Play the kids (in theory)

Ali Curtis' vision is here to stay

Play the kids.

It’s something that fans say they want, but rarely are ready to embrace when the clubs they support try to do just that.

“I meant ‘play the kids in some alternative universe where I don’t also want you to win every game 5-0,’” the fan says.

So, when Bill Manning appeared on the Waking the Red podcast this week to talk about the club’s plans for 2021 (and the lack of signings during the off-season), this went over like a lead balloon:

"Rather than going out like we’ve done in the past and getting an MLS experienced player…we’re going to be looking to Jayden, and Ralph, and Noble, and Julian and these guys to step in because now is the time."

“When I said ‘Play The Kids’ I didn’t mean, you know, play the kids,” many fans screamed into the void.

The thing is that this direction has always been in the planning since Ali Curtis took over as GM. TFC wasn’t coy about it either. They outright said that the days of them outspending other MLS teams by literally double were going to end.

The Red Bulls on steroids – that’s what TFC’s approach under Curtis has been described as. The Red Bulls part refers to the focus on developing and, ultimately, playing young players from the academy. The “on steroids” bit means that, unlike the Energy Drinks, they will also spend big on difference maker DPs and TAM players.

We saw evidence of that approach last year, when Ayo Akinola was given an opportunity to play. He took that opportunity and is now considered a vital piece of the puzzle for TFC moving forward.

Despite that TFC fans remain skeptical. There have been a lot of hyped academy grads in the past that turned out to be underwhelming at the MLS level. Whether that’s a case of them not getting a chance, or not being good enough, can’t really be known, but most fans would feel better if Bradley Wright-Phillips was brought in to add attacking depth, rather than Jayden Nelson being asked to take a step up.

The more cynical interpretation of TFC’s apparent decision to play the kids is that the COVID market is such that it was impossible to bring in bigger name signings. Although that might be the case on the DP side of things, that’s not really what Manning is talking about here. No, he’s highlighting how TFC is approaching things differently than teams that have made significant inter-league moves.

The most obvious example of that this off-season is Columbus. That club is particularly interesting to TFC fans because the architect of the championship Reds, Tim Bezbatchenko, is running the show down there and he’s gone the complete opposite way.

Curtis has yet to win the hearts of TFC fans – and likely won’t until he’s standing in confetti at the end of a season – but make no mistake. His vision is TFC’s direction now and that vision will involve playing the kids.

So, TFC fans had best get used to it.