After impressing at the Canadian Premier League’s Open Trials in Toronto, Emilio Estevez Tsai was invited to a second combine by the York 9 FC head coach a couple of weeks later.
What he saw on his repeat viewing of the diminutive, technically gifted 20-year-old convinced Brennan to make his move before someone else did.
“I trained (at the second combine) and right after, that’s when (Brennan) told me he was going to sign me,” Estevez Tsai recalled to CanPL.ca.
Born to Spanish and Taiwanese parents and raised in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Estevez Tsai immediately joins HFX Wanderers’ Elton John on the list of CPL names fans won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
But if the creative midfielder can fulfil his undoubted promise — Brennan has described him as a “little hidden gem” — he will be shedding the Mighty Ducks jokes and sticking in their minds for soccer alone before long.
Estevez Tsai likes to play as a No. 10 and his game is all about mastery of the ball. His unique style is attributable in part to an education in futsal, the small-sided, indoor adaptation of the sport in which a smaller, heavier ball is used.
It puts much more emphasis on ball control and improvisation than traditional 11-a-side soccer.
“It’s (all about) tight spaces and it improved my technical ability a lot,” Estevez Tsai said.
In addition to futsal, Estevez Tsai played for the Etobicoke Energy youth club before moving on to Clarkson Soccer Club in Mississauga as a teenager.
Youth soccer can be challenging for a player like him; the fields aren’t always perfect, and the more physically mature players can shine through. His determination to play his own way, though, has never wavered.
How that commitment to the street style he knows best translates to the professional game will be intriguing to watch come April.
“From a young age, I’d loved expressing myself on the ball because I’m not the biggest player,” Estevez Tsai said. “But by having the ball and showing my flair, it would help me stand out.
“I guess sometimes (it could be difficult). But at the end of the day, I found it was all a mental thing. I found that as soon as I get the ball, I just (have to) express myself and do what I know best.”
More recently, he has spent time on trial with English club Queens Park Rangers and a year in his father’s homeland training with La Liga side Levante. Upon signing with Y9 this year he received a call-up from the Chinese Taipei national team.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Estevez Tsai’s list of influences is a who’s who of the most skilled players to grace the Spanish league in recent years.
“I like Iniesta, I like how he plays,” he added. “I also like Neymar. I like Messi. But at the end of the day I try to combine all the best things of each one of those players: Neymar and his skill, Iniesta’s awareness and technique with the ball.
“Being in Europe, that helped me a lot because over there the game’s faster. That helped me a lot technically, tactically and especially mentally.”
In Brennan and York 9, Estevez Tsai hopes he has found a coach and an environment ready to embrace his uncommon skillset — and far closer to home than he ever expected.
“He’s a coach that wants to keep the ball,” the midfielder said.
“There’s lots of talent in Canada. I feel like this league is a big opportunity for all the young Canadian players to show what they’re capable of doing.
“Before you would think to make it pro you would have to go overseas or something, but having the league right here makes it easier.”