Davies’ Bayern Munich move a potential watershed moment

alphono-davies

Canada's Alphonso Davies. (CP)

“For a young player, he has a lot of really good starting points. The way he can move with the ball and put defenders on the wrong foot is pretty special.” — Michael Bradley

No, Bradley was not talking about one of his Toronto FC teammates, or American teenage sensation Christian Pulisic, a native of Pennsylvania who has taken the German Bundesliga by storm with Borussia Dortmund. Instead, TFC’s captain was referring to Alphonso Davies, a 17-year-old Canadian prospect who has been turning heads in Major League Soccer the past two years with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

If you never heard of Davies before, that’s about to change. On Wednesday, Davies was announced as the newest member of Bayern Munich, one of the biggest and best soccer clubs in the world, after the Germans agreed to purchase his rights from the Whitecaps following lengthy negotiations.

Davies is expected stay with the Whitecaps until the end of the 2018 MLS season, as FIFA has strict rules about the international transfer of under-age players. Davies doesn’t turn 18 until November, at which point the transfer would then be cleared by FIFA and he would be free to officially join Bayern in the next transfer window, starting in January of 2019.

Terms of the deal weren’t revealed by either side, but German media reports suggest that Bayern will pay Vancouver $13 million US for Davies – and that the total could jump up to $22 million, depending on bonuses and add-ons. That a Canadian would command such a high transfer fee is very unusual, but then, Davies is not your usual Canadian soccer player.

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Davies was born in a refugee camp in Ghana after his Liberian parents fled the country to avoid its civil war. When Davies was five, he and his family emigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Edmonton. It was there where Davies’ passion for soccer blossomed, playing in “Free Footie,” a league for disadvantaged kids, and later for local youth clubs. The Whitecaps eventually took notice of Davies, and signed him to their youth residency program as a 14-year-old.

He turned out for the Whitecaps farm club in the lower-tier United Soccer League, and signed a pro contract with the senior team in 2016. At 15, Davies became the second-youngest player to play in in MLS. Last summer, after finally receiving his citizenship, Davies debuted for the national team in a friendly in Montreal, and then scored three goals at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, helping Canada reach the quarterfinals.

“He’s probably the most exciting kid — he’s still a kid — that I’ve ever played with and seen with my own eyes. By far he’s the most technically gifted, humble, modest young man that I think is going to go from strength to strength,” Canadian national midfielder Scott Arfield said at the time.

After turning 16, Davies featured more often for the Whitecaps during the 2017 MLS campaign, although coach Carl Robinson still took a cautious approach in how he used the young Canadian, and was careful to bring him along slowly. Nevertheless, word of the impressive young star spread across the pond, and a number of high-profile Premier League teams (including Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool) began scouting him. As he continued to shine in MLS, it became apparent that it would only be a matter of time before he was signed by a big European club.

What makes Davies so special – apart from his age – is the type of player he is, his player profile. Canadian soccer has a history of producing sturdy goalkeepers (Craig Forrest and Lars Hirschfield), stoic defenders (Jason deVos and Kevin McKenna) and solid midfielders (Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson). It doesn’t have a track record of churning out dynamic goal scorers, and technically gifted attackers. Developing creative players who are legitimate game breakers has never been Canada’s strong suit.

Davies is a notable exception. For someone so young, he demonstrates a lot of composure and maturity. He’s also a fleet-footed attacker, using his pace and skill on the ball to take on defenders one-on-one, and create a bit of magic with his probing runs. Solid in possession, the youngster combines creativity, mobility and strength into a tantalizing package.

Bayern Munich is one of the most successful clubs in the world, having won 28 German League titles, and the UEFA Champions League on five occasions. Some of the sport’s all-time greats have played for the Bavarian outfit at one time or another, including Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller. They have routinely spent transfer fees of over $25 million on players such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario Gotze. Bayern doesn’t spend big money on a player unless it thinks it’s going to get a return on its investment.

The fact that Bayern Munich is willing to spend this kind of money tells you all you need to know about Davies, and how highly they rate him. This is not only a financial boon for the Whitecaps, but it’s a massive shot in the arm for soccer in Canada and a potential watershed moment for the sport in this country. For a young Canadian player, who was fully developed in Canada and who has spent his entire professional career in Canada, to be playing at one of the best teams in the world, we can only hope that this will inspire a new generation of young Canadian players, and show them that it is possible for them to succeed, and to not give up on their dreams.

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All of this does, however, come with a word of caution. As talented as Davies is, it’s important to keep in mind the obstacles that remain ahead of him. Playing time won’t come easy at Bayern Munich, a team stacked with top-class players from around the globe who have experience playing in the Bundesliga and Champions League. It’s very difficult to imagine he’ll go straight into the starting lineup or even the first team, especially with wingers the calibre of Ribery, Robben, Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry ahead of him in the pecking order.

It’s possible that Bayern views Davies more of a long-term project, and could send him out on loan to another German club where he could play on a regular basis and continue to develop.

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney is a big Davies fan, calling the Whitecaps star “one of the most fun players” in MLS to watch. But he wonders if Davies wouldn’t be better served going to another club – one with not as big a reputation and history – and where he will get plenty of playing time before making the move to Bayern.

“My hope when any young player goes to a big club is they don’t get lost in the shuffle [on a roster] that has 30 to 40 great players. My hope is that he isn’t loaned out in a bunch of places, and then it becomes somebody’s else business to take care of him. That’s my only concern when young players choose big clubs like this,” Vanney cautioned.

Vanney recalls during his time at Bastia – a modest French division side – that teammate Michael Essien was being scouted by such notable teams as Juventus and Real Madrid. The young Ghanaian midfielder ended up going to another French club, instead. Using Lyon as a stepping stone before making the jump to a “big” club proved vital for Essien’s career development.

“He chose to go Lyon because that was the next step. He started and played all the time there, and won championships in Lyon, and then he went to Chelsea. So, he chose to take another step [before] going to one of the biggest clubs in the world because he knew he was going to be an important part of that team. My hope is that [Davies] goes to Bayern and find minutes and can continue to play,” Vanney said,

“I think he’s hugely talented. He has the potential to be a really interesting player on the world scene.”

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