TORONTO, ON – With top-ranked teams in the weekly U SPORTS women’s soccer rankings, the Canada West conference promises to deliver some thrilling games in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
After tight matchups saw the Victoria Vikes and Regina Cougars push through their respective play-in games against the UFV Cascades and Alberta Pandas, the second round of the postseason.
As the top teams enter the playoff fold, 49 Sports looks ahead to Friday and Saturday’s quarterfinal bouts and the 2023 Canada West Final Four, which UBC would host should they defeat Regina.
UBC heavy favourites against Regina
The UBC Thunderbirds enter their matchup against the Regina Cougars as astounding favourites, having won the Pacific Division with a record of 13-1-0 on the back of well-rounded team performances.
Led by Katalin Tolnai in attack, the Thunderbirds have vital players throughout the pitch, which makes their ability to hold onto possession increasingly threatening. At the same time, their wide players in transitional areas permit them to regain their attacking rhythms after losing possession. Either way, they’re a tough team to break down.
While Tolnai’s 14 goals in as many games led the team, a midfield of veterans such as Sophie Damian and Janika Sangha, complemented by younger players like Bailey Doerksen and Taya Dennehy, is one of the conference’s most threatening.
“I am extremely excited with where our team is at both attacking and defending leading into playoffs,” head coach Jesse Symons told UBC Athletics. “We have had some exceptional individual and team performances. The team is feeling fresh, ready to compete and excited to get on the field.”
The settled centreback pairing of Jacqueline Tyrer and first-year Sarah Rollins has grown into one of Canada’s stingiest. It already has strong chemistry despite just a single season. Meanwhile, Portuguese U23 international Sophie Fereria continues to thrive at right back.
UBC finished the Canada West regular season atop most categories, scoring 45 goals while conceding just five through their 14 matches. They finished second in shots allowed, with only 42, while goalkeeper Lita Billman and Dakota Beckett have been strong when needed.
For the Regina Cougars, it’s a massive test, but not one they’ll shy away from coming off a hectic play-in game, a 4-3 victory over the Alberta Pandas. As expected, Payton Enns will prove critical for Regina, as will Jessica Merk and goalkeeper Kareena Anderson.
The Cougars have not been stellar defensively, but a big game from Anderson and offensive contributions from Enns, who scored a play-in-game hat-trick, mean there’s a possibility there for head coach Astrid Baeker and her group.
Limiting UBC’s play is no easy task for any opponent in U SPORTS, but a maintained low block and defensive commitment could allow Regina to find a quick goal and force an upset. It’s a monumental task, and UBC remains an overwhelming favourite in the tie.
The two also met at this stage last season, with UBC winning 8-1.
Only one of TWU and Calgary can return to U SPORTS Nationals
One of the Canada West teams from last year’s U SPORTS Championship won’t be moving on to the national tournament this season, yet it makes for a great Canada West quarterfinal.
For both sides, the playoff matchup could signify the end of an era. For Calgary, it could be the final university match for veteran Rachel Barlow. Meanwhile, TWU may be forced to bid a Canada West adieu to Hannah Miller, Maddy Melnychuk, and Sierra Haldorson.
Alas, the match creates an open opportunity for either side to punch their ticket to the Canada West Final Four. However, the TWU Spartans appear to be the favourite, despite the two sides drawing 3-3 in their lone regular season matchup on Sept. 16
The Spartans finished the season with a 9-2-3 record. They rode a seven-game win streak before dropping their final match of the regular season to the Victoria Vikes, a side that incidentally also gave UBC their lone loss of the season.
Led by head coach Graham Roxburgh, the Spartans must create opportunities for sophomore striker Sophie Crowther, who finished the season with seven goals but has a knack for scoring in desperate situations. Much of this development will likely involve Melynchuk and Bryana Buttar, who has enjoyed a successful first year with TWU after transferring from the NCAA.
Similarly, Charity Field can offer attacking threats and may fancy herself in the tie, having scored twice in the regular season draw, two of her co-team-leading seven goals this season.
TWU scored nine more goals than Calgary this season, finishing second in Canada West with 39. At the same time, they were nearly identical defensively, conceding a second-rank eight goals in 14 games, one better than Calgary’s nine.
Playing a fluid style, TWU could exploit Calgary on a larger pitch at home. However, the Dinos have many similar characteristics that will make them a difficult out.
Keeping the match low-scoring will be critical for head coach Diogo Raposo’s Dinos, with 10 of their 14 regular season games ending with less than four goals total and five either drawn or decided by a single goal.
For that, they’ll turn to veteran goalkeeper Katie French to stay strong and defenders Brooklyn Colvin, Mykena Walker, and Jaden Tomaszewski, all of whom have proven critical to shutting down potent attacks. Meanwhile, they’ll need significant two-way contributions from Barlow and Sofia DiGiacomo.
The match could go either way for TWU and Calgary, with both teams holding the potential to make an impact at the U SPORTS tournament should they make it that far. Still, their first step lies on Friday, hoping to advance to the Canada West final four.
While not a measurable impact, the Spartans will also enter the playoffs as one of the fresher-looking teams in the country, introducing new jerseys by Macron, replacing their longstanding Adidas kits.
Victoria look to continue titan-toppling season against MacEwan
The Victoria Vikes have had a recipe for upsets this season, being the only team to beat the UBC Thunderbirds and the side that snapped the TWU Spartans’ seven-match win streak. Now they take on another Canada West titan, the MacEwan Griffins, looking to continue their giant topping season.
The two sides played to a 1-1 draw in September; however, much has changed for both teams since then, with MacEwan losing top striker Grace Mwasalla to injury and Saturday’s match set for sub-zero temperatures in Edmonton.
Victoria enters the matchup coming off a thrilling play-in match victory against the UFV Cascades, which saw Kayley Lidstone stand tall in a penalty kick shootout after a 1-1 draw through 120 minutes.
Led by head coach Tracy David, the Vikes will turn to Emma Skalik for their attacking prowess, as the senior year wide forward hopes to continue the form that had her in threatening positions each match en route to a six-goal season.
While she has been in this position before, Skalic and several other Vikes have been playing competitive matches since May, when she put together a strong League 1 BC season for Nanaimo’s Harbourside FC – that rhythm and intensity has undoubtedly helped Victoria in 2023.
Victoria has not advanced to the Canada West Final Four since 2017 but has fielded their strongest team since then in 2023. Coincidentally, the last time the Vikes won a Final Four game was against MacEwan.
Outside of Skalic, Ruby Nicholas and Eerin Jensen will be essential factors in the match, with the latter having scored seven goals, the team lead. The pair also posted 10 and nine points, finishing off an attacking trio alongside Skalic.
On the MacEwan side of the equation, this should be a match they come out of as victors, especially having hit their stride after losing talismanic striker Grace Mwasalla to injury. In the last four games, the Griffins have seen five different goalscorers, including Alyx Henderson,
Anneke Odinga, Brenna Paquin, Hannah Harper, and Grace Schimpf, making them unpredictable threats attacking-wise.
Meanwhile, the Griffins also enter the playoffs with immense experience, with a returning core from their 2021 U SPORTS title, as well as a young group that veteran leaders have mentored.
Captain Hannah Supina will be critical in keeping things quiet on the defensive end and advancing the ball for MacEwan’s attacking talents while bringing a level head into the matchup.
“We’re excited for this; we’ve been waiting for it all season, and we knew we were going to get to this point, and now it’s just going through our plan in preparation,” Supina told MacEwan Athletics. “Victoria is definitely a gritty team. They work super hard, but we’re definitely prepared.”
The two have twice matched up in the Canada West Playoffs, with their last post-season clash in 2019. Yet, Saturday’s game presents a fairly open contest, but still one that favours a determined Griffins side.
Individual performances likely to decide Saskatchewan, UBCO
The Saskatchewan Huskies and UBC Okanagan Heat come into the quarterfinals as two programs on the rise and two teams with strong chances of winning the match. Although several other quarterfinals are tight ties, this one is nearly impossible to call.
Buoyed by leading goalscorer Stefanie Young, the UBCO Heat had a solid start to the season, with Young leading the nation in goals at points. However, she trailed off down the stretch but still finished with 14 goals, tied for the conference lead.
Meanwhile, the Huskies have shown immense growth this season under head coach Jerson Barandica-Hamilton, who has helped raise the level of soccer in the Prairie Division this season, offering a fully-fledged challenge to MacEwan.
In their lone match this season, the Heat prevailed on the back of Young’s hat trick, as the third-year attacking midfielder hoisted UBCO throughout the season, turning them into a fringe contender.
Both teams tack up eerily similarly, with UBCO scoring 30 goals and Saskatchewan 28, while the Huskies hold a sizeable defensive advantage, having only conceded 12 times compared to the Heat’s 20. However, UBCO played most of their games in a more challenging Pacific Division.
While Young is undoubtedly the difference maker in the match, the Heat will also look to Abigail Taneda, who has hit her stride as a playmaking presence this season.
Meanwhile, UBCO head coach Craig Smith will have to keep his group warry of Saskatchewan’s depth presence, headlined by Nammi Nguyen, Jade Houmphanh, and Marie Kilcher, an attacking trio who scored six goals apiece, accounting for two-thirds of the Huskies’ goals.
Neither side is a clear favourite in the draw. However, both have match-altering players who can capture a crowd and grab a result through individual performances.