Toronto FC II will close the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season on Sunday with the visit of Crown Legacy FC to York Lions Stadium.
Eliminated from playoff contention, Head Coach Gianni Cimini’s message heading into the season finale was simple: “To keep fighting.”
“To fight to the end, to put in solid performances,” he continued. “It's a really good opportunity to play against the best team in the league at home and to finish the year off strong.”
The players echoed that sentiment, aware that as a group of young men just starting their careers these times together are fleeting.
“First and foremost, we want to win. We're going in to get three points,” said defender Adam Pearlman. “We’re going in [remembering] the whole year, the hard work with this group of guys. Who knows where the pathways are going to lead individuals next year, so just end on a good vibe as a group, as a team, with our brothers. We want to end in a good way.”
After a slow start to the year, Toronto picked up some momentum midway through, but could never string together enough results to climb up the table.
“It was up and down, a lot of growing pains, a lot of learning moments,” reflected Cimini. “A lot of guys stepping up, pushed to the point where they're at the level and being able to compete, so I’m happy about that.”
“We were able to get better game-by-game, but we weren't able to match the training intensity during the week for matches. That's just where our guys were at,” he explained. “A lot of them are academy players. The cohesion, the idea behind us being able to really put in good performances against some top sides, as you learn throughout the season you get better.”
In MLS NEXT Pro roster construction varies with some teams shading older and more experienced than others. Toronto made a conscious decision to go younger this year.
For a lot of players it was their first taste of this level.
Lazar Stefanovic and Lucas Olguin, both 17, not only made their TFC II debuts, but featured in 25 and 23 of 27 matches, respectively. 16-year-old full-back Theo Rigopoulos made 20 appearances.
Those experiences will serve them well going forward.
“There was a lot of overall growth,” said Markus Cimermancic, playing in his second season with TFC II. “A lot of the games were close and we ended up dropping points. Last year we were able to gain points from those games. Hopefully next year we can come back and make the playoffs and have a good season.”
There was disappointment, but also an understanding that this is part of the process.
“We know we could have gotten more out of it, but there were a lot of positive takeaways,” highlighted Pearlman, also in his second season and tasked with stepping into a senior role as an 18-year-old. “A lot of younger guys, academy guys, coming through, getting experience, learning. There's a lot of positives out of the season even though we wanted more.”
The success of Kobe Franklin and Alonso Coello with the first team is proof of concept.
“We’re really proud that Kobe and Alonso were able to have the impact they've had this year with the first team. Goalkeeper Luka Gavran [who just recently signed a first team contract] was a big part of our success last year as well,” said Cimini. “They’ve signed deals and they're not just players that are filling in spots.”
“This year, the likes of Jesús Batiz, Lazar Stefanovic, Markus Cimermancic, and Adam Pearlman are those next prospects to push on with the first team,” he continued. “We have a good understanding of that and try to make sure that we get the best out of their qualities.”
“That's the reason why second teams exist,” underlined Cimini. “We're in that unique stage where [players] are having a lot of success with the academy and then they jump in with the second team and it's a considerable jump. MLS NEXT Pro is a big jump from U17.”
“They start to realize some gaps that they have in their game that didn't get exposed at that U17 level,” he added. “That's what the platform provides. That's the purpose. It's an important piece of the development process.”
Months of training in a professional environment, 28 matches, travelling all over the Eastern half of the continent to play against some of the best players the MLS system has produced and assembled is what forges the next prospects for the first team.
“A lot of learning, getting a lot more experience, being able to wear the armband even though I'm one of the younger guys, everyone trusting me and putting their faith in me,” said Pearlman of his personal takeaways. “There was a lot of learning throughout the year for me as an individual, taking more of a leadership role this year.”
A year is a long time in a player’s development at these ages.
“I feel like I've grown a lot this year, become more confident,” said Cimermancic. “There's a lot of things I need to be doing in order to make the jump and follow my dreams to the MLS level. I’ve got to get more confident, there's a lot of things I need to do better.”
“Just have the longest career I can, hopefully at this club, and one day make the MLS level,” he said. “Be able to play consistently and contribute to a winning team.”
Batiz, who joined from Rochester New York FC in the offseason, led the side with eight goals this season. He was a constant threat and when called up to the first team provided a spark in those outings as well.
“I've improved as an individual, it’s because of the team,” he said. “I'm better this year than I was last year.”
“My goal is to play with the first team,” Batiz added. “Help them and improve more.”
Sunday will mark the end of the season, but it’s really only a new beginning. The 2024 MLS NEXT Pro season will be fast approaching. For some players the first team will come calling and for others their pathways may lead elsewhere.
Crown Legacy, affiliate of MLS side Charlotte FC, have already wrapped up their spot in the playoffs and the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but level on points with Colorado Rapids 2, who top the West, they will be eager to win the match and put themselves in position to take the crown across the two conferences.
The two sides have already met twice this season. Crown Legacy won 2-1 in Toronto in June, scoring twice in the final half hour after Toronto took the lead, but then needed a 99th minute equalizer to draw level in a 1-1 August meeting at home before taking the extra point in the shootout.
“The mindset going into the final game is, 'finish the game right and get the three points,'” said Batiz. “We want the feeling of winning the last game.”
The key, according to Cimini, will be “good defensive organization.”
“Stay organized, disciplined, on task, and then also this aggression too,” he continued. “It's the last game of the season against a good side. We want to have moments where we're organized defensively, but from that organization you're really aggressive.”
“We, [the coaches], have been demanding a lot in possession. We have good shape and good understanding in the opposition’s half, but in the end, there's a lot of technical qualities and speed that is missing. We want to be better from that standpoint,” Cimini closed. “We want to attack it with a certain type of freedom and put in a good performance against the first-placed team.”