2018 CanPL – U-Sports Draft Review: Pacific FC Deep Dive

By Benjamin Massey

November 26th, 2018 · No comments

Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

Anyone who watches players on the lower levels of a soccer pyramid for months winds up biased in their favour. There are no exceptions.

The bigger the league, the more accurately you can see what’s going on. When Toronto FC plays the Colorado Rapids you better know the opposition, which means you can better evaluate your friends, and when you’re uncertain there are a plethora of analysts, statisticians, and fellow fans backing you up. Whereas, down in U-Sports or PDL, you’re got your own two eyes, a handful of questionably-accurate statistics, and a couple other fans dealing with the same problems as you try to figure out why your fave is dominating because he’s brilliant or because he’s facing a future sandwich artist.

All fans want to promote their outstanding talents. Seeing their quality week on week, getting to know their traits, maybe even getting to know them personally. Eventually saying “this kid will be a player.” It’s natural bias: you learn everything about a talent while his opponents are anonymous; it’s fun, but a lousy way to scout.

There are exceptional players in the Canadian bus leagues. Guys who saw Alphonso Davies on the Whitecaps Residency teams are walking around with Jeremy Clarkson-sized smug expressions. I named Russell Teibert and Ben Fisk early on as guys who’d have careers and I was right. I also would have bet big money on Alex Semenets and Jack Cubbon; whoops1. There must be a million other players one of us made a mental note about and evangelized for, and it’s merciful for everyone that we can’t remember them all.

This is the joy of the CanPL draft for the fan, and the agony for the pundit. I’m excited to watch Pacific FC and suddenly they draft players I’ve known for years. I got hype. But I am as biased as can be. Pacific FC head coach Michael Silberbauer is a Dane, co-supremo Rob Friend comes out of the British Columbia interior and has been away from provincial soccer for decades, and his fellow boss Josh Simpson is a Victoria legend who played abroad for almost 15 years. Somehow they hit upon three players from the University of British Columbia, which isn’t even the nearest school to their ground in Langford. Funny, that.

I rate two of Pacific FC’s picks highly and the third gets respect. But trying to be objective, UBC made nationals but was briskly dispatched by Carleton (one player drafted; first overall pick Gabriel Bitar) and UQAM (also just one; old man Andre Bona). It’s hard to imagine the best option being a UBC player every single time. Still, Langford is CanPL’s western outpost, there’s a lot to be said both morally and strategically for recruiting from the region, and for all my partiality I still fly the flag for Thomas Gardner and Zach Verhoven.

We shall see.

Mobile users might be inconvenienced scrolling through the stats tables; I can only apologize.

6th overall: T. Gardner 9th overall: Z. Verhoven 21st overall: N. Fussell

1st Round, 6th Overall: MF Thomas Gardner (University of British Columbia, TSS FC Rovers)

Distributing central mid who compensates for his size with intensity.

Rich Lam/UBC Athletics
Gardner, Thomas Born March 17, 1998 (age 20) North Vancouver, British Columbia
5’9″ 147 lbs Eligibility: Canada, Indonesia
University of British Columbia First year Arts
Season Team League GP Starts Min G A Sh SoG Yl Red G/GP G/90 Sh/GP Sh/90 Sh% SoG%
2015–16 Whitecaps U-18 USSDA U-18 18 16 4 0 0
2015 Whitecaps FC 2 USL 3 0 62 0 0 1 0 0 0 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.000 0.0% 0.0%
2016 Whitecaps FC 2 USL 15 6 565 0 2 2 0 1 0 0.000 0.000 0.133 0.319 0.0% 0.0%
2016 Playoffs Whitecaps FC 2 USL 2 2 177 0 0 2 0 0 0 0.000 0.000 1.000 1.017 0.0% 0.0%
2017 Whitecaps FC 2 USL 21 17 1379 0 1 6 3 2 0 0.000 0.000 0.286 0.392 0.0% 50.0%
2018 TSS FC Rovers USL PDL 6 5 470 1 1 4 0 0 0.167 0.191 0.667 0.766
2018 UBC Canada West 12 10 822 6 2 24 13 1 0 0.500 0.657 2.000 2.628 46.2% 54.2%
2018 Playoffs UBC U-Sports 5 4 377 0 2 3 2 0 1 0.000 0.000 0.600 0.716 0.0% 66.7%

The Good: Passes well. Tackles tough. Mentally, his only mistakes are when he goes too hard. The only pick in the draft with significant experience at a level likely close to early CanPL.
The Bad: A small man who tries to play big, leading to bad moments and too-frequent injuries.

Officialdom says that the Canadian Premier League is Canada’s first division of soccer. Common sense laughs “nobody imagines that Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact, and the Vancouver Whitecaps won’t be able to whip these teams for the first few seasons,” putting a glowering eyeball on the top of our pyramid. Even many optimists and future season ticket holders say “if CanPL can be as good as the USL eight years ago, that’ll be good work.” That was good soccer, but it included local favourites, athletic specimens with questionable technique, and first-rate metro leaguers who viewed hard tackling as a substitute for soccer ability. Fun to watch but not to be confused with anything on international television.

Viewed this way, it’s amazing Thomas Gardner was not the first overall pick in the CanPL draft. Gardner is young; he turned 20 in March. He’s quality: a U-Sports All-Canadian last year and, obviously, national freshman of the year. He shows his stuff in the most obvious of ways, tackling hard, controlling the play, and blasting home free kicks. What is he supposed to be missing that put him behind five other men?

There were only two good reasons not to pick Gardner any earlier. First, locality; Gardner will probably be much happier commuting from his native Lower Mainland to Vancouver Island than trying to get on with a roommate in Calgary with a CanPL salary. Being close to home was clearly an implicit motivation for over half the picks in the draft, including all three of Pacific’s.

Second is size, injury, wear and tear. Remember what I was saying about old USL, about the players populating it who on your team were “gritty” and on the other were “thugs?” Gardner is not very short (listed at 5’9″) but he is slight. More importantly, he throws himself around. Gardner played six of TSS Rovers’ first seven games and despite missing minutes here and there was in the argument for team MVP, but injury ruled him out of the second half of the season. As a UBC freshman Gardner was immediately a core player but played part-time for six weeks in September and October, going 45 minutes here, missing out entirely there, getting over little knocks. At Nationals Gardner gritted out 120 minutes against Carleton and the next day only provided 20 in a game admittedly shortened by a shocking sending-off. You don’t want to take away that quality of doing everything at 110%, because that’s a source of his excellence, but it inherently puts him at risk.

The best-case scenario for Thomas Gardner is Julian de Guzman, who Gardner could probably give an inch and fifteen pounds. He wasn’t always popular but nobody reading this needs to be told Jules could play. Apart from all his achievements in Europe, even an aging de Guzman was a plus player in Ottawa and (usually) MLS. He was a bit brittle at times but not enough that, unless you were Toronto FC, you didn’t want him on your team.

Gardner is good. He’s always distributed well and at UBC showed his free kick chops for the first time, providing half his goals. His tackling is tough and tenacious, he takes a turnover extremely personally, and while he usually stays on the right side of the Laws he is by no means afraid to take a card. He is an extremely likeable player to watch and always has been. He’s calm on the ball and hell-bent for leather off it, a rare and charismatic combination. I endorse him. At 20 years old Gardner would be playing USL, if the Whitecaps still operated a team there, and is now off to CanPL; at 20 years old Julian de Guzman was just breaking into the German second division, so while Gardner is behind on the career curve he’s not miles behind.

Another Vancouver midfielder, Gordon Chin, played A-League/USL from 2003 to 2009 and had a decent career. He was even smaller than Gardner and probably not quite the same all-round talent. But he seemed always to struggle with nagging injuries and, despite being a tireless worker, in the end never seemed to achieve all he should have. Gardner is more willing to get his socks dirty than Chin was, which means you need Gardner on the field than Chin but also means a lot more wear and tear. Eastern readers in particular will remember Robbie Aristodemo, a bite-sized but fine attacking midfielder who made seven caps for Canada, was a great favourite on the old Toronto Lynx, and has had a great second act playing indoor soccer into his 40s. And more recently Keven Aleman, who has that Gardner sort of build, has emerged as a quality attacking USL player at age 24 with Sacramento. That said, neither Aristodemo nor Chin were by any means iron men, and Aleman only got into 18 games this past year, starting ten and going 90 minutes a mere three times.

I dwell on durability because Gardner is a man you want in your lineup. TSS in six games with Gardner was 3-1-2, including the only win anybody got over Calgary Foothills. Without him they were 2-1-5. UBC’s one loss in conference play last game, a 1-0 defeat at Thompson Rivers, was without Gardner (or, admittedly, pretty much anyone else you’ve heard of). The Whitecaps reserves tended to be lousy with or without him. Gardner makes a real difference, at the university or PDL levels he can bring a team up a notch. Let’s hope he finds that Julian de Guzman-esque ability to survive while doing it.

2nd Round, 9th Overall: FW Zach Verhoven (University of British Columbia, TSS FC Rovers)

Shifty, streaky winger.

Rich Lam/UBC Athletics
Verhoven, Zach Born August 17, 1998 (age 20) Surrey, British Columbia
5’8″ 135 lbs Eligibility: Canada
University of British Columbia Third year Arts
Season Team League GP Starts Min G A Sh SoG Yl Red G/GP G/90 Sh/GP Sh/90 Sh% SoG%
2015 Surrey United BCSPL U-17
2016 UBC Canada West 15 13 951 3 6 23 11 3 0 0.200 0.284 1.533 2.177 27.3% 47.8%
2016 Playoffs UBC U-Sports 6 5 490 2 1 9 5 0 0 0.333 0.367 1.500 1.653 40.0% 55.6%
2017 TSS FC Rovers USL PDL 11 10 767 2 2 11 0 0 0.182 0.235 1.041 1.291
2017 UBC Canada West 15 12 1082 3 3 42 22 1 0 0.200 0.250 2.800 3.494 13.6% 52.4%
2017 Playoffs UBC U-Sports 6 5 561 0 4 13 3 2 0 0.000 0.000 2.167 2.086 0.0% 23.1%
2018 TSS FC Rovers USL PDL 10 8 616 3 0 10 2 0 0.300 0.438 1.000 1.461
2018 UBC Canada West 13 12 908 2 5 44 29 3 0 0.154 0.198 3.395 4.361 6.9% 65.9%
2018 Playoffs UBC U-Sports 5 5 406 2 3 23 12 0 0 0.400 0.443 4.600 5.099 16.7% 52.2%

The Good: Flashy, creative, generates chances everywhere he goes. Appears a good teammate. Improving year upon year. Flagrantly deserves this opportunity.
The Bad: Consistency; only really justifies a place in the lineup when he’s on. Rarely goes 90 minutes in five-sub leagues.

In his teens, the Vancouver Whitecaps gave Zach Verhoven a good, long look. He’d been a part of their Prospects program as a child in their pre-MLS days and spent a few more years kicking around the Residency, getting no hype of any kind. Each time the Residency staff ran the rule over him, didn’t like him, and let him return to Surrey United.

So already the Canadian Premier League is justifying the effort. Zach Verhoven is the sort of player who on any given day can show really well and can really not. He wasn’t the only player to watch, far from the only streaky attacking winger punting around the Residency in those days. He could so easily blow his chances forever with a couple bad weeks.

Not long ago that would have been his career. Verhoven played well as a kid, went to nationals a couple times, and got into a very good university program. He has played two seasons of PDL at TSS FC Rovers and runs second to goalkeeper Andrew Hicks in the “cult favourite” rankings2. But plenty of UBC men’s soccer players are very good until they get real jobs. Many, like Reynold Stewart or Niall Cousens, also had good runs in PDL. The Victoria Highlanders have graduated a couple pros, the Whitecaps U-23s never did anything for their overagers. Verhoven would have had a great university career then gone on to an honest job, maybe breaking VMSL fullback ankles once a week.

Under the old rules, Zach Verhoven had ended his professional soccer career before he could drive. To make it he’d not only need a new team to bring him to prominence, he’d need a new league to give him a chance.

Lucky kid.

Everyone knows Verhoven’s problem is consistency. If he brought his best every game he’d be beyond the ken of any post with “CanPL” in the title. and if he somehow did show up he’d be like Atiba Hutchinson who spent a hot second on the Toronto Lynx as a teen until everyone laughed and realized he obviously didn’t belong here.

Move Verhoven to, say, the 2010 USSF D2 level and I’d bet on Verhoven outplaying Corny Stewart, Ridge Mobulu, or any of a multitude of midfielders Canadian teams relied on offense that year. Maybe not Martin Nash but they’d make a hell of a tandem. One-on-one on a good day, Verhoven can beat any defender who we are likely to see.

The problem is the bad days. You can’t start a player for 30 games knowing that eight of them will be amazing and you’re a man down for the rest. Such players in principle can be impact subs but even then they never seem to amount to much. The words “Hanson Boakai” loom, unsaid, over all of this, and the awful fact is that the most talented player in FC Edmonton history never earned his minutes because he displayed those talents so infrequently. Think of Nizar Khalfan. Sure, he could occasionally be very good, and had one game that justified his entire existence as a human being, but Whitecaps fans haven’t exactly missed him, have they?

At this stage, having Brilliant Verhoven all the time is too much to ask for. Now we need to raise the level of Not-So-Brilliant Verhoven.

His coaches have done their best. In his first year of PDL, Verhoven was an outright defensive liability. The Rovers had two all-out-attacking wingers, Verhoven and Ryan Dhillon, and God they got burned. Dhillon did not return for 2018, which eased the pressure, but Verhoven looked better defensively in his own right. You don’t need brilliant defending as a USL PDL winger except for that one time a decade where Jordan Morris comes to town and nobody is going to convert him to fullback any time soon, but he sawed off against (banged-up) Nik Ledgerwood and that’s not nothing.

So Verhoven is not entirely like other flash-in-the-pan attacking wingers Canadian soccer fans have seen before. He is affable, he cares, he genuinely works on his game and gets results. He can’t change his fundamental essence, from which his enigmatic style stems, but he can improve himself all-round.

Check out Verhoven’s shooting rates at UBC. He has always generated a lot of offense, which you’d hope an attacking winger would. But in his third year he was approaching circus clown levels of shooting. Four and a half shots directed per 90 minutes. Sure, a lot of them were cutting in and swinging away and taking low-percentage shots, because it’s Zach Verhoven. But even so, look at his career and you’ll know that his two goals that regular season by no means reflected his attacking value. The fact that he scored just as often in the playoffs should, in hindsight, have surprised nobody.

Steady improvement is what turns a player like Verhoven into a pro. The worst thing he could do would be to rely upon his natural gifts, his ability to dominate anyone this side of Sergio Ramos on his day. The best-case is a player who becomes so well-rounded that even his off games are pretty good. By my eye, and by the numbers, Verhoven has been adding arrows to his quiver every year. There is sampling bias here because I’m drilling down Verhoven’s numbers and not any of a number of other players who might be doing the same anonymously3. But my eyes like him too: not only is this a good use of a draft pick, it’s hard to think of a better one.

The other bad element for Verhoven is his size, which hurts a winger less than a central midfielder like Gardner but has still gotten him a bit banged-up here and there and lacks endurance: in 64 career university and PDL games, he has gone 90 minutes or more 19 times4. Still, his ceiling is good. The very, very best-case scenario is, what, Tomasz Radzinski? That’s an optimistic reach but they have a lot of qualities in common.

How many similar players are there who I haven’t got to watch for two summers? For that matter, how many great starlets have gone up, and come down, and now sell shoes at SportChek? Verhoven’s story isn’t unusual, apart from how a Canadian Premier League has appeared at almost precisely the right moment. We will never know how much talent our country has squandered because, for almost a quarter of a century, it’s been dumb luck whether soccer players hit the professional pathway. In women’s soccer, it still happens.

3rd Round, 20th Overall: MF Nick Fussell (University of British Columbia)

The other guy.

Rich Lam/UBC Athletics
Fussell, Nick Born 1999 (age 18/19) Surrey, British Columbia
5’10” 144 lbs Eligibility: Canada
University of British Columbia First year Business
Season Team League GP Starts Min G A Sh SoG Yl Red G/GP G/90 Sh/GP Sh/90 Sh% SoG%
2016–17 Whitecaps U-18 USSDA U-18 6 5 470 1 1 4 0 0 0.167 0.191 0.667 0.767
2017–18 Whitecaps U-18 USSDA U-18 24 21 1846 3 0 0 0.125 0.146
2018 UBC Canada West 14 6 805 1 3 8 5 2 0 0.071 0.112 0.571 0.894 20.0% 62.5%
2018 Playoffs UBC U-Sports 5 4 353 0 1 2 0 0 1 0.000 0.000 0.400 0.510 0.0% 0.0%

The Good: Young, for a drafted player, and versatile.
The Bad: Will be making a big leap to professional soccer. Not apparently considered a first-rank Whitecaps prospect.

Were Pacific FC trying to make Canadians feel at-home with the CanPL draft? Because Nick Fussell is a classic NHL third-rounder.

There hasn’t been a lot of analysis on him, anywhere. Playing the youth game with Surrey United, he joined the Whitecaps Residency in 2015 and played both USSDA U-16 and U-18 soccer, graduating this past spring. At the end he was a regular starter, as a last-year-player ought to be, starting most of the USSDA schedule and chipping in with a couple points in the ol’ counting numbers. He has good size for a midfielder and great versatility, playing centrally and on the flanks. At UBC he popped in and out of the lineup, but he started four of the Thunderbirds’ five postseason games and got 90 minutes with an assist in the Canada West semi-final against Fraser Valley. He has never, ever shown any sign of offensive mastery, but a midfielder needs to contribute a certain amount and so far he’s at least done that.

A CanPL trial will be the highest level Fussell has ever attempted. The Whitecaps didn’t consider him among the top prospects, he was too young to even be considered for the USL team back in those days and was not publicly associated with first team training. He has never played USL PDL and never kicked around any Canadian youth national camps. Even the official sources talking up their draft picks have been airy and vague. Most of what we are going to learn about Fussell is going to come for the first time we see him in whatever a Pacific FC kit winds up being.

My suspicion is that Fussell is a “saw him good” pick. He was regular in nationals and, in UBC’s final game against UQAM, got himself sent off by starting a 90th-minute fracas. You sneer at a guy taking a straight red card late in a game he’s losing 2-1 but British Columbia was already down to ten men and had conceded two penalties, one highly controversial, and Fussell got UQAM’s Ibrahima Malick Ndiaye a red in exchange. A coach doesn’t always mind a player who, in that situation, decides to announce his presence with authority. Sometimes you want to buck up the team and put some fire in their bellies for next year.

Fussell will have a lot of next years. He, Gardner, and York’s Emmanuel Zambazis were the only three freshmen picked in the draft, but both Gardner and Fussell are a few years older because of their professional experience. Though dates of birth are often unavailable for university athletes Fussell was probably the youngest man picked. We don’t yet know how player developing through the U-Sports draft will work out. Under the rules as published, Pacific FC can offer Fussell a contract if they like and Fussell can sign if he likes, but if he doesn’t sign or the contract expires, he goes back into the U-Sports draft for next year. Either way, so long as he’s under a developmental contract then every August he will leave his CanPL team and go back to UBC for school and university play.

If Fussell and Pacific get along then this could work out very well. The young man spends spring and summer in Langford and fall on the University Endowment Lands, getting professional coaching and a few CanPL games, then applying his talents for a thousand minutes with the Thunderbirds while hopefully finding time to open a book. But there are a lot of ways, even unrelated to the player’s quality, that this could go wrong for somebody. The player is serving two masters, and might disincentivise one or both from investing in his development. If he sticks, young Nicholas is a test case for how this player development model might go. He could be more memorable off the field than on.

  1. Semenets, a creative number nine and left winger, got a cup of coffee with FC Edmonton and had flashes but never established himself; last I heard from him was years ago in PDL. Probably deserved better. Cubbon was a solid centreback who as far as I know never turned pro. I no longer remember much about him besides liking him but I did, deeply; few mistakes, no nonsense, not a Doneil Henry sort at all. If Canada had four professional divisions I guarantee Cubbon would have been in one.
  2. And while I’m being a shamelessly biased homer, for God’s sake, Pacific or Edmonton or Cavalry or somebody do not forget Hicksy on your preseason roster.
  3. Though, for the record, Caleb Clarke was not.
  4. Both USL PDL and U-Sports have more substitutions than professional games, so this number isn’t as bad as it would look in MLS, but it still isn’t great.
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