TORONTO — Richie Laryea was at a crossroads after Orlando City declined his contract option in November 2018.
Out of a job with a baby on the way, Laryea's future was uncertain.
Then came the call from Toronto FC. After impressing during the 2019 pre-season as a trialist, Laryea earned a contract and then, after making the move from midfielder to fullback, plenty of kudos for his play.
The 25-year-old from Toronto made 28 appearances in all competitions with two goals and two assists last season when he earned US$56,250, the reserve minimum salary, according to the MLS Players Association. This season he appeared in both games, scoring once, before the pandemic halted MLS play.
His hard work paid off Wednesday as Toronto tore up the his existing deal and rewarded him with an improved contract.
"It's definitely been a nice change of scenery, if I'm being honest ... although it was very stressful the beginning of last year to have to go into pre-season with my son about to be born," Laryea said. "And coming into a team of this calibre and knowing that it would be tough to land a contract here because of how good a team it is."
Switching positions added to the stress. It helped that Toronto coach Greg Vanney, who won 37 caps for the U.S., in a playing career divided between MLS and France, was a central midfielder turned left back — and a reluctant one at first.
Laryea says while what was going on and off the field was difficult, it turned out to be a positive.
"It really helped me get to where I am today because I was forced to be uncomfortable. Which is something not a lot of people, I think, in their career or their life are forced to do. So the fact that I was put into an uncomfortable position pretty early on in my career, I think it's pretty good. Because now I know and I have a gauge on how far I can push myself if things are getting pretty tough for me — whether it be on the field or off the field."
Laryea also remembers how good Vanney and the club were to him when wife Melanie was about to give birth in Orlando during the 2019 training camp with TFC playing its pre-season finale in San Diego.
Vanney, a father of four, counselled him not to miss the birth to try and earn a contract, saying the club's interest in him was not going anywhere.
The club got him a flight from San Diego to Orlando with Laryea touching down just hours before his wife was due to enter hospital. Son Elijah arrived on Feb. 14, 2019.
"It was pretty crazy but the club definitely allowed that to happen. So I'm very grateful to them for that," he said.
If there has been a silver lining to what's going on in the world right now, it's been Laryea has been able to spend time with his wife and see their young son grow and develop. His wife and baby didn't move north to Toronto until May 2019 so the family was separated for several months.
The pandemic made for more distancing with family although Laryea was able to connect in person with his parents and brother on Father's Day as the lockdown eased in Ontario.
Needing depth at right fullback last year after Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel outstayed his welcome, Vanney converted Laryea to fullback.
Laryea has grown into the role, pushing Brazil's Auro for a starting position. He has also proved to be an impact substitute, able to drive down the flank and torment defenders. He came off the bench in both of Toronto's games this season, scoring TFC's second goal in a 2-2 tie at San Jose in the Feb. 29 season opener.
"Richie has been terrific since he joined us. He played a valuable role, both for TFC, and the Canadian men's national team last year," Toronto GM Ali Curtis said in a statement. "Off the field, Richie's character and personality is tremendous. He earned this new contract in many ways, and we are excited for he, his family, and what he will bring to TFC moving forward."
The five-foot-seven 155-pounder has won six caps for Canada, making his senior debut in September 2019 against Cuba in a CONCACAF Nations League match
Originally selected by Orlando in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, the University of Akron product played 21 games for Orlando and 36 for Orlando City B from 2016 to 2018.
Laryea, whose parents were born in Ghana, spent some six years in the U.S., and says he has seen the beauty of the country as well as a "very ugly side."
"A side so ugly my mother would call every single night to make sure I was home and not out and about putting myself in danger," he wrote in a powerful social media post on June 3 in the wake of the death of George Floyd and ensuing protests around the globe.
"A side so ugly my mother was living in fear of having her son living in a country where Black people were not seen as equals to others. That weighed heavily on me and left me on edge every day."
Laryea says while he believes change is coming, "I don't think it's going to be tomorrow.
"It's not going to be a quick mad-dash to the finish, it's going to be more of a marathon."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2020.
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