Toronto FC II return to USL action after nearly two weeks off on Friday night at 7pm when they kick off in New York - well, New Jersey at least - against Red Bulls II.
Coming off a massive win against Ottawa Fury FC on July 8, the side will be looking to carry the positives from that result into this next run of fixtures: away to New York and the Rochester Rhinos before taking on the Fury once more, this time back in Ottawa.
Head coach Jason Bent has preached balance all season long. The side began by looking to strengthen their Achilles' Heel from last season – goals against – and did so for the first few months of the season, occasional set back aside. But in shoring up the defense, the offense went missing.
But recent weeks have seen a change. It has been inconsistent – as the 6-1 thumping in Charleston will attest – but with Luca Uccello's stunning game-winner against Ottawa seeing their goal-scoring streak stretch to five matches, including the first where the side scored more than one in a single game, while managing a stubborn clean-sheet, their seventh of the season, a corner could have been turned.
The task now is to put that into force, put a run of results together, and make their way up the table.
Standing in their way are New York Red Bulls II.
Defending USL Cup and regular season champions, Red Bulls II have been a different animal this season. They lost a number of players from the side that beat Swope Park Rangers 5-1 in last season's finale to the first team – Aaron Long, Dan Metzger, Tyler Adams, Derrick Etienne Jr., and Ryan Meara.
Several have made the occasional appearance for NYRB II, while Brandon Allen and Vincent Bezecourt, who accounted for four of the five goals in the cup final are, well, were with the team – Allen has since been loaned out to Minnesota United FC in MLS.
Still, TFC II's Bent knows New York will be no pushovers.
“They're a very solid team,” said Bent after training on Wednesday. “The benchmarks they set last year were pretty impressive. This year they've slightly fallen away from that, but they're still a very dangerous team. [They] press aggressively. [Have] some very good footballers: Bezecourt been doing quite well, Valot, Junior Flemmings has been a thorn in our side.”
“We have to be aware of their attacking threats. We know what to expect from them,” continued Bent. “Now it's applying what we've been working on to the match day.”
New York currently sit in tenth spot in the Eastern Conference – four above Toronto who has two games in hand – with nineteen points from as many matches, with a record of six wins, ten losses, and three draws.
Led by former Red Bull John Wolyniec, he of the werewolf/thriller goal celebration fame, NYRB II play out of MSU Soccer Park and are a team that TFC II must look to beat if they are to begin climbing up the table.
The now-departed Allen was the group's top scorer with nine goals from fifteen matches, while Flemmings and Bezecourt each have five, from sixteen and eighteen matches, respectively.
After a strong start to the campaign, taking points from five of their first seven matches, the Red Bulls have slipped, garnering results in only four of the next twelve. Heading into Friday's action they are riding a three-match losing skid with only a single win in their last seven matches.
In addition, they have lost three of their last four at home, including last weekend's 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Charlotte Independence. Charlotte's Jorge Herrera put the guests in front after 21 minutes and an own-goal from Hassan Ndam in first half-stoppage time doubled New York's woes.
Enzo Martinez extended that lead to three shortly after the restart, only for David Najem and Flemmings to score in the final ten minutes for the Red Bulls, making for an interesting close. Alas, New York fell short in the end.
NYRB II has dominated the all-time series against TFC II, winning three of four, drawing the other, including a 1-0 win last August, though the sides drew 2-2 in last season's opening match. The aforementioned thorn, Flemmings, scored the August game-winner, while Allen had both in the draw with Raheem Edwards and Skylar Thomas netting for the Young Reds.
The match will be streamed live on YouTube, as well as at tfc2.ca – and an archive will be available shortly after the broadcast wraps up. Kickoff once again is at 7 PM.
With the calendar ticking over and the playoff race truly underway, TFC II will be looking to use this three match road-trip as a spring board towards a good close to their campaign.
Due to a quirk, the side plays eight of their final twelve matches at home, so even with a nine-point gap currently between them and the final playoff spot held by Harrisburg, the post-season is not beyond reach.
The side has taken points from three of their last five matches and will be well rested after a bye-week.
“We were able to give the players a few days off. Some were able to get away, go see family and friends,” explained Bent, though Jordan McCrary later revealed that he missed his flight and instead stuck around Toronto in search of barbecue. “Back to business last week, number of training sessions, a friendly against KW United, keep us ticking over. Preparing this week for New York.”
A lengthy absence from the pitch midseason can be both a blessing and a curse – hence the friendly. Momentum can be a delicate thing. Judging by the celebration post-match with the fans in the stands at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan, the players were in jubilant mood after their derby win.
“You probably would have liked another game three, four days later, but such is the schedule,” confided Bent. “Now we have three in eight [days], all on the road. It'll be a tough stretch. To keep that momentum going: it's always better when you win, winning breeds confidence. We have to have that desire, mentality to push on. If can string together two, three wins in any league, you're going to move up the table. That's our focus.”
Inconsistency has been the bane of this side. Bent has preached balance all season long and there have been signs that perhaps it has been found, if one overlooks the two outliers against Charleston (6-1) and Harrisburg (4-3). Seven of Toronto's last nine matches, leaving those two aside, have all been or would have been (in the case of 0-0 draws) decided by a single goal. That TFC has come out on top in the last two such cases is a blueprint for further success.
And a derby win never hurts either.
“We can take confidence from that,” said Bent, cautioning, “You don't want to get too ahead of yourself after one good result. The challenge for us is to stay consistent, week in and week out. That's what is going to be needed to push up the table.”
Toronto will be without the services of Jelani Peters, the imposing centre-back having picked up a long-term injury. On the positive side, Anthony Osorio is available again, while Lars Eckenrode, who broke his leg back in April, is back in full training.
For their part, the players are itching to go.
“The mood is: let's get these three points,” said McCrary on Wednesday. “It's as simple as that. We know what time it is in the season. We know what we've got to do, we know our jobs. Focus as much as you can in these practices – the past few days and last week have been amazing. Get these road wins.”
How does McCrary plan to carry the result from Ottawa forward?
“Day-by-day,” he said. “Every day you step into practice keep that high energy, positive outlook. Last [match] great practices led up to a great game. This week same thing. Keep on grinding, keeping that environment happy and good. Then this weekend go out do the same thing as last.”
Even Julian Dunn, the sixteen-year old newest member of the squad, deep-voiced and soft-spoken, emphasized that point: “Keep it rolling, try to get some more.”
Asked if, albeit prematurely, the result over Ottawa could be a turning point, McCrary reframed the question.
“We've pushed it to the next step,” he suggested. “Beginning of the year we were hard to score on, lot of shutouts, we just could find the back of the net ourselves. Now we're starting to find that back of the net, that extra pop in the step. Keep this going; our expectations are high.”
Bent stressed that heading into this road trip, “the players are very focused”.
“We have a couple of tactical things we've been working on – defensively and on the attacking side,” he continued. “If we apply ourselves correctly, [we have] a very good chance of getting three points. If we limit the schoolboy mistakes.”
Added Bent: “[The] message before the Ottawa game was: we're halfway through the season. take the [lessons] from first sixteen games, don't forget about them, remember them, but now let's move forward. It's the second half of the season; we control our own destiny. If we we put up points on the board, we'll be in good position. One game at a time.”
Match Hashtag: #NyvTOR