One of the greatest stories on the Canadian Premier League’s inaugural season was just how well the university draft picks did.
On draft day, coaches were talking like it would be an uphill battle for any of them to make the team. By week one, several were starters. By the end of the season, a good handful of those were bona fide stars.
I recently asked Kouamé Ouattara, himself an alumnus of a small, Maritime school, how many guys in AUS he thought could make it in CanPL. Acknowledging the level was a lot higher, he guessed at one to two per team: that’s 20 guys.
The USPORTs draft was an unequivocally good idea. It meant that a pool of players often overlooked would have at the very least an opportunity in a professional environment. It fit the ethos of long-term player development and it fit the aims of university sport.
There were players who didn’t catch on, as well. First overall pick Gabriel Bitar had cup opportunities and made very little of them before returning to school. Tommy Gardner, a consensus high pick, got hurt (again). A few teams essentially threw late-round picks away.
The league has changed a variety of rules for the sophomore draft, including shortening it by a round, from three to two. Annoyingly, particularly to Wanderers fans, there’s still no real safeguard to avoid the difficult situation should a club find a gem in the draft, as Halifax did with Peter Schaale.
The major changes:
- Graduating players not only won’t count as domestics (as had long been rumoured) but won’t be eligible at all. They can, however, sign contracts as free agents.1The likelihood is, most won’t. The whole point of the draft was to give USPORTs players opportunity. Many of them took it, but clubs aren’t going to look at USPORTs players outside their local areas without the mechanism in place.
- A draft pick who returns to school becomes a free agent–this was more or less how things worked this year, but means a Schaale situation is even more likely given there will be a lot more players drafted in the middle of their degrees who may reasonably want to finish them.
- Players can only be retained–and only for one year–if they stay with the CanPL club through November, meaning that player still has to choose between academics and a job making <$50K in a start-up soccer league.
These rules radically change the calculus for teams going into the draft. Let’s assume managers knew the parameters earlier (though it’s worth noting when I asked about this, in late August, they didn’t). Last year, teams mostly selected graduating seniors, guys who had proven résumés of college work: Dan Gogarty, Dylan Carreiro, Christian Oxner, and Easton Ongaro2Who was actually drafted by Cavalry but let go in favour of Bitar–whoops!–and so signed with the Eddies as a free agent. all delivered to varying degrees, too.
The underclassmen were not so numerous nor so successful. Pacific loaded up on first-years but only Zach Verhoven was ever heard from–he chose to stay with the club and leave school, at least for now, and given his output I’d guess he made a safe enough choice. Emmanuel Zambazis went back to school and I get the sense he’ll stay there. Valour cut Lewis White barely a week into camp.
It means players like Dan Hayfield, Jason Roberts, Dante Cobisa, Eddie Lay, and Jorgo Nika–all potential top names–are suddenly free agents. Some might reasonably have entered the season expecting to be draft-eligible. Lay and Nika, both at York, could easily end up with Y9. It’s much harder to see a guy like Hayfield, who’s from England, being drafted, then sticking around for six months just for a trial.
That makes this year’s “mock” draft an even more inexact science, since you have to assume teams will select based at least partially on potential. If they do, they risk losing the player if he goes back to school. It’s all a bit of a toss-up.
While teams have spent noticeably more effort scouting USPORTs this year compared to last, it’s still a big country. Expect a heavy local bias.
CanPL.ca has done a lot more draft content this year, with pieces on the link between UBC and Pacific, the Cape Breton Capers, and a mock draft of its own. I’ll be deviating, but will use the CanPL lists as a guide towards which players are getting national scouting attention. Northern Tribune also took an in-depth look at some of the strikers on offer.
My own projections are mostly my own subjective opinion, weighted a bit for locale and what I think different managers will value. Do take into account that I see far more of AUS than I do the other conferences–when it comes to projecting depth picks, it’s more an eye to who in AUS I think could contribute.
1. Halifax Wanderers – Gabriel Balbinotti (UQ Trois-Rivieres)
It’s always difficult to know how much stock to put in one weekend–USPORTs nationals are effectively a combine for this draft–but Balbinotti has such solid technique and smarts that he’s making the entire tournament look like it’s beneath him. It kind of is–he’s an Impact Academy grab who’s played in USL with Ottawa Fury (RIP…) and was in Canadian U23 camps as recently as last year.
But unlike some other ex-academy players who have coasted in university soccer, Balbinotti just willed Les Patriotes to a finish atop RSEQ and into their first-ever national final. Stephen Hart is on record as wanting to play a more attacking system. My suspicion is he’ll look internationally for his attackers, but Balbinotti can play deeper in midfield, and can break a packed defense with a pass or a run–something Hart specifically mentioned to me that he’s looking for. He might not be the consensus #1 pick, but he’s the best pure player in this draft.
2. Valour FC – Charlie Waters (Cape Breton Capers)
Waters could easily go #1, but I think there’s more risk here than with Balbinotti. He lit up the Calgary Dinos on Thursday, scoring a hat trick. He also missed a penalty Friday, and was invisible. Playing off another striker, I agree with Capers coach Deano Morley that Waters could “excel” in CanPL3Part of my calculus in going Balbinotti #1 is that Waters plays a lot like Akeem Garcia, who Wanderers just plonked a lot of money on. I don’t know that Waters can play off Garcia, nor that that duo would give Hart the kind of attack he wants.. There is a ruthlessness to his game that I can’t help but admire and he provides pace and bravery to any attack. On the other hand, he is coming off a major knee injury and CanPL is a physical league with some… variability in surface quality.
I don’t know that he fits Valour that well–going purely off positional need, they’d draft a centre-back4CanPL.ca have them taking Jan Pirretas Glasmacher, but I doubt Rob Gale has been there to watch a guy who wasn’t at nationals.–but I think Rob Gale would do well to grab Waters as a longer-term piece.
Pacific FC – Tommy Gardner (UBC)
The league’s rules mean Pacific have to light a draft pick on fire just because Gardner got hurt last year. This is silly and the league should fix this.
I’m not sure Gardner’s a great pick. The knee injury is just the latest in a long line and he’s now had back-to-back crapola national tournaments–his performance Thursday against UQTR was notable for just how many long passes he shanked into touch.5Less than 24 hours later, he’s quoted in that CanPL.ca piece linked above calling university soccer “lower level”. Not a great look.
There are options I could see Pacific going off-board for (more below), and they might have higher upside at this point than Gardner. But he was a reasonably highly-toued Whitecaps prospect not long ago.
4. FC Edmonton – Stefan Karajovanovic (Carleton)
Edmonton are the first where I’ll go a bit on positional need; also, Karajovanovic won’t stick around long and there’s logic to grabbing the best-player available, even if that’s not what Paulus did last year.
More than anything, the Eddies need a player who can hold the ball in the final third and either create or use space. Ajeej Sarkaria and Edem Mortotsi, two other USPORTs alumni, didn’t manage it last year. Karajovanovic might. Jeff Paulus will want to get back to the fundamentals he wanted to build towards, and while Karajovanovic didn’t have the greatest nationals, he’s been lights-out all year in OUA playing in Carleton’s fluid, possession system. The Eddies don’t lack for brute strength to pair him with and he’d give them another look off the bench.
5. York9 – Isaiah Johnston (Cape Breton)
Johnston trained with Y9 last spring and summer and played for the local-ish Woodbridge Strikers, where he was very good. He’s also been very good for Cape Breton all year–so good I’m not sure I’d want to risk him being there at #10. I think Brennan will almost certainly take him–the question is more when.
Positionally, he’s a bit fluid, but he’s only 17 so that can come with time. He has the technique and size to transition to the pro game, but I’ve been most impressed by his intelligent movement. Coming into Cape Breton, he’s been asked to play as an inverted underlapping winger–not exactly an everyday role–and he’s excelled, coming into the middle and linking up with guys like Cory Bent (whom Brennan could also very easily pick here) and Caelann Budhoo like he’s played with them for years. Whenever he goes, Johnston will be a solid get and pleasant surprise for fans.
6. Cavalry FC – Dane Domic (Mount Royal)
Domic is only in university because he didn’t quite make Cavalry last year. He came back to Canada out of the Sparta Rotterdam system and is now taking “open studies” and playing under former Canadian professional Ryan Gyaki. Whether he’s sticking around on a gentleman’s agreement with Cavalry or to put himself in the shop window, he’ll be in CanPL.
Domic is an attacking midfielder who plays a similar game to a Julian Buescher or Oliver Minatel. Lost in the finals hype is that Cavalry are likely to have a major roster and cap crunch this offseason. If they can’t bring everyone back, Domic would fill a hole. He’s a former Foothills guy and dragged Mount Royal’s soccer program back to relevance in his first year, winning USPORTs rookie-of-the-year in the process. So not bad pedigree. He should be playing at a higher level, and will be elsewhere if a CanPL side doesn’t pick him.
7. Forge FC – Félix Clapin-Girard (UQ Trois-Rivieres)
If Johnston, Balbinotti, or even Dane Domic is available here, Bobby Smyrniotis will be drooling like a kid over baklva. One of them very well could be.
If not, Forge are going to need a ‘keeper. USPORTs goalkeepers did very well in CanPL last year, and Félix Clapin-Girard has pedigree, fundamentals, has had a strong nationals, and is Canadian. UQTR are going to be the Capers of 2019–we’ll see more drafted than expected. You have to wonder about Quillan Roberts’ future, and Clapin-Girard would complement Triston Henry well.
8. Forge FC – Guy-Frank Essomé Penda (U. de Montréal)
Another sleeper, just because I suspect Bobby will weight nationals a bit higher, too. Essomé Penda has earned this over two years as probably the most pure winger in university soccer. That’s something Forge could use–they were far more dangerous, especially on the road, when they could get out and run. He’s a bit more of an all-around guy than Cory Bent, whom Smyrniotis might also go with here, and happier to combine and dart inside.
Essomé Penda is Russian, but he’d count as a domestic for his first year. The USPORTs draft is relatively low-risk, high reward, so taking a flyer on a consistent contributor in case he breaks out makes sense.
9. Cavalry – Cory Bent (Cape Breton)
Flip these two if you want–I could go either way.
Bent is a very Tommy Wheeldon Jr. player. He has excellent skill on the ball, and plays like Tommy coaches: full of joy and ego and always likely to try to do something audacious, like showing up to a game on a skateboard.
What I like most about Bent’s game is that he disappears for stretches. When he pops up, he unbalances defenses. He’s not consistent exactly–but give him space and he will absolutely set things on fire. He scores in big moments and he scores out of nowhere. That’s such a fit for Cavalry–he’d be incredible there, and I could see him falling this far just because of that inconsistency and his international status (post-development contract).
10. York9 FC – Maxime Boucher (UQ Trois Rivieres)
I desperately want this guy to fall to Wanderers, and he might (not that I necessarily think they’d take him). He’s had a quietly effective nationals even without a goal (so far). He’s also 6’8″ with feet like pillows. There was a moment when he brought down a high, aimless pass with one touch and shot (wide) with the next that I thought, “yeah, this guy could do things”.
He’d be a flyer in a way, but he’s domestic and York desperately need size and finesse up front. Boucher is better than Simon Adjei. I think Y9 will be all-in on Jordan Hamilton this winter, but Boucher is the kind of guy who could come in and surprise everyone by fighting for minutes, much as the equally massive Easton Ongaro did in Edmonton last year.
11. FC Edmonton – Decklin Mamhi (U. of Calgary)
Last year, the Eddies went entirely in-house, drafting three ex-Eddies Academy guys. And it worked! Why change what worked?
Mamhi isn’t the biggest name in this draft, but he had a quietly decent nationals for the Dinos, often creating creating their best chances from out wide with direct running. Edmonton didn’t have that many wingers to begin with and just cut most of the ones they did have, so Mahmi would fit a positional need and Paulus will know him from his time in the academy.
He has about as decent an amateur résumé as you can have without playing PDL or some such, and he was part of the Edmonton Selects team that played Foothills last summer. Plus he comes off as a really down-to-earth guy, which I like, and which bodes well.
12. Pacific FC – Isaac Koch (UVic Vikes)
When Koch was a rookie, he was a big part of the UVic super-team that was a force to be reckoned with. That team has since moved on, but Koch has missed a couple of years with knee problems. When he’s healthy, he scores. He was voted Canada West player of the year this year, and in a league as wide and varied as USPORTs, it can pay to listen to the opinions of local coaches. They see these guys day-in, day-out.
You don’t win that award without good mentality, and Bruce Wilson raves about his leadership qualities. Plus he’s a BC boy, and Pacific openly want to prioritize local talent. The quote “I guess my knees are just made of glass,” is a little worrying, but Koch would still be a good late-draft grab for Pacific.
13. Valour FC – Caelann Budhoo (Cape Breton)
I could easily see Budhoo going earlier, but going out in a semi-final will hurt his stock a bit, and he never quite takes a game over the way you’d hope. What he is, is one of the most solid, consistent, and capable two-way midfielders in USPORTs, a shoo-in for Most Underrated awards every year. Valour should be willing to use the second overall pick on a guy like that if they think Budhoo’ll go before this one, because no team needs consistency more than Valour.
He can play anywhere, too, which suits Rob Gale and Valour, where he trained all summer. He’s probably naturally a #8, but he’s played a lot of wing for Cape Breton, and a fair bit of attacking midfield this year in Deano Morley’s 4-2-2-2. He’s not the most instinctive finisher, though he potted six this year in AUS play. His real quality is in his link-up play, and his ability to find strikers and wingers in space, much like Marco Bustos.
14. Halifax Wanderers – Alex Zis (Guelph Gryphons)
All year, I’ve had Ben Gorringe penciled into this spot. Then the rules change and I’m out of luck.
I do think Wanderers will go local, and I think Gorringe may well find his way into camp, but I don’t know who else stands out that much locally. Tristan Nkoghe had an off-year, most of the star Capers are gone already6Marcus Campanile could be a sleeper–hard-nosed midfielder of the sort Wanderers need. and I think there are better local options for goalkeepers even if both Evan Barker and Ben Grondin would be solid AUS picks.
It also feels wrong to have Zis slide even this far. He’s put up massive numbers in OUA and is this year’s “best guy in the draft whose team didn’t make nationals” option. He’s probably a bit too similar to Balbinotti, but is a little more of a second striker and could help replace a guy like Kodai Iida or Juan Diego Gutierrez, who may be victims of roster pinches.
Best of the guys not on this list
Inevitably, mock drafts are wrong. Often very wrong. In a league like CanPL, with teams still figuring out culture and identity, it’s a crapshoot.
Some notable names who could totally go on Monday:
- Victory Shumbusho (UBC) – Shunbusho’s the other striker Pacific could go with. But he’s now had two bad nationals in a row. They didn’t draft him last year, and he hasn’t done much to change that
- Fali Salback (OUIT) – Put up massive numbers in OUA, and slightly less massive (but still good) numbers in the Canadian Soccer League. He’d be a solid enough pick, but I have my doubts that CanPL (or the CSA) want teams drafting guys from a non-sanctioned league.
- Mike Argyrides (York) – If Y9 want to load up on goalies–and there’s every possibility they do–Argyrides would be a solid get, with experience for Vaughan Azzurri. There’s a good chance another team takes him, too; I just think Clapin-Girard has higher upside.
- Reggie Laryea (York) – Didn’t have a great nationals, and isn’t quite as well thought of as his brother, but names are names, he’s ex-Sigma, and I actually quite like his game. If this draft is three rounds (as it should be), he’s on my board.
- Dario Conte (Carleton) – Suspect he played his way out of the second round this weekend–he just seemed to struggle too much against UQTR and lacks the physicality for a pro midfield.
- Jan Pirretas Glasmacher (TRU) – When guys from small schools pop up on the league’s draft lists, I always assume they might know something I don’t. He has a great résumé in European youth systems. If a coach has had an eye on him, he’ll go.
- Jackson Farmer (UBC) – Someone (probably Edmonton) will take him. I left him off because he trialed at several CanPL clubs last spring and didn’t stick. I don’t see teams giving out that many second chances–but Farmer has a résumé that might warrant it.
- Gabriel Bitar (Carleton) – Same issue as Farmer. He has upside, but couldn’t catch on in Calgary and I don’t know that many teams will be all that eager to give him more minutes. This is why the draft’s rules are bad: Bitar should be able to stay with Cavalry, preferably beyond the 23-man roster, and build experience over time. Instead, he’s make-or-break in just his third year.
A lot of these guys would also be on my list if this draft was three rounds. I understand why they shortened it–13 of 21 guys drafted got signed last year, and almost all of them came from the first two rounds7The one that didn’t was Oxner.–but it does mean fewer opportunities in a country with few enough.
Speaking of which, here are some guys you might not have heard of who could pop up if some team wants to take a reach or a coach knows a particular player.
- Niko Cristante (UVic) – Cristante is a former VIU player, where Pacific coach James Merriman played and worked–crafty attacker.
- Dan Kaiser (UBC) – Just a steady, consistent presence at the back. Ceiling might be too low for CanPL, but he wouldn’t be a miss.
- Ben Grondin (Dalhousie) – Probably the best ‘keeper in AUS, similar profile to Christian Oxner–not enough club experience.
- Euan Bauld (Cape Breton) – The other half of Schaale’s back-line. Bauld’s built from bricks and is a solid tackler. International status hurts, but he’s had a good weekend.
- Jake Ruschkowski (Calgary) – Struggled a tad at nationals, but is coming off a terrific year in Canada West behind a not-great team.
- Dieu-Mercy Yuma (York) – Played for Vaughan after failing to catch on with Wanderers in pre-season. Played in French 4th divison. Very physical, rugged. Scored 10 in OUA this year.
- Nicolas Osorio (UofT) – Quietly effective for the Varsity Blues, and the last name probably doesn’t hurt. Plays in L1O after time with TFCII.
- Jean-Paul Ajala-Alexis (OUIT) – Had a great year at a smaller school; also played for L1O winners Masters Futbol. Has bounced around a bit, but is versatile and could easily pop into the second round.
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