SMR Interview Series: Mason Trafford, Central Defender

You’ve seen them on the pitch playing for Ottawa. We’ve cheered them on together in the stands. We want you to know what they’re about. Where they’re from, where they’ve been. What shapes them as a player. As a person. Everyone has a story and we want to tell theirs. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with the players and ask them about how they got here and I’m excited to share their stories with you. This series will continue through the Fall Season. –Kendra Lee

Tell me about where you grew up

I was actually born in Florida, in a place called Boynton Beach, which is not far from Fort Lauderdale. I only lived there until I was about 1 years old, my dad was working down there, that’s why I was born down there. My parents are both Canadian, um, and then right from there we moved directly to North Vancouver where I grew up my entire life until I went off to university in Nevada. I grew up just in North Vancouver playing for the North Shore Selects and for a club called Lion’s Gate when I was really small. I went to a French immersion school until grade 7 called Cleveland Elementary, and then I went to high school at Handsworth Secondary School and I didn’t continue on with the French immersion when I went into high school but my French is actually pretty good. I’m quite rusty with the speaking but you know when the coach and some of the other guys on the team speak French I can usually, you know, understand most of it, especially if they’re, you know, speaking slow enough, so that’s kind of just a side note I guess but yeah. That’s basically where I grew up, right near the base of Grouse Mountain off Capilano Road.

It’s so beautiful there.

Yeah, it was a great place to grow up. I can’t imagine growing up in a better place, and let’s be honest it was really really nice.

When did you start playing soccer?

I started when I was really young. Just like, you know, every kid I guess, when your parents are putting you in your first sports, soccer was one of those for me. So it must have been at, like, the U5 or whatever it was back then.  U5, U6 when you kinda just go out there right, and your parents are almost kinda on the field with you cuz you’re so small. And the 8:45am on the gravel field on Saturday morning. Something that you know would give me nightmares thinking about that now, but at that age, you know, you don’t really care. It’s just fun and you’re up. I remember my dad used to take me, or my mom, and you just kinda drive to the French school and play in the morning and then it just sort of evolved from there into uh, you know my love for the game obviously grew and when I got to about 8 or 9 I went to a summer camp. There was quite a famous coach in Vancouver named Roman Toulis, who was a European guy and he started up, like, a soccer school, which ended up producing quite a few top level players. A bunch of Canadian National team players and stuff have come through his school, is what he called it, before he passed away a couple of years ago. And I started to go there. I went there for 10 years. It was basically anyone who was serious about soccer needed to train more than just two times a week or the time that you would get at your club, you know? So that was an extra two days a week, so that kind of turned into 5 days a week, almost every day playing and that’s sort of what, you know, sharpened my skills and sort of, you know, got the seed planted in me of wanting to be a professional player and then training week in and week out with a European style coach and a European environment. And yeah, that’s sort of how it all started.

Football is kind of a family affair. Your cousin Charlie plays as well. Growing up, were you really competitive with each other?

Actually my brother also played. My brother is three years older than me. He played but he stopped kind of, he went to the University of Guelph and played his first year there, but it was never really his love. Charlie is um, I think 5 or 6 years younger than me, but we were quite close. He grew up in Calgary, but we saw each other quite a bit and I always used to play with him in his basement of his house in Calgary. And we always got along really well. We’ve actually sort of re-kindled our relationship, you know, really started talking a lot more than we ever have the past couple of years. He’s now playing in Finland and, we obviously talk about having that dream of how cool it would be to play together one day, maybe on the same club team or who knows, maybe called up to the National team or something together. And he’s doing really really well over in Finland right now, playing some really good soccer and it’s been really cool to kind of both help him on his journey, which I kind of had a hand in getting him to Finland, and then also just kind of observing now, watching him do his thing.

You played soccer all through university. Was that intentional? Like, did you have a scholarship to play, or did it kind of come about as you were doing your degree?

Yeah, no, it was something that I aimed to do right from the beginning. I knew I wanted to be a professional, it was pretty much my dream right? And when I was 16, 17 (years old), kinda finishing up high school there, I started thinking how I could make that dream a reality. I was a really late developer believe it or not, I was tiny. I was the smallest guy in high school still at that age. I just thought, “I’m not ready to go pro, I’d have no chance if I tried to go over and get on a team in Europe or something.” So I just thought, ”Let’s try and go to college.” And at the time I thought going to college in the States would give me a better chance of being in the shop window to make it pro after. And I figured if I went to UBC or like, University of Toronto or something, you know, I’d get a fantastic education but I didn’t think that was the best thing for the soccer. So I started to go through that whole process of trying to get recruited by the schools from the states. And eventually I just wound up that UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas) and myself were the best fit, and I just started playing there. I always knew that, you know, with the MLS draft and just with the quality of the soccer at the time especially, it was better down in the states, and it just sort of happened that way. Then after I was down, I you know, made it pro luckily from there.

Your first pro team was the Vancouver Whitecaps, is that right? How was that? I know you played with Martin Nash on the same team, can you describe your time with the Whitecaps?

Yeah, so it was actually really serendipitous. It’s kind of a cool story actually. I finished my last season of eligibility, cuz in the states you can only play for 4 seasons, and I had just finished that 4th season with the team at UNLV. So I came back for the summer holidays, I think it was, and I thought, “If I’m gonna try and go pro, I gotta try and go now, right?” cuz I was fresh off the season and in good shape. So my agent and I, we called around to the Whitecaps and were basically like “Can I come train with you guys? I’m gonna try and go over to Europe or go over to England or something.” (I had a UK ancestoral visa that I thought would let me try and go over to England). They were initially like, “No, we’re not really taking players right now for that reason.” And I was kinda like, ok, I was trying to look for a place to get some good training before I went. And I think, just a couple of weeks later, we called back again, and they were like “Well ok, he can come.” I think it had something to do with Adrian Cann, who now plays for the Scorpions, he was maybe leaving to go to Europe or something, so there was maybe room for an extra body. Anyway, I went, Teitur Thordarson was the coach, like you said Martin Nash was I believe the captain, or he was soon to be the captain of the team at the time. And I just was training, you know, it wasn’t even really a trial, it was just sort of like, them doing me a favour. And after, like, 4 sessions with them, I don’t know if it was because I had just finished my season, or if I was very relaxed and not concerned because I knew it wasn’t really a trial, I must have been playing really well because Teitur Thordarson, came up to me and was like “Hey, so uh, can I speak to you?” I said “Sure” He said, “Well we hear that you’re trying to go to Europe but you know, have you thought about staying here, because I really like you and I would like to sign you.” And I was kind of like “Oh my god, that was not at all what I had planned or was expecting!” But you know, the more I thought about it, I still actually had a bit of classes to finish up at UNLV, and I thought, “This could be perfect. You know, I’ll stay here, I’ll be home, I’ll be playing at Swangard in front of my friends and family, and you know I’ll be able to finish up my courses online and it’ll just be a bit more manageable, you know considering it was a bit of a transition time in my life.” So that’s what I did! I signed to the end of the season and ended up playing actually a lot of games, started a lot of games. And from there it led to a contract extension the following year.  It was really kind of one of those things that, I don’t know if you call it luck or like I said “serendipity” or what it was, but everything just sort of fell into place and the timing and everything just worked for me.

So how is it now playing with Martin Nash as your assistant coach?

Yeah, it was funny actually cuz Martin was obviously one of the best players in the league at that time. He’d done a ton in the game and accomplished a lot. That first year I’d basically gone from, you know, playing college soccer, to completely out of nowhere, signing for the team and we ended up winning the championship that year. So it was pretty crazy and Martin was obviously a massive player for the team and kind of like the talisman of the Vancouver Whitecaps, to be honest. Everyone knew Martin Nash. And even at that, we were playing against Marc at the time too, funny enough. Marc Dos Santos was the coach of Montreal, I can remember playing against him. So we’ve had a few laughs, the three of us now that we’re here at Ottawa Fury together. And it’s good. I mean, you know, as I said, Martin was the captain of the team so any time you’re the captain you have the necessary leadership skills I think, which translate over to a coaching role. Him and Marc make a really good team together. They’re both very knowledgeable and they complement each other well. Nash has a lot of playing experience, which is cool for us players to be able to take things from him and learn from him. Yeah, it’s been really good so far. The coaching staff is phenomenal and I couldn’t give them high enough marks right now.

So from there, how did you end up in Finland?

So the Vancouver team was transitioning into the MLS at the time so at the end of my second year I sat down with Thordarson again and you know, he really liked me and I actually got along with him quite well too, but he basically said, “you know, going into the MLS here, I don’t know if you’re gonna be a consistent player for us as we transition into the MLS. And at your age you need to be playing week in and week out, so I recommend that you look for another job.” Which, at the time, I was obviously devastated because I loved it in Vancouver. It was such a good life and it would have been easy to get into a kind of comfort zone in Vancouver with, you know friends and family but living in your home city it’s not always easy to be honest. So, there was a smaller team in the USL called Real Maryland. There was a really young coach, not dissimilar to Marc actually. He was young, super up and coming at the time, named Anthony Hudson. He was the son of a Chelsea legend Alan Hudson, a young English guy. He called me up and said, “Come play with me. You know, it’s only a 20 game season. You’re gonna be my starting center back.” And I thought to myself, “You know what, Vancouver was fantastic but I was kind of playing all over the place. I was kind of a utility type player. So let me go try and make center back my position, kind of take one step backwards, to hopefully take two steps forward.” So I went down to Real Maryland, which is just outside of DC. And yeah, we didn’t do fantastic as a team but it was really a growing experience for me. I did play every game, gained a ton of experience in the position that I thought was gonna be my position going forward. In the end, I signed there cuz I had one eye on maybe moving to Europe and with the transfer window, that season was short enough that you could still get to Europe at the end of it. So at the end of that season, my agent called and said “There’s some options in Finland. What are your thoughts on Finland?” I really had no idea at the time much about Finland. I obviously knew where Finland was and what it was all about but I didn’t really know anything about the league. But I thought, “Let’s go over. I’ve never played in Europe let’s go give it a shot.” And just like that, again it kinda just all happened quite quickly. The next thing I know, I’m on a flight to this small island called Åland and the city of Mariehamn. And the next thing I know I’m in Finland! And it was kind of a week-long trial. They had already known me and it was basically just to see if I was the same guy that I was on my video and on my cv. Everything worked out, finished the season with them, helped them avoid relegation (cuz they were kind of in a precarious position but we ended up getting some wins in the last part of the season when I arrived), stayed in the Premier League of Finland, and then I signed a two year deal after that to stay with the club. Yeah, it was amazing! It was a smaller club but it was cool to kind of be a part of something that we really built it up into one of the top teams in Finland now. And signing the first contract in Europe was just a really cool thing. I think for any soccer player it’s a dream to play in Europe and, although it wasn’t the English Premier League, it was a lot of fun and I played a lot of games over there too. I didn’t want to be that player that didn’t play any games but just sat on the bench the whole time. This was actually good for me. I was playing week in and week out as a starter. Actually everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been a starter so I’ve got a lot of experience that way, which has been good.

I don’t really know much about soccer in Finland at all, what was the soccer culture like in Finland?

Yeah, well Finland’s a really small country and the people there are quite reserved. It’s a beautiful place and it’s a small (soccer) culture but there’s a loyal passionate following. I would say that it’s not unlike Canada, that hockey is very big there also. But some really really good teams there. HJK Helsinki just qualified for the Europa League group stages, which is pretty massive for Finnish football. You know, you’re not getting tons of fans, probably the average is like, 3000 fans. Some teams like HJK get like, 6 or 7 thousand. My team were getting 2000 at the time in kind of like and intimate little like, League 1 or League 2 English style ultra?(17:30) stadium. But a really good league. You know, it’s not an elite league in Europe but it’s a great place to go if you wanna go play and hopefully launch yourself onto bigger and better things and sort of get your feet wet in Europe. It was a fantastic experience actually.

I’d like to talk about your call up to the National Team. Can you describe that experience?

Yeah, so that was right after I finished a season in Finland in November and I was back in Canada. I think it was actually on Christmas Eve. I was over at a buddy’s house, Christmas Eve or right around Christmas. And we had had a really good season in Finland. The team had done really well and qualified for the Europa League qualifiers and finished fourth and all these things, so I had a good season. I had just got a call from my agent that was basically like “Guess what? Merry Christmas! I’ve just gotten off the phone with the team manager of the National Team and they’re calling you into the camp from the 20th to the 30th of January.”

That’s the best Christmas present ever!

Oh, yeah! I remember being at my buddy’s house and walked upstairs after taking the phone call and his whole family was sitting there, he’s my best friend, and I walked up to him and was like “Just got an interesting phone call. I’ve just been called into the National Team!” So that was obviously like a pretty surreal moment for me. And yeah, it was unbelievable. It was a tough situation for me on the National Team at the time. Like I said I’d just finished my last game on November 1st and that national team camp wasn’t until January 20th so you can kind of imagine that it wasn’t the easiest camp to go to right? It was basically having all of November, all of December, pretty much all of January off, and then trying to go in and play at maybe the highest level I’d ever played at with your National Team. So it was difficult. I would love still to have the chance to get called back in, you know, now, when I’m mid-season with my club, sharp and fit. But anyways, it was a really cool experience and I ended up getting a cap there with Denmark and it’s something, obviously I’ll never forget. And something that I’ll be able to talk about the rest of my life cuz it’s obviously a huge honour to just pull on that jersey. So, I hope to get another chance with hopefully better circumstances and we’ll see if that happens. But, you know, the one time I did go I was pretty thrilled about it and we’ll see what happens going forward.

China must have been a wild experience for you. Tell me a bit about China.

Yeah, China was really really crazy. Again, my career has been funny. It’s kind of a cool story to retell to you. It just kind of brings up all the memories of how crazy this sport is. It’s another weird story. This was actually very soon after I got the Canada call up. I was at a Christmas party for that Roman Tulis. Every year we go back and, all the ex-players we have a big Christmas party, from that soccer school I was telling you about. And I just randomly met a guy there named Adam Wallace. He had some Jamaican national team caps, and he had a decent career in Europe and stuff. And he was asking me, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m looking for a club right now. I don’t think I’m going to go back to Mariehamn cuz I’ve been there now two and a half years. I wanna do something different.” He was like, “Can you email me your stuff, I’ll see if I have any contacts.” And a few weeks later, he messages me, and he’s like, “You know, I might have something going on in China. I have a contact there that I sent your cv and your video to and he really likes you and he thinks he has a team.” And I was kinda like, “Woah! That’s really random.” And I was like, “Well, listen I’m going to my National Team camp, I’ve just been called in. And then I’m gonna go and actually have a look with the Seattle Sounders a little bit and I’ll let you know how all this stuff goes.” And that’s just kind of how it happened. You know, after the National Team camp, I did spend like ten days with the Sounders and after that, it didn’t look like it was maybe gonna work out so I said, “Let’s give this China thing a go.” I literally just flew right over there and that was it. I mean we could talk for hours about that whole experience. It was really really crazy. I met the agent there, I had never met him in my life, Skyped him a few times. He basically took me to the club, we trained up in the mountains and it was winter there It was freezing. I played a game and after seven days they said they wanted to sign me. In the middle of the night I got a knock on my hotel door. They wanted to sign me. It just all happened so fast and it was just so crazy how it all happened with the signing of contracts. And just obviously you can imagine life over there. I wasn’t in a big city like Beijing, it was a smaller city where even speaking to anybody really was difficult. Nobody was really speaking English. That was a really really wild experience, but in the end kind of an eye-opening one that sort of matured me a bit as a person and as a soccer player. And it makes you realize, how if you’re comfortable in Canada, it’s not something we should take for granted, right? Cuz although I loved my time in China, it wasn’t like living in Canada where everything is just accessible and at your fingertips. It makes you appreciate those kinds of things and just, you know, being able to pop out for a bite to eat at a restaurant where you can get burgers and fries. So yeah, it was a crazy experience.

Just briefly tell me what the fan support was like there.

In China it was good actually. I mean every team was different. We would go to some places and there would be like 10 or 20 thousand people chanting and we couldn’t get out of the stadium cuz they’d be blocking the way to the bus and it was pretty crazy. And some stadiums would be just like, 1000/ 2000 people. It was dependent on where you’d go. Our team had been promoted from the second division and we were now in the first division, so it was kinda like a new thing. We had this cool little stadium right in the heart of the city that you wouldn’t even know was there. It was kinda built around shops and then this massive stadium appeared. But we would get decent support and you know, it was fun! It was just really fun to go around and see different teams and see the different stadiums. It was a total mixed bag of you either play in a beautiful World Cup worthy stadium or you’d play at, you know, some crappy little field that you wouldn’t even want to train on most of the time. So you kinda had to deal with everything there. And you would have your Ultra-type fans that would support and then you have your families. It was not something you would see anywhere else in the world.

What lead to your decision to come back to Canada and play for Ottawa?

Yeah, I was pretty open after China actually. I was open to a lot of different things and I was just looking for the best situation for me and my girlfriend. We’ve been together now for coming up five years so any decision that I was looking to make was going to involve what was best for the both of us, both for life purposes, and for my career, and also for what she wanted to do. And the Ottawa thing had kinda been brewing a little bit for a while, but on the back burner though. And again, for whatever reason it just kinda heated up a little bit. I guess Marc maybe needed another center back. You know, he wasn’t 100% sure about me. It had been a lot of years since he’d seen me in Vancouver and at the time, I wasn’t even playing center back consistently. And even for Nash, when I used to play with him in Vancouver I was not even a full center back. So, it went back and forth for a little while and eventually we decided “Ok, let’s give this a shot.” I was in Vancouver at the time and I was getting that itch back to start playing again, and we worked something up between Marc, my agent and I. We signed that three month contract to start to see if it was gonna work for everybody involved and then, you know, the rest is history! We’ve all seen that I’ve played all the games and that lead to another contract being offered and now I feel right at home here in Ottawa. I couldn’t be happier with my decision and it’s just been amazing so far! Everything from you know, the fans and the stadium and the coaches and the team, and everything. It’s been a ton of fun to be here and it’s been great to be back in Canada. I couldn’t be happier living in Ottawa. It’s been so good so far and I’m really happy it’s all worked out!

 What are any goals that you have for the future?

How about I just get a few goals myself! I feel like I should be scoring! But it’s just the first year here in Ottawa and we are building something and I’d like to think that I’m a part of that. And you guys can hopefully see that we’re not far from being a very very good team and its nice to have the support. You continue to come out and believe that it is gonna turn, right. Cuz we obviously believe that it’s gonna turn and we’re gonna start winning games and it’s nice that everybody else, hopefully does, and I think they do from the consistent numbers that come out. We’re building something here and it just takes some time sometimes, you know? And I think we need to continue, you know, everything. From you guys as the fans to the front office, to the coaches, to the players we all need to maintain this standard of excellence that’s gonna eventually help in turning this team into a top team in the NASL. And I think we have a lot of ingredients there, we just need to keep pushing that. One of my goals is to make that happen. I want Ottawa Fury to be the best team in the NASL and I think that’s what we’re capable of being. And doing my part in whatever that’s gonna take to make that happen. And from a personal standpoint, to try and be one of the best defenders in this league. I don’t think that’s out of my realm of possibility. I’ll keep working at that, and if I do that, it will ultimately help the team too. And then I guess finally it would be, with those two things can hopefully add up to another thing we spoke about earlier, which is getting another Canada call up, because I’d definitely like another shot at pulling on that Canada jersey.

Well, I wish you all the best! Thanks so much for talking with me!

 Yeah, my pleasure! It was fun!

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