Find homegrown talent. That was the goal when Toronto FC was founded seven years ago. The plan: search the Greater Toronto Area and beyond for talent, help these kids develop and have them eventually play for the first team.
Chris Mannella joined the TFC Junior Academy Team in 2009 at the age of 15. Mannella, now 20, became the 10th homegrown player to join the senior team, making it official on Monday.
The Toronto native fancies himself a central defensive midfielder that can play centre-back if needed.
“It was a great day,” Mannella told reporters at the Kia Training Ground on Tuesday. “When it finally happened, it happened so fast, but it’s been a long process in the making.”
Mannella didn’t need to look far for inspiration, with Jonathan Osorio, Doneil Henry, Kyle Bekker and Ashtone Morgan serving as prime examples of the results borne from hard work.
Asked if those players served as inspiration, Mannella was quick to answer.
“Of course,” he said. “And now with Greg Vanney as the head coach it’s a great stepping stone for all the young kids to see everyone doing so well, with Jonathan, Doneil and [Ashtone] being regulars in the team, it’s good for us to look up to them.”
Vanney’s work with the Academy is helping foster a seamless transition, as he calls it, for players joining the senior team. Mannella spent the past two weeks training with the big club and didn’t look out of place. That didn’t come as a surprise to Vanney.
“Some of the things we do in training are similar to some of the things that they’ve seen in the past,” said TFC’s head coach.
“So when they come into the session they’re not trying to raise their level to match the pros and figure out what’s going on. There’s a little bit more of a seamless transition for them, which helps them settle in a little bit and then they can actually show what they’re capable of doing.”
As for Mannella, Vanney is a believer.
“Chris is a kid that I’ve liked since I’ve come into the Academy. He’s a good honest worker. He’s a very good passer. He brings some calm and he’s more experienced than his years.”
Case in point: Mannella has been shadowing Michael Bradley for the past two weeks. Learning from the best is not an opportunity available to everyone, but when you can, you better do it. Mannella, a Roma supporter that watched Bradley dawn the famed Giallorossi kit, didn’t need any prodding.
“In training Michael Bradley kind of directs me and stuff like that, giving me tips here or there,” said the 20-year-old, grinning. “You have to listen to a guy like that.”
It’s that sort of enthusiasm that has Mannella’s teammates buying into his potential.
“He has the respect of the players and the team, and clearly he has my respect,” Vanney said. “He’s ready to take another step and start challenging himself.”
A busy day ended with Mannella holding his new #20 shirt in front of a gathering of team officials and reporters. Jonathan Osorio shouted a mocking word of encouragement from the patio above.
Welcome to the big leagues.