Four years after UBC tried to sign Niall Cousens to the men’s soccer program, the strapping striker is finally a Thunderbird and started the season for the defending CIS national champions with two goals in two outings.
“It was nice to see Niall slot in and combine well with the group,” said Tbirds head coach Mike Mosher after UBC defeated SFU 3-0 Sunday in a non-conference game at Terry Fox Field in Burnaby. “We’ve got some nice attacking pieces. It's a huge win against a good opponent and that's a major positive for this group going forward.”
Cousens, 22, was born in Calgary but raised and homeschooled in Vancouver. He graduated in 2009 and when Mosher contacted him at the time, the six-foot-four right-footer said his ambitions were farther afield.
“I was focused on playing professionally in Europe and he was very supportive and told me to keep UBC’s program in mind if anything changed,” said Cousens.
He played the next three seasons in the Czech Republic with Slavia Prague until his contract ended in July last year and when an invitation to play in Germany didn’t pan out, he returned to Canada in search of opportunities closer to home.
“I trained with the Vancouver Whitecaps for a couple weeks in January and February of this year but nothing came of it. With that door temporarily closed, I looked to UBC,” he said. “I had followed the team's season where they went unbeaten and became national champions. The prospect of playing quality soccer at home while preparing and studying for life after soccer was an easy decision.”
Cousens, suddenly a rookie at an age when many varsity athletes are in their graduate year, brings international experience, including four games with the men’s national U23 team, that should prove an asset to his teammates. Soccer’s European cultural saturation and professional development isn’t equaled in Canada, said Cousens, but the sport is growing rapidly nonetheless.
“Hopefully my experience as an older rookie will benefit the team. I've definitely been helped by older players in my career and I will try and do the same with the younger players on UBC,” he said.
Mosher said Cousens joins the roster as a "bigger, stronger more mature student-athlete."
"With the academic standards at UBC, [student-athletes] need to have the whole package: be good students and good athletes. That was cetiny the initial attraction," said Mosher. Today Cousens isn't just big, he also has a presence and one that will play an important role following a roster change in the off-season.
"What you see it what you get," Mosher said of Cousens. "There are not many six-four strikers around who are big, strong guys. He’s got excellent feet for a big man, his first touch is good and he’s a real threat to score goals in he air as well. Those big, strong target men are rare to find at many levels."
Cousens will slip into the front line just as Gagan Dosanjh leaves it. The 2012 CIS MVP and Canada West player of the year wrapped up his university career after three years to sign with Edmonton FC.
Mosher said the timing of Cousens's arrival was fortuitous.
"We didn’t know for sure that Gagan was leaving until July when Niall was already committed to coming here. We're definitely fortunate that we've got a player of Nialls’s standard and calibre to step right in. He definitely fills a void with Gagan’s deprature because players like Gagan are pretty tough to replace."
“It's never easy when a team loses a player like Gagan,” said Cousens. “He's an incredible player that has done a lot for UBC and I wish him all the best in Edmonton. As a striker, I have my own personal goals and will focus on my own style of play and how that fits in with the team. My only concern is performing well for UBC and working towards another national championship.”
The Thunderbirds travel to Victoria to play the UVic Vikes Friday. Their next home game is 2 p.m. Sept. 8 at Thunderbird Stadium when they host the Fraser Valley Cascades.
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