The future looked uncertain for Richie Laryea last November when Orlando City SC declined his contract option three seasons after drafting him seventh overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft.
With his partner expecting a baby in February, it was no time to be out of work.
His time in soccer limbo did not last long, however. Toronto FC contacted him some three weeks later and Laryea, converted from central midfielder to right fullback, has turned heads with his new club this season.
His play also caught the eye of John Herdman. Looking for fullback options, the Canada coach called Laryea up for the CONCACAF Nations League A series against Cuba.
The 24-year-old Toronto native started in the 6-0 win over Cuba on Saturday at Toronto's BMO Field. The two teams meet again Tuesday in George Town, capital of the Cayman Islands (the stadium in Havana was deemed unsuitable by CONCACAF).
"Unreal," was Laryea's summary of his senior debut before friends and family.
Herdman said Laryea's performance left him with "a big smile."
"He's just a really good person," Herdman said after the match. "When I called him to say he's getting the call-up, he said he didn't sleep. And I genuinely believe that. He was really grateful. And I think watching his performance tonight, he's brought something different for us. I've not seen that level of cohesion."
Laryea, who spent time at a Canadian under-18 camp in 2013 and an under-23 gathering in 2016, combined well with midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye and forward Junior Hoilett down the right flank.
"His instincts, his touch — that was a top, top performance. If Junior hadn't scored a hat trick, I would have had Richie up there as man of the match," said Herdman.
Canada is ranked 78th in the world, compared to No. 179 for Cuba.
In three seasons in Orlando after a college career at the University of Akron, Laryea split time between the first team (21 appearances, including three starts) and Orlando City B (35 appearances).
Laryea has made 18 appearances this year for Toronto including 14 starts, pushing Brazil's Auro for playing time at right fullback. He has one goal and one assist.
Laryea has given Toronto coach Greg Vanney more flexibility in the backline. He has also added some steel to the TFC lineup. The soft-spoken Laryea is a feisty competitor. If an opponent takes liberties with a teammate, he is rarely far from the fray.
Vanney needed depth at fullback after the team parted company with Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel in the pre-season.
Vanney did his due diligence. He spoke with former Orlando assistant coach Miles Joseph about Laryea, who had appeared as a wingback as a substitute in one Orlando game and in a few training sessions. Then he sat down with Laryea.
"I was a central midfielder turned left back and I fought it for a couple of years," said Vanney, who won 37 caps for the U.S, in a playing career divided between MLS and France. "It was really a question for Richie — how much would he embrace it?
"Really the credit goes to him, because he has really worked at his craft," he continued.
The Toronto coaches have worked with Laryea in training, with assistant coach Jason Bent spending time with him watching video of his game performances.
"Every week we keep assessing and giving him some new things to think about," said Vanney.
Laryea is quick to credit Vanney and his coaching staff as well as the team's defenders for helping him learn the new position.
"It's forcing me to be a lot more concentrated during the games," Laryea said. "And even on the attacking side, I'm able to express myself, able to get into these positions that I used to get into as a No. 8 (central midfielder) or an attacking player."
In attack, Laryea has speed and can beat defenders, often causing havoc in the opposing penalty box. At the other end of the field, the learning continues with positioning, reads and defensive engagement are all on his study list.
"As a guy on the backline, you can't really check out ever," said Vanney. "In the midfield, sometimes you could probably fade in or out for brief seconds."
Laryea credits his baby son for helping his focus.
"It's good. He's growing so quickly but it's been fun," he said of fatherhood. "It's something that's added more motivation for me to do what I do on and off the field as best as I can just to set an example to him and to pave the way — everything for him and my family."
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