KINGSTON, ON – The Canada West conference has traditionally been a dominant force at the U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Championship, but not since 2019 has a team from the conference taken the banner.
While the TWU Spartans and UBC Thunderbirds are no strangers to the U SPORTS tournament, they’ve struggled in recent iterations, with both sides eliminated in the first round last year, alongside the Calgary Dinos.
While just two teams from Canada West attend this year’s tournament, they once again enter as favourites, especially UBC, who sat atop the U SPORTS ELO rankings for 16 straight weeks.
With the tournament set to kick off on Thursday at Queen’s University’s Richardson Stadium in Kingston, Ont., 49 Sports previews each OUA team and how they might be able to take home the banner come Sunday’s final.
All of the U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Championship matches from Kingston, Ont, will stream live on cbcsports.ca, as well as the CBC Sports App, CBC Gem and the CBC YouTube channels, with play-by-play provided by CBC’s Signa Butler.
TWU Spartans in tough despite championship
The Trinity Western Spartans enter the U SPORTS Women’s Soccer Championship as an outside favourite for the title. However, by winning Canada West in penalties over UBC, they’ve set themselves up on a more challenging road to get there.
Because they are Canada West champions, they take on the host Queen’s Gaels in the quarterfinal, a challenging OUA team in their own right, despite having the automatic qualification. If TWU advances, it’s the RSEQ Champion Laval Rouge et Or, most likely, a team that’s been incredible this season.
Still, as champions from one of the most challenging conferences, there’s hope for head coach Graham Roxburgh and the Spartans, who not only carry the momentum from their 9-2-3 Canada West season but a League 1 BC Final berth as Unity FC.
In 2022, the Spartans fell to the uOttawa Gee-Gees 1-0 in the quarterfinal before beating the Calgary Dinos and losing to UBC to finish sixth at the U SPORTS tournament.
This year, midfielder Sophie Crowther will be critical to TWU’s success, as she plays a vital role in their transition and ability to maintain attacks. At the same time, she often links up with Charity Field, and the two led the team in goal scoring with eight and seven goals apiece.
Meanwhile, Sierra Haldorson and Erin Stewart remain critical midfielders in attack, with Maddy Melnychuk a veteran presence in defensive midfield.
Melnychuk and Bryana Butar will have an immense responsibility to break up Queen’s buildups in the opening match, likely having to take on the likes of Seema Sakran and Mattson Strickler, pushing them wide before wingbacks can overtake the battle.
Similarly, Tilly James and Mya Bajpaj will be responsible for keeping the ball out wide, which would be critical against Laval, given Daphnee Blouin’s threat of floating out to the wing and working the ball back into central areas.
To win the tournament and even get past the first round, TWU will need some of their best performances of the season while holding defensively stout, as they did against the Thunderbirds in the final. While they may not be able to outplay teams, they can out-defend and are a favourite in any penalty shootout, both with their experience and the poise of Hannah Miller between the sticks.
Although they enter the tournament as Canada West Champions, the draw didn’t quite work out for the Spartans, making it a challenging path to glory, yet still one that can navigate.
UBC set for U SPORTS run, with tough first round
Despite falling to the Spartans in the Canada West Final on penalty kicks, the UBC Thunderbirds enter the U SPORTS Championship as one of the favourites to win the title, consistently ranked as one of the top two teams nationally throughout the season.
However, since winning nationals in 2019, they have struggled to get past the semifinal stage, falling in penalty kicks to the Laval Rouge et Or in the last two seasons. In 2021, they didn’t advance past the quarterfinal despite winning Canada West.
On Thursday, head coach Jesse Symons leads his Thunderbirds into their quarterfinal against a challenging opponent at the University of Ottawa. This matchup could easily have been seen as a final. After all, uOttawa won the regular season in the OUA, and UBC did so in Canada West.
“We are looking very strong going into Nationals,” UBC head coach Jesse Symons told UBC Athletics. “Our defensive structure has been at an all-time high, and we are excited to continue this at the national championships. We will focus a lot on our set pieces and also our attacking patterns to really create a balanced overall game plan.”
At the same time, the matchup features intriguing individual battles around the pitch, making the challenge significantly harder in the quarterfinal than UBC would face in a semifinal against the Montreal Carabins or StFX X-Women.
While other matchups are dynamic in their progression and change throughout a match, it’s simple to see which areas of the pitch will decide the quarterfinal.
On UBC’s right side, Portuguese U23 defender Sophia Ferreira will be tasked with neutralizing Ottawa’s Jenna Matsukubo, who tends to cut inside while dropping into pockets to play around right backs. At the same time, Matsukubo is an aggressive dribbler who often catches opponents out.
Ferreira’s patience will be critical in winning the battle on the wings. She will be caught out if she commits too early or expects one aspect of Matsukubo’s game. Still, as she has shown against other Canada West wingers, she has a certain patience and ability to read situations as, and before they happen.
The aerial battle between Ottawa’s Cassandra Provost and UBC’s centreback pairing of Jaqceuline Tyrer and Sarah Rollins will also be intriguing. While Provost profiles similar to former UBC striker Danielle Steer, she is not as composed on the ground. Her likely contributions will come through aerial balls or poached opportunities in the box.
The UBC centrebacks are superior on the ball and will distribute well. Still, the responsibility will fall on UBC’s spinal players to hold the aerial service to a minimum, forcing Provost to play with the ball at her feet.
If the Thunderbirds are to beat the Gee-Gees, they will also need big games from Katalin Tolnai and Sophie Damian, both likely in their final U SPORTS tournaments. Tolnai scored 14 Canada West goals this season, topping the conference alongside UBCO’s Stefanie White, while Damian posted nine assists.
After going 13-0-1 in the regular season, scoring 45 goals and conceding five, the Thunderbirds will need a near-perfect showing to get past Ottawa, even with nine players who played on the winning team of the 2019 U SPORTS Championship.
Should UBC advance, they have the right tools and approach to beat either Montreal or StFX, putting them in a challenging final against likely Laval, who looks even better than the team that beat them the last two years.
Coming from Canada West and leading the conference all season, UBC is well-equipped to take a run at the U SPORTS title. However, getting through the first round will be the most critical task of their weekend — debatably tougher than the following rounds. Still, they’ve got the tools to win, maybe moreso than any other team outside Quebec.