Making the jump from one level to the next is tricky.
The game remains the same, but everything about it changes.
“It's a good challenge,” said Theo Rigopoulos, who saw 1147 minutes in MLS NEXT Pro with Toronto FC II in 2023 as a 16-year-old – he turned 17 at the end of October. “Much older, bigger, stronger guys, faster, so you’ve got to be smart when you're playing.”
“It's a challenge, but the younger guys were up for a reason,” he continued. “They know their qualities and showed it.”
Both Rigopoulos and Stefanovic are with Canada for the FIFA U17 World Cup in Indonesia and started in their opening match, a 0-2, against Spain on Friday morning.
“You compare the academy level to the MLS NEXT Pro level and then when you’re with the first team, obviously, there're gaps in between,” explained Stefanovic. “The biggest differences are understanding that you're going into a pro environment – games are no longer about just development, it's also finding results – and the changes in the physical game.”
“When you're in the academy, you balance out with the academy kids, but in MLS NEXT Pro or the first team, you're playing against grown men that are making a living by playing professional soccer,” he compared. “It’s understanding that they’re playing for their next contract, just that intensity that you don't get in the academy.”
That is exactly what the league is for: giving top young talent a chance to prepare for what lies ahead.
“It’s something I wish was around when I was a little bit younger,” said Reshaun Walkes. “It can help the younger kids progress, understand the professional environment, and then make their jump to wherever they want to go. It's a good introduction to the professional lifestyle.”
Highlighted Jordan Faria: “You could be 16 years old, playing a game when there's five first team players coming down. You get to see what the level is.”
“You get that experience of understanding that you travel on the Friday, you play Saturday, so how to take care of your body. And then in some of those stadiums, like Huntsville, where they have fans and they're in your ear when you’re warming up, that’s a little bit of the taste for when you go to a higher level,” he continued. “It’s very good tactically as well and very technical. A lot of these teams are built in systems of the first team, so you’re learning to understand certain formations and how you're going to play around them.”
Older teammates like Walkes and Faria play key roles. Whether it’s a word in the ear on the bench from Walkes or Faria sharing his experiences beyond TFC.
“I was in their shoes a couple years ago and I didn't really get those opportunities,” explained Faria. “It's really, really important those guys got those reps in, playing in a good league where you get to play in big stadiums and feel what it's like to be a professional.”
“From two years on first teams in Europe and in the Canadian Premier League, it was good bringing my knowledge to help those young guys. I knew what I needed from my teammates when I was their age,” he outlined. “I tried to provide guidance and positivity to help them keep achieving what they want. I know how hard it is when you're a young kid making those jumps.”
Head coach Gianni Cimini used Stefanovic as an example of what a season in MLS NEXT Pro entails for a teenager.
“Over 2000 minutes, playing in the East, he’s played against the likes of [Iuri] Tavares, [Patrick] Agyemang, [Jordan] Adebayo-Smith, Jack Lynn, Noah Fuson, [Arquimides] Ordoñez,” he listed – those six players account for 70 goals scored in 127 combined matches over the 2023 regular season. “As a centre-back he gets to play against some of the top prospects across the league. There was a learning curve for him, in terms of the intensity of the matches, and he’s adapted really well.”
“This is why this platform exists,” added Cimini. “For guys like Lazar to manage the fact that he's playing against some players that are playing at the MLS level and some guys that are definitely going to be making the step into the MLS level.”
Speaking at the start of October, Cimini relayed his preliminary discussions with John Herdman about the plans for TFC II.
“Some really good conversations about vision, ideas and philosophy, and how we can move forward, achieving the goals,” recounted Cimini. “And how we can support him in achieving the goals at the first team level.”
“Part of the discussion is that we want to produce players that can have a positive impact in the results, short-term and long-term,” he outlined. “The main goal is to provide players that have a positive impact. In terms of the performances of Kobe [Franklin] and Alonso [Coello] and recently Luka [Gavran], we can say that that has been a success for us.”
Every MLS NEXT Pro coach will take pride in seeing a player he helped along the pathway make that next step. There is a specific element that brings an extra glint to Cimini’s eye.
“I take pride in the fact that they hate to lose,” he specified. “And when things are hard, they're still working on the field.”
“Those are things that we talk a lot about at TFC II. We've always talked about the mentality of the player, about character in defining moments, about purpose, about ‘do your job and trust that your teammate is going to do his,’” Cimini expanded. “Aside from the technical and tactical things, it's the mentality of those types of players that I'm most proud of when they go [to the first team].”
“Luka hates to lose. Luka hates to concede. You can see it in his face,” he continued. “Kobe and Alonso are guys that are not giving up, competing right to the end. These are things that we talked about on the daily, what it looks like. We hold them accountable and when they do it, we praise them.”
The next set of candidates to advance, whether they’re TFC Academy prospects like Franklin or more recent imports like Coello and Gavran, are ready to seize their chance.
“If you're good enough, age doesn’t matter,” replied Stefanovic, asked about his prospects for making the jump. “I have to show that I can be there, week in, week out, performing. That’s what the standard is to be at the first team.”
“We have preseason coming up. Hopefully, I'll be in with them and I can impress,” he closed. “We'll see what happens.” (Part 3)