In a professional footballer’s career, the experience of playing against your former team can often be a thrilling, yet daunting task. For HFX Wanderers’ Aidan Daniels, facing Toronto FC in the 2022 Canadian Championship quarter-finals could not have come at a better time.
Daniels joined the TFC academy back in 2012 and worked his way up the ranks at the club. He not only put pen to paper on his first professional deal with Toronto FC II back in 2016, but also a well-earned first team contract in 2018.
After leaving Toronto at the end of 2019 with just one first team appearance to his name, Daniels signed for the Colorado Springs Switchbacks in 2020 before joining OKC Energy the following year. Today, Daniels is back in Canada with the Wanderers, and despite sustaining an injury early into his tenure in the Canadian Premier League, the Markham-born midfielder is raring to go ahead of a mouth-watering encounter with the club where it all began for him.
In the preliminary round against Guelph United, Daniels bagged quite the goal to steer his side to victory. Against Toronto, he will undoubtedly have his sights set on doing just that once again.
While Daniels and the Wanderers have the chance to become the first ever CPL team to beat Toronto in a competitive fixture, the former TFC man is looking forward to the opportunity to finally face off against several of his friends and former teammates.
From working under Greg Vanney to scoring his first goal for Halifax in emphatic fashion, Daniels tells all in an exclusive interview with Waking The Red.
To start, how has life in Halifax and the Canadian Premier League been treating you since signing for the Wanderers in January?
It’s been good. I love the team so far. Obviously I struggled a bit through the first six games with a quad injury, but I’m back to full fitness now and it’s good to be back. Other than that, life’s been good, the guys have been great, staff’s been great, and so far I’m really enjoying myself.
The league has been growing since its inception, so I’m happy to finally be a part of it. Even though we lost João Morelli, I feel that with the players we have this season, the Wanderers will be able to make the playoffs and contend.
You may still be a rookie in the league, but how excited are you for the CPL to continue growing over the next several years?
It’s great for football in general to have a Canadian market. Playing in the USL, we only had Ottawa, Montreal (for one year when I was there) and TFC. Now, the country has its own league, which is crazy to think about. Not so long ago, I didn’t even think there was going to be one.
Reaching the Canadian youth is not that far anymore, especially for the kids coming through Vaughan, Sigma, all these different academies and clubs. It’s all there now. You don’t have to go to the States, be an international or try Europe at a young age, the professional level is now right around the corner for kids in Canada.
Once OKC Energy announced their hiatus, was there any uncertainty regarding your next move?
Things were up in the air at that point, but I had spoken to Halifax at the beginning of the offseason while I was surveying my options.
My thoughts at that time were that I had been in the USL for six years, so when Halifax came along, it seemed like a perfect fit for me. I liked their style of play, and I knew a few of the guys from my youth and from watching the league. It seemed like a great fit, and so far it has been.
Have you noticed any significant differences between the USL Championship and the CPL in terms of atmosphere?
I played in front of 30,000 people against Cincinnati in the USL, but here at Wanderers Grounds, it honestly feels like 30,000.
The crowd is crazy, the energy is amazing, you can feel it as soon as you walk on the pitch. An atmosphere like that gives you that extra boost, which some teams had in USL, but some didn’t. At the end of day, it’s all about the football, but having a lively crowd cheer you on week in week out is the perfect bonus.
Other than Halifax, is there a CPL city that you look forward to playing in more than others?
Obviously I want to go back to Ottawa since I played there in 2019. I missed the game on April 16th due to injury so I hope to get out there in the summer.
And of course, York. Before our 1-0 win there on April 7th, it had been two years since I last played in front of my family, so playing that game at York Lions Stadium with my family, brother, cousins and friends in attendance was amazing. I’m always excited for away days at York.
Let’s talk CanChamp. That was quite the finish in the preliminary round against Guelph United. What was the rush like after scoring a screamer for your first as a Wanderer?
Funny thing is that the play wasn’t even set or anything, just a regular set piece and me waiting at the top of the box. I was kind of guarding my quad injury, so I thought I was going to hit it with my left, but when I saw the defender rush at me, it opened up nicely on my right. I think the adrenaline took it from there because I didn’t feel my quad go at all.
It’s always nice to score, but I’m just happy we got the win and moved on. Those games are never easy. I’ve been on the other side of those games, even as a younger player. I think the guys handled it really well, and obviously we moved on, so we just need to keep building on that in order to get a result against TFC.
You’ll be coming up against your former side, Toronto FC, in the CanChamp quarter-finals. How did you feel after the Guelph win knowing that this matchup was going to become reality?
There’s a bit more on the line for me, specifically pride because I got let go by the club, but there’s no hard feelings. I’ll be happy to see all the guys again. I wish we could’ve played at BMO Field, but Wanderers Grounds is going to be packed and it’s just as nice as playing at BMO.
Playing against Toronto FC will be really special for me. I’m so excited for the game.
Was playing against TFC something that you may have manifested after leaving the club?
You always want to play against your old team, it means so much. I spent so much time at TFC, so it’s going to be great seeing everyone and getting on the pitch. But, I’m playing for a different club now, and I’ll be putting everything on the line for the Wanderers.
The year I was loaned out to the Ottawa Fury, we actually played TFC in the Canadian Championship, but I was ruled out injured. For me to finally come up against them will be something special.
You’re one of 30 homegrown players to have worked their way up from the academy to sign a first team contract at TFC. How proud of a moment was it when your professional dream was realized in 2018?
It was so surreal. I had been called up on loan from TFC II to dress for a handful of games, but that first team contract was everything I worked for.
Since I joined the academy, that was all I ever wanted. It was such a blessing to sign for my hometown club. While I didn’t get the full opportunity to play with the first team, I got my debut, and there was nothing more I wanted than to sign that first team contract ever since I joined the club in 2012.
It was an amazing feeling and moment for me and my family. I have nothing but good things to say about the club and what they did for me.
What was it like working under Greg Vanney?
As everyone can see, he wins wherever he goes. With the players that we had, he found the system and the best team to win. I was competing with the likes of Oso, Jay Chapman, Marky, Michael Bradley, all seasoned pros. It was hard for me to say anything or complain because we were winning and we all had faith in the coach.
He’s a great manager and I have nothing but good things to say about him as well. He completely changed the dynamic of the club.
Was there a piece of advice that Vanney gave you that has stuck with you to this day?
Probably just to stay grounded, and never get too high or too low. You go through so many emotions in football, so you can’t ride the highs too long because you’ll get complacent, and if you get too low, it gets tougher to get out of a slump.
I still contribute the advice he gave me to my everyday life, not just football.
While in Toronto, did you have a first team player or veteran that took you under their wing?
I wouldn’t say there was anyone in particular, but I really looked up to Oso because of where he came from and what he did and is still doing for the club. I was closer to his younger brothers because I played with them regularly, but seeing Oso’s work rate every single day and what he brought to the table on and off the pitch was inspiring.
As well, I wouldn’t say he took me under his wing, but Liam Fraser pushed me every single day. That’s my guy. Seeing him do well and make the jump before me was motivation for me to keep going. Even when he was with the first team and I was with TFC II, he always wished me luck before games, and to this day, we’re still in touch and wishing each other all the best.
Overall, Liam helped me so much on a mental level by pushing me everyday, but Oso’s professionalism was always something I looked up to.
Have you stayed in touch with any other of your former teammates?
I still talk to Noble a lot, Liam of course, Ayo when I see him around, Jay Hams, basically the majority of the younger guys during my time at the club.
You made your senior debut in 2018. While the result was one to forget, talk us through the experience of suiting up for the first team against Houston.
For me it was hard to describe. Obviously the scoreline was not at all in our favour, but to come off the bench for my senior debut, I felt like I made it. I worked my whole life for that moment and it’s a feeling that’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life. To get those 15 minutes on the pitch for TFC was just insane.
Would you say your senior debut for TFC is the proudest moment of your professional career so far?
Honestly, my proudest moment was signing my first professional contract and having my parents in the room with me. My dad’s dream was to become a professional player, but he couldn’t do it, my brother had quit, so it was all I ever wanted.
My parents have been my support system since I was kid and they’ve continued to do so throughout my career. I owe everything to them.
Ahead of the quarter-final clash, is there any player you’re looking forward to going up against?
I’m excited to play against Michael Bradley as he’s performed at the highest level for so many years. He’s probably the most consistent player I’ve shared the pitch with. Now, to play against a guy who has done it at the highest levels in Europe and on the international stage is going to be a test for me, so I’m looking forward to that battle in midfield.
Sharing the pitch with Jayden and some of the guys that I worked with during my time with the academy will also be a cool moment for me.
Are you expecting a different atmosphere at Wanderers Grounds on the 24th compared to a regular CPL matchday?
Most definitely. We have something to prove. I think we can ball with TFC, and I think the fans believe that too. Last year, HFX lost to Montreal in the final 10 minutes of the game, so I know we can play with the big dogs.
The atmosphere is going to be quite different from a regular CPL game just because we’re hosting an MLS team. The fans will be out in numbers like they always are, but it will for sure be louder on the day.
What would it mean for the Wanderers to knock Toronto FC out of the Canadian Championship?
To knock an MLS club out of the CanChamp in Halifax will mean so much for the club and the fans. It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be a tough game. We know they have quality, but if we believe in our abilities individually and as a team, we can challenge anyone.
Finding that belief and motivation on the inside won’t be hard because of the magnitude of the game. It’s going to mean so much for the club and I think we can do it.
Quick Fire Round:
Who is toughest player you’ve played against?
Joe Cole or Marcel Schäfer.
What is your favourite goal that you’ve scored at the professional level?
I want to say my first professional goal for TFC II. I scored the fourth in a 4-2 win against the Harrisburg City Islanders.
To be honest, I’ve scored some screamers, so I’d also say my first goal for the Colorado Springs. From 30-yards out, I zinged it off the post and it went in. That’s probably my most aesthetically pleasing goal.
Who was your footballing idol growing up?
What music do you listen to before a game?
Rap for sure, mainly Biggie and Playboi Carti. If I need to get in the zone, it’s Biggie because he’s got mad bars.
What is your favourite post-match meal/snack?
It always has to be a cheat, so a nice thin-crust pepperoni pizza.
If you have a jersey collection, what kit is your favourite?
A Liam Fraser or Jordan Hamilton TFC jersey. I’ve known Jay Hams since I was six or seven and we’re both from Scarborough. Him and Liam mean a lot to me.
I also got to trade jerseys with one of my best friends, Charlie Ward. We swapped kits in 2020 when he was with OKC and I was with Colorado.
Who is your favourite team to play as in FIFA?
When I used to play, it was Barcelona. Messi was a cheat code.
What are the three things you miss most about Toronto?
Number one is surely my family and my dog. The food in the city would be second, you can get anything you want at any time of day. Third would probably be clothing stores. The drip in Halifax isn’t at Toronto’s level yet.
HFX Wanderers will play host to Toronto FC in the 2022 Canadian Championship quarter-finals on Tuesday, May 24th, with kickoff set for 6:00 pm EST.