Alphonso Davies, Canada gathering in Edmonton with 'respect' on the line

James Sharman joins Danielle Michaud to discuss Canada's expectations for World Cup qualifying moving forward, their upcoming matchups against Costa Rica and Mexico, and Alphonso Davies' return to Edmonton.

EDMONTON — It has never been like this for Canadian soccer. At least for the men’s side.

Our women? Sure, they’ve played in front of 50,000 fans in Commonwealth Stadium, had homegrown superstars and much success.

But our men?

They have never had a homegrown international superstar, and two home games with attendance pushing 50,000. They’ve made it to a World Cup — in 1986, before this roster was born.

But did they ever have realistic dreams of one World Cup berth, then another, and perhaps another?

Well, here we are, in ice-cold Edmonton, with Edmonton-raised Alphonso Davies and a team with more than just a chance.

“This means a lot,” said Davies, who will play an international in front of his parents for the first time. “I’m excited to see the stadium full and I’m excited to play in my home town. My dad is really excited for the game and I’m happy he gets to see me play live. He just tells me to play and have fun. My mom doesn’t know football that well, but she watches the games.”

How does life work itself out this way? It is truly a storybook turn, one that will write its next chapter on Friday and Tuesday as Canada faces Costa Rica, then Mexico, in World Cup qualifying.

Davies, born in a refugee camp to Liberian parents fleeing civil war, lands in Edmonton as a five-year-old. He gets his start with “Free Footie,” a league for kids whose parents would not be able to afford traditional organized soccer, and drops into an Edmonton charity called “Sport Central” for his first bike, which transported him and his brother to soccer practice.

Now, 16 years later, Davies returns in triumph as one of the top left backs in the world, the centrepiece of a young cadre that has real — and realistic — dreams to take Canada far beyond where it has ever gone before.

“It’s everything combined,” marvelled Canadian veteran Atiba Hutchinson. “It’s a really big game for Canada. Things have been going in the right direction. And it’s amazing to see the interest that is there in Canada, in the different cities where we play.

“Years ago, this would never have happened, where Canada would come to Edmonton and almost be selling out the stadium. To see that interest, to hear of the excitement ... it’s really amazing,” he said. “Everything that’s coming together right now is something we’ve been waiting to see for years.”

It’s a cool ploy, forcing Costa Rica and Mexico to come to Edmonton’s still-beautiful Commonwealth Stadium, a house more accustomed to hosting Canadian Football League playoff games at this time of year. It’s a true home-ice advantage, and a chance for the Canadian Soccer Association to sell perhaps 100,000 tickets inside this two-game qualifying window, with Davies drawing fans in Connor McDavid-like fashion.

“He’s been on some big stages, so I don’t think it’s his first rodeo playing on big occasions,” Canada head coach John Herdman told the media this week. “He will be reminded he has to play the game, not the occasion. That’s the key message for Alphonso: If he plays the game and really commits to everything he has to do in that red shirt with these group of men, then the crowd will come with him and we know that.”

Here in Edmonton, these are special days indeed.

A few days ago, McDavid scored a goal that echoed across the hockey seas. Now, with the Oilers on an Eastern road swing, here comes another favorite son, one of the very best players in a much bigger and broader sport, with roots in a prairie city that has over the years been over-served in players of true greatness.

“He’s excited to be back, I can sense it,” Herdman said of Davies. “He’s smiling, he’s laughing. ... And who wouldn’t be? It’s a kid’s dream, isn’t it? Commonwealth Stadium and 50,000 people here, his family and his moment? What a moment for the kid, and well deserved.

“He shined the spotlight on our sport last year when we didn’t have too much to smile about, so he gets his moment and I’m hoping he takes it.”

Canada is third in the CONCACAF tables through six games, still unbeaten with two wins and four draws. They gathered road draws at the homes of the two group favorites, Mexico and the United States, and these two games in Edmonton present the opportunity to put some distance between the Canadians and their most prominent pursuers, Panama and Costa Rica.

The top three teams in CONCACAF earn berths to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while fourth place means a home-and-home with a fourth-place team from another regional group.

Those are the big-picture worries.

In the moment, Canada looks to turn a once-in-a-lifetime window into tangible success.

Not just words.


“We want to be a team that puts dread in an opponent, that they have to think about us the way we used to have to think about (other) teams,” Herdman said. “They know that we’re not going to back down from any moment, any fight or any situation. Costa Rica, we have to get through that. That’s a massive three points that we have to get after, and then an opportunity to take the crown of the champions of CONCACAF (Mexico) here in Edmonton.

“If we come out of here with six points, there will be even more fear as we come through that second part of the round, teams will respect us in a way they’ve never respected us before.

“That’s what’s on the line for us.”

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