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Ten years after packing his bags and moving more than 5,000 km across an ocean to better his already-considerable soccer skills, Kris Twardek is excited to be back “home.”
In a wonderful soccer journey that has taken him from kicking the ball around the Kinburn Community Centre fields, then playing youth soccer for West Carleton and Ottawa South United, to England, Ireland, Poland and Slovakia — also putting in valuable time on Czech and Canadian national teams — he has returned to the nation’s capital, excited for what’s ahead.
Atletico Ottawa announced Tuesday the 26-year-old winger has agreed to a two-year contract, with an option to extend into 2026.
It’s big for the team and for the player, who has plenty of family in the area, including his mom Kathy and dad Yirka. There’s also his fiancee, Hannah, who is from the area. Born in Toronto, Twardek moved to Kinburn, just outside Ottawa, when he was three.
Living here and playing for Atletico Ottawa will be like a big, happy family reunion — with soccer as the main course.
“I was in Europe for 10 years and had a lot of cool, interesting experiences,” Twardek said. “I had another year left on my contract in Ireland. As the interest (from Atletico) grew, (Hannah and I) started to talk more seriously about it. You could picture a potential life you could build and have (here). The more I thought about it, I loved the idea of, perhaps at the peak of my career, having a good representation of myself (in Ottawa).
“(The Canadian Premier League) provides an opportunity for developing players to move on. But it also gives people like myself and, I’m sure, many others who have had time in Europe, an opportunity to come back and play the game they love in front of friends and family and represent their city. It’s amazing to win anything. But if you could win something with your city that you love, that would be really special.”
Let’s spin the clock back to those childhood years in Kinburn.
“I loved growing up there, just a small town,” Twardek said. “I was lucky enough to have an older brother (Will); we both played soccer. We competed in everything you can imagine — darts, table tennis or whatever it was. As the younger one, you look up to your brother … he’s bigger, stronger. (Being in that situation) helps you develop faster.”
By the time he was 12, English scouts, including those from Everton FC of the Premier League, had their eye on Twardek. They were keen on bringing him to England, but he was just too young for such a big move.
“When I was 14 or 15, I broke my ankle badly,” Twardek said. “As soon as I got my ankle right, I was going to make sure I got over (to England). I knew the system, 16 is when youth scholarships start and you try and build your way up to a first team. The scout that originally scouted me brought me over to to do a trial at Millwall. At the end of the week, they offered me a youth contract for two years.
“I was ready for it. I have an obsession with (soccer), to get better and play as well as I can. I knew I needed to be in Europe at that time. The biggest thing was the lifestyle change, being in London compared to Kinburn. You’re in the country, with a slower pace of life and all of a sudden you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world. I’m sure it was challenging for my parents (with me leaving home), but they knew (the opportunity) meant everything to me.
“It was so intense. You have two years where you either get a professional contract or you don’t. My waking thought was, ‘I need to be at the top end of my youth team or else I’m not going to achieve what I came here to do.’ You want to make your family proud. You want to do it for yourself and continue the dream.”
Twardek has played throughout the English soccer pyramid — the National League, League Two and the Championship. Most recently, he played for Bohemian FC in the League of Ireland’s Premier Division. In two stints, he featured 71 times, with four goals and 11 assists.
After two years in the Millwall Academy, Twardek suffered a dislocated toe. He had loan spells at Braintree Town and Carlisle United before making the move to Ireland at the end of the 2017-18 season. He spent a season at Sligo Rovers, then went to Bohemian FC. Spells in the Polish top flight and Slovakian first division followed before returning to the Bohemians in 2021.
On the international side, he featured for the Czech Republic under-17, under-18 and under-19 programs. He played for Canada in the under-20 program and was named to Canada’s roster for the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
After notable performances against Antigua and Barbuda and Honduras, Twardek was named the Canada Soccer U20 Player of the Year in 2017. He was called up to represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, but had to pull out due getting COVID-19.
Fast-forward to present day. The timing to come home just seemed right.
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“I’m at the peak of my career,” Twardek said. “Everybody’s going to have a different journey. But I can understand why people say you’re at your peak at 26, 27, 28 years old. You have so much experience — good and bad — that’s just invaluable. Through success and failure, you learn about the game in so many different ways, playing different positions, playing in different countries, the different styles of play, the different coaches.
“You meet exceptional people like Alphonso Davies who are young and just start right away at the top of the world — they’re naturally just so good — and then maintain that through their career.
“But I had to learn it all through experience.”