Cyle Larin was named 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year on Tuesday, and on the heels of his biggest accomplishment as a professional, he gets set to take on another big challenge. He’s in Vancouver, B.C., training with the Canadian national team as it tries to progress out of a tough group in World Cup qualifying that includes Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.
“I think the team’s ready, and we have the right players in to win that game [Friday against Honduras],” Larin told SI.com in a phone interview four hours after the MLS announcement of his award. “I think we have the right players to [qualify] now, and it’s just coming together as a team.”
In that effort, Canada will rely on a squad of professionals hungry to prove themselves on the international level, including Larin, Russell Teibert and Tesho Akindele. Larin finished his first MLS season with Orlando City SC by scoring 17 goals, bettering the former league rookie record set by Damani Ralph by six.
Larin earned his way into the Lions’ starting lineup in mid-April after beginning the first three games on the bench and scored his first goal immediately. From then until Aug. 1, when he tied Ralph’s record, his longest goal-less gap spanned two appearances.
After tying the record, though, it took Larin eight games to break it. A rush of six goals in the final four games of the season took Orlando to within striking distance of the playoffs, but the expansion team still finished in seventh place—five points behind Toronto FC for the final playoff spot—in the Eastern Conference.
“Once I got to 10 goals and I got my 11th goal, I didn’t feel the pressure, but the longer it took me to score, it just started to build up,” he said. “Once I got that one [the 12th], I think it took everything off and more came with it.”
Larin was surrounded by players his age under coach Adrian Heath in Orlando, which boasted a league-high 11 men aged 21 or younger on the roster. Nine of those players made appearances in 2015, combining for 95 games started and 8,483 total minutes, according to some number-crunching by Orlando Sentinel beat writer Paul Tenorio.
Larin rewarded that faith in youth by becoming the second No. 1 draft pick to win the league’s top rookie award. He received a whopping 96.38% of the club votes, 97.18% of media votes and 82.39% of player votes for the honor.
Individually, he adds goal-scoring potential that Canada lacked in the 2014 qualifying cycle. The team managed six goals in six games, four of which came in two matches against Cuba, and fell one point short of the hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifiers.
It culminated in an 8–1 loss, after which former head coach Stephen Hart resigned, to the same Honduran side it plays on Friday in Vancouver. Benito Floro took his place the following summer, and Canada begins the 2018 cycle with renewed hope to qualify for its second World Cup and first since finishing dead last at Mexico 1986.
What Canada hasn’t been able to do is turn individual potential into major honors as a team. The last two MLS Rookie of the Year winners comprise part of the squad, as Akindele was the 2014 recipient, but they’ll have to pull it together collectively to survive a group in which they won’t be close to favored.
Canada shared the goal-scoring burden in 2014, with Olivier Occean, Iain Hume and Simeon Jackson leading the team with four goals each. Tosaint Ricketts already matched that mark in two-leg victories over Belize and Dominica in previous rounds, while Larin scored twice.
While he hasn’t matched his prolific MLS rate yet for his country, Larin said he feels prepared to increase his production. No longer a rookie, the 20-year-old striker recognizes the expectations put on him.
“Playing so many games as I did and scoring so many goals, I just got the experience,” Larin said. “Now, I know what to expect.”