CARSON, Calif. – Mark-Anthony Kaye has seen his MLS stock soar the past season and a half, providing LAFC a valuable midfield dimension as they enter the Concacaf Gold Cup break with a nine-point lead atop the Western Conference.
His rise has coincided with a winding journey, rebounding from his release by hometown club Toronto FC and from a broken ankle that prematurely ended his 2018 season. Now, Kaye faces a new challenge over the next few weeks as John Herdman, Canada's head coach, has him penciled in at left back for the Gold Cup, which the Canadians kick off Saturday with a Group A clash against Martinique (7:30 pm ET | FS2, Univision, TSN3).
It’s a role he’s not accustomed to, but ready to embrace.
“I feel like at any level you know you have to be able to adapt, and the smartest footballers can play anywhere on the field,” Kaye said. “And I want to put myself in that category, so I'll take this role on and do it the best with my ability.”
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But Kaye's path to this opportunity wasn't a simple one. The Toronto native left York University to join Toronto FC's academy, played with the Reds' reserve teams and had a loan stint with USL side Wilmington in 2014. The club released him after the 2015 TFC II campaign, and he found his way to Louisville City FC, where he'd play two seasons and won the USL Cup in 2017.
He was crushed when the dream of playing for his hometown MLS team ended. It turns out that it was a blessing in disguise.
“It's hard to feel grateful in the moment when you're going through things like that, but when you look back on it, it helps you have a better outlook on life and appreciate the things you have now,” Kaye said. “I think that going through that and being through the adversity, it helped me understand what I needed to do to develop and get to the next level, and I never gave up, and I always believed in myself.”
He’s moved on from the TFC snub, too.
“You know what? At this point I don't even care anymore [that Toronto FC dropped me]. But I look at myself, and I want to be an honest person, so I can say maybe it was my attitude,” Kaye said. “I don't want to say it was solely based on coaching decisions, [on] not liking me, but maybe it was my attitude and the way I carried myself when I came back on loan from Wilmington. I really felt that I had done enough to earn a contract, and maybe I showed it too much.”
Louisville City coach James O'Connor, who now leads Orlando City SC, was instrumental in Kaye's development.
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“Louisville humbled me a lot, and I appreciate them for that,” Kaye said. “[I got better because of] my overall drive to keep pushing. I think that talent-wise, I was always there. I think that James just harped more on the little things, on the mental side of the game and just not letting your opponent get into the game and trying to really beat them out. Being around the team environment, it really gave me an understanding of what it takes to be a top-level pro.”
Former Canada coach Octavio Zambrano brought him in for the 2017 Gold Cup, where he performed well enough to impress Bob Bradley, who was building a roster ahead of LAFC's expansion season. Kaye needed some refining when he joined and proved a quick study.
“What you could tell from Mark is how open-minded he was, how intelligent he is, and how he picked up things very quickly,” Bradley said. “And that process continues. I mean, we still have days with him in training where we're on top of little things in terms of how many touches, when to play a little quicker, when to use his touches to create a better angle.”
He was pivotal as a No. 8 last year for Bradley, but his season was done when he suffered a broken ankle in late July.
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“Obviously, we were all disappointed with the injury last year, but we saw his commitment,” Bradley said. “He was out, but he was around training still everyday. Oftentimes when guys get injured, they come in early and they leave, because it's not always easy to be around the team when you're not able to be on the field. What Mark understood was that there were still things to be learned. And he has the type of personality where he is really engaged with his teammates. So he was still there all the time.”
Kaye signed a three-year contract extension after the season ended and has contributed three goals and five assists, playing a key role in connecting LAFC's vibrant attack. The long arc is paying off.
“I never gave up, and I always believed in myself,” Kaye said. “I think that's one thing that kids need to understand, growing up and trying to play soccer in this country, is that you might not see success right away, but you have to keep pushing, because if you keep doing that, you'll end up reaching limits you didn't know about, right? ... You have to embrace the journey.”