“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
That was a familiar refrain from John Herdman when he served as coach of the Canadian women’s team, his explanation as to why he gave so many prospects a chance to cut their teeth with the senior side.
Herdman relied heavily on players coming up through the national program’s youth system during his seven years in charge of the senior women’s team, a successful tenure that produced back-to-back Olympic bronze medals. The English manager made no apologies for putting his faith in young players back then, and he’s not making any apologies for it today, either.
Herdman’s youth movement continues now that he’s at the helm of the men’s squad, as he has named five teenagers to his 23-man roster for Sunday’s Concacaf Nations League qualifier against the U.S. Virgin Islands in Florida.
Vancouver Whitecaps star Alphonso Davies (17) is already a proven commodity and has earned six caps for Canada, while winger Liam Millar (18) of Liverpool’s under-23 team has made one appearance for the Reds. But this camp represents initial national team call-ups for goalkeeper Alessandro Busti and forward Jonathan David (both 18), and 19-year-old fullback Zachary Brault-Guillard. Defender Derek Cornelius (20) is another youngster looking to earn his first cap.
Drafting in these young players is part of Herdman’s long-term strategy, allowing them to gain valuable international experience so that they’ll be in a better position to help Canada by the time qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar begins.
But Herdman insists it’s much more than that. It’s also about rewarding players who have earned the opportunity to play for their country, and who are in form for their pro clubs at the moment.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Some of those boys are doing it for their first teams in top European leagues,” Herdman told reporters this week.
According to Herdman, many of the young players in this camp are on a trajectory to play at the 2022 World Cup, should Canada qualify.
One such player is Davies, who recently made headlines when he signed with German outfit Bayern Munich as part of a transfer deal that could surpass $20 million when all is said and done. Davies will finish out the current Major League Soccer season before making the move to Germany later this year.
Davies was the top scorer at the 2017 Concacaf Gold Cup, scoring three goals for Canada. He also won the tournament’s best young player award. Davies has three goals in six appearances for the Reds since making his debut in an international friendly last summer in Montreal against Curacao.
Defender Denjan Jakovic, one of the veterans on this Canadian team, calls Davies a “special talent.”
“There’s not much to say about him when a giant club like Bayern Munich comes in for you. That says it all. He’s super athletic, very fast, and his knowledge of the game for his age is impressive, and the way he reads the game. His attacking ability, one-on-one – a very special player and very bright future ahead of him,” Jakovic told Sportsnet.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Herdman, who is not only impressed with Davies’ speed and tactical acumen, but also his mental game
“A lot of good players I’ve worked with tend to get paralyzed by bad performances or mistakes that they make. He looks forward. That’s a great trait to have,” Herdman offered.
Herdman singled out Millar for praise in his debut in a 1-0 win over New Zealand back in March, calling the Toronto native Canada’s most effective player on the day.
David and Cornelius are two other young players that Herdman has high hopes for after watching them first-hand at the famous Toulon youth tournament from May to June in France.
Cornelius, from Ajax, Ont., signed with by FK Javor Ivanjica of Serbia’s first division earlier this year after playing for a couple of seasons in Germany’s lower leagues.
“A lot of us trust in John’s abilities to get the very best out of players, regardless of their age. He’s there to push us and prepare us for the next step. Right now, of the young guys coming in, we’re not just here to make up the numbers. We have responsibilities like everybody eels and we have to live up to them,” Cornelius told Sportsnet.
Cornelius was also called up for the New Zealand game earlier this year, but he didn’t end up playing.
“Derek has done extremely well coming into his second camp. He’s a tough player – he goes into tackles, and he’s willing to learn,” Jakovic said.
David played for several youth clubs in his hometown of Ottawa before signing with Belgian club KAA Gent in January. The speedy forward scored in his debut last month, and has six goals in eight appearances in all competitions for Gent.
Herdman calls David an “all-arounder,” a dangerous attacker who is equally committed to acting as the first line of defence in trying to win the ball back and dropping back to press opponents when in possession.
“The thing that stood out the most [at the Toulon tournament] was his tactical IQ, and his ability in any of the front three positions to manipulate time and space. He moves into spaces and into the half spaces at the right time,” Herdman enthused.
Originally from Montreal, Zachary Brault-Guillard is a member of the youth academy of noted French club Olympique Lyon, while Alessandro Busti is a goalkeeper with Juventus’s youth squad. Brault-Guillard has previously turned out for Canada’s under-20 team.