Pro opportunity could shift U Sports women’s soccer landscape ahead of 2024 campaign

When the 2024 U Sports women’s soccer season begins, individual performance will be more critical than in the past.

With the introduction of Project 8, the incoming Canadian women’s professional league, the landscape is changing for student-athletes nationwide.

While 17 former Canadian university women’s soccer players played professional games in 2023-24, and U Sports alumni Desiree Scott and Marie-Yasmine Alidou regularly appear for the Canadian women’s national team, the professional pathway hasn’t been there domestically.

Although details surrounding Project 8’s contractual intricacies have yet to be confirmed, the league has promoted filling the void beyond graduation on its platforms, and the impact on U Sports will likely be more significant than that of the Canadian Premier League (CPL), the men’s pro league introduced in 2019. 

The CPL drafts two rounds of players from U Sports each year and offers developmental contracts to provide a professional pathway; however, often, less than half of the draft picks play competitive matches each year.

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“Playing professionally has been a goal of mine for a long time, and Project 8 is somewhere I would really like to play, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s finally becoming a reality in Canada,” UBC rookie midfielder Bailey Doerksen said after winning the 2023 national championship. “We have super influential people, like Diana [Matheson], who are taking part in growing this game, and you can feel a lot of positivity right now.”

At individual programs, the talent development process will also shift in the coming year. Although the focus remains on individual improvement in the team environment, building a solid base and resumé for the top student-athletes will be more critical than ever.

For University of Toronto head coach Angelo Cavalluzzo, who also coaches Alliance United in League 1 Canada, the nation’s highest pro-am club level for women’s soccer — featuring hundreds who also play U Sports — the shift to a professional outlook is clear even if just a simple adjustment.

Three women's soccer players battle for the ball with one attacking player wearing a blue shirt and two defenders in red.
The Toronto Varsity Blues women’s soccer program is academically rigourous, but still has eyes on the professional game with Project 8 looming. (Neil Patel/Toronto Varsity Blues Athletics)

“It’s nice to be able to say to the players that this is something that’s coming up, and performances matter through U Sports and then League 1 in the summer, where many of the players get seen,” he said. “It’s a really good time for them to all be playing competitive soccer at a high level, with the hope that as these Project 8 squads get built, there’s going to be an appetite for U Sports and NCAA players.”

As the Professional Women’s Hockey League changes the outlook for female-identifying players in the NCAA, U Sports, and youth leagues, a similar shift is bound for soccer in 2025, with never-before-seen professional opportunities for Canadian women’s soccer players. 

CFL, NFL Drafts approaches for standouts

With celebrations likely wrapped up for the Montreal Carabins after winning the 2023 Vanier Cup in November, attention moves to April’s CFL and NFL Drafts for the top talent in U Sports. Although the CFL Draft presents a common destination, the NFL may not be too far off in 2024.

Through the 2023 season, several NFL teams inquired about U Sports players, with 11 NFL clubs visiting the UBC Thunderbirds, in addition to the usual CFL suspects.

“It shows the kind of talent that we’re bringing into our program and the kind of development that we’re able to provide these athletes,” UBC head coach Blake Nill said. “If you can show that you can put guys in the big league down south, it makes your program much more attractive to the young talent across the country.”

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However, the focus remains on the CFL Draft as the top players seek further opportunities in the 2024 season and beyond.

UBC offensive lineman Giovanni Manu, one of the touted players on the 2023 Canada West champions, could find himself picked high in the draft and potentially by his hometown BC Lions. Given his athleticism and speed, selecting the Pitt Meadows, B.C., native could be a savvy high-pick move, with the potential of signing as an undrafted free-agent in the NFL not long after.

Manu and fellow offensive lineman Theo Benedet were the main interests of NFL clubs.

Outside of Manu, other top players within high-pick contention in the CFL Draft could include Windsor’s George Una, Laurier’s Luke Brubacher, and Laval’s Kevin Mital, who won the 2022 Hec Creighton Award and Vanier Cup MVP with his 58 receptions, 751 yards and 12 touchdowns through that campaign.

The NFL Draft runs from April 25-27, while the CFL Draft takes place on April 30.

Changes loom for shrinking RSEQ hockey conference

Entering the 2024-25 U Sports season as the reigning national champions, the Concordia University Stingers will have a very different outlook in their conference next season, with just three opponents on the competitive schedule. 

With the uOttawa Gee-Gees and Carleton Ravens shifting to Ontario’s OUA conference and leaving Quebec’s RSEQ, the Stingers will only play the Bishop’s University Gaiters, Montreal Carabins, and McGill University Martlets through next season — a light schedule as they hope to defend a national title.

While men’s teams in Quebec all compete in the OUA, that move isn’t on the cards for 2024-25 in the women’s game, leaving the four schools in a precarious position to maintain competitiveness.

Adapting to the new situation, head coach Julie Chu and the Stingers will look to further bolster the pre-season with non-conference opponents, as they’ve done in the past, but to a further extent.

In 2023’s pre-season and non-conference schedule, the Stingers faced UBC, Trinity Western, Saint Mary’s and Queen’s while also visiting NCAA programs at Harvard and Dartmouth.

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