Toronto FC II returns to the pitch on Saturday as they travel down to Kentucky for a match against Louisville City FC at 7:30 pm.
Riding a run of two consecutive 0-0 draws against Rochester and Ottawa, the Young Reds will be looking for another strong defensive outing away from home, while on the hunt for opportunities to get their offense going.
Louisville, as one of the two remaining unbeaten sides in USL (San Antonio is the other), will provide a stern test of that plan; they currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, on 11 points from five matches. TFC II sit closer the bottom of the table on the same number of games: in 13th place with five points.
City's season began slowly, drawing 0-0 at home to Saint Louis FC, but they kicked off a run of three straight wins five days later on the road to Orlando City with a 3-1 victory. They followed that up with a 1-0 result away to the Richmond Kickers, before coming back home to defeat the Tampa Bay Rowdies – yes, those Rowdies – handing them their first loss of the campaign.
Most recently, Louisville drew 1-1 at FC Cincinnati. Brian Ownby put Louisville ahead in the 20th minute, but Aodhan Quinn pulled Cincinnati back level in the 78th minute.
Founded in 2014, acquiring Orlando City SC's USL license as they moved into MLS, Louisville plays out of Louisville Slugger Field, a multi-use facility that is home to the Bats, the Cincinnati Reds Triple-A affiliate. Though the affiliation with Orlando was ended in 2016 when Orlando City B joined USL, the two maintain ties and Louisville still plays in a colour scheme reminiscent of the Lions.
Neatly, the supporters group who were instrumental in bringing the side to town are known as the Coopers, a nod to the bourbon barrel-making heritage in Kentucky.
Coached by Irishman James O'Conner, who joined Orlando in 2012 after a long career in the English leagues, Louisville has finished second in the East in the last two season, reaching the conference final stage of the playoffs on both occasions.
“Louisville is a good team,” said TFC II coach Jason Bent on Thursday. “They're very well coached by James, well drilled. 4-2-3-1 system, they press very aggressively, have got some good attacking players. Their central midfielders are a strong part of their team – [Guy] Abend and [Paolo] DelPiccolo, keep things moving, allow their front four to have freedom of movement and to attack. They haven't lost this season, they're doing well, very good team at home. Besides Tampa, this could be the most challenging game.”
MLS watchers will be familiar with Brian Ownby, who was with the Houston Dynamo a few seasons ago, but could not latch on, spending last season with the Richmond Kickers before making the move to Louisville.
George Davis IV leads the side with three goals in five matches this season, and fans of TFC II will recall one name: Mark-Anthony Kaye, who joined the academy in 2013 and spent the 2015 inaugural season with TFC II.
He made some 22 appearances last year for Louisville, but has just two to his credit this season.
“Mark is a feisty, aggressive player,” said Bent. “He's a good dribbler, gets himself into good goal-scoring opportunities. This year he hasn't been playing as much as last season. He was away on international duty, players who have stepped in have done quite well. They brought in Ownby, so right now he's finding it difficult to get into the side. He's a talented young man.”
Perhaps a reunion with his former side is on the cards.
Regardless of the quality of the opponent, for TFC II, the game plan remains the same.
“They're near the top of the table, have had some good results lately,” said Brandon Aubrey. “We want to work as hard as we can to keep them off the scorecard, keep that clean-sheet, and hopefully get a goal this time.”
The match will be streamed live on YouTube – unfortunately, the live thread coverage must be delayed until later in the evening as your faithful scribe is unavailable for kickoff at 7:30 pm.
And given the newfound sturdiness at the back, Toronto will lean on that strength to see them through another difficult road match before the season settles down into a more recognizable pattern.
It has been a strange stop-start to the year. Three matches away in quick succession before the home opener. Then a long pause and now back on the road for another trio of games.
“It's tough to find that balance in the schedule,” said Bent. “Considering our climate we can understand why so many road games to start, then a couple bye weeks. It is what it is. It's helping the team chemistry, spending a lot of time together on the road, so we'll take that as a positive.”
“Hopefully when we get to one game home, one on the road, it will be a bit better for everybody.”
There will be at least one new face in the squad for Saturday's match, as it was announce this week that the club acquired Luis Pereira on loan from CD Arabe Unido.
Bent spoke about the new arrival: “Panamanian. We have a good relationship with the club; where Armando Cooper has come from as well. Feisty player, good technically on the ball, keeps things simple.”
“More of a ball-winning midfielder, not a creative type; pretty good passing range,” continued Bent. “He's got good positional discipline, sit in front of the back three, control the play, build the game. You get it from A to B, continuity-type midfield player who can break up plays. We're looking forward to getting him on the pitch.”
In terms of first-team players at Bent's disposal, the same faces should be available: Sergio Camargo, Oyvind Alseth, Aubrey, and Jordan Hamilton. Tsubasa Endoh was on the bench for TFC against Houston on Friday, so he will likely not be available. But both Ashtone Morgan and Jason Hernandez are working back from injuries and are in need of minutes. Hernandez is already on the squad list from his early appearance, but Morgan has not appeared there yet. Saturday may come too soon for both anyways.
The Young Reds face a short turnaround, hitting the road once more for a Wednesday match in Pittsburgh against the Riverhounds.
Match Hashtag: #LOUvTOR