Once overlooked U Sports athletes proving themselves in Canadian Premier League
Draft agreement a 'dream come true' for students aspiring to play pro soccer
With a lack of opportunities to turn their amateur career professional, many male soccer players coming out of U Sports (Canada's governing body for university athletics) would have decided to hang up their boots.
Christian Oxner, a goalkeeper with HFX Wanderers FC, was one of the many players preparing for such an outcome before joining the Canadian Premier League (CPL).
"I was almost ready to give up on soccer and just start focusing primarily on school because going into my fifth year [at Saint Mary's University], there really was nothing around to do," said Oxner.
Thanks to the CPL-U Sports draft introduced during the inaugural season in 2018, players emerging from Canadian university programs have an outlined path to a professional career. And the ones who make it are proving they belong.
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Upon being drafted, players can sign a professional contract or a developmental deal — the latter maintains their U Sport eligibility. The agreement was a "dream come true" for Oxner, who was selected 19th overall in 2018.
"It was almost like there was something finally to push for in soccer [and] to actually make a career out of."
New teammate Cory Bent shared the same feelings. "It gives you something to work towards. You're not just working towards a dead end where you feel like you're going to have to stop playing [soccer] eventually."
This season, a total of 28 players with U Sports experience travelled to Charlottetown, P.E.I., for the CPL's Island Games, each representing one of the eight teams. Eleven of them were drafted by clubs over the last two seasons and many have been turning heads throughout the tournament.
Vying for berth in The Island Games final
Four teams currently remain, including Pacific FC, Cavalry FC, Forge FC and HFX Wanderers, along with seven U Sports draft picks.
These include Oxner, Bent, Aboubacar Sissoko, Jake Ruby, Peter Schaale (Wanderers), Gabriel Balbinotti (Forge) and Zach Verhoven (Pacific). This group features players from the last three U Sports national championship teams, the 2020 U Sports Male Athlete of the Year (Sissoko) and the 2019 first overall draft pick (Bent).
Beyond the accolades, these players have made a difference on the pitch for their clubs and are earning deserved recognition.
The seven players have spent a combined average of 391 minutes on the pitch. Two scored decisive goals for their team, three appeared in the CPL's 'team of the week' selections and three were awarded one or multiple 'man of the match' honours, proving why they belong in the league.
Finding a way to tap into the once over-looked pool of amateur talent was key to the CPL's player development plan according to Michael Findlay, director of soccer development. "Plugging holes" in identifying, evaluating and recruiting new players were top priorities.
Findlay said seeing the success of the "ground-breaking" CPL-U Sports partnership at the Island Games means the developmental system is effective.
"One of those areas that needed [to be] plugged, was the U Sports system because there's a number of players who leave amateur development football."
"I'm very pleased with the performance of all the youth that is involved in the Canadian Premier League," he added. "Our best-case scenario, as from the Canadian Premier league's point of view, is the opportunity we are giving to these players to play."
Thriving in professional environment
CPL coaches such as Stephen Hart are also impressed with how U Sports players have developed professionally. Out of all the teams in the league, Hart's Wanderers roster has most U Sports experience (six players).
"I must say that all the U Sports players that I have brought in, want to be in this environment, they want to experience it. And so far, it's been fantastic," he said.
With only three games left in the season, the search for Canada's next selection of U Sports recruits is approaching. The 2020 men's soccer championships are postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19, but both U Sports and the CPL confirmed the intention to hold a draft even without the championship, keeping hopes alive for players across the country.
"We're very confident that we will have a U Sports draft this year," said Findlay. "We have a lot of data already that would at least provide the opportunity for the league to continue to [have a] U Sports draft at some point in 2020, or 2021, to continue to feed the league with these types of players."