TORONTO – With eight matches on the books this month, Toronto FC have been leaning on a trio of young players to make crucial contributions over the past few games.
22-year-old Jordan Hamilton has started three-straight matches up top alongside Sebastian Giovinco, scoring goals in the last two, and 20-year-old Liam Fraser was inserted alongside Michael Bradley at the base of the TFC midfield against Sporting KC at the weekend. 18-year-old Ayo Akinola made his MLS debut off the bench midweek against Minnesota United, reprising that role in Kansas City.
“Jordan has taken steps forward,” said Greg Vanney of Hamilton's contributions. “The last three games are the most consistent I've seen him. I'm not just talking about from game to game, but from first minute to last minute.”
“In Minnesota, he created some chances, finishes [one], has one saved off the line. Nico [Hasler]'s chance earlier came off of Jordan getting to the end-line, putting a ball across,” detailed Vanney. “On the attacking side, he's been able to hold up and link, something we need, especially when we don't have Jozy [Altidore]. He's a runner; got an incredible endurance to get into channels, stretch the back-line, get in front of goal. And give an honest day's work on the defensive side.”
“We know he's had all these tools, it's about being consistent in their application within the structure of the team,” added Vanney. “That's the maturity that we've been looking for from Jordan.”
Hamilton credits a run of matches in USL with Toronto FC II for finding his form.
“It started in the USL with the younger guys,” said Hamilton after the 2-2 draw in Kansas City. “I got a couple games and got two goals down there. I used that as a step to get up here with the first team and be ready to go. I feel good and confident scoring goals, which makes me happy.”
“We pressed off of my turnover,” recalled Hamilton of the goal against Sporting KC. “Nico made a good play, using his body, and played the ball to me. I had a lot of space and tried to place it as far into the corner as I could out of reach because it was through a little bit of a crowd. I hit it pretty sweet and it went in so that was good.”
Fraser too got vital minutes with TFC II before making his start on the weekend.
“We put him in to share the midfield with Michael instead of having three centre-backs” explained Vanney. “Stay at home a little more, help to shield things.”
“Trying to find good balance,” summed up Vanney. “ The game against Minnesota, got stretched out on us, especially early on. Big gaps were opening up. We had to reset, get a little closer to one another and have guys in spots to help each other, meanwhile, manage how much guys were playing.”
Akinola too excelled at the USL level ahead of his debut in Minnesota, scoring four goals in nine appearances, including a run of strikes in three-straight matches.
“When I watch Ayo, he's confident; happy,” observed Vanney. “[There is] pressure when you go from young academy player to being a pro. You think you should accomplish a lot early on.”
“He committed himself to this process, was working hard,” continued Vanney. “He has a natural confidence, belief in his physical capabilities and he's a solid, technical player as well. I've seen it in training: fighting, using his physicality, being hard for centre-backs to deal with; he's gotten goals in USL. It was an opportunity to see what [he] can do in our team.”
Akinola came on in the 78th minute against Minnesota and in the 88th against Kansas City, but it was in the second, shorter cameo that he more clearly displayed the full range of his capabilities.
“He did a good job in both games,” remarked Vanney. “ I remember my first game: I hit a 10-yard pass 32 yards when I touched the ball for the first time. You're trying to settle in. We needed to get him out there and get the anxiety of that first moment out.”
“The second, with the game opening up and space available in transition [against] Kansas City, I thought we could get him a chance or two, drop Seba underneath to be a provider,” continued Vanney. “He had a couple good plays: switched the play to Tos; had a great run – we just didn't get the ball to him or he would have been in.”
It was a special occasion for the young professional.
“It was a great feeling,” said Akinola after his debut. “Very proud moment for me and my family.”
He credited, “Working hard, get some minutes in [with Toronto FC II]; knowing that a chance like this can happen,” for the opportunity.
With a weekend match in Florida against Orlando City SC ahead of the start of the 2018 Canadian Championships in Ottawa next Wednesday as the busy July schedule continues, Toronto will be looking to continued contributions from every member of the squad.
“We need to pick up [some momentum],” urged Fraser ahead of the draw in Kansas City. “At the end of the day it's about getting points on the board to make that playoff push. We all have the mentality that we're capable of doing it.”
Added Hamilton post-match: “At any different point in the season, you’re happy coming to Kansas and getting a point. The way the season is going, we wanted a win.. We’ll use it as a building block to Orlando.”