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MLS club looks to mould young talent in developmental Toronto FC II squad

02/22/2015 05:24 EST | Updated 04/24/2015 05:59 EDT
BRADENTON, Fla. - In the heat of Florida, Toronto FC's future is taking shape before a handful of fans.

Not the immediate future — Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and other first-teamers had a gym session Sunday in the wake of their pre-season win Saturday. This future belongs to the group of youngsters that took the field in the guise of Toronto FC II, a newly created crucible designed to shape the MLS franchise's young talent.

Molham Babouli, a 22-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., playing in the hole behind the striker, has already turned heads with his play for Toronto FC II in Florida. He scored in Sunday's 2-1 win over Florida Gulf Coast University, showing confidence and vision on the ball on a lumpy and near-deserted practice field.

The compact attacker, who also has a stepover or two in his arsenal, appears to have earned some training time with the top team.

Clement Simonin, a 23-year-old rookie French defender who has already seen time with the first team in camp, also impressed in a second-half substitute appearance.

At one point, Simonin picked out a winger on the other side of the field with a 50-yard rainbow pass. He also dribbled past four defenders and got a good bounce to beat a fifth on a solo foray up the middle of the pitch.

Toronto manager Greg Vanney sat on the bench, watching it all as Toronto FC II coach Jason Bent ran the developmental squad.

"We like a lot of these guys," said Vanney, "and think their future is with the first team."

That will be some time down the line. But Vanney hopes TFC II will shape a future star or at least help polish potential pros.

Like its Canadian MLS counterparts, Toronto is entering a team in the third-tier USL Pro league this season. About a dozen young players will be signed to USL Pro contracts with five or so top Toronto FC academy players joining them on the squad.

Vanney will contribute a handful of players from his senior roster, to give them playing time and monitor their progress. Some will be loaned for a longer time while others may just go down for a game or two for fitness purposes.

Toronto FC II is designed to fill the void between the MLS first team and the top academy squad, which went unbeaten (11-0-5) in the 2104 League 1 Ontario season. Babouli led the league in scoring with 21 goals.

Bent, a former TFC assistant coach with academy experience, is tasked with developing the young players on and off the field.

"We've already had to do with that, with a few life lessons they've had to learn a little bit the hard way," Bent said with a wry smile.

While the TFC II players will share the big club's training centre, they will not be loving the high life. Hours on a bus beckon.

Toronto FC II opens its schedule March 21 on the road against the Charleston Battery. Like its parent club, it faces an extended run of away games due to stadium issues.

TFC II will open with nine road games before hosting the Rochester Rhinos on May 23 at BMO Field before moving into its new home in Vaughan, Ont., at the Ontario Soccer Centre in July.

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