Soccer: The Full 90: Playoffs and Parity

From the start of the season to the end, The Full 90 will bring to light some of the challenging issues in CIS soccer in an effort to encourage discussion and debate of the beautiful game on our campuses in an open forum.

Last week I challenged the mandate of the recent initiative taken by the OUA to begin offering athletic scholarships to incoming first year students. I remarked that I am worried that far down the path this initiative will take the OUA, we might lose some of the parity that has become a hallmark characteristic of CIS soccer.

Although I also expressed concern about our school institutions turning into businesses and having their focus turn from graduating young people who are prepared and qualified for a career towards churning out star athletes like some sort of production line, the loss of parity would be to me, the loss of the essence of sport.

For myself as a fan I believe that a league without true top-to-bottom parity is a lame duck league and just floating along like a piece of driftwood out in the wide open ocean of sport: forgotten and lost.

For myself as a writer I believe that a league without true top-to-bottom parity is dull and predictable which usually are two words that are not wanted to be associated with sport let alone any form of entertainment.

It is because I believe parity is the root of sporting entertainment, a foundational characteristic that has given us our fondest memories and the most spectacular moments.

Even so, for something so basic and necessary it is perhaps the most complex and dynamic of all sporting occurrences. Difficult to define, impossible to predict, and sometimes even unbelievable when it is happening before your very eyes.

CIS soccer is an ideal venue for parity; the smallest mistakes can have the largest consequences by virtue of the simple fact that scoring in soccer is almost always low, meaning each goal is worth proportionally more than scores in other sports.

A poor challenge here, a misplayed ball there, and hitting a crossbar once in a while could be the difference between being bounced from the postseason early, or making a run at a provincial or national championship.

Many teams that get into the postseason in the third or fourth seeds rely on those types of breaks to make a run. Look at the McMaster Marauders last season, or the Golden Hawks the year before. Both teams won all their playoff games by a single goal, and both won the OUA Championship by a 1-0 score against vastly superior teams in terms of skill...but not heart.

The Marauders endured a penalty kick shootout to claim their Blackwood Trophy, where one miss by the Blues was the difference between champions and losers, and the Golden Hawks got their extra-time goal off a misplayed ball by York’s keeper.

Little mistakes made all the difference in those games, so I wonder if it will in this year’s CIS postseason yet again.

So let’s take a look at how the postseason is shaping up at the halfway mark, and see what storylines we should all be paying attention to during the stretch run--and whether there are any teams like Laurier and McMaster that might be lucky enough to catch a break, or two, or three.

Teams to watch: Calgary, Saskatchewan, Trinity Western

Canada West is maybe best known for having the most established powers in CIS soccer and it is very hard for the lower tier teams to break into the top four. Between TWU, UVic, UBC, and Alberta (the only teams to ever win a Canada West soccer championship) there often times isn’t much parity because there is such an excessive discrepancy.

However, this season is certainly a peculiar one. Two-time defending CW champion Victoria hasn’t won a game all year and CIS championship mainstay Trinity Western is at risk of missing the playoffs while upstart teams such as Calgary and Saskatchewan are clinging onto the three and four spots.

It’s difficult for there to be much parity in a conference where only four teams make the playoffs, and two of those go onto nationals. The possibility of parity gets confounded further when the majority of CW teams year in year out would be top-tier teams in any other conference.

Regardless, the best storyline for the remainder of the year is undoubtedly which two of Calgary, Saskatchewan and Trinity Western will make the playoffs; it would be an embarrassing hit to the Spartan program if they failed to make nationals this year.

Because of the relatively small size of the Canada West all three teams have fairly equal schedules for the remainder of the season, they all play the powerhouses and the bottom feeders, so really in the purest sense, the team that plays best will be rewarded. Should be good to watch.

Teams to watch: Toronto, Ryerson, York

Moving east we have the most parity-stricken conference in the CIS. The OUA is a mess almost every year: despite having historic programs from Western and Toronto and the more contemporarily strong program at York in recent years the top programs just haven’t gotten it done in the postseason. McMaster, Laurier and Carleton have all won the Blackwood Trophy over the last five seasons, with York and Western winning it the other times.

Finding out why the parity is so pronounced in the OUA is difficult; it could be by virtue of the fact a total of 12 teams make the postseason, six from each the OUA West and East. Building block-level mathematics will tell you that the more teams you put into the postseason the greater the chances are one of them will make a deep run. A lower seed team in the OUA can play twice as many games as their counterparts from the Canada West for example.

Regardless, the best storyline for the remainder of the year is whether or not the Toronto Varsity Blues can put together a strong run in the postseason and not get into Nationals through the backdoor. Also, of course, whether they can be the first team to win a National Championship at home since 2007 when UBC did it.

Some teams I would watch over the last half of the season would be those Rams from Ryerson, they have quite the record; 2-0-4. Twice as many draws as wins and not a single loss. While that isn’t good enough to get them anywhere near the top of the table that’s not a bad record to carry into the postseason. Only two teams have allowed fewer goals against than Ryerson: Toronto who have allowed three and Carleton who have yet to allow a goal against. No team can win the Blackwood Trophy without winning a few squeakers along the way, and Ryerson seems to have the stingy defense that is required to hold the fort long enough to get a lucky bounce here or there.

While Carleton and Toronto are running away with the East, Western is running away with the West...shocker, right?

The York Lions are in an unfamiliar position being in the middle of the table and having suffered two losses and a draw so far this season. Most agree they have lost some of the overbearing talent they enjoyed the last few seasons, so whether the Lions can wrest their way back to the top remains an interesting storyline for the remainder of the year.

Teams to watch: Laval

We have another team running away with their conference. Nobody has been able to stop reigning CIS champions Laval this year, who have scored 11 times as many goals as they have allowed...there’s your quirky stat of the day.

Outside of the Rouge et or however the next four teams are separated by just four points. Intriguingly, the team Laval defeated in the National Championship last year, McGill, is at the bottom of that list with only six points this year.

As for strength of schedule, McGill and UQAM have a more difficult stretch run than UQTR and Montreal. Both Trois-Rivieres and the Carabins play doormats Sherbrooke and Concordia three times in the final seven games, whereas McGill and UQAM only play them twice.

Regardless, I think the best storyline for the remainder of the year isn’t even the battle for playoff positioning that will surely be electrifying right to the finish, but whether Laval, having finally built a championship side, can continue its success much the same way their “other” football team has. Let’s be honest, the complexion of CIS football was dramatically altered when Laval began winning, will the same happen to CIS soccer?

Look for Laval to cruise to Toronto this fall, practically unopposed; who gets that second berth however is anyone’s guess. I can promise you this though: it will ABSOLUTELY be a team from Quebec. You can take that to the bank.

Teams to watch: Memorial

Finally, the AUS is also a mess much like the OUA, but unlike the OUA it’s because of scheduling. Some Maritime teams have only played four games this year to Saint Mary’s seven. As such this is the most difficult conference to handicap at this time of year.

St. FX looks like it will run away with the conference title and seemingly only Saint Mary’s right now can put up a decent challenge. This past Sunday’s game between the two is a perfect example. The 3-2 win over the Huskies vaulted the X-men to the top of the table and was a see-saw affair as most games are between the best teams.

I really don’t expect anyone outside of St. FX or Saint Mary’s to compete for the, inexplicably, one and only AUS birth to Nationals. However, if one team could get into the final outside of those two, I think Memorial has acquitted itself very well this year.

The Sea-Hawks are a very, very young team; only Defender Andre Le could be considered a senior as he is the only fifth-year player on the team and there aren’t even any fourth-years. They returned all but one player from last year, a rare occurrence in any varsity sport.

Improving on a one-win campaign in 2009, the Sea-Hawks have only one blemish on their 2010 record, a one-goal loss to leader St. FX.

They are young, offensive, and have proven that even early on in the year they could hang with the big boys. Imagine what they will be by the end of the year when those young guys have even more experience under their belts.

There are undoubtedly some good storylines going into the last half of the regular season in CIS soccer, as there always is, but the truly great thing about this season?

The storylines that we won't have even seen coming, the teams we can't even imagine winning, and the games we won't even believe are happening even when they will be happening before our very eyes.
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1 comment:

  1. You've proposed both concerns and support for parity across the league. While I'm not sure any sport in any league has "complete parity" I do think that the continual development of grassroots programs across Canada will provide more talent for all teams.

    In the last ten years we've seen programs emerge from the traditional club soccer rep team offerings including Academy Teams, Clubs implementing their own academies, participation in the Super Y League, etc.

    For player development the regional ODP yearly identification systems put in place by the US is far superior to that in Canada.

    With regard to the OUA I'm favoring York over Toronto.