The shutout streak may have ended a week-and-a-half ago in the 1-0 loss in Pittsburgh against the Riverhounds – and with it the unbeaten run of three matches – but that has not affected the confidence of Toronto FC II as they brace for the first of three straight home games.
The USL season is young, and through seven matches TFC II has shown it has learned the lessons of that difficult trip to Florida early in the year. Since those two defeats, the club has conceded just one goal through four matches. They have not scored either, but the defensive platform has been established. This home stand is the perfect chance to transform that education into results.
Standing in their way on Saturday is Bethlehem Steel.
Founded late in 2015, Steel - the Philadelphia Union associate - struggled in their first season in the league, finishing 11th place in the Eastern Conference (one better than TFC II) with a record of six wins, 14 losses and 10 draws.
Led by Brian Burke, they take their name from team that played back in the early days of the 20th century, sponsored by the famed steel company in the area. The Union paid homage to the original club in 2013 with one of the best third kits ever to grace the field in MLS.
Through six matches this season, Bethlehem has two wins and four losses. Both wins have come against FC Cincinnati, while both of their away games have ended in defeat. They currently sit level on points with TFC II at six, in a three-way tie with the Ottawa Fury for the bottom of the Eastern Conference, though Toronto has played one game more.
They come to Toronto on the back of a 1-0 defeat away to Charleston on Saturday, Ataulla Guerra's 17th minute strike proving the difference between the two clubs.
Bethlehem's roster is stocked with players from the Union: names like Charlie Davies, Ken Tribbett, Auston Trusty and Giliano Wijnaldum stick out amongst the nine Philadelphia players listed in the player pool for Saturday's match.
Seku Conneh, a Liberian who grew up in the Netherlands, leads the side in scoring with three goals through six appearances, and is likely to factor in the action.
“So far they've had mixed results, a couple wins, a couple defeats,” said TFC II coach Jason Bent after training on Friday of the upcoming opponent. “They're a pretty experienced side. They've got [Seku] Conneh up front, [Adam] Najem, a number ten playmaker, [James] Chambers in the middle of the park can spray a pass, so we need to be wary of his ability. They're a solid team.
“I'm sure they'll want to come in here, knowing that their first season in USL they lost to us twice, they'll try to put one over on us. We've got to make sure we're ready for the battle and the competition. Focus on our game, but also nullify some of their attacking threats.”
As Bent pointed out, TFC II won both matches between the clubs last season, each by a 3-2 scoreline.
Asked about playing against a team more in the mould of TFC, in terms of developing players rather than being a standalone club, Liam Fraser said: “They've done a good job getting players up. Derrick Jones signed with Philadelphia and he's off with the US [Under-20s] at the World Cup. They done well, but at the end of the day it's just another game, another chance for us to take three points.”
Jones, a tenacious, driving central midfielder who drew headlines early in the MLS season with his performances – including against Toronto FC in March – is with the national squad for the upcoming World Cup in South Korea. Jones was the Steel's first-ever signing and made the jump to the first team in the offseason having inked an MLS contract last July.
There are a few Canadians on their roster worth noting: Josh Heard, a Welsh-born midfielder who spent time in the PDL with the Victoria Highlanders and was drafted by the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2016, and Chris Nanco, a Sigma FC product and North York native.
“I remember Nanco from his days at Sigma, know he'd gone off to Syracuse and done some good work there,” recalled Bent. “He's been coming off the bench, hasn't really been starting, but I'm sure he'll be looking forward to playing in his home town, at BMO Field for the first time. Give a little spark whether he starts or comes off the bench.”
Nanco has one goal for Steel in just 54 minutes of action – do not be surprised if he sees some minutes on Saturday.
The match is set to kick off at 6pm. Those attending the TFC match against Minnesota United in the afternoon are invited to stay and cheer on II. For those not, the YouTube stream is available at the top of this article.
The doubleheader at BMO Field will be a special experience for the players.
“It's my first time playing at BMO, for a lot of the guys,” said club captain Mitch Taintor, anticipating a “cool atmosphere”. “It will be a great experience for everyone. We're all looking forward to it. Really excited.”
Though not new to either Angelo Cavalluzzo or Liam Fraser, who have both graced the pitch before, the message is still not lost.
“For all of us, that's the end goal,” smiled Cavalluzzo. “In front of a full crowd as well. It'll be nice to be on that pitch, in that environment around the first team. See how everything works on a matchday.”
Added Fraser: “We're definitely excited, no doubt. It's not [often] you get the opportunity to play in such a world-class stadium. And hopefully, some of the fans stick around to watch. We're all buzzing, looking forward to the game.”
It has been a while since Cavalluzzo, who placed third in the USL Player of the Month polling for April after his strong run of form, was there. “When I was with the academy, a long time ago, back in 2010 was the last time I played there,” he said. “When it was turf, we used to train there all the time.”
Less so for Fraser: “I played against Wilmington two years ago in June, it was a rainy night. I've trained a couple times there, but this will be a cool experience.”
But that excitement, Fraser assures, will not be a distraction. “For sure [it adds something extra], but it's just a game, 11 vs. 11,” he insisted. “We're going to win it.”
And a win on Saturday, in front of the TFC faithful, would go a long way towards climbing up the table. TFC II may sit at the bottom at the moment, but eighth place, the final playoff spot, is just three points away; third place, a mere six.
“The players are focused, as are the staff; [all] fairly relaxed,” said Bent. “We know the importance of the match, one of those six pointers early in the season. And it's a game in front of our own fans, expecting nearly 7,500 for the game; that will be nice for players. Nice grass pitch to play on. Everything is there to play for.”
“We need to start the home stand off well, with three points and a victory, so that we can look forward to the next two,” added Bent, before returning to the standard mantra: “But, one game at a time. We need to make sure we play the same level of football and score some goals.”
Where some may see disappointment goalless in four, winless in six, propping up the conference, the group is buoyant.
“JB [Bent] and [Chris] Poz[niak] have done a really good job preparing us this week,” said Taintor. “We know what we need to do – we've got a video session later, so we'll get that sorted. We just need to keep playing the way we're playing and everything is going to come together because we've been playing really well.”
In that spirit the game plan is to keep doing, “exactly what we've been doing,” according to Fraser. “We've just got to keep pushing, stay committed to our game plan, which is to be sound defensively. We had good results against [Bethlehem] last year, but we can't focus on that.”
It was announced on Friday that three players had been loaned from the first team to TFC II: Ashtone Morgan, Ben Spencer, and Mark Pais.
Expect Morgan and Spencer to be the more likely of the trio to feature with Cavalluzzo the hot hand in goal.
In addition, Bent revealed that both Sergio Camargo and Tsubasa Endoh would be available for the side on Saturday.
Scouring the matchday squads at USL.com, two further names were added to the TFC II player pool: Panamanian midfielder Luis Pereira and academy standout Matthew Srbely.
Following a long, drawn out start to the 2017 USL season, TFC II is ready to push on with the dawn of a more normal pattern. The next three matches are crucial in converting strong performances into results.
“Anytime you're at home you want [take advantage of] the home stand; make our stadium a fortress,” said Fraser. “That's what we're looking forward to, as well as take some travel out of your legs and put the other team on the back foot.”
Game Hashtag: #TORvBST