When it comes to providing opportunities to younger players in Major League Soccer, Minnesota United is not the first team that comes to mind.
Led by Adrian Heath, who hails from a more practical style of coaching, Minnesota is a team that is in need of results in the near term. And, given the franchise’s relative newness to MLS and an academy that is still coming together, doesn’t exactly have ample amount of young talent to begin with.
But with MLS franchises offering little in terms of run towards U.S. young players, Minnesota stood out over the past weekend. With injuries piling up, a rookie forward got into the action and a first-year right back weathered a storm on the flank.
Mason Toye, a first round draft pick and member of the 2018 Generation adidas class, entered in the 30th minute of Minnesota’s 2-1 win against Houston Dynamo when starter Christian Ramirez exited with a hamstring injury.
When Toye decided to forego his final three years of eligibility at the end of last year, it made sense on one level; he had enjoyed a stellar freshman season at Bloomington in 2017, and his stock might never be higher. But he looked far from the finished product, despite possessing a big frame, soft feet and the kind of athleticism that suggests a high ceiling.
A move to MLS, especially a team like Minnesota, that doesn’t have a reserve option locally, seemed like a less than ideal fit when the Loons took him seventh overall in the 2018 Draft.
But Saturday’s shift marked his sixth appearance of the season, already bucking expectations for this point in the season. Coming in for Ramirez, the 60 minutes were the longest he’s played as a professional. And while there were no goals or assists to mention, Toye put himself into contention to see minutes if Ramirez is one the shelf for an extended period of time.
Leading the line against a seasoned Houston back line, Toye linked up well enough with teammates Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra. There was certainly some unfamiliarity between the trio, as Toye’s reps with the first team in training sessions were clearly limited.
His first touch off the bench shows what Toye can do in buildup play:
In the second half, Toye got in behind (kind of), and when he had little help in the middle, he won a corner kick. A smart decision to hold the advantage for his team, with no one to really cross to.
Obviously, forward need to contribute goals as well. And while Toye had a single look at goal on the evening – which was blocked out for a corner kick – his ability to do the little things is something that is sure to help. There were several moments where the 19-year-old made smart, savvy decisions that helped his team retain possession or opening up spaces with his runs.
Looking at the bigger picture, few young, domestic forwards possess his blend of speed to get in behind, and size to play with his back to goal. Cleaning up his touch in tight spaces and making the most of his opportunities when they come will dictate how much success that he can have in 2018 and beyond.
Toye wasn’t the only rookie on the field for Minnesota. Carter Manley, another first round pick out of Duke, made his second start of the season. At times, the former Blue Devil had a torrid time trying to keep up with Romell Quioto. One Houston’s goal, Manley’s sitting far too deep against Quioto, and he is able to beat a number of Minnesota on a cross in the ninth minute to put the Dynamo up 1-0.
Thanks in part to Bobby Shuttleworth, Manley’s mistakes weren’t punished further – although it’s harsh to say that the opening goal was the rookie’s fault alone. A product of a Bethesda-Olney team that’s sent numerous players to pros, Manley has now made three starts as a rookie, though his shaky start to the win might cost him a start next time out.
The game also features red a 2018 debut for Collin Martin. The former D.C. United midfielder played 22 minutes from the bench, helping Minnesota see the game out. He’s not really much of a younger player these days, having been born in 1994, thought hope remains that he can develop into a consistent professional. Having signed with D.C. United back in 2013 after just one season at Wake Forest, Martin had been an unused sub in seven games prior to finally getting a chance last weekend.
A Homegrown midfield in KC
When Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal decided not to pursue a spot with Akron last year, instead signing directly with Sporting KC’s USL side Swope Park Rangers, his path to an actual Homegrown contract seemed murky.
A fantastic player, Akron seemed a much more suitable proving ground. Play for the team a season or two, and then make the jump, is a path that Wan Kuzain easily could’ve taken.
Instead, he signed directly with Rangers last year, and was recently rewarded by signing to the MLS team via a Homegrown deal a few weeks ago.
Wan Kuzain goes against the “sporting fit” mantra that Peter Vermes emphasizes. But he’s putting his head down and working hard, recently playing 90 minutes in last weekend’s 1-1 draw against St. Louis FC. He completed 58 of 68 passes for Swope Park Rangers, shielding the back four and spraying passes anywhere he saw fit.
It’s unclear to see how he would fit into the MLS side; given that his play does not feature the kind of physicality that the league demands. That makes USL a perfect proving ground, and Wan Kuzain is eager and willing to climb the ladder.
Gianluca Busio, the 15-year-old Homegrown signing, started alongside Wan Kuzain, going 63 minutes and completing 100% of his 30 passes along the way. Nothing fancy, but another good building block for the teenager.
Akinola struggles for playing time
While 2017 U.S. U17 MNT veterans like Andrew Carleton, Christopher Goslin and Chris Durkin get run outs in MLS or USL, one recent signee is off to a slow start.
Ayo Akinola, part of the U17 MNT’s forward contingent, signed a Homegrown deal at the end of 2017, joining Toronto FC for the start of the MLS side’s preseason.
Minutes at that level were always going to be tough to come by. But Akinola’s struggled to get a run with Toronto FC II. In six games, Akinola’s made just three appearances, a total of just 51 minutes. Part of that can be chalked up to his stint with the academy side at Dallas Cup at the end of March, though it’s worth noting the 18-year-old played just three minutes off the bench in last weekend’s game.
It’s far too soon to draw any type of conclusion; but rather a reminder of the jump that exists between an academy side and the USL. More playing time should come the way of Akinola soon as he looks to lay the foundation for his professional career.