With one of the league’s best wingbacks, Julian Gressel now in Columbus, the spotlight will grow on freshly minted Canadian international Ali Ahmed.
Since his arrival, few players have been as crucial to the Vancouver Whitecaps as Julian Gressel. En route to becoming a member of the USMNT, Gressel has put up 7 goals and nine assists in 38 appearances since his trade to Vancouver last year.
But his adventure up North is over. Gressel was traded to the Columbus Crew in exchange for General allocation money. While the GAM is useful, it won’t replace what Gressel does on the pitch. Luckily for Vancouver, they may have a replacement in-house, Ali Ahmed.
Time to Shine
Ahmed, 22, has experienced a meteoric rise over the course of 2023. A virtual unknown, Ahmed has had a nomadic soccer journey, spending the latter part of his teenage years trialing across the world. From a trial with Toronto FC in 2018, Ahmed would continue to showcase his skills for several clubs before joining the Vancouver Whitecaps academy in 2020 as a 19-year-old.
For the next two years, Ahmed honed his skills in the academy before debuting for Vancouver Whitecaps 2 in 2022. In his 15 appearances for the second team, the wingback led the team in assists with five, winning their Player of the Year award.
As his development continued to accelerate, Ahmed made two appearances with the Vancouver first team, notching 54 minutes to prepare him for his breakout.
Few were aware of the potential gem in the Vancouver system at the start of the 2023. That is certainly no longer the case. Ahmed has established himself as a regular first-team player, making 15 appearances across all competitions and winning Young Player of the Tournament at the Canadian Championship. Coincidentally, Julian Gressel won the Player of the Tournament.
His play for Vancouver caught the attention of the Canadian Soccer Federation, who called up Ahmed for the 2023 Gold Cup, where he started all four of Canada’s matches.
Ahead of the Curve
Even though he had/has less than 20 top-flight appearances, Canada locked him into the left-back spot for good reason.
Ahmed can maraud the flank much like Gressel, slipping passes across midfield and setting up teammates, a strong suit. Ahmed ranks in the 86th percentile for shot-creating actions, not too far behind Gressel, who sits in the 94th.
Another similarity to Gressel is Ahmed’s willingness to make runs into the box and take shots, where he sits in the 75th percentile as compared to Gressel in the 89th.
Two major differences exist in the 22-year-old’s game and Gressel’s, dribbling and defending. The young Canadian’s talent and skill have surpassed Gressel in that regard.
While Gressel will often only rely on his passing to progress the ball, Ahmed is much more inclined to do it himself. The left-back is not afraid to take on defenders and enter the final third himself. He is a player who enjoys having the ball at his feet and drawing in defenders, often creating more space for teammates.
Also, an incredibly stout defender, Ahmed, is as tough in his own half as he is slick in the final third. Gressel ranks in the 26th, 65th, and 12th percentile in tackles, interceptions, and blocks, respectively. Meanwhile, Ahmed is in the 99th, 75th, and 97th in the same areas. Vancouver may lose a slight edge in their attacks but should have a stronger defense with more Ahmed.
Ahmed is a legitimate modern fullback. While he isn’t exactly at Gressel’s level yet, he has plenty of time to get there and beyond.