On Oct. 3, 2016, a man named Jorge Alvial traveled to Vancouver to see about a player.
Alvial himself was no passive bystander, a fact everyone knew by the time he took his seat at BC Place that evening for the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Cascadia Cup clash against the Seattle Sounders. Alvial serves as the lead scout of the Americas for Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, and thanks in part to an article in The Province, a local British Columbia publication, news of Alvial’s attendance for this particular match preceded his arrival.
Why Alvial was there in the first place? To scout Alphonso Davies, of course.
By late last year, Davies’ name and tales of his fearless performances had seemingly circulated around the globe. There was news that Davies was being watched by a few European mega-clubs, and Alvial was actually the second scout to see Davies in person. Liverpool’s Andy O’Brien had seen Davies not long before, and the avalanche was on.
By the time the game kicked off, practically everyone knew Alvial was there. News like that travels fast. Under the circumstances – Davies wouldn’t even turn 16 for another month – it’d be fair to assume the young Liberian-born, Edmonton-raised, Vancouver-based attacker would suffer some jitters, at least early on. In the fifth minute, Davies logged a key pass leading to a shot, and 20 minutes after that he skinned Seattle left back Oniel Fisher, a man known for his speed, and beat him into the box while tightroping along the end line to earn a penalty.
So much for jitters.
This has been something of a theme in Davies’ young career: confront a big situation and bulldoze it as though he’d seen it professionally a hundred times before. Eleven months ago, Davies became the youngest goal-scorer in USL history. Four months later, he started his first MLS league match and opened his first team account with a goal against Sporting KC in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Five months after that, in March, he scored again in the CCL, this time in an eventual triumph over the New York Red Bulls in the quarterfinals. All the while, he's bumped the eminently dangerous Kekuta Manneh from the starting lineup (Vancouver would eventually trade Manneh to Columbus) and become a key threat in his own right. I hazard a guess that there are few teams in the league who would not start him tomorrow. At 16.
The Whitecaps and coach Carl Robinson specifically have done their best to keep the hype lid firmly snapped closed over Davies since he made his debut last year. That’s laudable work, all things considered, but when performances speak this loudly it’s also largely a moot point. Davies’ hype is out. Now the question is merely where it’ll lead him.
To fully understand why Davies is such a unicorn of a prospect at his age, you have to understand the psyche of the typical young player in contrast.
When players step up in competition, their game tends to flatten, no matter the position. The speed of MLS – and make no mistake, MLS is one of the world’s fastest leagues – tends to coax a more reactionary and tactically subdued approach from teenage players especially.
Watch the vast majority of MLS debutants under the age of roughly 20, and the commonality is in squared and backward passes mixed with a tendency to defer. The game tends to blur at younger ages, and it’s all those players can do to not allow it to overwhelm them. As for off-ball runs, things tend to be a bit more conservative than not. Until the game slows down, a process that usually takes at least a handful of 90-minute appearances, everything seems a bit sluggish the younger you get.
I do not hesitate in saying this; Davies is the most emphatic repudiation of that conservatism that I have ever seen out of a player this young in MLS.
Literally from his first touch in the league, Davies was shockingly vertical and almost unnervingly confrontational in his 1-on-1 verve. Davies’ tactical toolkit isn’t perhaps as deep as some, and you won’t see him trying heel-clicks and rabonas to try to get around defenders. But he has something much more coveted than that; fearlessness in the midst of his verticality.
Davies is an absolute howitzer-blast of a player, and if you watch his head when he gets possession he almost unfailingly snaps his vision downfield as soon as he’s on ball. When Davies is over the ball, the attack will begin tunneling downfield, no questions asked. For a player this young, the rarity in that sort of mindset is hard to adequately put into perspective. Coaches practically beg for it.
The most expensive outbound transfer in MLS history remains the roughly $10 million pocketed from Jozy Altidore’s sale to Villarreal from the New York Red Bulls. In the nine years since, no MLS-reared prospect has ever matched that number, or even come all that close. And to wit, Altidore and Davies are different players at different positions judged on different raw metrics. By the time Altidore left MLS, he had 15 goals and five assists under his belt, but he was also 18 going on 19, two years older than Davies is currently. Whether Davies even could move before his 18th birthday, the youngest age FIFA allows players without an EU passport to transfer to a European team, is uncertain.
Even with all that said, Davies has done more by his 16th birthday than the peak outgoing transfer in the league’s history at the same age. It’s unlikely he leaves Vancouver any time soon, if he leaves at all, but the swirling interest around him has done nothing to dampen the hype. And this time you can feel free to shovel all the coal into the furnace of this hype train as you want. Davies warrants it.