Jonathan David’s personality is as unassuming as the route he took into professional football. While he is not one to shout about himself, the 22-year-old Canada striker has taken the many challenges he has faced in his career in his stride.
Born in New York, David moved to Haiti aged three before his parents emigrated to Ottawa three years later. There, he made the first of several good decisions when he joined local club Ottawa Gloucester Hornets at the age of nine.
There was no meticulous development at an academy of a Major League Soccer team, despite there being interest from all three in Canada. He stayed with the club until he was 16 despite being courted by Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact.
After seven years with the Hornets he then took a giant leap, crossing the Atlantic to join Belgian club Gent. He impressed there, leading to a move to upwardly mobile French club Lille in 2020.
His rise has continued in Ligue 1, where he is established as one of the most dangerous forwards in the country. So, when he faces Chelsea in the Champions League last 16 on Tuesday, he will do so as a striker who is attracting attention from some of the continent’s biggest clubs.
‘Some kid from Ottawa’
Facing the reigning European champions is another step in David’s seemingly inexorable rise to the very top, and while he shows none of the brashness that sometimes surrounds elite players, he does not lack self-belief.
He never has. The shy youngster was telling his youth coaches from an early age that he intended to play in Europe.
Even that confident young striker might have been pleasantly surprised had he been told back then that he was going to play a key part in winning one of the continent’s major league titles so early in his career.
That’s exactly what he did last season though, his 13 goals helping Lille to a first Ligue 1 title in a decade – and beating star-studded, big-spending Paris St-Germain in the process.
“He was a shy boy but on the pitch he’d just score goals,” says Hornets technical director Jay DaCosta. “His ability is natural; he finds room and puts the ball in the back of the net.
“His plan was always to go to Europe. The Canadian MLS sides all wanted him but it is testament to his mentality that he took that path. If it was me, I’d have signed one of those contracts because I know the environment those clubs have, but he stayed local and worked on his game.
“He’s made really good decisions in his career. Picking Belgium, a league where he’d get playing time and they develop young players, and the same with Lille.
“It came out of nowhere that he was going. Normally the route is an MLS academy and you build from there; that is what we were expecting. When some kid from Ottawa tells you he’s going to play in Europe, it’s like ‘yeah, yeah sure you are’, but he did it.”
Scoring 12 more goals this season has cemented his status as one of European football’s most coveted young players.
Soon, though, he may be excelling not just on the European club stage, but on the global one.
‘He’s a cold assassin’
Canada’s drive towards their second World Cup appearance has centred around the talents of David and Bayern Munich defender Alphonso Davies, who have thrived under English manager John Herdman.
After beating the United States in the recent international window, Canada are now heavy favourites to qualify for Qatar, giving David a whole new platform to demonstrate his talents.
Former Scotland defender Steven Caldwell was on Canada’s coaching staff until last year, and he says David can go right to the top.
“Jonny is pretty special and I think he can play for any team in the world,” Caldwell says. “He’s a great defensive centre forward; he’s really smart and takes good lines of pressure, cuts off easy passes into midfield. He will make life difficult for [N’Golo] Kante, Jorginho or [Mateo] Kovacic.
“But he’s got great composure and he’s deceptively quick. He eats up the ground; he’s very good at everything but has a lot to improve on, which is crazy.
“He’s strong-minded and very focused; he backs himself and he’s grown in the time I’ve known him, but he’s never really changed. That’s rare when you move to a different country so young.
“He puts on a game face; he’s a cold assassin and very clinical.”
Canada’s World Cup qualification form has changed how football is viewed in the country.
The Hornets have benefitted from that, according to DaCosta, and were also able to stay afloat during lockdown thanks to sell-on clauses in his contracts with Gent and Lille.
“We have pictures of him all over our clubhouse and he’s on the front page of our website, because to me there is nothing more inspiring for a young player than to read about this kid, especially the route he took,” says DaCosta.
“We post about him on social media a lot and he was over here during the Christmas break; he worked with a couple of local teams and kids, which is amazing.
“Through Covid we struggled with shutdowns, but the Jonathan David money has helped immensely to keep our community club going.”
‘He could play for one of the world’s top sides’
With Lille struggling to replicate last season’s feats and sitting mid-table despite David’s form, there is regular talk about a move to one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs.
“We are desperate to watch him face a Premier League team because that is mainly what we watch here,” he adds. “Chelsea are European champions, so if he can impress against them, his stock will rise. You’d anticipate everyone will be interested, but his choices have been calculated, centred around his development.”
“He’s ruthless, but the Premier League is a different beast,” Caldwell concludes. “Working under a top manager, he could really improve. No disrespect to Lille, but he’s very defensive in that team and plays on the counter attack; I’m looking forward to seeing him in a team with lots of possession.
“If he’s at the right price, I can see him at Liverpool or Manchester City.”
Chelsea may be overwhelming favourites for the tie but they can expect Lille’s not-so-secret weapon to cause them problems.