After Buffalo Draw, Toledo Villa FC Prepares for Must-Win Cleveland Clash
There is one mission for Saturday in Toledo Villa FC: Win and you're in.
After a 2-2 draw on Tuesday against FC Buffalo, Saturday's showdown at home against Cleveland Force SC will come down to a must-win for Toledo to make the USL2 playoffs.
"We have absolutely no room to mess around. It's straight business," said Toledo's Ali Nasser, who scored his team-leading sixth goal of the season against Buffalo in stoppage time of the second half to force the draw. "We're not taking anything lightly. Maybe we didn't start with our starting lineup as usual. Against Cleveland Force, it's a different story. We're coming in hot to make history for Toledo Villa."
The top two teams in the Valley Division will advance to the Central Conference playoffs. Fort Wayne ended its season with a 2-0 win on Tuesday at King's Hammer to finish the regular season undefeated at 10-0-2. Toledo and Cleveland are tied for second in record (5-3-3) and points (18) as the teams enter the third match against each other. Each team won at home, as Toledo picked up a 3-2 victory on June 7 while Cleveland captured a 3-1 win 10 days later. Since that win, Cleveland is 3-1-0, including three clean sheets.
If the teams draw on Saturday, the tiebreaker will come down to goal differential — which Cleveland leads by seven goals over Toledo — meaning a home win is the only situation Villa has to make the postseason.
The uptick after a disappointing draw against Buffalo is that Toledo will have a less disjoined Starting XI on Saturday. On Tuesday, because of injuries and a red card suspension to Jayden Da, Toledo coach Matt Johnson had to scramble to create a mish-mashed frontline and midfield that had not played much as a unit together before.
"It wasn't necessarily our first-choice lineup that we've had throughout the season," he said. "I still thought we had enough good players and enough quality that our expectation was that we were going to take hold of the game and win.
"We just made a few too many mistakes. And I just didn't think we had our best game."
Playing out of position may be tough for some players, but Nasser said, "whichever way you can benefit the team is the way to go.
"So if the team needs me on the wing or I will go on the wing, the team needs to be on the other side, I'll go on the other side. The team comes first and whichever way I can support the team, I will."
Buffalo's Felix Kogler scored twice in the second half, with both goals giving the Wolves a lead, in the 56th and 87th minutes, while Toledo was forced to scramble both times to even the match. This came after a scoreless first half that saw Toledo get numerous opportunities to score but unable to beat Buffalo netminder, Arthur Hill.
Eli Shope, who moved up to play striker in the absence of Da scored his second goal of the season in the 74th minute to tie the game at 1-1. He received a long pass and was able to fight his way through two defenders to get a shot off after multiple first-half chances.
Shope helped tie the match very late in the match as well by setting a well-played free kick into the box that Nasser was able to score on.
"I feel that we were playing a little too safe," Nasser said. "Our players are dangerous. They're very talented, we're good on the wing. I felt like we kind of forced the ball in the middle a little too much, which they thought that they could keep up with us. If we play outside, the way we usually play, they have no chance.
"It wasn't our best performance. But we came out with a tie better than the loss. But we deserve better."
Toledo plans to have a stronger unit start on Saturday as Da will be off suspension and both Cam Territo — who gave a late spark off the bench in the midfield — will start along with Flavio Cruz, who also came in as a sub in the final 20 minutes.
"I thought Kyle Blasingame played fine, and Alex Matthews has been really good for us," Johnson said. "But I think Cam gives us that little bit of emotional leadership that maybe we lacked before he got into the game."
Toledo has had a tumultuous week at goalkeeper and had to play Tuesday with just keeper Alex Brock and no backup. That should be solved for Cleveland.
"I thought Alex played fine. He did an admirable job," Johnson said. "I can't put the goals on his head at all. This wasn't an issue of the goalie. But certainly having one goalie available and healthy to play, it's not the ideal situation."
An injection of talent could also happen for the match with some new faces, including Amer Dedic, a defender who was not cleared to play against Buffalo.
"Certainly we expected and demanded a better result and a better performance than what we had," Johnson said. "We're disappointed from that standpoint, I think we all felt like this was a game that we needed to win and put ourselves in a position where a tie gets us through on Saturday. That's not the case anymore, we have to win on Saturday."