TFC’s Nelson seeks consideration for Canada’s World Cup team


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Toronto FC forward Jayden Nelson felt terrific on Saturday night, and not just because the Reds were playing at a relatively high elevation (4,450 feet) at Real Salt Lake.

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Not only did the Brampton native score his first-ever MLS goal in his 20th game for TFC and lift a formidable monkey off his back, the goal was an absolute smash. It also allowed the Reds to take a point, not an easy feat for any MLS Eastern Conference team playing at the Rio Tinto Stadium.

The goal, deserved or not, has also raised questions as to whether the 19-year-old might be ready to return to the Canada national team squad in time for the FIFA World Cup in the autumn. There was a story about this on the Major League Soccer website after Saturday’s game. But it’s a good question. Nelson clearly has the ability to play at international level. In fact, he already played for Canada in the senior team in 2020, scoring a goal against Barbados in a friendly.

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Under TFC manager Bob Bradley – who has done some magic with the Reds’ youngsters this season – Nelson has stepped up his game beyond scoring his first goal.

“Look, I’m just talking about what I’ve seen working with Jayden this year, and I’ve mentioned throughout preseason that he seems to enjoy the little things that get worked on every day,” Bradley said. “We saw him in a more dynamic way, he made more plays on the field to get away from the lads, more moments where his ability, his speed, his quickness catches your eye.”

Canada coach John Herdman would be reluctant to make too many changes to his squad ahead of the World Cup. But if Nelson continues his progress this season, maybe he can move on and earn a trip to Qatar.

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Both Nelson and Kosi Thompson, also 19, scored their first MLS goals of their careers in the 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake. With the tie, TFC have eight points in six games and two wins and one draw in their last three games. The talk ahead of the 2022 season was that Bradley had to somehow get his club close to a playoff spot before reinforcements arrived – namely Italy international forward Lorenzo Insigne, in July. The Reds are also expected to announce the signing of Genoa left-back Domenico Criscito when the Serie A league ends. With Saturday’s point, TFC ranks eighth in the MLS Eastern Conference. So far mission accomplished.

Most impressively, Bradley has his post-season team (albeit very early in the season) with a largely new team and a squad full of homegrown players under the age of 22, players the manager has had to use on a regular basis. And by and large, they all went up. Midfielder Luca Petrasso (21) leads the club with three assists. Left-back Jacob Schaffelburg (22) has two. Nelson (19) is making good progress. Kosi Thompson (19) was a revelation this year. “Kosi is showing good qualities,” said the coach. “He is versatile as a player. He was more of an attacker for TFC II but he was able to use all his qualities to help us either as a full-back or even as a full-back. He played in midfield in training. So we see good things from him every day.”

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Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, considered one of the best 17-year-olds in the world, was adjusting to his new position (right full-back) for a long time before falling to the ground with a knee injury a few weeks ago. He’s already been named to an MLS Team of the Week. Jordan Perruzza (21) has had his moments in the limited game this season. Another 22-year-old, forward Ayo Akinola, is set to return after undergoing knee surgery last summer. Akinola has held the club lead in goals (nine) in 11 starts in 2020. Midfielder Ralph Priso (19) thrived last year before an ankle injury sidelined him last August. The Toronto native has only played 45 minutes this season.

Shaffelburg turned the ball over on the touchline, resulting in RSL’s first goal on Saturday, but quickly recovered and set up Thompson’s goal to level the game 1-1. Like Marshall-Rutty, the Port Williams, NS native is learning the full-back position. It’s a work in progress.

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“There are still moments where he can be a little bit naïve, but you see that part changing,” Bradley said. “You see him picking up on little things and getting a little smarter. His willingness to go all out, his ability at certain moments to run over a ball or slide a ball off a defender and absolutely exploit his speed are great things to see. Now it’s just a matter of how the rest can come together.”

Petrasso had brilliant moments in attack.

“Luca is doing very well,” Bradley said. “He showed versatility. When Jacob came out, he was back playing at left-back. We’ve seen what he can do when he’s further up the field. On the ball when he goes forward he does some really good things.

“I think there are times when he can put his skills to even better use,” Bradley added. “If you play a lot on the flank, either at left-back or even at full-back, then there are times when you bring the ball inside and you have your ability to receive through your body so you’re not just looking in the direction of the Ball came and went right back where he came from. There are little things like that that we have to try to help him with, but he’s another young man who I think has made progress.”

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