Asked where his St. John’s under-18 side ranks among the teams who have represented the province at past national soccer championships, John Breen insists they’ll be among best.
“(But) I don’t know if they could compete with our team that won it back in 1974,” Breen teases. “That was one of the finest teams I ever played on.”
Regardless of how this team compares to the ‘74 squad that captured the second of the province’s three national titles (MUN won a national university championship in 1971 and Holy Cross, with Breen as a player won the 1988 senior men’s title), the veteran coach is confident his charges “can come close and compete at that level” this week as they host the Sony national boys’ under-18 soccer championship in Mount Pearl and St. John’s.
“All the work is paying off for them,” says Breen, who has coached many of his players since under-14. “Most have been at nationals, be it under-14, under-16, club level or at all-star level. So they’ve got a lot of good competition under their belts.”
St. John’s is not alone as an entry from this province in the tournament this week. With the Yukon entering a team and the Canadian Soccer Association requiring an even number of teams for nationals, Western Newfoundland also gained a berth. The team, coached by Phil Ezekiel, finished second to St. John’s in the provincials this year.
This week, Western and St. John’s will play in a division with Saskatchewan and Alberta.
St. John’s finished in sixth place in Edmonton last year, but Breen insists they “weren’t too far out of the mix.”
The team began the 2009 tourney with a loss to Alberta, then defeated Nova Scotia and followed that up with a 4-1 loss to New Brunswick, a result that really hurt.
“We had that many chances and just couldn’t finish,” Breen recounts of a game he feels should have been theirs.
The next day, the squad blanked a Prince Edward Island side which ended up finishing in third place.
“It just goes to show that we could have been a bronze medal team,” says team captain Michael Dunne. “If we had played our best, we probably would have had it.”
Team training began in November and the team — which competed in, and won, the intermediate league last season — entered into the Challenge Cup senior men’s league on an exhibition basis. The team played 18 games, finishing 4-12-2, just behind Conception Bay in standings.
“If you speak to each of the coaches in the league, they’ll tell you these guy were in the game with their teams,” says Breen.
“The immaturity in their game and the experience they have at that level is where they broke down at times, but there were games they had in hand and were doing quite well.”
Dunne says lining up against the best St. Lawrence, Feildians and Holy Cross had to offer helped them realize their defensive shortcomings.
“It’s not just all attack. It made us more aware that teams are going to come at us, bigger and better teams, and these teams from away will probably be just as good as anyone in Challenge Cup, so we’ve got to be on top of our game.”
Breen feels with more than a dozen players back from last year’s roster, a training program aimed at addressing the few defensive elements they were missing, and the experience playing against bigger, stronger, faster opponents in Challenge Cup, will help them get the job done.
“I’m hoping everything they’ve learned over the past couple of years, and certainly this year, will come together for them.
And playing in front of a hometown crowd — “your 12th player on the pitch,” Breen says — always helps.
“For a lot of these guys, it’s their last kick at the cat for a youth championship, so to play for it at home is something to treasure.”
St. John’s Under-18s
Kyle Bonia, Michael Brushett, Aaron Buckingham, Alex Calon, Nick Chretien, Conor Daly, Michael Dunne, David Hickey, Neil Houston, Steven Johnson, Hassan Kamara, Chris Lowe, Colin Parsons, Greg Reid, Daniel Rowe, Stephan Ryan, James Seifert, Taylor Smith, Andrew Smith.
Western NEWFOUNDLAND Under-18s
Brandon Ezekiel, Brien Pattenden, Lyle Griffin, Daniel Smith, Eddy Traverse, Brandon Miller, Riley Cook, Greg Myrden, Matthew Carew, Cory Jones, Joey Companion, Zack Scott, Brandon Wall, Mitchell Rose, Nick Delaney, Robert Buggie, William Seaward, Evan Fequet, Ryan Doody.
9 a.m. — Ontario vs Yukon at Mount Pearl
9 a.m. — B.C. vs Nova Scotia at Mount Pearl
11 — P.E.I. vs New Brunswick at Mount Pearl
1 p.m. — Quebec vs Manitoba at Mount Pearl
3 p.m. — Alta. vs W. Newfoundland at Mount Pearl
6 p.m. — Opening ceremonies at Mount Pearl
7:30 p.m. — St. John’s vs Sask. at Mount Pearl
9 a.m. — Ontario vs Nova Scotia at Mount Pearl
9 a.m. — British Columbia vs Yukon at Mount Pearl
11 a.m. — P.E.I. vs Manitoba at Mount Pearl
1 p.m. — Quebec vs N.B. at Mount Pearl
6 p.m. — Alberta vs Saskatchewan at Mount Pearl
6 p.m. — St. John’s vs W. Newfoundland at KGV
Rest Day — No games
9 a.m. — Ontario vs B.C. at Mount Pearl
9 a.m. — Nova Scotia vs Yukon at Mount Pearl
11 a.m. — P.E.I. vs Quebec at Mount Pearl
1 p.m. — Manitoba vs N.B. at Mount Pearl
2 p.m. — Alberta vs St. John’s at KGV
5 p.m. — Sask. vs W. Newfoundland at Mount Pearl
Six playoff games between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at Mount Pearl
Placing games between 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. The Championship game will be played at 11 a.m. at Mount Pearl