'You have to keep believing': How a CPL draft pick booked a CanMNT spot at the World Cup
Shortly after the end of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Joel Waterman – a 22-year-old midfielder for Trinity Western University – had just wrapped up playing summer soccer in the PDL for the Calgary Foothills, embarking on his fifth year of U SPORTS soccer with his school.
As TWU's captain, Waterman's biggest focus was helping his team reach the National Championships for the first time in his career.
Back then, the very idea of one day playing at a FIFA World Cup wasn't even a consideration of a consideration.
Yet four-and-a-half years later, Joel Waterman was named to the Canada roster for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Now 26 years of age, Waterman's journey to this point was filled with memorable moments, plenty of highs and lows – all the usual platitudes of sport. Waterman's rise isn't unique by any stretch, apart from one factor.
See, this isn't a story about overcoming trials and tribulations. Just about every footballer who makes it here does exactly that.
No, this is a story about the opportunity to even experience those hardships in the first place.
CPL-U SPORTS Draft sets the stage
There are no two ways about it: Joel Waterman's career simply does not exist without the Canadian Premier League.
He's become the poster boy for the new development pathways that have emerged in Canada, pathways that didn't exist even five years ago.
Before, there were two typical roads toward youth players one day suiting up for Canada: Breaking into MLS whether through an academy or as an NCAA draft pick, or coming through a European youth team.
There were some exceptions, of course, as late bloomers like Mark-Anthony Kaye played U SPORTS with York University back in the day without much notice, but even his journey saw him join Toronto FC's academy before breaking through at the MLS level with LAFC.
The Canadian Premier League has changed all this.
Back in 2018, Waterman and Trinity Western University ended up making Nationals, where they'd finish fourth. Waterman played 19 games, scoring two goals and two assists. He impressed.
Midway through his season, Waterman and his TWU teammates, as well as university-level footballers across the country, received some exciting news: In October of 2018, the brand-new Canadian Premier League set to kick off in 2019, would be holding a CPL-U SPORTS draft.
U SPORTS players like Waterman could actually be drafted into the CPL, where they could either choose to stay and play and go professional full-time, or return to their schools later in the year, creating a new hybrid pipeline between the university game and the pro ranks.
That was huge. It gave U SPORTS players a direct avenue into the pro game, similar to what their NCAA counterparts had over the years with the MLS SuperDraft. Welcome eyes on their football, at long last.
As a result of Waterman's strong fifth-year campaign, Tommy Wheeldon Jr.'s Cavalry FC came in for his services at the end of 2018, as the Calgary-based club decided to use their 2nd round, 14th-overall pick to pick up the TWU captain ahead of the inaugural CPL campaign.
From there? It would be up to him.
Pro soccer opportunities bring attention
This was it. Pro soccer. The eyes of the North American soccer scene would certainly be on the fledgling CPL, as scouts and managers finally got a look at what the level of Canadian club soccer could or would be – and, more crucially, what it could do for them.
Waterman would take his first steps into the pro game as a 23-year-old in 2019. Deployed as a centre back, he quickly became an integral part of Wheeldon Jr.'s team, playing 21 of 28 regular season games in his first season en route to regular season success. It was as strong a start to his pro career as he could have wanted, as Waterman prepared to play in the inaugural CPL Final against Forge FC of Hamilton.
Unfortunately, that would lead to his first major setback, as Waterman was sent off in the first half of the first leg, forcing him to miss the rest of that game, as well as the second leg of the final. Cavalry lost 2-0 to Forge on aggregate, and Waterman was left hungry to further prove himself in his second season in the league ... if he'd even get a second season, that is.
Instead, it turned out that his strong play got him noticed elsewhere, as MLS outfit CF Montréal (then the Impact) swooped in with a surprise offer at the beginning of 2020, signing him to an MLS contract through 2021, with options for 2022 and 2023.
Cavalry FC is so proud to announce defender Joel Waterman (CAN) has become the first-ever player from the Canadian Premier League (CPL) to be sold to another league on a permanent transfer.— Cavalry FC (@CPLCavalryFC) January 14, 2020
Read more📰 https://t.co/pF8o0w7xhJ#Cavsfc | @CPLsoccer pic.twitter.com/sMg5RzFfSD
All of a sudden, the now 24-year-old had done the unlikely, becoming the first CPL player to join an MLS team as he began playing under legend Thierry Henry, counting the likes of Victor Wanyama and Bojan Krkić as teammates.
He made his debut on the road in the Round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League just weeks later, as Rudy Camacho picked up an early injury, and would then play another handful of games to start the year as his team fought for fitness. His minutes dwindled as everyone got healthy throughout the rest of the year, notching 755 in 2020.
He'd need to take another step up in 2021. Waterman got a vote of confidence by CanMNT head coach John Herdman, who called him into his January 'Camp Poutine' to get a closer look at him. Waterman then got called in for the first squad of Canada's 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying campaign in March of 2021. He also started the first game of the year for CF Montréal, a 4-2 win over rivals Toronto FC, where he notched an assist.
Slowly but surely, Waterman worked his way into more and more minutes. It was by no means a linear progression, with national team interest fading midway through the year. But by the end of the season, he looked a more mature defender and, crucially, looked ready to step it up another level in 2022.
Boy did he ever.
With two seasons under his belt, Waterman broke out as a 26-year-old this year, accumulating nearly 3,000 minutes across 30 regular season games and two playoff matches, helping CF Montréal finish third in the overall standings, before narrowly bowing out in the final eight of the playoffs. Whispers of a national team turned to debates. Debates turned into shouts and calls. It helped that he had Alistair Johnston and Kamal Miller on either side of him on the backline. Surely Herdman would consider that advantage?
Surely, indeed. Herdman recently called him up for his first camp since March 2021 and put him in contention for Qatar. Then, due to a mix of Waterman's strong form, as well as an untimely injury to Doneil Henry, what was once considered a long shot became a clear decision.
On Sunday, Waterman's dream came true.
The chance at something more
Waterman has now officially completed the journey from U SPORTS hopeful to a World Cup-bound Canadian star, named as one of 26 players that Canada will bring to Qatar. Never shying away from an opportunity, he has shown that development is never a straight pathway, but instead a matter of hard work and seizing your chances when they do come.
In the process, Waterman has become an example of why the Canadian Premier League developmental pathway is so crucial, and why it's been exciting to see the league take even more big steps forward this season. More and more players are being sold on to different leagues, and it feels like the next few years could see several more players with stories like Waterman emerge, just in time for 2026.
"It's huge. I don't think I'd be in this spot without the CPL," Waterman told OneSoccer in May when reflecting on his time in the league.
"When the CPL came around, it was perfect timing. Everyone knows in this kind of profession, things have to go your way sometimes. And I'm not afraid to say that for me, it gave me that platform to showcase my ability and show what I could do. Obviously, Montreal liked what they saw and took me in the next year, so it definitely was a stepping stone for me in my career and in how well I've been doing."
On Nov. 11, 2018, Joel Waterman played his last U SPORTS game for the TWU Spartans against the Carleton Ravens at Thunderbird Stadium.— Ben Steiner (@BenSteiner00) November 13, 2022
1,463 days passed.
He's going to Qatar with the #CanMNT pic.twitter.com/O5nvD553Sj
As Canada pushes towards becoming a fully-fledged soccer country, these developmental pathways are crucial to preventing players like Waterman from falling through the cracks and being lost.
Give them the chance to shine, as in some cases, they might push all the way to the biggest of stages.
"It sends a huge message to young Canadians that the pathway to the World Cup is non-linear," Herdman said, of calling up Waterman and fellow CPL alum, James Pantemis. "It’s a dynamic approach, and you have to keep believing.
"The Canadian Premier League has created a foundation for players in this country to keep believing, to keep pushing.
"We all hope that our Canadian Premier League becomes a top, top league in years to come and decades to come, and that's been started by a group of pioneers now that are celebrating one player who pushed in through that pathway. In five, ten, or twenty years' time, we'll be celebrating a lot more of these stories.
"The main thing is, it's happened. That was a significant step for our country and for those who have been toiling to make sure that that league is prominent in this country."
It’s hard to say if Waterman will get to see the field against the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Luka Modrić and Achraf Hakimi at the FIFA World Cup – but that he's even in that conversation is a massive credit to the Canadian soccer ecosystem.
And this is just the start.