A CPL-U SPORTS Draft with no U SPORTS games to work off from: It's a considerable hurdle to clear for the Canadian Premier League, its clubs, and the league's soccer operations department that facilitates the draft. While CPL teams headed to Prince Edward Island to complete a truncated season last summer, U SPORTS cancelled its 2020 Men's Soccer Championship and Canadian university season across each of its four-member conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the good news is that that 2021 CPL-U SPORTS Draft will take place on Jan. 29, in an event that will welcome Canadian university players into the professional game despite the lost season. As you can imagine, scouting potential players for the draft changed dramatically in 2020, with the CPL's scouting department –who assist the clubs with extensive U SPORTS scouting reports – relying on video, coach testimonials, and matches outside of the university realm. Soccer development staffers such as Aaron Nielsen, John Ulanowski and Anthony Totera worked behind the scenes last Fall to prepare a draft, keeping in contact with U SPORTS, its coaches, and players during a time of year typically occupied by playoffs and national championships. "Anthony Totera and I relied heavily on the commitment, really, by those in the university realm," Aaron Nielsen, CPL's head of domestic scouting, told CanPL.ca. "Most of these players hadn't played a competitive match in a year – but that doesn't alter their interest or ability to make CPL squads, either." Seventeen U SPORTS Draft choices have made the Canadian Premier League roster since the first draft in 2018, many of whom are considered some of the league's brightest stars. A total of 13 drafted players made the jump to CPL clubs in 2019, surprising coaches and Canadian soccer onlookers by making key contributions in the league's inaugural season. Twelve former picks made at least one appearance during the 2020 season at The Island Games in PEI, further showing how valuable Canada's university circuit is to the CPL. "We attended around 20 U SPORTS games this Fall, so that was the main bread and butter of our scouting packages. We did get the opportunity, before provinces put us under lockdown, to film games from other leagues using our partner MSA," Nielsen said, referring to leagues like PLSQ and League1 Ontario. "Those other brands of football allow us to better understand the players and, in 2020's case, it was the only way they'd be able to be seen playing this year." This week's CPL-U SPORTS Draft will consist of two rounds, with eight picks in each round and each CPL club making two selections. All 16 draftees will be invited to their club's pre-season training camp ahead of the 2021 CPL campaign. Drafted players can also sign a U SPORTS Developmental Contract, which allows a student-athlete with one to five years of U SPORTS eligibility remaining to sign with a CPL team while preserving their eligibility before returning to U SPORTS competition. Those same underclassmen can also later sign a full-time professional player contract with their club following graduation.
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"U SPORTS runs for only a couple months of the year so while it's a vital part of the league, we need to make sure to keep these programs and coaches in the loop," Nielsen said. "That's where this interconnectedness comes in; U SPORTS players getting involved with League1 Ontario, PLSQ, or wherever so they keep the conversation going." The commitment isn't lost on Oliver Gage, the CPL's director of football: "The willingness to help shown by the U SPORTS coaches this year has been quite remarkable. "Their player identification process has been invaluable. So has Aaron and Anthony's relationship with U SPORTS as a whole."