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SEASON PREVIEW: TFC II return to USL action with new faces and a new outlook

After nearly 600 days away from USL action, TFC II return to the field this Saturday under a new Head Coach. WTR previews the upcoming season for the Young Reds.

(Toronto FC II)

TORONTO, Canada—As the first Toronto FC II season since 2019 approaches, Head Coach Mike Munoz has a cautious optimism about his group heading into their 2021 USL League 1 campaign. Not only is he excited to finally manage his first game with the Young Reds, but his players are itching to get back to competition, with many having not played in a competitive match in over a year.

With the new head coach and many fresh faces, Toronto kicks off their 2021 season on Saturday against North Texas SC (FC Dallas). However, while they are just beginning their campaign, the season has been on for over a month, and Toronto is the last team to get started.

TFC II will start their season in Casa Grande, Arizona, before relocating to Kissimmee, Florida in June. In Florida, they will join the first team in a move that will be a shot in the arm for the side still in the infancy of its season.

The setup and the preseason

Grande Sports World is hosting the team in Arizona, and after arriving on May 8, Toronto has adjusted to their new surroundings and frantically prepared for their season opener.

“You can just roll out of bed and walk to the soccer field and your locker room. It’s a bit of a soccer paradise in the middle of the desert,” said Munoz to WTR about their setup in the desert.

The complex has hosted preseasons for over 15 MLS sides including Real Salt Lake, CF Montreal and the Vancouver Whitecaps, so the facilities are up to professional standards; however, there are not many professional teams in the area, a challenge for a club looking to tune up for the season.

Without much time, TFC II’s preseason preparations have been almost as barren as their desert surroundings. The club has trained as a whole group less than a dozen times, and with the limits on possible close opponents, Munoz’s side wasn’t able to test themselves to the desired level.

“We were only able to play Barcelona’s U19 and U20 teams out here in Casa Grande,” said Munoz, referring to FC Barcelona Residency Academy based in the state. “We weren’t able to find any other opponents in Arizona at this time.”

Despite the limited on-field sessions, the late start to the season has allowed Munoz and his staff to scout the rest of the league and get an idea of what they are getting themselves into in 2021.

“It gives us a bit of an advantage, being able to scout our opponents,” he said. “But for us, it’s really just trying to maximize the time we have with the guys, get as much training in as possible.”

When the Young Reds hit the pitch on Saturday, it will mark 595 days since they drew 1-1 with the Chattanooga Red Wolves to close their 2019 campaign. Since then, the roster has been rebuilt, and the team is nearly unrecognizable from when they last walked off the pitch.

Relationship with the MLS team

With Chris Armas at the top of the club, the way the USL side is managed is also shifting.

“In terms of our style and what we want to accomplish, we want to replicate and be as close as possible to the first team,” said Munoz about his approach to the season. “He’s very passionate about the second team and very passionate about the young prospects; obviously, he’s shown that with the guys that he’s playing.”

Armas invited the TFC II staff to participate in the preseason in Toronto before the MLS side left for Florida, and the new manager will keep close tabs on the USL team, especially considering some senior players could make their way to the USL once TFC II is in Florida.

“He’s an excellent guy, does exactly what he wants and knows exactly how he wants to play,” said Munoz. “He’s been very open, and we had a Zoom call where he spoke to the whole team in the meal room and wished us the best of luck this year.”

Brogan Engbers, one of the goalkeepers who is signed with TFC II, will not join the USL side until they are in Florida, as he will get accustomed to training with the first team before joining the Young Reds for the rest of the season. While Engbers is just one player, he is far from the only one who will spend time in the MLS and USL this season. In net for TFC II will be Estonian international Andreas Vaikla.

Play the kids!

TFC II has always been a young team, but in 2021, the team will be the youngest ever, with players born in 2003 and 2004 being found on the team sheet. At the time of writing, the roster has 10 U21 players.

“We’re going to be playing some young kids; that’s just the reality,” Munoz waxed. “Maybe some guys who aren’t necessarily ready yet or guys who I would want to bring in very slowly are now going to have to contribute, but that’s the job, that’s why we’re doing this.“

While the roster ahead of Saturday’s match is flush with defenders and midfielders, many of whom are U21, there is only one dedicated forward. Although 23-year-old Garrett McLaughlin has USL experience and will be relied on as a first-choice option, next up is 2004 born Hugo-Hilaire Mbongue, the younger brother of TFC’s Ralph Priso.

“He’s really young, but we think he has a ton of upside and is a future pro,” Munoz said of Mbongue, who could become the seventh youngest player in TFC II history.

Another youngster is 18-year-old Kobe Franklin, a right-back who has caught the coaching staff’s eye ahead of the preseason. “He’s never played a professional game before, but we’re planning on giving him the majority of the minutes there [at RB] this year,” said Munoz.

Franklin has yet to play a professional game but signed with TFC II on May 13 after graduating from the TFC Academy, where he earned the chance to represent Canada at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. At 15, he also became the youngest goalscorer in Ontario League 1 history with TFC III and will look to have similar success in yet another “League 1.”

The Young Reds will undoubtedly fit their nickname in 2021, but the squad had been built with the ideas of the first team in mind. Look no further than Luca Petrasso, the 20-year-old left-back returning to TFC II for his fifth season.

Petrasso has been in first-team training in Florida before joining TFC II, and he is a player that Armas has his eyes on for an MLS role in the near future.

“I know Chris [Armas] and his staff think he has a lot of upside, so we just want to make sure he gets as many games at the left-back position as possible because that is something that Chris is looking to the future to fill,” said the TFC II Head Coach.

The Challenging Road Ahead

As much as a new season is exciting, the 2021 campaign will be far from smooth sailing for TFC II. For the first few weeks of the season, they will be playing twice a week, and although that will quickly push them into game shape, it will also test their fitness levels without much preseason.

“From a physical standpoint, there are some concerns,” said Munoz about the team’s conditioning and schedule following the crash course preseason. “It’s hot. It’s not Toronto, that’s for sure. We’re not making any excuses; these guys haven’t played in a long time, so they’re excited to play.”

Even with the challenges of having to play young players, relocate mid-season and play away from home, there is a general excitement around TFC II as they approach their first match in nearly 600 days.

It’s a good group, it’s a young group, it’s an ambitious group, you know everyone is hungry, and everyone wants to prove themselves,” said Munoz. “There are some unknowns l that we’ll just have to figure out once they play some pro games, but we are cautiously optimistic about this group.”

Fans can stream TFC II’s matches for free on the USL League 1 YouTube channel or here at Waking the Red, beginning with the opening match against North Texas SC on Saturday, May 22 at 10:00 pm ET.