‘The 6ix!’ ‘T.O.!’ ‘Tronno!”
Plenty of people can claim to rep Toronto, but few do it quite like Ashtone Morgan.
Born and raised in the nation’s largest city, Morgan has come to be near synonymous with his hometown club.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings you can ever have,” Morgan says of donning the Toronto FC crest. “I’m in my seventh season with the team and I’ve built a lot of great memories here.”
His passion for soccer started at a young age, seeing the beautiful game at every turn.
“Soccer isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when you’re a Canadian, but my family has a big soccer background; my dad still plays in his 50s. It’s a part of who I am.”
Honing his craft, Morgan joined the TFC academy at the age of 16. Growing up alongside the only club he’s ever known, the fledgling talent had dreams of what could be, looking to follow in the footsteps of his heroes.
“Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman were big role models for me, with Dwayne leading the way in MLS and Julian overseas,” he explains. “Then when I saw [Toronto FC] come up, it felt like my dream could become a reality. It started off as a relative unknown, but the standards, the atmosphere, the soccer culture in general has grown so much in this city and this country.”
Despite encountering obstacles that many young Canadian footballers face, Morgan was determined to make a name for himself.
Football is a worldwide sport; you need to dream big, set high goals, and believe in yourself and your abilities. It only lasts so long, so while you’re in it, you need to have the highest energy and belief in yourself. I always remind myself to enjoy it while I can.
“When I was growing up, it was difficult to be a professional player being Canadian. There weren’t as many outlets to pursue your dream.
That did little to impede his progress to the top, as Morgan burst onto the scene in 2010, suiting up for the Reds in CONCACAF Champions League play. Earning a first team contract the following season, the dream had finally become a reality.
Anointed the next big thing in Toronto, Morgan sought to make good on expectations. But with expectations come pressure; heavy is the head that wears the crown.
“It’s a humbling experience, but also very exciting,” he explains. “Being here 26 years, this is the only home I’ve ever known. That pressure keeps me in check. It’s not pressure that makes me nervous, but it keeps me sharp day in and day out to never let my level drop.
“It reminds me why I’m doing this and who I’m doing it for.”
That reminder proved an invaluable asset to Morgan during a lengthy spell away from the pitch after injuring and re-injuring his foot within the span of a few months, requiring a pair of surgeries to correct the issue.
A fierce competitor, the Toronto native found himself struggling to cope.
“It’s one of the worst things you can go through as an athlete,” he says. “You have a lot of mountains to climb, and a lot of people don’t really know what you’re going through. Mentally, physically, emotionally; everything.
“You’re in a black hole. You’re out of sight, out of mind. You have to fight back to get fit, get healthy. But then you have to fight back to get your minutes, your playing time, you have to earn back the trust of your coaches and teammates. There are so many hills and so many battles to fight.”
Overcoming challenges was nothing new to Morgan, but he knew this wasn’t a battle he could fight on his own. Facing such a daunting task, the 26-year-old found strength in those closest to him.
“The life of a pro athlete isn’t easy. No one really gets to see the behind the scenes, the daily grind. To get through it, you need to have a strong support system at home. My girlfriend, my mom and my dad, they have my back no matter what; they’re my backbone, my everything.
“To raise a kid in downtown Toronto at a young age, it’s not easy. I thank them for everything I have and everything I am. I do this for them. It was incredibly difficult, but I feel like I’m a stronger footballer and human being because of it. Experiences like those have a way of changing your perspective on things.”
The struggle paid off, as the man his teammates call “Mr. Toronto” has made his triumphant return to the squad.
On the pitch, his talents are very much a known quantity. Off it? Well, that’s a different story.
“A lot of guys on the team would love to know what I do on off days; I don’t give away too much,” he says with a laugh.
If you’re lucky, you may just find Ash enjoying a latte and a sandwich at Solita in Little Portugal.
“They have some of the best sandwiches in the city,” he says. “I usually customize a sandwich, but I don’t think they have a name for it yet.”
So what goes into this custom-made panino?
“Prosciutto, mortadella, hot salami, bomba (an Italian spread made from hot peppers), tomato, lettuce, and provolone on focaccia,” owner Maurizio Galli explains. “He just comes in and says, ‘Gimme the usual,’ and we take it from there.”
Back to doing what he loves on and off the pitch, the sky is the limit for Morgan. And with the club in a better place than it has ever been during his tenure, the defender is thankful and eager to be a part of it all once again.
“Everyone had faith in me; my family, my teammates, my coaches. They knew how much work I had put in to get back to where I am now. When I’m on the field, that’s my happy place; I just wanted to get back there. Whenever my number is called, I know I’ll be ready.”