Veteran defender Pa-Modou Kah was on the practice field with the Vancouver Whitecaps one morning last season when a lanky 15-year-old joined training.
Alphonso Davies had been promoted to the club’s first team and found himself matched up against Kendall Waston, a hulking six-foot-five centre back.
With Waston bearing down on Davies, the teenager took one touch of the ball and cooly scooted away.
“I’m like: ‘Wow,'” recalled the now-retired Kah. “When Kendall is coming a lot of people get afraid of him, but he was just composed and calm.
“His talent was evident. Everybody could see it.”
Kah’s was just one of the many jaw-dropping reactions during Davies’ meteoric rise over the last 12 months.
Now 16, the Liberian-born, Edmonton-raised midfielder has been a bright spot for Vancouver, which is off to a sluggish 0-2-1 start to the Major League Soccer season.
Davies kicked off 2017 by scoring in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals against the New York Red Bulls, a goal that helped propel the Whitecaps into the last four of the competition.
He also bagged an injury time winner in the group stage, his smooth stride and deft handling often leaving opponents in his wake.
“He sees things and does things that you’re unable to (teach),” said Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson. “You’ve either got it or you haven’t. He’s got that natural ability.”
Davies joined the Whitecaps’ residency program in 2015 before starring in the second-tier USL early last season.
He made his debut for Vancouver in the Canadian Championship in June, became the youngest player to start a game for the club a week later and signed an MLS contract July 15.
The next day he came on as a substitute against Orlando City SC as the third-youngest player in league history, and became the second-youngest to start a match in September.
But with all the hype, no one around the Whitecaps has seen even a trace of ego from the phenom.
“I’ve got great support staff,” said the soft-spoken Davies. “They’re always on me to keep my feet on the ground. It can be taken away easily if you get off track.”
Davies sometimes returns to the residency facility on off days, folding towels and chatting with fellow youngsters who dream of being in his shoes.
“He’s a great talent, but only talent is not enough,” said Kah, who is now an assistant coach with Vancouver. “What sets him apart is his human qualities. He’s a down-to-earth, humble kid who works hard.”
The Whitecaps have tried to keep Davies away from the spotlight as much as possible. They limit his media availability and downplay his performances, even when he’s the best player on the field.
“You do have to remember he’s just 16,” said Robinson. “He’s still got homework to do … he’s still got to be a boy.
“He’s got to go play Playstation and hang around malls.”
With his family in Edmonton, Davies lives with billets and goes to high school when he isn’t with the team. Otherwise, he does his Grade 11 courses on the computer.
“Playing and then going home to do homework is very difficult,” Davies said with a grin. “All you want to do is lay in bed and sleep.”
Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted said the club’s veterans feel a responsibility to take care of him on and off the field.
“He keeps reminding me that he’s half my age, which is frightening, isn’t it?” said Ousted. “I don’t know if he’s young or I’m old.
“He’s got that something special.”
Davies has played for Canada at youth levels, but is a permanent resident after his family fled civil war in Liberia when he was four. He will need to become a citizen before getting called up to the full national team.
“To be able to represent Canada, it is one of my dreams,” said Davies, a comment that should allow soccer fans in this country to breathe a little easier.
It’s no secret that some of the biggest clubs in the world have already been sniffing around Vancouver’s prized prodigy, who can’t sign a professional contract outside Canada until he turns 18.
“He’s got a very bright future,” said Toronto FC defender Drew Moor. “MLS should be happy that he’s in this league right now because I don’t know how long he will be.”
A fan of Lionel Messi and Barcelona, Davies has big aspirations, but also knows he has to be patient.
“My dream is to play at the top level, to be one of the best in the world,” he said, adding: “I just try to stay focused, do what I have to do now and worry about the future later.”
— With files from Neil Davidson in Toronto