Any athlete is thrilled to hear their name called on draft day. There's a little extra prestige, though, associated with being picked first overall. That's the feeling this time around for the University of British Columbia's Thomas Gardner, who went at the top of the list to FC Edmonton in this year's CPL-U SPORTS Draft on Friday, joining a group of previous first overall selections that included Gabriel Bitar and Cory Bent. This is actually Gardner's third time in the draft -- Pacific FC selected him in both of the previous two editions -- but injuries and COVID-19 kept him from securing a spot with the Tridents. This time around, the Eddies made sure to pick him before any other club had a chance. "It's pretty surreal," Gardner told CanPL.ca on Friday. "I've been picked a couple of times before, but due to an injury and COVID I wasn't able to go. I'm super happy to join Edmonton this time around, and I can't wait to get started." To incoming FCE coach Alan Koch, the fact that Gardner had been picked before was more reason for taking him; he revealed that Gardner was attracting enough interest from other CPL clubs that he was compelled to pick the midfielder first overall.
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Of course, it helped that Koch has worked with Gardner in the past at the Vancouver Whitecaps academy -- in fact, the coach gave Gardner his professional debut with the Whitecaps 2 team in USL, back in 2015. "Third time lucky," Koch joked with CanPL.ca. "In all seriousness, if somebody's been drafted twice before, other people see value in him... I've seen him actually play in USL Championship playoff games, and helped teams win games there, so we've tried to limit risk as much as possible. I think going and drafting somebody that we know, that we have a personal connection with, it made complete sense for us to go in that direction. "I'm excited to see how he does in the CPL now; there's a lot of other players that he played with, and some that are his close friends, that have actually come in and played really well in this league. We hope and we expect Tommy to have the same sort of influence in the league this year." Gardner missed out on an opportunity with Pacific in 2019 because of a knee injury shortly after the draft, otherwise he may well have played in the CPL that year. So, hearing that Koch drafted for position -- the coach mentioned that he'd chosen Gardner, an attacking midfielder, and Jackson Farmer, a centre-back, to fill needs at the club -- reassured him that the hope is for him to contribute as soon as possible. "I don't plan on coming to Edmonton and sitting on the bench, to be honest," Gardner said. "I think I can make an impact; I think I have the ability to get regular minutes and contribute to the team's success this year." He added: "Alan's done a lot of exciting things, and he was my coach with Whitecaps FC 2. I played some really good soccer under him, and I'm looking to do the same again." Every CPL club approaches the draft differently, and with this being Koch's first as coach of FC Edmonton, he was sure to do his homework. He explained that the FCE staff had ranked all 48 eligible players in the draft by position, building their scouting profiles based on video, as well as phone calls to players and university coaches. Then, they went about picking the players they felt could help the Eddies most in the near future.
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"We didn't need to go young; I know some teams are trying to fulfill their U-21 minutes, we didn't need to do that," Koch added. "Our approach was to get the best Canadian players we can get, because we want to develop Canadian players, but it didn't really matter their age. We're confident with the young guys that we have in our squad already, that we can get and surpass quota minutes from U21 perspective." Edmonton looked closely at several other players, but Koch said he's very happy with his choices. "There were other players we had interest in, and they might be players that maybe could be today higher players, potentially, but we picked two players we knew, and two players that fit a positional need for our club," he explained. Koch divulged that he'd like to be able to sign both Gardner and Farmer to U SPORTS developmental contracts, indicating that he's keen on cooperating with UBC to find the best strategy for each player. Ultimately, Koch said that the mechanism of the CPL-U SPORTS Draft is there to be used, and he's hoping to have found real value in Gardner and Farmer. "We're excited to bring both these guys in; we haven't just drafted somebody just to go through a process," he said. "We want both these guys to come in, and we're excited to welcome them into the group."