Toronto FC II hit the road for three matches over the next fortnight before ending their season with six of their last seven at home.
And they do so with a certain pep in their step, following a pair of impressive home results, beating then Eastern Conference leaders the Charleston Battery 1-0 on August 5 and following that up with a 2-2 draw against the Charlotte Independence on August 9, who overtook the Battery for the top spot.
Four points against the two of the conference's best is a mighty haul for a side looking to push themselves into the playoff conversation. The fact that it could have been more had they taken half of the chances created midweek against Charlotte, should only serve to spur them on further.
That they close the season with that home-heavy schedule means that even if they currently sit some ten points shy of the final playoff berth (after Saturday night's results) with ten matches remaining, they are by no means out of the reckoning.
Matches in Richmond and Charlotte lie ahead, but up first is a trip to Pennsylvania for a rematch against Bethlehem Steel FC on Sunday evening at 5 pm.
Bethlehem are one of those teams that TFC II is chasing.
Heading into the weekend, Steel FC sat in seventh in the conference with thirty points from twenty matches, courtesy a record of nine wins, eight losses, and three draws, sporting a modest plus-one goal-differential.
Coached by Brendan Burke and playing out of Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem will provide a stern test of whether TFC II's recent turn of results is permanent or merely fleeting.
With a record of four wins, four losses, and four draws at home this season, Bethlehem's points haul at home (sixteen) is not dissimilar to TFC II's thirteen. It is on the road that the two are differentiated, with Bethlehem taking fifteen points to TFC II's three. That ability to go into another's barn and come out with the glory does a lot for a side's place in the standings.
Burke stressed a similar point in speaking with the club's website in the build-up to Sunday's match: “It’s really important. You have to get the points when they are there to be had.”
“Toronto is no pushover. They beat Charleston last weekend and we are aware that we’re in for a game,” continued Burke. “They play an aggressive system just like their first team, so anything can happen on those days. I respect some of their attacking talent like they have.”
Naming, Shaan Hundal, in particular, who is confidently rounding into form, as a threat.
Bethlehem enter the match on the back of a win over Ottawa Fury FC last Saturday, picking up one of those road wins, and the valuable three points, with the 2-1 result.
An own-goal by Aaron Trusty in the 7th minute gave the home side the lead, but Canadian Chris Nanco pulled them level in the 66th minute and Santi Moar found the late game-winner in the 81st minute to snap a run of three winless outings.
Steel FC are in the midst of a bit of fixture congestion themselves, playing the first of three matches in a week, which could see them overlooking Toronto, though Burke's comments and the fact that the rubber match sees them travel to Charlotte midweek, imply that they will be looking to maximize their take from the match.
And they are building a head of steam with the playoffs fast approaching, unbeaten in five at home, including wins over New York and Harrisburg, stretching back to a May 25 loss to Charleston. Though draws against Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Ottawa mean that there could well be points for the taking.
“Go in there with the right mentality. To pass the ball and to attack just as we did the other day,” were the instructions that TFC II boss Jason Bent issued to his side this week. “If our spacing is good and we can look after the ball, be reliable in possession.”
“[Bethlehem] is a team that is very dangerous on the counter attack. They don't waste time, try to get in behind, get balls forward very, very quickly. And they've got a lot of pace up front, which is something we saw [in the last meeting],” said Bent. “That game was one that we felt we should have won, but unfortunately they sucker punched us with a [penalty kick].”
The last meeting Bent is referring to was a 1-0 Bethlehem win on May 13 at BMO Field, where Cory Burke's eight minute penalty kick proved the deciding factor on a night that Toronto were dominant, but could not find the breakthrough.
Seku Conneh leads the side with seven goals through 17 matches, though he is far from the only threat. James Chambers has four in fifteen, Nanco three in the same, while Moar has three in eighteen, Burke has two in fourteen, and Aaron Jones two in sixteen, as well as a handful of others with singles.
Bethlehem's win in that last meeting was their first in the all-time series between the two, TFC II having won both the year before.
The game is set to kickoff at 5 pm and can be viewed on YouTube (below) or at tfc2.ca.
TFC II have lost their last seven away matches and are winless in eleven on their travels, stretching back to that opening day win over Phoenix, but Bent sees recent results as something upon which to build.
“It should be,” said Bent on Friday. “We've been preaching that if we're attentive, apply ourselves, and execute, come out with the right mentality and work rate, that we can compete with anybody. The last two games show that. It gives some confidence to the players.”
“Now we come into a crucial stretch of three away where need to pick up some points,” added Bent. “We haven't picked up any in our last seven road games, something we want to rectify as quick as possible.”
According to defender Robert Boskovic: “The mood is pretty good. Playing against the first-placed team, we played well, showed well at BMO. Everyone is excited for this weekend, get another W.”
The message to the group has been, “execution”.
“JB said it after the game: we've got to execute when we have chances, especially in the first half,” relayed Boskovic. “It punishes us if we don't. That's the game plan.”
Boskovic chalks up the recent turn in form on that fact that, “we've been more confident. The touches on the ball have been cleaner, everyone has known their role and what to do.”
Whether they can carry that into these road matches remains to be seen.
“It's always difficult to play on the road,” said Bent. “You might not [have] the majority of the possession, sometimes you have to bunker, wait for your moments.”
“There are a number of factors that go into it,” continued Bent. “On the road, at the beginning of the season, we picked up a number of results, but now we've gone into a stretch where we've been in tight games, but haven't been able to pick up any points. We have to execute, take the game to the opposition and find those moments [to do so], and you have to be clinical when you do get chances.”
The side will be without several players this weekend. Luca Uccello is still overcoming his foot problem, while Jelani Peters and Lars Eckenrode are long-term absences. And whether any of the first teamers who were so important against Charleston and Charlotte will travel is uncertain. Tsubasa Endoh was with the first team on Saturday night in Toronto, though none of Jordan Hamilton, Ashtone Morgan, and Ben Spencer were.
Though reticent to say the side has turned a corner with the recent results, Bent did admit that the side has been, “performing well in the last several games”.
“I'd be apprehensive of saying it's really coming together until I see that consistency over five, six games. Then you know,” stated Bent. “When you get consistency of individual performances it leads to consistent team performance.”
That consistency may be under threat in the coming weeks with Liam Fraser on a warning for caution accumulation following his booking versus Charlotte.
It has been individuals, such as Fraser, Aidan Daniels, and Jordan McCrary, as well as Uccello prior to his injury, to name but a few, who have guided the team to better results.
“There haven't been many changes to the team over the last couple weeks. Players have to make it difficult for myself to choose the team,” stressed Bent. “You perform well, you should keep the shirt. Aidan Daniels symbolizes that. At the beginning of the season it was difficult for him to get in, and now he's getting into a rhythm, put together a number of good performances and he's keeping the shirt. That's what we preach to the whole team.”
Match Hashtag: #BSTvTOR