Riding high after picking up their first win of the season last weekend, Toronto FC II were unable to build on that result, falling 1-0 to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium
Toronto looked lively, creating several chances throughout the match, but, unable to convert, were ultimately undone by an 81st minute strike from Neco Brett, who has caused them all sorts of trouble this season.
Coming off the three points collected against Nashville SC in Rochester last weekend, Michael Rabasca made limited changes to his starting lineup.
Robert Boskovic replaced Rocco Romeo as the left-sided centre-back alongside Lars Eckenrode, while Aidan Daniels was inserted in the attacking midfield three in the stead of Jordan Faria.
Caleb Patterson-Sewell, between the posts for a second-straight match, marshalled the back-line, which comprised of Tim Kubel, Eckenrode, Boskovic, and Kyle Bjornethun. In front of them, Dante Campbell and Gideon Waja reprised their two-man shield role, while Matt Srbely and Luca Uccello joined Daniels in a fluid forward-minded midfield trio. Shaan Hundal topped the formation once more.
It was a rather mature XI from Rabasca, looking more to experience than raw talent for one of the few times this season; a trend made only more emphatic with the first two substitutions. Heading into the lair of one of the Eastern Conference leaders, it made sense to lean more heavily on that experience.
Right off the start, there was an ominous sign for TFC II, as the referee, a man by the name of Darth Newman, was a grin-inducing signal that the night would not go their way. Jokes aside, Newman was pretty solid, not afraid of letting the two sides play and be physical. On another night, there could have been way more fouls called, but Newman let the match flow, without allowing the competition to get out of hand.
And that despite the game getting off to a thunderous start, with Pittsburgh surging in on goal after just twenty second when Kevin Kerr played Brett down the left, only for the dangerous forward to send his shot wide.
Toronto would respond with a look of their own in the seventh minute, when a well-worked short-corner routine caused some panic in the box. Srbely looked to settle the bouncing ball for a shot, but was pipped to the effort by Eckenrode, who saw his drive blocked as the chance dissipated.
The visitors would nearly carve Pittsburgh open two minutes later when a ball into the area from the right was just beyond the reach of Hundal. Daniels eventually got on the end of it at the back-side, but could only whisk it through the area once more, coming out the other way.
Warned that they would be in for a match, Pittsburgh looked to respond. Kubel had to be sharp at the back-post to clear a dangerous cross from Raymond Lee in the 28th minute and two minutes later, a deep Pittsburgh free-kick from Kerr on the right was met by Tobi Adewole at the back-post. The angle was very tight, but Adewole managed to direct an effort towards goal, caroming off the top of the bar.
In stiflingly hot conditions, a water break allowed a needed respite for TFC II and when play resumed, it was them who would close out the half with the best look, falling to Srbely in the 43rd minute. Hundal played a hopeful ball between the Riverhounds defenders for Srbely to chase, but the midfielder was unable to get the needed touch as the defence collapsed and goalkeeper Dan Lynd rushed sharply off his line.
Scoreless at the half, Toronto could take some pride in holding off a team pushing to be a contender for the Eastern crown through 45 minutes.
As play resumed, the match settled into a stalemate of sorts, neither side willing to take a risk by opening up, thereby giving the other a look.
Rabasca went to his bench in the 59th minute, making a double-substitution of Jordan Hamilton and Tsubasa Endoh, coming on in place of Campbell and Daniels, respectively. For Endoh, who signed a USL contract this week, it was his first appearance in red of the 2018 season. And with the double-switch, Toronto looked a wholly different side from the youthful team that has competed for most of the season – of the eleven players on the pitch, only Hundal and Srbely were under the age of 20.
And it was one of those teenagers, the 19-year-old Hundal who nearly found the break-through come the 75th minute when a sublime bit of vision from Endoh played the striker into space on the right, only for his right-footer to be denied by a sprawling Lynd.
Pittsburgh’s Noah Franke found a similar look a minute later at the other end, set up by Christiano Francois, but he rolled his effort wide of the post.
Still scoreless as the match approached the final ten minutes of regulation, it was clear neither side were willing to settle for the 0-0 draw.
And the goal would come in the 81st minute when Pittsburgh managed to find time and space up the left flank. Dennis Chin got on the ball near the end-line and took his time in picking out Francois lurking on the edge of the area. He then placed a low cross through the goalmouth towards the back-post, where it was met by Brett for a simple tap-in.
Brett, and Francois to a lesser extent, have been a thorn in TFC II’s side all season. He registered a hat-trick and an assist in Pittsburgh’s 4-0 win in April – Francois scored the other. Then added another goal and assist in the Riverhounds 2-1 win in May. With his game-winner on Saturday, Brett marked his fifth goal, to go with the two assists, against Toronto in three 2018 matches.
Rabasca turned to his bench again in the 83rd minute, replacing Bjornethun with versatile 18-year-old Terique Mohammed.
Making just his second appearance in USL this season, Mohammed was called upon to make a contribution immediately.
Kenardo Forbes was able to waltz through the TFC II defences down the left to beat Patterson-Sewell with a goal-bound shot, but Mohammed was on hand to clear off the line. The Riverhounds and the crowd seemed to think it was a goal, but the call stood and the Young Reds remained within a goal of their hosts.
Deep in stoppage-time, a chance would come when Endoh whipped in a free-kick in the 96th minute. It was met well by Hundal, but Lynd was equal to the challenge, getting his hand to it and pushing it wide of the post.
With the 1-0 loss, TFC II were unable to put together an unbeaten run, but they should take solace in going into an in-form side’s home and pushing them to the limit.
Toronto will be hoping to carry that attitude and belief into their next match against the Richmond Kickers on Sunday, August 12 at BMO Field. Part of a double-header, TFC II are set to kickoff against the Kickers at 7:30 pm after the conclusion of the Toronto FC-NYCFC match.