For a long time, many have seen him in Canadian men’s national team gear and wondered who he is.
But to those who know him, he’s a down-to-earth, hard-working and talented centre back who’s been around the Vancouver Whitecaps FC organization for numerous years.
This is the story of how Whitecaps FC 2 defender Cristian Campagna got called up to Canada’s men’s national team camps.
From a young age, Campagna was introduced to the sport of football through his Italian family, describing his dad as a major figure of putting a ball on his feet ever since he could walk.
“My dad’s Italian so football’s in his blood, it’s in my blood,” said Campagna, “As early as I could’ve walked, going to the field with him, he just put me straight into it.”
The passion for the game continued to grow within Campagna as he grew older and later began playing locally for Surrey United SC.
After playing in the BC Soccer Premier League, Campagna began his journey with the ‘Caps as he joined the Whitecaps FC Residency program in August 2015, with his younger brother Matteo following him in 2017.
The native of Surrey, BC went on to play for the club’s U-16, U-17, U-18 and U-23 sides, playing with several future ‘Caps first team players along the way.
“The pathway has always been there. I’ve played with so many guys like Michael Baldisimo, Thomas Hasal, Theo Bair, Patrick Metcalfe, Damiano Pecile, Simon Colyn, my brother as well, there’s so many guys that I’ve played with that have gone through,” explained Campagna.
In 2021, Campagna briefly left the ‘Caps to play at the University of Albany, where he started nine matches and received a selection to the America East All-Rookie Team during the spring season.
Campagna then rejoined the Whitecaps FC U-23 team, coached at the time by current ‘Caps head coach Vanni Sartini, to play exhibition matches in the summer.
But soon, the youngster was about to receive a call he never would’ve expected.
“I had a chance to coach Cristian in Vancouver [at the MLS Integration camps]. He showed a really professional attitude, seemed very mature for his age, and on the ball he looked very comfortable,” explained Canada’s men’s national team head coach John Herdman.
“When the opportunity came up to look for a training player, I just asked him the question, ‘would you be interested in joining us and filling in where we need you to fill in?’ And he hasn’t looked back.”
“We were just playing exhibitions in the summer and then I got the call,” recalled Campagna, “John [Herdman] asked me, I guess they were just looking for a local player to come out there and help support the squad and Vancouver gave me the blessing to go. It was just an amazing experience.”
Everyone following the Canadian men’s national team during Concacaf World Cup Qualifying will know of “the brotherhood” that has developed amongst the squad.
With leaders on the pitch such as Milan Borjan, Atiba Hutchinson, Junior Hoilett and Steven Vitoria mixed in with the promising youth of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan, the group was a seamless one to transition into for Campagna.
“From day one, the group brought me in like I was a player, treated me equally and brought me into the brotherhood,” recalled Campagna.
In fact, former ‘Caps centre back Doneil Henry even gave him the nickname ‘Timmy’, referring to another former ‘Caps centre back in Tim Parker because of the resemblance between the two.
Since then, the nickname has stuck.
“With Doneil, he knew who I was before because when he was at the club, he would always call me ‘Timmy’ back then,” explained Campagna.
However, there was a moment of awe for the youngster once he took to the pitch for his first day of training, as Hoilett introduced himself to Campagna.
“Junior Hoilett comes up to me, starts passing the ball and talking to me and I'm like, this is Junior Hoilett,” said Campagna, “Back in FIFA 13, I did a Queens Park Rangers career mode and I had him on my team and now I'm passing the ball to him all these years later. It just hit me, I was like ‘wow, this is insane.’”
“Then you've got Alphonso and [Jonathan] David, two of the best young players in the world and just seeing what they do, how they train, how they prepare. The intensity and the mentality that they bring into the training sessions, it's always 100 per cent.”
In terms of who’s been there to support him, each and every player from the group has helped Campagna settle into the groove of training and given him pointers along the way.
“Everybody is so tight in the group, you can talk to anybody and they’ll treat you like a brother but I look at people in similar positions to me, so you've got Steven Vitoria, Doneil Henry, Alistair Johnson, they're all guys that I look up to because we play in similar positions,” said Campagna, “But the whole team is amazing, they're all such a close group of friends and family.”
Even learning first hand from John Herdman and his coaching staff has been a privilege for Campagna, something he says has helped him develop his game even further.
“They're flexible, adaptable to anything, they have every scenario locked down and the preparation that they do is just amazing. It's crazy to see how much goes into it,” describes Campagna, “[Herdman]'s always motivating us, he's always giving the team speeches, he's showing them videos, he gets them ready, he even gets me ready. I'm in the pre-game meeting, I'm not going to play but I'm ready to run through a wall for him.”
For a player at the age of 20, to be training with a Canadian team achieving history, learning from the best players the country has produced, the experience solidified that becoming a professional was what Campagna wanted.
“It’s the greatest honour of my life. Seeing their day to day actions, how they prepared, it’s just next level. It opened my eyes and really showed me this is what I want in my life, I've got to push for this now because I've seen it and I want to be there, that’s the goal.”
As for the future, Campagna has already gotten his professional career underway with WFC2, starting all four of the club’s opening matches in its inaugural season in MLS NEXT Pro.
The experiences with Canada and the ‘Caps have shaped him to take on a leadership role with the team, as he’s shared the captain’s armband with first team goalkeeper Isaac Boehmer.
“It's a great sense of honour and pride to be able to show some of my knowledge and experience I've gained over the years with the club. I’ve been through a lot, seen a lot, so it's nice for me to be able to relate to these guys in some of the moments so I can lend them a helping hand if they need that kind of thing,” said Campagna.
With his leadership and calmness, Herdman believes Campagna is on the right path and is excited to see him take his opportunity at the MLS NEXT Pro level.
“He’s got a bright future ahead of him,” said Herdman, ”The MLS NEXT Pro league provides a genuine opportunity for young men and I think this is a stepping stone for him. I think the league could provide him with the opportunity to jump to the MLS level.”
Campagna and the rest of the WFC2 squad will be looking to turn some heads this season as they embrace the challenge of their first professional season.
“We want to take it as far as we can, we want to win, we're not going to settle for less than that,” stated Campagna, “We're a young squad but we've got talent, we have experience with some of our older guys, our college guys, National Championship winners, so we're looking to go as hard as we can.”
Up next for Campagna and WFC2 in their MLS NEXT Pro season is a two-game homestand at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, BC. The first match comes against Sporting KC II this Sunday, April 24, with kickoff set for 4 p.m. PT. Tickets are available at whitecapsfc2.com or at the gate. You can also catch the match live at mlsnextpro.com.