Will the third time be a charm for Thomas Gardner? FC Edmonton hopes so.
The Eddies selected Gardner, a midfielder at the University of British Columbia, with the No. 1 overall pick on Friday in the 2021 CPL-U SPORTS Draft in a move that sees the prospect get another crack at the Canadian Premier League.
Gardner, a 22-year-old native of North Vancouver, B.C., is no stranger to the draft, as this year marked the third time he’s been selected during the annual event. In 2018, Gardner was picked sixth overall by Pacific FC, but he sustained a knee injury shortly after being drafted that ruled him out for several months, and he didn’t end up signing with the West Coast club. Gardner went back to UBC and was drafted a second time by Pacific in 2019, going 12th overall, but again he didn’t sign with the Tridents due to the ongoing global pandemic.
“It’s pretty surreal. I’ve been picked a couple of times before, but due to an injury and COVID, I wasn’t able to go. I’m super happy to join Edmonton this time around, and I can’t wait to get started,” Gardner told CanPL.ca.
A former Vancouver Whitecaps Residency and Whitecaps 2 standout, Gardner scored five goals and added four assists in 16 matches for UBC in 2019. He also played in the USL under Koch during his time with Whitecaps 2.
“I see value in him, and I think that’s the most important part of this; as a club we see value in him. I worked with him when he was younger, I gave him his professional debut in the USL,” Koch said.
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Participating in its first draft, Atlético Ottawa went local by selecting Carleton University defender Cristopher Malekos with the second pick. Malekos was a key member of the Carleton side that made the 2019 U SPORTS National Championship after he was named a U SPORTS first-team All-Star the previous season.
The only goalkeeper selected during Friday’s draft went to Valour FC, who picked Yuba-Rayane Yesli from the University of Montreal at No. 3. Yesli, a former Montreal Impact youth product, comes with size (he’s six-foot-seven) and technical ability that allows him to comfortably play the ball out from the back. He also previously played for Italian club Vibonese Calcio.
York United FC opted for Christopher Campoli, a midfielder at Ontario Tech University, with the fourth overall pick. Crucially, Campoli would qualify as domestic under-21 player for the 2021 campaign — all CPL teams are required to have at least three U-21 players on their roster who must combine to play at least 1,500 minutes.
With the fifth pick, Pacific FC selected defender Chris Lee from UBC. A product of the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency Program, Lee is a left-sided fullback who would be a Canadian under-21 player for the 2021 CPL campaign.
“Chris is a student of the game with good potential,” Pacific assistant coach James Merriman said.
Mount Royal University midfielder Victor Loturi, another player who qualifies as a U-21, was picked sixth overall by Cavalry FC. A Calgary native, Loturi made four appearances for the Cavs during the 2019 season before deciding to attend Mount Royal.
HFX Wanderers FC used the seventh pick to add some offensive depth with the selection of Carleton forward Stefan Karajovanovic, who was drafted in 2019 by York but didn’t end up signing with the club. Karajovanovic bagged 35 goals and tallied four assists in 37 games for Carleton, and he has experience playing in the semi-pro Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ).
The first round concluded with CPL Champions Forge FC picking Concordia University defender Garven-Michée Metusala, who spent part of 2020 playing for PLSQ giants AS Blainville. Metusala is described as a two-footed defender with impressive passing range.
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Forge used the first selection (9th overall) of the second round to select Portuguese defender José Maria Ribeiro da Cunha from Cape Breton University.
University of Montreal defender Kareem Sow was then picked by HFX Wanderers, who was followed by fellow U-21 Ethan Keen, a defender from Mount Royal University, who was selected by Cavalry. Sow played a key role in Montreal’s 2018 U SPORTS Championship-winning season, and he can play on the left and in the centre of defence, as well as in midfield.
Pacific used the 12th overall pick on UBC forward Victory Shumbusho, a versatile attacker who scored 10 goals in 2019. Shumbusho spent four years with UBC, earning a pair of All-Canadian selections, and he was recognized as Canada West Rookie of the Year in 2017. Shumbusho also played for the Victoria Highlanders in 2019, having previously spent time with the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program.
“Victory is an interesting young player who is very hungry to prove himself,” Merriman said.
Danial Rafisamii (U-21), a U-21 midfielder at Ontario Tech, was selected 13th overall by York United. Carleton’s Tony Mikhael, a U-21 defender, was picked by Valour in the No. 14 spot.
Atlético Ottawa used its second-round pick to select York University defender Reggie Laryea, the younger brother of Toronto FC star Richie Laryea. Reggie played NCAA Div. 1 soccer with the University of Akron, and also spent time at Sigma FC in League1 Ontario. While not as quick as his brother, he is comfortable on the ball and possesses solid defensive awareness.
FC Edmonton used the last selection of the draft on UBC defender Jackson Farmer, who previously played for Koch at Whitecaps 2 and has one Canadian senior team cap to his credit.
“We’re excited to bring both (Farmer and Gardner) in; we haven’t just drafted somebody just to go through a process. We want both these guys to come in, and we’re excited to welcome them into the group,” Koch explained.
The order of the draft was based on clubs’ regular season record during last summer’s Island Games in PEI, and was formatted in a “snake draft” order with FC Edmonton receiving the first and last selections.
U SPORTS student-athletes who registered and declared themselves available were eligible for this draft. The 48 eligible players were selected through CPL clubs’ scouting departments with assistance from the league’s Football Development Department.
All 16 draftees will be invited to their club’s pre-season training camp ahead of the 2021 CPL campaign. Drafted players can sign a U SPORTS Developmental Contract, which allows a student-athlete with one to five years of U SPORTS eligibility remaining to sign with a CPL team while preserving their eligibility before returning to U SPORTS competition. Those same underclassmen can also later sign a full-time professional player contract with their club following graduation.
Drafted players who sign U SPORTS contracts but decide to return to university before the August 15 cut-off date can be “retained” year-over-year, meaning clubs won’t have to draft the player a second time – like Cavalry FC did for Carleton University attacker Gabriel Bitar in 2018 and 2019. A drafted player who does not sign will then be able to re-enter the draft for the following year should he have remaining years of eligibility and be in good academic standing with his university.
Alternatively, players can choose to stay with their CPL outfits on a full-fledged professional contract – former Pacific FC winger Zach Verhoven (University of British Columbia) went that route.
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Teams have found great, young talent at previous CPL-U SPORTS Drafts, as 12 former picks made at least one appearance during the 2020 season at The Island Games in PEI.
Cory Bent (2019, first overall) joined former Cape Breton University teammates Peter Schaale (2018, fifth overall), Jake Ruby (2019, 14th overall) and three other U SPORTS players to help lead HFX Wanderers FC to a second-place finish in 2020. Bent scored once and played in 10 of HFX’s 11 matches at the Island Games, logging 500 minutes of playing time.
Gabriel Balbinotti (2019, seventh overall) was a key part of the attacking rotation for Forge FC in Charlottetown last summer after helping UQTR Patriotes win a U SPORTS Men’s Championship in 2019. All four players from the 2020 CPL-U SPORTS Draft who signed with their clubs — Bent and Ruby at Wanderers, Balbinotti at Forge, and Isaiah Johnston at York9 FC — made at least three appearances at The Island Games, and three started at least one match.
Other notable draft picks who have made an impact in the CPL include ex-Valour FC midfielder Dylan Carreiro (2018, second overall), and current FC Edmonton goalkeeper Connor James (2018, seventh overall). Former Cavalry FC defender Joel Waterman (now with Club de Foot Montréal in MLS), FC Edmonton forward Easton Ongaro (who was originally selected by Cavalry) and HFX goalkeeper Christian Oxner also came out of the 2018 CPL-U SPORTS Draft.