When Toronto FC announced the lineup for their match against Ottawa Fury on July 18, the first leg of the semifinal Canadian Championship series, there was a new name in the eighteen, one unfamiliar to even the most energetic followers of the first team: Kyle Bjornethun.
Signed to TFC II on March 15, days before the start of the 2018 USL season, the 23-year-old defender flew somewhat under the radar.
Raised in Snohomish, Washington, just outside of Seattle, Bjornethun played his college soccer at Seattle University before being selected 88th overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft by Seattle Sounders FC, a club for whose academy and PDL sides he played.
However, it was on the other side of the Cascadia rivalry that Bjornethun made his professional debut, signing with the Portland Timbers USL Side for the 2017 season.
He made 26 appearances for Timbers 2, catching the eye of Toronto, before making his way across the continent.
20 matches into the campaign, Bjornethun has made 15 appearances for TFC II – all starts – proving himself to be a figure of stability for the young side.
“When I watch TFC II, you see a lot of up and down,” said Greg Vanney. “The most important thing about being a pro is being consistent, so that everybody around you knows what level you’re going to provide every single game.”
“A lot of our young players are still trying to establish that consistency. You see flashes of really good things and flashes where you can see they’re still really young,” continued Vanney. “Kyle is really consistent. He may not wow you, but he very rarely is at fault for mistakes. For a [defender], you want consistency, want to know what you’re going to get, especially in cup games.”
“For TFC II, he’s established himself as a leader,” added Vanney. “Some players think about what their top level is and what those moments look like. Those moments don’t matter if you have a lot of low moments to go with them. Kyle is the epitome of a guy [whose] standards are solid all the time.”
That consistency has seen him sporting the captain’s armband for the side on several occasions, as part of the leadership group at TFC II.
“He’s brought a lot of maturity,” said TFC II assistant coach Chris Pozniak. “He’s soft-spoken, but he’s a good leader; leads by example. A good choice to be one of the captains.”
For Bjornethun, that responsibility, “means a lot.”
“There are a bunch of leaders on this team,” continued Bjornethun. “[Wherever] I go, I find myself in that role; it’s a natural thing for me. It feels comfortable; I take pride in it. It’s something I take seriously. I enjoy being captain; being a leader.”
“There are a lot of young guys,” observed Bjornethun of his surroundings. “It’s funny coming into a club and being an older guy, even though I’ve only been playing professionally for two years.”
His coach at TFC II, Michael Rabasca, added: “The easy response is that he’s a professional.”
“What he brings is the ability to be self-critical and to make himself better without a coach being around,” explained Rabasca. “My conversations with Kyle are: what might be your best position to get you to MLS. He has some distinct and good ideas about that. It’s my role to challenge him with those thoughts. He brings a different way of thinking that is positive for younger players to understand.”
“In the last couple weeks, he’s been able to train with the first team, which is really nice,” recounted Rabasca. “It’s a testament to how he thinks; to how he has been going about his job. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
Primarily a left-back, Bjornethun has shown himself willing to get stuck in – he has five yellow cards this season – and has proved quite adept defending in the air.
“I love that,” said Vanney, himself a full-back at times and not afraid of a little physicality, of Bjornethun’s grit. “I’ve been surprised at how competitive and good he’s been in the air, something you don’t expect from an outside back. Evidently he played some centre-back in his college days and developed some aerial game. I like him, he’s done a good job.”
Bjornethun laid out how he developed those aerial talents: “I played four years in college at centre-back. I was recruited as a left-back, but after a few games needed to be moved to centre and stayed there. I have experience there, if that’s what the team needs from me.”
That versatility, especially in a three-/five-man back-line, has proven very useful for TFC over the years.
And he serves up a pretty nice ball.
He has been on corner kick duty regularly – it was his ball that Shaan Hundal met powerfully against North Carolina FC recently – and can pick a cross in the run of play. Matt Srbely nearly got on the end of one such delivery against Nashville SC before TFC II would go on to claim their first one.
“Oh for sure,” said Srbely of Bjornethun’s service. “Almost got [on the end of] one in the first half, but couldn’t finish it.”
It is not just on the pitch that Bjornethun has made an impact with his teammates. Being an older import to a team like TFC II, where the majority of players have come up together, is not easy. There is a lot of catching up to be done.
Bjornethun has quickly made an impression on the young side.
“He’s a great guy,” smiled Srbely. “He’s come into this team and been a leader, solidified the back line.”
“He’s a great player, but also a leader in the change room: a guy you can look to for advice, on and off the field,” added Srbely. “He’s a great addition to the team.”
To be in the 18 for that match against Ottawa was a recognition of the hard work he has put in and the faith the team has in him.
“It was exciting,” said Bjornethun of the experience. “I’m always trying to learn every chance I get with the first team, whether it’s a video session, training, or being in the lineup for a game. I’m surrounded by amazing players, guys that I can watch every day in training and take a lot from.”
Having spent the majority of his life in the Pacific Northwest, when Bjornethun first spoke to the media at the start of the season he was warned about the horrors of the humidity on the East Coast.
Like everything else, he has taken that challenge in stride.
“It’s getting hot,” laughed Bjornethun as Toronto boiled midsummer. “[Growing] up in Seattle, I’m not quite used to this humidity. I’m drinking lots of water.”