Toronto FC II kickoff their MLS Next Pro campaign on Sunday against FC Cincinnati 2 at NKU Soccer Stadium in Newport, Kentucky.
While many teams got their seasons underway last weekend, for TFC II it will be their first step into the new environment.
“We're excited about this new platform that MLS has created,” said head coach Gianni Cimini on Thursday. “It’s going to serve as a step in the pathway that is very much needed for our younger players that have the potential to make that jump to the first team.”
“There's a mix of some younger guys, younger talent coming through the academy system, mixed with some veteran professionals that have played at a high level or that are still aspiring to play at the highest level and I think that that mix of players is going to be interesting,” he anticipated. “As we move forward, we'll get to understand the standards a little bit better, we'll get to understand the levels a little bit better, but we will also, as a club, have a better insight on where our potential prospects are.”
With a flurry of signings in the last few weeks, TFC II have a good mix of returning players and new recruits combining homegrown academy graduates, MLS Super Draft picks, Canadian Premier League recruits, and some international talent.
The side has five matches scheduled this month, so it will be a good chance for Cimini to see how his side comes together in the pressure cooker of the 90 minutes-plus.
Cimini and a handful of players began preseason with the first team in California and will look to craft a similar identity on the pitch.
“We want to be a team that's aggressive with the ball, we want to be a team that has the ball on the ground, we want to be a team that looks to play forward,” he outlined. “And then from a defensive standpoint, without the ball, we want to be a team that wants to get the ball back as quick as possible in certain areas of the fields.”
“With that there's also the ability to be adaptable to the circumstances, the game context. We want to make sure that guys are aware of what is the score the game? What are the conditions of the game? How can we find ways to be adaptable to find results?” Cimini continued. “Results are an important part of the development process. Guys need to know how to win. Sometimes that means them finding ways that are outside the box to get a result.”
“Now that being said, there is a clear identity: we're going to be a team that wants to have the courage to play with the ball on the ground, wants that courage to get inside the box, get guys running forward rather than passing backwards,’ he stressed. “It's continuously evolving the identity and everyday we're working at it to get better. We don't expect it to be perfect right off the bat, but we expect to grow from moments that the MLS Next Pro platform is going to provide.”
Since those first days working with Bob Bradley, Cimini has been able to focus on preparing his side for this opening match for the last six weeks.
“It's been a long preseason. We had a week long preseason in Arizona, Casa Grande. We got a chance to take the boys down there, build a little bit of an identity, work outside with better weather conditions and we've been preparing with weekly matches,” he detailed. “We've been taking our time in terms of developing this identity, getting answers on young players that are coming up to fill voids, and also some that have been here from last year trying to step up, see if they can step up their level as well to provide that leadership, that maturity, that this younger group will need.”
Along with results, that is the challenge for Cimini: helping these players take their game to the next level.
“I'm looking to find a way to challenge myself to improve players at this level on a daily basis,” he levelled. “Obviously, the challenge is not only technical and tactical, but also from a mental standpoint. How can we work on a daily basis at getting guys the 5% better that they need to make themselves ready for that next level, which is so often the case with players at this at this step.”
It is a challenge he himself will be facing.
“I’m looking to grow from the experience,” he anticipated. “Personally, it's going to be about being comfortable with the uncomfort, being comfortable with the new situation and really learning as much as I can in the moments that are presented to me throughout the course the year.”
There is a unique wrinkle to the MLS NEXT Pro games. Should a match end in a draw, rather than each settle for a point, the winner will be determined by a penalty kick shootout.
“The league director, Ali [Curtis] said it very well. He said, ‘It's an added pressure for the players at this level,’ which is good, and also some entertainment in terms of generating the fan base,” he echoed. “We are training them, of course, because they are an additional point.”
“In terms of executing in those moments, it becomes very different right? How can you replicate in training a pressure moment where a point is on the line and your players have to execute a spot kick from 12 yards out?” he framed. “We can train execution, but there's other elements in there that are important as well that guys are just going to have to get comfortable doing.”
Cincinnati have already played one match, losing 2-0 away to Philadelphia Union II last Sunday.
“It was a very competitive match. Philly gave them a certain style of play that they had to deal with, they were always under pressure, it was a physical match,” observed Cimini. “They dealt with it pretty well and I think that they're going to come out this weekend with something to prove.”
“They're going to demand more from themselves in possession, they have some qualities up top with [Andrew] Akindele and [Gerardo] Valenzuela. They're going to come ready for the match and we have to be ready to match their standards from an energy standpoint,’ he continued. “Getting the first game out of the way, where the nerves could be high, they had the opportunity to get that under their belt last weekend. We're going to have to match the energy level, but also maintain our level of focus and commitment because we want to go out and play some good football and you can do that when maybe the emotion is too high.”