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Jonathan David is unlike anyone we’ve seen before

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The Men’s National Team prodigy’s meteoric rise is trailblazing a new standard for Canadian footballers, and he’s just getting started.

Canada v Costa Rica -World Cup Qualifier Photo by Dale Macmillan/Soccrates/Getty Images

Picture this: It’s the 94th minute of a KAA Gent match at home. They are down by a single goal to visitors Zulte Waregem, and are desperate to avoid two losses out of two. De Buffalo’s, as they’re known, are throwing everything they’ve got — even one centreback has pushed all the way to the top of the box — but Zulte’s low block is holding firm.

Suddenly, there’s a flash of hope. A Gent midfielder dances past an opponent in midfield, opening up space for a dangerous dribble that pulls away a Zulte defender. The adventurous Gent centreback finds himself receiving a pass just inside the corner of the box. Zulte scrambles to cover, but he’s quick to square the ball to the 18-year old Canadian forward right in the middle.

His name is Jonathan David, and he’s just made his debut as a substitute less than fifteen minutes ago. With barely a second to get a shot off, he calmly passes it first-time across the goalkeeper and into the far corner. David, who is playing in his first ever senior game, rescues a point for Gent at the death. It’s a dream start to his professional career. About a year before, he had been playing youth showcase games in Ottawa; now he found himself in Flanders mobbed by grateful teammates.

David was far from done, however. The performance earned him another substitute appearance in Europa League qualifying three days later against a Polish team with a name too difficult to spell. After a blistering counter-attacking run from half, he finished his own rebound and won the game in the 85th minute. This earned him another substitute appearance in the next game, where he scored a brace in nineteen minutes. In the next game, the qualifier return leg, he scored off the bench yet again.

In his first four professional games, David scored five times in sixty-six total substitute minutes. It’s a ridiculous introduction that even a movie scriptwriter would be hesitant to submit. Sure, David cooled off shortly thereafter, but it was enough to earn his first starting eleven appearance and, a few days later, a lucrative contract extension. By the end of the season, he had carved out a significant role in the Gent starting eleven. Calls started to come in from other European clubs. Scouts across the continent wanted to answer the same question: who was this generational prodigy from the land of hockey and maple syrup?

David is, in every sense of the word, a footballing a unicorn. He stands at just under five feet, eleven inches; neither too short nor too tall. His sturdy frame oozes with athleticism, which is maturing into a dangerous combination of pace and physicality. On the defensive side, opponents in possession routinely underestimate how quickly David can close spaces and he makes them pay dearly, especially in Canada’s uptempo scheme under John Herdman. In fact, his pressing stats put him in the company of some of the best defensive forwards in Europe. Among attackers in Europe’s five major leagues over the past year, he is in the 97th percentile for total pressures in the attacking third.

David is even more impressive technically. He brings a dose of flair to a Lille squad that tends to avoid dribbles and carries in favour of smart passes. Nonetheless, he is among the top-five per cent of dribblers by success rate, completing just over four out of every five dribbles he attempts. A broad arsenal of flicks, deft first-touches, quick turns and deceptive feints create an air of unpredictability that ruthlessly exploits unsuspecting defenders. Against Brest in October, for example, he collected an awkward, lofted ball mid-sprint landing just behind him with an immaculate half-spin, before cutting it back to avoid two defenders chasing him down and calmly slotting it into the far corner.

He is also an extremely capable passer for his position. David routinely sets up fellow forwards with devious backheels and incisive through-balls on the counter, often dropping deep to progress the attack. He is careful in possession, boasting a 84.5 per cent pass success rate in Ligue 1. Among attackers, it is second only to Arnaud Kalimuendo of RC Lens and far above other elite forwards in the league.

This broad technical ability manifests itself in a versatility that allows to him to perform all over the pitch. Positionally, he has been deployed on either wing, as a venturing attacking midfielder, as a secondary forward, and as an out-and-out striker. He is a pliable talent that is a pleasure for any coach to manage. It’s no secret clubs like Liverpool and Inter are rumoured to be preparing summer bids for him.

Unlike his dazzling start with Gent, David struggled initially to get his feet off the ground in France, even being labeled a waste of 27 million pounds. After only two goals in the first half of the season, however, he turned things around with a injury-time winner in January. Then, the Canadian “flop” sent Lille three points clear with a sublime finish in a 1-0 victory over PSG in early April. A few weeks later, Lille secured their first league title in a decade, in large part due to his 11-goals in the second half of the season.

This season, David, who leads Ligue 1 in goals scored, has hit a new gear. He is clinically precise with his shooting, putting more than half of his 2.3 shots per game on target, a mark better than elite forwards like Neymar Jr. (40%), Wissam Ben Yedder (33.3%) Kylian Mbappé (31%), and Lionel Messi (26.7%). David ranks 12th in Ligue 1 in shots-per-goal, and first among players with at least 1.7 shots per game. In the five major European leagues, David’s 57.9 per cent shot accuracy puts him in the top one percent of forwards.

Simply put, David can do it all. He displays all the characteristics of the perfect modern striker: strong and rapid pace, technical brilliance, industrial pressing and impeccable positioning.

David is unsurprisingly doing well in Europe. “I had only one goal: to get to Europe” said David in an interview with Sport/Voetbalmagazine in 2019, something further corroborated by the fact that he eschewed watching the MLS in favour of various European competitions. He even rejected offers to join Toronto and Vancouver’s academy teams early on.

Even so, he is well-aware of his Canadian commitments. “We actually need a qualification for a World Cup to popularize football,” he said in the same interview. “We must seize this moment to get the whole country behind us. We realize that we are part of the most talented generation in Canadian history.”

It is somewhat ironic that one of the jewels of what could be the greatest generation of Canadian footballers ever was born in Brooklyn, USA to Haitian parents. Still, for a nation historically deprived of talent being successful abroad, it was a tantalizing glimpse of not only his potential, but of the future of Canadian football as a whole. Any Canadian fans that weren’t already acquainted with him by then would have watched his six-goal 2019 Gold Cup campaign (including his first hat-trick) with glee.

Since then, David has welcomed the burden of expectations with open arms. Since making his debut for the national team in September of 2018 under Herdman, he has scored an incredible 18 goals in 24 matches, including a winner against World Cup qualification rivals Costa Rica. The goal wasn’t pretty, a tidy clean up of a clumsy spill from the goalkeeper, but it was emblematic of David’s Nostradamus-like poacher’s instinct. A goal is a goal on the scoresheet, in any case. Following their win against Mexico at the Iceteca a few days ago, Canada sits atop their qualifiers group and on the verge of a World Cup berth. It looks like David and the Men’s National Team are finally seizing the moment, and the country is most definitely behind them. It is night and day how popular the CanMNT is now compared to several years ago.

David was substituted late in the Mexico game with an injury, which appears to be the only thing that can stop the red-hot forward nowadays. He is usually resilient with injuries, once returning from an ankle ligament rupture after only two weeks. If he can stay healthy, the 21-year old is poised to make headlines this season. David’s arguably the best striker in CONCACAF already (if not Cyle Larin), but his legacy has all the opportunity to reach uncharted territory for North American footballers. If you haven’t been tuning into Lille games already, it’s time that you did.