Just 22, goalkeeper Tomas Romero has already packed a lot in.
The New Jersey native joined the Philadelphia Union's residency program in the eighth grade. At 15, he made the game-day roster with the Bethlehem Steel and had his first start for the Union affiliate at 16.
"It's been a journey since then," said Romero. "But I'm grateful for all the opportunities coaches have given me since."
At 18, he helped Georgetown University win the NCAA title, alongside former Toronto FC forwards Ifunanyachi Achara and Paul Rothrock.
At 20, Romero made his MLS debut for Los Angeles FC — a 1-0 win over FC Dallas — the first of 18 starts in 2021.
Now with Toronto, Romero is looking to make his mark with a club that is still finalizing its options in goal with the off-season departures of Alex Bono (now with D.C. United) and Quentin Westberg (Atlanta United).
Free agent Sean Johnson, who spent the last six years with New York City FC, is reportedly a TFC target.
Romero and Greg Ranjitsingh, who was TFC's third-string 'keeper last season, are the only goalkeepers currently on Toronto's first-string roster.
Ranjitsingh is not in camp. He's back in Toronto recovering from a non-COVID illness
Adisa De Rosario, an 18-year-old Toronto FC 2 'keeper who is the son of former Canadian international and TFC star Dwayne De Rosario, is also in camp in San Diego.
Prior to training camp, Toronto coach Bob Bradley called Romero a "good young goalkeeper who was not brought here with the idea that he was going to be the No. 1 'keeper.''
Romero is no stranger to the Toronto coaching staff having played under Bradley at LAFC. Assistant coach Mike Sorber, who doubles as TFC's technical director, was LAFC's director of soccer operations. Sorber was also an assistant coach in Philadelphia while Romero was coming up through the academy.
Romero was in goal for Georgetown in the December 2019 NCAA championship game, which went to a penalty shootout after ending knotted at 3-3 after extra time. Romero made the only save in the shootout, stopping Axel Gunnarsson in a 7-6 win before being swallowed up by his jubilant Hoya teammates.
"It's definitely a great memory and it really jumpstarted me, I'd say" Romero said of the championship game.
"It wasn't the best game from a goalkeeping perspective," he said with a laugh. "I'd liked to have had a clean sheet, maybe save more PKs. But at the end of the day, it was an amazing game for everyone to watch. And it was a happy moment because my family was there."
In January 2021, LAFC acquired Romero's MLS homegrown rights from the Philadelphia Union in exchange for US$50,000 in general allocation money.
Mexico's Pablo Sisniega opened the season as LAFC's starting 'keeper but gave way to Romero with England's Jamal Blackman finishing out the season in goal. Romero ended the year with a goals-against average of 1.56 and 7-8-3 record.
"I got an opportunity that not many players get, especially young goalkeepers," said Romero, not the biggest goalkeeper at 6--1 or 6-2 depending on the listing.
"I just did everything I could," he added. "I was happy with a lot of things, but I was upset also with a good amount of things. There was a lot that I did well, but I needed to work on a good deal of stuff as well."
LAFC traded Sisniega to Charlotte FC in December 2021 and, a month later, acquired Canadian 'keeper Maxime Crepeau from the Vancouver Whitecaps in exchange for US$1 million in general allocation money and a 2025 MLS SuperDraft first-round pick.
While Romero spent the 2022 season with the Las Vegas Lights, LAFC's affiliate in the USL Championship, he trained with the LAFC first team during the week.
"I was able to work on a lot of those things that I needed to work on from the previous year," said Romero. "I felt that I made a big improvement just because the (LAFC) team itself was so good. And every day in training I was with these players and seeing those types of shots and actions. I felt like I was really able to develop my shotstopping."
Buoyed by the addition of Italian veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini and Welsh star forward Gareth Bale, LAFC won the MLS Cup on Nov. 5.
Romero says players like Chiellini and Bale showed him what needs to be done to stay at the top of the game. He's getting more of the same with Toronto from captain Michael Bradley and Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.
"Lorenzo's already scored a few goals on me," Romero said ruefully. "But it's fine. I'm learning what he does. And we'll see how it ends up turning out throughout the season. He's a good player obviously."
In November, LAFC declined Romero's 2023 contract option. Two days later Toronto selected Romero in the first stage of the MLS re-entry draft.
The move to Toronto was welcome, not just because of his connections with team management but also because it is closer to his family home in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Romero consulted with Achara and Rothrock before signing with Toronto. Both have moved on with Rothrock, who was primarily with TFC II, out of contract after last season while Achara's contract option with the first team was declined. Achara subsequently signed with the Houston Dynamo.
Thanks to Rothrock, Romero has a long list of Toronto eateries to try out when the season starts.
Romero plays internationally for El Salvador, where his father was born. He has played four times at the senior level for El Salvador, most recently starting behind former TFC defender Eriq Zavaleta in a 4-1 loss to Peru in September.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press