TORONTO – When Rocco Romeo returned home last summer from a loan stint in Denmark with HB Koge, he had one thing on his mind
“I want to see myself into the first team as soon as possible,” said the defender after a 3-0 win over South Georgia Tormenta FC on July 12 at the BMO Training Ground.
Less than six months later that wish came to be as he signed an MLS contract on January 21, the first of three homegrown additions to Toronto FC that week.
‘It's exciting,” said Romeo that morning. “I want to thank God, thank my family, thank the club for always being here, always pushing me and supporting me. I know the real work comes now.”
He anticipates this will be a year of learning.
“I’ve got to adapt into a new level, a higher level. I got some experience playing at a higher level on my loan in Denmark last year,” explained the 19-year-old. “I'm just looking to help the team, help win games, help win titles. At the end of the day, I want to win.”
Reaching the first team was the culmination of a long process, a pathway that began in earnest when he joined the club in 2014 from Woodbridge SC, something that was on Romeo’s mind when asked when the professional dream became his focus.
“That was my gateway into a professional environment,” said the defender. “Right then and there I knew.”
The pathway was in Greg Vanney’s mind too.
“He's been in the club since I first arrived. He was a part of our 2000 U14 age group,” recalled Vanney. “Nick Theslof, our assistant coach, was his first coach at the club.”
“[Rocco] has a great frame for a centre-back – six-four and change, moves nicely, very athletic. Very comfortable with the ball, is comfortable playing on the left side or the right side of the centre-back positions,” detailed Vanney. “He has a good sense of the defensive side, he's going to continue to grow in his high-level reading of the game, dealing with better forwards, dealing with teams with more sophisticated attacks, things like that, but he has a lot of tools already in place.”
Liam Fraser, another homegrown product, has played alongside Romeo in the TFC Academy for years.
“He's a good player – very technical, good in the air – and he's someone who's really willing to learn every day and work hard,” said Fraser. “It'll be a great experience for him to learn from the other excellent centre-backs we have here, pick up on different aspects of the game and be a student of the game. He's a great person, a great footballer; he’ll be a great addition to our team.”
With an infectious smile, Romeo promised to “bring a good spark to the team.”
“Having a big presence, being a tall guy, people notice you when you walk into a room,” he added. “My goal is just get to know the guys, compete, and win, essentially.”
Romeo debuted for TFC II in 2016 and signed a USL contract the following year, quickly establishing himself as a regular in the lineup. Already with plenty of international experience, both for the club and the Canadian National Team Youth programs, those six months with Koge in the Danish second division saw him come back a different man.
“I had to do a lot of maturing, from a boy to a man,” was his principle takeaway from the experience. “Just simple habits of living on your own, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry. Simple things that made me mature so much in terms of football.”
“A whole different culture over there, everywhere is football,” Romeo continued. “Getting minutes there was very helpful for me to see different styles, different competitors.”
“Playing in that environment where every day [guys are] fighting for [their] lives essentially – they’ve got to support their families,” he explained. “I [was] still a kid, just want to play and enjoy myself, but overseas there's a different aggression, a different hunger than here.”
“Coming back home I can bring something different to the team,” he added.
His coach saw something different too.
“It took him four or five months to really break in there, then the second part of the season he played a lot of the minutes as one of the primary centre-backs,” began Vanney. “I think it was a great experience for him to be in a different environment. He had to really fight for his space, had to impress new people, who didn't know him when he was 13, and he had to grow as a person in terms of a new culture and all that. The Rocco that we got back was more mature than the Rocco we sent over.”
There was one moment in particular that Romeo carries with him.
“Getting to play in an exhibition game against FC Copenhagen, their first team,” Romeo smiled. “It was a little taste of a high-level dream. Every day I replay that in my head and strive to be the best I could be.”
That July TFC II win over South Georgia was special for the two other homegrown signings: Jayden Nelson made one of his first starts and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty joined off the bench, one of three substitute appearances he made.
Romeo’s message to them post-match still rings true to all three as they embark on this next stage of their careers.
“Just enjoy the moment,” smiled the defender. “When I first started out it was tough, you just to have to keep a level head, keep grinding, be the first to arrive, the last to leave, but mainly I just tell them to enjoy it and do their thing.”
It is an attitude that Romeo maintains as preparations for the MLS season continue.
“Preseason will be a good opportunity for me to showcase myself to the group and fight for spots,” he said, eyeing minutes beside the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Chris Mavinga, Laurent Ciman, Eriq Zavaleta, and Julian Dunn. “I'm just trying to learn, feed off some of the things that that they do, the daily habits, their training habits. Obviously I want to play, but first years you’ve got to be a little bit patient.”
Already he is absorbing lessons from his more experienced teammates.
“We're all pretty big guys, the focal point of the team – always leading, always giving instructions,” observed Romeo. “They told me to be calm, be confident, enjoy yourself and communicate. Ask questions, be comfortable around us.”
With a plethora of matches coming up against MLS opposition, he acclimation to this new level begins immediately.
“This preseason will be good for him because he's going to play some minutes against MLS teams and he's going get some opportunities to show us exactly where he's at on that level,” said Vanney. “We're excited about his upside, his potential, and we're optimistic that we can make some real progress this year.”
“I'm not 100% sure what his minutes total [will be], but he's going to be put in an environment to be training with us all the time, to have to deal with the likes of Jozy [Altidore] and the other forwards and then we'll see how he progresses,” explained the coach. “It's always the same with young centre-backs: you want them to get to a point where they're reliable and are consistently just playing solid minutes without giving away silly things.”
“And then once you get to that place then that gives them the opportunity to get in and grow within the match environment,” he added. “We'll find ways to continue to challenge him.”