It was really quite the end of the season for T2. Left for dead by so many of us, myself included, T2 came out and rattled off 5 straight wins to end their campaign. What had been "no way we make the playoffs" turned into "we were in the last spot on the last day until OC Blues got their goal differential they needed at the very end of their game".
And I want to do this recap a little differently than normal. So allow me to try out 'story mode'. Not something I will be using often, but something I shall try in this final report of '16
Arizona United: 3-2 WIN (Story Mode)
There was hope in the air. A team left for dead only four weeks prior was about to play their final home match of the regular season. And they had potentially the easiest matchup of competing teams to secure that final playoff spot.
The weather on The Bluff was perfect. Clear, cool, and waiting for kickoff. Larger crowds than normal gathered at the gates, waiting patiently to get in. Soon it would be T2 hosting Arizona United in what might end up being the last match played at Merlo Field for some time. A very winnable game against a beatable, Frank Yallop, team.
Referee Chipalo Street blows the whistle amongst the cheering crowd, T2 kickoff, and the game is underway! San Antonio lost their match as predicted, so the 8th and final playoff spot is wide open. T2 or Orange County Blues or Real Monarchs could take it. The teams just need to win and T2 had the lead on all tiebreakers at kickoff.
Arizona pressured hard in the first few minutes, trying to force an error from the home side, but the boys were up to the task. Williams nearly got in alone on goal in the 5th minute after T2 broke the pressure but an Arizona defender got a toe to the ball in the nick of time. And 5 minutes later Arboleda burns his defender to try to get in behind the defense but can only earn the corner. A couple of shots are unleashed from the corner but the Arizona defense stands strong blocking the attempts. It feels like T2 just might break through.
But in Irvine, CA, the OC Blues just went up 1-0 in the 14th minute, putting them ahead of T2 for the time being. T2 have this game under control though, it feels like they should be able to get some goals and stay ahead of Orange County on goal differential. But alas, Arizona strike first. They take advantage of a few minutes of T2 being down a man while Rennico Clarke was on the side being looked at by the trainer. Luke Rooney scored the first goal in the 21st minute taking advantage of T2 missing their most important defender. T2 had more of a hill to climb now. But still hope did not feel lost.
Andre Lewis and Villyan Bijev with a pair of shots that are blocked, the Arizona defense throwing bodies left and right, doing anything they can to keep T2 out of their net. But they finally falter and Villyan Bijev pounces! Getting his league leading 10th assist of the season he passes to Augustine Williams. And Williams runs forward and sends a very strong shot where it belongs! T2 have equalized in the 28th minute. The momentum having swung heartily in favor of the home side and Bijev with an extra step to his pace.
As such, he would not be denied from having an absolutely stunning first half. T2 could not end it there, they must push, they need goals! Villyan Bijev got the ball near the end line in the 35th minute and streaked into the near side of the box to then unleash a curler into the top far corner of the net! His 7th goal of the season puts T2 in the lead and back in the drivers seat for that final playoff spot. The crowd goes mad! This kid is on fire!
But still T2 push, still they dominate. Sensing blood in the water they must take no prisoners, they must crush Arizona. And in stoppage time in the first half Villyan Bijev gets the brace! His 8th goal of the season and what will end up being the game winner. What a way to head into the locker room! Up 3-1 at home, with Orange County Blues still only holding on to a 1-0 lead. Spirits are high as this team goes into the break seemingly in control of reaching the playoffs and all thanks to Villyan Bijev being on absolute fire. All in front of the largest crowd I've seen at Merlo Field in two seasons. What an evening!
But there were still 45 more minutes to play. T2 were playing like they still had goals in them, and could use another goal or two, but unfortunately, 3 goals is all they would get. Though they deserved more (and a penalty kick). After the break, Arizona kicked off to get the second half underway and the clock started to tick. Less than 45 minutes to see if T2 could make the playoffs for the first time. A team that didn't put it all together until the final few games fought like hell to make themselves relevant in the playoff race until the bitter end.
Arizona try to pressure hard and early again but T2 once again held on. Wade Hamilton was forced to make quite the save in the 50th minute as he tipped a strong strike over the bar for an Arizona corner. After the first 10 minutes or so of the second half, T2 began to get in the game as they played out of the Arizona pressure and as Arizona gave up on it a bit. Villyan Bijev playing like he wanted to get a hat trick. A furious few minutes results in a couple of great shots that are blocked or saved by Arizona as they held on for dear life.
In the 63rd minute, Williams gets on the ball and has a wonderful little step to his left to get open for a shot from near the spot. But he gets taken down! What an obvious penalty, here is T2's chance to get a 4th goal, perhaps Bijev will take it.... wait, what? The ref waves on? What is going on here? Williams gets taken out in the box, the ball is not won. It is a most obvious foul, and it is inside the box, therefore it should be a penalty kick. What devious happenings are going on here?
And now three minutes later roars of more injustice from the crowd. Arboleda is fouled by Luke Rooney but he is not taken down and is rushing away from the Arizona players with Williams in support. But its a whistle?! The ref does not play advantage?! Sure, Rooney gets the yellow card for the foul, but Arboleda was not taken down, he has the ball and is running towards goal. Why do you not play advantage Mr Chipalo Street!? Still, T2 looked comfortable and Orange County were still only ahead 1-0 in their match.
Things were not falling apart by any means, but T2 weren't getting any calls in their favor and again it hurt them. Damraoui was chasing an Arizona player across the top of the T2 box in the 71st minute. The opposing player took quite a dive, 5/7 would dive again. The foul was marked at the edge of the box, far side corner. From only 18 1/2 yards out it should be very difficult to get this over the wall and back down, if not near impossible. There shouldn't be anything to worry abo... seriously? He put the kick up and over and it came back down to get into the top of the net? Arizona scored? really? This is driving me nuts. What's that Orange County score? Still 1-0, alright then, just close this out and we'll be okay.
T2 continued to fight throughout the remainder of the match. Still generating chances and still keeping Arizona off the front foot. If any more goals were going to come, T2 was well above the only team looking capable of making them happen. But now something is going on down at the bench. Wait, is that? Yes, Andrew Gregor is being sent off. But why? I didn't see or hear anything. And here at Merlo Field you can hear a lot more because you are so much closer to the field. Alas, this might be it for T2. But we've got 5 more minutes plus stoppage time, OC are still only 1-0, if everything holds out this still ends with T2 in the playoffs.
Murmur from the press box. I look at the other game. It's the 88th minute. Orange County just scored their second goal. Now level on goal differential with T2. That is unfortunate but it takes it to the 3rd tiebreaker, goals scored in league play. T2 still hold a 1 goal advantage there. OC making us panic but with only stoppage time left, I think T2 finally got... oh... *^%!
Orange County Blues just scored a third goal in stoppage time. Now taking it to some uber complicated formula based on results against the top 4 conference teams and doing some other math and... wait, I didn't even have time to finish that sentence and OC Blues got a 4th?? Sigh, such is the game we love. 2 stoppage time goals in 2 mins and despite T2 securing their 5th straight win, OC Blues take the goal differential tie breaker and off to the playoffs. It was a good run though. T2 really put it altogether in these final 5 games. Victory, bittersweet or not, is still victory and there is a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to next season.
Things didn't start off well for Bijev. For the first three games he was tried at striker and that did not suit him. After which Belmar returned to the starting lineup. But a few weeks later he started getting worked into the midfield, mainly as the central playmaker. And it looked like this might work out for him. That was the first third of the season. There was a flash of what is to come when he scored his first goal against none other than Sounders 2, 10 games into the season. But the middle of the season was more slogging around as T2 continued to improve but still couldn't put everything together.
So it was his final third of the season (the last 11 games to be specific) that he really caught fire, and T2 also began to start clicking. He ended the season as T2's highest scorer with 8 goals and the league leader in assists (10). Nearly all of those coming in those final 11 games. If you start at the Switchbacks match on 8/3, there were only 2 games that Bijev did not record at least an assist or a goal. It was 957 minutes across 11 games that saw him put 7 goals and 8 assists up on the board. Putting up at least a goal and assist 3 times. What kind of production is that? Mighty fine production. That is having an influence in creating or scoring 1.41 goals for T2 every 90 minutes. He was on fire.
And that was awesome to see. But will it get him a first team contract? I'm hesitant to say yes. Mainly because his favorable position appears to be central advanced midfield, pulling the strings and making the plays. The first team already has someone of Godly powers in that spot. And I don't see Bijev breaking in. Now he could still be signed as depth and even if he were signed he'd still likely spend all of his time on loan down to T2. But last season we had one player to be excited about, Kharlton Belmar, and that following season has ended without any call ups to the first team. Beyond that, Belmar has spent the last half of the season relegated to the bench once Williams came in. That fan favorite might not be here next season. Villyan Bijev will be though. I'm sure he will. Just probably more likely on a T2 contract still. Though if he earns an MLS contract, there will be few, if any, complaints.
I'm only bringing up the keepers because of the 3 shutouts in the last five games that they got. Both Hamilton and McIntosh were in on the shutouts and both played in the midst of the 5 game win streak (so it's obviously a much improved and consistent defense in front of them that helped). But here are the head-to-head stats for Wade Hamilton and Kendall McIntosh over the course of 2016.
Out of 30 total games (Luthy played 1):
|GP||Mins||GA||Saves||Save %||GAA||W-L-D||Shutouts||S/Os as % of Ws||S/Os as % of GP|
I kept track of all the keeper stats this season and I'll continue to do so next season. I would expect both keepers to be back in 2017 for another season of development under Gregor and T2.
What might we expect in 2017?
There should be more to be excited about going into 2017 than there was going into 2016. Less turnover (but still some) would be expected. There were many roster fillers that saw 0 minutes that would likely move on and might get filled up with more roster filler.
But we should expect Andrew Gregor to stay on as head coach. That will build some continuity. And more of the core team should likely continue into next season. Last year we had rookie of the year Kharlton Belmar to be excited about, but little else. That hasn't worked out well. But Rennico Clarke has returned from injury and is none the worse off. Looking like the most likely candidate to earn a first team contract over the off season. But we also have Villyan Bijev, Dylan Damraoui, Blake Bodily, Marco Farfan, Victor Arboleda, and others to be very excited about. Players that we should all expect to see with T2 again. And beyond 2017, hopefully we will start to see even more academy players worked into the fold.
The focus was development in 2016. It took a while for the team to gel and things to catch on, but the final third of the season showed their potential when everything clicked. Hopefully Gregor and the kids can start off 2017 along those same lines. If they can, then 2017 should see more development but a lot more wins too. And you can't have development without also having a winning culture. Both are key and both are needed. Just one alone doesn't cut it. But again, if the end of 2016 is a window into what we can expect, then we can expect good things in 2017.