Toronto FC II are back in town, ready to play in front of their home fans for the first time since the start of July after a series of road games and a stopover in Rochester, where they picked up their first win of the season.
Unable to build off that 2-0 victory over Nashville SC on July 28, the Young Reds fell 1-0 to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday night with Neco Brett again the goal-scorer. It was Pittsburgh third win over Toronto this season.
“They’re a very good side, really organized, very well-coached,” said defender Lars Eckenrode of the Riverhounds. “We did a great job of sticking to the game-plan we set in the week prior to the game.”
Toronto went toe-to-toe with one of the top sides in the Eastern Conference, only to succumb to a late strike that proved the difference.
“Really frustrating to give away that goal with ten minutes left, but we had our chances to score,” pointed out Eckenrode. “Frustrating not to come away with more, but definitely a big learning experience for the guys. It also gives us motivation knowing we can hang around with one of the better teams in the league and maybe should have come away with a point.”
Playing up to the opponent has been a trait of TFC II over the past few years. The ears of USL watchers were perked when Toronto drew 3-3 with FC Cincinnati at Lamport Stadium at the end of June. Last season it was matches against Louisville City FC, the Charleston Battery, and the Charlotte Independence that began the trend.
“When we are playing the better teams in USL, we are competing,” said Toronto coach Michael Rabasca. “Cincinnati, Nashville, Pittsburgh now, all very close. We are getting better each and every week.”
In each meeting with Riverhounds SC, TFC II have gotten closer to the level. A 4-0 hammering was following by a 2-1 defeat, and then the most recent result.
“From previous results against Pittsburgh to 1-0, really tight game. This team continues to take steps, not just as team, but as individuals,” added Rabasca. “That’s been one of the real nice takeaways.”
Rabasca pointed to “unfortunate circumstances” as impinging on results.
“We’ve had good performances – Penn was a good match for us,” recalled Rabasca of a match that TFC II lost 3-2 on a late penalty kick. “Charleston, playing well, right in there and then an unfortunate individual error.”
Toronto would play level with the Battery for nearly an hour, before conceding four goals in the second half.
“North Carolina, again, right in the game, 1-1, a decision goes against us that makes it difficult,” added Rabasca, mentioning another penalty kick. “Each game there are no excuses, but from mindset standpoint there have been one or two errors that then have cascaded. In Carolina it was a second goal that put us down 3-1. Absent those five minutes, this has shown to be a team that can do what we’ve been asking.”
The resolution will be found in, “Eliminating those individual mistakes,” according to the head coach.
“By and large, in Pittsburgh they were absent; I can think of two that didn’t hurt us. Against Nashville those errors were not there. Against Cincinnati, those errors were there, to the tune of three goals against, and it took a second half awakening, a reminder of who they are, that allowed them to get the tie,” explained Rabasca. “It is the nature of young players to need this reminding of who they are and what they can be, not to dwell on the negative.”
Toronto will look to do just that on Sunday against Richmond. That the match will be played at BMO Field only adds to the excitement.
“Any time you play at BMO there is a little more energy. The feeling is always good,” said Rabasca. “We’ll use that to our advantage.”
Added Eckenrode: “We’ve been on the road for the past couple weeks, looking forward to a home game, defending BMO and getting three points.”
Since Rabasca took charge, the emphasis on development has been clear. He says as much nearly every week when discussing the focus in training.
“Individual development again,” replied Rabasca. “Beating a dead horse in my eighth week here, but that’s what we do. We want them to be prepared.”
What that entails is long days at the training ground, putting in the work that such preparation requires.
“It’s a lot of unique stuff that comes from the high performance area: a lot of cognitive exercises, some visual exercises, right down into meditation, things that will help prepare their mind for any circumstances that might happen, but also to make them a little sharper, a little more focused,” explained Rabasca. “And then we have a lot of video sessions, individually and as a team. We’ve gotten into some granular stuff for them that they’ve taken account of, getting some education in terms of sleep, how their brains work, and all of those kinds of things. All those, over the course of the day, equals six, seven hours for each of them.”
The life of a professional athlete entails a lot of hard work.
“The shifts are a little longer than usual,” began Eckenrode, recounting the daily routine. “Recently, we’ll come around 9, 9:30, have a development program for about an hour, an hour and a half; that ranges from mediation to different cognitive exercises.”
“Then we’ll prep for a while, train around 10:45 or 11,” continued Eckenrode. “Out on the field for a little while, maybe some individual sessions after. We’re in the gym two to three times a week after that, so that tacks on another hour or so and then we’ll have meetings afterwards too.”
“It’s a 9-2, 9-3 shift,” summed up Eckenrode. “They are long days, but as a professional you’ve got to roll with it. We haven’t had a successful season, we don’t have room to say, why can’t we be in and out in an hour and a half. We’ve got to grow any way we can and use these long days as motivation [for] once we do get to the game, it’s not all for nothing. We get the three points, get everything we’ve been working so hard for.”
Standing in their way come Sunday will be the Richmond Kickers.
Lead by coach David Bulow, the Kickers entered this weekend’s round of fixtures in fourteen place in the Eastern Conference on eighteen points from 21 matches with a record of five wins, thirteen losses, and three draws.
In Toronto’s favour, Richmond enters in a bit of a funk, having lost their last three matches, all by 3-0 scorelines (at home against Bethlehem Steel FC and away to Pittsburgh and Charleston), and winless in five, stretching back to a 2-1 win away to Penn FC on July 9.
The loss to Bethlehem saw Steel FC score three unanswered goals in the second half.
And the road has been less than kind to the Kickers, who have lost all but one of their nine away matches – the lone result that win away to Penn.
Much like TFC II, goal-scoring has been a limiting factor to success for the Kickers. Both sides have scored just twenty goals, a goal-per-game for Toronto and slightly less than that for Richmond, who has played one game more. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of margin for error on the defensive side.
And where Toronto have conceded 47 times, Richmond’s 44, while better, is hardly anything to crow about.
Brian Shriver leads the side with six goals in 21 appearances, Heviel Cordoves has four in sixteen, and Luis Fernando has three in seventeen. Shriver has added six assists as well. While Dane Kelly, who won the Golden Boot in 2017 with Reno 1868 has added two assists in four outing, on loan from MLS affiliate D.C. United.
Though perhaps logical to expect this to be decided by a single goal, matches such as this have a tendency to break wide open. Either way, should be interesting to watch.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at BMO Field, the latter half of a double-header after the first team faces NYCFC in MLS action.
It will be streamed on YouTube as usual:
Eager to put all that hard work into practice, TFC II will also be looking to make amends for a 2-1 loss in their previous meeting this season on April 25.
Toronto took an early lead through Aidan Daniels, only to cough it up shortly thereafter when Yudai Imura hit from range at the City Stadium in Virginia. A Brandon Onkony own-goal at the start of the second half proved the difference.
Richmond leads the all-time series with five wins to Toronto’s two, with a single draw. The Kickers have won the last two, both by 2-1 scorelines and both at home, and are unbeaten in four, including a 0-0 draw in their last trip to Toronto.
But at home TFC II are unbeaten against Richmond, winning the first two before the scoreless draw last season.
And Toronto is up for the challenge.
“Very organized, well-coached; similar to Pittsburgh, but it’s a game that we feel confident about, that we can take three points from,” said Eckenrode of Richmond. “That’s what we’re looking to do going into Sunday evening.”