Mere days removed from the end of that tricky road trip in Florida, Toronto FC II must shake off a pair of tough defeats ahead of their home opener on Friday night at the Ontario Soccer Centre against the Rochester Rhinos. The match is set to kick off at 7:30pm ET.
Led by head coach Bob Lilley, Rochester will present a familiar challenge to the Young Reds. The two sides met three times last year, including in the final match of the 2016 season.
“I've watched them over the last several years,” said TFC II coach Jason Bent from training on Thursday. “They're a little bit of a different team from what they were before; not as big up the front, in terms of their strikers, but they're very quick. They look to get turnovers in the opponent's defensive third – 23 minutes into the game [against Bethlehem Steel] and they already had twelve turnovers. That tells you they're a pretty good pressing team.”
Rochester has played just one match so far this year compared to three for TFC II, winning 3-2 last Saturday away to Bethlehem Steel thanks to an 88th-minute strike from Jochen Graf.
The Rhinos took an early lead in the ninth minute through Darius Madison and Wal Fall made it two in the 34th from penalty spot. But Charlie Davies, on loan from the Philadelphia Union, pulled one back deep into first-half stoppage-time from 12 yards and Seku Conneh leveled for the Steel in the 72nd minute, also from the spot.
Graf came up huge for the visiting side late on on a bouncing ball to win it, getting body position on a wandering goalkeeper to sweep the ball into the open net.
Rochester are an interesting side, very much unlike either of the types that TFC II has faced thus far. They are neither stacked with veteran professionals from abroad nor made up of North American journeymen. The only name that MLS watchers may recall is Sergio Campbell, a Columbus Crew draft pick from 2015 that made one appearance before being loaned and eventually waived.
They have a touch of international talent, but not of the Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips variety, with a smattering of French, German and Caribbean players. There are also a couple of Canadians in midfielders Jordan Dover and Ryan James, from Ajax and Mississauga respectively
For the most part, though, the squad seems built of US talent with strong college careers that never quite made it on to the MLS stage.
Despite the lack of eye-catching names, TFC's Bent is wary of the challenge Rochester presents. “They have a number of key pieces: Fall, in central midfield, number 17 – big, kind of like a Patrick Vieira, Steven N'Zonzi type. Good on the ball, makes things tick for them. They're strong in the back, we've seen that over the years with Rochester. They don't give up many chances or goals, so we're going to have to be at our best to create against them.”
Or, if that first match is anything to go by, pester them into rash tackles in the area, which seemed to work for Bethlehem.
The teams have met seven times over the years, with Rochester winning four and Toronto one.
Three of those matches were last season. TFC won the first in June 2-1 at home: Luca Uccello and Malik Johnson found the back of the net before Christian Volesky nabbed a late consolation. The two drew in July, 1-1 in Toronto: Volesky opened the scoring in that one, but Skylar Thomas rose up at the back post to meet a Raheem Edwards cross in the 77th minute to earn the draw. Rochester took the final September meeting at home, winning 1-0 on the strength of an early Steevan Humberto Fortes dos Santos strike on the last day of the regular season.
The match will be played at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan and is set to kick off at 7:30pm. It can be streamed on YouTube (see below) and don't forget to follow along in the comments of this article.
It will be a welcome homecoming for TFC II, who after winning that first match in Phoenix in resounding fashion struggled in Florida, being outscored 7-1 by Tampa Bay and Orlando.
WTR will have more on this opening phase of the season in the coming week but for now, according to the team themselves, they are looking forward to their return.
“We've been on the road for three tough games, so it's nice to get home, at least for one game,” said Bent in the build-up. “It's a big game for us. We'll see what the weather is like, could be snow, could be rain. I'll take either, as long as the surface is slick.”
TFC II will be without the services of Lars Eckenrode who, it was learned on Thursday, broke his leg in Tampa Bay. An unfortunate blow for a young centre-back who looked very solid in the early stages of his professional career; WTR wishes him a speedy recovery.
It is unclear, given that the first team plays the next day, just who will be available for II on Friday. Jason Hernandez, Sergio Camargo, Oyvind Alseth, Tsubasa Endoh and Brandon Aubrey should still be in consideration.
With Mark Pais signed to the first team to back up Alex Bono, academy keeper Brogan Engbers was added to the TFC II player pool this week.
Regardless of who takes to the pitch, the group is excited to play their first home match of 2017.
“Everyone is pretty antsy,” said Mitch Taintor, who was named as captain this week. “It's been a while since we've been back. Everyone is excited to play in front of the fans, represent Toronto. The boys are ready.”
Johnson, who scored the only goal in Orlando concurred. “I'm excited, the whole team is excited. We're going to put on a show for the fans and hopefully get three points.”
TFC II will have a two-week break following Friday night's match – they next take to the pitch on April 22 in Ottawa, for the first ever USL Battle of Ontario against the Ottawa Fury. The bye week will provide a nice chance to assess how the season has gone thus far and learn the required lessons, while also allowing the group to better integrate following a hectic opening two weeks.
Match Hashtag: #TORvROC