Blues midfielder Yousef Helmy attempts to gain possesion. PHOTO by HENRY ZHAO, COURTESY of THE VARSITY BLUES

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s soccer team and their previous two opponents — the Carleton Ravens and the Ryerson Rams — have consolidated the top three Ontario University Athletics (OUA) East division places in each of the past two seasons. Judging from early results around the league, this three-horse race will likely remain intact for the season ahead, but the 3–0 defeat to the Ravens on September 8, one week after suffering a 3–1 loss to the Rams, means that the Blues may need to settle for third best.

The Blues made four changes to their starting lineup from their previous game, with starting striker Jack Wadden out injured and first-choice goalkeeper Stefan Dusciuc relegated to the bench in favour of first-year Sebastian Sgarbossa, who is making his first OUA start for Toronto.

Unlike their previous four games, the Blues started slowly, unwilling to commit players forward in their trademark pressing style. Instead, they found themselves sweating in the opening 40 seconds, as poor defending from the usually reliable centreback and captain Nikola Stakic forced Sgarbossa to make a key save.

Carleton, who began the game with a perfect record and who had topped the division in 2017 with 13 wins out of 16 matches, continued to dominate proceedings, sending a number of dangerous balls into the attacking third.

Their attacking play would pay off in the seventh minute, as forward Gabriel Bitar won a penalty after dribbling through the Blues’ defensive line. Bitar dispatched his spot kick straight down the middle, marking the first time this season that the Blues did not open the scoring.

Seconds after kickoff, Stakic gave away possession with a poor forward ball that Carleton quickly passed to left winger Emad Houache, who released a defense-splitting peach of a ball to the other flank. Poor positioning from the Blues allowed right winger Ricky Comba to centre to striker Jimi Aribido, who smashed the ball past Sgarbossa.

Already trailing, Toronto were still unable to move the ball forward, owing to Carleton’s incessant pressing and proficient tackling. The Ravens continued to threaten in attack, forcing the Blues to camp inside their own half. Carleton’s attacking organization repeatedly bypassed an inattentive backline, and they could easily have scored one or two more goals in the first half.

Counterattacking opportunities for the Blues were far and few between, and lone striker Jae Jin Lee, positioned at the halfway line, lacked the pace and ball control to trouble Carleton. The Blues’ best chance would come in the 40th minute as second-year midfielder Anthony Sousa found himself in a pocket of space 20 yards away from the goal and unleashed a powerful shot that rattled the crossbar.

Toronto grew into the match in the second half and operated with more attacking freedom, as Carleton stopped pressing intently, happy to sit back and absorb attacks. The Blues’ most exciting moment came in the 57th minute as Sousa displayed smart ball control and managed a neat Cruyff turn to pass the ball beyond three surrounding Ravens players, but, like most of their forays, the attack fizzled out harmlessly.

In the 71st minute, Carleton forward Dario Conte sliced the ball across the field, splitting Toronto’s defense yet again and allowing substitute Stefan Karajovanovic to easily chip the onrushing Sgarbossa and make the score 3–0. Karajovanovic almost scored again in the 77th minute after intercepting a terrible pass from fourth-year defender Kenny Lioutas, but he blazed the shot wide of the net.

This second consecutive defeat for the Blues emphasized their ineffective attack and lack of ideas against teams with strong, organized defenses.

The Blues will hope that Wadden returns from injury sooner rather than later to provide a much-needed pressing and positioning-based dimension in their attacks.

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