Union II showcases homegrown talent but loses heartbreaker to Hartford

Playing in their final home match of the 2020 USL Championship season, Philadelphia Union II showcased their importance within the organization with not only their youngest lineup in club history but one built from within. While the result saw a far older Harford Athletic claim a 3-2 on a fluky goal that saw the move into the top spot of Group F, the final 45 minutes demonstrated just how much the young side has grown since the season resumed.

Looking to play the role of spoiler as Hartford and Pittsburgh fight for a home playoff match next week, Union II Interim Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc used the home finale to challenge the club’s youngest talent to prove their growth from the start of the season. Fielding a Starting XI that averaged all of 17.3 years old, the group was completely full of products from the Union Academy both on the field and on the bench.

Union II found itself behind early in the first half as goalkeeper Mitchell Budler came off his line and committed a foul on Alex Dixon to allow a penalty kick chance from Mads Jorgensen. The 17-year-old guessed correctly with a dive to his left side but saw the shot sneak in for the early goal. The visitors doubled their lead in the 15th minute with a corner kick header from defender Alejandro Lara.

Trailing by a pair of goals, Union II made the most of a corner kick of their own in the 22nd minute of play. Future Union homegrown midfielder Paxten Aaronson delivered a strong cross into the near post that clashed off Hartford defender Idan Cohen and into the back of the net for the awarded own goal. The goal inspired confidence for the Boys in Blue as they pressed for a tying goal late in the half.

After some minor tweaks to the gameplan by LeBlanc, Union II came out on the front foot looking not only for a tying goal but all three points. The Boys in Blue answered the ball with a pinpoint pass from future homegrown Nathan Harriel who riffled a volley from 40 yards out to Caden Stafford at the edge of the Hartford box. With the defense seemingly beaten, the keeper was forced to meet Stafford to deny the chance but the 17-year-old flicked the ball toward goal and in for his second goal of the season.

With an injection of more Union Academy talent in the form of Zach Zandi and Issa Rayyan, Union II pressed for a third goal and were given the opportunity when Rayyan drew a penalty kick in the 77th minute but was unable to convert. As Hartford chased the three points needed to claim first place they relentlously challenged Union II’s backline over and over. The defense stood strong as Brandan Craig, Dante Huckaby, Anton Sorenson and Harriel timed their marks to draw four offside calls in the final 10 minutes of play.

The backbreaker however came in the 90th minute as a miracle flick from Danny Barrera sealed the result for the visitors. After a Hartford offensive buildup was ended, Union II quickly looked to counter with a throw in from the keeper but Barrera stuck out his cleat on the toss and flicked it into the back of the net from 20 yards out.

Union II concludes the 2020 USL Championship regular season on Saturday night with a Keystone State showdown against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Kick off from Highmark Stadium is set for 7 p.m. and will be shown on ESPN+.

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