TORONTO, Canada— Earning regular first team minutes is a struggle many young footballers face in the early stages of their senior career.
In a side built largely on veteran players, cracking the MLS matchday squad has proved a major challenge to date for Toronto FC duo Rocco Romeo and Noble Okello.
With no TFC II team to call home in 2020, the pair of local kids have taken their talents abroad to suit up for Danish 1st Division outfit HB KØGE on loan for the remainder of the calendar year.
While Romeo’s previous experience overseas (having spent parts of 2019 playing for KØGE) has made his second stint in Denmark a little smoother, the Richmond Hill native admits playing football 6,000 km from home doesn’t come without its challenges.
“Of course moving across the world is something really different and in some cases for some people it’s difficult,” Romeo told Waking the Red. “From my experience here last year, I was kind of used to living on my own and being independent.”
After receiving word that Okello, his longtime friend and teammate, would be joining him on loan back in September, the opportunity to play tour guide was one the Reds defender happily embraced.
“When I got the word that Noble was going to come, it just made my experience a lot more fun because I get to show him a new country, a new culture.”
“Not many Canadian kids can say this, being in the position that we have today, to say we’ve grown up together, we’ve played at every level together and now we get to play men’s football together overseas, doesn’t really get much better than that honestly.”
Unlike Romeo, Okello had in fact made his senior debut for TFC back in July, featuring as a substitute against the New England Revolution during the MLS is Back tournament.
Those 20 minutes off the bench against the Revs served as little more than a belated birthday gift though for the 20 year old as his next game action would come overseas with ‘Svanerne’, scoring on his KØGE debut in spectacular fashion.
Se eller gense målene fra HB Køges sejr på 2-0 over FC Helsingør onsdag aften. pic.twitter.com/XDddK48B7G— HB KØGE (@hbkogedk) October 1, 2020
While the goal scoring proficiency has since come back down to earth for the deep lying midfielder, the transition to Danish football has been relatively seamless for Okello, a fact he attributes to the resemblance in style of play.
“A lot of similarities honestly, said Okello of the parallels between Danish and North American football. “I feel like the aggression and the competitive side of things are very similar, the level between players on the younger side is very similar as well, they’ve got a lot of young players trying to play here.”
Part of the attraction to Denmark for both the club and players alike was the inclination to give the kids plenty of playing time. Since joining their new side, the pair have combined for a cumulative 1000 minutes played and counting.
“Back home, sometimes it’s harder to get minutes right now,” Okello said. “But here I feel like I’m playing every game, working on my skills, and I’m becoming a better player because I’m playing as much as possible.”
Romeo echoed his teammates assessment of early days abroad and expressed their joint interest in making a splash upon returning to the Reds.
“It’s just a good experience to get a lot of game minutes and to get a different experience at a new level,” added Romeo. “And hopefully, when our time comes to go back to Toronto, we make as good an impact as we can and hopefully we can make an impact with the first team.”
With the six-hour time difference, staying in touch with family, friends, and teammates back home can be challenging at times for the two TFC academy products.
Despite the logistical challenges, when players like Ralph Priso break into the first team in the midst of an intense Supporters’ Shield push, tuning in to TFC matches becomes appointment viewing according to Okello.
“I think me and Rocco have a very good relationship with the players back home as well so we definitely try and watch as many games as we can even though sometimes the times are very off for us… especially seeing the emergence of Ralph (Priso), we just try to cheer them on and tell them to keep going.”
Much of the focus for the two towering youngsters lies in getting back to Toronto and breaking into the first team to start next season. However, the drive and determination to impress their parent club in 2021 hasn’t stopped them from making memories in the meantime.
Realizing a lifelong dream of playing professional football overseas is one both Romeo and Okello are proud to have accomplished. Getting to share that experience with a good friend has made the journey that much sweeter.
“Every young kid wants to play in Europe someday, so when we got to play together in a match it was pretty cool because Noble and I have been playing together since we were 12 years old.
“It was awesome just to see how far we’ve come and (we’re) excited to see what’s to come in the future.”