Canadian soccer is riding high at the moment.
The women’s team, led by iconic captain Christine Sinclair, is fifth in the current world rankings and looks poised to make a solid run at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
The men’s side clinched a spot in the top tier of the inaugural Concacaf Nations League and a berth for this summer’s Gold Cup with a 4-1 win over French Guiana this past weekend in Vancouver.
And the Canadian Premier League, a new professional soccer league with seven teams from coast to coast, will officially kick off on April 27 when Forge FC host York 9 at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field in the league’s inaugural match.
Sanctioned as Canada’s first division, the CPL features high-profile owners such as Canadian businessman Bob Young (who also owns the Hamilton Tiger-Cats), and is designed to develop young Canadian talent and give them a chance they otherwise might not receive. The hope is the CPL will also help to expand the player pool in this country, potentially giving national team coach John Herdman more options.
CPL players with dreams of representing their country face a tough road ahead, as the men’s side is flush with players plying their trade 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) and Samuel Piette (Montreal Impact) leading the way.
Nik Ledgerwood, Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Kyle Bekker are veteran players with previous national team experience who have signed with CPL clubs. Bekker, a 28-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., has 18 caps to his credit, but his last appearance for Canada came on Jan. 22, 2017 in a friendly against Bermuda under then-interim coach Michael Findlay. It wouldn’t be too much of a shock to see Bekker earn a recall while patrolling the midfield for Forge FC in the CPL this season.
But is it realistic to expect other CPL players to waltz right into the national team setup? Should we bank on seeing young CPL hopefuls with no previous national team experience suiting up for the Reds during the Gold Cup? Can someone like, say, Sergio Camargo, a 24-year-old midfielder who is hoping for a new lease on life in the CPL with Cavalry FC after being cut by Toronto FC, use the league as a direct pathway into the Canadian senior side?
Herdman hinted that it’s unlikely, but he also didn’t entirely rule out the possibility during a recent interview with Sportsnet. He also 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.
“There is no linear path to the top. Playing every week 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 told Sportsnet.
Without question, Herdman wants all of his squad members to play professionally at the highest levels possible, whether that’s in MLS or abroad. Only by testing yourself against top players can you improve and develop, and that, in turn, will have great long-term benefits for the national team.
However, Herdman doesn’t underestimate the valuable experience and lessons young players receive by playing in soccer’s lower leagues. Those hardships build character, and can eventually lead the player back to the top levels of the professional game and into the national team fold.
Several players fit that profile in Herdman’s training camp ahead of his first game in charge, a 1-0 win over New Zealand in a friendly held in Spain last March.
“We had 11 players under the age 23 who at some point were all released from their pro clubs, at least five of them dropped down to play at university level or lower-level leagues… They dropped down before they were able to get back into top professional environments. They had to suffer somewhere and played at lower levels where they had to swallow their pride,” Herdman said.
One need only look at the case of Mark-Anthony Kaye. The Toronto-born midfielder joined TFC’s youth academy in 2013, and seemed destined to graduate to MLS when he was signed by TFC 2, the club’s farm team in the second-tier USL.
But things didn’t work for Kaye in Toronto, and he eventually signed with Louisville City of the USL. Kaye impressed enough in Louisville that he earned his first cap for Canada in 2017, and eventually made the move to MLS where he joined LAFC. Kaye was a regular starter for the expansion club last season before he suffered a foot injury in the summer that ruled him out of the remainder of the campaign.
Kaye, 24, has rebounded by starting in three of LAFC’s four games this year, and earned his seventh cap for Canada in the recent win over French Guiana, showing well as a starter at left fullback.
Herdman points to Kaye as a shining example of someone who toiled in soccer’s lower leagues before moving up his way up the ladder, and who has now become an important player for Canada.
And while Herdman admits it will be difficult for young CPL players to make the direct jump into the national team, he makes the point that it’s not about where you start, but rather where you end up. The journey along the way can prove to be invaluable, too.
“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 said.
“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 senor national team.”