CPL players face uphill climb to crack Canadian national team roster

Tristan-Borges

Forge FC midfielder Tristan Borges, left, defends the ball from York9 midfielder Joseph Di Chiara. (CP photo)

Fans and pundits who are hoping to see the Canadian Premier League break through when it comes to supplying players for Canada’s national team will have to wait a little longer.

Canada’s 40-player preliminary squad for the 2019 Gold Cup was unveiled last week, with the final 23-man squad having to be submitted no later than 10 business days before the team’s opening match of the tournament on June 15.

Included on Canadian coach John Herdman’s preliminary roster list were players who ply their trade all across Europe and in Major League Soccer.

Notably, not a single CPL player was called up by Canada, although four others did make the cut for their respective national teams: Quillan Roberts and Emery Welshman (Guyana), and Jan Michael Williams and Kareem Moses (Trinidad and Tobago).

One of the stated goals of the CPL when it launched was to widen the Canadian player pool available to Herdman, especially with the nation set to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup alongside Mexico and the United States.

The day will come when a CPL player breaks through and earns a call up from Herdman. When it happens, it’ll be a landmark moment for the league, as it’ll mark the realization of the CPL’s mandate of providing talent to the national team.

But that day isn’t now, and it’s hard to imagine it happening any time soon, even for the CPL players who have previous national team experience, such as Kyle Bekker and Nik Ledgerwood.

Patience is required. Realistically, CPL youngsters with dreams of representing their country face a tough road ahead at the moment for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the league only launched last month and players only have a few games under their belts.

It would have been unreasonable to expect Herdman to call upon inexperienced CPL players for the Gold Cup. Maybe for a friendly, where nothing is at stake, Herdman can bring in CPL players to give them a taste of what it’s like with the national team. But not for a meaningful international tournament such as the Gold Cup.

The other factor working against young CPL hopefuls is that the Canadian men’s side is currently flush with talent who play at top European clubs, including Jonathan David at Gent in the Belgian league and Alphonso Davies with Bayern Munich.

Herdman can also rely on national team members who are regular starters for their MLS clubs, with Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), Doneil Henry (Vancouver Whitecaps), Samuel Piette (Montreal Impact) and Michael-Anthony Kaye (LAFC) leading the way.

As such, it’s unrealistic to expect a young CPL player to waltz into the national team setup, a fact acknowledged by Herdman in an interview with Sportsnet earlier this year.

“What the CPL will provide is that springboard for young players to move to higher leagues, but it also might produce an absolute diamond in the rough. … For these young players in the CPL, from ages 17 to 23, we’re really interested in them, especially if they’re playing every week, and doing well and have an interesting profile,” Herdman told Sportsnet.

“The CPL is a huge positive, and I’m hoping to see after the first season if a couple of players can make the move overseas or to a higher level. You’d hope to see that, and I think that’s what this league can do, as well as push into our Olympic squad, our youth under-20 squad, and maybe push into our senior national team.”

CPL players shouldn’t be disheartened by the stiff challenges they face to crack the national team, though.

In the same interview with Sportsnet, Herdman explained that a youngster might benefit more from playing regular first-team soccer in the CPL than being on the fringes of the starting 11 with a club in MLS or Europe, and that it could lead to more opportunities with the national team.

This provides genuine hope to someone like Tristan Borges, a 20-year-old native of Toronto playing for Hamilton-based Forge FC in the CPL, who has also represented Canada at the U-17 and U-20 levels.

After being on the books at the youth academy of Dutch club SC Heerenveen, Borges returned to Canada in the summer of 2018 to play for semi-pro outfit Sigma FC in League1 Ontario. That led to Borges joining Forge, and he has quickly established himself as one the CPL’s emerging stars. He currently leads the league in scoring with three goals in five appearances, including a spectacular effort off a set piece in Forge’s 2-0 win over York9 FC in the “905 Derby” this past weekend.

Today, Borges is tearing up the CPL, and that success could lead to better professional opportunities in the future, as well as a stint with the Canadian national team. You just never know how things will work out.

“There is no linear path to the top. Playing every week [in the CPL] might be as good for a certain player than learning in a top club environment. No one has found that magic formula to say, ‘If you do this, you will become the best player Canada has ever seen.’ I don’t think there’s a clear road that is so well defined for players to follow for them to realize their full potential,” Herdman said.

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