After the longest offseason imaginable, Toronto FC II are set to return to the pitch on Saturday for their first match of the 2021 USL League One season when they face off against North Texas SC in an enticing opener.
Due to the pandemic, the club were forced to withdraw from last season’s competition and have not played a league match since October 2019.
For head coach Mike Munoz the last 18 months have been as strange as anyone’s, only with the added strain of trying to look after his young charges in a time of uncertainty.
Munoz arrived in Toronto last January, excited to join the club and looking forward to the usual challenges of the season that lay ahead. Life, as it has a habit of doing, had other plans.
“It's been a rollercoaster,” said the TFC II coach on Wednesday from Arizona. “Extremely draining and frustrating because one you have this unknown pandemic – how long are we going to be in it? What is it going to mean locally? What is it going to mean globally? And then when they cancelled our season you feel bad for the boys because it's such an important year for guys to try to get first team contracts, to get professional minutes and experience under their belt, and that was completely taken away.”
“It was tough,” he continued. “Sometimes we would have glimmers of hope that you're going to get to play games or go travel and play in different tournaments, and then suddenly it gets pulled away again. Not easy.”
But with this new year comes new possibilities.
In order to surmount the difficulties of the time, TFC II have relocated to Grande Sports World in Casa Grande, Arizona for the start of their season and will then rotate over to Florida to be closer to the first team in June.
The boys are raring to go.
“From a preparation standpoint, it’s really easy to motivate the guys because they want to play,” began Munoz. “They want to play and they haven't been able to for so long, they haven't been able to compete and get after it. No motivation is needed because everybody is happy and thankful to kick the ball again.”
“We do have our challenges, don't get me wrong,” he continued. “We've only had eight real practices under our belts in Casa Grande in Arizona. We're currently staying at the resort. It's a really nice setup, you can walk out of your hotel room and you have ten soccer fields laid out right there, you have the gym, the amenities, the pool. Everything you need is right on site so we don't have to go anywhere.”
“It's the middle of nowhere, the desert, but it’s great because there's no distractions. It’s soccer 24/7. We're able to build a real camaraderie with the group,” Munoz highlighted. “We have a lot of new faces, a lot of young guys that don't know each other, so it's been a crash course preseason to get these guys ready to play on Saturday.”
With the rest of the league having begun play on April 10, TFC II have some ground to make up – every other team has played somewhere between two and six matches already – as such their schedule for the next six weeks is vicious.
Starting Saturday, the club will play every weekend and midweek on repeat until June 30, when they will finally have nine days between matches. A gruelling stretch of 12 matches in 40 days.
Munoz called it a “real challenge.”
“Concerns from a physical standpoint,” he allowed. “We have about 14 homegrown academy players in the squad, a couple of draft picks that we signed from this year’s MLS draft, and we’ve sprinkled in a handful of USL veterans who are still very young – 23, 24 – but do have some professional experience to round out our leadership group.”
“The next five games are the real test because we have what we have there,” Munoz focused. “24 players total, two goalkeepers and 22 field players – some of our top talents from the academy we brought as well. It's all hands on deck.”
“Everybody's going to have to be ready, everybody's going to have to be prepared. It's not going to be easy. We're not going to get any first team guys for the next five games,” he added. “We just have to get through Arizona and then once we get to Florida, we'll have help from the first team.”
Following the North Texas opener, TFC II will face FC Tucson midweek before a return fixture in Texas against the FC Dallas affiliates the following Saturday.
The side then returns to Arizona for a first-ever clash with Union Omaha midweek before closing that five-game stretch with a trip to face Tucson once more. They will then relocate to Florida with the visit of South Georgia Tormenta FC four days later.
Munoz and his assistant coach, Danny Dichio, will be looking to implement Chris Armas’ style into TFC II.
“I’ve got a very good relationship with Chris,” said Munoz. “He's been great to me and Danny. We were part of the first team preseason when they were in Toronto and part of all those meetings. We got a good idea and understanding of how he wants to play and we're going to set up the second team the same way.”
“We're going to have to be a little bit more pragmatic in the sense that we do play every three days – Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday – in the heat of Arizona, in the heat of Texas, with a limited roster,” he explained. “So I don't think we can go all out, we’re going to have to pick and choose how we're going to set up, how we’re going to defend, how we’re going to attack. But the idea is that we're going to instill what Chris wants in the first team.”
As ever the challenge with the second team is how to balance player development with winning.
For Munoz, they are one and the same.
“Winning is a huge, huge part of development for these players,” he stressed. “So when we set out to play the intention is always to get three points.”
One of many lessons young professionals must learn.
“When you go on the road against an older, veteran team and you walk away with a point, that also is building character traits that you look to instill – how to grind a point out on the road,” Munoz elaborated. “The winning intention is always there. What we don't want to happen is to get beat consistently and you start to lose guys, the younger players start to lose confidence – that also can happen and that's not okay. We're going to set up to win and get some points from the start.”