Toronto will forever be a historic place for Vancouver FC, as it was where the club got their first win in history. For three rookies in particular, those memories in Toronto hold an even more precious place in their hearts. Tyler Crawford, Nathaniel St. Louis and Anthony White all made their professional debuts at York Lions Stadium; an achievement that at times, seemed impossible to happen.
Crawford, St. Louis and White collectively had previous experiences with first-division teams in England, Portugal, Croatia and Major League Soccer. These chances were all away from their homes, families, and friends with no more security than a brief notion that coaches might like what they see. This is the story of many young footballers who, before the creation of the Canadian Premier League (CPL), had to make these hard choices for a chance to join a football academy abroad.
“I think my parents were a little bit hesitant to send me off to an MLS team and live on my own up there,” shared Crawford about leaving his home at the age of 14 to join Columbus Crew Academy. “I think that’s when I really committed to the dream and I put everything into it.”
Those chances abroad, although difficult, helped Crawford, St. Louis and White to develop their skills and eventually, the three youngsters signed their first professional contracts with Vancouver FC.
“It’s amazing, your dream is coming true,” commented St. Louis about joining VFC. “Something that we’ve worked towards our whole lives. To finally be in the environment and get to experience firsthand what it’s like to be a professional, it’s everything I could ask for.”
For White, becoming the youngest CPL player ever drafted in the U-SPORTS Draft was a great surprise, “It was a little bit of a shock to me, to be honest, because I wasn’t expecting to be drafted.” White continued, “There are only 16 spots and 199 players declared, so there’s no guarantee or anything.”
To Crawford, having fellow rookies on the squad who are also sharing their first professional experience has strengthened the group, “I think it’s a really special moment for all of us just to sign that contract. Being around like-minded guys it’s really nice.”
“I think it actually helped us out in the long run because we’re all kind of in a similar boat,” added St. Louis, who received his first professional minutes when he was substituted in the 81st minute of the Canadian Championship on Apr. 19th.
Since day one, head coach Afshin Ghotbi stated his expectation is that VFC athletes train and play to win, giving nothing less than their best effort every time. That winning mentality has resonated with the youngsters including Crawford, “It’s a mindset that was built over the preseason, that’s given us this confidence to go out there and play to the best of our abilities and go get wins.”
None of the rookies received minutes in the season opener against Pacific FC, but that didn’t deter them from trusting in Ghotbi’s vision. “Obviously we all wanna be able to contribute to minutes, for every single game, but we understand that the coach is going to put out the team that he thinks is going to get the result,” said St. Louis. “It just gives you a little bit of extra motivation to keep working hard and wait for your opportunity to come.”
The opportunity was right around the corner for these rookies, when they were all selected to the 18-player squad that made the trip to Toronto for back-to-back matches against York. Just to be travelling to the “six” was special for Crawford and St. Louis, who were both born and raised there and for White who attended the University of Toronto just last year.
St. Louis was the first of the rookies to be called upon by Ghotbi to perform, in the 81st minute of the Voyageurs Cup match. The 23-year-old was ready for that moment which he envisioned since he was a kid, “I was surprisingly calmer than I expected. You know, I thought I would be a little bit nervous, a little bit shaky at the beginning.” In his debut, St. Louis showcased the skills that got him to lead the NCAA Division I attacking stats during his time in college. The Canadian forward almost scored with a powerful long-distance shot but the rival goalkeeper managed to stop it.
Just three days later, Crawford would get the call from Ghotbi that he would not only make his professional debut but that he would be a part of the starting XI. After receiving the exciting news, Crawford started visualizing the big day, “…[I had] some time to think about what I want to do in the game and how I need to capitalize on this opportunity that [Afshin] has given me.” The 19-year-old put on a performance, stopping all the attacks on his side and creating danger when the team was attacking.
In added time, St. Louis would make his CPL debut to replace Crawford in the historic match that he was able to dedicate to his parents standing in the crowd, “They’ve sacrificed a lot for me throughout the years.” St. Louis continued, “Driving me to practice, skipping or leaving work early just to get me places or just seeing their kid go overseas and missing that crucial time with them. [For them] to see all the work pay off and then to see it in person, it was just a great feeling.”
The final piece in the trinity of rookies to be called upon by Ghotbi was White who also made his professional debut in added time of the victorious match. “When Afshin called me over, it was just straight adrenaline. I was really excited to go in, but at the same time a little bit nervous,” recalled White.
This historic moment for White was also accompanied by the responsibility of securing the first win in the club’s history, “It was a difficult time to go into the game too,” said White. “I was really happy the coach trusted me to put me in at that time and I was also really happy to have contributed to the first win in history.”
Crawford, White and St. Louis are perfect examples of what Vancouver FC and the CPL exist for; to create a professional football platform across Canada for Canadian talent and to inspire future generations.
For all the kids that love football and dream of a professional career, Crawford shares this advice, “You got to stay as close to the game as you can. Go outside with your friends and play. Come to games and watch. Just be as close to the game as you can.”
The professional careers of Crawford, St. Louis, and White are just getting started and there’s no telling where they will go. But for now, they’re happy to call Vancouver FC home and are making the most of every opportunity they’re given.
Vancouver FC hosts Atlético Ottawa in the second consecutive home match at Willoughby Park just in time for Mother’s Day. Tickets are still available and can be purchased online here or at the Langley Event Centre.