Toronto FC II will play their final match of the 2017 USL season on Saturday night when they host FC Cincinnati at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan.
“We'd like to finish the season on a high note, three points,” said coach Jason Bent on Friday after training. “The last two season finales we've won. It's always nice to finish with a good feeling. We're focused on the match, ready to put on a good performance.”
Captain Mitch Taintor echoed those sentiments when asked what he expected: “A good performance from the guys.”
“It might be the last time that everyone is playing together, so it'll be an emotional game for us,” added Taintor. “If we do all the right things, like we've been doing in training, we deserve a good result. That's the ultimate goal every match, but especially the last one.”
Back on the pitch eight days after a 4-2 loss to Bethlehem Steel FC last Friday, the side will be looking to close the campaign with a victory, sending themselves into the off-season on a positive.
A strong performance from Shaan Hundal, continuing his hot streak, saw TFC II net twice, but Beth Steel, in search of a playoff spot, proved too much on the night.
Their third year in the league has seen some progress, but the results have not come consistently.
There have been far fewer occasions where the side was outclassed. And as the goal-against/match indicates, significant progress has been made at the back – last season they conceded nearly a third of a goal more per match. But a corresponding decrease in goals scored has hampered the impact of that improvement on the standings.
Conversations will be had, decisions will be made, but before then lies a match, against another playoff-bound opponent, FC Cincinnati.
Head coach Alan Koch has his side ticking over nicely as they gear up for the post-season. Cincinnati enter the weekend in the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference, but with a win and results elsewhere, they could move as high as sixth in the final seeding.
On 43 points from 31 matches, Cincinnati has near even record of eleven wins, ten losses, and ten draws – a loss to Toronto on Saturday would level that out neatly – having scored 42 goals and conceded 45. Make it a 3-0 for TFC II and all can leave happy.
Most recently, a 4-0 humbling at the hands of Ottawa Fury FC on Sunday knocked them down to earth a touch, ending a run of six matches unbeaten.
A trio of goals in the opening 20 minutes, Onua Obasi with the opener and Carl Haworth adding a quick brace, stunned the visitors early. Steevan Dos Santos added a fourth at the start of the second half; even a red card to Ottawa's Kyle Venter in the 69th minute could not turn the tide.
The six-game unbeaten run was a response to a pair of heavy defeats mid-August, by a combined score of 9-0 – losing away to Louisville City FC 5-0 and New York Red Bulls II 4-0. It began against Ottawa, so it was fitting that it end against them as well.
In between, Cincinnati had gone three unbeaten on their travels, picking up a win in Charlotte alongside draws with Saint Louis and Harrisburg.
Koch's side has struggled away from home, where they enjoy rather raucous support, amassing a record of three wins, eight losses, and four draws. Their other 30 points have all come at Nippert Stadium in Ohio.
Despite already clinching a playoff berth, Bent expects a tough challenge from the visiting side: “I don't think they'll take it easy, especially off the back of losing 4-0 at Ottawa.”
“They'll use it as a tune-up match, getting themselves ready for the playoffs,” foresaw Bent. “It'll be a real playoff-type atmosphere, in terms of how they want to approach the game.”
Just what formation Cincinnati will seek to deploy is a touch uncertain.
“They were playing out of 4-2-3-1 shape [the last time we met],” recalled Bent. “Lately they've been playing a 3-4-3. In the second half [against Ottawa], they switched to a 4-4-2 to bring on two big strikers. We're prepared for [either].”
TFC II travelled to Cincinnati at the end of May, falling 1-0 on an 18th minute Danni Konig header.
“At their place, it was a great atmosphere,” said Bent. “We controlled a lot of game, created a number of chances. Unfortunately, we weren't able to score the first goal, but it was a narrow game with Konig scoring at the back-post to beat us 1-0.”
“We can take confidence from the fact that every time we've played Cincinnati we've played well,” added Bent. “We haven't gotten over the finish line, 0-3 against them. We want to right the ship.”
Cincinnati has won all three encounters, as Bent said.
And there is plenty of variety in their attack with which to contend.
Djiby Fall leads the side with 11 goals in 23 appearances, while Konig has 10 in 26. Midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin has chipped in 5 from 30, while Harrison Delbridge has 3 in 28. A further trio has two apiece, including former TFC striker Andrew Wiedeman, and several others have singles.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm. The match can be viewed on YouTube (below) or at tfc2.ca.
With this being the final chance of the season, do not be too surprised if a handful of first teamers are with TFC II, getting valuable match fitness ahead of the MLS playoffs.
Bent, as he has all season, has also taken the last few matches to begin blooding some new youngsters, with Daniel Da Silva and Noble Okello seeing minutes of late.
And no doubt Hundal will be looking to continue his fine form. His brace against Bethlehem marked a third-straight match with a goal, bringing his season tally up to six, taking sole possession of top-scorer for TFC II.
Aside from closing the season, Saturday night will be special for a couple more reasons.
With the news that the side will be moving downtown next season, it will mark the final match at the Ontario Soccer Centre, their home for the first three seasons of their existence.
Bent, who has managed the side since their inception, reminisced about the time up in Vaughan.
“Some up and down moments, some narrow late victories,” began Bent. “A Skylar Thomas header against Charleston last season was a real nice moment. We've also stolen points from losing situations. I can remember Saint Louis this year with Shaan Hundal scoring at the death, a nice feeling for the team. One of our better performances was against Orlando City last year, in the final game of the season. We really showed a good level of football that day and took our chances, after going down 1-0, came back to win 2-1.”
“For me, the sweetest one was Louisville City. The amount of times we've lost to [them], always a team in the Eastern Conference that we look up to, in terms of their always fighting for honours. It was a real scalp, beating them 1-0 at home, against a little bit of adversity.” smiled Bent. “I was pleased at that.”
Said Taintor, who has played the last two seasons at the OSC: “A lot of good times there, a lot of ups and downs. This year, the little Ultras; I had fun going to the games, looking forward to hearing them supporting us. It's nice for all the guys to feel that from the fans. To feel that appreciation, especially from the younger kids.”
Saturday will also be Fan Appreciation Night with free popcorn, signed t-shirts, a post-game on-field meet-and-greet, as well as a car giveaway. Not one to be missed.
Taintor had a message to all who have cheered them on: “Thanks for sticking with us. It's been a rough season, but everyone is going to be better for it. Next year will be better. We'll see them all out there.”
So too did Bent: “All the supporters, the little Ultras, have brought fantastic atmosphere and energy to the game, even where there has only been a couple hundred people. To see those young supporters, who will be TFC supporters for the rest of their lives is fantastic.”
“We would like to thank the Ontario Soccer Centre for all that they have done for us. As well as the mayor, Maurizio Bevilacqua. He's been a huge supporters of us,” said Bent. “They gave us a home for the first couple years. It's time to move on. We thank the whole community for welcoming us, hopefully we gave them a few good times.”
Match Hashtag: #TORvCIN