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Midfielder Grady McDonnell the latest talented teenager to join Vancouver FC

Teenagers T.J. Tahid and James Cameron turned heads at Vancouver FC last season, earning call-ups to Canada's under-17 and under-20 team, respectively.

The second-year Canadian Premier League club unveils another young gun this season in Surrey, B.C. midfielder Grady McDonnell, who at 15 became the youngest player to sign a CPL contract when he joined Vancouver on Jan. 17.

Canada Soccer will be keeping a close eye on McDonnell, who turned 16 on Feb. 17. He has represented both Canada and Ireland at youth level — his father has Irish bloodlines — and has yet to declare his international allegiance.

Vancouver coach Afshin Ghotbi has marvelled at McDonnell's performance in pre-season, calling him "one of the best young athletes in North America."

"How he's improved, literally since Feb. 20, is incredible," Ghotbi added. "This guy's for real. Every day he's getting better. Not so much (because) of his talent but because how devoted he is to his profession. And every time he hears any information from me, he takes it, he analyzes it, he actually implements it.

"To have that kind of a student of the game at his age is remarkable for me. So I love working with him."

Landing McDonnell was a coup for Vancouver FC. The teen had been in the Vancouver Whitecaps system for two years before moving clubs.

"I think 100 per cent I made the right choice and I'm very happy with it," McDonnell said. "I feel like I can learn and I'm improving a lot from these guys. I'm super-eager. I'm looking forward to the season and seeing how much I can improve throughout the season."

Ghotbi can't wait to showcase McDonnell to the fans, noting his ability to win balls and beat opponents one-on-one.

"I think they'll love him because first and foremost he's a winner. The moment he puts his boots on he's ready for battle. He's a warrior," he added. "When it comes to all phases of the game — in defence and attack and transition — he's always switched on.

"He's never in awe of his opponent. I think if we play against Real Madrid tonight, he'll step on the pitch and will not be afraid of anyone or anything. And that's a disposition, that's something a coach can't reach. It's in his DNA."

The 60-year-old Ghotbi, who has worked around the world, said McDonnell caught his eye immediately the first time he saw him.

"I didn't know who he was. In his first tackle, I thought 'Wow, I want this player on my team.'"

McDonnell has already had training stints in England with Blackburn Rovers, in Germany with FC Schalke 04 and in Ireland with Shamrock Rovers FC.

Europe remains his ultimate destination. And he has spent time there recently with Ireland

In November, McDonnell helped the Irish win the Victory Shield, an annual under-16 tournament also featuring Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The teenager scored on a header in a 3-1 win over Northern Ireland and drew two penalties in a 3-2 comeback victory over Wales.

"It was a pretty awesome experience, especially with that group of guys," said McDonnell. "A special group."

He may be back with Ireland at a tournament next month.

Last August, he played four games for Canada at the CONCACAF Under-15 Championship in the Dominican Republic.

"I'm focusing on my game right now and seeing (in) the future which one's better for me," he said. "But they've both been excellent so far."

McDonnell, who is studying online while playing football, and Vancouver open the CPL season at home Sunday to visiting Valour FC. Ghotbi's team finished seventh in the league at 8-15-5 last year but closed out the campaign by winning four of its last six.

In addition to young guns, Vancouver FC has loaded up on local talent.

Defender David Norman Jr. became the ninth B.C.-born athlete on Vancouver’s 2024 roster when he came on board in late January, joining goalkeeper Callum Irving, defenders Kadin Chung, Paris Gee, Anthony White and Cameron, midfielders Ben Fisk and McDonnell and forward Tahid.

"The blend was not by accident," said Ghotbi. "It's something that even last year when we started the project we were looking for. We just didn't have the time and we didn't have the resources to do that in the first season."

"We felt that was the right recipe for creating the movement that we're looking for in Canadian football," he added.

Valour finished in the league basement at 6-14-8, three points behind Vancouver. The Winnipeg-based team lost four of its last five in 2024.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press