Monday, November 27, 2006

"Noble souls, through dust and heat, rise from disaster and defeat the stronger."

The title quote, taken from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, will hopefully apply to the Canadian national women's soccer team. Ironically, their defeat came at the hands of Longfellow's fellow Americans last night, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The Canadians played a strong game, and battled back from trailing 1-0 early, due to a sixth-minute strike from Leslie Osbourne. In the 45th minute, Randee Hermus, a defender from Langley, B.C., equalized for Canada off a corner kick, driving a loose ball just under the crossbar from 12 yards out. In the second half, the U.S. had excellent chances to take the lead, but the respective defences were up to the challenge. Canadian keeper Erin McLeod made some huge saves, and defenders Hermus, Robin Gayle, and Melanie Booth played large roles in nullifying the American attack. Christine Sinclair, a strong contender for FIFA's Female Player of the Year award, could have won it for Canada in the 91st minute when she broke into the box, but her finish went off the side of the net.

The game went into extra time, where the Canadians seemed to tire: the U.S. squad kept pressing forward, and continually created excellent chances for strikers Abby Wambach and Natasha Kai. The Canadian defence showed their quality, and held the Americans off the board for most of the 30 minutes, despite being pinned in their own end for the majority of the extra time. However, tragedy struck towards the end of the game, with yet another controversial refereeing decision. Mexican referee Virginia Tovar, who had already ejected Canadian head coach Even Pellerud in the 86th minute, awarded the U.S. a dubious penalty in the last minute of the match after midfielder Carli Lloyd collided with Gayle in the area. Captain Kristine Lilly coolly stepped up to the spot, and executed a perfect penalty drive to the bottom right corner of the net to give the Americans the victory.

For Canada, the loss is disappointing, but bittersweet: they should be pleased that they were able to take the Americans, who Sinclair described as "maybe the best team in the world" in an interview with Sportsnet, into overtime. They deserved at least to make it to a shootout, and, as often seems to be the case with this country's national teams, were hindered by questionable officiating. However, the US also received some harsh calls during the match, and were the better team overall, demonstrating that they deserve at least their world #2 ranking. This is an important result for the Canadian team to build on: their appearance in the final means that they are already qualified for the 2007 World Cup in China, and they'll have almost a year to prepare for that competition. They've come a long way, and they didn't appear out of place on a pitch with the Americans, as they so often have in the past. Hermus' goal was the first Canada had scored in their last 5 matches against the U.S., and also the first Canadian goal against the Americans since 2003, which is definitely a step in the right direction. Their young players, such as Sinclair and Brittany Timko, are making considerable progress and having an impact on the field, and the defensive performances from Hermus, Gayle, and Booth prove that this squad can have a strong back line without Charmaine Hooper.

The performances during the game are also good news for Vancouver Whitecaps fans: their players, such as Sinclair, McLeod, Hermus, Timko, Martina Franko, and Andrea Neil, provided strong showings on the pitch, and appeared to still be in the form that won them this past year's W-League Championship. Having so many starters from the same club side can only be a good thing for the squad: as a whole, the team showed excellent on-field chemistry, and were very aware of each others' positions. With so many national team players playing together during the W-League season on the Whitecaps, this chemistry can only improve with time. Hopefully, the possible concentration of men's national team players on the new MLS side, Toronto FC, will have a similar effect on that squad, which has been hindered in the past by players' unfamiliarity with each other.

Overall, this should be a positive experience for Canada. They were unable to pull out a victory, but they were in the game against the U.S., and proved that they can compete with the elite sides in women's soccer. This game provides further evidence that their fourth-place showing, the highest ever for Canada, in the last World Cup in 2003, was not a fluke. The young core of this squad should continue to improve under the tutelage of veterans such as Neil and Franko, and hopefully, they can "rise from disaster and defeat the stronger." As the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.” As a fan of Canadian soccer, I sincerely hope that this will prove to be one of those defeats.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"No absolute is going to make the lion lie down with the lamb unless the lamb is inside."

The title quote, from D.H. Lawrence, appropriately sums up today's Grey Cup game. The B.C. Lions lived up to their name, and thoroughly devoured the surprisingly lamb-like Montreal Alouettes. There's a very good reason why the Lions dominated the CFL Awards last week: their collection of outstanding talents is unsurpassed in this league, and the big names delivered today. Outstanding Canadian, Outstanding Defensive Player, and Warrior of the Year Brent Johnson, only hours after collecting his new truck for his Warrior of the Year prize, proved he is worthy of his hardware, having a strong game. He and CFL Outstanding Rookie Aaron Hunt, along with front-four compatriots Tyrone Williams and Chris Wilson, had Als' quarterback Anthony Calvillo on the run all day. Hunt played extremely well, and forced Calvillo into a key fumble and turnover, which helped to increase the Lions' momentum. The CFL's Most Outstanding Player, Geroy Simon, made a few key catches, but played a more vital role in drawing the attention of the Als' secondary, and opening space for the other B.C. receivers. Dave Dickenson, named the game's most outstanding player, stepped up and delivered a huge performance. Dickenson was great through the air, and did a terrific job of reading the coverage: however, what played an even bigger role for the Lions was his performance on the ground. In scenes reminiscent of former understudy Casey Printers, Dickenson was fantastic at producing something from nothing: he frequently took off running on broken plays, outmaneuvering the Montreal defence to gain his own first downs. Rob Murphy, recipient of the league's Outstanding Lineman award, and the rest of the Lions O-line, provided tremendous protection for Dickenson, giving him time to pick apart the Als' defence.

However, the aspect of the game that played the largest role in the Lions' victory was their superior depth. It was the role players who stepped up to win the Lions the game. Paul McCallum was fantastic, going 6/6 on field goals to tie a Grey Cup record, and consistently pinning the Alouettes deep in their own end with well-executed punts to the corners. As a reward, he was named both Warrior of the Game and the game's outstanding Canadian. Korey Banks made some huge blitzes from his defensive back position to keep Calvillo under pressure, with one resulting in a quarterback sack. Javy Glatt and Otis Floyd combined for perhaps the most crucial play of the game, where Glatt went over the top of a huge pileup of players to hit Montreal running back Robert Edwards on the Lions' one-yard line, forcing a fumble that Floyd recovered. Ian Smart, most frequently utilized on punt returns, took advantage of the Montreal defense's focus on running back Joe Smith and star Lions' receivers Simon, Jason Clermont, and Paris Jackson, with a 25-yard touchdown run. The score was both the Lions' only major of the game and the first touchdown of Smart's CFL career. Kendrick Jones was also able to find some space as a result of the Montreal secondary keying on the more established receivers, and made some key catches to move the down markers for the Lions. Quarterbacks Buck Pierce and Jarious Jackson also came in and played their roles for B.C. as they had all year, executing well in short-yardage situations to pick up some crucial first downs. The ensemble effort by the entire team was the real reason why the Lions were successful in becoming the 2006 Grey Cup champions.

Gaels win national silver medals

Last Sunday, the Queen's women's varsity soccer team concluded their season in the CIS championship match against the UBC Thunderbirds. Confronted with a grim day and soggy field, they came out aggressively, and took an early lead on a third-minute strike by Renee MacLellan. The Gaels maintained the pressure, and had several chances to extend their lead. UBC responded with two quick goals shortly before the half, and added a third after the break to clinch a 3-1 victory. Anyone interested in more details on the match can check out my article in last Friday's Journal: I'll post a link to it here once it is put up on the Journal website. Despite the loss, the Gaels still had an excellent season, and proved that they are clearly one of the elite teams in the country: they should have a lot to build upon for next year. In particular, the injuries that the squad battled through all season resulted in the formation of a strong team character, and also provided some of the Gaels' younger players with valuable game experience, both of which may prove vital in the coming seasons. Their success this year will also leave the team hungry for more in future seasons, and may possibly result in greater attention and support for them on campus next year.

Update: My Journal article on the final can be found here.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Gaels in CIS Final!

Since my last post, a lot has happened with the Gaels' women's varsity soccer team. They battled hard in last Sunday's OUA Final against Ottawa, enduring cold weather and a muddy pitch, but came up short, falling 1-0. The day dawned grey and cold, but a large crowd of supporters from both schools still came out to cheer the teams on. The muddy pitch at Richardson Stadium diminished the GaelsÂ’ usual creativity, turning the match into a midfield battle. Early on, Ottawa created most of the chances, but the QueenÂ’s defence, anchored by Andrea Pigozzo, Katie Dalziel, and Ali Skinner, made several excellent plays to stifle the Gee-GeeÂ’s attacks, and Gael goalkeeper Katie McKenna came up with a number of crucial saves. The Gaels had many scoring chances of their own, but were in turn stopped by quality defending and goalkeeping from Ottawa. The lone goal of the game came in the 57th minute, when a high shot from Gee-GeeÂ’s defender Laurel Fougere beat McKenna from 25 yards out.

After the tough loss, the Gaels packed up for their next day departure for Victoria, to compete in the CIS Championships this week. The one-shot elimination format of the championships made their first game, which took place on Thursday, especially important: if they lost, the highest they could finish would be fifth place. They took to the field against the Cape Breton Capers, and almost instantly went down 1-0, when Kristina Weatherbie beat McKenna on a breakaway. However, the Gaels withstood further early pressure from the Capers, keeping the score 1-0 at
the half. In the second half, the Gaels' fortunes changed, largely due to the efforts of Eilish McConville, recently named the CIS Women's Soccer Player of the Year. McConville was thwarted several times by Jessica MacDermid, the Cape Breton keeper, but set up fellow striker Renee MacLellan for the equalizer in the 63rd minute. McConville, named Player of the Game, also was involved in the winning goal, crossing the ball to Dalziel, who scored in the 83rd minute to send the Gaels through to the semifinals.

The championships featured quite a few upsets: No. 1 ranked Victoria and No. 2 ranked McGill both fell in the quarterfinals, leaving all three OUA entrants and the UBC Thunderbirds as the only teams still in the quest for the national championship trophy. Earlier today, the Gaels took on the York Lions in a soccer version of the "Battle of Ontario". Queen's created some early chances for both McConville and MacLellan, but were unable to convert until the 56th minute, when Dalziel banged home a cross for her second goal of the tournament, giving the Gaels a 1-0 lead. York came on hard, attempting to tie the game, but both the Gaels' defense and the score stood up. Queen's will face UBC in the final tomorrow, with the national championship on the line. The game takes place at 6 PM Eastern tomorrow (3 PM in Victoria), and will be webcast by Wavelit on a pay-per-view basis: any Queen's fans interested in seeing our team compete to be tops in the country can watch the game for $6.95 at Best of luck to the Gaels: see future posts here for how the game turns out, and hopefully my story on the championships will run in Friday's Journal.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Gaels off to CIS Championships!

Well, the Gaels' women's team played another excellent game today, defeating the Western Omelettes (er, Mustangs,) by a score of 3-0. Eilish McConville recorded a hat-trick to lead the Gaels to victory, but every Gael on the pitch performed well to nullify the Western attacks and create their own scoring opportunities. It was great to see that a sizeable amount of Queen's students made the trek out to St. Lawrence College to support the team: hopefully that trend will continue tomorrow when the Gaels take on the Ottawa Gee-Gees in the OUA championship match (2 PM at Richardson Stadium). Both teams have already qualified for the national CIS championships, to be held in Victoria next weekend: however, there is still the title of Ontario champions up for grabs, so both sides should have a lot to play for. Unfortunately, the men's side fell 4-1 in their OUA semi-final against Western (held at Brock University). They will have a chance to end the season on a high note tomorrow morning, when they play Brock in the OUA Bronze Medal match. It was still an excellent season for the men's squad, who finished first in the OUA East and won more games than any other OUA team, and then defeated Trent last week to move on to the Final Four: they've gained a lot of excellent experience that they can build upon for next season.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Gaels' success

For those of you who don't know me in person, I'm a student at Queen's University, and a sports staff writer for the school paper, the Queen's Journal. This year, I've been doing a lot of coverage of the Queen's Golden Gaels men's and women's soccer teams. They have been playing terrific soccer of a very high calibre all year, and the matches are always tremendously entertaining. However, despite the terrific success of the teams (both are off to the OUA Final Four this coming weekend: the men's side are ranked #6 in the country, while the women's side are ranked #3 nationally and #1 in the OUA), Queen's students have been giving them very little support. Most of the Gaels' home games are played in front of only 30-50 fans, including supporters of the visiting teams, and a large proportion seem to be players' friends and families. In contrast, the Gaels' football team, which suffered through a .500 season and barely stumbled into the playoffs (which they haven't even made in recent years), managed to draw at least 350 people to the one game of theirs I attended this year over Thanksgiving weekend, where they were blown out by Ottawa. According to the subsequent story in the Journal, this attendance was very light by their standards. I have nothing against football, and follow the CFL very closely: however, it surprises me that so many students will go to see a team with an average record, but very few come out to see two of the best university soccer teams in Canada. Hopefully, this will change this coming weekend, when the Queen's women's squad hosts the OUA Final Four. They play at the St. Lawrence College field Saturday at noon, against the Western Mustangs in semi-final action. It would be awesome to see our students out in support against the hated rivals from "Omelette U"! It also may be the last chance for Queen's students to watch Eilish McConville, arguably the most gifted athlete at Queen's, compete for the Gaels. McConville, a fourth-year Applied Science student, had an incredibly impressive season in what is likely to be her final year with the Gaels: she led all CIS players with 22 goals, and was awarded CIS player of the week twice during the season. If the women's team win on Saturday, they will qualify for the national championships, held in Victoria from November 9-12. They'll also play in the OUA championship game against the other semifinal winner, which will be held at Richardson Stadium at 2 PM on Sunday. The men's team is off to Brock for their Final Four, and also will qualify for the CIS championships with a semi-final win. Best of luck to both teams: if they continue their excellent play, it might just raise the profile of soccer here at Queen's!