TORONTO, Ont.—After an exciting opening day of training camp, Tuesday was a lot less drama-filled as players began to set their sights on departing to Orlando, looking forward to escaping the frigid cold around the city.
With the team off on Wednesday, the group began training at around 10:30 a.m, a session which—as usual during this time of the year—put a greater emphasis on fitness while players began to find their feet.
Following training, there were a few media availabilities, including the opportunity to chat with coach Greg Vanney, 21-year-old Liam Fraser, and new Homegrown signing Rocco Romeo.
Here’s a rundown of some of the emerging storylines through Day 3 of Toronto FC training camp.
Fraser avoids loan; looking forward to opportunity
"Being a kid from Toronto, and playing for your hometown, occupying what I think is the most important position in football [...], that's what excites me and kind of gets me up in the morning."— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) January 21, 2020
( : @Shuttersworth_ ) | #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/ZG2QYNi3HG
When it was announced yesterday that Toronto FC would be without Michael Bradley for approximately four months, all signs pointed towards Canadian international and Toronto-native Liam Fraser filling the enormous void left in midfield by the Reds’ captain.
“Obviously it’s disappointing for Michael, disappointing for the team—for the organization,” Fraser told reporters after Tuesday’s training session. “I know all of us are behind him for a quick recovery, just because he plays such a big part in this club. But for myself personally, it’s an opportunity for me to show and perform that I’m ready for this level, and it’ll be on a consistent basis if Greg gives me the opportunity [...].
“When it comes, I know that I’ll be able to do the job.”
A central midfielder like Bradley, the 21-year-old showed flashes of high potential in limited opportunities with both TFC and the Canadian national team, starting all 11 matches he appeared in with his MLS club in 2019.
However, with crucial years ahead of Fraser in his development, competing for playing time alongside a deep veteran midfield that included the likes of Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and Marky Delgado, it started to become a question of whether or not his hometown would be the best place for the young Canadian to grow.
“At the end of the day, I need games to develop; I need minutes to develop,” said Fraser, when asked about his thoughts on a possible loan stint elsewhere. “I’ve always said whether it’s here, whether it’s somewhere else, I just need minutes and opportunities and experiences to better me as a footballer and to better me as a person. I’ve always wanted to be here, and hopefully this year, I can get those experiences. I think this year is going to be an important one for me in learning and developing as a player.”
While the loan route to Europe was a real possibility for the promising youngster in an effort to get him more playing time, one that GM Ali Curtis and company thought long and hard about, the Reds held off—and they’re quite thankful that they did in light of the Bradley development.
And without trying to put too much pressure on the 21 year old, Toronto FC players and staff all sang praise for Fraser when asked about the possibility of the Canadian filling in for MB4.
“If it’s Liam, I think Liam’s ready,” said Jozy Altidore. “He’s a great player. He comes in every day ready to work. I watched him for Canada. I thought he was the best player for Canada in both games. I think it’s a great moment for him and I think he’s going to take it with both hands.”
“He’s ready,” said Vanney. “It’s time for [Liam] to get more opportunity in terms of game minutes and learning. The best place for him to learn is to be out on the field. Now he’s going to have a stretch where he has the opportunity to hold the position down and help the team get some early results.”
Romeo speaks to media for the first time
Just prior to the start of training on Tuesday, Toronto FC officially announced the Homegrown signing of Richmond Hill-native Rocco Romeo, who had the opportunity to introduce himself to reporters following training.
The 19-year-old centre back, who is listed as 6’2” but is closer to 6’4”, carried himself in a confident, yet professional manner—a real testament to what he believes he’ll bring to the team.
“I feel like my first year is going to be more like a learning year because I need to adapt to essentially a higher level,” said Romeo. “I got some experience playing at a higher level on loan in Denmark last year, so I’m looking to help out the team, help win games, help win titles, because at the end of the day, I want to win.
“I think I’m going to bring a good spark to the team,” added Romeo. “Having a big presence, being a tall guy, you know people notice you when you walk into a room, so my goal is just trying to get to know the guys, compete and just win essentially. At the end of the day we’re a winning organization and we’ve proved it in the past.”
Romeo’s story isn’t unique, but it’s one that many will be able to relate to, one that most local soccer players nowadays around the city dream about: signing a professional contract with your childhood club.
As a youth playing for the Richmond Hill Raiders prior to playing for the Woodbridge Strikers, Romeo would volunteer as a ball boy at BMO Field in his younger days, while his family even had season tickets for the Reds in 2016 and 2017.
“I was debating running on the field but my dad would have kicked my ass,” Romeo said with a laugh.
Despite his young age, the tall defender understands what it means to win in Toronto having been at the club since 2014, even before head coach Vanney arrived.
Romeo was the first of what we expect to be a few Homegrown signings leading up to the start of the season. On Wednesday, Toronto FC announced that they’ve inked a deal with 15-year-old Brampton-native Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, their youngest player in club history.
Vanney: ‘Altidore looks fantastic’
Despite the loss of their captain Michael Bradley for approximately four months, in addition to the ongoing search for a new designated player, Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney remained optimistic about his team’s outlook heading into preseason, large in part to the Reds’ fitness level entering camp.
“I’m very pleased,” said Vanney, when asked about where his team was at to begin camp. “We did the fitness testing yesterday, and everyone is by in large where they need to be. Some guys really exceed where your expectations are... I think just from a mentality stand point, from arriving in the right weight, the right body fat, and getting on the field and starting the testing and stuff, everybody is in a great position.
“It looks like a group that is really here to get going.”
Toronto FC, of course, had a short offseason after reaching the MLS Cup Final on Nov. 10, just over two months ago. And without the added workload of an early Concacaf Champions League run in 2020, the Reds have their eyes set on the Supporters Shield while trying to become the first club to reach four MLS Cup Finals in five years.
Of note, the Reds’ head coach was particularly keen on Jozy Altidore coming into training camp in great shape after struggling with injuries in past offseasons.
“His fitness always plays a big role just because he’s such a unique player in his strength, his size, and his soccer capabilities...,” said Vanney. “For Jozy, he’s come in and he looks different than he did last year. He looks slim. As a starting point, he looks fit and ready to go.
“I think he did a great job, whatever he did in the offseason, he looks fantastic, and we’ll try to build off of that.”
Despite Altidore’s recent comments after Monday’s training session—and of course the report on Wednesday from ESPN’s Hercules Gomez—it looks as though the Toronto striker is ready to hit next season running with the Reds.
Until Toronto can bring in a better secondary scoring threat besides Patrick Mullins off the bench, Altidore’s health will be imperative to TFC’s early success in 2020.
TFC II competition at LB? More CanPL loans?
Entering last season, the glaring question mark in the Reds’ lineup was at fullback, however, that bit of doubt was soon erased with the emergence of Auro Jr. and Canadian international Richie Laryea, who will both return to TFC in 2020.
Laryea, in particular, excels attacking down the right flank, while Auro has the ability to play both sides of the field. Mix in 32-year-old MLS veteran Justin Morrow at LB, who had his contract option picked up by Toronto in the offseason, and like TFC coach Vanney believes, the Reds have three of the better outside defenders in the league.
As a result, thanks to the Brazillian’s versatility, expect to see a combination of Auro, Laryea, and Morrow occupying Toronto’s flanks for most of the year.
With those three players eating up a bulk of the minutes, and with the added reassurance of Nick DeLeon’s ability to cover the position if necessary, Vanney feels his squad is in a fortunate position to perhaps take on one of the Reds’ younger players as the team’s “fourth fullback.”
“Right now, we have three outside backs who are signed, and I would put a fourth on Nick DeLeon there,” said TFC coach Vanney. “We’ve got two young players now who are kind of vying for that space in Terique Mohammed and Luca Petrasso, both very interesting players—slightly different. So those two will get some minutes, in addition to Justin [Morrow] at that LB position to see if either of them are ready to make the jump.”
Mohammed, in particular, may do well during this showcase having been exposed to left back more often in the past than Petrasso, who has appeared more for TFC II in the midfield. Either way, it’s nice to see some young, Homegrown talent earning a look with the big club.
Speaking of Homegrown talent, here’s a little Canadian Premier League tidbit for our readers who made it this far from TFC coach Vanney on loaning players to Canada’s top domestic league:
“I do think we’re getting to a point that we’re getting so many talented young players that some will—Ryan Telfer is an example among others—get their stint within the CanPL as well, and we will hopefully use and work well with teams in the CPL to try and bring players along while trying to help those teams be successful.”
Gressel to D.C. United; TFC misses out
However, with news breaking yesterday that Gressel will be shipped off to D.C. United in exchange for $750,000 in allocation money—with the possibility of the fee rising to $1.1 million with unspecified performance incentives—we can conclude that TFC (and Inter Miami CF) were ultimately priced out of this one.
In terms of how this effects Toronto moving forward: Eastern Conference rivals Atlanta gets weaker (for now), while another Eastern Conference foe, D.C. United, gives up a lot of future flexibility to acquire the talented midfielder.
On a separate note, I did just want to shed a bit of light on this because I am extremely proud of how our staff handled this situation. Shortly after our report dropped that TFC were in talks re: Gressel, it was quickly squashed by extremely credible and long-time Toronto FC reporters. Further risking our site’s credibility, we trusted our sources and stood pat with our report, which in turn, appears to be true.
As I’ve mentioned before, WTR takes a lot of pride in putting out compelling, yet accurate content. On we go.
Toronto FC departs for the hot Florida sun on Thursday for about a week before returning home, so the team can get outside and prepare for their upcoming February preseason matches in California beginning on Feb. 8 against Nicolas Benezet’s Colorado Rapids SC.
With a lot of youngsters vying for spots on this year’s veteran team, the 2020 preseason should be a fun one to watch. You can find their full training camp schedule here.