Rested and refreshed after a rare ten-day break, Toronto FC II will look to build on a series of positive home results with a tricky road match, away to the Charleston Battery on Saturday evening.
With the goal-struggles and winless runs eating up all the oxygen, TFC II have quietly been putting together a head of steam in recent weeks.
Tsubasa Endoh's strike against Pittsburgh on June 10 ended a three-game goal-less drought, though the Riverhounds would salvage a point with a late equalizer. Four days later Jordan Hamilton's early blast would prove the difference, earning the side their first win since opening day, moving them off the foot of the table.
Saturday will present a new and more difficult challenge.
The Charleston Battery are the class of the conference, topping the table with 28 points through fourteen matches, more than double TFC II's eleven in the same number of games. Their eight wins is four times Toronto's; their two losses three-and-a-half times less than TFC's. Both have drawn a similar number of games – Toronto five, Charleston four; showing how important collecting all three points can be to a side's place in the standings.
Only a pair of Western powerhouses – Real Monarchs SLC and San Antonio FC, with 36 and 34 points, respectively – can arguably be considered their betters.
Like the Richmond Kickers, the Battery are one of the longest running professional soccer clubs in the Unites States, having been founded way back in 1993 – quite the feat given the tumultuous existence of the sport in the country.
Toronto FC's very own Dan Calichman spent a year with the club in 2001.
Headed by Mike Anhaeuser, who played midfield for the club between 1994 and 1998, before joining the staff as first assistant manager and then as head coach and general manager in 2005, the Battery are unbeaten in three matches and have lost just twice all season.
That strength is only magnified on their home turf – MUSC Health Stadium in Charleston, South Carolina – where they are unbeaten in six, having lost one (against Pittsburgh in April) and drawn twice through eight matches.
That said, the last month has not been so kind, with just two wins in their last six, albeit with just one loss, against New York Red Bulls II, over that same period, though four of those matches were away from home. A spell that included a barnstorming 4-4 draw with Louisville City FC.
They enter Saturday's match a week removed from a 2-2 draw away to FC Cincinnati. Djiby Fall put the hosts in front after four minutes, but a pair of strikes from Romario Williams and Forrest Lasso around the hour mark put the Battery ahead, only for Andrew Wiedeman to equalize in the 80th minute.
Part of what makes the Battery so dangerous is the potency and sheer variety of their attack, with several players stepping up to contribute. That they have scored eleven goals more than they have conceded (28 for, 17 against), only makes that more troublesome.
Williams leads the way with eleven goals through thirteen matches, with Lasso on five from twelve, and Ataulla Guerra with four in eleven. Both Maikel Chang and Justin Portillo have chipped in three from fourteen appearances each. That is a lot of players to watch throughout the match, if Williams doesn't provide the goal, one of the others will.
“They've got a number of weapons that we have to be careful of,” cautioned Jason Bent from training on Wednesday. “[From] set-pieces, they're quite dangerous with Lasso, a couple of big guys, Romario Williams is banging in goals again. We also have to make sure that we shut down Justin Portillo in the middle of the park. If we do that, we have a pretty good chance of getting a result.”
Key for Toronto in keeping Williams off the board, according to defender Robert Boskovic, will be, “managing the depth in behind; keep him in front of us at all times. He's a great talent, it'll be a good challenge.”
Relatively sparse of names familiar to MLS watches – Williams is a Jamaican international who was selected by the Montreal Impact in the 2015 SuperDraft before being traded to Atlanta United last December (he is currently on loan with Charleston – part of the affiliation between the two) – there is at least one name that jumps out: Skylar Thomas, a former Toronto draft pick who spent the last two seasons with TFC II before departing in the off-season and landing in Charleston.
“We know Skylar very well,” said Bent. “A very competitive player. Strong in the air in both boxes. Defensively sound at times. We have to focus more on our game, keep our emotions in check, deal with the elements – it's expected to be warm on the day. Go in there with the right mentality and approach to get the three points.”
That reunion will be a nice sideline for both Thomas, who has made eight appearance this season for his new club, and his former teammates.
“I'm excited, it should be a good game,” said Thomas to Battery TV. “A lot of old boys who I played with the last two years; I'm excited to see them, excited to play against them. Hopefully we get the win.”
TFC's Brian James did admit there's been a little bit of pre-match texting: “Yeah, of course [there's a little trash talk]. We're both very competitive. I miss Skylar, wish him all the best. Hope I get to see him when we're there.”
Three further names that are worth a mention, and may ring a bell, are keeper Odisnel Cooper, midfielder Chang, and forward Heviel Cordoves, who were some of the Cuban players who defected as the side travelled to Toronto for a Gold Cup fixture back in October of 2012.
Charleston, back at home for a spell after spat of road fixtures – six of the last eight – are eager to make the most of the opportunity.
“It's a big game,” said Anhaeuser “We've had a lot of road games. The guys have been fantastic. We want to get off on the right foot in the first game of a three-game home stand.”
The Battery won both meetings last season: 2-0 at home on May 14 and 1-0 in Toronto on June 26. Williams and Chang provided the goals in the first match, with Williams again the scorer in the second. The Battery have won three of the four all-time meeting between the clubs; TFC lone win? From a Thomas header in July 2015.
The match is set to kick off at 7 pm and can be streamed on YouTube, or at TFC2.ca, as usual:
On the heels of that win over Orlando City B, TFC II will look to take forward the positives from that result.
“It's important [to maintain momentum],” emphasized Bent midweek. “Over the years it's been difficult to put together a run of games, consistent results. That's a challenge, not only for the coaching staff, but also the players. We know we're going against the leaders of the Eastern Division.”
Added James: “It's all about momentum. Go out there with the same mindset we did. We have more confidence now with the win.”
And though it was nice to have time off, according to Boskovic, having gotten the win, “we're in a groove right now, would have been nice to keep it going.”
Said James: “Would have went out there and played, but we've had a lot of games back-to-back-to-back, so it was nice to get away from soccer for a while, refresh our minds, get ready for the next game.”
With the first team in the midst of a hectic run, it is unclear who will be at Bent's disposal come Saturday. The two recent goal-scorers, Endoh and Hamilton, have been back with TFC – Endoh playing last night against New England and Hamilton midweek in Montreal. Jay Chapman and Ashtone Morgan also got some MLS minutes, while Ben Spencer and Oyvind Alseth were on the bench.
Lingering injuries to centre-backs Brandon Onkony, who was the subject of the latest We Are TFC II feature, and Jelani Peters may see them absent once more, but the rest of the side is fit and raring to go.
Said Boskovic: “They've got a decent crowd; it's going to be hot, so it's going to be tough to play, but I'm excited.”
Match Hashtag: #CHSvTOR