Giant by name, by nature: Giantsopoulos took long road back to CPL

Movies have taglines.

“Who You Gonna Call?” (Ghostbusters); “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream” (Alien); “One Man’s Struggle to Take it Easy” (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

But can a human being have a tagline?

If you’re talking about Cavalry FC goal’keeper Niko Giantsopoulos, the answer is yes.

Over the three years he spent playing professional soccer in Tasmania, fans and pundits used this phrase over and over to describe their man between the sticks:

“Giant by name, giant by nature.”

While he developed a cult following playing in Australia’s second division with Devonport City, the Canadian’s name isn’t all that familiar with soccer followers in his home country. You’d be excused for not immediately remembering his name if you’re asked who will pair with Marco Carducci in Cavalry’s goaltending tandem.

When you’re a late-blooming player with a “have cleats, will travel” attitude, your career path will be anything but straight and narrow. And it will be hard to find a player in the Canadian Premier League whose career has had more detours than Giantsopoulos.

When he arrived at U.S. Division-three school Adrian College, he had no real expectations.

“I would say that playing professional soccer was not one of my priorities,” recalled Giantsopoulos. “I just wanted to keep playing.”

After a couple of seasons at Adrian, the coaching staff was relieved of their duties, so the Canadian ‘keeper put in for a transfer. There was interest from Division-1 and Division-2 NCAA programs. But, he visited Calvin College, a third-division rival of Adrian’s, solely as a backup plan. And that’s where he met Ryan Souders, Calvin’s coach who previously played in goal for the Charlotte Eagles of the USL.

The two had instant chemistry, and when Giantsopoulos had to weigh the offers, he chose to go to Calvin over some much bigger schools. He said that both he and Souders still talk or text weekly.

By his final year of school, Giantsopoulos had broken the Division-3 record for clean sheets in a season, with 19.

“When I saw Niko, there was the known and the unknown,” Souders recalled. “I saw right away that this was a very good goalkeeper who could really help our team. What I didn’t know at the time was the kind of passion he had for the game … in all my time of playing and coaching, I haven’t seen another player who trains as hard as Niko, who enjoys training as much as Niko.”

His former coach said that Giantsopoulos is the kind of player who cares about his teammates and wants to see them improve. So, when he has to chew out a centre back for missing a marking assignment, the criticism doesn’t come in isolation.

After his senior year, Giantsopoulos had the chance to latch on with a couple of USL clubs, but in each scenario he was looking at being the No. 3 ‘keeper on the depth chart. What he wanted was minutes and a chance to wear the No. 1 jersey.

An agent reached out to him and said he’d look for opportunities. A highlight video was sent out. And then …

“There were six weeks of nothing, no contact at all,” Giantsopoulos said. “Then, out of nowhere comes a call – a team in Tasmania, in the second division, is looking at me to be their No. 1 ‘keeper. They’d seen the video and wanted to sign me.”

He wouldn’t even need to trial. He’d be assured the top job before he even got on the plane. The club had another ‘keeper in mind but the deal had fallen through and needed someone, fast. Giantsopoulos had less than a week to make a decision.

And he’d already missed pretty much all of training camp.

So, he got on the plane, flew to Tasmania, got off the plane, got one training session in, and was starting in a Cup game for Devonport City the next day.

“We were playing an amateur side, and I know that we won,” he recalled. “But I don’t remember much about the game other than that I didn’t see a lot of shots or action. It was fine.”

Three years later, Giantsopoulos wanted to come back to Canada. And then he got a call from an old friend, Sergio Camargo. The two played together as kids in Markham, Ont.

“He was already such a high-level player back then, and, honestly, I wasn’t,” laughed Giantsopoulos.

Camargo was playing for coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. at Foothills FC of the PDL. And he told Giantsopoulos that he could put a word in for him.

So, Giantsopoulos got on a plane on Sept. 7, 2018. Two days later he was on trial for the new Calgary team. Just as he’d done in Tasmania, he basically got off the plane ready to play.

“You can’t make excuses,” Giantsopoulos said of his ready-to-play mentality. “So many players want those opportunities, so you need to be ready to take them.”

And take them he did.

“We had a lot of goalkeepers in camp,” said Cavalry goalkeeping coach Jordan Santiago. “But the thing for me, the thing that made me recommend him, is that he has the capability to make match-winning saves. There are lots of goalies who are very technical, but Niko has the ability to make those one or two saves a year that make you think ‘how did he do that?’ and can win you a game.”

Giantsopoulos can’t wait for the season to start.

“I can only imagine what it was like to be there and play in the NHL’s first season,” he said. “Those players are all in the history books. It will be such a cool experience to be part of something that’s completely new. And, even through the six weeks I had during the prospect camp, we built up such a great chemistry in Calgary.”

“I think the CPL is such a great opportunity for Niko,” Souders said. “I know I am biased, as his former coach and now his friend, but I think he’s going to go up to that league and absolutely kill it.”

There’s one other thing that excites him about the CPL. And that’s the travel. He’s been to Australia, he played college soccer in the U.S., but he hasn’t been across his home country.

“I am looking forward to getting to all those places in Canada I haven’t seen before.”

No worries if the plane is late, either. He’ll be ready to play as soon as the team lands.