Toronto FC II hit the road this week for an Independence Day clash with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Florida on Wednesday night.
On the back of that impressive come-from-behind 3-3 draw against FC Cincinnati at Lamport Stadium last Wednesday, TFC II were hoping that their return to BMO Field, in the back-end of a Canada Day double-header with the first team, would see them build on that result.
It was not to be. Having gone toe-to-toe with a stingy Charleston Battery side for nearly an hour, TFC II came undone in the end, conceding twice in a six-minute spell and twice more in the final eight minutes of a 4-0 loss.
“You make a simple mistake and it’s like a domino effect,” said Luca Uccello post-match.
This has been a season filled with hardship. One can be certain that Toronto will do what they have done all season long: pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and reset to go out and put it all on the line once more.
“Whatever we do, we do together as a team,” added Uccello, channelling the ‘All for One’ mantra. “If we defend, we defend as a team; if we attack, we attack as a team. We have to be known as a team that is hard to beat. That’s the way you do it: stay together in this moment.”
Wednesday’s match ends a busy stretch for TFC II, who will be playing their third game in a week.
That is not a problem for the Young Reds, who have lots of players at their disposal – Kyle Bjornethun is available again having served his one-match suspension for caution accumulation – and as the moniker implies, are a young side.
“The medical staff do a good job making sure we’re ready,” said Uccello of the fixture congestion. “Every team goes through it in the middle of a season. If we have three games, four games in a week, we all have to be ready to compete.”
That the final leg of the three-headed week comes in the sweltering midsummer heat of Florida only adds to the imposition.
“In Tampa too,” noted Michael Rabasca post-match. “Great, what a challenge! Hopefully the players are up for [it] and don’t look at the downside of the heat, humidity, and travel; look more at the experience.”
In Tampa Bay, TFC II will face a strong side down on their luck.
The Rowdies currently sit outside of the playoff spots, in eleventh place in the Eastern Conference on nineteen points from fifteen matches with a record of five wins, six losses, and four draws.
Winless in four, a stretch that has included three draws, Tampa Bay will be looking to build off the positives from their 2-2 draw last Wednesday on the road against the Charlotte Independence.
Though nominally strong at their home ground, Al Lang Stadium, with a record of three wins and three draws in seven matches, Tampa are winless in four there as well.
Their last home win came back on April 21 when they beat Real Monarchs SLC 2-0. Since then, draws against Atlanta United 2, Nashville SC, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, as well as a recent loss to Penn FC have led to the current winless run.
In fact, their last win came against TFC II at BMO Field on May 26, where despite a strong second half push from Toronto, who rallied from a 2-0 first half deficit, Tampa grabbed two more goals in the closing twenty minutes to win 4-2.
The Rowdies, who play again on the weekend, hosting Louisville City FC on Saturday, will not be overlooking a TFC II side, despite having won all three previous encounters.
Speaking with Rowdiessoccer.com, head coach and former defender Neill Collins said: “Toronto had a coaching change recently, so I am sure we can expect a different Toronto than the one we faced a couple weeks ago.”
With 22 goals scored and 21 against, Tampa Bay have left themselves with the slimmest of margins in matches, hence the struggles from a team that proved very impressive at the beginning of their USL participation last season.
Georgi Hristov leads the side with four goals, while Joe Cole and Leo Fernandes have chipped in with three apiece. They have recently added a few players in an attempt to strengthen the side: Dominic Oduro (not that one) is a Ghanaian midfielder from the Right to Dream Academy and former Red Bull striker Stefano Bonomo was signed this week.
Uccello had a very strong outing in that last meeting, unselfishly setting up Malik Johnson for the then-equalizer. He will be looking to continue that come game time.
“Last time we played them we were neck-and-neck,” said Uccello. “They’re an experienced team, but we think we can go there and beat them in their house.”
The match will be streamed on YouTube (below); kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Well off the pace of an elusive playoff spot, Toronto will be looking to continue progressing as a unit as the season wears on.
The three-straight road matches can serve to strengthen the cohesiveness, bring the side together, ahead of the closing months of the season, according to Rabasca.
“They’re a good group of guys; fun to be around,” said Rabasca. “Might be good to get away from Toronto. There are challenges along with it.”
Added Uccello: “It’s awesome to play in front of our home fans... Thanks to everyone who came today, unfortunately we couldn’t get the result we wanted.”
“Going away, it’s a time to get the bonding up,” continued Uccello. “If we can get a couple results on away games, we know we can do it at home. It’s about building from there.”
As mused earlier, it was announced formally that Toronto FC II would indeed be a part of USL D3 when the new division begins play in 2019.
“USL has decided next year that they’re going to split,” explained Greg Vanney.
Details about where all the teams will land, how the league will be structure, and the like are still being ironed out.
“Over the last three years, our group has had a challenge in terms of results,” continued Vanney. “It comes from a couple of things: we’re heavily invested in bringing along our younger players through that system, compounded by the fact that we haven’t used the USL a lot for our first team. We’ve either been in a lot of competitions or we’ve been in an injury situation where we can’t afford to put guys down. That’s led to [it] being a very young group, the youngest by almost a year.”
Finding that balance between the level of competition and results has been difficult: where does the line lie between winning and development? How much is each a part of the other?
Vanney reiterated that he did not see the ‘relegation’, as one clever wikipedia editor framed it, as necessarily permanent.
“It’s an initial move to match the younger players coming up, help them find the balance between performance and result, while preparing them to make the transition to the first team,” explained Vanney. “It’s frustrating to go through a whole season and not get the results they deserve in some of these games. It’s finding a good balance: to continue to be challenged from a soccer perspective and when they do things the right way they get the results.”