GUELPH, Ont. (U Sports) – The University of Alberta Golden Bears men's soccer team will have a chance to win its first national title in a decade. The third-seeded Golden Bears defeated the 10-man Cape Breton University Capers 2-1 in the first of two CIS soccer semifinals on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Alumni Stadium in Guelph.
The match-winner came from a familiar source. Ajeej Sarkaria, the Canada West Player of the Year and a First-Team All Canadian, who scored 19 of Alberta's 41 goals heading into the tournament, buried a shot in the 38th minute to complete a comeback win for the Canada West champions
The Golden Bears, who last won a CIS championship in 2006, advance to the championship match Sunday at 2:00 p.m. to face the winner of the second semifinal between the UQAM Citadins and the University of Guelph Gryphons.
"We had high expectations coming into this season," said Sarkaria, an Edmonton, Alta., native in his first year of university soccer. "Since August, we've been working hard every day. To be in this position, to get ourselves here, it means a lot. And we have to perform tomorrow."
Fourth-year engineering student and Calgary native Tolu Esan also scored for the Golden Bears, while Caelann Budhoo, a rookie from Winnipeg had the lone goal for second-seeded Cape Breton.
Trailing 2-1 after Sarkaria's goal late in the first half, the Capers attacked desperately early in the second, producing several chances and forcing the Golden Bears to stay alert in the area. But the match turned quickly in Alberta's favour. Cape Breton goalkeeper Jamie Wilson made a critical save on a hard strike from Sebastian Crema on a Golden Bears counter attack.
Moments later, the Capers went down to 10 men, when defender Peter Schaale picked up a red card for a harsh tackle on Esan, who was sent in alone and brought down just outside the box. Schaaale will miss Sunday's bronze medal match.
Despite being reduced to 10 men, Cape Breton pressed and came close to tying the match in the 83rd minute. Stuart Heath smashed a shot from about 12 yards out that forced Alberta goalkeeper Connor James into a critical two-handed save. Marcus Campanile then headed a ball past James but it hit the crossbar.
The attacks continued into injury time before the final whistle went and some of the exhausted Cape Breton players collapsed on the pitch.
"I'm very proud of the boys in the way reacted to going down to 10 men," said Cape Breton coach Deano Morley. "We stayed organized and we created chance after chance. We were unfortunate not to get one."
The Golden Bears were aware that there was work to do despite having the lead an extra man.
"We spoke beforehand and knew that Cape Breton was a resilient team and would keep fighting until the end," said Sarkaria. "We had to be able to withstand that pressure. They got the goal early but we stuck with it, got two ourselves and held on like we have been doing all season."
Alberta was the more adventurous of the two sides early and almost grabbed an early lead in the sixth minute from a corner. The ball bounced around in the area and was chested towards the net but Wilson secured it to end the threat.
The match opened up from there. Cape Breton went ahead on an 11th minute goal from Budhoo, who was able to get on the end of a bouncing ball around the six-yard box and put it past James.
The Golden Bears found the equalizer almost immediately. Esan took the ball well near the top of the 18-yard box in the 15th minute and slotted a right-footed strike just inside the right post beyond the hands of a diving Wilson.
"We decided to gamble early," said Morley. "We put pressure on the two centre backs and we wanted to come out in the first 20 minutes and put balls behind them. We got our goal.
"We had a breakdown in the middle of the six, we missed the ball and it landed at the boy's foot and it's gone in the back of the net, which killed the momentum we had created."
Sarkaria put the Canada West champions ahead 2-1 in the 38th minute. Wilson made an initial save on an attack from the right touch line but the keeper redirected the ball to his right, where Sarkaria was left alone to wrap his right foot around a high ball and into the back of the net.
"We've given away a soft goal but for the rest of the game, we've come on really well," said Morley. "We've got a young group here, a lot of experience now and we're going to try win that bronze medal."
ALB: 2-0: 2
CBU: 1-0: 1
1. CBU Caelann Budhoo (1), 11:09
2. ALB Tolu Esan (1), 13:36
3. ALB Ajeej Sarkaria (1), 38:09
ALB: Connor James (W 1 GA, 7 saves, 90:00, 2-0)
CBU: Jamie Wilson (L 2 GA, 7 saves, 90:00, 1-1)
Shots: ALB 10, CBU 11
Shots on net: ALB 8, CBU 9
Corners: ALB 4, CBU 11
Offsides: ALB 1, CBU 2
Fouls: ALB 0, CBU 0
Yellow cards: ALB Noah Cunningham (38:09), ALB Cameron Sjerve (79:54)
Red cards: CBU Peter Schaale (63:06)
Players of the game:
ALB: Tolu Esan
CBU: Cory Bent