Toronto FC defender Skylar Thomas ’15 makes a big noise, on and off the field
For Skylar Thomas ‘15, the highlight of his first year as a professional athlete occurred not on the field, but in the stands as a spectator. In November, the star center back for United Soccer League (USL)’s Toronto Football Club II—the minor league affiliate of Major League Soccer (MLS)’s Toronto Football Club—drove more than eight hours to South Bend, Ind., to watch his alma mater, Syracuse University, claim its first ACC title in men’s soccer, with a nail-biting 1-0 win over Notre Dame.
The victory not only marked the culmination of a five-year rebuilding project at Syracuse—a process that also involved Toronto netminder and former Orange teammate Alex Bono ‘16, but also served as a potent reminder of just how far Thomas has come as an athlete.
“Seeing Syracuse win was a big moment for me,” says Thomas, speaking by phone from his apartment in the Toronto suburb of North York. “I was really proud of our boys. In a way, it was also a victory for those of us who came before them.”
Thomas has, indeed, come a long way from Central New York, where, during his freshman year, the Orange managed to eke out only three wins. Last year, as a senior, the Toronto native found himself at the helm of a national powerhouse that shot to No. 1 for the first time in program history.
Although Thomas is largely credited for the turnaround (along with Bono and Jordan Murrell ‘15, the latter of whom plays for USL’s Real Monarchs), he is quick to deflect praise. “I was happy just to help get the program moving in the right direction,” says Thomas, with a trace of humility. “Coach [Ian] McIntyre and the boys have done a tremendous job.”
Little did Thomas know that his Syracuse tenure—capped off by last fall’s game-winning goal against No. 2 Virginia, earning him SU Athletics’ “Play of the Year” award—was merely a warmup for his jump to MLS. In January, he and Bono were taken by Toronto FC in the first round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
Initially, Jason Bent, TFC II’s head coach, didn’t know what to make of the 6-foot-3, 180-pound footballer, when he saw him at the pro combine in Las Vegas. “My first impression of Skylar was that he was a bit awkward, especially in the way he moved and distributed the ball,” Bent says. “He has since turned out to be a good defender—someone who can stop opposition players and keep up with just about any attacker.”
Despite a minor injury, which briefly sidelined him last spring, Thomas has become a formidable presence, on and off the pitch. Pundits rave about his size, strength, and athleticism, drawing comparisons to Doneil Henry, the former Toronto FC standout who now plays for East London’s Premier League.
To be sure, Thomas uses his height not only to out-jump opponents, but also to find the back of the net—something that happened three times during his 22 appearances with TFC II this past season. Thomas’ physicality has also benefited the Canada Olympic soccer team, for whom he recently scored a goal in a crucial victory against Panama, advancing his country to the Olympic qualifier semifinals. (Canada eventually fell to Mexico.) That Thomas was part of the starting lineup for all three of the qualifying matches further underscores his mettle.
Although TFC II is only a year old, Thomas uses his physical tools to anchor what is otherwise one of USL’s youngest backfields. He is a set-piece specialist, as well as a natural defender whose ability to mark and be a force in the air will likely carry the team far. He also is a vocal leader.
“Skylar has got a great personality in the locker room and can be a real joker, but he’s also very serious—and vocal—on the pitch, which is something I like and encourage in defenders,” Bent says. “While he’s gotten better at anticipating plays, Skylar knows how to organize defenders during a crisis situation.”
Thomas credits McIntyre—who coached Oneonta State and Hartwick College before coming to Syracuse in 2010—for helping him understand the mental aspects of the game. Prior to becoming one of the brightest head coaches in the NCAA, McIntyre was an All-America sweeper at Hartwick, and, like Thomas, was revered for his physicality and on-field communication skills.
For Thomas, the opportunity to train under McIntyre, while helping restore Syracuse to its former glory, was a no-brainer. It also didn’t hurt that Murrell, Thomas’s friend and former teammate on the Canadian under-18 national team, was Syracuse-bound.
“Syracuse taught me to be strong,” says Thomas, who majored in economics in the University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Coach McIntyre has a lot of passion for the game—probably more than most players I know—and has showed me how to anticipate and make plays, as they unfold. He stresses the importance of visual and vocal communication.”
These qualities have come in handy for Thomas, whether playing before a small USL crowd, hundreds of miles from home, or, on rare occasion, before some 20,000 rabid fans at Toronto’s BMO Field. That was the case last July, when he made a strong showing at an international friendly between Toronto FC and the Premier League’s Sunderland Association Football Club.
Meanwhile, Thomas looks forward to honing his leadership skills during offseason. He and his teammates currently spend four days a week, seven hours a day, doing tactical and psychological training. After an additional an hour or two in the gym, Thomas likes to unwind at home, with cards or video games. “My roommate and I are always playing something,” he chortles. “The loser gets to take out the trash or clean the kitchen. I guess I’m competitive that way.”