‘It’s a whole different ball game’: Vancouver FC’s James Cameron on representing Canada at the Concacaf U-20 qualifiers

In the early hours of the morning, Vancouver FC fullback James Cameron received an unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome, phone call.

It was his club head coach Afshin Ghotbi, ringing to tell Cameron that he had been called up for the Canadian men’s under-20 national team — the 19-year-old’s first international call-up.

After an impressive first season in the Canadian Premier League, Cameron figured that he had at least put himself into contention for a youth national team callup at some point. But until he got that call, he hadn’t even known there was an upcoming camp.

“Obviously, super stoked,” Cameron told “Playing for your country brings a whole different dynamic to your game. It’s a whole different ball game when you are playing country versus country as opposed to club versus club.”

Last month, Cameron joined the Canadian U-20 national team in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago for the 2024 U-20 Concacaf Championship qualifiers. The 19-year-old played a key role, starting against Dominica in an 8-0 victory before coming off the bench in a 4-0 win over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and again in a 3-0 triumph against group hosts Trinidad and Tobago.

It was just the latest chapter in what has been an incredible rise for the North Vancouver native. Last year, Cameron attended Vancouver FC’s open trial process ahead of their inaugural CPL season. He had no expectations that anything would come from it, but ended up signing a development contract in May.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted the trajectory of my career after that,” said Cameron. 

After making his first professional appearance off the bench against Cavalry FC on June 11, 2023, Cameron was given a starting spot on Vancouver that he never relinquished, appearing in 19 matches for the expansion side during the 2023 season. He scored his first professional goal on September 9, a dramatic late winner against Atlético Ottawa, and was named one of the three nominees for the league’s Best Canadian U-21 Player award as a result of his efforts.

Cameron celebrates his first professional goal against Atlético Ottawa (Photo: Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

During the CPL off-season, Cameron has kept that momentum going, travelling abroad to test his talents. He spent time training with multiple clubs in Europe, including English Premier League side Luton Town.

“It’s a lot more serious in Europe and you can tell most of the guys there, they have a different mindset going into the way they play,” said Cameron. They’re not just playing to enjoy, playing to have a nice career, for some of those guys it’s their only way in life to make their money and make a fair living so the intensity and just the mindset towards the game. So that’s the biggest thing I noticed and I’m going to hopefully bring that into my play this season.” 

The 19-year-old brought that wealth of experience with him when he joined the national team. Cameron was one of just a handful of players on the U-20 side who has played professional minutes, and a solid amount at that with 1,504 U-21 minutes — presented by Jones Deslauriers — during 19 appearances for Vancouver FC last season. Used to lining up against players older than him, this was an important chance for Cameron to measure himself against his peers playing at different levels across the world.

“Honestly, it was a bit weird at first to be around kids my own age again,” said Cameron. “But maybe it was a little bit easier to bond with kids similar to my age, and then the play style it’s also a little bit different. It’s a little bit more direct, and a little bit less conservative from the young guys but beside that the quality is still there.”

Canada demonstrated their quality across the three matches in Trinidad and Tobago, scoring 15 goals and allowing none while giving significant international minutes to a number of exciting young talents plying their trade throughout Europe, North and Central America. Despite playing in the heat of the day in Port of Spain, and facing some heavy tackles at times, Canada remained impressively cool under pressure and easily topped their qualifying group.

“I think really Canada maybe in a perfect world we wouldn’t have to play in the Concacaf qualifiers in the first place,” said Cameron. “But it was a good opportunity to get the group of guys together before we go into Concacaf itself and we had three games to play, we showed well in all three of them. Games in hindsight that we probably should have won, maybe not 8-0, 4-0, 3-0, but games we should have won I think, but we went there and did what we had to do.”

Cameron (far left) celebrates a goal with his Canada teammates against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (Photo: Canada Soccer)

Crucial to taking care of business in Port of Spain was how quickly the group bonded, according to Cameron. That was evident not only in the chemistry that players quickly showed, but also how they celebrated goals as a team, and came to each other’s defence any time a player in red was the victim of a bad tackle.

“I think a big part of our success was how well we all got along off the field,” said Cameron. “We did a lot of team-building exercises throughout the camp and everyone there seemed to get along very well. It didn’t feel uncomfortable with really anyone on the team and I only met the guys for only a week prior to our first game. I think that’s a very important aspect, especially when you are playing for your country. You can put your friendships and prior relationships from your club aside and collectively agree that these are your teammates for now and these are your friends for now.”

With a spot in this summer’s tournament now secured, the work now begins for Cameron to make sure that his name is once again included in the 21 players who will travel to Guanajuato, Mexico for the 2024 U-20 Concacaf Championship this summer.

“I’m really hoping I will get my call again,” said Cameron. “I’m just going to go back to my roots, put my head down and work and good things will come.”

That competition will be played between July 19 and August 4, with the draw to determine Canada’s group-stage opposition set to take place at some point in April. The top four teams in the tournament will qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, something Canada has not done since 2007 when they hosted the tournament.

For Cameron, however, the work to prove that he should be part of that group starts now. Vancouver FC’s 2024 preseason is already underway ahead of their season, and home, opener on Sunday, April 14 against Valour. In his sophomore professional season, Cameron is looking to take another step forward in his career, and if his debut campaign is any indication, his phone isn’t going to stop ringing any time soon.