Pro soccer in Ottawa: ‘Springboard’ opportunity for players
Playing professional soccer has taken Tom Heinemann to many parts of North America.
St. Louis, Charleston, Harrisburg, Charleston again, Carolina, Charleston again, Columbus, Vancouver, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Penn FC, all between 2009 and 2018.
It’s a CV that qualifies the 31-year-old St. Louis native to offer a comparative assessment of Ottawa Fury FC, his North American Soccer League side in 2014-15.
With what league the Fury may someday play in the topic of speculation, Heinemann says the team has made the right steps “for the most part” since it began operations.
“If you kind of walk through the road map of the last 10 to 12 years, I think fans in Ottawa should not be concerned that the Ottawa Fury are just jumping to the next big potentially hot thing,” he says. “It’s something that, obviously, it’s a very important business decision and the Ottawa Fury are blessed to have good business people there.
“I think (the fans) should take comfort in the fact that the club is being very cautious. They’re going to see how (CPL) develops. They’re in a very stable league now.”
Captain Carl Haworth, 29, has been with Fury FC since its last Premier Development League season in 2013, before NASL, USL and CPL became commonly used abbreviations in Ottawa soccer talk.
Howarth stayed in touch with general manager Julian de Guzman during the December kerfuffle about CONCACAF’s sanction to play in a U.S.-based league, so he and others with signed contracts remained confident. Still, he allows that unsigned players and their agents might have viewed 2019 uncertainty as a red flag.
That said, Haworth quickly endorses OSEG’s position of supporting CPL and wanting it to succeed. They’re just not sure yet.
“You want to be playing in the highest level that you can,” Haworth says. “Not saying that the CPL is necessarily going to be a lower level; we just don’t know. There’s too many unknowns about that league right now. And staying in the USL is definitely the best decision not only for Ottawa Fury and the business side of things, but for us as players.
“There was a lot of talk in this off-season with CPL teams with some of the players who were unsigned, and it’s definitely something that gets explored, but, when it comes down to us, you want to be playing day in and day out with the best players and competing in the best league that is available to you at the time.”
Ottawa’s Jamar Dixon played professionally in Sweden and Finland before signing with Fury FC in 2016.
“First and foremost, it’s great to have a professional club in your city,” the 29-year-old says. “I always say this: It gives the kids something to look forward to, to look up to.
“When I was younger, I wish there was a professional team, and now I’m privileged to be a part of it and to play for it. I think it’s huge for the community as well.”
Canada’s all-time leader with 89 national-team appearances, de Guzman played mostly with club teams in other countries as a pro before finishing up with Fury FC. He retired as a player in January 2017 and went from assistant coach and assistant GM to Paul Dalglish to interim replacement when Dalglish and the team parted ways in August to full-time GM in December.
He says his recruiting pitch to players is based on his own experience in Ottawa, and the focus is on those hoping to move up the pro soccer ranks.
“Everything is there in terms of why I’m in this position to allow these opportunities to happen for Canadians as well as the international players. Americans as well,” de Guzman says. “It’s important, from my experience in all leagues that I’ve played in in different countries, to make that a reality for anyone I bring here.
“I don’t do these conversations based off a textbook or anything; this is my experience playing for Ottawa, living in Ottawa and creating an environment that I feel is necessary for good, quality players to come in and make themselves better, move on to better places, and, at the same time, bring success that would really help this game grow in Ottawa as well as in the country.”
Consider the example of goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau. Loaned by the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer — the two organizations have had an affiliation agreement and recently extended it for 2019 — Crépeau had an all-star, record-setting season with Fury FC in 2018. Now, following a trade, he’s getting another MLS shot with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“I want to use (Ottawa) as a destination to really help bring the players to a higher level in their careers,” de Guzman says. “And those who are close to retiring, maybe coaching is another opportunity for them.
“But the new faces that you’ll begin to see and the new faces that we have signed already, these are what I like to define as MLS-quality players. … It is a big, important factor when we do talk to the players and the agents: what league we’re in; what competition it is; where we are; who it’s being coached by; what the philosophy is; and obviously the main objective is, ‘Will I have a chance to make that next jump to MLS?’”
National team head coach John Herdman says CPL can boost those still in pro soccer’s grey zone: too old for youth academies, but yet to crack first-team lineups.
Herdman invited 11 under-24 players to his first national men’s team camp in Spain, including eight on what he calls “non-linear” career paths. His featured example is Mark Anthony Kaye: York University to Toronto FC Academy to USL (Wilmington, Toronto and Louisville) to MLS with Los Angeles FC.
“I think a lot of people have said this could take years before you see (CPL’s) fruits,” Herdman says. “I’d like to be more optimistic and keep an open mind to say it absolutely will be a springboard league for a lot of young players 16 to 23, but also there’s still opportunity there for any player in that league if they’re at a higher level and there’s need in the men’s national team for a specific position because of depth (requirements).”