Advertisement
soccer

What Alphonso Davies' Transfer Says About the State of Soccer in Canada

Davies is a homegrown product and his move to Bayern Munich is proof that young Canadian stars can finally receive adequate development at home before leaving for greener pastures.

by Daniel Squizzato
Jul 26 2018, 5:55pm

Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

To understand the significance of the remarkable story of Alphonso Davies, it helps to also understand the story of Josh Simpson.

Davies is, as you've likely heard by now, the 17-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps starlet whose transfer to German super-club Bayern Munich (for a record-setting fee that could top $22 million US when all is said and done) was made official this week. The midfielder will finish the Major League Soccer season with the Whitecaps, then join the Bundesliga heavyweights during January's international transfer window.

While Davies has instantly become one of Canadian soccer's biggest heroes on the men's side, his ascent draws some unavoidable parallels with one of the national soccer scene's biggest villains: Owen Hargreaves.

Born in Calgary, Hargreaves also joined Bayern Munich as a teenager, back in 1997. He would go on to have a successful pro career, but chose not to play for Canada and remains persona non grata among many in the Canadian soccer community.

Davies, on the other hand, has enthusiastically (and officially) committed his future to our national-team program.



After being born in a Ghanaian refugee camp, Davies came to Canada with his family at a young age and eventually settled in Edmonton. It's there, while playing for a local youth club, that scouts spotted his precocious talent. He made the move to join the Whitecaps Residency in 2015, when he was 14 years old.

The following year, he made his pro debut with the Whitecaps' USL affiliate team; the year after that, he made his first-team debut. Now, he's off to join the European elite, taking the next step on a path to which most Canadian 14-year-olds have never had access.


It was tough not to notice the ear-to-ear smile that Josh Simpson wore as he strode around the E&N Roundhouse in Victoria last Friday.

The historic railyard, long ago converted into an event venue, was hosting the launch party for Pacific FC, the seventh of eight teams to be officially unveiled ahead of the Canadian Premier League's inaugural kickoff next April. That league will be Canada's first coast-to-coast pro league since the old Canadian Soccer League folded in 1992.

Simpson, who grew up playing the game on Vancouver Island before representing Canada at the international level, wasn't there merely as an enthused bystander. He and fellow Canadian national-team alumnus Rob Friend are two of the team's three co-owners.

Once the team's name and logo were revealed, a still-smiling Simpson took to the stage. But rather than discussing his own pro career—which included stops in England, Germany, Turkey, and Switzerland, before a catastrophic leg injury cut his playing days short—Simpson told a tale about the realities facing the teenage version of himself, chasing a dream back in the mid 1990s.

He talked about first travelling to Europe as a 12-year-old, seeing it as the only way to pursue his goal of playing professionally. (Victoria once had a pro team, the Vistas, but they'd gone away in 1990, years before Simpson's quest began.)

Simpson returned to Europe at 14, and even had a contract offer from a team in the Czech Republic, but ultimately turned it down.

"I thought, 'shoot, I'm going to leave my hometown, leave my family and friends?'" he said. "But that was the only path I had to… [fulfill] that dream of playing professional soccer.

"Come on, does that sound like it makes sense? Fourteen years old, moving time zones away, leaving everything you know, your base?"

It doesn't make sense, which explains Simpson's smile on that stage—he knew that, nearly three decades later, the void left by the dissolution of the Victoria Vistas would be filled by the club he co-owned, providing a new generation of boys with a local option to pursue their ambition.

As it turns out, Simpson found another way in his career, playing at the University of Portland before moving to Europe as a 21-year-old to play with Millwall.

And yes, Simpson, Friend, and other Canadian national-teamers—including the likes of Jason de Vos, Craig Forrest, Paul Stalteri, Tomasz Radzinski, Julian de Guzman and, most notably, Atiba Hutchinson—did manage to carve out successful European careers despite a lack of formative options at home.

But perhaps just as notable are the players who, facing a dearth of development options here, moved abroad as teens and closed the book on Canada, either temporarily or permanently.

Jonathan de Guzman went to the Netherlands and never came back, choosing to represent the Dutch internationally. Junior Hoilett and Steven Vitoria, despite recent repatriations to the Canadian program, each spent the better part of a decade declining interest from the nation of their birth.

And then, of course, there's Hargreaves.

Could different stories have been written for any of those players—and, by extension, the Canadian men's program in general—if they'd had the choice of developing their skills as professionals right here in Canada, as part of a local team in MLS or a Canadian league?

Conversely, what would have become of Davies if a big pro team, one province over, wasn't available during those key development years? Would his talent have been squandered, like countless Canadian kids before him? Or would he be another late bloomer who remained on the fence about representing Canada?

We'll never know, of course. But thanks to a recent change in FIFA's player transfer rules, the days of Canadian teenagers floating abroad in search of playing opportunities—like Simpson had to do—are likely done.

The governing body has decreed that, in most cases, a player cannot be transferred internationally until age 18 (indeed, Davies can't actually move to Bayern until after he turns 18 in November). That means that, despite the defeatist attitudes espoused by some within the Canadian sports firmament, the reality is that not only will the next Davies (and the one after that, and the one after that) be developed somewhere in Canada—they must be. There simply is no other way.

It's why the arrival of the CPL—carrying the mantra "by Canadians, for Canadians"—is so important, providing dozens of new pro playing opportunities for youngsters who can hone their craft at home, reinforce their ties to the Canadian program, and still set their long-term sights in Europe, South America or elsewhere.

And Davies' ascent is the latest piece of proof that, despite the misgivings still held by some Canadian fans about MLS's approach to its three northern teams, or about the teams' commitment to their own academies, the league can indeed provide a solid launching pad for Canadian players.

Now, this Bayern news has provided fresh hope that Davies could be the one leading the charge for Canada on home soil at the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which Canada will co-host.

But however good Davies may yet become, he can't do it alone. He'll need to be surrounded by 22 others, many of whom will be fellow kids that have had the chance to train and play in pro environments right at home from an early age.

In fact, when Canada takes the field in 2026, it could be some other youngster who steals the show, making the most of an opportunity to explode on a global platform.

Who could that be? We don’t know yet. Right now, he's probably just some 14-year-old kid with a dream.

Tagged:
Sports
VICE Sports
MLS
FC Bayern
vancouver whitecaps
alphonso davies