One of Canada’s brightest young soccer stars is set to make his international debut, while a respected veteran has returned to the national team fold after a year’s absence.
Ballou Tabla, a 19-year-old midfielder who plays with FC Barcelona’s B team, has been named to the Canadian men’s team roster for its upcoming Concacaf Nations League qualifying match against Dominica.
Also named to the squad for the Oct. 16 game at Toronto’s BMO Field was midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, a six-time Canadian player of the year who last played for Canada on Sept. 2, 2017.
That Tabla was one of 23 players on the squad list released by coach John Herdman on Tuesday hardly comes as a surprise, as he recently announced his intention to play for Canada. Born in Ivory Coast, Tabla moved to Canada as a child and grew up in Montreal. He previously played for Canada at the under-17 and under-20 levels, and was named the Canadian U-17 and U-20 Male Player of the Year in 2014 and 2016.
However, he had yet to be capped by the senior team, despite Canadian soccer officials having multiple talks with the attacking midfielder. The Ivory Coast also expressed an interest in calling him up, so Tabla’s international future appeared to be up in the air, until last week when he pledged his allegiance to Canada.
This past January, Tabla signed a three-year deal with Barcelona’s reserve team, which plays in Spain’s third division, after a whirlwind stint in MLS. He joined the Montreal Impact’s youth academy in 2012, and played with the Impact’s farm club, FC Montreal, in the second-tier USL. Tabla played one MLS campaign with the Impact, scoring two goals and tallying a pair of assists in 21 games (11 as a starter) in 2017. He became the youngest player in Impact franchise history, at 17 years and 338 days, to play in an MLS game when he debuted last March against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Tabla was considered one of the hottest young products in MLS while with Montreal, and he was being tracked by several big clubs in Europe, including Premier League champions Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Eventually, the Impact came to terms with Barcelona B on a transfer deal.
Herdman calls Tabla a dynamic attacking player, and someone who is capable of playing anywhere across the front line.
“He’s a player who has a high tactical IQ and it’s evolving every day. The Ballou we see now is version 1.0. We’ll see a different Ballou in a few years thanks to his development at Barcelona. What we see now is a winger with dribbling ability who can manipulate spaces, who has a proactive mindset, and who is direct in how he plays. At Barca, he’s developing the defensive astuteness will make him a more rounded player,” Herdman told Sportsnet last week.
Hutchinson, 35, hasn’t played for Canada in over a year – his last appearance coming in a friendly against Jamaica held in Toronto – because of injury issues, while also focusing on his club career with Turkish outfit Besiktas. The veteran midfielder has six goals in 78 appearances for Canada, and he is generally recognized as the greatest player this country has ever produced.
“He’s had some challenges physically and he had ankle surgery. With Atiba, his mind is committed to playing for Canada. It’s just been going through that process of getting through those injuries and where he can best put his efforts. But every conversation I’ve had with him, he’s committed to playing for Canada,” Herdman said.
Another player named to this Canadian squad is Vancouver Whitecaps winger Alphonso Davies, a 17-year-old prospect who recently signed with German club Bayern Munich in a record MLS transfer deal that could reach as high as US$22 million.
Herdman decided not to call up starting goalkeeper Milan Borjan (39 caps). Instead, he’s selected Simon Thomas (eight caps), as well as Alessandro Busti, an 18-year-old with Juventus’s youth team who has yet to play for Canada. James Pantemis, a 21-year-old with the Montreal Impact who also hasn’t been capped, is the third goalkeeper on the team.
Canada is No. 79 in the current FIFA world rankings. Dominica is 177th. These sides met in a pair of World Cup qualifying matches three years ago, with Canada earning a 2-0 road win, and a 4-0 victory in Toronto.
After hosting Dominica, Canada will face Saint Kitts and Nevis away on Nov. 18 and then French Guiana at home on March 26, 2019 in its last match of the qualifiers. The inaugural, 2019-20 Concacaf Nations League kicks off next September.
Goalkeepers: Simon Thomas (Kongsvinger IL/Norway), James Pantemis (Montreal Impact) and Alessandro Busti (Juventus FC U-23/Italy).
Defenders: Zachary Brault-Guillard (Olympique Lyonnais/France), Manjrekar James (FC Fredericia/Denmark), Derek Cornelius (FK Javor Ivanjica/Serbia), David Edgar (Ottawa Fury), Doneil Henry (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Ashtone Morgan (Toronto FC).
Midfielders: Samuel Piette (Montreal Impact), Russell Teibert (Vancouver Whitecaps), Scott Arfield (Glasgow Rangers/Scotland), Alphonso Davies (Vancouver Whitecaps), Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş JK/Turkey), Liam Millar (Liverpool FC U-23/England), Jay Chapman (Toronto FC), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC) and Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla (FC Barcelona B/Spain).
Forwards: Cyle Larin (Beşiktaş JK/Turkey), David Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City/Premier League), Tosaint Ricketts (Toronto FC), Lucas Cavallini (Puebla FC/Mexico) and Jonathan David (KAA Gent/Belgium).