Young and missing key pieces upon which the success of the previous season was built, Toronto FC II dug themselves a hole at the beginning of the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season.
The side lost their first three matches – away to FC Cincinnati 2 and Chicago Fire II, then at home against NYCFC II – by a combined score of 8-2. Down 2-0 after 14 minutes away to Philadelphia Union II in their next game, the side scored three straight, only to concede an equalizer in the 82nd minute and lose in the penalty shootout.
A week later, having taken a 2-1 lead away to Orlando City B, TFC II conceded twice in the final seven minutes to once again miss out on victory.
A run like that can weigh on a side, but Toronto persevered.
One of the recurring features in 2022 was the ability to take a punch and respond. TFC II showed that characteristic once more this past season.
It is something that begins with Gianni Cimini and his coaching staff.
“Gianni has always talked about our character as a team, that having to be the most important part, especially when times are low,” said Lazar Stefanovic. “Showing character, even when you might not really perform you have to do it with a positive mindset, a positive attitude, understanding that it's never over until it's over.”
“That's when we started to gain results, where we got together and realized the only way we're going to find a way out of this was to be together,” he continued. “From a character standpoint, guys, as the season went on, started to show their true character. That helped us.”
Toronto trains in those scenarios, preparing players to have a response when the game goes against them.
“Building guys to understand that you never lose, you're always learning,” explained Jordan Faria. “Especially in a team where we have young players, we want to get results and when the results don't come, it's how can we learn from the situation and move on and keep working hard.”
“The coaches have been so supportive. They put in the hours, they put in so much work to get us prepared for the matches. When it comes down to football, anything can happen, so it's a matter of what happens on the field, happens on the field, but how are we going to move on and react as a team and stay together,” he continued. “Gianni would always say to us, ‘Heads up, we stay together, we keep pushing, we keep fighting.’”
“And that's what we did,” Faria underlined. “Every single game we went and we kept fighting. We have some injuries, you have guys getting pulled up to the first team, guys coming from the academy, but no matter the characters, the culture we had in the changing room was that if you come here, you work and no matter the results, we keep fighting.”
After last season, Cimini said one of the elements he wanted to improve upon was recognizing and celebrating the victories that are too often lost in the tempest of a long season.
“The 2-1 win in New York, the 6-1 win against Miami, the 2-1 one win against Huntsville on the road – what a game that one was – a lot of the wins, but then a lot of other moments too where we played really well,” listed Cimini of those moments in 2023. “Against Philly, Atlanta, New England at home, New England away. We don't come away with it, but the guys are working.”
“Against Red Bull at home, we concede three goals, not the best performance from us,” he continued. “82nd minute and guys are still running, believing that they could still win or looking just for one goal. I remember thinking to myself after that game, ‘That's something to be proud of.’ We're out of the playoffs and guys are still coming into work every day.”
Learning to roll with the punches in this game is part of the life.
It takes a certain fortitude. It takes personality.
“The group we had this year was amazing, one of the best I've been in. The amount of times that things would happen: we were 1-0 up against Crown Legacy and they score a 99th minute equalizer, but then on the Monday we come back and we keep fighting. We go down 2-0, 3-0, we keep fighting,” recalled Faria. “There's been so many times where we've been down and we come back and score. That shows the type of people we have and the desire to keep pushing forward and giving your all.”
To a man, when asked about a highlight for the season, talk came around to the 2-1 win away to New York Red Bulls II on August 9.
Down 1-0 after a 23rd minute goal, Dekwon Barrow equalized in the 87th minute and Myles Morgan scored the game-winner in the 94th minute. One could see in the celebrations what it meant to the group.
“We're away, we're playing Red Bulls II, we're playing them on their field, they're in good form,” recalled Stefanovic. “We're in a tough position where they're up 1-0, we turned the game around and scored two goals at the end.”
“That was probably one of the best feelings as a team,” he continued. “The feeling in the locker room right after the game was one of those season revival moments. That was probably the best time, the best feeling among the group, during the season.”
Added Faria: “The New York game was a massive win. Goals by two subs that came on, young players, it showed the spirit of the group, how hard we worked against a very good team to grind out a win away. That was a highlight that shows how many good people we have on the team.”
Faria delivered the ball that Morgan headed in for the winner, while Reshaun Walkes, another of the more experienced players on the side, had some words of encouragement for his younger teammates before they entered the pitch.
“I remember talking to Dekwon and Myles,” said Walkes. “I was talking to them on the bench saying, ‘This is a game for us to make a difference. This is how you guys assert yourself from being these youngsters to showing that you can do it at this level.’ I think that pushed them. They had a good game, they believed in themselves.”
The playoffs proved a step too far after the slow start, but that is only one measure.
“I'm so proud of the fact that we have a group of guys that despite the difficult situations, despite the results, they come into work every single day and they come with a smile on their face, to believe that they can do it still,” said Cimini. “I think of guys like Walkes, an older player in this group. He comes in every day, he comes off the bench, he comes in and he works, and he wants to have that impact. That's something to be happy about.” (Part 2)