Toronto FC II are flying, unbeaten in eight matches, winners of their last three outright and the two before that in penalty shootouts.
Heading into the final seven games of the MLS NEXT Pro season, the club are above the playoff line, in fourth place one point behind NYCFC II and Rochester NY FC – in second and third, respectively, with a game in hand against Rochester, who they play on Friday night in a match dubbed ‘the Lake Ontario derby’ with a three-hour bus ride separating the two.
The origins of this current run of form go back to one of the tougher days of the season.
On May 27, TFC II fell 6-2 at York Lions Stadium to Chicago Fire II. It was an embarrassing defeat.
Chicago scored after 12 minutes of play, added two more before half-time, and three more before the 72nd minute. The two late goals were no consolation.
‘Unacceptable’ was how head coach Gianni Cimini described the result post-match. “It can’t happen again,” he continued. “We have to take lessons from here.”
“Can’t happen again, it’s that simple,” Cimini repeated. “Half-time was pretty intense. We didn’t know who we were. After the game was just a simple message. Everybody looked themselves in the mirror and needs to see what they can do better.”
The players knew it. The coaching staff made sure they did.
“We all realized that it's unacceptable,” said Julian Altobelli, tied for the team lead with five goals. “We should not be conceding six goals.”
“After that game Gianni, Marco [Casalinuovo], Yanni [Michelis, the assistant coaches], they all laid into us and said, ‘Guys, it's unacceptable. We're at a professional level now, this can't be happening,’” he recalled. “And since that game, we haven't lost.”
It became an inflection point for the group, still coming together after an off-season of change.
“That's where we got together and talked to say what's going on?” said goalkeeper Luka Gavran. “We just laid everything on the table, what everyone's thoughts were.”
“In training we tried to bring the intensity up to make it more game-like. Every little thing we talked about, just as players,” he continued. “For us to figure that out, implement it into games. That was the main talking point for after that Chicago game. We've rode the wave since and hopefully we can do it for the last seven games.”
The turnaround wasn’t immediate.
TFC II would draw their next game away to Rochester, losing in the shootout for the extra point. But they would shutout Philadelphia Union II and NYCFC in their next two games, conceding just once in the three games in June.
Through four games in July they would allow just two goals, beating New England Revolution II and Columbus Crew 2 in shootouts and Philadelphia and New England in regulation time to continue the unbeaten run.
And in their first game in August, once the deadlock was broken against Orlando City B, TFC II romped to a 3-0 victory.
HIGHLIGHTS: TFC II vs. Orlando City B | August 07, 2022
Shoring up the back was one part.
“We showed video examples of what giving up a chance against a good team looks like and now we have guys willing to protect our goal, 11 guys committed,” said Cimini. “We want to make sure that teams are earning their chances and we want to make sure when we do give chances that they're shots from outside of our box and guys willing and able and in good positions to block, that's what we're seeing from the group.”
A tweak to the formation and personnel has been part of it, so too has an excellent run of form from Gavran, who represented the club at the MLS All-Star Game festivities in Minnesota this week.
“Luka has been a massive help,” said Altobelli. “He’s been incredible, making some huge saves for us in these past couple of games. From the beginning of the season to now you've seen a dramatic difference in him.”
“We've been planning with a back-five recently and that's also been working. Three central centre-backs and our two wing-backs, who are also going up and down the field, helping in attack, but also helping on defense,” he highlighted. “It's been really good.”
So too was managing the ball and finding the right balance between the two sides of the game.
“We want to do a better job protecting our goal, that's for sure, but we also know that what we do with the ball is also an important aspect to giving up less chances,” said Cimini in the middle of July. “We've got to be more clear on what we want to do with our possessions, specifically out of the back. Luka has been very good with his feet, he's been a guy that's been able to add a number on our buildups, that helps us. The performance of Alonso [Coello Camarero] and the type of player that he is at that position is massively important. But it's also for the guys to understand that some of the opportunities that we give are because of bad attacks.”
“And then on the flip side of that is what are we doing and how are we going to be purposeful about protecting our goal, what chances are we going to give and what chances are we not willing to give,” he added. “We give the guys credit for the response. At the beginning of the year we would score more goals, but we were way more open; now we're much more organized, disciplined, but we're also having more difficulty finding goals. We have to be able to be balanced in both.”
Toronto has scored seven goals in the three matches since then.
“We've been better with the ball generally. We have found more moments where we are in the opponent's half, putting them under pressure and less moments of us [in those] situations,” said Cimini heading into August. “We've grown in that aspect of our identity with the ball. We want it to be faster at times for sure, but the fact that we have more ideas with the ball supports the fact that we're defending our goal less often.”
Altobelli credits the coaching staff for setting the players up for success.
“[Our coaches] are all very intelligent coaches,” he said. “We go into every match with a game-plan, we go into every game with how we're going to execute, how we're going to break them down, how we're going to beat them. The information that they give us is very clear and all of us players are very determined to get that done and to get a result.”
Asked to describe this team, this group of players, Cimini had a few words: “Resilient, competitive.”
The team has a set of core values.
“We have three of them: resilience, trust, and purpose,” highlighted the coach. “We try to live by those. Everyday we remind the guys of them on the field, off the field. Those are the words that come to my mind for sure.”
Words are one thing, it’s how they are interpreted that matters.
“‘Resilience’ is like the Chicago game: when we lose or something doesn't go our way in training, it's how we bounce back. We have a phrase we like to use: ‘the next one’ – we can't dwell on stuff in the past, just what we can deal with in the future,” detailed Gavran. “‘Trust’ is huge, because, well, if you can't trust your teammates, if you can't trust the guy you're giving the ball to or the other way around.... Everything comes and starts with trust.”
And as for purpose?
“What's everyone's goal here? What's our common goal? Is it to do well or is it to just do well for yourself, individually? Success comes with helping your teammates, being a good teammate,” stressed the goalkeeper. “Everybody's purpose on our team is to help each other, to trust each other, and to deal with adversity.”
Armed with that knowledge, TFC II are on the cusp of making a bit of history: a first-ever playoff berth.
Seven games remain to define a season.
After Rochester, TFC II hosts FC Cincinnati II before heading to Chicago at the end of the month. September sees a pair of matches against Inter Miami CF II, and return fixtures against Rochester and Orlando.
“Everyone gets a bit of nerves, the table is very tight and these next games are going to be very, very competitive and very intense,” said Altobelli. “We're all excited. We're all up for that challenge. We're going to go into every single game like it's our last and we're going to make sure that we get that top four playoff spot.”
The table is indeed very tight with six teams separated by four points vying for three places.
“We understand who's above us in the table, who's below us, who's chasing us in a table. We know that these next couple of games are critical,” said Cimini. “We don't want to be satisfied with where we're at. We want to be pushing for more. We want to be across that line, in a playoff spot, to give the club its first TII playoff berth.”
“We're pleased with some of the results that we’ve had, we know we can be better in terms of performance in certain areas of the game, but we want more,” stressed the coach. “That's the sense of the group right now.”
The home stretch of the season begins on Friday night in Rochester at Monroe Community College.