In many ways, Alphonso Davies was a win for Canada soccer before news of an MLS-record transfer to one of the world's top clubs.
Born to Liberian parents in a Ghana refugee camp, the 17-year-old Davies had options when it came to international football. Unlike Calgary-born Owen Hargreaves (England), Toronto-born Jonathan de Guzman (the Netherlands) and Yugoslavia-born, Edmonton-raised Asmir Begovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Davies chose to play for 79th-ranked Canada.
Now Davies can carry the Maple Leaf in the colours of Bayern Munich or another club if the German powerhouse opts to send him out on loan to get playing time once he leaves the Vancouver Whitecaps after the 2018 season.
He is eligible to play for Bayern Munich when the international transfer window reopens in January.
Davies' skills will serve Canada well on the playing field. But perhaps his biggest boon will be as a Canadian on the world stage.
Davies has the opportunity to join past and present athletes like Donovan Bailey, Andre De Grasse, Brooke Henderson, Ferguson Jenkins, Nancy Greene, Steve Nash, Steve Podborski, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Georges St-Pierre, Jacques Villeneuve and Mike Weir as Canadians who have put or are in the process of putting their stamp on their sport.
"It's the beginning of a dream that he deserves and he's fought for," said former Canadian captain Julian de Guzman, Jonathan's older brother.
The Canadian Soccer Association did its bit to make Davies the face of Canadian soccer when it chose him to tell his story before the FIFA Congress in June as part of the North American joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup.
"It was a hard life," said Davies, detailing his hardscrabble beginnings. "But when I was five years old, a country called Canada welcomed us in … Today, I'm 17 years old and I play for the (Canadian) men's national team. And I'm a proud Canadian citizen."
The attacking midfielder can serve as a beacon for Canadian soccer players young and old. He is already a godsend for Canada coach John Herdman, the 10th man in charge of the national team since Davies was born.
The teen's profile is key for Canadian soccer. Sponsors love a star attraction. Davies is a tonic for a program that has had trouble in the past finding a TV home for its games. Should Davies' star continues rising, he will keep soccer on the front pages.
While the teenager's soccer journey is only beginning, he has already skipped several steps.
Most Canadian players face obstacles just opening the door to Europe. And when they do go, they traditionally climb the soccer ladder slowly.
Atiba Hutchinson, for example, built his career carefully starting in Scandinavia with Osters and Helsingborg in Sweden and FC Copenhagen in Denmark.
The midfielder joined Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in 2010 before moving to Turkey's Besiktas in 2013. Today his home is the sparkling 41,900-capacity Vodafone Arena in Istanbul and he is a Champions League veteran (Besiktas was thumped 8-1 by Bayern on aggregate in the tournament's round of 16 in March).
Nineteen when he debuted for Canada, the 35-year-old Hutchinson has now won 78 caps and served as national team captain.
Rob Friend also worked his way up. Originally drafted by the Chicago Fire in 2003, he opted to sign with Moss FK and then Molde FK in Norway. The six-foot-five forward spent a year with SC Heerenveen in the Netherlands before embarking on a successful stretch in Germany.
Friend signed with Borussia Moenchengladbach for the 2007 season, scoring 18 goals to help the team earn promotion to Germany's top flight. He scored 28 goals in his three seasons with the storied club — the pinnacle of his career — before moving on to Hertha BSC, Eintracht Frankfurt and TSV 1860 Munchen.
He moved to MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy before concussion-related problems cut his career short in 2014 at the age of 33. Today he is co-owner of Pacific FC, the Vancouver Island entry in the new Canadian Premier League.
Julian de Guzman was 15 when he went to Europe where a two-week tryout with Marseille led to an amateur contract. The early years were difficult and the French club eventually cut him loose, telling him to go home because "Canadians are not good enough to make it in Europe."
Germany's FC Saarbrucken saw it differently and de Guzman's soccer adventure was on. He saw Bundesliga action with Hannover 96 before a successful stint in Spain with Deportivo de La Coruna. The Canada captain went on to play in Greece and Spain as well as Major League Soccer and today is GM of the USL's Ottawa Fury FC.
Former Canada captain Paul Stalteri played one year on a soccer scholarship at Clemson University before returning home and joining the Toronto Lynx. After being noticed by a scout from Werder Bremen, he joined the German team in 1997.
He made his first team debut in 2000 against Cottbus and Kevin McKenna, a future Canadian captain himself. They were the first Canadians to play in the top German league. Stalteri scored in the game and went on to win the Bundesliga and German Cup in 2003-04 with Bremen.
At the end of the 2004-05 season, he signed a four-year contract with England's Tottenham, eventually moving to Fulham on loan before returning to Germany and Moenchengladbach.
McKenna played for Cottbus and Scotland's Hearts before finding a home back in Germany with FC Koln.
While such Canadians have made their mark in Europe, it remains a sink-or-swim scenario.
Davies has been well-cared for by the Whitecaps and coach Carl Robinson, a savvy soccer man. But like other top world clubs, Bayern Munich has more than one phenom on its books.
England's Chelsea, on its website, lists 27 players out on loan. That number was closer to 40 earlier in the year, according to other reports.
Like Chelsea, Bayern's academy is churning out talent. And it has deep pockets to buy starlets developed elsewhere.
Davies will face competition wherever he goes before ultimately finding his spot in the sport.
"To be in the Bundesliga it's a major challenge, it's a major test for the young professional," said de Guzman.
"It's very demanding," he added. "And I can tell you a lot of Canadians who have been there never made it ... If you could overcome the mentality and the culture and be a part of it in Germany, then you could really become a part of any culture in the soccer world. It's one of the hardest culture to be a part of at a professional level and it really does take the best — not just on the skill side of things for a player but more psychologically.
"This will definitely grow the boy to become a more complete professional down the road."
Friend agrees, calling the Bundesliga a real testing ground.
"It's not a matter of ability. It always comes down in Germany to mentality, It's a tough tough culture to crack. It's mentally taxing."
Friend, however, believes Canadians have the right mentality — "hard-working and humble" — to succeed there.
"In terms of Alphonso, it's not ability. The kid's got all the talent in the world, everybody sees that. Obviously some of the biggest clubs in the world see that. Approaching it mentally in the right way is really what it's going to come down to for him."
Friend says there are no shortcuts and no hiding in Germany. Even training is different with Bundesliga teams spending double the time MLS clubs do on the practice field.
On the plus side, Friend says Bundesliga teams are willing to give young talent the time to develop.
"When a German team invests in a player, they truly invest in the long-term. And they're going to be patient with him. But again at the end of the day it come down to the player ... It's a mental game going over there."
While he never played in Germany, American Freddy Adu serves as a cautionary tale. Sports Illustrated dubbed the 13-year-old Adu a soccer prodigy who had "the world at his feet." Adu went on to win 17 caps for the U.S. but today, aged 29, he plays for the Las Vegas Lights of the USL — the latest stop on a journey that has seen him play for more than a dozen clubs.
But for Bayern, which won its sixth straight Bundesliga title and 28th overall earlier this year, Davies is likely more than just a project.
Looking to further its foothold as a brand in North America, the German club opened a U.S. office in New York City in 2014. And in February, it announced a partnership with FC Dallas to develop young talent.
In addition to its German Twitter account (with 4.44 million followers), Bayern already has English language (944,000) and U.S. (155,000) accounts. It has another 47.4 million followers on Facebook and 13.3 million on Instagram.
Canada and the soccer world will be watching Davies.
"I'm excited to see where he goes with it," Friend said.
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