Isaiah Johnston on historic York9 move, forgoing U SPORTS: ‘Cape Breton created a neat stopgap’

If Isaiah Johnston is a trailblazer, he’s created one hell of a shortcut for future players who find themselves in a similar situation.

Johnston was the first underclassman selected via the CPL-U SPORTS Draft to opt for a full-time CPL contract over returning to school when he signed with York9 FC last week. Johnston, a first-year student at Cape Breton University, was selected 10th overall by York at last Fall’s draft.

When the opportunity came to turn pro with Y9 (in the aftermath of Adrian Ugarizza’s departure), the 18-year-old midfielder couldn’t help but make the historic leap.

“When someone hands you that lifetime dream, it’s hard to pass up – even when you’re just a year into school,” Johnston told “It helped that there is no U SPORTS soccer this year (the 2020 season has been cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic). That helped me make that decision because it’s a big reason I went to school in the first place – become a better soccer player and go professional.”

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To this point, CPL clubs have largely targeted fourth or fifth-year students in the two CPL-U SPORTS Drafts. It’s easy to see why, especially with the CPL’s agreement with U SPORTS offering a March-to-August developmental contract, which could easily be extended into a full-time deal by the end of the year.

But Johnston – who was one of the youngest men’s soccer players in U SPORTS last season – has a much different story. Brought into York9 camp in early 2019 as a 16-year-old with a group of League1 Ontario prospects, the Milton, Ont., native stuck it out and caught the eye of York9 coach Jimmy Brennan.

Then suddenly, one of York9’s players went down injured and, just like that, Johnston was on a plane to the CPL’S historic pre-season stint in the Dominican Republic wearing Nine Stripes green.

“I was there at pre-season, showing up for a few practices and stuff. But I was 16, so I kinda knew there wasn’t a chance to go professional out of that camp,” Johnston recalled about spending his March Break with Y9.

“It’s a big step – I was going from high school club soccer to professional. But [Jimmy and I] had a discussion about how the U SPORTS season goes and what could happen after.

“Cape Breton created a neat stopgap.”

Isaiah Johnston (Canada Soccer)
Isaiah Johnston (Canada Soccer)

Brennan, who plucked Johnston from that initial crop of raw League1 Ontario prospects, saw a future for Johnston with the Nine Stripes.

“He likes to get on the ball, he can play in tight areas, he’s very comfortable in possession, and that’s why I brought him to pre-season last year as a young kid because I felt he was going to be a part of our club,” Brennan told “I didn’t feel he was going to be ready last year, but he had a good year at university and we felt now’s the time to bring him in with us full-time.”

As for that university “stopgap,” Johnston credits the famous Cape Breton men’s soccer program for giving him a professional makeover. The Capers are nationally renowned for recruiting European talent, and complementing them with a stable of Canadians. CPL-U SPORTS Draft selections and HFX Wanderers FC standouts Cory Bent and Peter Schaale are just two examples.

“I think Cape Breton bringing on these players is fantastic. You’d be surprised how much you learn from them,” Johnston said.

“They offer a different mindset. Every touch has to be clean, every action has to be crystal clear.

“They keep you accountable. Everything has to be game-like. Growing up, you make a bad pass or something and no one gets mad at you. But, out there, people lose it. You make a bad touch and everyone’s on your ass. Everything has to be perfect – and everyone’s accountability counts.”

Johnston, a three-year veteran of League1 Ontario’s Woodbridge Strikers, expects to slot in as defensive midfielder for York9 in 2020, though he can play out wide or in more advanced positions.