TORONTO, ON – The format of the Canadian Premier League Draft, in collaboration with U SPORTS every year, is simple: the worst club from the previous season picks first, the best is last, etc.
It is a standard North American pro sports draft, but there is one major caveat: just being selected doesn’t hand you a contract with the club. On the contrary, it might be even more difficult getting drafted. All it guarantees is a spot in training camp, thrust against longtime professionals for roster spots.
Now, there are plenty of success stories of players ready to jump to professionalism and lock down contracts and first-team spots. Just from the 2023 Draft, Eryk Kobza, number one pick Anthony White, and Trivine Esprit garnered attention from coaches and have been thrust into the challenging CPL environment. Rayane Yesli, possibly the top candidate for CPL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2023, also came out of the Draft.
Of course, that’s not the case for everyone.
Despite many eventually going back to school, some even after real CPL experiences, some phenomenal players have found themselves in this situation. And one thing’s for sure: U SPORTS will be very happy knowing these talents will be gracing their pitches again this year.
Here are six former CPL draft picks that have returned to university for the 2023 U SPORTS soccer season.
Akwasi Agyekum – TRU Wolfpack (selected by Atletico Ottawa in 2023)
Agyekum is a star and key player of the TRU Wolfpack program that won the 2022 U SPORTS championship in front of their home fans. Agyekum did progress through training camp and into the first team this season, but just couldn’t crack onto the pitch as a midfielder on a team full of quality in that department.
TRU is just fine with the Junior staying on there: he has collected various accolades with the Wolfpack, notably the championship MVP last year. A fixture of all-tournament and all-conference teams, Agyekum just couldn’t get over the line in Ottawa. Yet it would surprise no one if he bounced right back into a 2024 CPL squad with less midfielder depth.
In terms of what he brings back to BC for this season, an outlet for composure, defensive solidity, and leadership should be expected. He’s still hunting a first goal for TRU, but the offensive stats won’t matter if he can stay consistent and bring this team back to the heights reached a year ago.
Soji Olatoye – York Lions (selected by York United in 2022)
The winger equipped with pace, agility, and control rivalling anyone else in OUA, Olatoye should be primed for another great campaign, his fourth with York. Picked by the club, which plays in the same venue as the Lions, it was another case of making the cut, but not getting on the field. Still, Olatoye didn’t let that dampen his spirits, carrying out a great season in League1 Ontario with three goals and then going on to add four more (plus four assists) with York. Prolific is an understatement, and if Olatoye wanted to boost his goal numbers, he easily could. Very much a creator for York; with the areas he can get into, he could shoot plenty more. He had six goals/five assists in 2021, his best year to date, starting all ten matches for York (two fewer in ‘22). He’s the type of player who could take a match by the reins and power an offence through a full 90.
It’ll be interesting to see how coach Carmine Isacco manages both Olatoye and the highly-touted fullback Sammy Ssebaduka, given both play on the right flank. They might have to play on opposite wings, or York will have two players making runs down that side. Maybe Olatoye comes into the middle as a CAM. Regardless of position or playing time, when Olatoye’s on the pitch, York has the best chance to win with a player who has earned plenty of individual honours but is still looking to win the ultimate prize: a national championship to break the eight-year drought for the Lions.
José Cunha – Cape Breton Capers (selected by Atletico Ottawa in 2022, by Forge in 2021)
A versatile player who is excellent with the Capers as a double-pivot, Cunha was selected first overall by Ottawa in 2022 for good reason. He even played over 100 minutes across two matches for Ottawa at the start of the 2022 season. It wasn’t to be, though, as Ottleti had very strong central defenders already.
Cunha does bring valuable experience everywhere he goes, though, as he spent much of his youth with the GD Estoril Praia academy system. The same academy produced another solid defender in Danilo. He progressed through the ranks up until the B team before coming to U SPORTS, and since then, it’s been uphill for the Portuguese.
His 2022 season was where he broke out, with two goals and one assist while starting all 12 matches for Cape Breton. This likely comes from his ability to be a double-pivot in midfield. After winning a penalty shootout in the semifinal, CBU ended up on top in AUS play last season, defeating StFX in the final.
They couldn’t do it on the national stage, but CBU will be looking forward to hosting the nationals this season. Cunha can help them just by maintaining his form in the past, but he’ll have to contribute up top even more given Kairo Coore has departed the team. If Cunha is able to play the ball out of the back more frequently, like he has done plenty of times in the past, it’ll be much less of a challenge to recreate Coore’s 15 goals last season.
Colin Gander – TMU Bold (selected by Halifax Wanderers in 2021)
Out of everyone on this list, Gander has the most CPL experience. Playing 17 matches for Halifax, garnering two assists, Gander showed off his skill as a left-back with some excellent skill and inch-perfect long balls. He developed great partnerships with another ball-playing defender in Jérémy Gagnon-Laparé, and working together, they brought life into a dismal Halifax team that year. Following Gander’s departure back to the Guelph Gryphons, Halifax was missing that extra boost. He can flip the match on its head instantly if a runner is going forward on the left side or down the middle. Gander is a new addition to TMU this year, and it’s safe to say their recruitment has been stellar.
Gander might be the one whose speed in everything he does gets TMU over the line and the OUA title. It wouldn’t be surprising if he develops a special partnership with an exciting attacker who will always be looking over his shoulder, anticipating a ball from Gander.
Chris Campoli – TMU Bold (selected by York United in 2023 and 2021, by Halifax Wanderers in 2022)
You wonder whether Campoli wants to be a CPL player.
On a third time of asking in 2023, he didn’t make the roster in a season in which he was arguably the best player in U SPORTS and set the record for most goals by an Ontario Tech Ridgeback.
He is still as good as ever in the club game, scoring 17 goals in 18 games for Vaughan Azzuri. It was a down year for them, but Campoli became a runaway candidate for player of the season in Leaguen1 Ontario.
He is a central attacking midfielder but effectively replaces Ameer Kinani as the TMU tattacking alisman. The Bold need that injection of goals again, with Kinani signing a full-time contract with Vancouver FC, and Campoli can bring it from many different parts of the field: free kicks from inside or outside the box and making individual dribbles into deep areas of the pitch.
Campoli is captivating and exciting, the Bold are lucky to have him. Could his best self play well in the CPL? Absolutely. However, now that he’s back at school pursuing another degree, maybe he’s too deep.
Ontario Tech bettered TMU last season but didn’t go as far in the OUA championship. Campoli will be hoping for regular season and championship success. TMU is a great place for that; he’ll be a big part of it.
Eric Lajeunesse – UBC Thunderbirds (selected by Pacific in 2023)
Last but certainly not least is the imposing centre-back who earned Pacific coach James Merriman’s trust in 2023. Claiming 455 U-21 minutes for Pacific, he would’ve been mentored by two incredible CPL centre-backs in Thomas Meilleur-Giguére and Amer Didić. Lajeunesse and the Thunderbirds were painfully close to national championship glory in 2022, losing out to TRU, but still finished over them in the regular season standings. Lajeunesse has already played two full matches, turning in performances that helped UBC to two clean sheets against UNBC.
That’s what Lajeunesse will bring that is crucial. Not the flashy goals, but reliability at the back. Professional experience will only bolster that, and the fact that he frequented Pacific matches, and it has seemingly been downhill for the Tridents since they lost that bit of defensive depth in Lajeunesse, tells the story. It’s shaping up to be another big year for Lajeunesse; getting drafted again would be no surprise.