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What to do with Alphonso Davies in 2018

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The Vancouver Whitecaps have a potential superstar on their hands. Whether he achieves that stardom or not depends on what the club does with him next. Manchester United trial is a good start, but what about MLS 2018 and beyond?

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It may be hard to believe that Alphonso Davies turned 17 on November 2nd, given that he just completed his second season with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and has been a household name in the media. Then again, it might not be that surprising as his young age is often bandied about when discussing all that he has accomplished.

Alphonso Davies began his professional career in 2016, in the United Soccer League (USL), where he suited up for the Vancouver Whitecaps 2. He became the youngest starter and goal scorer in his very brief career in USL.

Davies continued setting records, being the third youngest player to ever sign a Major League Soccer (MLS) contract; the second youngest to start a MLS match; the youngest goal scorer in the Canadian Championship, in the Gold Cup, and for the Canada’s national team; and he was the first player born after 2000 to score in a FIFA match.

Officially becoming a Canadian citizen earlier this year, Davies already has six appearances with the senior national team. He broke out at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, in which he scored three goals, winning the Golden Boot award for the tournament and being given the Best Your Player award.

Last week, ‘Fonzie’ was named the U-17 Canadian Male Player of the Year for the second year in a row. This week, it was announced that he would be training with the prestigious Manchester United club in January; a club who has been following him for quite some time now.

In addition to his soccer accolades, Davies even finds time to save people from burning buildings.

With his heroics, speed (faster than a bullet?), strength (more powerful than a locomotive?), and ability to leap over defenders in a single bound, there is no telling how high Davies’ ceiling could be. The real question now is what is best for his development?

The Story of Christian Pulisic

After being eliminated from the World Cup, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic wrote a fantastic open letter with The Players Tribune, which I encourage you all to go read. In it, he notes that while he acknowledges he has ‘natural ability’ he is no ‘wonderboy’, and that he “also worked and sacrificed a lot to try to maximize what I was born with”. He goes on to state that “I’m sure there are kids who are going to be reading this article who are more talented at their age than I ever was”.

With all his gifts and talents, Pulisic highlights his dual (US/Croatian) citizenship as his most important advantage. Why? Because it meant “training at the Dortmund academy, since I was 16”. According to Pulisic, “those age 16-18 years are everything. From a developmental perspective, it’s almost like this sweet spot”.

Pulisic goes on to state that, compared to the American system where young players are treated like superstars on the field, not having to work and develop their skills, in Europe he had to scratch and claw his way to get every little thing he could. There, “everyone has been ‘the best player’ and everyone is fighting for a spot”.

What may have been the key statement said by Pulisic, that applies to Davies, is the following:

“It really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players — who, again, are so talented and so capable — being rostered … but then not being put on the field much to actually play. I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance … a real chance … and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?”

False Equivalencies

While Alphonso Davies has achieved a lot in his two years of professional soccer, there have been growing pains. After his breakout success at the Gold Cup, Davies was underwhelming the rest of the season with the Whitecaps, looking lost and exhausted at times. He even picked up a red card in his next appearance with the Canadian national team.

Fonzie appeared in 33 matches, across all competitions, in 2017, scoring three goals and adding two assists. However, only one of those assists came in MLS, and he has yet to find the back of the net in league play. While he has shown flashes of brilliance, he has also shown his age at times, and has seemed to lack that finishing touch.

The critiques of Davies should not be viewed as evidence of failure. Don’t forget, he is just 17-years-old after all. His development will not be linear, and he will have his ups and downs. However, what separates the good players from the great players is being able minimizing those downs.

Because of his age and the league he is in, Davies has often been compared to Freddy Adu: the only player younger than Davies to start a MLS match. Closer to home, there are cautionary tales like Hanson Boakai, who at 16 and 17 was being heralded as the ‘Canadian Messi’. Today, he is toiling around the lower leagues of Europe and questions have been raised as to whether Boakai is Canada’s Adu.

With young starlets like Adu and Boakai, there have been mixed feelings about what is best for Davies. Many want to see him play all the time, while others worry about burning him out; the latter potentially being evidenced in Fall 2017 when he performed poorly (compared to earlier in the year). Both are certainly concerns, but making the comparisons to Adu and Boakai might be overly cautious and having a negative impact.

Freddy Adu played in a very immature MLS, where the talent pool was not nearly what it is today. Hanson Boakai plied his trade with 2nd division FC Edmonton in the North American Soccer League (NASL). While full of quality players, NASL is not the same as playing in MLS against Valeri, Giovinco, Villa, etc. Having said that, MLS is not the same as playing in Europe against Lewandowski, Neymar, Ronaldo, etc. You want to see what that type of challenge can bring? Look at growing, 18-year-old, stars Kylian Mbappe (PSG), Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan), and 20-year-old Ousmane Dembele (FC Barcelona). Is Davies at their level? No. Maybe….we don’t know. He has not been given the opportunities, as outlined by Pulisic.

What Does 2018 Hold for Davies?

In 2016, 15-years-old Davies played in eight MLS matches, starting two, for a total of 299 minutes. In 2017, Davies numbers increased to 26 MLS matches, nine starts, for a total of 1053 minutes. 2018 will see the now 17-year-old Davies begin his third professional season. At 17, Mbappe played 2,633 minutes; Donnarumma played 3,720 minutes; Dembele played 2,111; and just for because, Pulisic played 1,894.

If the Whitecaps are serious about developing young talent, then he needs to get at least 2,000 minutes, meaning he needs to be the go-to guy. After 2018? If we truly want Davies to become great, it probably means having him leave for Europe (Man U?).

There will always be cautionary tales like Adu and Boakai; but part of what makes them cautionary is that they were not put in a place to succeed. Davies need to be put in a place to succeed. He will either sink or swim. However, if he is not given the opportunity to swim soon, he may never learn how, at the level his ‘natural ability’ afford.