One of the fascinating mysteries heading into the 2020 CPL campaign was one that sprung from the first off-season in the league’s history.
Last winter, we saw every CPL club bolster its roster after the inaugural year, with some opting for more turnover than others. One of the ways every club tried to improve was with an injection of young international talent. With the league forming a partnership with 21st Club (in addition to the scouting work clubs had already been doing before and throughout the 2019 season), teams were able to cast a wide net around the footballing world to find players aged 23 and under in search of a fresh start in Canada.
Every team was working with the 21st Club program, which has significant resources in scouting and football analysis stretching all over the world, helping CPL clubs’ existing scouting networks to try and unearth a diamond in the rough from somewhere.
Sadly, we didn’t quite get to see the young internationals in action at The Island Games, with a number of them — names such as Nicholas Hamilton, Richard Luca, and Raúl Tito, among several others — unable to get into Canada in time for the tournament due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Still, plenty of young players from overseas took to the UPEI pitch in August and September, giving us a taste of what their arrival can do for the quality of the CPL.
How did they all do? CanPL.ca has broken down all the young international players to take the pitch in their first CPL competition at The Island Games.
Starting out west, Pacific brought in one of the most highly-touted young internationals for 2020. Díaz came to Vancouver Island from Club América in Mexico, hoping to bring some flair to the attack. The striker settled in nicely for the Tridents, appearing seven times and scoring three goals, with two assists as well. He and Terran Campbell shared responsibilities in the number nine role, but by the time Pacific got to the second round, it looked like the club’s best front three included Díaz in between Victor Blasco and Marco Bustos.
The young striker’s best game was Pacific’s first-round win over Cavalry, in which he assisted on the first goal then scored the winner by putting himself in the right spot to tap home a cross. A player of Díaz’s pedigree probably has another gear, but he was still very good for Pacific after settling into the side.
Jair Cordóva (Cavalry FC)
This is a tougher one to judge, as Cordóva appeared just four times for the Cavs, each of them as a substitute. He picked up an injury just before leaving for PEI, which removed one of Cavalry’s top options at centre-forward. He played only 71 minutes, but the young Peruvian still scored a very significant goal for Cavalry, drawing them within one late in their group stage match against HFX Wanderers FC.
Cordóva was a good option for Cavalry to have off the bench, frequently coming into games to try and win touches in the box late, but he didn’t have a chance to show himself over a full game. Tommy Wheeldon Jr. said Cordóva’s late return to health was like a new signing for the club, and a big goal in 71 minutes of work is good value. Still, it’s disappointing not to have seen more of him.
Erik Zetterberg (FC Edmonton)
The Swedish midfielder played in every game for FC Edmonton, and started six of their seven. He was the midfield maestro they needed, winning the majority of his tackles and recovering the ball well. He finished with a pass success rate just a hair below 80 per cent, but Zetterberg’s numbers would take a dip in that respect because of the amount of brave diagonal switches of play he attempted (many of which were perfect, in fairness). His average pass distance was 24.1 metres, more than any other midfielder at The Island Games.
Moses Dyer (Valour FC)
Valour’s New Zealand international was a player that intrigued fans coming into the season due to his national team experience. He took eight shots and made three key passes in 272 minutes, starting three times for Rob Gale’s revamped squad, and came on three times as a substitute.
Dyer scored once for Valour, giving them a lead in their final match against Forge FC. He won the third-most duels for the team in their seven games as well, playing several roles as an attacking midfielder, winger, and occasional second striker.
Gabriel Vasconcelos (York9 FC)
The Island Games was a fairly disappointing affair for York9’s Brazilian attacker. Vasconcelos played twice for the Nine Stripes — once as a starter in their first game, and then as a sub in a game against HFX, amounting to 87 minutes in total. He apparently picked up an injury in training prior to the tournament, which kept him from playing a bigger role.
Vasconcelos wasn’t much of a factor in either of his appearances, failing to record a shot on target and struggling to find touches in the attacking third.
Alvaro Rivero (York9 FC)
The Spanish forward was a late addition to the mix for York9, signing for the club in late July. He didn’t necessarily live up to his “Real Madrid academy product” billing (not that it was a reasonable expectation), but he had good moments. He was the only striker to score a goal for York9, recording one of the club’s two open-play goals from seven games — and it was a superb volley, as well.
Rivero started five and played in all seven of York9’s games, with Jimmy Brennan deploying him as the first-choice striker. He had a passing percentage well above 85, but had just six shots and 11 touches in the box. Getting him service from open play was a bit of an issue for the Nine Stripes.
Fugo Segawa (York9 FC)
Probably the most impressive of York9’s young internationals, Segawa changed Jimmy Brennan’s lineup strategy by playing too well. The Japanese left-back was expected to compete for minutes behind first-choice Diyaeddine Abzi, the club’s breakout young fullback from 2019. However, Segawa impressed the coaches so much that by the club’s fifth game, Brennan chose to move Abzi into a left wing role in order to keep Segawa at left-back.
The new youngster won three-quarters of his tackles and the majority of his duels, hitting five crosses in total.
Paolo Sabak (Forge FC)
The 21-year-old Belgian, who came to Forge not long after Tristan Borges’ departure, was one of the club’s few additions after a stellar 2019. Sabak took a little time to acclimate to Bobby Smyrniotis’ complex tactical system, but he eventually became an irreplaceable part of the team’s midfield trio along with Kyle Bekker and Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson.
Sabak’s two goals and two assists were impressive, as was his ability to take some of the load off Bekker, allowing him more freedom to roam and create. His 13 successful 1v1 attempts was second only to Mo Babouli among Forge players.
Vashon Neufville (Atlético Ottawa)
Neufville was one of Ottawa’s first signings, coming from the West Ham United academy. He was one of the expansion side’s most exciting players, providing the assist for the first goal in club history. Neufville seemed to be one of the league’s fastest fullbacks, with a knack for hitting a good cross into the box.
It wasn’t all good for him, though, with a clumsy tackle in that first match earning him a second yellow card and a suspension for the next one. Neufville never quite reached the highs or lows of that opening game again, but he showed some of the quality that had top clubs in England keeping an eye on him.
Alex Marshall (HFX Wanderers FC)
After easing his way into the squad, Marshall was superb for the Wanderers. He seemed to develop an understanding with Akeem Garcia almost immediately, with the two setting each other up on counter-attacks constantly. He managed to pick out Garcia for perhaps the best assist of the tournament against Atlético Ottawa, in one of his best moments at The Island Games.
The Jamaican winger was an integral part of the Wanderers’ run to the CPL Final, eventually finding seamless chemistry with the club’s MVP Garcia, as well as fellow attackers Alessandro Riggi and (see below) João Morelli.
João Morelli (HFX Wanderers FC)
The story for Morelli is much the same as Marshall’s. He’d been training with the Wanderers a good bit longer than Marshall, who only got to Halifax shortly before The Island Games, but there was still a brief feeling-out process for the Brazilian.
Once Stephen Hart moved him into his preferred number 10 role, Morelli was excellent. He scored four goals and added one assist, making six key passes in total. Morelli was part of the counter-attacking machine in the Wanderer’s front four, settling into a good rhythm and displaying more chemistry than could’ve been expected of a player with just a handful of games’ experience with his teammates.