Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – As far as debuts go, things couldn't have gone much better for Kapri (Marcus) Simmons.
Making the first start of his Canada West career, the electric Edmontonian sent a 40-yard cross-field looping pass to spring Stefan Gajic for the game-winning goal in the 58th minute as the MacEwan Griffins knocked off the visiting Mount Royal University Cougars 2-1 on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Clareview Field.
"Me and Stefan have been playing together for a while (at FC Edmonton Academy). When I saw him open I knew he has the technique to get to the ball, so I just played it," said Simmons.
Gajic, who simply chipped it over challenging MRU keeper Kyran Valley and into the yawning cage for the second goal of this, his rookie season, added: "I saw some space on the left side. I looked at Marcus – we made some eye contact – and he played it over the defender. I went in, I saw the keeper coming out and I decided to chip it and go for it. I guess it worked out."
Simmons had even more game than just one play, though, as he was constantly a thorn in MRU's side. He headed in what looked like the go-ahead goal late in the first half, but it was waved off on an offside call. He also nearly scored an insurance marker later in the second half on a bullet to the top right corner, but Valley dove flat out to get a hand on it and tip it off the bar – his best of three saves on the afternoon.
"It would have been nice to have Marcus from the get-go, but he came in today and was an impact player for us," said Griffins head coach Adam Loga. "It shows why we recruited him and brought him in. He's a great player."
Christian Hernandez also scored for the Griffins in the 38th minute, while Tysen Chatani replied for MRU in the 41st.
MRU outshot MacEwan 16-8 and 10-5 in shots on goal, also dominating the corner kick count 6-1. But outside of an early run of possession in favour of the Cougars, the game was a back-and-forth affair on a wet turf field under a slate of constant drizzle.
"With the slick surface, we played much too hectic compared to what we try to play and we resorted to longer balls," said Cougars head coach Ryan Gyaki. "We had rhythm for 20-30 minutes in the first half. We looked comfortable. MacEwan adjusted. Then it became a game of inches."
MRU nearly scored in the opening minute – something of an Achilles' heel for the Griffins this season – when Branden Canejo had an open run on the right side, but diving MacEwan keeper Seth Johnstone got a foot on it.
In the 18th minute, Moe El Gandour, whose left-side attack gave MacEwan fits all day, deked past Johnstone, but couldn't beat defender Michael Ho, who jumped on the line and parried it away with a boot.
Looking utterly disorganized, the Griffins went to the bench in the 29th minute for three substitutions in the span of three minutes. In came Malcolm Stafford, Enzo Squicciarini-Moneny and Gajic. It made all the difference in the world.
"That's the luxury we have this year that we haven't had in the past," said Loga. "When things aren't going well, we have the depth to plug guys in and they're on a bit shorter of a leash. So, if it's not working, we don't have the time to wait and see how it plays out. We can just make the changes right away.
"They came in and made a difference right away."
After a free kick sent the ball bouncing around in the box, MacEwan's Alexander Mosca put a header off the crossbar and the ball fell at Hernandez's feet for the game's opening goal in the 38th minute.
MRU wasted little time in answering, though, tying the contest in the 41st when a free kick of their own from the left side ping-ponged off a couple bodies in front and Chatani sent it home.
Following Gajic's goal, the Griffins weathered a storm from the Cougars. Johnstone was solid in making eight saves, including a fingertip stop off a blast from El Gandour that careened off the bar and bounded over the net.
"I think MacEwan was well organized and worked hard and definitely came out to play," said Gyaki. "Both teams did. It was an entertaining game. When it's close and you don't bury your chances and the other team does … simple math."
With the result, MacEwan improves to 2-2-0, while MRU is now 2-1-0. The Cougars will stay in Edmonton to play Alberta on Sunday (2 p.m., Foote Field), while the Griffins will host Calgary (3:30 p.m., Clarke Stadium).
"We're starting to learn how to close out games and win," said Loga. "Last weekend we couldn't find a way against U of S, but we found a way today. It shows improvement, it shows that we're learning and it shows we're getting better."