It was recently announced that York 9’s Canadian born Emilio Estevez-Tsai has transferred to Eredivisie side Ado Den Haag. Estevez-Tsai joins Joel Waterman and Tristan Borges as CPL successes who have moved on to a higher level. This transfer has brought up a lot of the thoughts I was having in the summer of 2019 when the Whitecaps were linked with Nico Pasquotti and Sergio Camargo. Since there isn’t much going on in Canadian Soccer at the moment, now seems as good a time as any to go over those thoughts.
I don’t think it can be denied that the first year of the CPL was a success. In particular in giving players a platform to play professional soccer and then move to a higher level. I’m thrilled for these players but these transfers raise some serious questions about how things work in Canada.
I am reminded of a conversation between on “The Patcast” between the late Jason Botchford and Jeff Paterson. I’ve gone looking for it but I can’t find it so you’ll have to forgive some paraphrasing. The two were discussing why Alain Vigneault had not trusted Michael Grabner in defensive situations while he coached him in Vancouver but did trust him when he was coaching him in New York. Botch poses the question “what’s changed between now and then?” There is a bit of a pause before he screams into the microphone “Fucking nothing! He’s the same fucking guy!” You see Grabner had not got any better at being defensively responsible, he’d just gotten older and therefore, in the mind of his coach, more trustworthy.
A little over a year ago guys like Borges, Pasquotti, Camargo, Waterman, Estevez-Tsai and many more were playing either for University teams, in the PDL, in League One Ontario, local men’s leagues or some combination thereof. Fast forward to today and, well, they’re the same fucking guys. These players were available for free and nobody wanted them but after a couple dozen CPL games suddenly they’re hot commodities. Granted Estevez-Tsai and Borges are still in their early 20s and have room to improve but you still could have just had them! If someone were listening to me they could have snatched Borges up on a free transfer.
Players like Pasquotti and Waterman on the other hand are past the point when most players continue to develop. They are what they are. The only difference is now they have done what they do at a level that bigger teams respect. Beyond that though, they’re the same fucking guys.
Now, it’s important not to get to carried away here. We don’t want to fall into the trap US fans often fall into where a player transfers to a team in Europe, or strings together a few appearances for one of the bigger Liga MX teams, and everybody clamours for him to be cap tied only for him to be languishing in the reserves a few years later. There’s a very real inferiority complex in Canadian soccer and that leads to an overvaluing of the cache of playing in or being from Europe. So it’s important to note that Estevez-Tsai is far from a sure thing. He’s very raw and Ado Den Haag are taking a cheap gamble that they can mold him into something useful. Clubs take these types of gambles all the time and for every success there are many more failures. I am not saying the Canadian MLS teams missed out on an unbelievable talent. I think the people opining that Estevez-Tsai is already cap tied to Chinese Taipei are getting ahead of themselves. But I don’t think it’s crazy to ask why the MLS Canadian teams aren’t the ones taking risks on these types of players. After all there has been a lot of dross on all three teams over the years and recent results suggest that there were plenty of Canadian players just kind of hanging out who could have done at least as good of a job.
So what can we learn from this whole situation? Well I think we’ve learned that local semi-pro leagues like League One Ontario have a lot of value. Not every player is going to be ready to play in MLS by the time they are eighteen and not every player is going to get found when there are only three big academies in the world’s second largest country (by landmass). These leagues give players a chance to play competitive soccer against men, not just other academy players, and make the jump when they are ready. Four players who were playing in League One Ontario during the University offseason were drafted into MLS in 2020 (Ryan Raposo, Alistair Johnson, Dayonn Harris and Nyal Higgins) and many of the breakout stars of the CPL spent time in the league. Clearly there is talent to be found there. However, these leagues only have value if the teams above them think they have value. If MLS teams are paying attention to what’s happening in these leagues then they can find guys like Estevez-Tsai, Ryan Raposo, and Tristan Borges to fill out the bottom half of the roster with cost controlled young players who are able to contribute, complimenting the academy which is another source of such players.
Let us consider this from a Whitecaps specific point of view. It has probably been delayed due to the Coronavirus, but a BC/Western Canada semi pro league is coming. I think when it gets here they should pay attention to it. Most of the players in this league will never even be close to good enough to play in MLS but, as is clearly demonstrated by League One Ontario, there will be some players who distinguish themselves. If the Whitecaps want to be the most efficient team in MLS, as they have stated they do, then every player on their roster needs to either be currently useful (and preferably with potential to be sold on) or have the potential to be useful and then sold on in the future. They need to eliminate placeholder players who are in their late 20s and early 30s and replace them with 18-23 year olds who might turn into something. Semi-Pro leagues are a good place to recruit such players from. You get to see what they can do in a competitive environment and if they don’t work out, oh well it didn’t really cost you anything. While it is also true the PCs and the Floyd Franks of the world don’t cost you anything either, they also don’t carry the potential to turn into something. The Whitecaps under Axel Schuster have actually done a pretty good job reducing the number of placeholder players but it is early days so we will see how that develops. They don’t want to miss out on the BC versions of Raposo and Estevez-Tsai. If you find a good player in that league who is also a university player, for example, you can sign him before he enters the draft and then use your draft pick on another player with some potential. Fortunately, assuming every game of a BC semi-pro league is filmed and put on Youtube as is the case in L1O then it shouldn’t be that hard to pay attention.
The other question naturally raised by this transfer, the early success of Raposo, and many of the breakout stars of the CPL is; Are the best young players in Canada playing in MLS academies. It kind of seems like the answer is no, at least not all of them. Take this tweet from everyone’s favourite guy Kurt Larson:
Canadian footballers you wouldn't know without the Canadian Premier League (@CPLsoccer).— Kurt Larson (@OneSoccerExpert) May 12, 2020
Should I keep going?
Only two of these players went through an MLS academy. Now, it may be because the academy graduates who are actually any good are signed to MLS teams. I’m sure that’s part of it but it seems weird that most of the best players in the CPL are guys who were just kind of hanging out playing local soccer. I have already gone on for long enough and my only experience with BC’s youth player development system is as a player, and I never got particularly close to having to worry about MLS academies. I do have some thoughts on how that might be improved but that’s an article for another day. I will close by saying that the more opportunities there are for young Canadians to come through the ranks and the more that comes out of that talent pool the better for the Whitecaps and their MLS counterparts. So I hope they use every avenue available to them to recruit those players.