In the crazy cycle that is professional sports, Toronto FC’s training camp begins on Monday. Just a month and a bit after coming oh-so-close to winning the MLS Cup, the club will start the process of trying to do it all over again.
There is no doubt that this season will be a massive one for the club as it tries to build on the popularity and recognition that a run to a major final created in 2016. However, it is also a huge season for several players on an individual level.
At the centre of the players looking to prove themselves in 2017 is a group of young Canadians, many of whom have been with the club for some time. This year will go a long way towards determining which of them remain with Toronto FC long-term.
Mo Babouli, 24
It is easy to forget that Babouli is already 24, considering the fact that he just broke through from TFC II last season. That isn’t really considered ‘young’ anymore in soccer circles. As a result, of this group, nobody needs a bigger 2017 than Babouli to prove that he is worth keeping around.
An injury to Jozy Altidore opened the door for Babouli to get a decent look in 2016, but while he showed flashes of brilliance he lacked confidence in front of goal and provided just one assist in MLS play. The promising aspect of Babouli’s game is that when he came off the bench he looked to make an instant impact. Only three TFC players who played consistently had more dribbles per minute than Babouli in 2016.
Babouli played most of his MLS minutes in 2016 alongside Giovinco, which may not have really been a pairing suited for him as they are similar players in terms of mentality. Playing alongside Jordan Hamilton, a target man similar to Altidore, was when Babouli played his best soccer.
If Babouli can get more minutes alongside a target striker in 2017 he may just be able to stay around. It doesn’t seem all that likely, however, barring injury. Toronto’s signing of Tosaint Ricketts may have been the death knell for his time with the club.
Jay Chapman, 23
Chapman’s 2016 season was, in many ways, defined by injuries. Just like others on this list, Toronto FC’s injury issues meant opportunities for Chapman. He took advantage, until he was also injured just when he was starting to play his best.
Nonetheless, Chapman undoubtedly took a big step forward this past season. A player who had often looked too cautious on the ball in his rookie season, Chapman grew in confidence this past year. It showed, as he was one of the best chance creators per game on the team.
If Toronto FC does not sign an attacking midfielder this offseason, Chapman is TFC’s best internal option to play that role. As a result, 2017 could end up being his coming-out party.
Chapman’s year is already off to a solid start, as he was one of the 18 players the Canadian national team brought to play Bermuda on Sunday. Ideally, he will carry that momentum into TFC camp.
Jordan Hamilton, 20
Whereas Babouli seems to be deceptively old, Hamilton is deceptively young. Despite being a known TFC prospect for several years, he is still only 20 years of age. As such, he has a lot more time to develop than the rest of the players on this list.
Hamilton had been waiting for his shot to break through to the first team for a long time, but finally got it this year. He started with a bang, scoring a brace in his first-ever start with Toronto FC, which came in the Canadian Championship against the Impact. He followed that up by scoring three more goals and adding an assist in MLS play.
The glaring issue with Hamilton’s play this past season was that he and Altidore never really worked well together. This makes sense, as like Giovinco and Babouli they are similar players, and play better when matched with their opposite.
In displaying his scoring touch, being one of the best on the team in generating shots and winning aerial battles, Hamilton displayed that he has a bright future in this game. Whether that is with Toronto FC or not, however, depends on what he can do this upcoming season.
Raheem Edwards, 21
Edwards will be hoping to follow in the path of Babouli in 2017: turning a solid USL season and TFC training camp into a first-team contract. However, he will have more obstacles in his way than his compatriot.
The biggest is that Toronto FC’s attack seems pretty set for the upcoming season. Giovinco and Altidore aren’t giving up their places on the team any time soon and behind them, Hamilton, Babouli and Ricketts are all proven options off the bench.
The only way Edwards makes the team this year is if Toronto decides to change their formation and play with wingers, as they did to start 2016. He has shown in glimpses this past season that he is comfortable at the MLS level.
Regardless of whether he is with the big team or spending another year with TFC II, however, this year is huge for Edwards. He needs to take another step forward if he wants to keep place in Toronto’s increasingly tough battle for minutes as an attacker.