MONTREAL – The kids are alright.
Canada exited the first half of Tuesday night's friendly against Curacao knotted at 1-1, but there was something missing from the performance. There was a lack of verve and dynamism, an unwillingness to get on the ball and go forward.
That all changed with the injection of three players – Alphonso Davies, 16, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, 23, and Russell Teibert, 24 – in quick succession around the hour-mark, with Jackson-Hamel scoring in the 87th minute to give Canada a 2-1 win.
“The substitutes made a big difference,” head coach Octavio Zambrano said after the match. “It's encouraging to see that this team has a good group, [players] that can come in and [have] an influence.”
The tenor changed immediately after the trio entered. Jackson-Hamel tested the ‘keeper three minutes into his night. The Montreal Impact forward would later find the back of the net in the 72nd minute, but the goal was called back after he was ruled offside.
Whitecaps midfielder Teibert provided a much-needed energy boost in the midfield, while his Vancouver teammate Davies was every bit as good as advertised in his national team debut. Only a week removed from becoming a Canadian citizen, the teen phenom set a new record as the youngest player to ever take the field for the Canadian men’s senior team.
“Twelve players under 23... When's the last time Canada had that,” remarked veteran Impact midfielder Patrice Bernier. “Yeah, they're young; a lot of them don't play that many minutes [with their club teams], but the second half you saw: they play with confidence, less hesitant, created a lot of good things.”
Though it was Jackson-Hamel who scored the game-winner in the 87th minute, it was Davies who stole the headlines. He won a penalty kick a minute earlier with a bursting run into the Curacao box – Junior Hoilett's spot kick was stopped, with Jackson-Hamel putting away the rebound to give Canada the win.
In making his debut, Davies leaned on the advice of his new teammates.
“'Just go out there and play, don't think about it too much',” he said when asked what his older teammates told him. “I just took a deep breath; thought about it like it was a regular game Went out there and played.
“It means a lot playing for Canada.”
Having so many young players in the camp has been good for Bernier, as well. The 37-year-old made his return to the national team on Tuesday night, captaining Canada and earning a standing ovation from the Stade Saputo crowd when he came off in the 79th minute.
“Youth rubs off on me,” he said. “[Davies] goes out, he doesn't pay attention to the pressure, people talking about his name. He just goes out and plays like he's playing with his friends, shows his stuff. For us, it's to let him develop, become the player that he can be.”
Alongside that trio, Canada also welcomed a host of other young players into the squad: Toronto’s Raheem Edwards, 21, started, while Mark-Anthony Kaye, 22, and Juan Cordova, 21, made debuts from the bench.
Nevermind that Cyle Larin, at 22, is averaging more than a goal every other game in MLS. Manjrekar James, who scored the first goal, is 23, and Samuel Piette, still just 22, was instrumental in both goals in his first national team match in his home province.
The old adage, 'if you're good enough, you're old enough', is one to which Zambrano ascribes.
“It's how much you can contribute on the field,” said Zambrano, eschewing talk of age. “[Davies] came in and made a big difference. Alphonso has already demonstrated that he's ready. Youth has absolutely nothing to do with it.”
With the CONCACAF Gold Cup on the horizon, and the disappointing finishes of Canada’s last two runs in the tournament looming, was definitely a morale boost for both young and old.
“There's still work to do. It's promising,” Bernier said. “This is a team you have to mold, hope they grow, and bring Canada to the next level.”