Path To Pro: USports, Canadian Premier League offering alternate pathway for young soccer hopefuls

Many of Canada’s top young soccer players fall through the cracks once they reach 18. In this, we explore why that happens, and what is being done to change it.

There is a hole in Canadian soccer player development.

Many of the country’s top players are apart of academies operated by teams in Major League Soccer, although few make it to the pinnacle of their organization.

After not being able to crack an MLS roster, many of these players turn to collegiate soccer,
however, this exposes a greater problem inside MLS Canadian soccer player development;
which is the lack of opportunities for players over 18 years of age. Only Toronto has a professional
option for player development past 18, but even that is not as good as it could be.

The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact both used to have developmental teams in the
second division of North American soccer. These teams offered players the chance to play in a
professional and competitive environment, while also serving as feeder teams to the MLS clubs.

Both teams only lasted a pair of seasons before shuttering their doors and pushing more
Canadians away from potential soccer stardom.

Jordan Haynes, who once a part of the Whitecaps Academy, has felt the full effect of Canadian
soccer’s failure. Haynes spent a number of years in the Whitecaps academy system, where he
moved onto his first professional contract with Whitecaps 2, the developmental team playing in
the United Soccer League (USL).

“Having that stepping stone [WFC 2] was a great opportunity. It let guys like me, from the
academy move on within the program and adjust to the higher levels of the game,” said Haynes,
when asked about what the USL side did for him.

After two years, the Whitecaps shut down their USL side, leaving a gaping hole in their player
development system, and sending their entire roster into a confusing tailspin.

For Haynes, that’s when the idea of playing in U SPORTS came across his radar.

“I didn’t really have a place to play when they shut down, so that’s when I tried finding
somewhere else. After spending a summer in Calgary, I landed on UBC.”

Now a recent graduate from UBC, Haynes was part of a Thunderbirds roster that once boasted
5 players who were formerly with Whitecaps 2.

It was one of those five who drew Haynes to the program in the first place, “The year before I
went [to UBC], my buddy from WFC2, Mitch Piraux played for UBC and sorta sold me on the
program, and why going to school and competing in U SPORTS was the right step for me at
that point in my life.”

In the time that Haynes spent with the Thunderbirds, they had two national championship
appearances, as well as a pair of gold medals from Canada West competition. So clearly there
was some talent on the roster, but those are talents that could have been impacting Canadian
soccer on a greater stage.

“I really feel like I fell through the cracks [of Canadian player development]. I started to feel it
even before UBC,” said the former Canadian youth international, “You get told all along the way
about how you’re going to move up in the program, and then in an instant, it all sorta stops. It’s
pretty crushing.”

Since Haynes left the Whitecaps, the program has only fallen into more disarray. The WFC 2
team is gone, and there are limited options for players to remain within the club after graduating
from the academy. It is either a jump straight to MLS with the first team, a largely impossible feat for many, or
training with a U23 development team that does not play in a league; two options that are not
suitable for some of the club’s top prospects.

In the past week, all MLS academies were dealt an additional blow from the United States
Soccer Federation, as the US Soccer Development Academy (USDA), the league which the
Canadian academies also played in, disbanded. It’s shut down leaves some of the best young
Canadian players without a league to play in. Combine the shutdown of the USDA with the
non-existent pathway for players 18+, and the problems only become larger. It’s part of the
reason why two of UBC’s most recent recruits are graduates of the Whitecaps U18 side.

This problem, although elevated in Vancouver is common in every MLS academy. Chris
Castillo, a midfielder for Ryerson University, also felt he was pushed out of the MLS program
when he was with the Toronto FC academy.

“Once there was any talk that I wanted to go to school, I stopped playing,” said the Ryerson midfielder, “They didn’t let me travel, and it became pretty boring.”

He had not yet made the decision to go to school, yet he was forced away from the academy
system. For a kid that once played alongside Bayern Munich prodigy, Alphonso Davies, in the
Canadian youth levels, being pushed away from his dreams of professional soccer was a tough
blow to take.

Although both Haynes and Castillo felt pressured away from MLS, there are a number of
differences between Vancouver and Toronto. The Ontario club still has a “2” team that
competes in the third division of the American soccer system, but Castillo says that many
academy graduates forego that opportunity, as it has not proven to excelrlate player’s
developments.

It is clear that the Canadian professional pathway is flawed, especially for the MLS teams. That’s
where the Canadian Premier League is changing things. The CPL, which drafts players from U
SPORTS has given hope to players who’s professional dreams were thought to have
dissipated.

“Of course the dream is to go pro, and now with the CPL it actually seems possible,” said
Castillo, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Haynes, who was on the cusp of joining the CPL ahead of the 2020
season.

So while the CPL might be fixing the problems on some fronts, many of the main issues remain when it
comes to MLS, at least for those on the fringes of the youth academy.

U SPORTS is not and will not be the solution that sends Canada back to the FIFA World Cup,
but it helps to plug the hole left vacant by the country’s MLS clubs. The stopgap nature, along
with the introduction of the CPL, university soccer is beginning to become a critical thread in the
fabric of a burgeoning soccer nation.

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