There is always risk in a college draft. University athletes are young, still learning their way around assignments and rent payments as much as they’re learning soccer on and off the pitch.
The inaugural CanPL/USPORTs draft presented a completely clean slate. Draftees were actually the first players formally affiliated with the new clubs, and many went on to have a lot of success. That, in turn, increased both expectation and attention for the 2019 draft.
But we’re now starting to see teams’ approaches. FC Edmonton and Pacific FC are devout in their belief in local talent. Forge and Cavalry have distinct but clear tactical identities. Wanderers, Valour, and York have had disappointing seasons and are looking for answers from anywhere.
So it is that Wanderers end up drafting two players, both with some risk, from opposite coasts.
Cory Bent is the bigger name, an AUS star with the powerhouse Cape Breton Capers. Jake Ruby is a rookie at Burnaby’s Trinity Western, a program that recruited and developed guys like Paul Hamilton and Joel Waterman.
Both picks feel at once a bit safe and a bit well-trodden. Wanderers finished last and are in the process of radically overhauling the roster. But rather than a clear identity, they’ve drafted a forward who’s very similar to Akeem Garcia and a full-back who will remind people of Waterman.
Neither is a miss, but the league’s somewhat arcane–and frankly bizarre–draft rules mean the pressure is on. Ruby would re-enter the draft if he can’t make Wanderers as an 18-year-old. Bent will count as an international in, very likely, 2021.
Elsewhere, both Pacific and Cavalry had to re-draft players they had last year. York quietly did very, very well, as did Forge. With a deep team already, the defending champions set down a draft philosophy that emphasizes versatility and possession. No team in CanPL can currently match what Bobby Smyrniotis has built, and no team managed to get any closer last night.
I’ll have more on where teams are at soon. For now, the draft:
1. Halifax Wanderers – Cory Bent (Cape Breton)
Bent is one of the most effervescent players in university soccer. In space, he has the skill and power to do stuff like this:
— U SPORTS Soccer (@USPORTS_Soccer) November 7, 2019
Playing off another striker, I think he’s the best #10 in university soccer. He can also play wide, and likely will for Wanderers, much as he did last weekend at nationals, where he was the Capers’ best player, setting up Charlie Waters for a hat trick in that same game against Calgary.
“He attracts a lot of attention and he knows, at times when he does attract that attention, when to release the ball. He has a good head on his shoulders,” said Stephen Hart. That’s it exactly: Bent isn’t just a heads-down winger–he’s remarkably intelligent in how he uses his movement to pull defenses apart.
The only risk factor, aside that he’ll almost certainly count as an international in 2021, is that he can occasionally fade out of games. That’s true for any winger, though, and I expect him to challenge for starting minutes for Wanderers in 2020.
2. Valour FC – Marcus Campanile (Cape Breton)
This was a surprise pick–nobody, including me, had Campanile going. Despite that, he’s one of my favourite players in AUS: an unheralded, hard-nosed, two-way midfielder who knows when to foul guys.
He’ll get some love for his goals, but that’s not really his game. He’s a ball-winning #8 who can cover the field, make late runs, and add bite–all things Valour needs in that position. He’ll also fit in Winnipeg for his propensity to take some silly yellows, as such midfielders are wont to do, and he’ll need to make the team this year because he’s a fourth-year who will likely graduate and count as an international in 2021.
That shouldn’t be a problem for him–Campanile is nothing if not a competitor and both Rob Gale and Valour fans are going to love him. At best, he could be the steal of this draft, even if he very likely would have been available later. It speaks to how Gale rates him that he took him above Waters, and I agree with Gale wholeheartedly on that assessment.
3. Pacific FC – Jan Pirretas Glasmacher (Thompson Rivers)
This guy just kind of popped up on CanPL lists, which is always a good indicator at least one coach has an eye on him. Pirretas Glasmacher is actually Catalan, and started off in the U.E. Cornella youth system before spending time at Blackburn and Bayer Leverkusen, which is why he gets compared to Peter Schaale.
Like Schaale, his arrival in USPORTs coincided very well with a small school’s rise to prominence–the WolfPack sputtered a bit this year but had been regular Canada West contenders the years prior. He’s also a ball-playing centre-back, something Pacific desperately, desperately needed. He’s a bit off the beaten path, but James Merriman knows Canada West and Pirretas Glasmacher isn’t a bad pick and other teams might have had an eye on him, too.
4. FC Edmonton – David Chung (Univ. of Alberta)
This shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow it still is. Jeff Paulus went way off-board, drafting an ex-Eddies academy guy from… the school he drafted all three from last year.
Take note: this is not the David Chung who plays for Waterloo and in League 1 Ontario. This is the other David Chung, who played locally in Edmonton1He did get one Canada U15 camp invite, on a prairie-centric roster that included guys like Eryk Kobza and Logan Chung.. Chung may be good–I know next to nothing about him–but surely Paulus could keep an eye on Chung, even call him to the U20s, or send him a camp invite when he’s ready? It’s not like he’s not in town.
Because otherwise, this is a major, major reach at #4, and a missed opportunity to get a look at talent not in Strathcona. The Golden Bears were 5-6-3 and finished fourth in the Prairie conference, behind a Calgary team got shredded by Campanile, Bent, and Charlie Waters. It’s not even clear Paulus drafted the best David Chung, let alone the best player available.
5. York9 FC – Stefan Karajovanovic (Carleton)
Karajovanovic was touted as a legit stud in this draft–he played with PLSQ champions AS Blainville and has slowly taken on a major role with the Ravens, too. He’s a shifty, tricky striker who can pop up and use space, and put up eight goals playing off Gabriel Bitar. This is a good example of waiting to take a player until he’s proven: Karajovanovic was a good rookie for Carleton last year, too, but now he’s starting to show CanPL potential, if not so much so that he wasn’t a realistic target for York at #5. This is good scouting from Jim and Ryan Brennan.
He didn’t have a great nationals–nor did Carleton as a whole–but he gives York someone who can move a bit laterally to open up a defense, which proved a problem too frequently last year. Karajovanovic is also quick enough to dart wide and get a good ball in should York sign a player like Jordan Hamilton to lead the line.
6. Cavalry FC – Gabriel Bitar (Carleton)
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. must have seen enough in Bitar’s limited action to bring him back for another go. It’s a burned pick thanks to the league’s rules, but there is talent there in Bitar, even if he hasn’t shown much of it in a while.
My concern watching him this weekend is that I saw the same thing I did watching in the Voyageur’s Cup–except against lesser competition. His movement is too often one-dimensional and he struggled to get enough space. Bitar’s not huge, and Wheeldon Jr. talked about using him on the wing, which might be a good idea, and maybe it’ll take a couple years for that conversion to stick. Last year, Bitar was a bit of a project at #1 overall–this year, he’s a bit of a project at #6 overall.
7. Forge FC – Gabriel Balbinotti (UQTR)
Last year, Peter Schaale fell all the way to fifth before walking on to Wanderers in camp. Connor James was seventh, Andre Bona tenth. So going late is not necessarily a bad sign in the CanPL draft–it’s obvious the coaches are still figuring out how to scout and assess university players.
Which is why Balbinotti ends up at Forge. It feels almost unfair. The Brazilian-Canadian turned heads at nationals, but it shouldn’t be a surprise given he’s spent time in the Impact academy and with Ottawa Fury. But for the instability of USL sides, he’d probably be out of CanPL’s financial reach.
A versatile playmaker, Balbinotti can link attack and defense while also providing goals himself (including in the air). Every CanPL team could use that kind of player, but only Forge will really maximize him: he’s the heir apparent to Kyle Bekker, and since he’s Canadian, Forge can afford to be patient with his development.
8. Forge FC – Alex Zis (Guelph)
Bobby Smyrniotis had to have been amazed Zis was still available. Zis is the best player in USPORTs not at nationals. He piled up goals and assists with the Gryphons, a mid-tier program, and he has chemistry with Jace Kotsopoulos, whom Smyrniotis drafted last year and will hopefully play more this year. Zis is more the playmaker of the pair, capable of playing a few different positions, which will increase his chance of getting time in Forge’s fluid attack.
He’s bounced around a bit since leaving TFC’s academy, playing in NCAA and also in League 1 Ontario before finally settling into Guelph. It’s the reality for young players in this country, though, and for players like Zis, it can often be as much about finding a system and a coach who will trust creative players. Zis is that. If Tristan Borges leaves, Forge have a potential replacement lined up, one Smyrniotis can mold over time.
9. Cavalry FC – Moe El-Gandour (Mount Royal)
This is another pick where flexibility plays a role: El-Gandour can do a lot of things in attack, and gives Wheeldon Jr. options in depth. He’s a very quick forward who’s hard to knock off the ball. He’s not huge, so how he fares against professional defenders is a question, but he fits the run-first-ask-questions-next ethos about Cavalry, and from little I can find on him, I could see him fitting well in that attack.
He was in Cavalry’s U20 set-up last summer, so this is another victory for the utility of those programs, since the club know him well, even if you wonder why they couldn’t have just invited him to camp. Still, he’s probably a decent sleeper pick and given Cavalry could have some difficulty re-signing all their internationals, it’s smart to add some domestic depth in attack, especially given El-Gandour will know the system.
10. York9 FC – Isaiah Johnston (Cape Breton)
This is a great pick. Johnston’s seventeen. He can’t even get into the legions in Sydney until December. But this kid has been on a professional path for a while. He played 12 games with Woodbridge Strikers this summer and trained with Y9 in the Dominican last spring. He may have been seen as too young last year, but with so many young players excelling in this league, I doubt that will be the case in 2020.
I love his game, too–the kind of midfielder who can cut in as easily as he can take a man on. I was sceptical what role he’d play in his rookie year in Cape Breton. Deano Morley platooned him a bit at first, but rapidly started to trust him in all kinds of situations. If there’s a knock on Johnston, it’s that he doesn’t have a true best spot yet, but at his age that’s okay. He’s smart in possession, has good vision, and has the instincts to get into the box. With time to develop his defensive game, he’ll be a top player in this league, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting some starts for York in 2020, either.
11. FC Edmonton – Jake Bosch (Univ. of Alberta)
Another midfielder from the Golden Bears, another guy who would have been on nobody else’s scouting list. Bosch is a rookie d-mid for the Golden Bears who, again, were not good this year. He does have a decent youth club résumé, having won nationals as a 15-year-old with Edmonton Juventus. He’s been in the Eddies academy ever since, and now plays for their U20 team.
That’s about all I can find on him. He’s not got a big footprint. This is about as sleeper a pick as you can get. Obviously Paulus knows him and I have no issue with him trusting in the academy, but when you’ve got a guy like Charlie Waters still on the board….
12. Pacific FC – Tommy Gardner (UBC)
It says a lot that Pacific didn’t take him at #3. Nobody else had Gardner on their list. He’s a free agent who’s been open that he wants to try and win a spot with Pacific, his local team. It’s silly that the league makes Pacific draft him, but all they’re really drafting is the right to talk to him and offer a developmental contract.
It’s hard to know where to stand on Gardner. UBC has a miserable year, and he’s had a miserable injury history. When he’s healthy, he’s the player who was solid for the Whitecaps Residency and TSS Rovers. He could add some mettle to Pacific’s midfield and with Alexander Gonzalez now in the fold, he doesn’t have to do all of it himself, which is good. But watching him this weekend, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he might just have finally broken. He didn’t seem to have the same fight. This is probably his last chance at pro ball, so hopefully he can bring some of the old Gardner in the spring, because otherwise Pacific have wasted two draft picks.
13. Valour FC – Charlie Waters (Cape Breton)
I wasn’t that surprised to see Waters fall. He’s coming off an injury and he was quiet in the big games at nationals. I was surprised to see him fall all the way to #13, and some coaches are going to rue leaving him. Rob Gale will not be one of them.
This is a great pick for Valour. There’s risk, but also reward. Deano Morley is a professional coach–when he says a guy will “excel” in a league, I trust that. What might have held teams back is that Waters is hard to build an attack around: he’s not a true #9 but rather a creative, chasing force who needs a bit of a free role. He fits Valour’s system (or lack thereof) perfectly, and in a good way. When Waters picks up the ball, he doesn’t just waffle–he uses it, often quickly, always with purpose. Without some help, Valour are going to give up four a game, but Waters can get them closer to scoring four, too, and Valour will have the option of extending his developmental contract–and thus domestic status–through 2021 if they want to.
14. Halifax Wanderers – Jake Ruby (Trinity Western)
Hart may have wanted Waters, but Jake Ruby is quietly a very, very good pick. He’s this year’s “guy I should have had in the mock draft but missed”. Last year, that was Andre Bona and that worked out okay!
Ruby’s a similar player–kind of a hybrid centre-back/full-back/wing-back who will end up as one of Hart’s bursting full-backs. He made the Canada West all-star team this year as a centre-back, and you can see the similarity to Joel Waterman, who also worked out okay. Ruby played at Victoria Highlanders (missing Peter Schaale by a year), and was a Canadian U17 international, so this is not some random university guy. Away From the Numbers’ Michael McColl, who is about as much an expert in BC amateur soccer as there is, had him as a top prospect–for the Whitecaps, as well as Pacific. He’s actually trained with the Whitecaps first-team, and that’s a pretty strong pedigree for an 18-year-old in CanPL.
Forge FC: A+
Bobby Smyrniotis’ plan appears to be “go draft the best guy at nationals and the best offensive producer in OUA.” He did it last year with Jace Kotsopoulous and Aboubacar Sissoko. He did it this year with Balbinotti and Zis. I dunno if he does that much scouting, but folks, it’s not a bad plan.
Thusly, Forge end up with the two best Canadians in USPORTs. This is a massive draft from Bobby Smyrniotis and the grade isn’t just because I rate both players, but because he made such good use of the assets while also building around the existing core. Neither player has to step up in their rookie year. Both will have a chance because you need depth in this league, and with a 23-man roster, that depth needs to be flexible. Neither is an absolute sure thing–no draft pick is–but Balbinotti does stuff very few other players in USPORTs do, and I’m not going to bet against Alex Zis’ scoring record. Goals are goals, and skill makes them happen.
York9 FC: B+
Last year I gave Brennan the lowest score, and got the distinct impression he didn’t value the draft. I still get the sense he might not. That’s okay–there will be differing views about the level and depth of USPORTs as a talent pool. But this year, he went out and made smart picks: two young Canadians with upside. They fit a need, but also bring something a little different.
Johnston, in particular, is a potential key piece. He’s not a finished product, but you watch him play and you can see what he could be if and when it all comes together. Inviting the Woodbridge player to train with York was a savvy move. It gave Johnston a clear goal and pathway and is the kind of man-management Brennan’s known for. He’s gone a long way now to addressing York’s lack of depth–now he just has to get the big signings right.
Halifax Wanderers: B+
This grade was much lower until I realized who Jake Ruby was. My bad. And look, you have to be real careful projecting anything out from U17 camps, but since leaving the Whitecaps in 2018 he’s dominated the VMSL, signed for Highlanders, and been a Canada West first-team all-star in his rookie year. This is the trajectory of a guy who is Going Places.
Add to that Cory Bent, who’s a livewire and a bit of a risk but also a high reward, especially if Wanderers add offensive talent in the international market, as I expect they will. Last year, Wanderers had no one who could win a game off the bench. Now, they do. Throw in a really promising prospect and this is another really good draft from Hart, for a second year in a row. I do wonder a bit if Bent might have been there later, but then you’re leaving Ruby on the table. That alone is a good example of why this draft should be three rounds, at least.
Valour FC: B-
I’ve not always been a fan of Valour’s roster moves, and I didn’t love their draft last year (in hindsight, it deserved a much lower grade), but I like Rob Gale’s approach this year. Again, he puts a lot of stock in the Capers. That’s never a bad move, even if it does suggest a little bit of a narrow lens–the Capers are good, but they’re not necessarily the best team in the country like everyone makes them out to be2Really, though. They won in 2017 on a smash-and-grab–twice, actually, since they did it to upset York in the quarters and then beat Montreal the same way. They were actually better last year, and Peter Schaale was immense, but they were still outclassed by Les Carabins at times. One day, CanPL will have Quebec teams and find more of the talent that lurks in RSEQ..
Still, Campanile and Waters are solid, solid picks, both at positions of need3Yes, they need centre-backs. That was never going to a problem they could solve in USPORTs, and some of the issue is that Valour give up way too much space in the midfield. Watch Campanile’s semi-final against Montreal and you’ll see how well he can help erase that space using his speed and grit.. There are obvious risks: Waters has injury problems, Campanile can be rash, and both are internationals, though they’ll count as domestic so long as they’re on developmental deals. Thus the B-. But in a way, that’s smart: if they succeed, then Valour can clear out other underperforming internationals going into 2021. And both are players who could very well contribute right now. While Waters is a known entity, Campanile is one of the most underrated players in USPORTs and will thrive on this chance.
Pacific FC: C-
Jan Pirretas Glasmacher was probably a good get even if he’s had a bit of a down year and isn’t Canadian. Pacific have enough local talent that his being an international if/when he leaves school won’t matter that much. The Gardner pick is a tad unfortunate, and though some of it is league-enforced, it’s hard to call it good asset management–there were other players, several of them big names, who could have been available.
I might have been more charitable with the final grade but for missing on Ruby. I did, too, so I’ll wear this one a bit. But he’s been in their backyard for essentially two years and never seemed to get on Pacific’s radar. If Pacific want to be the localvore team, they can’t be seeing Ruby go to the other coast so they can re-draft Tommy Gardner again and again.
Cavalry FC: D
I’ll give a few points for El-Gandour, who looks like a cool little player. He was in Cavalry’s U20 system. Unless they think some other team was going to draft him (I doubt any other teams knew he existed), they can call him to camp and get a look at his integration with their attack then. Obviously, Wheeldon Jr. and Martin Nash feel he’s ready to make the jump, but this draft isn’t supposed to be about picking talent you already know.
Last year, Cavalry made with that ethos, taking Waterman and Bitar from BC and Ontario, respectively. Waterman became a valuable contributor. On Bitar, it sounds like Tommy Wheeldon Jr. wants him to earn the minutes. “We wanted to see how much has changed from when he left us and went back to Carleton to when he returns.” Well, okay. And it’s good that Cavalry have been in contact with Kwesi Loney and Carleton throughout. But Bitar hasn’t really earned much of anything with Carleton. He scored a pile of goals against weak OUA East teams, then disappeared at nationals. He needs, you feel, a big pre-season, and I’m not sure there weren’t better options available for similar risk. It’s a remarkably safe draft from a club that’s usually not. You figure they’re probably looking at some Foothills guys, and they already have prospects in Aribim Pepple and Tofa Fakunle4Who were promoted from the U20s and/or Foothills mid-season. It still feels like CanPL managers are figuring out how to view this draft. The idea that you can sign talent any time seems to be a bit lost in all the hype and weird rules., but still, this draft is an opportunity missed.
FC Edmonton: F
Jeff Paulus was very clear in the run-up to the draft that he wanted to prioritize local talent that had committed to the club and the academy already. That’s laudable and probably good club management, but it’s not how you go about a draft. What FC Edmonton has done, taking five guys from one school across two drafts, makes a mockery of this initiative, and of a league full of Canadian players who haven’t been given an opportunity.
Now, last year, I could understand it. I sighed a bit, but I saw the Eddies’ drafting of three ex-academy guys more as a statement of intent–an intent I agree with. The academy is a big plus in this league. Now, after the 2019 season saw USPORTs players excel, it feels like the club thumbing its nose at everyone else.
Remember, Easton Ongaro was actually a Cavalry pick. Edmonton took Ajeej Sarkaria, who they just released, and Noah Cunningham, who they never signed at all, alongside Connor James. Both their picks this year are even more marginal. Unless the club expects to draft every kid who’s suited up for the academy, what’s the point?
This was an opportunity to add talent that might not already exist in a club’s network. It’s also, thanks to some weird rules, a kind of short-term set-up. About the best case for Edmonton’s picks is that they learn a bit and grow over the next 2-3 years in USPORTs–in which case, Edmonton have to draft them 2-3 more times, much like Bitar–otherwise, they’re free agents. That’s spectacularly bad asset management, especially since neither of these players has either the pedigree or existing experience to interest anyone else.