In what has been a historic season for Canadian soccer, this past weekend’s round of matches have brought the trophy haul for Canadian players to ten league titles and eleven cup victories in world football so far this year.
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t all that long ago that Canadian soccer fans would have to scour magazines, import newspapers, or tune in to broadcasts relegated to the cover of night (RIP Fox Soccer Report) to get a glimpse of their national team stars plying their trade overseas, or even domestically, many for teams even the most devout fans have never heard of—FSV Zwuckau? Moss FK? Apollon Limassol?
Let’s not forget having to endure years of “Unattached FC” jokes when the men’s national team roster was released. For every success story we had, like Alex Bunbury, Craig Forrest and Paul Stalteri, there seemed to be a dozen more stories of players slogging it out on small clubs, for University teams, or in the lower divisions overseas that were harder to track. Add to that the stories about players that just got left behind, missed, or overlooked because of the state and reputation of Canadian soccer and things could feel quite grim as a supporter. To see a Canadian playing in a top division in days gone by was certainly something of note, and to see a Canadian winning a trophy felt even more rare.
Over the last few seasons, however, that tide has begun to turn in a big way for Canadian footballers. In 2021, the emergence of Canadian players as major contributors in world football has become impossible to ignore, with numerous players consistently picking up club honours this season. Couple that with the continued growth of the NWSL and MLS and the establishment of the Canadian Premier League to give players high-level opportunities domestically, and Canada has become a figure within the game that many see as an emerging force on the world stage.
Before we get into the successes of this new wave of Canadian players, we should really stop to appreciate the accomplishments of a long-serving figurehead of the Canadian game: Atiba Hutchinson.
For a player as successful and beloved as he is by the fans of his club Besiktas, Hutchinson does not get the recognition he should back home in Canada. This is a man who has 12 European club trophies to his name, including seven league titles and has shown little signs of slowing down en route to his latest league and cup double success with Besiktas at age 38. Hutchinson very well may be the finest men’s player Canada has ever produced and his successes this season should be much more widely celebrated than they are. This season, Hutchinson was immense for Besiktas, making 40 appearances in all competitions and registering 4 goals and 11 assists as he captained his side to the league title and the Turkish Cup.
Alongside Hutchinson in these Turkish delights was Cyle Larin, who could not have been more integral to the successes of Besiktas this season. After a frustrating start to his time in Istanbul, including being loaned out to Zulte Waregem in Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League last season, Larin hit the ground running upon his return to Turkey and scored 23 goals in 45 appearances in all competitions. Though he did not score on the final day of the season to secure the title for Besiktas, the Brampton-born striker’s offensive threat led to him winning the penalty that proved to be the decisive marker that crowned Besiktas champions. There is a lot of speculation around Larin going into the summer transfer window, but whether he stays with Atiba and Besiktas or moves on to another adventure, there is a very good chance he will be competing for silverware again next season.
Keeping in with the theme of double winners, we find ourselves in Scotland with David Wotherspoon. In what has become quite a remarkable season for his St.Johnstone side, Wotherspoon has completed a cup double in Scotland this weekend after a 1-0 victory against Hibernian in the Scottish Cup. Wotherspoon put forward a Man of the Match performance in the victory and provided the assist for Shaun Rooney’s game winning goal. After winning the Scottish League Cup back in February, this victory makes Wotherspoon and St.Johnstone the second most successful club in Scotland over the past decade after they also won the 2013-2014 Scottish Cup following a decade of dominance by Celtic. This cup double victory has also made St.Johnstone the only side in Scotland outside of domestic giants Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers to achieve the feat, which is a massive achievement for a club with the budget and resources that St.Johnstone have. Wotherspoon’s contributions to St.Johnstone’s success this campaign have led to him being named the 2020/21 player of the season at the club.
Speaking of Celtic’s decade of dominance, Scott Arfield was a part of the Rangers side that brought Celtic’s run to an end and prevented the Bhoys from accomplishing a historic 10-in-a-row league title reign. Arfield provided four goals and five assists for Rangers as they ran away with the league on their way to their first Scottish Premiership title in a decade (or their first, depending on how you view the club following its insolvency) and an undefeated league campaign—and scored three goals during their run to the Europa League round of 16.
Staying in Britain, Jessie Fleming was a part of the FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s League Cup winning Chelsea side that made an impressive run to the Champions League Final. Unfortunately for Fleming, she remained an unused substitute as her side fell 4-0 to a dominant Barcelona side. In the final four of the Champions League, four Canadians were represented with Janine Beckie’s FAWSL runners-up Manchester City and Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence’s Paris St. Germain joining Fleming’s Chelsea in the semis. In the quarterfinals, further Canadian national team members were involved with Stephanie Labbé representing FC Rosengård and Kadeisha Buchanan representing Olympique Lyonnais.
Lawrence, who was recently named to the 2021 Division 1 Feminin Team of the Season, and club and country teammate Jordyn Huitema are currently in the home stretch of their domestic season where they are in a dead heat with fellow Canadian Women’s National Team member Kadeisha Buchanan’s Lyon for the title. With the season coming to a conclusion on June 5, it looks like it will come down to the wire between the two sides, ensuring another league title for a Canadian player. Buchanan’s reigning champion Lyon side are looking to win a 15th straight title, with Buchanan contributing to the last four of those.
Lyon and PSG actually square off on May 30 in a marquee matchup, with PSG clinging to a one-point lead at the top of the table (!).
In Serbia, Canadian Men’s national team no.1 Milan Borjan won another Serbian League title with Red Star, marking his fourth title in a row with the club and his sixth league title in seven years between his time with his current club and his former, Ludogorets in Bulgaria. Borjan was instrumental for Red Star in their league campaign this season, keeping 17 clean sheets in 32 appearances and only allowing 18 goals. In fact, with Borjan between the sticks, Red Star averaged 2.88 points per game in league play this campaign. Borjan kept another clean sheet in the Serbian Cup Final and saved two penalties in the shootout to secure the first league and cup double for the club since 2006/2007. In his 47 appearances across all competitions so far this season— including Champions League and Europa League qualifying, Europa League group and knockout play, and domestic cup play—the veteran goalkeeper has kept an impressive 23 clean sheets.
Cloé Lacasse, meanwhile, capped off a memorable season in Portugal by claiming the Campeonato Nacional Feminino title with Benfica. In the decisive match for As Águias, Lacasse scored once and assisted another goal in a Player of the Match performance as Benfica ran out 3-0 winners over rivals Sporting Lisbon. Benfica were also crowned the Taca da Liga Feminina league cup champions after a two-legged victory over Braga. Lacasse was instrumental in the title runs, providing a crucial attacking threat to the side and looks set to give national team coach Bev Priestman something to think about ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. She was also rewarded with a new contract through 2024 with Benfica thanks to her standout play.
In Hungary, Winnipeg duo Chandra Bednar and Caroline Kehrer took home honours with Budapest giants Ferencvaros, winning the Hungarian Cup after a 5-1 thrashing of Astra in the final and followed that by clinching the Hungarian league title with a two-legged victory over rivals MTK Hungária FC. Ferencvaros won the first leg 3-0 on the road, with Bednar keeping a clean sheet, before returning home to clinch the tie with a 3-2 victory on Wednesday, securing Champions League Qualification with the victory. Bednar has been dominant in goal for Ferencvaros as their No. 1 and Kehrer has been a reliable contributor for the side following her February transfer from Danish side Aalborg.
In Switzerland, Alyssa Lagonia played a significant role in her Servette side claiming the AXA Women’s Super League and qualifying for next season’s Champions League, topping FC Zurich in the table for the title. The 2019 FIFA Master graduate was a “driving force behind the team’s good performance” this season en route to the club’s first ever league title according to Servette director Richard Feuz, with her contributions earning her a contract extention with the club until 2023
Of course, no list of successful Canadian footballers would be complete without talking about Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David. There are no two players more intrinsically tied to the rise of Canadian soccer than this millennium-born duo. Davies, from his rapid ascent from the MLS academy scene to the pinnacle of world club football, has added another trophy to his rapidly expanding collection from the 2021 season alone as his Bayern Munich side once again reigned supreme in the German Bundesliga, capturing the title for the ninth time in a row and for a third time with Davies at the club. This success follows victory in the German Super Cup, the UEFA Supercup and the FIFA Club World Cup, the latter two competitions only accessible to Bayern Munich following their 2020 Champions League victory. Truly a remarkable trophy haul for the 2020 FIFA Golden Boy nominee and one that he will certainly only add to.
Davies is certainly the most decorated Canadian men’s player we’ve seen, but as a left-back he’s unlikely to set down a marker like his fellow Golden Boy nominee Jonathan David has this season by becoming the highest ever scoring Canadian men’s player in a single season in a top-5 league. After being kept off of the scoresheet in his first ten appearances in the league for Lille, David found his stride and scored thirteen goals over his next 37 appearances. His contributions on the pitch, including crucial goals against Paris St. Germain and in the title-deciding match against Angers (where he also won the penalty for Burak Yilmaz’s title winning goal), helped lift les Dogues to the summit of Ligue 1 to win the title for the first time in a decade and for the fourth time in their history. His strike against Angers was his 11th non-penalty goal in Ligue 1 this season, only bettered by Kylian Mbappé’s count of 12. Not bad company to be in.
Speaking of high-profile Canadian footballers, the GOAT, Christine Sinclair has opened up her campaign this season with a victory as her Portland Thorns took home the NWSL Challenge Cup (after fellow Canadians Sophie Schmidt, Nichelle Prince, Allysha Chapman and Maegan Rosa won it in 2020 with the Houston Dash) and look set to mount a serious challenge for the NWSL title, with Sinclair scoring in their recent statement of intent in a 5-0 drubbing of the Chicago Red Stars. That goal made Sinclair the third ever player to score 50 regular season goals in the NWSL and she immediately followed that with an unbelievable volley early in the next match against OL Reign to take that tally to 51. Sinclair truly is the greatest scorer to ever do it.
Outside of championships, Canadian players have provided ample reasons for supporters to get excited heading into a crucial window for the national teams. Recently, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, Theo Corbeanu was finally given his debut for Wolverhampton in the Premiership, coming on as a substitute in the 82nd minute in a 2-0 loss to Tottenham. Corbeanu had little time to savour the milestone as he was called in to the Wolves U-23 squad the very next day, his 19th birthday, and marked the occasion with two fantastic goals that will certainly have the attention of the Wolves first-team staff.
Moving a little up north, Canadian-born Daniel Jebbison made waves at Goodison Park as the Sheffield United youngster became the youngest player to score on their first start in England’s top division. While Jebbison has yet to make any commitments over his international career, he currently represents England at youth-level, the 17 year old will certainly be high on John Herdman’s list of players to try and bring into the fold for the Canadian national team next.
Liam Millar is drawing attention from around England after the Liverpool man put in strong performances on loan to Charlton this season. In 27 appearances for the Addicks in League One, Millar managed to score three goals and add six assists as Charlton just missed out on the playoffs. This adds to the five goals and one assist he had in 13 appearances between the Premier League 2 and EFL Trophy for Liverpool. Millar, who showed well for himself in the last round of qualifiers for Canada, heads back to Liverpool with substantial interest from clubs around the country and looks set to be turning out for a club at a higher level this coming season.
In Portugal, Stephen Eustáquio has been making waves for Paços de Ferreira in the middle of the park this season. Operating predominantly from a defensive midfielder position, Eustáquio has been a vital cog in Os Castores’ charge up to fifth place in the table this season following his €2.5m move from Cruz Azul. An intelligent, hard working player with an eye for a pass and a keen ability to break up an opponent’s attack, Eustáquio’s performances have garnered attention from some bigger sides around Europe, including the big three in Portugal, Benfica, Porto, and Sporting and Napoli.
Domestically, players like Évelyne Viens, Michael Baldisimo and Ralph Priso have put forward strong performances to put themselves in the conversation for the national teams this summer and players like Richie Lareya, Deanne Rose and Tajon Buchanan have caught the attention of bigger clubs overseas. Their contributions in the NWSL and MLS only go to show the ever-growing and increasingly visible pool of talent that Canada has at its disposal.
We are truly entering an unparalleled period for Canadian football, and things are only projecting to keep getting better. Canadian players are contributing at a higher lever than ever before and are being widely recognized for their achievements, and our national teams look poised to become increasingly significant forces on the world stage. The halcyon days are here, Canadian football fans, and long may they continue.
Now, let’s celebrate some ‘chips and toast to a bright future.