There has always been a thin line between playing the kids and disrespecting the competition in Voyageurs Cup games.
Play a group of talented youngsters and win and it is celebrated as an important development step in Canadian soccer. Lose with that same group, and all of a sudden there are questions as to whether the competition even matters to a team.
There should be no such questions about Toronto FC. Greg Vanney reiterated after last night’s 4-0 aggregate semi-final win over the Ottawa Fury how much this competition means to the club. After their run in the CONCACAF Champions League last year, it now means even more.
Nonetheless, Vanney relied heavily on a couple of young players during the series with Ottawa. They paid him back for giving them a chance in a big way. In particular, Canadian Liam Fraser and Ayo Akinola showed why their coach’s faith was justified.
These performances do come with a bit of an asterisk. After all, they were against a USL side, a level that both Fraser and Akinola have shown themselves to be comfortable with in the past. At the same time the pressure, and the atmosphere, was on a different level.
The 20-year-old Fraser was the heart of Toronto FC’s midfield last night. In particular, he moved the ball incredibly effectively all over the pitch. This included several outstanding long balls that sprung attacks, one of which led to Akinola’s opener.
“It’s a game that sets up for Liam because the opposition was not as aggressive in trying to press us,” said Vanney after the match. “So for him he was able to set up in some good spots, we were able to find him and he can play to his strengths which is switching the play, moving the point of attack and moving the ball quickly.”
His accuracy was also particularly impressive; he rarely gave the ball away which gave Ottawa Fury almost no chance to play their counterattacking style. He also kept them honest by consistently finding gaps in their otherwise resilient lines.
Here’s a look at Fraser’s passing chart from the match (green are completed passes, red incomplete and yellow key passes). It shows how positive his play was throughout the match in terms of how many of his passes were forward.
When Toronto did lose possession, Fraser put in a solid shift defensively as well. The Toronto native had seven recoveries, a tackle and an interception.
Vanney did mention that Fraser can still improve the quickness and urgency with which he plays the ball out of the holding midfield position, especially considering how good Toronto can be in transition. He qualified that statement, however, with the fact that he was being picky because Fraser is still a young player with plenty to learn.
But the fact that Fraser is learning, and quickly is clear. The same can be said of Akinola, two years his junior. The pair exchanged a hug after Akinola scored his first ever professional goal, which at the time gave Toronto FC a 1-0 lead.
After a slow start to the season where the highly touted prospect struggled to even get minutes with Toronto FC II, Akinola has been fantastic of late at the USL level. He certainly hasn’t looked out of place playing in MLS either.
“He shows a physical presence in these game to be able to compete with big centrebacks and be strong and hold up the ball,” said Vanney of the 18-year-old. “To be able to turn in between lines and still keep the game going, that shows a lot of confidence.”
Toronto FC have long been looking for a player to do just that when Jozy Altidore is unavailable for selection. Ben Spencer, Jordan Hamilton and Tosaint Ricketts have not been able to do it effectively, so Akinola might have an inside track to more MLS minutes.
A confident young man, something very important at the striker position, Akinola has quickly reminded everyone why he is one of the most promising prospects in Toronto FC’s system. He has the potential to join a growing group of talented soccer players out of Brampton that already includes Cyle Larin, Atiba Hutchinson and Liam Millar.
With the number of regulars who have recently returned to the Toronto FC lineup, any major minutes are going to be difficult for either of these players to accumulate. But if both keep on their current path there will be much more game time in the near future.