PREVIEW: U SPORTS Champions headline CanWest Prairie Division in 2022

VANCOUVER, BC – For the first time since 2019, U SPORTS soccer in Canada West returns with full travel schedules and all the aspects many are familiar with from past seasons. While the league shifts back to the status-quo from 2021’s regionalized structure, it offers a new group of contending teams and storylines.

Alberta Pandas

(Alberta Athletics)

The Alberta Pandas women’s soccer program had a challenging year in 2021, but with the divisional realignment, they could be bound for great things in 2022. While the MacEwan Griffins continue to highlight the Prarie Division in 2022, the 2021 Central Division runner-up Calgary Dinos now shift to a separate division. 

Alberta is poised to improve with the shift in schedule and divisions in 2022. Led by head coach Kristyn Shapka, the Pandas will look to Canada West 2021 All-Rookie team member Kelli Haffie to take the next step in her career after starting 11 games in 2021 with a solid defensive core. 

Alberta has a strong roster and one that can put up a challenge to any team in the conference but may not have the qualities to defeat a MacEwan, UBC or Trinity Western in 2022. 

Key Player: Kellie Haffie

Lethbridge Pronghorns

(Lethbridge Pronghorns Athletics)

The Lethbridge Pronghorns have never been a powerhouse team in Canada West soccer, and it does not look like that will be changing this season, despite some strong talents on the roster. 

Led by second-year head coach Macky Singh, the Pronghorns will look to improve on a 2021 season that saw them collect only two wins and finish last in their division. Third-year midfielder Lucy Mundy will be relied upon to drive the attack as the Calgary Foothills player looks to improve her 2.42 shots per game from last season. 

The Pronghorns have not won more than two matches in a season since 2017 but made the playoffs in 2019 thanks to their seven draws. However, with Singh entering his second season and Mundy continuing to settle at the level, they could challenge teams in some games in 2022. 

Key Player: Lucy Mundy

MacEwan Griffins 

(MacEwan Athletics)

The Champions. After winning the 2021 U SPORTS National Championship, the MacEwan Griffins visited the Edmonton Oilers, Alberta legislature and received several other local honours. However, that’s all in the past as they stare down 2022. 

Expectations were high for MacEwan coming into 2021,  and they achieved just that when they lifted the U SPORTS trophy in Cape Breton, NS. With much of the team returning, anything but a championship run would be a disappointment. 

Also back are Grace Mwasalla, Hannah Supina, Maya Morell, and Abbey Wright, among others who played integral roles in the national championship run.

Starting the preseason in early August against Manitoba gives the Griffins a lot of time to come together as a team before the official season kicks off. Still, many of their players are already prepared for the season after gruelling summer campaigns in UWS and League 1 BC.

Morell played integral minutes with North Vancouver’s Altitude FC, playing against teams formed from the CanWest programs of UBC, TWU, TRU, UNBC and Victoria. Meanwhile, Mwasalla, Anneke Odinga, Erika Vecchio, Erin Van Dolder, Samatha Gouveia, and Alyx Anderson played with UWS Impact in United Women’s Soccer. 

There aren’t any issues with the Griffins as they enter this season. Look for Mwasalla to improve after scoring six goals in her rookie season and for Anna McPhee to continue holding down a backend that only conceded 0.82 times per game last season. 

There are a lot of expectations of the MacEwan Griffins, and everyone will want to beat them, but Dean Cordeiro’s group is fully equipped to silence any doubts. 

Key Player: Maya Morell

Manitoba Bisons

(Manitoba Bisons Athletics)

The Manitoba Bisons are an intriguing side in 2022. After winning six matches in 2021, the team led by Vanessa Martinez Lagunas has a lot of potential this season, despite being in a complex division with MacEwan.

The Winnipeg-based program has gotten an early start on preseason as well, playing the pesky Griffins in a pair of matches to start the month of August. While they have quite the preseason planned, Jessica Tsai and Bianca Cavalcanti are two players they will want to have at 100% come  their regular season kickoff. 

Tsai was one of the conference’s best chance creators in 2021 and was second in the conference in shots attempted. However, her finishing could use some work, as she only scored twice on 49 shots. While the conversion rate wasn’t there in 2021, it shouldn’t take much to turn shots into goals — she’s getting the chances. 

Aside from Tsai, look to Brazilian Bianca Cavalcanti to take a significant step this fall. She scored nine times in 12 games last season and is likely to see that total move upward in her second season with the Bisons. With Calgary’s Montana Leonard now graduated and UBC’s Danielle Steer in her final season, Cavalcanti is primed to become the conference’s best goalscorer. 

A championship might be a long shot for the Bisons this season, but with a solid recruiting class and an exciting returning roster, there is potential for them to content at the top of Canada West for the next several seasons. 

Key Player: Bianca Cavalcanti

Mount Royal Cougars

(Mount Royal Cougars Athletics)

The Mount Royal Cougars are an intriguing Canada West program, and this could be a year where they begin to see some real success. However, while the men’s side has seen its share of big games, the women have not made it to those points in several seasons. 

Last year was all about the Crowchild Classic rivalry with a handful of games against Calgary. Now, with the high-flying Dinos (pterodactyls, if you will) in the Pacific division, there’s a door open for the Cougars. 

The 2021 Cougars won three games, but what stands out is their seven draws and their ability to keep games close. They scored 13 goals in 12 games last season and will need to improve on that this season. Still, there is a chance that their defensive structure allows them to turn draws into wins, not discounting the possibility of the equation going the other way. 

The most intriguing factor for the team will be the continued growth of forwarding Sydney Danielewicz, who showed she could play amongst the best as a rookie last season. She was fourth overall in shots with 36 and 10th overall with six. The Calgarian earned a position on the Canada West All-Rookie team and turned heads for what could be a breakout year for her in 2022. 

Turning draws into wins won’t be easy for head coach Tino Fusco and the Dinos, but the Mount Royal Cougars may not be as far off a challenging team as once thought. 

Key player: Sydney Danielewicz

Regina Cougars

(Regina Cougars Athletic)

There is a lot to like with the Regina Cougars in 2022. However, after a 2021 season that saw them finish with seven wins and 22 points, there has been a shift in their coaching, as the co-coaching setup of Astrid Becker and Rob McCaffrey has been left to only Becker. 

In 2021, many of the Cougars combined for an average, middle-of-the-table season, not having the most outstanding attacking or defensive numbers. However, a standout player was Kyra Vibert, a local talent who has played at an elite level throughout her time with the program. She finished the season with seven goals and enters 2021 as the third highest scorer in Cougars history. 

Additionally, Peyton Enns impressed in her first season, scoring four goals and being named to the conference’s all-rookie team. In her second U SPORTS season, the former Valour FC Elite player will look to improve on those numbers as she takes on more formidable competition. 

With Astrid Becker at the helm, and a recruiting class headlined by multisport athlete (basketball, soccer) Treyah Paquette, Regina could make noise this season. 

Key Player: Peyton Enns

Saskatchewan Huskies

(Saskatchewan Huskies Athletics)

The Saskatchewan Huskies ended last season on a high, losing to the MacEwan Griffins in the third place game, yet making the Canada West Final Four. It was an incredible season for a program that is not known to contend for titles and one they hope to build on in 2022, but it won’t be easy. 

Huskies head coach  Jerson Barandica-Hamilton continues to build his roster with local talent and will also turn to much of the same group that eliminated the Calgary Dinos on penalty kicks in last year’s playoffs. 

However, major missing pieces will be Taneil Gay and Maya Gabruch, who led the team’s attack over the last several seasons. For the Huskies, however, the principles of stingy defence and a counterattack remain. In 2021, the Huskies had the conference’s fourth-best defence, conceding just 13 times in 15 matches. 

With Gabruch and Gay gone, look to Haley Mercier to take the next step in her career, as she will likely be relied upon to create offensive opportunities for a team that is probably going through a transition year.

Key Player: Haley Mercier

Winnipeg Wesmen

(Winnipeg Wesmen Athletics)

The Winnipeg Wesmen are not likely to be challenging for the CanWest title. Instead, they’ll look for a year of growth after posting a winless 0-10-2 record in 2021. There were not many positives from the Wesmen’s last campaign, and the schedule only gets more challenging having to play the Pacific teams in 2022. 

Still, despite the struggles, there are reasons for hope for head coach Amy Anderson and her team. Twin midfielders June and Maddie Ibbitt-Gatti will likely take some time to adjust to the level but have the defensive midfield qualities the team sorely lacked in conceding 34 goals in 12 games last season. 

Winnipeg isn’t going to win a championship this season, but they have the opportunity to grow and learn from the lessons learned in a difficult 2021 season.  

Key Player: Emma Friesen

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