The forward’s decision to come to MLS could prove to be another turning point for a country that has World Cup ambitions

In many ways, Canadian soccer is in its infancy. The sport has been around for a while, sure, but there is not much history to note. Compared to Concacaf powerhouses like the U.S. and Mexico, Canada has always lagged behind in youth development, infrastructure and, ultimately, success.

Alphonso Davies’ move to Bayern Munich was seen as a turning point, and rightfully so. It was a record-breaking fee for not just Canada, but all of MLS. With his $22 million move to Germany’s biggest team, Davies became Canadian soccer’s first true star.

But any country can produce a star. There are countries all over the world that are fortunate enough to be the home of one great player, but one great player is not enough to propel a program or a culture. It takes much, much more than that for an entire country to say it has taken a step forward into a different level of the international game.

And that step seems to be in the process. In recent years, several top Canadians have made inroads in Europe, including Jonathan David and Cyle Larin. The next step was being able to bring one of those top players home. That happened this winter.

Lucas Cavallini became that player when he signed a record-breaking deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The 27-year-old striker became the club’s record signing, shattering the MLS record for a transfer fee paid for a Canadian. The deal, reported to be for around $6 million, makes him the seventh most-expensive North American signing in league history.

It is a game-changer for Canadian soccer. One of the national team’s top players, a striker in his prime, has come back to Canada. A Canadian club could afford the fee required to get him and had the desire to actually do it. The move is a sign that MLS’ Canadian teams, all less than 15-years-old, have become a foundation of the country’s soccer culture.

A decade ago, Cavallini’s story was impossible. Now, there is hope that it can become the norm.

“At that time, when I was a kid, it wasn’t easy playing with clubs or trying to get in at all,” Cavallini told Goal. “Since, things have started getting better here. In MLS, there are more opportunities for kids, for youth, to make themselves something with soccer professionally. It’s a good step that MLS is doing to involve the youth, to have professional soccer here in their home country instead of leaving here and going abroad.”

Going abroad is exactly what Cavallini had to do to begin his professional career. Born in Toronto to an Argentine father and Canadian mother, Cavallini was instantly thrown into the sport as a kid.

At that point, soccer was very much on the backburner in Canada and opportunities were few and far between. Toronto, at that time and even now, was a city full of “energy”, Cavallini says, but energy for sport was reserved for the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and Argonauts. Like any player, Cavallini wanted to play in Europe but, as a kid, that was not much of a possibility for most Canadian kids.

As a youth player, Cavallini trained with local clubs and eventually started working with trainers that had connections in South America. At age 16, he left Canada, moving to Uruguay and joining Nacional. That opportunity began the path that produced Cavallini’s unique soccer education. He was raised on Toronto’s energy, Argentina’s heritage, Uruguay’s passion and, eventually, Mexico’s skill.

It was in Mexico that Cavallini blossomed. After featuring for Nacional, Fenix and Penarol in Uruguay, Cavallini joined Puebla on loan in 2017. He scored 13 goals in 25 matches for the club that season and the club responded by making that loan permanent with a four-year deal. 

Liga MX was not a traditional home for Canadian players. Only five, including Cavallini, had ever played in Mexico’s top flight. Cavallini scored 17 goals over the next season-and-a-half with Puebla, becoming a key part of the Canadian national team in the process.

However, he was also the subject of interest from back home. The Whitecaps pursued Cavallini for months, with head coach Marc dos Santos repeatedly stressing to Cavallini how important he could be to the team. Eventually, Dos Santos got his wish, bringing in the centerpiece striker that the club has coveted for several seasons.

“I like that Vancouver came out to me, came to Mexico to speak to me, and everyone was just hyped for me to go there,” Cavallini said. “The confidence in me was something special. It made me feel comfortable. The coach wanted me, he treated me as his No. 1 pick to come to Vancouver, and that was something special to me. I felt that it was necessary to go play there. Now that I’m here, I’m happy with my decision. I’m excited to give what this club needs.

He added: “It was an easy decision. you never know how life goes. You try to plan your life and your career, but it’s hard. There’s always something that gets in the middle or you change course. You have to go through obstacles sometimes and I was looking to leave at least my club. It was a good fit for me. It’s not something I expected, but at the end of the day I’m happy.”

Cavallini’s continued rise will be vital for the Canadian national team in the coming years. The 2019 campaign was a breakout one for the forward, who scored eight goals in just seven matches for his country. That included a Gold Cup hat-trick against Cuba as well as the second of two goals in Canada’ historic win of the U.S. in October.

The latter was a game that many saw as a signal of Canada’s arrival. It was the country’s first win over the USMNT in 34 years, and it was no fluke. They played with the U.S. and beat them straight up, on the heels of what was a successful Gold Cup run during the summer.

But the rematch, a 4-1 Canada loss, showed that there is still a ways to go.

“Individually, it was a good year for me,” Cavallini said. “Playing for Canada, obviously, it was for the team as well. We could have done better, obviously. We had key highlights there: beating the U.S. for the first time in 34 years, that was great, but the Gold Cup you could say there’s a bitter taste and I think we should have done better. Our last game where we got eliminated, we deserved more. We deserved to at least make the finals, but what are you going to do? Those are experiences that you learn from. They only make you better.”

He added: “That’s what we’re trying to make out of this national team: a brotherhood. We haven’t gotten to that stage yet, but we’re almost there. That takes time. We have big unity in this national team. We’ve worked together for two years, same players, same format, same system. That’s going to help us achieve our goals. I’m excited for what the future holds for us.”