Goals from Ayo Akinola and Jordan Hamilton were not enough to see a winning debut for Michael Rabasca in his first match on the touchlines for Toronto FC II on Saturday night.
Toronto took the lead in the first half through Akinola, who linked up nicely with Mariano Mino, but a pair of headers from Ken Tribbett two minutes apart early in the second half put Penn FC in the driver’s seat.
Hamilton would pull TFC II level ten minutes later, but a debatable penalty kick call deep in stoppage-time would doom hopes of securing a point, as Jerry Ortiz converted in the 97th minute to grant the home side a 3-2 win.
Having said prematch that large-scale changes were unlikely, Rabasca threw a curveball in his managerial debut, trotting out TFC II in a 3-5-2, a formation the first team has excelled in, but one that had not been seen often in USL this season.
Gianluca Catalano got the start between the posts, little surprise given the injuries to Angelo Cavalluzzo, Drew Shepherd, and Caleb Patterson-Sewell, and a first glimpse was had at recent goalkeeper signing Borja Angoitia in the warm-ups, as he was on the bench for TFC II.
On the back-line, Robert Boskovic and Rocco Romeo retained their central roles, but were joined in the three by Brandon Onkony, who had featured primarily at full-back this year; Boskovic played in the middle of the three, with Romeo to his right and Onkony the left.
Dante Campbell and Luca Petrasso took up the wing-back roles, on the right and left respectively, while a midfield three of Mino, Gideon Waja, and Luca Uccello provided a balanced mix of attacking and defensive potency, while Uccello chipped in on both sides of the ball.
Up top, Hamilton and Akinola, who each scored, returned to the USL fold.
Curiously, none of the three Canadians away from the side the last few matches – Aidan Daniels, Julian Dunn, and Noble Okello – were available.
The formation change and the inclusion of a smattering of first teamers – Mino, Hamilton, and Akinola – were the most significant changes for TFC II. And that the three were involved in the goal-scoring should come as little surprise.
As Greg Vanney noted last week, it is that ability to make plays in the attacking third that marks the differences between the levels, and all three showed their class on the night
It took just thirteen minutes for Mino and Akinola to combine down the right-channel and open the scoring. Mino threaded a lovely ball into the path of Akinola, who beat Penn’s keeper, Romuald Peiser with a right-footed finish.
A few half-chances either way – Calvin Rezende sending a shot just wide of the post as Toronto were scrambled, struggling to deal with the pressure of a Penn corner kick and a quick throw-in that saw Hamilton hit a curler past the Penn keeper that nearly bent around to sneak it at the far-side – saw the rest of the first half play out without major incident.
TFC II would take a 1-0 lead into half-time, but after a delayed restart due to the need for a quick clean-up after what was termed a ‘protein spill’, it wouldn’t take Penn long to pull level.
Following a half-cleared corner kick, the ball was swung back in towards the far-post by Rezende, where Penn’s captain, Tribbett, rose highest to meet the service with a firm header back against the grain and past Catalano in 53rd minute.
Two minutes later, Tribbett would compete his brace, rising up at the near-post this time to get on the end of the corner kick from Kyle Venter. In a strange moment, there was some confusion as to whether the goal would stand, but after a consultation with the assistant, the referee indicated it would.
Rabasca went to his bench, bringing on Matt Srbely for Romeo and Malik Johnson for Campbell over the next twelve minutes.
Moments after coming on, Johnson surged up the middle of the pitch, as is his wont, and managed to find Hamilton lurking on the right before getting chopped down – as seems to be the preferred manner of ending a Johnson surge.
Hamilton deftly changed his angle at the last second before striking, sending a left-footer past Peiser into the bottom far-corner of the Penn goal in the 69th minute.
Hamilton had another half-look in the 80th minute, denied by the keeper from a tight angle; on the follow-up look Waja whisked a shot from the top of the box inches wide of the post. And two minutes later, Catalano was called upon to deny Ortiz from a troublesome free-kick that nearly snuck in at the short-side.
But just as it appeared that both sides would be forced to settle for a point and the clock ticked into the fifth of four-prescribed minutes of extra time, a relatively harmless ball was flicked forward into the Toronto box.
Boskovic got in front of his man and as he went to clear, the ball popped off his knee and onto his chest. The referee heeded the shouts of the Penn forwards, called for the penalty kick, and pointed to the spot as the clock hit 94:30.
Ortiz would beat Catalano from the spot and the Dark Side would win 3-2 on Star Wars night.
Much though they would be disappointed with how the match ended, there were clear indications that when assisted with a little extra experience and quality, TFC II can play in this league. They can create changes and score goals.
That two of the Penn goals came either from set-pieces or second phases of and that the other came from the penalty spot serves to highlight some of the frailties that Rabasca will most likely look to focus on in the coming weeks.
Toronto is back in action this weekend as they faceoff against Indy Eleven in Rochester on Saturday. They then enjoy a slight World Cup break of their own before returning to BMO Field on Wednesday, June 27, where they will meet the newest MLS expansion side, FC Cincinnati.