Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty. Luca Petrasso. Jacob Shaffelburg. Kosi Thompson. Jayden Nelson ...
The list of young Toronto FC academy players that have impressed at times in the early 2022 MLS season continues to grow. Noble Okello, Ralph Priso, Jordan Perruzza and DeAndre Kerr are also homegrown TFC players that have played first team minutes this season. TFC’s “next man up” mindset has helped to ensure that performances have not dropped off in the absence of key players being injured or suspended and has continued to produce results with three wins and one draw in their last four matches.
TFC has the 10th youngest MLS squad with an average age of 25 years and 184 days. Three TFC players had never played professional men’s soccer before (Kerr, Petrasso and Thompson), three more had never played in the MLS before (Chung, Jimenez and MacNaughton), while a further three had never played more than 500 minutes in a MLS season (Marshall-Rutty, Nelson and Perruzza).
Most of the aforementioned players have seamlessly integrated into the team and continue to get better with more playing time. More importantly, Bob Bradley has cultivated an environment that is conducive to the growth of TFC’s young players. TFC failed to replicate this environment under previous managers and the academy significantly underperformed as a result.
Bob has created the ideal environment for youth in two main ways:
- A significant TFC squad overhaul and preserving a veteran presence in the spine of the team
Bob significantly overturned the 2020 TFC squad this past off-season by selling, trading, buying out or loaning away 21 first team players. Throughout the 2022 offseason and the first three games of the 2022 MLS season, Bob was heavily criticized by a large contingent of the fanbase for moving out so many veteran players and not replacing them with proven, starting caliber talent. Four games later and that tune has changed.
By only keeping young, homegrown talent and the veteran players that he knew would buy into his culture reset, Bob has been able to successfully reshape the team in his own way. In soccer, successful teams traditionally have a strong spine.
The spine of a soccer team is typically made from the central positions of goalkeeper, centre back, central midfield and sometimes striker. Unsurprisingly, Bob preserved veteran players in all of these positions.
Alex Bono is TFC’s goalkeeper who has been with the club since 2015. Carlos Salcedo, Shane O’Neill and Chris Mavinga are three CBs each with at least two full years of MLS experience and multiple years of experience in other top flight International leagues.
The CMs Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley lead the club in all-time appearances, with Osorio being a TFC academy graduate who is closing in on 300 appearances.
In front of them, Alejandro Pozuelo is a former MLS MVP in his fourth year with the club. Jesus Jimenez is new to the MLS, but is 28 years old and has a track record of success in Poland’s top flight and Spain’s lower divisions.
The veteran players have helped to provide playing structure and mentorship for the youth. There is a sense of accountability up and down the squad with every player earning their minutes by working hard at both ends of the field.
2. Providing opportunities for youth and employing a tactical system that allows for mistakes on the periphery
Having the right culture and veteran players in place within the spine of the team alone are not enough. These two ingredients have existed under previous TFC managers but academy players still generally failed to breakthrough.
Bob has not only provided academy players with ample opportunities to earn their minutes, he’s also allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. It would have been easy to sign veteran players to rely on if things were not working as planned. Instead, he is using the early parts of the 2022 season to evaluate what he has in his younger players and the limited alternative options to them in wide roles is by design.
Bob has also set the team up tactically to try and limit the core decision making and impact of mistakes from the younger players. He has focused TFC’s build up and attack on the spine of the team. When TFC either progress the ball up field or win the ball back from opposition turnovers, players have shown a tendency to immediately play the ball centrally to either Michael Bradley or Osorio. Both act as TFC’s fulcrum, dictating the tempo and direction of the attack.
Once the ball has progressed to the final third of the field, the wide players, attacking midfielder and striker then take over. If they are unable to find an opening in the defence, they will pass the ball back to the fulcrums to reset the attacking phase. Designing the ball progression and attack through the veteran fulcrums helps to ensure that if TFC’s young wide players turn the ball over, they are typically doing so in wide areas or further up field where the threat of a counter attack can be better neutralized. The decision making burden on TFC’s fulcrums can partly explain why younger academy players like Okello and Priso have not yet been afforded the same opportunities as others.
This TFC team has overachieved when looking at advanced statistics. But, it also needs to be appreciated that this team is in year one of a complete rebuild. The style of play cannot fully be evaluated yet with this makeshift squad, but you should certainly be enjoying the process that the team has collectively taken to fight back for positive results. They weren’t expected to be very good until reinforcements came in the summer and Bob had more time to get the ideal players for his preferred system of play.
And yet, TFC’s young players are gaining confidence in their abilities and continue to thrive and force people to re-evaluate what the potential of this team could be right now. Bob and the coaching staff deserve full credit for the ideal environment they’ve built for young players, especially those from TFC’s academy.
The road ahead will not be straightforward. Opposing teams will start to adjust to TFC with more film. Player (and overall team) form will also eventually dip. How TFC’s young players adjust to those circumstances will be the next learning curve in their development.