VANCOUVER — Four years ago, Kristian Yli-Hietanen was the soccer player that no one was willing to take a chance on.
In fact after being roundly ignored by the university soccer world coming out of North Vancouver’s Sutherland Secondary, Yli-Hietanen decided to spend his first year out of high school working construction as both a labourer and a painter.
“Coming out of high school there was no interest at all,” he says. “One coach called and he talked to me briefly and that was it.”
So was there anyone out there who could have predicted that four seasons later, the Finnish-born striker with the flowing locks of Samson, would become the hottest scorer in the U Sports’ nation for a blue-chip UBC team which this week ascended to No. 1 in the country and is set to play host to the national championship tournament Nov. 8-11 at Thunderbird Stadium?
Didn’t think so.
After being inserted into the starting lineup at the end of September, Yli-Hietanen has scored seven goals over his past three games, including four in a 7-0 win over Prince George’s UNBC Timberwolves back on Sept. 30.
This past week, after scoring three more times in a pair of UBC wins over Victoria, victories which pushed the ‘Birds’ undefeated Canada West-leading mark to 10-0-2, he was named the Conference’s First Star of the Week.
And even though he’s honed his eye for talent over a span of 24 seasons (and five national titles) coaching at UBC, head coach Mike Mosher admits that initially, he saw none of this coming.
“He was not on our radar at all when he was playing high school and youth soccer,” Mosher explained earlier this week as his team prepared for Friday’s 6:30 p.m. conference clash against the visiting Fraser Valley Cascades (6:30 p.m., Ken Woods Field). “He was a lower-tiered player, a kid who didn’t play at the highest levels. He didn’t appear on our radar until some very successful seasons under coach (Paul) Dailly at Capilano.”
The CCAA’s North Vancouver-based Blues brought Yli-Hietanen into the fold for the 2015 and ’16 seasons, and he made his presence felt on teams that would finish second and third at the national championships.
“They were both amazing years,” says the 6-foot-1 fourth-year forward of his two seasons with the Blues. “It also helped being a year older. Physically, where I was when I graduated high school at 17 to being 19 by the time that first year ended… I had gained a lot of size. That was the biggest thing.”
Yet he is not star-struck by his recent success.
The humble Yli-Hietanen will admit that during his debut season with the Thunderbirds in 2017, he went through a transitory phase of getting up to speed with a new environment and a new set of demands, both on the field and in the classroom.
“But I always felt that I was capable of playing at this level and now I am doing it here,” he says, stating quite plainly that he isn’t trying to prove anything to those who may have doubted his abilities.
“I just let my game speak for itself,” he says.
“…THE DEEPEST TEAM I’VE EVER HAD”
Mike Mosher’s first Canadian national men’s university soccer championship came so long ago that the team’s 1994 title banner reps the old-school Canadian Interuniversity Athletics Union (CIAU).
Interestingly enough, Mosher’s dad Dick was officially coaching both the UBC men’s and women’s teams that season.
But when both teams qualified for nationals, Dick Mosher traveled with the women to their Canadian championships, while top assistant Mike Mosher remained on the Point Grey campus, taking the lead coaching role with the men who hosted nationals and wound up beating Alberta 5-0 in the final.
The Birds have since won four more national crowns under his watch, including 2007, when UBC again played the host role, beating Laval 2-1 in the final.
The 2018 nationals mark the first time UBC has hosted since, and if you ask Mosher what he thinks of this season’s team, he pulls no punches in his assessment.
“This is the deepest team I’ve ever had at UBC,” Mosher begins. “It’s really tough just to get into that squad of 18 that dresses for a game.
“One of the advantages of being able to host is that we have been able to rotate our team from week to week, which is nice because we play a lot of back-to-backs,” continues Mosher, who knows that fighting through complacency for the host team, which always receives automatic berth, is of paramount importance. “It keeps all the players engaged and hopefully a little fresher come the end of October.”
Last season, UBC fielded what Mosher had called the youngest team in his ‘Birds coaching career.
This season, as the roster returned a year wiser, further fortification came through the addition of seasoned top-end talent like former Whitecaps FC talent Caleb Clarke and ex-Birds’ standout Sean Einarsson, as well as a rising freshman talent in Whitecaps FC 2 midfielder Thomas Gardner.
But how does all of this relate specifically to the story of Kristian Yli-Hietanen?
It’s the perfect way to illustrate just how genuine his ascent has been on a team in which starting positions are won and lost each week through training.
“The biggest part of what this program is built upon is that nothing is ever just given,” begins Mosher. “Everything is earned and there needs to be a battle for spots. That is the expectation here, and some guys are just not cut out for it.”
THIRD TIME THE CHARM?
After spending the first half of his life in Tampere, the southern Finnish city known most famously in these parts perhaps, as the home of former Canucks defenceman Jyrki Lumme, Yli-Hietanen and his family moved to North Vancouver in 2007.
As a high schooler, he got up to speed on Canadian culture while helping lead the Sutherland Sabres to the 2013 B.C. senior boys AAA high school soccer championship.
“But I wasn’t big into the whole soccer scene,” he says, admitting that while adjusting to life in a new country, he was not completely engrossed in the inner workings of his sport in B.C. and thus, at the time, was unaware of his future teammate Clarke, who had made his MLS debut with Whitecaps FC back in August of 2012.
Like everything, else, however, he got up to speed quickly.
Yli-Hietanen, in fact, got his chance in the starting group after Clarke was recently forced to the sidelines.
“Caleb took a red card a couple of weeks ago and that opened up an opportunity for more playing time because he had to sit out two games,” said Mosher of playing time that went Yli-Hietanen, who proceeded to score six goals in those two matches. “Opportunities come, and you better be ready to take advantage of them. He did.”
Now, upon Clarke’s return, UBC looks even deeper heading into the stretch drive of its final six regular-season conference games, beginning with a Friday home date against Fraser Valley.
“I think it’s really tough to say,” Yli-Hietanen says when asked how dangerous the dual-striker look could be on the occasions that he does team up with the talented Clarke, “but I think both of us will be able to cause a lot of problems in this league and hopefully, both of us can keep our scoring form up.”
Heading into Friday, Clarke and Yli-Hietanen are tied for third in Canada West goal scoring with eight apiece while Clarke sits fourth in total points with 10.
“He works hard and he’s a physical specimen now,” Mosher says of Yli-Hietanen, a kinesiology major who says he may investigate the possibility of a pro career in his native Finland upon graduation.
“We had a very brief and simple conversation,” Mosher adds of the advice he gave Yli-Hietanen prior to his offensive explosion. “I told him that if he stayed higher up the field and then got into the scoring areas, he would excel. He has some terrific physical attributes and I told him that if he went to the spots where striker score goals, we had the players who could get him the ball.”
Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
And now, after two near misses at the CCAA nationals with Capilano, Yli-Hietanen is determined to make the third time a charm with the Thunderbirds.
“I want this more than anything,” he says of winning a national crown. “We’re all united. We have 25 or so players here, and anyone could be on the field each week and make the difference.”
Count Kristian Yli-Hietanen as one of them.
Finally, the player nobody wanted has found his place, and it’s come in a starring role on the No. 1-ranked team in Canadian university soccer.
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