Exclusive | Out of the shadows and into the spotlight: The emergence of Ralph Priso

Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images

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.

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To me, this is the guy… after watching him last year, he has that something, and can’t wait to watch more of him this year…

Agree. Great article, Michael.

He'll play today. Very good guy and will be a great player.

I’m gonna be honest, he hasn’t had his breakout season yet.

Mike you’re building this kid up like they all did with Freddie Adu! we all know how that turned out, dial it down a tad. At least Freddie signed with Benfica (made some cash). Ralph has done zero at the pro level so far.

I am so happy to have you on here throwing wet blankets on everything.

He’s right. Priso is exactly like Adu in every way. Actually… has anyone seen Priso and Adu at the same time?

When this kid or any Academy "young gun" do something of real value for this club I will have no problem in saying so, as of yet, hasn’t happened! Just management and WTR cheerleaders telling us how great this is gonna be.

So, at his age, what exactly are you looking for him to have done?

So far he has made nothing but quality starts.

He does not look out of place at this level, and seems to truly have a ceiling well above MLS level.

How else would you like this reported?

It’s fun to argue with Jack but Priso has made 5 uneventful appearances for TFC. I don’t expect him to flop but he also wouldn’t be the first player to be given appearances in his teens only for them to dry up if he doesn’t progress as he ages out of his high potential years. Jack is right, Priso hasn’t actually done much and this praise does seem a bit over the top.

Mariner You know I dont have much use for you, but please tell these naive TFC ass kissing fans to stop buying everything that this "used car selling " management is trying to sell us. Priso might have a decent MLS career , but he could just as easily be out of soccer in 5 years. I was thinking about his 5 appearances and the only thing that was successful is that he managed not to get injured.

I would think that five uneventful starts for an eighteen year old is an above average performance. If his first five games are solid how does that not speak to a kid who is good enough to play in MLS. If you’re good enough for MLS at eighteen, doesn’t that speak to a higher potential.

While I know growth is not linear, and potential does not equal final product. Isn’t this how talent is identified the world over?

When teenagers are given minutes it’s often not on merit but part of a development program. Priso might be a quality player but his 5 appearances aren’t proof that he’s made it. I just think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. He will play this season, Armas has mad that clear so we will see if he can actually establish himself this year.

So talking about the prospects of say Aaronson, or Adams is not what we should do?

We shouldn’t expect him to get better than he is?

There’s a longer list of players with appearances in their teens that didn’t turn out to be Adams or Aaronson than there is of ones who did.

It’s fair to be optimistic but this whole speaking like he’s already fone something isnt for me.

Well I for one did not read that in the piece or my comments. If he becomes an Oso level player that is fantastic for TFC. Getting MLS top 20 at their position from any of these kids is a win. We do have enough kids that are showing enough at an early enough period of their development that is likely that at least one of them will do higher than that.

Right now I would say that it is unlikely that even a kid with an Oso level ceiling is unlikely to spend his entire career in NA. They are more likely than not to get a transfer to Europe.

From another angle. This team was linked in the last two years to McAllister and pellistri, both of whom more than tripled in value the year after we were linked with them.

If our scouts are predicting that well, why are we not going big into the young money?

Is it perhaps because those same scouts are pointing the same algorithms at our academy kids and making predictions that present a better value statement?

If we can sell our kids for the same money without investing in the transfer fees we win bigger. Now I know that every one seems to think the youth movement is about throwing away points and being cheap.

What if instead it is about both winning and making money, two things MLSE very much enjoys doing?

Par for the course around here, but are we even having the same conversation?

Sorry if I went overboard. Was just trying to explain the foundation for my position.

Wasn’t trying to tell you how to fan. Cheer how you like hold your optimism at bay if you feel better that way.

Was speaking more to jacks assertion that we are building these kids up to be Freddie Adu. He was an artifact of a particular time. Right now the league is poised much more to provide quality players to European leagues and being recognized as such. It is much less of a stretch to believe our young kids will end up there when kids like Chris Richards are going to Europe without ever having played an MLS minute. Every kid who gets sold sets the market, and the understanding that MLS prospects are ready for European play. These kids are coming out of the academy more ready than ever.

It is not actually their first team contribution that drives this. It is much more the belief of the purchasing team. As more teams see the value of what MLS produces the value of every other prospect rises. This happens regardless of the specific ceiling of the individual players. The more that do perform the better for everyone.

While I know that not all the kids grow the same way or follow the same trajectory. I also understand that the market is vastly different. The opinion of MLS in Europe is growing. This changes the opportunities for these kids in a way that has never happened before.

Even a Kemar Lawrence leaving Red Bull and walking into the Anderlecht starting 11 makes an argument that top MLS guys like Oso have options outside of this league. If you don’t pay them right, and let their contact run out. They have serious options that did not exist five years ago.

Man these barstool debates are much more fun on an actual barstool with actual adult beverages. In actual conversations with actual human beings, face to face.

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