ST. JOHN’S, Canada—The Canadian men’s national soccer team clued up their camp down in Florida this past weekend and despite some bumps in the road along the way, there was plenty of positives for John Herdman and his coaching staff.
While a series of inconclusive COVID-19 tests forced the cancellation of a pair of scrimmages against the American side, the seven Toronto FC players in attendance used the two weeks and the inter-squad contests to leave a lasting impression.
With an average age of 21, the septet of Reds came into the January camp with plenty of different things to prove.
Be it Jonathan Osorio hoping to show Herdman he still warrants a spot in their best XI despite the influx of youth in the national setup or Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty getting his first chance at the senior level at just age 16, there was no shortage of storylines worth exploring among the TFC-CanMNT candidates.
With this in mind, here are a few thoughts on each of the seven Reds who suited up for their country down in Bradenton.
Although the midfield maestro is showing no signs of slowing anytime soon, the now 28-year-old faces more competition for both club and country with each passing year.
Oso now has youngsters Ralph Priso and Noble Okello gunning for his spot at TFC and on the national team—a good problem to have for all parties.
“I love it. I wish it was like this eight years ago,” Osorio told the media of the level of parity in camp via Zoom last week. “But I’m happy with the way it is now. I’m very excited, The development has come a long way in this country. And it shows every time. Every January camp, it gets better.”
While Osorio is optimistic about the future generation of footballers in this country, he remains adamant that the results need to come before this can be deemed a success story.
Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David ... is this #CanMNT's 'Golden Generation?'— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) January 20, 2021
Jonathan Osorio "You call generations 'golden generations' based on their results, based on what they accomplish. Yes, we have a lot of talent, but..."#TFClive | @TorontoFC pic.twitter.com/6AfMyFh5DY
As a player who only knows leaving it all on the pitch, you can be sure the Toronto native will want to play a hands-on part in writing the next chapter in Canadian soccer.
As the second most senior TFC player in attendance, Richie Laryea had little to prove in the January camp despite being somewhat of a late bloomer.
Now 26-years-old, Laryea was 24 before earning his first senior appearance for Canada. Since then, the fullback has become a stalwart for club and country.
The big question remaining about the Toronto native consists of which side he’s best deployed from, left or right?
With Tony Gallacher heading back to Liverpool and Justin Morrow a free agent for the time being, recent SuperDraft pick selection Matt Di Rosa is the only natural LB on the current TFC roster.
Expectations in the Canadian setup are that Alphonso Davies will be pushed further up the pitch to make the most of his world-class pace and superior skill set.
Both scenarios would leave a vacancy at left-back going forward, a gap which Laryea could comfortably fill if he shows any of the form he displayed on a consistent basis last year.
2020 was a great year in the development of 20-year-old Noble Okello, largely in part thanks to his loan spell in Denmark.
What better way to continue to test the youthful Okello in the new year than a pair of midfield battles against established MLS and Canadian veterans such as Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette, and his club teammate Osorio.
Named to the 2019 Gold Cup roster at just age 18, it’s clear Herdman sees the holding midfielder as part of his long term plans. Standing at a towering 6’5 and clearly adding the mass to go with it (see photo below), it’s hard to overlook the No. 6 as a unique option in the middle of the park.
Unlike Laryea and Osorio, Okello has yet to establish himself at the club level to date. With a new coach at the helm for TFC, opportunities with the Reds just might be a little more abundant in 2021.
Many criticized Greg Vanney when he deemed an MLS is Back knockout fixture against NYCFC an appropriate time for Jayden Nelson to make his TFC debut last July.
While the then 17-year-old did appear to lack some confidence in 1v1 situations in his first crack at the professional level, things have changed quite quickly for Nelson in the span of six months.
The speedy winger looked the most lively player on the pitch for either side in the second edition of the Red-White scrimmage last Saturday, setting up the lone goal in a 1-0 Team White victory.
HIGHLIGHTS ⚽️— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) January 24, 2021
A young Canada White team pulled off a 1-0 victory against the slightly more senior Canada Red side in Bradenton, FL today. The intra-squad match was the final action in #CANMNT's January Training Camp presented by @AllstateCanada.
All eyes on March now. pic.twitter.com/LzgbarpGW2
Although Canada has an abundance of talent in similar positions based in European markets, it would be shortsighted to rule him out as one to watch given his showing in Bradenton.
Where Herdman has depth in wide areas, Armas and TFC are somewhat lacking. A lack of pace and dynamism was a large part of the Reds’ demise at the end of the 2020 season.
For a potential solution to the problem in 2021, they need not look any further than a confident Jayden Nelson.
Priso was far from the consensus favourite amongst academy graduates to make the jump to the first team at the start of last season.
Despite the perceived pecking order, the former Canada U15 captain had both a regular-season start and a post-season substitute appearance for the Reds under his belt by year’s end.
His meteoric rise at the club level last fall was rewarded by Herdman with an invite to the January camp, his first such chance at the senior level.
The young midfielder looked far from out of place in the highlights from both inter-squad matches, linking up with club teammate Nelson in the build-up for White’s tally in the second scrimmage.
Renowned for his work-rate and range of passing from deep-lying positions, the 18-year-old offers a unique dynamic to both Canada and the Reds that we’ve begun to see glimmers of early in his senior career.
As his stock continues to grow, the next step for Priso at the club level comes in earning the trust of the newly appointed Armas.
The kind of thing new #TFCLive signing Ralph Priso has in his locker. Another young Canadian talent signed by the reds, midfielder was very impressive with the U-17 Canadian side this past year. https://t.co/TDRFZuwNO9— Mitchell Tierney (@mitchelltierney) October 14, 2020
Jacob Shaffelburg was awarded his first Canadian call up almost exactly one year ago following an impressive MLS rookie campaign, which saw him make 10 total appearances and eight starts for the Reds in 2019.
After being named to the first TFC starting XI of 2020 on the back of the Canadian camp, the remainder of the year proved a disappointing sophomore season for the Nova Scotia native.
Following a minor injury and the long delay to the season as a result of COVID, Shaffelburg lost much of the momentum he had built with the first team, playing just 159 collective minutes all season in MLS play.
Despite the setback, the 21-year-old winger got another opportunity to attend a Canadian camp in a somewhat fortunate fashion as injuries and travel complications left the door open for his return to the Canadian setup.
Perhaps the lucky break was exactly what Shaffelburg needed as the pacey attacker was heavily involved in the action in both scrimmage games at camp. Drawing a penalty and whipping several dangerous crosses into the box, he looked dangerous on the left flank matched up against top-level competition.
If he can add end product to the quickness he’s demonstrated in his limited opportunity, he should be one to watch both for the Reds and Canada’s upcoming Olympic qualifiers.
Marshall-Rutty made history at the January Canada camp before he touched a ball in Bradenton as he became the youngest ever male to be named to a squad in this country at age 16, coming in some five days younger than previous record-holder Alphonso Davies.
The Brampton native is no stranger to breaking barriers at a young age at the club level either, having become TFC’s youngest debutant last October. Currently considered the best 2004 born player in North America, his ceiling is as high as any player that has come through both the Reds and Canadian setup in recent memory.
Much like his club teammate Shaffellburg, his opportunity came at the expense of another originally selected player who was unable to attend. While he likely remains on the outside looking in for a full senior call-up for the time being, Herdman’s decision to give him a look should serve at the very least as a vote of confidence for the future.
Although excitement for the right-sided forward is sky-high at the moment, there remains plenty to prove in 2021 and beyond before Marshall-Rutty’s name is discussed among the elite Canadian talents.