Another week, another big win and another appetizing fixture ahead for Toronto FC II.
With back-to-back home wins in the pocket, TFC II hit the road last Saturday and picked up an impressive 2-1 victory and a vital three points at Chattanooga Red Wolves SC as the USL League One season nears conclusion.
On the road and squaring off against one of the league leaders, Mike Munoz knew this game was going to have to look a little different.
“It was how we thought it was going to play out,” reflected the TFC II coach on Tuesday. “We were prepared to try to hurt them on the counter. We defended a little bit more than we wanted to and we didn't keep the ball as much as we would have liked, but it's what the game required.”
“And the goals, when we scored them, built on that,” Munoz continued. “We knew Chattanooga had to push to get a goal, so it was going to be that much harder for us to control things. The guys were warriors. They found a different way to win this season than we had done before and that's huge to see.”
Paul Rothrock, who opened his seasonal account against North Carolina FC earlier this month, scored both goals with powerful headers at the start of each half.
A third round selection in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, 64th overall out of Georgetown University, Rothrock has impressed at every turn.
“His attitude and his work rate, his positivity and wanting to get better,” highlighted Munoz. “He wants to know solutions. He wants to know how he can hurt the opponent and what he can study. He's constantly watching his games and the opponent.”
“It's great to see in a young kid,” he added. “He's worked so hard to get to this point and he absolutely deserves all the credit that he's gotten with these goals.”
And it was right-back Kobe Franklin, leading the team with six assists, who provided the inch-perfect service. Only Luca Petrasso, his opposite full-back, has played more consistently for TFC II this season.
“The amount of minutes that he's played this year and the amount of distance that he's covered for a rookie is incredible,” said Munoz of the 18-year-old. “Yes, he had a shoulder injury, it wasn't a muscle injury, but to show his durability and his strength over a long season at that position really is remarkable.”
“And then you add the quality of his service, the timing of his runs, when to get forward,” he listed. “Something you won't see in the highlights, but his ability to block shots and throw his body at crosses, which is absolutely vital and so valuable at this stage. He's really doing it all right now and I can't speak highly enough of him.”
Add in the 3-0 win over North Carolina and a hard-fought 1-0 victory over New England Revolution II and for the first time in club history, TFC II has won three-straight games.
For Munoz, there are many factors behind the run.
“Set-pieces in our favour have obviously been a positive,” he began. “It's always going to be difficult to capitalize on chances now because there's going to be far fewer, everybody's really tight – that playoff type of game where you're not going to get a whole lot of chances.”
The game-winner in each of those three matches was from a dead-ball situation.
“Belief, character – that mentality, that emotional component where the guys believe they can beat anybody right now,” Munoz continued. “And then the last thing I would say is getting the first goal. We seem to have a good record when we get that first goal and not a good record when we concede first.”
Nine points could not have come at a better time as TFC II are battling for a first-ever playoff berth. With two matches remaining, they sit one point out of the final spot.
Four teams are separated by just two points heading into the penultimate weekend of the league.
The focus for Toronto will be taking care of their business at home on Friday when Fort Lauderdale CF come to the BMO Training Ground.
The two sides have already met three times this season with each winning one by a 2-1 scoreline and sharing the points in a 2-2 draw. All those games came in a short period in June when II were based in Florida before coming home.
Inter Miami CF’s USL League One affiliate, Fort Lauderdale have already been eliminated from postseason contention, but that just makes the game more challenging.
Added to the uncertainty of which players will cross the border is that like the TFC first team, Miami is in the midst of a hectic schedule.
“Which guys are going to stay back, which guys are going to travel up north?” wondered Munoz. “Things that you can't control from our standpoint. We're going to prepare for them like they're going to bring a top team.”
“They play good soccer, so I expect an open game, but we’ve got to be really careful about playing an open game because they can hurt us in transition when they win the ball offensively, but we can also hurt them in transition when we win the ball,” he weighed. “So it's that balance between trying to punish them but also making sure that we don't open ourselves up as well.”
TFC II will close the season a week later when NER II, one of the teams they are chasing, come to town.
Until then, just keep it rolling?
“Yeah,” laughed Munoz. “Except I imagine we're going to have a lot more of the ball this game than we did against Chattanooga.”
“We want to get back to controlling the game, we want to make sure that we don't have to defend and suffer like we did over there,” he detailed. “In terms of the offensive style that won't change.”
And for the first time this season, the doors at Downsview Park will open for fans to cheer on TFC II, proof of vaccination required.
Having played the first half of the season on the road and then been limited to only friends, family, and TFC Academy players in attendance, the boys have earned some support as they battle to do something no other TFC II side has managed.
“We’ve kind of joked the last few home games, ‘Hey, make sure you guys say hello to the fans before the game....’” quipped Munoz. “They take it on the chin.”
“I don't think they know that it's going to be open yet, I just found out a couple hours ago myself, so that's great news,” he smiled. “I did a promo on social media, but if we can get our TFC supporters out there and family and friends, it would be awesome.”
“Awesome to show the guys, “Look what you guys have done, look how far we've come this season,’” Munoz added. “It would be great.”