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A game of ‘Survivor’: The Canadian Premier League’s Open Trials are producing unexpected results

TORONTO In a way, these Open Trials were only ever going to be as genuine as the trialists made them.

The on-field quality will determine what results from the Canadian Premier League’s ongoing, coast-to-coast talent search; not the prolific, pre-conceived notions some of us had before this project launched in Halifax.

Needless to say, I was wary of an unprecedented process that included uncontrollable variables: Who are these trialists? What experience do they have?

Or, as your eavesdropping correspondent overheard HFX Wanderers FC coach Stephen Hart ask a young trialist in Quebec, “Where have you been?”

“In Ottawa,” the same player, a 19-year-old Canadian of East African descent, later told CanPL.ca.

The left-footed holding midfielder doesn’t play club ball. He didn’t trust local coaches had his best interest at heart.

He played for himself, nobody else.

Hamdi Djama chats with Valour FC coach Rob Gale during Day 1 of the CPL's Open Trials. (Lucho Calderon/CPL)
Hamdi Djama chats with Valour FC coach Rob Gale during Day 1 of the CPL’s Open Trials. (Lucho Calderon/CPL)

After surviving the initial cut, the same teen asked CPL staff if he could borrow a ball to “practise finishing” at the conclusion of what was an exhaustive, eight-hour day.

Um, what?

That hunger and desire and commitment has been the most gratifying part of a process that has forced CPL coaches to pay closer attention to some of these players as they begin to populate their rosters.

“I’ve had a number of our coaches tell me they were pleasantly surprised by the level of play at every stop,” CPL Commissioner David Clanachan told CanPL.ca as the Winnipeg trials wrapped up.

“There’s no doubt there’s a high level of competition. I wouldn’t quite say it’s a game of ‘Survivor,’ but everyone knows it’s a high-stakes atmosphere — which is great to see. Everything is being left on the field.”

Including tears.

When stakes are high, emotions run higher. The tension is palpable every time Trials Lead Coach Alex Bunbury announces cuts.

Alex Bunbury speaks with trialists during last week's event in Winnipeg. (CPL)
Alex Bunbury speaks with trialists during last week’s event in Winnipeg. (CPL)

The 15-20 Open Trialists expected to receive an invite to a CPL club’s preseason camp are greatly outnumbered by the thousand or so hopefuls who didn’t catch the eye, and maybe never will.

“I think this is it for me,” one goalkeeper said upon thanking Bunbury, who encouraged the Quebec trialist to carry on.

Some will. Most won’t. But for every hundred or so prospective trialists who have fallen short there has been a handful of guys who have shown enough to earn a second and third look.

“There’s a tremendous amount of talent coming out of these Open Trials — young men who have yet to be discovered,” the commissioner added.

“We have a database of over 1,000 players we’ve been collecting video on, getting statistics on and following. Now, all of a sudden, we’re finding all this other talent.”

Winnipeg trialists gather at Investors Group Field. (CPL)
Winnipeg trialists gather at Investors Group Field. (CPL)

You’ve seen some of them profiled here. You’ll see many more of them profiled as the CPL’s Open Trials turn to Alberta and Vancouver Island in the coming weeks.

Guys like Kouame Ouattara, a 27-year-old former Moncton University standout who was in-between jobs and using the opportunity to take another run at becoming a professional.

Or Lukumbi Tshindaye, a young midfielder CPL coaches branded “Spider-Man” for his ability to cover ground and control the tempo in possession.

Then there was Taha Ilyass, a 20-year-old Hamiltonian target man whose affection for, as he called it, “Steel City” is deep-rooted and unwavering.

Taha Ilyass during a post-trials interview with CanPL.ca. (Tyler Brown, CPL)
Taha Ilyass during a post-trials interview with CanPL.ca. (Tyler Brown, CPL)

“We’re also finding talent coming from other countries — players who see Canada and the CPL as an opportunity to climb further up the ladder in their careers,” Clanachan added.

“We’ve had young men from the Dutch, Turkish, Swedish and other leagues who see the opportunity in moving to a Premier League.”

English striker Charlie Anagho-Ntamark is that guy.

The passion in Anagho-Ntamark’s voice might have been mistaken for desperation by anyone who hadn’t listened to his experiences playing non-League soccer in England.

Again, this process was built with the idea prospective pros like Ouattara, Tshindaye, Ilyass, Anagho-Ntamark and more are scattered throughout a country on the brink of meeting its soccer potential.

These trials have proven to be a ground for Canadians who are tired of excuses, of not being seen, of not, at the very least, having the opportunity to showcase themselves in front of professional talent evaluators.

More than a month into these coast-to-coast trials CPL coaches have already identified close to a dozen formerly anonymous footballers who could get the chance to prove themselves in a preseason camp.

It’s anticipated more than a dozen #GotGame trialists will be selected to attend training camps by the time clubs conclude their inaugural roster-building.

Only then will CPL coaches get to see some of these guys in real, professional environments.

And that alone is a result worth celebrating.

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