You know what’s cooler than being first? Being the first first.
On November 13th, teams in the Canadian Premier League (#CanPL) announced the results of the inaugural U Sports Draft. Soccer players at universities across Canada were eligible to be drafted by teams in the new professional league, and Ottawa native Gabriel Bitar was chosen firsrt overall by Calgary’s Cavalry FC. The Carleton University striker was the only player from Ottawa chosen in the three-round draft.
The former Ottawa International, Ottawa South United and Fury FC Academy player is currently in his second year at Carleton, studying political science. In his freshman season, Bitar scored 16 goals, earning him the Lou Bilek Award as the U Sports men’s soccer rookie of the year. In 2018, Bitar scored 13 goals (tied for 4th in the country) and led all players in shots with 67. He helped propel the Ravens to the U Sports championship, where Carleton finished third.
Despite the impressive resume, Bitar had no idea if he would be drafted by a CPL team at all. The 20-year-old was excited to get the call from Calgary’s coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr., telling him he’d been selected.
“A lot of things went through my mind. It was just an incredible feeling, being able to share that with my family. It was definitely one I’ll never forget.”
The Canadian Premier League is expected to kick off its first season in April 2019. Bitar will likely make his way to Calgary to meet with his new coach during Carleton’s February reading week.
“It was just an incredible feeling, being able to share that with my family. It was definitely one I’ll never forget.”
“I’m just taking it one step at a time. Right now I’m still in school, so I’m focusing on school, and I’m also focused on getting ready for the [Cavalry FC] training camp.”
Coach Wheeldon sounds like he had fun with the U Sports draft, and may have had a leg up on his rival coaches thanks to his prior experience.
“It was a great opportunity, because it’s a well I’ve fished in before, with my former job in the PDL, which is essentially for the top-end university players. I’ve always kept tabs on who was playing well, names that kept coming up… We knew about players we wanted to see firsthand,” says Wheeldon.
“I got to see the things he did when he wasn’t in possession of the ball. How he moved, where he positioned himself, how he reacted if he got the ball, how he reacted if he lost the ball… Those little details were the ones that ended up weighing in his favour.”
“We’re excited to work with Gabriel and help him continue his development.”
“I felt he was a very intelligent player. He shows he has the ability to win games. For us, we’re excited to work with Gabriel and help him continue his development.”
The next step for drafted players like Bitar is to hopefully sign either a developmental contract, or perhaps even a pro contract.
“We’ve got Gabriel this year,” says Wheeldon. We’re going to bring him into training camp, if he does well in training camp, we’ll put him on to a development contract and keep him part of our squad. That’s the carrot that’s being dangled for him personally.”
With the partnership in place with U Sports, a CanPL development contract is essentially a scholarship, paid into the player’s student account. “They come in, we billet them, and we put money up to a maximum of $10,000 into their student account.”
Most players would go back to school, unless they perform well enough that the team offers to convert the development contract into a professional one. “At that point, we talk to the player, the school, their coach, and take it from there,” explains Wheeldon.
Wheeldon hopes to start announcing the first Cavalry FC signings by the end of November. At the end of training camp in Spring 2019, could he offer a pro contract to Bitar?
“Once he comes in, I think he’s got a real good chance to crack the squad.”
“That’s why we picked him,” says Wheeldon. “All three of our picks (Bitar, Joel Waterman of Trinity Western University, and Easton Ongaro of the University of Alberta), we picked because we believe they’ve got enough capability or potential to break into the squad. The next part will be what Gabriel does in the off-season. His university season’s done. Does he sit at home and let his training fold? Or does he get sharp and work on the things that made him the player he is, and also work on areas of weakness that he wants to strengthen up before coming into training camp. Once he comes in, I think he’s got a real good chance to crack the squad.”
When asked if he thought he’d be back at Carleton for a third season, Bitar sounded like his sights may be on breaking into the CPL and starting his pro career in Calgary instead.
“I’m not too sure [about returning to Carleton]. I always believed that if I worked hard, with the qualities I have, that anything was possible. I’ve kept that in mind, and here I am.”