Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – While his teammates were preparing for the start of the 2017 USL regular season late last March, Louisville City FC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye was also hard at work with the Canada U23 Men’s National Team as it prepared for a three-team exhibition tournament in Qatar.
As much as he’d impressed in his first season in Louisville, it was an opportunity the 22-year-old knew he needed to take advantage of.
“Getting the call-up to Qatar with the U23s, it was something where I knew I had to stake my claim there, with my own age group,” said Kaye. “Luckily enough I did, and then [Canada Head Coach] Octavio Zambrano was there, and he liked what I was about and started bringing me in with the men’s national team. Then after that I knew that the job only got harder, and I needed to solidify a spot with these world-class players.”
After being named Man of the Match in Canada’s 2-0 win against the hosts, Kaye’s stock rapidly rose. Called into the full national team for the first time in June, the native of Toronto earned selection to Canada’s Gold Cup team the following month, making two appearances and his first start for his country as Canada reached the quarterfinals.
Kaye believes his experience in Louisville has helped him make the breakthrough at the international level, with Head Coach James O’Connor’s side continuing its consistent performance this year to reach Monday night’s USL Cup against the Swope Park Rangers.
“I credit Louisville City for helping me have the right attitude and the right mentality,” said Kaye. “James is all about work hard and the rest will take its course, and it’s been a really good year with that.”
Photo courtesy Canada Soccer
Kaye is part of a youth movement that new Canadian Head Coach Octavio Zambrano has brought in since being handed the reins to the national team program in March. Alongside Kaye, the likes of fellow USL Cup finalist Amer Didic of the Swope Park Rangers and other USL alums like Raheem Edwards, Alphonso Davies and Anthony Jackson-Hamel have earned their chance with the team.
“For sure, you see guys from MLS, guys from USL getting called up into the Canadian national team, and I think that’s good for both leagues, especially the USL,” said Didic. “It’s going to be great to go out and play against Mark-Anthony Kaye, I went to camp with him in Toronto a couple of months ago, so it’ll be nice to have some connection there in the final.”
With 13 players in Canada’s Gold Cup squad aged 24 and under, the opportunity for the likes of Kaye to be a key building block for the future of his national team program is an exciting one.
“I think they’re doing a good job of bringing in new players to get into that Canadian kind of mindset and what Octavio Zambrano is trying to create,” said Kaye. “Overall, it’s changing for the good. You see our performances this year, going into the Gold Cup people not thinking we were going to come out of our group or have good performances, and you look at the squad, it ended up being a young squad, so I think Canada’s on the right path. I’m just happy that players in the USL and in MLS who are younger are being able to get a chance.”
Kaye and Didic have both put national team thoughts aside recently with the goal of lifting the USL Cup at the front of their minds. For 2016 USL All-League First Team selection Didic, who redoubled his efforts after last year’s defeat to the New York Red Bulls II and earned an MLS deal with Sporting Kansas City as a result, the chance to lift the trophy is something he and the Rangers have aspired to since stepping off the field at Red Bull Arena.
“The past two years, even now, has been a roller coaster of a ride for me and for my team,” said Didic. “It’s been remarkable to see the growth I’ve been able to have with myself and also with this team. We’re back here again in the USL Cup final, and hopefully we’re able to win it this time.”
Photo courtesy Rio Grande Valley FC
For Kaye, the USL Cup offers a chance for Louisville to tie a bow on what has been an outstanding year for both himself and the club. From the recent stadium approval to the club’s rising support, Louisville’s ascent in the eyes of the North American soccer world has been a remarkable story.
“I think it’s the last part of the equation, to be honest,” said Kaye. “I think that if we’re able to secure this trophy it will just show that this was a good year. I think that’s the last piece [to a] good season, getting the stadium, finally winning the Eastern Conference, this is the last piece. We don’t want to get here and not achieve what we’ve been working for since preseason, since Florida in February. Tomorrow’s the last day, and we’re just going to go out and leave it all on the field.”
And while they might be teammates on the national stage moving forward, Kaye certainly would like to earn bragging rights for the next time he and Didic team up together.
“You play against people you know all the time, right, and tomorrow’s not any different,” said Kaye. “I respect him, really, really good kid, but when the whistle blows there’s no friends, right? At the end of the game we’ll probably have a little chat, but I’m hoping that I’m on the winning side.”