From the build-up to last year's CPL-U SPORTS draft, Vancouver FC defender Anthony White remembers a lot of nerves and anticipation. He felt as though he had given a good account of himself in his first two years as a central defender, both with the University of Toronto and by winning the inaugural League1 BC title with TSS Rovers. But there were still no guarantees that he would be one of the 16 names announced by CPL commissioner Mark Noonan as part of the 2023 draft on Dec. 15, 2022. When the news came that he had been drafted, however, it was even better than expected. Not only would be joining expansion club Vancouver FC, who are based out of Langley and only 30 kilometres from his hometown of Port Moody, BC, but he had been selected first overall. "I didn’t find out I was going to be drafted until maybe five minutes before so it was all kind of a big surprise on Dec. 15," White told CanPL.ca. "But it has probably been my best accomplishment in my soccer career so far and something I'm very proud of." White, now 20 years of age, was the fifth player to be selected first overall in the CPL-U SPORTS Draft, joining current Vancouver FC teammate Gabriel Bitar (2018), Cory Bent (2019), Thomas Gardner (2021) and José Cunha (2022). A sixth will be added to that list on Thursday, Dec. 14 at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT. That pick is held by Valour FC. Being selected in the draft, however, even first overall, brings with it no certainties of a contract. U SPORTS players, if they are invited into training camp, still need to prove to their respective teams that they have what it takes to play at the professional level.
White went into camp determined to quickly impress, and he did just that, earning himself a two-year full standard player contract before the 2023 season had even kicked off. Even once he had signed a pro deal, however, it took White a bit of time to settle into the league. While he made his debut in the second match of the season, in Vancouver FC's first-ever win as a club on April 22 against York United, it was a substitute appearance in the second minute of second-half stoppage time. Through the first nine matches of the season, he recorded just two minutes of action. "At the beginning, it was a challenging adjustment for sure," said White. "That was the biggest thing, making sure I was prepared; the coach didn’t want to throw me into an environment where I wasn’t going excel so that took maybe a month or two before I was prepared. Then he threw me in and I ended up taking my chance, I had a really good game and then kind of had that spot for the rest of the season." After making his first professional start, going 90 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Atlético Ottawa, White started the next 16 straight matches. As he did, he continued to grow in confidence. Evidence of that came with his excellent long ball to Shaan Hundal, resulting in an assist against York United on July 2. White's distribution has always been a big part of what makes him such an exciting talent, and he demonstrated that more and more as the season went on.
For White, it was helpful that he wasn't alone in the learning experience. On a Vancouver FC team that had a league-leading 5,203 minutes played by domestic U-21s, plenty of players were navigating their first season as professionals. That group of first-time pros included forward Ameer Kinani, who was taken by Vancouver second overall behind White, out of Toronto Metropolitan University. "We played against each other a couple of times in U SPORTS, which was cool," said White. "A good person to have, bounce some things off of and he’s a good friend to have." White and Kinani were part of a strong contingent of six players drafted in 2023 who appeared in CPL matches this past season, combining for a total of 100 regular season appearances. It was just the latest strong crop of players proving that there is plenty of quality talent at the U SPORTS level.
"It's a great opportunity because it's a proven pathway now," said White. "There are lot of examples like me, Eryk Kobza, Eric Lajeunesse, and Gaby Bitar on VFC from a couple of years ago. It's a great stepping stone into the pro game." Much like White, his Vancouver FC side took some time to settle into their first season in the CPL. However, the 20-year-old defender became a key part of the side as they unquestionably found their footing in the latter half of the year, including winning four of their final six matches. "I was happy to be part of that building block towards the end of the season where we started finding our groove and I’m looking forward to next season where we can hopefully continue that," said White. And as the club's first-ever CPL-U SPORTS draft pick, he wants to continue to make history with Vancouver FC in 2024, both on a personal and team level. "The biggest goal is probably to get my first professional goal, I want that, "he said. "For the team, obviously to shoot for first place, but if not obviously be in the playoff spots.” Who follows in White's footsteps as the next CPL-U SPORTS Draft first overall pick remains to be seen. But in his first Canadian Premier League season he has shown just how big of an opportunity it can be if it is seized with both hands.