Philadelphia Union II look to book their spot in the Eastern Conference finals when they take on No. 2 seed Toronto FC II in the MLS NEXT Pro playoffs on Saturday night.
Kickoff from BMO Field is scheduled for 7 pm ET on Saturday, September 24 with the game streaming for free on MLSNEXTPro.com.
On paper, the difference between Philadelphia Union II and the teams that didn’t make the playoffs in MLS ?NEXT Pro is simple: Union II took care of business away from home. Only two teams with at least five road wins missed the postseason (NYCFC II and the incredibly unlucky Earthquakes II).
There is, of course, much more complexity to this story. The average age of Union II starting lineups this year was under 20, and they avoided a clash with the only monster team in the Eastern Conference: Columbus Crew 2, with an astonishing +40 goal difference, more than double that of the next closest. team in the East, defeating New England 3-1 on the road.
After that game, head coach Marlon LeBlanc noted that his team didn’t celebrate as if making the playoffs was a goal achieved in and of itself. With their fate in their hands, the team pushed hard and won a showdown with TFC II, an opponent that, in many ways, provides the perfect year-end test for LeBlanc’s group.
After a bumpy opening two months of the season, Union II traveled north to Toronto and took on a talented TFC II team for the full 90 minutes without batting an eye. Then, in the 92nd minute, TFC II scored.
Union II proceeded to give up a home advantage to Chicago Fire II and were defeated by NYCFC II and RNY FC before facing TFC II once again.
The visitors scored early, but Matt Real dragged his team back with a 70th-minute goal that was all hustle and bustle. Once again, however, a late-game collapse in the 89th minute made any chance of points vanish.
For both the team and Real Madrid, this was devastating. The Homegrown had quietly developed and expanded his game, turning from a fullback with defensive question marks into a modern fullback/midfielder who could also slot reliably into the center of defence. Instead of looking at Kai Wagner and seeing an obstacle, he saw a role model that he had the talent to emulate; and that goal might have finally turned the spotlight in his direction.
For the team, that late TFC II goal could have been an exhibition. All the young talent on the field trying to run a mentally and physically grueling system had gotten it right twice against one of the best teams in the East, then given it away at the end.
However, Matt Real and the rest of the squad did not collapse: they decided to fight. Orlando City B was dispatched with surprising ease, then Columbus Crew 2 caught a hay and suffered one of only three losses they ate all season. It would be four more games before Union II lost another game, and suddenly Union II was in the playoff hunt.
LeBlanc noted that a mid-season tactical change allowed the group to press and attack more effectively within the club’s philosophy, but assigns most of the credit for the late rise to his players.
Homegrown players, Union II signings and academy prospects began to bring the intensity of the training sessions onto the pitch. Leadership from Real and Matt Freese helped, but success only came when the entire team learned to adjust their play based on the available personnel in each game. Decision-making changes for midfield based on whether Chris Donovan or Jose Riasco lead the line, and players like Maike Villero blossomed into new roles.
All the work this season has led to Saturday’s showdown, both an achievement in itself for such a young team and a new mountain to climb. With key contributors in under-20 international service, the Union Academy in full action on Saturday and Sunday, and the Union taking on Pachuca at 6:00 p.m. pushes the TFC II to the limit again.
Two teams that looked even both times they’ve met this year will find out who has the mindset to come out ahead when it matters most. In July, the majority would have bet on the local team. Now, after all they’ve accomplished against all odds, can you really bet against Union II?