Bitar goes #1, plus all the rest from the USPORTs draft

Local flavour to draft, lots of veterans suggest teams building depth

While the first overall pick wasn’t a huge surprise, the rest of the CanPL USPORTs draft tossed up a few surprising names and gave as teams recruited local talent to compete for depth spots on the roster.

Carleton’s Gabriel Bitar went to Cavalry FC with the first pick. He has three years of eligiblity left, is Canadian, and looked great at this past weekend’s national championships in Vancouver. That was obviously enough for Tommy Wheeldon.

I originally had him going third, but with CanPL rosters so wide open, it really could have been any of the top prospects.

Players who weren’t at nationals still did fine, with local scouting often winning out over the “combine” (probably a good bet, long-term). Guelph’s Jace Kostopoulos was drafted third, by Forge FC, his hometown club.

That set a trend of teams drafting local talent. York grabbed Daniel Gogarty from Scarborough, Dylan Carreiro goes home to Winnipeg, and both FC Edmonton and Pacific FC stayed, somewhat more predictably, entirely local, with Tommy Gardner going to the Island and the Eddies selecting exclusively players from the University of Alberta.

Even Wanderers got local, grabbing Cape Breton’s Peter Schaale first, then taking Christian Oxner with their final pick after all. UQAM defender Andre Bona will also join camp in Halifax.

The emphasis on local talent, as well as the large number of graduating players selected, suggests CanPL managers may be a little unsure of the quality and opportunity in USPORTs overall–not necessarily an unfair position to take. Stephen Hart, in particular, went with two veterans and all three of his picks are defensive players, albeit promising ones. He also told that USPORTs picks are “entering into a real competition… to get on the roster. This is not a situation where you get respect for the number of years you’ve been there. This is now the business of football.”

There are players, though, who will have more chance to develop in a professional environment, and Pacific FC in particular went young, albeit young-with-experience, selecting two ex-Whitecaps Residency players in Gardner and Nick Fussell, as well as third-year Thunderbird Zach Verhoven.

More below.

Cavalry go full Silicon Valley, did Edmonton do scouting?, and more on each pick…

1. Cavalry FC (Tommy Wheeldon) – Gabriel Bitar, Carleton

It’s not a huge surprise that Bitar went first. I think he’s a high-upside selection with relatively low risk–this draft minimizes risk as it’s basically an affiliate agreement. “He’s young. These are young Canadian players. That’s what we want to do in this league,” said Wheeldon to the CanPL website. This is exactly the attitude coaches should take towards a player like Bitar.

Whether his pace and skill will be quite as effective against professional defenders is perhaps a bit of an unknown, of course, and he’s perhaps slightly less of a “depth” kind of player and more of a project, which is why I had him going slightly lower, but projects are exactly what this draft is about. Bitar has three years left to play in Carleton. This is a smart pick by Cavalry, investing in an asset they that could pay off big. That’s smart business.

2. Valour FC (Rob Gale) – Dylan Carreiro, York

Valour FC were the first to signal they might be going local. It’s not that Carreiro’s a reach, exactly–he had a terrible nationals but is still a legitimately talented player–and maybe Valour might not have got him all the way back at pick #13. So they go local and get a highly rated Winnipegger right off the bat.

This is another low-risk, high-reward pick. Carreiro gets a second chance to find his level professionally (he’s ex-TFC Academy, and ex-several European youth systems) and Valour get a prospect with eligibility left who could develop or play a role from the bench.

3. Forge FC (Bobby Smyrniotis) – Jace Kostopoulos, Guelph

This was a pretty predictable pick, and the first I got right. It was also the first real veteran pick: Kostopoulos might be closer to contributing in 2019, and surely won’t be that much below his League 1 Ontario colleagues who are likely to make up a fair bit of CanPL depth, especially at York and Forge.

Since there will be a USPORTs draft every year, it makes a certain amount of sense to wait-and-see with some players, and use the picks on university players who look like they could move up a level, rather than projects. Two different approaches. Kostopoulos isn’t a project, and perhaps signals an intent by Smyrniotis to recruit prospects from other avenues (Sigma?).

4. York9 FC (Jim Brennan) – Daniel Gogarty, York

Brennan did indeed draft a leader, but went local. He talked about knowing Gogarty in his CanPL blurb, which is important, especially for an old-school coach like Brennan. I wasn’t all that impressed by Gogarty this weekend, but he was rated on the league’s prospect lists, especially since York9 have been looking at him for a while. Whether he can step in right away or not, as Brennan suggests? He’ll have to, because he’s graduating. Still, he has a chance to impress in camp, and that’s the point of this draft.

5. Wanderers FC (Stephen Hart) Peter Schaale, Cape Breton

I low-key love this pick. I had him going first overall for a reason: he’s technically and physically strong, the stereotypical German defender. He’s played in the German lower divisions, too–there are CMNT players who ply their trade there. And he’s a leader. Although he has two years of USPORTs left, he may not need them–Schaale is a player I could see featuring for Wanderers in 2019, even if as a versatile depth defender who won’t make too many mistakes.

Schaale’s obviously kinda local, but I think this is more a case of Hart looking for best player available. Given his quote above, I get the distinct sense Hart doesn’t necessarily rate the level of play in USPORTs that highly, and he’s not necessarily wrong. Schaale represents a smart way to get value out of the pick even while focusing efforts elsewhere.

6. Pacific FC (James Merriman/Mikael Silberbauer) – Tommy Gardner, UBC

I nailed this pick. I also think it’s a good one, as I wrote yesterday, though I disagree with the reasons Merriman gave in his CanPL blurb. “I think he’s the best player in USPORTs because of his technical ability and intelligence. He’s able to come out of difficult situations under control and composed.” He looked very under control and composed as he walked to the showers having been sent off for the stupidest tackle I saw last weekend.

But look, he’s ex-Whitecaps, he’s skilled and versatile, and he’s got four years of USPORTs eligibility left–I may have my doubts about Gardner’s smarts, but this is a smart pick. I question a bit whether Pacific looked at anyone outside Thunderbird Stadium, but if you’re going to pick all UBC players, Gardner should be your top pick.

7. FC Edmonton (Jeff Paulus) – Connor James, Alberta

Edmonton didn’t so much go local as in-house. Connor James is a former FC Edmonton academy goalkeeper, so Paulus and co. know him. He’s not exactly an off-the-board pick, and falls in somewhat the same boat as Christian Oxner, that being a goalkeeper who’s solid but whose team isn’t quite good enough to contend.

Still, I struggle with this pick. There are better players available in USPORTs. There may be better goalkeepers in USPORTs. Nobody else is going to pick James. If Edmonton wanted to invite him to camp, they have his number. This isn’t great use of a pick in a national draft, and is another hint that CanPL coaches don’t rate USPORTs (which, as above, isn’t entirely beyond reason).

8. FC Edmonton (Jeff Paulus) – Ajeej Sarkaria, Alberta

The same criticism above applies here, in that I doubt Sarkaria was on too many radars, but he is an intriguing player looking just at the numbers. He can score and create, and is routinely the Canada West scoring leader. Here’s the thing about Canada West, though: it has two conferences, and the Alberta one is quite weak. So don’t read too much into the numbers. Instead, read into his being an Eddies academy prospect. They know him, they know what they’re drafting, and they’ll have a plan. It’s not great value for the pick, but it does represent a roster-building philosophy.

9. Pacific FC (Merriman/Silberbauer) – Zach Verhoven, UBC

I had this little discussion with myself last night about putting Verhoven on my prospects list. He was good at nationals, and I liked what he brought. But he had no end product. He’s clearly skilled overall, though. But how much of that was created by guys like Gardner and Victory Shumbusho? In the end, I left him off because I thought there were better players.

Pacific clearly want local players, that’s fine. Whether the USPORTs draft is actually the best place to get them is debatable. Verhoven has two years of eligibility left, so could still develop, but in many ways he looks like the prototypical USPORTs player: exciting, rugged, and just about right for this level. I was actually surprised Fussell and Verhoven weren’t flipped in order, and I really doubt anyone at Pacific FC did much national scouting.

10. Wanderers FC (Stephen Hart) – Andre Bona, UQAM

Likewise, I missed a couple prospects yesterday, and Bona was one of them. He’s a fifth-year, and international, so this is a slightly puzzling pick on those grounds, but this is about getting an intriguing player into camp and seeing what he can do with pro strikers bearing down on him. Bona was quietly very, very good for les Citadins last weekend, and UQAM went a lot further than they maybe should have on the back of strong defending. Another low-key pick from Hart, but a good one, even if I think there might have been other options.

11. York9 (Jim Brennan) – Emmanuel Zambazis, York

Yeah, Brennan didn’t scout much, and probably doesn’t rate USPORTs. That’s fine, and he gets a player he’s familiar with here. According to his blurb, Brennan has a plan to use the Lions midfielder, who’s decent in transition, so that bodes well. He’s a USPORTs rookie, so in a way York have a perfect set-up–York9 will play at York University, so they can be very active in Zambazis’ development.

I always hesitate, with Brennan, how much to factor in his TFC assistant GM days. Let’s just say… scouting was not TFC’s strong suit in those years. There was a report this week Brennan and York9 were in Punta Cana, scouting… the second-to-worst team in the Dominican Republic’s Liga Dominicana. All of a sudden, Zambazis’ chances of making York9 look a lot better.

12. Forge FC (Bobby Smyrniotis) – Aboubacar Sissoko, Montreal Carabins

This is probably a pick based almost entirely off one game, or at least one weekend, but boy, was it a good game and weekend for Sissoko at nationals. He was a warrior in the final, shutting down the Capers while taking knocks to every part of his body. You can never have enough warriors on a team–it drives everyone to be better. Sissoko is going to come into camp and fight to make it. I like that. He’ll have an uphill battle, but he has one year of USPORTs eligibility left, which means he counts as domestic for 2019 at least. Depth d-mid who will bleed for Hamilton? Sign me up.

13. Valour FC (Rob Gale) – Lewis White, Cape Breton

Gale clearly has something of a UK focus (even Carreiro’s played in Scotland), but White’s an intriguing pick nonetheless, and the draft rules mean they can sign him to a USPORTs contract for three years and he’ll count as domestic, like Sissoko. He’s not necessarily my top pick from the Capers, but left back can be a tricky position to recruit so drafting one mid-draft is never a bad move.

14. Cavalry FC (Tommy Wheeldon) – Joel Waterman, Trinity Western

I wondered if any Spartans would go. I missed that Waterman was a Foothills player when I did my list yesterday, so this pick makes sense on a local level, too. He’s versatile and looked smooth on the weekend; I’ll be honest and say I don’t know much more about him than that.

15. Cavalry FC (Tommy Wheeldon) – Easton Ongaro, Alberta

The Golden Bears do surprisingly well in this draft, mostly thanks to FC Edmonton and Cavalry. Ongaro represents exactly the sort of player I thought coaches might go a bit off-board for: second year, lots of time to develop, six-foot-five. Apparently has soft feet, too, and he led Canada West in scoring this year. Again, take the numbers with a grain of salt–but consider that he’s got 16 goals to Sarkaria’s 10, and has half a foot on the Edmonton second-round pick. This is a third-round pick, alright, but not a bad one.

16. Valour FC (Rob Gale) – Jack Simpson, Cape Breton

Here, I think Gale reaches a bit. He obviously liked the Capers this weekend, and why not, but Simpson can be brittle and though he’s a good midfield piece, I doubt he makes the team out of the gate. Still, he’s got three years of USPORTs eligibility left, so he may not have to. He’ll provide some depth and likely be back in a Capers shirt come August.

17. Forge FC (Bobby Smyrniotis) – Marko Mandekic, Toronto

Another ball-playing centre-back bodes well for the league’s style of play, doesn’t it? At the same time, that baseline of technical skill means Smyrniotis can develop Mandekic, which is what Smyrniotis has made his career doing, so this makes sense as a third-round pick. It’s more of a local focus–Smyrniotis admits doing homework on conferences outside OUA–but the Varsity Blues are a good side and Mandekic was a solid part of that. This is a good sleeper pick.

18. York9 FC (Jim Brennan) – Daniel Pritchard, Cape Breton

Pritchard’s a fun player, but another who seems like he’s roughly at his level in USPORTs, rather than looking to step above it. He’s also a fourth-year, so he doesn’t have that much time left to develop, really. As a final pick, it’s not bad, but this is also a player who won’t be domestic come 2020, and that’s assuming he can make the team at all.

19. Wanderers FC (Stephen Hart) – Christian Oxner, Saint Mary’s

It’s nice to see Oxner drafted, though I wonder why they couldn’t just have invited him to camp outright, given he was part of the Atlantic Selects team a few months ago, several of whom will likely get camp invites. If we just evaluate the pick as a pick, though, it’s actually another very good one from Hart: Oxner is arguably the best university goalkeeper in the country–his club team won nationals in 2017–and if it wasn’t for playing behind a rebuilding Huskies side, he’d have drawn raves at nationals. It’s not just that he’s an excellent shot stopper–he has incredible footwork and communication ability, both too often underrated in a goalkeeper. Hart knows him well, and he’ll very likely be Wanderers back-up keeper next year, though I won’t be hugely surprised if he steals the starting job at some point.

20. Pacific FC (Merriman/Silberbauer) – Nick Fussell, UBC

Fussell easily could have gone earlier in this draft, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a certain amount of handshaking going on as coaches got the players they wanted rather than trying to steal the best prospect. Fussell is ex-Whitecaps, albeit without the same pedigree as Gardner, and like Gardner, still has four years of USPORTs eligibility to use. As a development pick, this is solid.

21. FC Edmonton (Jeff Paulus) – Noah Cunningham, Alberta

This may actually be the Eddies best pick. Cunningham was rated across the board coming in–I’m shocked he fell this far. It may be a case of the above handshaking, it may be a case of nobody else scouting Alberta, it could also be the feeling is he’s at his level playing USPORTs. He’s big and reasonably skilled, but had maybe something of a down year in Canada West? As with the other Alberta players, it’s a balance between a weaker USPORTs performance and the Eddies staff knowing what they’re getting and building a plan.

Final grades

I like draft grades. Fight me.

It’s a bit silly, because this really is a developmental draft, and it’s more about cornering a couple of prospects for camp invites and seeing what happens. So my grades and ranking will reflect that. But they will also reflect that this is the first tangible roster-building we’ve seen from CanPL teams, and that, at least in the league’s first couple seasons, budgets may be tight. Getting contributions from the whole roster is important, and so is making use of every avenue to acquire talent. This is less about “will these players make these teams great?” and more about “how did this club use the resources available today?”.

Without further ado….

1. Forge FC (Bobby Smyrniotis) – Kostopoulos, Sissoko, Mandekic (A)

This is just a solid all-around draft. Forge get three players with upside, two of which I could see competing for actual bench spots, and do a nice job balancing development and talent acquisition. It may be that coaches don’t rate USPORTs that highly, but there’s a way to go about a draft you don’t rate, and this is it. Invest. Get value where you can. Find a diamond you know and take a flyer on a diamond you don’t. That’s Kostopoulos and Sissoko.

2. Wanderers FC (Stephen Hart) – Schaale, Bona, Oxner (A-)

Would be top except I think he could have got Oxner via another avenue, freeing up a draft slot to take a flyer on someone less known, because that’s what drafts are good for. Schaale is probably the steal of the draft, though, and Bona is the kind of high-upside pick that may or may not work out, but which is good use of an asset.

3. Cavalry FC (Tommy Wheeldon) – Bitar, Waterman, Ongaro (B+)

Bitar is a solid first choice. Waterman and Ongaro represent flyers, but smart ones: both are players with talent to bring that can push others for a spot and, in Ongaro’s case, develop further. It’s not a home run, but it’s a good use of the resources available, even if I feel their choices were maybe a tad less likely to step up.

4. Valour FC (Rob Gale) – Carreiro, White, Simpson (B-)

Like Cavalry, I think Gale got some pieces, which makes it about average for a draft. Carreiro could still shine, though he’s beginning to run out of chances. White and Simpson know each other, will push each other, and bring some of Deano Morley’s mentality to camp. It’s a big coup for both to be drafted, and maybe a reach for Valour as there may have been better players available, but they fill needs and it looks like Gale has a plan.

5. Pacific FC (Merriman/Silberbauer) – Gardner, Verhoven, Fussell (C+)

In so far as Pacific didn’t seem to do much scouting outside Vancouver’s West End, this isn’t actually a bad haul. Two ex-Whitecaps Residency guys for the price of one, and probably a miss in Verhoven, but he’s still got two years of eligibility so it’s not a huge sunk cost. They get the local headlines, but miss out on a lot of talent elsewhere.

6. FC Edmonton (Jeff Paulus) – James, Sarkaria, Cunningham (C)

Eddies fans so much deserve something to be excited about. They’re the longest suffering in CanPL, and it’s not always been smooth on or off the field even leading up to (re)launch. They could have used a headline today, and instead they get a rehash of guys Edmonton let go from its own academy years ago. Players do return and make an impact post-university, and Paulus obviously knows what he’s getting. But all three of these guys could have been called into camp next February to make up the numbers and given a pep talk about competing for a job. They’ll get the same, except now Edmonton have three less draft picks. Big missed opportunity, even if one of their slightly fringe picks makes good.

7. York9 FC (Jim Brennan) – Gogarty, Zambazis, Pritchard (C-)

There are, of course, questions about every team, every manager, in CanPL. But while today’s draft doesn’t necessarily mean a lot in terms of final rosters, it is a window into club philosophy. Each club will be different, of course, which is good for the league. There is a dartboard feeling to York9’s picks, though, which only exacerbates larger questions about the approach. The Lions are a deep team that had a terrible nationals–Gogarty and Zambazis could pay off, and there’s good use of the developmental side of this draft with Zambazis. But… there was some talent to be had today. Marginal, maybe. Brennan definitely went marginal. I don’t think it’s a failing grade, because it’s too early in the league’s life to really know, but it’s hard to call any of these picks a hit right now.

About Dylan Matthias 244 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.


  1. Always welcome, Christian–thanks for stopping by.

    By the way, did I get your eligibility wrong in my “mock” draft? CanPL has you as fourth year, I thought you were graduating.

    But I lost my fact-spotter to a squall off the Great Lakes coming back from Vancouver, so am sailing blind, as usual.

    Best of luck heading into camp. Looking forward to seeing you for Wanderers next year.

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