PREVIEW: MRU Cougars poised to fend off strong Prairie Division

VANCOUVER, BC – As the Canada West season draws closer by the moment, it’s time to turn our preview attentions to the Prairie division. Last year saw the Mount Royal Cougars take the top spot comfortably, and they’ll want to defend that crown. However, the 2022 season promises much more intrigue with teams preparing to make a challenge for the top spot.

Here’s our look at how the Prairie Division of Canada West men’s soccer will shape up.

Alberta Golden Bears

(Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics)

After a season that saw them fall in the CanWest quarterfinals to the UFV Cascades, the Alberta Golden Bears will be looking to make a strong statement in the 2022 campaign. And, with the additions that they’ve made, there’s a lot to like about this squad going forth.

Firstly though, one big departure has to be highlighted. Leading goal-getter from last year Ajeej Sarkaria will not be featuring from the green-and-gold, after posting 8 tallies in 10 appearances. It’s a tough task for the Bears to replace that sort of production, but it’ll also mean that they’ll need to find someone else to step into the limelight.

They might just have that answer in one of their new recruits. Forward Mahdi Hammoud joins Alberta after spending time in the German 5th tier with SV 09 Arnstadt. It’s quite the get for the Golden Bears, with Hammoud already recording three goals in the past two exhibition matches against UBCO and UNBC. Perhaps he could be the offensive machine that Alberta needs to push them into contention.

Otherwise, the Golden Bears have a good blend of experienced returning faces and fresh players getting an opportunity to establish themselves. The best part for Alberta fans is that this group is maturing together, a crop of 2nd and 3rd years readying a challenge for the top. There’s a good opportunity to do so this year, so don’t ever count the Golden Bears out.

Key Player: Mahdi Hammoud

Calgary Dinos

(Calgary Dinos Athletics)

The Calgary Dinos were in a tough battle throughout the year with rivals Alberta for the 2nd and 3rd spots in the Prairie. Unfortunately, finishing in third meant facing the eventual Canada West champions UBC in the quarterfinals. This year, the Dinos will want to avoid another early exit as they gear up for 2022.

Calgary established themselves as one of the stingiest teams in the conference, conceding the third-least goals per game with a strong back line. They’ll look to retain that style of play with 5th year Sam Gagne returning to guide the back line.

However, he’ll have to drill the same mindset into a younger crew than usual, with the experienced line up seeing some upheaval. Adam Huskic and Dondre Bailey were the pillars of the defense that have now graduated, leaving a void in the back. First years William Omoreniye and Victor Gouttin will be counted upon for some big minutes, something these talented youngsters will have to contend with in their first seasons.

They’ll still have the services of one Jake Ruschkowski, the 5th year keeper a huge part of the reason why Calgary has the defensive reputation it has. His distribution and shot stopping will be key along with his experience to guide the Dinos from between the sticks. They’ll be a very tough team to beat, but there are still question marks about their goal-scoring abilities. If that gets sorted, Calgary could very well recapture the magic of the 2019 nationals appearance.

Key player: Jake Ruschkowski

Lethbridge Pronghorns

(Lethbridge Pronghorns Athletics)

It’s tough what to make of the Pronghorns for this season. It’s a program that hasn’t recorded a single regular season win since the 2017 campaign. Yes, their last win came on Sept. 24th, 2017 against UNBC, back when Canada West was all one division.

Chances are the Pronghorns will see an improvement, though the bar is low for that. They fielded a very young team in 2021, a combination of first and second years leading an inexperienced group in CanWest competition. With an additional year under their belts, there should be confidence that Lethbridge can produce at least one victory in the regular season.

However, eyes should be on this program going forth. Unity FC head coach Davin Haigh was brought on to Lethbridge before the start of the League1 BC season. Haigh replaces Randy Bardock after 31 years at the helm, marking a departure from the status quo. Though the Pronghorns are more than likely to be last in the Prairie Division this year, there’s no telling how this team will develop in the next couple seasons under Haigh.

Key player: Danilo Morales

MacEwan Griffins

(MacEwan Griffins Athletics)

MacEwan’s playoff push unfortunately fell just short, with two back to back wins against Calgary not enough for post season action. This year, they’re going to want to replicate the success of their women’s team as they challenge the established top-3 for a playoff spot.

A nice blend of experience and fresh talent is present on the roster. Though the Griffins will miss Ali Yildiz, a first year who turned pro in the Turkish leagues this past summer, they’ll also have attacking midfielders Egzon Jeteshi and Ousman Maheshe to buff up their offensive potency. Both players have spent time with FC Edmonton of the CPL this past summer, bringing a professional approach to the Canada West game.

They’ll help supplement forward Rakan Yassin who did most of the offensive lifting on the scoresheet. The 3rd year forward potted 6 goals in 11 games last season and will hopefully get some support from his teammates. If they can do that, the Griffins will possibly have one of the most balanced rosters in the Prairie.

The one question mark that goes into this year will be between the sticks. Ekhtiar Nijjar formerly of Fusion FC is penciled in as the number one keeper. It’s a bold move for the first year to feature, as talented as he is. It remains to be seen how Nijjar responds to the starting spot, but we’ve seen first year keepers succeed like Bennett McKay. There’s a good opportunity for MacEwan to make the playoffs, and perhaps perform their own Cinderella run to the title.

Key player: Rakan Yassin

Mount Royal Cougars

(MRU Cougars Athletics)

They say the rich get richer, and it certainly appears to be the case for the MRU Cougars. Last season saw them miss out on a berth to nationals, finishing third in Canada West. This year, they’ll look to change that with a potentially stronger crew than the campaign prior.

Though they’ll miss defensive lynchpins Daniel Harrison and William Libbey, MRU has somehow managed to find a replacement from across the pond. Alex Kemsley joins the Cougars after featuring for Clevedon Town FC in the English 7th tier. The young defender should prove to be a difference maker in his first year of CanWest competition.

Moe El Gandour returns for another go around, the former CPL draft pick leading the Cougars with 9 goals in 12 appearances last season. He’s been the most prolific attacker on this team and his contributions should not go unnoticed. As well, fellow forward David Schaefer is back for the Cougars as well after posting 7 tallies the previous campaign. With their strike duo intact, there should be no reason why MRU can’t achieve similar offensive heights if not more.

The Cougars have also done well on the recruiting front. With Cavalry FC right on their doorstep, MRU has brought in Skyler Rogers and Hyunsoo Ryu from the CPL club. Coupled that with the Foothills FC products that they were able to bring in, and the Cougars all of a sudden have a budding young core to supplement their existing squad.

With additions to their lineup, MRU is positioned well for this 2022 season. They’ll be the giants among all the giant killers of the Prairie Division, but on paper it looks that Goliath will very well top the Davids that challenge them.

Key player: Moe El Gandour

Saskatchewan Huskies

(Saskatchewan Huskies Athletics)

Saskatchewan is probably the definition of the term “also-rans.” They existed on the broader consciousness of CanWest watchers, but they’re weren’t taken seriously enough to be a threat. With a series of middling results to back that statement up last season, the Huskies will be looking to turn that right around with some interesting players in the mix.

Third years Kuhle Bekwayo and Aaron Hidalgo-Mazzei were recently invited to CPL team training camps at the start of the spring, showing that Saskatchewan has the talent in the pipeline. These two have steadily improved throughout their stay in the Huskie green, and look to be leaders heading into the future. They’ll be able to bring back the high level experience that the CPL is able to provide, and perhaps have it rub off on their fellow teammates.

What is also good news is that the Saskatchewan roster is relatively unscathed by departures. The perks of fielding a team full of second and third years is that they’ll develop together and feature for a while to come. In the Huskies’ case, fourth year midfielder Nikolas Baikas should step up to become one of the best distributers of the Prairie Division to go with Hidalgo-Mazzei’s creativity.

With their recruiting class yet to be unveiled still, the Huskies are positioned strongly to not only content this year, but for the next couple of seasons. They’ll be strong challengers in a tight fight for the playoff spot, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if Saskatchewan makes the postseason.

Key player: Nikolas Baikas

The Canada West men’s soccer season gets underway for the Prairie Division Aug. 27th, with all six teams in action. Catch all the action live on Canada West TV.

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