Toronto FC II's run in the MLS Next Pro playoffs ended last weekend in a wild 4-3 extra-time loss to Columbus Crew 2.
But there will still be plenty of Canadian — and ex-TFC — content on display Saturday when the Columbus reserve side takes on St. Louis City 2 in the league's inaugural championship game.
Columbus president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko helped turn TFC around before leaving for his hometown club in Ohio in January 2019 while Jaime McMillan, the Crew vice-president of soccer administration and operations, was also a valued member of the Toronto office. Corey Wray, who rose up the TFC front office ranks to assistant general manager, is Columbus' assistant GM and is in charge of Crew 2.
On the field, Canadians Jacen Russell-Rowe, Mo Farsi, Ryan Telfer and Jordan Knight helped Columbus to the best regular-season record at 16-3-5, good for 55 points.
Saturday's game at Lower.com Field serves as a wrap for the inaugural season of MLS Next Pro, which features 21 teams — 20 MLS reserve sides and the independent Rochester New York FC. Seven more MLS clubs plan to field teams in MLS Next Pro next year.
Whitecaps FC 2 (7-9-8) finished out of the playoffs, in seventh spot in the Western Conference. Montreal does not have an entry in the league.
Former TFC GM Ali Curtis is senior vice-president of competition and operations at MLS Next Pro.
Wray, who left Toronto two years ago for Columbus, helped build Crew 2 from the ground up. At the time, the franchise was under new ownership and looking to fix past mistakes.
"There was a lot of resources stripped from underneath," said Wray.
"We had to put a lot underneath and come up with a plan to create a really good environment above the academy," he added. "That was a lot of heavy lifting. That's where most of the work went for the first year while we were waiting for this league to be announced."
Wray and the Crew chose wisely.
Columbus dominated the MLS Next Pro awards with Laurent Courtois named coach of the year and Patrick Schulte goalkeeper of the year.
Crew 2 finished first in the league in points (55), wins (16), goals for (62) and goal differential (plus-40). Columbus had the fewest losses (three) and was tied for fewest goals allowed (22).
Russell-Rowe and Farsi joined Columbus teammates Isaiah Parente and Schulte on the league's Next XI.
Russell-Rowe, a 20-year-old from Brampton, Ont., who spent seven years with the TFC academy, led MLS Next Pro with 21 goals during the regular season.
The Montreal-born Farsi tied Inter Miami's Romeo Beckham, the son of David Beckham, for the league lead with 10 assists. Farsi, then with Cavalry FC, was named the Canadian Premier League's best under-21 player in 2020.
Telfer also spent time in the Toronto system, signing with the first team as a homegrown player in April 2018. The 28-year-old fullback/midfielder from Mississauga, Ont., who represents Trinidad and Tobago internationally, joined Crew 2 in April after spending the 2021 season with the CPL's Atletico Ottawa.
Knight, a 20-year-old forward from Shelburne, Ont., scored in extra time against Toronto last weekend.
Today the Crew first team and Crew 2 practise at the same training ground "with the new vision of creating one club, a definitely modern club that's operating at all levels of the game," said Wray. "That was a massive change … I would say it's almost like it's an expansion club in some ways — an expansion club with great history, which is the best of both worlds."
Wray says Crew 2's main goal remains as a talent pipeline to the first team.
"Any success on the field with this (Crew 2) team is really just kind of icing on the cake for the rest of the group," he said.
"To have all of that in the first year (of MLS Next Pro) is really amazing if you think about it," he added.
Russell-Rowe and Farsi both signed first-team deals with Columbus during the season. Russell-Rowe had two assists June 29 in his first MLS start to help the Crew defeat Toronto 2-1.
Saturday's final is a battle of conference leaders with Columbus topping the East and St. Louis the West at 15-6-3 (49 points).
Columbus is riding a nine-game winning streak (with six victories in regulation time and three on penalty kicks after ties) that dates back to a July 31 loss to Philadelphia Union II. The Crew have outscored its opposition 31-11 over that period.
Columbus also led the league with an 11-1-0 home record while St. Louis was best on the road at 8-3-1.
The St Louis roster includes 25-year-old defender Kyle Hiebert, a native of La Salle, Man., who also made the league's Next XI. Hiebert signed a first-team contract with St. Louis in early August, a two-year deal beginning in its inaugural 2023 MLS campaign with an option for 2025.
Wray and McMillan, who are married, joined Columbus in July 2020. McMillan had stepped down in March as Toronto’s senior director of administration and operations. So did Wray, who was Toronto’s assistant GM, team operations and strategy.
Wray started with Toronto in 2006 as the club’s first-ever intern, working his way up to manager of team operations (2012-14), senior manager of team operations (2014-15) and director of team operations (2015-17) before becoming assistant GM
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press