There have been a lot of big days at BMO Field over the years, each with their own distinct flavour and feel.
Saturday’s will be another, albeit of a different variety, as Toronto FC II will face Philadelphia Union II in the Eastern Conference semifinal of the inaugural MLS Next PRO Playoffs.
Toronto clinched their berth – the first-ever in club history, the top spot in the Northeast Division, and home-field advantage in dramatic fashion on Decision Day last Sunday with a 2-1 win away to Orlando City B.
Trailing 1-0 after the 55th minute, Reshaun Walkes levelled in the 86th minute with his sixth goal of the season and Kobe Franklin sealed the victory and the spoils with a thunderous strike in the 90th minute.
TFC needed just a single point in their final three matches to ensure themselves a post-season spot so having been forced to wait through losses to Rochester NY FC and Inter Miami CF II made that result all the sweeter, as could be seen in the celebrations.
“You feel good about a group that's together and that's important for any group that's looking to achieve something,” said head coach Gianni Cimini on Thursday. “Going through those difficult moments, the fact that we got out of it and the way we got out of it, sometimes playing very good, sometimes struggling to get the result, but ultimately coming through it, over time that builds belief, that builds trust – amongst the staff, amongst the players, amongst each other.”
TFC II Media Availability: Gianni Cimini – September 22, 2022
“That's the image that you're seeing there,” he continued. “A little bit of suffering, a little bit of trust, a lot of care for each other.”
What it meant to the group was plain to see.
“It was the emotions that we've been [carrying] for a while,” said midfielder Alonso Coello Camarero. “We could have clinched a playoff spot a little while before, so it was a very nice feeling to be able to make the playoffs for the first time in history for this team. All the work that we've been putting in finally paying off.”
That it required some drama and late goals was typical of TFC II’s season. This is a group that responds.
“We never quit,” said goalkeeper Luka Gavran. “A lot of the games, obviously the recent ones, have been tough, but we kept going. The group feels strong and confident going into this playoff game.”
“This league is very ‘anybody can beat anybody on any given day,’” he continued. “So it's who shows up on the day and who wants to win more.”
Toronto go into Saturday’s clash at BMO Field full of belief.
“The work that we put in,” replied Cimini, asked why he thinks his team will emerge victorious. “The group believes in each other. In the last 25 minutes of a game. I don't think there's a team that's better than us in the whole league.”
Those late pushes have been a trademark for the side.
Gavran credited the strength of their bench: “We have a lot of quality players, we're really deep and I feel like we're the most dangerous team in the last 15/20 minutes. We could be down 2-0 and still come back. The team has no quit. Everybody has that drive.”
Spirits are high.
“Because it's my team,” laughed Alonso, asked why he thought TFC would win. “We’re a very united group, we have found a very clear identity in the way that we play, and we've been doing that very consistently throughout the last four or five months. And we’re playing at home, that should give us an edge too.”
TFC II Media Availability: Alonso Coello – September 22, 2022
Having played the majority of their home games at York Lions Stadium, the switch to BMO Field for Saturday is an added bonus.
Cimini hinted that that added incentive has already played a role.
“We knew that a tie would get us in,” he said of last weekend’s action. “The [Franklin] goal at the end is because of the feeling of playing at BMO Field.”
“It's about having the opportunity to be in a position of control and dictating and having, hopefully, a fan base that's there to support us,” Cimini continued. “Those things mean a lot in these big games, especially at the end of the year when you're tired. We've [played] three games in seven days, so Philly's got a little bit more rest than us. The support to be on home field makes a big difference for sure.”
TFC II played two matches on that bigger stage earlier this season, so many players will have that experience in their back pocket. But for others, like Gavran who was on the bench in those days, it will be a special experience.
“I'm really excited to play at BMO,” said the goalkeeper. “The crowd is going to help a lot. It’s funny you asked, Me and Jordan [Perruzza] were talking about it.”
TFC II Media Availability: Luka Gavran – September 22, 2022
“Jordan was saying, ‘You're going to see,’” Gavran relayed. “Obviously, it's not like a first team game, but ‘When you get the ball and there's people behind you, you get a push, you don't get tired.’ So it's going to be exciting to see how that plays out.”
After a long season of 24 matches that began way back at the start of April, it all comes down to 90 minutes and the potential for 30 minutes of extra time and a penalty shootout.
In their preparation TFC II are relying on what got them to this point.
“We’re doing what we’ve been doing all season. I don't think it's a moment to change anything,” said Alonso. “We're trying to be as ready as possible to play our game, to defend our field, and show what kind of team we are, what kind of team we've been during the whole season. We're ready to impose our identity in this game.”
The final message is the one that Cimini and his coaching staff have been reinforcing all season.
“Trust,” he summed up. “And ‘trust’ for us is just do your job.”
“It's not necessarily doing more than what you're supposed to do, it's just being able to execute what is required for you in the moment every time,” continued the coach. “And that's what we ask for key guys.”
“We know that they're not going to win every single moment, but we say, ‘Don't lose two in a row – we don't lose two in a row,’” Cimini stressed. “As long as we as a staff can provide clarity on objectives then they have the clarity that they need to execute and then bottom line, it comes down to just doing your job. We're not asking for more; we're just asking for their best.”
The two sides have already met twice this season, with TFC II taking both – a 1-0 win on June 11 in Toronto and 2-1 at Subaru Park on July 18.
“The first game I feel we dominated the game, we just couldn't capitalize on our chances and in the end, we got one, I think we scored 94th minute,” recalled Gavran – it was the 92nd minute when Nakye Greenidge-Duncan netted the game-winner. “But both times we got the result.”
“The second game was a bit different. We went up early and they fought back. They had more of their team the second time so it was a better game,” he continued – Stefan Karajovanovic opened the scoring in the 17th minute, Matt Real levelled for the home side in the 70th, but Julian Altobelli scored the winner in the 89th minute. “But like I said, anybody can beat anybody, so if we play our game, like the first time, we should take care of business for sure.”
Philadelphia closed the season with two straight wins, defeating Orlando City B 6-1 at home and New England Revolution II 3-1 away on Decision Day.
“They are a team that shows different pictures throughout the game, a team that plays in a different formation than other teams, so they present different problems for us,” said Alonso. “They can play direct, they can play with the ball on the ground and connect passes, they have good players, but we beat them both times that we played, so we are confident that we can do it a third time on Saturday.”
Marlon LeBlanc’s side has tended to play in a diamond 4-4-2 formation similar to the one that Jim Curtin’s first team does.
“Philly is a team that has a clear identity,” said Cimini. “We know what the game will look like if things were in their favor. For us it's about making sure that we're dictating the game because the two game models are really different.”
“With Philly it's extremely direct – aerial, second balls, flick ons – they like to make things out of messy moments,” he continued. “The message for us is to make sure that we're dictating the flow of the game with the ball on the ground and to deal with those messy moments by being clean in certain situations. It's for us – at home, on BMO field – to be the dictators.”