As several players with B.C. connections head to the World Cup later this month and a new professional soccer team gets set to launch in Vancouver, people involved with the sport say B.C. soccer is booming.
When the Canadian men embark on their first World Cup quest in 36 years later this month in Qatar, the province will be represented by Vancouver Whitecaps forward Lucas Cavallini, with homegrown talent Joel Waterman also hoping to make the squad.
"For me it's honestly an honour. It's going to be an honour to play for our country. To play in a World Cup is huge," said Cavallini.
Along with the World Cup campaign — which is also expected to feature Whitecaps alumnus Alphonso Davies — the future of soccer in B.C.is growing through the launch of Vancouver FC, a new professional soccer team that will play in the Canadian Premier League starting in 2023.
'Golden era' of Canadian soccer
According to people connected to youth soccer, all these factors are contributing to an increased interest in the sport in British Columbia.
Jason Elligott, executive director of B.C. Soccer, said nearly 117,000 players are registered for clubs across the province, marking a five-year high.
Elligott couldn't pinpoint the reason for the increase, but he wrote in an email that "having local professional teams and clubs is a great way to build interest in soccer, which could lead to more players playing."
Jeff Clarke is technical director for Surrey United, one of B.C.'s largest soccer clubs, which oversees more than 2,000 youth and adult players.
He says the club has seen an uptick in registrations over the past year.
"I think [it's that] a lot of these kids can actually reach out and touch some of these opportunities, or see some of these professionals in their towns," he said of the increased interest. "And that's a part of development and growth … In terms of the national team and how well they're doing. It's clearly a golden era of Canadian soccer."
Homegrown B.C. talent in Qatar
It also helps that a Surrey United alumnus has been called up to play for the Canadian men's team.
Joel Waterman grew up playing soccer in the Lower Mainland, including for Langley United and Surrey United SC, and is now a defender with CF Montreal.
Waterman, 26, played in the Canadian men's pre-tournament friendly match against Bahrain on Friday. The match ended in a 2-2 draw.
The news that Waterman cracked the roster is no surprise to Clarke, who coached him as a teenager.
"He was a great kid to coach, one of the top players on the field. As a coach of his you enjoyed every minute you got with him," he said.
"Joel was going to get there whether it was Surrey United or any other club … We are incredibly proud and grateful he chose Surrey United. It's very humbling."
Canada will announce its official World Cup roster on Sunday, 10 days before the opening match against Belgium.
As they head to Qatar, the men hope to follow the path of the Canadian women's team, which also has strong B.C leadership. With the help of Vancouver's Julia Grosso and Burnaby's Christine Sinclair, the women's soccer team conquered the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, placing first, and qualified for the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Building the infrastructure
As players count down the days until Qatar, some up-and-comers already have their sights set on the 2026 men's World Cup, which will be hosted in North America, with Vancouver listed as one of 16 host cities.
Thomas Hasal is well known to Vancouverites as the Whitecaps starting goalkeeper, and he's been named to the MLS Team of the Week — a squad featuring top ranked players — three times this year.
He'll be cheering for teammate Cavallini, and former Whitecap Alphonso Davies when they play in Qatar — and he hopes to join them at the World Cup in 2026.
The 23-year-old says breaking into the national team "would mean everything."
"Playing in the World Cup … It would make everything worth it, all the struggle, all the sacrifices. It would mean the world to myself and my family," said Hasal.