Comeback kings fall short: Thunderbirds finish fourth at nationals after loss to TRU in penalties

After another Canada West battle with the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) Wolfpack on Sunday morning — this time for national bronze — the UBC Thunderbirds men's soccer team head home on the losing side of the draw, leaving the championships empty-handed after an unfortuitous 3-2 loss in penalty kicks.

As expected, it was a close one throughout the 90-minute game.

The ‘Birds seemed the likely suspect for scoring initially, as forward Kristian Yli-Hietanen caused some trouble for the Wolfpack back line from the get-go. His first shot, a header towards the right post, would be steered away by TRU keeper Allan Connor. Another Yli-Hietanen shot in the 21st minute would breeze just outside the post.

UBC striker Ryan Arthurr fights for the ball against TRU's Adam Swanson.
UBC striker Ryan Arthurr fights for the ball against TRU's Adam Swanson. Patrick Gillin

In the 23rd, the Wolfpack would finally break the stalemate. TRU striker Ryan Glanville — a UBC Thunderbirds alumni, having played with UBC from 2005 to 2007 — drove through the Thunderbirds back line on the counterattack and into the top of Chad Bush’s box. His shot would deflect through the legs of central defender Manraj Bains and bend just past Bush’s fingertips before finding the bottom right corner of the net.

Even though the ’Birds seemed the more likely team to get on the scoreboard, the Wolfpack would take advantage of the counterattack and gain the upper hand while also running the clock down, taking them into the intermission with the one-goal lead.

TRU would open the second half on the attack, with Glanville pressuring UBC’s defence. In the 61st minute, a breakaway from the striker would force the T-Birds to pull out all the defensive stops. Guilherme would be the first to face Glanville’s attack, stopping the initial shot at the top of the eighteen-yard box. Bush would smother the second attack on the play.

Just three minutes later, the former UBC player would place a through ball to fellow UBC alum Mitch Popadynetz who was sneaking between the Thunderbirds central defenders. Popadynetz and Bush would showdown at the top of the box, with Popadynetz coming out on top and finding the back of the net.

Thunderbird Kerman Pannu battles against Wolfpack midfielder Justin Donaldson.
Thunderbird Kerman Pannu battles against Wolfpack midfielder Justin Donaldson. Patrick Gillin

As usual, the ’Birds kept to their comeback ways, scoring two in the last 20 minutes to take them to a shoot out. The T-Birds would score their first in the 69th minute, with a penalty call going in their favour inside TRU’s box. Striker Kyle Sohi would step up to take for the ’Birds, blasting the ball into the bottom right corner of the net to narrow the Wolfpack’s lead to 2-1.

In the 82nd, UBC would get just inches away from evening up the score as a free kick was bent into the box from just outside the eighteen-yard box. Rookie defender Patrick Metcalfe would get a touch on the ball, but it would go just outside the right post with Ryan Arthur lurking for the rebound off the post.

The Thunderbirds’ momentum would even things up in the dying minutes of the match, again on a set piece. As has been the trend this season, a Zach Verhoven corner started the play in the 86th minute. The ball lofted over TRU’s defence and found the foot of Arthur at the back post. His low volley would find the back of the wide open net, equalizing the game and sending it to penalty kicks.

Their positive end to regular time would not continue into the shootout, as UBC would miss three of its penalties while TRU would convert three of their first four to hand the home side the bronze medal. For Thompson Rivers, it’s the men’s soccer program’s first win against UBC and their first U Sports medal.

UBC keeper Chad Bush watches a penalty kick go past him and into the net.
UBC keeper Chad Bush watches a penalty kick go past him and into the net. Patrick Gillin

With that, the ’Birds end their season with a fourth place finish at the national level and with a Canada West title under their belt. Even though they head home without any U Sports hardware, it was a strong showing for the young ’Birds side throughout the last half of the game.

“We’re definitely really proud of the guys for stepping up in the second half — I thought it was mostly us in terms of possession and in terms of chances,” team captain Karn Phagura said. “It’s been the story our whole season: showing the fight to get back to 2-2 and ... penalties is pretty much a toss-up, so definitely proud of the guys.”

The captain also praised some of the team’s veteran players for their performance in the match.

“Our striker Ryan [Arthur], he put in a shift definitely, he did really well ... Kyle [Sohi] had a good game as well ... everybody put in a good work rate.”

Though they faced a tough loss this afternoon, the ’Birds will look to bounce back next season as they are set to host the nationals tournament at Thunderbird Stadium. A young side, the T-Birds have the luxury of keeping most of the 2017/18 roster intact, and using this year’s tournament as a learning experience.

For UBC head coach Mike Mosher, that will be the biggest takeaway this year.

“I think we questioned the character of this group right from the beginning and I think with all the big wins, the dramatic wins, the comebacks over the last couple of weeks, they came a long way,” Mosher said of his team post-semifinal on Friday. “They found out how to grind and battle in Canada West and get results. So I think that’s maybe the biggest learning opportunity for the year, is just the grind that is Canada West and coming to play every single game, double-headers every weekend.”