Youth Movement: 8 young centre-backs to watch in the CPL in 2024

Since day one, central defender has been a position of strength within the Canadian Premier League.

Joel Waterman, Lukas MacNaughton, Amer Didić and Dominick Zator have all gone on to represent the Canadian men’s national team, while the league’s Player of the Year award in 2023 was won by Cavalry FC centre-back Daan Klomp.

For a country that has at times struggled to produce top-calibre central defenders in recent years, it is a promising development in Canadian soccer, and one worth watching closely for national team supporters and CPL fans alike.

This year in particular, the league is full of exciting central defender prospects, making it a significant story to watch during the 2024 season. Here are a few of the names to keep an eye on ahead of this campaign.

Noah Abatneh, York United

As York United chased a playoff spot last season, 19-year-old central defender Noah Abatneh became one of their most important players down the stretch. After missing time early in the season due to injury, he started eight of York’s final 11 matches, making 13 appearances in total. He was critical to the club securing much-needed U-21 minutes in their quest for 2,000, presented by Jones Deslauriers | Navacord.

One area where Abatneh thrives is on the ball. Only former Halifax Wanderers midfielder Mo Omar had a better passing accuracy than Abatneh’s 90.98 per cent this past season, and he was also capable of dribbling out of pressure when needed. A smart defender, he generally picks his moments to be aggressive well, winning 62.5 per cent of his duels contested this past season.

“Noah, he has surprised, he’s a hell of a player,” York United President and GM Ricardo Pasquel told earlier this off-season, later adding, “[While] trying to figure out who is going to be our starting XI, Noah is making [our decision tough], which is a good thing obviously.”

With experience in both the Roma and Lazio youth setups, Abatneh has also represented Canada previously at the U-20 level.

Paul Amedume, Pacific FC

Paul Amedume (right) with Amer Didić last season (Photo: Pacific FC)

Playing on a team last season that featured Amer Didić and Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, minutes weren’t always the easiest to come by for 21-year-old Paul Amedume. In his 12 appearances, however, he showed a lot of promise.

He won 70.27 per cent of his 37 duels contested, including eight of 13 aerially. Capable with both feet, he also is solid in possession completing 89.67 per cent of his passes during the 2023 season.

In Meilleur-Giguère, and the incoming Aly Ndom, he has excellent mentors who can help him develop his craft. Meanwhile, with Didić departing, the door is open for a bigger role this upcoming campaign. For a Pacific club where youth development has always been a priority, Amedume could be one of several young Canadians to feature this upcoming season.

“It leaves an opening for Paul Amedume,” said James Merriman this preseason. “We need to make sure that we give our young players opportunities, and there’s not a player in that position that can be blocking. If we have a young player that we believe can play a bigger role, we need to make sure that’s available. It’s there for Paul.”

Eryk Kobza, Cavalry FC

Kobza was one of the biggest surprises in the Canadian Premier League this past season. Selected 14th overall in the 2023 CPL-U SPORTS Draft, only Daan Klomp and Marco Carducci played more minutes for regular season winners Cavalry last season than the 22-year-old.

Originally breaking through as a holding midfielder, Kobza was quickly moved into the backline where he formed an incredibly successful partnership with CPL Player and Defender of the Year Daan Klomp. He finished the season with two goals and was ninth in the league in passes completed, with 1,198.

Defensively, Kobza won 107 duels (58.15 per cent) and won possession 71 times in the defensive third, while being among the league leaders in shots blocked (16).

Kobza admittedly struggled a little bit with the pace and quality that he faced against Orlando City SC in the Concacaf Champions Cup. An experience like that, however, will be fundamental to understanding what it takes to reach the next level, and he has all the qualities to do so, having already spent time playing in Poland prior to joining Cavalry FC.

Cale Loughrey, Halifax Wanderers

In his second professional season, 22-year-old Cale Loughrey became a mainstay alongside Dan Nimick in the Halifax backline, starting 24 of 28 matches.

A dependable and no-nonsense defender, Loughrey won possession 70 times in the defensive third, made 52 clearances and 13 blocks. While Nimick was often the club’s distributor from the back, Loughrey proved himself to be a good option on the ball as well, making 82 successful long passes, with 84.5 per cent passing accuracy overall.

Loughrey beat out the highly-rated Cristian Campagna for a starting spot last season, and maintained that spot even when Canadian men’s national team defender Doneil Henry joined the team in July. This year, he will likely be competing with Julian Dunn for a starting position but has proven to be an incredibly sturdy option.

Daniel Nimick, Halifax Wanderers

After the way he performed in his first professional season, Daniel Nimick is one of the most exciting defensive prospects in the country.

The 23-year-old finished the year as a nominee for Canadian Premier League Defender of the Year and finished tied for eighth in Players’ Player of the Year voting. Going the full 90 minutes in 27 of 28 matches, he scored six goals and added three assists.

A player with an outstanding passing range, he led all outfield players with 174 successful long passes played. Defensively, he won 58.99 per cent of his duels, and won possession 90 times in the defensive third, second only to fellow Defender of the Year nominee Manjrekar James.

He also displays incredible composure well beyond his years. That is exhibited both in his calm approach in defensive situations, and the fact that he scored four goals from the penalty spot this season.

Nimick spent several years in the academy system of Leeds United and has all the quality to make a return to the European stage at some point in his future.

Malik Owolabi-Belewu, Forge FC

Owolabi-Belewu’s 2024 campaign is already off to an excellent start after a pair of quality performances against C.D. Guadalajara in the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup.

He did so primarily as a left fullback, but he thrived despite being tasked with going up against some of the most lethal attackers in the region, including U.S. men’s national team attacker Cade Cowell.

Injuries and the sturdy pairing of Manjrekar James and Alex Achinioti-Jönsson limited Owolabi-Belewu to just 832 minutes this past season. But with the former having departed the club, there is certainly an opening at central defender this season.

At 21, Owolabi-Belewu has all the qualities to thrive in that spot. Excellent on the ball, he completed 14 dribbles this past season out of the back and made 170 passes into the final third. For a Forge side that prioritizes possession, he could be a huge asset this season.

Tyr Walker, Atlético Ottawa

At 20 years of age, Tyr Walker is the least experienced player on this list having made just five appearances in 2023, two of which were just for a single minute. But that short cameo was enough to convince Ottawa they should sign him to a full contract for this upcoming campaign.

He led all outfield players in the CPL in duel success percentage last year, winning an outstanding 16 of the 21 duels he contested (76.19). He also won possession 19 times in 243 minutes played.

With Diego Espejo, Miguel Acosta and Karl Ouimette’s departures this off-season, that opens the door for Walker to get more minutes — and continue to progress — in 2024.

Anthony White, Vancouver FC

The first overall pick in the 2023 CPL-U SPORTS Draft, White took a bit of time to adjust to the CPL level before making his breakthrough. After just a pair of minute-long appearances off the bench through the first nine matches of the season, White became a regular starter thereafter at just 19 years of age (he turned 20 in August).

He made 16 consecutive starts following his first career start on June 17. Blessed with an outstanding left foot, he grew in confidence in this regard as the season progressed, and he picked up his first career assist on July 12 against York United. He also showed a good knack for reading the game defensively, making 14 blocks, 12 interceptions and 55 clearances.

In his first season against senior players, White does have some work to do in terms of more consistently winning battles in the defensive area, both in the air and on the pitch. But that will come with more experience, and further growing into his 6-2 frame. With a strong contingent of other British Columbia-born players returning home this season, White will have plenty of mentors to learn from as well.

All clips are courtesy of OneSoccer