PITTSBURGH - Since 1990, only two Canadian players have suited up for head coach Joe Luxbacher and the Pittsburgh Panthers. That all changes this year when three more student-athletes from “The Great White North” will don a Panthers uniform this fall.
A trio of freshmen – Darcy Bloemen, Raj Kahlon and Kevin Angulo – all joined Pitt during the summer and are expected to make immediate impacts for the Panthers from day one. All three contributed during the preseason and hope those numbers translate to the regular season.
Recruiting in Canada isn’t anything different for Luxbacher and his coaching staff.
“There’s a very strong club up there, the Sigma Club that develops top players,” said Luxbacher. “Some top ACC players come out of Sigma. So we go up to their showcase every year and this past year, we had identified a couple of guys we wanted to look at.”
Originally, Luxbacher and Co. trekked up north with the intentions of focusing on one player, but two more caught the eye off the staff. Bloemen, a Toronto native was competing with the aforementioned Sigma FC. Angulo, who hails from Woodbridge, Ontario – about 40 minutes north of Toronto – played for the Vaughn Club. Gaining experience with Toronto FC was Kahlon, who is from Oakville – about 40 minutes south from Toronto.
With Pitt’s proximity to Canada, one would think the Panthers have a pipeline up north, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
The influx of Canadian players into collegiate soccer can be seen right in Pitt’s own conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Panthers are one of five teams that boast at least one player from Canada.
“When we went to the showcase in Toronto every other ACC coach was there. It’s a top showcase. There were 70-80 coaches there, not just from the ACC,” said Luxbacher.
Newcomer Louisville (2) along with Syracuse (4) features multiple players from Canada. In addition to producing Bloemen, Sigma also can claim Syracuse’s super sophomores Chris Nanco and Alex Halis. Four years before Kahlon was scoring goals with Toronto FC, SU’s Jordan Murrell was stopping goals for the same club on the defensive line.
“In Canada, soccer is definitely growing. The team I was playing on – Sigma, they are in a lot of leagues. They just made a new league called League1 Ontario (L1O) and they take it really seriously,” said Bloemen.
League1 is a semi-professional league and was formed less than a year ago in November 2013. It is considered a Division III league behind Major League Soccer (Division I) and the North American Soccer League (Division II).
Bloemen added that since Sigma is a part of so many leagues, they have the opportunity to move up and down the ladder and gain experience in the Ontario Soccer League as well. On any given night, Bloemen would go up against men at any age from a variety of ability levels. Players can range up to their 30s and have prior professional experience.
Additionally, Vaughn the club that Angulo hails from is also in both divisions.Kahlon spent time with Toronto FC's developmental club. Toronto FC is also a member of both leagues.
Kahlon echoed Bloemen’s remarks on competing with an older group of players as something that has helped prepare him for the collegiate scene.
“One thing that helped me coming to Pitt and prepare for Division I soccer was playing with an older group,” said Kahlon. “Over here (in America) there is the range from 18-22. Playing with older people definitely helped prepare me. That’s why I chose to play in the semi-professional league, because I knew I would it would be a grind here at Pitt. So I figured might as well get beat up back home.”
The club soccer level in Canada is providing a place for players to develop and continue their careers in American collegiate soccer. Sigma prodigies Cyle Larin, a sophomore at Connecticut, is currently rated fourth in Top Drawer Soccer's top-100 collegiate players for the preseason. Canadian's Jay Chapman and Ben McKendry both ranked in the top-50 too.
“There are a lot of good players on Sigma. The Club actually trains players, not just for college, but to send them professionally overseas,” said Luxbacher. “It’s a high-level club and their showcases are definitely worth going for because you’re going to see a lot of good players playing against other good players.”
With soccer growing in Canada, coaches are beginning to build relationships and in-roads. Bloemen attributes his Sigma coach’s connection with Luxbacher and assistant coach Chris Karwoski as a major factor in him choosing Pittsburgh. Bloemen added that a lot of Canadian’s elect to play soccer in the States because it is really good exposure to help make it to the next level.
If the preseason gives any indications as to how Pitt’s Canadian players will perform, Bloemen may get his wish of gaining more exposure on the pitch very quickly. In two exhibition games, Bloemen had an assists and narrowly missed a goal when he rung a shot off the crossbar. Both Angulo and Kahlon also dazzled during the exhibition games with Anuglo recording a multi-goal game and Kahlon netting a score as well.
All three players will suit up for their first official collegiate game on Saturday, Aug. 30 when the Panthers host Presbyterian at 7 p.m. Admission is free to all fans.