It was reasonably easy to pick out the Canadian on the snow-covered Suzuki Arena pitch this past Saturday. As the Korona Kielce players converged to celebrate an injury-time winner against rivals Radomiak Radom, despite the falling snowflakes and frigid conditions, one player was wearing short sleeves.
That would be Calgary, Alberta native Dominick Zator, who joined the Polish top-division club in January after spending two seasons with York United in the Canadian Premier League. This weekend’s match, a 2-1 win, was his seventh straight start since making the jump across the pond.
The conditions for that match, Zator said, were disastrous. But the 28-year-old’s first few months in Poland have been anything but. Notably, playing as a right back, Zator has helped the relegation-embattled side to 13 points in seven games, matching what they had managed in the first 17 matches of the season without him.
That run has not only vaulted Korona Kielce above the relegation line for the time being, but also helped to earn Zator a call-up to the Canadian men’s national team for Concacaf Nations League matches against Curaçao and Honduras later this month. When making the move to Europe, it was always his goal to push himself back into the national team conversation.
“I decided to gamble on myself, go over there,” Zator told CanPL.ca. “It is a new atmosphere. There were a lot of different roadblocks I kind of had to go through. But things kind of started working out. I was able to fight for a starting spot on the squad. The team is doing well and I think that has personally helped me succeed and I think it has been enough to catch the eye of John Herdman. So I’m excited for how everything has kind of turned out.”
Those recent performances, however, have come as no surprise to Angus McNab, CEO & President of York United, where Zator spent the past two seasons before joining Kielce. Over four years in the Canadian Premier League, two with York and two with Cavalry FC, McNab has seen a player who has consistently delivered at a high level.
“It might be seen as pretty punchy, and I don’t mind it being seen as that, but Dom going and playing 6-8 good games in Poland isn’t the story,” McNab told CanPL.ca. “He has been playing at a high level for the first four seasons of this league. Maybe there are some solutions for the men’s national team staff closer to home. Maybe they should be paying a little bit more attention to the CPL, because we are showing that we are a production line for them. And we want to work with them and do that.”
Between time spent with Cavalry FC and York United, Zator became one of the first players in league history to reach 100 matches as a CPL player this past season. During his time in the league, he scored the winning goal for Cavalry as they became the first CPL club to beat an MLS side, defeating the Vancouver Whitecaps during the 2019 Canadian Championship. He appeared in both legs of the inaugural CPL final in 2019. This past season for York he was a nominee for the league’s Defender of the Year award. He also earned a first Canadian national team call-up in November of 2019 while playing for Cavalry, but did not feature as Canada lost 4-1 to the United States in Nations League action. Those opportunities, and consistent professional minutes, have pushed Zator to the level he is at today.
“Playing all of these professional games has helped me mature as a player and a person,” He says. “I think it is going through the professional environment, going through all these games, it is very meaningful. Even though people might look at the league and they don’t view it as having that high of competition, it is a new league. But I have been in the league, the competition is high there are a lot of good players within the league.”
Another benefit of playing in the CPL for Zator, says his former coach at Cavalry FC Tommy Wheeldon Jr., has been the ability to develop his craft in multiple positions. This will only stand to benefit Zator as he steps into a tactically fluid Canadian men’s national team that often plays with a back three that can shift into a back four.
“What the CPL has done for him, whether it be playing in Cavalry or with Martin [Nash] at York, he has been able to play at fullback, at centre-back, and now he is playing at fullback at Korona Kielce,” says Wheeldon Jr. “That has helped him get into the place he is now.”
The place he is in now, Kielce, is teaching Zator the intensity of do-or-die football. He sees firsthand how crucial every point can be in the club’s relegation battle, not just to the team but to the city they play in as well.
“Every game is so important, it is crucial, you need to pick up points in order to stay up,” says Zator. “That is the club’s goal, with all the signings they had during the winter window. They saw something in me and I wanted to do everything I can to help them out.”
Zator wasn’t the only Canadian signed by Korona Kielce during the winter window either, as Canadian men’s national team fullback Marcus Godinho also joined the Polish club after a recent stint with the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS. Kielce actually has quite the history of Canadian talent, as Cavalry FC midfielder Charlie Trafford played there in 2015, while national team goalkeeper Milan Borjan spent the second half of 2017 there on loan.
“They mention Borjan a lot, he was kind of it seems like a club legend even though he was only here for a little bit,” Zator says with a chuckle. “They speak very, very highly of him. They have high regard for all the Canadians who have been here, they treat us well so I think it has been good. They have welcomed all of us with open arms and it is nice to have another Canadian here to kind of chat with him.”
Zator will bring that day-in and day-out intensity with him when he comes to the Canada camp. After getting an initial taste of what national team football was like in 2019, he intends on going a step further this time around.
“The goal is to not just go into this camp as a participant it is here to go and showcase my abilities and do what I can to help the team win games,” said Zator.
McNab believes there are a number of attributes in Zator’s game that could help him win a place in the Canadian team, including the aforementioned tactical flexibility. He sees one aspect of the 28-year-old’s game, in particular, that will set him apart.
“I think one thing that Zats never really got a lot of credit for was his pace,” said McNab. “We’ve seen that on the GPS data that we had on the roster last year, Zats was consistently [at the top], in terms of where he performs in meters per second and what he covers, he is incredibly athletic. I think that when you look at the men’s national team and the age profile that has been playing at centre-back, there’s obviously something that he can add there.”
For his part, Zator is looking to show the coaching staff just how much he has grown in the three-a-half years since his last call-up. He hopes this can be a stepping stone, to get his first international minutes, and prove that he should be part of a big summer the national team has ahead.
“I’m very, very happy to get the call up now but the work is not done,” says Zator. “It is now going there to showcase my abilities and show John Herdman and the coaching staff that I should be on the pitch now.”