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It’s opening weekend for Toronto FC II.

The Young Reds will kick off the 2024 MLS NEXT Pro campaign on Sunday when they square off against Philadelphia Union II at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

After a long offseason and lengthy preseason, head coach Gianni Cimini has his side ready for action.

“It's been good,” he said of the build up to the opener. “We've had a steady stream of matches, six matches, with a little break in between. We're in week seven right now leading into match day one. [It] has been very good to get a good match rhythm, things have been going smoothly.”


“Obviously there's a little bit of a transition for the team, in terms of the new ideas, new game model,” Cimini continued. “But in terms of getting the minutes needed to bring the guys up to where they're ready to perform day one, we're happy.”

New season, new leadership at the first team, new ideas, new game model.

“The key words are aggressive, adaptable, and organized,” pinpointed Cimini. “Aggressive without the ball, adaptable to the opposition – the way they press, the way you want to step out to press – and organized and prepared. Those will be the main three real pillars of the identity you're going to see from TFC II this year.”

In a flurry of additions in recent weeks, two standout: forward Charlie Sharp and Brazilian defender Ythallo.

Sharp, a 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick, was a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy last season at Western Michigan University, while Ythallo joins on loan from Sao Paulo FC.


“Charlie is very good in around the goal. He offers threat in behind, he's somebody that wants to get to the goal quickly,” said Cimini. “He's going to be really important for us when we want to change the tempo, when we need to be more direct, and attacking crosses.”

“He has a knack for scoring goals with his head, on the ground, with his left, with his right. He doesn't need many chances, so we're really excited about that,” he added. “And he's got a fantastic attitude and mentality.”

Sharp picked up a knock that may see him miss out on this weekend’s action, while Ythallo has only just recently gotten involved.

“Ythallo joined in last week, he's coming off a month off at Sao Paulo, so we were very cautious of how we're progressing him,” said Cimini. “He is a player that is very press resistant. He can play left foot, right foot, can break lines with both feet, with deception, he can clip balls.”

“He's excellent technically,” he added. “Now it's just about making sure the integration is as smooth as possible.”

Alongside those two, the side has also added external reinforcements in defender Nathaniel Edwards, midfielder Mark Fisher, and goalkeepers Abraham Rodriguez and Shafique Wilson, while also re-signing veterans Julian Altobelli and Anthony Curic for their fourth season with TFC II.

Earlier this week a trio of TFC Academy players were added to the group in Lucas Olguin, Dékwon Barrow, and Andrei Dumitru – both Olguin and Barrow were involved in MLS NEXT Pro last season.

TFC II explicitly went younger in 2023 and while prospects from the player development pathway will undoubtedly again get the chance to sample the action at this level again this season, the side shifted in the other direction with their offseason recruitment.

“We brought in Charlie, we bought in Nate [Edwards], an ‘02, and Charlie is an ‘01. Mark Fisher as a 2000. Yhtallo is still quite young (19, a 2004),” listed Cimini. “Yeah, we've added some older pieces – Abraham Rodriguez from Colorado in goal an ‘02 – I would say that we're more balanced for sure.”

2023 was a difficult season for Toronto. 

A slow start out the gates meant they were always chasing. Performances improved, but the necessary results were hard to come by. 

“There's many lessons in difficult years – you grow more in those types of seasons,” reflected Cimini. “From a team standpoint, making sure you get off to a strong start is massively important for us and then how can we be more efficient?”

“With some games we were pushing 60% possession, they end up being draws, where you should win,” he continued. “So how are we going to be more able to capitalize, [have] more of a killer mindset, to make sure that we come up with the result, especially when we deserve the result?”

“You could be doing things right all the time and if those [performances] don't turn into points it becomes really difficult to change the course,” Cimini levelled. “So, when we get the team to a certain point, to make sure that we're demanding the ability to win the game and get the result.”

The goals for 2024 are three-fold, according to the head coach.

“From a team standpoint it’s to make the playoffs, achieve something that we haven't achieved yet,” Cimini said, sounding a lot like John Herdman. “Year one we ended up going to the conference final, so that means this year getting to a conference final and winning. We always want to be able to make history, take that opportunity for the guys.”

“From a development standpoint, it’s to support the first team to achieve their goals,” he outlined. “That could be supplemental roster spots leading into 2025, identifying those players and really pushing through.”

“[And then for this group itself] it was a tough year last year,” Cimini added. “A lot of growth. Some pieces have moved on, some new pieces have come in, we've been specific on the types of characters that we're bringing in, in terms of leadership and the culture. We hit the mark on that with Fisher, Sharp, Abraham. We can be happy with that.”

TFC II will play their first three matches away from home – away to Philadelphia on Sunday, at Chicago Fire II next Friday, and then at Columbus Crew 2 on April 7 – before opening the home portion of the schedule at York Lion Stadium against FC Cincinnati 2 on April 14.

The Union won the most recent meeting, 5-3 at home last September, but the two earlier in the year both ended in draws, including a rousing six-goal thriller in April that saw Philadelphia take an early two-goal lead, only for Toronto to respond with three unanswered in the second half before the home side equalized in the 82nd minute before winning the shootout for the extra point.

Despite being the first game of the season there are no surprises when it comes to facing a Philadelphia side.

“You know what you're going to get with Philly, right?” opened Cimini. “Direct balls, second balls; it’s really important to win the second phase and to make sure that we're taking care of things in the back-line properly.”

“Also to make sure that you're imposing your game,” he continued. “It's very easy to go fast all the time against Philly. If you break their higher press, then you're going to have a lot of space so you can go quick. The problem is if you don't capitalize, they're definitely going to go quick [back at you], and if the game is continuously fast, it's always in favour of Philly. For us, it's about managing tempo and possession to make sure that the game is played on our rhythm.”

Cimini and his staff have developed ‘marketing campaigns’ for each of the different teams they face in MLS NEXT Pro.

“Philly’s has always been ‘Clean in messy moments’ – where they want it to be messy, we need to be clean. ‘Imposing our attacking identity’ – the rhythm of the game has to be dictated by us, not by them,” he detailed. “And then ‘Match the intensity’ – Philly brings a real intensity.”

“From a match day one standpoint, where the nerves are a little bit high, the rust might be a little bit there, they're a difficult opponent to play against,” Cimini continued. “Their game is quite simple. A lot of respect for Philly because they know what they want to do, they do it well, and they don't change for anybody.”

“Those are the three keys,” he reiterated. “Intensity, play the game at our rhythm, and then clean in messy moments.”