Gabriel Balbinotti has come a long way since being selected in last year’s CPL-U SPORTS Draft.
The midfielder will miss his online midterm exams this week since he’ll be in El Salvador as Forge FC kicks off its 2020 Concacaf League campaign when it faces Club Deportivo Municipal Limeño on Thursday (8:00 p.m. ET/TSN3).
Balbinotti was Forge’s first-round pick (seventh overall) at the 2019 CPL-U SPORTS Draft. The 21-year-old led the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières to last fall’s national title (the school’s first national championships), scoring three goals at the U SPORTS championships in his hometown of Montreal.
Typically, players signed to U SPORTS Development Contracts would be required to choose between staying with their CPL team or returning to school by the middle of August. But, in the age of online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Balbinotti hasn’t been forced to make that choice, as he’s remained with Forge.
“Since COVID, we don’t really know what’s going on so I can stay in Hamilton, so I’m pretty happy for that, being able to juggle all that stuff,” Balbinotti told CanPL.ca. “Everything is online. I was in class during The Island Games, too.”
The UQTR Patriotes standout has lived a transient life in recent months. After spending three weeks in Forge’s pre-season training camp in March, Balbinotti returned home during the lockdown only to be brought back by Forge during the summer. Between The Island Games and this brief stay in Hamilton, Balbinotti has spent nearly three months in hotels.
“I was waiting for coaches to see if I was going to go back or not this Spring,” Balbinotti said. “I went back and I stayed here in Hamilton for like a month and a half training. They weren’t sure we’re not going to have competition yet so just training.
Despite less-than-ideal living conditions, you get the impression that Balbinotti isn’t bothered by it. The former Ottawa Fury player has gone from a first-year U SPORTS standout to playing in a Concacaf competition in less than a year – a head-spinning turnaround worth a story in its own right, COVID-19 complications notwithstanding.
Balbinotti, who has experience in various Canadian national team youth camps, set a Concacaf trip to Central America as one of his professional targets. He just didn’t expect it so soon in his career.
“Not a year later, but it was always one of my goals. When I was playing the (U SPORTS) national championships I was just hoping to get drafted. I didn’t think I was going to get drafted… let alone to the champs. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was until now,” Balbinotti said.
The striker has yet to score for Forge despite some impressive attacking work. A few quality chances at The Island Games still haunt Balbinotti, whose .57 expected goals in open play (xG) was the 26th-best among CPL players – not a bad return for a rookie.
“I thought I could have done better, to be honest,” Balbinotti admitted. “We had 10 games to figure out the level of play and try to do something during the championship… but I think I did okay, not marvellously well or anything like that.”
Balbinotti and Forge will fly to El Salvador on Tuesday before facing Limeño on Thursday.