Still buzzing from Saturday's 1-0 win over the Charleston Battery, Toronto FC II return to action on Wednesday night at BMO Field when they face the Charlotte Independence for the first time this season.
Shaan Hundal scored the goal against Charleston and though last-minute blushes were spared by the referee's whistle, the win set TFC II up for a unique challenge: back-to-back matches against Eastern Conference leaders.
Charlotte overtook Charleston in the standings on Saturday thanks to Toronto's win and their own, even going so far as to issue thanks on Twitter for the assist – their Twitter game is strong.
Those niceties will be done away with come game time, when the two meet at BMO Field following the first team's open practice.
TFC II are up for the challenge, and will look to put the location to their advantage.
“They're a good team, they're first. They're coming in here pretty confident,” said Mitch Taintor, captain of the side, on Tuesday after training. “But it's different playing at BMO. We need to take advantage of that, capitalize on our chances.”
The last time TFC II played downtown they bossed much of the action against Bethlehem Steel FC only for an eighth-minute penalty kick, converted by Cory Burke, to spoil the occasion.
Charlotte, however, are no Bethlehem. Nor, for that matter, are the Charleston.
When the Battery came to town they were in the midst of a slide, winless in five, both overall and on the road. The Independence, on the other hand, are surging.
Unbeaten in 11 dating back to a June 7 loss away to Louisville City FC, Charlotte enters on the back of two straight wins, where they have outscored their opponents 7-1.
Coached by Mike Jefferies, the Independence sit first in the East with 39 points from 20 matches; a record of 11 wins, three losses, and six draws, with an impressive plus-18 goal-differential.
Even away - again, unlike Charleston - Charlotte has been impressive, with a record of six wins, two losses, and three draws. In their last seven on the road, they have lost just once and drawn twice, winning the other four. Most recently was a 4-0 destruction of Bethlehem on July 29.
Fresh off a 3-1 home defeat of Louisville, another of the five sides battling at the top of the conference, Charlotte looks nigh unbeatable.
An Enzo Martinez hat-trick on the night, a performance for which he earned USL Player of the Week plaudits, was more than enough to overpower Mark-Anthony Kaye's lone strike for the visitors.
Selected 17th overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft by Real Salt Lake, Martinez has been a force this season. He and Jorge Herrera - who each have 12 goals in 17 and 18 appearances respectively - have powered the Charlotte attack.
Plenty of others have chipped in: David Estrada has four in 19, Alex Martinez and Lewis Hamilton three in 20 each and Dennis Castillo, on loan from the Colorado Rapids, has two in eight, while a handful of others have chipped in singles.
They have many names that will ring familiar to MLS watches: Estrada was with the Seattle Sounders; Casey Townsend, on loan from FC Cincinnati, spent time with Chivas USA and D.C. United; and both Jun Marques Davidson and Bilal Duckett are former Vancouver Whitecaps, to single out but a few.
But Saturday's win carried with it some trouble, as Martinez will be suspended for Wednesday’s match, and perhaps more, following both his red card for two bookable offences, as well as the mandatory suspension for caution accumulation.
Adding insult to injury, his second booking of the night was for excessive celebration, hopping up into the stands to engage with the home fans.
A silver lining to the dark clouds forming over BMO Field.
“We know they have a couple of danger men, especially [Jorge] Herrera up top,” said Jason Bent. “[He] likes to play between lines, his goalscoring record is good, a savvy veteran. A very experienced player that we must be aware of at all times.
“Fortunate, from our perspective, that [Enzo] Martinez is suspended because the two of them have a decent combination and understanding. Jun Davidson in the middle of the park has a lot of experience, time with Vancouver Whitecaps back in the day. They're in good form. It's a nice test for us.”
Said Angelo Cavalluzzo, who kept his fifth clean sheet of the season against Charleston: “Another tough game, we know we're going to be up against it. Another top team. We showed on Saturday that we can beat those teams. We have it in us. Do it again tomorrow night.”
Charlotte have dominated the four all-time meetings, winning twice and drawing the other two, including a 5-1 win in their visit to Toronto last September. Brian James scored the lone TFC II tally, while five different scorers registered for the visitors.
The match is set to kick off at 8 p.m. following the open practice, and can be streamed on YouTube or at tfc2.ca.
The win over Charleston allowed TFC II to lift themselves off the base of the table – the first tie-breaker in USL is wins, rather than goal difference, which is good to know – though the margin between themselves and the final playoff spot, currently held by New York Red Bulls II, remains 10 points.
But home form will be the key to them inserting themselves back into that conversation.
In Toronto, TFC II has a respectable record of four wins, three draws and three losses, while they have won the last two and three of the last four.
They will be looking to build off of Saturday's massive win over Charleston.
“It's huge,” said Bent of the result. “We've shown on our day that we can compete with anybody in the Eastern Conference if we're mentally focused, we execute, limit the errors defensively. The challenge has been consistency.”
“We're going to play at BMO Field tomorrow: fantastic stadium, grass pitch, good opposition... what more could you want to go out and prove yourself?”
Said Cavalluzzo: “It's great; something to build upon going forward. We know that we're capable of beating those kinds of teams.
“We got  games left. If we want to make a playoff push, we've got to get results. That game is a building block. We're not going to play many better teams than Charleston or Charlotte. We've got a lot of home games too. That's where we make our stand.”
That win has the side in good spirits heading into Wednesday's action.
“A wise man once told me, it's always better when you win,” smiled Bent. “The mood is good, positive, looking forward to the big game tomorrow.”
Add in that the match will be played at BMO Field and the players are stoked.
“It's where we want to be, every week,” said Cavalluzzo. “Any opportunity to play there is always a great experience. We're all buzzing.”
Added Taintor: “Everyone is really excited, it was a big win for us. [And] to get back to BMO, it's a great venue. Good vibes in the locker room.”
Do not be surprised if, given the match is at home and on the reliable pitch at BMO Field, there are some additional first-team faces gracing the lineup.
Though Toronto will look to take advantage of Charlotte missing one of their best, Bent has mixed feelings about the yellow cards for excessive celebration.
“I'm not a fan,” said Bent. “The rule is the rule, you have to abide by it. Some players will score their first goal, the euphoria of that, scoring a goal – I've been there myself: you don't think, emotion comes over you. It's a shame, for him and for them. I'm not upset about it, but I can understand the frustration from a player to be booked for that.”
Asked if he'd ever fallen afoul of that ruling, Taintor deadpanned: “No. Only in FIFA.”
In a peculiar quirk, TFC II has one of the best disciplinary records in the league. Their 25 yellow cards is joint fewest in the league, alongside Orange County SC, while their 226 fouls conceded is joint-third fewest, level with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and more than only Sacramento Republic FC and Phoenix Rising FC.
“That's not a stat I like, to be honest,” said Bent. “Discipline is obviously important, but it's not something we speak on. You have to compete. The red cards are different, especially if it's something off the ball. That's something myself and Toronto FC doesn't stand for. But through the run of play, challenges, mistimed, that's the game, it's going to happen.”
“Sometimes you need a little bit of fire,” added Bent. “I'd rather be further up the table. Let's put it that way.”
Match Hashtag: #TORvCLT