Toronto FC II are back on the road on Saturday night as they travel to North Carolina for a tricky fixture against the Charlotte Independence.
It has been a trying few weeks for the side. Good results at home have failed to lead to much-needed points on the road. In many ways that has been the story of the latter half of the season, where home performances have lead to reasons for optimism, only for results away to conspire against building momentum.
Last weekend in Richmond was perfect example.
In perhaps their best performance of the season, Toronto took an early lead only to concede minutes later. And though they bossed large portions of the remaining 80 minutes, it was the Kickers who found the winner. Another strong outing that resulted in no points, while extending the gap between themselves and the playoff line even more as machinations elsewhere proved detrimental.
But as they have all season, TFC II must pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back out there again for a massive challenge: an away match against one of the best sides in the league.
Charlotte enter Saturday's match in second place in the Eastern Conference. Level on 44 points with Louisville City FC, they trail by a single win (the first tie-breaker) and by a goal-differential margin of six (the second). No doubt they will be looking at this fixture as a means of making up ground in both regards.
With a record of 12 wins, four losses, and eight draws through 24 matches and an impressive plus-17 goal-differential, Mike Jeffries has his side ticking over nicely with the playoffs just around the corner.
Success at home, where they have won six and drawn four of 11 matches, plays its part, but equally has road form, while the ability to put together solid runs has been instrumental to them reaching the upper echelons of the league.
Charlotte are unbeaten in their last two matches, drawing 1-1 at home with Orlando City B most recently – Hadji Barry scored in the fifth minute, only for David Estrada to respond two minutes later – and defeating Bethlehem Steel FC 1-0 days earlier.
But a loss to the Ottawa Fury on August 12, by a 3-1 scoreline, ended a 12-match unbeaten run days after they had drawn 2-2 at BMO Field against TFC II.
Though that streak fell, their home unbeaten run stands at 10 matches, dating all the way back to an opening day loss to the Charleston Battery. As mentioned, a stiff test for TFC II.
“Another tough game,” said goalkeeper Angelo Cavalluzzo after training on Thursday. “We got a good result against them at BMO Field, so we know they're going to want a bit of revenge. They're top of the table. We need all the points that we can get.”
That August 9 meeting between the two was perhaps one Toronto should have won. They created more than enough chances and Charlotte went down a man after a red card, only to take the lead against the run of play, necessitating Jordan Hamilton's late heroics to salvage a draw.
Charlotte, in the midst of the condensed schedule and on the road, opted to rest Jorge Herrera, while his striker partner, Enzo Martinez, was suspended.
This time in North Carolina, the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended.
“Enzo Martinez is back in the fold,” noted coach Jason Bent. “Between him and Herrera up top there's a lot of movement, quite dangerous. We have to be aware of those two players. They play good football, play out of the back; [have] a lot of freedom of movement in attack, the interchange of positions. We have to be aware, [communicate well]. [And make] it uncomfortable for them.”
If there is one thing Toronto has proven this year, it is that they are not intimidated by any opponent.
“We're just going to play our game,” said defender Brandon Onkony. “We don't focus on who we are playing against, just on ourselves.”
The all-time series has favoured Charlotte, with two wins and three draws in five meetings.
The match is set to kick off at 7 p.m. and can be viewed on YouTube, below, or at tfc2.ca.
Though the standings do not reflect it, Toronto have been a much better side than the numbers indicate.
After 24 matches, TFC II are back at the bottom of the table, two points behind Richmond, who leapfrogged with the win last weekend, on 18 points.
Toronto enter the match losers of their last two, both on the road, and winless in three when the draw with Charlotte comes into frame.
As mentioned, the disparity in results between home and their travels is where TFC II have come short.
They have collected just five points on the road all season, compared to 13 at home, and while that does not seem that huge a difference, it should be remembered that they have played four more matches away.
Points have come from just three of 14 away matches, whereas they have gotten them from seven of 10 at home.
Subsequently, Toronto has lost their last nine straight away and are winless in 13 dating all the way back to opening day in Phoenix. A simpler time.
With just eight matches left in the season, 14 points separate TFC II and the final playoff berth. It will be a big ask to make up that ground.
That said, the team does have some momentum, finding positives to build from in recent performances.
“The amount of chances we were creating; the control of the game,” recalled Bent of the performance in Richmond. “It was played on our terms for the most part. To go to an away ground... you can take some positives from that. We don't like to lose, we hate losing.”
Bent compared the last meeting with Charlotte to the recent losses: “It's similar to Richmond and Beth Steel.
“You're controlling games, have a lot of possession, but you need to be ruthless in the opponents box and very stingy in your own. Marking tight, a real desire to get blocks and stop the opponent. Everything else, from box-to-box, is pretty good. Our build-up play and control has been pretty good, but we need that ruthless side.
“Charlotte [is] going to be a very difficult game. We're going to have to really be at it to win.”
The long season has not worn down the side.
“We know that we can play against any team,” said Cavalluzzo. “It comes down to results. We're not getting them. We deserve to be getting a lot more than we have. It's tough. We know we should be higher in the table than we are.”
Along with inconsistency, injury has been a constant foe. The same will be a factor again this weekend, as Bent listed Sergio Camargo, Luca Uccello and Anthony Osorio, as well as long-term absentees Lars Eckenrode and Jelani Peters, as unavailable.
And with the first team in Montreal on Sunday, reinforcements will likely be minimal (though Hamilton looks set to feature again).
Added to that, Liam Fraser is on a warning for caution accumulation.
That six of the final seven matches will be played at home, where the club has taken points from their last three and from six of their last seven, with the only remaining road trip after Charlotte being to Harrisburg, where the City Islanders sit nearer TFC II than the playoffs, is a boon.
And the players are showing no decrease in desire.
“Personally I want to play every minute. I'm sharp now, I feel really good,” declared Onkony. “As a team we want to take every game, take maximum points.”
Added Cavalluzzo: “It's different being a second team because the end goal is to be with the first team. You always want to play well because that's your goal, regardless of what's happening in the season. If you perform well there's a chance there. That helps.”
“We can still make a final push; there's everything to play for.”
Match Hashtag: #CLTvTOR