There’s no other way to put it: this is the biggest game in the club’s young history.
Toronto FC II head into Friday’s match with a chance to clinch a playoff berth for the first time.
The three-match winning streak may have come to a premature end last Friday with a 2-1 defeat against Fort Lauderdale CF where former Red Shaan Hundal scored twice for the visitors, but results elsewhere mean that it’s everything to play for when New England Revolution II come to the BMO Training Ground this week.
Heading into the final weekend of the USL League One season, TFC II sit in 8th place on 35 points. NER II currently hold that final spot on 37 points. FC Tucson also has 37 points, but with the first tie-breaker being wins, New England holds serve.
A Toronto win and a draw or loss from Tucson will see TFC II vault into sixth place – TFC will go level on wins and have a better goal-differential, the second tie-breaker.
Kobe Franklin gave Toronto the lead after 22 minutes last Friday against Fort Lauderdale, with Paul Rothrock setting him up – a reversal of their roles for both goals in a 2-1 away win at Chattanooga Red Wolves SC the previous week – but 10 minutes later Hundal was in the right place at the right time to touch in the rebound from a dangerous Romeo Beckham ball whipped in.
Shortly after half-time Hundal again stabbed home with a poked finish from the top of the box on a broken attack.
“Fort Lauderdale was there for the taking and after we got the first goal, I was like it's coming, we're going to bury these guys. It just never came,” said TFC II head coach Mike Munoz on Thursday evening. “We were in control the whole game. Even after they scored I felt that we were in control. I never really felt threatened, but so that's why it's so disappointing that we threw that game away.”
That may have doomed their postseason aspirations, but Tucson drew away to Forward Madison and NER II lost 4-1 at North Texas SC, despite being up a man for an hour.
Disappointment is in the past, it’s game time.
“I told the guys on Monday, ‘Hey, listen, we weren't supposed to be in this conversation in the first place and the fact that we're here and we have all to play for on Friday,’” recounted Munoz. “I said, ‘No pressure. Let's enjoy this. Let's enjoy this moment. Let's enjoy this week together. Let's be proud of what we've accomplished up until this point. We have nothing to lose on Friday and let's just go for it.’”
Sometimes you get a chance to make amends. The players are ready to grasp that opportunity.
“We feel super lucky because when the results happened to go our way over the weekend and now we get an extra week to play soccer,” said Rothrock. “The vibes coming back to training on Monday, people were just glad that we got another week together to train and actually be playing for something.”
“Guys responded well. We went over our mistakes and, at the same time, we also haven't spent too much time on that,” he added. “It's on to the next one and we're looking forward now.”
Rothrock, with three goals and an assist in the last four matches, knows a thing or two about seizing opportunity.
Selected in the third round of the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, the 64th overall pick was sidelined through June and July with a pair of surgeries.
“I've been waiting,” said the 22-year-old. “I was out for two months with injury and then it also took a while for me to get back into the team. That whole time I was out, all I was thinking about was as soon as I get back on the field. I'm going to make my impact. The injury really gave me some good perspective, I never know if the next game I'm going to be playing or not.”
“It's a combination of getting more opportunities and also the culmination of the work on the details that I've been really trying to hone in on the last couple months. It's finally starting to pay off,” he highlighted. “Sometimes you don't see the fruits of your labour until a couple of weeks or maybe even a couple years down the line. That's finally coming for me.”
Nominally a midfielder, Rothrock has been featuring for TFC II as a forward in recent weeks. He doesn’t care where he plays.
“My preferred position is on the field,” Rothrock laughed. “I've always thought one of my strengths is that I can play several different positions. My college coach called me a Swiss Army knife. It depends on the formation and it depends on the style that the coach is looking to play.”
“I've always liked playing a 10, that's probably been my favourite position, but I've loved playing forward for this team in the last couple of games. Coach told me that I was going to be playing forward and my mindset was okay, I'm a forward now, I'm going to be the best forward I can be,” he continued. “I also like playing wide as well, whether that’s a wing-back or an outside mid, I enjoy that position too.”
Rothrock will be wherever the coach decides to play him on Friday against NER II.
The two MLS affiliates have already met three times this season, each playing out to a 1-0 win to the home side.
This promises to be more of the same.
“I think it's going to be the best game of the season. They have to win and we have to win,” anticipated Rothrock. “There's everything to play for and they're not the type of team that's going to change their style.”
“It's going to be fun. We know how they play – they're an expansive team who like to move the ball well and they’re good with their passes and their runs in behind. It's going to be a game that is back-and-forth and it's going to be tight,” he added. “It's going to be won on the small details.”
To the winner go the spoils.
“They're in a better spot than we are – they win and they’re in, they control their own fate,” allowed Munoz. “They’re very well coached and I know they're going to have some first team guys with them, so it's going to be tough, it's going to be war. All of our games have been 1-0 and I don't expect anything different this go around.”
By a twist of fate, TFC II will have the home field advantage. This game was originally scheduled to be played south of the border, but the two teams swapped home games earlier this year before the border restrictions were relaxed.
“We call that field ‘Wembley,’ that's our Wembley,” shared Munoz, of the primary pitch at the BTG. “The boys have a laugh, they enjoy it.”
“In the entire season, we've never trained on it and the last few home games they've wanted to train on it the day before, just to get that feel, just to know what it feels like,” he continued. “They embrace that, they know that it's a big advantage for us and, obviously, we hope to take advantage of it.”
Having been sidelined for the entire season last year due to the pandemic, TFC II are hungry. They have been all season long.
Before the campaign began a fan-poll ranked them 12th for expected finish.
That has fueled them.
“What's so exciting about this team is how much we have proven people wrong and have the opportunity to continue proving people wrong,” said Rothrock, making a statement at the end of the interview. “We were ranked dead last in the preseason poll. We've already exceeded that expectation. No one thought we were going to make the playoffs and there's now a chance to.”
“We have that mindset of everyone has doubted us,” he added. “All we have is the group of 24, or however many it is, but we know that we’re more capable than what we’ve been given credit for.”