By Stephen Priel
Theo Bair came within one step of winning an Olympics berth for Canada at the March 19-30 CONCACAF continental qualification tournament in Mexico, but the solid overall performance from the short-staffed Canadian under-24 men’s soccer team has the Ottawa native dreaming big for himself and his country in the future.
“It was a great experience,” recounts Bair, whose team went unbeaten in group play (2-0 win over El Salvador, 0-0 tie with Haiti and 1-1 draw with Honduras) before falling 2-0 to the host Mexicans in the semi-final contest where a Tokyo ticket was on the line.
“I got to play against some really talented players,” signals the 21-year-old striker who appeared in all four Canadian games. “It was cool to see that Canada as a country is not very far from a team like Mexico. We want to be the best team in CONCACAF and that was a step towards doing it.”
Bair’s path towards his prominent place with Team Canada began on local pitches with the Ottawa Royals, FC Capital United, and the West Ottawa Warriors. Hailing from a family of many former soccer players, Bair was spotted by the Vancouver Whitecaps at a local combine and eventually offered a position in the Major League Soccer club’s residential youth academy.
Getting the chance to live and breathe soccer each day was already a dream come true for a teenage Bair.
“The academy was the best time of our lives,” he reflects. “It was so much fun. You get to travel all over the place, travel the United States, play games all the time, score a bunch of goals, you’re with your best friends, you go to high school together – it was a great time.”
The dreamlike feeling was that much greater when he made his debut for the Whitecaps’ first team in a 2019 MLS match that Vancouver won 2-1 over FC Dallas.
“It was a very great moment for me. My sister was in the crowd, it felt surreal,” recounts the player who appeared 17 times in his rookie season. “My heart was blasting out of my chest, I was so nervous. But it was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life.”
There haven’t been any cheering sections lately, with COVID keeping fans out of stadiums.
“They bring some kind of tension to you and I think tension is good because tension means that you feel like you have to perform,” indicates Bair. “Having the Whitecaps fans there is amazing – having the whole crowd chanting your name when you score or anything is an unreal feeling.”
COVID also kept Canada from bringing any Toronto FC players to Mexico due to an outbreak at that club.
“I think COVID hit everyone pretty hard,” Bair adds. “My first season was a good one, my second season I didn’t play as much, and COVID definitely played a factor in that.”
Ottawa players making an impact on Canada’s national teams
Bair believes that soccer in Canada is truly still in its infancy, and that Canada will only to continue to grow and develop into a nation to be feared in future CONCACAF men’s tournaments. And Ottawa players will likely play a big part in that, he adds.
Ottawa South United product Kris Twardek, who plays pro in Poland, had been named to Canada’s roster for the Olympic qualifier alongside Bair, but was unable to join the team “for medical reasons,” a Canada Soccer pre-tournament press release noted.
Gloucester Hornets/Ottawa Internationals-brewed phenom Jonathan David, a top scorer for Lille in French Ligue 1, was also eligible to compete in the U24 age group, but the 21-year-old had instead been tagged to compete for the Canadian senior men in overlapping
World Cup qualification play (though an ankle injury kept him from participating in the end).
After recently training with Uganda’s under-20 men’s national team for the first time, Futuro Soccer Academy/West Ottawa product Moses Kafeero could be part of that country’s 2024 Olympic qualification quest.
On the women’s side, centre-back Vanessa Gilles has skyrocketed herself into consideration for Canada’s Olympic team following recent standout performances in a 1-0 loss to world #1 USA, and clean sheets against Wales and England. The 24-year-old Louis-Riel high school grad only took up soccer in Grade 10.
“There are so many good players in Ottawa but no one’s ever seen them because no one has cared to check,” states Bair, who expects Canada’s rise in the soccer world to continue.
“Once Canadian players, Canadian fans, and Canada as a country take football as seriously as Mexico does – I think once Canada gets to that stage, there is no stopping us.”