‘Building an industry’: Former CPL players translating on-field enthusiasm into front office excellence

In Calgary, they call it the sunrise-sunset program.

As the sun sets on the playing careers of members of Cavalry FC, the sun rises on new opportunities to step into roles helping the club off the pitch. For some that transition has been gradually planned for a few seasons, while for others opportunity came after they hung up the boots. But after five seasons in the Canadian Premier League, the club’s coaching staff and front office is full of former players.

“We have a bunch of players who have done just that, the sun set on their football career and then the sun rose on some other [careers] from Oliver [Minatel], and Nik [Ledgerwood], to Tofa [Fakunle] in various roles across the organization,” said Mason Trafford, who now goes by the title of Commercial and Marketing Director with Cavalry FC. 

Glance around the Cavalry FC offices, and it looks a whole lot like the club’s 2019 locker room. The team’s first-ever signing and captain, Nik Ledgerwood, is now an assistant coach. Attacking midfielder Tofa Fakunle is the Assistant General Manager, while attacker Oliver Minatel is Head of Recruitment and Player Development. Trafford, a former star central defender, now works on the business side of things, as mentioned.

This isn’t just happening in Calgary, though; it’s a growing trend around the league, with former CPL players stepping off the pitch and into front-office and coaching roles. Drew Beckie with Atlético Ottawa, David Edgar as an assistant coach for Forge, Jan-Michael Williams as Halifax’s goalkeeper coach, Jamar Dixon with Pacific, Daryl Fordyce at Valour, Mark Village with Vancouver FC and Mauro Eustáquio with York are some other examples.

We want to win on the field, we want to win off the field in terms of having a successful business and I think it really is a recipe for a healthy and strong business because you know people care,” said Trafford. “They were literally blood, sweat and tears on the field, that translates off the field as well and carries over into the next role.” 

Having so many former players stepping into important off-field roles within the Canadian Premier League is a critical next step in not only its evolution but that of the sport in this country. They are lending a critical player’s perspective to the building of soccer infrastructure across Canada, ensuring the next generation of talent has unprecedented opportunities to succeed.

What I always tell people is we are not only building a brand and building a club in Calgary, but we’re also building an industry in Canada as a whole,” said Trafford. “So there’s like this double effect to the startup nature of what we’re doing. Everybody from the CPL office to all eight clubs are in a similar boat.” 

Atlético Ottawa’s Drew Beckie. (PHOTO: Matt Zambonin/ Freestyle Photography/CPL)

Last off-season, Drew Beckie sat down with Atlético Ottawa head coach Carlos González and CEO Fernando López to discuss his future. Beckie had one year left on his contract as a player, but was considering the possibility of retirement. That’s when they presented him with the opportunity to become the Team Manager, a role where he would still be around his friends and teammates on a day-to-day basis, using the invaluable experience he had gained as a player, both in Europe and in different leagues across North America and make sure Atlético Ottawa’s current players had all the resources they need for success.

“Part of my role is to try to improve things for the players, give them no excuses for not performing, that’s better food off the field, that’s housing stuff, whatever it is,” said Beckie. “That was really my [main] role this year as first team manager.”

It turned out to be quite a learning experience. During an up-and-down season for the 2022 regular season winners that concluded in Atleti missing the playoffs, there was a temptation to step back on the field as a player and try to help in that way. But Beckie knew that wasn’t the answer, instead learning how to think less like a player and take on more of a supporting role for both the players and coaching staff.

Beckie’s role has since evolved, as this year in addition to providing that support to the first team, he will have further focus under the new title of Director of Development and Player Engagement on building the player pipeline in the nation’s capital.

“We are working now to create a pathway to the first team,” said Beckie. “Each club has something a little bit different, Cavalry has Foothills, Forge have a connection with Sigma, we are looking at different areas to provide opportunities for local players.”

Ottawa is also where Cavalry FC’s Head of Recruitment Oliver Minatel first started to consider life after soccer. It was 2014, and the young Brazilian attacker had just joined the NASL’s Ottawa Fury having spent multiple years with Nacional in the Portugal top division, including appearing in the UEFA Europa League. When he arrived in Canada, he was stunned by how many of his new teammates were already planning for a future post-playing career.

“It was a shock, I was coming from Europe at the time and I noticed everyone had a plan B, and everyone was already preparing for what they were going to do next,” said Minatel. “I was 22 at the time and I was like well, yeah, I think I should do the same.”

He enrolled in an online university program, graduating with a degree in business in 2019. He then continued, adding an MBA in sports management. That 2014 Ottawa Fury team also included Beckie and Trafford, as well as Mauro Eustáquio, who is currently an assistant coach for York United.

Oliver Minatel (front left), Drew Beckie (top row, left) and Mason Trafford (top row, third from the right) representing Ottawa Fury (Photo: Canada Soccer/ Uwe Welz)

If you look at the roster that we had, I’d say 90 per cent of that team is working in some kind of professional football,” said Beckie.

Minatel actually played under Eustáquio at York in his final professional season, 2022, one that was limited to just six appearances due to injury. Knowing that retirement was imminent, he spoke with Cavalry manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr., under whom he played three seasons from 2019 to 2021, about what might be next. When Wheeldon Jr. eventually offered him a position as Head of Recruitment and Player Development, he says he “didn’t think twice.”

The 31-year-old brings with him a wealth of experience from multiple levels of the sport, including the highest level in Europe. Those connections he has made both domestically and abroad are already serving Cavalry well during Minatel’s first year in the role. That included playing a significant role in the league-record transfer of Goteh Ntignee to France in late August.

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“I couldn’t be happier to be here in a country where football is growing and they need people who have a passion for the game and understand the game,” said Minatel. “It is night and day, the difference between [now and] when I arrived.”

Part of what has made his role with Cavalry so rewarding is getting to build on the previously existing relationships, in particular working closely with former teammate Tofa Fakunle, who is now the assistant GM.

“It’s a great working relationship and that gets the best out of everyone,” said Minatel. “So we’re all happy to be here, to be together but we know that we have to perform like it was on the pitch, now we have to perform outside of the pitch.” 

Mason Trafford captaining Cavalry FC in 2022. Photo: CFC Media Mike Sturk

Like Minatel, most of the former CPL players who have stepped into off-field roles have done so on the soccer operations side of things. Cavalry’s Trafford is an exception. As the club’s Commercial and Marketing Director, he oversees multiple different facets of the club, including, but not entirely limited to tickets, partnerships, community, media, retail and marketing. 

His interest in business comes naturally, from a Bachelor of Science/Accounting degree earned during his time playing for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and from multiple business ventures he started with teammates while he was playing for both Ottawa and Miami. Upon joining Cavalry ahead of their inaugural season, Trafford was already in the office selling tickets and getting involved in community engagement. As his playing career neared its end — he hung up the boots after the 2022 season — Trafford’s responsibilities in the front office increased.

Besides being both interested in, and talented at, the business side of the sport, he says working on the commercial and marketing side of the club meant more stability. His soccer career has since taken him all over the world, from the United States, to Finland, China and finally back to Canada, where he grew up. Staying away from the coaching side of the game gave him greater opportunity to lay down some roots.

“I really love Calgary, and you know how it is, as a soccer player and even really as a soccer coach you might have to pick up and move every couple of years,” said Trafford, adding, “I wanted a bit of continuity in my life. I have three young kids and a wife so I wanted to live, buy a house and live in my personal life a little bit that way and build a career [here].” 

Trafford says that he’s “really a classic example of why this league is so important,” a player who was able to return from playing abroad to now find a post-playing career in the sport in Canada. He says that makes him feel an added responsibility to make sure that he does everything he can to continue to grow the culture and fandom of the game both in Calgary and the Canadian Premier League as a whole.

“I don’t take it for granted because I think we’ve got to build this thing right so that the next version of me, the next five- or six-year-old kid that is coming through Canada has something to dream about,” said Trafford. “That also gives you a lot of hope and a lot of energy when we are doing this and putting in the hard work.”

Across the league, that hard work being done by former players in front offices has added an extra layer of competition, those who once did battle on the playing field are now doing so in the boardroom. With that being said, there remains a collective purpose that they all share in pushing the game in this country to new heights.

“We are all in touch, we all stay in touch, share ideas, support each other,” said Beckie. “There is that competition between clubs, you want to succeed, but I also want the best for them. When we do well collectively, or each individual club, it is good for the league. At the end of the day, this is a business; we need to create more revenue for the future of our league, and the future of our players and that is what we are working to do.”