The Canadian Premier League was born out of a desperate need for Canadian soccer to develop its players and give them career opportunities that they might not otherwise receive elsewhere. So far, it’s been a huge success.
Loads of Canadian prospects have cut their teeth during the league’s first two seasons and made big names for themselves at their clubs, while others (including former league MVP Tristan Borges of Forge FC) have gone on to bigger and better things thanks in large part to the platform granted to them by the CPL.
The lifeblood of any sports league is it young players. With this in mind, we wanted to put the spotlight on the CPL’s best youngsters from this past summer’s Island Games in PEI.
CanPL.ca assembled a special panel of soccer pundits from across the country to submit their lists of the best under-23 players in the Canadian Premier League, based on their form during the 2020 campaign and their future potential. The other criteria was that players had to be 23 years or younger at the start of this season.
Once all the ballots were in, we tabulated the votes and came up with one cumulative list of the CPL’s best under-23 players.
1. Akeem Garcia, HFX Wanderers FC
A Golden Boot, an appearance in the CPL Finals, and No. 1 in CanPL.ca’s Top 23 Under 23 list. It’s been quite the year for Akeem Garcia.
The Trinidadian has 13 goals over his two CPL seasons with the Wanderers, putting him in a tie with former Forge FC star Tristan Borges and FC Edmonton’s Easton Ongaro as the league’s all-time top scorer, underlining his status of one the CPL’s true danger men in front of goal.
Garcia’s six-goal tally at The Island Games not only saw him secure the Golden Boot, but it also helped the Wanderers reach their first CPL Finals – an amazing turnaround for a club that finished last place in 2019. With key goals in both the first and second rounds against eventual champions Forge, Garcia was deservedly a nominee for the league’s Player of the Year award.
Although he enjoyed a breakout 2020 campaign, Garcia’s offensive explosiveness was hardly a surprise after he bagged seven goals in 24 appearances in 2019. A change in tactics from Wanderers coach Stephen Hart turned him into the team’s main scoring threat this season.
“This year coach allowed me to focus on one position; he only played me forward this year and not on the wings,” Garcia told CanPL.ca. “That gave me a lot of confidence knowing my role, and what I can do best to help the team.”
Having turned 24 only last month, Garcia won’t be eligible for next year’s Top 23 Under 23 list. But you still get the sense that he is poised to continue to terrorize opposing defenders with his quickness, deft touch and ruthlessness inside the penalty area for years to come.
2. Mo Farsi, Cavalry FC
A 20-year-old native of Montreal, Mo Farsi had flown somewhat under the radar as a member of AS Blainville in the Première Ligue de soccer du Québec and with the Canadian futsal team before joining Cavalry FC in April.
It proved to be an astute signing by Cavalry, as Farsi was one of the league’s breakout stars this year, taking The Island Games by storm with his dynamic and dangerous attacking play in PEI. Known for his pace and deft touch, Farsi made 10 appearances in Charlottetown as a tricky wide player who excelled at both ends of the pitch. Not only did he score one goal and add an assist, he also registered a team-high 15 tackles and ranked third in passes in the opponent’s half.
Farsi immediately won the admiration of CPL onlookers during the opening match at The Island Games, drawing two penalties and notching an assist in his first 40 minutes of action for Cavalry against Forge FC. He continued to have an impact in Cavalry’s second contest in PEI against Valour FC when he drew another penalty and delivered an inch-perfect cross to teammate Marcus Haber for a second Cavalry goal.
Farsi’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named the Best Canadian U-21 Player of the Year, capturing an individual honour in an extraordinary first professional season
“Never in my life did I think I would have a first season like this, where I’d win awards right away,” Farsi told CanPL.ca. “It makes you proud, in a way, of the work you’ve put into it. I had 10 games to prove myself and I did that, which is satisfying.”
3. Marco Carducci, Cavalry FC
Even though he wasn’t a nominee for this year’s Golden Glove award, Marco Carducci had a solid showing at The Island Games in 2020, and further established himself as one of the league’s best goalkeepers. As such, he comes in at No. 3 and is the highest-ranked shot-stopper on our list.
A native of Calgary, Carducci was a workhorse again for the Cavs this season, starting in nine of the team’s 10 games in Charlottetown and logging 810 minutes of playing time – he appeared in 25 league matches and saw 2,250 minutes of action in 2019 when he won the Golden Glove.
Carducci played a big role in helping Cavalry advance out of the first round at The Island Games, and he ended up recording three clean sheets (second-best in the league) to help his hometown club stay in contention for a spot in the CPL Finals right until the last matchday of the second group stage.
The first CPL player ever to be called up by the Canadian national team, Carducci has 12 career clean sheets for Cavalry (second most in league history) and it’s only a matter of time before an MLS side or a club from abroad signs him.
Is Forge’s Belgian centre-back the best defender in the CPL? Quite possibly.
Krutzen, who turned 24 years old on the day of the 2020 CPL Final, has been a stalwart presence at the back for the two-time champions for two straight years now. This year, he led the league in interceptions (34) and tied for first in defensive touches (87).
This season, Krutzen also provided some key attacking moments for Forge as a set-piece specialist, scoring a key header at The Island Games against Atlético Ottawa before burying two penalty kicks in the Concacaf League (including the 90th-minute winner against Tauro FC, surely one of the biggest goals in club history).
He played almost every minute of Forge’s 11-game CPL run this year, as well as every single second of their Concacaf League campaign. With defensive partner David Edgar now retiring, Krutzen will be counted on even more in the future to help maintain the club’s excellent defensive record.
5. Julian Dunn, Valour FC
Expectations were sky-high for Dunn coming into The Island Games. He joined Valour on loan from Toronto FC for this season, after the MLS side’s reserve team seasons were cancelled for 2020. He settled into the Valour side immediately, despite joining shortly before the club left for PEI.
Alongside centre-back partner Andrew Jean-Baptiste, Dunn helped boost Valour’s shaky defence from 2019 into one of the CPL’s most solid. He played every single minute for the Winnipeg club, rarely putting a foot wrong.
It’s not easy for a 20-year-old to play centre-back, especially at a new team, but Dunn needed no time to adapt. He was instantly in-sync with his more experienced teammates, and he was intelligent with his tackles and defensive battles.
Dunn returned to TFC after The Island Games, being named to the bench a couple of times as he looked to continue improving after impressing so much in the Canadian Premier League.
6. Kadin Chung, Pacific FC
After a decent 2019, Pacific FC’s first-ever signing really broke out in 2020. He was dominant up and down the right flank for Pacific, showing balance between his natural attacking ability and a much-improved defensive game. Chung finished second in the CPL in successful tackles at The Island Games, landing in the top 10 for recoveries and duels won. He also had the second-most touches in the attacking third among defenders and the fourth-most crosses.
Chung’s excellent 2020 season turned a lot of heads around the country, and even started to generate a little buzz about whether he should be included in the Canadian national team’s Olympic qualifying squad this summer.
The 22-year-old also had a direct hand in one of the best moments of Pacific’s season, combining fluidly with Marco Bustos for an assist in the lead-up to the latter’s season-saving game-winner against FC Edmonton. Chung’s coach, Pa-Modou Kah, had a glowing review of his fullback as well.
“Everybody that’s not gonna come with the argument why Kadin Chung is the best right-back in this tournament, they don’t know football,” he said. “I think he’s on the doorstep to knock on the national team, because I want to see who’s a better right-back at this moment in Canada.”
Few CPLers have been called a hero as many times as Choinière. The young Forge winger, plucked from the Montreal Impact academy, has a knack for scoring key goals — whether it’s Finals 2019 or the Concacaf League. He told CanPL.ca in November that, really, he just likes having the pressure.
Choinière scored a key goal for Forge against Atlético Ottawa in 2020, effectively sealing their passage to the second round in PEI. He also dished out one of the assists of the year (actually, according to the fans, it was The Assist of the Year) against Cavalry, with a pinpoint cross to Kyle Bekker.
The 23-year-old is one of the league’s most exciting young attackers, with his incredible ability to beat defenders on the dribble create scoring opportunities for himself and for teammates. Two voters put him in their top three, and it’s not hard to see why.
8. Easton Ongaro, FC Edmonton
FC Edmonton didn’t have the greatest year in 2020, but their star attacker is still a bright spot. Ongaro scored three goals at The Island Games, meaning he has 13 in his career for the Eddies, which makes him the joint-all-time leading scorer in the Canadian Premier League (alongside Tristan Borges and Akeem Garcia).
Ongaro is one of the league’s most imposing presences in the box with his six-foot-six frame, but he also has the technical skills and hold-up ability to make him a true top talent in attack. Former FCE coach Jeff Paulus has called him “a rare talent,” and over a longer 2021 season he could make a serious Golden Boot challenge. Ongaro’s nose for goal and his intelligent attacking play earned him a place in the CPL’s “Next Gen” series, which highlights some of the very best young talent from across the league.
The Edmonton native also placed in the top five of six different ballots in Top 23 Under 23 voting.
Recently, Ongaro has taken his talents to Denmark, where he’s on loan with Vendsyssel FF; in the past few weeks, he’s found his goalscoring form again with markers in two straight games.
Chrisnovic earned the nomination as a standout on both sides of the ball for HFX Wanderers, playing a key role in the team reaching the 2020 CPL Finals. He won the second-most 1v1s among defenders in the league and finished third in the CPL in successful tackles (16), third in successful duels (59), and fourth in interceptions (17).
N’sa played in nine of HFX’s 11 matches in PEI and 21 times in the Wanderers’ first season, distinguishing himself by playing across all positions in defence, as well as in central midfield.
His stature as a young player was not lost on CPL minds as he earned a high-profile move to York United and was highlighted in CPL’s “Next Gen” series.
While Forge FC’s Belgian replacement for Tristan Borges didn’t set the world alight, Paolo Sabak made a credible impact for the Hamiltonians across 11 appearances and 752 minutes in PEI, notching three assists and one goal from a penalty.
The 21-year-old Genk product was great in tight spaces, making more pressured passes per 90 minutes (26.83) than any other CPL attacker, according to SportLogiq.
SportLogiq also put Sabak in the top 80 per cent of CPL attackers in relief receptions, line-breaking passes, and key passes per 90 minutes, showing his impact was much deeper than goalscoring and assist totals.
11. Alex Marshall, HFX Wanderers FC
HFX Wanderers winger Alex Marshall nearly didn’t make it into Canada in time for The Island Games, getting approval to leave his native Jamaica only at the last minute. It’s a good thing he arrived for the Wanderers, as he went on to collect three assists in 11 appearances for his new club.
The 23-year-old created more big chances (0.31) and completed more passes in the final third (10.03) per 90 minutes than any other Wanderer, spearheading attacks on either wing.
His inch-perfect assist to Akeem Garcia against Forge FC made quite the first impression, earning him a Fan Awards nomination for Assist of the Year, as seen above.
12. Matthew Baldisimo, Pacific FC
Pacific FC’s quiet midfield operator has excelled for the Tridents for two seasons running. The former Whitecaps FC 2 player solidified himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the CPL in 2020. Baldisimo, 22, finished in the top 80 per cent in every defensive category, according to SportLogiq, with a staggering 5.47 tackles per 90 minutes, which was tops among midfielders.
The Burnaby, B.C. native smashed the sophomore slump after an impressive 22 appearances in 2019 as part of PFC’s young core.
“I could’ve had a way better season. I know the quality that I have – I can do a lot more than what I did in the tournament,” Baldisimo admitted. “I feel like if we had a longer season I would have been able to show more of what I was capable of.”
13. Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Pacific FC
Pacific FC’s centre-back played every single minute at The Island Games.
“TMG,” as he’s known, was a late addition to Pacific, signing as a free agent after his previous club, the Ottawa Fury, folded in 2019. A dynamic defender, Meilleur-Giguère combined well with fellow youngster Lukas MacNaughton as a mobile, physically-imposing defensive duo. He won possession 54 times, more than any other defender at The Island Games, and ranked second in interceptions with 25 in 10 matches.
The 23-year-old from Repentigny, Que., is a product of the Montreal Impact Academy and has represented Canada at the under-20 level 12 times. He’s widely expected to start for Canada in Olympic Games qualifying in 2021.
Newly-departed Jordan Brown will go down as one of Cavalry FC’s best players through two CPL seasons.
Brown finished joint-third in The Island Games scoring race with three goals, helping the Cavs advance to the second round. The 23-year-old Englishman scored five times in 30 appearances in 2019, including the club’s inaugural goal in a home match against York9 FC, and the opening goal in their historic Canadian Championship victory over Vancouver Whitecaps.
A tireless forward, Brown, who has joined German fourth-tier side VfR Aalen, was a handful for CPL defences – as seen in the above goal vs. the Wanderers.
15. James Pantemis, Valour FC
Pantemis played all seven matches for Valour FC at The Island Games, making the best of his high-profile loan from MLS side Montreal Impact. The 23-year-old recorded two clean sheets, and made 19 saves while commanding Valour’s standout backline.
Pantemis did enough with Valour to earn three appearances for the Impact’s MLS squad this fall. Fresh off a call-up to the Canadian men’s national team this January, the rangy ‘keeper stands as one of Canada’s best goalkeeping prospects.
16. Diyaeddine Abzi, York United
Another Best Canadian U-21 nominee in 2019, Diyaeddine Abzi has emerged as one of the CPL’s best young stars over two seasons with York. The 22-year-old has made 35 appearances, including five at The Island Games, becoming an explosive wide threat as well as a solid defender in one-on-one situations.
Abzi carried over success in 2019, his first professional season, to The Island Games where he was deployed as a winger, building his reputation in Canadian soccer after being named to the 50-man squad for the men’s Olympic qualifying competition, which was later cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Campbell has recorded 12 goals and three assists for the Tridents in two years, including a breakout 11-goal season in 2019 that saw him fall just short of winning the CPL’s Golden Boot award.
The Island Games were relatively quiet for the 22-year-old, who recorded a goal and an assist – both of which came in PFC’s second-round rout of HFX Wanderers.
The native of Burnaby, B.C., has been one of the league’s top young strikers in his time with the club, and he’s one of the CPL’s most imposing physical presences in the penalty area. He was nominated for Best Canadian Under-21 Player of the Year in 2019.
18. Cory Bent, HFX Wanderers FC
The No. 1 pick in last year’s CPL-U SPORTS Draft wasted no time making an impact for HFX Wanderers, as Bent earned three Gatorade Man of the Match honours from his first six appearances at The Island Games.
The Manchester United and Preston North End-trained winger was tricky and ever-prodding at opposing defences, making more key passes (1.74) and line-breaking passes (12.11) per 90 minutes than any other CPL forward in 2020, according to SportLogiq.
The 23-year-old former Cape Breton Caper scored his first pro goal for the Wanderers against Valour FC in round one after an admirable solo effort, stripping the ball off a defender and finding the net against the run of play.
19. Viti Martínez, Atlético Ottawa
The Spanish midfielder stood out for Atlético Ottawa at The Island Games, and not just because of his hair. Martínez — currently doing very well on loan at Alavés B — played every minute of all but one of Ottawa’s matches in PEI. He was a key link for the side between the defence and attack, often tasked with moving the ball from centre-backs or fullbacks onward to the likes of Francisco Acuña and Ben Fisk.
Martínez’s best moment of the 2020 season was undoubtedly in Ottawa’s penultimate game, when he broke a 0-0 deadlock by scoring in the 90th minute against Pacific FC, keeping the club’s top-four hopes alive and snatched a victory. At this point, it may well be the biggest goal yet in the club’s short history.
Although he’s only 23, Martínez has a lot of experience, most of it in his native Spain. He brought a steady presence to the Atlético Ottawa midfield, and a little extra attacking ability and flair.
The teenaged Edmontonian has certainly turned a few heads in his two years in the CPL — in fact, he landed as high as second on one voter’s ballot for this list. Velado-Tsegaye has performed well in his 22 career games with FC Edmonton; well enough, actually, to be one of the first players re-signed for 2021.
His best moment, of course, was the long-range screamer he scored late in the Eddies’ Island Games clash with HFX Wanderers FC. Although it didn’t have an impact on the game, it was a major bright spot in a disappointing campaign for the club.
Velado-Tsegaye played in the Eddies’ final four games of 2020, starting the last two at left wing. He was initially promoted to the professional club by Jeff Paulus after developing in the FC Edmonton academy, and went on to become an important player off the bench for the side in 2019. He scored his first goal for the club on the last day of the Spring season (also his 18th birthday, and Canada Day) to secure a win at home over HFX.
The talented youngster might be the best of the Eddies’ young academy graduates.
21. Malyk Hamilton, Atlético Ottawa
Like Elliot Simmons, Hamilton was a year one CPLer who struck out in search of a new opportunity within the league in 2020. In this case, the former Cavalry FC fullback joined an exclusive club of players who suited up for a completely brand-new team in two consecutive years.
Hamilton, a Calgary native who turned 21 during The Island Games, started all seven of Atlético Ottawa’s matches in PEI. He was one of the expansion side’s main outlets in attack, forming a very strong fullback partnership with fellow West Ham United academy product Vashon Neufville, as Ottawa chose more often than not to attack along the flanks. Hamilton’s explosive pace and ability to spring wingers and strikers with smart passes made him an indispensable part of Atleti’s first CPL season. The fact that he had more touches than anyone else on the team speaks to his importance.
The first CPL season was a very promising one for Hamilton at Cavalry, where he filled in excellently at right fullback in the absence of Dean Northover, but his move to Ottawa gave him a more secure starting position, as well as a more influential role in the attack.
22. Max Ferrari, York United FC
He’s got one of the coolest names in the CPL, and he backs it up on the pitch. Ferrari made himself known to York fans very quickly, when he came on as a substitute in their first game of 2020 and almost immediately set up a goal. In the 59th minute of York’s game against Atlético Ottawa, Ferrari raced into the box and found fellow youngster Lowell Wright in a perfect spot to score the club’s first goal of the season.
The Newmarket, Ont., native celebrated his 20th birthday just five days later, in the midst of an Island Games campaign where he played in all seven of York’s games. Although Ferrari was kept to the “super-sub” role in each contest, the Nine Stripes found great value in Ferrari’s pace and tenacity on the ball.
Kicking off the list is a CPL original, 22-year-old Elliot Simmons out of Luton, England. He found new life in a new role this year, signing with Cavalry FC after beginning his CPL experience in 2019 at HFX Wanderers FC.
Simmons ended up appearing in all 10 of Cavalry’s games in 2020, starting all three of their crucial second round matches. The youngster has earned a reputation as one of the CPL’s most reliable young midfielders, with excellent passing ability and a good eye for buildup play. His six key passes at The Island Games rank in the top five for U-23 players, as he carved out a niche in a position that’s very difficult to play as a youngster.
Cavs coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. had very high praise for Simmons during the season: “He’s almost got that Xabi Alonso, Toni Kroos type where he can receive it under pressure, but his range of passing is good.”
“We like him there because he’s a deep-lying playmaker; the Italians call it the regista. He fits that mould for us very well.”
Here’s the list of the voters in CanPL.ca’s Top 23 Under 23 in the CPL series:
John Molinaro (CanPL.ca), Marty Thompson (CanPL.ca), Charlie O’Connor-Clarke (CanPL.ca)
Andi Petrillo (OneSoccer), Oliver Platt (OneSoccer), Gareth Wheeler (OneSoccer), Adam Jenkins (OneSoccer), Armen Bedakian (OneSoccer)
Joshua Kloke (The Athletic)
Carmelina Moscato (CPL)
James Grossi (CanPL.ca contributor), Sandra Prusina (CanPL.ca contributor), Steve Sandor (CanPL.ca contributor), Jonathan Briggins (CanPL.ca contributor), Martin Bauman (CanPL.ca contributor), Ryan Brandt (CanPL.ca contributor)