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The rapid ascent of budding stars like Alphonso Daviesis something rarely seen in Canadian men’s soccer. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The rapid ascent of budding stars like Alphonso Daviesis something rarely seen in Canadian men’s soccer. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian men’s soccer youth spark hopes for World Cup berth in 2022 Add to ...

A year ago, when he was just 14, Alphonso Davies moved to Vancouver from Edmonton to join the Whitecaps FC soccer development residency program.

His life had already been a long journey. Davies was born in Liberia in 2000, amid the African country’s second civil war. His family left Liberia, seeking a better life. Following time in a refugee camp in Ghana, they came to Toronto and then settled in Edmonton, when Davies was 5.

It quickly became evident that Davies had a rare talent on the soccer pitch, marked by impressive speed and savvy instincts, but when the offer to join the Whitecaps’ full-time youth residency in Vancouver came last year, Davies’s mother, Victoria, at first worried about sacrificing school for sport. Davies and his dad convinced his mother he’d keep his focus on school alongside all the hours he would put into soccer at the Whitecaps residency.

So last August, Davies made the move and has since shot up the ranks. He joined the Whitecaps minor-league team in the winter. Five months later, in July, he signed a pro deal with the Whitecaps. At 15, Davies is the second-youngest player to take the field in the two-decade history of Major League Soccer.

The attacking midfielder has since logged solid minutes, making an impact and creating chances as a substitute in the second half of matches. “I just like to see him on the field,” says Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson. “He brings an energy.”

The rapid ascent of Davies and other budding stars is something rarely seen in Canadian men’s soccer, and it has sparked some hope that the men’s national team could eventually contend for a World Cup berth in 2022 and 2026.

“We should make it an objective – that we should qualify,” says Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Whitecaps and a member of Canada’s World Cup team in 1986, the only time Canadian men qualified.

The current youth movement on the men’s national radar is led by striker Cyle Larin of Brampton, Ont. The 21-year-old is an MLS all-star in his second season with Orlando City SC. Larin was chosen the MLS rookie of the year in 2015, following Calgary’s Tesho Akindele, a forward with FC Dallas, won the honour in 2014. They are the first two Canadians to win the award.

The road back to the World Cup, even with promising young talent on the horizon, is long, difficult, and uncertain. The national team is currently ranked No. 100 in the world, one place behind North Korea and one ahead of Haiti. The imminent challenge is to advance to the final stage of 2018 World Cup qualifying in the North American, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region, a level Canada hasn’t reached since the late 1990s. Canada plays in Honduras on Sept. 2 and in Vancouver, against El Salvador, on Sept. 6.

Even if Canada does make the final CONCACAF stage, it’s unlikely the team could, right now, defeat the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States to qualify for Russia 2018. So the team’s main focus is on the longer term, hoping the emerging talents mature into international-calibre players.

Davies is one such prospect. A second is 17-year-old Ballou Tabla, who plays for the Montreal Impact’s minor-league team and dazzled for the Impact in a friendly early in August against AS Roma. He nearly scored twice after wonderful displays of ball-handling; one rocket of a shot from outside the box ricocheted off the crossbar.

Tabla, like Davies, is an immigrant – he was born in Ivory Coast, West African neighbour to Liberia. Tabla came to Montreal with his mother and several siblings when he was 8, joining his father, who had already moved. Tabla’s dad and brothers all played soccer.

“My father is the one who pushed me to play,” Tabla says.

A hint of the future was on display last March near Sheffield, when both Davies and Tabla were starters on Canada’s under-20 team in an away exhibition friendly against England. Canada won 2-1; Tabla helped produce the first goal, threading a pass to Kadin Chung, a 17-year-old on the Whitecaps’ minor-league team, for the score. Canada “shocked” England, the Daily Mail blurted in a headline.

Davies wasn’t available for an interview – the Whitecaps, citing his age, do not allow him to speak with reporters. But Tabla says moments such as the England victory are a harbinger of Canada’s future. He sees strong young players with solid technical grounding, and agile defenders. “Long term,” Tabla says, “we will be able to have an impact.” He also sees a spark, a creativity on the pitch among the young prospects. “We are freer, we have fun.”

The establishment of Canada’s three MLS teams (Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal) has been essential to the emergence of young talent. All three run development academies as well as minor-league teams. This provides more opportunities for young Canadian players than in the 1990s or 2000s. The absence of development opportunities is a primary reason Canada hasn’t reached the final stage of qualifying for the past four World Cups, 2002 through 2014.

“We have a lot of young talent coming,” says Tony Fonseca, technical director of Canada Soccer. “Others will follow. We’ve seen signs of a lot of young players developing very nicely.”

Davies next year will be a key player on Canada’s international under-17 team, and Tabla will be a leader on the under-20 team. Both squads are playing major CONCACAF tournaments with the aim to reach age-group World Cups.

It may not be long before Davies and Tabla reach Canada’s senior national team. The two are, says Fonseca, “getting close to contributing.”

One upside for Canadian players is the pending change of an MLS rule that pegs Canadians as “internationals” – for whom there are fewer roster spots – if they play on teams based in the United States. Still, even though the rule change will enable Canadians to be deemed “domestic” players on U.S.-based teams, it’s not likely that a flood of Canadian players will hit the league. That, says former Team Canada captain and current TSN commentator Jason de Vos, is because, beyond a few bright lights, the men’s program doesn’t have the depth of talent to take advantage of the expanded opportunities.

“We have to urge caution,” de Vos says. “Change takes time. Mexico could field three, four national teams.”

The chance to compete professionally at a young age is key for players such as Davies and Tabla, de Vos says. His own career was underpinned by pro experience as a teenager. “Those early years,” he says, “were absolutely vital.”

The early success of Larin is a beacon. He’s the kind of goal-scorer Canada hasn’t had in a long time, and at 21, he is already a key player on the national team. And he will be in his prime when Canada chases 2022 and 2026 World Cup berths.

Larin played two seasons at the University of Connecticut before he was chosen No. 1 in the 2015 MLS draft by Orlando; he has since scored 30 goals in 46 games. Larin’s rank among the best in MLS paves the way for the likes of Davies and Tabla to follow.

“I can create something out of nothing,” Larin says of his goal-scoring. “It doesn’t matter where the ball is. Anywhere around the box, I can create something.”

Larin believes the coming generation of Canadian men’s soccer players “can make it far.” And Davies and Tabla are poised to prove him right.

“They’re great young players,” Larin says. “When you get your chance, you’ve got to take it. They’ll get their chance soon.”

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