Captain Atiba Hutchinson (left to right), coach Octavio Zambrano, assistant coach Paul Stalteri, Junior Hoilett and Alphonso Davies attend a Canada Soccer Association news conference in Toronto, Thursday, ahead of Saturday’s friendly with Jamaica at BMO Field. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Despite lowly ranking, Canadian men make their mark in world soccer

TORONTO — The past, present and future of Canadian soccer was on show Thursday ahead of a weekend friendly with Jamaica.

And while some disparage — or worse, ignore — the 95th-ranked Canadian men, it was an impressive array of talent.

Former national team captain Paul Stalteri represented the (recent) past. The 39-year-old forward-turned-fullback, the first Canadian to score in the Bundesliga and a veteran of the English Premier League, will be honoured at Saturday’s match at BMO Field for his induction into the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame.

Current skipper Atiba Hutchinson, along with Cardiff City winger Junior Hoilett, represented the present. At 34, Hutchinson is still playing at the highest level — marshalling forces for Turkish champion Besiktas domestically and in the Champions League.

Hutchinson, whose ability to acquire, hold onto and distribute the ball is remarkable, is pure class on and off the field.

“Without doubt, in my mind, the most talented and probably best Canadian player that we’ve produced,” said Stalteri, whose resume is first-rate in its own right.

But it was the future that drew attention Thursday in the form of Alphonso Davies, a 16-year-old soccer free spirit sporting a braces-equipped smile.

The Vancouver Whitecaps teen, who made his Canadian senior debut in June, took the Gold Cup by storm in July when he scored three goals in four games to win the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and Bright Future award, given to the most promising young player. Davies also made the tournament all-star team.

Davies was born in a refugee camp in Ghana to Liberian parents before moving to Canada at the age of five. Raised in Edmonton, he got his Canadian citizenship in June.

Like the Whitecaps, Canadian officials are attempting to develop Davies’ considerable talents at a comfortable pace while trying to avoid heaping expectations on him.

But their excitement is hard to miss.

“We are looking at a player that could be an iconic player for Canada soccer in the years to come, without a doubt,” said coach Octavio Zambrano.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” added Stalteri, who is an assistant with the senior team and runs the under-17 program. ”He’s got immense talent. I saw that when he was 14 years old and in one of our first local camps.”

Zambrano marvels at Davies’ physical attributes.

“I don’t think he knows himself how strong he really is,” the Ecuador native said with a chuckle. “He plays as if he would play probably out on the street or out in the backyard. He’s just a specimen, he’s just a very well-put-together young man. Coupled with that is he has some very good technical abilities.

“Now our job is to complement that with some sound guidance … to make sure that he doesn’t get either left behind or thrust too fast into it.”

Zambrano praised the Whitecaps on their handling of Davies. Manager Carl Robinson, as down-to-earth as they come, has looked after the youngster carefully.

It showed Thursday.

Davies, whose five caps are 72 short of Hutchinson’s total, spoke about the honour of wearing the Maple Leaf. And he says he doesn’t pay any mind to all the attention he’s getting these days.

Away from the field, his goal is to be a “normal kid” — hanging out with friends, playing the FIFA soccer video game.

“I would say I’m the best in the camp,” he said when asked how good he was at the made-in-Vancouver game.

Some 16,000 tickets have already been sold for Saturday’s game. Those in attendance should get a rare chance to see both Hutchinson and Davies in action.

Jamaica was a surprise finalist at the Gold Cup, dispatching Canada 2-1 in the quarter-finals and Mexico 1-0 in the semifinals before losing 2-1 to the U.S. in the championship game

Both countries rose in the rankings after the Gold Cup with Jamaica jumping 19 spots to No. 57 while Canada moved up five places to No. 95.

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