TFC Academy head to Nashville for MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs

It’s a big weekend for the TFC Academy.

Two sides – the U-15s and the U-17s – are heading down to Nashville, Tennessee for the 2024 MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs.Both age groups will feature 32 teams squaring off through a single-elimination format with the action getting underway on Saturday, June 15 progressing until one remains to lift the trophy on Sunday, June 23.Toronto will also have a U-16 side in Tennessee taking part in a showcase competition alongside the playoffs.The MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs is the final exam after a long season of lessons.“The exercise throughout the year is to establish an identity within the team,” said TFC Academy Director Anthony Capotosto on Wednesday. “We have a philosophy of player development that we've instilled through our coaches and extends to our players.”

“We talk about principles of play, we talk about a certain style of play in possession, out of possession, and in the transition moments – that's the teaching and learning that has gone on the entire season,” he continued. “This event right at the end, we're there to showcase our identity as TFC. We have to have the confidence that the work that we've done throughout the year is going to be enough to have a good showing at the playoffs.

”The 32-team field is composed of teams that qualified through both MLS NEXT league play and the MLS NEXT Flex Finals, 16 from each path.“There's two different competitions that are running concurrently,” explained Capotosto. “The league competition and the MLS NEXT Flex competition. The best comparison would be a Champions League and a domestic league that run simultaneously throughout the season.”

“MLS NEXT Flex is a mix of MLS clubs and non-MLS clubs. In order to qualify for the Flex [tournament] event, you have to finish within the top nine of the division and then you get put into a group for the actual event that takes place in Maryland,” he laid out. “This is one way to qualify for the playoffs – if you finish first in your group in Maryland, you automatically qualify.”

“You can also qualify through the league,” Capotosto continued. “[At U-15 and U-17] we're talking about an exclusive MLS competition because it's considered a Pro Player Pathway. [For the TFC Academy, with both age groups playing in the East (North) Division], the top two teams qualify for the playoffs.”

“So it's essentially 16 teams qualifying through league play, 16 teams that qualify through the Flex [tournament] event, and they come together to create a 32-team bracket,” he closed. “It's a little complicated, but that's basically how it works.”

Arriving onto the development scene in 2020, filling the gap left by the closure of the USSDA, MLS NEXT plays a key role in preparing the next generation of players to be ready to make the jump to the professional game. “It provides the best competition platform in North America,” said Capotosto. “We're talking about teams from across Canada, the three MLS clubs, teams in the US, whether they be MLS or non-MLS. One of the biggest features when it comes to player development is making sure that the competition structure is adequate, and that there's enough resistance week-to-week for players to develop in a good environment. ”And the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs are the pinnacle of that structure, providing a crucial measure for player assessment. “We call these benchmark games,” underlined the TFC Academy Director.

“The event that we're about to go to provides the information that we need so we can really understand how our players are tracking based on the competition that we play.”Toronto’s U-15s will be led by Academy coaches Nikola Stakic and Chris Pozniak. The group qualified via the MLS NEXT Flex Tournament, winning all three of their matches against Santa Barbara Soccer Club, Minnesota United, and Austin FC in May. Their path begins on Saturday, June 15 against Barca Residency Academy. Toronto’s U-17’s will be led by Taylor Lord and Dino Lopez. They qualified via the standings in league play, finishing second in their division. Their playoffs begin on Sunday, June 16 against Sacramento Republic.

When a side is eliminated, they move into the Showcase portion of the event – each team is guaranteed to play at least three matches in Nashville. Select matches will be available for streaming on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. The U-16s will feature in a trio of showcase matches: Saturday vs. Las Vegas Sports Academy, Sunday v San Jose Earthquakes, and Tuesday vs. Indy Eleven. While the two-year age gap between the sides has implications, the goal for both sides competing in the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs is the same.“This is a culmination of our work,” said Capotosto. “In Nashville, there's something on the line. There are meaningful games and both teams are playing for a championship here.”

“[The goal is] the same for U-17 and U-15, but we're looking at the U-17s with a slightly different lens,” he added. “The picture becomes a little bit more clear at U-17. It’s which players are tracking more towards TFC II whereas we have a little bit more time with the U-15s.”The trophy is just one part of the aim at the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs.“In addition to the winning piece, there's a development piece going down there,” explained the TFC Academy Director. “Playing against different opposition, opposition that we may not have seen throughout the entire season, different styles of play. There's an element here of playing under pressure and players becoming desensitized to that type of environment, where this is now a routine for them.”

“It's also another learning opportunity for all of us – our staff and our players – when we're down there,” Capotosto added. “Obviously there's what we do on the field, but also off the field, in the hotel, our procedures, our routines, everything that goes into developing young footballers with an eye for becoming pros one day.”Academy football has to balance two key elements: results and development.

Asked about that dual-focus, Capotosto shared a much-uttered phrase around the BMO Training Ground: “We're pleased, but we're not satisfied.”

“After every game, it's the same routine for us,” he continued. “There's going to be things that we did well in the game and then there are going to be areas of improvement that we need to focus on.”

“It's about consistency,” Capotosto stressed. “We obviously don't get too high and too low when we talk about wins and losses at the academy level, we're looking for a consistent level of professional work that goes into training or competition, that players establish good habits and routines, and that the behaviours that they exhibit on the field reflect those that we would potentially see at the pro level as well.”All three TFC representatives head to Nashville knowing the entire club has their backs.

“I met with all the teams the other day, spoke about our objectives down there. We know that it's not just us,” Capotosto closed.

“The entire club is behind the Academy and that's something that we felt the entire season.”