Toronto FC II come home after a pair of road matches for a Saturday night clash against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan – the match is set to kick off at 7:30 pm.
It will be the second and final meeting of the regular season between the two, the Riverhounds having taken a 1-0 win in their May 3 encounter on the strength of an unstoppable strike from Victor Souto that ended TFC II's shutout streak at 332 minutes.
Toronto are coming off another tough result, losing 2-0 to Saint Louis FC on Friday by a pair of preventable goals. The first came from a set-piece, where a mark was lost; the second was the result of a ball over the top that allowed the opposition in behind an otherwise solid back-line.
That match also brought a busy month to conclusion. With the schedule ahead much more manageable, the club will be hoping to focus on turning positive performances into results.
Pittsburgh enter Saturday's match in a bit of a funk of their own, winless in three matches, though they have taken points from their last two away trips.
Coach Dave Brandt will be looking to the match as a chance to turn around their fortunes with the eighth and final playoff berth within grasp. Pittsburgh, with 15 points through 12 matches, currently sit in ninth-place in the Eastern Conference, level on points with Saint Louis, who hold that precious playoff spot, but having played two more games than their competitor.
Since that May meeting, the Riverhounds have played four matches, amassing a record of one win, two losses, and a draw. They won 1-0 away to Ottawa ten days after the defeat of TFC, but have not taken the full points since, losing twice at home – 1-0 to Louisville City and 2-1 to Orlando City B – either side of a scoreless draw away to the Harrisburg City Islanders.
Last Saturday against Orlando, top-scorer Corey Hertzog put them ahead in the 30th minute, but Hadji Barry levelled in the 42nd and Zach Ellis-Hayden scored the winner in the 53rd to hand the visitors the road result.
Hertzog leads the side with six goals in twelve appearances, while Marshall Hollingsworth and Kay Banjo have two goals apiece, in twelve and seven appearances, respectively.
Given Pittsburgh's ability to hang tough – they have conceded just 13 goals through 12 matches, or 1.1 goals per game – and Hertzog's knack for popping up with a vital strike – half his six have been game-winners – Toronto will be in for a match this weekend.
“We are pretty confident we can go and defend our home court this weekend,” said Ryan Telfer after training on Thursday. “The last game against Pittsburgh, we played an excellent game.”
“We controlled the majority of that match,” added Jason Bent, head coach of Toronto FC II. “Souto hits a screamer from 35 yards that goes in the top corner; would probably beat most keepers. They had to make a few tactical adjustments to deal with us. I'm sure they'll come in prepared to try to nullify our threats. It's down to us more so than them, what they do. If we're confident, play the way we know how to, and capitalize on our chances, then we can take the three points.”
That this rematch will be only the second time this season, through twelve matches, that TFC II has not faced a new challenge, will provide some additional benefit – the first was against the Tampa Bay Rowdies mid-May.
“It makes us a little more comfortable,” said Telfer. “We know what they brought to the table [the first time]. Going over the videos with [the coach], we understand what they might come with again.”
Bent explained the process of video review in more depth: “We review the video, think where can we be better, where were we not so good, where can we capitalize on their weaknesses and go from there.”
“The team has been performing the way we want to, we're just not getting that final product, which means goals, in order to try to win games,” continued Bent. “I can't say I'm disappointed in how the team is playing, just that we haven't scored goals, which change results from draws to wins, and losses to ties or wins.”
“It's a collective thing,” stressed Bent. “The whole team needs to be thinking about goals, getting into the right areas and making the best decisions; when to be selfish and when to be unselfish. It doesn't matter who scores, we just need the team to score and then we're all winners.”
That their destiny lies in their own hands, or feet, as it may be, has been a point of emphasis all season. Having overcome the obstacle of conceding too many goals last season, it is the lack thereof in attack that has been so costly this year.
“We're more prepared, but they're also more prepared for us. Both teams know each other better,” reminded Sergio Camargo on facing Pittsburgh for a second time. “We focus mostly on ourselves, on what we can improve, what we need to.”
“They're a good team,” added Camargo. “But we're focused on ourselves. [On] getting better, making the process better, improving on everything we need to to get results.”
The match will be streamed live on YouTube for those who cannot attend.
That TFC II need to see more for their efforts in the coming weeks is obvious.
Mired at the bottom of the conference, on seven points from twelve matches, the side is drifting off the chasing pack: three points from their nearest rivals and eight from the dividing line – and they have played as many matches as any other team and up to three more than some.
Winless in eleven, having lost two straight, and held without a goal since that May 19 match against Tampa Bay – a span of three matches, Toronto will be looking to kick start their charge up the table with a strong result on Saturday. After a roaming, irregular start to the season, the club has four of their next five matches at home.
As such, this week of training has had one primary focus for Bent and the rest of the staff at TFC, including Greg Vanney and his first team staff, who have been putting in some time with II during the international break: scoring goals.
Bent recounted some of those aspects they've been stressing: “Finishing in final third, crossing, the timing of our strikers getting into the box, the movement – making sure somebody is taking the near-post run, the far-post, as well as the trailer. Also with the ball, making sure we're getting good numbers in attack.”
“We've made a little adjustment in midfield to try to push some numbers forward. You could see that against Saint Louis,” continued Bent. “Unfortunately we weren't able to take our chances. Some individual finishing, position-specific finishing, to get guys comfortable in front of goal. Then it comes down to execution on the day.”
The TFC II boss admitted that the lack of goals, and all the talk surrounding it, has been a challenge.
“We're only human, it affects us all; we're trying to stay mentally strong,” said Bent. “We just need a bit of encouragement. We give [the players] the positives from what they're doing, but also let them know that at the moment, in front of goal, it's not good enough. Not just the strikers, everybody. It does affect us, but we have to keep battling away, get into good areas, and stay optimistic that it will change.”
For Saturday, the team will also be looking to return to the defensive solidity that has served them well. They were short-handed last weekend when Brandon Aubrey was forced out of the starting eleven after a knock from training on the top of his foot proved more troublesome than anticipated. Liam Fraser was drafted in to fill his spot, while injuries to Brandon Onkony and Jelani Peters saw Jordan McCrary fill in on the right-side of the back-three.
“Aubrey was training with the team today, seems like he's OK. We'll see how he is tomorrow,” explained Bent. “Peters will not be available, but he's back into training, as well as Ricardo John. Hopefully they can get into full training next week. Lars Eckenrode is still out, but he's on the mend, starting to get better.”
Expect to see Mitch Taintor back in the lineup as well, though Anthony Osorio is serving the final match of his three-match suspension for a red card against Richmond on May 24 – should have been mentioned earlier, but Alex Lee, the player who tangled with Osorio, was suspended upon further review for his part in the incident, though he only received a single match.
Given that the first team is off, there will likely be some players available for II, with Ben Spencer, Jordan Hamilton, Jay Chapman, Tsubasa Endoh, and Ashtone Morgan the most likely candidates.
In addition, Aubrey, Oyvind Alseth, and Sergio Camargo too look set to participate.
TFC II will face another quick turnaround after Saturday's match, with another home fixture on the horizon: Wednesday at noon against Orlando City B.
Camargo, who has been a bright spot in the attacking third for II and has a unique view of what has and has not gone right, seeing as he plays in a position that straddles those attacking areas of the pitch, spoke of the progress the team has made over the campaign.
“At beginning of the year we weren't creating, weren't finding each other with the right chemistry. Now we are; we just can't put them in the back of the net. That goes for the whole team, not just strikers,” outlined Camargo.
And in discussing the contributions of Luis Pereira, the recent Panamanian arrival who has started the last two matches for II and has seen goal-bound efforts cleared on the goal-line in each, Camargo added: “We all could [use a little bit of luck in front of goal].”
With that in mind, Saturday beckons.
Kickoff is at 7:30 pm, Alex Bono will be doing a meet-and-great prematch, and hopefully there's a strong contingent of fans on hand to support the Young Reds at the Ontario Soccer Centre.