VANCOUVER, BC – The 2022 U SPORTS Men’s Soccer season is upon us, and no conference is more intriguing than Canada West. With the TRU Wolfpack loading up in the year they host nationals and just one spot at the U SPORTS tournament available for the other teams, there will be thrills from the first kick.
Since the Canadian Premier League and the CPL-U SPORTS Draft began in 2019, the conference has also become known for providing top draft picks each year.
In 2022, don’t expect much difference, as draft picks return and others look to establish themselves as Canadian university soccer starts.
With that, 49 Sports and Canucks at School have selected the top seven players in Canada West ahead of kickoff on Aug. 26.
Thomas Gardner- UBC Thunderbirds
There aren’t many players in U SPORTS more creative than Thomas Gardner, and even fewer have been picked in the CPL-U SPORTS Draft more than once. This year, Gardner isn’t coming off a CPL campaign with FC Edmonton but rather a table-topping League 1 BC season with Varsity FC, where he played with many of his UBC teammates.
On the fringes of the Canadian professional game, Gardner is a dynamic and intelligent midfielder who has done well to rack up an assist and key passes throughout his years with UBC. Additionally, he’s one of U SPORTS’ best from free-kicks, often smashing direct set pieces in from anywhere inside 30 yards.
Gardner is on the older side of U SPORTS players at 24 and comes off a 2021 season where he struggled with injury. Still, he has qualities above and beyond many of his U SPORTS opponents. So while he scored four goals and three assists in 2019, expect more from him this season.
There’s a lot to like about his game and the way UBC head coach Mike Mosher deploys him, and if he stays healthy, there’s no reason he can’t be back in the CPL for the spring.
Kensho Ando – UNBC Timberwolves
The UNBC Timberwolves have a strong group that spent the summer with League 1 BC’s Victoria Highlanders, and Kensho Ando was just as important on the Island as he is with the Timberwolves in Prince George.
A tenacious defensive midfielder, Ando has developed a reputation as one of the conference’s most difficult players to face. However, when he wins the ball, the Tokyo-born midfielder finds a successful pass more often than not and is strong at advancing the play towards the attack.
He won UNBC’s Male Athlete of the Year Award in 2022 after scoring a goal and six assists in the 2022 season while consistently creating chances for forwards Michael Henman. He also led the conference in successful tackles.
A versatile player, Ando works brilliantly with UNBC’s setup up head coach Steve Simonson and will look to carry his summer form into what could be a watershed year for the Timberwolves program.
Christian Rossi – TWU Spartans
The TWU Spartans are always one of Canada West’s stronger programs, and Christian Rossi is their talisman up top. Although he never signed a professional deal, the CPL’s York United selected him in the 2022 CPL Draft, and with the way their year has gone, it looks like he could have been helpful.
A native of Surrey. BC, Rossi scored five goals as a rookie last season, showing he can thrive at this level. However, those numbers could be far higher, as he looks set to play alongside Whitecaps Academy grad Keishean Francois, who impressed in League 1 BC.
In the tandem, the Spartans could torment the conference, but alone, Rossi’s potential is tantalizing as a sophomore. While he doesn’t have much of a U SPORTS resume, his 10 matches in 2021 showed his ability to be a star in the league.
Moe El Gandour – MRU Cougars
If the Mount Royal Cougars prove to be the national title contender many think them to be, there will be a lot of weight on Moe El Gandour’s shoulders. Without a doubt, he is the conferences most electrifying striker and has a knack for the spectacular, taking defenders on 1v1 while also attempting shots from distance.
Entering his fourth year with the program, he earned the conference’s player of the season award, scoring nine goals in just 12 matches last season while also putting 24 shots on target, the most of any player returning for 2022. El Gandour has hit the back of the net 20 times throughout his time with MRU.
A former CPL Draft pick of Cavalry FC, he has the skillsets to go on to play professionally, whether at home or abroad, but he’ll want to make a championship run a part of his U SPORTS career with a Canada West title.
Jake Ruschkowski – Calgary Dinos
It’s rare for a U SPORTS goalkeeper to steal the show, but that’s precisely what Calgary’s Jake Ruschkowski has done through his four seasons in Dino’s gold and red.
A former U SPORTS All-Canada, the Calgary Foothills alumnus helped the Dinos to the third-best defensive record in Canada West last season, only conceding nine goals in 11 matches while coming up with big saves on several occasions.
He had his true breakthrough in 2019, playing all 19 games with the Dinos, as they went on to win Canada West bronze, as he finished the year with a conference-leading 111 saves. In 2022, he led the conference with four clean sheets and had an astounding .842 save percentage.
Although the Dinos may be a little ways off from being the strongest team in all eleven positions, they have the most pro-ready goalkeeper in Ruschkowski, a veteran that will be critical to their success this fall.
Armann Nijjar – Alberta Golden Bears
Arman Nijjar joined the Alberta Golden Bears in 2021 and quietly established himself as one of the best defenders in Canada West, helping the Edmonians to the best defensive record in the conference, conceding just six times in 12 matches.
A former Pacific FC U23 Tridents player, Nijjar started just four games for Alberta in 2021 but scored a goal while ensuring the Golden Bears’ backline stayed structured and impermeable.
Although the sample size is relatively small, Nijjar was a defensive star in his four games and is bound to play a much more significant role for head coach Martin Fenger-Andersen’s side this season. Additionally, he stood out with the Victoria Highlanders in League 1 BC.
Ante Grigic – TRU Wolfpack
The only rookie to make out top seven, Ante Grigic comes to U SPORTS with an impressive resume, including stops with the Whitecaps Academy, FC Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia, and most recently, League 1 BC’s Rivers FC.
Grigic is a quick, dynamic midfielder who often looks to make a breakout pass. However, on the ball, he has an element of flare and excitement in his game and isn’t afraid to take defenders on solo.
With the Dinamo Zagreb U18s, the Surrey native scored seven goals and 10 assists.
While only two players graduated from the Wolfpack program last season, Grigic comes to John Antulov’s team as the conference’s strongest recruit and will add an attacking presence seldom seen for the Kamloops side.
With Grigic producing chances and controlling the game in midfield, eyes will turn to forward Patrick Izett, who had 24 shots in 2021, but only scored once. If Izett’s finishing improves with likely better service, Grigic could be bound to lead the conference in assists and chances created.
It’s bold for a rookie to make the watchlist, but Grigic is an exciting addition, one bound to help TRU in their U SPORTS Championship hosting season.