By Justin Sousa
Mexico, Costa Rica, and the United States——the interminable faces of the CONCACAF region. As a combined three, they have won 18 CONCACAF Gold Cups and remain the only nations to have participated in every Hexagonal World Cup Qualifier since 1997. Their emphasis on youth development has made it difficult for competitors to challenge their superiority. Regional rivals such as Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras constantly find themselves in the shadows of this North American triad and lack a generation of players to compete against the elite. Yet, it seems that Canada of all nations has managed to find a method of refining their resources to begin creating a consistent production line of talented youngsters.
Having a history for their brutality on ice rather than their grace on grass, Canada looks ready to start making a mark on CONCACAF. Since their establishment, the Canadian Soccer Association has lacked a respectable professional league to nurture and develop prospective players, nor do they have players on their current senior national team roster with the talent or reputation to serve as a role model for young players back home. Yet, Canadian starlets are beginning to shine in the United Soccer League and across Major League Soccer. The explanation for this is simple: they had a plan.
Back in 2014, the CSA released an outline of their five-year plan to develop a new profound foundation for the Canadian National Team. This plan, titled LEADING A Soccer Nation, placed more emphasis on an investment in youth development programs and restructuring the road from the youth national team to the senior national team. The MLS franchises of Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto ventured into reserve teams for the United Soccer League (USL) to serve as an opportunity for academy players, as well as young signings, to gain first team experience in a professional environment. With the 2015 and 2016 USL seasons providing breakthrough campaigns for young players from all three franchises, a golden generation for Canada seems to be on the horizon.
Though many of Canada’s exciting prospects are developing at their respective USL clubs, Cyle Larin and Jordan Hamilton are two players who have adjusted to life at the MLS level. Both forwards have impressed their coaching staffs at club level and have given their national team hope of mending the offensive quality they have lacked for years.
Based on current form, Orlando City’s Cyle Larin will undoubtedly headline Canada's front line. He surprised many when he was announced the number one overall pick in the 2015 MLS Draft, the first Canadian to behold such an honor. The 21-year old lacks the defensive contribution of a seasoned striker, but his clinical finishing and darting runs make him a handful for defenders to control. With 31 goals in 59 MLS appearances, Larin’s goal portfolio ranges from headers and tap-ins to the occasional wonder strike. In addition to securing a starting position at Orlando, Larin’s 19 caps for Canada show the coaching staff’s belief in his ability and their willingness to give him a chance to lead Canada’s offense.
Jordan Hamilton, however, offers Canada a different offensive shape when needed. While Cyle Larin has become the solo striker in Orlando’s 4-2-3-1 system, Toronto FC prefer to partner Hamilton with Sebastian Giovinco or utilize his broad stature as the false-nine of a 4-3-3 formation. Hamilton provides Canada with a “Plan B” in case Larin is having a one-off performance, a luxury that even European champions Portugal have struggled to find at the number nine position in recent years. His most difficult challenge for the upcoming season will be dislodging the cohesive partnership of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco in order to get more minutes for Toronto FC. A spell with Toronto FC II, the USL affiliate of Toronto FC, would help Hamilton improve his craft and give Greg Vanney something to think about when selecting Toronto FC’s starting lineup.
Nevertheless, no forward can truly be at their best without some magic in midfield by a creative player. With that being said, Tosaint Ricketts (29), Atiba Hutchinson (31), and Jonathan de Guzman (35) are not getting any younger, and an heir to their midfield is in high demand from Canada. A player capable of filling these boots is Whitecaps FC 2 starlet and Vancouver Whitecaps Academy graduate Marco Bustos.
Bustos prefers a central attacking role with the freedom to take on players and drift across the midfield. Perhaps what sets Bustos apart from the rest of his compatriots is his creativity on the ball, an attribute Canada’s previous and current senior team have failed to exhibit on the national stage. He gives Canada an outlet when transitioning from their defensive solidarity to a fluent offensive onslaught. Marco was undoubtedly the conductor of everything Whitecaps FC 2 did going forward and has no apparent fear of playing a risky ball when the opportunity arises. Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson admitted he plans to incorporate Marco Bustos in Vancouver’s rebuild for the 2017 season after renewing the 20-year old’s contract at the end of 2016.
Along with the established players of Canada’s next era comes a wave of exciting teenagers from Canadian based academies. With the USL affiliates providing game time for these young men, they are put one step further into developing into the stars of tomorrow. What they lack in top level experience is made up for with the immense amount of potential they show week in and week out for their USL sides.
Most notably are 16-year old Alphonso Davies and 17-year old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, two players who were integral to their USL sides. Alphonso Davies grabbed headlines when he became the youngest player ever to sign a USL contract at 15 years and three months old back in February. He played eleven games for Whitecaps FC 2 during their run to a Western Conference Final. Tabla, on the other hand, was the bright spot of an FC Montreal side that finished bottom of their conference. Despite interest from Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City, the Montreal Impact signed Tabla to an MLS contract at the end of the year.
Farther down the Canadian production line lie defensive prodigies Kadin Chung and Matthew Baldisimo. Products of the Vancouver Whitecaps Academy, Chung and Baldisimo accumulated over 20 appearances each for Whitecaps FC 2 this season. Baldisimo and Chung have played with each other since 2011 when they both joined the academy as 13-year olds. With the chemistry between this center back-full back pairing, Canada can rest easy knowing that their youth academies are producing quality replacements for their ageing backline.
In spite of the national team’s search for a new head coach, interim coach Michael Findlay has taken the initiative to include Canada’s promising youth in the senior national team. Findlay was quoted saying that he wishes to implement a “more vibrant and attacking mindset” at the senior level. Having already been knocked out of the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers, Canada can put all their focus and preparation into perfecting this philosophy during the 2017 Gold Cup. As is with all young players, only time will tell if this group will be just another average side, or the golden generation Canada has been wishing for.