Manjrekar James casts an imposing shadow on the soccer field. He moves his rangy 6-foot-four frame in and out of play with a grace that defies his stature. He rises into the air and meets the ball with authority in traffic. And he deftly moves the ball from air-to-ground-to-teammate with the precision and skill more common in a player much smaller.
It's difficult to imagine that two short years ago, the 18-year old North York resident felt his best soccer days were behind him.
These days, James is firmly in the spotlight. His current state of mind could not be more different. Optimism and confidence emanate from the 6-foot-4 defender.
"There came a point where I was winning every ball, I was doing everything well. I was really proud of myself, and everybody was telling me I was doing well. I never used to do that before," said James.
"Two years ago, I would not be doing the things that I am doing now. It's good."
How good has 2011 been for James?
Simply, it's been nothing short of phenomenal. A strong performance at the annual Sigma FC International ID camp had the pro scouts in attendance openly wondering why he wasn't in Europe, or on an MLS roster. James parlayed that camp performance into a trial with Real Mallorca of the Spanish First Division or La Liga.
As the year came to an end, James earned an invite to the Canadian Under-20 team training camp in Florida where he played under the watchful eye of head coach Nick Dasovic.
Not bad for a player who felt his best chance at long-term soccer success evaporated when he failed to make the Ontario provincial team as a 16 year old.
"I was waiting for this to happen for a long, long time," said James, with a big smile. "I was disappointed not to make the provincial team, and since that never happened, I thought I would never make the national team. At that point I gave up on [that dream].
"Now this has really given me a boost."
James performed well at the national team camp, training alongside players/colleagues he grew up competing with.
James will have to be one of Dasovic's top six defenders to make the squad that will play in CONCACAF qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey in 2013.
"I wasn't really nervous at the camp, I knew a couple of players there already. I went in with my head up. Tried to do my best, compete, and give it all I had," said James. "From what [Dasovic] told me, I thought it went really, really well. They will select the top 6 defenders, so I hope that I will be in that group."
According to Sigma FC Technical Director Bobby Smyrniotis, James was a good player before he joined Sigma, but he needed some direction.
"When he came to us in the fall of 2010, I had scouted him while he was playing club soccer and he was a good player who did not know how to use his assets," said Smyrniotis. "He used the long ball every time, which he is very good at it as he has pinpoint passing, but he relied on it as opposed to mixing up short, medium and long distribution."
Smyrniotis said that James had good technical ability, but he was reluctant to move forward with the ball and he did not assert himself on the field.
"These are things he learned playing with us. From a tactical aspect he learned about positioning and the importance of responsibility in each position and along with that he slowly become a vocal leader in the back line demanding a great deal from his teammates," he added.
James admits that he had a lot to learn about the tactical side of the game.
"When I started off, I wasn't technical, more kick and run," he explained. "When I came to Sigma, they got me to be more technical, to play around with the ball more, to pass, and to use my opposite leg more.
"It's more tactical here. They teach you certain techniques: how to think, basically; how to play a ball; where to play a ball. It gets you thinking, and makes you more creative."
James says it's been a good year learning to handle the various challenges that have come his way. In Mallorca, James said he was nervous the first week and perhaps didn't show as well as he hoped.
"The second week, I figured out what I had to do. Costa [Smyrniotis, SIGMA FC managing director] called me a few times and told me what I needed to do. I listened. I hope all works out eventually with visas and I can get back over there".
James says he gets so much encouragement from his teammates at training, that it keeps him motivated and working hard.
Bobby Smyrniotis looks back on James' big year and is excited to see what he does with the opportunities he has earned.
"He definitely came to us with a lot of untapped potential and over the past two years he has emerged as a true talent. He did not know how good he was and what he can become," he said. "Coaches used him for his size and ability without teaching him the ins and outs of being a professional both on and off the field. Once he realized that, he really changed his mind set on the game."