn’t go as anticipated or maybe as smooth as some of the other seasons. But hey, that’s just part of it.
“I guess in retrospect you want to have a little bit of adversity along the way too so you get a few battle scars going into the playoffs and you find out a little bit where your warts are and hopefully we’ve done that.”
UBC’s two losses this season came as a bit of a surprise. The first was at the start of September, a 2-0 defeat on the road to the UBC Okanagan Heat in Kelowna. The Thunderbirds then went on a nine match unbeaten run before being comprehensively beaten 4-1 at Trinity Western Spartans in their penultimate match of the regular season last weekend.
That one hurt, and with one game left to round off their season last Sunday, at home to the UFV Cascades, everyone on the squad was keen to make sure that they didn’t head into the postseason on the back of two poor performances, potentially killing the momentum and belief the team had been building up.
Fraser Valley needed a win to make it to the postseason and proved a tough nut to initially crack before UBC ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. In many ways it was an ideal preparation to what the Thunderbirds will likely face in the playoffs – teams coming to the Vancouver and bunkering in a little bit, forcing UBC to be patient and slowly break them down.
“We needed to have a competitive type of game to sort of get the mindset right going into the [Alberta game],” Mosher agreed. “So in some ways we had to play a game that was meaningful for the opponent. We were smart. We rested guys that were injured and had cards, and all that kind of stuff, but still, we wanted to get a good performance and have a little bit of preparation out of that moving forward.”
Those three goals took the Thunderbirds’ tally for the season 35, the best record in Canada West. After losing their top three attacking talents of Caleb Clarke, Zach Verhoven, and Kristian Yli-Hietanen in the offseason, it was expected to be something of a scoring by committee scenario for UBC this season.
That was proved to be primarily correct, with 11 different Thunderbirds finding the back of the net but leading the way for UBC this year has been third year striker Victory Shumbusho (pictured above). The Vancouver Whitecaps academy alumni led Canada West with 10 goals and will be a key player for the Thunderbirds heading into this business end of the season.
But with a solid midfield partnership of CPL U Sports draft picks Thomas Gardener and Nick Fussell, along with senior Sean Einarsson, the only player on the Thunderbirds roster to be part of their 2013 national title winning team, and a very solid defensive footing to build upon, this is a complete UBC team, and a very experienced one to boot.
Sunday’s win was UBC’s seventh clean sheet of the season, and their third in their last four matches. It was another stingy season defensively for Mosher’s men, giving up just 14 goals in their 15 matches, with four of those coming in that late season loss to the Cascades.
Their already strong defensive play was strengthened considerably by the addition of two players very well known in Vancouver soccer circle – former Whitecaps Jackson Farmer and Jordan Haynes. Aside from the skill that both bring, their experience at both club and international level will be crucial for UBC in the postseason.
Haynes (pictured below) played in every match this season, while Farmer was rested for the last game of the campaign. Along with centre back Riley Pang and second year right back Daniel Kaiser, UBC have a formidable backline, and they’ll need it the deeper they go in their postseason run.
The first hurdle for UBC to overcome are 2016 U Sports champions Alberta. The Golden Bears have been in something of a slump of late, missing last year’s nationals and only finishing fourth in the Canada West Prairie Division standings this year with a below .500 5-6-3 record.
It’s been an unusual situation to see the once dominant Golden Bears in, but don’t write them off just yet. These Bears can still have a dangerous bite.
Those six losses included a 5-1 home shellacking by UBC on September 22nd. They scored just 19 goals over the season and gave up the same amount, but with five clean sheets this year and just one defeat in their last six matches, they have been finding some form and the Thunderbirds will certainly need to be wary of the wounded animal.
“They’ve had quite a bit of turnover in their group,” Mosher told us. “We saw them up at their place and we had a pretty decisive victory on the day. They were missing a key player, a very key player [defender Noah Cunningham], on their team that day and he’s back in and playing. But it’s the playoffs. Anything can happen. They’ve got a few nice pieces. They’ve got pace up top.”
A win on Friday night will see UBC hosting the Canada West Championship weekend for the third straight season, taking them a step closer to the threepeat and a fourth title in five years, and to another berth at the nationals.
But despite the ease of their earlier victory against the Albertans, UBC certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and looking beyond the Golden Bears and into that Final Four.
“We just look at the next game,” Mosher said. “Quite honestly, I told the guys after we played them that there’s a good chance we might get them in the playoffs and don’t think that it’s going to be that easy because it won’t.”
Kick off is at 7pm at Thunderbird Stadium. Tickets cost $10 and will be available at the gate.