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Teen defender finds way in soccer after fateful Christmas gift for CPL open tryout

A group of players at Vancouver FC’s open trials hear instructions from head coach Afshin Ghotbi (centre in back) in Langley, B.C. in a Jan. 24, 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Beau Chevalier/Vancouver FC A group of players at Vancouver FC’s open trials hear instructions from head coach Afshin Ghotbi (centre in back) in Langley, B.C. in a Jan. 24, 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Beau Chevalier/Vancouver FC

You could say a Christmas gift, combined with a lot of hard work, changed James Cameron's life.

For Christmas 2022, Cameron's father gifted him a ticket to a Vancouver FC open tryout. Cameron went on to earn first a developmental contact and then a first pro deal with the Canadian Premier League expansion club under the league's exceptional young talent rule.

The 19-year-old from North Vancouver made 19 appearances, including 17 starts, and logged 1,504 minutes playing time to rank fourth in the league among domestic under-21 players last season. He led Vancouver in tackles (70) and duels won (129), was second in tackles won (43) and third in aerial duels won (19).

Cameron, who has played both centre back and wingback, scored his first goal as a professional on Sept. 9 against Atletico Ottawa, deciding the game in stoppage time.

He was a finalist for the league's Best Canadian U-21 Player Award, which went to Valour FC's Matteo de Brienne. Cameron missed the awards night because he was in England training with Premier League sides Luton Town and Burnley.

Cameron, who has an English passport through his mother's bloodlines and hopes to eventually play club football there, also earned a call-up from the Canadian under-20 team and helped Canada qualify for this summer's CONCACAF U-20 Championship.

So the Vancouver tryout ticket was money well spent by Cameron's father.

“It's pretty crazy how that ended up working out,” said James Cameron, acknowledging his life “changed completely” in 2023.

“Honestly I was surprised to be gifted that,” he added. “I wouldn't say I wasn't looking to go pro but it wasn't really in my (plans) at the time. Then I got the gift. I didn't really think too much of it when it was originally given to me. And then I went and I got an opportunity to showcase my talents. And the rest just panned out perfectly.”

At the time, Cameron was playing for Unity FC in League1 B.C. with an eye on attending UBC.

A new crop of Vancouver FC trialists takes the field Monday, hoping their talent and $300 ticket will let them follow in Cameron's footsteps.

It's a process that other CPL clubs have also taken.

Atletico Ottawa and Cavalry FC have already hosted their open trials with Forge FC set to hold its tryouts March 27-29. Halifax, Pacific, Valour and York don't have trials scheduled in advance of this season.

Six players eventually signed deals with Vancouver after last year's trials: Cameron, T.J. Tahid, Ivan Mejia, Nima Moazeni Zadeh, Eugene (Pele) Martinez and Jeremy Zielinski.

In May, Tahid became the youngest player in CPL history to sign a standard contract, at 16 years and 16 days old. He was subsequently called up by the Canadian under-17 team.

Tahid and Cameron remain on the Vancouver roster with Mejia invited to training camp this season to compete for a spot as a free agent.

Luke Norman also attended the 2023 trials. He did not receive a contract but became Vancouver's first pick in the CPL-U Sports draft in December out of UBC and is being given a chance to earn a roster spot.

Cameron remembers the trials, which drew some 150 participants, as “pretty intense” with two-a-day sessions followed by a scrimmage.

Asked what advice he has for this year's tryout participants, Cameron said they need to “find a space in your head where you can play free and showcase yourself.”

“You've got to go in open-minded and you've just got to just show what you can do; show who you are as a person and a player,” he added.

Cameron says it's a totally different feeling going into this season than last.

“Last year in pre-season I was just looking to scrape anything I could out of the club. And this year I'm going in and I'm not looking to scrape a contract or an extra few weeks in training camp. I'm looking to become the best I can. So it's certainly a different mindset. A little more comfortable but I'm still going to push myself the same as I did last year.”

Cameron credits his father for that fateful Christmas gift.

“He might have had the vision before I ever did,” he said. “So I think without him I wouldn't have even thought about going to an open tryout, certainly of this nature. But it was given to me so I took the opportunity. And I think I got the most out of it.”

Vancouver kicks off the CPL regular season on April 14, hosting Valour FC at Willoughby Park.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2024 Top Stories

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