Toronto FC II return to the pitch at the Ontario Soccer Centre on Saturday night at 7:30pm for an enticing clash against the Ottawa Fury.
The Battle of Ontario, the second ever in USL, resumes when the Fury come to town. With TFC II in need of points to make their way up the table and the visitors eager to force themselves above the playoff line, it should be a tasty one.
It has been some time since the two met in the first back on April 22, playing to a 0-0 draw in Ottawa. Since then, the Fury had two legs against the first team in the Voyageurs Cup, pulling off a stunning upset in the first leg with a 2-1 win, only to crumble in the second, falling by a 4-0 score when Greg Vanney unveiled the big guns.
For the Fury, it has been a bit of a mixed season since then. They came to life after that scoreless draw, outscoring both New York Red Bulls II and the Richmond Kickers in shootouts (seven-goal and eight-goal, respectively), kick starting a four-match unbeaten run that ended with a 1-0 loss in Rochester against the Rhinos.
Ottawa would respond with a 1-0 win over Orlando City B three days later and draw with Red Bulls II on short rest once more, but they fell last weekend on the road against Louisville City FC, dropping a 2-1 result.
Brian Ownby scored the opener after fourteen minutes and Luke Spencer added another for the home side in the 71st; Steevan Dos Santos' 87th minute strike was minor consolation.
The Fury have lost their last two on the road and are winless in three on their travels, dating back to that win in New York. Overall, they are winless in two. They will be looking at TFC II as a chance to get back on the winning track ahead of a four-match home stand.
Led by coach and general manager Paul Dalglish, the Fury enter Saturday's action in 9th place in the Eastern Conference with 20 points from fifteen matches, a single point adrift of the three teams occupying the final playoff positions.
Dalglish, speaking with the Ottawa media, was wary of the threat posed by TFC II, and all MLS-associated opposition, according to the Fury website.
“Complacency is one thing that we have to guard against,” cautioned Dalglish. “The thing is you can never be complacent against an MLS II team, because you have no idea what players are going to be on the roster.”
“We have to be prepared because this is a much better team than what the record shows,” added the Fury gaffer. “We’ll have to be at our best to get a good result, and we know that we have four straight home games coming up after that game, so we’ll do our best to get a win.”
It is not only the risk of the unknown and a record that belies quality that concerns Ottawa.
“We have to approach this game with confidence, but also be cautious,” said defender Ramon Martin Del Campo. “Because when a team is backed up to the wall, almost has no escape, that’s when they come out the strongest.”
“For us, it’s a good match up,” he added. “We know what we’re capable of doing. We are going to go there and give them a good battle and I’m confident we’ll leave with the three points.”
With a record of five wins, five draws, and five losses, scoring 22 goals and conceding 19, Ottawa find themselves firmly midtable in their first season in USL. They will want more from the second half of the season.
Sito Seoane leads the side with four goals through fourteen appearances, while both Dos Santos and Ryan Williams have chipped in three from eleven and twelve appearances, respectively. Tucker Hume has two in thirteen matches, as does Michael Salazar, whilst on loan from the Montreal Impact for four matches.
Dos Santos in particular has found a patch of form of late, scoring two of his trio in the last three matches. He will be looking to continue that pace on Saturday.
“We played them here and ended up with a draw even though we dominated that game,” lamented Dos Santos. “We know exactly what we have to do now to get the win: capitalize on our scoring chances. I know we will have some.”
And lest it be forgotten, that April meeting ended in some bad blood as Andrae Campbell was shown red for his lashing out at Mitch Taintor as the two jostled for position when a debatable penalty kick was awarded in the waning moments.
Gerardo Bruna's attempt would beat Angelo Cavalluzzo, but not the post.
For their part, TFC II too is also unsure of what Ottawa will look like come Saturday.
“I was surprised that they dropped off [in the last meeting]. It was their home opener,” said Jason Bent on Thursday after training. “They've been playing a lot better since then. They could come at us; might drop off again. We're not entirely sure. We know they've played a couple different systems, personnel the last couple of games. We've planned for both. We'll just have to see how they come out.”
Added Bent: “It's a rivalry, a big game for us to try and bounce back after a couple of defeats. We have to be focused and ready for the challenge.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 PM.
TFC II have lost their last two, falling 4-3 at home to the Harrisburg City Islanders last weekend and 6-1 to Charleston away two weeks ago.
Back at the foot of the Eastern table, with the playoff spot some ten points away, Toronto will be looking to jump start their campaign with a big derby win a week after Canada Day.
According to Bent, the mood of the group is, “fairly positive, considering the result from last week. We played pretty well in some portions; disappointed with goals gave up – felt individually and as a group that it was far too easy [for Harrisburg]... not something we've been this year, but in the last couple of games: ten goals conceded in two games is not a good recipe.”
Having shored up the defensive issues that were their bane last season, and finally found the back of the net after a lengthy dry spell that hampered this – the club has scored in their last four matches and had their first multi-goal outing last weekend – for Bent, it's about finding that 'balance'.
“We keep searching. Some games you're getting clean sheets and you can't score, then you score three and you can't keep a clean sheet or anything close to that. It's a tough spot to be in, but we have to stay positive, keep working,” stressed Bent. “Credit to the boys, they've been at it in training. Very focused and intense. They want to put things right.”
TFC II midfielder, Aidan Daniels, who was instrumental in Luca Uccello's goal last weekend, emphasized: “Defend first. We have make sure we're safe [at the back] first of all. In attack, we have great guys going forward, so we have to secure the ball first and go from there.”
With the goals flowing, Bent has seen a more relaxed side in attack, saying 'the mental anxiety has gone', crediting the effort the side has putting into practice.
“That [anxiety] has dissipated, we have to move forward, get into right areas. The amount of work we've done on the training ground, in and around the goal, attacking pattern plays, strikers getting finishes and repetitions is incredible over last little while,” praised Bent. “It's nice to see guys have taken chances. Off set pieces too; that was a nice goal to get as well.”
The resilience amongst the group, scrapping and clawing against all odds, has been evident amidst the disappointing results.
“The character is strong, growing week in and week out,” said Bent. “The team has had to deal with a lot of adversity: poor results, injuries, up and down form. They've been competitive in most games. Things at the sharp end of the pitch – in our own box as well as the oppositions – are deciding matches. Full credit to them, they keep going. They want to do well, they want to succeed.”
It would have been easy for the side to let their heads drop. In Charleston, despite the lop-sided scoreline, they battled to the last second. Same too against Harrisburg, twice clawing back goals after conceding in the first half. The City Islanders grabbed two to start the second half, but TFC II came back with another. One could argue they weren't beat on that day, they simply ran out of time.
The reason for that?
“We have a lot of pride in the locker room,” stated Daniels. “It's something represented at the club, in the first team and the academy. We take pride in what we do.”
On the injury front, there was some good news as Lars Eckenrode has began running and getting some touches in as he works back from that broken leg suffered in the second game of the season. But Shaan Hundal and Jelani Peters have been ruled out for the foreseeable future as they deal with what Bent called “longer term” concerns.
Anthony Osorio too is out, while both Sergio Camargo and Jordan McCrary are back from knocks that saw them miss the match against Harrisburg.
Oyvind Alseth, meanwhile, has been busy with the first team, so is not expected to feature.
Curious if the young side is pumped for the big derby against Ottawa?
“We're buzzing, we're excited,” smiled Daniels. “Ready to bounce back from last week's loss and get the W versus Ottawa.”
A 'W' against Ottawa, the first for either side in the USL version of the Battle of Ontario, would provide a much-needed boost for a TFC II side looking to inject themselves into the playoff picture.
The two will meet once more, later this month on July 29 in Ottawa; the third encounter of the 2017 regular season. Three points on Saturday would set up nicely for an important road trip over the coming weeks that sees Toronto head to New York and Rochester, where results will be just as crucial.
A good run and that late July meeting could be even more enticing.
Said Dante Campbell, the 17-year old defender who made his first start of the year last weekend: “We're focused on getting the three points. We know that we've been unlucky, but realize that when we get the opportunity, we have to take it.”
One game at a time.
Match Hashtag: #TORvOTT