Matt Srbely scored an early goal for Toronto FC II, his first in USL, but a saved penalty kick from Ben Spencer at the start of the second half and a pair of goals from Andrew Tinari in a ten-minute window turned the tide in the first USL match of the 2018 season for the Young Reds.
Laurent Guyot, in his first match at the helm, fielded an interesting starting eleven. Liam Fraser, who captained the side, and Ben Spencer were available from the first team, while Tim Kubel and Kyle Bjornethun made their debuts for TFC II at right- and left-back, respectively; both debutants acquitted themselves well.
Robert Boskovic and Rocco Romeo held down the centre of the defence. In midfield, playing ahead of Fraser were, from right to left, Luca Uccello, Aidan Daniels, and Srbely.
All that is relatively standard, so what made the lineup particularly ‘interesting’ was pairing Ryan Telfer up top with Spencer. Telfer is a very lively attacker and was a constant threat up the left last season, more often than not from the wingback position. Of the chances that TFC II created on the day, Telfer was involved in most, if not all, of them. To see him used as more of a central weapon will be something to keep an eye on this time around.
On the bench were three TFC III players, 18 year-old midfielder Steffen Yeates and a pair of 17 year-olds goalkeeper Gianluca Catalano and midfielder Luca Petrasso.
Srbely’s goal was very well taken, bursting through the left side of the New York backline and touching calmly with the outside of his right-boot to beat Evan Louro to the far side of goal.
Away to New York on opening day was always likely to be a tough test. Speaking before the match, all three of Guyot, Uccello, and Daniels spoke about how RBNY II play in the mold of the first team, specifically, the high-press, high-energy system employed by Jesse Marsch with the first team. John Wolyniec demands the same from the USL squad.
It could be argued that there is very little distinction at Red Bulls between the first and second teams: eight of the players who saw the pitch on Saturday for New York are members of the first team; there are only six players listed on the Red Bulls II roster at the moment.
17 year-old Ben Mines scored on his MLS debut against the Portland Timbers, while Florian Valot, who was instrumental much of New York’s attack, came on in the first leg away to Club Tijuana and started the crucial second in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Between Fraser patrolling in front of the backline, the combined efforts of Boskovic and Romeo, and Angelo Cavalluzzo picking up were he left of last season – making stunning save after save, including four inside the opening 17 minutes – TFC II were able to keep Red Bulls II at bay despite the home side having the majority of the ball.
It appeared as though that was part of the game plan from Guyot: absorb the pressure and look to break the press by playing long, either to Telfer ranging in behind or Spencer to hold up, making time for darting runs from the midfield to get involved in the action. All three of Uccello, Daniels, and Srbely are quite capable of getting themselves involved in those lightning attacks, as Srbely evidenced.
But, given New York’s quality, it was a dangerous game to play. Come the final whistle, Red Bull had tallied some 31 shots, a massive number of chances.
New York were able to make the game look more like their vision of it, a contest of wills that Greg Vanney talks about frequently. It was an incredibly open game that got very stretched at times. That played into Red Bulls hands, though TFC II found their moments to profit from it as well.
Srbely’s early goal gave Toronto something to build off of, and despite New York coming out strong to start the second half, it was the Young Reds who should have scored a second.
Telfer and Spencer linked up well in the 50th minute, the former finding the latter in space on the right where he was brought down by Tommy Redding in the area. A penalty kick was awarded and Redding was shown a yellow card; Uccello seemed to be protesting for a red – there was no cover and Spencer appeared to be clear on goal, more-or-less.
Spencer took the shot himself, going low to Louro’s right, but the keeper got down well to make the save. Perhaps it was a little too close to the keeper; perhaps it could have been more firmly struck, but credit has to go to Louro for a fine save... the finger wag was a nice touch.
Ten minutes later Telfer again played provider, sending Spencer in alone. Spencer did well to get the ball out of his feet and evade the recovering pressure, but the ball ran a little too far on him, allowing Louro to rush out and challenge, preventing Spencer from doing more than a sliding-poked attempt towards goal, which the keeper was able to block.
Shortly thereafter the damn broke at the other end.
And, as is so often the case, it came not from superb execution, but from a deflection. Mines send a shot from range towards goal, where it caromed off of Tinari to handcuff Cavalluzzo and find the right side of goal in the 62nd minute. A tough way to lose the lead.
Guyot went to his bench, bringing on Aikim Andrews for Kubel, which saw the striker take up the right-back position. Andrews did well for the most part, but looked a touch uncomfortable defensively at times. Will have to wait and see if this is something TFC see in Andrews, or if it was more a function of the limited options at the coach’s disposal.
New York’s second goal in the 72nd minute was a well-taken one, Valot keeping a ball in on the right touchline and picking out Tinari alone at the back-post.
Toronto were caught flat-footed by the play being kept alive – Bjornethun was covering the near-post and had to get out to pressure, while at the back Andrews had collapsed towards the net as well, leaving the window open for the higher placed Tinari. Fraser too was where he should have been, marking the space around the penalty spot for a potential pull-back, but New York’s quick execution had Toronto too compact and not threat aware.
Malik Johnson and Shaan Hundal, attackers who are expected to be key pieces this season, both saw minutes from the bench as Toronto sought an equalizer. With the final minutes ticking down, Guyot pushed Boskovic high for some extra height at the sharp end, while Fraser dropped back into a central defensive role, with Andrews and Bjornethun, fullbacks, at either side. It was a dangerous strategy, but a necessary one.
Having scored early and then seen Louro twice deny Spencer, TFC II will be disappointed with the opening day loss, but there was plenty to be gleaned from the day and a lot of positives to look to as the season continues.
For those interested in a look at the character of Fraser, there was a moment late where, after executing a perfect slide tackle in the area to deny Tinari a third, the captain got up barking orders at his teammates whose loose play in the midfield gave away possession and allowed the dangerous chance to come about.
Boskovic was named man of the match, though Cavalluzzo definitely had his hat in the ring for the nod. That said, it was good to see Boskovic get the recognition.
The old adage about centre-backs is the less one hears their name, the better the job they are doing. Boskovic is the epitome of that ethos, just doing his job with an understated efficiency, smelling danger, putting out fires before they even begin to smoke. Pretty much the only time his name is mentioned is when he is in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to make defending look easy.
TFC II return to the pitch next Saturday, once more on the road, as they travel to face the Charlotte Independence at Sportsplex at Matthews, kickoff is set for 7 p.m.