CPL Island Games: U SPORTS standouts in the opening matches

By: Brady Reid and Benjamin Steiner

Toronto, ON- In a computer generated stadium on a pitch at the University of Prince Edward Island, the Canadian Premier League has returned for its second season. Although many of the U SPORTS draft picks went unsigned this time around, every team still has some Canadian university talent helping them through The Island Games. 

49 Sports‘ first update, takes a look at the U SPORTS alumni who have been performing well throughout the opening matches. Each team has hit the pitch at least once, with last season’s finalists, Cavalry and Forge, playing twice. 

The list is based on the CanPL standings as of Aug.18.

4 PTS: Cavalry FC: Dominick Zator

The 25-year-old defender has been doing it at both ends of the pitch for Cavalry through their first two matches, scoring a headed goal against Forge FC Thursday evening before putting in another solid defensive effort once again against Valour on Sunday. 

Zator is no stranger to contributing for his side on the offensive side of things, scoring the winning goal that sent Cavalry FC past the MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps in last year’s Canadian Championship. His ability to be a difference-maker in all facets of the game is a major reason why CanPL.ca named him the Top Defender league-wide heading into the Island Games.

The former Calgary Dino continues to be a force at the back, winning 14 duels, including nine aerial battles so far in the competition, topping his team in both departments by some measure. Completing 104 passes in 180 minutes played through two matches, he ranks second on his side behind only defensive partner Mason Trafford’s 118.

If Cavalry is to replicate the success they had in 2019, you can be sure Zator will play a starring role in Charlottetown, something that John Herdman and the rest of the Canadian national team staff will be keeping a close eye on.

Honourable mention to former Ryerson Ram and TFC II loanee Robert Boskovic who was solid in his CPL debut against Valour FC, picking up a match-high 70 touches and drawing three fouls in a smart defensive performance.

4 PTS: Forge: No Balbinotti

The defending CPL champions are one of the two teams to play two games at time of writing, opening the tournament with a U SPORTS-less draw against Cavalry, and following it up with a U SPORTS-less 2-0 victory over FC Edmonton. 

After losing former Guelph Gryphon, Jace Kostopoulous to their 905 rivals, York9, Forge is left with only former UQTR Patriote Gabriel Balbinotti, who has been stapled to the bench for the opening matches. 

The young french forward does have recent championship and tournament experience from the 2019 U SPORTS championships, where his Patriotes won their inaugural national title, making him a natural fit to the condensed 2020 CPL season. 

After not appearing through two matches, Forge FC manager Bobby Smyrniotis said “He’s been training really well, and he’s a strong player, that’s why he’s at Forge FC. We have a lot of games, so he will be getting his debut soon.”

1 PTS: HFX Wanderers: Cory Bent

In the side boasting the most U SPORTS alumni within the league, it was former Cape Breton winger Cory Bent that shined the brightest in his Wanderers debut, playing 90 minutes in a 2-2 draw against Pacific FC on Saturday.

Bent was lively throughout the afternoon drawing the most fouls in the match with five. None were more important than the clumsy tackle Pacific keeper Nolan Wirth stuck on the Wanderers forward which led to the game’s opening goal from the penalty spot in the 12th minute.

The Preston native also swung in a game-high 10 crosses, some five more than any other player on the pitch, which led to two chances created for HFX. In addition, his 57 touches were second-best among Wanderers players behind only fellow debutant and U SPORTS star Jake Ruby with 59.

For his relentless runs in both directions and consistent threat to the Pacific backline, Bent earned man of the match honours in this one. The only thing he didn’t manage to do in his first game for Halifax was find the back of the net, a fact that feels but a formality for now if the 23-year-old attacker can maintain the level of play he demonstrated in his first game as a professional.

1 PTS: YORK 9 FC: Ryan Telfer

From York U, to TFC and back to York, Ryan Telfer is a familiar name to Torontonian soccer fans, and he proved why again in York’s opening match of the Island Games. 

Although the newly signed forward failed to find the scoresheet, he finished the game with the most shots of any player, and was dedicated in his defensive work, winning a handful of tackles. 

Canadian Premier League/Chant Photography

One of his many chances came in the 30th minute, as his curling, long-range free-kick sailed just north of the crossbar, but even without scoring, he was a thorn in Ottawa’s side all match. 

Although it does not show up on the stat page, Telfer played a critical role in the 50th minute Ottawa sending-off, as he was one of the two attackers in York’s break which triggered the tackle. 

Telfer is on York9 to score, but even on a day where he did not, his value was felt throughout the match.

1 PTS: Atletico Ottawa: Ajay Khabra

The standout U SPORTS name on the Ottawa roster goes to Ajay Khabra on a formality as the former University of Alberta player is the only squad member to have played at the level.

Starting in a defensive midfield role in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Khabra played 63 minutes en route to helping his expansion side secure their first CPL point in a 2-2 draw against York9 FC. Just as York drew a penalty to level things at 2-2 near the hour mark, Khabra appeared to be labouring as he ran toward his own goal gingerly, which might explain his early exit from the match.

In his time on the field, the former Golden Bears MVP completed 25 passes at an impressive success rate of 92%, exactly the type of efficiency you want from an experienced player in the middle of the park.

While his offensive output is not his claim to fame, the 25-year-old brings plenty of leadership in as a calming figure sitting in front of Ottawa’s backline. Starting 21 times in the CPL for hometown team FC Edmonton in 2019, Khabra will be leaned on heavily throughout the competition as one of the few squad members with experience in this league, all this of course 

1 PTS: Pacific FC: The T-Bird + Toronto Trident

A pair of T-Birds and a Varsity Blue all were a part of  the first Pacific FC match, which  proved to be a strong performance for the trio. Jordan Haynes, former UBC centre back  made his CPL debut, while fellow T-Birds teammate Zach Verhoven made an impact of his own. 

For the first game under new head coach Pah-Modou Kah, PFC lined up with three at the back, a formation that favours the U SPORTS talents on the team. Hayne’s traditionally a centre back, got the spot on the right, while former U of Toronto defender and CPL sophomore, Lukas MacNaughton found himself on the left. 

While on-paper PFC was lined up as a 3-5-2, their play was extremely fluid, with the wingers often dropping back to make it an adjustable 4-3-3, nevertheless, Haynes, as well as MacNaughton looked comfortable for the majority of the match. 

The big U SPORTS highlight (above) came from Zach Verhoven, who came into the match as a substitute for the similarly named Noah Verhoeven, only to score a goal mere minutes later. 

0 PTS: Valour: Dylan Carreiro and Brett Levis

What’s the first step in winning a game?

Scoring goals.

What’s the first step in scoring goals?

Getting shots.

What did Valour do in their opening loss?

They didn’t get a shot.

When you don’t put a shot on net, you’re going to be very hard pressed to find a goal. With a lineup featuring a pair of U SPORTS alumni, Valour did not look good at all in their opener. Newcomer and former Vancouver Whitecap Brett Levis, the first pro soccer player to come out of Saskatchewan started on the left of the midfield, but any benefit he could have brought to the match was neutralized by Cavalry, who had a sizable university contingent themselves. 

In the centre of the pitch was former York Lion Dylan Carreiro, but even he, who was a crucial cog in the Valour midfield last season, proved to be ineffective.

Manager Rob Gale was frustrated post-match, but did point out that Cavalry is the toughest opening match his team could have drawn, before going on today that his side “lacked bravery.”

“I know our guys have the technical skills, but we need to be braver. We shied away from it in the first half.”

Valour next hits the pitch against expansion side Atletico Ottawa, on Aug. 19.

0 PTS: FC Edmonton: Connor James

While Easton Ongaro was the odds on favourite to be the U SPORTS standout for Edmonton, the star striker from last season struggled mightily to get into the game against Forge FC, getting just 12 touches on the ball in an uneventful 61 minutes played.

Instead, the kudos goes to Connor James in this one, as the former Alberta Golden Bear goalkeeper started and played 90 minutes in his side’s 2-0 loss to the reigning champions.

Although James conceded two of the four shots he faced, he could do little about either effort. The first Forge goal came from a stunner from distance off the boot of Kwame Awuah that the Edmonton keeper couldn’t have kept out were he cloned. The insurance marker from Forge in stoppage time came from a Kareem Moses own goal when his headed clearance found the back of the Eddies net and put things out of reach.

For candidates to point the finger at in the dressing post-game, James’ name should be near the bottom of the list. While any keeper will be kicking themselves after conceding twice in any given game, he did all he could to play his part for Edmonton in this one.

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