For Forge FC midfielder Tristan Borges, it was a cracking goal for Canada at the 2015 Concacaf U-17 Championship against Mexico that put him on radars.
With the Toronto FC Academy at the time, Borges received the ball on his left peg in the middle of the park about 30 yards from goal. He cut inside, away from a defender, before hitting an arching shot that sailed past the diving goalkeeper and into the left side of goal, earning Canada a 1-1 draw.
“When I went to TFC I was 15, that’s when I started to go to national team camps,” recalled Borges by phone. “I had a really nice game against Mexico, had a nice goal that went a little viral. I got an agent, contacted SC Heerenveen because we knew that they were very good at developing youth.
“They saw how I played, wanted to invite me on trials. I went for two weeks, they loved me and I ended up going back a few months later and signing.”
Yet to turn 17, Borges put the comforts of youth behind him in search of his dream.
“It was very difficult to leave home,” said the now 20-year-old. “For the first year I lived with a guest family, that made it easier, but (it) was really tough. I wasn’t allowed to play games because my FIFA papers were having some problems.
“After seven months, I started to play games and feel more comfortable. The country itself is beautiful, very nice people – that made it more welcoming.”
It was in the Netherlands that he honed his craft, armed himself with the tools of the profession.
“Tactical awareness: where to be on the field, how to play with your teammates, help them out, how to win. A lot of players in Canada have the technical ability,” said Borges. “I learned a lot.
“The player I am now is very different than the one who went in the first place.”
That is a common refrain.
Canada has always had the raw talent, but when players elsewhere are being forged in the crucible of the daily, often cutthroat, professional environment, here they stagnate and the rest of the soccer world races ahead.
With Heerenveen, a club that has a history of giving North Americans, including Pacific FC CEO Rob Friend, Orlando City’s Will Johnson, and TFC captain Michael Bradley a chance, Borges learned to be hungry.
“My mentality going was like that, that’s the mentality everybody has here. Going there, you learn to switch that off,” said Borges.
“You have to perform every single day to show the coaches you’re good enough to play. It’s a day in, day out mentality to give 100%.”
His coach at Forge, Bobby Smyrniotis, has seen the change Borges’ time in Europe has wrought.
“He was a player I knew when he was playing locally, you saw his qualities, but you see a much different player coming back,” said Smyrniotis. “Once you’re in that environment, you understand that it’s about life; improving yourself on a day to day aspect. It’s part of the mentality he brought back.
“He’s not the player who is looking for something to be served to him, he’s not expecting that everything is his. He’s a guy who knows this is a job. It’s a great job, you’re kicking a ball, (but) you have to take it with the right mentality.”
Smyrniotis has seen others struggle with coming home. Not Borges, who joined Smyrniotis at Sigma ahead of the 2019 CPL season.
“Sometimes coming back from a good pro environment to playing locally players have issues, getting back into the rhythm and training, but he was spot on from day one,” observed the Forge head coach.
“That gives me a good outlook on his mentality as a pro.”
The first word that both Borges and his coach used to describe his game was “dynamic.”
“(He) can play a couple spots,” detailed Smyrniotis. “(As) a traditional attacking midfielder, he’s creative, he’s quick, he can beat players. His vertical movement is very good. The closer he is to goal, he’s very lethal finishing.
“Off the field, his mentality, his work ethic; his dedication and professionalism. You put those together, he’s got a high ceiling. A lot of experience in Dutch football. We were able to pick him up; we’re very happy.”
Said Borges: “I bring a lot to (the) table: I work hard; I’m very attack-minded, (opponents) don’t know what I’m going to do, which brings an edge on my side.
“(And) I like to win. Whatever the team needs to win, I’m all in for it.”
Talent. Hard work.
And, well, the drive to compete.