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The mathematics behind soccer

Abdullah Zafar studies team movement in soccer using vector fields

The mathematics behind soccer

Third-year U of T math and physics student Abdullah Zafar is collaborating with Sport Performance Analytics Inc. to study the mathematics behind team movements in soccer.

Zafar, a soccer player himself, presented his research at the ASSU Undergraduate Research Conference in January, in a presentation entitled “Weaving the Fabric of Football: How Vector Fields and Fractal Dynamics Structure Patterns in Team Movement and Performance.”

This project was brought to life after Zafar and Farzad Yousefian, founder and president of Sport Performance Analytics Inc, noticed a gap in how sports models were approached and analyzed. The pair sought to understand the underlying mechanics behind group movement and team dynamics on the field.

To achieve this, the research team collected data from the Canadian women’s soccer team at the Summer Universiade. Zafar analyzed the overall patterns of individual player movements and explored their relation to player performance measures.

While each player’s movement is individually determined, their overall movement on the field is influenced by other players’ positions. Zafar quantified movements of the latter type and analyzed them as a single unit.

Using vector fields, Zafar measured team movement and found a correlation to physical metrics like player heart rate and distance played. He characterized these patterns of team movement as Brownian motion.

Zafar’s findings could be used to assess efficiency and performance on the field, and develop strategies to impact the tactical side of team sports with practical training protocols.

In an interview with The Varsity, Zafar explained that quantifying group movements by collecting variables such as speed, directionality, and steps per minute was the easier part of the process. However, painting a group picture in terms of a complete analysis was a challenge.

The project has come a long way since last summer, and is being presented at various conferences.

Moving forward, data collection will still be a major barrier, considering that performance data is like personal property to teams, and Zafar notes that getting access to it can be difficult. Were the research team to have access to league information, the sports teams need not worry about competition between them. In the long run, access to more information would allow the data to be more generalizable.

Zafar said that this initial report serves only as a pilot study a proof of principle that demonstrates that this field of research can be pursued.

Currently, the team is breaking the project into more concise research questions that can address specific aspects of sports performance, including tactical and physiological perspectives.

According to Zafar, another challenge is obtaining funding. Compared to health and wellness, sports performance analysis receives less funding. Shifting the perspective of the research to one of clinical importance could be the key to accessing funding in the future.

Blues win 2–0 over downtown rivals

Klasios and Parkes score in victory

Blues win 2–0 over downtown rivals

On a warm Sunday, September 2 afternoon, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s soccer team took on their crosstown rivals, the Ryerson Rams. It only took 17 minutes for the Blues to get their first goal, with striker Natasha Klasios scoring her third of the season from a tight angle.

“The girl kind of took a swing at me but missed the ball, so I got through and I was near the touch line. And then I saw no one else there, so I just started cutting it back. The goalie came out, [so I] just tried slipping it in,” commented Klasios, who notched a goal and an assist, as well as six shots in the game. “Went in. Lucky goal, but I’ll take ‘em,” she said modestly.

In stoppage time at the end of the first half, Klasios drew a penalty in the box and was awarded a penalty kick. However, the shot was saved by Ryerson goalkeeper Elisa Lapadula. Toronto defender Anna Crone also received a yellow card at the end of the half.

In the second half, the Blues were able to lock down defensively and keep Ryerson off the board. Toronto made five substitutions in the second half alone. In the 90th minute, Kristin Parkes was able to seal the game for Toronto off of a brilliant assist from Klasios.

The Blues had 15 total shots this game to Ryerson’s nine, and Toronto keeper Vanna Staggolis made five saves for the shutout victory.

The game was rather chippy, with one player from each team receiving a yellow card. Toronto had five fouls, and Ryerson had eight, seven of them coming in the second half. “We haven’t actually played [Ryerson] in a year, because last year they were our bye, so it’s always a huge game,” said Klasios about their rivals. “In our first and second years it was massive; it’s really exciting, good derby competition and we got the win so I’m happy.”

The win gave the Blues seven out of nine possible points on the season, and it kept them undefeated.

Rams run riot over Blues

10-man Ryerson brush off Toronto 3–1

Rams run riot over Blues

As well as the Varsity Blues played in their opening weekend, it was clear that their fourth game against local rivals Ryerson Rams on September 2 would provide a sterner and more realistic gauge of the team’s chances of playoffs success this season. Based on the evidence offered that hot Sunday afternoon, the Blues must improve at all levels if they are to best last year’s Ontario University Athletics (OUA) quarterfinal exit.

Undoubtedly a harbinger for what was to come, Blues striker Jack Wadden was on the receiving end of a professional foul that forced the fourth-year player to be withdrawn in the 12th minute, with the game tied 1–1. Although the extent of Wadden’s injury was unknown, he didn’t return to the field — under OUA rules, players can be substituted back in — and he left the sidelines at halftime with a sling around his arm. Wadden’s pressing and positioning was sorely missed and, in his absence, the Blues largely failed to perform. This mirrored the team’s opening fixture against Trent Excalibur when, 4–1 up at halftime, Wadden was substituted off and the Blues performed noticeably worse. Even with top scorer Jae Jin Lee replacing him, the Blues failed to add to their solitary goal as Ryerson cruised to a fourth consecutive win.

Prior to Wadden’s injury, the Blues had burst to life following kickoff, in another parallel to the Trent game. Third-year striker Michael Matic, who retained his position in the starting lineup, replacing second-year defender Nicola Russo, lifted a shot over the goalkeeper in the 27th second to put the Blues in the lead. Matic, who had been wasteful with his chances in the Blues’ opening week, took his goal well and laid down a marker of his team’s intent.

The Rams would erase Matic’s early lead with Abdallah El-Chanti scoring from the spot after Blues keeper Stefan Dusciuc conceded a penalty in the eighth minute. The Blues added two shots on target after Wadden’s injury before falling behind in the 25th minute, courtesy of an Andrew Dias goal.

As the Blues searched for an equalizer, Ryerson were content to weather the storm and counter when possible. In the final minutes of the first half, Ryerson defender Nathaniel Tambakis was sent off after receiving two yellow cards in quick succession. Despite probing, the Blues were unable to take advantage of their numerical superiority, and the half ended 2–1.

Toronto continued to press in the second half, but an organized and resilient Ryerson restricted their forward movement greatly. In the 54th minute, fourth-year defender Kenny Lioutas swung a deep corner to the far post, but Lee could only strike the bar with his headed effort.

A minute later, a quick Ryerson counterattack forced isolated third-year defender and captain Nikola Stakic to commit a foul that, on another day, might have seen him receive worse than the yellow card the referee brandished. From 20 yards out, midfielder Arya Hemati placed his free kick in the upper left corner of the goal.

The rest of the half followed a similarly worrying pattern as the Blues repeatedly tried and failed to move the ball past Ryerson’s defense. As the half progressed, the Blues pushed further and further up, with Stakic moving into an advanced midfield position. Toronto’s fruitless forays forward only exposed them to numerous counterattacks, leaving Lioutas and midfielder-turned-centreback Gabriel Milo scrambling to react.

To compound the Blues’ misery, a number of wayward passes and cheap giveaways from second-year midfielder Anthony Sousa and Milo — both of whom had performed well in previous games — prevented any semblance of attacking rhythm. Too many times, the team played it wide to the right wing, only to launch blind, directionless crosses into the box.

Blues head coach Anthony Capotosto would have been disappointed with his team’s failure to make the most of their numerical advantage and the lack of composure they demonstrated throughout the match. If Wadden remains injured, they will need to find a way to be more ruthless in front of the goal and more capable of shoring up the midfield.

A guide to U of T’s tri-campus intramural athletics

The benefits of staying active with intramural sports

A guide to U of T’s tri-campus intramural athletics

As the start of the fall semester slowly approaches, U of T will be in the midst of intramural action once again. U of T, owing to its tri-campus structure, has one of the most exciting and unique intramural programs across Canadian universities.

Every year, student athletes from UTSG, UTSC, and UTM join together to compete in tri-campus athletics. Whether it is soccer, basketball, hockey, volleyball, ultimate frisbee, et cetera, students have the opportunity to play their favourite sports while representing their campus, college, or program.

The U of T Intramural Program is organized by the university’s three main athletic bodies: UTSG’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), UTSC’s Department of Athletics and Recreation, and UTM’s Department of Recreation, Athletics & Wellness. Each organizes multiple teams for various sports, all hoping to be crowned champions of U of T.

The U of T Development League (D-League) is the highest level of intramural competition, featuring the best and brightest non-varsity athletes across U of T. The program is offered in men’s hockey, men’s outdoor soccer, women’s basketball, men’s and women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s indoor soccer.

Through committed coaching staff and intense training sessions, the D-League offers students a chance to develop their skills for possible future Varsity competition. The four D-League teams include the St. George Reds, the St. George Blacks, the UTSC Maroons, and the UTM Eagles.

Other intramural leagues provide various levels of competition. In general, U of T tri-campus teams are at the same calibre as a good high-school team.

All of the tri-campus teams hold one practice and one game a week, and schedules may intensify come playoff time.

Tri-campus sports is an perfect alternative to varsity athletics, as it offers the right competitive edge without the time-commitment and pressure of being a Varsity Blue. Not only does the program provide students with the platform to compete in their favourite sports, but it also gives the opportunity to network and build relationships with many like-minded athletes and coaches.

As a tri-campus intramural athlete myself, I can safely say that joining the program was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my university career. As a former high school student athlete, I wanted to ensure I continued playing competitive sports once I started at U of T.

After doing some research, I discovered the Intramural Program and became instantly hooked.

Competing in tri-campus sports provided me with everything I was looking for as a non-varsity student athlete. Through great coaching and intense training, I was able to continue developing my skills and growing as a player.

The program also gave me the opportunity to practice and compete in various athletic facilities across U of T, including UTSC’s Toronto Pan Am Sports Center and the Varsity Centre. As a rookie, my teammates welcomed me with open arms and took me under their wings. They provided me with guidance and advice on how to navigate and adjust to university life, academically, socially, and athletically.

Of course, like any competitive athletic program, there came some challenges and obstacles such as waking up for 7:00 am practices, playing in freezing-cold weather, and facing season-long injuries. But, nonetheless, it’s all a part of the process.

This upcoming year, the Intramural Program is expecting over 10,000 tri-campus student athletes to compete in 78 leagues and 20 tournaments. The program continues to get better and better, and students across all three campuses are getting ready for another exciting season.

Whether you enjoy competitive sports or just want to stay fit, the intramural program has something for everyone. Come out this September and try out for your favourite sports!

Believe me, you won’t regret it.

Why the Varsity Blues matter

An introduction to The Varsity 's Sports section

Why the Varsity Blues matter

There’s a simple story regarding how I first started writing for The Varsity’s Sports section.

The July before my first semester, I sat across from then-Sports Editor Emma Kikulis in the lounge at The Varsity’s office and shared my ideas with her, in an enthusiastic and nervous fashion, characteristic of an incoming university student.

Back then, I wasn’t aware that eventually succeeding her was even a possibility. I was just eager to write about sports.

A few days before I attended my first class, I sat in the press box at Varsity Stadium and watched the Blues lose a high-scoring 55–33 game to the McMaster Marauders. Blues running back Divante Smith rushed for 112 yards and scored three touchdowns, while Marauders quarterback Asher Hastings threw for a ridiculous 384 yards and five touchdowns. I couldn’t think of a more entertaining introduction to Varsity Blues athletics.

Blues quarterback Simon Nassar, who towered above my audio recorder during the postgame interview, earnestly answered my questions about Smith’s performance and how the team could rebound from the loss. He even mentioned how cool he thought it was that I was covering the football team for The Varsity and thanked me for it.

Three weeks later, I was back at Varsity Stadium to cover the Blues women’s soccer team. The Trent Excaliburs didn’t provide much of an opposing force on that Friday evening, as striker Natasha Klasios scored a hat-trick to lead the Blues to a 6–1 victory.

However, it wasn’t until I became The Varsity’s Sports Editor as a third-year student that I fully embraced Varsity Blues athletics and understood what the program stands for. That happened after I finished an internship for Vice Sports in April 2017.

At Vice, I was educated on Canada’s sports media landscape while working on a story informed by former Ontario University Athletics (OUA) president Peter Baxter on the importance of varsity-level athletics for student athletes and the need for more coverage.

After being elected Sports Editor, it wasn’t hard to guess how I wanted to spend the next year of my life. I just couldn’t have predicted how incredible the experience would be.

When you reflect on an entire year, you tend to recall the big moments first.

It was an easy decision to skip the first day of class and interview Olympic bronze medalist Kylie Masse. Sitting across from Kylie, who admits, “The most important thing for me is enjoying to swim,” she appears likely to be the happiest person in any room with her positive attitude and constant smile.

I also won’t forget the day that Kylie broke her own 50-metre backstroke Canadian and U SPORTS record in the preliminaries and then again that same night in the finals at the U SPORTS Swimming Championships. Nor will I forget the roar of the crowd that followed her in each race that she competed in over the three-day event.

There was something unique about the brisk fall weekends I spent at Back Campus covering the Varsity Blues field hockey team.

Writing about field hockey was a chance to take a break from covering football and soccer and attempt to write about a sport that I initially knew next to nothing about.

I stood next to parents who were cheering on their daughters, jotted quick notes to describe the fast-paced action, and overheard returning alumni converse about how their weekend was going. It was liberating to step outside of the somewhat isolating nature of a press box and into a setting where one didn’t exist.

During the first game I covered, a parent approached me as I sat in the bleachers and typed notes. He was curious about what I was doing. Like Simon, he thought it was great that I was writing about the game. For the length of our conversation on Blues athletics, I didn’t mind being distracted from the action in front of me.

The interviews I conducted are impossible to forget.

Julia Costanzo looks down the field against the Queen’s Gaels. PHOTO BY MARTIN BAZYL COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

It was incredible to listen to Blues women’s hockey head coach Vicky Sunohara reflect on her illustrious career and memories of winning two gold Olympic medals and hear Emily Ziraldo’s teammates, Julia Costanzo, Rachel Spogue, and Emily’s twin sister Hilary, describe the incredible person she is on and off the field.

After interviewing Blues second-year swimmers Rachel Rodé, Sarah Polley, Hannah Genich, and Sophie du Plessis, all of whom happened to be roommates and won a combined 19 medals at the 2018 OUA Championships, it was inconceivable not to dub them as the ‘Fantastic Four.’ And before speaking to Hannah, I would’ve never considered the idea of hanging medals on a bedroom curtain rod.

Then, there are the moments I experienced vicariously through the words of my section’s writers, like Kate Reeve’s engrossing narrative capturing the shared experience of novice and veterans rowers — not to mention coxswains — competing at the annual Brock Invitational Regatta from the start of their journey as they departed Toronto before sunrise.

The Sports section came full circle with Julia Costanzo’s reflection on her rookie season as a member of the Blues field hockey team. The year ended with Emily and Blues punter TJ Morton being awarded the inaugural The Varsity Athletes of the Year, as voted upon by the section’s contributors.

Julia’s personal essay, “Notes from the dark room,” in The Physical Issue of The Varsity Magazine was impossible to read without confronting how little is actually known about concussions. It’s also the type of sports writing I would have introduced to Emma as an example of why I want to write for The Varsity.

Julia’s writing speaks volumes about her own resilient spirit; her essay detailed the difficult experience she went through after suffering a concussion, but was later able to overcome — an attribute fitting for the outstanding athlete she is, but also reflective of the character displayed by her and fellow student athletes.

That’s the reason why I believe every U of T student should attend Blues games. Any writer who is passionate about sports, wants to learn more, or is maybe just interested in writing about people should take the opportunity to contribute to the The Varsity’s Sports section for the same reason.

I know it’s the most rewarding decision I’ve made so far at U of T.

Top 10 moments of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

France’s dramatic win over Croatia bookended an eventful tournament

Top 10 moments of the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Each World Cup has its own memorable moment: the ‘Hand of God’ goal that made Diego Maradona a legend, both England and France winning their maiden trophy on home soil, and Zinedine Zidane’s notorious headbutt in the 2006 final. The 2018 World Cup was no less. With only one goalless game in the entire tournament, the tournament was furious, flashy, and fantastic. But that’s what we’ve come to expect, haven’t we?

In the wake of France’s explosive triumph against Croatia, let’s recap some of the most memorable moments, many of which will remain in our hearts for years to come.

1. The greatest of all time weren’t enough.

It was supposed to be their night, their tournament. But while Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against the ex-world champions Spain to snatch a point, that same night, Lionel Messi could only watch in despair as Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson, a part-time film director, saved his penalty from 12 yards to earn his own side a point. Things got worse for Messi and his team as they were thrashed by eventual runners-up Croatia to a resounding 3–0 win.

Ultimately, both teams — Portugal and Argentina — scraped through to the Round of 16, where both Ronaldo and Messi drew blanks and couldn’t save their teams from crashing out against Uruguay and France respectively.

The world’s best were at the periphery of the world’s biggest tournament.

2. This time, the Germans lose.

“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

Gary Lineker’s famous quote has a tinge of truth to it, as Germany has never not made it to the quarterfinals since 1954. This year, when Hirving Lozano of Mexico blazed past the German defense and slotted it in the net of the world’s best keeper, Manuel Neur, the entire world was stunned. Germany was condemned to a defeat in their first game of the World Cup.

Germany didn’t improve after that, as their passing and possession amounted to nearly nothing over the course of the group fixtures. They created 57 chances and took 72 shots, but scored just twice: once from a Marco Reus deflection and a sumptuous, one-in-a-billion Toni Kroos free kick. Even South Korea beat them.

The bottom line is that the team renowned for playing like a cohesive team couldn’t match up to those expectations at that this World Cup.

3. Mitshy Batshuayi and the post.

What can I say about this one?

One of the most unusual, if slightly accidental celebrations, Michy Batshuayi tried kicking the ball into the goal after Adnan Januzaj had put Belgium in front against England in their final group game, but it ricocheted off the post and smacked him right in the face. A dull game sparked to life by a classic mistake.

4. Kylian Mbappé announces himself on the grandest of stages.

The number of times we have heard “the youngest player to…” about Mbappé is almost ridiculous. Even on the day that Messi, currently the best player in the world, was expected to shine, it was the future best player in the world who showed the world what he is truly capable of.

Mbappé’s lung-bursting run through the Argentine defense is nothing short of watching Usain Bolt sprint, which led to Marcus Rojo fouling him and earning France a penalty. He then ran around the defense again, scoring a left-footed winner with so much power, the keeper couldn’t do anything about it. He became the first teenage player since Pele to score a brace in a World Cup knockout match. Those are tough boots to fill, but fill them he did.

Remember, he wasn’t even born when France last won the World Cup twenty years ago on home soil.  No one can argue that Mbappe didn’t deserve the tournament’s best young player award. This even led to Pele tweeting “If Kylian keeps equalling my records like this I may have to dust my boots off again.” With what we have seen so far, it may be time to dust them off very soon, Pele.

5. “Cavani to Suarez to Cavani… and GOAL!”

Step aside, Benjamin Pavard and Dries Mertens. The best goal of the tournament should be awarded to Uruguay’s two-pronged attack, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Against Portugal in the Round of 16, Cavani switched the play, sending a long ball over the back line to Suarez. He then cut in on his right foot and landed a perfect cross at the back post that slammed off Cavani’s face and into the back of the net.

I was left speechless, but not because it was a booming long shot or a Messi-esque dribble toward a goal. It was just simple, old-fashioned play, with two perfect long balls that cut apart the Portuguese defense. Cavani and Suarez had effortlessly led their team through a relatively easy group, but beating the reigning European champions is no easy feat.

Will we ever find a better crop of strikers? Probably not, but it is a pleasure to watch them now.

6. Comeback kings.

A golden generation at its peak. Was there anything that could stop Belgium from claiming their maiden trophy? A lowly Japan had something to say about that.

Belgium had won every game in the group. Captained by Eden Hazard, who finished runner-up to the Golden Ball, they looked unstoppable and even defeated England with their second-string side. Their route to the final had then been made easier now, as they faced Japan in the Round of 16.

But it didn’t go as planned, as strikes from Haraguchi and Inui in the second half had left the favorites on the brink of elimination.

Then came the comeback of the decade. Jan Verthonghen headed in the ball absolutely miraculously, and then Marounne Fellaini did the same. But Belgium wasn’t done yet, as in the 94th minute, a flowing move involving De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mrtens was capped off by Nacer Chadli to win it in sudden death. From two goals down to a spectacular win. Absolute, absolute scenes.

If Diego Maradona watched this game, he probably wouldn’t have survived till the end.

7. Neymar: actor or footballer?

It was their year. After Neymar’s horrendous injury in 2014 led to a sound thrashing by Germany 7–0, this was the year that Brazil would bring back the trophy for a record sixth time. But rather than focus on their footballing prowess and skills, most of the attention was focused on Neymar, and not in a good way.

When I saw Neymar crying out in pain, wailing in agony after a Mexican defender, Miguel Layun had lightly stepped on his leg in his country’s 2–0 quarterfinal win, I did not know what to say. There was no need for the outrageous reaction, even though I understand that it wasn’t the right thing to do by the Mexican. Neymar, tipped to be the world’s best player after Messi and Ronaldo, shouldn’t need theatrics to win matches. He should use his skill set to do so.

He spent fourteen minutes on the ground, asking for a foul. That is seven minutes per his two World Cup goals. Numerous football greats have criticised him for it and asked him to improve his behavior. He also became an internet sensation, with numerous, hilarious videos of him being posted on Twitter and Facebook, as football fans expressed their disappointment and scorn at his foolhardy antics.

In a way, his diving stole the World Cup away from them.

8. “They’re going home.”

Was it possible? Could football’s greatest trophy really come home? After 52 years and watching their golden generation with the likes of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney try and fail, expectations seemed pretty low for England as they entered this year’s World Cup. But then came skipper Gareth Southgate and his squad of Young Lions.

They beat Tunisia, thrashed Panama, scraped past Columbia and won against Sweden. Just like that, they were in the top four, and slowly hope crept back in. The squad’s efficiency with set pieces was unrivaled at the World Cup: eight of their 11 goals came from dead ball situations. Spearheaded by penalty specialist Harry Kane, who incidentally won the Golden Boot.

Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire, and Southgate had become national treasures. A nation polarized by politics had been brought together by chants of “it’s coming home.”

Even though England eventually lost to a Croatia comeback, pride had been restored. The Three Lions had done enough to convince the world and themselves.

9. The rise of Croatia.

Destroying Argentina wasn’t enough.

Appropriately named the dark horses of the tournament, Croatia stunned the world with their brilliant technical display combined with a solid defense by reaching the final. A country torn apart by civil war, this fearless team, devoid of any glam and glitz like the other favorites, and led by eventual Golden Ball winner, Luka Modric, won all of its opening three games with ruthless displays of complete dominance.

The knockout stages proved a bit trickier, as they had to prevail on penalties against Denmark, and against the hosts, Russia, after Mario Fernandes had scored a late equalizer to cancel out Domagoj Vida’s winner.

But the best teams of the tournament have always had an abundance of sheer willpower, determination, and spirit to win games at the death, which was even evident in their semifinal victory over England. But instead, Mario Mandzukic and Croatia prevailed.

They might have lost the World Cup, but they surely won all our hearts.

10. France lifting the Rimet.

Twenty years later, France are world champions again. Yes, a freak own goal and a controversial video assistant referee penalty were at the forefront of their success, but there is no denying that France was the best team of the tournament.

With an astute midfield pairing of defensive mastermind N’golo Kanté and the dynamic Paul Pogba, their free-flowing attack, including Griezmann and the wunderkind that is Kylian Mbappé, was allowed to shine brightly and score wonderful goals. They played as a team, under the instructions of the enigmatic Didier Deschamps, with each player mastering the role they were told to play. It’s no surprise that they thrashed Argentina in a thrilling encounter, held off another favorite, Belgium, and outscored Croatia. The latter two goals by Pogba and Mbappe in the final were pure class, as they put the game decisively to bed.

The second youngest team at the World Cup lifted the trophy in Moscow as the heavens opened, and it makes one wonder: in the next four years, they will just get better.

So with all the drama and thrills and controversy it had to offer, it is safe to say that the 2018 FIFA World Cup was one of the best ones in recent times. Here’s to 2022!

The backbone of Blues soccer’s backline

Blues defenders Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan reflect on their varsity careers

The backbone of Blues soccer’s backline

It’s exactly 9:00 am on an overcast March morning when Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan walk into the room, coffees in hand. Outside, the clouds have dyed the sky a silver-grey hue that streams delicately into the room, creating a pensive aura befitting the occasion. The two Varsity Blues stars sit, ready to reflect on their storied soccer journeys.

Krkachovski wears a maroon hoodie with a slightly faded Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) logo plastered across it; Mulligan wears a light top. The two are fifth-year Blues athletes — two-year co-captains of the women’s soccer team who have dressed 153 times combined — and, as Krkachovski says, “Obviously we’re best friends off the field.”

In October, the pair received a frame commemorating their contributions, before they faced a tough 1–0 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoff defeat that called time on their exceptional Blues careers.

Formative years

Krkachovski and Mulligan, lifelong defenders, faced very different journeys en route to becoming the beating heart of the Blues defense.

Out of high school in Markham, Krkachovski was being courted by both U of T and McMaster’s soccer programs and made her decision with a primary focus on athletics.

Mulligan, on the other hand, “lived really close to UBC” and sought pastures new. “I also really liked the academic programs that U of T has so that was a big draw for me and it worked out as well that I could play soccer.”

It would be Mulligan who would break into the starting lineup in 2013, impressing with two goals: one a headed effort and the other a 40-yard belter, both of which she describes as “flukey.”

Their rookie campaign ended with a fifth-place finish in the CIS Championship, with Mulligan playing all but eight minutes of action in the three CIS games; Krkachovski made the bench for the last of the three games.

In a reversal of fortunes, Krkachovski thrived in second year while Mulligan played just five times before sustaining a season-long injury. Unfortunately, Krkachovski’s breakout season would end in defeat at the OUA quarter final stage.

Heart of the defense

With Krkachovski having shone in 2014 and Mulligan returning from an injury layoff eager to recapture her rookie form, the Blues had a promising new defensive partnership — and blossoming friendship — heading into 2015.

“Every morning before game day we’d meet for a coffee… enjoy it, then go to the game,” says Krkachovski. It’s pleasing, then, to see that even five months after the season’s finale, they’re still enjoying a morning coffee together.

“We like to make a lot of jokes when we’re playing,” says Mulligan. “Often our teammates will look back and we’re laughing.” Mulligan adds that the easygoing chatter cements a strong understanding on the pitch between one another, and Krkachovski agrees.

“She knows when she’s losing me… she’ll be like, ‘Come on, I’m losing you and you’re not talking anymore.’ She definitely keeps me going when I need that,” says Krkachovski.

Krkachovski takes a brief pause before continuing her thought. It’s the kind of pause that just might, in other circumstances and between any other pairing, constitute an awkward break, but sitting next to Mulligan, it’s a comfortable, shared silence.

“Say we mess up and you look up and the whole team is looking back at you. You could read the disappointment on [their] face, but then I have her beside me or she has me to be like, ‘Okay, it’s fine. We’re still okay, everything is going to be fine,’” says Krkachovski. “That went a long way.”

Still, as co-captains, the two maintained an open channel of communication with the rest of the team, and they would stand up for their squad without hesitation.

“She can be harder on people, and I can be the nicer person sometimes. We just balance each other out,” says Mulligan.

“Mull’s more of the ‘motherly supportive’ type,” says Krkachovski with a smirk. “Put that direct quote in there.”

Their complementary technical skills also solidified their leadership and status as strong role models.

Krkachovski’s main strengths are her passing accuracy and vision, while Mulligan’s lie in her aerial presence and long ball abilities — think of Krkachovski as the ball-playing foil to Mulligan’s limited defender role. Mulligan is comfortable holding back and sweeping to accommodate Krkachovski, whom she jokingly describes as “a striker at heart.”

In 2015, the two dressed for all 17 games, with Krkachovski starting every one. She would also score her first goal for the Blues that season. She considers this fact for a moment and looks at Mulligan for confirmation.

“Is that where you shot it almost straight in the air?” offers Mulligan, sparking Krkachovski’s recollection.

“It was for sure going to Bloor Street,” says Krkachovski.

“She was probably five yards away from the net.”

“And I cranked it.”

“Straight up.”

“And yeah it went bar down. It was pretty good,” says Krkachovski, satisfied with the back-and-forth recount of the two-and-a-half-year-old landmark. The pair’s Blues careers are so closely intertwined that this becomes a common occurrence as they piece together memories.

Krkachovski would end 2015 with an OUA East second team all-star honour. “By the end of third year I was really starting to get confident, know my role,” she says. “And then fourth year I just went balls to the wall.”

In their fourth year, 2016, the two started 14 games together, and Krkachovski was again rewarded for her balls-to-the-wall efforts with an OUA East second team all-star honour. However, despite her and Mulligan’s best efforts, the team would fall at the OUA playoff stage for the second year in a row.

Disappointment and development

The next question floats in the air for a few seconds, eliciting a longer pause from Krkachovski and Mulligan. “What’s the biggest life lesson the two of you have taken out, being part of the Varsity Blues program?” Krkachovski then submits an affirmative response that elicits Mulligan’s agreement.

“No matter how much hard work you put into something, it’s not always going to go your way.

“The amount of effort her and I put in at least the past three years straight… and then we still end up in sixth place. We still end up with only five clean sheets.”

“You still have to work hard on everything you want to do well in your life,” adds Mulligan. “But hard work doesn’t equal success, it just equals a better chance of success, I guess.”

Despite their unrelenting dedication, their team has been dumped out at the playoff stage of the OUA for the last three seasons. In 2015, they finished fourth in their OUA regular season conference standings with four clean sheets. In 2016 and 2017, they finished sixth, with five clean sheets each year.

Soccer is a game of such fine margins that a small slip-up at any point could be costly. Especially as defenders, Krkachovski and Mulligan are acutely aware of this. “It’s not a glamorous role,” says Mulligan.

While clean sheets are never truly a barometer of defensive success, the disappointing truth is that the team never made it back to the CIS Championship — or U SPORTS, as it was rebranded in 2016 — level after their first-year adventure, where they qualified as the hosts.

Though nice, Krkachovski’s CIS hoodie bears an uncomfortable weight as a reminder of a tournament that the Blues have not progressed to in four years — a stage that she and Mulligan undoubtedly deserve to have played more on.

But despite the Blues’ shortcomings on the pitch, Krkachovski and Mulligan’s everyday successes for Toronto as leaders, teammates, and friends are insurmountable. “We’re all really good friends with the rest of our team,” says Mulligan. “All my best friends pretty much are from soccer.”

While it may be cheesy to say, it’s these experiences that truly define success.


So it goes

Krkachovski offers her own cheesy pearl of wisdom to her previous point: “I know this one’s super cheesy, but just to actually enjoy it. You get so caught up… and all of a sudden we’re like, ‘It’s our grad game. Now what?’”

That’s a question she’s had to contend with after the end of the season. Over the past five years, she’s relied on soccer to give her a release from stress. As someone who obsessed over the team’s standing and performance for five years, the stark contrast of a final season is a bittersweet and jarring reminder to her — and all graduating Blues athletes — that nothing lasts forever. But with all she’s achieved over five years, Krkachovski is bound to overcome this challenge with ease.

Mulligan faced somewhat similar circumstances in 2016 as she approached the end of her four-year undergraduate degree, before she earned “a bonus year” upon being accepted for her master’s in Nutritional Sciences in 2017. “I’m enjoying the extra spare time, but I think it’ll be really weird in August when everyone’s back to playing and we’re watching from the stands,” she adds.

The Blues’ Krkachovski and Mulligan era may have ended, but the two clearly won’t be forgetting about their team anytime soon. While the March clouds outside still drain the blue from the sky, not even the changing seasons can drain the Blues from Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan.

Blues soccer program playoff bound

Men second seed, women fifth

Blues soccer program playoff bound

Blues women beat RMC 4–0 to secure playoff spot

The Varsity Blues women secured their OUA Playoff berth on October 20 with a comprehensive 4–0 victory over the the Royal Military College (RMC) Paladins at Varsity Stadium.

The Blues dominated possession in the first half but were unable to fully capitalize against the Paladins, who focused strongly on defense. Toronto recorded nine shots to RMC’s one, with the breakthrough coming from a 39th-minute corner. Set-piece specialist Daniella Cipriano found centre back Christine Mulligan inside the 18-yard box, who managed to direct the ball into the net.

Cipriano and midfielder Julia Gonsalves linked up well on the right flank of the pitch throughout the half, providing a constant threat to the RMC defense. Striker Natasha Klasios demonstrated impressive hold-up play and dribbling, deftly creating chances for the Blues; this almost paid off in the 44th minute as she found strike partner Chelsea Cheung in space, but the RMC defense quickly removed the danger.

Both teams started strong in the second half, but Toronto fleshed out more chances, including a good run into the box by midfielder Vanessa Bucci and a 30-yard attempt by Mulligan. The Blues finally found their second goal when the impressive Klasios found space and fired in a shot from 20 yards in the 58th minute.

Midfielder Maddie MacKay almost added a third in the 60th minute when her 30-yard rocket bounced off the upright before being cleared by the RMC defenders. The third goal eventually came from an incredible 35-yard lob from second-year midfielder Anna Crone, capitalizing on the RMC goalkeeper’s poor positioning to seal her first Varsity Blues goal.

Although RMC launched more attacks in the second half, they produced zero shots. As the Paladins continued to fade, right back Cipriano found herself in more attacking positions, allowing her to play a smart one-two with Crone to score her first Varsity Blues goal in the 82nd minute.

“It’s such a good feeling to actually reach a goal… it’s been a long three years,” Cipriano said after the match. “It was a good dead ball from Anna… We pressed them really high so I feel like I definitely had the opportunity [to score].”

—Michael Teoh

Blues defender Kelly-Anne Johnson eyes the ball in Toronto’s 4–0 rout against RMC.

Five seniors close out their Blues career

The Blues women played host to the nationally ranked Queen’s Gaels on October 21 at Varsity Stadium. Five graduating Blues athletes were recognized by University of Toronto Executive Director of Athletics & Physical Activity Beth Ali and head coach Luciano Lombardi before the Blues’ final action of the regular season.

Among the graduating student-athletes were co-captains Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan, both defenders for the Blues since 2013. Midfielders Laura Snoek, Alyssa Golin, and Nicki Parkes are also set to move on from the Blues program following the 2017 season. Parkes, a chemical engineering student from Sarnia, was a honoured as an OUA East second team all-star in 2016.

The Blues and Gaels met for the third time in 2017. The Gaels won both previous matches with multi-goal leads. They meet annually in preseason at the Old Four tournament which was hosted by Western University in August.

The Blues had a slow start to open the match. Queen’s rookie forward Alexandra Doane opened the scoring in the 23rd minute. The Gaels entered half time with a two-goal lead courtesy of Jenny Wolever. The final Queen’s goal came early in the second half from Laura Callender off of a penalty kick in the 52nd minute.

Minutes later, the Blues retaliated with a goal by Kristin Parkes. The rookie’s shot came from directly in front of the net, leaving Queen’s goalkeeper Anna Stephenson little chance to make a save. A subsequent hustle play from veteran Chelsea Cheung resulted in another goal for the Blues, priming the crowd for a great comeback. Cheung’s goal was set up nicely by Mulligan’s free kick in the 76th minute.

The Gaels’ defense was on their heels for the remainder of the game as the Blues maintained momentum and had several rushes in the final minutes. Despite this effort, including two saves from Toronto goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis, the Blues were unable to make the comeback. The narrow loss lands the Blues in fifth place in the OUA East Division with a regular season record of 7-7-2.

The Blues will face the Ottawa Gee-Gees on October 25 in the first round of the OUA Playoffs.

—Vanessa Wallace

Blues men earn stunning victory against RMC

The Blues men’s soccer team earned an impressive 4–0 victory against the Royal Military College (RMC) Paladins on Friday night, whom they previously defeated on September 30 with a 4–0 win.

Going into the game with a record of eight wins, two losses, and four draws, the Varsity Blues had optimistic chances.

Blues midfielder Lukas MacNaughton scored the first goal in the fifth minute. The goal was scored at the penalty spot after the Paladins committed a foul in the box. This amazing goal placed the Blues in a perfect position to take an early lead.

Throughout the game, the Blues showed great skill within their crisp passing and speed. Right off the bat, they showed a very obvious advantage in the way the team worked together and communicated. A free kick for the Blues in the 19th minute was set up for success, but unfortunately failed with a bounce off the crossbar.

As half time approached, Blues striker Antonio Ajhert scored a quick goal in the 41st minute, pushing the Blues lead to 2–0. Coming back from the halftime break, striker Nirun Sivananthan scored in the 51st minute rounding the total score to a solid 3–0 in favour of the Blues.

The game came to a brief stop when RMC defender Simon Leslie was injured and continued into the 75th minute when he was substituted out.

In the 80th minute, Blues midfielder Yousef Helmy brought the score up to an impressive 4–0 total, as the Toronto team continued to dominate the field with their determination and fierce plays.

The Blues’ solid victory matches their previous 4–0 win over RMC. Toronto enter their final regular season game against Queen’s University at 8:30 pm on October 21 at Varsity Stadium with a 9-2-4 record.

After this win, the U of T community should be excited to see what happens during the club’s postseason run.

—Jackie Emick

Blues men finish season in second place

The Blues men defeated the Queen’s Gaels 2–1 in a clean performance on Saturday night. The Blues finish in second place in the OUA Eastern Conference behind the Carleton Ravens going into the playoff run.

The team started strong with an early goal off a corner kick in the seventh minute by co-captain Lukas MacNaughton. Toronto maintained a convincing defensive performance throughout the first half, holding the Gaels to only two shots.

Striker Jack Wadden finished the first half with a goal in the 44th minute, assisted by strike partner Nirun Sivananthan.

The Gaels rallied in the second half of the game with a stronger offensive attack, which culminated in Jacob Schroeter’s 83rd minute goal. Despite the goal, the Blues accounted for five shots in the second half and 16 total shots.

Blues defender Devon Bowyer made a nail-biting final minute save and goalkeeper Mark Rogal also had a solid performance with two saves throughout the match.

Despite some uncertainty in the closing moments, the Blues held off attacks and ended their regular season run with an 10-2-4 record. They will enter into the OUA quarterfinals on October 29, opponent to be decided.

—Josie Kao and Laura Quon