Canada’s football history isn’t littered with success. They were eliminated in the first round of their only trip to the FIFA World Cup™ in 1986 and a shock CONCACAF Gold Cup title 16 years ago stands as their only international silverware. But while their past might not stand out for its crowning glories, Canada’s future is bright as can be.
For the last two seasons running, Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year honour – awarded to the outstanding player in his first year in the North American top-flight – was awarded to a Canadian international. In 2014, Tesho Akindele, 23, of FC Dallas scooped the prize. Last year it went to 20-year-old Cyle Larin of Orlando City.
“It says something important about what’s going on in Canadian soccer,” Akindele, a tall and rangy striker who can also play wide in midfield, told FIFA.com. “You can see we’re moving in the right direction.” Larin, a striker of uncommon natural ability in the Great White North, is in full agreement. “It’s a really exciting thing for me, two of us and for Canada too.”
Learning from Kaka
Both players came through the university system south of the border in USA. Akindele attended the rigorous Colorado School of Mines and kept up a demanding academic schedule in addition to his football. The forward graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, while Larin left the classroom behind after only two years, opting to take up his studies on the professional pitch, under a true master.
“Kaka is just such a special player,” the soft-spoken, almost shy, Larin said of what he’s learning from the Brazilian legend’s elegant passes in Florida. “As a young guy there’s so much you can learn from him. I keep my eyes on him during training and watch what he does. He’s been everywhere – the World Cup, the biggest clubs. Huge derbies. He’s taught me about getting my head up and ready for service early.”
Both of these youngsters are learning from another man with deep knowledge and vast experience in the game: Canada coach Benito Floro. The Spaniard, once boss of Real Madrid, took over the Canuck reins in 2013 intent on banishing the rough-and-tumble physical approach of years’ past. His goal was to usher in a new possession-based game. “He gives us the little details only a guy like him would have,” Akindele said of his boss. “We’re all pros, so we can play the game right. We can shoot and pass and tackle, but it really comes down to those little details he can give. They make the difference.
“He wants us to play the ball around the whole field, to keep it moving,” said Larin about Floro, the coach who spotted his talent in 2014 and made him an integral part of his plans. “It’s a new style for Canada and the players are warming to it.”
Even the most casual glimpse of the current Canada side reveals the changes ushered in by Floro. Gone are the days of little more than Canuck Spirit. The men with the maple leafs on their chests are playing a modern game in a modern way. High pressing, ball possession and patience are the key elements.
There is one conspicuous component missing from the equation: Goals. Canada had an infamous recent run of 900 minutes without scoring and they went the entire CONCACAF Gold Cup scoreless last year, despite creating chances and playing laudable football overall. As strikers, the responsibility falls to Larin and Akindele to help the team with their attacking output. And neither seems nervous about the challenge or the responsibility.
“Go back and watch the tapes of the Gold Cup and you’ll see we just got a little unlucky in front of goal,” said Akindele, who could have played internationally for USA, Canada or Nigeria. “We had the kind of chances that if we get five times, we’ll score four of them. And now we’re starting to take them. We have the quality.”
Goals galore on road to Russia
The most recent numbers bear out Akindele’s confidence. The Canadians have outscored their opponents so far in Russia 2018 qualifying 11 to one. “The goals are coming now,” Larin, who’s scored three in the current qualifying campaign, echoed his partner and sometimes room-mate on the road. “We’re growing and building the right way.”
The Canadians will need all of their trademark fight and spirit – not to mention all of the goals they can muster – in their next test on the hopeful road to an eventual return to the world stage. They play regional champions Mexico at home on Friday, and then at the fabled Estadio Azteca four days later.
“Mexico are huge in the region,” Akindele said, diplomatically, about the CONCACAF giants. But with these two high-flying young guns leading the lines, Canada are keeping their eye on the horizon and not the gray past. Larin, younger of the pair by three years, finished the discussion with the kind of zeal specific to youth. “If we play the way we know we can, there’s no reason we can’t take all the points.”