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Toronto FC II Finding Strategic Balance During Season: "We Picked Guys That Had a Good Mentality"

June 11, 2024 - MLS NEXT Pro (MLS NEXT Pro)
Toronto FC II News Release

Following the end of the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season, Toronto FC II took a deep look at their roster, analyzing and comparing it to the rest of the league.

MLS NEXT Pro rosters break into three broad groups: players graduating from the club's academy system, MLS SuperDraft and college players, and international additions.

"We had a chance to look at the makeup of sides," said TFC II Head Coach Gianni Cimini. "We were ~30% above in the academy signings - a good thing from an academy standpoint, but if our team is made up of 75% players from our academy and very little in the other two categories what do you lose?"

"You lose the ability to have guys that have different experiences, that see the game differently," he listed. "That have been developed differently, that can add a spark."

"We did a better job of finding a balance," Cimini continued. "We picked guys that had a good mentality, actively recruited guys that had leadership qualities, and came with good character references."

The lead into the 2024 regular season saw a number of recruits in those latter two categories.

A pair of goalkeepers in Abraham Rodriguez from Colorado Rapids 2 and Shafique Wilson, a Canadian playing at Fort Wayne FC after his collegiate career. Brazilian defender Ythallo, on loan from São Paulo FC. Brampton-born wing-back Nate Edwards, who split his university career between Purdue University Fort Wayne and Syracuse University.

Midfielders Hassan Ayari and Charlie Staniland from Sheffield United's system. Mark Fisher, who has played several positions for TFC II this season, from Stanford University and 2023 MLS SuperDraft pick Charlie Sharp, a striker, out of Western Michigan University.

The process of scouting and acquisition is different for every player. Edwards, Sharp, and Fisher for example, all came via different means.

Edwards, despite never being involved with the TFC Academy, had been on the club's radar for some time.

"It started two years ago," explained the 21-year-old. "I was playing with my club, Vaughan Azzurri, against the U-17s."

"I played really well that day, I scored. The coach was Dino [Lopez, now TFC Academy Assistant Director & U-19 Head Coach, he] reached out to my coach, asked if [they] would allow me to go on trial at TFC II for a week," Edwards continued. "I went, did really well; they asked me to stay for the summer and I did."

"After that they wanted me to come back for another summer, so of course I did," he added. "Then I went to school and signed in January."

For Fisher, born in Calgary, Alberta and raised in Michigan, it was a conversation between his agent and TFC Technical Director Sean Rubio that began the process.

"Going through options with my agent, he was saying 'This is a good opportunity for you. You won't take a foreign spot either way in the States or Canada, so this is a good route for you to take,'" recounted the 23-year-old. "It was cool getting back closer to my roots."

Sharp, meanwhile, was selected 61st overall in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft before he went on to have a stellar season in the final year of his NCAA career.

"I was pretty surprised, honestly," recalled the 22-year-old. "I didn't expect my name to get called that day, but it was a really cool feeling."

"And here I am now," Sharp added. "I'm just happy that it happened."

Cimini has had praise for what all three have contributed to the side.

"It's really difficult to explain why strikers are able to score goals," he said of Sharp. "[Charlie is a player that] is able to score goals in a variety of ways, that has a different standard, a sense around the goal, that can anticipate, imagine, and then calm to finish, and then want to score and want to shoot to score."

"Some players shoot because they think they have space to shoot. When Charlie shoots, he's trying to score - that's what makes him different," he underlined. "We selected him third round, one of the last picks. He was on our radar, the second team staff looked at him and we were like, 'Wow, this guy has something.'"

"'For a big guy, he moves, he's hungry, he's competitive,'" Cimini recalled. "And then he does what he did in college and we're really happy."

Ask Cimini about a player and the praise is always balanced with an urging to push on to the next level.

"There's a couple of key areas [to improve]," he highlighted, asked about Edwards' first steps with the side. "Technically, in tighter spaces, to make sure that we're not turning over the ball. He's good in open spaces, but in those areas can you pick out a runner?"

"Understanding his wide triangle and combinations, the synchronization between playing between two and three players is an area that he needs to improve, but in terms of work rate, speed, athleticism, he's got it," said Cimini. "If he does make jumps in those areas, then you're looking at a top player in MLS NEXT Pro."

Where Sharp is a pure striker and Edwards the quintessential modern wing-back, Fisher has played in midfield, wide on either side of the front three, and even at wing-back.

"[Mark] is super focused; a leader by example," said Cimini. "He organizes our front unit off the press - against Carolina [Core FC] we didn't have balance with [in] our front three, we conceded territory easily and we weren't aggressive, which is part of our DNA, especially being at home."

"So we put Fish back in there in the second half and we were able to get better pressure on their back-line players and the game opens up a little bit," he detailed. "He's been a leader. The qualities that he brings are harder to see, but he's been invaluable for us this year."

All three have brought exactly what Cimini and the rest of the staff hoped to the environment at TFC II.

"A different perspective, a different experience, a different way to look at situations," said Cimini. "For the players that come through the academy to say, 'This the way this guy thinks. Oh, this is not okay for this person. Why is it not okay? This is the way we've always done it.'"

"[Take] Charlie, it's not okay when you miss for him," he continued. "A younger guy that trains with the second team and it's okay when he misses, but Charlie's not okay when he misses. The young guy says, 'It's not okay when I miss. Look how pissed off this guy is.'"

The environment benefits from their experiences, but also benefits them. It's what they came for.

"I'm trying to get into that first team environment," replied Fisher, asked why TFC was the right place for him. "Joining an MLS NEXT Pro team was giving myself the best ability to get my foot in the door and then prove myself every day: I'm here; I have the ability and the commitment and can make that jump."

Sharp echoed his teammate: "It's the perfect environment to better yourself as a player."

"You surround yourself with the best coaches, very, very high level players that you get to play with every single day," he continued. "When you add those two things together, it's a great environment to learn and grow and see where you can go as a professional."

The change from the college game to the professional level is profound, but all three are relishing the challenge.

"College is a bit more laid back," said Edwards. "Here people are working to feed their families, right? Everyone's putting 110% every single day and those who do not get called out."

"There's no off days. You can't come in and have a sluggish day," he levelled. "Gianni is quick to call out any sluggish behaviour."

And relishing the ability to focus solely on the football.

"University you had to juggle academics and athletics, it split your time, your focus and energy. I went to a school that was rigorous in academics and I took a hard major, took it seriously, because I never knew what soccer was going to bring me - I always had the goal of making it professional, but never knew, so wanted to set myself up," explained Fisher. "I feel like I'm putting more effort into my body, my craft, and I feel better because I can recover and relax after training, I don't have to go to a class or study for an exam."

"Putting all my energy and all my focus into one thing is pretty cool, something I haven't been able to do my entire life," he continued. "From a football perspective, different systems, different formations, different style of play, so just trying to be a sponge and really learn everything I can, asking questions and trying to get that one percent better each day."

While Edwards had the previous summers at the club to get comfortable being around the BMO Training Ground, Sharp and Fisher dove right in.

A previous connection between the two came in handy: both played for Michigan Wolves SC before their collegiate careers.

"Having somebody in the same boat as you is pretty cool," said Sharp, sitting beside Fisher during the interview. "We were both captains at our schools, were lucky enough to get an opportunity from Toronto, come here, build a good friendship, play for a great team and a great staff. It's been really fun so far."

Added Fisher: "We've gotten pretty close. We played at the same club in Michigan, lived probably 30 minutes apart, so knew of each other, but weren't super close before getting here. It's been great having someone from Michigan and someone my age coming in. Instant connection, instant friend."

The professional environment can be eye opening.

"Surrounding yourself with guys like Lorenzo [Insigne] and Federico [Bernardeschi] and [Jonathan] Osorio, guys that are big time players in MLS, seeing them on a daily basis, realizing how much commitment and time it takes to be as good of a professional as they are," observed Sharp. "It shows you there's levels to this and that it's not going to come right away, but if you put in the time and effort like they have then anything is achievable."

Said Fisher: "It's cool to step in the same room."

"Growing up you look up to those guys, you've watched them on TV, and to step foot on the field and get into challenges with them is pretty cool," he continued. "It's always awesome surrounding yourself with people who are better than you because you're always chasing and trying to level up yourself."

"And for those guys, it's about not getting caught and keep pushing that standard," Fisher added. "Pretty cool to see that they still have that drive and hunger, that they're trying to better themselves, and everyone else is trying to keep up and catch up."

Both Edwards and Sharp have already had the chance to play for the first team. Nate came on in the second leg of the Canadian Championship quarterfinal against CS Saint-Laurent, while Charlie made his MLS debut away to Nashville SC on May 15.

Equal parts moving players along the TFC pathway, giving them a taste of the levels needed to be reached, and servicing the needs of the first team.

Edwards found out he would be dressing a few days before the match.

"Honestly, so many different things," he replied, asked what went through his mind. "These are the moments that I worked my whole life for."

"So many different emotions come rushing at you, different moments, different memories, but obviously it's just an amazing feeling," Edwards continued. "When I first heard that TFC was trying to sign me, I remember I went to Creditview [Sandalwood Park in Brampton], sat in my car and I just let out some tears."

"It was really emotional for me because I've worked really hard," he added. "I've been on many different teams, I've been let go of teams, and to see that TFC has given me the opportunity... it's just amazing."

Sharp came on for Derrick Etienne Jr. in the 76th minute at GEODIS Park.

"It was a great experience, something that I've looked forward to for a long time," he said. "It's always been a goal of mine. And now that it has come it's just made me hungrier and made me realize that it is in reach."

With the newcomers blending into the squad, after beginning the season with a pair of away defeats, TFC II began to hit their stride.

A 2-1 win over FC Cincinnati on April 14 kicked off a run of six games unbeaten for the side.

Victories over Orlando City B and Huntsville City FC on the road and at home against Carolina Core FC at York Lions Stadium would follow, interspersed with a pair of draws at home against New England Revolution II and Columbus Crew 2.

"The team got off to a start that we weren't very proud of, but over the last month, month-and-a-half, we've really turned it around," said Sharp, speaking before the win over Carolina. "What is it, five games unbeaten now? There's just a different level of focus."

"We realized after those first few games we shouldn't be in the position that we were in. We have a really good squad and Coach Gianni always reiterates, 'If we do what we need to do, we can beat anybody in the league,'" he continued. "It's a great feeling when your coach has that trust in you and in his players. It gets you going as a team, inspires you and invigorates you into competing for each other and wanting to win every single game."

Added Fisher: "Sometimes that can spiral and teams can get in a rabbit hole of losing and start to get on each other, start to get edgy, but we have a positive environment. Everyone was learning from those mistakes."

"From a sense of maturity, the group has grown immensely, understanding challenges will arise and you have to weather that storm together. The preparation that we do day in, day out is what you can fall back on in those moments," he continued. "Training has gotten better and better, it's gotten more competitive, more intense, guys are hungry for spots. That's the best environment you can be in, one that you're never comfortable because someone's always trying to win your spot."

Through the first nine games of the season, Toronto scored first in every match - a streak that came to an end on Sunday evening against New York Red Bulls II. Getting off to a good start is key to getting results, but the complete game, controlling the action from start to finish, is the goal.

"To play that complete game, we need to be a little more clinical on the final third," sharpened Fisher. "We're creating a lot of chances, but not winning games by the amount of goals that we could. From a defensive standpoint, it's been really good all year, we've been keeping teams to low scoring games. The goals will come, but from a foundation and base, we're in a really good spot."

Nine of TFC II's 10 matches have either been draws or decided by a single goal, that leaves a lot of fate, a lot to chance.

"Once we can start scoring a bit more," imagined Edwards. "Once we can take advantage of the momentum we have and start scoring three, four, maybe five, six goals on teams, then I feel like that's when we're really going to take it to the next level."

"We're creating a lot of chances," he highlighted. "We have the stats that show that we get a lot of good chances every game, so it's really up to us, the players, to take the chances when they fall to us. That's going to take us from a winning team to a championship team."

The unbeaten run came to an end on May 31, falling 4-1 to Chicago Fire FC II at home. Toronto took the lead once more, but conceded an own-goal and missed two penalty kicks and numerous chances from open play before Chicago padded the scoreline with a pair in stoppage-time. Cimini said the scoreline was unrepresentative of the game.

June began with a 2-1 defeat away to the Red Bulls, but TFC II will be straight back in action midweek with the visit of NYCFC II to York Lions Stadium.

The group feels they are trending in the right direction.

"We have performance indicators that we're able to look at across matches which are trending in a good direction," detailed Cimini. "Have we seen the best of this group yet? No, I don't think so."

After the midweek match Toronto has a two-week break before closing the month with a pair of home matches in quick order against Inter Miami CF II and Philadelphia Union II on June 26 and June 30, respectively.

The unbeaten run did some of the heavy lifting to move up the standings, TFC II are poised to push into the playoff places and have games in hand on every team bar one in the Eastern Conference, but come August and September, when the action intensifies, the side will want to be hitting their stride, playing those complete matches, pushing for and into the postseason.

Fisher, Sharp, Edwards, and the rest of the side will be aiming to do just that.

"Our coaches tell us all the time - and I believe this myself - this is the deepest TFC II squad we've had," said Edwards. "Every day you realize how much quality and how competitive it is."

"If you're not playing 100% or not doing well, you'll be out of the lineup, no hesitations. There's somebody else who will take your spot and take advantage of it," he closed. "I love our team."

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