April 19, 2019

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Duo eager to grow the game

Young Valour FC players thrilled to be playing in home country, hope to increase sport's popularity

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Skylar Thomas (right), practising with his teammates at the University of Manitoba stadium Monday, was the first player to put ink to paper with Valour FC.</p></p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Skylar Thomas (right), practising with his teammates at the University of Manitoba stadium Monday, was the first player to put ink to paper with Valour FC.

Skylar Thomas is the only Valour FC player who can say he’s truly been with the team since Day 1.

In November, the 6-5 centre-back was the first player to put ink to paper and sign with Valour FC.

But it didn’t take long for the club to add a familiar name to the roster, because in early January, Valour FC signed defender Jordan Murrell — a Markham, Ont., native who was teammates with Thomas from 2011-14 when they played NCAA Division 1 soccer together for the Syracuse Orange. The pair helped lead Syracuse to the round of 16 at the 2012 and 2014 NCAA tournaments.

“We were real close in school and we’ve been real close ever since,” said Thomas, who hails from Scarborough, Ont. “We keep in close contact with each other, our parents are good friends and in the off-season, we hang out all the time.”

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Skylar Thomas is the only Valour FC player who can say he’s truly been with the team since Day 1.

In November, the 6-5 centre-back was the first player to put ink to paper and sign with Valour FC.

But it didn’t take long for the club to add a familiar name to the roster, because in early January, Valour FC signed defender Jordan Murrell — a Markham, Ont., native who was teammates with Thomas from 2011-14 when they played NCAA Division 1 soccer together for the Syracuse Orange. The pair helped lead Syracuse to the round of 16 at the 2012 and 2014 NCAA tournaments.

"We were real close in school and we’ve been real close ever since," said Thomas, who hails from Scarborough, Ont. "We keep in close contact with each other, our parents are good friends and in the off-season, we hang out all the time."

Although they went their separate ways after their time at Syracuse, their careers seemed to go down nearly identical paths. For starters, they were both selected in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, with Thomas going 11th overall to Toronto FC and Murrell being picked 57th overall by Real Salt Lake. They both played on their MLS clubs’ reserve teams, with neither getting a contract with the main team, before continuing their careers in the United Soccer League. Murrell spent last season with Reno (Nev.) 1868 FC and Thomas played for the Charleston (S.C.) Battery.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Jordan Murrell (right), practising at the University of Manitoba stadium on Monday, likes that Valour FC head coach and GM Rob Gale is demanding of his players.</p></p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jordan Murrell (right), practising at the University of Manitoba stadium on Monday, likes that Valour FC head coach and GM Rob Gale is demanding of his players.

"I think being drafted, that’s when I really learned what it took to be a professional," Thomas said. "A lot of people can say they can play here or they can play there, but it’s much harder than that. You got to be solid on the pitch, of course, but there’s also a portion off the pitch you have to take care of and if you don’t, your career is going to slip. I think within that first year, I learned a lot. I’m very thankful to be drafted in the first round, but I knew no contract was guaranteed. I had to work for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that first-team contract, but I think from that experience I gained a lot of knowledge."

And lastly, they both got to know Valour FC head coach and general manager Rob Gale during their time on Canada’s under-23 team. In 2016, Murrell saw action in a pair of friendlies against Guyana and Grenada. Thomas made seven appearances for the under-23 squad, and scored a goal against Panama in an Olympic qualifying match in 2015. The duo credits their familiarity with Gale as one of the main reasons why they chose to play in Winnipeg for the inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League.

"Rob demands the most," Murrell said. "I enjoy that as a professional, to be put under pressure and demand the most out of yourself. If he can implement that into the team, we’re going to go places. The hunger he has and the ability to drive players, he looks for good character. He’s a great person, he cares about the team, he cares about the community, he cares about Canada. Coming back home and playing, it’s great."

Thomas and Murrell, who are both 25 years old and signed on with Valour on multi-year deals, would love to wear the red and white for Canada at the senior-team level one day. But for now, they’re focused on jelling with all their new teammates and being prepared for their season opener on May 1 on the road against Pacific FC. They hope this league will not only be a great opportunity for them to grow as players, but to also help soccer’s popularity grow in the country.

"First and foremost, I’m looking for soccer in Canada to gain interest, to increase the quality," Thomas said. "I think that’s a huge reason why I wanted to come here. I knew soccer in Canada isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I think that with this league and with certain players coming into this league, it just gains interest and you can further the game for soccer."

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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