The Young Reds finally return to BMO Field on Saturday afternoon, where they will face the Tampa Bay Rowdies – kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
Coming home after a two-match road trip, Toronto FC II will be looking to take the positives from losses to both Atlanta United 2 and the Charlotte Independence last week. Toronto lost 5-4 in Atlanta last Wednesday, finding their scoring boots only to concede the extra one at their end late, and 2-1 on Saturday in Charlotte, extending their losing streak to four matches.
But beneath the results there have been signs of progress. Since the heavy 4-0 defeat in Pittsburgh, Laurent Guyot has been focused on getting the defensive aspects in shape. In the seven matches since, the side has not been beaten by more than a goal, closing the margins at one end of the pitch.
And at the other, their efforts have produced some fruits. TFC II have scored in three of their last four matches. Given the troubles that plagued them in that department last season, that too is something to build upon.
“Absolutely, plenty of positives,” said assistant coach Chris Pozniak at training on Wednesday. “First of all, we scored four goals in a game and another good goal against Charlotte. Our attacking play has been a little better.”
“At the same time, the players showed a lot of fight to come back multiple times against Atlanta; didn’t stop running,” continued Pozniak. “We’re very impressed with the spirit of the team and physically how they handled the two matches.”
That too has been a trend of late, Toronto showing that unwillingness to give up, regardless of what goes against them: be it a red card against Penn FC, Atlanta opening the scoring early from a free-kick, or the penalty kick in Charlotte.
“We have to look at the positives,” said Dante Campbell. “Against Atlanta we scored four goals; against Charlotte, a very good team, especially defensively, we had one goal. That’s what we have to take into the game coming back to our home stadium.”
Pozniak credits: “Belief”.
“We rotated some players,” noted Pozniak. “Ayo Akinola came in, gave us a different look up front; Aidan Daniels continues to be more aggressive, take more responsibility attacking. We’ve been able to exploit one-vs-one opportunities better on our wings with Daniels and Malik Johnson.”
And the inclusion of the ever-competitive Campbell into the midfield, getting his first minutes of the season, has added yet another source of energy to the side.
“It was great being back out there with the guys,” said Campbell. “To help with what I bring to the team.”
Having arrived on the scene as a full-back, Campbell has taken to his move into the middle of the fray very well.
“Last year I had a couple games [in midfield],” reminded Campbell. “My primary position was right wing-back, but this year I’m getting into the middle, which I like a lot: battling, winning balls, making things simpler, slowing down the game, controlling the tempo.”
He will be looking to do the same against this weekend’s opponents, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The Rowdies enter Saturday’s match in a peculiar position. Since joining USL from the NASL last season, Tampa had been one of the powerhouse sides in the Eastern Conference. They finished third in the East in 2017, only to be knocked out of the playoffs at the Conference Semi-Finals, 2-1 after extra time against New York Red Bulls II.
But this season has not gone to plan.
After ten matches, Tampa Bay has 13 points with a record of four wins and five losses to sit in ninth place in the conference. Unbeaten at home, struggles on the road are to blame: in six matches, they have won just once, the first match of the season against North Carolina FC. Since then, they have lost all five away.
Overall, Tampa Bay enters winless in four-straight, having draw 2-2 against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday.
Those difficulties prompted the Rowdies to make a coaching change, replacing Stuart Campbell with long-time defender, Neill Collins. Saturday will be his second match in charge.
The always pleasant possibility of a player-coach has been shut down – Collins is ‘no longer expected to play’ according to the Rowdies site – but that is hardly definitive. He is still listed on their roster for what it is worth.
Stacked with plenty of talent and experience – Joe Cole, Marcel Schafer, Georgi Hristov, to name but a few, TFC II will be looking forward to taking to the pitch against the Rowdies at BMO Field.
“It’s not difficult to motivate the team against Tampa Bay,” said Pozniak. “Players with very long, impressive resumes. Some interesting match-ups.”
Though he did admit that with the changes, Toronto is, “A little unsure of what to expect.”
“Good players; a little bit of shaky confidence, maybe,” wondered Pozniak. “Results haven’t gone their way. If we get a good start, we have a very good chance to stay on top of them.”
Added Campbell, who is looking forward to crossing paths with one player in particular: “[Similar] to Charlotte, we’re expecting a very good, experienced team.”
“They’ve got one of Chelsea’s veteran players, Joe Cole,” smiled Campbell. “That’s my favourite team. We’re going to go out there and fight, treat it like every other game: going for the three points, especially because we’re at home and we know we have to pick it up in the table.”
“The experience will be phenomenal, but I can’t think about it too much,” downplayed Campbell of going up against a player he watched on television. “We have a goal: to get three points, which is what I’m going out there to do.”
TFC II will be without the services of three key players this weekend, as Aidan Daniels, Julian Dunn, and Noble Okello are away with a group representing the Canadian National Team ahead of the Toulon Tournament, opening up opportunities for others to fill their boots.
With the first team playing FC Dallas on Friday night and nothing else going on in the football world on Saturday afternoon, except some European thingie, head over to BMO Field to catch the action or watch the stream below – once more, kickoff is at 2 p.m.
And the intensity will only pick up from here, as next Wednesday will see the first USL Ontario Derby of the 2018 season as TFC II travels to the nation’s capital to face Ottawa Fury FC on May 30.