Toronto FC combine homegrown talent, European stars in hopes of building a winning club

As Toronto FC continues to develop a new-look team at the midpoint of the season, their latest move was bringing Canadian Richie Laryea back home to Toronto.

Adding Laryea isn’t just adding any defender, he has a rich history with the team. Layrea signed as a free agent back in 2019 and turned into a key role player in Toronto FC’s Eastern Conference Championship that same year. He also helped the team to a second-best record during the 2020 MLS regular season.

“The fact that he’s played with these guys and so the things that we have tried to work on all year, all makes sense for him,” said Toronto FC head coach Bob Bradley. 

“It’s not difficult for him to come right in and show that he’s got qualities that really make a difference and help us. His mentality to get here quickly and get on the field was really important.”

A member of the Canadian men’s national team, alongside fellow Reds Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Doneil Henry, Laryea has displayed Canadian soccer’s prominence on a global scale.

The fullback returned on loan from newly promoted Premier League side Nottingham Forest which finished second in the Championship last season.

Laryea and Osorio’s chemistry was instant on Toronto’s second goal of the night against Nashville SC on Aug. 6 as Toronto took the lead for a second time after allowing Nashville to equalize.

Being able to spend minimal time training with the team, yet have enough talent to make an impact to help turn the season around — Toronto are now unbeaten in their last three regular season games — was exactly why Laryea was brought back.

“We love him here at the club. I think it’s very obvious how much we value him and it shows with the lengths they went to get him back here,” said Jonathan Osorio post-game in Nashville.

After signing three Italian players to the squad who would debut in July, Toronto has also now acquired three Canadian players to bolster their roster, noting the talent available to them from their own backyard.

Lorenzo Insigne’s arrival in Toronto — a delayed one, finally taking the pitch on July 23 after his July 9 debut was pushed back due to a calf injury — and the signings of Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Criscito were due to an imminent need for improvement.

Those signings delivered promise in their debut. Bernardeschi scored a goal and an assist, with Insigne adding another, to beat then-eighth place Charlotte FC 4-0 at home.

Against Nashville, those same two would find the back of the net as Insigne scored his first Toronto FC goal, while Bernardeschi finished the night with a goal and an assist once again.

The signings weren’t as simple as just adding to an already talented team. TFC sent 2020 MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo to Inter Miami for $150,000 USD in general allocation money, freeing up a designated player spot as they prepared for Bernardeschi to sign.

It became clear that with these sort of moves, Toronto FC wanted to become a winning club once again, just five years removed from their MLS Cup win in 2017.

Yet, at the heart of all of Toronto’s ups and downs are the players who had been through it all: The homegrown Canadians who had previously kept Toronto FC’s heads above water, key cogs in the machine that now has slightly better parts to it.

Two weeks prior to Insigne and Bernardsechi’s arrival, when Criscito made his debut against the San Jose Earthquakes, Toronto FC had found themselves in an all too familiar position. TFC were down a goal to an opponent they should have easily been able to beat just 25 minutes into the game.

As the Reds continued to fight, Canadian Deandre Kerr put Toronto FC level again. Not even three minutes later, Osorio, another Canadian, chipped in a shot to take the lead.

The game ended in 2-2 draw as an injury time goal off a deflection from goalkeeper Quentin Westberg allowed San Jose to take back a point. Regardless, the work of the two Canadians in four minutes of brilliance showed that there had been a solid foundation for Toronto FC all along.

Their versatility and willingness to adapt is what makes them so important to the squad, with Kerr tallying 1,116 minutes in 19 games this season at just 19-years-old.

“Like the other positions I’ve played, whatever coach asks me to play, whatever system I’ll do it, and I feel comfortable in it,” said Kerr.

Fast forward to the night Italian soccer fans had waited months for. One where Insigne created five chances and Bernardeschi was clearly making an immediate impact on arrival. Lost in the excitement was that more faces had played their part in the win.

Kaye, another newly acquired midfielder, quietly tallied two assists on the night. Henry also made his mark when the club needed a centre back most.

TFC acquired Kaye from the Colorado Rapids for fellow Canadian Ralph Priso along with $1.025M USD in general allocation money, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2023 international roster spot. While many were sad giving up Priso, a young midfielder with a high ceiling, those in charge knew that Kaye’s role would be pivotal for Toronto.

“Mark’s a good player, he understands the ideas of how we wanna play, when we talk about a midfield three he’s understanding of how to be connected with the other two, he’s got good space, he’s a good passer,” said Bradley.

“Mark is far ahead of where Ralph is. I think Ralph’s a good young player, and with all young players there’s talent, there’s good guys, but then there’s the process of growing in a team, becoming guys that can be counted on.” 

Kaye was played for Toronto FC III in semi-pro League One Ontario in 2014 and for TFC II of the USL Championship in 2015. He showed tenacity and dedication working his way up from the USL to MLS on top of making the first team roster for Canada on the international front.

In the flux between finding his footing in the professional leagues, it was Bradley who, once upon a time at Los Angeles FC brought Kaye in for their inaugural season in 2018. The veteran coach noticed just how talented the Canadian was during a Gold Cup match.

When the time was right to bring Kaye home and continue to foster an environment for Canadian soccer to thrive in Toronto, Bradley made it happen.

On top of that, homegrown Osorio is tied as the club’s leading scorer with eight goals this season and has also tallied six assists, while Kerr has added three goals — good for fifth in the team during their 2022 campaign.

Adding Henry along with other Canadians he already had chemistry with was vital as Toronto FC re-built at the midway point. A centre back was needed, and who better than someone who has history with his new teammates.

“You watch this guy’s highlight tape, he (Henry) is a monster too, he is a big boy, he can move his body and he’s not afraid to go in strong on tackles,” said goalkeeper Alex Bono.

“He had one in the second half (against Charlotte), I can’t tell you what I told him, but I was pumped up about it, I was excited to see it. Having him is great, it adds to a centre back core where they all have different strengths.”

After a victorious night in Nashville, one of their hardest fought wins and the first road win of the season for the team, Toronto FC had more to celebrate than just being back in the win column.

It was the perfect combination of the talented Europeans being worth the wait, the spark the team needed, while showcasing that much of the talent they already had was homegrown.

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