“I love the club so much,” James Cameron reflects on his first year with Vancouver FC

In just a few months, James Cameron has experienced what some players have to wait years to live. From joining Vancouver FC through open trials to his latest landmark of scoring his first goal in the last minutes against Atlético Ottawa to keep Vancouver’s playoff hopes alive. After such a high, Cameron will have the chance to experience a full circle moment this weekend when he heads back to the stadium where he made his professional debut, ATCO field in Calgary, AB. 

“My first set of goals was to make three appearances, then it was six, then it was signing a pro deal,” says Cameron. “I just continued changing my goals as the season went on and as I progressed. One of my latest objectives was to try to get a goal or an assist. So I was pretty happy about that to knock it off my list.”

With such an eventful nine months, we thought we’d take a look back at Cameron’s journey and share his real-life experience of taking a leap of faith to follow his dream.

James Cameron and TJ Tahid with Afshin Ghotbi at the open trials (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

Open Trials, preseason and development contract – January to May

In January, VFC held open trials, in which Cameron was “forced” to participate after his dad gifted him the registration fee as a Christmas gift. After three days of intense tests, Cameron was one of the three players picked to stay with Vancouver amongst hundreds. 

“When I’m playing football, I feel pretty free,” recalls Cameron on how he faced this challenge. “I’m never too worried about where I’m playing or who I’m playing with or who I’m playing against. Even in early preseason with a bunch of new guys, you know, new environment, much higher level than I’ve ever been at before.”

That inexperience was evident to the coaching staff and to Cameron himself, but nobody doubted that the 18-year-old was going to get up to professional speed pretty soon thanks to his determination. “I didn’t have the best preseason, I didn’t play a lot of minutes but I just kind of stayed true to myself and kept working,” explains Cameron. “I believed that if I continued to make the right decisions day in and day out, eventually, I would get my opportunity.”

It was on May 7th when Cameron finally joined VFC’s master roster under a Developmental Contract. “Early pre-preseason, my goal was to get a development contract. I was never working with the intent of scoring goals or signing a pro deal,” says Cameron. “That’s what I was aiming to do and I think if I finished the year on a development contract, I still would have been happy.”

Stadium was sold out for the home open on May 7. 2023 (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

Home opener – May 7

For Cameron, 2023 meant changing the books and classrooms for cleats and soccer fields. Cameron was training daily with VFC’s first team and was part of the League1 BC squad, Unity FC, so football became a full-time job for him. “Honestly it was actually quite easy going into much harder training, much more intense training because I had less on my plate overall. It was easier for me to give everything and have full focus,” explains Cameron. 

It was at Vancouver’s inaugural home opener on May 7th when Cameron realized how big professional football in the Canadian Premier League and in Langley could be. With a sold-out stadium of over 6,300 people gathered for that historic match while the supporter group painted the stands and didn’t stop singing for the 90 minutes, Willoughby Community Park was electric. “It was very impressive to see how many people were out. The passion, the energy and involvement of football around the community,” says Cameron. “I felt like I needed to be a much better player to even get the opportunity to play in front of that many people. So it was very motivational in that aspect.”

James Cameron fighting for the ball on his professional debut (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

Pro debut – May 7 to June 11

Since the home opener, Cameron took his commitment to earning an opportunity to represent his hometown club completely to heart. The hours he put on and off the field paid off when he received his first call-up against Cavalry on June 11. “Funny enough, the day before we travelled, I was doing a workout in the gym and someone mentioned, ‘Don’t do too much today,’” shares Cameron. “So I came home with a smile on my face and told my parents that, you know, ‘I might be travelling.’ I think a couple of hours later, the email came in and I was super happy about it”.

It was at the 72nd minute that Head Coach Afshin Ghotbi called on Cameron to get ready and substituted him in for the 18-year-old’s professional debut. As special as it was, Cameron didn’t anticipate how fulfilling the moment would truly be, “I thought I would be much more nervous, but just finally getting on the field after six months of training without playing a game. It just felt great, to be honest.

“You train so hard so you can play the games. [Train] very hard through the rain, the cold, the hail, whatever it was. It feels like it’s all worth it, everything you’ve done, all the sacrifices you made, all the work you put in.”

James Cameron celebrating the first victory at Willoughby Community Park (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

First home win and professional contract – June 11 to July 20

Just two games after his debut, Cameron proved that VFC’s future is in good hands by obtaining the first home win with seven other U21 Canadian players. “That was a very great day. I think we had one of the youngest teams in our starting XI in CPL history and we beat the three-time champions, Forge FC, for the first home win ever,” says Cameron. “I can say confidently that that win made me happier than any other win. It was so special to be part of something so big.”

As soon as Cameron accumulated his allotted six games as a Developmental player, Vancouver signed the young star to a standard player contract under the newly-formed Exceptional Young Talent subcategory. “Being on a development contract, being a young player, being a first-time pro, I never used any of these things as an excuse to play bad or not train hard,” shares Cameron. “I always felt like I could compete with pros when I was on my development contract. If I’m on the same field as you, it’s fair game in my eyes. I don’t see myself as any lesser or any better than anyone else.”

James Cameron celebrating a victory with his friend Daniel Fan (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

“The *bleeping* derby win, holy” – August 19

When Cameron remembers the iconic defeat of Pacific FC, he does it with mixed feelings. After 11 consecutive starts since his debut, Cameron was getting a bit burned out and it reflected in his play. While the team was able to pull together a come-from-behind victory against VFC’s biggest rival, Cameron felt he let the team down for that one. “I think I had a strong showing for 60 minutes and then I seriously don’t know what happened,” explains Cameron. “I had a couple of bad mistakes and I came off [the pitch] with my head down. So it hasn’t been all up.”

James Cameron celebrating after scoring his first goal as a pro (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

Redemption – August 19 to Present

After the Derby, Cameron was not rostered for the following game and came off the bench for the one after that. “I needed a break, I lost my head a little bit after playing 11 games in a row after never playing a professional game. So maybe I lost my head a little bit.” 

As soon as Cameron felt like he was back both on his feet and in his head, he was in the starting XI again and ready to repay his teammates. Just like everything was scripted, Cameron made a comeback worthy of a movie, scoring the added-time winner in VFC’s most recent match. 

“I saw Gabriel Bitar, Shaan Hundal and Alejandro Díaz on the counterattack, three very talented, very strong players, so I figured there may be an opportunity in the 90th minute.

People tend to make mistakes, everyone’s exhausted, legs are heavy. 

“So when I saw the ball go wide to Shaan [Hundal], I think I was maybe on the halfway line and I just started sprinting towards the net. Shaan [Hundal] makes the cross and the ball just lands perfectly for me in the six-yard box.

“Man! Obviously, a little bit of luck was involved with that, but you have to work hard to get lucky, I think. You know, you can run the 70 yards and maybe one out of 10 times, you get lucky. That’s what happened. Great feeling, absolutely amazing scenes after that, it was awesome,” said Cameron.

Callum Irving hugging James Cameron after the victory against Atlético Ottawa (Beau Chevalier / Vancouver FC)

The final whistle blew shortly after and one of the first teammates to approach Cameron was VFC’s captain, Callum Irving.

“He was saying something about how the team saved me after my mistakes [against Pacific] and I just saved the team after letting a lead slip. That’s what a team is about; when we make a mistake, no one is mad at the person. We’re all playing for each other. When the whistle blows, we go to war as a team for 90 minutes and play.”

And that brings the story to this weekend, when Cameron goes back to where his VFC journey started just four months ago with some pending business. “When I made my debut [at Calgary], we lost 3-1. Losing on your debut wasn’t a great feeling. So I feel like there’s a little bit of revenge we might have to take there. 

“I wanna win.”

Tomorrow James Cameron and Vancouver FC will try to get the three points at Spruce Meadows, you can follow the game at One Soccer, Telus Optik TV and Fubo. The boys will be back in town on September 23, when we face Halifax on our Indigenous Culture match. Get your tickets by clicking on this link or at Gate 1 of the Langley Events Centre.