Toronto FC II will look to end a trio of unenviable streaks on Friday evening when they face the Tampa Bay Rowdies at the Ontario Soccer Centre. The match kicks off at 5pm.
Toronto are winless in their past seven matches dating back to that opening day victory in Phoenix and have lost their last two, each by 1-0 scorelines, in Pittsburgh and against Bethlehem. In addition, they have not scored in five, the last goal coming some 510 minutes ago in Orlando on April 4.
But their task will be made all the more difficult by their next opponent, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who handed TFC II a 4-0 defeat in their last meeting back on April 1.
The Rowdies enter in second place in the Eastern Conference, on 17 points from nine matches with a plus-seven goal differential. TFC prop up the table on six points from eight matches, with goal differential separating them from the Ottawa Fury.
At this point in the season the table is jammed, and a single victory and the three points could see TFC vault all the way up to eighth, the final playoff berth – though such considerations, not even a third of the way into the season, are premature.
Stuart Campbell has his Rowdies ticking over nicely.
Tampa Bay are unbeaten in three, having defeated Louisville City 2-0 on the weekend. They won their first three matches of the season, including that dismantling of TFC II, before struggling during a busy week, going winless through three: losses in Louisville and home to the Charleston Battery either side of a 1-1 draw with FC Cincinnati. But the winning ways returned with a 1-0 win over Richmond that kicked off this current unbeaten run, though they would have liked more from a 0-0 draw in Ottawa the following week.
The Rowdies also moved on to the third round of the US Open Cup midweek with a 3-0 win over Jacksonville Armada U23 – Canadian Kyle Porter was a goalscorer on the day. They will travel south to meet Miami FC in the next round, another Florida derby on the docket.
Georgi Hristov leads the side with five goals through nine appearances, while both Deshorn Brown (three in eight) and Joe Cole (two in eight) have been major contributors.
The match can be streamed on YouTube, as per usual – the game thread will be manned live ahead of kick-off at 5pm, so follow along with Waking the Red before the first team takes on the New York Red Bulls at 7:30pm.
Given the way their last meeting played out, TFC II know they will be in tough.
“We were behind the eight ball after 20 minutes,” recalled Jason Bent after training on Thursday. “They blitzed us. Set-piece defending was an issue, a lack of awareness, not touch-tight. We know we're going to have to improve defensively. We have made strides since we last played them - the test will be tomorrow.
“They've got a lot of weapons, lot of pace up front, good movement, very technical players that are experienced. We're going to have to be at our best to try and win the game.”
Since that shellacking, TFC II have made significant progress on the back end. The club conceded seven goals on that two-match Florida road trip, but in the five matches since they have allowed just two, a long shutout streak ending in Pittsburgh.
And in their second home game of the season last Saturday at BMO Field, there were signs that the dormant attack was coming to life.
“We have [made progress] defensively, also from the attacking side,” assessed Bent. “We didn't create many chances that game [in Tampa Bay]. If you look at the evidence from Saturday's game against Bethlehem Steel, we created a lot of the attacking play, a lot of chances, some pretty good [ones]... we're just not able to put the ball in the back of the net at the moment. We have made strides from that performance, which was a low point.”
The players agree with their coach on that front.
“The team is in much better shape now,” said Oyvind Alseth. “Early in the season we were still trying to figure out some things, [it was the] first time for some of the guys playing together. As a team we're playing better now. If we can keep up the defensive part from the last few games, create some more attack, then there are some chances for us.”
Much though that has been encouraging, the lack of results is clear.
“We've been performing well,” said Bent. “[But] the results aren't shown – we haven't won since March 25. We've picked up a few good points on the road, but now we need to crack on and starting winning games. It's finding that balance, but we know it's two goals scored in eight games: that's not a good recipe for getting results. We have been pleased with the clean sheets; if it hasn't been a clean sheet, it's only one goal against. If you score four, five, six more goals, we'd be sitting in a playoff position at the moment.”
The defence has been a focus, and it is vital that that solidity remains, but now it is time to convert that foundation into attack.
“As you go through the season, defensively you get better,” outlined Luca Uccello. “We've been working on shape, [both offensive and defensive]. We're in a much better place now, although results may not show that. It's about keeping the clean sheets and scoring goals.”
Tampa will provide a very good measuring stick for the progress the side has made over the past six weeks.
But the lack of production has been an issue.
Part of it can be put down to schedule – TFC II have played six of their eight matches on the road, not to mention the stop-start nature of the campaign with alternating spells of fixture congestion and long layoffs – and part can be attributed to rotation, with Bent not able to trot out the same XI in back-to-back matches yet.
Bent, once more, will likely see some rotation in the lineup. Tsubasa Endoh, who was a driving force against Bethlehem, is back with the first team, though Alseth, Sergio Camargo, Ben Spencer, Mark Pais, Brandon Aubrey and Ashtone Morgan will be at his disposal on Friday.
Additionally, Bent will be looking to get some first minutes for recent arrival Luis Pereira. With all the paperwork sorted out, he was set to debut against Bethlehem but circumstances dictated otherwise.
Unlike defence, where system and attention to detail reign, aside from the occasional trick set-piece a coach cannot just draw up a goal on the board.
“You have to get guys into good positions,” detailed Bent when asked how to spur the offence. “We feel that we [are] attacking the bye-line, getting crosses into the box, little combination play, also creating turnovers in the defensive third, some counter-attacking situations. We're getting into good spots; we have to take the positives from that.
“Now we need somebody to hit the back of the net, which will take away the anxiety in the group. Right now, they're only human, they'll be thinking about it, as am I.”
As Bent noted, the match against Bethlehem was undoubtedly their best attacking performance since Phoenix.
“It's all about concentration in the final third,” Uccello added. “We can take a little more risk in front of the net. Everybody is responsible to score, as [Bent] says. We'll be looking to open the floodgates tomorrow.”
Asked if there was a temptation, with the lack of gnawing in the back of mind, to go it alone, try and be the hero, Uccello rejected such a notion. “It's about being committed to the teamwork,” he continued. “When you don't score a goal for a couple games, sometimes you're thinking about it on the pitch, but that's the last thing you should do. Keep your mind clear, concentrate in the final third and get chances. The more chances we get, the [more likely] the ball is going to go in the net. It's about getting clear opportunities and working from there.”
With the final match of the three-game home stand next Wednesday against the Richmond Kickers and a weekend trip to Cincinnati the following Saturday, as well as the first team having both legs of the Voyageurs Cup semi-final against Ottawa over the next two weeks, this will be a busy stretch for all of TFC's sides.
Bent explained his approach to the unknown thusly: “It's a lot of communication between Greg Vanney and myself [as well as] speaking to the sport science department, making sure we're not overloading too many guys. It's trying to use the squad as best as possible.”
With the pyramid structure at the club it will always be a challenge, but II benefits from it in the same way the first team does.
“We know [if] certain prospects aren't getting minutes with II, [we] top [them] up with TFC III, so people have match minutes under belt and they're ready to go,” said Bent.
Two of TFC III's standouts – Dante Campbell and Matt Srbely – have been added to the TFC II player pool in recent weeks, with Campbell coming on for the final 10 minutes against Pittsburgh.
“The man management is a challenge,” Bent admitted. “There are certain regulars [who] are not getting as many minutes as before. Greg has the same concerns as well; balance the squad [while] not making too many changes from match to match because you can lose a bit of rhythm. But at the same time we haven't been winning games.”
Should TFC II score a goal, it would do wonders for the confidence of the side. A win over high-flying Tampa, however difficult a prospect that may be, would be an impressive measure of the improvement since that last meeting.
Match hashtag: #TORvTBR