CHARLIE O’CONNOR-CLARKE, DIGITAL CONTENT EDITOR (@CHARLIEJCLARKE)
Vancouver FC revealed their latest coup of the 2024 off-season on Wednesday, announcing that the club has signed 15-year-old phenom Grady McDonnell to a three-year contract.
The midfielder hailing from Surrey, B.C., who turns 16 on Feb. 17, becomes the youngest player to sign a contract in the Canadian Premier League. McDonnell has chosen to join the Eagles from the Vancouver Whitecaps academy, hoping to launch his professional career with VFC.
“I’m very, very humbled to sign with Vancouver,” McDonnell told CanPL.ca this week. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m very eager to start and to learn.”
McDonnell might not necessarily be on every Canadian soccer fan’s radar, but he’s already made a name for himself internationally. Though born in Canada, he chose to represent his father’s native Republic of Ireland at youth level. This past autumn, he was one of just three 15-year-olds called up to the Irish U-17 team for their European Championship qualifiers, after previously impressing at U-15 and U-16 levels.
He scored a header for the U-16 side to help beat Northern Ireland and win the Victory Shield tournament in November, where the Republic of Ireland also beat Scotland and Wales to go unbeaten in the three-match friendly competition. McDonnell was a standout player in that squad alongside youngsters in the academies of clubs like Manchester United, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers.
At Vancouver FC, McDonnell’s decision to join the club is one of the most exciting moments of the winter so far. Part of the club’s ethos is, of course, to be a destination of choice for young talent, which has led them to cast a wide net in search of the very best.
“We’re out there talking and looking for the best talent in this country, and trying to create a platform where this talent can thrive,” said VFC president Rob Friend.
“Grady McDonnell, hands down, was the number one name on our list and across the country. Internationally he’s making a name for himself already at 15 years old. I’d say it was slightly ambitious to go after a talent like that, being a new club, but I think that speaks to the club, speaks to the people within the club and Afshin [Ghotbi], and what he’s done in this past year, and obviously the league as well; that’s what the league’s about.
“[McDonnell] certainly was the number one name in this country; I believe he’s the top talent in this country.”
A box-to-box midfielder with a well-rounded skillset, McDonnell describes himself as a hard-working player who enjoys driving forward with the ball at his feet, creating attacking opportunities. He mentioned Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham, in particular, as the player he most admires and wants to learn from.
“What impressed me most about him is not only his on-field ability, but I think he’s got a fantastic mentality,” Friend added. “He’s got a great character, and he’s got the ambition; obviously he’s still young, he still has to prove himself. But certainly, we believe that he’s got the character to make it to the highest level, and now it’s our responsibility to nurture that.”
McDonnell’s decision to head to Langley was made easier, of course, by seeing what Vancouver FC did last year. TJ Tahid made history as the youngest player ever to debut and score in the Canadian Premier League, doing so as a 16-year-old early in the 2023 campaign. Likewise, 18-year-old James Cameron earned a full pro contract after first joining VFC on a developmental team, impressing so much he was eventually nominated for the CPL’s Best U-21 Canadian Player award in October.
When Tahid made his debut in Vancouver’s home opener, McDonnell was in attendance as a fan. He attended a handful of games in the club’s inaugural season, seeing first-hand what the level was like and how he might follow in the footsteps of the other young players making their first steps at the professional level.
“They used TJ a lot as a reference,” McDonnell said of his conversations with VFC around their vision for him.
“They said they see me breaking into the squad, and [similar to] how much he’s improved. … From overseas, my coaches were telling me that I need to be playing with men. I feel like with VFC there’s a lot of experienced pros on that team and great players. I’m excited to start with that and hopefully improve as much as TJ did.”
McDonnell, who said he’s also played against Cameron in various local friendly matches during his time with the Whitecaps, has been encouraged as well by the attention Vancouver’s youngsters have gotten since the 2023 campaign ended.
Now, Friend revealed that VFC have received “big inquiries from big clubs” for both players, from teams in both Major League Soccer and across the ocean in Europe. If all goes well, Tahid and Cameron may one day find themselves suiting up at the highest levels of the game — and by Friend’s reckoning, so too might McDonnell.
“Proof is in the pudding,” Friend said. “It’s about our actions, and I think our actions speak for themselves with what we did last year. We want to be the club that’s the leader for finding talent and developing it, so I think TJ and James are two examples where we found talent. Grady, I consider him an established talent, but then ultimately it’s about having an environment where they’re going to continue to develop and thrive.”
There’s a long way to go for McDonnell, whose primary goal right now is to arrive at VFC’s preseason training camp and make an impact. With a strong core in place and an influx of other key pieces arriving at the club this winter, McDonnell will have his work cut out for him in his first fully-professional environment.
If he does get his chance to step on the pitch at Willoughby Community Park, though, he will not be taking it for granted.
“I’m very, very humbled that this club’s given me this amazing opportunity,” he said. “I’m very eager to start with these guys and learn from them, and hopefully get a debut.”