Toronto FC II get the USL League One season underway on Friday night with a visit to Orlando City B. Laying the groundwork for success, however, began immediately after the 2018 season came to an end.
“The players at most had 13 days off,” said TFC II coach Michael Rabasca on Wednesday before the team departed for Florida. “Otherwise they’ve been training off and on through the offseason, which started as soon as we ended. And then a good majority of them got time in California with the first team, returned from that and then we were into our preseason, adding players slowly. A good growing, developing experience.”
Preseason was pretty standard fare, according to Rabasca.
“You have new pieces, new people, trying to get the norms down, the culture right, standards in place for people to understand clearly what the expectations are,” explained the coach. “We spent a lot of time on that.”
Preparations could be broken into four distinct phases that began come January: California, Toronto, Arizona, and preseason matches.
“It was nice for a dozen players to be in California, see what the first team is expecting,” said Rabasca. “Starting adding in the draft picks, players we’ve scouted, and from there we went to Arizona, slanted towards team building and what we’re trying to accomplish on the field. And then in the final push we played Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and New York Red Bull to get some practical game experience and get prepared for this weekend.”
That prolonged exposure to the first team is such a valuable experience for young players, where both experience and messages are passed on.
“Training with the first team was amazing,” said midfielder Matt Srbely. “Adapting to that level, learning from players. It’s an amazing experience to be around, learn from them.”
While the aim this year remains unchanged, there have been a few alterations to the methods.
“Our primary focus is to see these players develop, become first team players,” emhasized Rabasca. “Results are super important, but so is their growth and development.”
“I’ve mentioned ‘development’ a dozen times already, but that really is the focus and theme. We want to have a winning mentality along with that – part of their development is learning how to win, how to do their job, and being held accountable,” continued the coach. “We will have some first team players who need to get themselves ready; that is our purpose as well.”
The time around the first team seems to have rubbed off on Srbely, who voiced an oft-repeated message.
“The mission has always been playoffs, but we’re taking it one step at a time,” said Srbely. “The whole team knows our goals, what we want to do. One game, one play, one step at a time. We’re focused on what we need to get done on Friday.”
And though with 12 new signings, a mix of TFC Academy promotions and outsourced additions, and three returning players out on loan – Robert Boskovic, Shaan Hundal, and Rocco Romeo, as well as recent academy graduate Luke Singh – Rabasca sees such high turnover as a thing of the past.
“I feel comfortable with the core of players,” stressed the coach. “This is the evolution of the team and what we’re trying to do with the group: to not be so quick to judge our younger players, to keep them in our environment longer, with clear understanding of what the first team expectations are, so that they can continue to develop and move into that. I feel really good about the group.”
Midfielder Dante Campbell, one of the eight returning players, has a similar read on the side.
“There is a good vibe going on,” said Campbell of the newcomers fitting in. “We have a good understanding of each other. We’re eager to start the season. I’m excited.”
Though, now 19 and one of the elderstatesmen in the group, he finds himself in very different place from the 17-year-old who made his TFC II debut in 2016, helping to usher in the next generation of talent, including Jayden Nelson, 16, and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, 14.
“It’s good be older,” smiled Campbell. “You get to help the others out and that helps you as well. I’m excited for those guys, they’re young talents. They’re ready.”
The final word goes to first team coach Greg Vanney.
“For me, it’s nice if they win games, but it’s a product of the process,” said Vanney. “I want to see more maturity. The last couple years, last year in particular, there were too many mistakes, naive mistakes, especially in the back-line. That leads to concession of goals, to disappointment, to confidence issues. I would like that group to show they are making progress on that capacity: consistency of each player in performances, consistency in the group.”
Vanney dived deeper on what Rabasca mentioned: “More stability now in their system.”
“It’s going to match what you see throughout the academies and it’s closer now to the first team,” explained Vanney. “In the past it hasn’t been that fair to the TFC II team because they were matching our team, but our team is based off three DPs and a couple TAM players: they determined our structure because we created a team based off of the players.”
“We’ve had a transition this year and through that we’re trying to make it more of a seamless system that goes from our youngest teams all the way through to our first team,” continued Vanney. “That will create a cleaner environment for our younger players to be successful. Their roles won’t change as they go from Academy to TFC II to the first team, things will be consistent.”
“That will help them a lot. Trying to play in a diamond, [or] a 3-5-2, for a young player who is learning is not an easy thing,” added Vanney. “The structure is better, they’re two-three years more mature. I think we’ll start to see the benefits of all of that.”
“I think they’re going to be good,” Vanney concluded. “They’ve got a good mix of veteran and young players too. I’m excited for them to get started.”