Blues break losing streak against Rams in quarterfinal matchup

Men’s soccer team win 3–1 against rivals, courtesy of Tesker, Stakic, Russo

Blues break losing streak against Rams in quarterfinal matchup

For the Varsity Blues men’s soccer team, the old proverb ‘third time’s the charm’ rings true. Courtesy of excellent goals from Artem Tesker, Nikola Stakic, and Nicola Russo, the Blues claimed an impressive Ontario University Athletics (OUA) quarterfinal victory against the Ryerson Rams on Sunday evening. The victory comes after having suffered the ignominy of being dumped out by the Rams at the OUA quarterfinal stage in both 2017 and 2018. 

Beyond that, the win also marks the end of the Blues’ three-year winless streak against their Toronto rivals, as their previous win against the Rams came 1,085 days prior to this one. Yousef Helmy, Kenny Lioutas, and Stakic are the only remaining players from that team.

The former two are in their final year of eligibility, meaning that this game could have been their last with the team. Fortunately for them, however, this win means that the Blues will live to fight another round, against the York Lions on November 1.

In truth, the 3–1 scoreline flattered the Rams, who looked lethargic and insipid throughout much of the match. In contrast, the Blues started on the front foot, playing with courage and showing a clear commitment to head coach Ilya Orlov’s tactical plan. This plan consisted of a structured press when defending, was quick to transition, and played wide when attacking. 

The majority of the opening 20 minutes was spent in the Rams’ half, with the Blues pinging the ball around effectively and breaking down the Rams’ attacks before they could develop. Tesker and Atchu Sivananthan again played as the Blues’ forward two. They linked up well, reading each other’s runs and effectively drawing defenders away from one another.

It is perhaps no surprise then that the two of them were involved in opening the scoring in the 27th minute. Receiving the ball near the halfway line, Sivananthan drove forward at the Rams’ defenders, who were unable to cope with his direct running and dribbling.

As he progressed toward the Rams’ goal, he unleashed a powerful shot that the keeper could only parry into an onrushing Tesker’s path on the right side of goal. Tesker then slammed a shot into the top left corner of the net to make the score 1–0.

The goal seemed to awaken the Rams, who began to press forward for the equalizer, and almost found it in the 35th minute. A corner kick was delivered into the Blues’ box and was headed goalward, only for the Blues to scramble it away with a fine goal-line clearance.

While the Rams continued to look for a goal, the Blues did not relent in their own attacks, as Sivananthan played a creative tour de force, inspiring all of the Blues’ attacks. He was involved again as the Blues scored their second goal in added time of the first half. The goal was almost identical to the first as Stakic received the ball on the right side of the opposition box and slammed the shot into the top left corner, beyond the keeper.

The Rams finally got their act together to start the second half, nearly scoring in the 48th minute after forward Kyle Laborde-Ayres hit the post. The Rams exerted intense pressure on the Blues, who found it difficult at times to play the ball forward.

When the Blues finally did break forward, they made it count. Sivananthan and Tesker combined well to evacuate their defensive half, and Tesker embarked on a good run against the diminished Rams defence. It seemed as if his chance was gone when more defenders returned to their positions, but Tesker found Russo on the outer right edge of the box with a perfectly weighted pass. Russo ran onto the ball and hit a first-time volley to score the Blues’ third of the match.

Apparently not content to protect a 3–0 lead, the Blues continued to commit men forward, pinning the Rams’ defence back. While they continued to look threatening going forward, their defence began to crumble under greater Rams pressure.

In the 66th minute, the Blues lost the ball in the attacking third, falling victim to a quick counter-attack. The Rams hit the post in the ensuing attack and the Blues, in the chaos of attempting to clear the ball from the crowded box, conceded a penalty. Rams captain Abdallah El-Chanti — who for large portions of the game was unable to help the Rams move forward effectively despite tidy passing — stepped up and hit the top left corner, above the dive of Blues keeper Stefan Dusciuc.

After conceding the goal, the Blues seemed to realize that they were already winning and subsequently did not have to commit so many players forward. They returned to the tight defensive structure that they started the match with, diminishing the Rams’ attacks. 

The Blues soaked up pressure well in the closing 15 minutes of the game. The Rams again hit the post late after Dusciuc misjudged a shot, but they ultimately did not add to their consolation goal. The ever-impressive Sivananthan continued to torment the Rams when the Blues did break and could easily have added to his five-goal tally of the season in added time, only for the goalkeeper to save well.

Much of the match was marred by poor refereeing, with both sets of players, coaches, and fans vocally criticizing the referee and his assistants. However, in the end, the Blues will be grateful that they were able to relegate the referees’ errors to a footnote in their sweet revenge story.

Up next for the Blues are the York Lions in the OUA semifinal. The Lions finished first in the OUA West conference and have won the OUA in each of the last two years. The Blues’ last win against the Lions was in 2011, and their last four matches against them have all ended in defeat.

The Blues were able to end their three-year winless run against the Rams in an impressive fashion, so what’s stopping them from ending an eight-year one against the Lions?

Disclosure: Michael Teoh previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor.

Editor’s Note (November 10, 1:24 pm): This article has been updated to reflect the author’s former affiliations with The Varsity.

Blues women’s soccer triumph 1–0 in nervy contest against Ridgebacks

Women’s soccer team advance to OUA quarter-final matchup against Gaels

Blues women’s soccer triumph 1–0 in nervy contest against Ridgebacks

For the second time this season, the Varsity Blues women’s soccer team welcomed the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Ridgebacks to Varsity Stadium. And for the second time this season, the Blues emerged victorious against their Oshawa-based opposition.

While the Blues had previously claimed a 3–1 victory against the Ridgebacks on September 13, this Wednesday’s hard-fought 1–0 was much more impressive. The victory also ensured the Blues’ advancement to the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) quarterfinals, where they will face the Queen’s University Gaels in Kingston on Sunday.

While the game’s lone goal was scored via a header from the ever-impressive Miranda Badovinac in the 17th minute, the Blues had to remain alert at the back throughout the 90 minutes to ensure victory. Ridgebacks forward Taijah Henderson, who missed the previous clash between these two teams, was a constant threat to the Blues’ defense. Henderson led the Ridgebacks’ intense high press early in the game, while the Blues struggled to impose themselves.

At the other end of the pitch, the Blues’ forward trio of Badovinac, Erin Kelly, and Jenny Wolever struggled to break past the Ridgebacks’ disciplined defensive line until the 13th minute. A 45-yard goal kick by Blues goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis bounced favourably for Kelly, who booted the ball toward Wolever on the left flank.

Wolever’s initial cross into the box was blocked by a Ridgebacks defender, but Badovinac was aware of the situation, and claimed the loose ball. She cut in front of Ridgebacks defender Mikaela Tierney, who was adjudged by the referee to have fouled her inside the area.

Blues captain Maddie MacKay stepped up for the ensuing penalty, knowing that a goal could ease the building tension in the team and force the Ridgebacks to loosen their defensive shape in search of an equalizer. Ridgebacks goalkeeper Alicia Chisholm had other plans. The first-year keeper dove low to her right to palm away MacKay’s effort, sending the boisterous Ridgebacks supporters into raptures.

MacKay made up for her miss a few minutes later, intercepting a loose ball from the Ridgebacks and lobbing it toward Badovinac, who laid the ball off for Kelly. Brushing off a challenge from Tierney, Kelly unleashed Wolever down the left flank. Wolever’s delivery this time was inch-perfect for Badovinac to head into the far corner of the goal.

The Blues established a greater foothold into the game as the first half progressed, giving it a more exciting end-to-end dynamic. Both teams suffered a few defensive lapses in concentration but neither were able to capitalize.

In the 26th minute, Blues defender Daniella Cipriano played a corner to Mackay, who found herself in acres of space 23 yards away from the goal. She launched a looping ball toward the goal that beat Chisholm but rebounded off the crossbar. In the ensuing counter-attack, Henderson displayed good hold-up play and earned a foul from Blues defender Anna Crone from 18 yards out. Ridgebacks defender Julia Listro then sent a shot to the bottom right of the goal, forcing a good save from Staggolis.

The Ridgebacks spent much of the second half camped in the Blues’ half but they were unable to find an equalizer, despite the Blues’ nervy defending. In the 85th minute, Listro received the ball from a throw-in and lobbed it into the box, beyond four Blues defenders. Ridgebacks midfielder Melanie Hoekstra received the ball ahead of Crone and fizzed a shot across the face of the goal. Despite a barrage of late attacks, the Blues held on to book their place in the OUA quarter-finals.

After the game, Associate Head Coach Angelo Cavalluzzo praised the Blues’ defensive organization but said that their aerial defending was poor. “Not super pleased with [the defending], I think we could have been a lot better. We have been a lot better. That’s a positive that we still kept a clean sheet even though things weren’t as tight as… they should have been.”

“If you watch our performances from the beginning of the season compared to now, it’s totally different,” he added. “I think we’ve improved leaps and bounds, and I think [the Ridgebacks have] improved leaps and bounds. They gave us a game tonight, and they were a lot better than the team we faced earlier in the season.”

The Blues will face a tough away game with the Gaels in the quarterfinal. Their record against the opposition is poor, having last won in 2014. In their 10 games against the Gaels since that victory, they have lost eight times and drawn twice.

The Blues will need to execute their defensive plan against the Gaels perfectly if they are to advance to the OUA final four. Otherwise, they will need to hope that their front three can add to their 18-goal tally, and, given their performances over the course of the season, Blues fans have good reason to expect that one of them will find the back of the net.

Disclosure: Michael Teoh previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor.

Blues cruise to 6–0 victory over lackadaisical Lakers

Men’s soccer team advance to OUA quarter-final matchup against Ryerson

Blues cruise to 6–0 victory over lackadaisical Lakers

Eighty-eight minutes into this one-sided affair, Blues midfielder Nikola Stakic received the ball in acres of space on the halfway line, sauntered forward 15 yards, and nonchalantly dinged a perfectly weighted ball over a brittle Nipissing Lakers backline to unleash winger Jacob Doroszkiewicz.

By the time Doroszkiewicz caught up to the ball on the right flank, three of his Blues teammates populated the opposition box completely unmarked. Doroszkiewicz fizzed a cross first time across the face of the goal, allowing forward Matthew Roberts to poke the ball into the back of the net. There were four Lakers defenders in the box too, but by this stage in the game they had long forgotten the concept of defending. This was the final goal in a lopsided affair which the Blues won 6-0 to cruise their way to a quarterfinal berth.

Of course, the disparity in quality between the two sides was no surprise: the Blues had finished the regular Ontario University Athletics (OUA) East season in third place with 30 points, while the Lakers had finished in sixth with 16 points. The teams were drawn against each other here for the OUA playoffs, a preliminary round for the teams in third through sixth place to determine who plays the first- and second-ranked teams in the quarterfinals. Still, the Blues deserve credit for an inspired and ruthless 90-minute performance.

The Blues started the game on the front foot, moving the ball forward and forcing the Lakers into errors with a high forward press. Two minutes into the game, the Lakers gave the ball away from a throw-in, allowing the Blues to take control and switch play to the right flank. Weak clearance from a Lakers defender allowed midfielder Nicola Russo to intercept the ball and deliver it to Stakic.

The midfielder deftly pulled three opposition players out of position with his dart infield before delivering a defense-splitting ball onto the path of attacking midfielder Atchu Sivananthan, who slotted the ball into the net.

“Once we get the first goal we’re a difficult team to play against,” head coach Ilya Orlov said in a post-game interview. “I think that [goal] settled us down and also just enhanced our confidence.”

Indeed, the Blues’ confidence was on full display as they continued to torment their opposition with an effective press and a compact structure. The Lakers, meanwhile, continued to invite pressure with subpar passing and poor positioning. In the 14th minute, Lakers defender Cody Vaillancourt passed the ball straight to Blues midfielder Yousef Helmy on the edge of the box. Helmy, somehow completely unmarked despite there being seven Lakers defenders in the box, scored with a powerful shot into the far corner, bringing the score to 2–0.

Fourteen minutes later — and, remarkably, with eight Lakers defenders in the box — Nicholas Osorio received the ball from Helmy in the same position. He buried a shot into the near corner to increase the Blues’ lead to 3–0.

The second half started in similar fashion to the first as the Blues continued to bear down on the Lakers’ goal. Sivananthan, playing the number-10 role, combined exceptionally well with centre forward Artem Tesker throughout the game, weaving in between the Lakers’ inattentive defense. In the 48th minute, Sivananthan, receiving the ball 45 yards away from goal, embarked on a mesmerizing solo run that culminated in his second and the Blues’ fourth goal of the game.

The Blues’ next goal came courtesy of yet another defensive lapse from the Lakers as Jamal Brown passed the ball straight to Tesker in the 71st minute. The first-year forward found Russo, who squared the ball for Doroszkiewicz to claim the Blues’ fifth of the night.

First-year striker Roberts was brought on for Tesker two minutes later. The former Swansea City U18 player saw his first minutes on the field since his injury on September 1 in a game against the Gaels, and capped off a fine cameo performance with the team’s sixth goal.

The Blues will now face the Ryerson Rams in the OUA quarterfinals for the third year in a row.

“We’ll see tactical adjustments based on how they play but I think if we come out with this kind of energy and this kind of performance, we should be fine,” Orlov said. “It’s a Toronto derby so of course it’ll be a good one as always.”

While the Blues’ games against the Rams are often exciting affairs, their record against their Toronto rivals is poor. The Blues have lost six and drawn two of their past eight encounters. This season, the Blues drew 0–0 with the Rams at home and lost 2–1 away.

Progression beyond the quarterfinals for the first time since 2016 will be a tough task for the Blues, but this 6–0 victory certainly sends a strong message of intent.

Disclosure: Michael Teoh previously served as The Varsity’s Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor.

Varsity Blues Men’s Soccer vs. Nipissing University

Varsity Blues Women’s Soccer vs. Trent

Varsity Blues Women’s Soccer vs. Ontario Tech

Varsity Blues Men’s Soccer vs. Ontario Tech

Blues women’s soccer weekend recap

Kelly, Staggolis, Wolever shine for Varsity Blues women’s soccer team

Blues women’s soccer weekend recap

Saturday, September 7 vs. UOttawa

By the time University of Ottawa Gee-Gees star Mikayla Morton opened the scoring in the 28th minute, it seemed like the floodgates would open and that last season’s USPORTS champions would wash the U of T Varsity Blues. Up to that point, the Gee-Gees had been superior in every department, deftly dancing through the Blues’ midfield and forcing defensive errors with a high press. 

Instead, the goal served as a catalyst for the Blues who, with the introduction of third-year striker Erin Kelly, grew into the game. Eight minutes after conceding, third-year midfielder Miranda Badovinac scored the equalizer with what turned out to be the game’s final goal. Blues goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis put in an excellent performance to secure the draw, making a number of key saves and snapping the Blues’ four-game losing streak against the Gee-Gees.

The Blues started with a narrow 4-3-3 formation; the lack of width left midfield trio Kristin Parkes, Valentina Greco, and Maddie MacKay unable to spread the ball in the face of constant barrages by the Gee-Gees’ press. When they lost the ball, the trio — perhaps fearing the potency with which the Gee-Gees could break — were unwilling to press their opponents, allowing them free rein to lob the ball to their dynamic attack. 

This double jeopardy prevented the Blues’ midfield from supporting their defence or joining their attack, rendering them largely ineffective for much of the first 30 minutes.

The Gee-Gees exploited this tactical flaw well and, in the 26th minute, a ball from their own half allowed forward Emma Lefebvre to force Blues defender Anna Crone to concede a corner. The Blues defence capitulated following the short corner, with right back Rena Nakajima and centreback Mikayla Ford both out of position in an unsuccessful attempt to play the offside trap. 

The ball was floated into the right of the box, where Gee-Gees midfielder Hailey Walsh and Morton found themselves in acres of space. Walsh received the ball at the edge of the box and Nakajima, closing her down, puzzlingly ducked out of the way of her cross. Ford was equally at fault for the goal, completely missing Morton’s run behind her, which gave the fourth-year Gee-Gees forward ample space to head the ball in, despite Staggolis’ efforts.

Shortly after conceding, the Blues withdrew MacKay and brought on Kelly, who slotted into the centre forward position. Her introduction proved to be a revelation as she produced exceptional hold-up play by using her physicality to stave off a number of Gee-Gees tackles. 

Kelly marauded down the right flank and forced a corner after dribbling past two players. The Blues’ ensuing corner mimicked the one they had conceded as striker Jenny Wolever found herself unmarked on the far side of the goal. She slammed a shot toward the goal, which goalkeeper Margot Shore spilled into the path of Badovinac, who found the net from four yards out. 

Following the half-time break, the Blues returned a much improved side, pressing as a unit and adopting a more fluid approach off-ball. Nakajima and Ford both made a number of important challenges, as did Crone, who showed good composure and passing. 

Despite their improvement, the Blues still lacked width in the midfield; they opted to address this in the 58th minute by bringing on Daniella Cipriano for Badovinac. Cipriano proved to be an effective conduit between midfield and attack, finding Wolever numerous times with great through balls. In the 69th minute she switched play to Wolever, only for the latter to hit the side netting.

Wolever, who played for the Queen’s Gaels for four years as an undergraduate prior to moving to U of T this summer, was named the Ontario University Athletics East’s Most Valuable Player last year.

The Blues continued to threaten until the 75th minute, but found little joy against both Gee-Gees right back Trinity Esprit, who halted a number of attacks and passed the ball forward well, and midfielder Katherine Bearne, who displayed remarkable dribbling and vision. 

The tide of the game swung in the Gee-Gees’ favour in the last 15 minutes as they searched for the winning goal, but Staggolis remained a colossal figure in the Blues net. She was called into action in the 89th minute, denying Lefebvre from close range. 

While the Blues had their chances to take the lead in the second half, a draw against the country’s best team — to whom they lost to three times last season — is definitely a step in the right direction for a team trying to find its attacking identity following the departures of star players Chelsea Cheung and Natasha Klasios. 

As seen on display at Varsity Stadium, Cipriano and Kelly appear to be the natural choices to support Wolever as the Blues rebuild their attack.

Sunday, September 8 vs. Queen’s

After a hard-fought first half in which Toronto conceded two goals to the Queen’s Gaels, standout rookie Miranda Badovinac scored twice in the second half to tie the match with the Gaels, who are the second-highest ranking team in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA). 

From the first minute, the pressure was on: possession shifted rapidly as the ball found its way to either end of the pitch. Keeper Levanta Staggolis kept the score 0–0 with some quick saves in the first few minutes, impressing spectators and frustrating opponents.

The Blues’ offence was aggressive throughout, with Erin Kelly, Jenny Woelver, and Badovinac, among others, creating shot opportunities. In the early stages of the game, Kelly executed a promising shot on the net, fed by Badovinac thanks to a cross from Wolever. The play was executed with speed, and revealed a well-practiced offensive formation.

“It’s been fun playing with [Wolever] because we’re both new to the team, so it’s been fun… building our own legacy together,” said Badovinac. 

Anna Crone, Mikayla Ford, and Rena Nakajima delivered a series of impressive defensive plays in the first half: in the 26th minute, for example, Nakajima proved her defensive prowess by shutting down a breakaway from Gaels striker Jenna Matsukubo. However, Queen’s slipped through the cracks to score twice. Organization and morale noticeably dwindled after the first Gael goal, but a change in mindset at half-time brought the team back to the same page.

“First half we kind of lost ourselves, we weren’t really focused,” admits Staggolis. “Once those two goals were in, our heads went down. We weren’t into it at all. But our half-time talk got us ready to go.” 

“We had a couple formation changes as well that would allow for more aggressive attacks,” adds Badovinac.

Due to these pivotal half-time changes, Badovinac found her offensive stride, hitting the back of the net twice in the 44th and 63rd minutes. “They were both off of crosses. Just was kind of hoping for the best when I hit [the first one],” said Badovinac. “The other one was from a cross in the air. I was lucky that it hit perfectly to my head and I was able to get something on it.”

“We’re content with the result. Obviously you’re always looking for three points, but we’ll take it,” says Staggolis. 

With a tie granting the Blues one point for their second game of the season, the team is ready for their next game against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology this coming Friday.

Disclaimer: Michael Teoh previously served as Volume 138 Deputy Senior Copy Editor and Volume 139 Business Editor of The Varsity.