Most of the best U16 soccer players on the North Shore will be united this week in an effort to win a national championship.
Nine North Shore players will suit up for Mountain United’s U16 squad at the Canada Soccer Sport Chek National Championships running Oct. 5-10 in Lethbridge, Alta.
“There is a lot of talent in this team,” said head coach Daniel Fairhurst. “It’s a good passing team. I like the style of the boys, a lot of explosive power in the attacking players as well. A lot of creative attacking happens, so hopefully we can continue that in the nationals.”
Longtime North Shore soccer nut Wayne Shaw won’t be making the trip over the mountains to Lethbridge but he will be watching the results very closely. Shaw coached the boys for two years in the EA Sports BC Soccer Premier League, ending his run with the team when they won the Provincial Premier Cup in late June.
The U16s, part of the North Shore/Burnaby-based elite soccer club Mountain United, finished second in regular season play last season, their only two losses coming against Surrey-based Coastal FC. Not surprisingly, the two teams met in the Provincial Premier Cup final June 25 in Kelowna.
“(Coastal) had a very strong team in athleticism and speed – power, size,” said Shaw, who was the head coach for the provincial tournament. “I always thought our strength was our technical skills, and so when we got to the finals to play them we were looking forward to it because we always felt that given the style of play that we had and the big field, we always felt we could beat them. We had some close games with them, we lost due to breakdowns.”
The final turned midway through the first half when a Coastal player brought down a Mountain striker in the box, earning a straight red card and giving MUFC a penalty shot. Mountain knocked in the goal, and then with a numerical advantage never looked back. The lead was 3-0 by halftime, 4-0 at the final whistle.
“I think our technical skills and abilities outplayed their athleticism in the final,” said Shaw, adding that Mountain United won despite missing four key players due to injury. “We had a lot of depth. This team was stacked. … Four players came out, and the four players who came in were as good or stronger.”
That win, however, was the end of the road for Shaw, who is also a teacher at Argyle secondary. Shaw had told the Mountain United technical director that he’d be retiring after the provincial championships and he kept his word, even though the win earned the team a ticket to the national championships. Fairhurst, who moved to Canada from England in May, had already signed on to coach the team this fall following Shaw’s retirement.
“It was the right time for me to step down,” Shaw said, adding with a laugh that it was nice to go out on a high note. “That was the idea. I guess I could have stayed around another few more months and gone to the nationals, but I just thought it would have been a bit of an awkward situation having two coaches coach the team.”
The team looks a little different than it did in June, and not only because there’s a new coach. Jack Ruby, Gurman Sangha and Nikolas Papakyriakopoulous – three key players of the championship squad – signed on with the Whitecaps FC residency program over the summer, eliminating them from the Mountain United player pool for nationals. The team did get one player coming back the other way as North Van’s Devin O’Hea left the Whitecaps to rejoin Mountain as the team’s captain, but he can’t go to nationals either because he wasn’t on the roster in time.
There’s still, however, plenty of talent left, according to both the old and new coaches.
“There’s still a good group of lads, they’ve still got some leaders among them,” said Fairhurst.
Leading the way is goalkeeper Sam Boppart out of the West Vancouver Soccer Club system.
“He was sensational last year,” said Shaw. “He probably let in six goals throughout the season, and he had a clean sheet in the last three games, including the semis and final.”
Miles Gailunas, a North Van FC product, who is the only underage player on the squad, will join with Langley’s Alasdair Coyle to form the engine in central midfield.
“He’s probably one of the best playmakers, as is Alasdair, on that team,” said Shaw. “They’re very fortunate to have those two players in the midfield.”
Alex Wallace, another North Van FC player, will be leading the charge up front. “He’s a big target player with a lot of skill, very mobile,” said Shaw. “He was a huge difference in the attack for Mountain last year.”
Joining Wallace up front will be Stuart Loop, a Squamish native who played in the West Van system. “Not a big player, but a big heart,” Shaw said.
Other North Shore players include NVFC’s Patrick Ainge and Dumars Graham and West Van’s River Dennehy and Jamie Marshall.
The players all contribute to an attractive style of play, said Fairhurst.
“We like to play passing football, try to break other teams down with quick combination play,” he said. “We like to play up from the back when we can, keep possession of the ball, control the game and attack quickly when it’s on.”
At nationals the Mountain boys will be in a pool with Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Only the top team will get to go for gold, advancing directly into the championship final. If tradition holds, Alberta and British Columbia would likely be the two teams vying for that top spot.
“I believe we stand a good chance of making the final,” said Fairhurst. “If we can get a good result against (Alberta), I’d like to make it into the finals.”
Shaw, meanwhile, will be following at home, although his attention will be divided – his 15-year-old daughter Caitlin is an underage player playing up with Team Canada as they compete in the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. Canada opened play with a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Cameroon on Friday. Shaw no doubt will have his heart in the Middle East, but he’ll be keeping an eye on the Prairie West as well.
“They have an incredible opportunity to win nationals and it’s pretty exciting,” he said of the Mountain United squad. “I’m obviously 100 per cent behind them and want to see them have success. … I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they win it all.”