With Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Richmond Kickers at BMO Field, Toronto FC II find themselves in an unfamiliar position.
Through their last three matches, a team that had gone winless through the season, has won two of those games, and the loss in between was by a single goal to one of the top sides in the Eastern Conference.
Jordan Hamilton scored the game’s only goal against Richmond, played in by a wonderful long ball from Liam Fraser in the 48th minute. And where TFC II has struggled to keep a lead in the past, this time, as with the 2-0 win against Nashville SC, there was little concern as the clock ticked down.
Assistant coach Chris Pozniak puts that down to a number of factors.
“We’ve got some organization down and managed to keep a fairly consistent team,” explained Pozniak. “The boys are getting the hang of playing with each other under the same tactic.”
Over the past three matches, Pozniak and Michael Rabasca have been able to trot out a similar lineup, leaning more heavily on experienced players, as opposed to the youngsters that made up the majority of squads through the rest of the season.
Still, the coaching staff want more.
“We felt we could have got behind [Richmond] even more,” suggested Pozniak. “And towards the second half, we dropped off a little too much, our lines got a little wider. We’re going to continue working on that, tightening that up. And also playing more aggressively going forward. Overall we were happy with the number of chances we created and being safe and competent with the ball.”
It is a stretch of form that is borne of the process Rabasca has emphasized since taking over the head coaching duties.
“It’s start from training, working hard,” said midfielder Gideon Waja. “That’s the major reason why our game is up.”
Simple though it sounds, that is how progress is made: incrementally.
Pozniak elaborated on what ‘process’ means at TFC II: “We do a lot of individual, position-specific training. Repetitive; certain actions strikers, midfielders, or defenders would do. And we’re trying to build on those, expand those, get the players as many repetitions, looks at different situations that they would face in a match.”
The labour is paying off.
“It would appear so,” smiled Pozniak. “The players are more confident with each other and in what their roles are in the team.”
Though that doesn’t mean that the long hours put in on the training ground do not elicit the occasional protest.
“Soccer players will always complain, as do coaches,” laughed Pozniak. “It’s just the nature of the beast.”
First team coach Greg Vanney has noted the progress.
“He’s doing a great job,” said Vanney of his long-time friend, Rabasca. “As I watch them, the group continues to reflect the ideas and principles that we’re applying at the first team. [With] Michael having been a part of our staff for so many years, the ideas are seamless in transitioning from one team to the next. And that continuity makes things easier on guys.”
“They spend a lot more time here at the facility these days,” observed Vanney. “And guys, Tim [Kubel] has stepped up, along the way are improving and stepping up their game, which is what we expect if they’re going to make the jump from the second team to the first team. They’ve got to push that.”
“Michael continues to push these guys forward in that way, to help them learn what it means to be a professional, what it means to be a consistent player every game,” continued Vanney. “At the first team level you want consistency, it’s not always about being great every game, it’s about being reliable and consistent every game.”
“That is what he is driving home with that group. We’re seeing that in these results,” added Vanney. “It coincides with his arrival and guys really stepping up their game, which I attribute to him and his pushing of that group.”
The opposition has taken note as well.
“They’ve won two of their last three games and one of them was against Nashville. They only narrowly lost 1-0 to Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh in between there. They definitely are a dangerous team, a team that has turned the corner in terms of their mentality and in terms of their ability to keep games tight,” said Bethlehem Steel FC coach Brendan Burke ahead of Thursday’s match. “We are well aware that we are up for a massive battle. Any road game is, but especially [against] a team with a belief. They present an entirely different challenge than how they were five or six weeks ago.”
Buoyed by results, TFC II return to Rochester’s Marina Auto Stadium for the fourth and final match in the home-away-from-home series – kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
After the weekend fixtures, Bethlehem sat seventh in the Eastern Conference on 33 points from 25 matches with a record of nine wins, ten losses, and six draws.
Two points above the playoff line, Steel FC are in the middle of a pack of six teams that span from fifth to tenth separated by a mere five points and, having played more games than most of the others, results are vital for them as the season carries on.
Bethlehem will also be looking to rebound from a home loss on Sunday, falling 2-1 to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. Neco Brett hit a brace for the visitors either side of a Chris Nanco strike, ending a three-match winning streak for Bethlehem that included results away to the Charlotte Independence and Richmond Kickers, both 3-0 wins, and a 4-1 victory at home over Atlanta United 2.
Road form has been key for Bethlehem this season, picking up four wins and a draw in twelve away matches. Humble though that seems, in USL it is a strong record. TFC II have lost all eleven road games this season.
And Bethlehem dominated the series between the side last season, winning all three encounters by a combined score of 8-3, making amends for Toronto winning both in 2016.
Regardless of who ends up winning, the games regularly feature goals: 22 have been scored in five matches.
The sides will meet again later this season, on September 22 when TFC II travels to Goodman Stadium.
“We know them from previous years,” said Pozniak. “A team that is similar in makeup to us, hard to predict who is going to play, as they’re a second team to Philadelphia.”
“A lot of big, physical players, quick wingers, we’re expecting them to be good on the break, but we feel we match up well against them in midfield,” forecast Pozniak. “If we can play the way we have been, we feel confident about the game.”
Aligned with the Philadelphia Union, as Pozniak suggested, it can be difficult to predict just who will be available on any given weekend.
Fabian Herbers and Derrick Jones, both first teamers, lead the way in scoring with five and four goals apiece, though they have only played eleven and fourteen matches, respectively.
Santi Moar and Chris Nanco have featured far more regularly (24 and 21 matches each), contributing four and three goals, respectively. That duo also lead Bethlehem in assists with eight and four to their names.
Cory Burke, who was such a pain for TFC II last season, has rarely featured this year in USL, scoring two goals in four matches, having made an impact with the first team.
The match will be streamed on YouTube – kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
A final note from the soft-spoken Waja: “It’s a very important game, we have to get the three points.”