OTTAWA, ON – There is something special about Championship Sunday in U SPORTS Soccer.
Perhaps it’s what the moment means; both an opportunity and a finality.
One game, 90 minutes, one opportunity to etch your team’s name into history. Yet only one moment.
If these 90 minutes are not played to absolute perfection, then you aren’t the team that heads home with a gold medal around your necks and a place in the record books; you’re just the team that almost did.
The Montreal Carabins and the Carleton Ravens can each understand this feeling. For the Carabins, they took gold home once in 2018, but in 2017 and 2019, they fell in the championship game. The finality of opportunities can be truly fleeting.
The Ravens have been waiting years for the opportunity to come back for them. They last saw the final hurdle of the U SPORTS Men’s Soccer Championship in 2002 when they lost 1-0 in extra-time to the Brock Badgers. For an athletic program that has known unfathomable success on the basketball court, the soccer program has been waiting, for one moment, to get over the final hurdle and bring the Sam Davidson Trophy to Carleton for the first time.
For ninety minutes (and then thirty more) on a cloudy Ottawa Sunday in November, the corner of Bronson Ave and Sunnyside Dr almost became frozen in time. The world beyond the wall of trees covering the east side of The Ravens Perch, faded away as two programs in two different moments in their history fought to create their new U SPORTS legacy.
Even just walking up to the Ravens Perch, the energy hung in the air, a nervous but excited tension almost enveloping the stadium. All the parts of a true championship game were set. A stadium draped in black and red, but with a corner of blue. The Bronson Boys and the Montreal Ultras competing in duelling cheers from even before kickoff.
As the game kicked off, Montreal was on the attack first as Kyle Potter was forced to make a diving left hand save just three minutes in. Yet, four minutes later, a corner kick fell behind Felix Goulet but was cleared off the line by Antoine Léonard-Benoit. After already playing 240 minutes of soccer heading into the weekend, each team looked ready to throw everything at the wall for one final game.
“It’s hats off to the players; the beauty of soccer is the game still belongs to the players, and the players on the field did what they had to do on both teams,” Carabins head coach Pat Raimondo said.
Since the program’s founding in 2001, Raimondo has been the only coach to don the blue and white of the Montreal Carabins. After a weekend that saw his team escape a tough quarterfinal against Victoria and win a 120-minute cage match against the Guelph Gryphons, the veteran coach saw his team as able to adapt to anything.
“This group of boys that I have pivot so easily, they don’t get distracted by anything they don’t get bothered by anything, I’m so impressed by their maturity, and just how easy-going they are, and they pivot with no problem,” Raimondo said.
That Carabins resolve was tested early. They gave up the first goal to Isaac Koch and the Victoria Vikes in the 55th minute on Thursday. On Sunday, it was Matteo De Brienne in the 19th minute, the OUA East Rookie of the Year doing what he did six times in the OUA regular season and bringing the Ravens faithful to their feet.
After scoring seemingly at-will in two games against UBC and Cape Breton after De Brienne put home the first goal, the offence for the Ravens dried up. Part of that can be credited to a Montreal team with an established culture. The Carabins, despite only being in U SPORTS since 2001, have become the dominant team in RSEQ and, of recently on the National stage, appearing in the three consecutive national final games, winning in 2018.
“It’s not normal to do four finals in a row, to have 14 league titles; we’ve only been there 20 years; the program is young,” Raimondo said. “It’s not normal to do what we’re doing, but the boys are committed, guys.”
So even as the clock raced towards 90 minutes and the crowd of Ravens supporters seemingly grew louder with each chant, the Carabins did not panic. They had seen the peak of the mountain before; they knew how to get there.
In stoppage-time, it was Quentin Paumier sending a free-kick into the top corner past Kyle Potter, and almost within a split second, the boisterous crowd of supporters for the Ravens was suddenly silent.
For the third straight game for both the Ravens and the Carabins, 90 minutes was not enough.
The first 15 minutes of extra-time passed like two heavy-weight boxers at the start of a round, slowly eyeing each other, trying to find the perfect opportunity to strike.
In the 114th minute Julien Bruce, who moments early had seen a spectacular chance get stopped by Carleton defence, had the ball fall to him in the box, and he buried it past Kyle Potter. Suddenly, the Raven’s dream of a gold medal that looked so promising less than 30 minutes prior looked all but dead.
That is until one final opportunity presented itself.
On the very last play of the game, Daniel Assaf found the ball at his feet after three headers in the box, and he slotted it past Felix Goulet less than 15 seconds before the referee called the end of stoppage time.
“I hope they take these moments and use them as life lessons,” Ravens Head Coach Kwesi Loney said. “I think the resiliency that we showed is something you can carry forward for the rest of your life.”
For Loney the day held extra meaning. The Head Coach of the Carleton Ravens was on the Men’s Soccer team that fell to Brock in 2002 in what was his final game in the black and red.
With the Ravens Perch in absolute bedlam above him, Pat Raimondo’s message to his club did not change, “Just stay strong in the head, and we’ll go win in PKs,” he continued to tell them on the bench.
Through four rounds of the penalty-kick shootout, the score remained tied at 4-4, leaving the potential game-winning shot on the foot of none other than 2021 U SPORTS MVP Guy-Frank Essomé-Penda.
The 26-year-old stepped up to the spot, the way he’d done so many times before as a Carabin, and pounded the ball off the crossbar and past Kyle Potter.
In an instant, there was nothing left to play for; that was it, the Carabins had done it. They had won the national championship.
Even in defeat, Loney could still recognize the magnitude of what his team had accomplished.
“You never like any defeat, but to lose to a team like Montreal, you know it’s something you could hold your head up high and say you took one of the best teams in the country toe to toe until the very end,” Loney said.
For the Carabins, the journey is complete; the gold medal is theirs, their names go into the history books. For the Ravens, the opportunity to win a championship on home soil is over. Still, as Loney reflected, the beauty of soccer is how an opportunity might be only one in a moment in time, but there will be other moments again.
“That’s the game. Sometimes you’re on the top; sometimes you’re on the bottom, a lot of emotional highs and lows, but that’s what’s great about the sport; you get to lick your wounds and come back and do it again.”
COVER PHOTO: @Carabins/Twitter