We're just four days away from the start of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs that kicks off on Saturday, November 20, with the Philadelphia Union against New York Red Bulls presented by Independence Blue Cross. Kick off from Subaru Park is set for 2:30 p.m. ET with the match available locally on PHL17 as well as on Univision, TUDN and MLSSoccer.com. Ahead of the big showdown, we're counting down to kick off with a look back at some of the keys to the Union's success in 2021.
When you have one of the strongest Academy systems in all of North America there is the expectation that the next generation of Philadelphia Union talent is just around the corner. With the departures of homegrowns Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie some expected that the 2021 Union would turn to its role players from its Supporters' Shield winning side or add from the transfer market.
When the calendar turned to January 1st, five products from the Union Academy were added to the first team roster. All had spent the previous season not only sharpening their skills in MLS NEXT but also with Philadelphia Union II against veteran-heavy competition. Those moments not only gained invaluable game experience but laid the foundation for a hungry set of homegrowns willing to put in the work day in and day out on the training pitch to catch the technical staff's eyes.
As the Boys in Blue battled through the Concacaf Champions League against Deportivo Saprissa, fans got their first look at the homegrowns in the second leg with the debut appearances for both Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn. As spring turned to summer, the homegrowns found their footing in training with MLS debuts for both midfielders in late April and early May.
In June it was Sullivan who made the first big splash with a memorable first MLS start. Playing on the road at the Chicago Fire in pouring rain, Sullivan was handed his first start with the Union and helped the Boys in Blue battle back from an early own goal with an unbelievable goal that Union fans cannot stop watching.
The goal from Sullivan not only was the first homegrown strike of the season but made Union history becoming the youngest goalscorer in club history at just 17 years, 2 months and 30 days. That wouldn't be the only goal for Sullivan as the 17-year-old delivered an even more remarkable goal at Subaru Park against CF Montreal. Trailing the Canadian side late in the match, Sullivan's name was called by Jim Curtin in the 81st minute. Six minutes later it was tied as the homegrown showcased his fearlessness to have a goal from long range.
Sullivan wasn't the only homegrown to enjoy a memorable first start of the Union as Paxten Aaronson too netted a goal in his first start. With a last name that draws comparisons to his older brother, Aaronson was brought along at a different pace with his first league appearance coming in late May. With international callups affecting the squad, it was Paxten handed the keys for the road match at the New England Revolution. 31 minutes into his first start, Aaronson dribbled through the Revs defense and riffled a shot into the back of the net for the equalizer that stunned the New England crowd.
The goal from Aaronson would be the first of three goals in his rookie campaign, tying the club record (also owned by Brenden) for the most homegrown strikes in his first season. While Aaronson was scoring bangers, Jack McGlynn brought to the Union a versatile thinker and passer that harkens back to a previous Union midfielder now in Ohio. While McGlynn didn't join his classmates in netting a goal, he did collect his first MLS assist against FC Cincinnati on Halloween.
On the backline, Nathan Harriel pushed for playing time late in the season while Alvas Powell and Olivier Mbaizo each earned time on the international stage. Harriel made his MLS debut with a start alongside Aaronson in New England in early September. One month later it was Harriel back in the Starting XI again with him dropping a dime to Paxten Aaronson for the eventual match winner.