It’s been an up-and-down season the Philadelphia Union Under-18s. Throughout much of the year, just when it looked like the team was about to kick it in gear, a bad break or injury seemed to halt the momentum.
In fact, despite the successful season, the team never strung together wins in three consecutive games. But conversely, the team never lost three games in a row and only went without a win in a similar trio of games one time all year. It seemed to follow the old narrative of two steps forward, one step back.
“I guess in some ways it would have been easy to have expected us to do a little bit better,” head coach Peter Fuller said. “I think if you look at the season within the season, and see who we played – we played one of the two or three most difficult schedules in the country – if you look at it from that perspective, especially with how we finished, I give the guys a lot of credit.”
Important to note just how impressive that finish was. With three games to play, the Union needed at least six points against teams that were ahead of them in the standings. They started with an imperative 2-1 win over Bethesda-Olney and followed it up with a 3-0 thrashing over division champion Red Bulls – their worst loss of the year – to clinch the playoff spot.
And, in doing so, they emphatically put the rest of the season in the rearview mirror. After all, whether the U18s went undefeated in 2014-15 or snuck into the playoffs, they’d be here in the postseason needing to win their group to advance.
“We’re here,” Fuller said. “Thirty-two teams get in. We’re in the bottom half of that 32 and I don’t care. We’ve ended up in a difficult group – Montreal, L.A. and Kendall from South Florida who’s very good as well – it’s a murderer’s row.”
It certainly is. Montreal is the No. 1 overall seed in the U18s playoff system. They went 22-2-2 and thumped the Union 4-1 a little more than a month ago. Kendall and Galaxy are right there, too, finishing 13th and 17th, respectively, in the overall standings. That’s a challenge that Fuller is looking forward too, though.
“If you think about it from a developmental academy standpoint, you would rather play teams as good or better than you so you really begin to separate everybody on your team,” Fuller said. “The only way you’re going to identify those two or three potential first team guys is by them playing against players as good as them and see where they stand. And that’s one positive about playing in this Group.
“I’ll be able to tell you, against the cream of the crop in this country, where our players are at,” Fuller continued. “I wouldn’t trade our schedule or our playoffs matchups at all. I’m glad that it’s that way.”
It will all start Tuesday at 12 p.m. at the Grand Park Sports Complex in Westfield, Ind. for the U18s. And, as luck would have it, they get their shot at revenge against Montreal immediately.
“I think the players are anxious to play them again,” Fuller said. “Any time that you’ve not only lost, but that the other team has left little doubt that they’re considerably better than you – if you’re a competitor, that hurts a lot. And I think there was some of that it with our guys and I’ve seen that in training.”
Of course if the Union want to qualify for the quarterfinals, they’ll need to top Group E. To do that, they’ll certainly need to get a result against Montreal. Then follow it up with wins against two fellow Top 20 teams in the country. It’s no easy task.
“It’s one game at a time,” Fuller said. “We’ll concentrate on the Montreal game, let’s put out the best lineup out that we can that gives us the best chance to be successful. But from a coaching perspective – and as a staff perspective – it’s important that we not lose sight off where the good performances are in that game, win or lose.”
What has been driving the U18s as of late is an increased scoring charge that has seen them score 10 goals in their last 5 games. Compare that to earlier in the season when they scored just two goals in five games during all of November. It’s important for a squad like the U18s that has such a focus defensively, where they allowed just 30 goals all season – tops in the Atlantic Division and third best in the country.
That recent uptick offensively is a good sign for Fuller’s team, and is one they’ve worked hard on. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’ve allowed more goals than usual over the last month – something that’s also caught Fuller’s mind.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to be more adventurous going forward, to take some risks to try to score some goals,” the head coach said. “And I also think within that time period, it’s also coincided with some poor performances from individual, or groups of players at certain times. And we’re playing against really great teams.”
Finally, if the Union are going to be make some noise this week – you guessed it – they’re going to need to be more consistent than they have all year long. It could be a good sign for a team that’s shown as much potential as this group, but putting together three solid all-around games in succession is somewhat of a question mark right now. The good news is they don’t need to look too far back to see just how good they can be.
“For me, the Red Bull game was the best we’ve played all year – the most complete game,” Fuller said. “We’ve had lots of games where we’ve been really good – the problem is it’s been for 20-25 minutes. But then we’ll have a 15-minute stretch where we’re terrible and there’s just been too many of those kinds of gaps between good play. But the Red Bull game is a game we can point to where we played a complete game.”
How do you feel about Union academy teams and their chances this week as they look to extend their season?
Contact Union press officer Chris Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.