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Big Read: Ranking Toronto FC’s rising stars ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament

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We take a look at the best U-22 players in the Toronto FC system and rank them from 1-10.

Toronto FC’s youngest-ever signing Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty
(Toronto FC II)

TORONTO, Canada—Welcome to the first ever Waking The Red Toronto FC Rising Star Rankings!

We’ve heard it by now: the front office’s heavy investment in youth player development.

This past offseason, designated Player Pablo Piatti aside, TFC general manager Ali Curtis added four new faces to the senior roster: three homegrown signings from their academy and a 22-year-old MLS SuperDraft pick in Achara.

Perhaps it’s the cost of retaining their core players under a salary cap, but now more than ever, the team has shown the initiative to include their younger talent in the conversation.

And with five substitutions permitted at the “MLS is Back” Tournament, according to head coach Greg Vanney, we’ll likely see a number of the young guns at some point over the course of the competition.

As such, let’s introduce Toronto FC’s up-and-coming talent. Here’s how it’ll work.


ELIGIBLE PLAYERS & RANKING INFO

Two requirements to make this list:

  • Must be signed to a Toronto FC first-team contract
  • Have to be 22 years old or younger

**Rankings are based off potential impact in 2020


#10. Kevin Silva - GK

HT: 6’0 | WT: 189 | DOB: January 5, 1998 | Birthplace: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Nationality: American | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on July 3, 2020 | Age: 22

If you haven’t had the chance to read Benedict Rhodes’ article, he does a great job giving us the scouting report on Toronto FC’s newest first-team signing.

But for some brief background info, Kevin Silva signed on loan with Toronto FC II at the beginning of the 2019 USL League One season. He’d go on to make eight starts, playing well enough to warrant a permanent move to the Young Reds in January. Before he could play a game under his new deal, the 22-year-old was promoted to the first-team on July 3.

Last season, the senior team did have three goalkeepers on their roster: Quentin Westberg, Alex Bono, and veteran Caleb Patterson-Sewell, the third-string keeper for two seasons, never appearing in a match for Toronto FC. He did, however, start 25 games for TFC II over the course of two seasons, a role Silva was expected to fill this season.

While Silva does have a tremendous amount of upside, even Bono struggles to see minutes in this side; barring injury, it’s tough to picture the American-born netminder factoring in a senior game this season.

Could he be a future starter a few years down the road? He’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.


#9. Julian Dunn - CB

HT: 6’1 | WT: 168 | DOB: July 11, 2000 | Birthplace: Toronto, Ontario
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on April 14, 2018 | Age: 20

MLS: Toronto FC at Houston Dynamo

Part of a trio of players Toronto FC promoted in April 2018, centre-back Julian Dunn remains the lone wolf standing after Ryan Telfer (York9 FC - CanPL) and Aidan Daniels (Colorado Springs Switchbacks - USL) parted ways with the club this past offseason.

Shortly after signing, the Toronto-native actually made two MLS appearances for his hometown team as head coach Greg Vanney opted to rest his regulars ahead of a memorable 2018 CONCACAF Champions League run (check out this lineup...yikes.) A 5-1 loss to the Houston Dynamos on April 21—as a 17-year-old—would mark Dunn’s last taste of first-team action as 2019 didn’t go quite as expected for the young Canadian.

While it should be noted that there was a four-month span that he missed, likely due to a series of unreported injuries, he made just eight appearances for Toronto FC II last season.

Still just 20 years old (he turned 20 today), Dunn has time on his side. Self-described as a “defense-first” type of player, the young CB is physical, can tackle, and has the ability to make up ground quickly thanks to his athleticism. He reads the game well, and when given time on the ball at a lower level, he’s also shown the ability to pick a pass. Can he do it under pressure consistently at the MLS level yet? We’ll see, but he’s a player that the club sees as part of their long-term future.


#8. Noble Okello - CDM

HT: 6’4 | WT: 170 | DOB: July 20, 2000 | Birthplace: Toronto, Ontario
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on January 22, 2019| Age: 19

MLS: Canadian Championship-Ottawa Fury FC at Toronto FC

A towering holding midfielder, Noble Okello has been part of the Toronto FC youth system since the age of 12. The 6-foot-5 Toronto native worked his way up the academy ranks, eventually making his first-team debut in 2019 against the Ottawa Fury in the second leg of the Canadian Championship semifinals.

Prior to his debut last season, the 19-year-old made noise in Germany with VfL Wolfsburg when he was invited to train with the Bundesliga club following the conclusion of the 2017 USL campaign. Okello impressed during his time overseas as a 17 year old, so much so, that his stint warranted three follow-up transfer bids from the German club. Toronto FC (obviously) did not accept the reported “six-figure offer” at the time, showing how much they believed in their young CDM.

Since then, fans have not heard much about the holding midfielder, aside from 44 minutes of Can. Champ action. On the international front, Okello has quietly put his name on coach John Herdman’s radar, making his senior men’s debut for Canada in January, appearing off the bench in the team’s two wins over Barbados.

After starting 15 matches in USL League 1 last season, the teenager was projected to take another step forward with Toronto FC II in 2020. However, with The Young Reds withdrawing from the 2020 season—and an abundance of central midfielders ahead of Okello on the first-team depth chart—minutes for Okello in 2020 may come few and far between.


#7. Rocco Romeo - CB

HT: 6’2 | WT: 162 | DOB: March 25, 2000 | Birthplace: Richmond Hill, ON
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on January 21, 2020 | Age: 20

USL Photo - Toronto FC II defenders Robert Boskovic and Rocco Romeo seek to hold off an Ottawa Fury FC attack

Toronto FC and defender Rocco Romeo came to terms on a Homegrown contract earlier this offseason, making the Canadian the 21st player in club history to sign with the first team out of the TFC II academy. A native of Richmond Hill, Ontario, the 20-year-old centre-back, is listed as 6’2” but is probably closer to 6’4”.

Part of the Toronto FC academy for a number of years, Romeo split 2019 on loan with Danish First Division team HB Køge and Toronto FC II. While he does have experience playing overseas against much older competition, he still needs to earn his stripes in North America.

“I’m not 100% sure what his minutes total [will be], but he’s going to be put in an environment to be training with us all the time, to have to deal with the likes of Jozy [Altidore] and the other forwards and then we’ll see how he progresses,” explained Vanney back in January. “We’re excited about his upside, his potential, and we’re optimistic that we can make some real progress this year.”

On the field, Romeo’s teammates described him as a player who is confident with the ball at his feet, a trait which may play into Vanney’s possession-heavy style of play. As the case with young centre-backs, however, Romeo needs to get to the point where he can be counted upon to consistently play solid minutes without giving away cheap mistakes.

Competing with the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Chris Mavinga, Laurent Ciman, Eriq Zavaleta, and Julian Dunn for minutes at the CB spot, the rookie will be in tough to get a look or two, and if he does, his leash won’t be long. With Toronto FC II withdrawing from competition in 2020, can he impress enough during training to warrant a chance with the senior team?


#6. Griffin Dorsey - LB/RB

HT: 6’0 | WT: 160 | DOB: March 5, 1999 | Birthplace: Evergreen, Colorado
Nationality: American | Last Club: Indiana University
How Acquired: (6th overall, TFC) 2019 MLS SuperDraft (Generation Adidas) | Age: 22

MLS: SuperDraft

We may finally see some more of Griffin Dorsey this season, but it may not be at the position TFC fans are accustomed to.

Drafted sixth overall by the Reds in 2019, to say Dorsey had a disappointing season last year would be a bit of an understatement. He made two appearances, and I believe the second one (three minutes against Atlanta United on June 30) may have just been to forget his debut, an ugly 4-0 loss to Independiente.

He was a year younger than the rest of his colleagues coming in from the rookie class, so we’ll cut him some slack, but it was enough for Vanney to try the 2019 first-round pick out at a different position in preseason—left-back—and he liked what he saw.

Originally an attacking player with Indiana University, Vanney mentioned to reporters following preseason that Dorsey could be a fourth fullback option, behind Auro Jr., Richie Laryea, and Justin Morrow. While ideally, the veteran trio would carry the workload, with even Nick DeLeon capable of supplementing, don’t be surprised to see the American feature down the left flank.

After starting the year as a winger, Dorsey played fullback with TFC II on numerous occasions last season and looked very comfortable. However, the 22-year-old is still a question mark heading into 2020.

While his contract provides great value, it remains to be seen whether or not the former NCAA star can establish his role and find an identity within the squad, but he was taken sixth overall for a reason.


#5. Ayo Akinola - LW/RW/ST

HT: 5’10 | WT: 182 | DOB: January 20, 2000 | Birthplace: Detroit, Michigan
Nationality: American | Last Club: Toronto FC Academy
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on December 18, 2017 | Age: 20

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC

Ayo Akinola is a player that many TFC fans may already be familiar with.

Having made a flurry of brief appearances for the club in 2018, he really broke onto the scene last year, impressing in his first start against the New England Revolution, scoring a memorable goal and adding an assist in a 3-2 win on Mar 17.

His play would warrant a few more looks before an ankle injury sort of took him out of contention early in the year with other players stepping up. He finish the season out with TFC II, playing well as a right winger.

After a strong preseason this year, according to the TFC front office, Akinola is slated to have ample opportunity to impress. With his combination of speed and physicality, he has the potential to find himself near the top of this list come 2021.

Originally born in Detroit before moving to Brampton, Akinola played for Brampton Youth Soccer Club before joining TFC’s academy at a young age. He’d climb his way up the ranks, eventually earning a trial in Europe with PSV Eindhoven in November 2017. A month later, he was signed to a Homegrown contract by the Reds, fresh off the club’s first MLS Cup.

This season, he’s hoping to find some stability with the first team, but it won’t come easy as Mitchell Tierney pointed out, TFC have a lot of depth at the wing.

Internationally, Akinola is still eligible to play for the United States, Canada, or Nigeria, with a decision yet to be made. For what it’s worth, he’s only competed with the U.S. as a youth.


#4. Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty - RW/LW

HT: 5’9 | WT: 140 | DOB: June 16, 2004 | Birthplace: Brampton, ON
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II |
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on January 22, 2020 | Age: 16

Widely regarded as the best North American player in his age group, Brampton’s Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty became Toronto FC’s youngest ever signing at 15 years of age when he put pen to paper on Jan 22, 2020. At the time of his signing, TFC GM Ali Curtis said Marshall-Rutty had interest from many of the top clubs in Europe.

A natural winger, from his clothing style to his nonchalant style of play, the kid possesses some serious star potential, something that coach Vanney wants to see more of inbetween the lines.

“Jahkeele (Marshall-Rutty) is like an old man in a really young man’s body: he makes really mature, real simple and clear decisions for the team,” said Vanney. He doesn’t try to make too many big things happen outside of the box, but he has the ability to do so when he needs to.

“So for us, I really like Jahkeele (Marshall-Rutty’s) ability to play within the team, but we also want to continue to develop his ability to have those difference-making moments and to take those at the right time and still find the right moments to take a little risk and do some of the special things he’s capable of doing.”

Capable of playing down either wing, Vanney’s hope is to get the 16-year-old rookie his first look of professional action at the MLS is Back Tournament. If he does, can the young starlet make enough noise to justify another early opportunity? Don’t be afraid to hop on the hype train for this one.


#3. Jacob Shaffelburg - LW/RW

HT: 5’10 | WT: 150 | DOB: November 26, 1999 | Birthplace: Port Williams, NS
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on June 21, 2019 | Age: 20

MLS: Orlando City SC at Toronto FC

A household name within the squad, 20-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg is already a fan favourite. Having come through the Toronto FC academy ranks, the native of Nova Scotia signed with the first team on June 21, 2019 and would make a splash, appearing in 12 matches between June and August with the Reds last season as a 19 year old.

In fact, averaging 67 minutes per outing, the pacey left-footed winger would appear in 10 straight MLS games (eight starts) during that span, despite only recording four shots on goal and one assist. To be fair, if he had more support up front, I think we’d likely see those numbers a bit higher.

It wasn’t until late summer that Toronto FC’s reinforcements arrived in the shape of TAM-signings Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo, making minutes down the stretch hard to come by for the teenager. But Shaffelburg did carry his strong 2019 campaign over to 2020 where he earned a start in Toronto FC’s first match of the year — a 2-2 tie vs. San Jose Earthquakes on Feb 29. He’d play 45 minutes, looking dangerous, before a hamstring injury forced him off.

With the slight muscle tweak well behind him, the hard-working No. 24 will look to pick up where he left off at the MLS is Back Tournament. And with Achara going down to injury, only Pablo Piatti, Erickson Gallardo, and Tsubasa Endoh are really ahead of him on the immediate depth chart at wing.

With no goals and just one assist to his name in 716 MLS minutes, Shaffelburg will need to show this season that he’s capable of producing the end-product at the highest level, something he acknowledges. So far, he’s been able to create opportunities, but the youngster is missing that final pass or clinical finish.

If he can put it all together, the young Canadian has all the tools to become really special.


#2. Jayden Nelson - LW/RW/CAM

HT: 5’7 | WT: 145 | DOB: September 26, 2002 | Birthplace: Brampton, ON
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on January 23, 2020 | Age: 17

SOCCER: MAR 07 MLS - Toronto FC v New York City FC

Another Brampton, Ontario product, the 2019 Canadian Youth Player of the Year Jayden Nelson pledged his future to Toronto FC when he signed a Homegrown contract with his hometown club on Jan. 23.

A versatile attacker, the 17-year-old has the ability to play across the front three if asked and possesses game-breaking potential. He’s already represented his country at the senior level, appearing off the bench for John Herdman’s side in a trio of January International Friendlies. He even scored a goal in a 4-1 win over Barbados.

Unprompted, TFC officials have raved about the young Canadian, which shouldn’t be taken lightly considering Nelson’s still only 17 years old. But when I did ask Vanney about him recently, this is what his new head coach had to say.

“He’s shifty, he’s quick, he’ll want to make a difference in a game, and he’ll press to make a difference. Sometimes you can say he’s trying too often to try and make a difference in the game, and then he gets emotional in the moment because he’s a competitor—he wants things to go well all the time and all that,” said the TFC head coach prior to the tournament.

“He has so much ability and potential, and we see it in glimpses of these high-high (moments), but then we also see these moments of immature decision making that we’re trying to bring to a higher maturity level. When he finds that balance, he has an incredible talent.”

Nelson dressed for the first two Toronto FC matches of 2020 but was an unused sub. While he still has a ton of growing left to do, given the injury of Achara and the new five-substitution rule, I don’t expect we’ll have to wait long to see the one they called the “Canadian Ronaldinho” at the 2019 U-17 World Cup in Brazil.


#1. Liam Fraser - CDM

HT: 6’1 | WT: 179 | DOB: February 13, 1998 | Birthplace: Toronto, ON |
Nationality: Canadian | Last Club: Toronto FC II
How Acquired: Signed with Toronto FC on January 19, 2018 | Age: 22

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Toronto FC

Originally born in Toronto, Liam Fraser moved to British Columbia with his family at the age of eight or nine. The midfielder joined the Vancouver Whitecaps FC academy, leaving in 2013 when he moved back home to Toronto.

The reason for Fraser’s move? A lack of credit and playing time with VWFC.

Well, that’s sort of the situation the 22-year-old midfielder still finds himself in now: in his home city, competing for playing time in a crowded centre of the park filled with the likes of Michael Bradley, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonathan Osorio, and Marky Delgado.

There’s no question about Fraser’s ability at this point. On most MLS teams, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he would be a starter. He’s shown a consistent first touch, he can spray passes left and right, and he’s already built a reputation for being a hard, gritty tackler in the midfield. Jozy Altidore, from the games that he saw, felt his teammate was the best player on the pitch during Fraser’s recent stint with the Canadian Men’s National Team.

But still, even with Bradley sidelined to begin 2020, Fraser only managed to find 14 minutes of playing time in the two MLS matches before the pandemic lockdown. Aside from breaking into the National team, 2019 was also a bit of a lateral year for the young midfielder. After notching 794 minutes in 12 matches for Toronto FC the season before, he totaled 990 minutes over 11 games in 2019 and didn’t make an appearance in the postseason while the Reds made a run to the MLS Cup Final.

With virtually the same squad returning, does the outlook in 2020 get that much better?

WTR’s Calan Panchoo laid the murky scenario out elegantly for our readers last month, asking whether or not Fraser should be loaned elsewhere to ensure he gets the playing time that he needs to develop.

But then there’s the other side to things.

The what if? As in, what if Toronto FC does manage to find Fraser playing time he deserves this season? Does the time he spent patiently developing under Bradley’s mentorship pay off? If Fraser isn’t already, he has the potential to become a fan favourite, and possibly—down the road—a future captain at BMO Field. An up-and-coming local holding midfielder who’s capable of anchoring the club’s centre of the park? Those come few and far between.

Poll

Who is Toronto FC’s "Top Prospect"?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Liam Fraser
    (46 votes)
  • 32%
    Jayden Nelson
    (61 votes)
  • 6%
    Jacob Shaffelburg
    (13 votes)
  • 26%
    Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty
    (51 votes)
  • 9%
    Other
    (18 votes)
189 votes total Vote Now

Honourable Mention: Achara - LW/LM/ST

HT: 5’10 | WT: 161 | DOB: September 28, 1997 | Birthplace: Enugu, Nigeria
Nationality: Nigerian | Last Club: Georgetown University
How Acquired: Signed on February 21, 2020 | Age: 22

Genuinely speaking, Achara had a real shot at the No. 1 spot on this list before he went down with a season-ending injury.

Drafted 25th overall in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft out of Georgetown University, Achara turned heads in training camp, scoring a goal in every one of his outings, eventually earning a first-team contract for his efforts. He followed up his strong preseason performance with a memorable start at BMO Field, scoring an 81st-minute winner in front of the home fans to cap off his first MLS match.

Unfortunately for the native of Nigeria, that’ll be the last bit of action that he sees for a while as on July 7, TFC announced the 22-year-old versatile attacker would miss the remainder of 2020 following successful surgery on a torn ACL and LCL on his left knee.

In a scrimmage leading up to the tournament, Achara and defender Omar Gonzalez got tangled up at the far post with Achara, obviously, coming away with a really unfortunate injury on one of the last plays of the day.

If he comes back even 50 per cent as good as he was playing, TFC still have a real asset for the future.