St.John’s, NL- Making the transition from the university level to the professional game is a challenge many varsity athletes face annually across North America.
Before the emergence of the Canadian Premier League, and more importantly, the CPL-U SPORTS Draft, making the jump from university to the big times in Canadian soccer was perhaps the most difficult of any sport in the country.
Few know the struggle of trying to make a living on the pitch upon graduating better than former University of Calgary defender Dominick Zator.
“When we were in university it was pretty difficult to go straight from university to the pro level,” Zator told 49 Sports. “That’s when players had to go play in the PDL, or even just go out on tryouts down with the USL teams, or even overseas, but now there’s going to be a lot of scouts and eyes looking at the college level as the draft is becoming big.”
Upon graduating in 2016 after five successful seasons with the Dinos, during which time he’d spend a pair of his summers suiting up for PDL side Calgary Foothills, he signed his first professional contract with USL outfit Whitecaps FC II in the spring of 2017.
Following his debut season with the Caps reserve team, the club ceased operations and the Calgary native was forced to return to the PDL in 2018 where he helped carry the Foothills to the PDL Championship under head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr.
Thanks to his strong performances in the PDL and some familiarity with the newly appointed manager, Zator joined Wheeldon in Calgary, becoming one of Cavalry FC’s first signings ahead of the CPL’s inaugural season.
While he’s grateful for the time he spent in the developmental leagues before his soccer career brought him back home to Calgary, the 25-year-old centre-back believes the opportunity for players to jump straight into the CPL via the U SPORTS draft will make for a simpler path to the pros compared to the one he had to carve out.
“That kind of makes it a little bit easier now for the university students who are playing a collegiate level because now you actually have that drive and you know that there’s going to be a draft so you can really focus on performing and making sure you get yourself in that draft.”
“If you have that second drive to actually play at the professional level, now we have something else to aspire to if that’s the dream you’re trying to chase. There are a lot of good players in U SPORTS, so I think having this draft now kind of gives them a second avenue if they want to continue their dream or passion of playing at the pro level.”
Through just two years of the draft, several U SPORTS stars have been selected and made an immediate impact for their CPL club, perhaps none more so than Halifax defender Peter Schaale.
As players like Schaale conitnue to demonstrate how having success at the University level can now kickistart one’s professional playing career, the level of play in U SPORTS will only keep getting better according to Zator.
“I think it’s massive that many kids can now look at progressing their career going into the professional game, as well as getting a little bit ahead for the long term in terms of their education.”
“It’s like the best of both worlds and it can only make U SPORTS that little bit more competitive. Now that there’s the draft, players will be working hard to make sure they can get seeded high and continue along the path to becoming pros.”
As a crucial part of the Cavalry defense that made them both Spring and Fall season champions in 2019, Zator’s efforts at the back were once again rewarded with a new opportunity last fall, this time one he could never have foreseen in his days with the Dinos.
Following in the footsteps of his Cavalry teammate Marco Carducci, Zator earned a call-up to the Canadian squad for their Concacaf Nations League match against the United States in November.
Although the chance to play for a club in his hometown in Canada’s very own professional league was one that came with plenty of excitement, Zator admits even he didn’t expect this kind of exposure from playing in the league to come so quickly.
“Last year, I never would have thought that playing in the CPL there was going to be this many eyes on the league right away and that there’d be even a slight chance of getting a national team call-up, so it shows what the CPL is capable of and how good it has been right off the bat.”
While not every U SPORTS alumni will get the opportunity to don the red and white of Canada, the humble Cavalry defender suggests the first step is putting in the work to get a chance in the CPL.
From there, the pathway from university to the national team has never been easier.
“This really is a good opportunity for players to get into this league and then you never know, the sky’s the limit really, you’re able to make it to the national team level, like Marco (Carducci) and me. There are always chances and that’s what this league provides.”