The thing about this interview with Cyle Larin is that he would really rather not be doing it. You can tell even over the phone that the 21-year-old Canadian Orlando City SC striker would sooner occupy himself with just about anything else.
He is trying to be into this thing, laboring to come up with adequate responses to my questions, but talking about himself is just so unnatural to him. He is too polite not to answer or to give me short shrift. But he is also too uninterested to really commit.
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It all feels like pulling teeth – for both of us, I’m sure. Larin will say a few words so quietly I’ll have to ask him to repeat them. And then he’ll mumble something obviously shorter than the first time he answered the same question, leaving me to wonder if he’s changed his mind and settled on saying even less.
When I ask him what he does for fun, Larin talks about going to theme parks with his teammates. Or going shopping. Then he lists “getting some rest” as his other hobby.
I try to get him to open up about some new tattoos I heard he had gotten. Tattoos are a favorite subject of most any pro athlete. He got a stamp on his spine, a blade in a heart that says “Love” on his neck and back and some patterns on his hand. That’s all he’ll say.
“I don’t usually tell stories behind my tattoos,” Larin finally explains, after I press him.
At length, I crack up. “I have the impression you don’t enjoy talking about yourself very much,” I say.
He laughs at this. “I try not to,” he says.
“Why is that?”
“I guess I grew up in a humble house,” Larin offers. “I don’t know. My mom taught me not to, I guess.”
He gets it from his mom. All of it – to keep quiet. To keep his head down. To just keep working. To plug away. To get ahead with his actions, not his words. It seems like his silence is both a credo and a defense mechanism. He steers well clear of most questions from reporters by saying more or less the same thing about working hard.
Larin, who stands 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds making him sizable for a pro soccer player, has been nicknamed the “Silent Giant” since his youth soccer days in Brampton, just outside of Toronto. He’s always been like this.
“I don’t speak out a lot,” he says. “I keep it in. Sometimes when I score, I’ll celebrate really hard. But I tend to keep quiet. I don’t know why. I guess my mom’s like that, too.”
There may be no young striker in the world with a higher ratio of potential to volume. In his rookie season, in 2015, the target man pulverized Major League Soccer’s rookie scoring record of 11 by getting 17 goals, for an expansion team no less. His goals were scrappy, pretty and savvy alike, reflecting his rare blend of athleticism and finesse.
“He’s a man,” says his college coach Ray Reid of UConn. “To be honest, I don’t want to be insulting, but I still to this day don’t think he knows what he has, how gifted he is. He’s very technical, very physical. He’s like a freight train at times.”
In 2016, Larin scored 14 goals, staving off a sophomore slump until the tail-end of the season – he scored 13 times in his first 24 games and just once in his last eight. In September, MLS named him its top player under the age of 24. Larin has already been linked to Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Lazio, PSV and Corinthians.
And still, he barely talks about his accomplishments. Whereas most strikers of his promise and track record would be brash, or at the very least boisterous, Larin is neither.
“It’s certainly not the norm – usually the strikers are the ones that have the big ego and a whole lot of selfishness and I don’t see that in him,” says Orlando City head coach Jason Kreis, once a fiery striker himself and the first man to score 100 MLS goals. “He’s a very quiet character, that’s for sure. He’s quiet. He’s an introvert. He’s someone that’s thinking about the game quite a bit – he’s a thinking man.”
But this is hardly the only way in which Larin is unusual. For starters, he is arguably the best young striker north of the Equator in the Western Hemisphere, but he’s also Canadian, a country that has struggled for generations to turn out international-level talent. And he’s a rebuttal to the route top prospects are supposed to take now.
He didn’t come up in an MLS academy, even though he grew up close to one. He didn’t progress through a youth national team program. He didn’t skip college to go straight to the pros. And he didn’t eschew MLS for a shot in Europe.
In a soccer sense, he did things the old-fashioned way.
Larin is the oldest of four. He has two brothers, the youngest of whom is seven, and a sister. Their father wasn’t around. His single mother, Patricia, had to rely on Cyle to help look after his siblings. “I guess I had to take care of my brothers and sisters,” Cyle remembers. “Make sure they had something to eat. Make sure they go to school on time. Stuff like that.”
His mother worked long hours at a pilot training facility for Air Canada, striving to get the family out of their apartment building. “It wasn’t a good environment to live in,” Cyle recalls.
Eventually, she got them into a house. “That’s what she instilled in us. She made sure we were taken care of and got stuff done. Made sure when we get older we can handle ourselves and work hard,” Cyle says. “We didn’t come from a lot. That’s what really drives me.”
Larin, like any self-respecting young Canadian, initially played hockey. But it got too expensive and he had to quit at 11. When he was 12 or so, he was recruited by the Sigma FC soccer academy. His mother could only afford the fees on a payment plan.
“She sacrificed a lot for me,” Cyle says. “She gave up a lot and worked very hard to keep me going.”
Playing youth soccer at a high level made Larin realize that the sport could improve the family’s lot, rather a heavy burden for a teenager to place on himself. Still, by the time he got to the end of high school, Larin went on several training stints with major European clubs – Club Brugge and Racing Genk in Belgium; Werder Bremen, Hertha Berlin and Wolfsburg in Germany. He can’t recall if he got any offers.
“You’d have to ask my agent,” Larin says. “He didn’t tell me. I don’t remember.”
This is a fairly common answer from Larin. He isn’t yet 22, but ask him a question about specifics of his career that are more than a year or two in the past and he’s unlikely to remember. “Ehhh … that was a long time ago,” he’ll say. He doesn’t seem to be one for looking back at the many things he’s already done.
At any rate, he didn’t feel ready to jump to Europe. He’d been invited to camps for Canada’s under-18 team but never made an appearance. UConn noticed him when it played a game against Larin’s academy team. Before he left college after his sophomore year, Larin was on the senior Canadian national team, making his debut there before he’d even played for the under-20s or any other youth national team.
He was the top pick in the 2015 MLS draft. And two years on, Larin still plays in large part to help his mom out. “One day, I’m going to give it all back to her,” he says. His salary, guaranteed at $177,000 last season, per the MLS Players Union, helps her cover the bills. And there’s enough left to “Get her a gift every now and then.”
Kreis believes that Larin, who is plainly one of the best strikers in the league, isn’t near his ceiling yet.
“It’s interesting to talk about potential in a player when you’ve scored as many goals as he has,” he says. “But for me, the potential and ability that he has, he still has a ways to go to fulfill it. I think that’s what’s fascinating about him. He can do a lot, a lot more.”
In Kreis’s judgement, Larin should learn how to be influential on both sides of the ball later into the games and to improve the routes of his runs. But sooner or later – probably sooner – he will be ready for the next level. Ready to go overseas, as he’s always envisioned.
“I’d love to play in Europe,” Larin says. “But I think I have to go at the right time.”
Orlando City teammate Kaka, the world player of the year in 2007, believes Larin can succeed. “I think Cyle can play in a big team in Europe as well,” he said at MLS Media Day in January. “I think Cyle can go a long way.”
How long, exactly? Here, at last, Larin says something that isn’t self-deprecating. What’s his ambition, I ask. Now he reveals, for the first time, a morsel of immodesty.
“One day,” he says, “to be one of the best strikers in the world; to play in the World Cup with my country; to play on one of the best teams in the world.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.