One of the great things about the Canadian Premier League’s inaugural season was the many unexpected stars it produced.
Soccer fans in this country were already familiar with Issey Nakajima-Farran, Nik Ledgerwood, and Kyle Bekker from their time with the Canadian national team, so we all knew what to expect from them in 2019.
But be honest: Who pegged Terran Campbell to be one of the league’s top scorers? Aside from the most hardcore Canadian soccer supporter, who had even heard of Campbell before he signed with Pacific FC last January?
The 21-year-old forward wasn’t the only CPL player to rise from obscurity and take the league by storm this year.
The CanPL.ca editorial team of John Molinaro, Armen Bedakian, Marty Thompson and Charlie O’Connor-Clarke offer up their pick for the biggest surprise player of the 2019 season.
Check out their selections below.
Bedakian: Terran Campbell, Pacific FC
We spent the entire off-season talking up Pacific FC’s potential attacking trident — that’s Ben Fisk and Issey Nakajima-Farran out wide, with big, burly Canadian international striker Marcus Haber up top, banging in goals left, right, and (mostly) centre.
But that’s not what happened on the Island in 2019. No one can really predict what happens on the Island, after all. The Island is its own land. It has its own magic, its own tradition.
Enter Terran Campbell, bright faced and shy off the field, all of 20 years of age at the time, from Burnaby, B.C. — a striker so unknown, CPL editorial mistakenly listed him as a central midfielder in our pre-season lineup predictions. Whoops.
Not only did Campbell fill in adequately for Haber when he picked up an injury, he did so well, out of nowhere, that Haber couldn’t even get back into the Pacific FC lineup when he was healthy. For those troubles, Campbell returned 11 goals to the Island faithful. He went from unknown to a potential starter for Canada’s Olympic team. Surprised? You bet.
Thompson: Morey Doner (York9 FC)
The CPL’s “surprise player” is such a tough question to answer considering how many first-year professionals there were in 2019.
I would put Morey Doner’s name forward, however, due to his amazing rise to a starting job with York9 FC.
A native of Collingwood, Ont., the 25-year-old was on the outside of just about every Canadian soccer catchment area — playing senior soccer in towns such as Owen Sound and Wasaga Beach rather than high-level youth setups in Ottawa and Winnipeg. Even after making Aurora United in League 1 Ontario, he wasn’t exactly at the top of Ontario names you expected to find at a CPL club in Year 1.
When the York9 season started, Doner was on the bench. You get the picture.
Now, Doner is one of the best fullbacks in the Canadian Premier League; he’s consistent, quick, strong, and rarely puts a foot wrong — and don’t forget that rocket of a goal on Canada Day.
Paired with Diyaeddine Abzi, Doner has made up half of the best fullback combo in the CPL. Abzi, too, has a similar story after emerging from Quebec untouched by the Montreal Impact.
In a league full of redemption stories, Doner’s is the most unlikely — and the most heartwarming.
O’Connor Clarke: Nathan Ingham (York9 FC)
I’ll go with Doner’s teammate in York Region, who emerged from his first year as a full-time professional starter with a Golden Glove nomination.
Heading into the season, most people (myself included) had either Matt Silva or Colm Vance penciled in as York9’s first-choice goalkeeper. Ingham’s signing wasn’t announced until the Nine Stripes were already in the Dominican Republic for pre-season, and despite stints at various clubs around the USL and PDL, he’d never really nailed down a job and thus came as an unknown quantity.
This writer’s introduction to Ingham came in his surprise inclusion in Jimmy Brennan’s first-ever CPL starting 11, an hour before the inaugural kickoff at Tim Hortons Field. He was excellent in that game, and for much of the season, making more saves than anyone in the CPL.
Ingham took the number one job and ran with it, never giving Brennan cause to question whether his choice was the right one.
Molinaro: Christian Oxner, HFX Wanderers FC
Christian Oxner provided the league with a heart-warming story at the start of the 2019 season: A native of Halifax who played university soccer for Saint Mary’s University and was drafted by HFX Wanderers FC, Oxner was the very definition of a hometown product who was looking to make good during the CPL’s inaugural campaign.
But it was hard to find anybody who believed that the baby-faced goalkeeper, who had no professional experience, would see any significant action for the Wanderers in 2019 — never mind him becoming the club’s starter — especially with veteran Jan-Michael Williams firmly established as the No. 1.
Oxner backed up Williams to start the year, and made his pro debut in the Canadian Championship in May, before playing in his first CPL game a few days later. Eventually, the rookie shot stopper overtook Williams as the Wanderers’ starter (making 21 appearances in all competitions), and finished the CPL season tied for fourth in the league in clean sheets with six.