BIG READ: Traded after decade in academy, Orlando's Luca Petrasso aims to prove TFC wrong
It's not often that you get the opportunity to play professionally for your hometown team.
So when Toronto-born full back Luca Petrasso found out he'd be starting his first-ever pro game for Toronto FC last season, it's safe to say that it was a dream come true for the Canadian defender.
Having recently signed a homegrown contract with his hometown team, the newly-signed Petrasso was in shock when he was handed a starters bib in training ahead of that opening kick-off.
"The week leading up to it was kind of crazy," Petrasso reflected, in conversation with OneSoccer this week. "By midweek I knew, because in training they gave me a pinny to play with the starting lineup team when we were doing 11-v-11 – and I was just thinking to myself 'There's no way coach is gonna start me in my first game at home, right...?'"
There, with his family and friends in attendance, Petrasso would have a game to remember... even if his team didn't. Facing off against the New York Red Bulls in TFC's 2022 home opener last March, the Reds would end up falling 4-1, but Petrasso had a bright performance, capped off with his first MLS assist.
In that game, Petrasso earned a chance to finally prove to himself that he belonged at the MLS level, marking a moment to forever remember for him and his family and bringing to full-circle his journey to the top after nearly a decade coming up through the Toronto FC academy.
But, as we've come to know more and more over the years, things move fast in soccer.
Just over a year after making his TFC debut, Petrasso is wearing the purple-and-gold of Orlando City.
Despite impressing throughout 2022 – or, perhaps, because he did so – Petrasso was traded to Orlando at the end of last season, in exchange for up to $400,000 in MLS funny-money.
"I didn't know anything about it," Petrasso said. "It kind of just happened. I got a call from my agent saying I'd been traded, and I didn't know much about details until it was published. I'd been at the club for a long time. It was a bit of a shock."
Toronto FC's rebuild required resources to fuel, but having given his entire career so far to his hometown club, the team he grew up watching, the trade itself had to sting, if but for a moment.
But to appreciate how far Petrasso has now come – balling against Tigres UNAL in the Concacaf Champions League for Orlando City in recent weeks – it's important we take a step back in time to 2013.
Rising through the TFC academy
Luca Petrasso was just 12 years old when he first donned the red of Toronto FC.
In fact, he was one of the very first crop of youth talent to come through the ranks of the team's academy, witnessing many a coaching change and regime overhaul and Designated Players to idolize over the decade that followed. He and his teammates, players such as Jordan Perruzza, Noble Okello and Ralph Priso, rose through the ranks and, one-by-one, earned pro contracts with the first team.
Getting the chance to grow up with several other players that were around his age, such as Jordan Perruzza, Noble Okello, Ralph Priso and more, going from the academy to the first team alongside them, it's a journey he doesn't take for granted, and said as much when looking back.
"The TFC Academy was everything that I thought it would be," Petrasso offered. "The relationships I made, the friendships I had, the players that I played with and grew up playing with since I was 12 and played with at the second team and the first team ... the academy was good to me.
"I had great coaches there, especially Danny Dichio, as he was someone who took me under his wing and made me into the player I am today.
"So when I got that chance to make my debut, I kind of just rolled with it and played a good stretch of games ... until Domenico Criscito came in.
"But yeah, TFC was an amazing club to be at. I have a lot of family there with the friendships that I made growing up."
Petrasso looks back fondly at his time with TFC due to memories like the 2020 Canadian Championship final against Forge FC, where he was one of five TFC Academy graduates to start that game, from a total of eight who ended up seeing the field on the night in Hamilton.
His work with Greg Vanney also left a strong mark on his playing style.
Formerly a winger in his academy days, Vanney took his first look at him and saw, instead, a full-back, suggesting to Petrasso that he should give the position a go as he made his first steps into the second team back in 2018. It ended up working wonders, as Petrasso then hit the ground running in his new role, as he was able to bring his offensive instincts to the position, while quickly picking up the defensive side of the game, allowing him to play as a modern full-back.
It quickly endeared him to TFC's first-team staff, whose style of play relied a lot on the work of full-backs. Now they had a reason to watch him, even when Bob Bradley came into the picture.
"Once Vanney ended up leaving the club, I stayed in that role, as the club felt that was probably the best way for me to make it to the first team," Petrasso explained.
On January 11, 2022, nearly 3,300 days after first signing for the Toronto FC Academy, Luca Petrasso put pen to paper on a senior-team deal and embarked on his first pro season with his hometown club.
That first pro season at TFC
2022 was very much a year to forget for Toronto FC.
The Reds all but conceded playoff hopes by the mid-point of the campaign, and only really made an attempt to salvage something from the year after Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi finally linked up in the summer. Before that? It was a "try your best and hope we don't finish last" kind of season, though it did afford Petrasso and his young Canadian cohorts plenty of opportunities to get meaningful minutes.
The Italian in Petrasso was delighted when summer finally rolled along, though.
“I remember the first time I met Insigne, we were playing a game that night, and I think he'd flown in that morning, and he came into the changing room maybe 20-30 minutes before the game started just to say hi to us, to introduce himself," Petrasso recalled.
"I was like 'Wow, a player like that is in this changing room?'
"Then, as the season went along, I was able to play with them and train with them, which was fascinating to see from a players perspective, just to see how they take care of themselves on and off the field, and the attention to detail when it comes to what they do, as they came from the highest levels of the sport at Napoli and Juventus.
"For me, personally, Criscito's arrival was special because he played in my position, so he was someone that I was able to look up to for those six months, and really see what I could do to improve my game – and he was unbelievable. I thought he was an amazing player, so calm and collected on the ball and his passing was amazing. And he was an great person on and off the field. So to have those guys with me, especially since it was my first year in MLS, was amazing."
Of course, there was a Canadian contingent helping him grow his game, too – and not purely out of selflessness, as the likes of Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea benefit on the national team level when young talent can rise to compete for a spot in their brotherhood.
"Jonathan Osorio is a legend of the club, someone that I looked up to growing up in the academy watching him every week, he was someone that I wanted to be and wanted to achieve the same kind of stuff that he did on the field, so to make my debut alongside him was something that was exciting for me.
"But a player that I looked up to and tried to play like at TFC is definitely Richie Laryea," Petrasso continued. "He's someone who just catches your eye when you watch him play, and he's amazing going forward. The athleticism and other attributes he has to run into the box and create danger, assists and scoring opportunities is something that I like to watch.”
“Plus, he played at Orlando, so he was someone that I spoke to before coming here, and still reaches out to me all the time to see how I'm doing here, so he's also someone I keep in touch with from TFC."
While we're on the topic of inspirations, where does older brother Michael Petrasso of York United, CF Montréal and Queens Park Rangers fame land?
"It's amazing to have him around," Petrasso said. "Not only am I still able to watch him play now, but when I was younger, I got to watch him play at some of the highest levels in England, and then over at Montréal for a bit, so now that he's seen me grow up and play at a high level too, he's been able to give me the tips to help me continue at this level.
"We always talk – he calls me every day just to make sure I'm doing well not just as a player, but most importantly as a person, especially since it's my first time moving away and he had that experience already when he moved away to England at a young age, so it's just been good to keep in touch.
"He's definitely the one person I really look up to as both a player and as a person, so having him by my side is huge. And with him playing at the highest level, he's able to just give me the ins and outs I need in order to compete, and not just in soccer, but through all the ups and downs, helping me keep myself levelheaded and just enjoy the process. So it's great to have him around, and I'll definitely be supporting York United this year, especially with their new jerseys, which are amazing."
While Luca soaks in all that advice, he's now got a bigger goal in mind: Prove Toronto FC wrong by killing it at Orlando City, and get into the Canadian national team picture for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Lofty ambitions? Sure. But you won't reach them if you don't dream 'em first.
2023 and beyond with Orlando
These days, Petrasso is making the most of his time in Orlando City by doing what he's always known how to do best: Play.
Just look at how he handled himself in his Concacaf Champions League debut for the Lions. Despite having played just two prior games for the club, Petrasso was tasked to start for the team on the road in their first-ever Champions League game, which just happened to be against Mexican giants Tigres UNAL – yes, that Tigres, who won the competition back in 2020 before narrowly falling to Bayern Munich 1-0 in the subsequent FIFA Club World Cup final.
Despite the level of compete, Petrasso held his own in that first leg, going 85 minutes in an eventual 0-0 draw and doing well to keep his composure despite playing in an extremely hostile environment.
“That was definitely the best atmosphere I've ever seen at an away game,” Petrasso offered. “That stadium was just incredible. We went out for warm-ups, and it was already packed, and they were just chanting at us, booing us, it was such a hostile environment, even when we were in our team bus going into the place, it was amazing. I was so excited about that game. I was a bit nervous, too, because Tigres is an amazing team and one of the biggest teams in their country and in the region, so it was amazing to play against those players, but we definitely showed that we can compete at that level in that game.”
“Then, when we came back home and played them they had a huge supporter section in our stadium, which was crazy, kind of almost felt like it was a home game for them with how loud they were. But it was amazing playing that competition, to play at that level, to test myself and to see that I can compete at that level and still do the job offensively and defensively and to show myself that I won't back down in front of these sorts of players, so that was a great experience for me.”
It's a credit to his mentality as a player. No matter what has been thrown at him, from his MLS debut to his Champions League debut, he's done well to block out the noise and go out and perform, which isn't always easy for a youngster.
And you can chalk that up to his willingness to learn. Seeing how he talks about working with the Italians at TFC, or playing against some of the best attackers in North America at Tigres, Petrasso is someone who is eager to learn from those around him.
And speaking of following in the footsteps of his older brother, that leads to the next big goal that Petrasso has in mind - representing the CanMNT.
Especially after seeing them make the World Cup last year, he has dreams of donning the kit at home in 2026, where he'd be just 26 years of age, very much in the prime of his career.
Was pretty cool to see a pair of young Canadian LBs go out and shine in their #CCL debuts this week in Ryan Raposo and Luca Petrasso— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) March 10, 2023
Off the back of that, I looked at what their performances showed, as well as how it's a good sign for the #CanMNT at an important position https://t.co/yONPjfw5aD
Therefore, he's doing what he can to try and make that a possibility. By going out and learning every day in Orlando, pushing himself to become a better player, he knows that his hard work should one day lead to that Canada call he so badly craves.
Having seen some of his former academy teammates make that jump, including Priso, Okello, Nelson, Ayo Akinola and more, he wants to become the latest to join them, much as his brother was able to do back in 2016.
It won't be easy, as he'd be going up against the likes of Alphonso Davies and Sam Adekugbe at left back, but it's certainly very much in the realm of possibility, especially if he keeps playing as he does.
Because of that, look for Petrasso to not slow down anytime soon, continuing his hot start to life in Orlando.
“Yeah, definitely, it's a big goal of mine, and I definitely think it's achievable for me,” Petrasso said. “I just have to continue to play at a consistent level in MLS, continue to grow, and hopefully I'll get an opportunity to get called into a camp soon. So yeah, it's a dream of mine, there are times when I just think about going into camp and playing with the players that are there right now like Jonathan David, Cyle Larin and Alphonso Davies, it would be amazing to see myself with those players and to test myself against them, so it's definitely possible.”
“I've seen players that have made it (to the CanMNT) from Toronto, and other guys like Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller and more that came in, worked hard and pushed themselves to get an opportunity to play there, and then made their mark when they got that chance. So hopefully that chance comes soon, and I'm looking forward to it when it comes.”