Toronto FC II returns home after three matches on the road on Saturday afternoon when they face the Charleston Battery at 4:30 pm in Vaughan at the Ontario Soccer Centre.
With a week to regroup after a tough road trip that saw them drop three matches in eight days, outscored 5-0 over that stretch, the side will be looking to make the most of the final three months of the 2017 season.
Twelve matches remain for TFC II. Due to a quirk in the schedule, eight of those will be played at home. With ten points currently separating them from the playoff line, there remains plenty of time to make up that ground, but as Jason Bent said on Friday after training: “We can't be talking about the playoffs right now.”
“Yes, it's in the back of the mind, but the main thing is putting together consistent performances, which will breed consistent results,” continued Bent. “All year we've had difficulty putting back-to-back wins together. If you don't do that, even if you're ten points behind, you're never going to claw back. Are there enough points on the board to get there? Yes, there are, but first and foremost it starts with results.”
Saturday's match marks the first of two in five days at home – the second of which goes Wednesday at BMO Field against the Charlotte Independence – before the side hits the road for three more away, visiting Bethlehem, Richmond, and Charlotte.
Of the final seven games, six are at home. Three either side of a trip to Harrisburg on September 16.
These first two, however, will pose a significant challenge, as TFC II faces the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
Up first are the Charleston Battery.
Coached by Mike Anhaeuser, the Battery are a single point ahead of Charlotte – who have two games in hand – with 37 points from 21 matches.
An impressive record of ten wins, four losses, and seven draws, as well as a strong goal-difference of plus-sixteen, becomes less stellar when broken down into home and away form.
On their travels, the Battery are a more humble three, three, and three.
Added to that, they have struggled of late, going winless in five matches, since following their 6-1 dismantling of TFC II on June 29 with a 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The Battery have drawn their last two: a scoreless result at home against Orlando City B and 2-2 in Pittsburgh against the Riverhounds. Losses away to Tampa Bay and Saint Louis FC, where they were shutout in both, preceded, while a 1-1 draw at home to Louisville City FC began the tough spell.
In part, those struggles have coincided with the absence of top-scorer, Romario Williams, who was away at the Gold Cup with Jamaica. He made his return as a second half substitute last match and Toronto knows well he will be one to watch.
“We have to shutdown Romario Williams; a reoccurring thing every time we play them,” said Bent. “The player is in good form; come back from the Gold Cup very sharp. Has  goals on the season, can see what a difference he makes to their team. When he wasn't in the side, they weren't winning as much. He's definitely a danger man.”
Alongside the threat of Williams, Charleston has several players capable of finding the back of the net. Forrest Lasso has six goals in eighteen appearances and Justin Portillo has five in 21. Ataulla Guerra and Maikel Chang have four each, in fourteen and 21 matches, respectively.
“Rest organization when we have the ball is critical,” reminded Bent. “We have to improve on set-pieces: the first two goals that we gave away at their place were from set-pieces. Make the necessary adjustments and corrections there.”
Said Liam Fraser: “They're league leaders. We know it will be a tough match.”
“If we stick to game plans, come out of the gates firing, we know we have a chance to win the game; give ourselves the best opportunity to get a result,” added Fraser, cognizant of the slow start in Ottawa. “If we come out strong, we'll be fine. We have to be focused on that.”
Fortunately for Toronto, in addition to the overall streak, Charleston in winless in their last five away. On the other hand, the Battery have dominated the all-time series, winning four of the five previous meetings, including the 6-1 result in the last one.
A result like that has a way of sticking in the craw.
“Nobody wants to get beat that bad,” said Fraser. “It is embarrassing; having to walk off the pitch with fans talking to you. It's something we're looking forward to: getting back out there and proving ourselves.”
Bent expects his charges to be up for the challenge: “Any time you're on the back of a result like it that sticks in your mind. You should want to come out and put things right. From an intensity standpoint, concentration, execution, everything; we need to be much better than we were there. We'll get that from the players.”
The match kicks off at 4:30 pm and will be streamed on YouTube and at tfc2.ca.
Striving to find balance has been a major talking point this season
With goals-against a weak point last season, the side redoubled their efforts at keeping the ball out of the net, a task that necessitated being more cautious in attack. It has paid off, to some extent, through 20 matches, the club has conceded just 31, or 1.55 per match, significantly fewer than the nearly two-per conceded in 2016 (1.933, repeating, of course, to be exact).
For that reason, Bent's mentioning of 'rest organization' is particularly important. It is staying focused and organized when in possession that allows a side to take chances without giving away too much. The game is all about risk, after all.
The red card against Rochester provided a perfect example of its importance, TFC II getting put in a bad situation by a quick ball where players had shutoff and spectated, as Bent put it last week.
Along the same lines, Greg Vanney's message to the group was particularly poignant.
“Sometimes when you haven't gotten results, it's hard to be as aggressive and put yourself out there,” said Vanney on Thursday. “Sometimes you're trying not to lose. We've got to keep pushing them to play to win.”
“Be aggressive, concentrate on individual performances and how those relate to the group performance and the collective objectives,” emphasized Vanney. “Push guys to individually get better and the group will start to get results.”
“We won't get anywhere if we're just chasing the result every game,” noted Vanney. “[We're] trying to progress the group, learn, understand their roles. To be aggressive, not be afraid to lose trying to go to win. We need three points. One point here, one point there, isn't going to get us anywhere.”
“It's important that they not get passive or negative in their play because of the results,” concluded Vanney. “We need to keep pushing them to play more aggressively and the results will come.”
Bent recognizes that caution can sink in during difficult times: “It can happen. When the ball is not falling for you, in terms of amount of goals you're scoring. When that happens confidence can get low; it's natural for players to think, 'where is the next goal coming from?' Apprehension can creep in.”
“As a coach, stay positive, preaching to play; express yourself. There are enough points on the board to claw back. You have to take care of the first one, then the second.”
Two home matches against the best teams in the league are as good a time as any to build that confidence.
The players are looking forward to the opportunity.
“It's always nice coming home after a long time away.” said Brandon Aubrey. “It's a good feeling playing in front of the home fans, cheering for you instead of booing.”
Said Fraser: “For sure, [it's nice to come home]. We never take that for granted, being able to stay home, not having to travel. Just like any game, [however], we prepare for it all the same. It's business now.”
Their mission, according to Fraser: “Get the points stacking up. That's the focus, as much as we want good performances, it's what we put up on the board. We're looking for points.”
Match Hashtag: #TORvCHS
Club Twitter Handles: @TorontoFCII @Chas_Battery