The Canadian Premier League’s draft of Canadian university soccer players was right on-brand. It was bespoke, with rules seen nowhere else which neither players nor teams will quite figure out for a year or two. The players chosen were a mix of prospects and full-grown veterans looking for the spotlight, with a handful of intriguing second-chancers mixed in. Inevitably most players picked won’t amount to much but there are flashes of quality and the draft looks set to do what it’s meant to: give overlooked or discarded Canadians a fair shot at professional soccer.
Since there were no standings to base a draft order on, they picked one randomly and used a “serpentine draft” familiar to any fantasy player, where the team that picked seventh in round one would pick first in round two and so on. Not that this draft is going to be anybody’s prime way to stock his team. There were only three rounds. According to the league’s release, players in U-Sports, the top level of university sport in Canada, are eligible for the draft regardless of age or years served. Being drafted essentially amounts to a trial, and the drafting team may offer the player either a developmental contract (if he has university eligibility left) or a standard first-team contract (if he has none).
The draft itself was clearly explained, it’s everything around it that we don’t know. What is the motivation for drafting players who’ve used up all five years of university eligibility? They’re out of school, they have nothing left to protect, they are in principle free agents. Drafting graduated players is explicitly provided for by the rules and was positively mentioned by commissioner David Clanachan, so there is probably a puzzle piece we’re missing. What is the Canadian Premier League equivalent of the MLS “discovery process?” Are undrafted U-Sports seniors just out of luck, or could clubs still bring them in? Because at face value the only reason to draft a senior is because you think someone else will draft him later, and as we’ll see there were cases this year where that looked very unlikely.
Then there is the ability for players to return to school after playing a year of CanPL; in fact, given that U-Sports fixtures take priority over CanPL ones1, you might even say university players will be on loan to the Canadian Premier League. This is a bit undignified but good for the players. Canadian universities have always had much looser rules about amateurism than the American NCAA division one: there are men who actually go play professional soccer and come back to compete in U-Sports with, at worst, a few years of eligibility burned off. Players can try to make it in professional soccer with low risk: they are literally still in school. And players who leave their CanPL teams and return to university play will be entered back into the draft, should they so choose.
Probably related is the geographic bias in selection. Some leagues have formal rules about this. In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, for example, players are asked to list which areas they’d be willing to play in when they declare for the draft. It’s not a coincidence that les Canadiennes de Montréal just drafted players named Genevieve Bannon, Caroline Daoust, Marie-Joëlle Allard, and Caroll-Ann Gagné. In a league where pay is extremely marginal2 this is a common-sense way to humanely, and cheaply, keep players in the game.
CanPL hasn’t documented anything similar but there are hints that the team sounded out players they were interested in. A majority were from the region the team represents, or went to school in the region, or both. Even among those who weren’t, there could be similar factors: Joel Waterman both lives and goes to school in the Lower Mainland and was drafted by Cavalry, but played PDL in Calgary this past summer. Another Cavalry pick, University of Alberta forward Easton Ongaro, is from Edmonton, which is an easier commute than North Vancouver to Langford. Players expected to sound out European options, like Caleb Clarke, were not selected.
The process is of interest, but so are the players themselves. The 21 selected represents a little cross-section of U-Sports athletics: ex-pros, late-bloomers, Academy players who never got a professional look, former youth internationals who couldn’t make the final step, and players who were in the wrong place at the wrong time to get onto Canada’s elite development pathways. Approaches varied from FC Edmonton pretty much drafting its own guys to Cavalry picking from three different schools, none of which was the University of Calgary. Each of these players deserves a comment, and this article will give it, together with the players’ most recent statistics from the 2018 club and university seasons3.
Later on I’ll take a deep dive into two teams whose draftees I know a bit more about: Pacific FC and FC Edmonton. But until then this article—some 8,000 words, altogether—should provide detail enough.
|Round 1||Round 2||Round 3|
|1. Cavalry: FW Gabriel Bitar||8. Edmonton: FW Ajeej Sarkaria||15. Cavalry: FW Easton Ongaro|
|2. Valour: MF Dylan Carreiro||9. Pacific: FW Zach Verhoven||16. Valour: MF Jack Simpson|
|3. Forge: FW Jace Kotsopoulos||10. Wanderers: DF Andre Bona||17. Forge: MF Marko Mandekic|
|4. York: DF Daniel Gogarty||11. York: MF Emmanuel Zambazis||18. York: DF Daniel Pritchard|
|5. Wanderers: DF Peter Schaale||12. Forge: MF Aboubacar Sissoko||19. Wanderers: GK Christian Oxner|
|6. Pacific: MF Thomas Gardner||13. Valour: DF Lewis White||20. Pacific: MF Nick Fussell|
|7. Edmonton: GK Connor James||14. Cavalry: MF Joel Waterman||21. Edmonton: DF Noah Cunningham|
1st Overall, Cavalry FC: FW Gabriel Bitar (Carleton University)
Picking first overall, go get a goalscorer. If he’s been rising like a rocket, so much the better.
As a kid, Gabriel Bitar spent time in the Ottawa Fury academy and got a cup of orange drink at a national U-18 identification camp but wasn’t among the elite in his age group. Then, in his first year of university play he was Rookie of the Year, the nation’s leading goalscorer, and a first-team All-Canadian. His sophomore “slump” was coming in and out of the lineup until October with what looks like injury but, once he was back full-time, it was straight to orbit: nine goals in six games between October 3 and November 2, then a four-goal performance in three games at nationals to help the Ravens take bronze. He reached a goal-per-game pace for the second year running, and did it with neither smoke nor mirrors: he led Ontario in both shots directed and shots on goal by a healthy margin, converting a modest 35.1% of his shots on target into goals. Toronto FC took a look at him a few months back and didn’t bite but what do they know? It is absolutely all good.
Bitar is obviously worth picking, but his case as number one is not crystal clear. Dylan Matthias, who seems well-informed, predicted Peter Schaale with Bitar falling to number five. Among players taken, Bitar scored fewer goals per 90 minutes than Kotsopoulos and about as many as Ongaro, which if you remember Zach Verhoven is a winger and Ajeej Sarkaria isn’t an out-and-out striker, puts the three drafted finishers pretty much on a level. Among undrafted players it wouldn’t be fair to compare Bitar to the Carabins’ Frédéric Lajoie-Gravelle, a 25-year-old former professional, but he was also outscored by StFX star Dan Hayfield. Tommy Wheeldon coached Dan Hayfield last year at Calgary Foothills. Probably he knows something we don’t, but then again Bitar didn’t play meaningful club soccer in 2018 at all4.
The guys who watch U-Sports full-time liked Bitar but didn’t love him. He was second-team All-Canadian this past year, when all-Canadian teams have three forwards. The lack of minutes early in the season must have hurt, and everyone is learning how to scout these players. If there’s no clear red flag in the statistics then sure, coach, take the guy you just like more. Tommy Wheeldon knows the university game, has recruited its players for years, and just won a championship with them. Moreover, Bitar is entering his third year, one of the younger players selected, and else being equal it’s probably better taking the younger man. Then you examine the numbers more deeply, showing Ongaro and Kotsopoulos both to be seldom-shooting “poachers” that might struggle to match Bitar’s rampant chance creation as a professional, and the first overall pick looks even wiser.
Bitar’s can’t prove anything at Carleton he hasn’t proven already. This is just the sort of young man CanPL is meant for, and while you might prefer one or two other players Cavalry looks like they plucked a good one. The closer you look at Gabriel Bitar, the more you admire the choice. I’ve taken the Bitar pill.
2nd Overall, Valour FC: MF Dylan Carreiro (York University)
Statistics in italics are estimated.
Carreiro was also on the books of Vaughan Azzurri in League1 Ontario for 2018, but made no regular season appearances and only one in the playoffs.
Nobody in this draft can really be called a “big name” but Dylan Carreiro is the closest it gets. A Canadian U-20 and U-23 international, Carreiro started with Toronto FC’s Academy but moved to Queen’s Park Rangers at the same time as current Montreal Impact fullback Michael Petrasso. Twice called up to senior national team camps, but never capped, Carreiro eventually signed with Dundee of the Scottish Premiership and made three league appearances, plus 18 more on loan to Arbroath of the Scottish League Two (their fourth division). He never established himself and was released at the end of 2015, migrating back to Canada and a few years with League1 Ontario’s Woodbridge Strikers.
His talents were respected, but it’s been a few years since he’s done anything headline-worthy. At age 23 Carreiro would, in a pre-CanPL era, have nothing in soccer to look forward to in soccer but Ontario all-star games. Wisely did he go to York University, home of a first-rate soccer program and an equally-good academically: Carreiro is majoring in business and Schulich School of Business is one of the top-ranked in Canada. He could make a pretty good living if he does his (literal) homework. But soccer dreams never die, do they? His play at York has not been astonishing, he was a second-team Ontario all-star in 2017 and has mostly been distinguished by versatility (he’s played a great deal of forward with the Lions) and all-round competence. Still, on pedigree alone, he deserves a look.
Now he’ll get it, as his hometown Valour have spent the second overall pick to bring him in. He’s a reclamation project, somebody who never achieved the heights of which he was capable, but had no serious domestic soccer pyramid to raise him up. Watching him with Canada, I always had a sneaking regard for him: never a standout, he still did a lot of the right things, never embarrassed himself, and marshaled the centre of the park effectively. Second overall might seem high but there are no sure things anywhere in the Canadian Premier League, and the Winnipeg boy trying to make good at home is probably worth reaching a bit.
Viewing him strictly as a college and a League1 Ontario player there’s not a lot to get Valour fans excited, but the ingredients were there once. Canadians have long memories and hometown heroes are always fun. If there’s any justice, Dylan Carreiro will be the first great CanPL success story.
3rd Overall, Forge FC: FW Jace Kotsopoulos (University of Guelph)
Did Forge FC sneak one out here? If you read the blurbs you’ll know that Gabriel Bitar scored 20 goals across all competitions and Jace Kotsopoulos scored 15, so Bitar is one-third strikier. But the first hints of context bring Kotsopoulos up. Minute-for-minute, Kotsopoulos actually scored 10% more often than Bitar did. Guelph and Carleton both play in Ontario, but Bitar’s program is the stronger while Kotsopoulos has been the sole attacking focus since he joined the program. Kotsopoulos is older, but he’s also demonstrated double-digit goal-scoring chops for four years in a way Bitar hasn’t yet had the chance to. He also averaged over a hat trick per game in League1 Ontario; that is to say, he scored three goals in his only 83 minutes of the season, for Vaughan Azzurri against Alliance United in July. U-Sports felt this way: it was Kotsopoulos, not Bitar, who was named 2018 player of the year.
Then you get a little more context and Bitar surges back on top. Kotsopoulos scored on 55.6% of his shots on target last year. In MLS this would be an extremely regression-prone number, but it happens to be identical to Kotsopoulos’s 2017 figure (10 goals on 18 shots). In his 2016 career year Kotsopoulos scored on eighteen of his 25 shots on target, or 72%; now that was too good to last! But in 67 career U-Sports games Kotsopoulos has demonstrated that, at the Canadian university level, he can probably count on putting half the shots he gets on frame into the net. We can grant him that.
But almost nobody does that as a professional. Better defenders and better goalkeepers make the finishing problem more complex in a hurry. You have to place your shots more precisely with less time and space to do it and guys with feet that elite do not go to Guelph. Unless the level of CanPL is low enough that it’s the U-Sports All-Stars then Kotsopoulous is going to have to generate more chances. Today he does not fit the profile of a success.
4th Overall, York 9: DF Daniel Gogarty (York University)
Did Rob Gale throw Jim Brennan off his stride by grabbing a York University guy before he could? (Probably not, I have a sneaking suspicion most of the coaches had a pretty good idea who was being picked before it happened.) Gogarty looks like a decent player but a weird pick.
As discussed in the introduction, I don’t see the point of picking a fifth-year player who has exhausted his U-Sports eligibility. Gogarty’s university career is over. Why not just sign him? Was Stephen Hart going to snap him up on the next pick? This is a three-round draft, there’s a clear bias towards selecting players you know will want to come play in your city, it wasn’t terribly likely that Gogarty’s rights would go elsewhere. Would Tommy Wheeldon slap some Canadian discovery claim on him? No doubt the roster-builders are better informed than we fans, relying on leaks and press releases, but according to the rules as we have them today this is a waste of a tempo and we can only evaluate what we know.
Gogarty is not flashy, but he started almost every game at York for the past four years. In his whole university career he has no goals, two assists, and no statistics of much interest. But he was All-Canadian first team in 2018 and 2017, second-team in 2016, and anchors a Lions side that’s spent five years as a top-three defensive team in Ontario. It’s no wonder the 9 want him. I want him. A solid, poised, no-nonsense defensive stalwart who can play a million minutes and never gets hurt is always helpful. Brennan may not be crazy to expect Gogarty to walk onto his squad. But did he need a first-round draft pick for that?
5th Overall, Halifax Wanderers: DF Peter Schaale (Cape Breton University)
|1||5||Halifax||DF||Schaale, Peter||2018||Cape Breton||3||14||1260||6||2||0.429|
Let us, as the high school examiners say, compare and contrast. Above we have Daniel Gogarty, the iron man of the York University backline. Now we have Daniel Schaale, who may not be as reliable but has all that famous German flair. Hang on, I may have my stereotypes crossed…
Schaale comes with pedigree. He trained at the FC Köln academy and, having bounced down Germany for a while, crossed the Atlantic to play soccer and get an education. Listed as a defender, he apparently has spent time at attacking midfield and it shows. Scoring six goals while playing any amount of centreback is bloody astonishing. He was a first-team All-Canadian this past year and the Atlantic conference MVP but those were his first awards. He’s spent all three years at Cape Breton as a starter, chipping in a couple goals every time, and has helped Cape Breton win three consecutive Atlantic championships without the voters naming him so much as the most appreciated haircut in the Atlantic. It seems strange he went unappreciated for so long.
Last summer, Schaale played alongside Cape Breton teammate Stuart Heath at the USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders under another German, Thomas Neindorf. The Highlanders had a bit of a rough year, finishing second-from-bottom in the strong Northwest Division and conceding 1.79 goals per match despite strong goalkeeping from Nolan Wirth. Schaale, the club’s minutes leader, cannot escape some responsibility for that. Now, he obviously retained Neindorf’s confidence throughout. But, if you’re looking to his offense, he failed to get up and score a single goal, while as a creative outlet he did not stand out on a team that did not score much and got what little there was by committee. His first year of PDL was a success, but not a triumph.
Good enough to draft? Oh, probably. I would rate him ahead of Gogarty, at a glance: a bit younger, more flair, more promise, and a lot of the same steadiness. Schaale looks like a player with more of a learning curve to him, a home run swing against Gogarty’s safe bloop single. But home runs win ball games.
6th Overall, Pacific FC: MF Thomas Gardner (University of British Columbia)
|2018||TSS FC Rovers (PDL)||6||470||1||1||0.191|
Tommy Gardner is going to be interesting. He is the current U-Sports Rookie of the Year and Canada West Player of the Year thanks to a prodigy’s debut at the University of British Columbia. After several years in the Whitecaps organization, including 39 regular season games with their USL reserve team and some U-17 international experience, he played 2018 in USL PDL with TSS FC Rovers and, when healthy, offered what the Rovers have always needed in the centre of the park. Tenacious, hard-driving, and formidable striking the ball. An impossible player to dislike and, as Canada West discovered, someone who demands respect. Of course Pacific FC should have drafted him. He was only in town at all because he didn’t want to move down to Fresno to play USL, and if a team like Pacific can’t give Gardner a chance then what is CanPL even for?
But he is so, so small, and he plays in ways that literally hurt him. In USL you could understand it, but PDL players tend to be nearer his own age rather than grizzled pros and harm befell him there too. He missed the entire second half of the season with an injury, and his absence was one of the most notable that drained the Rovers’ hopes. A June 1 game against eventual champions Calgary Foothills showed Gardner at his very best: setting up a goal, harassing true stars until they went nova, and taking the leading role in giving Foothills their only defeat of 2018. But though he played like a Trojan he didn’t have the stamina to deal with the likes of Moses Danto for all 90 minutes, and actually missed the next game two days later as well. The fact that he backs down from nobody, and will scrap to win back hopeless balls, only makes his fragility more obvious, though notwithstanding a horror tackle in the U-Sports bronze medal match he usually plays clean. But even with the Whitecaps U-16s and U-18s back in the day his size stood out for all the wrong reasons. Next to Alphonso Davies he could look like one of those novelty Zdeno Chara photos.
Gardner clowned Canada West easily enough, and when the men of USL made him look so tiny he really was a boy. The little maestro could have a good career if he’s in a friendly environment, or if he could get that extra quarter-step of speed, either of foot or of thought, or if he hardened up and learned which chances he could safely take. The old USL First Division, with its agricultural play and indifferent ruffians in every lineup, would have been no place for Tommy Gardner. But it might wind up being a very good comparison for the early CanPL, which should worry us all. Gardner deserves success but deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.
7th Overall, FC Edmonton: GK Connor James (University of Alberta)
|2018||Green & Gold (AMSL)||10||0.80||5|
Pardon me while FC Edmonton has a strange interlude. Connor James may well be a good goalie prospect. He was first-team All-Canadian in 2018, second-team in 2017, and the all-time Canada West leader in everything that matters. But scroll up to what I said about Daniel Gogarty at York: why, under the rules as we understand them, would Edmonton draft a local fifth-year graduate in a draft whose chief value is in letting eligible players go back to school? Except then multiply that by two, because at least Gogarty is an outfield player who York might get minutes from, while if James plays the majority of the Eddies’ games in 2019 someone has taken a wrong turn somewhere.
His college statistics are gaudy, but a UofA keeper’s probably should be. Recent Alberta defenders include Noah Cunningham, Niko Saler, and Tim Hickson, all highly-rated. The Alberta half of Canada West is sort of easy mode, and while James has had some huge games against the likes of UBC or Victoria, every year his save percentages take a big hit in the playoffs. This is not to write him off: nobody cares about the Alberta Major Soccer League, which is basically a beer league, but a beer league with Sam Lam in it gives goalies something to think about and James is near the top every time they bother to post some statistics. James, like everyone else Jeff Paulus picked, is a former FC Edmonton Academy player who the boss knows well and has reason to trust. But is this the guy you’re spending a first-round draft pick on? A guy who you could, probably, just as easily have gotten for nothing? When there are promising University of Alberta players still on the board? It seems peculiar.
8th Overall, FC Edmonton: FW Ajeej Sarkaria (University of Alberta)
I have had Ajeej Sarkaria’s stats open in front of me for days and still don’t know what to feel about him.
Sarkaria’s big year was as a freshman in 2016, when he scored 19 goals in 15 games of conference play plus one more in the playoffs to set the Canada West record for a striker. He also added six assists, just for fun. That meant scoring on 61.3% of his shots on target, and obviously that wasn’t going to last, but it was still an amazing return to prominence. Sarkaria had been an original first-team FC Edmonton Academy signing in 2013, but never made the bench of an NASL match and soon was quietly shuffled back to the reserves. In 2014 he went to Grant MacEwan, but did not play soccer; he was expected to suit up in 2015 but somehow never did. So his “breakthrough,” so-called, came as a member of the Calgary Foothills’ PDL team in the summer of 2016: 496 minutes, most off the bench, no goals, one assist. Then he came alive in the playoffs, scored two goals in a run to the league final, got his name back on people’s lips, and the rest has been history.
He shows an admirable versatility. With Foothills he tends to play more withdrawn, almost as a midfielder, keeping his goal totals modest. He turned provider this year at Alberta as well, getting ten goals and ten assists while letting most of the scoring go through sophomore Easton Ongaro. Despite his freshman season being his highest-scoring one he is in fact, by every other measure, a better, more well-rounded offensive contributor. He’s been an All-Canadian, either first- or second-team, throughout his college career, which among the forwards in this draft only Gabriel Bitar can boast. Every year in Calgary Tommy Wheeldon used him as a depth player, but the bigger the games got the more likely you were to see Sarkaria. Yet his University of Alberta playoff stats are actually pretty bad; beating up on Lethbridge and Mount Royal is good for the self-esteem but not much of a predictor of professional success. Moreover, though a “third-year player,” his circuitous route means he’s as old as some of the guys graduating.
I like him more than Kotsopoulos. As with all the Eddies picks, Jeff Paulus knows him well. So there are good signs. But there’s something missing from this puzzle and I’m not sure what.
9th Overall, Pacific FC: FW Zach Verhoven (University of British Columbia)
|2018||TSS FC Rovers (PDL)||10||616||3||0||0.438|
Might want to keep scrolling, sports fans: Zach Verhoven lures me into homerism. I watch Verhoven play every summer for my local TSS FC Rovers and he is electrifying. A winger, though the Canadian Premier League lists him as a forward, he can devastate the left flank on his day. I’ve seen PDL players as dangerous on the wing; Ben Fisk was probably as deadly overall, but Fisk never had Verhoven’s explosiveness. He’s got that Pavel Bure factor; he’s a Terror, when he’s got the light in his eyes you have to Deal With Him but God help you.
So what is he doing playing PDL and U-Sports? Well, that great Verhoven does not come out enough. I don’t think it’s an effort problem. Last summer he made considerable strides in his all-round game: he’s not an actual defensive liability at the PDL level anymore, and I seldom recall him outright dogging it. But some guys just have that mindset, where no matter what he or the coaches or anyone around him may want and work for the lights only go on when the stars align. Fighting that is a waste of everybody’s time, but of course you fight it anyway, because a Verhoven that was on-form for twenty games a year instead of five is a Verhoven that’s playing for Canada.
I would compare Verhoven, in strictly on-field terms, to Hanson Boakai: there are few days that are worth it but those days so are. You can’t carry this too far: at Verhoven’s age Boakai had already proven he could do it in the NASL and at the Voyageurs Cup, while Verhoven’s biggest prize is a share in the Juan de Fuca Plate. Still, you need that chance, before Colin Miller signed him Boakai was nobody, and now Verhoven gets his. I can’t honestly say that I predict great success, but obviously you sign him, you throw the ball in front of him, and you let him see if he can figure this professional crap out. To do anything else would be to see a draft of War and Peace and murmur “bit long, isn’t it, Leo?”
10th Overall, Halifax Wanderers: DF Andre Bona (Université du Québec à Montréal)
Another fifth-year senior. Listed as a defender but scored seven goals between university and the PLSQ last year in 23 games, which seems rather a lot. Was with FC Edmonton for a friendly against Cavalry earlier this year, and left no impression on me at all. Also played for the PLSQ all-stars against League1 Ontario this year, a match I was actually at, and I didn’t remember him then either. Was second-team U-Sports All-Canadian this year, his first appearance on the list in five years of college.
Quebec soccer can be opaque to the uninitiated, a category into which I fall. There’s the language barrier but also a lack of clear reporting and statistical analysis that makes it hard to draw a picture even when you do struggle through the lingo. It hits coaches too; if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why four members of the U-Sports runners-up Cape Breton Capers were drafted against one member of the champion Montréal Carabins.
Stephen Hart, who has been at the Canadian soccer game for a while, certainly knows something I don’t here. If Hart plucked Bona because he had no particular targets and saw him good at nationals, well, fair enough. But a fifth-year guy who’s gotten steady respect but no overwhelming achievements doesn’t scream “future pro” to me, it screams “good PLSQer for another seven years.” Jeff Paulus saw him up close just a couple months ago and preferred guys he pretty much already had. Hard to believe he was the best player available, had Hart really thought about it. Just because you want to taste some soup doesn’t mean you have eat Campbell’s.
11th Overall, York 9: MF Emmanuel Zambazis (York University)
Here’s one for all you nostalgia fans! You need deep cansoc lore to recognize the name but Emmanuel Zambazis is a former professional as well as a Greek U-19 and Canadian U-20 international. As a teenager in Toronto, he came through the Vaughan Azzurri system before a big move to the Greek first division’s Iraklis FC, making his professional debut in 2015 aged only 18. He played less later on, as Iraklis was mired in a bitter relegation fight that was won almost at the last minute. Then the club went bankrupt, and though it was reformed in the lower divisions Zambazis was not retained5. Possibly related: the owner at this time, Toronto businessman Spiros Papathanasakis, happens to be Zambazis’s uncle.
Zambazis had not been heard from since until he resurfaced at York University this year, where, freed from any question of nepotism, he had a fine campaign. He was an automatic 90-minute man, except when being rotated, and though his statistics weren’t remarkable head coach Carmine Isacco obviously rated him. He was York’s Man of the March in a penalties win at nationals against Trinity Western, playing 120 grueling minutes and scoring his spot kick, as well as in their unsuccessful placement match against Andre Bona and UQAM. Thanks to his Greek sojourns he was old for a freshman, 21, but all the same how nice to see a player who could have been a piece of Canadian soccer trivia charging back into relevance. He is the sort of player who does not readily show up in Microsoft Excel, and his track record in recent years is very short, but the coaches who know him best are the ones who want him most.
12th Overall, Forge FC: MF Aboubacar Sissoko (Université de Montréal)
|2018||CS Saint-Hubert (PLSQ)||11||967||0||0||0.000|
Another relatively elderly Quebec-based player for us Anglos to cretinously scratch our heads about. A day after captaining the Université de Montréal to the U-Sports title, Sissoko was their only alumnus drafted. Not one of the four Carabins elected to the championship all-star team, Sissoko was on the field for all but twelve minutes of the tournament and was noted for his grit and intensity: that, alone, could have gotten an NCAA player into the SuperDraft. Like Bona, Sissoko was a PLSQ all-star but has gotten even less national attention with not a single award or All-Canadian selection in four years. He is an unknown quantity to most of us, unless we’re avid PLSQ followers: though selected in a university draft he is a serious presence on the Quebec semi-pro scene. Forge head coach Bobby Smyrniotis said “I did a little homework to get to know the regions outside of Ontario.” Let’s hope so.
13th Overall, Valour FC: DF Lewis White (Cape Breton University)
|2||13||Valour||DF||White, Lewis||2018||Cape Breton||2||13||1170||0||1||0.000|
As a young man White was with the Rangers academy, facing among others Christian Pulicic, and was a Scottish youth international in the lower age groups. Alas, like Daryl Fordyce before him, he never made it into the first team setup and his contract was terminated in January 2017. Unlike Fordyce, Lewis didn’t waste time before moving to Canada, joining Cape Breton University as a fresh-faced 19-year-old true freshman in time for the 2017 college run. He had a fair year: the Capers went undefeated, won the national championship, while individually White was a tournament all-star; any hope of rookie of the year honours was crushed beneath the wheels of the Gabriel Bitar train, but a left back is always at a disadvantage in the glory awards.
A Rangers trainee coming to Cape Breton Island is a little odd, but White doesn’t seem to be the sort to do things conventionally. For summer soccer he went south of the border to Buffalo of the National Premier Soccer League. The 20-year-old was the starter at left back playing against men until a serious injury ruled him out after only seven games. He recovered in plenty of time for his sophomore college season, during which Cape Breton continued to run their capers over the Atlantic. He missed one game, a meaningless October 26 match in Acadia, and otherwise played every minute. At Nationals Cape Breton beat UQAM and hammered Bitar’s Carleton, White notching two assists in the latter match. Only the Carabins could beat Cape Breton and they needed extra time. White, alas, was victimized by Omar Kreim on the winning goal, and that lapse in a much-scouted game might have pushed a fascinating left back down the charts. I like this pick far more than many which preceded it.
If the run on Capers strikes you as odd, bear in mind they went years between losses in conference play, while this past season they went 10-0-2 and conceded 0.42 goals per game in the Atlantic. It’s a pretty good defensive unit and a deep Canadian Premier League with a multi-round draft probably would call on its players pretty heavily.
14th Overall, Cavalry FC: MF Joel Waterman (Trinity Western University)
|2||14||Cavalry||MF||Waterman, Joel||2018||Trinity Western||5||19||1693||2||2||0.106|
Joel Waterman is an Aldergrove, British Columbia boy who goes to school at nearby Trinity Western University, so doesn’t count as a “local” for Tommy Wheeldon and Cavalry. But he sort of should, because after a steady 2017 with TSS FC Rovers he moved over to Wheeldon’s Calgary Foothills for 2018, playing the second-most regular season minutes on the team behind Elijah Adekugbe. There is nothing of the hot-dog about Joel Waterman: the man does a job, steadily and well, and provided he can keep his game mistake-free he’s a useful addition. Again, he is a player Wheeldon knows, an almost “spiritual local” if you like, and among the collegiate players on the Foothills last year he had the best PDL season of the bunch.
There is something odd about Wheeldon’s choice here. At the beginning of 2018 he played Waterman constantly; for all 90 minutes in Calgary’s first nine games of the season. There were three runs of two games in three days included in that. But having made nine starts in nine games he made only three more the rest of the regular season, mostly coming off the bench for short spells. In the playoffs he played a total of 42 minutes: one against Colorado, eleven against Tucson, and thirty in the 120-minute final against Reading. The pattern does not say “injury,” it says that he’d lost the coach’s trust. Yet here that very coach is, picking him to go up a level.
15th Overall, Cavalry FC: FW Easton Ongaro (University of Alberta)
|2018||Green & Gold (AMSL)||9||13|
And having done the boring thing with the last pick of the second round, Wheeldon came out for the third and shot for the moon.
I love this pick for Cavalry, damn them. Ongaro is a member of Edmonton’s first family of soccer. The most recent Ongaro of note, Jordan, had a solid American college career, played internationally for our youth and futsal teams, was a late draft pick of the Montreal Impact, and would have been a founding member of the Canadian Premier League had it come around a few years earlier. Easton has stayed in Edmonton, without much notice beyond local circles, and all he’s done is put balls in nets.
The kid is a 6’5″ sophomore who just scored 16 goals in 14 games, I really don’t know how else to put it. Certainly, his finishing was luck-driven: he took 30 shots on target, and while you’d expect a huge kid with touch to bury an above-average percentage of his chances we can assume a 53.3% shooting percentage is fortunate until proven otherwise. But he generates offense better than Sarkaria did when he set all those records, and better than this year’s third overall pick. As a freshman in 2017 Ongaro did not play much, but what he did showed promise: 525 minutes, four starts, four goals, four assists, and 23 shots of which nine were on target. Extrapolate that out to a full season and it holds up. Ongaro’s Alberta Major Soccer League numbers should be taken with an entire salt shaker but on July 14 he put four goals past an Edmonton Scottish team that featured Sebastian Cabrera, Niko Saler, Chris Kooy, Sam Lam, Chris Lemire, and Jordan Ongaro6. He led the league in scoring despite playing about half a schedule.
Why do I like Ongaro, with his gaudy shooting percentages, more than Kotsopoulos with his? Kotsopoulos is older and we know what he is by now. Ongaro is the perfect age for Wheeldon and Martin Nash to mold. And he’s just so big, he’ll be such a handful, it’s hard not to get excited. A Canadian Tommy Heinemann is not a superstar but absolutely somebody you want on your team at this level. And Calgary’s team pulled a prince of Edmontonian soccer royalty right out of the Green and Gold. Damn them to hell.
16th Overall, Valour FC: MF Jack Simpson (Cape Breton University)
|3||16||Valour||MF||Simpson, Jack||2018||Cape Breton||2||13||1104||0||3||0.000|
You have to watch more Atlantic Canadian university soccer than I to have a clear opinion on Jack Simpson. On a much-lauded Cape Breton team Simpson sort of slips through the cracks. In two years of college he’s scored one goal, adding five assists. He’s won few honours, but showed well at nationals, was the Capers’ man of the match in the final, and made the tournament all-star team. Viewing him statistically makes him look quiet, but handy; perhaps a Joel Waterman type. He showed flashes of more in the NPSL, where he joined Erie and boomed out an uncharacteristic five goals in eight games. He was lauded in the press as Erie won the division title only to crash out an ignominious 4-0 in the first round against Cleveland.
Of all the four Capers selected, Simpson is the most anonymous. One is tempted to resort to jokes: under his picture in the program it says “not pictured,” that kind of thing. But he’s young and has been a regular player for two conference champions. An Englishman by birth, he spent his childhood kicking around the Scottish academies and got first team games at Bo’ness United, then in the deceptively-named Scottish junior divisions7. That is very local soccer, but Simpson was able to walk into a good U-Sports lineup and make a contribution. Whether he can make a move up to the Canadian Premier League remains to be seen but if it doesn’t work out he has three years of eligibility left.
17th Overall, Forge FC: MF Marko Mandekic (University of Toronto)
|2018||TFC III (L1O)||9||644||0||0.00|
It seems odd to see a player who is technically a member of the Toronto FC setup drafted in the Canadian Premier League. Never a big name, Mandekic was in the program for years and a U-16 national team member under Rob Gale (who passed on him this draft). In 2016 he played eight PDL games with TFC III, recording no statistics of note, and in 2017 he turned out for their League1 Ontario team in addition to beginning his studies at the University of Toronto. He’s enjoyed some success, being an first-team OUA All-Star in 2017 and second-team in 2018 as well as a U-Sports all-rookie his first year. Tall, low-offense but also low-fuss, he clearly isn’t seen as a future MLSer but still hangs around the TFC organization, getting training and games in the same way players like Yassin Essa or Gagandeep Dosanjh did when the Whitecaps had a PDL side.
That worked out okay for Dosanjh, who’d probably be in the CanPL himself if injuries hadn’t derailed a good start at FC Edmonton. Mandekic and Dosanjh are as different players as can easily be imagined, but it works out in Mandekic’s favour: there’s always room for big guys who play centreback or holding mid depending on what the team needs, are trustworthy and smart on the ball. Midway through the third round, Forge have picked up a player who could get league minutes next year. That reflects well on both team and player, and if Mandekic succeeds it’ll be a credit to Toronto FC’s sense of loyalty as well.
18th Overall, York 9: DF Daniel Pritchard (Cape Breton University)
|3||18||York||DF||Pritchard, Daniel||2018||Cape Breton||4||14||1242||3||1||0.217|
The fourth and final Cape Breton Caper selected, Daniel Pritchard goes back to the old ways: a member of a powerful back four, separated from his fellows and asked to prove which one was the straw that really stirred the drink. Pritchard is a four-year veteran, a second-team U-Sports all-star back in 2016 and AUS second-team in 2017, but any hopes at big honours in 2018 just didn’t come through. He was another championship All-Star in 2018, the only member of the vaunted Cape Breton defense to manage it, which is a point in his favour. But nobody seems to talk about him in the same glowing terms they mention Schaale, nor does he have any of the eyebrow-raising qualities of White. It’s not always bad to be the quiet one on a defense, and yet by repute nothing about Pritchard’s play is quiet: in fact he has the habit of getting forward more than is perhaps wise, and three goals and an assist in 1,242 minutes is a big haul for a defender. Jim Brennan was impressed by his flash as a wingback at nationals.
If there’s one coach to trust to pick diamonds from rough in U-Sports, it’s York assistant Carmine Isacco. He’s walked those paths for many years and always with conspicuous success. He knows what a good Canadian university player looks like and has proven it. So if they see something, believe them rather than me, but a distant analysis doesn’t leave much to get worked up about.
19th Overall, Halifax Wanderers: GK Christian Oxner (Saint Mary’s University)
|3||19||Wanderers||GK||Oxner, Christian||2018||Cape Breton||5||7||41||1.57||0.788||4|
Maybe the oddest choice of all. Christian Oxner is another fifth-year goalkeeper presumably available for a song, but at least Connor James has an established history of dominance in Canada West. Christian Oxner has an established history of very-good in the Atlantic. He missed much of 2018 with injury, and the numbers he managed were still nice but not nearly enough to put him among his conference leaders in any category. His best year was probably 2015, where he was an Atlantic second-team All-Star. Saint Mary’s is not a powerhouse program in the way Cape Breton is, but it is in Halifax, and maybe Stephen Hart just wanted the best local collegiate he could lay hands upon.
He’s accomplished at the local and national amateur levels. Western Halifax, featuring Oxner in goal, are three-time defending provincial champions and won the 2017 Challenge Trophy 1-0 thanks to some gargantuan saves8. Such local heroes have a place in the Canadian Premier League if anybody does, and anybody who isn’t playing the Wanderers at the moment should be pulling for him. But boy, with two spots left in the draft and zero chance Pacific or Edmonton was going to poach him, an odd place to spend a pick.
20th Overall, Pacific FC: MF Nick Fussell (University of British Columbia)
|2017–18||Whitecaps U-18 (USSDA)||24||1846||3||0.146|
Of the three freshmen picked this draft, two of them were University of British Columbia midfielders off to Pacific FC and the third was Emmanuel Zambazis, who with his age and pedigree doesn’t really count. Fussell is an interesting one. He came up through the Whitecaps’ youth organization and got regular minutes all the way down the line, but never seemed like a serious candidate to move on to MLS. Had Whitecaps 2 still been a thing, he might have filled out a USL roster for a couple more years in the same way Tommy Gardner did; instead he went off to university and, like Gardner if not to the same extent, got off to a promising start. He did exactly what a young player of promise should do: start out slow, grab minutes here and there, do something useful with them, and end up an integral part of the first team. 1,158 minutes for a freshman on a team as good as the Thunderbirds is nothing to sneeze at, and his offensive contribution dwarfed earlier-drafted and more-experienced midfielders like Waterman, Simpson, and even Zambazis.
I don’t think anyone expects a reasonably handy 19-year-old to walk into CanPL, but Fussell will be an interesting test of what this draft means for player development. He has four years of university eligibility left, and the rules make it look like if he chooses he could return to UBC after the 2019 CanPL season and be entered into the next one of these. If Pacific FC spends a year developing him only for FC Edmonton to re-draft him, then we’ll see how teams react. As a player he remains an unfinished product; obviously talented, but called “versatile” because there’s no one place on the pitch which he can lock down as his very own. The advantage is that such well-rounded skills might see him scratch out occasional first team minutes, and from there he might do what he did as a freshman Thunderbird on a much larger stage.
21st Overall, FC Edmonton: DF Noah Cunningham (University of Alberta)
There’s a joke in other leagues that the last man drafted is “Mr. Irrelevant”: the player wanted so little that he was barely wanted at all.
I do not know if that meme will catch on in CanPL.
Noah Cunningham is a fine young defender and has been for a long time. He’s established himself successfully as a good USL PDL player with both the Victoria Highlanders and Calgary Foothills, while his U-Sports career has been an uninterrupted procession of laurels: As a freshman he was the MVP of the 2016 national championships, along with Henry Moody one of the few defenders to be so honoured in recent years and an award that’s surprisingly strongly correlated with being an excellent player: other winners include Gagan Donsanjh, Mesut Mert, Cam Hundal, and Pat Onstad (ask your parents). He was second-team All-Canadian in 2018, first-team in 2017, and comparing him to some of the other guys I can only assume the reason he was left out in 2016 is U-Sports forgot.
Cunningham is not a sure thing to make the leap to the professional game, because that doesn’t exist. But he fits the profile of the perfect player to take a chance on: professionally-trained, but without many chances to get glory. Spending time at the FC Edmonton academy, but too young to crack the first team before the Eddies lost it. A no-nonsense centre back but not actually one-dimensional: he’s scored five goals across his university career and picked up another one with the Highlanders, which is more than offensive-defensive wünderkind Peter Schaale can say. Most importantly he is from the fighting city of St. Albert, Alberta, which has already given the world Shaun Saiko, Antonio Rago, and if you squint Erin McLeod. The fact that Cunningham has never played above the PDL level is an advertisement for why we need the Canadian Premier League.
We’ll see what Jeff Paulus comes up for a defense. You probably don’t want Cunningham, or any other rookie, starting every game at centreback if you can help it. But the Eddies definitely sent out defenders worse than him in their NASL days, and I bet Cunningham works his way in. Sneaking Noah out with the very last pick might singlehandedly justify Paulus’s sticking to the players he knew.
- Players will return from CanPL to their university teams after August 15, well before conference play ever begins.
- Top women’s hockey players get around US$25,000 in pay from their teams, though endorsements and national team funding mean the Hilary Knights and Marie-Philip Poulins of the world at least don’t have to park cars between periods.
- Big note on statistics: as ever, university and amateur soccer statistics cannot be considered totally reliable. There are lacunae and inaccuracies everywhere. I have tried to piece together the best picture I can. University statistics, in this article, include playoffs and nationals where available, because that’s how most schools presented their statistics, but there might have been mistakes here. Club statistics are strictly regular season only.
- In 2017 Bitar turned out with League1 Ontario’s OSU Force, scoring six goals in 1,045 minutes.
- If you count the newco as a continuation of the century-old club then Iraklis has the distinction, unmatched as far as I know, of having been relegated three times for financial reasons but not once because of their play. This is the most Greek thing I have ever heard.
- Paul Hamilton was away that day.
- “Junior,” in the Scottish context, is better understood as “non-League” rather than being youth games. It is full adult soccer.
- This past Challenge Trophy saw them slump to seventh.