With Toronto FC’s roster all but certain heading into 2017, there was very little to speculate about in the offseason.
Sure, there was a smattering of trialists and draft picks competing for spots on the senior roster and the club did make a few key signings in Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, Sergio Camargo and Raheem Edwards, but for the most part it was a settled camp.
For a team that has seen more than its fair share of player turnover through the years, in many ways it was refreshing. In the background, beneath the calm, however, moves with a view to the long term were afoot.
Camargo was brought back after his college experience and Edwards graduated from USL to the first team. TFC II, meanwhile, signed goalkeeper Mark Pais, last with Saint Louis FC in the same league, and ex-New England Revolution defender Jordan McCrary.
And for those with a keen eye up at the training ground, it was clear that a long, hard look was being taken by Greg Vanney and the rest of the staff at Liam Fraser, who has spent much of the last two seasons in USL with TFC II.
“He's progressing very well and he's going to make a push to be on our roster this year,” said Vanney after training last week. “He's got some things that he's attending to right now. He's going to go [the] Viareggio [Cup], then there's the possibility of the Under-23s with Canada.
“We've got all kinds of stuff coming up for Liam - there won't be a shortage of games. It'll just be a matter of timing for Liam to start training with us on a more frequent basis and preparing himself to, hopefully, sign a contract and make a debut this year.”
Fraser was with the first team when they travelled to Los Angeles for the first portion of preseason, appearing in the final match against Cal State Fullerton, before leaving camp to join up with the Canadian Under-20 side ahead of their appearance in the 2017 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Costa Rica. Fraser appeared in all three matches and sported the armband in the third group-stage match against Antigua & Barbuda.
When TFC returned to Toronto to prepare for the new season, Fraser was there on the pitch with the first team once more.
“It was great,” said Fraser from the departures gate on his way to the Viareggio Cup. “Being taken under wing from Michael [Bradley] and Benoit [Cheyrou], players in my position, is something that I value greatly. Also creating a better bond with some of the players on the team – Ashtone [Morgan], Jonathan [Osorio]. It's something I value at lot and don't take for granted. Getting out there, getting a feel for the pace of it, the pace at which they think, at which they play, was massive for me. I really enjoyed it.”
A self-described defensive midfielder who sits deep and supports the centre-backs, Fraser details his game as without frills. He did, however, emphasize one aspect of his skill set that is quite apparent to those who have seen him rake 40-yard balls across the pitch or thread passes through defences with precision.
“I value my passing very highly,” noted Fraser. “I'm able to change the game on a couple passes that can penetrate the back line. I'm a safe player, but I can take a couple risks going forward.”
And in the aforementioned Bradley and Cheyrou, he has two of the finest tutors any player could desire - something Fraser pointed out when asked after whom he modelled his game.
“Players who I look up to and can be close to, meaning Michael and Benoit,” outlined Fraser. “I'm more like Benoit, because he doesn't have the mobility that Mike does, but his capability to think of where he needs to be prior to the ball coming is something not many can do. He's excellent at it. I'm trying to play my game around that; take a couple of steps prior to actions happening.”
In his limited time with the first team, Fraser has caught the attention of the TFC staff.
“Liam is coming on really well,” said Vanney. “Because of his time with the Under-20s, we didn't get to see him as much over preseason as we wanted, to do an assessment of him in our group.
“He did show, in the moments we had, a lot of composure in the role. He's an excellent passer – great passing range, a good sense of time and space, how much time he has to make a play... he tries to organize himself to play forward, which is great out of that position.”
Still just 19, Fraser was eligible to travel to Italy with the TFC III side that began play in the Viareggio Cup on Monday. After falling behind to SS Maceratese off two quick goals inside of four minutes, Fraser, wearing the captain's armband, willed his side back into the contest, scoring a second half brace in the space of 12 minutes.
Maceratese would retake the lead, but TFC III equalized at the death through Brandon Onkony for a satisfying 3-3 draw. WTR caught up with Danny Dichio, who is coaching the side at the Viareggio, before the tournament began.
One of Dichio’s older players, Fraser foresaw himself taking on a leadership role at the Viareggio in a group comprised mainly of players from the top youth team in addition to a smattering of talent from the USL club.
“As one of the more experienced players on the team, [I'll] be able to guide some of the younger players through, do what others have done for me,” said Fraser. “[Personally], I hope to have a great tournament. I've been on a good roll lately and the players around me can help me succeed in that. The leadership role will be a massive part of who I'm trying to play during this tournament, how I can step up as a player [to] show TFC, and myself, how I react to aspects of the matches, on and off the field.”
It is a role that has been building in the midfielder these past two years with TFC II. That USL experience has been “great”, as Fraser tells it.
“Trying to play in a faster, more physical league has given me more maturity, physically, mentally; something I definitely needed to work on as a young footballer coming up,” explained Fraser. “The exposure to first team players coming down, to older guys, was a teller for me that I have to quicken up aspects of my game.
“I learned that. I've grown as a player in that aspect. It's a massive value, to myself and others; it's really helped us. It's been a couple of very valuable years; a big contribution to my success as a player.”
The Italian style TFC III will encounter - their next opponent, on Wednesday, comes in the form of Serie A giants Juventus - at the Viareggio will not be unfamiliar for Fraser. He took part in the TFC II-AS Roma Primavera friendly back in 2015, coming on for the second half and scoring a penalty kick in the shootout.
“Any time you have the opportunity to play a different team, different players, from different countries and try and match yourself up to who they are and where they stand in international football, that's a massive opportunity,” said Fraser. “I thought I did quite well; it was a stepping stone for me and [the Viareggio] will be another.”