VANCOUVER, BC – Once again, the Canadian Premier League is overcoming challenges. In 2020, the league played an abbreviated season in a ‘bubble’ environment on Prince Edward Island, while stadiums across the country sat vacant without CPL or CFL action.
With lessons learned from last year and a pandemic still at the forefront of Canadian’s lives, the CPL has opted for a ‘bubble,’ once again, at least to start. The league will begin with “The Kickoff,” a bubble in Winnipeg featuring eight matches for all eight sides. After that, the league hopes to follow the footsteps of the Canadian Elite Basketball League and return to home markets.
Since its inception in 2018, the U SPORTS players have had opportunities to pursue professional soccer dreams in the CPL, and in 2021, that is no different. While Forge FC, two-time champions, have seldom featured Canadian university players, former and current student-athletes have been integral through most teams.
With the 2021 season kicking off on June 26, several U SPORTS players could make an impact once again; but who are the leading players to watch?
Here are current and former U SPORTS players to watch on each Canadian Premier League team from west to east.
Pacific FC: Lukas MacNaughton (Toronto) and Chris Lee (UBC)
With Pacific FC, defender Lukas MacNaughton is the one to keep an eye on. While current and former UBC Thunderbirds Jordan Haynes and Chris Lee are intriguing, MacNaughton steals the spotlight to start.
A University of Toronto graduate, MacNaughton has been a stalwart for the Islanders since the inaugural 2019 season. He played eight games in The Island Games, starting six of Pacific’s first stage matches. His standout moment came against York9 FC when he scored off a corner to steal a late point for Pacific.
The former Varsity Blue led Pacific in blocks in 2020, with five, while finishing fifth on the team for tackles won, with nine. Those stats are bonuses for a centre-back, whose primary duty is to clear long-balls, something MacNaughton did at a stellar clip in 2020, with 30.
Now 26-years-old, he has appeared 28 times for Pacific and will likely start for Pah-Modou Kah’s side, alongside Thomas Meiuller-Giguere, who lead the 2020 side in clearances. While that pairing has chemistry from The Island Games, they will have fresh-faced fullbacks, with former Thunderbird Zach Verhoven now on Ottawa and Marcel De Jong playing for FC Retired.
One of those new starting faces could very well be Jordan Haynes, who has won Canada West titles with UBC and showed very well through eight games in 2020. While his stats were middle of the pack, he is very good at attacking from the back, something the was crucial to his success with UBC.
Chris Lee is a thrilling prospect, and there is every reason to be excited about what he can offer. However, The Kickoff could be difficult, as the 2021 U SPORTS Draft pick has not played a competitive match since the start of the pandemic. Despite not having a U SPORTS season in 2020, the Whitecaps Academy grad has the technical skills to succeed in the CPL.
Cavalry FC: Daniel Kaiser (UBC)
With one of the strongest lineups in the Canadian Premier League, Cavalry FC is North Star shields right from The Kickoff. Unfortunately for them, 2020 starting centre-back Dominick Zator is pulling on York United colours this season, leaving them without an out-and-out U SPORTS star.
However, the player to watch is another defender, UBC’s Daniel Kaiser, who joins the team on a U SPORTS contract. A native of Calgary, Kaiser is the first U SPORTS player to sign a developmental contract, making him intriguing in league terms, not only on the field.
Kaiser has won two Canada West championships through two seasons with the Thunderbirds, and although there was no competition in 2020, there is every reason to believe that number could be three.
“Daniel is an athletic fullback that is good defending in a 1v1 situation and possesses a great engine to get forward and join the attack,” said Cavalry Head Coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr in a media release. “He’s a player that I’ve worked with previously when at Foothills together and it’s great to see that he has really blossomed into a fine young leader with infectious energy and enthusiasm.”
Kaiser impressed in preseason campo with Cavalry, as Alberta public health restrictions allowed the club to bring in trialists, an opportunity most clubs did not have.
Other U SPORTS players on Cavalry include draft pick Victor Loturi from MRU and backup goalkeeper Tyson Farago.
FC Edmonton: Easton Ongaro (Alberta) and Thomas Gardner (UBC)
Until Easton Ongaro leaves FC Edmonton, he will be their player to watch. The former University of Alberta Golden Bear has been one of the CPL’s top strikers in the opening two seasons and is likely to continue that trend in 2021. However, first overall U SPORTS Draft pick Thomas Garnder is going to draw some eyes as well.
Ongaro has led Edmonton in goalscoring in 2019 and 2020, with 13 and three goals, respectively. As a target man, he has been isolated the last couple of seasons, but in 2021, new loan signing Beto Avila could play off him as a second striker.
While Avila’s scoring prowess did not stand out with two goals in 13 USL Championship games, he is poised to succeed in the CPL. If Beto gets going, Ongaro’s assists could improve while he continues to put balls in the back of the net.
Former 49 Sports writer Brady Reid, who is now writing for CanPL.ca, predicts Ongaro to lead the league in goals this season.
With Gardner, FC Edmonton is getting one of the finest U SPORTS players of recent seasons. A two-time Canada West champion with UBC, the third-year Thunderbird has already had two cracks at the CPL, but neither has worked out. In 2019, a knee injury prevented him from playing for Pacific, and he did not sign with the Tridents in 2019 due to COVID-19.
Gardner is a unique playmaker with a knack for free-kicks. Already having experience with Head Coach Alan Koche from both of their Whitecaps FC 2 days, he will fit right in with the Eddies. Although CPL players seldom get called to the Canadian men’s national team, the North Vancouverite could garner some attention by impressing this season.
Other U SPORTS players in Edmonton are goalkeeper Connor James (Alberta) and midfielder Darlington Murasiranwa (Guelph.)
Valour FC: Brett Levis (Saskatchewan)
Despite being the only home team in The Kickoff, the expectations are once again low for Valour FC, who have finished outside the North Star Shield conversation in 2019 and 2020.
Brett Levis is one of the top players in the CPL. Although he has played on a subpar Valour side, the former Whitecaps FC player has established himself as a reliable player through every aspect of the game.
With only five games in Winnipeg colours in 2020, it is difficult to gauge precisely where Levis is, but he has established himself as an attacking full-back who can drive transition up the left side over his career. However, at 28-years-old, the current Levis is all you’re going to get, even though his pro career is only five years old.
As a winger with the U of Saskatchewan Huskies, Levis scored 29 goals in 50 games, and if there were a U SPORTS raft back then, he would have been selected. Although he never settled in at the MLS level, he should start for Rob Gale’s side at The Kickoff.
Also on Valour in 2021 is Carleton Ravens defender Tony Mikhael, one of the rare U SPORTS players with international experience, representing Lebanon at the U23 level. Drafted late in the second round of the 2020 Draft, he might not be a go-to guy for Valour in 2021, but there is little doubt he will establish himself as a professional in the next couple of seasons.
Forge FC: Garven Metusala (Concordia)
Two-time defending North Star Shield champions, expectations could not be greater on Forge FC. While Head Coach Bobby Smyrniotis has not turned to U SPORTS players often, he has one on his roster who could play a more significant role in the 28-game season.
A U SPORTS Draft pick, Concordia’s Garven Metusala, signed just days before the start of the CPL season but could play a role for Forge FC as they take on the CPL and Concacaf League.
While he never got a chance to play for Concordia with the 2020 RSEQ schedule cancelled, he joined PLSQ club AS Blainville, where he helped capture a league title. He also spent time at the semi-pro level with St. Hubert and, more recently, SC Fabrose, winning the PLSQ Cup in 2019.
Metusala is the only U SPORTS player on Forge, as former UQTR striker Gabriel Balbinotti will not return for 2021.
York United: Dominick Zator (Calgary)
Competing as York United for the first time, after spending their first two years as York 9 FC, Head Coach Jimmy Brennan’s side has turned to U SPORTS players every season.
In 2021, newcomer Dominick Zator is the only U SPORTS player on the first-team roster. After establishing himself as a defensive star with Cavalry FC, he will be a crucial piece in York’s championship aspiration this season.
Through two seasons with his hometown side Cavalry FC, he racked up 47 appearances and over 4000 minutes in all competitions. With his stellar play, he put himself in the conversation for the Canadian men’s national team.
A former Calgary Dino, Zator has spent most of his career in the Alberta city, only leaving with stops at the Vancouver Whitecaps and on loan to Vaslunds IF earlier in 2021.
With so much roster turnover, York United has a big year ahead of them. However, they are in a challenging situation to start the season, having only two weeks of preseason training, compared to others who have had an entire training camp.
Atletico Ottawa: Zach Verhoven (UBC) and Ryan Telfer (York)
Once again, beginning their season away from Ottawa, Atletico is a perplexing team in 2021. Without playing in Ottawa until after The Kickoff, they will be distant from fans, but having a winning record upon their return to Ottawa would help them establish their place in the community.
Through seven games in 2021, Atletico only scored seven goals, but with the additions of Ryan Telfer and Zach Verhoven, their attack is much improved since stepping off the pitch on Price Edward Island.
Both players have two seasons of CPL experience under their belt, Telfer with York 9 and Verhoven with Pacific. The latter is one of the best wingers in the league and could play his way into the Canadian team this season. A former UBC Thunderbird, Verhoven scored 12 goals in 54 appearances with UBC before scoring three through two years with Pacific.
“We followed Zach closely at the Island Games, and we were impressed with his performance,” Atlético Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez said in a club release. “He is a player with flair, and he can create scoring opportunities. We look forward to seeing his continued development this season and beyond.”
Verhoven is an exciting player and a tremendous loss for Pacific. Still, Atletico Ottawa has a great forward who will quickly endear himself to supporters when the team finally plays a game in Ottawa in July.
On loan from Toronto FC, Telfer wrote his name in CPL lore by scoring the league’s first goal in 2019 before adding seven more before the season’s end.
2020 was more challenging for the former York Lions striker, who failed to hit the back of the net in 2019. Although he is coming off a troubling, albeit brief campaign, a new team and new playing style could reignite the offensive flair he showed in year one.
Another U SPORTS player on Ottawa is former MacEwan Griffin, Dylon Powely, who was with Edmonton in 2020.
HFX Wanderers FC: Stefan Karajovanovic (Carleton) and Christian Oxner (SMU)
If you’re a U SPORTS supporter, you’re going to love the HFX Wanderers. Flush with talent from every conference, there are seven players with U SPORTS experience on the 2020 finalists’ roster.
Narrowing it down to just two players to focus on was no easy task, but the two we’ve picked are forward Steffen Karajovanovic and goalkeeper Christian Oxner.
If there is one thing you need to know about Karajovanovic, it’s that he has a long time, one of the longest in the league. Other than that, he scores goals – and a lot of them.
Selected in the first round of the 2021 U SPORTS Draft, the Carleton forward was one of the best available forwards, scoring 35 goals in 37 appearances with the Ravens. He’s a prolific goalscorer and will get his first chance at CPL defenders in 2021.
York United drafted the Quebec-born attacker in 2019, but due to the pandemic, he never joined them. He spent some time training with Atletico in Ottawa but did not land with them either, instead getting a chance to take on the CPL with a U SPORTS heavy HFX side.
Although Oxner’s blunder cost the Wanderers a shot at the North Star Shield last season, he has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league through the first two years. While he split starts with Trinidad international Jan-Michael Williams in the inaugural campaign, the SMU grad played every game in 2020, leading HFX to the best defensive record in the first stage.
Despite the gaffe, Oxner earned himself a nomination for the league’s Gold Glove Award while finishing third in saves made with 22. “It’s just how it is sometimes in football – you have a sh–ty bounce in the wind. I was probably trying to think too far ahead of catching the ball and what I was gonna do with it next, instead of making this simple thing,” Oxner told CanPL.ca.
Led by Stephen Hart, the Wanderers take aim at the 2021 North Star Shield and do so with the most U SPORTS players in the league. Cory Bent (Cape Breton), Kareem Sow (Montreal), Peter Schaale (Cape Breton), Jake Ruby (TWU), and Omar Kreim (Montreal) fill out their U SPORTS contingent. At the same time, they also added former SFU (Burnaby, NCAA) midfielder Marcello Polisi.
The 2021 Canadian Premier League season kicks off on June 26 in Winnipeg, and fans can watch all the matches on OneSoccer.ca.