Orlando City SC's rookie striker Cyle Larin could set an MLS record on an emotional return to his hometown this weekend, as his club travels north of the border to meet Toronto FC for the third time this season (4 pm ET; TSN in Canada, MLS LIVE in US).
Tied with Damani Ralph's 2003 mark for most goals from a first-year forward (11) with nine matches remaining, Larin would find BMO Field a fitting locale to achieve that aim.
He's actually from Brampton, Ontario, a suburb on the northwest outskirts of the city, a place well-regarded for its production of top-class athletes. In soccer alone, it has helped develop the likes of Atiba Hutchinson, Paul Stalteri, Jonathan Osorio and Doneil Henry, to name a few.
Larin was a quiet boy – "very quiet," as his mother, Patricia Larin, recalled in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com on Friday.
“As soon as he could walk, he had a ball,” she remembered. “Everywhere he went.”
Young Cyle first asked to play soccer when he was six. It wasn't always easy for a single mother with two jobs to meet the rigors of a busy practice schedule, but Ms. Larin, at the urging of others in the community, found herself up at six o'clock in the morning to bring her son to a tryout for something called 'rep soccer.'
“I didn't even know what it was,” she said. “We weren't even prepared, so he had basketball shoes on.”
Improper footwear was no obstacle. Cyle scored a couple of goals, turning heads in the process.
At first his mother did not understand the fuss. Watching sports on TV was “in one ear, out the other,” but a tournament at the age of nine resonated, prompting her to quit the night shifts to be there for Cyle, to support him on his soccer journey.
The Larins eventually crossed paths with Bobby Smyrniotis, founder and technical director of Sigma FC, a private academy in Mississauga, another Toronto suburb. They formed a relationship that would see Cyle's development blossom.
By 12, Larin was already being scouted by some prestigious clubs. Dutch power Ajax expressed interest following a visit with Sigma, but that fell through after a change in their boardroom. Next came Celtic FC from Scotland, but the absence of a European passport proved a deal-breaker.
Around that same time, Brampton native Jason Bent – who is currently head coach of TFC II, but was working in the TFC Academy back then – was alerted by a familial connection.
“My cousin is his godmother,” Bent explained to MLSsoccer.com last week. “She brought him to my attention.
“However, he was with Sigma at the time, and they [Larin and his family] always remained loyal. But he was definitely on our radar.”
Larin would go on to thrive at the University of Connecticut, becoming the undisputed No. 1 pick in this season's SuperDraft class. Many were aware of his potential, yet few would have expected him to hit his stride so quickly.
But not Smyrniotis.
Asked on Monday night if he was surprised by Larin's early success, his former coach quipped, “It would be easy to say 'Yes', but I'm not. My take was always, 'It will all depend on how much time he gets to play.'
“He knows how to get himself in spots to score. It was just a matter of getting minutes. There would be some lumps and bumps in the first few games, but I thought he was ready for this step and it's shown.”
Indeed, Larin is the frontrunner for the MLS Rookie of the Year award, and he's got Canadian national team fans expectant of a bright future.
In two weeks, Larin – alongside TFC's Osorio and FC Dallas' reigning Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele – is likely to be head coach Benito Floro's attacking weapon of choice as Les Rouges begin the next stage of their World Cup qualification process with a two-legged series against Belize.
But TSN soccer analyst Jason deVos, a former Canada captain, cautions about putting too much on the shoulders of a 20 year-old kid.
“It's quite unfair to have anyone suggest that he's going to be the one to carry the goalscoring weight that the national team will require,” said deVos. “But he's got a lot of promise, he's got a lot of potential.
“Goalscorers are hard to come by. Any time you can get one who is committed, wants to play for Canada, and can put the ball in the back of the net, it's a reason for optimism.”
For Patricia Larin, seeing her son don the kit of his country is just plain “awesome.”
“Sometimes I can't even believe it. I'm really proud of him,” she said. “He has a vision of where soccer with Canada can be and he always portrays that. He gives us hope; he gives Canada hope.”