Hot on the heels of victory in their first-ever playoff match, Toronto FC II are braced for the Eastern Conference Final of the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.
The side travel to Ohio for a Sunday evening clash with Columbus Crew II, who topped both the conference and the league throughout the regular season. They dispatched Rochester NY FC 4-1 in the opening round.
Kickoff is set for 5 pm at Historic Crew Stadium and the match will be streamed on mlsnextpro.com.
Having locked up top spot in the Northeast Division with some late drama on the final day of the season, TFC II dispatched Philadelphia Union II at BMO Field last Saturday with Hugo Mbongue scoring the game’s only goal.
It was a memorable day for the club, one that will not be soon forgotten.
“It was incredible,” said right-back Kobe Franklin on Thursday. “Growing up as a kid in the academy, seeing TII, always wanting to get to that level, but never seeing us really succeed. So being able to play in a playoff at BMO Field in front of our friends and family and supporters was amazing.”
Themi Antonoglou, who played a crucial role in the buildup to the goal by providing the link between Stefan Yeates good work in the middle of the park and Jordan Perruzza’s run that ultimately led to the assisting ball, added: “We handled the game well. The pressure that was put on our shoulders, we handled it, got the job done and deserved the win.”
Gianni Cimini and his coaching staff have had the week to prepare their charges for Sunday’s winner-takes-all contest.
“We took our time to reflect on the match, to take what we can learn from the game [against Philadelphia], highlighting some of the good things, highlighting some of the things that we need to improve on, but it was quickly into Columbus. We know what type of side they are.”
The two sides met three times in the regular season with Columbus winning the first two – 2-1 and 4-2 in Ohio early in the campaign – before drawing the third 0-0 in Toronto on July 10 with TFC II winning the shootout 4-3 to take the extra point.
All season Columbus were the talk of the league.
Laurent Courtois was named Coach of the Year, Patrick Schulte took Goalkeeper of the Year, Jacen Russell-Rowe won the Golden Boot with 21 goals – he added a hat-trick against Rochester in the Conference Semifinal, and wing-back Mo Farsi’s 10 assists had him level with Inter Miami CF II’s Romeo Beckham for the most in MLS NEXT Pro.
Four Crew 2 players were selected for spots in the league’s Best XI – Schulte, Russell-Rowe, Farsi, and midfielder Isaiah Parente. TFC II had none.
“It's always a difficult match. They’re a top side in the league, right?” levelled Cimini. “55 points, most goals scored in the league. They've got good attacking threats – [Marco] Micaletto, Jacen-Russell Rowe, [Mo] Farsi – and a solid and experienced backline.”
“For us, it's a stingy game,” he anticipated. “We have to be really purposeful in our attacks to create chances and then we have to be very clinical in the way we defend, disciplined in our structures.”
Columbus are the favourites. There’s no sugar coating that.
It is worth pointing out that each time the two met, TFC II were more equal to the challenge. And only one of the matches, the scoreless draw, came after the turning point in Toronto’s season – a 6-2 home defeat to Chicago Fire II at the end of May, the result that spurred a 10-game unbeaten run and helped define the side.
Toronto aren’t afraid.
“No fear,” replied Franklin, asked what he wanted to see from his side. “I've seen it in training, nobody's fearful of this side.”
“Obviously, they came first in our conference and first in the league, but we're ready for them,” he continued. “We took two points off of them the last time that we played. So we're looking for three this time.”
Added Antonoglou: “We know what to expect. There's a couple guys we have to watch out for, but we faced them during the season and we know what to expect. This week of training was good and the game’s going to be a very good game for us.”
TFC II are not daunted by going on the road.
“The only thing that changes is the opponent,” said Cimini. “We take the mentality of trying to get three points every time, so now this is a playoff game, it's do or die.”
In big moments, key players are expected to step up.
Mbongue did so with his early goal against Philadelphia, Franklin did so with the late goal against Orlando City B on Decision Day to seal victory, Antonoglou has been doing it all season long – his four assists underplay his importance to the Toronto attack.
“There's going to be moments where those guys are making plays,” said Cimini. “Hugo inside the box and Kobe and Themi are the architects of a lot of our possessions.”
“We expect them to do the same, but those are things that they've been doing all year,” he added. “We're not asking for anything different from guys that we've already asked all year.”
The taste of playoff success against Philadelphia was one step down the road, a good warm up for Columbus. One more will see them earn the Eastern crown and another after that will see them lift the championship.
“Our strategy throughout the whole game was the same and I don't think they broke us down at all,” recalled Antonoglou. “We pressed really well and I think that's the key for us going into Sunday: not letting them have time and space on the ball.”
90 minutes, perhaps 30 more of extra time and then the potential of a penalty shootout. It’s all to play for.
“We like being an underdog,” smiled Cimini. “It’s not, in any way, shape, or form, difficult for us to accept that it's going to be a difficult match and we have to be our best. We accept the challenge that's in front of us and that means fighting and working and being on task. The quality that we have, we can find a result against anybody.”
Asked why he believed his side would win, Franklin summed it up in one word: “Everything.”
“From the start of the year this team has been really tight, really together,” he continued. “We brought in some new recruits this season, but a lot of this group has been together for a long time. We know each other's strengths and we know each other, not only on the pitch, but off the pitch. The family aspect really helps us in games. And we're only two away.”