As August comes to a close Toronto FC II enter the stretch run.
10 matches remain in the season and with the standings as tight as can be, how each one plays out will be instrumental in achieving their goal.
Five of their last seven matches are scheduled to be played at home, but before that the club faces a gauntlet of the top two teams in the league and the defending champions.
September begins with away trips to Greenville Triumph SC – the defending champs – next Friday, and then another away date at Union Omaha – two points off the blistering pace, but with a game in hand – the following Saturday, but up first is the visit of the current league leaders, Chattanooga Red Wolves SC.
“The message, without putting too much pressure on, is that we have 10 games left in the season with a really tough stretch [ahead] and that all of these games are cup finals,” said TFC II head coach Mike Munoz on Thursday. “All of these home games are essentially must-win, which we're confident about. And we feel that if we can scrape points on the road we're going to position ourselves, at the end of the year, in a good spot.”
“We know how difficult it is for teams to come to Canada logistically, so we have to take advantage of that and then we have to take advantage of our field as well,” he added. “Everybody's excited, everybody's in a good place, there's no fear in our group. We're going to go for it.”
Having been forced to play the first half of the season on the road, whether in Arizona or Florida, it is only fair that the tables have turned a touch in TFC II’s favour.
Off-field considerations, however, evaporate once the whistle blows.
“We need to be really focused,” stressed defender Kevin Politz, who has worn the captain’s armband in the last nine outings. “We have 10 games left in the season and the coaches have been describing them as cup finals.”
“The way the standings are right now, one result either way can really change your position on the table,” he continued. “We want to make our field a place where people don't want to come to play, a place where we get results. Chattanooga is going to come in with a strong squad, first-place, but we have a lot of talent, a lot of skill, and hopefully we can make our home field an advantage for us.”
Jimmy Obleda has his Tennessee-based side rolling this season. The Red Wolves have lost just one of their 17 matches with an unbeaten home record through ten games and three away wins.
They enter Friday’s match unbeaten in 12, stretching back to a June 5 defeat away to South Georgia Tormenta FC. Juan Galindrez leads the side with eight goals with Ricky Ruiz the primary set-up man, racking up seven assists thus far.
“For me they're the best team right now in USL League One,” said Munoz. “Not only their style of play, with how aggressive they are defensively, but also how well they keep the ball and how fearless they are with the ball.”
“They have some difference makers who can make plays at this level. They also have a mentality right now where they don't lose and they find ways to tie games and win games late. That's a huge advantage for any team to have, that’s credit to them,” he continued. “They're going to be extremely difficult.”
With two months remaining, the table is tight.
Aside from Chattanooga and Omaha, who have separated themselves from the chasing pack, third place to ninth are level on 24 points – seven teams in a dog-pile, but only four of them can sit above the playoff line when the final whistle blows.
“I've never been a part of anything where it's been this close,” said Politz. “It's pretty insane how neck and neck all these teams are. And as we've seen this season, anyone can beat anyone on any day. It's really fun to be part of a really competitive league.”
Added Munoz: “Personally I've enjoyed it.”
“This tight race, this battle, because every game means something, every game is so important,” he continued. “This is a pressure that our young guys need to have, that they need to go through. That you can't afford to take one play off, that you can't afford to drop points anymore.”
“This isn't youth soccer, you're playing for something now,” Munoz added. “I'm happy that we've given ourselves a shot to be in this position, so enjoy it, embrace it, and let's try to make the most of it, let's maximize it.”
Pressure makes diamonds.
“Part of a player's development is learning how to win,” highlighted Politz. “A lot of times this season we’ll be facing an older and more experienced group and it's finding little things to give you an edge in the game. It’s an important part of development.”
TFC II enter the match unbeaten in three matches themselves, stretching back to when they were able to play their first home match at the BTG.
A scoreless draw against Greenville on July 30 led into a 2-1 win over the Richmond Kickers a week later. And a late equalizer away to Forward Madison on August 18 saw them extend that run.
Before the season began, Munoz and his staff put a single overarching goal ahead of the team: “It’s 100% making the playoffs, it's nothing more than that.”
“We haven't had too many massive team goals – we've wanted to be at certain marks and certain points at different times,” Munoz elaborated. “On July 1 we wanted to be in the playoff picture: we've hit that. August 1 we wanted to be in the playoff picture: we've hit that.”
“The guys have their own individual goals that they're focused on and that's fine, but as a team it's really simple: make the playoffs, make history for TFC II,” he levelled. “And then we know we can beat anybody if we can get there.”
In four seasons in USL and one in USL League One, the club has not yet reached the post-season.
“That was our goal for the past seasons, but this time we made it clear,” said Luca Petrasso earlier this month. “We had to grind it out for that time period that we were away and the boys right now feel that we can push on to go up to a top three place.”
“The table is very close. If you win two games in a row you’re in the top two, if you lose two games in a row you're back out of the playoffs,” he pinpointed. “Our boys are fully prepared to fight to get into a playoff spot and if we can do that, anything can happen in the playoffs. That's what we're pushing for, make sure we get to that playoff spot, and then go from there.”
Added Politz: “It would be awesome to make history for this team, to make the playoffs for the first time.”
“It hasn't been done in the past, but with the talent and skill that we have on this team we're capable,” he continued. “You could argue we should have a few more points than we do right now and be sitting pretty comfortably in a playoff spot, but it is what it is and we're right there in it, which is where we want to be.”