ALISTAIR BOULBY, COURTESY of THE VARSITY BLUES

The Varsity Blues men’s soccer team ticked all the necessary boxes in effective opening weekend victories over Trent Excalibur and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) Ridgebacks at Varsity Stadium.

Following a mixed preseason that saw Toronto draw one and lose two, the team made easy work of a disorganized Trent on August 25 to win 5–1, before seeing off UOIT 2–0 the day after. The wins sealed maximum points to start the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) regular season, and with seven goals scored, the Blues are the division’s top scorers.  

Head coach Anthony Capotosto, who will depart the team at the end of the 2018 season, will have been pleased with his side’s relentless pressing, smart build-up play, and defensive coordination.

However, he will also be keenly aware that to succeed against stronger opposition in the OUA — of which there will certainly be many — the attack needs to be more selfless and also needs immediate work on positioning: the Blues were ruled offside an astounding 16 times over the two games, including a handful of disallowed goals. Those issues aside, Capotosto’s men have already showed a marked improvement in their game against UOIT, giving U of T hope that the season ahead could be a special one.

Blues dispatch undisciplined Trent in season opener

Much like the increasing barrage of rain that accompanied the start of the game, the Blues’ forward line burst to life following Trent’s kickoff, forcing the visiting team back immediately. Terrible ball control from Trent’s right back allowed the charging Blues to square the ball to second-year midfielder Anthony Sousa, who rifled the ball past a hapless goalkeeper after just 18 seconds of play.

The Blues stuck to their formula, pressing Trent at every opportunity and they would have been 2–0 in 18 minutes, except that fourth-year striker Jack Wadden’s goal was ruled offside. Wadden would get his goal in the 34th minute after thumping in a header in a crowded box, but not before third-year centreback and captain Nikola Stakic calmly slotted a 23rd minute penalty past the goalkeeper.

Stakic displayed exemplary ball distribution and a strong aerial presence throughout the match; the Blues were rarely troubled on the odd occasion that they allowed Trent to move the ball forward.

In the 40th minute, fourth-year defender Kenny Lioutas added the Blues’ fourth goal with a free kick from 30 yards. Right before halftime, Trent scored a consolation with a powerful volley from defender Thomas Robinson that slipped past fourth-year goalkeeper Stefan Dusciuc.

Goal scorers Sousa and Wadden were withdrawn at halftime for fourth-year striker Jae Jin Lee and third-year midfielder Michael Matic. Although Lee provided good off-the-ball movement and Matic showed good vision in a number of forward passes, the Blues’ play in the second half was rigid and lacking in rhythm as they sought to protect their lead.

Even when not at their attacking best, however, the Blues had a shot cleared at the goal line and another offside goal as Trent continued to employ a stubbornly high defensive line. In the 84th minute, substitutes Lee and Matic combined well before unleashing fourth-year midfielder Yousef Helmy through on goal. Helmy’s first effort struck the post before he scored from the rebound.

The Blues’ 5–1 win followed from last season’s 6–0 home and 4–0 away defeats of Trent.

Coherent team performance undermined by poor play in final third

Despite what the scorelines suggest, the Blues played a more coherent and fluid game against UOIT on Sunday. Fielding an unchanged starting lineup from Saturday’s game, the Blues picked up where they left off, pressing immediately and moving the ball around the opposition smartly.

The Ridgebacks proved formidable opponents with a number of crunching tackles and physical play. In the 11th minute, second-year midfielder Nicholas Osorio was brought down in the penalty box. Despite vocal protests from his team, the referee waved on play.

The Blues would get their goal four minutes later, after the UOIT goalkeeper mishandled a fizzing Osorio shot and Sousa was the quickest to the ball.

As the match progressed, the Blues showed strong teamwork and understanding, especially down the right flank, where Osorio and fourth-year winger Koosha Nazemi linked up smartly on overlaps.

The Blues’ propensity to attack was evident, with wingbacks occasionally leaving Stakic, Lioutas and second-year anchorman Gabriel Milo short on the back, but as the match progressed, the team’s defensive organization and positioning improved.

Halftime would again see the introduction of Lee as a lone striker, but this time Wadden remained on the pitch, moving over to the left flank. Lee scored a good chipped goal over the goalkeeper in the 51st minute and, two minutes later, Wadden would score another offside goal. As the Blues maintained the lead, Wadden was given the freedom to roam the pitch, often aiding in defense and winning the ball in the centre of the pitch.

Puzzlingly, the remainder of the match consisted of missed opportunities for the Blues. Despite strong understanding in passing and defending, selfish play in the attacking third prevented what could have been three additional goals.

The first came in the 67th minute after a poor UOIT clearance put Matic through on goal. He opted for a shot straight into the goalkeeper’s arms rather than squaring it to his open attacking teammate in a better position. Matic squandered an identical situation in the 71st minute.

Finally, in the 74th minute, bizarre play from UOIT afforded three Blues players a face-off against the UOIT keeper, but Lee, seeking a second goal, let the goalkeeper catch a tame shot.

The Blues’ link-up play, pressing, and ability to get back and defend when needed will put them in good stead for the rest of the season, but against stronger teams like the Blues’ next Sunday opposition, the Ryerson Rams, the attack needs to make the most of the opportunities that they do so well to create.

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