‘It’s about recruiting smart’: Díaz move to Norway gives proof of concept for CPL’s international player strategy

Alejandro Díaz’s move from Pacific FC to Sogndal came as a shock this week to many across the Canadian Premier League, but really, it was a moment years in the making.

The CPL ticked off another first in its short history with the Mexican striker’s transfer to the Norwegian club, with Díaz being the first international player sold to a club overseas. The news was surely difficult to swallow for Pacific fans, whose team now must see out its season and Concacaf League campaign without its top scorer, but timing aside, the move will go down as a milestone moment for both club and league — and not just because of the transfer fee.

For those within the league’s centralized football department, this kind of player sale has always been a critical goal. From the very beginning, the league has been structured in a way that would encourage developing young talent both from Canada and from abroad. Mandated under-21 minutes thresholds for Canadian players have allowed teams to develop players like Victor Loturi and Lowell Wright; limiting international roster spots has forced clubs to choose wisely in how they allocate them.

Almost every professional league in the world — minus those at the very, very top of the game — must, by design, be a selling league. From Major League Soccer to the Scottish Premiership to the Bundesliga, transfer fees and player sales are a fundamental pillar of most clubs’ economic stability. The CPL was set up to be no different.

“Going all the way back, from its earliest genesis the CPL was imagined as a selling league,” said James Easton, the CPL’s Vice President of Football. “Pretty much every footballing decision that has been made, has been made with an eye to positioning the CPL as a selling league.

“We knew there was some domestic talent there, I just don’t think the rest of the world really understood or recognized there was domestic talent there. But we always knew that there was an opportunity on the international side to bring in and recruit players, and give them a chance to play and showcase their abilities and then sell them on. It was always part-and-parcel to what the league stood for and was started for.”

RELATED: Alejandro Diaz heads to Norway on Pacific FC club-record transfer

Today, the CPL is full of high-quality young internationals. Beyond Díaz, consider his Pacific teammate Gianni Dos Santos, Valour forward Moses Dyer, or Atlético Ottawa midfielder Ollie Bassett — all of them 24 or under before they signed in the league. That’s by the design of course, and CPL teams have been well-equipped to find those young players the past three seasons thanks to the database and scouting information available from the league’s partnership with Twenty First Group — an organization that, among many other things, has helped the CPL find undervalued young players looking for a chance to play.

“The Twenty First Group program was about changing the dynamic of what this league is,” said Oliver Gage, Director of Football for the CPL.

Twenty First Group operates in four main areas: performance intelligence, competition intelligence, investment intelligence, and fan connection. The CPL’s relationship with the agency is based mostly around performance (specific details on how clubs use those resources here) but key to it all is how it has helped the league sign a different calibre of player, to raise the quality of play as a whole — not just to find players to sell.

“It was a relatively brave effort to go on a journey to try and figure out how the league could operate a little bit differently to an average league that’s just starting,” said AJ Swoboda, Twenty First Group’s Managing Director for the Americas. “I think if not for that program it’d be hard for me to imagine a world where owners and coaches and clubs would be able to reach that same set of talent, and we probably wouldn’t have this type of story.”

Courtesy: Pacific FC
Courtesy: Pacific FC

When it comes to player transfers, Gage and the CPL’s football department have always had an easier time talking to clubs abroad about young Canadians. It makes more sense, he says, to explain why a 21-year-old might be playing in his home country: All over the world, most players sign their first professional contract in their domestic league, and it’s the cream of the crop that gets sold on to bigger and better things.

“On the flip side with foreign players, the first question you get is always ‘Why aren’t they playing in their home country?’ or ‘Why are they here if they’re so good?'” Gage explained. “So they’re already a little bit behind in terms of having to prove themselves a bit more in Canada. What the sale of [Díaz] shows is that CPL can still be a place for foreign players in the right mould to be very attractive for European clubs.”

Those foreign players have to be the right fit for the league, though.

Canada has always been an attractive option for young international players. Quality of life is high, and the exposure from playing matches that are filmed and broadcast professionally by MediaPro — far from a given in many leagues across South and Central America — goes a long way. It’s not too difficult to sell prospective players on the idea of coming to the CPL to try and jumpstart their careers.

However, in 2019, the CPL’s inaugural season, the league’s football department found that many of the international roster spots were occupied by older players in the twilight of their careers. While some of those players were impactful and raised the quality of football at their clubs, many of them struggled on the pitch. What’s more, the international players were — almost across the board — paid significantly more than Canadian players, taking up cap space and salary that could have been offered either to young domestics or veteran Canadians.

RELATED: Aribim Pepple to Luton Town: Behind the scenes of a CPL transfer

“If you’re bringing foreign players on more [equitable] contracts, then there’s more money to pay the Canadians in this league,” Gage said. “That’s where your Kyle Bekkers, David Edgars, these types — the Canadians that have played in Europe or wherever in the world and seen a lot more — can come back and relate to the young Canadians in this league. That’s where there’s now more room to bring these types in.”

Older international players, according to Gage, are unlikely to move abroad at that stage of their career for less money than they would earn in their domestic league. Younger players, however — those on the ascendant side of their careers, many of them looking for a professional opportunity after being released by a club or academy — often find greater value in using the CPL as a stepping-stone.

In theory, the league decided it would be better off if international spots were used on younger players — ideally undervalued ones, which Twenty First Group could help find — who could contribute to their club, improve during their time in Canada, and possibly move up the footballing ladder from there.

Alejandro Díaz, in particular, is proof of concept for the CPL’s international player strategy. The Mexican forward had just turned 24 when he signed for Pacific in 2020, choosing to embark on a new path after struggling to get into the first team of Liga MX giants Club América.

“If we trust our coaches to be good coaches, when a young player comes in at 21, 22, 23, then three years later they should be better than what they came in at, which is exactly what you found with Alejandro,” said Gage. “He was good in the first year, but he’s gotten better and better as time goes on. If you take a 28-year-old to enter the CPL, everyone can get better of course, but the amount that they can improve by is diminished with age.

“When we try to slowly improve the quality of the league, as we bring in a group of say 30 younger players, all of them should get better every year and therefore the quality of the player pool in the league improves, whereas bringing in a 28 to 31-year-old, they’re only going in one direction at that point in their career. It’s just about recruiting smart.”

Sheldon Mack/Pacific FC
Sheldon Mack/Pacific FC

Díaz leaves the CPL with 27 goals scored over 56 matches, putting him comfortably among the most prolific goalscorers in league history. At the moment of his departure from Pacific, he sat atop the 2022 golden boot race with 13 goals. He was, undeniably, one of the best players in the CPL this season.

That alone makes this transfer significant. As a 26-year-old, Díaz is not headed to Sogndal as a long-term project for the club’s future. The Norwegian club is in the midst of a promotion push, hoping Díaz will help them immediately and put them over the edge.

Díaz gave three of the most important years of his career to Pacific and the CPL. Under the tutelage of coaches Pa-Modou Kah and James Merriman, he played regular first-team football and improved every year, winning a trophy in the process. Now, he’s translated that success into a move to Europe that he’s always wanted.

Of course, the move comes at a difficult time for Pacific, who return to Concacaf League action next Tuesday and also find themselves in a heated battle to defend their championship. Replacing their top scorer will not be easy. Still, the big picture is important here, and standing in the way of a move for a player wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

“The league is here not just for today, it’s here for the next, let’s hope, hundred years,” said Easton. “This is important to the economics and sustainability of the league for us to be around and to build. Football teams are always in the process of becoming; they’re never really the finished article. As this player moves on and grows, you can follow his journey, and this presents an opportunity for another young player to come through, who might be this player and then some.

“There’s always another young player just around the corner who’s hungry and ready to kind of make a go of it as well. I think it’s an exciting time for the league, and for Pacific fans.”

Gage echoed the sentiment, adding that this success story continues to strengthen the reputation of both the CPL and Pacific when it comes to player recruitment. He pointed out that Díaz may not have had this opportunity had he stayed in Mexico, either remaining on the fringe at Club América or playing at a lower-table club that might not be very well-scouted around the world.

“What this does is it puts Pacific on the map to everybody else in Mexico,” Gage said. “There’s a lot more Alex Diazes out there who have a very high ceiling but no opportunity or pathway. What better way to go out and recruit the next one than by sharing what you’ve just done with Alejandro? It just kind of validates that progress. Yes, it’s definitely disappointing to lose probably the league’s best player this year mid-season, but it gives you more ammunition to go and get the next one.”

From there, of course, the rising tide lifts all boats. As the evidence builds that young internationals can earn big transfers on the back of success in the CPL, more talented players will come to the league. That, in turn, raises the quality of football across the league — which provides a better, more competitive playing environment for Canadian players and, therefore, helps improve the player pool across the country.

Plus, a more entertaining high-quality sporting product helps the league in other ways, as Swoboda pointed out.

“Often from our vantage point we see in the sports world that there’s this tension between sporting strategy and more commercial business strategy, and our belief because of what we see and how we interact with clients is that having success on the sporting side can drive success on the business side,” Swoboda said. “If you have better teams, you have more exciting games, you have better players, that’s gonna help drive ticket sales and help potentially drive transfer income for clubs. Ultimately those sides have to work together.”

This summer has been a transformative one in the CPL, with the sheer number of players earning moves abroad. The Díaz move, though, is one of the most important because of what it represents, as a first major success story for an international player and the league’s partnership with Twenty First Group.

As the CPL’s profile continues to grow among players and clubs alike, these initial steps into the international transfer market will surely be the first of many.