On the heels of suffering their worst defeat of the season, Toronto FC II return to the friendly confines of the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan for a Saturday evening match against the Harrisburg City Islanders. Kick-off is set for 5pm.
The 6-1 defeat in Charleston last weekend was disappointing to say the least – asked whether a result like that warranted a bit of the old hair-dryer treatment or an arm around the shoulder, Jason Bent chuckled, “definitely not an arm around the shoulder” - but TFC II must put that out of their minds in preparation for the upcoming match.
Nearing the half-way point of the season, the next month will be crucial.
Over the span of July, the side will play five matches: two at home (against Harrisburg City and Ottawa), before a three-match road trip takes them to New York, Rochester, and finally Ottawa once more.
Due to a quirk in scheduling TFC II plays eight of their final twelve matches at home – peculiar – but if they manage to manoeuvre themselves into striking distance of the playoff line, a late push with all those home dates is entirely possible.
Before the loss to the Battery, TFC II were finding a bit of form, unbeaten in two, getting the much-needed win, and though the goal in Charleston extended the goal-scoring run to three-straight matches, it was bitter consolation.
Charleston are the class of the conference, but these next five matches, in particular Harrisburg City and New York, see them take on teams more within grasp. The City Islanders can be leap-frogged with a win on Saturday; while New York currently sit just seven points away, Ottawa and Rochester nine.
“Over the last five or six games we've been playing against teams that are in the midst of where we want to be,” said Bent from training on Friday. “We haven't come out on right side. Now that we've had a heavy defeat last game, we have to get that out of our minds and really focus on this little home stand. It's important that we start to pick up points or else our season could go past us.”
Club captain Mitch Taintor called the run 'important', adding, “JB calls some of these games six-pointers. We can move up the table with a few wins.”
Taintor also went beyond the immediate result to look at the development, of both the players and the side: “It's a crucial point in everyone's development as well. It's time we start creating a winning culture at TFC II. The first team obviously has it. It's time we step it up.”
And Luca Uccello termed the stretch 'crucial'.
“Especially the home games: you've got to win at home. We have to make our place a fortress,” continued Uccello. “When you're playing in your division it's almost like a six-point game because you can move up the table. We'll be looking to do that in the next month. We're not where we want to be in the table. Keep going, stay consistent and the results will come.”
Cliches aside, these two home matches will be a good test for the Young Reds. And though their home record of one win, three draws, and two losses is mediocre, they are riding a three-match unbeaten run; one they will look to continue against Harrisburg.
Two places above TFC II in the Eastern Conference standings – Harrisburg sits in 13th – the two teams are separated by just two points. A win from either side would go some way towards getting back into the playoff hunt, where 19 points straddles the dividing line.
Coached by Bill Becher, the Pennsylvania-based side enter Saturday on the back of a big win, having beaten Louisville City FC last weekend 1-0 courtesy of a Pedro Ribeiro strike.
The big striker had his penalty kick earlier in the match saved, but his low shot in the second half made amends. The win snapped a ten-match winless run for the City Islanders, as well as a run of four-straight losses, though they are still winless in their last six road matches, losing the last three.
Founded in 2004, Harrisburg are another of those long running low-division American clubs that have managed to survive these turbulent times. Formerly affiliates of the Philadelphia Union, the partnership was dissolved at the end of the 2015 season with the Union setting up their own club in Bethlehem, the City Islanders finished tenth in the East last season, missing out on the playoffs.
They do have a few names that will be familiar to MLS watchers in former Union players Pedro Ribeiro and Aaron Wheeler. While Rasheed Olabiyi, who had a cup of coffee with Houston, is another who got a taste of the top level in North American soccer.
Having struggled for goals this season, Wheeler leads the side with two, while a cartload of players have singles. They have scored just ten goals through fourteen matches; expect Saturday's match to be a tight one.
It could be physical too, Harrisburg has 24 yellow cards over that span, as well as three reds.
“They've got some pace up the front,” noted Bent of this weekend's opponent. “Pedro Ribeiro, dangerous player, experience in MLS as well. Left-footed, tall player. [Cardel] Benbow is very quick and shifty, as well as [Paul] Wilson; a couple of Jamaican players.”
“We know [Mouhamed] Dabo from time with us briefly. Central midfielder, puts out fires, keeps things simple,” continued Bent. “Shawn McLaws can also be a threat coming from right-back. He's got good athletic ability, can get forward quite a bit. Solid team, a few places above us. We have to go in with some confidence and good intensity, show a reaction to last week.”
The City Islanders have won three of the five meetings all-time, with TFC II winning once and drawing the other. Harrisburg won 1-0 in their August visit last season, responding to Toronto's 4-2 road win in July.
Kickoff is set for 5 pm, the match can be viewed on Youtube, or TFC2.ca, as usual.
For TFC II, responding to last weekend's blowout was on the mind.
“It was a slap in the face,” said Taintor bluntly. “6-1 is unacceptable. We're ready to go tomorrow, the boys are prepared. We've got to go after it and prove we deserve to get a few points, make our way up the table.”
Ricardo John, finally back from a hamstring problem that has limited his minutes, called it 'a tough game; tough loss', stressing, “we have to take the positives, work on the negatives. That's what we did this past week in training. Bounce back tomorrow.”
While Uccello emphasized, “there's a lot to learn from that game. As players we're all disappointed, itching to get out there again and prove our opponents wrong. It's about learning from the experience and rebounding tomorrow.”
That the home match falls on Canada Day only adds to the importance.
“Any time you can play on Canada Day it's extra special,” said Uccello. “Being in front of the fans it will be nice, especially the Canadian guys, playing in front of family and friends.”
Bent described both to the media on Friday.
“Julian is a young centre-back, he's only sixteen years old, but he's been showing promise, not just with TFC III, but also with the U17 Canadian National Team,” said Bent. “He's big and strong; good one-v-one defender. It's an opportunity for us to test the young man and get him into our environment. He's been training with us for a little while now.”
“Andrew Dias is a left-sided player that we know from last year,” said Bent. “Athletic; can get forward; good left-foot. He's matured and grown up quite a bit since he joined Ryerson in the off-season.”
In addition, Bent mentioned 18-year old Dante Campbell, who has seen some action already this season but looks to be in line for more: “Two additions to the squad, as well as Dante Campbell, who's been training with us. Got a little sniff off the bench last week; I'm sure he'll figure at some point as well.”
With Tsubasa Endoh and Oyvind Alseth up with the first team, as well as Jelani Peters still on the mend, some added defensive numbers in the squad can only help.
Brandon Onkony has yet to feature after that clash of heads in Cincinnati, while Lars Eckenrode is reportedly working his way back, though having suffered a broken leg back in April, his time line for is uncertain.
The season is long, with many twists and turns.
The big opening day win; heavy defeats alternating with strong defensive performances; the long goal-less drought and Angelo Cavalluzzo's goal-keeping heroics to preserve a shutout streak of epic proportions. There have been plenty of talking points over the fifteen matches.
So far Toronto has been, as Uccello put it, 'more competitive', but performances have not turned into results. Seventeen games remain; undoubtedly there will be much more to discuss over the coming months.
For TFC II to overcome their struggles, it will be important they maintain the defensive solidity they've found, but they must also unleash the offense. Not conceding means not losing, but goals win games. A deflection here, a rebound there, a composed finish when opportunity presents itself and those draws turn to wins, the defeats to draws.
Toronto has three 1-0 losses, three 0-0 draws, and one 1-1, where Pittsburgh scored late to rob the Young Reds of two points. A goal here and there would have gone a long way towards the table looking very different.
Saturday against Harrisburg is a chance to begin a new chapter, respond to that loss and put the season back on track.
“It's important to score, but also to score more than one,” stressed Uccello. “We don't have enough goals this season; it's something we're working towards. Hopefully we can put a couple in tomorrow and entertain the crowd.”
Match Hashtag: #TORvHAR