Toronto FC II return to USL play this weekend after a bye week that offered a chance to reflect on the first four matches of the season.
The Reds won on opening day, handing Phoenix Rising a 1-0 defeat in front of sold-out crowd on the strength of a goal from debutant Ryan Telfer.
“We managed the occasion quite well, took their crowd out of it with possession in the first half,” said head coach Jason Bent upon returning to Toronto. “We created a number of chances in the first half, some in the second, could have put the game to bed. Sometimes 1-0 wins are the most important, you're up against it, it takes a lot of character to get over the finish line. For not having team for very long, we looked a team. It was good.”
Aided by a handful of first-teamers – Jay Chapman, Marky Delgado, Raheem Edwards, and Tsubasa Endoh – the side put in a confident, mature display.
Bent, like many, was impressed: “You never really know. You can have a good feeling and it goes the opposite way. Until the game gets going you don't have a sense of it. I felt a lot more calm and relaxed on the bench as opposed to some other games.
“The maturity from the first-team players, as well as some of the returning players, brought a good sense of calm. Mark Pais in goal, experienced, brought a sense of calm throughout the team. Besides the chance at the end, when Jason Johnson had the free header which he probably should have scored from, we were fairly comfortable, limited them to some long-range strikes. It's one game, we take the positives and move forward.”
Singled out for praise was the three-man back-line of Oyvind Alseth, Lars Eckenrode, and Brandon Aubrey, each making their professional debut on the night.
“I was pretty shocked with their performance,” admitted Bent. “For three rookies, out of the college system, to play like that - understanding, organization, sensing danger. For the most part they were pretty solid. Their performance levels in their very first pro game was of a high standard. The challenge now: at the professional level, you have to do it week in and week out. That's the makings of good pros.”
TFC first-team coach Greg Vanney was equally encouraged by the display.
“It was good; very much in the vision of how the first team is doing things, which is what we want, what it should be,” remarked Vanney. “More experience for that group, to recognize what they can take advantage of, what things they need to close down. All in all it was a great first performance and a good road result.”
Edwards, whose performance led to a chance with the MLS side, sees positives on the horizon for the Young Reds, who struggled to find their footing in a man's league over the past two seasons.
“I think we have what it takes to make the playoffs [this year],” asserted Edwards. “Focus is on that, [but we] can't get too far ahead of ourselves... one game at a time.”
“The first game we were under it, a lot of pressure for the first 25 minutes,” recalled Bent following their travels. “It was difficult to get out of our end. Tampa is a pressing team, very experienced. They monopolized the ball, it was difficult to get territory and connect the passes we needed to find attacking shape.”
So too at the other end.
“We gave up some soft goals from our perspective, definitely the first three,” lamented Bent. “First one we lose a marker, free header from a second-phase corner. Second one we're trying to get a sub on after Lars Eckenrode broke his leg. Third one we're in safe possession, team is spread out, not reliable on the ball, give it away and it's a quick counter. It was a difficult game for us. Tampa deserved the three points.”
Vanney, too, gave full credit to the opposition. “We played against an experienced USL side; guys with lots of international experience, MLS experience,” he added. “At times we looked a little naive in how we wanted to get pressure, make it difficult for them. We ended up on the back foot, being reactive. Against good teams, good players, they were able to take advantage. We looked young.”
Vanney still saw utility in the defeat, though. “It's a great learning lesson, a tool for us to build on. Lacked continuity, some new faces in there: Jason [Hernandez] getting his first start in a back three, new for him. Liam [Fraser] and Luca [Uccello], first starts after Viareggio. We lacked continuity and experience from the first game. And it just so happened to be against team that will be one of the best in USL.”
“Orlando [was] a better start,” Bent continued. “We had a lot more intensity, pressing them from the front. We able to create turnovers, probably could have gone ahead, but that wasn't the case.”
Again, momentary lapses proved costly.
“From our perspective, we gave up three soft goals,” said Bent. “The reaction was good from the players, mentally. They approached the game well, pressing, we were better on the ball than against Tampa, which we challenged the players [to do]. Got back to 1-1, needed to get to half-time, we didn't manage the moments, got sucker punched on the counter again.”
But in that defeat laid lessons that will serve the side well as the season continues.
“Some things we have to take away: make sure that we're organized behind the ball when attacking – can't be just spectating, but making sure we're organized because teams are quick in transition, as was the case in Orlando,” Bent concluded.
With the opportunity for only a single training session before the home opener against the Rochester Rhinos, Bent looked forward to a thorough examination of the opening stretch.
“We're always assessing after every single game; a half-hour video review of the last performance, see if we can improve [from one game to the next],” said Bent. “We're going to have a couple of weeks to get the group together, continue instilling our ideas, get chemistry. Going on the road has helped [our] bonding off the park.”
And that served the side well in their home opener, as they went toe-to-toe with Rochester, battling to a 0-0 draw - a relatively entertaining one, at that - in the wintry conditions at the Ontario Soccer Centre.
“After the [Florida] road trip we saw a big reaction from the team,” said Bent post-match. “Defensively, we were very solid, gave a couple chances towards the end where Angelo [Cavalluzzo] had to come up solid for us. Outside of that I was happy with the defensive shape, we didn't get caught on the counter, something we talked about, and we had our moments to nick a goal.
“Rochester is a difficult team to play against, they rarely give up goals. All in all, it's a fair point for us. Seven goals in two games was unacceptable so it was a good turnaround.”
Given the disappointment of the results in Florida, the reinvigorated performance was encouraging for the TFC II coach, especially on the defensive side of the ball. “It was important to bed ourselves into the game,” he added. “We crave clean sheets. If we can get that, it's an excellent platform to go on and win. We gave up some soft goals in that last two games. Tampa was very good; the game against Orlando, some sloppy goals, things we can fix. They responded tonight.”
A point and some positives to carry into the break.
“We've had a tough schedule, six days on the road,” said Bent. “It's important to get mentally refreshed, physically recovered, and straight back on the training ground to work on some things: relationships defensively, improve our attacking play as well.
Cavalluzzo, who kept the clean-sheet against Rochester with Pais deputizing for Alex Bono and the first team, heralded the players in front of him. “The back three were fantastic tonight, really helped me out,” he said. “Didn't have a lot to do until near the end of the match, means they did their job.
“The goal going into this match was keeping a clean sheet, that's the goal for the whole season. Use that as a platform to build off, hopefully that leads to victories, nick a goal here and there.”
The focus on the night was transition, according to Cavalluzzo, “That's where we struggled in the last few matches. Lose possession in our third and they can counter us and we can be exposed. Defend first, and then go forward.”
With a fortnight between matches, the break provided an opportunity to reflect on the start and look forward to what lies ahead.
“We had some tough road games, played some really good opponents, older teams as well,” said midfielder Brian James, who captained the side prior to Mitch Taintor's return. “We learned that defensively we need to be better. That's something we've been working on in training.”
Given the whirlwind nature of the start - and that between the Viareggio Cup, international duty and preseason with the first team, the side had very little time together on the pitch - Bent made the most of the pause, with a special focus on one element in particular.
“A lot of things with regards to our shape and organization when we have the ball,” he explained. “Is it good? Are we in position to put out fires? We don't want the game to be a track meet. We're trying to find a little bit more control, not only our set defence, but also in transition from attack to defence so that we're not getting hit on the break.
“Outside of that you're constantly learning about players, who plays well with who, who individually is performing at a consistent level. And also, where we need to improve as a team. It's not going to be the case where we can keep a clean sheet every game – two of four is a very good start. We need to find that balance, where we're not leaking goals, but we're also able to score some as well. You can ask any coach, they're always searching for that balance. I'm no different.”
A long season lies ahead for TFC II; with four matches under their belt, 28 remain in the months ahead.
First up are the Ottawa Fury in the first-ever USL Battle of Ontario on Saturday. After that, the Reds play a further pair of road matches before a three-game home stand in mid-May.