Written by Mark Behensky
Photo by Cole Lawrence
For high-end young North American soccer players hoping to continue their development close to home, the NCAA and academies of pro teams have long been the desired destinations. But, in recent years, U Sports schools have gained traction and emerged as a serious alternative for those hoping to pursue an education while continuing their development.
“Canadian schools are starting to enhance their programs in terms of what they’re offering. You’re seeing more full-time coaches, more full-time programs – they are running the full year. You could see the level of competition of men’s and women’s play in the universities has grown immensely over the last five years,” says Kwesi Loney, director of soccer operations and men’s team head coach at Carleton.
The success of the Carleton Ravens soccer program in that time has been beneficial to recruiting players, furthering the level of talent in the squad and the OUA. One of men’s soccer’s latest recruits – Ronan Kratt – is the perfect example. Kratt – a highly sought-after two-footed striker who spent the last two seasons developing in the Barcelona Residency Academy in Arizona – turned down multiple NCAA Division I offers to join the Ravens.
“Obviously the NCAA is a great pathway, education wise too. I just found that there are so many teams and schools that the odds aren’t very likely to go pro from there unless you have an agent or [through] the MLS SuperDraft […] It just seemed like this would be a good pathway for me because there’s less schools. In the US it’s a bigger pond, I’d be a small fish in a big pond. Here [it’s] the opposite,” says Kratt.
Although he won’t be eligible to play for the Ravens until the 2021-22 season, Kratt liked what he saw enough to commit two years early.
“From talking to people, Carleton is the place to be,” says Kratt.
The young forward says his goal is to ultimately play pro soccer in Canada, with the recent introduction of the Canadian Premier League (CPL) and its partnership with U Sports playing a role in his decision to commit.
“I play obviously anywhere that I get an opportunity. I thought that to just crack into the pro environment at first, I wouldn’t say [it would be] easier, but I think here would be the best place for me to do it. I’m a Canadian and the teams have to have a certain number of Canadians on the team in CPL. And so, I just thought that I’d have the best chance here,” says Kratt.
Kratt isn’t the only Raven to turn down opportunities in the NCAA to continue developing in Ottawa. Striker Stefan Karajovanovic was coveted by NCAA schools after an impressive rookie season with the Ravens in which he had an OUA-leading 19 points during the regular season, including 15 goals and four assists. He was rewarded with a pro opportunity at the end of the 2019 season, being selected by CPL club York9 FC fifth overall in the CPL-U Sports draft. Just a year earlier, teammate Gabriel Bitar was drafted first overall, becoming the first selection in the league’s draft history.
It’s more than just a potential pathway to pro soccer that brings players to Carleton, however.
“Some of the differences between us here in Canada and in the US, are that we don’t have as many of the stringent rules regarding training in terms of how often we can train [and] our interactions with our players. This past season we played a full regular season in the fall, and then we played another regular season in the winter on the Quebec side [in the RSEQ Winter League]. You’re talking about upwards of 35-plus games over a six-month period. If you’re looking at development, being able to get in as many matches as you can within the academic year, for our program we’re probably one of the top then to be able to offer that,” says Loney.
But it’s not just about the players who have turned down opportunities to play in NCAA schools stateside, others have been making the move north.
Goalkeeper Nick Jeffs joined Carleton in 2017 after a stop at the University of Louisville, backstopping Carleton to a third-place finish at nationals in 2018 and an OUA title in 2019 during his tenure. Carleton’s women’s team has seen reinforcements come from the NCAA as well, with goalkeeper Sara Wicks and 2019 team MVP Chloe Doherty playing crucial roles for the squad.
American-bred players have also committed to Carleton, with Joseph Vinson and Charlotte Takacsy reaching out to the Ravens after witnessing the program’s success.
“The university has done a great job of putting us in this position where we have the resources, we have the competition and the capacity to offer a fully encompassing program. I think that’s what’s becoming more and more attractive to the Canadian athletes, as well as potential US prospects who are looking to develop and potentially move on,” Loney says.