After 15 straight matches on the road, Toronto FC II were finally able to play a ‘home’ match last Friday.
Yes, several of those matches were technically home games, whether at Grande Sports World in Arizona or Osceola Heritage Park in Florida, but home is home.
The team found out a few days before the news became public at the end of July.
“I was relieved that we didn't have to travel anymore – really tired of travelling,” laughed Mike Munoz earlier this week, recalling the moment he learned. “And then just excited for the guys, that they'd be able to play in front of their friends and families. We sat as a group on a Monday morning, just to kind of recap the weekend, and I let them know.”
Having braved a daunting schedule of matches every three or four days for much of their wandering, it came as a pleasant, if not wholly unexpected, surprise.
“Mike and Danny [Dichio, assistant coach] let us know. The boys were really excited, especially the hometown boys, to go back home and see their families,” explained Luca Petrasso on Thursday. “Once we found that news about the fully vaccinated Canadians who come back into the country and don't have to quarantine that's when we knew that we were edging really close to coming back home. It was amazing. I was really excited to come back, it was a long time.”
For those like Petrasso and the other GTA natives, coming home was one thing, but for the newcomers to the team, guys like Garrett McLaughlin, Kevin Politz, Paul Rothrock, and Jon-Talen Maples, to name a few, it was another.
“I was excited for them to experience it,” relayed Petrasso. “A couple of them like Garrett our striker, Kev, Paul, Talen, it’s their first time actually in Toronto and maybe the first time in Canada. I was telling them that it’s an amazing city, especially our facilities, and what to do outside of training – there's a lot of places to explore.”
“When we were in Orlando, I was one of the guys everyday checking out all the news to make sure that everything's going well back home so we can come back,” he continued. “I was excited for them to come and be a part of the city and be a part of the club back at home.”
“That's the most important part: we get to play home games at home and get out of that environment of eating the hotel food and living out of a suitcase for months. They get to go into a normal routine and explore the city after training during the week, on the weekends,” Petrasso highlighted. “Speaking to some of the boys they really like it. I see a lot of them going downtown and walking down the streets.”
While the road experience was valuable, there’s no place like home.
“You take things for granted like the little logistics of being able to sleep in, being able to eat your own food, to not be rushed or get on a bus. Those little things that we lost,” explained Munoz. “Now you’ll able to drive in, you get to listen to your own music, stuff like that.”
“I would argue that with second team players, if you can put them in situations that are difficult and are going to challenge them – having to play in front of 5000 fans away from home cursing them out and talking trash – that's great for their development,” he balanced. “But from a sheer humanity standpoint, of not being able to play in front of their friends and family for so long. there's happiness for them.”
That initial sprint to make up for lost time now past, TFC II’s schedule has settled into a more normal rhythm.
Greenville Triumph SC visited last Friday, this Friday they square off against the Richmond Kickers at the BMO Training Ground. Next week sees them travel for a midweek match at Forward Madison FC before returning home for a Friday afternoon clash with Chattanooga Red Wolves SC.
A little bit of normal is nice.
“After playing every three or four days, we knew that we were coming home to a regular routine and a regular schedule,” said Petrasso. “It just cleared the mind and makes [you] feel like we're back to a regular life where we wake up, we go to the facility every day, and we go home after, which is great.”
And then there are those home comforts.
“In Arizona we were playing our home games right beside where we were staying, which was a bonus, but our changing room was a hotel room right beside our kitchen where they had to put chairs out,” recalled Petrasso. “We had to walk all the way across to the field and then we couldn’t go back after warm-ups, after half-time, so we would just stay there on our bench which didn’t feel like an actual home game.”
“Then coming back to playing our home games here where you can pick the food that you want to eat, you get to prepare properly for the game, and having all the equipment and resources now to make sure that we're fully prepared is amazing,” he continued. “Last home game everything was done perfectly and now we get another one tomorrow, so the boys are excited about that.”
Having taken the head coaching role at TFC II in January 2020, months before the world changed, last Friday was a first for Munoz.
“It was strange,” he admitted. “It was my first time ever coaching a home game there, so I'm asking the staff, ‘Where's the second team locker? Where do we do the pregame meeting?’ I was kind of lost.”
“We had rehearsed it the day before, had gone over the timeline to make sure everything was as smooth as possible,” he continued. “We haven't hosted a home game since 2019 and even from the operational side just making sure everybody was on the same schedule and at the right places.”
A scoreless draw against a team above them in the standings was not the desired result, especially after Greenville saw a red card in the first half, but the impact of being at their ground was evident.
“Everybody, everybody, everybody,” replied Munoz, asked if there was an extra skip in the step prematch. “You could just tell that the adrenaline was flowing. Tough game against Greenville, the defending champions, but that didn't matter. We were going to be up for it no matter what.”
“Disappointed we let Greenville off the hook,” said the coach of the result. “It's two points dropped.”
“Red cards are... I don't believe in luck,” levelled Munoz. “I believe in creating your own luck and you have to create situations and put referees in situations to get calls in your favour. We played two balls in behind and were dangerous and we put the referee in a situation to make the call, and so now it's about taking advantage of that.”
“You have a man up for 50 minutes and you're hoping to capitalize on that. With the amount of chances that we created you hope you get three points,” he continued. “But we talked about getting the shutout and that's a positive, that's a notch on the list, but disappointed that we didn't take all three.”
It was the first time in a long time that the local players had the chance to have their supporters at their backs.
“My parents were there,” said Petrasso. “I think it was their first time watching me at home in two years because both my parents work and the time that we play, 4 PM, they're still at work, so they took the day off to come watch me. My girlfriend was there and then a couple of my buddies.”
“It was amazing,” he continued. “I was so excited to play in front of friends and family and for the boys to have their friends and family come out. Everybody was supporting us and making sure that we did well. It's amazing to play at home and to train at home. I love this city. I love this club, so any chance to be a part of this club and hopefully push on to play for the first team is a dream come true.”
TFC II will run it back out there on Friday afternoon when Richmond comes to town.
Just like last week against Greenville there are several unknowns, but that is the way of the world these days.
“There's two things that we can expect not to expect: we have no idea who's going to be able to cross into Canada because of vaccinations, so once again it becomes a little bit hard to predict how they're going to line up,” said Munoz. “The second thing is that they've flip-flopped their formations like crazy – they've played five or six formations this year trying to find what suits them best and so it's going to be difficult to determine how they're going to set up.”
“I know it's the old cliche, but we’re really just focusing on us,” he closed. “Getting better in those areas that we need to improve and be prepared for whatever they throw at us.”