Young Reds eager to take BMO Field stage: “It’s going to be something special”

TFC II are coming to BMO Field.

After the conclusion of the next two Toronto FC home games, fans are invited to stick around for a double header that will feature the next generation of homegrown first team talent.

On Saturday TFC II will face FC Cincinnati 2 with kickoff set for 6 pm and on Saturday, May 14 following the first team’s clash with Orlando City SC, II will square off against New England Revolution II, also at 6 pm.

It’s a big day for these young players to grace the bigger stage.

“Just the feeling of being inside that stadium,” said TFC II coach Gianni Cimini. “For some of the guys that have come from the TFC Academy, being a young player watching, as ball boys or in the stands with their parents, and now they have the opportunity to step on the pitch, it's going to be something special.”

They’re excited.

“The boys are really looking forward to that,” said Kobe Franklin, an 18-year-old right-back who was a finalist for both Young Player and Defender of the Year awards in USL League One last season. “It's a grand opportunity and we’ve got to not only take the three points there, but come in with statement performances.”

Some will have played there or watched games there before, not that that lessens the experience.

“Growing up watching the first team play at BMO field, as a kid I used to be a ball boy or even younger than that I used to walk out with the players, holding their hands when I was a little kid, and now being able to step onto the field as a hometown boy and play in front of my family and friends, it's a surreal experience,” highlighted attacking midfielder Julian Altobelli, 19, who has been with the club since 2014, aside from a season spent with then York9 FC in 2020. “It's going to be great and everyone's very, very excited.”

It’s the scene itself.

“Anyone who gets to play at BMO, whether you're on the first team, you're on the national team level, or our team, it's such a cool venue to play at,” detailed 23-year-old forward Paul Rothrock, an MLS SuperDraft selection in 2021. “You're right on the lake, the field is beautiful, the setting is beautiful. And it's a bigger stage for us, there's a bit more at stake, there's more people watching. Personally, I love the big stage. These games with pressure are why I love to play.”

But it’s not just that. 

“It also gives us more preparation for shifting up into the first team, then it's not your first time when you go out there,” continued Rothrock, who scored four crucial goals late last season in TFC II’s playoff push. “I try and go to every BMO game that I can and what I've done is I like to sit right behind the first team bench so that I feel like I'm as close to experiencing that as possible. I'm going there to prepare myself for being a player there. I can hear what [Bob] Bradley shouting to the players, that's the way I've gotten my mind ready for moving up to the next level.”

That is the aim after all.

“Growing up in the Academy and then proceeding with the second team, it's everyone's dream to eventually play at BMO Field for the first team,” levelled midfielder Stefan Yeates, 22, who wore the captain’s armband the last few matches. “Getting an opportunity to play to a game in BMO Field, under those lights with friends there, it's a great opportunity to showcase talents. It’s a dream come true for a lot of people to be able to play in that stadium.”

The move from the BMO Training Ground to York Lions Stadium for their league matches in MLS Next Pro brought an element of that grander stage to every match.

Players notice those little things.

“It's a different feeling that you get when you're walking into a stadium and you see fans sitting in the stands and you get to play on a bigger field,” said Altobelli. “It's been a great experience so far and moving forward it's going to be even better.”

Details of when those matches will be open to the public are still being worked out, so these games at BMO will be the first chance to catch the Young Reds in action live.

Over the years TFC II has played in several different leagues as the North American landscape continues to evolve. From USL Pro to the USL Championship on to USL League One and now MLS Next Pro, it has always been about developing these players and getting them ready for the next step in their careers. 

Four matches into the season, MLS Next Pro is looking a good level for the side.

“The talent potential is definitely higher,” compared Rothrock. “It's a league that we can have more success in than [USL] League One because all the teams are dealing with similar problems. Last year we would have two or three guys with the first team, five or six guys dropping down [from the first team], lineups are shifting weekly, and we're playing against a team like Forward Madison, who's got a number of veterans and they've played with the same starting 11 for the last seven games.”

Nearly every team in the league is dealing with those same shifting sands.

TFC II dropped their season opener 2-1 on the road against FC Cincinnati 2, but then won their next two at home – defeating NYCFC II 3-1 and Chicago Fire FC II 4-2 at York Lions Stadium. Last weekend they were beaten 2-1 by Columbus Crew 2 in Ohio at Historic Crew Stadium.

“The first Cincinnati game we gave up in early goal,” recalled Rothrock. “It was a product of shaky nerves. We’ve worked our way into the season now. Our two performances following that loss were great. We dealt with some adversity last week when we went and faced Crew, who's arguably the toughest team in the league, playing with a back-line that had never played together. Now we're hoping to bounce back after that loss.”

Said Altobelli: “We're starting to learn and our team is starting to click, we’re starting to understand each other better on the field. We're just going to keep growing and growing. It's been a good start to the season.”

Seeing their former teammates excel with the first team has been additional motivation, especially Luca Petrasso and Kosi Thompson, who were key members of the II squad last year.

“I'm really excited for all of them,” said Rothrock, who has two goals and two assists this season. “It shows the strength of our team and they've all been very good stewards for our team – Luca and Kosi have come in and both done really well.”

“That creates an even more solidified pathway for the rest of us, but it also makes me think if they can do it, why can’t I?” he continued. “I've been training and playing with all those guys for a long time now and when I see their success, it gives me even more confidence that I can do the same.”

On Saturday against Cincinnati this next group of young players will have a chance to show what they can do.

“Our big emphasis is to play how we want to play, to show our identity. In the first game against them and in our loss against Columbus, we got a little bit away from that,” said Rothrock. “Our main focus is to really show the principles that Bradley's been preaching throughout the club and see if we can put that into motion this weekend.”