Toronto FC II return to the pitch from a two-week-plus break on Saturday when they travel to face North Carolina FC at Sahlen’s Stadium in WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina – kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
After putting in a solid shift, drawing 3-3 with Eastern Conference leaders FC Cincinnati at Lamport Stadium on June 27, TFC II would lose their next two: dropping a 4-0 result at home against the Charleston Battery and losing 3-1 away to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
With the busy stretch concluded, Toronto spent the last two weeks drilling down on the essentials.
“We’ve been working,” said head coach Michael Rabasca on Tuesday. “Spending a lot of time in small groups, a lot of individual work: what they need to become professionals.”
“This week a little more focus on North Carolina and the upcoming match,” added Rabasca. “By and large, the guys appreciate the time where they can focus on what they need to do to become better players.”
Added Shaan Hundal: “We’ve been working hard, looking to make our press a little better, which is what we’re going to do against North Carolina. Trying to focus on getting the wins, whether it’s in the small-sided games or a big game.”
Having seen limited action this season, Hundal is one of those expected to step up as the season continues, especially as Jordan Hamilton and Ayo Akinola, key goal-scorers for TFC II, have found roles with the first team of late.
Hamilton has started the last handful of matches in MLS, while Akinola has featured from the bench and made his first start for TFC in the Canadian Championship on Wednesday night in Ottawa.
He was joined by another TFC II mainstay, Malik Johnson, while Aidan Daniels and Kyle Bjornethun were on the bench.
“Malik has been interesting in the USL games,” explained Greg Vanney of his decision to start the 20-year-old attacker. “We knew [Ottawa] were going to sit a little deeper, the spaces were going to be tighter. Malik has tight control and is shifty in the pockets, so it was an opportunity for him.”
“Last year, he came on to a Canadian Championship game and he looked a touch nervous, so I wanted to see how much he’s matured playing at the professional level, to see how his development has come along,” continued Vanney. “At moments, he showed some really interesting stuff, at moments that he still has some progress to make.”
Jonathan Osorio, who captained the side and scored the game’s only goal added: “They knew it was going to be a tough game: an Ottawa that was very motivated to play against us, trying to prove a point.”
“It was always going to be tough physically,” continued Osorio, speaking of Johnson and Akinola. “They’re young guys, still need to grow into their bodies, get used to the pace of the game that is different in these knockout games. They put in a really good effort today.”
That key players may not be available troubles Rabasca not one iota.
“This is a good time for us with the Canadian Championship, players going in and out of the first team to help in a positive way,” said Rabasca. “Seeing players move on, fulfilling their dreams. It’s been a good month for guys like Jordan and Ayo, seeing first team minutes, getting some goals. What TFC II has been able to provide in minutes – their games against Cincinnati – may have helped them prepare for those moments.”
That is where he find his pleasure in the role, as he nears two-months in charge of the side.
“I enjoy it quite a bit,” said Rabasca. “If we’re evaluating based on personal feelings it’s gone well. I enjoy the work, working with this group of players. They’re fantastically motivated.”
One of those players likely to step into the void left by such big presences is Hundal, who was re-signed to a new USL contract this week.
“I’m happy, looking forward to keep on playing,” said Hundal at the news. “I trust what management has in plan for me; keep looking to make the push to the first team.”
Hundal has featured in eleven of Toronto’s seventeen matches, starting just six times and racking up 485 minutes. In comparison, Robert Boskovic, who leads the side with 1350 minutes, has played nearly three times as much.
“He’s had to battle a little bit with first team players who need minutes,” explained Rabasca of Hundal’s situation. “He’s been determined; he doesn’t let that get to him. He’s always prepared.”
“In training the last few weeks he’s been fantastic to pick up some stuff that is not always on the attacking side, which is where forwards live and breathe,” added Rabasca. “From a defensive standpoint, he’s trying to pick up concepts and doing them as effectively as he can.”
“That’s noted by the coaches,” emphasized Rabasca. “Good for him. Another contract, you’re always working for your next one; he’s achieved another milestone.”
Having led the side with seven goals last season, his efforts have produced one goal and one assist in 2018.
Hundal assessed his season to date: “I’ve been doing OK: making some good runs in and around the box, into the opponent’s half. I’ve been getting some chances – need to put them away – but I feel like it’s just going to go up from now.”
Not that it has been an easy season for anyone at TFC II. Through seventeen matches, the side remains winless. They have lost all nine away games to date.
Standing in the way of a first victory this weekend will be North Carolina FC.
Led by coach Colin Clarke, North Carolina sit in thirteenth place in the Eastern Conference on twenty points from eighteen matches with a record of five wins, eight losses, and five draws.
They are winless in three, having drawn their last two, both ending 1-1: against the Charleston Battery and on the road against Bethlehem Steel FC last Saturday.
At home, they have three wins, four losses, and two draws and are unbeaten in three: draws against Charleston, a 2-2 against Louisville City FC and a 4-2 win over Ottawa Fury FC at the start of June.
Daniel Rios leads the side with nine goals in seventeen appearances and Marios Lomis has four in sixteen, while former Red, Kyle Bekker, leads side with seven assists, having appeared in all eighteen games.
The two sides met at BMO Field back on April 18, resulting in a scoreless draw.
“It’s a good opportunity for us in the sense that it is the second time we play them,” said Rabasca. “The first match at home went reasonably well. We’re looking forward to it. [They’re] a good team, good coaching staff, good challenge for us to measure where we were in March to where we are in July.”
Added Hundal: “We’re expecting them to try playing through us. If they try to go long, we’re going to make it uncomfortable for them.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. and the match will be streamed on YouTube (below)
TFC II will then host Nashville SC at Marina Auto Stadium in Rochester next Saturday; the first ever meeting between the clubs.