‘It has kept a lot of talent at home’: U SPORTS coaches praise pathway ahead of 2023 draft

On Thursday, sixteen players from Canadian university men’s soccer teams will have their names called in the fifth-annual CPL-U SPORTS Draft.

U SPORTS has proven to be an important cog in the ever-advancing Canadian soccer landscape, especially in the Canadian Premier League. Many former university players in this country have gone on to play in the CPL, with the very best earning moves to even higher levels off the back of strong performances in the league — including CF Montréal’s Joel Waterman (14th overall, 2018) and Ross County’s Victor Loturi (6th overall, 2021), both of whom were picked by Cavalry FC.

“I think U SPORTS players are really looking forward to the opportunity with the draft and the opportunities to play in the league. I think it’s huge for the younger players in Canada,” Mike Mosher, the longtime head coach of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds (UBC) said to “For years, the base of the pyramid got so narrow so quickly, and there were so few opportunities for 18 to 23 year old players.

“Now the Canadian Premier League has really helped to change that, it’s given something for the top U SPORTS players to look forward to and push on to, and I think you’ve seen some of the fruits of that with guys like Lukas MacNaughton, and now Joel Waterman. They went into the Canadian Premier League, and then they used that to push on to MLS and then in Joel’s case, it’s a fantastic story, he cracked the roster for the World Cup side.”

Waterman is the marquee example of how the CPL-U SPORTS Draft can launch careers to new heights, and create an opportunity for a player to play professionally when they otherwise might not have had one. Waterman was selected 14th overall out of Trinity Western University by Cavalry in the inaugural 2018 draft, and signed with the team for the 2019 season. He was one of the best defenders in the league that year, and earned a move to Major League Soccer club CF Montréal. After a couple of promising seasons with that club, especially in 2022 as he established himself as a key player in Wilfried Nancy’s squad, Waterman cracked Canada’s 26-man squad for the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar. In November 2018 he was drafted into the CPL, and by November 2022 he was on the world’s biggest stage.

MacNaughton was a CPL champion with Pacific FC in 2021, his third season with the club, before joining MLS side Toronto FC ahead of the 2022 season. He had previously played U SPORTS soccer with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, scoring 17 goals in 63 appearances between 2013 and 2017. While MacNaughton wasn’t a CPL – U SPORTS Draft selection, he’s further proof that there are very good footballers in the Canadian university setup. He became a regular for Toronto FC in his first season with the club, and even scored in the 2022 Canadian Championship final against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Other notable players to have spent time in the U SPORTS system in recent years include Easton Ongaro, Isaiah Johnston, Aboubacar Sissoko, Gabriel Bitar, Zach Verhoven and Ryan Telfer.

For Toronto Metropolitan University head coach Filip Prostran, the draft has made staying in Canada to play collegiate soccer a more attractive option. Instead of going to the states or pursuing other opportunities, more players are choosing to stay in Canada.

“Now with the CPL and the draft it has been a really big draw to keep Canadian talent here,” Prostran told “It is a huge selling point for all University coaches, not just the draft but players signing U SPORTS contracts, players getting different opportunities from CPL. I think what it has done is it has kept a lot of talent at home, it has kept the dream alive right in your own backyard.”

TMU saw their first-ever player taken in the CPL-U SPORTS draft last season as Jacob Carlos was selected by Valour FC. The 21-year-old midfielder made 13 appearances in all competitions for the Winnipeg side, picking up an assist.

Mosher has been at the helm of UBC’s men’s soccer team for 27 years after playing for the school himself, and is arguably the most successful head coach in men’s university soccer in this country, leading the team to four national championship victories. They have also made the final a few more times — most recently this past season, as the Thunderbirds lost the 2022 final on penalties to the Thompson Rivers WolfPack.

He isn’t surprised that now, with a professional league for these athletes to play in after university, the quality of U SPORTS men’s soccer is being showcased at the professional level.

“We’ve always had good players in this country. We just had a scarcity of opportunity for them to play for many years. When I first started coaching, or when I was first finishing playing myself, players had to go overseas,” he explained.

“That was really the only place, and then it evolved to MLS teams and MLS academies and so it opened up a few more doors, but now with the CPL, there’s eight teams, and eight times 23… there’s just that many more spots for good young Canadian players to get into, into a quality playing environment.”

The UBC boss has produced a handful of CPL draftees, most notably Zach Verhoven of Atlético Ottawa, drafted ninth overall by Pacific FC in 2018, and Thomas Gardner, the first overall pick in the 2021 draft by FC Edmonton. He’s confident that a handful of players from his current squad can make the jump to the professional ranks.

He singled out two in particular for CPL fans to keep an eye on, including Daniel Kaiser, who — along with his brother Markus — has impressed with the Thunderbirds and both have played for their hometown CPL club Cavalry FC. He also had a lot of praise for centre-back Eric Lajeunesse, who has declared for Thursday’s draft.

“There’s a lot of players that I like, but I think there’s a couple guys that have a real desire to try to push on to the CPL, and to higher levels of play,” Mosher said. “Daniel Kaiser is a player who did play with Cavalry a couple years ago, and he’s graduating this December. I think he could well be a player that you’ll see playing again, in the league come this 2023 season. He had relative success with Cavalry a few years back, started a lot of games and played a lot of minutes with them, so he’ll be an interesting one to see where things go for him, both in the short term and the longer term.

“The other one will be Eric Lajeunesse. I think really highly of Eric, I think he’s got quite a nice upside and possibilities to him, just given some of the qualities that he’s got. I think you look at guys like Waterman and MacNaughton that I mentioned, and I think what you find with with some of the U SPORTS players is you get some of the real quality intangibles. You get good kids, great attitudes, intelligent, and that’s where I would put Eric — I think he’s a good player. He’s very composed on the ball, he’s left sided, he’s a centre-back. I’ll be very interested to see where Eric is at not only this year but in the coming years, because I think really highly of this player.

That’s high praise for a young defender, and if CPL clubs agree that he can follow in the footsteps of MacNaughton or Waterman, he will be hoping to hear his name called on Thursday.

Mosher, who also serves as the President of the U SPORTS men’s soccer coaches association, is also hoping that the university system in the country will create pathways for coaches, administrators and referees as well. We’ve seen the early stages of that already, with Atlético Ottawa assistant Kwesi Loney the head coach for Carleton University, and recently-hired HFX Wanderers boss Patrice Gheisar a former assistant with York University and Toronto Metropolitan University.

“I think for players, for coaches, for referees, the CPL presents more opportunities for everybody,” Mosher said. “As much as the players push in and use it as an opportunity to be exposed the next level, I hope that we see more Canadian coaches coming out of U SPORTS that get more opportunities because I think there’s some some fairly deserving coaches within our ranks as well.”

For the players, says Prostran, the draft has meant that they don’t have to give up one dream for another. For a while, playing U SPORTS soccer was sometimes seen as giving up on playing professionally. Now that clearly isn’t the case.

“I think the draft and the CPL have proven that you can do both, proved that you can pursue both dreams at the same time,” said Prostran. “So it has been incredible for recruiting, it has been incredible for the student-athlete experience, no doubt. I think since the draft the quality of the university sport has gone up, especially obviously soccer. I can’t speak highly enough about it.”

Watch the 2023 CPL-U SPORTS Draft on Thursday, December 15 at 3:00 pm ET/12:00 pm PT on the OneSoccer and CBC Sports YouTube channels.