When 25-year-old centre-back Brandon John flew in to Winnipeg last month to trial with Valour FC, the potential move was the result of a connection with Rob Gale that had started years ago through the Canada U-20s. Two days into John's trial, however, his agent reached out to him to let him know Atletico Ottawa had come calling. Things evidently progressed quickly from there, with the expansion side securing his signature in short order.
The former Orlando City B player had actually been interested in becoming a part of the league's inaugural campaign, but fate had intervened prior: despite an ACL injury that sidelined him for ten months after some good outings with the SIMA Aguilas in Florida, Orlando's USL affiliate wanted to offer him a contract for the 2019 season. Sensing a good opportunity and a move made in good faith, he quickly took it.
Still, a few CPL clubs reached out to him last year, planting the seeds for a future move.
There were a few clubs that I was in talks with, but no contract talks. They were just putting feelers out and seeing what the interest was. I took the opportunity with Orlando just because even after I got injured they had a conversation with me so quickly. For a club to reach out the way they did, it was great. I did keep an eye on the CPL a lot. I tried to watch as many games as possible.
Last season saw the Orlando City B side struggle to secure consistent results. It was a young team where the players didn't have much familiarity with one another, and while the season didn't go to plan, John says it was a good thing to experience at the professional level. For him, the main thing was coming back from his injury and getting some games under his belt.
The 25-year-old now finds himself in a similar setting: Atletico Ottawa is also a young-skewing squad (the average age is under 24 years old), and as an expansion side the players are starting from scratch when it comes to familiarity with one another. This time, however, John is hoping that his new team can succeed where Orlando City B ultimately faltered.
After his time in Florida came to a close, the 25-year-old returned to Toronto to train before Rob Gale reconnected with him. He looked a likely signing for Valour FC, but then Atletico Ottawa assistant coach Fabian Troche swooped in and connected John directly with Atletico Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez, who was in the midst of a signing blitz that included other Canadians defenders like Kunle Dada-Luke, Michel Djaozandry, and former Cavalry FC utility player Malyk Hamilton.
Having been following the league since it began last year, John had already reached out to a few players to see how their experience in the CPL had been. Their answers were a big factor in his decision to pledge his next season within the fledgling league, as it turns out.
They all had very good thing to say. Whether they had experience in MLS or USL, they were all impressed by the level and how everything went last year. It did impact my decision. Back then, it was the first year and I couldn’t really get a sense of what the league was like from the outside. It was really reassuring, talking to those guys.
Signing on to play professional first team football in Canada for the first time, the quick offer from Atletico Ottawa was the culmination of a journey that started when Brandon John was just a child. John's family immigrated to Canada when he was seven, and by that point the love of football already had deep roots. Spotting a seven-year-old Brandon John playing soccer in his backyard, one of his parent's friends asked if he'd like to play on the Scarborough Blizzard. John jumped on the chance, playing a few years ahead of his age group, and eventually played for Ajax prior to being recognized by the Ontario provincial team.
He spent two years representing Ontario at the U-14 to U-16 levels, which is where he was picked up by a Toronto FC Academy led by now-York9 FC gaffer Jim Brennan. Two years later - after a preseason spent with the first team during the Aron Winter era - an opportunity to play overseas in Germany with FC Erzgebirge Aue ultimately pulled John away from North America for the next season.
By the time I got there with the U-19s, I was kind of used to being the best player on the team in Canada. Of course, when you're there it’s not the same – it’s German national players, and Turkish internationals, and you have to fight for your spot every day in training. I had to work every day, and tried to play my way into the first eleven with the U-19s, which I did. I feel like I had a good run. I learned a lot about work ethic and, tactically, I learned a lot.
It was at this time that Valour FC coach Rob Gale - back then leading the Canada U-20 side - approached John about entering the national team program. John has fond memories of his introduction to Les Rouges, and his history with Rob Gale was a big part of his opportunity to trial with Valour this year.
It’s obviously something I wanted to do and I was honoured to wear the nation’s badge. It was a great feeling, and hopefully there’s more to come in the future. Speaking of Gale, yeah, I have a good relationship with Rob. I really like him as a coach
John then returned to the USA to sign with Seattle Sounders 2, where he played against the toughest player he's ever faced in training, Clint Dempsey. After a season there, John returned to Canada to play with Vaughan Azzurri, a League1 Ontario side which just had four of its players selected in the first round of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. There's no shortage of current Canadian Premier League players who called the club home at one point, either.
Unsurprisingly, John wasn't shy to praise the coaching staff of his former League1 Ontario outfit:
The coaching there is second to none in Toronto, to be quite honest. For players, it’s a place where a lot great players have been. It’s a place where you can train well, even if you’re not at an MLS professional club. The standard is really high. The coaches there, Carmine Isacco and Patrice Gheisar, they’re all pushing you to be at your best
After his pit-stop in Vaughan, John went to Florida, and some two years later he's now found his way back to Canada - a country he's hoping to represent via the senior national team if he can cement himself as one of the CPL's best defenders, much like Amer Didic was able to do last season.
At the moment, playing for the Canadian national team is my top priority. I grew up in Canada, I feel more Canadian than anything, to be honest.
While the Kingstown-born defender is eligible to play for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Canada has been home since he was a child. While representing his birthplace is something he'd consider down the line, right now playing for Canada is his top priority.
Having been part of the Atletico Ottawa squad that began preseason in Madrid prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, John has had a chance to gel with his new teammates. He'd played with Ben Fisk before at the Canada U-23 level, and has been quick to get to know the rest of the squad, too.
Fisk is going into the season with intent, relishing the idea that all eyes would be on his team as the newcomers. It's an opportunity that Brandon John is hungry for too, and he says this will drive the players to give it their all both on matchday and consistently in training. While he's the only centre-back that has been announced by the club, he says there's going to healthy competition for each position on the pitch.
I think going into any season regardless of whether it’s an expansion club or not, you have something to prove. I don’t think one season like last year really matters: it’s a new year. When we eventually start training, there’s going to be healthy competition for the spots. Every time we go out, regardless of if we’re playing the defending champs or the team who finished last, we’re going to take the same approach to every game and try to play our football and win every game.
With the recent addition of Spanish midfielder Victor Martinez, Atletico Ottawa has now signed fourteen players to its roster. In a recent chat with Northern Tribune, West Ham Academy product Vashon Neufville revealed that the club likes to play a quick, attacking game with the ball on the floor, and this sentiment was one echoed by John as well:
From what they’ve been preaching to us they want to play possession style football, they want to play attractive football, and of course the Atletico DNA is instilled in our club so we’re going to be a hard-working, organized team. We’re going to give 100% every time we’re on the pitch.
While only time will tell how Atletico Ottawa ultimately stacks up against the seven founding teams of the Canadian Premier League, the roster looks to be an exciting one so far: club CEO Fernando Lopez has utilized all but one of his international roster spots, bringing in the likes of Liga MX veteran Francisco Acuna (once called 'El Messi') and Jamaican international Tevin Shaw.
The club still has plenty of domestic talent to bring in, but some key players to watch already include the likes of an important leadership figure in the aforementioned Ben Fisk, the league's youngest player in Antoine Coupland, and a return to CPL action for former Eddies man Ajay Khabra.
Evidently not afraid to make a bold declaration, John says he feels like he can become one of the best defenders in the league this year. While Atletico Ottawa ticks all the boxes for his short term plans, he says it's been a lifelong dream of his to eventually get first team action in Europe. Before that can happen, he recognizes that this dream needs to start off with a good season in the CPL first.
The Canadian Premier League is awaiting on word from government authorities on when a return to play may be possible, but in the meantime the league has deferred 25% of player salaries and an undisclosed percentage of staff wages in order to avoid layoffs for the time being. Still, CPL Comissioner David Clanachan had stated that the league will still be on its feet when the pandemic is over, and even revealed that expansion talk has continued to occur, too.
For now, Brandon is just doing what he can to keep fit and prepare himself for when things eventually get a bit more normal. Like all the players currently sidelined due to the pandemic, he's hungry to return to the pitch and prove himself once again.