Marcel Zajac’s decision to sign with Forge FC in January 2019 was, at the time, a risky one.
The native of Mississauga, Ont., left the University of Akron after his junior year, nixing his progress toward the MLS SuperDraft in favour of turning pro — with a brand-new club in a brand-new league, no less — a year early in his home province.
“You maybe went in blind a little bit, not knowing how (the CPL) would look the first season overall,” Zajac told CanPL.ca. “I think individually, I went through my ups and downs throughout the season, which was to be expected in your first season as a pro, but I definitely think I still have a lot more left to prove than I showed last year.”
Zajac’s first season with Forge, where he was reunited with teammates and coaches from his days of summer soccer at Sigma FC, was a respectable introduction to the professional game, no doubt. As a 21-year-old, he made 23 appearances, scoring once and adding three assists en route to helping the club win a CPL championship.
By his standards, he might’ve liked to start more, as well as get on the scoresheet more often, having produced at a fairly high rate at Akron (18 goals, nine assists in 54 appearances). But reflecting on his first season after leaving college, Zajac is still confident he made the right choice for his development.
“I definitely think you can’t live looking back and regretting what you did, because hindsight is always 20/20,” he said. “I definitely don’t regret it because I think I definitely got plenty of minutes under my belt in a professional league, which I’ve learned from, just playing against more physical, older players.”
Zajac was an important piece of the Forge squad in 2019, making key substitute appearances at important junctures, including Leg 1 of the CPL Finals, and throughout the club’s impressive Concacaf League run.
“(The Concacaf League) was where the feeling of being a professional really kicked in,” Zajac recalled. “When you played in those competitions, going to those foreign countries, it was just amazing.”
He added that the players in the Forge dressing room are, in his words, “salty” that this year’s Concacaf League tournament has been put on hold due to the pandemic; that’s certainly an area where the CPL champions have unfinished business.
From a personal perspective, though, Zajac would like to continue carving out his spot in the Forge lineup. He was an important depth player last year, but he feels he can do more, and perhaps fight his way into the starting 11 more often.
“There’s lots of minutes up for grabs with (Tristan) Borges being gone on the wing there; that’s where I’ve played my whole career pretty much, and that’s where I’ve been most comfortable when I’ve played,” he said.
“I definitely think that’s an area that I can look to attack and compete for, along with the other wingers on our team.”
Having seen what Borges did from that position in 2019 — winning every CPL award he possibly could and transferring to OH Leuven in Belgium — Zajac is extra motivated. Really the only question facing Forge FC heading into this season is that of whether or not they can adequately replace their MVP; so, players like Zajac are hoping to step up in their newfound opportunities.
Had he played NCAA soccer in 2019, there’s very little chance Zajac would’ve been in contention for as many professional minutes as he might get in 2020. Certainly, he wouldn’t have the first-team experience he has now.
Every player’s pathway is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to development. Still, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Zajac’s CPL decision was the right one.