TFC II begin their season on Saturday night at 10:30 pm with a trip to Arizona where they will face Phoenix Rising FC.
N.B. There has been some confusion, primarily by myself, regarding when kickoff actually is. Turns out Arizona does not use daylight savings time, so a 7:30 pm local start is three hours difference. Kickoff will be at 10:30 pm ET.
Phoenix will be an interesting side to keep an eye on this season. Rebranded at the end of 2016 from Arizona United SC, the club, under new ownership, has been turning heads both on and off the pitch.
They moved from the hinterlands to a more central location, built a new stadium – the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex, and brought in some big names including Shaun Wright-Phillips and Omar Bravo, never mind those Didier Drogba rumours swirling at the moment.
Under the guidance of Frank Yallop, the club has grand aspirations, submitting an application for consideration in future MLS expansion; they will look to use success in USL as a launching point, selling out this first match is not a bad start at all.
Then Arizona United, Phoenix struggled last season, Yallop's first at the helm, finishing tenth in the West with a record of ten wins, two draws, and sixteen losses. Though they have lost key contributors in Long Tan (formerly of the Vancouver Whitecaps) and Tyler Blackwood, Phoenix will be intent on getting off on the right foot on Saturday.
There are several names on the Phoenix roster that MLS watchers will recall. Matt Watson, formerly of Vancouver and Chicago, was signed, while the likes of Blair Gavin, Jason Johnson, and Chris Cortez have experience with the top division of North American soccer.
Yallop has also looked to his old stomping ground for experience, bringing in Jordan Stewart, who recently played for the San Jose Earthquakes after a long career in England, and midfielder Luke Rooney, as well as veteran defender Peter Ramage.
And there are a pair of Canadians on the roster: Brampton-native AJ Gray and Alessandro Riggi, signed from the now-defunct FC Montreal in the offseason.
Phoenix are unbeaten in two preseason matches, drawing both: 2-2 and 1-1 against Grand Canyon University.
With this being the first game of the season, forecasting just how Phoenix will play is difficult, but what is clear is that given the acquisitions, the club's ambition, and the emotions of opening night, TFC II will be in for a challenge.
TFC II head into the match after a long preseason that offered little chance to get the whole band together, with so many players either on international duty, away at the Viareggio Cup with TFC III, or training with the first team. Some from the TFC II group who went to Italy with TFC III will not be for Saturday and Mitch Taintor is suspended.
That said, they will be bolstered by the loans of some six first team players – Jay Chapman, Raheem Edwards, Tsubasa Endoh. Oyvind Alseth, Brandon Aubrey, and Ben Spencer (though his contract situation is a touch unclear).
In addition, defender Brandon Onkony has been added to the USL group from TFC III and the signing of Ryan Telfer was announced on Friday.
It will be a good test for the young Reds as they look to add a winning element to what they have been building over the past two seasons.
“We have to go in there with a good mentality,” said head coach Jason Bent on Wednesday. “We respect all, but fear nobody. They have a deep team, some new high-calibre, class names; ambitions of making it to MLS.”
Said midfielder Brian James of the heightened atmosphere surround Phoenix's rebirth and the opening game of the season: “They're going to be a good team, they've signed some big players. Take it as just a regular game, go in and do our best to get the win.”
TFC II will very much be stepping into the unknown. Scouting so early in the year has been difficult.
“They haven't have their games filmed, that's been a challenge,” lamented Bent. “Our scouting department has tried to get footage, but it's been difficult. I know some of their players, but that's what it is. Once you step between the white lines, it doesn't matter what name you have on the back of your shirt. It's about competing and trying to express yourself. That's our approach.”
Defender Lars Eckenrode echoed his manager's sentiments, emphasizing TFC II will focus on their game: “Stick to what we've been doing in training. [We've been] working on tactics lately: playing out of the back, pressuring from the front. Implement that in the game and, hopefully, get a result.”
And there is no additional concern regarding some of those high-profile opponents against whom TFC will be lining up.
“I try to treat every game the same,” said Eckenrode. “They've got some high-calibre players, but if I stick to what we've been doing in training, what I've done growing up as a defender, stick to my tactics, with keeping an eye on them.”
“You have to give respect to your opponent, these are some incredible players, who have incredible experience,” continued Eckenrode. “You've got to keep that in mind, but go out there and do what we do, handle them accordingly.”
Bent advised a no fear approach: “You respect everybody, but you can't played scared. You respect where they've played, the levels that they've reached. [But] it's a different boat for them as well, they've got to adapt too.”
Of particular interest will be a pair of Canadian legends squaring off on the touchlines.
Yallop was a mentor to Bent as he made his way into the national team, prompting some fond recollections from the TFC II coach.
“I'm a Canadian legend as well,” chuckled Bent when asked of facing off against Yallop. “My first camp with the full national team, Frank Yallop was in the squad; I learned from those guys. The camp was in Edmonton, he played, 2-2 against Mexico and on to play the US in Vancouver. Very good guy, a good player; his reputation as a coach speaks for itself.”
“I spent a bit of time with him in December, we were down in Mexico scouting,” added Bent. “Had a few laughs, a couple of beers. Hopefully I can put one over on him.”
Though whether the two will have the chance to share a post-match glass of wine, win, lose, or draw, in the traditions of Sir Alex Ferguson, remains to be seen.
“Sometimes,” lamented Bent. “When I was operating more as an MLS assistant with the first team that tradition happened a bit more than it does in USL. But we still have a mutual respect and camaraderie with each other, fellow professionals. Everybody wants to win, [but that] mutual respect is important.”
Bent must navigate that dual challenge of both fostering the development of the younger players, while also providing a platform for first teamers to get valuable minutes. And he must do so with an added emphasis on winning this year.
That journey begins on Saturday night in Arizona.
Match Hashtag: #PHXvTOR