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Toronto FC II bolstered by first-team players for start of USL season

Jason Bent, Brian James and Lars Eckenrode speak ahead of the opener against Phoenix Rising on Saturday.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC II open their season on Saturday night with a date against Phoenix Rising FC - and they are eager to start.

“First game of the season,” smiled midfielder Brian James after training on Wednesday morning. “It's always a long offseason; we're excited to get going. We're ready. We've been playing since January in preseason, ready to get the first game under our belt.”

Added defender Lars Eckenrode, a 2017 TFC draft pick who has inked a USL contract: “[There's] a lot of excitement. We've been in preseason, in this dome, on this turf, for quite some time now. We've been getting after it every day, but we're ready to put the hard work on the field and get a result out of it.”

The fixtures come thick and fast for the young club entering their third season in the league. After Phoenix, they have stops in Tampa Bay and Orlando before the home opener on April 7 – four matches in a little under two weeks.

But, as stated, they are ready.

“The boys are feeling pretty good,” said coach Jason Bent. “Preseason has been challenging. We sent half the team to Italy for the Viareggio tournament, which was an unbelievable experience for them; [they] played against some good competition, came up a bit short, but international experience is always good.

“For the remaining guys, we've been training hard, played a number of preseason games. A couple friendlies against some local, university teams. Then we had a good performance at home against Ottawa [Fury], beat them 2-1. Came up a bit short against Rochester [Rhinos] last week, [leading] 1-0 with about twelve minutes left, but with a youngish team conceded three goals – a lot of positives to come from that. We start to incorporate players back into the fold looking forward to Phoenix, which will be a very good test for us.”

Bent will be working with a raft of new players - particularly at the back, where just two (Mitchell Taintor and Anthony Osorio) are returning from last year's group.

“It's interesting; encouraging... presents its own set of challenges,” said Bent of entering the year with a largely new back line. “That's where we have to get our work done on training ground, make sure our ideas are transmitted to the players; that they have a clear understanding of what we want. Will they have the chemistry? No, it's the first game of the season. We have to build to that.”

Eckenrode will be one of those leaned upon to shore up the defence, especially with Taintor suspended following a fracas towards the end of last season against FC Montreal that saw him slapped with a five-match suspension. Taintor sat out the final three matches of 2016, so is set for return in the third match of 2017 against Orlando City B.

“Lars comes from [the University of] Michigan, we got him through the draft,” said Bent of the big defender. “He's been acquitting himself in the squad. He's a centre-back, pretty aggressive, good in the air in both boxes, decent passer of the ball, a good pro, trains hard every day, looks after his body. [We're] pleased with him.”

Asked to describe his game, Eckenrode said: “As a centre-back I try to make the game as simple as possible. I like to have the ball at my feet, pick passes, but there are guys in front [whose] job it is to thread those balls more than it is mine. I like to defend first, when I have the ball, do my job, find the easiest pass, and make the players in front of me look good.”

Eager to get his first professional season started, there was one game the centre-back had circled on the calendar, though he must wait until July 21 when TFC travel to New Jersey to face New York Red Bulls II.

“Biggest one that jumps out would be Red Bull,” said Eckenrode. “A best friend of mine just signed with them, homegrown - goalkeeper Evan Louro [a fellow Wolverine]. Really looking forward to that.”

Returning midfielder James, braced for his second season with the club following selection in the 2016 draft out of Penn State, will not have to wait long for the matches he is most looking forward to.

“Orlando City, Tampa Bay Rowdies,” said James. “I'm a Florida boy, so it's the closest I get to home. So those are games I'm looking forward to. Hopefully my family and friends will get out there.”

TFC II visit Tampa Bay on April 1 and Orlando City days later on April 4.

James will be a key part of the returning core of players who are expected to feature heavily this year, describing himself as “very technical”. “[I] like to get the ball, be on the ball, and get my teammates in position to score goals,” he said.

Adding with a smile when prompted: “Never [afraid of a screamer from range, should the opportunity present itself].”

He is also “never”, he smiled, afraid of a long-range screamer.

That core group has been supplemented with goalkeepers Mark Pais and Angelo Cavalluzzo, Eckenrode and Jordan McCrary, who signed a USL contract after a trial with the club. Bent described him as a “right wing-back, very athletic, can get up and down.”

“[He has] experience playing in MLS as well as USL; came from a good program in UNC,” continued Bent. “We're glad to have him as well.”

As with last season, it is expected that the depth of the first team will result in plenty of visiting talent in search of minutes. Those excelling at the academy level, too, will push up for a sample of the professional game.

“The squad is getting up there, but it's trying to mesh everybody together, make sure we're on the same page, as we've only had four or five training days with the entire team due to Under-20 [internationals], the Viareggio, etc,” Bent noted.

Marky Delgado, Jay Chapman, Tsubasa Endoh, Raheem Edwards, Oyvind Alseth and Brandon Aubrey, all of whom have first-team contracts, will travel to Arizona but just how TFC II will line up against Phoenix remains to be seen.