As first impressions go, Canadian defender Scott Kennedy hit it out of the park.
Canada coach John Herdman, who had talked up the uncapped Kennedy in the leadup to Tuesday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Suriname, started the 24-year-old from Calgary in a back three with veteran Doneil Henry and Alistair Johnston.
He was not disappointed.
"That was as strong a debut as I've seen for this country," Herdman said after the 4-0 win, which moved Canada into a second-round playoff against Haiti.
The 70th-ranked Canadian men play No. 83 Haiti on Saturday in Port-au-Prince with the rematch Tuesday at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill. Canada is 7-2-2 all-time against Haiti but lost last time out, blowing a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 in the 2019 Gold Cup quarterfinals.
The Canada-Haiti winner moves on to the so-called Octagonal, the eight-team final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. The Canadian men have not made the final qualifying round since the buildup to France '98.
Kennedy, who plays his club soccer for SSV Jahn Regensburg in the German second tier, is no overnight sensation. The six-foot-three 174-pound defender left home at 18 to go to Europe, working his way up from the lower levels in Austria and Germany to the Bundesliga 2.
Making his Canadian debut was a "special moment."
"It actually hit me when we were singing the national anthem," Kennedy said in an interview. "The hairs on my arms stood up a bit because I realized how far I'd come. It's altogether six years now that I've been working for it … I just soaked it all up."
His road in Europe took him from SB Traunstein to FC Amberg in Germany and then SV Grodig and SK Austria Klagenfurt in Austria. He joined Regensburg in 2020.
"I've enjoyed my time there," he said of his European experience. "I think it's definitely shaped who I am as a person, being away from home and having those difficulties maybe. Not having the help from family or friends. Having to get through things on your own."
Kennedy caught Herdman's eye during Regensburg's German Cup run this season. The club made it to the quarterfinals, with Kennedy scoring in an upset win over top-tier FC Cologne before losing to Werder Bremen, another Bundesliga team.
"They were the moments that helped me understand that when he's with better players and playing against better players, he can really rise up," said Herdman.
The win over Cologne marked Regensburg's third consecutive penalty shootout victory.
Herdman describes Kennedy as a "no-nonsense guy" who gets the job done.
"Just the way he's handles himself from the day he came into this environment, (he's) just a consummate pro," Herdman said.
Kennedy has two more years on his contact with Regensburg, which finished 14th in Bundesliga 2 this season with 9-14-11 record.
"I'm very happy so far," he said of his time at the club. "It was a great step in my career, especially this past year to get so many games in."
Herdman talked to Kennedy about bringing him in to camp ahead of March World Cup qualifiers against Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. But Kennedy picked up a knee injury and was unable to go.
"That was when I realized that they were looking at me and were watching my games," Kennedy said. "So it was definitely a nice thing to hear and I definitely wanted to jump on the next opportunity, which was now. I'm happy it worked out this time."
Regensburg normally employs a four-man backline but presses aggressively. He says that eased the transition to the back three with Canada.
"Doneil and Alistair played great. We had a good understanding of what we had to do," said Kennedy. "I felt comfortable."
Good on the ball, Kennedy was a midfielder growing up. In his later teenage years he switched first to fullback and then centre back.
"I grew a little bit later," he explained. "I wasn't always 6-3, so I wasn't needed back there. I just sort of grew into it and I love to defend. I love people needing to count on me. I love that pressure."
He played club soccer for Calgary West, Calgary Chinooks and William Aberhart High School.
Kennedy started his European club journey after his Chinooks team went on tour in Germany. His coach had German connections, inviting some of them to come see his team play.
One liked what he saw. The scout, Rainer Horgl, became his agent. "We've worked together ever since," said Kennedy.
It wasn't easy at the beginning.
His first club, SB Traunstein, was a semi-professional side in Germany's sixth tier and only trained three or four times a week. Kennedy didn't speak the language. Back home, meanwhile, his friends were going to university "and having fun."
"Of course there was doubt — and thinking that you're missing out on things," said Kennedy. "But I just remembered why I was there, what I wanted. I've always had the idea if you want something, you have to sacrifice other things in your life. And I was willing to do that."
While he worked to improve his game on the field, he learned German off it and is now fluent.
Regensburg is located in the southeast of Germany, some 125 kilometres north of Munich. Filled with history, it's a popular tourist destination outside of the pandemic.
"I haven't been able to investigate to much. but I love it there," he said. "The scenery's nice. It's got a lot of culture, a lot of history. But I'm still scratching the surface when it comes to figuring it all out, just because of the situation going on."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2021.