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In defence of the kids

The 2022 Toronto FC season has seen a lot of youngsters feature with the first team. Has it been a failed experiment? 

Young players like Jayden Nelson and Luca Petrasso have played significant minutes for Toronto FC this season. Has it been worth it?
Sean Pollock - Waking the Red

As a TFC supporter, it’s hard to watch a team lose on a regular basis. There are a lot of calls for this so-called “Youth Movement” experiment to end, as TFC is just not meeting the fans’ expectations. As we see more signings and more experienced players enter the lineup, there are going to be fewer opportunities for the kids at the club. As we’re leaving this experiment, there are significant reasons why we’re not seeing a marked improvement in player development.

1. The Academy and coaching

Greg Vanney left TFC in December 2020. Chris Armas was in charge for a short spell. Javier Perez took over from Armas as a caretaker manager.

Bob Bradley was hired in November 2021.

There was little to no consistency in the management of this team for two years. The theory behind the academy system is to develop players using the playing style of the senior team. If there are four head coaches in two years, how can you develop a consistent playing style?

Vanney’s style saw TFC build play from the back towards the forwards in a 4-4-2 formation. Look at the success of Altidore and Giovinco in this system. He preferred to control possession through the midfield – that’s why Michael Bradley and Mark(y) Delgado were important members of Vanney’s teams. Armas brought the Gegenpress, which aims to win the ball back in the opposing end of the pitch with sustained pressure. Bradley’s favoured 4-3-3 brings the ball out from the back using the wingers, followed by crossing into the box.

Are you confused yet? Imagine trying to teach a bunch of young players three different styles of play in two years at the TFC Academy. How are you supposed to measure progress for these players if you’re constantly changing the expectations for them? The Gegenpress is a huge departure from the measured approach of Vanney and Bradley. It’s enough to confuse the players regarding their role on the pitch. Imagine some of the questions that would go through a player’s mind - Should I press? Should I hold onto the ball? Should I pass? How high up the pitch should I go? Should I worry about defence or offence first?

It takes consistency to implement a new style of play for the club. Hopefully some of these younger players will not be lost in the shuffle of being victims of circumstance.

2. COVID-19

March 2020 – the proverbial manure hit the fan in the world, including MLS. The MLS is Back tournament inexplicably took place in July 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Yep – 40 degree weather in Florida in July. Remember having to watch TFC play at 9 in the morning? Enough about that tournament.

The biggest issue with 2020 was that the USL League 1 season was cancelled and as a result, there was no TFC II season. A year of development and meaningful minutes was out the window. While the team tried to make do with a series of loans and call ups to the first team, there was not a lot of opportunity for these players to play.

Think about it this way – a lot of these players were 18-years-old or younger. Taking a year away from playing competitive games has a huge impact on player development. Let’s say they played with the TFC Academy since their U15 year, playing four years with the TFC Academy. They lost 25% of their development with TFC by losing a year to COVID. The fact that many of these players were able to rebound from this setback to feature with the first team is a remarkable achievement.

3. Playing out of position

Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty is not a right-back. Jacob Shaffelburg is not a left-back. Kosi Thompson is not a right-back. Luca Petrasso is not a left-back.

While it’s possible to convert a player from his previous position, it takes time. A lot of the younger players on the roster have been put in unfamiliar positions so far this season. As I referred to earlier, it’s hard to learn a new system, let alone a new position. We really shouldn’t expect these players to make a seamless transition.

4. Time

Here’s the essential question/problem - How much time do young players need to develop?

I’ve already argued that many of these players lost a year or more in their development due to the pandemic. However, just how long does it take for a player to reach their potential.

There’s really no simple answer to this question, as it depends on the individual. However, it’s rare to see a player consistently start on a senior team at 18-years-old.

Let’s look at the case study of Mark-Anthony Kaye. As a Toronto kid, he did not follow the traditional path to professional football. He did not start in the TFC Academy as a youngster - rather he played at numerous GTA academies. He joined York University out of high school and played there for two seasons. Kaye was signed by TFC to the academy in 2013. He played in League1 Ontario with TFC III. He was then loaned out to the Wilmington Hammerheads in 2014, signed with Louisville City in 2015 and was there for two years, and was finally signed by LAFC in 2018.

At any point during this journey, Mark-Anthony Kaye could have been done playing and called it a career. Part of the reason Mark-Anthony Kaye has been successful is the amount of time playing meaningful minutes at various levels of competition. Another reason was the determination to succeed on Kaye’s behalf.

I am not suggesting that any of these young players do not have the desire to succeed. It’s been a proverbial “Baptism by Fire” for many of these players. While some criticism is warranted, we should put these things into perspective. Development takes time, and there’s no magic number for each player.

The Toronto sports market expects a “win now” attitude from their teams. Toronto FC’s fanbase is certainly knowledgeable about the game of football. However, they’re not patient. It’s hard to see the value of a rebuild in the Bob Bradley era when we’ve become accustomed to big name signings and fielding a semi-competitive team for years. I say “semi-competitive” because the 2019 MLS Cup run was an anomaly that hid the shortcomings of aging and/or oft-injured players. As a result, there was little opportunity for academy kids to get first team minutes.

Toronto FC shouldn’t abandon these players, as there hasn’t been a reliable body of work to judge their value as first team players. Patience can take the form of loans to TFC II and other clubs to gain valuable experience. Toronto FC has never been a club that sells young players to facilitate further signings, and probably should not start now. Also, TFC needs to be cautious about trading away young players to satisfy the “win now” attitude. While TFC can’t keep everyone, there needs to be a cautious approach to avoid losing young players of quality to impatience.