How To Watch | Union II at Toronto FC II in MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs
Philadelphia Union II will be looking to secure their place in the Eastern Conference Finals when they take on No. 2 seed Toronto FC II in Saturday night’s MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.
BMO Field’s kick-off is scheduled for Saturday, September 24 at 7pm ET, with the game streaming for free on MLSNEXTPro.com.
On paper, the difference between the Philadelphia Union II and the teams that didn’t make the MLS ?NEXT Pro playoffs is simple: Union II handled the business on the road. Only two teams with at least five away wins missed the postseason (NYCFC II and the incredibly unlucky Earthquakes II).
This story is of course much more complex. The average age of Union II’s starting line-ups this year was under 20, and they avoided a clash with the Eastern Conference’s only monster team – Columbus Crew 2, by a staggering +40 goal difference, more than double the closest team in the east – by it defeated New England 3-1 on the road.
After that game, head coach Marlon LeBlanc noted that his team wasn’t celebrating as if making the playoffs was an accomplished goal in and of itself. With their destiny in their hands, the team squeezed hard and earned a showdown with TFC II, an opponent that in many ways represents the perfect year-end test for LeBlanc’s group.
After an uneven start two months before the start of the season, Union II traveled north to Toronto and faced a talented TFC II side for 90 minutes without blinking. Then, in the 92nd minute, TFC II scored.
Union II gave up a lead at home to Chicago Fire II and was beaten by NYCFC II and RNY FC before facing TFC II again.
The visitors scored early but Matt Real pulled his team back with a goal in the 70th minute that consisted only of rush and muscle. Again, a late-game slump in the 89th minute wiped out any chance of scoring.
It felt devastating for both the team and Real themselves. The homegrown had calmly developed and expanded his game, from a full-back with defensive question marks to a modern full-back/midfielder who was also able to reliably engage in central defence. Instead of looking at Kai Wagner and seeing a roadblock, he saw a model he had the talent to emulate; and that goal could have finally turned the limelight in his direction.
For the team, that late TFC II goal could have felt revealing. All the young talent on the pitch trying to execute a mentally and physically demanding system had gotten it right twice against one of the best sides in the East and then ended up giving it away.
However, Matt Real and the rest of the squad did not break: they decided to fight. Orlando City B was dispatched with surprising ease, then Columbus Crew 2 caught a haymaker and suffered one of only three losses they had suffered all season. Four more games would go by before Union II lost another game and suddenly Union II was in the playoff hunt.
LeBlanc noted that a midseason tactical change allowed the group to press and attack more effectively as part of the club’s philosophy, but he credits most of the credit for the late surge to his players.
Locals, Union II signings and up-and-coming talent began to take the intensity of the training sessions to the pitch. Real’s and Matt Freese’s leadership helped, but success only came as the entire team learned to adapt their style of play to the squad available for each game. Midfield decision changes depending on whether Chris Donovan or Jose Riasco leads the line, and players like Maike Villero have thrived in new roles.
All the work this season has led to Saturday’s showdown, which is both an achievement for such a young team and a new mountain to climb. With key contributors in international U20 action, Saturday and Sunday’s Union Academy in full swing Saturday and Sunday, and Union taking on Pachuca on Saturday night at 6 p.m., LeBlanc once again has to move parts and Finding a lineup that does it once can push TFC II to the limit again.
Two teams who have been level both times this year will find out who has the mentality to hold their own when it counts. In July, most would have backed the home side. Now, after all they’ve accomplished against the odds, can you really bet against Union II?