The temporary bleacher seating at the Ontario Soccer Centre was full on Saturday night as the parking lot was dotted with car flags to celebrate the UEFA European Championship. Friends and family of local players, suited up for both teams, made their presence known and helped create a more festive atmosphere than other games hosted at the regional complex in Vaughn, Ontario.
Bob Lilley started a familiar back four but introduced Wal Fall into a new position in the center of midfield and pushed Sean Totsch higher into a role behind lone forward Steevan dos Santos. On the other side, Toronto FC II head coach Jason Bent put out a strong lineup that featured several players with more than a year of professional experience.
During the first half, Rochester established a passing rhythm and held possession for large periods of time inside the Toronto half. To their credit, Toronto stayed compact and showed organization in defense. The TFC II back-line of Skylar Thomas and Mitchell Taintor in the middle, Wes Charpie on the right, and midfielder Anthony Osorio filling in at left back communicated well and withstood the pressure. Toronto's captain, midfielder Chris Mannella sat deeper and deeper through the course of the opening 45 minutes and at the end of the half he was playing as a pure anchorman.
Despite absorbing heavy amounts of pressure from Rochester, Toronto clearly had a gameplan. The fullbacks positioned themselves to not allow Rochester's wingers to get to the endline and Toronto's midfielders chose went to press hard on their counterparts. Because they recognized his skill on the ball, Toronto rarely sprinted at Kenardo Forbes in the center circle. On the other hand, at least one Toronto player seemed to race towards Wal Fall whenever the natural center back received a pass in the center circle.
The instinct to catch Rochester on the counter attack proved useful for the home side in the second half.
In the 77th minute, substitute Luca Uccello received a pass out of the back and spread the ball out wide to Bubacarr Jobe. The right winger raced forward and cut inside, drawing the attention of three Rochester players, before feeding Uccello in the area. The pass split the center backs and Uccello took a touch to control before firing a right-footed shot across the face of goal to beat Tomas Gomez for the opening goal.
In the first minute of stoppage time, as the Rhinos were pushing for the equalizer, Toronto's Brian James picked up a poor ball forward. James looked up to see substitute foward Malik Johnson in a pocket of space in front of Rochester's defense. As the speedy forward approached the top of the box, he slowed down and waited for a shooting lane to open up. Despite having just recently turned 18, Johnson expertly fired a shot high to the far post to double Toronto's advantage.
A minute later, with nothing left to lose, Rochester pushed rookie defender Joe Farrell into the attack. Off the bench for his first minutes in the league, Brandon Beresford launched a long throw from the right wing towards Farrell in the Toronto box. The recent LaSalle University graduate controlled the ball off his chest, turned towards goal, and blasted a left-footed cannon in at the near post.
Farrell's fourth goal of the campaign was little more than consolation as the Rhinos lost their second game in three road matches. Jason Bent, the rest of the coaching staff, and the Toronto players were clearly elated with three second win at home and third win all season. Bent admitted to media after the game that to get a win over Rochester held special meaning.
"It's about time, to be honest with you. We lost them to them three times last season, we only took one point, a draw. We played them in preseason, we thought we did quite well beating them 1-0. But now, points were on the line. It feels goods but we need to be humble and stay grounded."
I asked Bent about the team's lining up to absorb pressure and hurt Rochester with speed on the break. "They were starting to get a bit of possession and they had the ability to switch it from center back to center back which sort of pushed us back a little bit. It wasn't our intention to sit back but, as I said before, they're a pretty good team. They had a bit of the ball so that sort of pushed our wide guys back a little bit. If you're organized defensively, and you then win the ball, we know that we have a lot of athletes within our team. So then we could then stretch it in behind. You saw that in the second half, for sure."
I followed up with Bent about the ability to get game-winning moments of brilliance from young players, Uccello and Johnson both only 18 years old. "Like I said, it doesn't really come off every single week because our their youthfulness. But the one thing they do have is, they have a ton of ability and they have belief in themselves. You could see, through both of the actions, that they wanted to make the difference. We encourage our substitutes to come on and give something to the game, to stamp their authority onto the match, and I felt they did that for us."
Naturally, Bob Lilley was less enthused with the result than his counterpart but was still surprisingly upbeat about the performance over the majority of the match. "I'm happy with how we played. I wish we would have been more aggressive. I think if we're at home, we'd be more aggressive. On the road, we had more of the ball, we had the better chances."
"We needed a little bit more urgency when we had the ball," Lilley continued. "I think we were comfortable, we felt safe and we felt like the goal's gonna come. I think we needed to just have a bit more urgency. And I think if we could have gotten our noses in front we may have gotten the full three points tonight."
"This loss on the road is a tough one but I can say that it was a much better performance than what we had in Orlando. We just played better soccer [than the OCB match] tonight. We were patient with the ball. We did carve out some nice opportunities."
"We were hitting early crosses, we were hitting long-range shots instead of trying to get completely in. We talked about it at halftime, that we had to press to get even better chances. We had to make the goalkeeper work. It's important that when you have that much of the ball for 70 minutes, we wanted Bono standing on his head. And he didn't have to do that until the very end."
Lilley was disappointed with the result but saw positives on the whole of the play to build on during the difficult upcoming week. "It's just being a little bit more committed to getting all the way in and making the goalkeeper work. That, to me, is the biggest takeaway from the game."
The Rhinos host the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night and then host first-place Louisville City FC on Saturday.