The future of the Canadian men's soccer team got a little brighter Tuesday with news that teenager Ballou Tabla has committed to Canada.
The 19-year-old midfielder/forward, who was born in the Ivory Coast and came to Canada when he was eight, had represented Canada at the youth level but had yet to officially declare his international allegiance.
"It's good to hear," said Canada coach John Herdman. "He's such a talented player, playing in an environment where he's developing every day and developing at the level that is going to help this country step up to the next level."
Tabla left the Montreal Impact for FC Barcelona's B team in January.
He joins a talented group of Canadian youngsters including Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps bound for Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (KAA Gent) and Liam Millar (Liverpool U23).
"You've got players at top clubs around the world receiving the best in their development," said Herdman.
Davies is 17 and David 18 while Millar turns 19 on Thursday.
David had two goals and an assist in Canada's recent 8-0 win over the U.S. Virgin Islands in CONCACAF Nations League play. Davies had two assists while Millar had one assist.
A Canadian Soccer Association tweet showed a bubbly Tabla wearing a red Canada jersey.
"Yo Canada. This is Ballou Tabla," he says in a video. "This is the jersey and I can't wait to fight for it again. See you soon."
Tabla has been in Canada camps from under-15 to under-20 and played five games for Canada at the CONCACAF U17 Championship in 2015. He was named Canada's under-17 player of the year in 2014 and won under-20 honours in 2016.
But his senior allegiance had been up in the air until now.
"I'm very happy to be back with the national team," he said in a CSA interview. "I'm proud and I can't wait to see my teammates."
Herdman said the dialogue with Ballou had been ongoing.
"A couple of questions and meetings we had we got right to the core of his motivations and his motivation was Canada."
Herdman returned Tuesday from London, where he attended the FIFA player awards and was part of a CONCACAF panel at FIFA meetings.
The Canadian men's team's next game is a CONCACAF Nations League match against No. 177 Dominica on Oct. 16 in Toronto. Canada is currently ranked 79th in the world.
Tabla joined the Montreal Impact academy in August 2012 before leaving in December 2013. He then rejoined the Impact under-18 squad in April 2015 and played with FC Montreal, the Impact's USL entry in 2016. He graduated to the first team in October 2016.
At 17 years 338 days, he was the youngest Impact player to take part in an MLS game when he saw action in San Jose on March 4. He played in 21 games (11 starts) for the Impact last season, mostly on the right side, picking up two goals and two assists with 1,146 minutes played.
He currently plays for the Barcelona B side in Spain's second division, having signed a contract for three years plus two option years.
"He's improving. I think that's the exciting thing ... He's getting more powerful," said Herdman.
"The Ballou that many people saw as a 16-year-old is definitely evolving," he added. "But for those that haven't seen him, he's an exciting talent. He has the genuine dribbling ability, that technical ability and a mindset to want to beat players one-vs.-one. There aren't many players with his ability in tight spaces.
"I think he's going to bring something new to the country, very different as well to what we've got."
Barcelona has used him predominantly as a wide forward, but Herdman says he believes he could start anywhere across the attacking midfield or forward line.
"That's what's exciting about Ballou. He'll be one of those players that will be very hard to pinpoint for opposition teams," said Herdman.
Tabla's coming on board is more good news for Herdman, who is targeting the 2022 and 2026 World Cups, with Canada, the U.S. and Mexico hosting the 2026 event.
Other converts to Canada in recent years include midfielders Junior Hoilett and Scott Arfield, defender Steven Vitorio and forward Tesho Akindele.
Others in the past have gone the other way, including Owen Hargreaves (England), Teal Bunbury (U.S.) and Asmir Begovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina).
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