BY STEVEN SANDOR, SPECIAL TO SPORTSNET
This spring, the Montreal Impact’s Justin Mapp was named the winner of the George Gross Memorial Trophy—given to the top player in the Amway Canadian Championship—for the second consecutive year.
But, had some of the voters wanted to go out on a limb, they could have cast their ballots for arguably the most talked-about player of this year’s Canadian championship, FC Edmonton teenager Hanson Boakai. Even though his team was ousted at the semifinal stage, Boakai deserved serious consideration.
In four games, Boakai scored once but, more importantly, set up four more goals. And while his FC Edmonton side fell to the Impact at the semifinal stage in what has to go down as the most thrilling encounter in the history of the Canadian championship, Boakai’s darting runs and clever passes were the talk of the tourney.
And he’s just 17.
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Boakai has just returned to Edmonton after going to the Milk Cup with coach Rob Gale’s Canadian U-20 side, alongside FCE teammate Sadi Jalali. Had FCE central defender Marko Aleksic been healthy enough to answer the call, the Eddies would have sent three to the national U-20 side. To compare, Toronto FC sent one player to the team, and the Montreal Impact’s Academy had one call-up.
But, despite training with German outfit Fortuna Dusseldorf this past spring, despite his breakout performances in the Voyageurs Cup, despite his call a U-20 side which puts him alongside kids who are two years older than him, Boakai’s successes haven’t translated into huge amounts of playing time in the second-tier North American Soccer League.
As the NASL fall season began, Boakai resumed his role as a super sub. He came in late in the fall-season opener against Ottawa, and had a left-footed effort go off the post. He came in late in a road game in Atlanta, and forced Silverbacks’ goalkeeper Joe Nasco into an acrobatic save, stretching and reaching behind himself to tip a curled effort over the bar.
Last year, Edmonton coach Colin Miller made Boakai the youngest player to ever play in the NASL—either the modern or ’70s version of the league. But, despite the progress the midfielder has made, Miller feels the time Boakai has been getting is just about right.
“I couldn’t care less what they say,” Miller stated. “To be honest, he’s a talented young man that I’m actually trying to protect. If some people knew more about the game, they wouldn’t say that (Boakai should be starting). You can’t, all of a sudden, lump all of this club’s pressure on that young set of shoulders.
“It can have the adverse effect and he knows he’s got a role to play. How significant that role is as the days and months and years progress will be determined by me, more or less, and will depend on how well he’s doing.”
Of course, the critics are out with a team that finished near the bottom of the NASL spring standings, and has five points—with three goals scored—in its first five games of the fall season. (And, all three of those goals came in a win over San Antonio on Sunday.) FCE has won just two home games—spring or fall—in league play this season.
But Miller sticks by his guns.
“He’s come off the bench on two occasions and done well. And he hasn’t played particularly great when he’s started. He’s faded away, we’ve taken him off because he’s not 100 percent there yet. So we have to protect him. We bring him on when the other team is tired,” Miller stated.
Before he left to join the U-20 squad in Northern Ireland, Boakai refused to be pulled into a controversy.
“It’s up to the coach, honestly. In training, everybody’s doing good. So, whomever he picks to play, he’s making the right decision. I have nothing against the coach. If he tells me I am on the bench, I am on the bench,“ Boakai said.
“There’s just a lot of good players on this team that I look up to. Obviously, as a player, you want to play, but if the coach says I’m on the bench, he has the right to say that because he’s the coach. It’s not really up to me.”
And, sometimes, you have to allow that Boakai is just 17. On the day of the spring-season finale at home to the Carolina RailHawks, Boakai was late, just showing up to Clarke Stadium as rest of the Eddies were already on the turf for pre-game warm-ups. Miller made the call to suspend the teen for the game.
“It’s something that happens to every professional,” Boakai explained. “It just happened to happen to me that day, and hopefully it never happens again. I am going to learn from that, I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
But Boakai, who was one of the core players of the Canadian side that went to the U-17 World Cup, is now slotted right into Gale’s plans. Despite being younger than the rest of the group, he played the full 90 in the Milk Cup opener, a 2-0 win over Mexico. Canada finished the tournament with a 1-1-1 record; but the highlight had to be the result over the CONCACAF rivals.
And Miller, a former national-team captain and interim coach of the Canadian senior side, could not have been happier.
“I think it’s quite significant at this particular age group, where we have generally struggled, at the under-20 level, and now we have beaten Mexico. Someone said that it probably wasn’t the full Mexican team. But I don’t care. If you wear the Mexican jersey it means you are a hell of a talent,” Mille said.
“It’s not like Canada where we might have two or three players per position. You could toss a coin and pick one of seven or eight players. I’m delighted for Rob Gale and he’s now got a feel for players who are playing in professional academies and, in our case, the first team.”
He’s hoping that Boakai can be at the centre for more triumphs over Mexico in the future — even if he’s not ready for full-time work at FC Edmonton just yet.
Steven Sandor is an Edmonton-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.