In a footballer’s career, there comes a time when regardless of which club, or how high a level they are playing at, professional minutes are needed. This “coming of age period” between about 20 and 24 is when a footballer can make their greatest strides in terms of development.
So when it was announced in early July that Toronto FC II would not be playing in USL League One this season, there was legitimate reason for concern. The team of Toronto FC’s most seasoned prospects, most of them in and around that age range, would suddenly be stripped of an entire season of games. It seemed like it could be a developmental disaster.
In the end, however, it might actually work out for the betterment of the club.
Instead of playing out another season in comfortable surroundings with TFC II, these players have been forced to take their talents to unfamiliar environments around the continent, and in some cases the globe. Those experiences will have the potential to make them better footballers in a way staying in Toronto never could.
Let’s run down the loan list quickly.
Robert Boskovic, Dante Campbell, Terique Mohammed and first-team player Julian Dunn all joined Canadian Premier League sides. Rocco Romeo and Matthew Srbely went to Denmark. Adolfo Ovalle, Eric Klenofsky and Jordan Peruzza all joined different clubs in the USL system. Nyall Higgins has gone to Sweden.
At their various locations, they will have to undergo the unique challenges that help footballers come of age. Things like fighting for their position in a team with unfamiliar teammates, coaches and surroundings are the kind of trial-by-fire opportunities that force players to grow.
This isn’t to say that Toronto FC II isn’t a critical part of the club’s development system. The ability to have these player in a professional environment under the same roof as the first team while teaching them the systems and identity of the club can only be seen as a positive. The ability to have a direct say in their playing time is critical as well.
But for players who are perhaps too good for Toronto FC II, and a year or two away from the first team, there perhaps hasn’t been enough willingness to put those players in different situations.
This isn’t just a Toronto FC problem; the transition between youth and first team has long been the narrowest point of the Canadian soccer development pathway. Not every player’s development is linear, and too many talented players who failed to instantly break into first teams found themselves out of the game shortly thereafter.
But right now, Canadian players have arguably never been more attractive to foreign clubs after both Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies were shortlisted for the Golden Boy award. There’s a willingness now to delve into the largely untapped player pool that exists in this country.
Couple that with the emergence and expansion of the Canadian Premier League and the number of clubs where the development of domestic players is emphasized has increased significantly. The potential for loan deals increases as well.
Developmental loans are a tried and true method used by all of the top clubs in Europe. Just this past week, in fact, Toronto FC were loaned fullback Tony Gallacher from Liverpool. The 21-year-old was in tough to break into a first team that has world class fullbacks, but still needed professional minutes to further his development.
In terms of the importance of challenging yourself in different environments, Toronto FC youngsters have to look no further than Jonathan Osorio. By all accounts, the man who wore the captain’s armband the past few weeks for the Reds was a decent player growing up, but not an elite talent. That all changed when he left for a few years to join Nacional’s academy in Uruguay. It couldn’t have been easy for Oso, but it ultimately changed the trajectory of his career.
Greg Vanney has always been consistent in saying that going abroad and into different situations can be big for a player’s development. With that being said, the salary cap in MLS has always made it tricky to justify loan moves like this. Homegrown players are critical, especially for teams with payrolls like Toronto FC to have depth.
The issue becomes that when they are stuck as the club’s Plan B, they can’t properly acquire the playing time and experience to someday become a Plan A player for the squad. Hopefully this recent scramble to find playing time for their top prospects starts to create some lasting partnerships where other players can go in the future.
Because if Toronto FC can’t prove that there is a path from the academy to first-team football, they are going to lose talented young players. Loaning out more youngsters is a crucial way to show they are committed to player development.