Foothills success shows depth of talent

Canadian college and university players show their worth on PDL title run

Matthew Gourlie

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. is taking a well-earned vacation after winning a championship before he starts building a new club with the same goal in mind.

After four years as head coach of Calgary Foothills FC, Wheeldon will assume the role of head coach and general manager for Cavalry FC for their inaugural season in the Canadian Premier League in 2019.

Tommy Wheeldon Jr.

Tommy Wheeldon Jr.

“It was a great way to finish one chapter before beginning another one and I couldn’t have asked to do it with a better set of lads, to be honest,” Wheeldon said.

Calgary Foothills FC scored twice late in extra time to beat Reading United AC 4-2 in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League (PDL) final on Aug. 4. The win was particularly sweet for the players and coaches who were part of the side that lost the 2016 final 3-2 to the Michigan Bucks.

Wheeldon has been involved with Foothills since 2007. The club created their PDL franchise in 2015 and plans to continue to play in Okotoks as part of the development system of Cavalry FC.

“It’s important,” Wheeldon said. “It keeps your finger on the pulse with the top college and university players.”

Wheeldon said that at least 70 per cent of the players selected annually in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft have come through the PDL. A maximum of eight players on a PDL team’s 26-man roster can be over the age of 23 and at least three players on each roster must be 18 or younger.

Wheeldon’s involvement with Cavalry FC was made official a week after Foothills’ PDL season kicked-off. His players began petitioning him for a job in the CPL even earlier.

“They knew I was involved in the background unofficially,” Wheeldon said. “At the start of the season there had been stuff on social media, everybody was talking about it. Once the CPL came out — it was official. Everybody got goosebumps when the video came. That was the first thing I said to the boys ‘Right, it’s a season-long audition.’”

Calgary Foothills FC logo

The depth and quality of their squad was evident as 17 Foothills players logged more than 360 minutes over the course of their 14-match regular season. Calgary finished with 11 wins, two draws and a loss in the regular season and then posted three straight shutout wins on their road to the final.

Wheeldon would love to keep all of his players, but he knows that’s not going to be possible. He is confident that the bulk of his players have the quality to find a home in the CPL.

“If there’s seven or eight CPL teams, every one of them is going to need some type of underbelly of young players who are still trying to make their way — the 19, 20, 21 and 22 year olds — and that’s basically the core age group that I’ve been working with,” Wheeldon said. “I don’t think I can take all of them. As talented as they are, it’s a different beast going to the pros, but I can take a good core of them. The rest that I can’t take, or what have you, will hopefully be littered across the CPL. That would show that not only have we done our job as a club as a pathway, but also done our job as developers to put them in the pro game.”

LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye (20), Vancouver’s Brett Levis (4), Montréal’s Shamit Shome (2) and Toronto FC’s Ryan Telfer (8) have combined for 34 starts so far this season in MLS. All four played U Sports Canadian university soccer.

Foothills has also leaned heavily on U Sports players this season, but also on players from the Canadian college ranks. Foothills success is, in part, a testament to how much talent is out there playing in leagues and levels that don’t often draw a lot of attention nationally.

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Nico Pasquotti, right, was named the most valuable player in the PDL final. photo courtesy of the USL/PDL

“There’s players out there. It depends how much work you want to put in to scouting,” Wheeldon said. “I’m fortunate because that’s been an area I’ve been specializing in for years. I want these up-and-comers. I like these rough diamonds. I look for talent in these type of places. I’m fortunate that I’ve got good relationships with college and university coaches, so I’ve got these positive scout networks.”

In the 118th minute of the final Nico Pasquotti capped an MVP performance with a sensational game-winning goal. The right-sided midfielder surprised his marker by cutting onto his left foot in the area and then put his shot into the top far corner to break a 2-2 deadlock.

When Pasquotti joined the Foothills PDL team he was playing college soccer in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC). In 2016 he was named the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association player of the year and subsequently transferred to U Sport’s University of Lethbridge.

Ali Musse

Ali Musse

Ali Musse scored twice for Foothills in the final and also scored the only goal in their 1-0 national semifinal win over Chicago FC United and also in the Western Conference final. Musse played in the ACAC while attending the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton this past fall.

William Akio scored the winning goal in Foothills’ 2-0 win over FC Tucson in the Western Conference final and started the final up top. He was the ACAC’s golden boot winner last season. Right back Dean Northover has been a mainstay with Foothills and is the ACAC’s reigning player of the year. Akio and Northover are college teammates with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) Trojans in the ACAC.

“Willie Akio had a breakthrough with us and played in the Western Conference final, was Man of the Match there and played in the National conference final,” Wheeldon said. “In the four years I’ve had (Northover), I only think he’s ever been bettered by one opponent and that was in the 2016 final. That’s how good he is. For him personally. Nico and Ali Musse and Dominick Zator will get accolades for their important goals in the final, but Dean was arguably up there as the most consistent player in that match and possibly was Man of the Match for his performance shutting down that right side.

“He’s a great kid, a good local lad. Kids like him is why we need to create these CPL clubs in all of these local markets because there are tons of Dean Northovers out there.”

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Dean Northover of Calgary Foothills FC with the PDL championship trophy. photo courtesy of the USL/PDL

Northover had a strong youth career that saw him win a national club under-17 title in 2007 with an Elbow Valley Villains side that featured Ethan Gage who would go on to be Soccer Canada’s under-20 player of the year.

This year’s Foothills side has three players who competed at a FIFA Under-17 World Cup — including PDL Gold Gloves winner Marco Carducci — and two more who have played for Canada as senior internationals. Yet, their college and university players have been just as valuable on their title run. Zator played for the Univ. of Calgary Dinos from 2012-2016 and signed with the Vancouver Whitecaps 2 for the 2017 USL season, but when the Caps ceased operations of their affiliate he returned to Foothills. The central defender, whose volley tied the final in the 85th minute, was an honourable mention all-PDL selection this season.

“(Without the PDL) people like Dean Northover would have been left off the map. Dominick Zator is another great example — never picked for his provincial team — he’s now one of the best players (in the PDL) and one at the front of the line for the CPL,” Wheeldon said.

Wheeldon expects players will go from being at the front of the line to signing contracts soon. The CPL is holding league meetings starting on Aug. 20. Soccer operations staff will be in attendance and the salary cap and the import ratio are expected to be set in stone at that time.

“We’re getting together to finalize everything about the players, etc. and from there we’ll understand how and where we’ll be able to sign players,” Wheeldon said.

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