TORONTO, ON – The Canadian Premier League has changed how Canada looks at U SPORTS men’s soccer.
No longer is the university side of the game an afterthought in this country; instead, it is a land of undermined talent that can help professional sides and even develop into national team members.
Mark-Anthony Kaye, a former York University Lion, is now a stalwart with the Canadian men’s national team. As well, former UBC Thunderbird Patrick Metcalfe is getting minutes with Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps. Those are just two players, not even mentioning the several U SPORTS players dominating the CPL.
With three editions of the CPL-U SPORTS Draft in the books, student-athletes and coaches have an idea of what they need to do to win at the U SPORTS level and grow into the pro levels.
Canada West athletes have paved the path, and the connection between the CPL and the conference has never been stronger than it is heading into 2021.
Let’s get to it: A U SPORTS Canada West preview.
A New Look for 2021
Canada West competition will look a little different in 2021 than it did in 2019 due to COVID-19. There will be two divisions, the prairie and the pacific, and teams will only play sides in their conference, ending in teams playing between 10-12 regular-season games.
The Pacific conference includes the three-time defending champion UBC Thunderbirds and the UBCO Heat, UFV Cascades, UNBC Timberwolves, TRU Wolfpack, TWU Spartans and UVic Vikes.
The Prarie conference consists of the Alberta Golden Bears, MacEwan Griffins, MRU cougars, Calgary Dinos, Saskatchewan Huskies, and Lethbridge Pronghorns.
No cross-conference play will happen until the playoffs. The top four in each division cross over to play each other in a seeded, one-game knockout playoff bracket. The finalists qualify for the U SPORTS National Tournament in Ottawa, Ontario.
With formats out of the way, 49 Sports previews the Canada West Prarie Division, with a Pacific Division preview to follow in the coming days.
Alberta Golden Bears
Led by Head Coach Martin Fenger-Anderson, the Golden Bears will be looking to win their first Canada West title since 2016. In the last five seasons, that 2016 title stands out as the only one not captured by UBC; however, the conference and the Golden Bears look much different in 2021.
When the Golden Bears hit the pitch in 2021, they will be without their main man from 2019. Forward Garry Onyejelem is not on the 2021 roster after leading the side with seven goals in 2019. While he has eligibility left, he won’t be with the Golden Bears this season, leaving a hole in the goalscoring among the veteran core. Attempting to fill the void is Lahai Mansaray, who scored four times through 14 matches in 2019 and has an exhibition goal in 2021.
Their recruiting class is one of the more intriguing ones in the conference, as the Edmonton school harnessed the developmental pathway of the Canadian Premier League. Defenders Armaan Nijjar and Dylan Atwal come from the Pacific FC program, while midfielder Carlos Patano joins with CPL games already under his belt.
The Golden Bears also have two former CPL Draft picks on their roster in Jacob Bosch and David Chung, who FC Edmonton selected in the 2019 Draft in Montreal.
Player to watch: Lahai Mansaray
The Calgary Dinos have not won a Canada West final since 1980, and that streak will likely continue in 2021. While the school finished third in their division in 2019, graduates and limited recruits paint the picture of a rebuilding program in 2021.
Leading goalscorer Dominik Zuczek has graduated, leaving Calgary native Derek Brust as the main forward. While Brust scored three goals and two assists in 2019, the departure of Brust also sees 25% of their regular-season goals evaporate.
The two keys to Calgary’s potential success in 2021 will be the play of their backline, which struggled in 2019, allowing the second-most goals in the conference with 25. However, the transition will run through sophomore midfielder Eryk Kobza, who led the Dinos with four assists in 2021 and earned Dinos Rookie of the Year honours. Kobza’s play as a freshman was integral to the Dinos qualifying for U SPORTS Nationals, and as a more mature player, he comes into 2021 with high expectations.
Player to watch: Eryk Kobza
Item number one on the Pronghorns to-do list: Concede far fewer goals. After shelling 32 goals in 2019 while only scoring 14, the Pronghorns can only improve in 2021. After all, they have failed to win a single match since the 2017 season.
With the school going through budget cuts in recent years, eliminating the hockey programs and cutting funding across the institution and athletics programs, there is not much reason to be bullish on the Pronghorns chance of lighting up the Canada West conference.
Leading goalscorer from 2019, Ellis Davies has moved on, leaving Danilo Morales as the team’s main man in attack. The Lethbridge-born forward scored four goals throughout his Pronghorns career but will need to raise that level to guide the Pronghorns to a playoff berth in 2021.
Incoming defender Kieran Dehnel will be tasked with shoring up one of the conference’s leakiest backlines and could be in an excellent position to do so. The Trail, BC-born centre back comes from the Whitecaps FC Academy program, a system that has produced Canadian stars such as Alphonso Davies and Lethbridge teammates Nathaniel Riemer and Cadel Goertzen.
Even with the additions and the growth of senior players, the coming season will undoubtedly be challenging for a Pronghorn’s side trying to snap one of the longest winless streaks in Canadian university athletics.
Player to watch: Danilo Morales
The MacEwan Griffins probably would not have been in championship conversation if there had been a 2020 season, yet here we are, looking at a potential dark horse. While the Griffins missed the playoffs in 2019, they have added a stellar recruiting class, headlined by promising CPL prospects Chance Carter, Ali Yildiz and Jaeden Mercure.
Both Carter and Yildiz have played with FC Edmonton in the last 14 months and should control the midfield battle against most U SPORTS teams. Several CPL pundits promoted Carter as a potential CPL Rookie of the Year for 2021 before dropping out of the professional game to attend MacEwan.
Led by Head coach Adam Loga, the Griffins will have to improve in every aspect of the field, yet it starts in the midfield. The additions will likely outweigh the loss despite losing leading goalscorer Everett Orgnero to the Alberta Golden Bears.
While Carter will catch many eyes, especially in Alberta as a former FC Edmonton player, Mercure is intriguing. The 18-year-old made his debut with Atletico Ottawa against York United in CPL action on Sept. 2 and did not look out of place.
It is a new look for the Griffins this year, but one that could bring them back into the playoff fold.
Player to watch: Chance Carter
Mount Royal Cougars
If the season unfolds as expected, the Cougars will be in the post-season. Mount Royal was one of Canada West’s best teams in the 2019 regular season and won the Prarie Division with a record of 9-4-1.
Midfielder Dane Domic dominated the conference in 2019, scoring six goals and adding four assists, leading the Cougars to the post-season. The former Sparta Rotterdam athlete was just a freshman when he posted those astounding numbers, earning himself the honour of being the 2019 U SPORTS Rookie of the Year.
Domic will be supplying Moe El Gandour, one of the conference’s best forwards, with service all season, and there is a very high chance that the duo outperforms their combined 13 goals from 2019.
While the Cougars have a sizeable returning core, their mainstay goalkeeper from 2019, Kyran Valley, has graduated, paving the way for Sterling Kerr or Fabian Bunk to take the spot between the sticks.
Led by Head Coach Ryan Gyaki, the Cougars are in a stellar position to make a push towards their first-ever conference title.
Extra: If you’re looking for an impact CPL player in the next 2-3 years, look no further the Dane Domic
Player to watch: Dane Domic
After finishing second in the Prarie Division in 2019, the Saskatchewan Huskies are looking to hop over the MRU Cougars for first place in 2021, and they’ll be doing so with some pro-environment experience under their belt.
Forward Nikolas Baikas, who led the Prarie Divison in shots in 2019, and teammate Aaron Hidalgo-Mazzei, had pro-tryouts in the CPL with Winnipeg Valour. While neither could secure a U SPORTS-CPL deal, they come back to Saskatoon with valuable experience from the Canadian top-flight.
While he did not gain pro experience in the year-off, former Whitecaps FC Academy graduate Kuhle Bekwayo is entering his second Canada West season after being named to the All-Rookie team in 2019.
The Huskies have an excellent holdover from their Canada West bronze medal in 2019; however, they will be without midfielder Jacob Powell, who orchestrated their play en route to being named a U SPORTS All-Canadian.
- Mount Royal Cougars
- Saskatchewan Huskies
- Alberta Golden Bears
- MacEwan Griffins
- Calgary Dinos
- Lethbridge Pronghorns
Cover Photo: Mount Royal Cougars