Three years is a long time in Canadian soccer. From the Canadian women’s national team capturing gold at Tokyo 2020 to the men’s side reaching the final stages of World Cup qualifying to the Canadian Premier League’s continued growth, we’ve seen a lot of change in a short period of time. One of those shifts has come through our post-secondary institutions – long been delivering top-level talent without the pathway to the professional game. That has, since 2018, changed in a big way with the CPL-U SPORTS Draft – the upcoming version is slated for January 2022. Players are eligible to register for the draft anytime before December 31, 2021. Some of the top talent in Canada’s university circuit will be in action this weekend in the nation’s capital for the 2021 U SPORTS Men’s Soccer Championships in Ottawa. Here are six reasons why the CPL-U SPORTS Draft and, by extension, the national championship deserves your attention.

U SPORTS Finals stand as a crucial showcase​

As mentioned, U SPORTS will crown a winner this weekend at the 2021 men's soccer championships in Ottawa. Saint Mary’s, Guelph, Victoria, Montréal, Laval, Cape Breton, Carleton, and the University of British Columbia are set to kickoff play Thursday. A number of draftees and former CPLers will feature, including Chris Lee (Pacific FC), Daniel Kaisar (Cavalry FC), and Thomas Gardner (FC Edmonton) at UBC and Matteo de Brienne and Raphael Garcia with the hometown Carleton Ravens. There’s a real anticipation around the weekend in CPL circles (more on that later) as players look to make a final solid impression with the hopes of landing a professional contract in the upcoming draft. We’ve seen several university talents make a lasting impression from the finals. Gabriel Balbinotti famously led UQTR to their first U SPORTS finals and title in 2019 only to be drafted by Forge FC a day later. Balbinotti stayed on with the team through their Concacaf League campaign in 2020, returning to university with crucial pro experience.

Joel Waterman’s path through Cavalry FC to MLS

Another player who shined in the finals back in 2018 was Joel Waterman of CF Montreal. The Trinity Western University grad was familiar with Cavalry FC’s set up having spent time with Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s Calgary Foothills, which saw him selected by the Cavs 14th overall. It was fitting when Waterman was the first CPL player to jump to MLS level, signing from the Cavs in January 2020. A meteoric rise made possible by the opening of pathways from a school like Trinity Western – one of the smaller programs in British Columbia – to playing Concacaf Champions League matches in just over a year. Wheeldon Jr. himself is a big proponent of the U SPORTS system, having gone from the professional game to university and later coaching in USL 2, a league littered with players in post-secondary institutions. The Cavs played numerous U SPORTS players in 2021 including Victor Loturi, who returned to the pro club after a stint at Mount Royal in Calgary. "We’ve been able to catch some local games – we keep our ears to the ground because I really believe in this bridge," Wheeldon Jr. said, adding they’ll be sending representatives to this weekend’s finale to scout potential targets.

By the numbers: Draftees show ability

Crunching the numbers through Centre Circle Data – CPL’s official statistics database – offers a much more nuanced take on the ability of U SPORTS players in the CPL. Perhaps none is more pronounced than HFX Wanderers attacker Stefan Karajovanovic. The Carleton Ravens’ goal-a-game striker was an analyst’s darling through much of the most recent CPL season – his first as a pro – as he ranked near the top in expected goals and chances created despite only scoring once. The 22-year-old stands in the top ten among all CPLers in categories like chances created in open play (20) and touches in the attacking third (446) while winning a league-high three penalties. FC Edmonton striker and former draftee Easton Ongaro, meanwhile, stands at CPL’s all-time leading goalscorer and led the league in expected goals (10.36) in 2021. Ongaro, famously, was drafted by Cavalry but moved to FCE as a free agent. At the other end is Zach Verhoeven of Atlético Ottawa and Jake Ruby of HFX Wanderers who made 42 and 37 tackles in 2021 – good enough for placement in the half-dozen of defenders despite playing 400 minutes less than anyone in the top 10.

HFX Wanderers’ use of university pathway

No CPL club has taken advantage of the CPL-U SPORTS Draft quite like Stephen Hart and the Wanderers. All seven players drafted by the former Canadian men’s national team coach have appeared in a Wanderers kit – including five in 2021; Cape Breton grads Peter Schaale and Cory Bent have shined alongside local talent Christian Oxner, so has underrated fullback Jake Ruby and Karajovanovic, who we’ll get to later. There was also Aboubacar Sissoko – a University of Montreal midfielder who lifted Halifax to the 2020 CPL Final – has since moved on to USL heavyweights Indy Eleven. The commitment to the university level, for which Hart coached, makes each CPL-U SPORTS Draft intriguing from Halifax's perspective. It was also a bit of a sell for Karajovanovic, who saw players like Schaale make significant contributions as first-year pros: "I feel like CPL and U SPORTS have built a very smart and cool opportunity for university players to have a chance to both pursue a degree and play at the next level. Schaale who came from Cape Breton and has played a big role (in the team). There’s a lot of talent in U SPORTS so it’s good to have players who aren’t being overlooked and who can pursue their degrees as well."

Forge taking Garven Metusula on once-in-a-lifetime professional ride

While Garven Metusula had yet to play U SPORTS due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can’t understate his role on Canada’s top domestic club, Forge FC, and their commitment to players like him. The Concordia University student was drafted by the Hamilton club last January – a rare selection from any club picking outside of their province. Coach Bobby Smyrnitois, simply, saw the best defender on offer – technical and versatile with some good experience in PLSQ. Being eased into Forge’s system after some early bumps, the 21-year-old has gone on to become the two-time defending champion's most reliable defenders, making 21 league appearances and a staggering three starts in Concacaf League – including the club’s biggest-ever win, playing all 90 minutes in a Concacaf Champions League-clinching win to Costa Rica’s Santos. What’s most glaring, though, is Forge’s commitment to the Montreal-area native – who has grown exponentially in his rookie season. "Everything happens so fast… I try to learn every day," Metusala said in a recent interview. "Garvin in March was a completely different player to Garven today. I’ve tried to strive for my best." "U SPORTS has given this league some great players," Smyrniotis said. "When you look at the development in Canada... There are players everywhere. It's just a matter of: are we seeing them? Are we identifying them? And sometimes they're in places where not a lot of people are looking." Jace Kotsopoulos, who scored twice for the team before returning to Guelph University in 2019, was sought after by Smyrniotis for a return in 2020 but opted for school instead. He’s since, after a brief sti9nt with York9 FC in 2020, gone on to make quite a name for himself in the Royal City, leading Guelph United to the League1 Ontario championship in the club’s first season. Taking that professional experience to grow the game...

Flexibility in unique professional pathway

CPL-U SPORTS draftees can sign U SPORTS Development Contracts or fully-fledged professional deals, with the former allowing players to keep their university eligibility. That’s been, in closing, a crucial element to the success of the draft, which is set for its fourth iteration this Winter. Whether the players take the professional experience back to share with their university teammates or elsewhere, you can't doubt its effect. A better player because of CPL experience? Definitely. Making Canadian soccer better? Most certainly. The 2021 CPL-U SPORTS Draft will take place in January 2022. Prospective eligible draftees can sign up here and have until December 31st to do so.

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