It’s been a busy few months for Toronto FC II.
After learning they would indeed compete in USL League One this season having had to sit on the sidelines for 2020, Mike Munoz and his side had two weeks of preparation in Casa Grande, Arizona before the whirlwind began on May 22 with a match against North Texas SC.
They won that day, their first match in nearly 600 days, by a 2-1 scoreline with Garrett McLaughlin bagging both goals. But there was precious little time to celebrate as the club was facing a gruelling schedule of 12 matches in five-and-a-half weeks – basically Saturday-Wednesday on repeat.
From zero to 100, from virtual workouts to the blazing desert sun, they had to hit the ground running.
“From a physical standpoint, it was really, really challenging because it's nearly impossible to prepare a season in two weeks time – plus we were in over 100 degree [Fahrenheit] heat in Arizona. We had some physical challenges, some mental challenges, and then challenges because of our schedule,” recalled Munoz on Tuesday. “There were some guys that I've never even seen play live before.”
“Obviously we had scouted them and done our homework, but there are some big question marks on how these guys were going to perform? How they were going to gel? How we were going to build continuity in a really, really short time?” he continued. “But they were so hungry to play that that brought the group together.”
“And the fact that we got to stay at a hotel for two weeks together before our first match we became really close. There became a real team spirit, a brotherhood, that ‘Hey, you got my back, I got your back. We're going to fight for each other and make the most of it,’” Munoz explained. “We were playing with house money because everybody expects us to be in last place. OK, let's just go out and prove everybody wrong. It really became a togetherness in the group that was vital.”
TFC II were based in Arizona for their first five matches before moving over to Florida where they linked up with the first team.
The opening day win over Texas was followed by a loss against FC Tucson before a run of three draws – against Texas, Union Omaha, and Tucson – took them back to the East Coast.
Two losses, both against South Georgia Tormenta FC by 1-0 scorelines, followed before a 2-2 draw against Fort Lauderdale CF – Inter Miami CF’s reserve side – heralded a turning point.
TFC II would end that 12-match grind with three wins in their final four games – twice against South Georgia and once against Fort Lauderdale, who also handed them a defeat. A record of four wins, four draws, and four losses, was more than anyone could have imagined given the circumstances.
It was all hands on deck, as the rotating captaincy evidenced.
Five different players have won the armband for TFC II: Kevin Politz, Nyal Higgins, McLaughlin, Andreas Vaikla, and Kobe Franklin.
Of the 1260 regulation minutes the team has played to date, only two players have eclipsed the 1000-minute mark: Luca Petrasso and Mehdi Essoussi.
“The first thing I told everybody, and in the leadership group as well, was we have to rotate,” said Munoz. “It’s the only way we're going to survive, the only way we’re going to stay healthy, the only way we're going to stay fresh. There's going to be days where you're not going to be in the XI, you’re not going to be in the 18, but we still expect you to be leaders within our group.”
“We chose guys who have some professional experience already,” he continued. “It was important that they had that. As the second team we have a lot of rookies, a lot of young guys from the academy, who don't know what it's like at the next level. So that group of veteran, older players, who are still young in their careers, but been in the trenches a little bit already.”
Politz, having come up through the New York Red Bulls system, signed a homegrown contract there in 2018 and spent the last two seasons between Greenville Triumph SC and Hartford Athletic. Higgins, a TFC draft pick in the 2020 SuperDraft, spent 2020 on loan in Sweden. McLaughlin was selected 8th overall in 2020 by the Houston Dynamo and spent 2020 with their USL Championship affiliate, Rio Grande Valley FC. Toronto-born Vaikla, though only 24, went from Wexford SC to the West Bromwich Albion system, has toured through Scandinavia, and represented the Estonian National Team.
But none have as much experience as Caleb Patterson-Sewell, who signed as a player-coach just before the season began.
“[Phil Boerger], our goalkeeper coach, was having a baby so he wasn't able to travel. We needed a goalkeeper coach and we needed a goalkeeper and this guy ticked both boxes. He's been immense,” said Munoz. “Not only very good in goal, making some big saves for us, kept us in a lot of games, but he also has that veteran leadership.”
“He sees things a little bit different than some of those young guys do. ‘Hey guys,’ he said,” Munoz echoed, repeating Patterson-Sewell’s comment. “‘Your career is going to go by like this, so make sure you take advantage of every single little moment.’ He’s been a good balance between us as a staff and what's going on in the locker room which is huge.”
The combination of some veteran leadership and youth exuberance has worked well.
Toronto lost their first match after that furious opening, falling 1-0 away to New England Revolution II, in a close-fought match, but responded neatly with a 4-2 win away to North Carolina FC on the weekend.
14 matches in, officially the halfway point of the season, TFC II sit fifth in the league with 19 points, in a playoff spot, but four points off the pace of table-toppers Union Omaha and Chattanooga Red Wolves SC, who both also have a pair of games in hand.
They square off against New England II again tonight, Friday night, at Gillette Stadium – kickoff at 7 pm.
Following his hat-trick performance in the come-from-behind victory over North Carolina, which included a stunning bicycle kick, McLaughlin was named the USL League One Player of the Week for his efforts.
The 23-year-old striker from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma has gone from strength to strength throughout the season with eight goals in 13 appearances.
“It’s only his second year as a pro,” marvelled Munoz. “He had no goals in his first year at RGV and so the first thing I told him is my priority is to get you your first professional goal and I know once you get your first goal the floodgates are going to open for you.”
“He's a really intelligent soccer player, really smart with his runs, and he’s really fast. You add those together with a game-plan to try to reward him and he’s going to get those chances,” he continued. “So that first PK against North Texas changed everything for him. You get forwards a little bit of confidence and the rest is history. Really happy for Garrett and hopefully he can make a run for the golden boot because he can be that guy.”
Since linking up with the first team in Florida, TFC II has been bolstered by and provided minutes to first team players.
Erickson Gallardo, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, Jayden Nelson, Noble Okello, Ralph Priso, Kevin Silva, and Luke Singh have all seen minutes in USL League One this season.
Those ties between the two clubs, symbolized by a shared kit number pool, is valuable to both.
“TFC II is a big asset for the club to develop players and, at the same time, to provide a platform for players that didn't have a chance to play in the first team. It's important to use the resources we have at the club,” said Javier Perez. “I watched the game [against North Carolina] – they were behind 2-1 and they ended up winning the game, they scored beautiful goals. The club is doing a great job.”
For young players especially, minutes in the first team lineup can be hard to come by.
“That's tough because those guys need attention and those guys need to continue to get better, so that's where the second team comes in,” explained Munoz. “That link and communication between first team staff and the second team staff becomes really important.”
“At the end of the day, the only reason I'm here is to make sure that our guys are getting better and we're saying to the first team that these guys deserve a chance because they're doing all the right things,” he continued. “That's how I see my role. I always tell the guys, 'Let me be your voice to the first team and upper management, but you make sure that I'm telling them the things that you want to hear.'”
Following the trip to New England, TFC II are scheduled to play their first true home match of the season next Friday, July 30 against Greenville Triumph SC, but that is yet to be confirmed.
Greenville is one of the teams they are chasing, ahead by three points with a game in hand.
The first team were able to make their homecoming, soon enough TFC II will as well.
“Personally I am sick and tired of travelling. I'm exhausted, so I can only imagine how the players feel,” laughed Munoz. “We're still in limbo. We know as much as you do in terms of whether we're able to play that game.”
Whenever it comes, it will be a special occasion for a group of guys who have put everything into a challenging start to the campaign.
Closed Munoz: “Everyone's looking forward to it, absolutely.”