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Canada’s Jonathan David: Stepping out of Alphonso Davies’ shadow

Canada's Jonathan David (20) and French Guiana's Josue Albert (13) vie for the ball during the second half of a CONCACAF Nations League qualifying soccer match in Vancouver, on Sunday March 24, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

VANCOUVER — There is plenty to be excited about when it comes to Canada Soccer these days. On Sunday, the national team not only qualified for the Gold Cup but also booked a place in the Concacaf Nations League A, which will kick off this fall, after convincingly defeating French Guiana 4-1 thanks to a goal and two assists by KAA Gent striker Jonathan David. 

“It is a very important step because we know that we got a good squad and this is a very good opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best, and it was a massive step for us to qualify for the Gold Cup and also Group A [of the Concacaf Nations League]. Now we can play more competitive games and be ready for the future,” David said after a job well done. 

For Canada Soccer, the future might very well be now given that the country possesses two of the most exciting attacking talents in Concacaf, even if the 19-year-old Jonathan David has been a bit overshadowed by 18-year-old phenom Alphonso Davies in recent months. But while the talk last week was all about Davies’ return to Vancouver, ultimately the Bayern Munich star did not play due to a muscle injury he picked up while celebrating his first Bundesliga goal scored

Nonetheless, Davies made the trip out to Vancouver and on Saturday appeared at a Vancouver Canucks NHL game before being separately honored in front of the 17,124 fans at BC Place. On the pitch, however, it was David, not Davies, who took the spotlight. 

David is a bit of an outlier. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was 3 months old when his family moved from Brooklyn to Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Just six years later, his family was on the move again, this time from Haiti to Ottawa, Canada, where he learned to play soccer.

When he was 10, David joined the Gloucester Dragons Soccer Academy, and then in 2016 he played for the Ottawa Internationals Soccer Club program. It was there he was spotted by the Belgian side KAA Gent, who signed him to a professional contract in January 2018.

David’s story highlights that Canada, despite its three Major League Soccer teams, still has plenty of cracks when it comes to youth development — cracks that national team head coach John Herdman hopes the newly-created Canadian Premier League will fill when it kicks off in April.

But David has been sensational in Belgium with Gent for his first pro season, scoring 10 goals and four assists in 32 games across all competitions.

With those numbers, Canadian national team fans rightfully get excited. After all, a partnership of Davies and David up front would set up the country for years to come.

“We’ve seen his qualities. He’s got more game time in professional leagues in Europe. . . . But that level there, it’s just that little bit faster, you have to be that much smarter,” Herdman told Pro Soccer USA after the French Guiana win when asked about David’s development since his move to Europe. “But we’ve seen Jonathan progress now, as well as [seen] a maturity and his defensive work, and I thought he was outstanding at that today. Or, you can all get excited about his attacking, but the big box he ticked for me was his commitment to stay tight and defend and help the team out.”

Against French Guiana, Herdman opted to field David on the right, with Cardiff City winger Junior Hoilett on the left and Puebla FC striker Lucas Cavallini in the center of what was a 4-3-3 formation. In a 4-3-3 setup, playing quick David on the right to support a natural striker like Cavallini makes sense. Furthermore, in Hoilett Canada has another explosive winger. And on the bench, Besiktas striker Cyle Larin and Liverpool talent Liam Miller add even more depth. 

But it is a possible David and Davies partnership that creates the most excitement, especially because Herdman sees Davies as a possible striker. 

“In games where we expected teams to defend deep, knowing there wouldn’t be much space in behind, we wanted him coming from deep and arriving onto things and on switches of play, rather than be the focal point of defenses — having him in a chameleon-like role, where he would appear in time and spaces where defenders are already preoccupied with other players,” Herdman told Sportsnet writer John Molinaro during an interview about Davies’ role with the Canadian national team. “We’ve looked at him in deeper roles, like a fullback or wingback, but I think in the future in tougher matches, he’ll be deployed as a forward, and that’s his best position. You’ll see him higher up the field, giving us opportunities in transition.”

Herdman spoke about Davies but could have very well also meant David. The two forwards give Herdman exceptional depth up front.

With them, the national team coach could employ a 4-3-3 formation with a natural forward, such as Cavallini or Larin, centering the line. Or David could play in the center with Hoilett or Davies on either wing. 

There is also a third option, which was on display half a world away in Amsterdam on the day of Canada’s 4-1 victory over French Guiana. In Amsterdam, a completely restructured Germany side defeated the Netherlands using a 3-5-2 formation without a natural striker up front. German national team coach Joachim Löw fielded Davies’ Bayern teammate Serge Gnabry and Manchester City star Leroy Sané up front. Both are natural wingers, just like Davies and David, and playing up front caused significant mayhem for a Dutch defense that included world-class defender Virgil van Dijk. It was tactical masterclass by Löw and could act as an example of what Canada could do with Davies and David up front against teams that play possession football like the Dutch tend to play. 

Speaking of Germany, David could soon join Davies in the Bundesliga. 

The Belgium Jupiler Pro League is a typical development league, and scouts from Germany, in particular, keep a close eye on promising players in the competition. So it is no surprise that clubs such as Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund, 1899 Hoffenheim and SC Freiburg have already been to Gent to scout the striker — scouts who will have also noted his performance Sunday against French Guiana and will now keep an eye on him when Canada plays in the Gold Cup this summer. 

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