‘The tradition is incredible’: Behind-the-scenes at the 13th annual Sigma FC University Showcase

This past week, the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga, Ont. became the epicentre of youth soccer in Canada as teams from across Ontario, as well as Québec and Alberta, participated in the 13th annual Sigma FC University Showcase.

The two-day event, of which the Canadian Premier League’s Forge FC is a sponsor, is considered the most important showcase event for young male players in the country. The showcase was attended by coaches from top programs in the NCAA and U SPORTS as well as those from professional clubs, who watched some of the country’s top youth players go head-to-head in matches this past Thursday and Friday.

That included the Canadian Premier League, with Forge FC’s Bobby Smyrniotis (who co-founded Sigma FC) and Halifax Wanderers’ Patrice Gheisar in attendance.

“There are just so many players around and it is just such a great opportunity to come and see the next talent and have a chance to see what’s upcoming,” Gheisar told “Obviously for you to be able to observe every player at a different level, the competitiveness and seeing them against the best of the best it really helps.”

While the event is less than two decades old, the calibre of players who have graced its pitches has been incredible.

“It was five, six years ago that Alistair Johnston, Massimo Ferrin, Nyal Higgins and Kamal Miller played at the same tournament just from us, then from Sigma, and other clubs there have been some of the biggest names,” said Gheisar. “So the tradition is incredible, and these players come in trying to set their own legacies so it’s very exciting to watch.”

Considering Canada is such a big country, scouting can often prove a geographical challenge, so opportunities to see players from different regions, and in some cases, provinces, compete against one another is an important part of evaluation.

“It’s important that a lot of players who fall under the radar get found out as well,” said Carmine Isacco, head coach of York University. “Because the Sigma showcase is so big and expansive, there’s a lot of players who probably never would have got a look in different situations and the quality on the field has been always fantastic.”

Sigma was founded in 2005 by Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis and his brother Costa, who is now the Executive Vice President, Soccer for the Canadian Premier League. The development academy has been the launching pad for the careers of countless Canadian soccer players.

Bobby Smyrniotis’ four-time CPL champion Forge FC team, in particular, is full of players who came through the Sigma FC system. The likes of 2023 CPL Golden Glove winner Triston Henry, captain Kyle Bekker, Malcolm Duncan, Sebastian Castello, Dom Samuel, Manjrekar James, Tristan Borges, Noah Jensen and more recently Canada U-17 international Kevaughn Tavernier have all come through the Sigma system. Many of those aforementioned names could be found watching the action this week from the balcony that overlooked the main field at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre.

That Sigma FC alumni group extends to multiple Canadian internationals, including Cyle Larin, Richie Laryea and Tajon Buchanan.

Sigma has always found ways to get its top talent to good schools, and eventually professional opportunities. But as former Sigma FC player, and 2022 CPL champion with Forge, Emery Welshman walked around this year’s event, he was struck by how much more exposure and opportunity Canadian players have today than he did back when he was a youth soccer player back in 2009.

“[It’s] very different from my time, you have so many top ten schools here like Syracuse, Akron; back in my time it was a little different,” said Welshman. “You didn’t really have any Canadian universities watching us at all, it just shows that these kids don’t necessarily have to take that path to go to the States to pursue their professional and their studying, they can stay home, they could get a college right around the corner and they could get their university degree, and there’s still a CPL Draft for these kids so [there are] so many more opportunities for them. Very special, very exciting time.”

Welshman, however, can still speak to the importance of these types of events. As a young player, he was recruited by Siena College in NCAA out of a showcase event, which would serve as the launch for his decade-long professional career from which he recently announced his retirement. “It changed my life,” he said. 

While at that time, as Welshman mentioned, Canadian university soccer wasn’t really an option for aspiring pro players, that has changed largely thanks to an event that held its sixth edition on Thursday of last week, the CPL-U SPORTS Draft. The draft has provided Canadian collegiate players with an opportunity to launch their professional careers in their home country, with past picks including Canadian internationals Joel Waterman (CF Montréal) and Victor Loturi (Ross County in Scotland).

“At this event you talk to some of the players, they are all over it, some of the players that are looking at NCAA, and the main carrot right there is that draft system for MLS,” said Isacco, “so the CPL Draft has been important for keeping some players home and getting them their start, which in a different environment they might not have had, so it is vital.” 

Christian Zeppieri, a midfielder for Isacco’s York Lions team, was taken fourth overall in the 2024 draft by York United. On Thursday, Forge FC Director of Soccer Operations Jelani Smith, who himself had previously played at the Sigma Showcase in his youth, made the club’s 2024 CPL-U SPORTS Draft selections from the Paramount Fine Foods Centre.

The North Star Cup, meanwhile, awarded to the Canadian Premier League’s playoff champions, was on display just inside the main entrance. The trophy was recently hoisted by Forge FC captain Bekker, a former Sigma FC youth player, after his side won their fourth title in late October. In that sense, the event was not only a showcase of the player’s talent, but to show those players what might be in their future should they continue to develop.

Many of the players on the pitch at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre last week will be off to top collegiate programs over the next few years — as has been the case throughout the history of the showcase. Thanks to an increasingly developing pathway, however, the chances that those players will also be able to turn pro some day have never been higher.