The disappointing news that Concacaf had cancelled its Men’s Olympic Qualifying tournament was no surprise when it came down in March, but it was a blow to excited Canadian soccer fans nonetheless.
Canada’s under-23 team looked poised to truly contend for a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the first time in years, thanks in some part to the new young talents unearthed by the Canadian Premier League.
When the qualifying tournament was cancelled, Canada Soccer had not yet revealed the final squad that coach Mauro Biello would be taking to Mexico, but a provisional 40-man roster had been unveiled.
Ten current CPLers made the list — James Pantemis, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Robert Boskovic, Yohan Le Bourhis, Diyaeddine Abzi, Kadin Chung, Daniel Kinumbe, Noah Verhoeven, Terran Campbell, and Easton Ongaro. So, too, had a trio of former CPLers, in Emile Légault, David Norman Jr., and Tristan Borges.
Which of those players had made the team proper was never publicly revealed, but the fact that so many names from the league were on the list (although a few of them signed in the CPL after the announcement) was exciting.
Now, though, it’s unclear exactly when the Concacaf competition will be played; however, it might be reasonable to assume the CPL will play games before then, with all indications from FIFA suggesting the club game takes priority over international in the wake of this pandemic.
With that in mind, might a few more under-23 CPLers stand to benefit from this second chance to make the Olympic qualifying squad? Here are five players who missed out the first time, but might earn their way onto the squad this time around.
Malyk Hamilton, Atlético Ottawa
The 20-year-old wingback wasn’t a regular fixture in Cavalry FC’s lineup last season, although he did get a good few reps at right-back once Dean Northover went down to injury. Now that he’s moved to Ottawa, Hamilton could be poised to emerge as a full-time starter in the CPL.
He’s played for Canada at the under-18 level, but not since. If the Canadian under-23 side needs a technically-gifted attacking fullback or winger, Hamilton could be a great option. He’s certain to make his way onto the radars of many people across the country once Atlético Ottawa begins play, which will surely boost Hamilton’s stock significantly.
Zachary Verhoven, Pacific FC
The Pacific youngster was a bright spark for the team last season, scoring two goals and adding three assists in his breakout Fall campaign. Although the team’s attack was crowded at times, with Victor Blasco and Ben Fisk the first choices on the wings, Verhoven was one of the most entertaining technical players in his appearances.
The Canadian under-23 team could certainly use some more creative players with good one-on-one ability, which suits Verhoven. The former UBC Thunderbird doesn’t have any real history with Canada Soccer’s youth programs, but he was impressive in the CPL — if a little raw, perhaps.
Verhoven could definitely be the next Pacific player to make a name for himself once the CPL season gets going, and he’d be a decent pick to join fellow Tridents Terran Campbell, Noah Verhoeven, and Kadin Chung on a potential Olympic squad.
Marcel Zajac, Forge FC
The 22-year-old had a quiet, but solid year for Forge last season, making 21 appearances (often off the bench) and scoring once. As an attacker, he was firmly behind Tristan Borges, Chris Nanco, Kadell Thomas, and usually David Choinière in the pecking order for spots.
Now, though, Borges has moved on. Zajac could well be set up to flourish in an expanded role at Forge, if he can claw some of those minutes for himself. He didn’t exactly light things up in year one, but the fact that other players did implies that Zajac could do so this season. He’s a talented attacker, and he could put himself on the map with a better 2020.
Zajac is a versatile enough player that he can fit comfortably into any attacking setup, and he has no problems contributing off the bench if necessary.
Prince Amanda, FC Edmonton
Jeff Paulus figured out in the final game of 2019 that he had a young winger who could contribute to his squad. If, as it seems he might, Amanda gets an extended look in that position in 2020, he could definitely turn a lot of heads — especially if he’s feeding assists to Easton Ongaro, who might also be on the Olympic qualifying squad.
Amanda has attended two Canada Soccer identification camps, albeit at the U-14 and U-15 levels, so he’s got some familiarity. The 19-year-old has plenty of natural talent; it took a bit of a confidence boost for him to start earning playing time last season with FC Edmonton.
If Amanda can continue to develop and earn more consistent minutes, he might emerge as one of the bright young talents in the league — and perhaps earn a shot from Mauro Biello.
Antoine Coupland, Atlético Ottawa
This pick is one for the future, perhaps. Coupland, 16 years of age, is one of the most highly-touted young prospects in the country, with some in the Ottawa community even speculating he could one day be one of the next CPLers sold to a bigger club.
Coupland made his pro debut at age 15 for the Ottawa Fury, and now the young midfielder is set to continue his rapid growth with the capital’s new club. He’s never participated in a national team camp of any sort, at any age group, but thankfully he hasn’t quite slipped through the cracks.
Inviting Coupland to the Olympic qualifying camp could be huge for the wunderkind’s development. He’s a good bit younger than the rest of the group, but his talent might justify it nonetheless. Plus, wouldn’t he be a major asset to the 2024 Olympic squad if he’s already been through one cycle with the team?