Boehm: Mark-Anthony Kaye, the hungry underdog leading Canada into USMNT clash

Mark-Anthony Kaye - Canada - sunny profile shot

By now you’ve probably heard about the high stakes around Tuesday’s Concacaf Nations League match between Canada and the United States at BMO Field, particularly for the hosts, who are desperately hunting positive results this fall as they seek to climb into the region’s top six and thus earn a place in next year’s Hexagonal group for 2022 World Cup qualifying.

For Mark-Anthony Kaye, it’s even bigger than that. Way bigger.

“Everything I do now is going to help shape the foundation of how Canada is going to be in the next 10 years,” LAFC’s Toronto-born midfielder, 24, told earlier this year.

“I’m not the only player, but I want to be one of the ones taking a lead role, especially considering I didn’t have that conventional upbringing of how I got to where I am today. So you’ve got to change it. Because I think when people think about Canadians, especially in Europe, they probably don’t think anything.”

Kaye’s words underline the vision and ambition of his country’s rising crop of blue-chip talent, headlined by (but by no means limited to) precocious teenagers Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, which has fueled confidence that one of Concacaf’s longstanding underachievers may finally be ready to make some noise. They’re eager to make a late run into the 2022 reckoning, but also know that the 2026 tournament on home turf is out there, too.

How LAFC's Mark-Anthony Kaye rose to the challenges of life in MLS

“I had set a goal for myself, maybe when I was at Louisville my first year, that I wanted to be with the national team by 23,” said Kaye. “It happened a little quicker than that, which was nice. It’s good to be a part of it and feel like an important part. We still have a ways to go in how we approach matches tactically and the right personnel and stuff like that, but that’s normal. Just the whole idea of having good, talented young players is very exciting.”

His own rise from Toronto FC castoff to one of MLS’s best midfielders, at the heart of the most dominant regular-season team in league history, is Hollywood stuff.

Raised by a single mother who emigrated from Jamaica to Toronto, Kaye took a winding road to stardom. First he starred in the Canadian collegiate system at York University before joining TFC’s academy in 2013. There was a loan stint with now-defunct USL side Wilmington Hammerheads and a role in Toronto FC II’s inaugural season. But he was cut loose at the end of that year amid suggestions of an attitude problem, and had to make a fresh start with Louisville City.

“I think maybe after I went on loan at Wilmington I came back with a little chip on my shoulder and maybe I didn’t carry myself the right way,” he recalled. “But I was a young guy and you just need to tell me that and I’ll change my ways very easily, you know?”

The Reds might be ruing that episode today. Two seasons later, Kaye and Lou City were hoisting the USL Cup, and Bob Bradley had taken notice. LAFC paid what was reportedly one of the biggest transfer fees in USL history to bring him to the City of Angels ahead of their MLS expansion debut. While Bradley has earned plaudits for his savvy conversion of Latif Blessing from a winger to a dynamic box-to-box center mid, Kaye was actually an earlier example, having roamed the left wing earlier in his career.

“My journey to MLS wasn’t the easiest – or, I wouldn’t say easiest, but most normal,” explained Kaye, “considering the paths that other people take. Along the way I just realized that I knew what my potential was and I just needed to keep pushing forward no matter what happened.”

Kaye makes no secret of his desire to be a role model, not so much for his own ego but to help inspire Canadian kids like himself who he believes face more obstacles than they should.

“[I’m] trying to be an idol and a motivation for younger kids in Canada to look up to me and see that, OK, he’s had to fight through adversity and maybe we’re in the same situation, we can look at his story and use it to push us through,” he said. “There’s a lot of talented Canadians, and it’s hard, it’s not easy for all of us to make it, considering there’s almost like a funnel effect in Canada with the three MLS teams only and the international [roster] rules.

“The foundation is still far from what it needs to be in order for that infrastructure to actually work properly,” he contended, even with the rise of the Canadian Premier League. “Yeah, they’re taking steps in the right direction but you’ve got to look at the kids who are 14, 15, 16 right now who are very good players and it’s like, how many of them are Toronto actually going to sign, are Montreal going to sign, are Vancouver going to sign? How many are going to slip through the cracks and don’t have another opportunity to go somewhere else, without having to jump over hurdles to get into MLS?”

Recent changes have elevated the value and importance of Canadian Homegrowns and Generation adidas players, but Kaye thinks his nationality made his climb more complicated than it needed to be.

“It’s still a long way to go to get Canadians that fair opportunity to really get into the league,” he added. “If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough. But I want them to have a fair opportunity … It’s less about me now, because my career’s going in the right way, but it’s more about how I can help people who are maybe in that situation too.”

Just when it seemed Kaye had well and truly arrived, his breakout 2018 campaign was cut short by a broken ankle last summer. Given what he’d overcome up to that point, he knew how to turn adversity into fuel.

GOLAZO: Mark-Anthony Kaye with a stunner from outside the box

“I think it helped me, honestly,” he said of the injury. “Because it gave me enough time away from the game where I was able to see it from a different perspective. And now I come back and I’m a different player.”

Kaye credits Bradley for much of his own leap forward.

“He’s good, man. I love Bob, honestly,” he said. “He understands who I am as a person. He understands I’m a big family guy, I try to take care of my mom and my brothers, and I think when you can connect on a personal level like that, it’s very easy to work with someone. From day one he showed confidence in me.

“Bob told me that he was trusting in my abilities and that I was here for a reason. I think after hearing that, I was just open to doing whatever he would say. It’s easier when you actually see the improvement in yourself. Because if you’re being a selfless player and doing what the coach asks, but you don’t feel like you’re progressing in your career, then it’s hard and that’s when that relationship kind of falls apart. But I’ve become a way better player since I stepped foot in LAFC and I think that he has a lot to do with it, along with his coaching staff.”

CanMNT boss John Herdman’s recent wealth of midfield options is such that he shoehorned Kaye into the left back spot early in his senior international career. Now he looks likely to be assigned the vital role of going toe to toe centrally with the USMNT’s talented standouts like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie.

To Kaye, every outing for club and country is not just a day at the office but another chance to show his wares. He aspires to try his hand in Europe, and not merely for himself.

“I want to look back on my career and say that I don’t have any regrets, and that at least I tried to make it to the highest level,” he said. “A dream of mine since I was a kid was to play in Europe — and not just play in any league in Europe, but try and play in the top five leagues. Obviously my path has slowed it down a little bit, but that’s something you have to keep reaching for and I think that with the way our season’s going with LAFC and the coverage that we’re getting, I think that’s becoming a real opportunity.

“At the end of the day I want to do the best for my family now and my future family. MLS is a great league and it’s going in great places but at this moment Europe is still a top destination for players and financially, that can set your life up for the future and your kids. Coming from a family that didn’t have everything – and my mom did the best she could do with three boys by herself – I have a real opportunity to change that in the family tree and I’m going to try and do it.”

He knows any such move also has to make sense for his club and league. But he’s believes he’s ready to carry the MLS, LAFC and Canada banners to the world’s biggest stages.

“That’s what’s going to drive MLS to the next level,” said Kaye. “Because if we start producing players that can go to Europe and play in the highest levels, then people are going to … look back at MLS and that’s going to drive the need and want to come to MLS, especially for young players.”

Kaye’s journey continues with his Toronto homecoming on Tuesday night (7 pm ET | ESPN, TUDN, UniMas, OneSoccer).