Toronto FC II returns to the pitch riding a 310-minute shutout streak on Wednesday night, facing the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at 7pm ET.
As with last week in Louisville, the Young Reds are in tough against a good opponent, though the Riverhounds are not quite at the same level as Saturday’s opponents.
Louisville are a force in USL, near the top of the table, pushing for championships and aspiring to move up to MLS. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, fall more into the solid stand-alone club looking to survive in a difficult league category, while leaning on their MLS affiliation with the Columbus Crew to supplement their squad.
The Riverhounds enter Wednesday's match in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, on eight points from seven matches with a record of two wins, three losses, and two draws. TFC II still sit in 13th place in the conference, on six points from as many games.
It has been an up and down season thus far for Pittsburgh. They stormed back from a deficit on opening day against New York Red Bulls II to draw 3-3 – Corey Hertzog finding the late equalizer - before falling 0-1 at home against Cincinnati the following week.
They would win 2-1 away to Charleston, a quality result, but then fell by the same scoreline upon returning home to Saint Louis.
Their winless run would be extended to three matches with a 1-1 draw in Charlotte and a 2-1 loss at Richmond before they nabbed their second win of the season last Saturday via a 1-0 scoreline against the Harrisburg City Islanders.
The lone goal came from Hertzog, their top scorer with four on the season.
Having bounced around North America, playing in MLS with the Red Bulls, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City as well as NASL with FC Edmonton and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Hertzog is a known quantity, one TFC II will have to watch closely.
“He likes to drift off the shoulder of the centre-backs, so we have to be aware of his positioning at all times,” outlined Jason Bent after training on Monday. “He's not a post-up type of player, more of a slasher. We've got to be alert, touch-tight when crosses are coming into the box, limit his touches, get physical. Collectively we can to a job against him.”
Alongside Hertzog, another player on the roster that will ring familiar is former TFC defender Gale Agbossoumonde, though he has only played a total of 98 minutes this season.
In addition to that duo, a handful of names will be familiar to MLS watchers. Defender Joe Greenspan is on loan from Minnesota United – his story, getting drafted by Colorado while needing to fulfill his US Navy commitment was noteworthy a few years back - while the likes of Richie Balchan (Columbus) and Danny Earls (Colorado) have slightly more first-team MLS experience.
They also have two of the more intriguing names from recent drafts: Kay Banjo and Lalas Abubakar. Banjo was drafted by Vancouver in the 2015 SuperDraft, but never landed with the club, while Abubakar was selected by the Crew this year and is garnering valuable professional experience with the Riverhounds.
Alongside the Ghanaian defender, at least three more Crew loanees have earned minutes with Pittsburgh: midfielders Ben Swanson, Marshall Hollingsworth and Abuchi Obinwa.
The Riverhounds, who are led by head coach Dave Brandt, play out of Highmark Stadium, one of the more picturesque venues USL offers with its riverside vistas.
As usual, the game is available to stream at tfc2.ca. It is also the ESPN 3 Game of the Week, so whether it will be simulcast on YouTube is unclear at the moment. Once more, kickoff is at 7 pm, a half-hour before the first team meets Orlando City SC at BMO Field.
Of interest, the match will have the VAR system (video assistant referee) in place.
After that Florida road trip in April rocked their confidence, TFC II has rebounded, putting forth three solid defensive performances – one at home against Rochester and two away against Ottawa and Louisville – culminating in the 310-minute shutout streak that they will carry into Pittsburgh.
“We've got to take some of the confidence from these last couple games,” said Bent on Monday. “We can't give away as many chances as we did against Louisville. On the attacking side, we need to capitalize on those we get.
“I'm no different from any other coach, always searching for that balance. It's from both perspectives: we defend as a team – the amount of work our strikers did defending from the front was fantastic – and you also score goals as a team. It's not one particular unit, we've got to work in unison.”
The weight of history will be against them; past matches against the Riverhounds have been anything but kind. Pittsburgh has won four of the five all-time meetings, with the other match ending in a draw.
“It's a similar situation to Louisville – historically we were [zero wins] and four [losses] going in there,” recalled keeper Angelo Cavalluzzo, who was named to the USL Team of the Week (and finished second in Player of the Week voting) for his 10-save clean sheet in Louisville.
“We have that great foundation with the clean sheets. We're going to try and keep that up. Now it's just that cutting edge in the final third and make a goal. We had our chances in the last game – their keeper made some good stops. If we can finish those, we'll start getting three points. That's going to be our mentality going into the next game.”
Both as a team and as individuals over the past three matches, TFC II has grown immensely.
The captain Mitch Taintor has looked every bit the part, while his rookie centre-back partners, Brandon Aubrey and Oyvind Alseth, have put in strong, consistent displays. Brian James has quietly kept the side ticking over in the middle, while Liam Fraser has come up with crucial defensive plays when on the pitch.
The Trinidadian duo of Aikim Andrews and Jelani Peters has been brought into the fold, too, with each showing their class.
And having Jordan Hamilton in the group offers a dangerous weapon, as well as some experience. Though he was unable to convert his glorious late chance last weekend, he is due for a goal.
It is possible that Luis Pereira, the Panamanian acquired on loan from Arabe Unido last week, gets his first minutes for the side in this match, though he has not been added to the player pool listed in the USL preview.
One name that did appear there for the first time, however, was that of Dante Campbell, a 17-year old midfielder who is highly thought of both internally and in the Canadian national team programs.
It is unclear at this moment whether Ben Spencer signing a first-team deal will affect his eligibility for the Young Reds at the moment.
Another player who really showed his worth on the weekend was Jordan McCrary, who was able to get forward from his right-wing-back position, tiptoeing along the end-line to foster some of TFC II's most dangerous moments on Saturday.
McCrary, for one, was looking forward to continuing that good form against Pittsburgh.
“Keep the same mentality as we had against Louisville,” said McCrary when asked about TFC II's poor record against the Riverhounds. “[Louisville] were a hard team to play against, they pressed, but we were able to handle it. We've got to play as a team, defensively be on the same page, and find the net. That's the next piece.”
Match Hashtag: #PGHvTOR