Toronto FC II lost a third-straight match on Wednesday night, as they fell 5-4 in an epic goal-fest against Atlanta United 2 at Coolray Field in Georgia. Or, as it seems to be branded: ‘The Proving Ground’.
A quick look at the settings and one got the sense this was going to be a strange one. A lively enough venue, being a converted baseball stadium – home of the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers (note the one ‘p’) – and it didn’t take long for the action to get underway.
Atlanta took the lead after five minutes when Mikey Ambrose stepped up to a free-kick after Robert Boskovic hauled down Romario Williams to whip a vicious left-footed ball over the wall and inside the right-post past a helpless Gianluca Catalano, making his first start of the season for TFC II with the injury to Angelo Cavalluzzo.
Toronto responded in the 17th minute when some excellent work from Aidan Daniels saw him skip past a defender before sending an inviting low ball into a dangerous spot, where Ayo Akinola deftly turned it goal-ward.
Ten minutes on, Atlanta re-instituted their lead when Williams found himself wide open at the back-post to side-foot a left-sided Jon Gallagher cross past Catalano after some devastating work by Laurent Kissiedou shredded through the Toronto defences.
A second Ambrose free-kick, from nearly the same spot, in the 40th minute looked to put the hosts in a dominant position heading into the half, only for Daniels to disappear out of view, work his magic on a hapless defender and surge into the area from the left, prompting sed defender to shove him over, earning TFC II a penalty kick in the 44th minute.
Daniels himself would coolly dispatch it low and down the middle, the action pausing at 3-2.
Three minutes into the second half, TFC II would equalize when some excellent interplay between Matt Srbely and Akinola up the right found Luca Uccello in the area and his right-footer beat Mitch Hildebrandt to the bottom left-corner of goal.
But any momentum garnered from levelling would be squandered two minutes later, when Gallagher was allowed to collect a hanging cross at the back-post and he picked out the far bottom-corner.
Uccello would re-equalize come the 61st minute, latching onto a lovely poked ball behind the Atlanta back-line from Akinola. His first attempt was stymied by the onrushing keeper, but he stuck with it, touching in the rebound to ties the match at fours.
But there would be one final twist, as Atlanta’s Brandon Vazquez found the bottom corner with a seeing eye shot through a forest of legs that found the far-side of goal in the 80th minute.
Laurent Guyot shuffled his lineup once more for the ninth match of the USL season. With Shaan Hundal suspended for his red card against Penn FC last week, Akinola started up top. Catalano
stepped between the posts, tasked with filling the massive boots of Cavalluzzo.
Drew Shepherd, a 2018 MLS SuperDraft pick, was on the bench – expect to see him get his first minutes at some point in the near-future.
Luca Petrasso also made his first start of the campaign, taking up the attacking right of midfield and seeing Daniels move over to the left. Uccello rejoined the midfield as well, having come on from the bench in the last match.
To call this match a goal-fest would be an understatement. It was wild.
Consider this peculiar fact: TFC II scored more goals in 61 minutes than they had through the previous eight matches.
Daniels was once more the driving force, putting the team on his back in the first half, crafting both goals – he was named man of the match for his contribution. And Akinola cut an entirely different figure. His class, both in front of goal and in the build-up was on full display. Uccello too took both his finishes very well.
It was an outpouring of goals that Toronto needed, sometimes players just need to be reminded of the feel of hitting the back of the net. Definitely, something to build upon.
At the other end, however, there were less positives to takeaway.
It was a very weird game. One of the commentators’ made a very interesting point on the broadcast about the effect of unsure footing on a match.
With a good portion of one half of the pitch seeming to be wet sod laid over a baseball in-field, the transition from grass to muck seemed to trouble defenders more than it did the attackers. The observation was that because defending is inherently reactive, being unsure has a greater effect on defenders who must respond to attacking movements.
Added to that, the postage stamp-sized pitch was reminiscent of the one NYC FC play on at Yankee Stadium, which Greg Vanney has said in the past only ramps up the pinball aspect of the game. One bad decision and the offence is knocking at the door.
Where the two goals from free-kicks are one thing, at least two of the others – both conceded at the back-post – will have been frustrating to Guyot and the side. Focusing too much on the ball and losing track of runners at the back-side is a matter of concentration.
The defensive lapses were particularly odd given how sound Toronto have been of late.
Being open when trailing is the nature of the game and TFC II were behind almost before the match had begun, but their struggles to string passes together in possession through the first half – Gideon Waja in particular did not look his usual calm and collected self, departing at half-time – unless they were lightning fast attacks, was very odd.
Though that too could have been a confluence of the pitch conditions and an over-eagerness to get back to even.
Along with Catalano and Petrasso, Dante Campbell also saw him first minutes of the campaign, coming on for Akinola in the 78th minute. Nominally a right-back, Campbell took up a wide midfield position. A touch rusty, it was good to see him back in the mix.
Of all the matches, this one is highly recommended for re-viewing – an archive of the match is available on YouTube.
TFC II continue their unexpected two match road trip on Saturday when they travel to Charlotte to face the Independence on Saturday.