How the growing profile of the Canadian Premier League has caught the attention of National Team players and coaches alike 

With the recent milestone of Marco Carducci’s call-up earlier this month in mind, we took the chance to speak to a couple of players about the CPL, getting their thoughts on the league as it continues to grow in its inaugural campaign. 

The Canadian Premier League got a huge boost to its ever-growing profile earlier this month, as goalkeeper Marco Carducci earned a call-up to the Canadian Men’s National Team, the first-ever CPL player to earn that distinction. For a start-up league, it was a huge step in the right direction, as it shows that their goal of providing with wayward Canadians a chance to get their careers on a path that could include big transfers and National Team call-ups wasn’t as far-fetched as originally thought. 

While it was originally unsure how the CPL would hold up in its first season, it has blown away the expectations of many, as they have been able to already achieve some impressive things in only the first year of existence. From Cavalry FC’s now-historic upset over MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps in the Voyageurs Cup, to now with Carducci’s call-up, and many countless other memorable moments along the way, it has been a good beginning for the uniquely Canadian start-up. 

“It just goes to show that the league is doing what it was intended to do. It’s giving us that platform to show ourselves,” Carducci told CanPL.ca’s Armen Bedakian in an interview earlier this month. “Without it, obviously, this wouldn’t be an opportunity I’d even have right now.”

With this call-up, Carducci became a poster boy for what the CPL hoped to accomplish when it first set out. Only 22, it seems so long ago that he first made his debut for the Vancouver Whitecaps, when he stood between the sticks as Vancouver was eliminated from the 2014 Voyageurs Cup on penalties at the hands of Toronto FC.

It was hoped that he could have eventually taken over as the next Whitecaps goalkeeper, but he was unable to make that breakthrough, playing a couple of season for the Whitecaps II team before spending a year in the USL, then moving over to the PDL with the Calgary Foothills in 2019. Over the span of 4 years, he had gone from the next big thing to an afterthought, and while he still had a lot to give at 21, it was unsure where his next opportunity would come from. 

But then along came the CPL. Cavalry, the spring season champions and current fall leaders, took a bunch of Foothills players along with them as they made the jump, and Carducci ended up being one of them. All of a sudden, it put the forgotten man back in the spotlight, and all he’s done since is shine, finding success and vaulting him back into the conversation in this country. 

National team coach John Herdman has been long excited about the possibilities that the CPL would be able to provide players in his pool, so it’s no surprise that he called up Carducci with the goalkeeper in good form. When asked of what he expected the league to provide back in March, before the CPL had even kicked off, he said that it would only benefit the country and its players by gifting them a chance to either enter or return to the spotlight, and as seen with Carducci, that plan has worked out so far. 

“I think we’re seeing it already,” Herdman said back in March when asked of the CPL helping national team players. “Michael Petrasso, who only last year was playing in Murcia, played a good Gold Cup (in 2017), and you know that’s what happens with players careers, they pick up injuries, they have moments with coaches, they’re not the right profile for a club, and then their careers stutter a bit.”

“I think in Canada the challenge we’ve always had is when a Canadian player’s career stutters, what do they do? And if they don’t have the passport, where do they play? And you’ve just seen Petrasso sign with Valour, now we know that he’s playing every week, getting back to full fitness, getting his confidence back with a coach that fully believes in him, so with that, that’s going to get him back on our radar, for sure, particularly in positions where we don’t have great depth. So I’m just excited. That’s a prime example of what this league can do for us.”

And while Petrasso has yet to get back into the fold, many other players have used this opportunity to get their names out there, both for Canada and for other countries. Former Whitecaps midfielder Noah Verhoeven got a chance to train with Canada ahead of this summers Gold Cup, York’s Ryan Telfer just earned his first cap and goal with Trinidad and Tobago, while countless others have gotten a chance with various other national teams. 

Noah Verhoeven parlayed his strong play in the CPL into a call-up to train with Canada ahead of the Gold Cup (Keveren Guillou)

It’s also catching the eye of players around the globe. One such player is Canadian Men’s National team goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who currently plays in Serbia with Red Star Belgrade. Despite being far from North America, and never having had played in MLS, he has kept an eye on the league, and he thinks it’s going to only continue to help the game in this country.

“I’ve been following actually,” Borjan said in an interview with BTSVancity. “I mean they did a really good job with that league because we needed that here in Canada. It’s too bad there are only 7 teams, as we need more teams, but I mean it’s the first year, so from year-to-year it’s going to get better and better.”

“There’s a lot of talent (in the league), which shows with Marco (Carducci) coming here with the national team, so it’s really exciting, I mean next year it’s going to be even better, so from year-to-year it’s going to be better and better and that’s what Canada needs.”

Having trained with Carducci for a week in this month’s training camp, Borjan was also impressed with the quality shown by the young goalkeeper, and he says it’s a testament to the quality of the CPL. 

“He is doing a really good job actually,” Borjan said. “I am really surprised actually, I think this is the first time that I met him, and he has a bright future ahead of him, so he just needs to continue working, playing games and doing the work that he’s been doing, the coaches recognized it and that’s why they called him up.”

Another national team player that has been following the league has been Sam Adekugbe. But unlike Borjan, he has a much different motive in doing so: his brother Elijah has been a star in the heart of the Cavalry midfield this season. Despite there only being a 1-year gap between the Adekugbe brothers, Elijah had not been able to establish himself at a good level as Sam has, so the chance to find minutes in the CPL has been huge for him. After playing a couple of years at Trinity Western University, as well as with the Calgary Foothills, he has shone for Cavalry this season, getting himself on the radar of many clubs and causing speculation that he might be one of the next names to get a National Team call-up. 

And while Sam is currently playing at a good level in Norway, getting regular minutes for Valerenga, there were a couple of rough seasons with injuries and irregular playing time before he got here, and he admits that the CPL could have helped him in that regard. To hear that from Adekugbe, one of the Canadians that went over the hump that most CPL players found themselves in before joining the league, admit that it could have helped, it gives a good idea of what the CPL has done.

“Yeah I think so,” Adekugbe told BTSVancity when asked if the CPL could have helped him. “I think a lot of the players that are playing there are around my age group, and maybe didn’t break into the first team like I did, so it gives them a second opportunity.”

“But I also think when we were all in the academies we didn’t really have that, there was an MLS Reserve League, there was USL League, there was a PDL League but there was nothing very concrete like the CPL that we have now, so I think it’s obviously a good moment for Canadian soccer and it’s a good chance for players to get regular football, which is one of the most important things.”

With players, coaches and clubs all taking notice of what the CPL has and continues to do, the profile of the league will only grow from here. It has been a good first season for them, as they have achieved a lot of big things while maintaining a good competitive balance and following the league’s mantra of giving Canadians a chance to play. With quotas in place to ensure that minutes get allocated to U21 Canadians, Canada’s national teams, including the U23 side that is going to kick off Olympic qualifying in the coming months, will only benefit from the CPL in the future. 

There are many milestones yet to come as well, such as the first big outgoing transfer, some new expansion teams, and not to mention inaugurating the first-ever champion, with the 1st CPL final coming up this fall. As those dominoes continue to fall, Carducci and company will keep their heads down and play, going about answering the questions that the league has so far done well in responding to in its short existence. 

“As a brand new league, there’s always going to be those questions,” Carducci said to CanPL.ca. “But you’ve seen the quality of players that have come into the league, and the quality and parity throughout the league – aside from our 8-0 win a few days ago, games have been close and there’s been a lot of competitiveness throughout the league.”

“Having this opportunity, me getting this call up, definitely shows that people are taking it seriously from the outside in … It goes without saying that now, the quality shows, and my getting this call up definitely helps make this whole thing feel real as well.”

Carducci audio source: CanPL Website

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