Toronto FC II are back on the road for the second of three road matches in an eight-day span.
The first match, last Friday, did not go as the side had hoped, falling behind inside the opening half hour to a Vincent Bezecourt strike, a goal that stood as the winner: New York Red Bulls II took the match 1-0 despite TFC II's best efforts to claw back in the second half.
Toronto were hoping to build on the positivity that emerged from their solid 1-0 win over Ottawa Fury FC on July 8. Disappointed though they may be, a season necessitates a short memory, as the next match is always just around the corner.
"We thought we should have got a better result," said Dante Campbell of the loss in New Jersey, who it was announced had signed a pro deal with the organization on Friday. "We're working hard in training, make sure we get the three points [in Rochester] and then take care of Ottawa on the weekend."
Propping up the Eastern Conference, TFC II are 10 points off the playoff pace, that final berth held by New York, so there is plenty of time left for the worm to turn on this season.
The task is not made any easier by the scheduling; three away games in eight days is tricky at the best of times, but they are up for the challenge.
"It's a test," admitted Mark Pais of this week, who made some highlight-reel saves against the Red Bulls. "Thankfully none of them are too strenuous [in terms] of travel. We've got a lot of guys itching to get out there, ready to play, to vindicate ourselves after the last game."
"We've analyzed New York, taken away what we can. Overall the effort was there, just ball security and things like that that could have turned the game around for us," continued Pais. "We're ready to move on. We're gung-ho, ready to go to Rochester and get these three points."
This weekend's opponent, the Rochester Rhinos, currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, with a two-point cushion over New York having collected 26 points through 17 matches with a record of six wins, three losses, and eight draws.
Coached by Bob Lilley and playing out of the Capelli Sport Stadium in Rochester, the Rhinos enter Wednesday's match in good form, riding a four-match unbeaten streak, three of which have been draws – 0-0s against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and at Saint Louis FC, as well as a 1-1 in Ottawa. They won 1-0 against the Harrisburg City Islanders on July 7 to last collect full points.
Prior to that run, the side had gone four matches without a win, losing away to the Charlotte Independence (2-1) and at home to Orlando City B and drawing 1-1 both at the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando City.
They seem to be a streaky side in terms of results.
One of the reasons for that is that the Rhinos are a stingy bunch. Through 17 matches they have conceded just 16 goals. Conversely they have only scored 18, but when the margins are razor thin sometimes one is all a side needs.
This Jason Bent knows well.
"They're a physical team," said Bent of the Rhinos after training on Tuesday. "They've got a couple of decent threats: Wal Fall is a good footballer, quite dangerous; the striker [Jochen] Graf has been getting on the end of things; Kenardo Forbes is always a threat in between lines and wide. It's always a tough place to go; they don't give away much. We're going to have to be at our best."
The two sides met earlier this season on April 7, playing out a 0-0 draw at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan.
Graf and Fall lead the side in scoring with four goals each in 14 and 16 appearances respectively, while Forbes, Darius Madison, and Mike Garzi have chipped in two goals apiece.
The Rhinos have bossed the all-time series, winning four and drawing three of eight. TFC II's lone win came last summer on June 11: a 2-1 home win with Luca Uccello and Malik Johnson scoring inside the final quarter of an hour before Christian Volesky pulled one back in stoppage time.
Kickoff is set for 7:05 p.m. The match will be streamed on YouTube and at tfc2.ca.
That kind of late kick is something that TFC II have displayed regularly this season, especially of late.
Against New York they were unlucky not to find an equalizer, while the winner against Ottawa came from a second-half push after a somewhat muddled first half. Even in defeat, like against Charleston and Harrisburg, the side has shown some significant fight in the later stages of the game. It is a point of pride for the group to build upon.
"The players have tremendous character," said Bent. "You can see our fitness levels are quite good. New York were the team running out of gas. No doubt in my mind if we had another 10-15 minutes we would have scored."
"The chance we created at the end of the game: forced a turnover in their end, broke quickly, Ricardo John did everything we asked trying to get at [Timothy] Schmoll, but lost his footing at the key moment," recounted Bent. "It's unfortunate."
"I said to the players in the video session: full credit goes out to you because you kept going, kept working. The desire to get back into the game was there for all to see. We just came up a bit short."
And that with one hand tied behind their back.
The USL adopted a rule change in the off-season that reduced the number of substitutes from five to three. A rash of bad luck this season has seen Bent forced to burn subs on the regular due to injured players.
Just last week, Aikim Andrews froze on an attacking move and was forced off before half-time. He has been troubled by a shoulder problem that flared up, but was back in training and in contention for Wednesday.
Uccello, who missed out last Friday after an ankle knock suffered against Ottawa did not recover as hoped, appears to be unavailable. So too for Jelani Peters and Lars Eckenrode, though he is reportedly progressing well.
The rule change is especially inconvenient for a side that has to provide minutes for first teamers building up their fitness and also give looks to academy products as they work up the pathway.
"It's impacted my ability to make tactical changes. A lot of them have been forced," lamented Bent. "It's something we've got to work through. The league change to be more in line with FIFA and world football: I can understand their perspective, but it's handicapped me. There are very few [matches] where I've had the option to make tactical changes."
That, and the side's tendency to be a little slow out of the gates in recent outings, has made a season of fine margins all the more difficult. Rochester are a perfect example of a side who have used their defensive solidity to good effect. TFC II have too often put themselves on the back foot with an early goal against.
Bent chalks that up to finding the right mentality: "Trying to take the initiative rather than being cautious. That's got to be us trying to get on the front foot, put teams under the cosh a little bit. It can work that way on the road. Other teams are very aggressive, they want to have a start as well."
While Pais, the veteran of the team at the ripe old age of 26, adds: "Part of it could be maturity levels. We've got a lot of young guys; really good footballers, know how to play, excited to play. Sometimes instead of 'first 15, let's take it to them', we want to try to play too much of our style right away, which is hard to do."
"Maybe we've got to be a little safer, more conservative to start, put it into their end and get into a couple of tackles and then we can assert our style," suggested Pais, emphasizing it's all about experience. "You've got to go through these tough moments, where you drop some games you don't want to. Learn from that. That feeling sits with you and you've got to find a way to make amends the next game."
Match Hashtag: #ROCvTOR