TORONTO, Canada—For any footy fans growing up in Greater Toronto Area, you already know what it means to represent Toronto FC. Not only has pulling on the red shirt with that TFC crest become one of the most prestigious accolades for a young Canadian soccer player, it’s also developed into arguably the most direct route for our local talent to make it in the professional game.
However, over the years, it’s also grown into one of the most competitive clubs to get your foot in the door. With many striving to make it, there are times where talent simply slips through the cracks.
Just ask 2020 homegrown standout Ralph Priso—a story that many youngsters can relate to.
The 18-year-old midfielder was cut on three different occasions as an 11, 12, and 13 year old, prior to finally making Toronto FC’s academy. Despite being overlooked then, Priso’s belief in himself never wavered.
It was about the age of 12 when it all sort of ‘clicked’ for the bilingual French-speaking Canadian, playing rep soccer for the North Toronto Nitros. Priso, who knew from a young age that he wanted to become a professional soccer player, would play a year-up, competing against older boys. As such, it became difficult for him to measure exactly how good he was against the best competition of his own 2002-born age group.
A couple of times a year, however, Priso would get that opportunity, and it amounted into a real ‘aha’ moment for the up-and-coming teenager.
“When the TFC teams were in OPDL and OYSL... the whole team would be playing a year up, so I would be playing against the kids my age,” Priso told Waking the Red in an exclusive interview. “So when I saw what I was up against, I said: ‘you know, I could make this.’”
It was at that time when Priso knew he had the ability to match those who represented Toronto FC. At the age of 14, he was proven right when he finally got his shot to join the club’s academy system. While it was a moment to celebrate for Priso and his family, the long, up-hill journey to making it as a professional was just beginning.
The youngster recalls a moment in particular, when his mom attended a parents-only meeting within the academy, and it was former head coach and technical director Greg Vanney who cautioned those in attendance.
“I remember my mom went to a meeting and Greg Vanney said that only two out of 60 kids get to the first team,” said Priso. “And I told my mom: there’s no reason that can’t be me.
“I always had that mentality that I was going to make it. I just had to do whatever it took.”
Growing up in Scarborough, Ontario before moving to East York at a young age, discipline was always the mentality for the Priso family. If he wasn’t going to school or at home with his younger brother Hugo—who is also in the TFC academy—your best bet at finding the youngster would be on the soccer pitch, where you’d often stumble upon him putting in hours of time perfecting his craft.
Priso credits his mom, who is originally from the French side of Cameroon and still drives the youngster to practices, for instilling that mindset in him from a young age. She was always on top of him for his grades and behaviour in school, so much so that Priso would be forced to miss practice if he ever missed an assignment or acted out in class.
His story is especially relatable because, as Priso admits, he was never the most talented among his peers. He was never the top prospect that was expected to steal headlines, but in a way, that was the perfect situation for the young gun.
“I joined TFC at 14, and I’ve always been one of the top guys in the academy, but I would say I was never really the top guy,” said Priso. “I was more in the shadows and nobody really knew about me—and I didn’t mind it. Honestly for me, it works better that way. I could just kind of improve at a good steady pace without any pressure.”
Last season, on October 14, 2020, that all changed, as Priso signed a professional first-team contract to join his hometown club, becoming TFC’s 25th Homegrown signing over the history of the franchise.
Out of the shadows and into the spotlight, Toronto’s No. 97 would emerge very quickly onto the scene. Only 11 days later, he’d go on to make his senior debut. Priso would follow that up by making four-straight appearances as an 18 year old to close out the regular season, including his first career start against Inter Miami CF on November 2.
His sound, refreshing, two-way play and ability to break lines in the middle of the park very quickly won over the TFC coaching staff, so much so that Priso would go on to earn minutes in the club’s only MLS Cup Playoffs match last season—less than two months after signing his first-team deal.
“Ralph, I thought came on and found the speed of the game immediately,” Vanney told reporters, after the club’s decision day finale Nov. 8. “He played some beautiful passes between lines that started attacks, his capacity to cover ground and get into the challenge and recover balls, you know I thought—I said several weeks ago—that he’s ready and he’s proven it in all of his performances so far that he’s ready to compete at this level. He has all the tools, and he’s just going to be getting better and better as he gets more experience and more opportunity.”
Priso’s sudden emergence into the squad took many by surprise, including the youngster himself, who admits he was not expecting to receive as much playing time as he did down the stretch, after only just breaking through to the first team. In a blink of an eye it seemed that Priso had leapfrogged the likes of 20 year old Noble Okello (who had been sent out on loan) and 23 year old Liam Fraser on the depth chart in the heart of Toronto FC’s midfield.
But most surprised out of anyone perhaps was the TFC fanbase. With Toronto FC II putting things on halt in 2020, many of the Toronto FC faithful hadn’t heard a peep about the young Canadian midfielder before his sudden emergence late last season.
“People just didn’t know about me and for them it came as a surprise, but for me, for Greg, for people in the club, it was a little bit expected,” said Priso. “I think from the outside it was surprising.”
In 2021, Priso won’t be in that same comfort zone anymore. He won’t be lurking in the shadows. Instead, he’ll look to build on his strong start to his career, one that made him a fan favourite last season.
But with a new head coach at the helm, Priso understands nothing will be given to him. It’s back to the basics—hard work and discipline—and that’s something he’s looking forward to.
“I want to gain Chris (Armas)’ trust the same way that I did with Greg,” said Priso. “I want him to be able to feel that he can put me in matches, feel that he can be able to start me, play me as many games as possible—that’s my goal: playing as many games as possible and hopefully by the end of the year, I could be a starter or someone that’s in and around the XI. I think personally for me that’s an attainable goal. I think I have the qualities to do it, I just have to show it everyday in training and every time I get into a match.”
So far, so good for Priso, who has done well to catch Armas’ eye early into his tenure.
When asked about the box-to-box midfielder last month, the TFC head coach offered plenty of praise, likening him to one of the greatest young players he’s ever managed.
“Ralph (Priso) has something really interesting going on in his body of work. I had the pleasure of working with Tyler Adams and to see a guy like Tyler develop over the years, Jesse Marsch and myself would say: ‘Who could take credit for such a guy,’ you know?” Armas told Waking the Red. “He’s just such a gem and a gift, the way that he could sniff out plays and cover ground and just be a bit of a destroyer out there. Ralph has a lot of these little maybe intangibles and tangibles, and he’s shown a real fearlessness and hunger to be a presence in the middle of the field.
“And we have some really interesting pieces already in that part of the field, but I think he brings something different, so I’ve learned that about him, that he can repeat that—that’s who he is.”
If last season was any indication of what the future holds for Priso, the sky’s the limit right now for the 18 year old, who will turn 19 in August.
Toronto FC will open its Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 tie in Mexico against Club León on Wednesday with the return leg slated for April 14 in Orlando.
Three days later, TFC kicks off the MLS regular season April 17 against CF Montreal.