By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on December 20, 2023.
TORONTO – Tyrese Spicer remembers the tough times growing up in Trinidad.
“Not having enough money to buy sneakers, buy cleats, to go to school. Not having enough money to eat,” he recalled.
“I had some really low lows and I had some really high highs,” he added. “I just think that all those tough times built my character, built my confidence.”
Humble beginnings combined with talent and work ethic have led to a career door opening for the 23-year-old winger from Trincity, some 20 kilometres southeast of Port of Spain.
Spicer was taken first overall out of Lipscomb University by Toronto FC in Tuesday’s MLS SuperDraft, surrounded by parents, brother, uncle and friends at the family home.
“An unbelievable feeling,” he said.
“Coming from a small country like Trinidad and Tobago and then making the transition to America and being the No. 1 draft pick is just insane, to be honest with you,” he added. “But I believe in myself. I trust God, I have faith in God and everything has worked out how it’s supposed to.”
Growing up, soccer was a big part of life. A large patch of grass nearby, dubbed the “savannah,” was his training ground.
“From a young age, I would go there and just practise my craft all the time,” he said. “Repeating it over and over. Everyone along the way supported me.”
That included his father, a longtime coach at nearby El Dorado East Secondary School. His dad once coached Stern John, a Trinidad international who was a prolific scorer with the Columbus Crew in 1998 and 1999 before playing in England.
A full scholarship to Lipscomb University, a private Christian college in Nashville with some 4,700 students, helped Spicer hone his skills.
Spicer leaves a United Soccer Coaches first-team all-American, a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist and the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year.
He led the conference with 14 goals, scoring in 10 straight matches, and added three assists for an ASUN-leading 31 points. Spicer also led NCAA ranks in goals per game and had a point in every match he played in bar one.
Music City was a whole new world.
Longtime Lipscomb soccer coach Charles Morrow recalls picking Spicer up at the Nashville airport and hearing his new recruit rave about the size of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and how he “rode a train inside” Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
On his big day, Spicer made a point of thanking Morrow for guiding him on and off the field.
“There a lot of things I couldn’t have done without Coach Morrow,” he said.
The affection is mutual.
“He’s a joy,” said Morrow.
Spicer has always played as an attacker but points to his versatility.
“I can play defence as well. I can play in the middle. But I prefer attack.”
Toronto GM Jason Hernandez sees Spicer as a weapon to be used on the left side, possible at wingback – a position that figured prominently for coach John Herdman while in charge of Canada.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of joy from our flank play,” Hernandez said.
Wingback is a position where Toronto needs help with the departure of the likes of Richie Laryea and Justin Morrow in recent years.
Spicer’s pace is electric, Morrow said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it “¦ He can fly. he can absolutely fly. And it’s effortless as well. It looks like the old Michael Johnson over 200 metres,” Morrow said, referencing the former track star. “He glides. It’s something to see, for sure.”
Spicer and Lipscomb teammate Malachi Jones, who went eighth overall to New York City FC, were “just a handful” in transition for defenders, Morrow added.
Spicer believes he is ready for the Toronto first team, despite the sizable jump from NCAA to the pro level.
“I trust in myself. I’m confident always in myself,” he said. “I can feed off of these pros. They can guide me and take me under their wing.”
Spicer signed a contract with Major League Soccer prior to the draft, which means he has decided on the North American league as his pro starting point.
“I anticipate him to be helping us in short order, for sure,” said Hernandez.
Toronto did its due diligence with Spicer, flying him up to meet Herdman and other team officials.
“When (he) sat across the desk from me, I was looking at a young, focused, determined, aspiring, young professional. A guy who came from humble beginnings and has a real responsibility behind him to push him to succeed,” said Hernandez.
Spicer has trained with the Trinidad national team and was part of age-group camps.
“I just didn’t make the final cut. But I just put in the hard work over the years. I’m sure I’ll probably get called up in a matter of time,” he said with confidence.
The 48th-ranked Canadian men face No. 96 Trinidad and Tobago in a key Copa America qualifier in March.
Spicer enjoyed Lipscomb and says he leaves Nashville with a “small love for country music.”
“Honestly,” he added. “That’s the only thing I started hearing when I was there. Everyone is Nashville is very, very friendly.”
In Toronto, Spicer says he hopes to learn from the likes of Italians Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.
“I’m definitely looking forward to playing with them,” he said. “I know Bernardeschi played with Cristiano Ronaldo (in Italy at Juventus). Just imagine the kind of information and the kind of stuff he got from Ronaldo. And, imagine, I’m getting it in person. And I’ll be able to talk to him and Insigne, being in Serie A scoring all those goals.
“It’s just overwhelming and a joy. I’ll be in the same locker-room as them. Being able to gather information and helping develop my game will just be great.”
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2023