Toronto FC II return to the pitch on Saturday afternoon with a match against Bethlehem Steel FC at Goodman Stadium.
Last week saw the side head into two difficult away venues, earning a draw against New York Red Bulls II with a 3-3 draw on Thursday and coming close to stealing a point from high-flying FC Cincinnati on Sunday with a 4-3 defeat.
Back in town ahead of their latest trip, Michael Rabasca recounted the two matches.
“Tough opponents, different opponents, in terms of how they present and their style of play,” said Rabasca. “Overall, too many goals against; nice that we are scoring goals. Against Red Bull, handled their style pretty well. Against Cincinnati, the group showed up to play in a difficult environment: 27 000 people. Lots of fun to play in front of that many, a nice atmosphere. Good for the players, a good experience for them.”
The pair of strong away performances came on the back of that 4-1 win away to Louisville City FC at the end of August. In their last three road matches, Toronto have earned two draws and gone toe-to-toe with some of the best sides in USL.
“As a group, those games helped us [understand] how we manage a game,” said Tsubasa Endoh, who scored a cracking hat-trick in Cincinnati. “We conceded a lot of goals, but at the same time we scored a lot. A tie and a loss, but at the end of the day, we played well.”
Though winless in four matches, with narrow home losses to Atlanta United 2 and Ottawa Fury FC, TFC II have found their scoring boots these last few weeks. They have scored three goals in each of their last three matches and have fourteen in total in their last five matches.
That is in part thanks to the arrival of Endoh, who was named USL Player of the Week after his four-goal exploits.
“Tsubasa had been great for that team, helping make a difference, especially on the attacking side; the organization side,” said Greg Vanney. “He’s showing continued progress, which is good for him, but also helping that group set their style of play and helping some of the young players come along.”
Speaking about the New York Red Bulls’ Tyler Adams, Vanney relayed something he said at Toronto FC’s Academy Achievement Day, which was held at BMO Field ahead of the Campeones Cup on Wednesday night.
“Part of my speech to our players and families was what it takes to be a pro,” recounted Vanney. “One of those things is to be reliable. And when you’re reliable, you get opportunity; when you get opportunity you start to grow as a player.”
“[Adams] is a perfect example of that,” continued Vanney. “He was a young player that proved he was reliable on the field. He wasn’t making a bunch of gross mistakes that cost his team results. He was able to then continue to get opportunity and you see his game taking little steps forward through his experiences. At the end of this year, if not done already, I’m certain he will be somewhere else playing.”
That reliability and consistency is something Vanney emphasizes regularly. Since rejoining Toronto, Endoh has eight goals in nine appearances.
The Japanese midfielder discussed his hat-trick midweek.
“It’s hard to explain,” demurred Endoh. “On the day, whenever I would take a shot it went in.”
“A lot of people told me their favourite goal was the third goal, but my first one was my favourite,” explained Endoh. “I’ve been watching Seba [Giovinco] taking shots and training with him. I really like the way he plays, I can take something away from what he does. Finally, it payed off.”
Despite Endoh’s emphatic contributions, Toronto has given up far too many goals at the other end. They have not kept a clean-sheet since August 12, a 1-0 win over the Richmond Kickers, and have only managed four through 28 matches, conceding 66 goals this season, an average of 2.4 per match.
Rabasca explained the recent uptick in scoring at both ends as, “A double-edged sword.”
“We’re trying to be a little more aggressive defensively, defend higher up the field. And that, unfortunately, exposes you a little in the back,” said the TFC II coach. “We’re addressing it, trying to make sure we’re not all or nothing. But we are winning balls in better spaces, which makes it easier to attack. We need to shore up and not give up so many goals.”
The challenge ahead of them this weekend is Bethlehem Steel FC.
Brendan Burke has his side in a good position to battle for a playoff spot. Currently in possession of the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference, Bethlehem has 42 points from 30 matches with a record of twelve wins, twelve losses, and six draws.
Three points off the team ahead of them, Indy Eleven, Bethlehem leads a pack of five teams separated by three points. Only three of them will be standing when the regular season ends.
They are coming off a long period of inactivity, having not played since September 7 when they lost 4-1 away to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. That defeat was their second straight, having lost the Pennsylvania-derby 3-1 at home against Penn FC at the start of the month.
One of Steel FC’s strengths has been their ability to grab points regardless of where they are playing, accumulating results whether at home or away: they have taken just four more points at home than they have on the road in an equal number of matches.
The other side of that is that with a home record of six wins, four losses and five draws, they have left an awful lot of points on the table at Goodman Stadium, where they have just one win in their last three outings.
Toronto and Bethlehem met earlier this season on August 16 in Rochester with Bethlehem winning 2-0.
In six previous encounters, Toronto has won two and Bethlehem four, specifically the last four matches, and worth noting is that there are usually some goals in these matches. With Bethlehem having conceded seven goals in their last two and Toronto eleven goals in their last three, this one could be no different.
With six matches left in the 2018 season, TFC II have dual-aims, the same ones they have held all year, as they close out the season: results and development
“Wins,” stressed Rabasca. “We want to make sure the players the club has an interest in are given every opportunity to demonstrate why they should be invited to preseason camp with the first team; that they are making steps in their professional journey from an individual standpoint. The team wants to win as well, come out and get some results for the effort they’ve been putting in.”
Said Endoh: “The goal is to get four wins. We should be grateful to play games. We have to give our best every single game; just keep going.”
TFC II returns home for a midweek match next week when Ottawa comes to town on Wednesday for a match at Lamport Stadium.
Saturday’s match will be streamed on YouTube – kickoff at 3 p.m. - a nice appetizer before the first team looks to keep their post-season dreams alive away to the New York Red Bulls this evening.