Every year there is a lot of speculation about which Canadian Premier League players might make the jump to MLS. In the past, I have argued for a fairly conservative approach to CPL signings. The league hasn’t existed for very long and, although the sample of players has moved up a level, I still feel it’s not totally clear how we should evaluate CPL achievements. But now it’s become clear that MLS Next Pro is an attractive destination for CPL players. MLSNP signings carry a lot less risk. They essentially allow you to take players on an extended try-out. Last season the Whitecaps were able to get highly touted prospect Lowell Wright for a deal that had a very low upfront cost but could become a CPL record signing if certain milestones were hit. Now, it doesn’t look too likely that those milestones will be hit at this stage but that’s still a great bit of business in my eyes. Because Wright would only end up being relatively expensive if he ended up being good. If you keep making that kind of deal, you only need a few hits for the upfront expenditure to be worth it. So, with these two elements in play, my attitude has basically done a 180. Go nuts I say! Snap up every young Canadian with even a whisper of MLS potential. Play it like it’s Football Manager and you’re wonder-kid hoarding. So, let’s take a look at some players I think could be good targets.
Now, right off the hop, I want to make it clear that this is a Whitecaps-focused list. There are other CPLers who I think are worthy of a step up but wouldn’t be a fit in Vancouver. Ayman Sellouf is a good example, the Whitecaps have limited international slots and don’t play with wingers so there wouldn’t be much of a path for him to make it to the senior squad. There are also a couple of players I think would be worthy of a first-team contract outright. I’ll discuss those first.
Sean Young / Pacific F.C / Centre Midfielder / 22
I think replacing Russell Teibert with Sean Young is a total no-brainier. The main thing that makes Young attractive is his box arriving. That is to say, he has a tendency to roam forward from midfield and receive the ball in generous areas. He notched four goals and three assists this year, averaging 0.25 xG+xA/90. For a centre-midfielder who doesn’t take penalties, that’s a lot. Even if we assume his production drops significantly with the jump to MLS, say by 1/3rd, he’s still one of the most productive centre-mids in the league. Now, personally, I think his passing range is too limited for him to ever be a star MLS player. But you don’t really need that. You just need a reliable depth piece who counts as a Canadian for Voyageurs Cup games. I think Young provides more than enough upside to be that. Plus he’s tall and wins quite a lot of headers, a skill-set that’s a bit lacking for the ‘Caps right now.
Zachary Fernandez / HFX Wanderers / Right-back / 22
Fernandez drew a lot of plaudits in 2022, his rookie season, but his offensive game really hit another level in 2023. He had 3 goals and 2 assists with 0.29 xG+xA/90, insanely productive for a fullback. Again, even if we assume the jump to MLS eats up 1/3rd of his production, you’re still looking at a guy with a similar offensive production to Richie Lareya. Plus, he has demonstrated some versatility, which Vanni Sartini seems to really value, having played as a winger and on the outside of a back three this season. Now, defensively, he’s maybe not quite as elite as you would hope from a player looking to make the jump to MLS. That’s not to say he’s bad, just not elite at the CPL level. But the Whitecaps already have Sam Adekugbe, Ryan Raposo, and maybe Richie Lareya still. So the downside if he isn’t able to make the jump is pretty low. If he does work out, Great! You just got another really good domestic wing-back for basically nothing.
Rayan Yesli / Valour F.C / Goalkeeper / 24
Ok, this one is very conditional so hear me out. Yohei Takaoka played an insane number of minutes in 2023, clocking in at 40 games and 3600 minutes, and his form seemed to suffer down the stretch. So a domestic goalkeeper who can reliably take 8-10 games off of his hands makes a lot of sense. In, I don’t know, July or so I would have said Rayan Yesli was a slam dunk to fill that spot. He was the top CPL goalkeeper by goals saved above expected per 90 over the last two seasons and he’s a giant (who doesn’t love that!?). Yesli is *still* the top CPL goalkeeper in goals saved above expected over the last two seasons but he finished the 2023 season in a terrible run of form so now he’s a lot closer to his nearest rival. This coincided with Isaac Boehmer having a strong MLS Next Pro season and once again looking reasonably good in his one first-team appearance. I don’t think Yesli makes any sense as an MLSNP project. He’s already 24 and there’s no shortage of keeper prospects to eat up those minutes. So now my interest in him is conditional on what they plan to do with Isaac Boehmer and perhaps seeing if there are any better American options available. Even at the peak of his form Yesli still has a lot of problems. He’s not great with his feet, either distributing the ball or moving them to make saves. But I’m still inclined to say he’s good enough to not be a liability in a Voyageur’s cup game or in the odd midweek MLS game.
MLS Next Pro Projects
Now we move to players I would be interested in for WFC2. Now, again, this is a Whitecaps-focused list. So we’re mostly focusing on players who play positions that I see as areas of weakness in Vancouver’s prospect pool. In my view, they are pretty well set in goal and at fullback. At centre-back and striker, there are a fair number of players who have some kind of upside but whose ceiling could best be defined as “???” so more competition in those spots wouldn’t go amiss. Where there’s more need for additions is at the various midfield positions. In the attacking midfield/shadow striker position there’s really only Antoine Coupland. Further back you have a couple of #8s who look like they might have something in Jay Herdman and Malek Mehri. But Herdman is coming off a major injury and has a bit of a weird skill-set. Mehri’s status as an international means he has to hit even greater heights to make it to the first team. At the #6 position, there’s Malcolm Simmons who seems to have some potential. Behind these players are a cadre of teenagers with limited MLS Next Pro minutes whose potential is very hard to judge from an outside perspective. But now, enough dithering, let’s get into it.
Woobens Pacius / Forge F.C / Striker / 22
Woobens Pacius exploded onto the CPL scene in 2021, scoring 6 goals in his first 1000 minutes. But his production and underlying numbers have not accelerated in quite the way you would have hoped since then. That said though, I don’t like the way Forge uses him, he’s pushed out to the wing too often which he is not good at. But still, there’s a lot to like. Offensively, he profiles very similarly to Brian White who has obviously been very successful for the Whitecaps. Now, on the defensive side of things he’s no White but we’ve seen how the Whitecaps have transformed Pedro Vite into a more defensively responsible player so maybe they could do something similar here. Because of Pacius’ age, you’re not signing him to WFC2 to learn more about him. You’re signing him with the idea that this is essentially an extended try-out and you’re going to call him up the maximum number of times and see how he does with the first team.
Tiago Coimbra / HFX Wanderers / Striker / 19
For a more long-term striker project, I like Tiago Coimbra. Coimbra has all the raw tools, the physicality, the work rate, etc. to be a really effective striker. But his off-the-ball movement, consistency, and decision-making need a lot of work. Still, though, 0.43G+A/90 for a 19-year-old in his first season is pretty good! Coimbra would be a low-risk high-reward gamble, exactly the type of guy you want on your MLS Next Pro team.
Eryk Kobza / Cavalry F.C / Centre-back / 21
A pretty obvious target for this sort of thing. Kobza played over 2000 minutes in his rookie season, split between midfield and centre-back. Kobza is really good on the ball and a fairly strong defender (though he’s susceptible to getting turned). At 21 he would probably have to hit the ground running in MLSNP to make the first team but there’s reason to believe he could do that.
Tyr Walker / Atletico Ottawa / Centre-back / 20
Walker played only 266 minutes in CPL in 2023. But they were a really good 266 minutes! Judging defenders with stats is always a little bit fraught but 88% duel win rate and 70% aerial win rate is absolutely nuts. His ball-playing ability was maybe a bit rough but he’s young, he can work on that. For the first team, I would obviously want to see that performance maintained over a much longer time period. But for WFC2? Why not gamble that performance is for real?
Maël Henry / Cavalry F.C / Attacking Midfielder / 19
Maël Henry split the season between Vancouver F.C. He played in a variety of positions, splitting time between the wing, as a withdrawn striker, and as a midfielder. He managed 2 goals, 1 assist, and 0.31 xG+xA/90 which is…extremely average to be honest. But being average in your first pro season is nothing to sneeze at. Henry would very much be a long-term project and a bit of a long shot to make it to MLS overall, but what is WFC2 for if not casting a wide net?
Gabriel Antinoro / Atletico Ottawa / Midfielder / 19
Antinoro is basically the same deal as Henry. He put up pretty average numbers (2 goals, 0.27 xG+xA/90) but considering his age average really isn’t too bad. Antoniro played in deeper positions more often than Henry and also played as a left-midfielder quite a bit.
Taryck Tahid / Vancouver F.C / Midfielder / 16
Yet another player who split time between the wing and the centre of the field. Tahid is probably the most hyped player on my list. That’s because of his age. Born in 2007, Tahid actually turned 16 just before the season started. He managed 3 goals in 551 minutes and 0.16 xG+xA/90. Was he great? No! but he managed to have some positive impact in a senior league, aged 16. Make no mistake, it’s still a long road to MLS for Tahid. Other than decent box-arriving, he didn’t demonstrate a lot of plus skills at the CPL level. But I think if you want to be the Athletic Bilbao of Canada this is the sort of thing you need to be pouncing on sooner rather than later.
(Image Credits: Canadian Premier League)