In addition to signing Cory Bent this week, Halifax Wanderers also confirmed the club has released Jake Ruby, their 14th overall pick in the 2019 USPORTs draft.
Bent is getting the headlines and has all the tools to be a very fun player in CanPL, but Ruby was and is an intriguing prospect, too: a rookie coming off a strong year with a solid-if-unspectacular Trinity Western team, a former Whitecaps Residency alum, and a Canadian U17 national teamer.
He’s still only 18, so not making it through his first pro camp–especially when said camp was cut short by coronavirus lockdown–isn’t any kind of death knell for his career.
Unfortunately, the USPORTs draft rather sets it up to be.
I went on about this at some length in my draft coverage back in the fall and am absolutely going to bore you all with it again because it’s important.
University players made a huge impact in the inaugural Canadian Premier League season–it was one of the best stories of the year, and deservedly the focus heading into the second draft.
Despite a format change, however, that draft is still set up in a completely inexplicable fashion, disincentivizing teams from investing in drafted players in any long-term way.
When selecting a player, CanPL teams only hold his rights for a year. A university draftee who isn’t signed goes right back into the pool the next draft year. This leaves him one camp–in CanPL, that’s about four weeks, in a normal year–to earn a contract, and for a player like Ruby, it’s his first time competing against fully professional men.
This makes no sense, and it’s a terrible way to evaluate and develop players. The draft was sold as a kind of developmental partnership–less a draft, more a loan agreement, as I put it at the time. Canadian clubs don’t and aren’t going to have academies or full reserve outfits any time soon1Outside FC Edmonton’s set-up, which is hugely commendable but still somewhat limited, especially in the U23 years. Forge and Cavalry have partnerships with Sigma and Foothills, respectively, but those were born out of coaching recruitment; hopefully, they’ll remain even when Smyrniotis and Wheeldon Jr. move onto new challenges., so finding a place for players who aren’t quite professional quality yet is essential. I asked Jeff Paulus about this last year, after FC Edmonton put a team in the senior amateur Alberta Major Soccer League, which paid off when Prince Amanda scored on his senior Eddies debut.
The appeal of the USPORTs agreement was that a player could train in the summer in a professional CanPL environment before returning to play meaningful, competitive minutes in the fall university season.
That’s exactly what Cavalry did with Gabriel Bitar. Bitar barely made the team in 2018–he was Cavalry’s last signing, beating out Easton Ongaro. Whoops.2That might be the only signing mistake Tommy Wheeldon Jr. and Martin Nash made last year, mind. He played a few minutes in the early rounds of the Voyageur’s Cup, then disappeared. But he showed enough to get Wheeldon Jr. to work with Carleton’s Kwesi Loney to continue developing him, and Cavalry redrafted him last fall with a plan to convert him to the wing. We’ll see if it works.
Bitar is 21, and reaching the end of his developmental years. Jake Ruby is 19. With the tight 23-man rosters–a tournament roster, really–making Wanderers was always going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, it means Wanderers–or another club, although it’s hard to see why one would–will have to redraft him next year in order to have any kind of second look at him.
While Cavalry did just that with Bitar, as the draft gets more established, clubs will get more serious about scouting for potential talent in USPORTs. Joel Waterman sold this winter for $100K, which is very nice return indeed. Clubs’ willingness to use one of two or three spots on a re-up is going to dwindle when an unknown who could be a breakout star comes off a great nationals. The unknown gem is always shinier than putting time into a prospect, especially when his team craps out at those same nationals (Bitar, and Carleton, in 2019, step right up).
No professional club should hand out charity spots, but draft picks aren’t charity spots–they’re a method of acquiring potential assets and evaluating them. Although I disagree with Wheeldon Jr. on Bitar’s potential, the Cavalry boss has played that exactly right by a prospect. One camp and a handful of spot minutes in a cup game is not enough time to meaningfully evaluate, let alone develop, a prospect. And developing Canadian soccer players is what both CanPL and university sport is meant to be about.
USPORTs is actually kind of remarkable in Canadian soccer: it is a coast-to-coast, regionalized system of leagues with good-to-excellent coaching, excellent facilities and athlete support, and scouting that should be the envy of anyone in Canadian soccer. University coaches turn up at youth games, high-school games, random soccer in the boonies–all looking for players. We are a massive country. The top-down, national team scouting system cannot fill those gaps. Neither can CanPL clubs, not any time soon, anyway.
There are attempts to get club summer soccer into a similar structure, but they’re nascent, and if they work at all, they’ll still have spotty coverage.There is not going to be a semi-pro team in Kamloop–or Cape Breton, for that matter. Canadian soccer needs exactly the kind of system USPORTs has built, and we could do worse than rely on the universities, who spend on their athletics departments mostly as a way of recruiting students with the promise of a fun evening cheering your local team.
Wait… isn’t that basically what we all want, here?
I’m not suggesting university soccer suddenly become the CHL. That’s not what it is, or is ever going to be, and it’s not really what Canadian soccer needs–not to mention NHL teams have been known to hoard junior prospects, “over-ripening” them to protect an asset. Year-to-year development can become year-to-year stagnation very quickly, with clubs protecting a diminishing asset either beyond any real likelihood of return or, worse, artificially depressing a promising player’s value and weakening his negotiating position by “over-ripening” him in minor leagues.
No, what the USPORTs draft should be–and was, for that brief moment between October 2018 and Apri 2019 when Canadian soccer was caught in a kind of fever dream, is a partnership. It can and will evolve, but that we have players like Peter Schaale, Joel Waterman, and Connor James starring proves that university soccer is no longer the afterthought it often has been.
That’s an amazing endorsement of local Canadian soccer. It’s every reason you should be out in the cold fall rain cheering for the likes of Cape Breton or Trinity Western.
It used to be that players graduating from USPORTs were set adrift, soccer-wise, to fend for themselves. Barring a few long journeys in nowhere leagues, most ended up in the amateur game. Which is why the decision to exclude graduating players from the draft is just as inexplicable as the decision to force clubs to re-draft. It over-protects the player while simultaneously constraining his options. We don’t want the draft to become something constrictive; rather, it should be an advantage to be given an opportunity–an extended one–in your domestic league, instead of having to sink or swim as a young player in the open market overseas.
One of the great ironies of this past offseason has been, while we’re cutting promising Canadian university players, we’re betting big on another partnership–the one formed with global analytics and scouting/recruitment firm 21st Club. So far, that partnership has mostly yielded Brazilians in their early 20s who haven’t made it in their domestic pyramid for myriad reasons. These are exactly the same kinds of players as USPORTs guys–often their only actual minutes have come with Brazilian state second or third divisions–mostly amateur leagues, or very close to it3Factor in scholarships and meals, and a USPORTs player probably gets paid more, with access to way better facilities.. You hope they’ve been well-coached, at least. Certainly, players like Gabriel Vasconcelos, coming through Corinthians’ youth system, will have been. But in that case, we’re paying–and we are paying, between their salaries, accommodations, and whatever slice is due to 21st Club–for the flag on their passport. Brazilian academies are massive operations. Players get lost in there, especially if they don’t shine in their one and only chance.
On the back of that partnership, they’ve earned at least a year to shine in our league. More power to ’em. I want Vasconcelos to prove me wrong. If he does, it’ll make me feel a tiny smidgen better about the university players who got cut after half a camp, without any contract guarantee or compensation.
For the good of the game, we have to abandon the boom/bust thinking that views players as make-or-break. The reason Vasconcelos gets this shot is because, although he’s been utterly inept since leaving Corinthians, we’re willing to give a young player multiple chances to catch on. That’s the right move. Why won’t we do it for a Canadian?
Not every university draftee is going to end up coming off the bench for the Impact in the CONCACAF Champions League less than a year after playing against UFV on turf in Kelowna. This is about building players we can use and, hopefully sell. It’s about making a sustainable league that grows long-term without having to reinvent the game in Canada, because it already exists on a rainy fall afternoon at Thunderbird Stadium or Wickwire Field.
It’s easy to take one look at a prospect, pin a fixed potential rating on him, and fish or cut bait. But this is how football works in Football Manager 20, not real life.
Letting CanPL clubs keep drafted players as prospects for 2-3 years, developing them as Wheeldon Jr. is doing with Bitar, makes sense for Canadian soccer players in a way it doesn’t for law school grads. And when David Clanachan stops treating the new players’ union like he treats the kid who pours his coffee, this is exactly the kind of issue it can help create a framework to solve.