VANCOUVER — Cyle Larin is as soft spoken as they come off the field. On the pitch, it's a completely different story.
Following a record-breaking rookie season in Major League Soccer that saw him score 17 times for Orlando City SC, the big striker from Brampton, Ont., put any thought of a sophomore slump to bed early by bagging three goals in as many outings for his club to start 2016.
That razor-sharp form is good news for Canada as the men's national team prepares to host regional power Mexico on Friday in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
"We have the right players to go into this game and win," Larin said with quiet confidence this week. "Everyone believes we can do something special."
While the overall talent level has risen across the Canadian setup with the likes of winger Junior Hoilett committing to the program, Larin's emergence as a target man up front with a nose for the net has been vital for a country that's struggled to score for a generation.
"He gives us something different — a reliable presence," said veteran midfielder Will Johnson. "We've rotated guys in and out of that position and now we have a player that you know exactly what you're going to get from, which is a high-quality centre forward."
Larin — who turns 21 next month — has four goals in his nine international starts, including the critical winner in November's 1-0 victory over Honduras that got Canada, ranked 87th in the world by FIFA, off on the right foot in the penultimate round of CONCACAF qualifying.
"He's a big, strong, athletic boy," said Canadian defender David Edgar. "If he keeps banging in the goals that's great for us. He's an exciting young talent."
Larin credits part of his development to a famous teammate in Orlando, former FIFA World Player of the Year and Brazilian legend Kaka.
"He teaches me a lot on and off the field," said Larin. "The things I've done this year, I learned from him — just getting my head up more, thinking quicker."
Larin's thick six-foot-two 190-pound frame gives him the ability to shield off defenders, while his agility means he's often first to a loose ball.
"He's got a good eye for the goal," said Canadian midfielder Atiba Hutchinson. "We all believe in him. We'll do as much as we can to get him (service) and hopefully he can get on the scoresheet."
Canada is a heavy underdog heading into Friday's game against No. 22 Mexico in front of what's expected to be a sold-out crowd of more than 54,000 at B.C. Place Stadium. But the visitors are keenly aware of the biggest threat — both literally and figuratively — they face on the other side.
"It's not a coincidence that Mr. Larin is having a great season," said Mexican head coach Juan Carlos Osorio. "It will be a challenge for our defence to try to contain him."
Mexico currently leads Pool A with six points through two games, followed by Canada (four points), No. 99 El Salvador (one point) and No. 89 Honduras (no points).
After the match at B.C. Place, Canada plays in Mexico City on Tuesday, a daunting task for any squad, before visiting Honduras and hosting El Salvador in September.
The top two countries in the group move on to the final round of qualifying for the 2018 tournament in Russia, and a result at home this week would be a massive step for Larin and his teammates.
"We believe in each other," he said. "That's the most important thing."
Larin knows he's being counted on to provide the bulk of the offence as Canada continues its push to make the World Cup for the first time since its only appearance all the way back in 1986.
The pressure doesn't seem to faze him.
"It's just motivation to keep going," he said. "Once I get my rhythm scoring with the national team, I don't think it will stop."
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press