‘Real life Football Manager’: CPL coaches piecing together squads as initial roster building begins


TORONTO — An outsider of sorts, Michael Silberbauer’s first interview produced the most profound thing said about the Canadian Premier League.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Pacific FC’s coach told me hours before his revealing. “It’s not going to happen anymore.”

That’s the attraction of it, Silberbauer repeated last week in Toronto, the fourth stop on the CPL’s cross-Canada Open Trials tour.

The league, he said, isn’t just an idea: It’s an opportunity to be at the forefront of a movement that’s set to alter the complexion of the game, not just in Canada, but in North America and beyond.

In other words – a chance to be a part of one of the biggest soccer stories in Canadian history.

As one impassioned league executive told me this week, “We’re not just talking about it anymore. It’s happening.”

This isn’t about the birth of a league: It’s about the initiation of a Canadian soccer ecosystem, a place for hundreds of professional players, coaches, staff, administrators and referees to develop and earn a living in the process.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It’s not going to happen anymore.” – Silberbauer 

Needless to say, there are an immense number of moving parts — jersey reveals, inaugural schedules, season ticket packages, media rights and more — on the cusp of being introduced.

The uniqueness of the situation has made roster building all the more complex given rules surrounding pre-contracts and the exhaustive process of sifting through a database of more than 1,000 Canadian prospects, many of whom are playing in leagues around the globe, waiting to be unearthed and provided an opportunity to develop at home.

Others include local semi-professionals who are working in advance of being contacted by an interested Canadian Premier League club. It’s why each Open Trial has doubled as an opportunity for the league’s coaches and front office staffers to discuss impending player signings that will be revealed in the coming weeks.

Inevitably, the process of creating rosters from scratch has been a challenge to say the least, but the CPL has put together a layered approach that covers soccer talent options from top to bottom, from foundational players to young under-23 domestic players, local standouts and international players. By design, this plan should give all involved the opportunity to play and fulfill their potential.

“We’re not just talking about it anymore. It’s happening.” – CPL executive

The CPL’s seven clubs have initiated the process of building out their rosters with experienced Canadians, including “Foundational Players” that CPL coaches want to build their inaugural rosters around.

A second list, consisting of young Canadians under the age of 23 years old, was submitted to the league’s soccer operations office in advance of those players being approached in the coming days.

“There were four things our clubs considered while building their rosters: A league that’s Canadian, with an age profile younger than most North American leagues, featuring local talent, with up and coming internationals mixed in,” said James Easton, the Canadian Premier League’s VP of Football Operations.

Further roster additions, including select standouts from the league’s more than 1,400 trialists, will be revealed by early November, though Commissioner David Clanachan has stated he expects over 20 trialists to be invited to Training Camps.

“Attitude and aptitude, sheer determination and impressed coaches has been the standard at the Open Trials,” according to Clanachan. “Prospects have also demonstrated their desire to travel to find their dream – from as far away as Ireland, South Korea and Japan, and from every continent on the globe except Antartica.”

Halifax trialists battle for the ball during Stop 1 of the CPL's #GotGame Open Trials. (CPL)
Halifax trialists battle for the ball during Stop 1 of the CPL’s #GotGame Open Trials. (CPL)

The anticipation of CPL clubs building their rosters has Canadian internationals like Atiba Hutchinson and Nik Ledgerwood keeping a watchful eye.

“I’m definitely excited to see what it has to offer and who goes where, and the type of interest that comes along with it,” Hutchinson told“It should be exciting times for Canada in general and I think we should all be looking for it. I’ll be supporting, and just having fun seeing a professional league here in Canada.”

Ledgerwood echoed his former teammate, adding the intrigue of seeing Canadian players come home continues to build interest.

“It will be interesting to see which teams go after which (Canadians),” Ledgerwood added. “I’ve tried to be an ambassador to the league and Calgary. There’s nothing hidden that if I’m going to play in the league it would be for Calgary.”

Ledgerwood steered clear of confirming Cavalry FC’s interest, but the Canadian international would seem to be the perfect fit for an inaugural CPL roster when you consider what CFC’s coach has stated.

Nik Ledgerwood says he still has plenty left to offer a CPL club. (Canada Soccer)
Nik Ledgerwood says he still has plenty left to offer a CPL club. (Canada Soccer)

“I want to play football and I want to be hard to beat,” Cavalry coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said. “Any of my colleagues will know if they come to Calgary, they’re going to have a game. They’ll know we’re coming to take points.”

Wheeldon’s “colleagues” are in the midst of a similar process and answering the same question: How do you build a roster from nothing?

“We have an idea of how we want to build our club,” York 9 FC coach Jimmy Brennan answered. “We have a style of play we want to incorporate into the club, a philosophy. It’s about finding the right players to play the system.”

Other CPL coaches, like FC Edmonton’s Jeff Paulus, were forthcoming in defining their player identification process.

“I’m (looking for) a holding midfield player. That’s the key for me,” Paulus said. “The nice thing about coming in with a blank slate is you get to create the team you envision.”

A league that’s Canadian, with an age profile younger than most North American leagues.” – Easton

Silberbauer, on the other hand, said he’ll adapt his tactics to bring out the best in his west coast players.

“To me, the game is getting more flexible. We’ll build around the players we have,” the former Danish international told “We’ll be our own brand. We’ll do it our way. We’ll take inspiration from other places, but we have to make it our own. It needs to be authentic.”

Players lacking character need not appear at this week’s Open Trials in Winnipeg. Valour FC coach Rob Gale won’t look at you unless you have the proper “DNA.”

“The character is important, first and foremost,” Gale offered. “What kind of player are they? Do they fit our DNA? We want them to be representative of Winnipeg and the community rather than any set position.”

HFX Wanderers coach Stephen Hart says he’s building from back to front.

“There are no good teams without goalkeepers,” Hart said. “You start with quality goalkeeping, then your central defenders, with good quality leadership and good ability.”

HFX Wanderers coach Stephen Hart speaks up during last week's Open Trials in Toronto. (Martin Bazyl, CPL)
HFX Wanderers coach Stephen Hart speaks up during last week’s Open Trials in Toronto. (Martin Bazyl, CPL)

Forge FC’s Bobby Smyrniotis says CPL players need to be versatile enough to feature in a variety of positions.

“All of my players need to be very good on the ball, very comfortable on the ball when they’re in pressure situations,” Smyrniotis said. “We will play in small spaces, we will play in bigger spaces. They need to be able to do the basics at a very high level — the passing, the receiving and getting out of tight spaces. We want that from each and every position.”

They’re seven CPL coaches with seven ideas concerning how to build a side fit for top tier soccer.

What’s more, all seven of them won’t get it right.

“We’re playing real life Football Manager,” Wheeldon added.

Again, a process that’s unlikely to happen again.