In any other year, an early season Major League Soccer encounter between Toronto FC and the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps would have players and coaches scouring the weather report, deciding how much cold-weather gear to pack.
But this is 2021, and with TFC temporarily playing home games in Orlando, forgetting a tuque is the least of the problems facing Marc Dos Santos as the Whitecaps head coach prepares for Saturday’s game, practising in Vancouver’s own home away from home in sunny Utah.
“You can’t recreate the humidity here in Salt Lake, that’s a reality,” he said. “You can’t build a soccer field inside a sauna. The reality is you train in Salt Lake and the weather is different, but what we do is we try to limit the times that [the players] drank water today during the training sessions.”
A 3 p.m. kickoff local time will hardly do much to diminish the effects of the temperature on the game, but given the way both sides started their respective MLS campaigns last weekend, some observers might say the heat will firmly be on the “home” side. While Vancouver got off to a flier with a 1-0 win in Portland, TFC was slow out of the blocks as CF Montreal ran away with a 4-2 “home” victory in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Whatever the results on opening weekend, though, both teams could have pointed to mitigating circumstances – not that there’s any place for excuses in professional sports. TFC is still awaiting the return of reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo, along with fellow designated player Jozy Altidore, midfield sparkplug Jonathan Osorio and defensive linchpin Chris Mavinga.
The Whitecaps, conversely, have been missing a DP of their own, with Iraqi international wing-back Ali Adnan awaiting visa clearance to play, while new signings Bruno Gaspar from Portugal and Brazil’s Caio Alexandre have been getting acclimated to the new league, as well as training at altitude in Utah.
As a result, both teams fielded two of the youngest lineups in MLS on opening weekend. The average age of the 13 Vancouver players who saw the field was 25.7 years, the third-youngest in the league, while TFC’s average was just a shade higher at 26, good for fifth youngest.
Michael Baldisimo led the way for the Vancouver youth movement just a few days after his 21st birthday, while 18-year-old Toronto midfielder Ralph Priso was one of eight teenagers who started for MLS teams in Week 1. And teammate Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, who came on for Nick DeLeon with 15 minutes to play, put himself in the league history books when he set up Richie Laryea’s goal, becoming the seventh-youngest player to notch an assist at 16 years 305 days.
On top of that, Marshall-Rutty was just 11 days older than Alphonso Davies was when he registered his first MLS assist in 2017, and even eclipsed the Bayern Munich star earlier this year, becoming the youngest player to be called up to a men’s national team camp.
His rise has been noted. Just like his fellow Canadian before him, Marshall-Rutty is apparently attracting the attention of Davies’s employer, as well as some other European clubs that recently considered themselves even bigger than the reigning UEFA Champions League winners.
With just 35 minutes of MLS play in his young career, it’s going to be a while until any European dreams become a reality for the Brampton native, particularly with FIFA rules preventing such a transfer until a player turns 18.
But he has already earned the trust of TFC head coach Chris Armas, and he can expect many more minutes than the small cameo he had on opening weekend.
“We like the young players,” Armas said. “We’ve liked what we’ve seen in training with all of them, and Jahkeele specifically, we saw an opportunity to get him out there. We know he can operate in tight spaces and he’s a really elusive, clever midfielder that can operate in wide areas, can operate in the gaps and have space.”
While Marshall-Rutty became the youngest player to sign for TFC last year, another academy product is getting attention with the team missing a few players at the back. Twenty-year-old Luke Singh became the 26th player to sign for the first team from the academy after an accomplished performance in the CONCACAF Champions League win over Mexico’s Club Leon earlier this month.
Goalkeeper Alex Bono, who lined up behind Singh in both the Champions League and the MLS opener, said he was hardly surprised by his seasoned play, after training with him for much of the off-season.
“The kid can play, he’s a really good distributor of the ball, he’s pretty athletic, he’s got something for sure,” Bono said. “So, I’m happy to have him here.”
Youth is being served in similar fashion on the Whitecaps roster, but with club ownership not having the same track record of opening the cheque book to sign established stars such as Sebastian Giovinco or Pozuelo, it has become a way of life for Vancouver.
So whether that talent is coming through the academy, such as Baldisimo, or through player transfers, such as 20-year-old Colombian Deiber Caicedo, trending young is just how Dos Santos and his team have to operate.
“We’re one of the youngest teams in the league,” he said. “We’re always going to have young players on the field, that’s always going to be there, it’s part of our philosophy and mentality as a club.”
Defender Andy Rose, one of the elder statesmen on the team at 31, and now combining his role as a player with an assistant coaching gig with the under-19 team, says what he sees in both of his jobs has really opened his eyes.
“There’s so many exciting young players at this football club who are going on and have incredible careers and do great things in the game,” he said. “Any little things that I can do to help along their way I’m happy to do.”