TORONTO – There is something different about Jordan Hamilton this season. And it's not just the number, though that too has changed.
The 22-year-old striker swapped the #22 kit for the #7 – a new man, a new year, a new number.
“I wanted a fresh start,” said Hamilton after training on Monday. “I started off with #22 for my first five years with the club. It's a pretty long time to be in the same jersey number. That's all it was.”
One of the longest serving members of the club – only Ashtone Morgan, Jonathan Osorio, and Justin Morrow have been with TFC longer – Hamilton first signed on January 9, 2014 as a 17-year-old, a few days before Michael Bradley arrived in Toronto.
For a brief moment in the offseason, it looked, to outsiders at least, like his time with the club had come to an end. Hamilton, however, knew where he wanted to be.
“They told me from the end of the season they wanted me back,” said Hamilton from California during preseason. “We were just negotiating on a new deal. Before that, you have to check all your options – the Canadian Premier League was one of those – but I felt the best for me was to stay at Toronto.”
Now in his sixth professional season, over the previous five Hamilton has toiled on the depth chart behind the likes of Jozy Altidore, Jermain Defoe, Gilberto, Sebastian Giovinco, and Tosaint Ricketts, to name a few. Opportunity, therefore, has been limited.
In his first season he went on loan to USL side Wilmington, to Portugal, and since Toronto FC II formed in 2015, he has gotten significant minutes there. So too in the Canadian Championship with the first team and in the Canadian National Team youth programs.
Wherever he has been he has scored goals. Consistent minutes in MLS, however, have proven elusive.
“It's not like I haven't been scoring goals in the first team,” said Hamilton, who has seven goals in 39 MLS appearances. “It's just a matter of now I have to score goals consistently. That's my main goal for this year.”
All the while, Hamilton has been working on his game.
“When I first started getting minutes I wasn't great at holding up the ball. It was never something I did growing up. I wasn't a back-to-goal striker, always a running-towards-goal striker,” explained Hamilton. “I've really improved on that aspect.”
“When Jozy is not on the field, we need a presence up top,” continued Hamilton. “Now I have that added to my game and what I had before, which is going to goal. One-v-one in front of the goal, it's pretty tough to stop me.”
“I've proven I can score at the MLS level, at the USL level,” added Hamilton. “It's a consistency thing for me. That's what I'm harping on for myself.”
Hamilton has picked up other tools of the trade, learning when to drop back to collect a ball deep and get involved in the build-up, such as he did against FC Cincinnati at Lamport Stadium for TFC II last season.
“That comes with experience, knowing the right places to be on the field, knowing when your team needs you to get on the ball and create,” detailed Hamilton. “That's something I want to bring to the MLS level. When I get my chance, I'll be ready to take it. I'm looking forward to this year.”
It will be an important one for him, according to his coach.
“He has to take another step forward,” urged Greg Vanney coach when Hamilton's re-signing was announced. “Tosaint isn't here, it's up to him and Ayo [Akinola] to decide, based on performances, who is [the next] forward in our rotation. Who is ready?”
“He needs to feel the responsibility of having to be accountable to the team for his performances and his results,” stressed Vanney. “No longer is he a young player who gets this 'developing' pass. He's got to prove that he's ready to go now.”
That challenge is further motivation for a player who has thrived on proving detractors wrong.
“Being around for a long time, a lot of fans count you out,” said Hamilton. “That's just motivation for me. I've always thrived on people telling me I can't do this or I can't do that. That's when I perform my best.”
“From when I was a little kid, I always had a chip on my shoulder. Maybe not at 17 or 18, where you take things for granted,” added Hamilton. “Now, to be quite direct, it's kill or be killed.”
That hunger was on display in his first minutes of the season against CA Independiente. Hamilton wanted the ball, wanted to get on the end of it, wanted to find the back of the net.
He scored TFC's first goal of the 2019 season early in the second leg against the Panamanians in the Concacaf Champions League, rising up to direct a cross from Justin Morrow past the opposing goalkeeper at BMO Field.
He nearly added another header in quick succession.
“When your contract expires with a club like this and you think about leaving, all the things you took for granted as a young player come into your mind,” said Hamilton post-match. “Playing at BMO Field, in front of my family: those are things I told myself I wouldn't take for granted any more.”
“You saw the result of that tonight. I left it all on the field,” added Hamilton. “That's what I plan to do for the rest of my career.”
He did so again in the MLS regular season opener in Pennsylvania last weekend.
Though he was kept off the scoresheet and missed a breakaway chance, he played a key role in Toronto's first two goals in the 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, taking defenders with him to clear the middle of the box for the late-arriving Michael Bradley to strike.
“Two solid games,” said Vanney of Hamilton's output. “He was moving into the right areas at right time, in the times he had to be physical to hold up ball, help us get out of things, he was good. His run in the box opens up the space for Michael on the first goal to the near post was great.”
On the second goal it was a combination of a near-post move from Hamilton and Drew Moor lurking in the area that cleared out that high slot area for Bradley to pounce.
And on several occasions, playing with his back-to-goal, Hamilton was able to maintain possession under pressure, securing the ball and field position for his side – the fruits of his offseason labour.
“I really focused on my core strength, my stability; it's helped a lot,” explained Hamilton. “With the ball I don't get pushed off as easy: becoming a man on the field, not the little boy.”
“With the breakaway, I snatched at the chance,” lamented the striker. “I wish I could have it back, but I can't. So hopefully next game I get one.”
His first two games have gone well, but two games do not a season make.
“My challenges to Jordan are never about his ability, always about his consistency,” reminded Vanney. “Day-to-day in training, from one game to the next, if Jordan doesn't start to be ready for his minutes and keep his mindset sharp.”
“The challenges of being a young player are – when you're talented and have a lot of things going for you – to maintain the strength and mentality that is needed to continue to be successful in your moments,” continued Vanney. “That is going to be the challenge for Jordan again: when he gets chances, to make the most of them.”
“He has done so the last couple games. I'm happy for him and proud of him,” added Vanney. “He needs to keep doing that.”
Up next is the home opener against the New England Revolution on March 17, Hamilton's birthday.
One league match in, three points in hand.
“Good start, but it's done now,” said Hamilton. “We've got to focus on the next game; the next three points.”
“33 games left now; we want to win every game,” he added. “That's what our mindset is into the home opener, pick up three points.”