MONTREAL — The future of Canadian soccer may be on display when the Vancouver Whitecaps visit the Montreal Impact on Saturday.
The Whitecaps have 16-year-old Alphonso Davies, the youngest active player in Major League Soccer, while Montreal brings Ballou Tabla, who turned 18 on March 31.
It remains to be seen whether either midfielder will start or come off the bench, but so far, neither team has been reluctant to use their gifted young players in games.
The two African-born, Canadian-raised players have been teammates on national youth squads in recent years and know each other well.
"I'm his friend," Tabla said Thursday. "But it's my team against his team.
"We will try to get the three points. He's a good young player like me. I'm happy for him. We played with the national team and he was my roommate. We had time to talk a lot."
He didn't say if they discussed playing together on Canada's senior national team one day, perhaps because that is still up in the air in both cases. Davies, a native of Liberia who grew up in Edmonton, has permanent residency in Canada but is not yet a citizen, while Tabla, of Montreal, is yet to decide whether to represent Canada or his native Ivory Coast in international play.
Canada coach Octavio Zambrano has said he hopes to convince Tabla to choose Canada, his home since he was eight.
The crafty midfielder has turned heads this season with the Impact. After a strong first pro season in USL in 2016, he pushed established veterans for playing time in the MLS squad's training camp.
Tabla scored a goal in his first MLS start on April 1 in Chicago, when he replaced injured star Ignacio Piatti. Coach Mauro Biello has put him into six of seven games this season, including two starts. He is making a case to become a regular in the first 11.
"I think he's very close," said Biello. "He continues to perform and do well and absorb everything and grow as a player.
"We have to be careful with that because he's 18, but at the same time, we want to give him all the tools he needs to express himself. In the end, you've got to let the talent flourish."
There's a fear of putting too much responsibility on a young player, but Biello said he has passed every test so far. Tabla can play on either wing or the middle, but appears to prefer the left side, which is where Piatti plays.
Swiss international Blerim Dzemaili is expected to join the club as a designated player in early May and take a midfield spot in the middle. Veteran Matteo Mancosu is the centre forward while Dominic Oduro holds down the right wing.
It may take time for Tabla to become a full-time starter, but he has shown he has the raw talent. Like Piatti, he likes to try to dribble through defenders, but he can also make plays at high speed and has a good shot.
"When he's one-on-one and if a defender is too tight on him and he's able to get behind, it brings doubt to the opposition," said Biello. "These are things we continue to work on with him offensively and we also tell him what he needs to do defensively and where he needs to be.
"He's a guy that has tremendous talent. I've been here many years and I haven't seen one with that type of talent."
Davies has played in five games for Vancouver, starting four. He made his MLS debut last season. While he has yet to score in 13 league games, he has potted two in CONCACAF Champions League play.
Note: Biello said defenders Hassoun Camara (concussion) and Victor Cabrera (high ankle sprain) will both miss the Vancouver game.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press