Soccer season is going to end, one way or another, at national championships. The VIU Mariners have taken every measure to enable them to give it their best shot as host team at the end of autumn.
Vancouver Island University’s men’s soccer team has built what’s essentially an all-star team as it prepares to start another PacWest season this week.
“Technically, this is the strongest team we’ve ever had. It’s one of the strongest teams I’ve seen, on paper, anywhere,” said Bill Merriman, VIU coach.
Roster cuts were incredibly difficult, he said. Many young players had to be left off the 24-man roster.
“We do have a lot of good young players that maybe aren’t going to get the playing time that they deserve because of the fact that we have the veterans; they’re good, they’re very good,” said Merriman. “We’ve got a lot of pace on this team and people that have played together and fifth years and a lot going for them.”
Last year’s PacWest Player of the Year, Shun Takano, returns, and star outside midfielder Victor Blasco is back from injury. Captain Jeff Travis leads a reinforced back end including Ryan McCurdy out of the PDL and coach-turned-player Chris Merriman. Also, Jordan de Graaf returns to the M’s and high-scoring newcomer Stefan Cukovic is another addition.
Bill Merriman said the Mariners have the skill and depth to play different styles of soccer so they will be able to go with what’s working or make changes when necessary. No matter how the M’s play, though, sharing the ball will be key.
“We have such pace, if players don’t give [teammates] the ball when they need it, things are going to break down,” the coach said.
Miguel Banting, a fifth-year veteran, said the Mariners are focused on ball movement.
“With all the skill that we have this year – and we’ve really bolstered up our defence too – we’re going to be pretty fearless moving the ball, because we know we can get back and we’re very fit,” he said.
The Mariners rolled through a five-game pre-season undefeated, outscoring opponents 20-4. They know any team in the PacWest can present a challenge, though, so they’ll be ready on opening weekend.
“Physically, teams are really going to be on us, tackling our skilled players, getting under our skin, so it’s our responsibility to keep our heads and keep playing the way we play,” Banting said.
The Mariners have some long-term goals in mind, but in the meantime, there should be plenty of goals scored en route for any fans who wish to throw their support behind a championship contender.
“They’re going to see some great [soccer]. It’s going to be wide open and it’s going to be fun for them…” Bill Merriman said. “We have players on this team that younger players can aspire to be. They’re that good.”
Mariners women gaining confidence
Also starting PacWest play is VIU’s women’s soccer team under the guidance of new coach Kevin Lindo.
“We came in late, but I’m pretty happy with how we’ve prepared so far,” he said.
The M’s women were dominant in winning all three of their pre-season games by a combined score of 21-1; Lindo said the team won’t put too much stock in those results, but said the wins did build confidence.
He said he’s leaned on his veterans for leadership and they’ve responded, helping the Mariners become a tight-knit group off the pitch and get up to speed on the pitch.
“We have been playing with some new systems which is challenging both myself and the girls; we’re learning all the time,” Lindo said. “We don’t want to just go out and do one thing. We want to be able to adapt to our opponents.”
He said the Mariners will play attacking soccer that will be exciting to watch, and said the team has the personnel to be able to play with pace and power and finish scoring opportunities.
GAME ON … The Mariners host the Langara Falcons on Saturday (Sept. 9) and the Douglas Royals on Sunday at Merle Logan Field. The women’s matches are at noon both days followed by the men at 2:30 p.m. Admission is free.