Alphonso Davies made a dramatic return to B.C. Place on Thursday night.
Playing his first game in Vancouver since October 2018, the superstar midfielder scored twice, powering the Canadian men’s soccer team to a decisive 4-0 win over Curacao to open their CONCACAF Nations League campaign.
“Coming back to the stadium for training, the memories came back to me and I was excited,” said Davies, who drew international awe as a teenager playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps. The ‘Caps transferred him to German soccer giant Bayern Munich in a $22-million US deal in July 2018.
The victory followed a week that saw the Canadian players miss two training sessions and refuse to play a friendly game against Panama in Vancouver due to an ongoing contract dispute.
“That was a dominant performance, I think, from our lads,” said head coach John Herdman. “Really proud of them, given everything that’s gone on the last few days, for them to come out with that sort of intent. Yeah, really impressed.”
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Steven Victoria and Lucas Cavallini also scored for the 38th-ranked Canadians, who outshot the visitors 22-5 and 9-0 in shots on target.
It was a quiet night for Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who did not have to make a single save. Eloy Room made five stops for No. 79 Curacao.
Canada continues its Nations League play on Monday when they take on No. 82 Honduras in San Pedro Sula.
The home side was dominant from start to finish on Thursday.
Davies opened the scoring in the 27th minute after being hauled down inside the penalty area by Jurien Gaari.
The 21-year-old Canadian stepped up to take the kick, composing himself with a deep breath before sending a low rolling shot into the bottom-left corner of the net. He pumped his fist and blew a kiss to the crowd before being mobbed by his teammates in celebration.
‘He’s a once in a generation player’
Thursday marked Davies’ first game back with Canada since coming down with myocarditis, a mild heart condition he contracted after a bout of COVID-19 in December.
“With Alphonso, you’ve got to respect, he’s a once in a generation player, he’s a special player,” Herdman said. “To think we went [six] games in World Cup qualifying without him, that was a big test for our team.
“It’s not just speed, it’s not power. It’s he’s a very intelligent football and a guy that, from what I’ve seen, is really committed to his craft.”
The team missed Davies a lot, Cavallini added.
“It’s good to have him back,” he said. “We were happy to see him and have him with us. Especially he brings a lot of joy to the team and for most importantly, he brings a lot of quality.”
Davies helped set up Canada’s second goal of the night with a corner late in the first half.
His ball in was stopped by Room, but the Curacao ‘keeper couldn’t hold on and Jonathan David collected the rebound. He sent a ball to Vitoria who headed it in to give Canada a 2-0 lead.
Two shirtless protesters with “Save Old Growth” messages written on their bodies briefly affixed themselves to the Curacao goalposts midway through the second half. They were removed by security and led off the field by police.
Canada exploded out of the brief pause with another goal off a give-and-go.
Davies sent the ball to substitute Richie Laryea deep in the penalty area and Laryea quickly put it back on Davies’ foot. Davies tapped it in from the top of the six-yard box in the 74th minute for his second goal of the game.
The crowd of 17,216 rose to give Davies a standing ovation when he was replaced by Ike Ugbo in the 76th minute.
Sam Adekugbe dished a pass in to Cavallini inside the six-yard box and the ball deflected off the Vancouver Whitecaps’ striker as he toppled to the turf.
Cavallini came off the bench in the 76th minute for Tajon Buchanan.
“We have to be able to keep that intensity 95 minutes of the game,” Cavallini said. “Obviously, the starters put in a hell of a shift but us finishers have to go in and finish the job. And that’s how everything panned out today.”
Thursday’s game marked the first Canada has played on home soil since clinching a World Cup berth with a win over Jamaica in Toronto on March 27. It’s the first time Canada has qualified for the tournament since 1986.
The squad was scheduled to play a friendly warm-up match against Panama in Vancouver on Sunday but the game was called off at the last minute when players refused to take the field due to heated contract talks with Canada Soccer, the sport’s national governing body.
The players issued a statement saying they want more transparency from the organization, an equitable compensation structure for both the men’s and women’s national teams, and World Cup compensation that includes 40 per cent of prize money and a “comprehensive friends and family package” for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
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Canada Soccer has yet to reach a new deal with the athletes, but players returned to training on Monday, and on Wednesday the organization’s interim general secretary, Earl Cochrane, said negotiations have been positive.
Thursday’s game was a way for the team to thank its fans, said defender Alistair Johnston.
“Those fans deserved it. We put them through a bit of a ringer this week, and we know how difficult that is,” he said. “We’re all soccer fans at the same time. And we know that having to cancel matches is not ideal. So getting out there and finally be able to play in front of that Vancouver crowd was something that really meant a lot to us.”
Curacao opened its CONCACAF Nations League campaign with a 2-1 win over Honduras on Monday.
The group stage of the 2022-23 tournament will serve as the qualifier for the 2023 Gold Cup. Group play will continue in March 2023 and the Nations League finals scheduled for June 2023.