Alphonso Davies

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Carl Robinson on Alphonso Davies, MLS, and what’s next for him

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Canada named its Gold Cup squad this week, but you didn’t need to check a list to know one name was included on coach John Herdman’s list: Alphonso Davies, the 18-year-old Bayern Munich youngster who scored his first Bundesliga goal this March.

The Canadian teen hasn’t necessarily been top of mind this side of the Atlantic since his transfer; He’s being brought along slowly by Bayern, and didn’t quite get the publicity worthy of his immense talent while with Vancouver in Major League Soccer, either.

[ MORE: 3 key battles in UCL Final ]

So what should we expect from Davies at the Gold Cup, as the 18-year-old looks to build off a 3-goal performance at the 2017 edition which labeled him the youngest goal scorer in tournament history? Pro Soccer Talk asked the man perhaps most responsible for Davies’ development, former Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson, as part of a wide-ranging interview that touches on Davies, Tyler Adams, the future of MLS, and his desire to get back in a manager’s chair.

A former Norwich City, Toronto FC, and Welsh national team mainstay, Robinson is eight months removed from his first foray into management. From 2013-18 with Vancouver, Robinson led the ‘Caps to the MLS Cup Playoffs thrice, earning 50-plus points on all three occasions, and the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals once. He also became part of a select group to win the Canadian Championship as a player and as a manager.

PST: Let’s start here, how did you go about the development of Alphonso Davies with Vancouver?

Carl Robinson: “I used a plan that Arsene Wenger had with Aaron Ramsey, having known Aaron through the Wales set-up. When Aaron moved from Cardiff to Arsenal at age 17 for six million quid, he couldn’t understand why after every fourth game he got left out no matter how well he played. When he went to speak to the manager, the manager explained to him that this is what he’s done with young players, whether Cesc Fabregas or whomever.

“I used that, not letter of the law, but I used that plan with Alphonso. When I sensed a little drop off in training, I’d leave him out. People thought he should play every minute of every game, but I disagreed. I knew the fans wanted to see him as a wonder kid, but I knew the right plan for him. We tried to keep him away from the media, because he needed to concentrate on his football only. Looking back on it, it was the correct way of dealing with it and all credit to him for understanding.”

PST: At 16, he was being linked with Chelsea, Liverpool, reports even went as far as a reported trial with Manchester United. How did Bayern Munich become his destination two years later?

Robinson: “There were lots of rumors, but nothing ever concrete. The summer of 2018, everything went pretty quickly. A number of clubs explained their interest. Some were serious, some were very serious, and some weren’t serious because when a top club like Bayern Munich comes in, it alerts the other top clubs.

“Bayern did their homework. They watched the player, met the player, got references from people around him, then sat down with him and his representatives and laid down a five-year plan for him. In that plan was opportunities with first and second team, and that’s what people don’t understand with young players. It’s not just about what they do on a Saturday in front of 30,000 people. It’s what they do off the field. It’s what they do from Monday to Friday.

“When I saw the plan from Bayern Munich, and Alphonso saw it, it was an unbelievable opportunity for him. He’s been part of lifting two trophies but there’s still a lot left for his development. There are a lot of fantastic players in Bayern’s U-23 side who haven’t gotten a chance. He’ll have a fight on his hands but he’s got the right mentality to do it.”

PST: It can be difficult for those of us in MLS or American soccer circles to get a gauge for what we should expect from our phenoms, from Landon Donovan to Christian Pulisic to Diego Lainez? What should we be looking for when it comes to Davies? What’s his ceiling?

Robinson: “How good is he? He has got the potential to be an exceptional player. He’s a very good player at the moment, but I’ve seen players with huge potential. Ravel Morrison with Manchester United, Tyler Adams with the Red Bulls. It can go different ways.

“Tyler was in the German Cup final, Alphonso wasn’t in the 18. Tyler’s more suited now because of his positional awareness. The key element for Alphonso is attacking players are judged on outputs, goals and assists. He’s not judged on he worked really hard. Midfield players we can talk about pass location, covering ground, how hard they work, because Tyler’s as good as there is in relation to that.

“Alphonso needs to take his game to the next level when it comes to scoring goals and making assists. And Bayern will help him with all that. He was able to beat players in MLS with his power and his pace, but there are going to be players in the Bundesliga who have his power and his pace.

“Again, I don’t get carried away with saying he’s a superstar already. His football over there will make him a superstar. He’s still got a lot of work ahead of him but he has the mindset and mentality to get there for sure. Look at (Liverpool’s) Harry Wilson and (Chelsea’s) Mason Mount at Derby, there are high value players who are playing in the Championship, so he needs to find regular football. He might need to go on loan. He may break in with Robben and Ribery leaving.

“It’s going to take him some time to adjust, but there might be a bigger upside at the end of it if he can get himself into a rhythm, a groove, and play to a level in which I know he can get. Knowing the kid, and probably being a bit biased, he can make it. But there are also better players than him who have not reached their potential, so I think Bayern is a wonderful place for him.”

PST: MLS is a lot different then 2007, when you arrived from Norwich City and became TFC’s Player of the Season. What’s changed most? What’s your overall take on the league?

Robinson: “Back in 2007, there was a lot of hullaballoo with David Beckham arriving a week after I came over. Since then we’ve had Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, David Villa… The league has grown dramatically. The insertion of high level DPs has been important. It’s made people sit up and take notice. The addition of TAM money, even though it’s complicated and like Monopoly money, is increasing the quality over the squad.

“The way they’ve tried to build it slowly is correct. There still should be a big focus on development with the USL teams, which will help the Major League Soccer teams grow, and academies as well. It’s probably grown quicker than I thought it would, but now people don’t want to see it stagnate. That probably means more investment, and more TAM and more DPs. Given the new CBA, they have to figure out the way to do it right.”

PST: So there’s no denying your debut foray into management was a success in Vancouver. For a club spending in the bottom half at best to be a regular threat to host home playoff games… that’s pretty decent. Your numbers compare with the bigger American names in coaching: Vermes, Berhalter, Vanney. What’s next?

Robinson: “I’ve taken a much needed break. I wanted to spend more time with my family. I have two children, ages 17 and 11, and I missed a lot of their growing up because the commitment of being a player, coach, and manager. This is 24-7. I needed that time with them.

“But I’m still watching more football and traveling everywhere. Learning is paramount and I’ve been able to do that more. Spending time with other managers has been refreshing and valuable. There are also some excellent people within MLS clubs that have been great with me. You earn respect and trust. 10 years over here has been great. I know MLS inside out now. Although rules are always changing… These things don’t change. I’ll start to look at opportunities I feel are right. There have a number of conversations I’ve had with a people and teams in different countries, but what I’ve said to my family is I’ll take the right opportunity, not any opportunity. Being a manager for five years and inside one club for seven you understand how it works, and what you need to be successful  I’m looking forward to wherever my next challenge. I’m in no rush but I know my passion is football.”

PST: One more odd note. Your playing resume reads like a list of teams who were playoff-bound or promoted this year: Norwich, Sheffield United, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Wolves. Do you still root for all of them? Any more than the others?

“I follow all my former teams. I have friends and respect for them all. I still follow Red Bulls, Toronto. Wolves staying in the PL is a great opportunity. Norwich & Sheffield United getting promoted, that’s brilliant. Sunderland, that’s heartache. I know the Mackem fans will be absolutely devastated. Portsmouth too. What you learn in football is taking nothing for granted although people have short memories. I genuinely believe where I’m at at the moment, there’s a reason. What I do next, there’s a reason.”

Canada coach Herdman aims for 2022 World Cup

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We haven’t talked about 2022 World Cup qualifying in some time, as the focus was on the USMNT finding its coach, then Gregg Berhalter implementing his style, and soon winning the 2019 Gold Cup to ensure a spot in the 2021 Confederations Cup.

[ MORE: Montreal adds Serie A striker ]

There should be a ton of focus on the U.S. bounce back for any number of reasons, especially considering that qualifying for the next World Cup may be the last time the U.S. has to truly worry about its berth (unless Gianni Infantino gets his way and miraculously implements an expanded field for 2022. Then Berhalter and Co. are set already).

So with three-and-a-half spots available, it’s of-note any time a manager admits his national team side should earn one of those berths in Qatar.

Today, we’re talking about the biggest underachievers in CONCACAF for the better part of the last 20 years, and that’s Canada. The Canucks are led by John Herdman, and he’s bringing a mentality of expectation that’s been lacking from the unit in some time (although there were strides under Benito Floro) From Sportsnet.ca:

“We don’t have excuses. I don’t want to be that guy making them. At the end of the day if we don’t qualify for [2022], it’ll be a disappointment. To put that level of expectations on the team is critical. The team wants that, they’re ready for it. They know it’s now or never for many of them,” Herdman said.

“So, when you say, ‘how do you know it’s going to happen?’, we have to make it happen. But more importantly, we have to believe, and I think that belief is there from the men who are going to be leading the charge.”

He also, albeit not in so many words, admitted that the Canadians have underperformed in recent cycles.

First of all, no one is catching Mexico this cycle. El Tri are in something akin to a golden generation, and have the following stars in their prime: Wolves’ Raul Jimenez, Diego Reyes, and Hector Herrera, with Hirving Lozano getting there and several veteran leaders on the end of their elite window but still easy CONCACAF stars (Memo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado).

So that’s 2.5 half spots.

Canada is ranked 78th in the world by FIFA and is 68th in the Elo Ratings. That puts them 8th and 7th amongst CONCACAF sides, as El Salvador is much lower in Elo than FIFA (and Elo is superior as an analytical tool. We’ve placed the chart at bottom).

Considering that the USMNT historically underperformed in 2018 qualification and Panama lucked into the tournament via a goal that did not cross the line, and it’s easy to predict a reverse in fortunes for the those two, but can Canada get in the Top Three (or the playoff spot) by moving ahead of 2-3 of the U.S., Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Jamaica (Considering Canada a contender requires they pass El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago).

If anything, the time is now for this group of Canadians, considering they’ll host the 2026 tournament with the U.S. and Canada. Les Rouges have vastly under-performed at two of the last three U-20 World Cups since giving the Americans a scare in the 2013 Round of 16. But they had a quality 2017 Gold Cup, and missed the 2018 World Cup qualifying Hex because Mexico had nothing to play for in the final game and drew Honduras.

Canada is still very low on overall depth and has a generation of player-first entitlement to overcome, but has CONCACAF star power in Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett, Scott Arfield, Cyle Larin, and Jonathan Osorio, a UEFA Champions League goalkeeper in Milan Borjan, a rising Liverpool teen in Liam Millar and the wild card of Barcelona property and former Montreal forward Ballou Tabla. Not to mention, the new and promising Canadian Premier League will make it easier for Herdman to scout potential next level stars.

Canada is currently en route for a Pot 3 ranking for the fourth round of World Cup qualifying (the last stop before the Hex). It would be drawn into a group where the main combatants will be one of Mexico, the USMNT, and Costa Rica, and one of Jamaica, Honduras, or El Salvador.

It’s not crazy at all to think Canada would edge Honduras and El Salvador for a top spot, and a group with Costa Rica where points will be live in those two fixtures. And the Canucks have a tactical boss with a chance to outwit another manager.

Hot take: Los Ticos are still long on experience but a bigger question in terms of depth and youth, missing three of four U-20 World Cups. That tournament shouldn’t be the lone arbiter of future goodness, but it’s something.

Even given the 2018 qualifying embarrassment, I fully expect the Yanks to qualify for 2022 in Qatar. Honestly, I think Jamaica might be the third-best group in terms of talent, with Costa Rica and Honduras interesting for different reasons. To borrow from the other football, Panama out-kicked its coverage and should be considered no certainty for the Hex. T&T is tricky at home. If Canada can be, there’s a really good chance they make the Hex.

After Alphonso Davies’ move to Bayern, what next for MLS?

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This is a watershed moment for Major League Soccer.

Alphonso Davies securing a record transfer fee for an MLS player ($13.5 million initially, which could rise to $22.5 million) and moving to German giants Bayern Munich as a 17-year-old with braces turned plenty of heads around the globe as to the potential talent currently being developed in the U.S. and Canada.

But what now for MLS? What direction will Davies’ transfer take the league in?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

First of all, Davies is a generational talent. We’re talking in the same bracket as Christian Pulisic for the USMNT right now, or the likes of Dwayne de Rosario and Landon Donovan before him. Davies is destined for great things and his mixture of skill with raw power and pace as a teenager is extremely rare. Now, he has the chance to become a global superstar at Bayern. It won’t be easy but he has the opportunity to take his game to a whole new level in Bavaria.

Unearthing talents on Davies’ level regularly is going to be tough, if not near impossible, but the level of youngsters coming through and starring in MLS is now at a level where clubs across Europe are cherrypicking them. Due to the relative small transfer fees, a stronger physical development in some respects and a bigger upsides in terms of development when they arrive in Europe, the interest in young MLS talent is now at unprecedented levels.

MLS has never really been a selling league with only a handful of players making the league substantial transfer fees over the past two decades, with much of the focus on veteran stars arriving into the league with little spent in transfer funds. That trend is changing with the likes of Barco and Miguel Almiron at Atlanta United, but the internal development of young players is the most intriguing aspect.

That is something which Davies’s transfer highlighted. He may not burst onto the scene with Bayern for a few years, but he has been given the best possible chance for success due to the way the Whitecaps have handled him, and will continue to do so, ahead of his move to Germany at the end of the current MLS season.

But this is where MLS now needs to cash in and make the most of the millions of dollars the league and owners have poured into development academies in recent years. There will always be room for the Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s, Wayne Rooney‘s and David Beckham’s to join the league and enhance its reputation on another level.

Yet it seems like the biggest shift in the next few years will be keeping hold of kids emerging from MLS academies.

If they’re going to increasingly lose talents like Davies to top European clubs, rather than losing them as youngsters in the academy system, they need to be compensated fairly. The plan has to be to then reinvest that cash into academies and let that trickle down to the grassroots, as it did in Davies’ case with his club team, the Edmonton Strikers, to receive some of the transfer fee for being a key part in his development.

MLS’ young stars being sold will continue, relentlessly, as European clubs realize that youngsters getting significant minutes at the senior level as teenagers will benefit their development and ready them for the gauntlet of Europe’s elite leagues. And that should, in turn, entice MLS clubs to give more teenagers opportunities in their first teams as they know that financially it will be hugely beneficial, as well as from a sporting perspective, as long as they’re good enough.

Tyler Adams, who is set to move to RB Leipzig from the New York Red Bulls, is the perfect example of how MLS academies can develop talent, nurture it and then hand over the keys for a fee.

There is, of course, a different way of doing things as you have Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund since the age of 16 and FC Dallas academy product Weston McKennie followed him to Germany at Schalke. 18-year-old Josh Sargent is at Werder Bremen. Keaton Parkes is at Benfica. Erik Palmer-Brown joined Man City from Sporting Kansas City.

The list of young talents bypassing MLS altogether and heading to Europe is substantial, but MLS are getting a grip on how to nurture talent and get something from it. But which players will follow in Davies’ footsteps and head to Europe from MLS?

Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen is perhaps next up, with clubs in England sniffing around the USMNT stopper, while perhaps Justen Glad of Real Salt Lake or maybe Jordan Morris from the Seattle Sounders (when he returns from injury) will be the next big talents MLS can sell to Europe and keep the conveyor belt going.

But this isn’t just about U.S. and Canadian internationals. Look at Barco, Miguel Almiron, Julian Gressel and Josef Martinez at Atlanta United. Kaku at the New York Red Bulls. Diego Rossi, Latif Blessing and even Andre Horta at LAFC. Look at Jack Harrison who left NYCFC for Man City. These are players in their early 20s who are primed and ready to be picked off by European clubs for a relatively modest transfer fee and should be ready to contribute right away.

Whatever way you slice this up, that is good for MLS’ future. Yes, the league will lose talented players, but youngsters will start to see the league, and particular clubs like LAFC and Atlanta, as breeding grounds for successful careers at the highest level. Just like the pathways in Europe which sees clubs like Ajax, Southampton and Celtic accept their roles as feeder clubs and make huge transfer fees before unearthing more young talent, MLS can be a cog in the machines of European giants.

The main challenge for MLS will now be to continue to develop good young players and get transfer fees which will keep the wheels turning and help clubs to become profitable.

It’s future has shifted slightly with this Davies transfer highlighting a path the league, and its individual clubs, can follow to deliver not only short-term success but long-term sustainability as well as enhancing the reputation of MLS around the world.

Davies joins Bayern; Fee could reach $22 million

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It’s the latest in a line of big moments for Major League Soccer, with the Vancouver Whitecaps announcing the sale of the gem of their developmental program: 17-year-old left winger Alphonso Davies.

[ MORE: Brighton breaks transfer record ]

A reported fee that could reach as high as $22 million will send Davies to Bayern Munich, where the Canadian teen will look to build on an MLS season which has already seen him score three goals with six assists in 20 games.

Again, he’s 17. From FCBayern.com:

 “Alphonso Davies is a very big talent,” declared Bayern Sporting Director Hasan Salihamidzic. “At the age of 17, he offers a lot of promise for the future. Alphonso already possesses great ability, which is why a lot of top clubs were keen on him. I’m delighted he’s chosen FC Bayern. I want to thank everyone who worked on this transfer, especially our scouting and legal departments. It was outstanding teamwork.”

Davies will stay with Vancouver through the MLS season, as he cannot sign with Bayern until his 18th birthday (Nov. 2).

Canada will hope that Davies can be their Christian Pulisic or better. The American teen broke into the Borussia Dortmund senior team when he was Davies’ age, scoring in his third and fourth Bundesliga starts.

Of MLS’ major sales to overseas clubs, the top success stories are Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Geoff Cameron. None of those successes made their moves at too tender of an age.

Davies has been with Vancouver since he was 15, playing with Edmonton clubs before that. He’s a bonafide league success story scooped up by one of the storied clubs of world football, and carries the potential of both a country and a league over to the Allianz Arena. No pressure.

Canada phenom Davies will sign with Bayern in November

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Vancouver Whitecaps prodigy Alphonso Davies is ready for the next stage of his career, and the platform could hardly get any higher.

Bayern Munich is the destination, according to multiple reports, and the Canadian 17-year-old will stay with the Caps through the rest of the season.

[ MORE: PST speaks with Sane, Mahrez ]

Davies is not eligible to sign for Bayern until his 18th birthday, which is Nov. 2. Reports say the $15 million fee could end up rising to $20m with incentives.

He was 16 when he became the youngest player to represent Canada at the senior level, and has scored thrice in six caps for Les Rouges.

Primarily a left winger, Davies has three goals and six assists over 20 matches in MLS play this season. He had one assist in 20 appearances last season, his first with the senior team.