Welcome to CPL DEEP DIVE, a CanPL.ca series that takes an in-depth look at a particular subject matter of interest in the Canadian Premier League, examining it from a variety of angles and perspectives. The latest installment of this web feature takes a look at some of the different paths players take to get to the CPL. The kid that never made it. If you grew up in a small Canadian town, you know that story all too well – it's a depressing one, and it goes something like this: They were the "best" anyone had ever seen. Maybe they left to pursue their professional aspirations, only to return home with dreams dashed. Or maybe they never left. Or maybe their chance never came. But, boy, could they play. Brett Levis of Valour FC, Nolan Wirth of Pacific FC, and Morey Doner of York9 FC were not supposed to make it. Canadian soccer players from rural or out-of-the-way places are a rare breed. From Saskatoon, Comox, and Collingwood, these three players made it to the CPL on whims, once-in-a-lifetime chances, and with overwhelming persistence. In this CPL DEEP DIVE, we spoke to the CPLers who have emerged from the Canadian soccer wilderness, and asked how they overcome the many obstacles that face so many geographically-challenged young players? How did they find their own extended "pathway" in a country that's spent years trying to assemble just a few of their own? CPL DEEP DIVE: How a steak & fish dinner in Madrid led to the launch of Atlético Ottawa
'I had to blaze that trail myself': Saskatchewan's lone CPLer, Brett Levis

"Pathway" is one of Canadian soccer's favourite – and most literal – buzzwords. It's the trail a Canadian player needs to follow to become a professional. Youth soccer, an academy, under-20s, professional club. That was the order. Now, soccer pathways are not intrinsically tied to geography, except for the one Brett Levis took. Levis – who became the CPL's first player born in Saskatchewan when he signed with Valour FC last month – lost his mother when she was 15. Then, right then and there, Levis dedicated himself to his professional soccer career, regardless of how hard or improbable the pathway. Well, it worked, and he can quite literally trace his professional path on a map of Canada, starting at the University of Saskatchewan. "Saskatoon and greater Saskatchewan were often (overlooked)," Levis told CanPL.ca about starting out as a young player. "I didn't have any other chances other than at the University of Saskatchewan. It was the highest level afforded to me, so I took it. "It ended up helping me grow as a footballer exponentially." The midfielder made the best of the situation by helping the Huskies qualify twice for the U SPORTS (then-CIS) national championship tournament and winning the CanWest conference in 2014, both firsts for the school's soccer program. Levis' 29-goal return in 50 matches for the University of Saskatchewan was impressive, sure, but it came at an inopportune time in U SPORTS men's soccer. Long before the inaugural 2018 CPL-U SPORTS Draft (which saw 12 university players make the jump to the pro ranks in the CPL), U SPORTS players were largely excluded from the Canadian player pathway. USL 2 and League1 Ontario would fill a summer void for some of these U SPORTS players, but MLS sides certainly were not scouring universities in early fall for the next big thing. "I didn't have a vision or pathway to follow as a kid from Saskatoon, at the age of 20, who didn't come through an academy," Levis explained. "It was difficult to be the first, in a sense, when I joined the Huskies. How would I turn pro? "I had to blaze that trail myself." After the University of Saskatchewan, Levis' trail then sent him to the Victoria Highlanders and the PDL (now USL 2). A couple good games against the Vancouver Whitecaps' under-23 PDL team and, a year later, he was wearing a Whitecaps 2 jersey. "I just played really well against the Whitecaps' under-23 team, it turned out," Levis joked. "That's how I got (noticed). Having a good game against them was the road to go, apparently." Nearly 50 appearances later with Whitecaps 2 in the USL (alongside future CPLers Dominick Zator, Matthew Baldisimo, Kadin Chung, and others), Levis earned a chance with the big club, signing with the senior Whitecaps side in July 2016. Saskatoon to MLS in six years. Not bad. "I was very grateful and it made me very excited once I signed (an MLS) contract, knowing it would help other Saskatoon players come through," Levis said, mentioning fellow Saskatoon native Thomas Hasal who signed a pro-deal with the Whitecaps last year. "Players shouldn't be stuck or forced to make a decision on their future. I hope I proved a pathway for kids there."
Ski hills & five-inch grass: How Morey Doner made it from Collingwood

At 21, Morey Doner had been given next-to-no soccer opportunities. He was fitting kids with skis and snowboards while working at the Blue Mountain ski resort in his native Collingwood, Ontario. He'd only ever played in local men's league soccer, save for a very brief stint in League1 Ontario. Doner was long considered the best player in the resort town, which is nestled between Blue Mountain and Georgian Bay. Playing in the same-old town on the same-old team, Doner thought there was nowhere to go. "You'd look to the stands and see your mom, a few girlfriends, maybe ten people total," the York9 FC fullback told CanPL.ca. "The grass is four or five inches long. You're playing with people maybe twice your age. "All I could think was 'how could this be?' If I improve every single day, how will anyone see it? Does it even count?" At a coffee shop in Toronto, Doner tells stories of coaches and parents singling him out as young as 11. It's clear he was a special player in a town of 21,000 people with just one turf field, which was outdoors. "Kids would come and try and swipe me because they heard I was good," Doner joked. "That's when I said it was possible for me to turn pro – however unlikely it was." Doner had a sliver of a sliver of a chance. His town barely featured soccer players, let alone professional ones. After hours of research, and after putting away a few paycheques, he was ready for his breakthrough: a pay-to-play opportunity in Brazil's lowest professional league. "My experience was, well, 'Collingwood.' Who's going to look twice at that," Doner joked. "Agents, coaches, they wouldn't take me seriously, so I had to invest in myself." That Brazilian team was his first of three clubs he'd play for in 2016. "It was $1,500 Canadian dollars just to be there, per month. To eat beans and rice, sit on the floor. Mosquito nets, cots on the floor," Doner recalled of his time in Brazil. Not a glamorous start – paying for a cot on the floor – but it was his first shot at being a professional. "I had some hard decisions to make, but the pathway was there," Doner said. Doner's agent managed to get the fullback a chance with Palm Beach Suns of USL League Two soon after. From there, an opportunity with a big name in Canadian soccer crossed his path. More on that later.
Pacific FC's Nolan Wirth struck lightning in a bottle in Comox

From Comox, British Columbia (located on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island), Nolan Wirth's early away trips as a kid playing soccer were unique. "We would play across mid-Island in places like Nanaimo, Parksville, and Port Alberni," Wirth said of his soccer upbringing. Wirth managed a homecoming of sorts when he signed with Vancouver Island-based Pacific FC last year, making 12 starts for the CPL club during the 2019 season. But before the CPL came to his side of the Strait of Georgia, Wirth's weekend trips while growing up were a lot longer – and required sea travel. Joining an upper Vancouver Island selects team, he and his family made a two-hour ferry trip every other weekend, going to away matches all over BC's Lower Mainland. "Yeah, that was a lot of time on the ferry," Wirth joked. Eight-hour, round trip away matches for Wirth signified the greater challenge presented by any player pathway: to be the best, you have to play the best. Upper Vancouver Island's soccer scene wasn't to his level, so he needed to take his skills elsewhere. Those in major Canadian cities – including nearby Vancouver – could simply move up the food chain in their city rather than commit to province-spanning trips. How would a kid from Comox ever get noticed by a professional club? Well, Wirth ended up, like Brett Levis, being spotted by the Whitecaps at just the right time. It's 2011, and the Whitecaps' academy program was expanding as they joined MLS. Wirth, along with a group of other out-of-city kids, tried out and earned a place in the Whitecap's academy program that was suddenly expanding by 20-odd players. Invited to a combine that ran simultaneously with the Whitecaps' first MLS game at Empire Field, Wirth ended up getting in with Vancouver's academy team at just the right time. "I had to grow up quickly," Wirth said, mentioning his small-town roots. "At 15, going from living with my parents and brother in a town of 15,000 people, to living in Vancouver and being very independent. It's crazy. How did I even make that transition?" From there, things grew exponentially for Wirth, including those away trips. "We were all up and down the west coast of North America. We'd play in San Diego for a casual weekend," Wirth said with a smile. "Going from a Port Alberni away trip to southern California in a few years was a big transition, too. "The first year, there were 15 of us from outside of Vancouver and funnelled into billet families, going to school together." Wirth moved on from the Whitecaps academy to Oregon State on a scholarship, and later he had opportunities with Phoenix Rising (USL) and Victoria Highlanders, and eventually he landed with Pacific FC. So, the question is: Where would Wirth be without that seemingly random academy expansion by the Whitecaps? "Honestly, I don't know. I wish I could answer that," Wirth seemed at a loss for words. "That opportunity was the absolutely best thing that could have happened to me. To train at a high level with some of the best players from all over Canada – I could start to develop and see an improvement I wouldn't get at home. "I went to Oregon State after I finished with the (Whitecaps academy) residency, but I would not have been able to get schooling like that without that chance to build my resume. "It made me really appreciate it and even give back."
'I need to save this phone number right now'

After his short USL League Two stint in 2016, Morey Doner arrived back home in Collingwood, again with no connections while looking for his next opportunity to play. "Anywhere close to home was good, you know," Doner said. Finally, Doner latched on with Aurora FC in League1 Ontario in 2017. Current York9 FC coach Jimmy Brennan was at Aurora at the time. Brennan, capped 49 times for Canada, had never even heard of Doner, but a late-season trial followed and Brennan ended up texting the fullback, asking him to come out again. "I thought, 'I need to save his number right now,'" Doner laughed has he reflected on seeing Brennan's phone number for the first time. Doner turned out for Aurora at the end of the 2017 campaign. Brennan left ahead of the 2018 season, but Doner remained at Aurora – making the two-hour drive for practices and home matches. He'd go on to play every single minute of the 2018 League1 Ontario season, even making the all-star team. Chances came to join other sides, including a deal to potentially be the first League1 Ontario to fetch a transfer fee. But Doner stayed with Aurora. Good thing, as an old friend happened to see him play a few weeks later. "Jimmy came to a game and didn't tell me he was there," Doner recalled. "My coach was pushing me hard at the time, he knew Jimmy. Our technical director knew Jimmy as well. They kept 'bigging' me up to him… and it worked." Doner was invited to a closed-door York9 combine in the summer of 2018. After that, a week-long combine. By day two, Brennan pulled Doner aside. Sooner than expected – but years and years in the making – Doner had his professional breakthrough, as eventually signed with Y9. "I remember walking away and calling my mom. My only thought was 'this is really happening,'" Doner recalled, mentioning the four or five nights a week she would drive him to Aurora games and practices. "She would always tell me 'the journey is just as important as the destination.' I really believe that. I knew that I had to keep working, knowing that when that opportunity came I could do it. "Now I'm the one who came out of Collingwood and Aurora as well." Doner had a breakout season with The Nine Stripes in 2019, playing 2,250 minutes across 29 appearances. His pace, defensive abilities, and veteran qualities shined brightly in a league filled with players from well-known academies and large cities.
'You are not spoon-fed like other players'

In Saskatoon, a young Brett Levis found himself staring down an impossible path. His own work ethic was all he could rely on. "It gave me this grind that I felt some players lack," Levis recalled to CanPL.ca, theorizing that Canadian scouts would overlook Saskatchewan at the time. "Players in major cities (had a) natural progression that every year they went up a level, went through the academy, that sort of thing. What happens when you don't have that progression year-over-year, and you're not spoon-fed up to that point?" Levis' work ethic certainly showed itself during his time with the Whitecaps. He tore his ACL in his first MLS game in 2016, leading to a season-long recovery in 2017. He would go on to make another 20 appearances for Vancouver over the next two seasons before parting ways with the MLS outfit. "It definitely gives you an extra sense of grind. You're hungrier," Levis said. That sense of "grind" is something that Doner felt growing up in Collingwood. His parents, who later split up, left the basement unfinished for a pre-teen Morey. Cement floor, three-inch plywood on every wall and a soundproof ceiling. "Being from a small area I didn't have a lot of facilities," Doner said. "No one played soccer. You have to make do. We had one sports store. You would get a cheap ball and kick it against a wall." Doner, ultimately, points to his adolescence as the key to his professional soccer success, despite its clear disadvantages. "I made a lot of sacrifices and I didn't have much at my disposal," Doner explained. "Being from a small town makes you appreciate what you have so much more. "My upbringing guaranteed me to be humble and not entitled. I'm always going to be a guy to put his head down and work hard. That's one of the main reasons I got to this point."
'Going professional is doable. They need to see this'

Now 25, Nolan Wirth routinely makes the three-hour drive from Victoria to hold soccer camps in Comox – most recently in November, when he handed over one of his game-worn Pacific FC kits, which sits behind glass at the Comox Valley United Soccer Club's clubhouse. "That puts a warm spot in my heart, man," Wirth admitted. "Going home makes me really appreciate it and to give back. Not everyone kid up there knows going professional is doable. They need to see this." For Wirth, it's about giving back and, by extension, inspiring kids in a historic fishing and lumber town to chase a professional soccer dream. "People in Comox recognize what I've done and what I can give back to the area," Wirth said. "Yes, you're from a small town but there are still opportunities out there for you. Mine just happened to align – but maybe for a 12-year-old kid there now, if he puts in the effort, maybe it will align for them, too." Levis explained that things have improved for aspiring soccer players in Canada's breadbasket. The Whitecaps have opened Saskatchewan academies in recent years, and the Saskatchewan Summer Soccer Series has given local talent a showcase against Calgary Foothills and Toronto FC II. "Coming from Saskatchewan you hear that it's impossible, that you have to move away, or how are you going to break-through," Levis said. "Maybe now that I've signed a contract or Thomas Hasal has with Vancouver, maybe Saskatchewan won't be overlooked anymore. "At the end of the day, that's my goal – let the young players who have the talent and drive in that province get any kind of chance. "Don't be discouraged by geography."
The next frontier?

There are a lot remote Canadian soccer locations beyond Collingwood, Saskatoon and Comox. Canada's North comes to mind. Cape Dorset, where the Canadian Premier League's Awards will be handcrafted for years to come, has many soccer players playing in the community and an incredible interest in the sport. Players from remote communities in Nunavut still travel long distances to play against the best teams in their region. What are the chances of a young player from the North making it professional? Slim, for sure. But as the pro game grows in this country, you can't help but wonder: If Collingwood or Comox can produce professional footballers, where will the next geography-defying player come from, and when? Canada's soccer pathway is bound to wind its way through many more towns and villages in the near future and, ultimately, make "the kid that never made it" a small-town story of the past.

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