TORONTO, Canada—When Jacob Shaffelburg sent a cross to Jozy Altidore to nearly open the scoring in the first few seconds of TFC’s Wednesday night match against Leon, it highlighted the football club’s development pathway’s latest success.
In TFC’s first competitive match of 2021, debut head coach Chris Armas played eight players that have featured in TFC II matches and Luke Singh, who signed with TFC II in 2019 but has not played for the team.
Although some, such as Eriq Zavaleta, have long been first-team players and only have USL minutes because of rehab, the rest are evidence that TFC is getting something right in player development.
Before launching TFC II in 2015, promising young athletes coming out of the TFC Academy had nowhere to go. Playing in MLS is a massive step up from playing youth soccer against age group opponents, and few players can make the jump. TFC, as well as other MLS teams, routinely saw players leave for collegiate soccer or other opportunities until many opened up a middle ground with “II” sides.
TFC II have given young players a stepping stone to develop into first-team starters, and with Chris Armas, the MLS opportunities will be aplenty. Now in USL League 1, a lower-tier than USL Pro (USL Championship) where TFC II began, the adjustment level is still there and is paying off fruitfully.
While former Head Coach Greg Vanney often opted for a more experienced lineup, Armas opted to give the young players a chance in his first match. Injuries and the players available for selection played a part in his decision, but even then, Armas has trust in young players.
“I said I was going to play the young players, and look how many of them played tonight,” he told reporters after Wednesday’s match.
Just through 90 minutes in Mexico, the youngsters impressed and made their case for more minutes down the road. Shaffelburg exploited space on his wing, harnessing his speed to get to loose balls before defenders and caused havoc in Leon’s half; Noble Okello made his first career senior start and impressed in the midfield, all while 18-year-old Ralph Priso was as cool as a veteran alongside Michael Bradley.
Luke Singh, Liam Fraser, Griffin Dorsey all played important roles and gave TFC a breath of fresh air after years of Vanney’s reliance on veterans.
“Our guys stepped up, our young guys!” Said Omar Gonzalez, whose MLS career started in 2009 with the LA Galaxy. “Noble [Okello], Luke Singh, [Jacob] Shaffelburg, Erickson [Gallardo], you know these guys didn’t get a lot of minutes for us last year and here they are playing in the first game, a very important game for us, and I’m just very proud of those guys.”
Comparing TFC’s development system to other Canadian MLS clubs
With young players getting a shot at the first-team, the notion that TFC does not give opportunities to young players or Canadians is beginning to evaporate. Toronto undoubtedly has the best player development system in Canada, and with Armas at the helm, that will become clear.
If you look at the other Canadian MLS teams in the Vancouver Whitecaps and CF Montreal, both tried their hand at running USL franchises and developing players that way, but neither succeeded. WFC2, who hosted TFC II in both team’s inaugural match in 2015, lasted only three years and had limited success stories.
WFC2’s best development story is Alphonso Davies, but realistically, he would have developed into a star without that stepping stone. Nonetheless, Davies’ first professional goal being against LA Galaxy II at the University of British Columbia is a good nugget of Canadian soccer trivia. Other than that, however, few players have made the first-team and been successful.
USL: Never forget that UBC's Thunderbird Stadium was where FIFA Club World Cup Champion Alphonso Davies scored his first professional goal.— Ben Steiner (@BenSteiner00) April 9, 2021
FC Montreal had some development over two seasons. Still, the only notable players to jump to the first-team are James Pantemis and Ballou Tabla, and neither has established themselves as MLS regulars, let alone stars.
After the Whitecaps and CF Montreal shut down their USL sides, they sought affiliation with other USL clubs in Fresno and Ottawa, respectively. Those affiliations were problematic, did not last long, and eventually, the affiliate clubs both folded.
Toronto has seen an abundance of players advance their way to the first-team, 16 of whom are on the 2021 MLS roster. While Vancouver and Montreal may field teams in the new MLS U23 league, rivalling the developmental success of TFC will take several seasons.
After taking the 2020 season off due to COVID-19 restrictions, TFC II is back at it in 2021, returning to USL League 1 competition and playing their home matches in Casa Grande, Arizona. Although the roster currently has only 11 players, the average age is 20-years-old but is expected to drop as TFC embraces youth throughout the club.
TFC II has proven to be a vital stepping stone in player development since 2015. While the Armas era of Toronto FC is extremely small, only 90 minutes of match action is already promising for young Canadian players trying to break into MLS and eventually the national team.