The Kickabout: The Canada West playoff race and the world’s best striker

TORONTO, ONT – Just like that, the Canada West regular season is into the second half, as focuses turn to not only records but also playoff spots. In a season where record-watch has captivated several programs, seeding and points have taken priority as sides look for consistent form heading into the postseason. 

With high-flying attackers and an upset-filled weekend, 49 Sports looks at some recent takeaways from Canada West in this week’s edition of “The Kickabout.”

Michael Henman is one of the top strikers in the world; at least he’s finishing like one

(UNBC Athletics)

No Canadian soccer player is having a better season than Michael Henman. Potentially, there is no better season for any footballer across the world. The UNBC striker has reinvented the finishing touch in 2022, scoring 15 goals in just nine games and paving his way towards the Canada West single-season goalscoring record. 

He’s also putting himself in the conversation for the CPL-U SPORTS Draft, but that is a conversation for another day. 

After impressing with the Victoria Highlanders in the fall, the Vancouver Island-born striker has already set the conference record for the most hat tricks in one season with four and continues to lead a threatening attacking line for the Timberwolves. 

Although Henman’s playing style and on-ball skills may not stand out, his runs off the ball consistently allow him to get into high-scoring areas, where his elite level of finishing puts him above the rest of the conference. 

Helping his case, too, is the fact that UNBC’s ball advancement is among the best in the nation. In defensive midfield, Kensho Ando regularly wins the ball and distributes to more attacking midfielders, such as Loic Banquet, who can create chances for Henman to latch onto. It’s seen at all levels of the game, but having a transition from a ball-winning number eight in addition to a fishing striker is always a dangerous combination. 

While UNBC’s defensive record is mid-table, they have so far been able to outscore many of their issues and this past week kept a 4-0 clean sheet against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. 

With records in mind, the focus isn’t yet on winning a conference championship but could soon shift towards those loftier team accolades as one of the world’s most in-form strikers continues bagging goals for the boys from Prince George.

MEN: Victoria Vikes lacking a fresh identity

(Victoria Vikes)

After finishing as Canada West silver medalists last season, the 2022 campaign has been a wake-up call for the University of Victoria Vikes. In their first season under Larry Stefanek after Canadian soccer legend Bruce Wilson retired, the Vikes have had trouble winning games and scoring goals without the likes of Isaac Koch and Ian Whibley. 

This weekend, a draw with the listless Lethbridge Pronghorns and a 1-0 loss to the MRU Cougars put a significant damper on any playoff hopes, let alone championship dreams. The results also extended Victoria’s winless streak to four matches, as they fell to 2-5-3 in Canada West play. 

Although the defensive record is mid-table with 16 goals against in 10 matches, the lacking attack has killed the Vikes more than once. They’ve gone three straight games without a goal after seemingly shedding their poor form in a 3-0 victory against the high-flying TWU Spartans. 

(Victoria Vikes)

Suppose Stefanek and the Vikes are to turn it around this season. In that case, they will have to do it quickly. With tough matchups against UBC, UFV and TWU on the horizon, the Victoria side would likely rely on improved attacking outputs from Nick Park, Javier Sagaste and Dusan Mitrovic. 

Although this season, and the latest weekend, haven’t gone to plan for the Vikes, the rookie head coach has a vision of how he wants his teams to play, and the results will undoubtedly improve as he gets used to the group and brings in his own recruits to star in his system. For 2022, however, it just isn’t seeming to work.

WOMEN: UBC Thunderbirds are indeed human

Undoubtedly, the UBC Thunderbirds are still the cream of the crop in Canada West. Yet, they got a humbling against the Calgary Dinos, dropping their first match of the season 3-2 after winning their first eight matches. 

(Calgary Dinos Athletics)

For Calgary, under new head coaches in Diego Raposo and Alex Valerio, the win launches them further into the contender conversation; meanwhile, for head coach Jesse Symons and the UBC Thunderbirds, it is a reminder that wins never come easy, even with two of U SPORTS’ top scorers on the roster. 

UBC’s Danielle Steer opened the scoring with her eighth goal of the season, the second most in U SPORTS, before Calgary’s Erica Mysko and Jayden Berg scored to make it 2-1 for the Dinos. Nisa Reehall scored for UBC to bring the game level, but a strike from Rachel Barlow in the 68th minute decided the match, as her shot from close-in beat UBC’s Sarah Johns for the winner. 

“It’s pretty amazing,” Barlow told the Calgary Dinos’ website. “We were tied, and we really wanted to seal the deal and keep going for the rest of the game.”

However, UBC’s play in the final 20 minutes showcased a fight not seen from them this season, as they threw bodies forward and even found a goal, only to have it pulled back for a foul on the goalkeeper. Still, the strength in adversity was a learning moment for the Thunderbirds, who get set to host UBCO and TRU at home next weekend. 

Looking ahead to the playoffs in just over three weeks, the four favourites of UBC, Calgary, TWU and MacEwan are becoming clear in Canada West, potentially setting up another heated clash between the T-Birds and Dinos somewhere down the line. 

WOMEN: Playoff battle taking shape

(Manitoba Bisons Athletics)

With over half the season already played, you can almost see the playoff picture through the fog of the rest of the season. However, even though there is still time, the top four teams in the CanWest Prarie Division seem all but determined, and the race for fifth seed could end soon. 

The Regina Cougars had an outstanding opportunity this weekend against the Winnipeg Wesmen and Manitoba Bisons. Still, they couldn’t make it count, picking up just two of a possible nine points, falling to five points back of the playoff cutoff. 

With Manitoba taking points from the Cougars in a 1-1 draw and 1-0 win, the Bisons have set themselves up nicely for an end-of-season streak; meanwhile, Lethbridge, Winnipeg and Regina appear destined to play out the schedule. 

The apparent difference maker between the fringe playoff teams is a dynamic attacking midfielder like Manitoba’s Bianca Cavalcanti, Outside of her strong play, there is not too much differing the four sides. Still, her ability to create on the ball and convert her chances (and penalties) is what is powering the Bisons this season. 

(MacEwan Griffins Athletics)

Although the elimination line is all but certain, the seeding is well up for grabs, with just two points separating fourth place Alberta and first place MacEwan. 

With three weeks remaining in the season, there is still plenty of room for flexibility and drama as the tension rises in the hunt for a playoff run, especially in the Prarie Division. 

Games to watch:

Women’s: Calgary Dinos @ TWU Spartans (Friday, 7:00 pm PT)

Men’s: UNBC Timberwolves @ UBC Thunderbirds (Friday and Saturday, 7:30 pm PT)

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