The madness of May - where, between Toronto FC and TFC II, the club played 13 matches - continues in June as both teams are set to conclude their months of insanity with one final match before things return to a more normal pace.
It has been a challenge, but when the first team goes on an international break next weekend TFC II will continue. Although the schedule becomes a touch more manageable with just four matches this month, there will still be one quick turnaround of four days between home fixtures against Pittsburgh and Charleston.
On the back of a strong, albeit losing, performance away to FC Cincinnati last weekend, TFC II are back on the road for a Friday night fixture against Saint Louis FC, a match that will feature a homecoming for one as well as the crossing of paths with some old friends, both recent and past.
More on that later.
In Saint Louis, Toronto will be facing an opponent in similar need of a win. SLFC, as nobody seems to call them, are winless in their last five matches and sit just four places above TFC II with 12 points from nine matches.
A win for Toronto would go a long way towards closing the point gap between the two from five to three.
With three each of wins, draws, and losses, the campaign appears even for Saint Louis, but further analysis shows that having gone unbeaten through their opening four games, winning three in a row after an opening day draw away to Louisville FC, they have been on quite the slide.
That their month has been very light, with just two USL matches in May, has not helped at all in finding the necessary rhythm to buck that trend.
Home wins over Ottawa Fury FC and New York Red Bulls II were followed by a road victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. But a heavy defeat away to FC Cincinnati began the slide. Losses to the Charlotte Independence (in Missouri) and the Charleston Battery (away), as well as a pair of draws in Florida against Orlando City B and the Tampa Bay Rowdies have resulted in the current malaise.
Saint Louis looked to have arrested that concern on the weekend with Jose Angulo put them ahead in Tampa Bay in the 59th minute, but Rowdies defender Neill Collins equalized late to ensure a sharing of the points.
And Saint Louis will be playing on short rest, having defeated the PDL champion Michigan Bucks on Wednesday night in the Third Round of the US Open Cup by a score of 2-1 – Sebastian Dalgaard netting the brace. That win sets up an interesting encounter with the red-hot Chicago Fire in Fourth Round. The match will be played in Saint Louis and the two clubs were formerly affiliated, adding another dimension to the contest.
The club was founded in 2014, making their debut in the 2015 USL season. They are yet to make the playoffs, finishing 14th in the Western Conference last year, prompting the club to appoint a new manager in October, who swiftly cleared house in preparation for a return to the Eastern Conference in 2017.
The club badge features a fleur-de-lis, honouring the French heritage of the city's founding.
Led by former TFC coach Preki, the man hired last fall, Saint Louis has grand aspirations, though their most recent machinations towards consideration as an MLS expansion candidate suffered a blow when a funding proposition was turned down by a 53-47% vote at the start of April.
That their downturn in fortunes followed the news is most likely coincidence.
The match will be played at Toyota Stadium in Fenton, Missouri, a suburb of Saint Louis.
TFC II's defensive form will be tested by the two strikers who lead Saint Louis: the previously mentioned Angulo and Christian Volesky. Angulo has four goals in eight appearances this season, while Volesky has three in nine.
“We come up against an old ally in Preki. I know he will have his team well-drilled, work rate will be fantastic, organization will be good,” said Jason Bent after training on Wednesday. “They have some dangerous footballers, in particular the two strikers, Volesky and Angulo. We also come against Wes Charpie, who was a fantastic servant to Toronto FC II. It will be nice to see him. It's a tight little stadium, turf, maybe 5000 it holds. The last time we were there we came out with a 2-1 result. The crowd was into it, close confines, so we're looking forward to the game.”
Preki, or Predrag Radosavljevic to his friends, managed Toronto FC in 2010, and some still view his reign as the most successful, prior to the current regime at the club, of course. Bent was with the club in those days, but also played against Preki in the early days of MLS.
“I'm sure there's a few stories, but we'll keep that close to the chest,” smiled Bent when asked about old times. “He was with first team and I was with the academy, so not a great deal of interaction. I always admired his passion for the game and how drilled he had his teams: they were very organized and the work-rate was fantastic. And as a player, he was fantastic. Left-foot. We definitely had some battles on the pitch in MLS, him playing for Kansas and me for Colorado.”
“I kicked him a few times,” admitted Bent when pressed for details of sed interactions. “He had this chop with his left foot: he would shape up to shoot and then he would cut it back on you. It would frustrate you so much as a defender.”
Should Bent expect Preki to be seeking some revenge on Friday?
“I'm sure he does [remember that],” joked the coach. Never a bad idea to carry an extra pair of shin guards just in case.
Relatively sparse on names familiar to MLS watchers – AJ Cochran, formerly of the Houston Dynamo (and K-W United) being the only one that jumps out. There will, however, be a former TFC II defender to keep an eye on as Wes Charpie made the move over to Saint Louis in the off-season.
Charpie has been an ever-present on the back-line for Preki's side, appearing in all nine matches and collecting a pair of assists.
“He's a hard working player, very reliable. He can get up and down the flank, enjoys getting into the attacking third,” said Bent of his former charge. “He's got several assists this year with his crossing ability. An honest player; never a problem. I enjoyed working with him. It's football, sometimes you have to move on. I think it was the right decision for not only our club, but for him. He's showing that he can play.”
Shaan Hundal, who made the leap from the academy to TFC II last season, also recalled his former teammate with kind words: “Funny guy, always nice. A good person to look up to when you're coming up from the academy. A great guy and a great teammate.”
But Hundal will be looking to single out Charpie for some rough treatment come game time: “I'm going look to purposely go on his side, show him how much I improved from last year. Take him on and get a goal.”
The two clubs did not meet last season with Saint Louis in the Western Conference, but back in 2015 they split the results, each winning at the other's ground: TFC 2-1 and Saint Louis 1-0.
The match is set to kickoff at 8:30 pm and can be viewed at TFC2.ca, as well as on YouTube:
Winless in their last ten matches, mired at the bottom of the conference, and five points adrift of the dividing line, Toronto FC II will be looking to turn past strong performances into results. Though they lost away to Cincinnati last weekend, Toronto gave a tricky side a match on their home turf.
The goal-struggles may continue, and have weighed on the side, but there have been plenty of positives upon which to build. This is a team that, aside from that one match in Tampa Bay, have been in every single game – something that could not be said of last season. On occasion they slip – losses to Orlando City B and to the Rowdies in Vaughan come to mind where bad spells proved their doom – but they have largely given opponents trouble at every turn.
Still, the fact of three-goals-through-eleven-matches is a drag.
“It's a level of frustration, I'm only human myself,” admitted Bent. “Feel it for the players as well. They're putting so much into matches and not coming away with the points that they want. We sat in locker room [after Cincinnati] thinking to ourselves: 'how did we lose that game?'”
“But that's a sign of our progression, where we're going,” continued Bent. “At the end of the day it's a results driven business and we know we need to start putting some points on the board to climb up table. We're not far from a playoff spot, but at the same time we don't like how the table reads right now. It's our job to fix that.”
Toronto will be without the services of Anthony Osorio, still serving his suspension for a red card against Richmond. And there are a few injury concerns: Brandon Onkony has not been cleared following the head injury that forced him off in Cincinnati and Jelani Peters is still dealing with a hamstring issue.
There is some good news: Lars Eckenrode, who broke his leg back at the start of April, is out of the walking boot and beginning his road to return.
The match in Saint Louis will have special meaning for only player in particular: Mark Pais.
“It's going to be great,” smiled Pais, a native son, of his impending homecoming. “Some excitement, a little emotion: the club I played at previously, where I grew up. There will be a lot of people that I know, that I'll be excited to see.”
“At the same time I'm there for a job,” added Pais. “It'll be about shutting out those distractions prior to the match, focusing and preparing the way I normally do. Enjoying the match and helping our team get three points.”
And he will have a strong contingent of support in the stands: “My mom and dad, best friends, still live there. They'll be coming in droves and bringing their friends. It'll be a good time for everybody.”
Pais joined TFC II after two seasons in Saint Louis – he was signed to a first team contract when Clint Irwin went down with injury.
Saint Louis has a reputation as one of the breeding grounds of American soccer, stretching back to its role in providing several of the players that stunned England in the 1950 World Cup. And it has since served as a fertile breeding grounds for soccer talent, including Taylor Twellman, Brad Davis, and Will Bruin, to name but a few. There have been plenty of moves to put the city back on the footballing map in the US.
Despite the struggles and setbacks, Pais sees the birth of the current club as a boon to the sport in the city.
“It was huge,” said Pais. “In 2015 when Saint Louis FC started, it was huge for the city and some saw it as the last shot. We had AC Saint Louis there before the USL was re-branded and it didn't do so well. This was the last shot to bring pro soccer back and do it right. They did it right. While I was there we were searching for results, but the fan base and the excitement in the city is surrounding the team. That's good for soccer.”
Asked if the coaching staff were picking his brain for strategy against his former side, Pais said he would do what he could, but that most of his former teammates had left when he did.
“They cleaned house pretty good when I left,” said Pais on Wednesday. “There's only two or three guys that are left over. I'll definitely give them the scouting report on those remaining. Whatever I can to help us come through.”
And as for must-see stops in his home town, Pais is certain, nodding to history before getting down to business: “The arch is cool. The symbol of Saint Louis; the Gateway to the West. It's a big deal. But I would love to bring them to a Cardinals game; they're a blast. If there was one thing we could do: bring them to a Red Birds game.”
It is unclear whether TFC II will have the chance for such tourist luxuries, but should they return with three points, they will not feel the least bit regretful of that... well, maybe a little. And word is the barbecue is not to be missed either.
Given the difficulties in front of goal, there are two paths ahead: make changes or stick with the game plan. Bent acknowledged a few tweaks in the game plan in Cincinnati – getting numbers higher, forcing turnovers – but for the most part, the plan remains the same.
And if the match in Cincinnati is any indication, the side is getting closer: Hundal hit the post and Luis Pereira had a shot cleared off the line.
For Hundal, who had several good looks that match, the path forward is clear: “Go with what we do. We've been creating chances, it's just that we've been unlucky in front of goal. Sooner or later it's going to hit the back of the net.”
Match hashtag: #STLvTOR