GUELPH, Ont. (U Sports) – The UQAM Citadins men's soccer team will play for gold after upsetting the top-seeded host University of Guelph Gryphons 3-2 in a classic semifinal at the CIS championships Saturday afternoon at Alumni Stadium.
The RSEQ champions had a dream start with two early goals, but had to hang on against the desperate Gryphons, who were poised to write a historic chapter in their program's history on their home pitch.
Simon-Pierre Kounima scored twice for UQAM, including the match-winner in the 81st minute. The Citadins withstood an onslaught from the Gryphons and the fifth-year striker from Longueuil, Que. made sure of a chance that fell to him in the Guelph area, burying a high, hard shot into the top right corner of goalkeeper Ben Carinci's net.
"I just made sure I had enough power in it," an emotional Kounima said following his winning strike, tears streaming down his face.
UQAM will have a chance to win their first national championship when they meet the third-seeded University of Alberta Golden Bears, who advanced to Sunday's final with a 3-2 win over the Cape Breton University Capers earlier in the day.
"We have to win this, for Quebec," Kounima added.
The tournament was Guelph's first appearance in the CIS championships since 1992, their best finish coming in 1990, when they were silver medalists. Coach Keith Mason expects a return to come much quicker.
"We've been phenomenal all year," said Mason. "The spirit in the team is second to none, the quality. We're young, we're going to be good for years to come. Right now, this feels like a huge sledgehammer to the head but it will be a good learning experience for them. Next time they're at nationals, and this group will get back again, they'll learn from this moment."
"It was our goal to try and be the best in this nation all season long," said Guelph's captain and fifth-year star defender Justin Springer. "Going down two goals early, that was pretty heartbreaking but having the fire, the determination and the motivation to come back and make it 2-2 by the end of the first half was witness to the character of this team.
"It's definitely a season to remember. My five years here, we've never made it to nationals. Hopefully tomorrow, we regroup and come away with a bronze."
UQAM's First-Team All-Canadian goalkeeper Valentin Lamouile was tested often by the aggressive Gryphons and some of his key saves were critical in helping the undefeated Citadins (6-0-6 entering the tournament) to the gold medal match.
Kevin Jean-Michel Le Nours, UQAM's other First-Team All-Canadian, also scored for the Citadins, while Tomasz Skublak and Josh Seguin had Guelph's goals.
The second half initially lacked the excitement of the goal-filled opening 45 minutes but Guelph had good chances to pull ahead of UQAM. The Gryphons' best attempt came in the 66th minute when Skublak beat his man on the right and teed up Alexander Zis, but the rookie's unchallenged shot sailed over the bar.
Skublak was brought down by Lamouile just outside the area in the 70th minute, resulting in a yellow card for the All-Canadian. Zis almost found the top left corner with the ensuing free kick but Lamouile dove and made the crucial stop.
Lamouile then denied the dangerous Skublak again in the 79th minute, this time on a hard, low strike after the Guelph forward outpaced a defender.
It was a disastrous start for the host Gryphons, who found themselves down 2-0 within minutes of the opening whistle. Guelph turned the ball over in its own half and Carinci was forced into a key stop on a hard strike from Felipe Costa De Souza. The ensuing scramble in front of the net seemed to subside when Carinci gathered the ball, but the referee deemed the touch off of a Gryphons defender was a back-pass and awarded the Citadins a free kick on the line of the six-yard box. Le Nours buried the ball in the top right hand corner of Carinci's net in just the third minute.
"I'm not sure if that was a deliberate back-pass," said Mason. "It's a big call to make in the first minute and then you're chasing the game. Two-nil down, they showed the character and the spirit they've had all season."
UQAM kept applying pressure and made it 2-0 in the eighth minute. Second-year forward Alexis St-Hilaire produced a perfect cross in from the right flank, landing it at the feet of Kougnima, who cooly finished to shock the top seed and the Alumni Stadium crowd.
But Guelph found its way back into the match and tied the game 2-2 before halftime. It began with a much-needed quick response to Kougnima's goal. Skublak, a second-year Hamilton, Ont. native, fought in the area and headed a feed from Zis past Lamouile in the 11th minute to cut the deficit to one.
Skublak almost scored again later in the half, but his left-footed strike was carried out of bounds by Lamouile. Skublak motioned to the crowd to increase the volume and the resulting Gryphons throw-in resulted in the dramatic 38th-minute equalizer. The throw sailed into the area and Seguin headed the ball off of the crossbar and in behind Lamouile, who was furious with his defenders.
"The last two years, we had exactly the same scenario, up 2-0 in the semis," said Kougnima. "At halftime, the coach said, 'You have to find it within you and make sure this doesn't happen again.' There are a few of us here that lived that, so the second half, we just really tried to focus."
Mason knew his players had a tremendous opportunity at home. He expects them to be prepared for the bronze medal match versus the Cape Breton Sunday.
"It's disappointing but we would like to collect ourselves and get ready for tomorrow because we still have a U Sports medal on the line," he said.