While it’s abundantly important to focus on the growth of our own nation in the beautiful game, it’s also abundantly clear that one of the primary aims of the CPL is to develop talent that can be sold to other leagues in the world. In some ways, this is a sad reality as some of our very best players leave early on in the season for pastures new, in some cases only to sit on the bench! But in other ways, it allows our league to gain recognition in the world market, and has the potential to allow Canadian soccer players to take their development to the next level for higher profile teams.
So with that, in the next few months, I’m going to be rolling out an entire CPL Scouting Database. This will include low-market/high-value players from other realms that CPL clubs should have on their radar, and low-market/high-value players from our league that clubs across the globe should have on their radar.
Today we break into the second section of this long-haul series, studying the very best centre-backs in Canada’s top flight. Here is our analysis.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- General Information
- Player Introductions & Brief Information
- Statistical Comparisons & General Player Stats
After a data search for centre-backs in the Canadian Premier League, we narrowed our scope down to eight standout performers. Their general information has been presented below.
|1||Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson||Forge FC||26||Ball-Playing Centre-Half||7.68|
|2||Dominick Zator||York United||28||Stopper||7.41|
|3||Amer Đidić||Pacific FC||27||Stopper||7.30|
|4||Karifa Yao||Cavalry FC||22||Sweeper||7.30|
|5||Diego Espejo||Atletico Ottawa||20||Ball-Playing Centre-Half||7.19|
|6||Malik Owolabi-Belewu||Forge FC||20||Ball-Playing Centre-Half||7.18|
|7||Thomas Meilleur-Giguère||Pacific FC||24||Ball-Playing Centre-Half||7.28|
|8||Rocco Romeo||Valour FC||22||Ball-Playing Centre-Half||7.07|
We will delve into these ranks and the reasons behind our Player Ratings throughout, but it’s important to note the relative age of our performers. There are several standout young centre-backs in the league; however, central defense is a position that comes with time and experience. Older players typically establish greater experience in positioning, awareness, timing and organizational qualities that allow them to lead from the back.Embed from Getty Images
It’s no surprise then that three of our top performers are between the ages of 26-28, when centre-backs start to come into their own and reach their peak. Many of our younger centre-backs may catch the eye for their potential to grow into their role, but with the likes of Zator, Đidić and Jönsson, clubs can know that they are acquiring an exceptional footballer that will immediately strengthen their defense in the immediacy.
Conveniently, as an indication of their talent, all three were nominated for ‘Defender of the Year’ inside the CPL for 2022. We picked Jönsson and Karifa Yao to be part of our Team of the Season, but the lads over at CPL.ca selected Jönsson and Zator instead. Point is, these are highly esteemed footballers, that are well respected in our nation.
|1||Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson||Forge FC||Sweden||2023-11-30||Right|
|2||Dominick Zator||York United||Canada||2022-11-30||Right|
|3||Amer Đidić||Pacific FC||Canada||2022-11-30||Right|
|4||Karifa Yao||Cavalry FC||Canada, Senegal||2022-12-30||Right|
|5||Diego Espejo||Atletico Ottawa||Spain||2022-11-30||Right|
|6||Malik Owolabi-Belewu||Forge FC||Canada, Nigeria||2022-11-30||Left|
|7||Thomas Meilleur-Giguère||Pacific FC||Canada||2022-11-30||Right|
|8||Rocco Romeo||Valour FC||Canada||2022-11-30||Right|
It’s also important for clubs to consider striking while the iron’s hot, with each of our players coming to the end of their contracts at the end of the season. Inconveniently, Achinioti-Jönsson is the only player with another year currently on his deal, and both Diego Espejo and Karifa Yao may be returning to their parent clubs after successful loan spells in the CPL. But now is as good a time as any to make a move, and all of our players would not be out of the realms of possibility for any club.
In this first section, we bring you context into who these players are, including their strengths, weaknesses and any key attributes.
1. Alexander Achinioti-JönssonEmbed from Getty Images
First, let me start by saying that Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson isn’t even technically a centre-back. He’s been a mainstay at the heart of Forge FC‘s midfield since their inaugural match back in 2019, wonderfully anchoring a talented midfield ahead of him, and allowing others to inject magic further up the pitch as he holds all the pieces in place. Second, let me start by saying that Achinioti-Jönsson is far too good for the Canadian Premier League. He should already be playing somewhere in Europe or in the MLS, and if he were Canadian-born, I’d guarantee that he’d be somewhere in John Herdman’s plans for this upcoming World Cup.
Rarely have I seen a player with such exceptional awareness of space, most notably in the act of positioning themselves out of possession to win back the ball for their team. With his fantastic awareness of his surroundings, Achinioti-Jönsson seamlessly made the transition from defensive midfield to centre-back this season, making it look as though he’s been playing the role his entire life. Exceptional on the ball, the Swede completed 93.3% of his passes this season, including 61.6% of his long passes according to Wyscout.
Excellently sweeping up everything that came his way through meticulous timing and positioning, Jönsson found himself dribbled past just 0.5 times per game this season, in the process of picking up just one single booking. For what he offers both in and out of possession, few defenders (and midfielders) will do better to best the 26-year-old, making him a clear front-runner in our centre-back database.
A move away from the Canadian Premier League might be now or never for Dominick Zator – who is truly coming into his peak as a 28-year-old warrior at the back. Zator made an immediate impact after his move from Cavalry to York United back in 2021, even securing a short-term loan to Swedish Superettan side Vasalunds IF. He’s immediately become part of their captaincy rotation, and acts as the undeniable leader at the back for Martin Nash’s team.
As part of a team with slightly less possession, Zator made his way toward 10.1 successful defensive actions in 2022 – the highest of our cohort. But even more imperatively, he timed those challenges to perfection, as illustrated by his 74.3% 1v1 dueling percentage. Incredibly similar in style to Đidić, the two are almost carbon copies of one another, and play the exact same ball-playing, progressive passing roles for their teams. Zator also accomplishes similar feats to the Pacific man in the air – winning 74% of his aerial duels this campaign. His mastery when it comes to timing of challenges and staying disciplined manifested in a similar manner to Jönsson, picking up just 2 yellow cards, and finding himself dribbled past just 0.2 times per 90. Exceptional in most facets of the game, Zator cannot be overlooked because of his age. In fact, for the immediacy, his age is a major benefit.
Amer Đidić only moved to Pacific for the start of this season, after a wonderful few years with FC Edmonton. But now at the age of 27, a similar sentiment to Zator remains in place. It might be now or never, even despite the fact that Đidić fully deserves a jump for his excellence both on and on the ball, and his imposing physical frame that strikes fear into any opposition player. At 6’4, the Pacific man frequently made himself a threat from set-pieces, and won 72% of his aerial duels this campaign.
He’s also similar to Jönsson in his exceptionalities on the ball, where he completed 91% of his passes, nearly 9 progressive passes per 90, and a wonderful through-ball ratio of 60%. This illustrates that even when passes are difficult and risky, the Canadian has a natural knack for pulling it off. His defensive attributes are also as you’d expect, and being the colossal figure that he is, no one dared to dribble past him (only 0.2 times per 90). He positioned himself well at the back to make nearly 5 clearances per game, helping the BC club to 9 clean sheets across the campaign.
He’d easily make the jump to the MLS just like Lukas MacNaughton did before him at the age of 27 from Pacific, and he might even be more of a complete defender than the TFC man. It may be now or never for Amer Đidić, but we certainly lean toward the side of now.
Now it’s down to the players who still have plenty of room to grow, and might not be the finished article just yet. Karifa Yao is the first of those top-quality young centre-backs in Canada, and another player that looks destined for a move back to the MLS. Montreal Impact might already be set to integrate the Cavalry man back into their team in 2022. But if not, any club should be ready to take the punt on the 22-year-old, who possesses a massively imposing physical frame.
From a statistical standpoint, Yao competes incredibly well with the big three accomplished centre-backs ahead of him. He won 72% of his aerial duels, made 2 tackles per game despite only being dribbled past 0.4 times, and soared his way to a 91.1% pass completion in the 2022 season. With a fantastic mix of speed and physicality, Yao was excellent in covering behind other defenders in a back-three, and made himself a constant nuisance for opposition centre-forwards when in a back-four. He loves to get touch-tight to his opposition strikers, making his presence felt before timing his challenge to perfection. He plays like a man well beyond his years, and Montreal would be both foolish and geniuses to send him on loan for another year.
On his path toward La Liga stardom, Diego Espejo took a shot on Atletico Ottawa in 2022, and that decision completely paid off. He played a pivotal part in Ottawa’s table-topping finish, where they now look destined for a Playoff Final. Espejo played 86% of his team’s minutes this season, always at the heart of the defense, anchoring the back-line in the role of the ‘Libero’. He might not ever amount to the level of an Atletico Madrid player, but Espejo showed both a level of exuberance and fight within his warrior mentality at Ottleti, and the team would not have been the same without his presence.
It’s worth noting that even despite Atletico Ottawa’s lack of possession, Espejo rarely had much defending to do, as you’d expect of a team so incredibly organized. But the Spaniard played an essential role in helping to be part of the organization, and enacted brilliance whenever called upon in his sweeping duties. He rarely put a foot wrong, finding himself dribbled past just 0.2 times per game, and making nearly 5 clearances per game as Atletico kept 10 clean sheets.
In possession is where Espejo often impressed me most, with his exceptional vision and range enough to rival TMG and Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson. He completed more through-balls (0.59) and ‘deep completions’ (0.33) than any player in our cohort, despite having less of the ball than all of them; and boasted the second best long-passing percentage (61.1), only losing to Jönsson. Sometimes I wondered if Espejo had some form of sorcery in his boots, or if his teammates were just that exceptional at reading the direction of his passing.
Either way, at 20 years old, Espejo is another player who simply cannot be overlooked. I’d love to see him back in the CPL next year, but I have to feel that greater times are ahead for the Spaniard.
Abdulmalik Owolabi-Belewu helped to completely solidify an already solid Forge FC defense after his arrival in mid-April, upping their attacking instincts in the process. At the age of 20, the Canadian defender massively impressed with his fearless ball-carrying through the thirds, and solid mix of physicality and timing on his defensive duels.
He became a tough nut to crack in defensive phases for Forge, winning 75% of his 1v1’s, and 71% of his duels in the air. A solid progressor of the ball up the pitch, Malik Owolabi-Belewu has more work to do in ensuring his risky passes pay dividends. But it’s no surprise to see him toward the top of the charts on the attacking end, where he made more than double the amount of successful attacking actions per 90 (1.65) to the next highest player in our cohort (0.8). His desire to progressively advance into the attack helped to create a conundrum for opposition defenses in their attempts to slow Forge’s wonderful possession down, and he even popped up with a few crucial set-piece goals in the process.
At the age of 20, Malik Owolabi-Belewu’s game can only mature from here, and he’ll likely become one of the best centre-backs in the league, if he isn’t there already.
One of my personal favourites in the CPL, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère oozes class every time he touches the ball – with a sense of suave sophistication bursting through his boots. His long passing range is exceptional, and I’ve been massively surprised to see in the Wyscout databases that his actual percentages are so low. He strikes greater distances than any of the defenders in our cohort, which could be partially responsible. Many of his long thrusts are also switches of play toward the touch-line and perhaps more likely to roll out of bounds as a result. When you watch him play, you can’t help but be mesmerized by his ability on the ball and his exceptional vision to find teammates out wide. Similarly to Yao, he also plays like a man well beyond his years.
You can tell that he’s a key organizer and leader at the back for Pacific, and he defends with an air of calmness and composure, sounding those alarm bells only when desperately necessary. This helped him accumulate similar percentages to what we’ve described before – finding himself dribbled past just 0.5 times per game, and picking up 2 yellow cards this season. The passing percentages don’t necessarily pass what anyone would describe of his ability through the eye test, and I’d be shocked if TMG didn’t make a move across the pond in the next few years.
Speaking of defenders with an imposing physical frame, few strike the fear into the opposition like the hulking Rocco Romeo. Standing at 6’4, Romeo won 71% of his aerial duels, and 72% of his defensive duels in 2022. Slightly more robust and unrefined as the likes ahead of him, Romeo made a couple of crucial errors leading to goals this season, and picked up more bookings than anyone in our cohort except for Espejo. But that’s not to detract from his quality in different phases of the game.
Romeo’s quite a decent passer of the ball, and actively searches for moments of progressiveness and long switches of play that can help to bend and break the opposition’s defense. He completed a decent 59% of his long passing attempts according to Wyscout, and as part of his forward-thinking endeavours, accumulated a longer average passing length than any of our other players. As a player who wants to throw his body in the way, Romeo is a reliable player to have in your side. At 22 years of age, he’s also only going to grow and mature as he develops his game alongside an experienced pair of centre-backs.
All eight of our players nicely cover both the attacking and defensive sides of the game, and many cover a wide range of defensive spaces on the pitch, showcasing versatility in positioning and role. Rather unsurprisingly, Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson‘s heatmap covers the most ground, as someone who can dovetail in two different positions to exceptional effect, and frequently carries the ball out from the back with ease. It’s worth noting that Abdulmalik Owolabi-Belewu is the only left-footed centre-back in our study, making him an intriguing option for possession-based teams looking to open up more avenues out from the back.
All heatmaps are courtesy of SofaScore – our favourite platform for CPL stats.
The following sections break down who I would personally recommend on various categories, using statistical comparisons as a basis for each feature. We recognize the need to find a player who fits your team’s style of play and the role in need, so we endeavour to break the game down into different elements that could help guide your scouting process.
The following table breaks down who I would personally recommend on various defensive categories, using statistical comparisons as a basis for each element.
|1v1 Dueling||Pos. Awareness||Pressing||Aerial Ability||Discipline|
|D. Zator||A. Achinioti-Jönsson||M. Owolabi-Belewu||A. Đidić||A. Achinioti-Jönsson|
Even despite our attempts to highlight strengths and weaknesses, it’s important to reiterate that these are the cream of the crop when it comes to CPL centre-backs, and that these players should be expected to excel across the board in their defensive stats.
|Rank||Player||Tkl + Int.||Def. Act.||Def. Duel %||Aerial %||Drb. Past||YC|
Dominick Zator comes out on top of the pile when it comes to the defensive side of the game, with a formidable dueling percentage, an awesome aerial percentage, and a solid mix of timing and angling that has allowed him to stay disciplined and resolute in his challenges at the back.
The following table breaks down who I would personally recommend on various attacking categories, using statistical comparisons as a basis for each.
|Goal Contribution||Chance Creation||Att. Dueling||Dribbling||Prog. Running|
|M. Owolobi-Belewu||R. Romeo||A. Achinioti-Jönsson||M. Owolobi-Belewu||M. Owolobi-Belewu|
It’s unsurprising to see the two centre-backs that play for the best possession-based team to come out on top in a variety of attacking categories. But given his predisposition to dribbling and carrying out from the back, Owolabi-Belewu would make for an excellent choice in a back-three formation, where he can be even more expressive and underlap/overlap into the attack. When it comes to getting forward and joining the attack, Malik Owolabi-Belewu is by far the most forward-thinking, making him an intriguing option for any clubs looking for a top-quality star in the making.
|Rank||Player||Att. Act||Att. Duel %||Drbl||Drbl %||PPA + KP||Prog. R|
While Amer Đidić poses a serious threat in the air, his attacking stats rank the lowest, rarely attempting any dribbles across the campaign. This perhaps shines new context into why he rarely found himself dispossessed in 2022.
The following table breaks down who I would personally recommend on various on-the-ball categories, using statistical comparisons as a basis for each feature.
|Forward Passing||Carrying||Vision & Awareness||Build-Up||Ball Control|
|A. Achinioti-Jönsson||M. Owolabi-Belewu||A. Achinioti-Jönsson||A. Achinioti-Jönsson||A. Đidić|
Two standout defenders emerge from the pack in this category, exuding confidence and precision with every breath they take and every touch they make. Amer Đidić somehow managed to go the entire season without being dispossessed, while Achinioti-Jönsson made himself the man Forge wanted to have on the ball at every turn, and every single first pass out from the back.
|Rank||Player||Pass C.||Pass %||Fwd. Pass %||P. Final 1/3||P. Lost / Tch||Dis.|
Even Dominick Zator still holds his own in possession despite boasting a few slightly lower scores, while Malik Owolabi-Belewu boasts a strong knack for carrying the ball out from the back. Any of our centre-backs would be capable on the ball in any possession-based side, and a few even achieve remarkabilities even despite their team having limited time on the ball, like Diego Espejo.
When asking the question of what player to sign, it’s important to examine the most relevant information for your context. All eight of our centre-backs are fairly similar in their approach, each standing out both in and out of possession. They could each hold their own in a high-possession system, and would likely continue to excel if put under the pressure of greater defensive responsibilities. But they also each have their own unique attributes that may work better in some contexts over others.
Achinioti-Jönsson for example can not only play centre-back, but to equal effect in defensive midfield, and that should be a consideration for any club looking to secure his signature. While he possesses a natural knack for positioning, often giving himself an extra yard to make successful challenges, he’s not blessed with an undeniable speed in a similar vein to Karifa Yao. So thinking about the pairings also needs to be a consideration. Our hope is that we’ve presented eight players who could fit any type of system or style, and alongside a multitude of different types of defenders. But centre-back is a position more than any other pairing on the field that requires harmony and balance; and the right balance must be one that brings out the strengths, and minimizes the weaknesses of all involved.
When combining our TMS Player Ratings with the statistics outlined in the previous sections, here is how our centre-backs stack up.
|1||Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson||Forge FC||7.68||2||2||1|
|2||Dominick Zator||York United||7.41||1||4||8|
|3||Amer Đidić||Pacific FC||7.30||4||8||2|
|4||Karifa Yao||Cavalry FC||7.30||3||7||3|
|5||Diego Espejo||Atletico Ottawa||7.19||6||3||4|
|6||Malik Owolabi-Belewu||Forge FC||7.18||5||1||7|
|7||Thomas Meilleur-Giguère||Pacific FC||7.28||7||6||5|
|8||Rocco Romeo||Valour FC||7.07||8||5||6|
Achinioti-Jönsson emerges as the clear front-runner based on our statistical comparisons, featuring on the podium of all three categories, and excelling in possession to extreme heights for Forge. Our statistical comparison does however also point out that perhaps we’ve been too high on the eye test when it comes to assessing the classy TMG, who even in his long passing exceptionalities can’t quite compete with the players ahead of him.
It’s also worth reiterating once more that when looking for young centre-backs on the market, Karifa Yao, Diego Espejo and Malik Owolabi-Belewu are all awesome options that will continue to grow and expand their horizons. Amer Đidić and Dominick Zator are already the ‘finished article’ (to an extent), and will be ready to make an impact on an MLS-level side in the immediacy. But Achinioti-Jönsson has to be the first choice on the radar of most clubs scouring for a new centre-back, and Forge will do well to keep hold of their vice-captain in 2023.
So there it is! Our complete scouting database of centre-backs inside the #CANPL. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, and follow on social media @desmondrhys and @mastermindsite. For any further information on the players above, feel free to reach out! Thanks for reading and see you soon! 👊⚽
Not convinced? Check out these CPL players who have already made the move across the pond…
-> Why Victor Loturi caught the eye of Ross County – Player Analysis
-> Diyaeddine Abzi – Player Analysis
-> Why Alejandro Diaz caught the eye of Sogndal Fotball
-> Aribim Pepple – Player Analysis
-> Why William Akio caught the eye of Ross County – Player Analysis
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