A bye-week for Toronto FC gave potential first-team players of the future a chance to take centre-stage Wednesday. On a rare sunny morning, in front of the first-team coaching staff and players, club staffers and hundreds of screaming school kids from the local area, Toronto FCII played North Texas to a thrilling 3-3 draw at the BMO Training Grounds. After falling behind 3-0 in the first half, the young Reds fought their way back, finding a deserved stoppage time equalizer to earn the point. It was an admirable come-from-behind performance, and one to build off for the team.
Toronto FC II have adjusted nicely to USL League One, sitting in third place through 11 games. The group has settled into to their new home at the Training Grounds, undefeated in their last five after starting the season with a daunting six-game road swing. The results are positive and building a winning mentality through all academy teams is priority. But really, it is development that continues to priority at Toronto FC. While the rebuilding of the first-team into MLS Cup contender remains front of mind, the work being done behind the scenes is all-important at the club.
There are plenty of positive stories shaping up with multiple young players making an impression. There is a solid history of Academy players going on to sign with the first team; 16 in total and counting. And multiple others are knocking on the door, whether it be this season or next, to make the jump into the MLS side.
One name that has been in the headlines in recent weeks is midfielder Noble Okello. The 18-year old was a surprise inclusion in John Herdman’s Canada squad for this month’s Gold Cup. With midfielders Liam Fraser and Jay Chapman admirably deciding to stay behind and help Toronto FC during this time of need, where international absence and injuries have left the squad short in numbers, it opened up a spot for Okello to join Canada, despite the player having not played a game with the first-team.
Okello is a player who intrigues many. But there is work still to be done before you see the player featuring in the first team. The coaching staff really likes the potential of the player. The combination of size and skill is an impressive foundation upon which to build. Silky smooth on the ball and with physical attributes to be a force in the middle of the park, it’s now the focus of the coaches to work with the player to ensure he reaches his potential. Head Coach Greg Vanney says Okello is like a swan at times; when he extends and makes himself big on the ball, it comes with presence and poise. At 6’3 with long arms and legs, he’s a sizeable figure who can cover a lot of ground. His range of passing is good, and because of this rare combination of size and skill, Okello stands out on the field. The teenager is certainly one for the future.
Timing will be everything when dealing with this talent. And it doesn’t seem the time is now for Okello. Calling play-by-play for Toronto FC II last season, I noticed Okello would be prone to drift in and out of games. Whether it be a lack of intensity or confidence, the player occasionally would be stuck in second gear. It would raise questions whether he would be better suited as a 6 or an 8. But with a stature comparable to the great Patrick Vieira, it’s clear a better understanding how to harness that talent and unleash the beast is required for him to take the next step.
Vanney wants to see Okello play less passive, and as the coaching staff puts it, “he needs to learn how to play to his size”. It’s one thing having the physical attributes; it’s another to truly understand how to use it as a weapon. That’s the learning curve Okello and all young players go through. The evolution is gradual, and different players figure it out on different timelines. The makeup of Okello is plain to see; but the mentality is a work in progress. Vanney, in comparing him to a former academy product and current National team member Mark-Anthony Kaye, the coach says Okello can learn from his Canadian teammate. Kaye is a very difficult player to play against, playing with an edge, a snarl and a pitbull type attitude. That’s the ultimate compliment for a player. The compete level is what separates good players from the great. Okello doesn’t have that next level intensity yet. It will need to be brought out for him to make his way into first-team action.
The other attribute consistently preached by the coaching staff in team selection is reliability. They need a level of consistency in play, whether by practice to practice or game to game, to prove to them they can count on you when it comes to executing in games. This often times explains why certain players more regularly see action on the field while other with talent watch from the sidelines. Get the belief of the coaching staff through hard work and reliable play on the field and you’ll be rewarded.
This Gold Cup can be a very good experience for Okello. He had a very good preseason with the captain Michael Bradley taking him under his wing. Now he has the chance to work with other established Canadian voices. The hope for both club and country is that Okello is like a sponge, taking in the way the likes of Atiba Hutchinson and others within the Canadian set-up play and prepare. The well regarded voice of Herdman, helping the player through tournament competition will provide a valuable experience as well. It’s up to the player to take full advantage and run with it.
There’s no guarantee Okello will be the next young player to breakthrough for TFC. Midfielder Liam Fraser, a little bit older at 21, has been very impressive in recent weeks. And others are young players are making the case they may be more ready to make the jump to the first-team either this season or next.
Nineteen-year old Jacob Shaffelburg seems like the next one to make the jump. The Nova Scotia native would fit a short and long-term need in the team. He plays on the wing, runs hard and direct, having all kinds of speed to get in behind the backline. He’s a hard, honest worker, not afraid to get stuck in and provides decent service on the flank. Predominantly working on the left, he can also play on the right if required. Another standout down the Toronto FC II left-side is fullback Terique Mohammed. The 19-year old from Toronto worked his way into the Toronto FC II last season. Mohammed plays with a fiery competitiveness that needs to be harnessed at times. He’s represented the Canadian u20, and projects to make a push for the first-team as early as next season.
There are others who have caught the eye of the coaching staff. Jesus West, another 19-year old, just returned from the u20 FIFA World Cup representing Panama. He’s currently on-loan at Toronto FC II and is said to be really enjoying life in Toronto. He has a good build and has a good base to grow at right back, catching the eye of evaluators at the club. And 16-year old Jayden Nelson brings something completely different to the table. Nelson is a playmaker, exceptionally talented with the ball at his feet. He’s brave, taking on defenders predominantly from a wing position. Nelson helped lead the Canada u17 side qualify for the World Cup at that age group last month, scoring five goals in five games, including a hat-trick against Guatemala. Upon returning to the club, Nelson suffered a quad injury he’s making his way back from. The question is when, not if, Nelson will be promoted to the first-team. He’s young, but all accounts, is almost ready.
The talent isn’t exclusive to this group. From Matt Srbely to Luke Singh, there is plenty to like and look forward to. The future is bright, but the process continues. And that includes Okello.
Leaving it Late
Late goals scored have featured prominently in the early season results. Toronto FC has scored 10 goals in 15 games played after the 75th minute. And in back- to-back weeks, two goals scored came beyond the 90. This is a positive trend for Toronto FC. Of course, it shows drive and resolve, digging deep late and coming up with goals at times of need. It also shows a superior level of fitness.
In the MLS Cup winning 2017 season, TFC was leaps and bounds better than any other team in the final phase of games. Last season was more of a challenge. Toronto did score 17 goals in 34 games in the final 15 minutes plus of games. But four of those goals were consolation markers in losses. This season, when scoring in the 75th minute and beyond, TFC is undefeated with five wins and three draws. This is a good record and a sign the group has another gear when the games are often decided.
Around the Wheeler
- The Canadian combination of Jordan Hamilton and Jay Chapman have been serial late game scorers. Of Chapman’s five goals since the beginning of 2018, four of them have come after the 75th minute. And Hamilton’s 2-2 goal against Sporting Kansas City was his third beyond the 75th this season and fourth out of his six goals from last season.
- Nick DeLeon is providing outstanding production through 15 games. The former DC United player scored three goals over his last four seasons. He’s now scored three goals already in just over 1000 minutes.
- A late start to the season hasn’t hurt Alejandro Pozuelo statistically. With two beautiful secondary assists last Friday, Pozuelo now has eight assists on the season, tied for third in MLS assists. And for his efforts, Pozuelo earned his third MLS Team of the Week honours.
- Toronto FC have now conceded six goals on penalties on the season, including three in the last two games. They have only scored one penalty this season. The numbers are lopsided between penalties given and penalized thus far, especially considering Toronto only gave up six goals on penalties all of last season.
- Six Toronto FC players are participating in the Gold Cup, which began Saturday. Jonathan Osorio, Ashtone Morgan and Okello make up the Canadian contingent. Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and new signing Omar Gonzalez with be representing the United States. The Gold Cup runs between June 15 and July 7.
- The Gold Cup group stage wraps up on June 26. So at the very least, Toronto FC will be without their Gold Cup players for the next two games (at FC Dallas on June 22, Atlanta United at BMO Field June 26). With Canada and the USMNT expected to go deep, June 29 at DC United and a July 4 trip to take on the Galaxy could see a short-handed Toronto FC side.
- Chris Mavinga, Terrance Boyd and Alejandro Pozuelo were all in Europe away from the team last week with permission. Congratulations to Mavinga and Boyd, celebrating their nuptials, while Pozuelo is resting after coming off a European campaign before joining the Reds.
- Congratulations also goes out to Drew Moor, playing his 100th game for Toronto FC last Friday night. Moor admitted it was a special night for him, and was an honour leading the team out wearing the captain’s armband. An exemplary representative of the club and the city, Moor is a shining example of professionalism at the club.