Toronto FC II return to the pitch on Saturday afternoon for some tasty USL action in what could be termed the most-anticipated match of the new season.
With four matches under their belt, the Young Reds make the short trip, by North American standards, up the road for their first-ever Battle of Ontario, taking on the Ottawa Fury at TD Place Stadium in Lansdowne Park in the nation's capital.
Led by head coach Paul Dalgish and assistant coach - and Canadian legend - Julian de Guzman, Ottawa (who like Tampa Bay, made the switch from NASL to USL in the off-season), will be looking to open their home schedule with a win after a trio of road matches.
They lost their first game of 2017 away to Saint Louis FC by a 3-2 scoreline and then dropped their second 1-0 away to the Tampa Bay Rowdies before picking up a crucial away victory over the Richmond Kickers last weekend.
The lone strike in the Richmond game was a stunner, Steevan Dos Santos finding the back of the net from the halfway line to steal the points on the road.
With only three Canadian sides in USL, TFC II coach Jason Bent knows his side will be up for the challenge.
“The motivation seems to be high, [we] got some good work done preparing this week for Ottawa,” said Bent after training on Thursday. “They're coming off a nice little victory, Dos Santos scoring a world-class goal – hopefully he doesn't do that to us on Saturday. They lost the first two games, got back on the winning track. I'm sure they'll be looking forward to this game as much as we are.”
The Fury have several names that should ring a bell for Canadian soccer fans.
Jamar Dixon, Carl Haworth, Eddie Edward, and Callum Irving have been on the national-team radar of late, and following the dissolution of FC Montreal a handful of Quebec-based players migrated to Ottawa in the offseason.
That fact will have special resonance for Brandon Onkony, who recently signed a USL contract after moving to the TFC Academy from Montreal's clutches.
At least four of his old mates – Thomas Meilleur-Giguere, Aron Mkungilwa, David Paulmin, and Jimmy-Shammar Sanon – have popped up with the Fury, adding a little something extra to the encounter for the Congolese defender.
“My old teammates,” said Onkony with a smile. “I want to prove that we're better than them. I want to win.”
Captained by Lance Rozeboom, the Fury will provide a stern test for the Young Reds as they look to turn the work done during the bye week following an intense opening four matches into results.
As noted, this will be the first-ever meeting between the two clubs at the USL level, which is not to say that they are unfamiliar - the two have crossed paths before.
“We've played them in preseason the last three years running,” said Bent in the lead up. “Those games have all been very competitive. We know what to expect; got to make sure to bring our A game.”
The two will meet twice more this season, both in July. Ottawa will come to Toronto on July 8, while TFC II hit the road for the third meeting on July 29.
And should the Fury get past FC Edmonton in the preliminary round of the Voyageurs Cup, they will face Toronto FC in the semi-finals.
The match is set to kick off at 2pm and, even in light of the quick turnaround from last night's TFC match against Chicago, there will no doubt be members of the Toronto faithful making the northeastern trek to cheer on the Young Reds.
The season has been a mixed bag for TFC II.
They opened with that strong performance in Phoenix, but then struggled on a tough road trip to Florida, losing to both Tampa Bay and Orlando City B. They responded to that disappointment well in their home opener, drawing 0-0 with Rochester, but Bent and company will be looking to find some consistency as this next phase of the season plays out.
When they've kept clean sheets, they have come away with points. If not, they have not.
After Ottawa, TFC II play two more on the road – against Louisville and Pittsburgh – before returning to Toronto for their first home stretch of the campaign.
“We approach every game to win. I have a point total in my head [for the upcoming stretch],” said Bent. “We don't want to look too far ahead – got to take one game at a time. Make sure we're focused, ready mentally, physically for the battle, because it will be a battle. Hopefully over the 90, 95 minutes our quality can shine through.”
Said Brian James: “We got some good quality training in, we prepared. We're ready for next match against Ottawa. It's a rivalry game, they're right up the road, five hours I think. It's just like FC Montreal, we're going to go out there and leave it all.”
Fans will recall that fractious encounter with FC Montreal last August. A fracas in the final moments saw both Mitch Taintor and Marco Dominguez ejected, while a further pair of TFC players saw cautions.
“There will be some intensity for sure, it's a Canadian rival,” anticipated Bent. “It's difficult to gauge [exactly how intense it will be to start]. You don't know until kick-off and you see what the intensity is like. At some point the game will settle down. I hope they're excited to play, I'm excited for the match. If we have the right approach, do our jobs, we'll be fine.”
James plans a warm welcome to the league for the Fury, recalling the feeling of ruining Phoenix's rising in their home opener. “They're new to the USL; hopefully we play spoiler again,” he added.
As is standard fare by now, the final question to Bent was who from the first team would be at his disposal this weekend. His response was coy: “I have an idea, but I'll keep that under my hat for now.”
Greg Vanney, on the other hand, did reveal a few names – Sergio Camargo, Ben Spencer and Oyvind Alseth. Brandon Aubrey will likely be available as well, but with Tsubasa Endoh, Jay Chapman, Raheem Edwards, and Marky Delgado all either playing or being in the 18 against Chicago, their inclusion is in doubt.
However, there was one name added to the squad list on the USL preview: Jordan Hamilton. And there may be more surprises in store.
Match Hashtag: #OTTvTOR