VANCOUVER, B.C. – “If you're good enough, you're old enough.” That's an old adage Vancouver Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson isn't just keen to quote, but to follow through on.
Developing young players, especially homegrown Canadians, is the clear modus operandi of Whitecaps FC, and Robinson’s youth movement at the club is well documented. Sixteen members of the ‘Caps 28-man MLS roster are aged 24 or under, but it's in Vancouver's USL side that the foundations for the club's future can be seen in its fullest effect.
WFC2 are the youngest squad in the USL. They're also tied for the top spot in the Western Conference standings with a 6W-1L-4D record. Whitecaps 2 have five teenagers on their roster, all of whom have seen regular minutes this season. The youngest is 15-year-old attacking midfielder Alphonso Davies, and on Wednesday he became the youngest player to start for Whitecaps FC.
"It’s important that he keeps his feet on the ground," Robinson told reporters after the match. "He’s a young kid, he’s got natural ability, we know that. He’s one of a number of younger kids we’ve got that we think have got incredible potential. But it’s potential, there’s so many players that have potential that don’t fulfill it. I wanted to give Alphonso a chance because I thought that he was ready, and he didn’t look out of place. All credit to him, I know his mom and dad and coach would be very proud of him.”
Davies, who won't turn 16 until after the season finishes, has been turning heads since Robinson included him in Vancouver’s MLS preseason camp. He may not be able to drive, vote or see an R-rated movie, but his performances convinced the ‘Caps that he was ready for the next level.
After moving to Vancouver from Edmonton last August to join the academy, Davies signed his first professional contract with WFC2 in February, capping off a whirlwind journey that doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
"When I came out here, I didn’t think things would go so quickly," Davies admits. "I really thought that it would take me probably a year to get all these opportunities, so I’m glad that they’re coming early and that they really believe that I can be a professional player at the club. I’m really happy for that."
After catching Vancouver's eye in Edmonton's youth circles, Davies was invited to trial with Whitecaps FC last summer. The 'Caps liked what they saw and quickly invited him to move west to join the Whitecaps FC Residency program.
Davies was just 14 years old at the time, and the move was a daunting one. He admits it was a difficult choice to uproot and leave home so early, especially for his family. His mother, in particular, was very hesitant, preferring her son to go to school first before considering a career in soccer.
“She really didn’t like the idea at first and we talked about it,” Davies says. “She’s really concerned for my schooling. Like how am I going to go to school and focus, and she couldn’t keep track of me at school.
"It was a tough decision for my family, but once we decided to let me come, I’m really happy that my parents made that decision for me to come to Vancouver."
Now, less than a year later, Davies’ sacrifice is paying off on the field. After seeing the faith the 'Caps have shown her son as well as his rapid growth in such a short period of time, Davies says his mother has come around to the arrangement.
"She called me last week,” he says, “and said, 'I'm really proud of you. Keep up the good work. If you need anything, I'm here for you.'"
His mother's blessing means a lot to Davies. His family have sacrificed more than most to get where they are today.
Born in Liberia, Davies moved to Canada when he was four years old after his family fled the aftermath of two civil wars. They settled in Edmonton in search of opportunity and a safer life.
"I was way too young to remember," Davies says. "We wanted to come to Canada for a better life. Where we were, my parents couldn't find a job, couldn't afford food for us."
Such hardship makes for a close-knit family unit, which made leaving them difficult. But he's settled in Vancouver now with a host family along with Residency teammate and fellow Edmontonian Gloire Amanda. It's his surrogate family away from home.
That support mechanism is crucial for Davies at this stage of his development. Having a teammate close at hand to bounce things off, review game tape and just spend time with as a normal teenager has all helped Davies keep grounded in what has been such a fast-paced year.
Davies and the other WFC2 players that have moved up from the Whitecaps FC Residency program in the last few months are acting as trailblazers for Amanda and the rest of the Caps’ Residency talent. It's the best carrot and motivational tool the club can have.
"I've known Alphonso since he was 13," Amanda added. "Seeing him, Thomas [Gardner], Matthew [Baldisimo], Kadin [Chung] and Terran [Campbell] being pushed to the next level motivates me to work harder. Dedication and hard work got them there deservingly. I know if I keep impressing, great things will happen."
Davies has appeared in seven of WFC2’s USL matches this year, logging 459 minutes, and hasn’t looked out of place against older, stronger players. His goal against Galaxy II, a forced turnover followed by a forceful run and finish, is the first of what the Caps’ hope will be many in the club’s colours.
"It meant a lot to me," Davies admits. "All the guys were [asking] me, 'When you going to get your first goal, when you going to get your first goal?’ I always tell them – every single game – I'm going to get it this game. It was a relief getting it. Finally."
Still, it’s been a steep learning curve for the young attacking midfielder, who sees both the strengths and shortcomings in his game.
"I think I've been performing well,” Davies says. “I'm getting on the ball a lot, going at defenders one on ones. It's going really good. The speed and physical aspect of the game is way faster and these guys are way stronger. So I've got to match that. And their intensity to want to play is quicker than the Residency."
WFC2 coach Alan Koch agrees with Davies’ self-assessment. He knows what he can offer as a player and his immense potential, highlighting the 15-year-old’s performance in a recent road win against Swope Park Rangers where Davies drew the penalty that brought WFC2 back into the game.
"I think he's getting better every game he's played," Koch says. "He gets a bit more confidence. He's nice and relaxed, which is good. We obviously have high expectations of him and he has high expectations of himself, too. Part of his development is having good moments, and he's going to have bad moments, too. He's just got to learn from those, not get too down about it, bounce back and continue along the right path."
Even more incredibly, Davies is excelling without actually training with his WFC2 teammates.
Davies is in school during USL training, so he trains with the Residency squads later in the afternoon. He admits it's been tough trying to build chemistry with the USL squad, but it's coming along nicely thanks to their busy road schedule to start the season.
"It's been really difficult," Davies admits. "When I go train with the U-18s, I'm used to their pace. When I come up here, I'm a little bit slow, but I start easing my way into the game. Being on the road has helped a lot. When you travel, you get to talk with the players, get to hang out with them and get to know them better."
What else lies in store is up to Davies and how well he continues to perform and develop. He's already earned a call-up to the Canadian U-20 squad.
Robinson is high on the teenager and is keen to integrate him into the first-team mix. That's what he's done over the last two weeks.
It was just another chapter in a remarkable year for the 15-year-old. After a year of firsts and personal growth that’s surprised even himself, Davies knows the future will be as bright as he makes it.
"If I set my mind to it,” he says, “then I should achieve it."
This year, every Tier 1 ‘Caps Club MLS membership includes three open tickets to WFC2 matches. Members can select their matches and theme days online through Account Manager. Information on theme days is available at whitecapsfc.com/wfc2/themedays.
Youth season passes are also available for $30 all in. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-484-7862.