TORONTO – It is hard to miss Jayden Nelson on the pitch.
And it’s not just that hair, he has a way about him.
Having come on as a late sub in Toronto FC II’s 2019 season opener against Orlando City B, replacing Jacob Shaffelburg around the 82nd minute, Nelson was electric. He nearly set up a goal minutes after coming on, darting through a pair of defenders before sending a dangerous ball into the area for Jordan Perruzza to touch off the bar.
Minutes later he again weaved between two markers before placing a low shot on target that required an excellent save from the OCB keeper.
Barely 10 minutes into his professional career it was clear why his was a name to watch.
And so less than a year later when he signed an MLS contract with the TFC first team at the age of 17, it came as little surprise.
“Everybody has seen him over the last few months, especially with the U17s at the World Cup,” said Greg Vanney. “Highly-talented, dynamic; special player, technically can do a lot of different things. We look forward to getting him some real opportunities to grow within the professional environment.”
Born and raised in Brampton, Ontario, January 23, signing day, was a special one for Nelson.
“It means a lot,” said Nelson of joining the first team of his hometown club. “It means all the hard work paid off.”
“It's just a start, obviously, but I’m happy to sign with TFC,” he continued. “I have a great system behind me, so it was easy for me to make that decision.”
The 23rd player to sign for the first team from the TFC Academy, Nelson joined the club in 2016, then for the U14 side, making his way up the player pathway since.
He has represented Canada at both the U15 and U17 levels, and was recently named the 2019 Canadian Youth International Player of the Year, but it all began kicking a ball around with his grandfather in Brampton.
From there he progressed into club soccer.
“I was at Brampton Youth Soccer Club, then I went to a little club called Atletico Toronto,” Nelson detailed. “From there I got scouted by TFC and then the rest is history.”
Nelson knows that while signing was a significant milestone, it is just the latest step on the journey. Already in the midst of a rigorous preseason, there was little time to celebrate – not that he had anything different in mind.
“The same thing, hard work,” smiled Nelson. “I'm just ready to keep working hard and actually start playing minutes, meaningful minutes with the first team. That's where my head is at now.”
That is his aim for the upcoming season.
“Break into the first team, always be in the 18,” he circled. “As well for the National Team. I want to be on the roster for many more camps – for the 2022 World Cup as well. Stuff like that I have my eye on. That's my goal right now.”
Self-described as a “winger, but a 10 as well,” he admittedly “likes to roam around a lot.”
Harnessing that ability for the good of the team is the challenge Vanney has laid in front of Nelson.
“Jayden is is capable of breaking into the first team and playing some minutes. His talent level is unquestioned, his physicality, his speed, his quickness, his elusiveness, all those things, he's ready for his opportunity at the first team level,” said Vanney. “It's just the maturity of decision-making.”
“It's: When do I try to make something flashy? And when do I just need to be reliable in possession and make sure I keep it for the team?” balanced the coach. “That comes with experience, comes with training with [the first team. They’re] quick to say, ‘Hey, you can't lose that ball.’”
“That's going to come and he's going to have his opportunities this year because he's got qualities that nobody else has that are special and unique,” Vanney added. “We need to be patient with him, but at the same time he's ready to start that learning process at the next level.”
It’s not every day a player makes his senior national team debut before signing a first team contract.
Nelson was part of the Canadian Men’s National Team squad this January and made his debut on January 7 against Barbados, scoring in his second appearance against the island nation a few days later.
“It was definitely a surprise,” admitted Nelson of John Herdman’s call. “I went in nervous, a couple guys like Jonathan Osorio, Samuel Piette, took their arm, put it around me, and said, ‘Just play your game. You're here for a reason.’”
“I took that to heart and did pretty well in the sessions and the games,” he added. “I'm happy with that.”
His teammate for club and country, Osorio, sees a bit of himself in a fellow Bramptonian.
“The first thing that I see from him is that he’s very hungry,” pinpointed Osorio. “Not that you don't see it in other kids, but he's more hungry than the regular youth product coming up. He has this desire about him that's a bit different than the others.”
“He really takes his football serious, he wants to learn, he wants to get better every day, he enjoys when he's on the field,” he listed. “He has all the tools to be a really good footballer and to have a really good career.”
And Osorio is more than happy to share the wisdom accumulated through his career.
“Whenever he asks, or whenever I think maybe he could use some of my experience, I try to share with him and put him on the right path, as I try to do with all the young guys on the team – especially when they ask. I'm open to help them whenever they want,” explained Osorio. “Jayden's going to be a special player, if he keeps on the path that he's already on, he’ll be just fine.”
Something about the water up there in Brampton, eh?
“I don't know what it is,” said Nelson about his roots. “But Brampton has a lot of talent.”
That he has somebody like Osorio to model himself after is a value not lost on the teenager.
“I'm thankful for him as a teammate,” Nelson confided. “He's in my position as well. Every day I see him in the changing room and I strive to be exactly like him. He's definitely a player I look up to and it's a good feeling to know that he is a guy that looks out for me as well.”
“It's great to see like guys like that go big in soccer because it gives me and other kids from Brampton the idea that we can make it as well,” he added.
The last twelve months were quite the year for Nelson.
He made his professional debut with TFC II in April, starred for Canada in the 2019 Concacaf U17 Championship come summer, where his five goals helped earn a berth in the U17 World Cup in Brazil. There too, come fall, he excelled, earning himself a debut with the full national team in January, where he scored his first senior goal. And then signed for his hometown club a few weeks later.
“Well, it's a lot,” Nelson smiled. “A lot happened; a lot more than I actually visualized.”
Bring on 2020.
“It just means that the hard work is paying off. I just need to keep on going to see what else I can achieve and what else is on the checklist,” he added. “I'm ready to keep working and see what's next this year.”