On paper, the difference between Philadelphia Union II and the teams that didn’t make the playoffs in MLSNEXTPro is simple: Union II took care of business on the road. Only two teams with at least five road wins missed the postseason (NYCFC II and the incredibly unlucky Earthquakes II).
There is, of course, far more complexity to this story. The average age of the 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 eye-popping +40 goal difference, more than double the next closest team in the east — by trouncing New England 3-1 on the road.
After that match, head coach Marlon LeBlanc noted that his team did not celebrate as if making the playoffs was an objective reached in and of itself. With their destiny in their hands, the squad squeezed tight and earned a showdown with TFC II, an opponent that, in many ways, provides the perfect end-of-year test for LeBlanc’s group.
After an uneven opening two months to the season, Union II traveled north to Toronto and faced down a talented TFC II side for the full 90 minutes without blinking. Then, in the 92nd minute, TFC II scored.
Union II proceeded to give up a lead at home to Chicago Fire II and get walloped 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 muscle. Again, though, a late-game collapse in the 89th minute saw any chance at points slip away.
For both the team and for Real himself, this felt devastating. The Homegrown had quietly developed and broadened his game, turning himself from a fullback with defensive question marks into a modern fullback/midfielder who could also reliably slot into the center of defense. 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 spotlight in his direction.
For the team, that late TFC II goal could have felt exposing. All the young talent on the pitch trying to execute a mentally and physically taxing system had got it right twice against one of the best teams in the east, and then given it away at the end.
However, Matt Real and the rest of the squad didn’t 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 ate all season. Four more games would pass before Union II lost another match, and suddenly Union II was in the playoff hunt.
LeBlanc noted that a midseason tactical shift allowed the group to press and attack more effectively within the club’s philosophy, but he allotts most of the credit for the late surge to his players.
Homegrowns, Union II signings, and academy prospects began translating the intensity of training sessions onto the pitch. Leadership from Real and Matt Freese helped, but success only came when the full team learned to adjust how they played based on the personnel available each game. Decision-making changes for the midfield based on whether Chris Donovan or Jose Riasco is leading the line, and players like Maike Villero flourished in 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 on U20 international duty, the Union Academy deep in action on Saturday and Sunday, and the Union facing Pachuca at 6:00 p.m. Saturday evening, LeBlanc will once again need to move pieces around and come up with a lineup that can once again push TFC II to the limit.
Two teams that looked even both times they faced off this year will find out who has the mentality to come through when it matters most. Back in July, most would have bet on the home side. Now, after all they’ve achieved against the odds, can you really bet against Union II?