With the developments at Toronto FC II in recent weeks – a difficult season moving into the middle phase, the departure of Laurent Guyot, and the announcement that Michael Rabasca would be taking over the helm – it was a good time to check in with first team head coach, Greg Vanney, on the state of the side.
“There are no two ways about it, the team has struggled for results; has done since we started it,” said Vanney this week. “I knew we were going to be very young for a couple years. And that, by starting it, we were going to be pushing guys forward, asking them to grow and adapt in a quick way, in order to get results. It was going to be a process of learning.”
“We’re now at point, where some of those young guys we pushed along are making real progress,” continued Vanney. “Aidan Daniels is; Julian [Dunn] is getting a lot of minutes; Noble [Okello] is a young guy. Now we are seeing [those three] with the national team, playing against guys in their age bracket [at the Toulon Tournament] and doing a nice solid job. You’ve seen Liam [Fraser] benefit; he’s played a ton of minutes at USL.”
“I know it’s paying off,” added Vanney. “It doesn’t read in the results, which is frustrating for that group... no question.”
Twelve matches into their fourth season in USL, TFC II are winless this year and have collected just two points, both from scoreless draws.
Seeing individual progress is something Vanney has touched on before.
“That’s a really important purpose of that team,” said Vanney several weeks ago, again mentioning Daniels as the primary case this season. “Ayo [Akinola] has had a couple good games now he’s got his footing; Malik [Johnson] is making progress; Julian is getting a ton of minutes and a lot of lessons; Rocco [Romeo]; Luca Uccello... guys who are finding a good collective foundation. The results will find their way.”
Individual progress is indeed important, but Vanney sees progress in the collective as well.
“It’s hard to say that when you look at just the results,” admitted Vanney. “I look at: from minute zero to minute ninety, are we progressing as group, in our understanding what we’re trying to do as a club and as a team? Are individual players understanding their roles, how their relationships on the field are supposed to work; the ‘style of play’ things? We’re making progress in that capacity: their vision of how we play, what we want to do.”
Vanney has seen that, not only by observing TFC II, but first hand as well.
The entire club, both TFC and TFC II, began their preseasons together in Los Angeles back in January and a good number of USL and academy players travelled to Mexico for the next stage of preparations as well. That in turn led to Ryan Telfer, Daniels, and Dunn signing first team contracts in March.
That crossover between the two sides carries on throughout the season, as players on the pro pathway are regularly brought into the first team environment.
“When we call those players up into our training sessions, their baseline performances are improving,” said Vanney.
Where the struggles have emerged for TFC II is that: “We are seeing far too many ‘young player’ mistakes that are super costly in the results category. Big mistakes that lead to goals, goals cost games.”
As Vanney explained it, being able to make plays is where results are won and lost at the professional level.
“We make too many big mistakes on the defending side; those lead to goals,” reiterated Vanney. “And now you put a lot of pressure on yourself to score goals to get back into it. 5-4 in Atlanta is an example: you’ve done a lot of work to score four, but you keep making errors to give up goals. Ultimately, results are [based] off of the ability to execute at either end of the field.”
That puzzle, of getting it right at both ends of the pitch simultaneously, has vexed successive managers.
Jason Bent got the defensive duties in order last season, the occasional collapse aside, but could not get the offence firing. TFC II scored just 27 goals in 32 matches in 2017.
Laurent Guyot looked to do the same this year, shoring up the back-line after that much pointed to (on these pages at least) 4-0 defeat against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at the start of April. But, as the side began to find goals on the attacking end, that solidity became unglued.
It can be frustrating. And from the outside it can appear something akin to one step forward, two steps back.
But, as Rabasca, the new coach, takes the reins, a man Vanney has known for many a year, the first team coach is adamant that, “there is real progress and it will continue to be made under Michael.”
It is an appointment that will strengthen the ties between the two units, as Rabasca will continue his role with the first team as well.
“Because of his close ties to how we play, being around the first team,” Vanney expects there to be “a real clarity” of purpose between the two. “A lot of the training sessions, exercises we do, will be implemented there and crossover will continue to grow.”
When the organization began TFC II, “The purpose wasn’t necessarily to win the USL, especially with the timing,” said Vanney. “Ten years down the road, we would like to be in the position to win the [league], at the same time be able to develop players.”
It is a search for balance in an ever-changing landscape, as the league itself has changed a lot over the four seasons.
“The USL has grown a lot,” said Vanney. “Teams are spending a lot more money, it’s becoming a breeding ground for MLS teams. That is making it more difficult to get results.”
To Vanney’s point, FC Cincinnati, who are set to come to Toronto at the end of June, will be joining MLS next season.
Add to that, the rather bizarre start TFC II has endured, with the pitch at BMO Field needing to recuperate and the mayhem inflicted upon their schedule as a result. Matches cancelled and relocated on short notice.
Vanney referred to it as, “a really challenging start... multiple stadiums, away games that are supposed to be home games.”
And the injury crisis with the first team has impacted TFC II as well. First team participation has been rare; at times, the lineup has looked more like a TFC III side.
Though busy enough with the first team, Vanney keeps himself abreast of the developments at every level of the club. And none of the difficulties have affected the former academy director’s impression of what the future holds.
“I couldn’t be more excited with the talent that is coming through this club. There is a really, really bright future,” said Vanney. “It’s for us now, as a staff, to nurture and push that talent in the right way. It’s exciting and that’s why the USL is so important as well.”
The departure of Guyot does leave a vacancy at the top of the TFC Academy in the director’s chair, one Vanney expects to be filled in due time, a matter of weeks: “It’s being discussed; we’ll probably make announcement soon. We don’t want to leave a void for too long.”
And it was recently revealed that, as expected, three TFC Academy sides (U-19, U-17, U-15) will begin playing in the USSDA come September.
Building an academy, never mind an entire club, from scratch is a lengthy process. There will be struggles and adjustments will be made along the way. New options will emerge; old ones will look obsolete.
One such possibility under consideration is moving TFC II from the second division to the third.
Earlier this year, it was announced that for the 2019 season, USL would be launching a second league, known as USL Division III, that would form a third-tier of the professional game, behind MLS and USL itself.
Fellow MLS side, FC Dallas, are expected to launch a club of their own at that level.
“It’s something that we’re looking at,” said Vanney. “The idea of being a D3 can make sense, especially if our group is really young.”
It is a matter of striking a balance between contradictory pressures.
“We want to balance development and results,” continued Vanney. “Learning to win is an important part, but we don’t want to drop down because it’s our goal to win the USL. If we do it, [it would be] because it makes sense for where players are at at this current moment, [while] still being able to push them forward to get what they need, without creating a bigger gap between our USL team and our first team.”
“If we were to choose to go D3, it could be for a short term to then move back up, while we allow players to progress,” added Vanney. “It’s fluid, not permanent; not something we’d have to stick with forever.”
Such are just some of the considerations that go into the process.
In fact, that could be the essence of TFC II distilled: a club in the position of needing to balance two, at times, contradictory aims: winning and developing players.
In order to accomplish the latter, players must be pushed to the limits of their abilities, competing against weathered professionals sometimes twice their age. In doing that, the former will be severely hampered. For when players are pushed, mistakes will be made, and as Vanney said, ‘mistakes lead to goals; goals cost games’.
Learning to win is a worthy pursuit, but there too is value in the struggle itself. That should not be overlooked. Again, a balance must be struck. That task now falls to Rabasca, who was introduced to the media in his new role this week – more on that later, as he leads the side out for the first time on Saturday when they visit Penn FC.