A young Canadian player is headed overseas from the Canadian Premier League, and not for the first time this summer.
Cavalry’s Aribim Pepple follows in the footsteps of former teammate Victor Loturi, Valour’s William Akio, and York United’s Diyaeddine Abzi, officially making his move this week to English Championship side Luton Town.
It’s the latest example of the CPL etching out its place in the international transfer market.
But how does that work? How does a club of the stature and quality of the Championship take interest in, and make a long-term commitment to, a CPL player — as, by all accounts, Luton has done with Pepple?
It begins with a symbiotic relationship between each CPL team and the league office.
There are nine football operations departments in the CPL: One at each club, and one at the league. That latter group works with each team individually on recruiting and scouting international players, but it is also a vital cog when it comes to outgoing transfers.
“We’re still in the very, very early stages of establishing ourselves as a league, in terms of reputation but also in terms of a network for our football,” said Oliver Gage, the CPL’s Director of Football. “We haven’t got the benefit of years and years of history where people know of the Canadian Premier League, know the level, or even have done business with them in the past, or have got other players in their league that have come from there.
“It’s not like there’s someone in the Championship that came from the CPL and is doing well that make Luton want to say, ‘Well, maybe we should go look in the CPL for the next guy.’”
That’s where a centralized CPL football department helps. Unlike managers such as Cavalry’s Tommy Wheeldon Jr. or York’s Martin Nash, Gage isn’t burdened by the daily grind of training a team and trying to win games as he works to recruit and sell players.
Gage and his department are free to focus on promoting CPL players to teams around the world, speaking to agents and recruitment staff to try and generate interest.
“There’s several ways to grow your network, and we’re trying to do that as much as possible,” Wheeldon told CanPL.ca.
“We know our place in the food chain. If you’re outside the top five leagues in the world, you’re constantly developing players to compete for domestic trophies and create an infrastructure where you can graduate players out and bring new players in, I think that’s just a healthy part of the food chain. Aribim Pepple is another great example of it. The kid puts in a lot of work, has a lot of belief in himself and has backed himself, and he’s got this move because he’s gone out there and took the opportunity.”
‘They kind of swooped in’: How Pepple landed at Luton Town
The case of Pepple, in particular, is fascinating and instructive. The youngster first came through the Cavalry ranks in 2019 as a 16-year-old, after a while spent in the Calgary Foothills development program. He headed to Europe for a variety of trials after the 2020 season — including with English Premier League sides Sheffield United and Leicester City — before landing with La Liga club Getafe CF, where he signed with the under-19 squad.
When things didn’t work out for Pepple in Spain after one season, he evaluated his options heading into 2022. Forest Green Rovers, at the time in England’s fourth-tier League Two, had interest, but weren’t ready to sign him during the winter window.
That’s where Cavalry re-entered the picture. Wheeldon offered to sign Pepple to play in his hometown this year, making a gentlemen’s agreement with Forest Green that Pepple would be free to trial with the club in the summer should it so desire. Wheeldon gave Pepple the opportunity he needed to shine at a pro level in 2022, fully aware that he might lose the youngster in July.
No one could have predicted quite how much Pepple would shine this year. After easing his way into the squad, he went on a record-breaking run in June, scoring six goals in five games — the first six goals of his professional career.
After that, it wasn’t just Forest Green paying attention.
“As soon as he suddenly started scoring goals, I was getting WhatsApp messages, phone calls, texts from several League One and Championship clubs. Even one English Premier League club showed an interest,” Wheeldon recalled.
Pepple headed to England at the end of June, with an eye on training and possibly signing with Forest Green.
But that was not the end of the story.
Gage stepped back in, reaching out to another 10 to 15 clubs to see if anyone else might have interest in the CPL standout.
Luton Town did. Gage and Wheeldon had floated Pepple to the club previously, but as he began heating up in the CPL, Gage nudged the Bedfordshire side to take a closer look.
“Aribim’s breaking the league record for consecutive goals in games, all the rest of it, and Forest Green saw their chance to exercise that option, bring him in on trial and they were very interested in signing him,” Gage recounted. “At which point I kind of got re-involved, because part of my mandate at the league is to be agnostic and work with all our teams, but also help Canadian players move to bigger and better places, which is why we set up this department in the league office.
“I put it front and centre on [Luton’s] radar that he was scoring goals, doing well, probably gonna sign with Forest Green, and they swooped in and took the chance to try and sign him themselves.”
The difference between signing for a newly-promoted League One side, where Forest Green was promoted in May, and a Championship club competing for promotion to the Premier League is vast. From facilities and infrastructure to level of play, there’s a major step up in quality, not to mention the head start it will give Pepple for the rest of his career.
The financial windfall also makes losing Pepple easier for Cavalry to swallow. The fee and sell-on clause they will get from Luton Town is much greater than what Forest Green could have offered. This might be a low-risk commitment for Luton because of the scale of Championship-level finances, but it is a significant boost for a CPL club. Had Pepple been scoring at this rate at 19 years old in England’s League Two, which Gage reckons isn’t far off from the CPL in terms of its on-field product based on their rating in the 21st Club database (more on how that works here), he’d be highly sought-after by plenty of Championship teams.
Gage said this was a much faster-moving transfer than some others to come out of the CPL in past years. By his reckoning, Pepple went from a likely Forest Green trialist to a Luton Town player within about five days. Still, there are similarities between this transfer and Abzi’s move to Pau or Loturi’s move to Ross County earlier this year, in terms of how club and league worked together.
With Loturi, Cavalry already had a strong relationship with the Scottish team. They had sent Dominick Zator and Nico Pasquotti to train with the club after the 2019 season, and conversations had continued to the point that Loturi’s move was essentially done before this season even started.
Step one, says Gage, is generating interest. That could be achieved by reaching out to contacts directly or using various online platforms like TransferRoom, which helps clubs connect with interested suitors.
“Different clubs all have different processes,” Gage explained. “Luton immediately wanted loads of data on [Pepple]; my background is in data, and my contact [at the club] is all about data, so we work with them on his playing data, his physical data from training and games, stuff like that. Other clubs are just like, send us some video… Everyone’s a little bit different, but generally it’s like, we go to 20 [clubs], maybe you get five semi-interested, give them what they need and that narrows it down to two or three after they’ve seen what they need to see.”
This process has become a lot easier in recent months than it was in the first year or two of the CPL. There’s now a body of work, not to mention hours of high-quality, accessible film on most players, so it’s easier to put together a profile. Plus, online programs like InStat have allowed CPL teams to track mountains of data on each player, which they can then forward on to potential suitors.
“I would say we’ve got double or triple the amount of just random requests from certain clubs or certain leagues around the world,” Gage said.
“Year one was a grind, you were trying to convince people why they should look at us; you’re literally saying, ‘Come and buy one of our players,’ but we’ve never sold anyone ever. So we’re kind of making up a price for a guy on the fly. Now we have a benchmark of what the price is for certain levels of players in our league, and we think it’s about right at the moment. It’s a lot easier to point to previous players we’ve sold and say, ‘Well, based on this, we think Aribim Pepple is worth this.’”
It was James Easton, the CPL’s VP of Football Operations, who first had the idea to develop a centralized football department with people like Gage to support each team, having predicted these challenges in the CPL’s entry to the transfer market well before 2019.
Now, it’s up to Pepple to seize his chance in England and find his place in the squad, hopefully blazing a path for future young CPL players to follow him.
‘Pick up a shovel and keep digging’: Finding the next Aribim Pepple
Meanwhile, back at Cavalry, Wheeldon’s job is still to win a championship this season, now without his leading scorer.
He’s also on the lookout for the next Pepple.
It’s not the first time Cavalry have seen key contributors move on. Joel Waterman left for Montreal in MLS after 2019, and Mo Farsi departed for the Columbus Crew organization this past winter.
“We’ve got to do that with all our top players, whether it’s a Marco Carducci or a Daan Klomp or Myer Bevan that was scoring goals early, we’ve gathered interest,” Wheeldon said. “There’s a lot more eyes on us because of the media deal we’ve got across the country, and programs like InStat and Wyscout, so I think we’ve got to be prepared to have our recruiting depth chart to replace them when these things happen.”
The Cavalry gaffer said moving players on has been part of the equation for him since the very beginning, having explained as much in early meetings with club president Ian Allison and owner Linda Southern-Heathcott.
He points to AFC Ajax in the Netherlands as a model he admires. The Dutch side constantly win domestic trophies and challenge in the Champions League, but they do so while also selling top young players to clubs all over Europe every year. Wheeldon would like Cavalry to be a Canadian equivalent.
“In the past we’ve kind of become accustomed to making sure we have enough depth in the pipeline, whether that’s via recruitment or the local pathway that we’re invested in,” Wheeldon explained. “We’re ready to do that again. We always knew there was a possibility of Aribim going back to England, so we were prepared, and we’re looking at a couple of young players to replace him that we feel, give us time, they’ll be the next ones on the pipeline.”
That’s what the Canadian Premier League is all about: Giving young Canadian players the chance to grow, and then helping them move on to bigger and better things.
“That’s what John Herdman challenges us all to do,” said Wheeldon.
“Create more players within the pipeline, maybe not for this World Cup cycle but for the 2026 cycle. I think we’re just happy to pick up a shovel and keep digging.”
The entire Canadian soccer landscape is connected from top to bottom. Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and the rest of Canada’s men’s national team may have opened the world’s eyes to what this country can do on the men’s side of the game in recent years, but the progress doesn’t stop with them.
Perhaps, years from now, the next generation of national team stars will have found their start in the professional game in the CPL.