Toronto FC II will close the 2018 USL regular season this weekend with one final away trip before a step into the unknown with the move to USL League One on the docket for 2019.
Much like the MLS side, it has been a strange year for TFC II. Venue troubles early on saw them rootless, the home matches played in Rochester added another curve ball, and the departure of Laurent Guyot was an unforeseen midseason shake up.
Injuries too have played a role. Losing Angelo Cavalluzzo, an experienced hand, was a blow, while the likes of Julian Dunn, Rocco Romeo, Luca Uccello, Lars Eckenrode, and Luca Petrasso, to name but a few, have all experienced spells on the sidelines. Never mind that Jelani Peters has not been able to step onto the pitch at all.
That is the nature of a second team. Players will come and go; those from the first team will pop down for a spell and then not be available; there is little certainty.
Trends, however, do emerge.
Having gone winless through their first eighteen matches, picking up points via three draws – including that stunning 3-3 come-from-behind number against run-away league-leaders FC Cincinnati, in the second half of the year, Toronto has found an element of form.
In the next fifteen matches, TFC II would find results in six matches. Wins away to Louisville City FC and the Charleston Battery, as well as a draw at New York Red Bulls II, were particularly noteworthy affairs. Hardly anything to crow about to be sure, but with a haul of roughly a point-per-match it is much closer to being on par with the rest lower-tier sides in the league.
Every season, every game, is part of a learning process as these young players continue their professional journey. Disappointment weighs, but not too much.
“The thing about a young group is they’re all looking towards their future,” said coach Michael Rabasca on Thursday. “No one game measures progress.”
“Every game, each individual is assessed in terms of their qualities and how they might be able to add that to the first team,” continued Rabasca. “Regardless of this being the last game of a difficult season, the second half has been better; each of the players are getting better.”
There is a lot to like about the side. Equally, there are a lot of frustrating head-scratchers. Why is it easier to collect point on the road against the league’s best than to beat their peers at home? Why has the balance between goal-scoring and defence proved so elusive?
Tuesday’s 2-2 draw away to Nashville SC was yet another case in point.
Playing against a side eager to secure a playoff berth, Toronto withstood an early barrage, but could not capitalize on a penalty kick save from Caleb Patterson-Sewell in the first half, conceding twice in a nine-minute spell after the hour-mark. Only then did they really come to life.
“A little bit more of the same: some immature and young mistakes early on and then being down two goals, freedom to play and go for it,” said Rabasca. “From there they showed the quality they have each and every week.”
“The comeback is good,” noted Rabasca. “It would be better if we were up and trying to defend to win or going for it more to advance ourselves. Overall in the last month, in terms of consistency, we’re slowly getting there.”
It was through a mix of veterans and youth that Toronto clawed their way back from 2-0.
Patterson-Sewell was on hand to keep the side alive, while Jordan Hamilton, straddling the line between experienced and young, nabbed the equalizer.
Rabasca emphasized the professionalism that Tsubasa Endoh too has added since arriving.
“Their presence, being able to demand certain standards, certain expectations, has been very important,” said Rabasca. “Caleb has been wearing the captain’s armband – rightfully so – his age, quality, experience. That’s been a good position for him. It’s helpful for me because we talk the same language: what he is demanding of them we are preparing the players to perform. When we don’t see it, he’s the guy who helps remind them it is there responsibility to follow through.”
“Tsubasa has been that way as well,” noted Rabasca. “As good as he’s been for us in [his] play on the field, he’s been very good off the field, in holding guys accountable and in practice sessions.”
And it was a 17-year-old, Jordan Perruzza, who sparked life into the side, pouncing on an Endoh rebound to pull the first back for TFC II.
Rabasca called him, “A great addition.”
“Jordan is a very focused and serious person. He’s got a nice sense of self: takes himself seriously and that follows through. He expects a lot from those around him, including the coaching staff, but his teammates and myself easily meet him because of those demands,” explained Rabasca. “He’s been a really nice add for us.”
Perruzza recounted his goal against Nashville, his second in as many appearances. He has made three appearances, all off the bench, since coming to TFC from Empoli.
“I got on the field and on my first touch I scored,” smiled Perruzza. “I was excited and just wanted to keep on playing after that. The second I saw Tsuba wind-up, I knew I was going to get on that ball first.”
“My positive energy, my work-rate is paying off,” explained the teenager. “Guys are a bit more sluggish near the end of the season. And me picking up after [some time off since] the end of my season in Italy. I’m more rested, moving a bit faster.”
Added Perruzza: “I’m enjoying every minute of playing back home.”
They have one final chance to put those lessons to use in a competitive match before closing out the calendar year with some extensive training sessions.
Their opponent, Penn FC, similarly face a bit of the unknown.
Their owner clarified the rumors that were circulating by posting an open letter on the future of the club as they are set to go on hiatus for next season, promising to be back in 2020.
It has been a tough year for Raoul Voss’ side.
In thirteenth place in the East on 36 points from 33 matches with a record of nine wins, fifteen losses, and nine draws, Penn too have been eliminated from playoff contention.
Compounding that woe, they are winless in their last six, all of which have been at home, including losses to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, FC Cincinnati, Louisville City FC, North Carolina FC, and, most recently, 3-1 to RBNY II midweek.
They did manage a 2-2 draw with the Charlotte Independence at the start of the month, but this poor run has bloodied what was a rather decent home record: in the previous ten matches at FNB Field in Harrisburg, Penn had five wins and two draws.
TFC II and Penn (or the Harrisburg City Islanders as they were previously known) have met nine times in USL play with Penn’s seven wins dominating the head-to-head. Toronto’s only win came back in 2016; they drew the first-ever meeting in 2015.
Penn won both earlier meetings this season: 1-0 at Monarch Park on May 9 when Miguel Jaime found an 87th minute winner and 3-2 on June 9 in Harrisburg when a controversial late penalty kick proved the difference
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Correcting that would not be a bad way to close out the series.
The match will be streamed on YouTube – kickoff is set for 7 p.m.