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Uccello goes to Memphis - Part I

Long-time TFC II players Luca Uccello and Malik Johnson leave the nest for new experiences in USL

USL Photo - Luca Uccello in preseason training with new club Memphis 901 FC
Uccello in preseason training with Memphis
Memphis 901 FC

It is hardly new for there to be some turnover at Toronto FC.

Every year there are new faces at all levels of the academy, TFC II, and the first team. One needs to only look at the number of TFC trained players who have signed in the Canadian Premier League in recent months to get a sense of the number of players who have spent time at the club.

But there were two particularly striking examples in the offseason, as Luca Uccello and Malik Johnson with their contracts having come to an end, each decided that rather than re-sign with the club and go out on loan, they would strike out on their own: Uccello with expansion side Memphis 901 FC and Johnson with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

In many ways it is the natural corollary of the continued growth of player development at the club: there will not always be room at the top for every individual and some will have to go elsewhere to continue their progress.

But their cases were different, somewhat unique to this point, in that they had spent so many years with TFC – 21-year-old Uccello was with TFC for seven seasons having joined in 2011. Johnson, 20, who arrived two years later, spent five – and seemed on the cusp of breaking into the first team.

Some pundits had Uccello as the most likely to next make the jump after Liam Fraser did; while Johnson’s mazey dribbling, trickery, and pace – something the first team had lacked since the departure of Armando Cooper – had seen him get minutes in the Voyageurs Cup with TFC proper.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney said both were offered new deals and promised that with TFC II moving to USL League One arrangements could be made to find a suitable loan for them to remain at the top USL level, but each made the decision to try something new.

The paths to professional football are many; rarely is it a straight line.

It will be very interesting to see how they both get on in their new spots.

Waking the Red caught up with Uccello before he left for preseason training camp with his new club and will be keeping an eye on him and Johnson throughout the season.

The Decision

“Mostly it was about me trying to grow as a player and as a human being,” said Uccello at the end of January in a coffee shop in Vaughan. “Being 21-years-old now, I wanted a bit of a change.”

“Memphis checked all the boxes. I knew they were interested, I wanted to experience something new.”

An expansion club in the second largest city in Tennessee, Memphis will be coached by Tim Mulqueen, a long-time USSF goalkeeping coach, and play their matches at AutoZone Park, the home of the Triple-A Baseball Redbirds, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Colorado Rapids and former U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard, who credits Mulqueen for his development, is a minority owner.

“I was chatting with my agent around the end of the season, he told me that Memphis was interested, told me who the staff were, the ownership, and it sounded really good. I was interested.”

“I wasn’t planning on leaving TFC, but when the interest came I pitched the idea to my family, thought about it a lot: what it would be like to be outside of TFC,” explained Uccello. “I don’t know what it’s like. I’ve been at TFC for seven years.”

“It was really appealing, interesting to me, and it worked out.”

’He’s Done Him’

Having joined the TFC Academy in 2011, Uccello rose up the ranks at the club from the Canadian Soccer League to League1 Ontario, then on to USL in 2015 when TFC II were formed, signing a professional contract before the season began.

“It was the best years of my life,” said Uccello of his time with the club, before being swiftly reminded that at 21-years-old he has quite a few still ahead of him. “So many memories. Same thing with the national team: you go through the levels, keep excelling, people appreciate when your putting in the work, developing as a player.”

“Relationships are so important in football. The staff at TFC, the players I played with, they showed something real to me. That’s important to support their players. They’ve been unbelievable.”

“The last month was tough at the training ground. I knew I was going to Memphis. I got to say my goodbyes, my thank yous. So many people I’ve got to thank for everything. It could go on forever.”

His favourite moment?

“The goal against Ottawa. That was unbelievable,” recalled Uccello. “It was a derby, we won the game, the celebration was epic. Most importantly it was a sense of feeling like you’re in the right place at the right time. It was awesome to celebrate with my teammates and fans as well.”

A close second was the 2013 U15 Generation Adidas Cup.

“We were 15, finished second place,” he remembered. “I know we didn’t get the gold, but that was another tournament that really pops out.”

“Mike Stefano was the coach; I got the golden boot, which was awesome. The overall experience, playing against other MLS teams, was great. It was a building block for my development. You feel like a real TFC player that is coming along.”

The Nature of the Beast

Over the years a lot of players have come through the doors at TFC.

“Some players aren’t [going to stay forever],” said Vanney in January. “At some point we’re going to have so many under contract that we will need to loan players out, find different scenarios where players are continuously challenged; so we don’t have players blocking others through the system.”

“[Luca and Malik] made personal choices; I respect them. They’ll always be a part of us,” added Vanney. “We’ll keep an eye on them. Hopefully they’ll both develop and we’ll find a way to bring them back if it makes sense.”

To Each Their Own

The path from the youth game to the professional, from academy to the first team, is seldom linear.

“In football not everybody can ride the path that you plan on taking, sometimes other paths arrive,” said Jonathan Osorio, who made his way to TFC via a stint in Uruguay with Nacional. “I would say take those chances.”

“Sometimes the path that you thought was the least possible arrives and it’s the one for you,” continued Osorio. “When opportunity comes, take it, whether it is at home or somewhere else.”

“If you want to be successful in this sport, you have to take path that is right for you,” added Osorio. “Make sacrifices. It’s not going to come easy. Take the opportunity that lies in front.”

In Uccello, Memphis will not only be getting a player with four seasons in USL under his belt, but a versatile midfielder/attacker.

“In life in general, you have to bring energy, whether it’s on the field or off the field. I want to be the energetic player that can change the game, tire defenses,” described Uccello of his game. “I love running at people.”

“I also think the game is played with your head: that’s something I’ve excelled at. I can’t do some things physically, but I don’t let that be a disadvantage, I use it to play the game in a different way,” he continued, listing his three key attributes: “the mental side of the game, the energy I bring, and the ability to create for others.”

“I’m a very simple player, but I can change the game with one pass or a couple touches.”

Familiar Faces

In Memphis, he will be reunited with a couple of former TFC II teammates: Wes Charpie and Triston Hodge.

“Wes is a great player. He shows maturity on the field, excellent professional, very good footballer. Triston as well,” said Uccello. “Really good left-back, technical, smart.”

“What stands out to me about the players Memphis has signed is that they’re all good footballers,” he observed. “That’s important. I was one of the first, didn’t know who the rest would be, but I’ve been very impressed.”

“A lot of them I’ve played against in USL: Raul Gonzalez, [Heviel] Cordoves. They’re experienced professionals. Hopefully I can grow off them and them off me; make each other better on and off the field.”

Neither the First, Nor the Last

Others before him have had to leave TFC to find their way.

“As you mature as a player, nothing is ever perfect. If everything went perfect, I’d be with the first team,” said Uccello. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen; there is always a new beginning elsewhere.”

“Emery Welshman, Kyle Bekker, Mark-Anthony Kaye: quality players that could be in the MLS, but sometimes it takes a new beginning to start that. Whether it’s a sense of comfort, the ability away from home to focus more.”

Welshman and Bekker were TFC draft picks, who bounced around before finding homes where they could flourish. Bekker was a Best XI in USL with North Carolina FC and Welshman helped lead FC Cincinnati to a record-breaking regular season in USL last year. Both are now with Forge FC in the CPL ahead of the 2019 season.

Kaye played with TFC II in 2015 before departing for Louisville City, where after two excellent seasons he transferred to LAFC in MLS and hasn’t looked back.

“It feels like a new beginning, a fresh start. I can reset mentally, leave everything here, and only focus on what I can control. That’s the energy I bring every day and the work I put in this season to help make everyone better around me.”

A New Home

At the time, Uccello had not yet been down to Memphis, but he foresaw it was going to be great.

“It’s a city with an amazing culture, amazing personalities that have grown with hard work and talent,” said Uccello, who later confirmed the barbecue is indeed worthy of the hype. “It’s a very hard working city. I have those same attributes as player and a person.”

“I’m going for business,” he continued. “I can’t wait to get down there, get to work, and help the team win the championship. I think we have the team to do it, the coaches, the staff. The fans at the stadium could be something really special.”

“I will do everything it takes to make it that way.”

Memphis lost their first-ever match 1-0 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday on an early penalty kick, but despite that, the 8000-plus in attendance were vocal throughout.

Neither Uccello nor Johnson featured in the match, but both will have another chance on the weekend with Tampa Bay returning home to host Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and Memphis hosting Loudoun United FC at 8 p.m.

WTR will continue to track both Uccello and Johnson throughout the USL Championship season, while also keeping an eye on Aidan Daniels, Shaan Hundal, and Robert Boskovic, who are on loan at Ottawa Fury FC