Teenage midfielder Antoine Coupland will be juggling Grade 10 and pro soccer when Atletico Ottawa opens play in the Canadian Premier League this season.
Coupland, who turned 16 in December, is the second player to join expansion Ottawa — and the youngest player signed with the Canadian league.
"It's very special," Coupland said. "It shows that the CPL wants to develop local players like me. It's an honour being the youngest in the Canadian Premier League.
"I think it sends a message to all the young players out there, not only in Ottawa but also across Canada, that becoming a professional soccer player is very possible."
The native of Chelsea, Que., who calls the Ottawa-Gatineau region home, became the youngest player in Ottawa Fury history when he joined the USL club last July at 15 after graduating from Ottawa's Futuro Soccer Academy, which he joined at 11.
The five-foot-six, 140-pounder made three appearances for the Fury in 2019 — all wins, he notes — and trained with the team throughout the season.
"Having Antoine join Atletico Ottawa is exciting," club CEO Fernando Lopez said in a statement. "He is a young talent with incredible potential. Having made his professional debut at the age of 15 is a testament to his passion and drive for the game and we are looking forward to working with him to develop his talent."
The teenager follows Vancouver winger Ben Fisk in signing with Ottawa, whose parent club is Atletico Madrid.
Coupland joins a small but select band of Canadians to turn professional so young.
Canadian international fullback/winger Alphonso Davies, now a 19-year-old rising star with Bayern Munich, was 15 when he signed a homegrown contract in July 2016 with the Vancouver Whitecaps — becoming the youngest active player in MLS at the time (Freddy Adu holds the MLS record for youngest signing at 14 years 168 days in 2004 with D.C. United).
Midfielder Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, who turns 16 in June, became the youngest player in Toronto FC history to sign for the first team when he inked a homegrown player deal in January.
Coupland trained in Germany with Red Bull Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt last year. He was also offered a trial with England's Sheffield United but turned it down to focus on the Ottawa Fury. He still hopes to play in Europe at some point in his career.
The left-footed Coupland says he looks up to Barcelona's Lionel Messi and tries to be creative up front, happy to score or set up others.
He grew up supporting Barcelona because of Messi, but says he has also been watching Atletico Madrid in recent years because of its success.
Away from soccer, Coupland attends College Saint-Alexandre in Gatineau.
"The administration and the teachers there are amazing," he said. "They help me, they support me throughout my dream of becoming a professional soccer player."
He's not sure what his schedule will look like when Atletico Ottawa is playing. But he says he is ready for the challenge.
"My goal is to keep working hard on the field and off the field, And when I'm not playing soccer, thinking about soccer, then I'm doing schoolwork."
Ottawa opens its pre-season camp March 11 in Spain at Atletico Madrid's training complex. The CPL club is slated to return to Ottawa on April 7 to continue preparations for its league debut April 18 against champion Forge FC in Hamilton. Ottawa's home opener is May 16 against HFX Wanderers FC at TD Place Stadium.
Coupland will run across several ex-Ottawa Fury teammates in the CPL this season. Callum Irving, Jamar Dixon and Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, three players he says helped him on and off the field, are all now with Pacific FC.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2020.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press