TORONTO, ON – David Schaefer stood over a free kick on a blistering July afternoon, staring down stoppage time in the final match of the League 1 BC season, with his Victoria Highlanders having a chance to win the league.
Trailing 2-1 to the TSS Rovers, the Berlin-born midfielder curled a shot toward the Rovers’ goal, around the wall and into the back of the net, marking a 2-2 goal before Victoria went on to score a late winner, capturing the regular season title, and securing the club’s place in the 2024 Canadian Championship.
Since then, Schaefer hasn’t slowed down, going on to lead the Mount Royal Cougars to their first Canada West men’s soccer final, advancing past the semifinal after years of playoff heartbreak, and qualifying for the U SPORTS Championships.
“He’s had a massive impact in his desire to improve, with how much he helps the staff on an administrative side to helping with recruiting and helping guys get visas or supporting them, he has been such an integral part of the team on and off the field,” MRU head coach Ryan Gyaki told 49 Sports of the program’s first international recruit.
“He probably doesn’t realize how much he’s helped us; he’s an integral part of what we’re doing.”
This season, the German forward scored 10 goals as MRU posted an 11-2-1 record to clinch the top spot in the Prairie Division and a chance to host their first Canada West Final against the five-time reigning conference champion UBC Thunderbirds.
Since joining MRU in 2018, Schaefer has helped the Cougars become the most successful regular season team in Canada West over the last four seasons, with the program topping the Prairie Division regularly.
Alas, they’ve always shrunk on the occasion come playoff time, leaving a Canada West title and U SPORTS championship run eluding them earlier than desired.
Throughout his career, Schaefer has seen national championship and conference final hopes dashed by UBC and Calgary on multiple occasions, including after an undefeated 2022 regular season, before finally getting over the hump and into the banner match this season, defeating the Victoria Vikes in the semifinal.
“This process takes time, it wasn’t a nice way to end last season [a semifinal loss to Calgary], so we had a lot of motivation to try and get over the hump this year,” Gyaki said. “You’ve got to commend the players. I’ve been very fortunate with the players I have had that I think I’ve only been disappointed in their effort in one game.”
From Calgary and around the world to build a contender
Since Gyaki joined the program as head coach in 2015, there’s been a steady progression in how the Cougars have approached each season, consistently drawing on international players and circumnavigating the challenges of being a smaller school in the conference.
At the same time, the Cougars, like other Alberta teams, have had to navigate a local soccer scene that, until 2023, did not have a League 1 developmental system, with many youth clubs not offering standardized programming or competition.
After years of analyzing what made teams in BC, notably UBC, successful, Gyaki sought a different route. Rather than trying to convince players to attend MRU’s limited academic programming or to forgo options at UBC and similar schools, he drew on international recruits.
Having played in both the United Kingdom and Germany in a professional career that also saw him represent Canada at youth levels, Gyaki had connections to draw on the international stage.
Nine international players feature on MRU’s 2023 roster, hailing from Germany, England, Wales, France and Brazil, making the program one of the few international-heavy schools alongside the Cape Breton Capers and UNBC Timberwolves.
“We have a lot of incredibly talented players in Calgary and Alberta, but with the being a smaller school, you hit stumbling blocks on trying to get those players,” he said. “We recognized we needed to find another recruiting pool, and that’s when we looked internationally.”
Meanwhile, the local game has also taken strides since Gyaki took over the program, with the Canadian Premier League’s Cavalry FC coming into the picture in 2019, a club that has often paid attention to U SPORTS through their head coach, Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
“We like to scout U SPORTS; it’s a big part of the Canadian footballing picture. We got Joel Waterman (Trinity Western), Eryk Kobza from U of C and Victor Loturi from MRU; we feel it’s valuable,” Wheeldon Jr. told the Northern Fútbol Podcast, having had former MRU goalkeeper Sterling Kerr on his bench for the CPL Final.
“What you get from U SPORTS players, they’re hungry and durable, and they’re intelligent.”
In many ways, Cavalry reflects MRU’s struggles in championship searches, having been the best regular season team in the CPL but falling to Forge FC of Hamilton in their two playoff championship match appearances.
“I owe Tommy a lot; he helped me get into coaching, and I don’t think I would have ever put my boots on again if it weren’t for him,” Gyaki said. “We were coaching a U12 team together years ago, and he and Cavalry have been very supportive of what we’re doing as a program and of soccer in Calgary.”
Dumoulin’s heroics, U SPORTS and the UBC Final
While Cavalry fell to Forge in last week’s CPL Final, the Cougars will look to avoid a similar fate when they host the UBC Thunderbirds in search of their first Canada West banner. A significant part of that effort, undoubtedly, will fall into the hands of rookie goalkeeper Aidan Dumoulin.
The Calgary-born rookie broke the record for the most clean sheets by a goalkeeper in Canada West with 10 this season. He was supposed to have committed to MRU in the 2020 COVID-19 season, but circumstances prevented him from joining. When he popped back up on the radar, Gyaki quickly welcomed him to the program.
In 2023, the Cougars conceded just four goals, the best defensive record in the conference, while scoring 25.
“We were so excited to have him,” Gyaki said. “His maturity coming into the program as a first year has been amazing with how he trains and with his attitude that has had a huge impact on the team.”
Now, the task turns to the final, facing a UBC side that gave MRU one of their two losses this season, a 2-1 result, something that has lingered in the minds of Schaefer, Dumoulin, Gyaki, and the entire MRU men’s soccer program.
The two clash at 1:00 pm MT on Saturday in Calgary before heading to the U SPORTS Championships in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, from Nov. 9-12.
“This has all been step-by-step; winning the Prairie Division seemed like such an unachievable goal when we first started, but since we did it the first time, it became a little bit more realistic to win, so we’ve been working at that now with real purpose, and I don’t think there’s any extra motivation needed.”