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Ryan Telfer shows Canadian university system can be viable path to the pros

A year and a half ago, Telfer was at York University. Hear from him and his former coach about his rise to MLS.

MLS: Toronto FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

A year and a half ago, Ryan Telfer was sitting in class at York University, playing U Sports (formerly CIS)-level soccer for the Lions and watching Toronto FC advance to their first-ever MLS Cup Final. In December 2016, he would’ve been coming off an all-star season in Ontario University Athletics, with an OUA silver medal from that year and a national championship from the year before.

Fast forward to Wednesday night, and the Mississauga native Telfer was replacing Victor Vazquez to make his home debut for Toronto FC. In what was a largely forgettable (minus Greg Vanney’s VAR tirade) 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders, the significance of Telfer’s moment may get washed away with the rest of our memories.

It was a tough spot for the 24-year-old to be thrust into. In a game where TFC were desperately chasing a goal, Telfer played a lot higher up the pitch than he’s used to as a natural left-back/winger. He formed the left side of an attacking midfield trio, alongside Ager Aketxe and Jay Chapman, for most of the half.

It didn’t quite work out for the Reds, but that’s not the story here. The story is that Telfer has managed to seize opportunities and get all the way to North America’s top flight within a year and a half of his stint at York.

“To be honest, I thought my time was up,” said Telfer on Thursday morning. “It just happened so fast, you just [have to] take a moment and and sit back to realize where you are, and be grateful.”

Telfer got his first pro contract with Toronto FC II on March 24, 2017. He played 32 games in the USL last season, scoring a goal in his debut. A year and 19 days after signing that first deal, the MLS side came knocking.

Yes, a large part of the reason he got his MLS contract was that TFC needed young players for their league games while the senior squad focused on the CONCACAF Champions League. That’s still an amazing opportunity for a player like Telfer, who’s hoping to make an impression in the minutes he gets during TFC’s injury crisis.

“[Injuries were] basically the reason why I was brought in, since we’re unfortunately short of numbers,” said Telfer, “but knowing the coaches and the head staff, they had a reason for bringing me in. I’d like to take that opportunity with both hands and express myself out there.”

It’s definitely telling that Telfer was the one to get the call on Wednesday, instead of one of the other youngsters Greg Vanney had on the bench.

Professional players don’t often come out of Canadian universities, but when they do, they usually come from York. The Lions’ head coach, Carmine Isacco, has built that school’s program into something pretty special since his arrival in 2007. TFC fans might remember Nana Attakora and Andrea Lombardo, both of whom had stints at York. Mark-Anthony Kaye, a Canadian national team player and current Los Angeles FC midfielder, played two years at York.

The Vancouver Whitecaps have also had a strong contribution this year from Brett Levis, who played four years with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.

“We try to get to that proper tempo and that proper pace to give them opportunities to be pros,” said Isacco of his university’s soccer program. “The reality is these kids on a different pathway… they’re probably more ready than NCAA players.”

Both Telfer and Isacco agree that the Canadian university pathway is starting to open up for young players in this country, although it’s a much tougher route than going to the U.S. to play college soccer. According to Isacco, both Telfer and Kaye could’ve gone in the top 10 of the MLS SuperDraft if they’d played in the NCAA.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Ironically, while I was on the phone with Isacco, we were interrupted by a call from Kaye, who joined in our conversation to say hi. Perhaps it’s a testament to the impact Isacco’s program has on players that Kaye still talks to him regularly five years after his time with the Lions.

“What Carmine has done is he has built a legacy at York,” said Telfer. “When you hear York University, especially for soccer, we’re basically giants in that respective area, but what he has done has basically made other teams try to evolve in a way of playing. He has brought up the level of soccer in U Sports.”

Isacco was quick to mention that other schools in the OUA West division — Guelph and McMaster especially (no love for my Western Mustangs) — are catching up, and improving the quality of play at the Canadian college level across the board.

It still may be a while before we see kids primarily choosing to stay in Canada rather than go the the U.S. for college soccer, but players like Telfer and Kaye have shown that there is a pathway to MLS from U Sports.

“For sure the talent is there,” said Telfer. “It’s just the exposure for players, and I believe as the years go on there will be a greater pool of players [in U Sports] that will be able to play for MLS teams.”

USL photo - Ryan Telfer attacks the left-side of the Richmond Kickers defense Martin Bazyl

Isacco pointed out the benefits of giving Canadian kids the option of staying in Canada. He said that the growth of college soccer, as well as the birth of the Canadian Premier League, can only spell good things for the game in this country, especially the men’s national team. If players aren’t picked up by the TFC Academy, there aren’t a lot of options left for the later bloomers to find their way to the professional game. With these new developments, that may be changing.

“The last time the Canadian national team was competitive was during the original Canadian Soccer League era,” Isacco said. That first CSL existed from 1987 to 1992, capitalizing on Canada’s only-ever appearance at the World Cup in 1986.

Telfer is unlikely to be a permanent fixture in TFC’s lineup this year once players come back from injury. Still, just the fact that he’s gotten this far shows how much of an impact he’s made at every level. His story is definitely one that current and future Canadian college players will look to.

“[Ryan] was a resilient player,” added Isacco. “He came up from our reserve squad, and made an immediate impact.”

Telfer certainly needed to be resilient to make it this far; unlike the homegrown players TFC signed at the same time as him, he didn’t come into the league with quite the pedigree of a Toronto FC Academy product. Instead, he opened his own doors, and carved out a career for himself beyond his university days.