A sit down with U-15 head coach Michael Stefano

USSDA U-15 Champs

            How does an undefeated U15 soccer club grow its legacy even further? Stronger competition in the most intense tournament for U15s in the country is certainly one way to cement a team’s legacy as one of the all time great U15 teams. Toronto FC’s U15 squad finished their 2019 campaign with a record of 20-0-1. The next step in this historic season was the United States Soccer Development Academy playoffs at the SoCal Sports Complex in Oceanside, California. To make the finals, the TFC U15s had to compete in a grueling schedule that featured three games in four days. Head Coach Michael Stefano prepared his team by having a winner’s mentality going into the playoffs, “I think the capacity to play many games with very little rest is developed in training every day. The group was highly engaged and highly motivated to do very well. We set some very clear goals at the beginning of the tournament and that really drove the process. The players approached in a very professional manner; they were ready”.

            TFC U15s carried the momentum from the regular season into game 1 of the USSDA playoffs. The Reds started their tournament off with a 2-1 victory over Weston FC U15s. Winning became second nature to Toronto’s U15s during the 2019 season. It was almost expected that this talented group would defeat every team they faced. Luca Accettola and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty each scored in the teams opening playoff game. Accettola and Marshall-Rutty were no strangers to scoring goals this season. Accettola had an impressive 11 goals in 18 games while Marshall-Rutty led the team with 20 goals in just 13 games. Marshall-Rutty impressed so many people within the TFC organization that he earned his first call up to the USL where he made his first appearance for TFCII on June 28th, 2019, just weeks after the conclusion of the USSDA playoffs. Coach Stefano knew that it was only a matter of time before the talented 15-year-old would get the chance to showcase his skills in the USL, “I think timing is everything. Timing is important when we talk about giving opportunities to young players. Challenging them at the right time is something we as a club have to consider collectively. I feel as though it was a very welcomed reward for him. Having done so well throughout the year with the 15s, with the 17s, featured for a few minutes where he did very well with TFCII. I think he’ll be a lot more involved now moving forward”.  

            Unfamiliar territory awaited the TFC U15s at the conclusion of their second playoff game. Toronto was defeated 1-0 by Seattle Sounders FC U15s. This marked the first time all season that this gifted group of U15s lost a game. Some coaches might have panicked, but coach Stefano saw this as a teaching point for his young squad, “I think as a staff the important thing is when you’re so used to winning so many games and winning all the time it’s important that you clear up the perspective of what is taking place. When we looked at the stats and we looked at the numbers, we dominated the game from start to finish. Helping the players understand that sometimes dominating a game and playing better than your opponent and losing is a reality of life. As unjust as it may seem, you have to accept it and you have to continue along the process and keep focused on the things you do well.”.  The U15s looked to bounce back two days later, with a spot in the finals on the line.

            Hugo Mbongue, who was a force to be reckoned with all season, was relatively quiet through the first two games of the playoffs. It was only a matter of time before the talented attacker would make his presence known in the postseason. Down 1-0 in the second half against Montreal Impact U15 seemed like the perfect time for Mbongue to introduce himself to the playoff scoring sheet. Mbongue scored not one, but two goals that lifted TFC U15s to a 2-1 victory and a spot in the finals. Coach Stefano always had faith in his star striker, even when he was not scoring, “With Hugo, it’s challenging in that he’s obviously a super talent. He continued to do the correct things consistently and the goals just kind of found him. As a striker, if you start chasing goals, they never come. You have to continue to do the right things leading up to the goals and in many ways that is what Hugo is doing. I was proud of the kid because he showed a lot of maturity and he didn’t withdraw within himself”.

             The U15s did not spend much time trailing in games during the season since they were dominant from the very start. The adversity Toronto faced with the 1-0 deficit at halftime against Montreal would be crucial going into the finals. Los Angeles FC U15 was the team to face TFC U15 in the finals. LAFC U15s had a record almost as impressive as Toronto’s at 22-1-1. Collectively the teams had 42 wins, 1 loss and 2 draws. This final truly featured the two best U15 clubs in North America. The match could not have started any better for LAFC. At halftime the score was LAFC 2 - TFC 0. Coach Stefano clearly had to make adjustments for the second half. Considering TFC U15s never had a deficit of more than one goal in any match this season, this task would be the toughest one yet, “The words I used exactly were that we were the architects of our own demise in the first half. What we talked about were some very clear solutions in the things that we are comfortable and capable of doing in the second half that will get us back into the game. By in large, their attention to detail to be almost stubborn in a sense to continue doing things our way and finding solutions to get back in the game and then the desire to do more than the opponent became very evident in that last 20 minutes of the game”.

            Stefano’s words inspired his team to draw the game even with goals in the 62nd and 74th minute, both by Hugo Mbongue. Stefano showed faith in his striker through his struggles and that faith paid off in the most important game of the year. Toronto earned a penalty in the 76th minute when Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty was taken down in the box. Stefano chose not to watch the kick, but he heard when the penalty was stopped, “I typically don’t stand and watch any big moment. I have a habit of pacing up and down the technical area. In the moment he struck the penalty I had my back turned to the pk, but I heard the ball hit the keeper’s hands.”. The referee blew her whistle immediately to indicate that an LAFC defender stepped foot in the box before Marshall-Rutty began the run for his penalty. It was ruled that the penalty would be retaken, much to the delight of coach Stefano.  “I heard the whistle go again and I heard cheering so at that point I turned around and looked and I saw Jahkeele pick up the ball again. I figured you know what, this is a great moment for him, this is a great moment for his development and his confidence. Well done on the kid, he switched up the pk and scored. Those are moments you can never replicate in training. You have to let the player have those moments because they can make all the difference in the development”. Marshall-Rutty made no mistake scoring his second penalty, giving TFC the lead in the 78th minute. The comeback was complete, however there was still over two minutes plus stoppage time remaining in the game. Coach Stefano knew he had to gather his teams’ emotions to complete this game, “Basically, what it was is that you’re ahead right now, but it could easily be 3-3. The game is not over. It’s a well-known fact that the two minutes after you score is a very dangerous period because the emotions are so high. Getting them out of that emotional state was my objective in that moment. Keeping the momentum in your favour is important at that point in the game”.

            Michael Stefano has proven that behind every great team is a great coach. The goal of any team in competitive sports is to get better every game. Stefano’s squad demonstrated the ability to pull through adversity when the championship was on the line. The USSDA playoffs may be over, but Stefano is still looking to continue the development of his players. “I’d like to think that what we achieved this year has put them on the right path for greatness. It’s a special group, it’s an elite group of players that have learned through the year what it means to be focused on the process and that results should come by way of your attention to detail. In the end, we made history in the U15 category. What’s next for this group is that they’re going to continue to be great”.

            The next step in these young players’ careers is to earn professional contracts. Stefano and his staff are preparing these players to be true professionals through training, commitment, willingness to learn, and having a winner’s mentality on and off the pitch.

            Do not be surprised if you see some of these talented U15 players signing professional contracts with Toronto FC in the near future.