Forge’s Awuah, York’s Wilson share stories, offer advice for young Canadian players: Allstate Soccer Show

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Canadian Premier League has been the myriad stories of the players that make up each team; every single player in the league has taken a different path to the professional game — whether it’s from overseas, or through Canadian youth systems, or in the United States.

Speaking at the Allstate Soccer Show on Sunday afternoon, Forge FC star Kwame Awuah and York United stalwart Jordan Wilson shared some of their thoughts on the state of the sport in Canada, as well as stories from their own careers and some advice for players looking to one day break into the professional ranks, as Awuah and Wilson did.

The two players have quite different backgrounds in soccer — though both hail from the Greater Toronto Area — with Awuah originally going the route of the NCAA with the University of Connecticut followed by MLS with New York City FC, and Wilson instead opting to play in Denmark for the early stages of his career, with Nykøbing FC.

Awuah, having been at NYCFC in the club’s early days while David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and coach Patrick Vieira were still there, has no shortage of stories about the footballing legends, from whom he certainly learned a lot. After an anecdote about his first meeting with Vieira — in the World Cup-winning Frenchman’s hotel room at the MLS SuperDraft combine — Awuah went on to share how those monumental figures helped shape him as a player.

“(Vieira) gave me the ability to understand the game better,” Awuah said. “Where the ball should be played, where your options are, every little minor detail he helped me to learn all that. Playing with Pirlo, you can tell those guys played at the highest level. When the ball touches their foot, when they strike the ball, the way they carry themselves — obviously their personalities are different, Pirlo was more reserved or relaxed and Villa’s more… how can I say it? I guess egotistical.”

Certainly, playing with those who have seen the highest levels of the sport is motivating, and it can help a young player — which Awuah was at the time — with their own game.

How, though, does one get to those high levels?

Asked what advice they would offer to young players in academies or youth teams, still trying to make their way up the footballing ladder, both Awuah and Wilson reflected on their own experiences in the youth game.

“For me I think the most important thing was just having fun,” Awuah said. “I look back at the times I used to play club soccer, and those were really the happiest times in my life. Win or lose, I always knew I’m playing with my best friends, I’m getting better, enjoying it, and I knew that when it came to the game plan, everything you did in training was going to be implemented in a game.”

York United defender Jordan Wilson. (Chant Photography/York United)
York United defender Jordan Wilson. (Chant Photography/York United)

Wilson added that there’s plenty a player can learn from not being the most talented or the best in their team or age group.

“I grew up in ’91, that class was ridiculous in terms of talent and players coming out,” he recalled. “So for me, I actually relish the fact that I wasn’t the cat’s meow, I wasn’t a big dog. I was playing with big dogs… Even now when I talk to someone who’s younger I say it’s a blessing in disguise to always be chasing, always working and aspiring to be one of the better players or one of the best players is amazing. I think for younger players I would just say, don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone’s on a journey, I remember being 14 and not getting caught up with the guys who were fast at 14, because I just wanted to be the best for myself.

“Eventually, it wasn’t all at once, but maybe 18, 19, 20 I started to surpass people, but if you’re always measuring up against someone you’re always gonna be chasing it.”

Awuah agreed: “I always say, comparison’s a thief of joy. It really is, you compare yourself and you’re like, ‘Damn, this guy’s doing this, how come I’m not doing it,’ then you easily forget everything that you actually are doing well.”

Of course, both players agreed that the pathway for young soccer players in Canada has been steadily improving over the years, particularly with the advent of the Canadian Premier League.

“I think the system that’s in place right now with the CPL is great,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a long time coming, we’ve always had so many creative, talented players and it’s just been a big disservice that if you didn’t go to a good school and then go to the draft, possibly play in MLS, then you’d have to go abroad. I think it’s perfect now that you have players aspiring to play in a league that is homegrown, and you can still be at home, don’t have to learn another language, not be in a different time zone.”

Awuah, who played for quite a while in the United States and saw how the sport has been growing there, feels there’s still plenty of potential in Canada — in fact, he thinks the players that come out of this country may even be better.

“I think football-wise, I think we’re more intelligent,” Awuah said of Canadian players. “Going into college there were a lot of athletes, not really soccer players, so then we were able to make our way around the college game because we were also athletic but we understood the game a lot better. You see guys like Cyle Larin, or Richie (Laryea), then me, and Tajon (Buchanan), a lot of us came through the system — like look at Kyle Bekker, he’s not the most athletic player but he was so much smarter than everyone in college soccer… We were able to use our soccer IQ a lot better than the Americans.”

Both players, each enjoying excellent seasons with their respective clubs, have plenty of wisdom and insight to offer the Canadian soccer community. They have but two of the hundreds of stories that make up the Canadian Premier League, but there’s certainly something to be learned from every player’s experiences.