Winning is obviously the true goal, but with a short amount of time to assemble Toledo Villa FC before the season began on Saturday night, coach Matt Johnson likes the direction the club is heading after a 2-1 home loss to Fort Wayne FC.
Showcasing a very new lineup with a few familiar faces, Villa began 2023 play by just getting a feel for the rest of the season to come and gathering some experience after getting a chance to see game action as a full squad. Meanwhile, Fort Wayne began its season two weeks ago and is now 3-0-1 and sits atop the Valley Division at 10 points.
"Without question, they look like a team on their fourth game," Johnson said. "And we look like a team in our first."
It was hard to get on the same page, admitted goalkeeper Georgios Theodoulides. The bulk of the Villa squad just arrived in Toledo less than two weeks ago and only had a few trainings to prepare for the season opener against Fort Wayne, who had a three matches under their belts.
"We didn't know each other," Theodoulides said. "But I think this game told us a lot. Now we know how we respond to each other and I think now we're good to go.
"I think in the next games, we're gonna be better."
Fort Wayne looked to be the more cohesive unit early with multiple runs down the pitch, keeping Theodoulides busy in the first 20 minutes.
"Certainly they got the better of us in the first half," Johnson said. "I thought our lines were a little bit too stretched apart, and (Fort Wayne) were able to break us and get in and get some chances. That's something that we feel like we need to clean up.
"But we did see some things, we had some good moments. We got on the ball and did well in moments."
Fort Wayne broke through in the 27th as Sebastian Chalbaud notched his third goal of the season by dribbling in front of the six-yard box and eventually finding a way to let a shot loose to the back lower right side of Theodoulides to give the visitors the lead.
Just minutes before the end of the half, Chalbaud had another goal in the 43rd minute. Again, a close-in shot after some give-and-go passes that freed him up for the score.
Fort Wayne nearly scored in stoppage time of the half as Gus Novus rang the crossbar with a header.
"Generally, we thought he did a good job," Johnson said. "I don't know that you could hang either of those two goals on (Theo). I'm not sure what goalie in our league makes a save on either one of those.
"He made the plays that he needed to make. I think he left a couple out that he could clean up. But in general, I think he was really good. No complaints."
Toledo was able to capitalize in the second half after Fort Wayne's Sean Karani was sent off after a second yellow in the 53rd minute for failing to provide enough distance on a free kick. He had been carded in the 30th for clashing with Toledo's Jacob Casha for the night's first booking. That opened the door for Toledo as Eli Shope, who traditionally plays center back but was playing up higher this match, scored in the 63rd. He was able to intercept a pass across the backline, kept his head up, and saw that keeper Aurie Brisco was a tad out of position to curl in a shot for a goal.
"Eli anticipates well. He's very quick and fast and so he's eager to look for interceptions, he's very good at that," Johnson said.
Villa continued to push with multiple chances in the final minutes of stoppage, including a spinning trickle of a shot that just missed catching the post to go in from Rodrigo Silva as the final whistle blew.
"Once we went up a man, the field swung in our favor," Johnson said. "We got one, we just weren't able to get two."
Other late attempts included a slick pass into the feet of Eduardo Barros, who couldn't connect in the 78th; while a potential handball call in the box was denied by the referee as they determined that Tom Abrahamsson had tucked his elbow into his body enough to give Toledo a penalty kick. A corner kick in stoppage time also bounded about in the box before being thwarted by the Fort Wayne defense.
Johnson said that despite the short time together, he feels the team is adapting quickly to playing together and his coaching staff also is set to adjust to the skill set on the field.
"I think in general, we saw some things that we liked on kind of what our game model is and what we want to build on," he said. "I don't think we need to change it too much."
Villa continues Valley Division action on Wednesday, May 31 at Dayton Dutch Lions — which also opened its season Saturday night in a 5-0 loss to Cleveland Force FC.
Johnson expects the starting XI to be adjusted for the match at Dayton.
"We're still getting a handle on the group," he said. "Many new players and players that maybe we've seen live once or just on video. How they react to the game and how they react to playing together. We're still working through all that."