With the winners of the last two Rookie of the Year awards hailing from north of the border, it’s safe to say Canada is producing some bright young talents in MLS.
Given how many members of the academies in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal appear on the rosters of Canada’s U-17 and U-20 teams these days, it’s also safe to say the national team program is benefitting from that symbiotic relationship.
And although future stardom is never guaranteed even for the most promising youngsters, there are numerous Canadian kids who look poised to make their mark on MLS in the years to come – and one who definitely already has.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 Canadians age 21 or younger to keep an eye on.
Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese (Vancouver)
For more than half their lives, these Manitoba boys have been inseparable. Born just six days apart in 1996, the pair grew up in Winnipeg (where Froese’s family had moved, from Cuba) and quickly caught the eye of Rob Gale, then technical director of the Manitoba Soccer Association.
“Both of them have great technical quality,” Gale tells MLSsoccer.com. “It’s been terrific for me, having known them since age 9 or 10, to see them develop.”
Even at that early age, the two were playing competitively against 15- and 16-year-olds. Bustos, says Gale, has always had “attacking flair,” but since joining the Whitecaps system, has become a more well-rounded player. Froese (pictured above), meanwhile, reminds Gale of longtime Liverpool midfielder Jamie Redknapp.
“He can play literally anywhere across a midfield four because he’s got the pace, the strength, the energy and the work rate.”
Bustos (2011) and Froese (2012) would leave Winnipeg to join the Whitecaps Residency, but continued to work with Gale, who became an assistant coach with Canada’s U-17 team and later, head coach of the U-20 team, a post he still holds today.
The dynamic 19-year-olds are both part of the Whitecaps’ MLS roster and both were at training camp with Canada’s senior national team earlier this month. And yes, they’ll both be challenging for first-team minutes in 2016, for club and country.
Maxime Crépeau (Montreal) and Quillan Roberts (Toronto)
These two definitely aren’t as closely linked as Bustos and Froese are, but the two 21-year-old goalkeepers have seen their careers rise on similar trajectories.
Both signed with the academies of their hometown clubs as teenagers and would eventually sign professional contracts with the senior teams. Both have had success in the USL, building up their experience in the hopes of moving up the depth chart of their MLS clubs.
The two were teammates for Canada at the 2011 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, with Roberts playing the bulk of the minutes after Crépeau (pictured above) was injured in the team’s first game. That opened the door for Roberts to enjoy an historic, once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Crépeau had a pretty good moment of his own last week, stonewalling the US for most of the night in his senior national-team debut. But both could be primed for some more big moments this season, as both will be challenging for minutes at the MLS level.
Cyle Larin and Richie Laryea (Orlando City)
Surely you know all about Larin (pictured above), the 20-year-old striker that went No. 1 in the MLS SuperDraft, blazed his way to MLS Rookie of the Year honors and established himself as Canada’s top striker in a rather eventful 2015.
But you may not yet have heard of Laryea, a 21-year-old midfielder who, like Larin, came up through the Sigma FC Academy in Toronto, went on to star at the NCAA level (for the University of Akron) and then went high in the MLS SuperDraft (Laryea went No. 7 overall this year).
Laryea has had limited experience with Canada’s youth teams, partially because – according to Gale – his versatility meant that coaches didn’t always know what to do with him.
“But what was not in question was his technical qualities, his vision, his technique on the ball,” says Gale.
It isn’t always easy for players to transition from college ball to the professional game; even Larin seemed to take time to grow into his talent as the MLS season progressed. But clearly the brass at Orlando City were impressed enough with their first Canadian to take a shot on Laryea.
“Same with Cyle, [he’s] had a great technical grounding, great technique and tactical qualities,” says Gale. “Now it’s a matter of them being exposed into that full-time professional environment, and we can only hope we see the same [success] from Richie, which I think we will.”
Sam Adekugbe (Vancouver)
The 21-year-old fullback has shown flashes of promise in MLS play over the last two seasons, and will be hoping to show much more in 2016.
“Sam is the quintessential modern fullback, in his stature, his athletic qualities and his ability on the ball,” says Gale. “He has that ability to join in the attack and become an effective force going the other way.”
Having made his senior national-team debut in a World Cup qualifier last summer, the England-born Adekugbe is now cap-tied to Canada; good news for a program that will be looking for more options at fullback in the years ahead.
Kadin Chung (Vancouver)
Another option at the position (though likely a bit further down the road) could be Chung, who was named the Canadian Soccer Association’s U-17 Player of the Year in 2015. He’s not yet on the senior-team radar, having just signed with Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in the USL last year, but his work ethic could help him continue rising up the ranks.
“He’s a gamer. No matter the challenge in front of him, he’ll rise to the occasion,” says Gale, who compared Chung’s style of play to Bayern Munich star Philipp Lahm. “He’ll be one that’s always competing for minutes, it’s the nature of the boy. He’s a well-rounded, very accomplished fullback.”
Jordan Hamilton (Toronto)
Fans in Toronto have been hoping for big things from the 19-year-old ever since he made the jump from the TFC Academy to the first-team roster in January 2014. Though he had great goal-scoring success for Canada’s U-17 and U-20 sides, he hasn’t yet transitioned into being a regular first-team professional.
“Everybody is waiting for that breakthrough with him,” says Gale. “He’s that kind of player that always shows glimpses of the talent he has.”
With TFC's squad full of veteran attackers like Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez, Hamilton will find it difficult to earn first-team minutes in 2016. But perhaps another year with TFCII in USL will help the young striker find the consistency he needs.
Says Gale: “He’s always shown that he has the talent. For Jordan, it’s just a case of that maturity in himself and his game to catch up with that, so that the glimpses become more commonplace.”
Jean-Yves Ballou Tabla (Montreal)
The 16-year-old midfielder joined FC Montreal (USL) late last year, after having spent some time with the Montreal Impact academy. He’s appeared for Canada’s U-17 and U-20 squads and, according to Gale, has a rare talent for unlocking opposing defenses with his playmaking ability.
“He’s a very talented boy who has some special qualities,” says Gale. “He’s a player that can get people up on their feet and create that extra little bit of excitement.”
“We just hope he’ll continue to development that and hopefully push into that first-team environment,” says Gale. “He’ll be one to watch for Impact fans, for sure.”