Ali Lee

VICTORIA – The Alberta Golden Bears used a strong counter-attack and excellent attacking speed to defeat the OUA finalist Toronto Varsity Blues 2-1 in the second quarter-final match at the 2011 CIS men’s soccer national championship at Centennial Stadium in Victoria on Thursday afternoon.

A two-goal effort from Alberta’s Milan Timotijevic pushed the Golden Bears into the semifinals where they will face the Saint Mary’s Huskies. Toronto’s lone goal came from Mario Kovacevic of Woodbridge, Ont., who scored in the 90th minute to pull the Blues within one goal.

The Varsity Blues, the 2010 fourth-place team at nationals, tested Alberta goalkeeper Jay Vetsch of Edmonton early and often in the opening half of the match, but the netminder made seven saves for the win to lift Alberta to its first semifinal appearance since 2006 when they won the national title with a 1-0 win over Trinity Western.

“I am ecstatic just to get this win in the first game of the CIS Nationals,” Vetsch said. “It’s just a huge win for us to beat Toronto. It’s a great feeling when we were down early in the game to step up and score two goals. It was great.”

Alberta won despite being outshot 20-14 and outplayed in terms of ball possession.

“Our counter-attack was there,” said veteran head coach Len Vickery, in his 27th season at Alberta. “But I would have liked to have seen us finish better. We had a lot of chances we did not knock in. In the semifinals and to progress further we know we can play better and turn those chances into a few more goals.”

Toronto’s Kovacevic and James Greatorex of London, UK, were key pieces to the early offence tallying five of the Blues’ eight opening half shots.

After fending off several opportunities, the Golden Bears were the first to get on the board on their first shot of the match in the 21st minute of play. Timotijevic of Calgary capitalized off a Blues turnover. The ball fell to fellow Calgarian Andrew Hood who threaded the ball through to his teammate to give the Bears the 1-0 lead. Timotijevic’s blast went high in the corner past a helpless Blues keeper John Smits, a senior from Mississauga, Ont.

Smits was steady in net following the Bears’ go-ahead goal. In the 42nd minute, he made a spectacular save, sliding out on a one-on-one chance with Hood to keep the score at 1-0 into the break.

The second half saw a continuation of the first half’s competitiveness and physicality with both Toronto and Alberta. In the 53rd minute of the game, Alberta’s Marcus Johnstone of Edmonton broke free for a long run up the middle of the pitch in what looked promising for a two-goal advancing opportunity. An impressive and timely sliding tackle from chasing Toronto defenders kept Johnstone off the scoreboard

Two minutes later, Alberta’s speed seemed to give the Toronto backline some trouble with Jermele Campbell of Edmonton almost slotting one in high on the left side.

Following a free kick into the Alberta box, Vetsch came out to play the ball but after receiving some contact was unable to handle the ball. A scramble in the boxwith Vetsch out of position gave Kovacevic an open net opportunity but the Golden Bears’ defence was able to recover and block the attempt.

In the 63rd minute, Toronto striker Kovacevic tested Vetsch again following a tricky back heel move around the Alberta defence but his shot would travel wide.

Toronto maintained a good majority of second-half possession and exhibited desperate and almost frustrating efforts after failure to capitalize on a number of golden opportunities. Golden Bears’ Vetsch continued to stymie any shot on net while third-year Osmo Bimba of Edmonton and freshman Tyrin Hutchings of Calgary anchored the back-line.

“Osmo had a strong game for us,” Vickery said. “Before the game he had a few jitters, but the guys started to settle down and we started to get ourselves sorted and held off Toronto’s pressure.”

In the 72nd minute, a handball in Toronto’s box allowed Timotijevic to get his second goal of the match on a kick from the penalty spot to give the GoldenBears a 2-0 lead.

Nearly 10 minutes later, Toronto’s Scott Nesbitt of Scarborough, Ont., would haul down an Alberta attacker and give Cameron Schmidt of Edmonton the second kick from the penalty spot in the match. But this time, Smits made the save on the shot that was low and straight up the pipe.

Both goalkeepers had strong performances, but Vetch’s rebound control allowed the Golden Bears to remain perfect at Centennial Stadium – with a 3-0-1 record now – this season

“We brought in a sub to have five in the back late in the game as they were pouring on the pressure and had basically everyone up,” Vetsch said. “The guys did a good job, we just tried to clear the ball out and do our best to keep it away. The central defence did a very good job playing off each other. Osmo and Tyrin communicate very well at the back.”

Vetsch said they are poised for a big game against Saint Mary’s.

“We have to just keep doing what we’ve been doing and focus on doing what we need to do to be successful,” Vetsch said. “We have to keep our shape at the back and make our (scoring) opportunities count.”

“We look forward to winning in the next game and play like we did today – more like the second half and just capitalize on our opportunities and I think we will be fine.”