University soccer’s return across Canada

Vancouver, BC- Competitive Canadian university sports remains at a standstill, but that does not mean that Canadian university sport is non-existent. For a select few schools, exhibition play has returned in soccer and golf, outdoor sports that are considered safe to play by local health authorities. 

For soccer, there are three ways U SPORTS teams have returned to the field amid the cancelled 2020 season. 

  1. The team is training at schools as school teams
  2. The team is training outside of school and playing under a different name
  3. Teams are training and playing as a school

Different areas of the country have vastly differentiating return-to-play plans, however, some sort of match play has returned from coast to coast. In most of the country, events are limited to 50 person groups, allowing for matchplay, but no supporters or media. 

AUS Territory

In Atlantic Canada, the part of the country that has best handled the COVID-19 pandemic with the “Atlantic Bubble,” competitive soccer has returned, but not under school banners. Most schools are training in option #1 scenario, but for some, such as the UNB Reds,  are playing under a different banner. UNB’s men’s and women’s soccer rosters are playing in the New Brunswick Premier Soccer League, under their club name, the Picaroons Reds. 

Tristan Nkoghe of the UNB and Picaroon Reds (Fran Harris Photography)

While no official stats are being kept for the league, both Reds teams are at the top of their respective divisions. As the Reds duke it out in the club system, the UPEI Panthers, are playing under their school name as a part of a revised fall season with the local Holland College, as well as a couple of makeshift “all-star” teams. There have been no updates for this league. 

OUA Territory 

The most spread out conference in U SPORTS has the most spread out plans in the return-to-play. Simply put, the OUA territory falls into Options #1 and #2.

Many OUA players play in League 1 Ontario during the non-university season, but that league’s regular schedule was dashed by the pandemic in the summer. However, the clubs have returned to play in a “cohort” schedule, and are using many players who would regularly be in OUA matches. One of the clubs on the men’s side, Alliance United features a roster of nearly all former and current OUA players, and that situation is reflected throughout the system. In the cohort system, teams playa round robin in groups of four, before taking 14 days off and moving to another cohort. While players are playing with their club teams, many are also participating in their school’s training sessions. There are no standings or stats kept for these games, as it is all exhibition. 

U of Toronto’s Nicloas Osorio plays for Alliance United in League 1 exhibition (Ben Steiner/49 Sports)

On the women’s side of the OUA, Ryerson University, York University and Seneca College have all returned to play in a Sunday’s only league, but they are not as the “Rams, Lions and Sting,” rather, they go by country names as place holders. Players have described the atmosphere of the league as “relaxed,” but “exciting” to be back on the field in any capacity. 

With both of these programs happening outside of OUA governance, the possibility for an abbreviated spring OUA soccer season seems like a possibility. However, it all falls back to the trend of the pandemic, as the OUA  includes some of the country’s hardest-hit regions. 

Canada West Territory

Canada West is the only part of the country that is actually back to playing under their school-team names. UBC, Trinity Western, Thompson Rivers, UBCO and the UFV Cascades have all returned to action representing their schools. Canada West is in all three categories and has even found a way in between some of the lines that we have drawn. 

Since it is not governed by Canada West, not all these schools are playing together, rather they are in local cohorts with those in their near vicinity. The women have had the more established return so far, with all of the aforementioned schools playing in their cohorts. 

The Vancouver-based women’s cohort consists of UBC, UFV, TWU, as well as a program from Whitecaps FC. These teams are playing a closed-doors schedule over the next few months, staying in shape for a hopeful 2021 spring season. The exhibition competition opened up the last week, with the defending U SPORTS National Champions (UBC) defeating the TWU Spartans 1-0, thanks to a penalty-kick from the veteran midfielder, Michelle Jang. The rest of the teams have yet to play, but are back training and will meet their first opponent in the coming weeks. 

Travel north and you will find more university teams playing, as the TRU Wolfpack have been battling with the UBCO Heat. Both the men and women have played exhibition matches against each other, with the women kicking things off on Oct. 6. 

TRU vs UBCO (Thompson Rivers University)

In that opening match, the Wolfpack got out to a quick 3-0 lead in the first 35 minutes, with goals from a UBCO defender, Robin Price and Camryn Curts, but finished the game only a goal up as 3-2 victors. Things were a lot quieter on the men’s side, with Josh Banton scoring the only goal in TRU’s 1-0 victory over TWU. There are no more friendlies scheduled between the two schools, but with clearance from the school and the current trend of the pandemic in those areas, there is reason to be hopeful for more match play.

RSEQ Territory:

The University of Montreal Carabins have been rumoured to play the Montreal Impact U23 team, however, this match has yet to be played or date confirmed. Many other schools have returned to option #1 training on campus. 

Also on the men’s side, but not playing against university teams are the TWU Spartans men, who are playing in the Fraser Valley Soccer League, the senior men’s league in the area. The FVSL is also playing in cohorts but offers the Spartans regularly scheduled matches amid the pandemic-affected fall. 

Outlook on the season:

While getting back to matchplay is promising in any situation, it does not change things too much in terms of the fall season. With parts on Ontario reintroducing modified lockdowns to blunt the second wave, the decision on a spring will have to wait. Although nothing is official yet, AUS players have told 49 Sports that they are hopeful something can happen within the Atlantic Bubble, compared to players in Ontario, who are preparing themselves for no university schedule until at least fall 2021.

Cover Photo: University of British Columbia

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