What a difference two years can make.
In 2016, Alphonso Davies was a buzzworthy but untested 15-year-old making his Vancouver Whitecaps debut, John Herdman was managing Canada’s women’s national team to a second Olympic bronze medal and the Canadian men’s team faced a cloudy future as they once again tumbled out of World Cup qualifying.
Now, as Canada begin their quest for Qatar 2022 with a Concacaf Nations League qualifier against the US Virgin Islands on Sunday (4 pm ET | Live stream on Concacaf.com), Herdman has become the program’s voice while Davies has become its face.
Looking at how it’s all shaken down, it’s tough to choose which is the more surprising of the two sets of circumstances that have brought us to this point.
Is it that the Canadian Soccer Association would spend months finding a replacement for Benito Floro following the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, eventually bringing Octavio Zambrano on board in March 2017, only to shuffle Herdman from the women’s program to the men’s side 10 months later?
Or is it that Davies would rise as quickly as he has, ascending from promising newcomer in 2016 to budding star in 2017 to the subject of the largest transfer deal in MLS history (with a $22-million price tag attached to his impending move to Bayern Munich) in 2018?
Either way, those circumstances have brought us to perhaps an even more surprising scenario: Canada are now, believe it or not, an attacking team. And 17-year-old Davies is, like it or not, their focal point.
Despite his age, Davies is no stranger to the headlines. He made a splash last summer by acquiring his full Canadian citizenship and committing to the national team – and then made an even bigger splash at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, scoring three goals and being named the best young player of the tournament.
And Herdman is no stranger to nurturing young talent on the national-team stage. A believer in the old adage, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” he gave center back Kadeisha Buchanan one of her first national-team starts as a 17-year-old – up against all-time international scoring leader Abby Wambach and the top-ranked US women’s national team.
On that day, Buchanan repaid the manager’s faith, shutting down Wambach in front of an appreciative Canadian crowd. Now, five years later, she’s one of the highest-paid defenders in France, a UEFA Champions League winner and the possible future captain of her national team.
Buchanan isn’t the only player who swam, rather than sank, when given the opportunity by Herdman, and there’s every reason to believe that Davies will also be given every chance to exert himself in Canadian red.
After all, it’s rare that a dynamic attacking player like Davies comes along in the Canadian program. The last one was Dwayne DeRosario – and he, despite his individual flair, was never surrounded with the same sort of complementary firepower that Davies now has.
Jonathan Osorio, 26, is having the finest year of his career for Toronto FC, with 16 goals in all competitions and a freshly signed long-term deal with his hometown club. Lucas Cavallini, 25, is scoring regularly for Puebla in Mexico after spending the formative years of his career playing in Uruguay.
Cyle Larin, 23, firmly established his goal-scoring credentials at Orlando City SC before moving to Besiktas in Turkey. Liam Millar, an 18-year-old Liverpool youth product, impressed in his Canada debut earlier this year, while another 18-year-old, Jonathan David (with KAA Gent in Belgium), will look to make a similar impact in his first national-team camp.
Somewhat ironically, the fact that Davies doesn’t need to be the focal point of this Canadian team is precisely the reason that he should be. This team is no longer about holding on for dear life defensively and just hoping that a singular star can weave a bit of magic. It’s about Herdman building a machine that can drive forward relentlessly, with Davies as its engine.
And with a trio of minnows on tap for Canada over the next few months – the USVI this weekend, Dominica in October and St. Kitts and Nevis in November – the time for Davies and company to hammer home the point (and build up crucial Nations League goal differential in the process) is now.