Early last month, Vancouver FC’s TJ Tahid and Forge FC’s Kevaughn Tavernier travelled to Surakarta, Indonesia to represent Canada at the 2023 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
In doing so, they became the first active Canadian Premier League players to appear in a World Cup tournament. It was an important moment, both for the league as it continues to build on its expressed goal of providing a high-level development pathway for young Canadian players, and for two of its most exciting young players.
“We got to step onto the world stage with a bunch of other kids our age, world-class and playing in Europe and around the world, at the level that some of us want to be at or are trying to get to, so it was a good test for us to see what the competition is out there and stuff like that,” said Tavernier. “Just good to get the exposure.”
The tournament didn’t exactly go how Canada were hoping, as the group had made it their mission to earn the country’s first ever victory at the U-17 World Cup. Drawn into a tough Group B, they opened the competition by going down to ten men before losing 2-0 to Spain. They followed that up with a 3-0 loss to Uzbekistan and 5-1 to Mali. Tahid and Tavernier both appeared in all three games, however, and regardless of the results, it was a special experience for the pair.
“I think just stepping on that field, hearing the national anthem, hearing your name being called in the lineups and stuff like that, hearing the fans in the stadium,” said Tavernier. “[It] just makes you feel like a professional environment, so it was nice for all that.”
Hearing the Canadian national anthem played on the world stage, in particular, was an incredibly special moment that neither Tavernier nor Tahid will soon forget.
“Lots of pride in that, walking out, singing the national anthem,” said Tahid. “You feel so proud at that moment, it’s hard to explain. But you just have a lot of pride.”
Despite Canada’s tough results, it is worth mentioning the quality of opposition they faced. All three of Canada’s group stage opponents reached the quarter-finals, with Uzbekistan stunning England 2-1 in the round of 16 and Mali falling 2-1 to France in the semifinals, before beating Argentina 3-0 in the third-place match.
That level of competition extends to Canada’s pre-tournament matches, with both Tahid and Tavernier part of a preparation camp that saw Canada go down to Brazil to play a pair of matches against their U-17 side. Getting that chance to play against some of the best players in the world, is an invaluable experience for the two players.
Just before the tournament, Canada played Argentina in a friendly match in which Tahid scored.
“Scoring that is a big thing for me, especially against a top team in the world,” said Tahid.
Both players credit their experiences, both in training with and playing in matches for their respective CPL sides with helping them prepare to play at the international level. For Tavernier, getting to train with now four-time CPL playoff champions Forge FC provided both experience and mentorship. After signing a development contract in June, he appeared in two matches for Forge in mid-September.
With the Hamilton club, he was also part of a group with significant international pedigree. Forge assistant coach David Edgar played 42 times for Canada, while teammates Manjrekar James, Jordan Hamilton, Kyle Bekker and Tristan Borges have all represented Canada at the senior level, and Kwasi Poku, Alessandro Hojabrpour, David Choinière and Terran Campbell played at the youth national team level. Hamilton even got to suit up at the U-17 World Cup for Canada himself back in 2013, scoring in draws with Austria and Iran.
“They were all good mentors, they all taught me a lot,” said Tavernier. “Before I went to the World Cup, before I went to the first camp with Canada, they were all just telling me stuff, because they have been there before, telling me to be myself, that’s pretty much what got me there, and keep doing what I’m doing and I’ll be alright.”
Tavernier was actually in the air on his way to Indonesia when his Forge teammates completed a stunning extra-time comeback to defeat rivals Cavalry FC 2-1 to win the 2023 CPL Final. When he landed, however, he quickly got on a Facetime call with a few of his teammates who brought him into the celebrations. “I couldn’t have been there, but still to see it through the phone was a good experience,” he said.
Tahid spent this year making history with Vancouver FC. He became the youngest signing in league history on May 6, just 16 days after his 16th birthday, making his professional debut the following day. On June 2, he scored against rival Pacific FC, becoming the youngest goalscorer in league history. In total, he appeared in 20 matches, and scored three times. Playing all those pro minutes, 554 in total, gave him an important advantage when he played against his peers this past month.
“It helps me a lot because I’m able to dominate physically and tactically as well because the games in the World Cup, super fast, so are they in the CPL and at the men’s level,” said Tahid. “So having that experience definitely helped me a lot and competing against the men physically just made it that much easier to compete physically with my age group.”
Nevertheless, competing against players at the U-17 World Cup, and the lead in matchups who have played for clubs like Barcelona, River Plate, Fluminense and the academies of Barca and Real Madrid brought with it a lot of lessons.
“One switch off and the ball is going the other way into the back of the net,” said Tahid.
Being two players from the same league instantly gave Tavernier and Tahid something in common that blossomed into a friendship during their very first camp. Both on the field and off it they developed good chemistry.
“We connected like right away,” said Tahid. “It was really nice, we had a lot even like off the field we were together a lot and then on the field we had a lot of combinations and link up and yeah it was nice.”
That link-up nearly resulted in a goal against Mali in Canada’s final group game, as Tahid played Tavernier in all alone in the box, but the Forge attacker couldn’t quite get his shot right and it was saved.
“I feel like if we had that one back, it could have been different,” said Tavernier.
Flashes like that during the tournament, however, helped the pair to believe that they belonged at this level. Tahid started all three matches, while Tavernier played significant minutes in all three as well.
“It is motivating, hopefully I can make a step in my career,” said Tavernier. “I was only on a development contract last season, so maybe something else can come up, maybe I can get more opportunities with Canada. Just working every day, one day at a time, to see what’s next for me.”
For Tahid, his first professional season was a whirlwind. But capping it off by representing Canada was a special experience. Next, is putting everything he learned between Vancouver FC and the Canadian U-17s into practice during his second professional campaign.
“This whole year has been a lot of positive and there is a lot that has been learned,” said Tahid. “Going into next year, I’m going to be working on the stuff that I need to work on and continuing to grow and develop as a player and I hope to represent my country again.”
Both Tahid and Tavernier will perhaps get their next opportunity to pull on a Canada shirt at the 2024 Concacaf U-20 Qualifiers in February. It would mean playing against talented older players, but over this past season in the Canadian Premier League, the duo have shown they are up for that challenge.