TORONTO, CANADA—Some things in the world are long shots, while other things match expectations. At the height of Didier Drogba’s European career, playing in the USL was a long shot. When seat cushions flew into the Toronto afternoon sky after Danny Dichio scored TFC’s first MLS goal, that was a near certainty.
On a scale comparing Drogba in the USL to flying seat cushions, Toronto FC II winning their 2021 USL League 1 season opener draws closer to the former. However, the Young Reds did just that, defeating the North Texas SC 2-1 on Saturday night.
Funny enough, Dichio was not only on the sidelines for TFC II as their assistant coach, but the match took place in the same state that Drogba played in while in the USL.
Head Coach Mike Muñoz led TFC II in a match for the first time, and his roster featured only four players from the Toronto team that last played in 2021. Despite the limited USL experience, it did not seem to matter, as the youngsters played like seasoned veterans from the opening kick.
The lineup featured seven graduates of Toronto FC’s Academy, yet also featured a handful of players with USL experience. Player/coach Caleb Patterson-Sewell, 34, started between the sticks; meanwhile, Luca Petrasso, Kevin Politz and Garret McLaughlin rounded out the USL experience on the team sheet.
After not playing for 595 days, and with a roster largely rebuilt since 2019, 10 players made their Young Reds debut, with their ages ranging from mid-20s down to 16 for Hugo Mbounge.
Starting XI with kickoff around the corner for 2021! pic.twitter.com/h7BhZvFb99— Toronto FC II (@TorontoFCII) May 23, 2021
TFC II began the match tentatively, holding off from going too far ahead and making sure not to allow North Texas, who had already played four matches, too much space in attack. While most of the first half passed by without much fervour, the likes of Academy graduates Kobe Frankin and Kosi Thompson made their presence known.
Of Toronto’s nine tackles in the first half, the pair of Academy graduates had six combined and made sure the midfield was solid before the ball could find a way into to threaten TFC II’s net.
Following 43 minutes of largely mundane soccer, the match picked up pace in the half’s final minutes, with a penalty kick for each side called between the 44th minute and the end of the half.
Toronto’s Mehdi Essousi, 20, took a shot from 18 yards out, which struck the hand of NTSC’s Jacquel, leading to a spot-kick for Toronto’s McLaughlin, who made no mistake to score the club’s first goal in 595 days.
The lead, however, lasted about as long as a shallow puddle in the desert, as NTSC earned a handball PK of their own when a shot ricocheted off Nyal Higgins’ arm. Minutes after being the victim of a handball, Jacquel levelled the match.
While the hectic end of the half overshadowed the progress, TFC II’s middle third was a quiet highlight. Politz established himself as a competent defender, while newly signed Spanish midfielder Enric Bernat Lunar did an excellent job of pouncing on balls in the midfield.
The second half began with a scare, as TFC II called upon Patterson-Sewell in the 46th minute to stop a breakaway, as NTSC picked apart the Young Reds en route to a clear chance on goal. Although after that, the Reds showed their quality and composure.
In the 51st minute, Themi Antonogolou, who was stellar throughout the evening, curled a dangerous ball into McLaughlin, who faintly finished off the chance for what proved to be the winning goal and his second of the match.
Scoring early in the second half was critical for Muñoz’s men, as the manager’s fitness concerns became a reality, as many of his players cramped up, and in the case of Thompson, had to leave the pitch briefly.
Despite some players struggling to make it through the match, Muñoz held off on making a substitution until the 74th minute before using all five of his subs by night’s end. With NTSC’s offensive onslaught in the final minutes, earlier substitutions could have proved beneficial.
However, even with the late substitutions, TFC II held off NTSC, en route to their first victory of 2021.
WTR MAN OF THE MATCH: Themi Antonoglou
Yes, Garret McLaughlin scored a brace and led TFC II to victory. Still, the standout performance came from Academy graduate Themi Antonoglou, who played as a near-perfect modern fullback and assisted on the winning goal.
The pass and the goal were magnificent, but the 19-year-old’s play was exquisite throughout the match. He had the most key passes of any player in the match, and both came in the second half while jockeying for the lead.
He also had 17 successful passes, most of which moved the ball up the field, highlighted by the winning assists. Even though he emphasized progressing the ball forward, Antonoglou also intercepted/recovered the ball seven times, showing his skillsets at both ends of the field.
FWIW, I think it's worth saying that LB Themi Antonoglou, 19, & CB Luke Singh, 20, should be on the brink of signing first-team deals with #TFCLive. They're certainly ready.— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) December 23, 2020
Without the Academy graduate, TFC II’s transition from defence to attack would not have worked as smoothly, and the wings would not have been as threatening. It takes a lot to take Man of the Match away from a double goalscorer, but Antonoglou did just that.
STAT OF THE MATCH: 17 tackles
Although TFC II did not have the ball for much of the match, they made sure that North Texas could not capitalize on their possession. With 17 tackles, Toronto eliminated countless attacks; meanwhile, 23 clearances forced NTSC to rethink their attacking style.
TWEET OF THE MATCH: Happy Anniversary
Garret McLaughlin’s brace was a highlight for Toronto soccer fans, but it was even sweeter for his parents, who were celebrating an anniversary.
Next Match: Wednesday vs Tucson
With the win, TFC II moves up to ninth place in the USL League 1 standings and will have a chance to add another 3 points on Wednesday against FC Tucson in Casa Grande, AZ at 10:00 pm ET.
Stats courtesy of USL League 1