The playoff race in USL League One has been unlike any other.
Heading into the final four weeks eight teams are separated by a mere six points, but only four of them can finish above the dividing line. It will be a month of drama. It will be decisive.
Toronto FC II opened the final month of the season with a much needed victory, defeating North Carolina FC 3-0 at the BMO Training Ground last Friday. They square off against MLS cousins, New England Revolution II on Friday at the BTG before hitting the road for a tricky fixture at Chattanooga Red Wolves SC, currently placed second in the standings, the following Saturday.
TFC II then close the season with two more Friday afternoon home matches in the subsequent weeks: first against Fort Lauderdale CF – Inter Miami CF’s side – and NER II once more.
Four matches to decide the season. It’s a big month.
“Game by game,” levelled Mike Munoz on Thursday, asked how they would approach this run. “The focus right now is New England and then it’s just all about confidence – confidence, confidence, confidence – making sure the guys go in feeling that they can win the game that's in front of them.”
“Last weekend against North Carolina we went old school, brought the guys in right before kickoff and showed them a highlight video of all of our goals, some great tackles, and some great saves,” he explained. “Show that you've done all this stuff to get to this point and when goal number one goes in the back of the net, it's going to be the best feeling in the world and you guys are going to go on to win this game.”
It paid dividends with the three-goal outpouring versus North Carolina.
Having navigated a vagabond’s existence through the opening months of the season, based first in Arizona and then Florida before coming home at the end of July, TFC used that emotional boost to propel themselves to a four-game unbeaten run through August.
But with September came a string of disappointments. First a 3-0 loss to Greenville Triumph SC, then late defeats away to Union Omaha and the Richmond Kickers, either side of a 1-1 draw with Forward Madison.
Currently TFC II find themselves four points off the final berth.
“You’re on the outside looking in, you probably need a little bit of help and results to go your way as well, but everybody is extremely excited that at this point in the season we're still playing for something,” said Munoz. “This hasn't been the narrative in the past, so it's all to play for, we're still in this, everybody still believes.”
Reaching the playoffs has been the main goal all season. And once there, anything can happen.
In five previous campaigns dating back to 2015, whether in USL, the USL Championship, or USL League One, TFC II has yet to make the postseason.
“It was always hard for us to get to the postseason,” said Dante Campbell, who has been with II since 2016. “Even our last USL League One year, we felt like we had a decent opportunity to do that and obviously came short. It was hard.”
In the 2019 season TFC II finished seventh place, but only the top four made the playoffs – seven points short in the end.
“So for this group that we have now, a pretty young group, it would be... We know it's going to be hard work, but it'd be really, really special and it would show that we're taking a step forward,” Campbell highlighted. “It would be huge, especially for me.”
Campbell, first as a right-back, now as a central midfield general, has always been a force on the pitch, covering every blade of grass, battling for every inch of territory, but this year has seen a new maturity in the 22-year-old.
“I don't know Dante Campbell from the previous years, I can only go off of what he's brought this year,” said Munoz, who took over the managerial duties ahead of the pandemic-lost 2020 season. “And what everybody is saying to me is they're surprised about his growth, his maturity off the field, really taking care of himself.”
“There's a little bit of that fear factor in Dante right now as well,” he relayed. “‘I'm getting older. I understand this might be my last chance at TFC. They've given me so much I don't want to lose that.’ He understands that you can only spend so many years with the second team: are you a first team player or are you not?”
“That reality has hit home and the coaching staff has also made it important to him that we see you as a veteran, even though you're young, you have a voice in this team, we want you to be that voice, and we're going to do everything we can to try to get you to your next step,” Munoz added. “All of those combinations have played a part in his maturity and how important he is on the field for us.”
Campbell has sought to instill his tenacity into the group.
“Some leaders are more vocal, some leaders show how to be, for me, for this particular group group, it’s to make sure that everyone does their job,” he began. “Obviously on the field, but, as well, off the field.”
“By that I mean, when it's time for your special talent – everyone within this group has a special talent, whether that be one-v-one defending, one-v-one attacking, headers, free-kicks, penalties, crossing, whatever it may be,” Campbell continued. “It's important for a young group to make sure that everyone is being held accountable and everyone is doing their job before everything. Doing what they know they're supposed to do, being reliable, and sticking to that game plan.”
“When shown adversity, which is tough for a young group as I've learned in the past, it tends to go downhill,” he added. “But when this group faces adversity, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure that we take on any challenges head on and we don't deviate from the game plan, whatever it may be.”
September was rife with such challenges, but October is full of promise.
Having scored just twice through five matches, TFC II unloaded on North Carolina, finding the back of the net three times in an eight-minute spell.
Jon-Talen Maples netted the first before Luca Petrasso and Paul Rothrock added more in quick succession. The emotion of that release was plain to see.
They were massive goals, each one.
“I can't tell you how important it was because for the first time in the whole season I saw a group come into training just rattled a little bit, confidence not there, things not clicking,” recalled Munoz. “As a coaching staff we tried to figure out different solutions and methods, how can we get this group back.”
“My trainer said it best: ‘Mike, I’m telling you, all it takes is one goal to rip the net and the guys are going to go.’ He couldn’t have been more correct,” added the coach. “Sometimes it's as simple as that in sports.”
Said Campbell: “It couldn't have come at a better time, to be honest.”
“We've been playing really good football. There's one or two games where we weren't the greatest, but aside from that we were playing really good football and we weren't getting rewarded for it,” he continued. “We were getting frustrated and couldn't find the back of the net, whether it be from set-pieces, from penalties, from open play. We're getting to good spots, we were doing all the right things, but we couldn’t find the back of the net.”
“And so now in this crucial part of the season we're coming off a game where we know we can hit the back of the net,” Campbell stressed. “That will give us the confidence to execute when the time comes.”
Up first is NER II, who have won both previous meetings by 1-0 scorelines. They were contentious, hard-fought affairs at Gillette Stadium.
The two sides will meet twice in the remaining four matches and New England are one of the teams TFC II are chasing – five points separate the two. These six on offer could well be decisive.
“Everybody's pissed off that we've dropped points to these guys. They've beaten us twice,” reminded Munoz. “The last game they beat us 1-0, but we missed a PK in the final minutes to tie it.”
“It’s an MLS rivalry, so those are always big games from a staff and player standpoint as well – there's a lot of trash talking – and coming to the BMO Training Ground, we can’t wait to welcome them,” he underlined. “But they are in a run of form, they're finding ways to win, which is evident in the table and so it’s not going to be easy. They have a number of first team players who work consistently with the second team for the entire year – yes, they're young, but obviously talented.”
“It'll be our top guys against their top guys,” Munoz added. “And it's must win.”
Said Campbell: “Everyone's ready to get after it. We're excited, but we also realize how important this last spell is. New England is good opposition, so we're sticking to the game plan and getting ready to execute.”