TORONTO – The next wave of Toronto FC Academy products arrived in quick succession earlier this week with the announcement of three Homegrown Player signings.
Tuesday brought about 19-year-old defender Rocco Romeo; Wednesday included 15-year-old midfielder Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, the youngest in club history; and Thursday had 17-year-old forward Jayden Nelson complete the trio.
They join four other Homegrowns – defender Julian Dunn, midfielder Noble Okello and forwards Ayo Akinola and Jacob Shaffelburg – age 20 or younger on the first-team roster. As they fight for minutes in MLS, here’s a rundown of what TFC’s new young prospects could offer, with special insight from head coach Greg Vanney.
Player type: Towering central defender, capable in both boxes.
Vanney’s words: “He has a great frame for a center back, moves nicely, very athletic, very comfortable with the ball, comfortable playing on the left or right of the [central duo].”
“He has a good sense of the defensive side. His high-level reading of the game, dealing with better forwards, dealing with teams with more sophisticated attacks will grow, but he has a lot of tools already in place. We need to continue to challenge [him].”
Background: A member of the 2000 age group Vanney regularly highlights, he joins Akinola, Okello, and Dunn from that class on the first team. Having debuted for TFC II in 2016, Romeo has surmounted every task put in front of him, including a half-season loan to Danish club HB Koge last year. Hungry for more upon his return from Denmark, Romeo stated he wanted a first-team contract. He's represented Canada at the U-17 and U-20 levels.
Expected impact: Along with Dunn, Romeo will push for fringe minutes at center back this season, but he’s unlikely to dislodge either Omar Gonzalez or Chris Mavinga from their presumed starting positions. Romeo will likely get the majority of his minutes with TFC II, all while soaking up the experience and learning many lessons from first-team trainings.
Player type: Speedy winger, scorer of incredible goals.
Vanney’s words: “Jahkeele is a winger with special, special quality.”
“Within his age group and the U-17 age group, it’s almost too easy at times. He had 20 goals in 13 matches at U-15 (USSDA); some of the goals were highlight-reel types. He’s got this acceleration where it’s effortless. A guy could have a 10-yard head start on him and he's 20 yards past him over 40 yards. It’s incredible, and he’s very competent with both feet.”
“What I like most about him is the maturity at which he plays the game. Jahkeele doesn't make the game about himself, he makes it about the team, but when you leave the game, you go, ‘That kid was unbelievable. The whole game was about him, but he didn't make it about him.’ That is really mature; that’s what I appreciate. He’s got a lot of ability, but he uses it in the right ways and within the concept of the team. And in the end he’s still the highlight of the game. That’s pretty special.”
Background: Marshall-Rutty joins the growing ranks of talent to emerge from the Toronto suburb of Brampton, with Atiba Hutchinson, Jonathan Osorio and Cyle Larin among the most famous. He was signed to a TFC II contract last season and has reportedly garnered interest from abroad. The young teenager also shined for Canada at the 2019 Concacaf U-15 Championship last August.
Expected Impact: Given Marshall-Rutty made just three appearances in USL League One last season, MLS minutes may be a reach in 2020. He should feature more regularly with TFC II this time around and see where that experience takes him. With European clubs circling, TFC are securing a player with lofty aspirations.
Player type: Versatile attacker, tricky dribbler.
Vanney’s words: “Game-changing potential, he’s a special athlete, has a change of pace that is unique, is light on his feet, can shift in different directions, can beat people on the dribble. He’s got an edge to him that is interesting; he works hard.”
“He’s one of our kids who is [at the BMO Training Ground] the second he has a chance and will be here for as much of the day as he can. He just loves to play the game and he absorbs information. Next for him is to make the right decisions in the moment. He’s been able to make the difference as a younger player, [but] he won't be able to do that immediately as a professional. So, it’s [finding] his connection to teammates and [looking] for moments to make a difference. He’s got a unique upside.”
Background: Another Bramptonian, Nelson was a semi-regular for TFC II last season. At the 2019 Concacaf U-17 Championship with Canada, he scored five goals. Nelson earned a spot with the full national team this month, making his debut against Barbados and scoring days later in a second encounter with the island nation. He was also recently named the 2019 Canadian Youth International Player of the Year.
Expected impact: Set to battle with Toronto’s growing stockpile of wide attackers for minutes in Vanney’s 4-3-3 formation, though more likely off the bench – at least at first.