VANCOUVER — One has secured all seven of its conference’s preseason votes as the No. 1 team, a position which has become as familiar as its annual perch on the top branch of NCAA Div. 2 national title contenders.
The other, its time-honoured traditional crosstown rival, holds a similar spot in the Canada West, earning the nod over 12 other teams as the conference’s preseason No. 1, all of this prefacing a campaign in which its has already secured a berth to the national tournament by virtue of its host status this coming November.
Add to the fact that their rosters each burst with some of the best and most expertly-delivered collegians around, and it was no stretch to say that when the Simon Fraser Clan visited the UBC Thunderbirds last Friday for a friendly on the Point Grey campus, the collective pool of soccer talent, in the day and weeks before their respective national title runs were to officially set to begin, was about as high as its ever been.
Simon Fraser, coming off its second straight Great Northwest Athletic Conference title and its sixth in the past eight seasons, emerged a 3-1 winner over UBC, getting goals eight minutes apart midway through the first half from Connor Glennon and Matteo Polisi, the latter off a penalty kick.
For Clan head coach Clint Schneider, beating a program he holds in such high regard was satisfying, based on the level of effort he knew going in that his players would have to muster.
“UBC has a quality side, and I think there is a reason they are favoured to win the Canada West and potentially win it all as hosts,” said Schneider, after one of his veterans, senior defender Michael North, scored in the 67th minute, re-establishing some breathing room after UBC’s Connor Guilherme had pulled the home team to within 2-1 with a 57th minute header.
“They are good from top to bottom,” continued Schneider whose charges get to the games that actually count on their slate this Friday, as they open a four-game California tour with a 2 p.m. match against Cal State-San Bernadino. “For us to come to their place and to put in a performance like that, of course we’re happy. We executed the game plan, we were happy with the guys’ commitment and the work rate was very good.”
The Clan won’t open its 12-game GNAC conference schedule until Sept. 20 when it plays host to Montana State Billings at Terry Fox Field.
The ‘Birds, however, have a much tighter timetable to the start of Canada West play, travelling to Abbotsford on Friday for its conference opener (6:30 p.m.) against the Fraser Valley Cascades.
Thunderbirds’ head coach Mike Mosher, owner of a quartet of national men’s crowns at UBC, has seen virtually every possible pre-season scenario as he heads into season No. 22 in blue and gold, including the one like this year, where he has brought in not only a lot of newcomers, but newcomers with blue-chip resumes.
“Not a good day, obviously,” Mosher said after his team’s loss, capping a challenging 1-3 preseason in which the team’s other two losses came on the road against NCAA Div. 1 Seattle (1-0 OT) and Portland (4-2). “There were a lot of negatives. The first 25 minutes I thought we were OK but we had a bad spell for 10 minutes and it’s a long way back from there.
“I think it will take a bit of time,” continued Mosher whose team beat the GNAC’s Western Washington Vikings 3-2 as part of its preseason. “But the beautiful thing is we have a heck of a lot of competition and we have a spot in the national tournament, and we have several weeks to work it out. The pieces are there. But how do they work together the best? That is our challenge.”
Certainly UBC’s roster is as deep and dangerous as its ever been.
Yet Mosher’s quest for chemistry is not imagined.
Six of the players who started against the Clan — defender Daniel Kaiser, midfielders Mitch Piraux, Nick Fussell, Thomas Gardner and returnee Sean Einarsson, and vaunted forward Caleb Clarke — were not on the ‘Birds roster a season ago.
Additionally, of the five returnees who suited up Friday in the starting line-up, only forward Kristian Yli-Hietanen and Guilherme did likewise the season previous. The other starters Friday were keeper Jason Roberts, and midfielders Brian Im and Dallin Akune.
While a truer sense of UBC’s identity is sure to surface over the early stages of conference play, Mosher already knows that at least two of his ‘newcomers’ exemplify the kinds of influential players you can never have too many of, especially over a season in which a national tournament berth on home field is already assured.
“I think Caleb will have a lot of success in the league this year and I am looking forward to seeing a lot from him,” Mosher said of Clarke, the Richmond native who has played for both Whitecaps FC and a number of German pro sides, as well as the Canadian national team.
Added Mosher of Einarsson, the 2013 Canada West Rookie of the Year who returns to the Point Grey campus as a fourth-year after taking a three-season sabbatical from the program.
“He’s just a super intelligent guy,” said Mosher of Einarsson, also named a Canada West first-team all-star over the first part of his ‘Birds career. “Now he’s in biomedical engineering as a grad student.”
UBC, which faced the Clan without injured second-year star forward Victory Shumbusho in the lineup, will open the home portion of its Canada West schedule Sunday (2 p.m.), playing host to the Trinity Western Spartans.
The Clan will also get a real test with a total of six official non-conference games prior to its GNAC opener.
In addition to its four California games, SFU travels to Bismarck, ND to play both Mary (Sept. 13) and Oklahoma Baptist (Sept. 15).
And in all the ways befitting a great overall program, the Clan come back strong this season despite graduating the likes of GNAC Defender of the Year Magnus Kristensen and team captain and midfielder Adam Jones.
Back in a big way are the Polisi Brothers.
Redshirt sophomore midfielder Marcello Polisi was named the GNAC’s Player of the Year, while sophomore forward Matteo Polisi is coming off a campaign in which he was named the GNAC’s Freshman of the Year.
Senior midfielder Mamadi Camara also returns after earning a spot on the GNAC’s first team, while teammates Kyle Jones (senior midfielder) and Michael North (senior defender) return after being named to the GNAC’s all-second team.
Local keeper Luciano Trasolini, an off-season transfer from Barton College, was considered to be a critical addition to the team.
“The guys who are expected to be good are good,” said Schneider. “But we’re getting good minutes from a lot of other guys, too. Players like Dzenan (Bezdrop), Bjorn (Borren), Ahmed (Kamal) and Rahid Rahiem, (the latter) who didn’t play tonight. Those four guys could all start for us.
“You could see it,” Schneider continued when asked about the depth of the squad. “There is no dip (in talent) and that is the big difference between this year and last year. Yes, the group is very competitive. But they are also very together. What I am very excited about is that we are a very good squad from top to bottom.”
Of course, it’s no secret who voted for who when a GNAC coaches poll of seven teams closes with the Clan getting all seven first-place votes.
“We were allowed to vote for our own teams, so of course I put as No. 1,” says Schneider. “That is not to come across as arrogant, but it’s become an expectation here. I firmly believe in our squad. And that is not to discredit the other teams in our conference because we have very, very good teams. But none of this means anything until the end of the year. Now, we have to go out and get it.”
The respect between these UBC and SFU teams is a unique one and it’s all built on the respect Mosher and Schneider have for each other and the programs they have built.
After the game ended last Friday night, Mosher was quick to congratulate his non-conference, crosstown counterpart on a match well-played.
And now, these two program, each voted as their respective conference’s very best, embark on paths separate but similar. So then if each should meet its ultimate goal this season and win a national title, how about another friendly for all the marbles?
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