Still riding high off of the stunning three-goal comeback that saw them overturn a first-half deficit against one of the best teams in the league on Saturday night, Toronto FC II return to the pitch on Wednesday evening for a date against Saint Louis FC.
The Charlotte Independence struck twice in the opening 32 minutes last time out, putting TFC II behind the eight-ball, but a red card to Alex Martinez after the restart fostered a glorious seven-minute spell where Ashtone Morgan, Ben Spencer and Jordan Hamilton found the back of the net to seal three valuable points.
With seven matches remaining on the season, Saturday's result provides the perfect launchpad for what lies ahead: currently 12 points off the playoff pace, the club has six of those games at home, where they are unbeaten in three matches.
A postseason berth would be a massive ask, and will require results elsewhere to fall kindly, but given the improved play over the last several weeks, it is not entirely out of the question. Regardless of how it ends, these next two months will be exciting.
The time to savour Saturday's result, however, is minimal, as TFC II face a quick turnaround ahead of their next challenge: Saint Louis FC.
Coached by a familiar face in Preki, Saint Louis FC comes to Toronto in need of points themselves. They currently sit in 11th spot in the Eastern Conference with 29 points, four short of the pace set by Bethlehem Steel FC and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who straddle the dividing line – Bethlehem hold the 8th place by dint of their 10 wins, two more than Pittsburgh (wins are the first tiebreaker in the USL).
With a record of eight wins, 11 losses, and five draws, Saint Louis have had a middling season, as their place in the table indicates, but what stands out is the minus-11 goal-differential. Through 24 matches they have scored just 26 goals, while conceding 37. As the old saying goes, goals win games, and leaving oneself only the barest of margins by averaging slightly more than a goal per game is dicey territory.
Aside from a draw against Swope Park Rangers, Saint Louis has alternated wins and losses over the past two months, stretching back to a four-game losing streak for most of June into July that began immediately after their win over TFC II in their only other meeting this season.
This past weekend they fell 2-1 on the road to the Rochester Rhinos. Ryan Howe gave the visitors the lead in the third minute, but a red card to Seth Rudolph for handling on the line just three minutes later and the subsequent penalty kick, converted by Wal Fall, harkened a downfall.
Jochen Graf would add the Rhinos’ second of the night come the 55th minute, handing Saint Louis a second straight defeat on their travels.
If there is anything that will irk Preki, it will be the output his side has produced away from home. Through 12 road matches, Saint Louis has collected just nine points with a record of two wins, seven losses and three draws.
In addition to losing their last two, they have dropped five of their last six, aside from a 1-0 win at the Richmond Kickers on July 29.
Based in Fenton, Missouri, Saint Louis FC, as mentioned and like TFC II, have struggled for goals. Rudolph is the club's top-scorer with five through 14 matches but will be unavailable, serving a suspension for his dismissal. Christian Volesky has four in 23 games, while a trio of players – Daniel Jackson (in 17), Octavio Guzman (in 19) and Mats Bjurman (in 21) - have chipped in with two apiece. Several others have added singles.
Jason Bent knows TFC II are in for a contest, though, against Preki's side: “We're looking forward to a tough game, as always.”
“They're a stringent 4-4-2. They've got some effective pieces,” detailed Bent on Tuesday afternoon after training. “I like the player [Jose] Angulo, he hasn't been playing much up front, but he's always a threat. When we were at their place, the partnership he had with Volesky, who is [also] always a threat, was pretty good.
“AJ Cochran at the back, set-pieces; you have to be wary of that. They have some other tidy, experienced players. It's more about ourselves. As I've been preaching all year, about the consistency. Yes, we did well on Saturday, but we have to go and reproduce it. It's in the players hands, to go out and enjoy their football, put together back-to-back wins. [That] is what you need to start moving up the table.”
Saint Louis took the last encounter 2-0 at their ground on goals from Cochran and Volesky, Cochran from a set piece and Volesky breaking through the back line.
They hold the advantage in the all-time series with two wins to TFC II's one.
Kick-off is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Ontario Soccer Centre and can be streamed either on YouTube (below) or at tfc2.ca, as usual.
For fans in attendance, Justin Morrow will be in the house doing a meet and greet.
TFC II come into the match having responded to a pair of disappointing defeats with that win in the third leg of a tricky road trip that saw them drop frustrating matches in Bethlehem and Richmond.
While the road has been unkind, home has been a different story, collecting three wins and four draws through 10 matches. Furthermore, they are unbeaten in their last three, including wins over Charleston and Ottawa, as well as the draw against Charlotte.
They are up for it.
“The spirits are high,” said Jordan McCrary on Tuesday. “It's always good to get a good win, especially when it's away, against a good team, like Charlotte. Ready for this next game.”
It was announced on Tuesday that Clint Irwin has been added to the TFC II player pool with the first team on an international break. Whether he will play or not remains to be seen, and his fitness stint with II last season did not go well, but he is just the latest of a string of Toronto FC players looking contribute to the USL side.
With all three goals in Charlotte scored by first teamers, Bent spoke about the contributions players such as Morgan, Hamilton, Spencer and Tsubasa Endoh, to name just the most recently involved, have brought to TFC II.
“Greg Vanney set the tone from preseason by illustrating to the squad that whether you play for the first team or the second team you have to take chances, have to perform,” said Bent.
“The [players’] attitudes, every single one of them, have been very good; work ethic has been good. And now the quality and experience is coming to the fore, which is important. [We] have a lot of young players, young pros, they look up to these guys. And they should make the difference. Those three goals were very beneficial for the team.”
The win in Charlotte, as well as the earlier draw and defeat of then table-topping Charleston, has proven that on the night, TFC II can go toe-to-toe with the best in this league.
No doubt they will be looking to carry the positives from Saturday into Wednesday and beyond.
Asked how, McCrary was clear: “It starts off in practice. Got to stay level-headed and know you have the next game to compete for against Saint Louis and it's a quick turnaround. Stay grinding and know we're going to get the win.”
As noted, the match against Saint Louis kicks off the home stretch - emphasis on 'home' - for TFC II, as an unbalanced schedule sees them close the campaign with six of their last seven on their own turf – a point driven home on these pages again and again.
The overall effect of this imbalance, alongside an injury-riddled season and the inconsistent lineups that come with player availability uncertain from week-to-week, is that the side has struggled to find a rhythm, the consistency that Bent has been preaching.
But as with all clouds, there lies a silver lining. Twenty-one points are there for the taking.
After Saint Louis they play Rochester and New York Red Bulls II before a trip to Harrisburg. After that matches against Louisville City FC, Bethlehem and FC Cincinnati. Aside from the Louisville match – they top the conference at the moment – all of those matches are six-pointers.
Toronto needs to win and hope results elsewhere go their way for a shot at the postseason.
Bent knows that appears a tall task so his metric for success, not unlike the first team's mantra of 'one game at a time', is “to keep improving from week to week”.
"We go in to the season trying to make the playoffs. Right now we're in a very difficult spot based on our lack of consistency in terms of results,” said Bent. “If I'm honest, over the last six weeks we've been playing some very good football. We haven't gotten results that we wanted, possibly deserved.
“And now the challenge is to keep turning out performances and winning. We've been expressing a winning mentality the entire season. Playoffs; that's why we're playing.”
“And to keep guys ready and ticking over in the event they get called up for the first team, so they're sharp and ready to go,” added Bent. “It's a combination of both.”
Though there was positive news on the injury front, with players like Luca Uccello and Sergio Camargo on the mend and back in training, Bent said it was unlikely that any would be available for selection midweek.
McCrary, who set up Hamilton's gorgeous game-winner with a surging run into the box and pull-back, is adamant about what he expects from Wednesday.
“I'm expecting us to win,” stated McCrary. “To come out, play our game, as we do, and win.”
Match Hashtag: #TORvSTL