TORONTO, CANADA - If you look up things to do in Tucson, Arizona, one option is a Taco Tour bike ride. It’s exactly what you think it is - biking around Tucson in search of the best tacos. In Toronto, it is undoubtedly much easier to go to a grocery store to pick up some shells and make them yourself.
While the taco situation is incredibly different in the two cities, there is a commonality: Both of their USL League 1 teams are currently out of a playoff spot. Ten days ago, FC Tucson paid a visit to their temporary desert foes, TFC II, and handed the Young Reds their first loss of the season.
Since the 2-1 loss in Casa Grande, Arizona, things have not significantly improved for TFC II. With a heartbreaking draw in the dying seconds against North Texas on the weekend and another draw midweek against Union Omaha, the Young Reds find themselves winless in three matches.
On the other side, FC Tucson has played a match less in the last ten days but is on a roll and comes into the TFC II match defending a two-game win streak. With a win against North Carolina last week, the club will look to please their supporters on Saturday with a double against Toronto.
With local government voting to remove all COVID-19 restrictions in Tucson, Saturday’s match will also be the first time FC Tucson plays at home with total capacity, compared to the 700 fans allowed for their home opener in May.
While the night is official “Women’s soccer appreciation night” at Kino Sports Complex, it is also a secondary home opener, holding a full capacity crowd. For Toronto, it is the first leg of four games, three of which are ‘away.’
While TFC II played well on Wednesday, they could not close out their time in Casa Grande with a win. However, there were countless bright spots against Union Omaha. Toronto’s passing, including the leadup to the goal, was stellar, making connections throughout the pitch that would please any curious fan. With their subdued success, TFC II sits fifth in the league in passing accuracy with 81%, and although Tucson leads the league, Toronto is getting better each time out.
Potential Toronto Lineup Changes
Despite the mediocre results to start the season, a significant bright spot for Toronto has been the play of striker Garrett McLaughlin, who has recently been nominated for the USL League 1 Player of the Month. However, having started every game for the Young Reds in 2021, it could be time to turn to another option.
The only other dedicated forward is 16-year-old Hugo Mbongue, the brother of first-team midfielder Ralph Priso. While Mbongue has yet to start a professional game, he has slowly been eased into the professional level.
“He’s really young, but we think he has a ton of upside and is a future pro,” said Head Coach Mike Muñoz of Mbongue before the season. On Wednesday, Muñoz gave Mbongue his most minutes of the season, bringing the young Canadian in at the 65th minute. With minutes in each match so far, the youngster could be poised for a start. However, benching the potential player of the month is an extremely tough call for Muñoz and his staff.
Another player likely to draw back in is left-back/left-winger Themi Antonoglou, who has been one of the best players for TFC II through the first five matches. After not featuring in Wednesday’s game, he is rested and ready to go for the Tucson clash. The combination of him, Luca Petrasso and Kosi Thompson, has been fantastic so far, and he will look to continue that.
Although unlikely, there could also be a change between the sticks, as Estonian international Andreas Vaikla has started three straight matches. 34-year-old veteran Caleb Patterson-Sewell is on the beach and faced FC Tucson last time; however, Vaikla has been reliable when called upon through his appearances.
Players to Watch: Daniel Bedoya and Charlie Dennis
The skillset that drives Tucson’s play is keeping the ball when they have it. While the John Galas coached side does not often have the majority of possession, they are purposeful with the ball at their feet and seldom give it away easily. FC Tucson leads the league in passing percentage with 84%, and their play runs through a pair of midfielders.
Although Daniel Bedoya did not play against Toronto last time out, the 27-year-old Colombian midfielder is one of the best chance creators in USL League 1. So far, he has created eight chances for Tucson, and even though only 40% of his passes are progressive, he can pick out attackers in the right places.
Charlie Dennis is another international player for Tucson. After establishing himself as a reliable USL player with South Georgia Tormenta, the Englishman has been a critical piece of Tucson’s midfield. Although his stats don’t burst off the page, he is a constant presence throughout the match.
With Tucson playing by committee, it will come down to how well Toronto can gel in the desert heat. Fortunately, it is one of the last games that Toronto will have to play in the dry southern heat as they move on to face teams in wetter and cooler climates.