Heading into the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season expectations were high for Toronto FC II.
The team was coming off a banner year under head coach Gianni Cimini, finishing second in the East, reaching the playoffs for the first time in their history, and defeating Philadelphia Union II in the Conference Semifinals before pushing eventual champions Columbus Crew 2 deep into extra time in the Eastern Final.
The players were ready for the second season of the new competition. Their expectations were high as well.
“What we did the first year and even more,” said Reshaun Walkes last week. “This time winning it. We were so close the year before and we knew what it took to get there. Taking that one extra step to get to that final and, hopefully, win it.”
It did not come to pass.
Toronto were slow out of the gates and while performances picked up in the middle of the season, the side was unable to string together enough results to make up the ground and reach the postseason.
“It could have gone better. Not going to the playoffs isn’t the greatest,” said Jordan Faria, who returned from Europe to reunite with Toronto in the offseason. “It's disappointing because we always strive to be at the top level.”
“We had some good and bad moments, a lot of unfortunate losses, especially [late],” he continued. “If the game was 80 minutes, who knows, we could have been top three. There were moments in the season where it was difficult. It's just one of those seasons where you learn a lot of lessons.”
Underneath the results, observers will have seen much more than an end-of-season points tally displays.
“Obviously not as good as we expected, and hoped for, but in games we did a lot more than we did last year,” highlighted Walkes. “We just couldn't get that result, that finish, that most important thing at the end of the game like last year.”
Close watchers will have seen a young, talented side figuring themselves out as the season went on.
“Success is really disguised this year,” said Cimini. “Considering some of the performances, I would argue, aside from the last four games where we lost two instrumental players with an already depleted roster, there were more successes this year in terms of the way the team played.”
“There's a lot of things that go into play, but as a staff and as a group of players,” he continued. “We can be proud of a good chunk of the work in terms of what we actually presented on the pitch.”
Toronto went younger this season. Key players from last year either graduated to the First Team – Alonso Coello and Kobe Franklin, joined by goalkeeper Luka Gavran towards the end of the season – or departed – in the cases of Paul Rothrock and Steffen Yeates.
In their place a raft of teenagers stepped into important roles.
18-year-old defender Adam Pearlman started 25 of 28 matches in his second year in MLS NEXT Pro, taking on a veteran’s role. 17-year-old centre-back Lazar Stefanovic started 25 matches in his debut season. That duo led the side in minutes played this season.
18-year-old midfielder Lucas Olguin racked up 1800 minutes, as did Markus Cimermancic, also 18, and full-back Theo Rigopoulos, another 17-year-old, saw over 1200 minutes. Both Stefanovic and Rigopoulos will be representing Canada at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Indonesia later this month, along with eight other TFC Academy players.
For them and many others, the next generation fighting to emerge from the Academy, it was a year of valuable lessons.
“We didn't get where we wanted to,” said Rigopoulos. “But there were a lot of learnings from the season.”
Added Stefanovic: “The whole point is to develop players and eventually push them into the first teams, so having those moments was very critical for us and our development as players.”
There was a conscious decision from the club to get younger at the TFC II level.
“The vision for the club [was] to be as young as possible at the start of the season. That meant that guys like Yeates and Rothrock were moving on. There's some voids there,” explained Cimini. “We did not have the opportunity to have a preseason like other clubs, where they're able to get together as a team, formulate some good ideas, and play a lot of meaningful matches. That had an impact on the start of the season in particular. After three or four games, the team picked up some good steam and the performances were really good.”
After that slow start Toronto found their rhythm, there were a handful of games where they were absolutely dominant, racking up 70% of possession, stringing together 700-plus passes, but necessary results proved hard to come by.
“There's a stretch of 10 games where we're above 75% probability to win the game if you look at just xG and xG conceded, but they end up in ties,” pinpointed Cimini. “If some of those games go in our favour, some of those ties that should be wins turned into wins and you put them in a row, winning becomes contagious – just like losing becomes tough to get out of – and we're talking about a different season.”
It wasn’t that anything in particular was missing.
“It was just the last metre, a little bit of individual quality in the final third or individual quality in the box,” pinpointed Faria. “It comes with experience.”
“We had a lot of guys in their first professional season, doing extremely well, but those are things that come with repetition,” he continued. “Teams knew we were very good at possession, so they sit back. And trying to beat a block that has 11 guys behind the ball is extremely hard at any level. That was a little bit of [it].”
Summarized Rigopoulos: “We didn't know how to [see out] the result or hold on to the game in the last minutes.”
Added Walkes: “Honestly, I wouldn't really say much was missing. It was more the fact we just didn't get that lucky bounce. In games, you're always going to get a slice the luck and this year it just didn't happen.”
In the stretch run that slow start proved too much to make up.
“We dug ourselves a hole at the beginning of the year, put ourselves in a position where we were chasing from the start,” levelled Stefanovic. “Eventually the games started counting down and it got too late.”
Results are important. Every team always goes out to win, but at the development level that is in balance with other factors.
“We led the league with LAFC for minutes played by players born in 2004 or younger,” outlined Cimini. “Stefanovic, Rigopoulos, Olguin, Cimermancic; Pearlman, a 2005, he's a veteran for TFC II, playing in the league for a second year. We are providing a bulk of the minutes to young players that are developing.”
“35,000 minutes have been attributed to academy players across the league. TFC II accounts for 5000 minutes of those,” he added. “That's not including Lazar [who signed for TFC II midseason]. If you include Stefanovic we’re at 20% of the academy minutes played across the league. We were young, maybe too young in terms of the results, but, from a staff perspective, if the goal was to be young, we achieved that.”
While the desired run at the MLS NEXT Pro Cup will have to wait, with three players from that 2022 side already in the first team ranks and many more taking important steps forward on their pathways this season, TFC II are a vital part of the club’s future.
Every year will be different.
Every year will throw new challenges, will see its ups and downs, comparing one to the last, measuring the value of work by points on a table, is impossible.
That proof lies in the future.
“I didn't know what to expect at the beginning of the year,” said Stefanovic, named one of the captains for Canada’s side in Indonesia. “I'm grateful that I got a lot of opportunities to play at this level.”
“I learned a lot about myself as a player and as the season went on, I kept developing and developing,” he continued. “That's really important for me. That helped me push on to get opportunities with the First Team and perform better.” (Part 1)