Toronto FC II open the home portion of the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season on Friday night against NYCFC II at York Lions Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 7pm and the gates will be open for fans to attend. Tickets are $10 at the door, children under ten enter for free.
The Young Reds began the season with a pair of road defeats at the end of March – 4-2 away to FC Cincinnati 2 and 2-0 at Chicago Fire II.
“Difficult, obviously,” levelled TFC II Head Coach Gianni Cimini on Wednesday. “In terms of the style that we wanted to play, it wasn't the best.”
“In Cincinnati, being up 2-1, having some good moments after that and then conceding early in the second half and not being able to hold the lead. The Chicago match, really struggled with build-ups,” he continued. “And then what should be real advantages for us in the final third, ends up being advantages for them in transition. Second half being a man up, not being able to really create enough quality actions in the final third and conceding off of set-pieces.”
“It's a new group, it's a young group. Some guys had never played together before on the field,” Cimini levelled. “So to have expectations really high is not reasonable, but to perform at that level was unacceptable as well. For us it's about defining moments early on in the year and how we can build character from this, how we can really look at ourselves in the mirror and improve.”
After a long preseason, the road trip was a good bonding experience, but goalkeeper Luka Gavran, one of eight returning players, wanted more from the matches.
“It was nice to get to know more of the younger players – our squad is younger now, but we didn't take our opportunities,” he said on Thursday. “First game, we're up 2-1, defensively we weren't good enough and we conceded three times in the second half, that's never going to work out.”
“Second game, first half we didn't play that well, but we kept in it, kept the score 0-0 and Chicago got a red card,” Gavran continued. “Not to capitalize in the second half doesn't help us, but we're a new group. When you lose a lot of players from last year, a new group is tough, but we had a nice two weeks now to get use to each other so hopefully we can change that at home this week.”
The group that hit the road was indeed young, very young with several TFC Academy call-ups making their MLS NEXT Pro debuts and several players expected to be key contributors this season unavailable or limited.
Some of that was the usual disruptions that come with the start of a season – injuries picked up in preseason that delay progression – but some too was intentional.
“It's an initiative from the club to make the second team younger,” explained Cimini. “It's a little bit of both: in certain circumstances it’s injuries, in others it's prospects playing in certain positions to get the experience they need at this stage in their development.”
That is the flux of early season. Teams are still learning about themselves, let alone their opponents.
Last year TFC II needed two months of experimentation, playing matches and working through ideas on the training pitch, before they hit their stride.
“We're really in the stage of figuring things out, how things are going to look this year,” said Cimini. “And dealing with [a few] injuries right now.”
The departures of Alonso Coello Camarero, Kobe Franklin, Themi Antonoglou, and Hugo Mbongue to the first team, not to mention other key contributors moving on, means new faces and players taking on different roles.
“Losing key guys doesn't help, but we have a good group of young kids that are learning quickly,” said Gavran. “You can see even after two weeks, after the first two games, slowly we're getting there.”
“Trainings have been much better, much more intense,” he continued. “The young guys are bringing it. Us older guys, more experienced, we need to hold them to a standard too. There needs to be a balance and I think we're finding it slowly.”
Having reached the post-season for the first time in club history and pushed eventual-winners Columbus Crew 2 to extra time in an epic Eastern Conference final, expectations are high.
“Playoffs is the bare minimum,” said Gavran. “The season is long. Last year we started off slower, but we picked it up. You never know what can happen, what players will end up doing well, will show that they belong here.”
“The goal is to go week-by-week, game-by-game and try to get results, but in the end, obviously win it all,” he continued. “And for myself, I'm in a more important role. Last year, I was a newer player, so I just had to worry about myself and putting in quality performances, but now it's doing both. I need to push everybody on the team, especially the younger kids, and still perform. It's a new role for me, but I'm excited and can't wait to see what the rest of the year has for us.”
Growth. That’s what it’s all about. Day-by-day, week-by-week, game-by-game, season-by-season.
The next step is Friday against NYCFC II.
New York City come to town having split their opening matches. They lost 2-1 away to New England Revolution II, but followed that up with a 2-0 win at home over Atlanta United 2 with a pair of first teamers scoring the goals.
TFC II won two of the three meetings between the clubs last season, tasty affairs, including the home opener at York Lions Stadium last April by a 3-1 scoreline.
“They haven't changed much from last year,” underlined Cimini. “They’re a possession-based team. They have some quality players up top, good experienced players in the midfield. It's going to be a difficult match.”
Added Gavran: “They like to press, they like to keep the ball, it's always a high-intensity game. Last time we played them it was a chippy game, both of us going at it, fighting for every ball. We're ready for it.”
With doors open to the public for the first time at their home grounds on the York University campus, TFC II are ready.
“It's exciting,” said Cimini. “To be able to feel what it feels like to play at home, in our own stadium, it's exciting for everybody for sure. The guys are eager to make amends for the first two games on the road.”
They’re looking forward to it.
Gavran, a native of Hamilton, Ontario with Croatian heritage, is anticipating a good crowd.
“Maybe a bit more,” he beamed, asked if 50 friends and family should be expected. “It's going to be a Croatia game.”
“Playing at home is way better. You have a full day to process in your own home, you're into a routine – everybody has a routine for home games – so it's nice to do that,” said Gavran. “To play in front of your friends and family, it's nice. Going into college I never got that, so being back here to have that support... I know everybody's behind us, so hopefully we can get some results for them and keep it rolling.”