MONTREAL — The Popp family name will ring a bell to Canadian football fans, especially in Montreal. Now the name is making a resurgence, this time in the sport of soccer.
Preston Popp, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte 49ers, hopes to get his name called in the 2022 MLS Superdraft Tuesday afternoon.
Popp was born in Montreal, where his father Jim spent over two decades as general manager and frequent interim head coach of the CFL's Alouettes, leading the team to three Grey Cup titles (2002, 2009, 2010).
“I’ve worked my whole life towards this moment so I’m really just excited more than anything,” Preston Popp said in a phone interview from Charlotte, N.C. "Ever since I came in my freshman year that was my goal to be a part of the MLS Superdraft."
Popp spent his childhood in Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Que. where he started playing soccer with the DDO Dragons. The 22-year-old has fond memories of Montreal, where he fell in love with hockey and followed his father's successful CFL career.
“I have lots of great memories in Canada. I grew up playing hockey and soccer there,” he said. “There were lots of great celebrations and Grey Cups in Montreal being a part of the parades and stuff like that so I have a lot of great memories and friends in Canada.”
Popp moved to Mooresville, N.C. about 50 kilometres north of Charlotte, at age 10 to pursue his high school education and caught the bug for soccer.
He chose to stay in-state and joined UNC Charlotte, where he became Conference USA’s leading goal scorer in his final two seasons. The striker recorded a career-high eight goals and three assists in his senior year, earning him a spot on the All-Conference USA first team.
Kevin Langan, head coach of the 49ers men’s soccer team, compared Popp’s style of play to Leicester City and England star striker Jamie Vardy.
“He’s very quick, plays on the last shoulder and is constantly trying to make dangerous runs in order to score goals,” Langan said from Charlotte. “He’s one of those old-fashioned goalscorers. Someone who just sees the game and asks: ‘How can I score goals, how many goals can I get and how can I hurt the opponent?’”
Jim Popp said that it was “a great honour” to be able to see his son perform at a high level in college despite Preston playing the other kind of football.
“For me, not only as a father but given the type of work I’ve done for a long time evaluating athletes, he’s a special athlete,” Jim Popp said from Charlotte. “He's got what I would always say in football, I don’t know what they say in soccer, but an ‘it factor’ to him. In the big moments, he just figures out how to get it done and leads his team that way.”
Despite spending the latter years of his life south of the border, Preston Popp thinks of him as “Canadian first” and is proud to be a dual citizen.
Popp said teams have reached out to him ahead of the draft but opted to keep them to himself. The striker has connections to MLS sides CF Montreal and Toronto FC, given his family’s involvement in Canada, and also played for the New York Red Bulls academy in 2018.
“Of course, all of the teams keep their cards close to themselves so I don’t really know much until the day comes,” Popp said. “Of course I’d definitely be open to coming back to Canada. I have lots of great memories there.”
Popp added that he is trying to keep a level head and his options open ahead of Tuesday.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with different people and they told me that no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t really know until the day comes,” he said. “It’s pretty much waiting for the day and I’m just hoping to see my name selected.”
Having gone through several drafts as a CFL GM, Jim Popp advised his son about the process. He also said a return to Montreal for Preston would be a special moment for the Popp family.
“I spent half of my career in football in Canada and we lived in Montreal for 21 years. It’s definitely special to him and his siblings,” said Jim Popp, who spent his last three CFL seasons as GM of the Toronto Argonauts (2017-19), leading them to a Grey Cup in 2017. “It would be a great honour to be with any team but it would be very special to be associated with the teams that are in Canada, especially if it was Montreal.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2022.
Tristan D'Amours, The Canadian Press