TORONTO — Nineteen months ago, Emilio Estevez Tsai was just hoping to impress at the Canadian Premier League’s open trials.
The attacking midfielder caught York 9 FC head coach Jimmy Brennan’s eye and signed with the CPL team. One season later, Estevez Tsai is on his way to ADO Den Haag of the Dutch top-flight Eredivisie.
"I’m very excited. I’m still in shock, to be honest," he said in an interview Tuesday.
"I can’t wait to get started."
The 21-year-old follows in the footsteps of midfielder Canadian Premier League MVP Tristan Borges, sold by Forge FC to Belgium’s Oud-Heverlee Leuven in January.
A source, not authorized to speak publicly given the transfer fee was not made public, said the sale was in the $100,000 range and could net York 9 more with add-ons and a sell-on clause.
Estevez Tsai made 18 league appearances for York 9 in the CPL’s inaugural 2019 season, scoring once. He was called up to the Chinese Taipei national team for its World Cup qualifiers, making his debut last October in a 7-1 loss to Australia. He also saw action against Jordan and Kuwait.
Born in Toronto to a Spanish father and Taiwanese mother, Estevez Tsai’s name has nothing to do with the actor Emilio Estevez. His father named him after Emilio Butragueno, a retired Real Madrid and Spain star forward whose nickname was The Vulture.
The five-foot-six Estevez Tsai is good on the ball and likes to run at defenders. Brennan called him "a little hidden gem."
"We fell in love with him as soon as I saw him," Brennan told the CPL website at the time of his signing.
Growing up, Estevez Tsai loved to watch Andres Iniesta, the former Barcelona star midfielder who now plays for Japan’s Vissel Kobe.
"He’s a small player like me and he inspired me a lot, to be honest," Estevez Tsai said of Iniesta, who turned 36 Monday. "Just the way he used to dribble and how smart a player he was."
Estevez Tsai played one year for the Sheridan College Bruins prior to the CPL. Growing up, he played futsal as well as for the Etobicoke Energy and Clarkson Soccer Club.
He spent a year training with Spain’s Levante and a week on trial with England’s Queens Park Rangers. When he returned to Canada, he played for North Mississauga SC prior to the CPL.
With three passports, Estevez Tsai had international choices. But in the absence of interest from Canada, he says he didn’t hesitate when Chinese Taipei summoned him.
York 9 managing consultant Angus McNab says the deal is good news for Estevez Tsai, York 9 and the CPL.
McNab said interest grew in Estevez Tsai after his international appearances. And while the transfer fee "certainly helps a little bit" during the CPL’s current hiatus, McNab said there are far bigger numbers at play.
"Running a professional sports franchise is a very very expensive experience," he added. "And when we look at the money invested by the Baldassarra family over the last two years, this is a very very small portion of that.
"That being said, the sale is comparable with anything else that has been seen in recent times in the CPL and pretty consistent with player values and movements and helps us build a trading history as a league and show leagues around the world that we’re open for business."
Based in The Hague, ADO Den Haag (4-15-7) stood 17th in the 18-team Eredivisie when the league halted play due to the global pandemic. The team is known as the Storks.
Estevez Tsai said his new club told him they wanted him in place by July 1.