Coming into the Philadelphia Union II’s MLS Next Pro regular season finale against New England Revolution II, playoff stakes were on the line.
While the Revs were already eliminated from playoff contention, the Union were teetering on the edge of postseason play at fourth in the East. With only four teams in each conference making the MLS Next Pro Playoffs, the Union needed either a win against New England, or a tie and some help from other teams in order to secure a postseason berth. Luckily, the squad required no outside help and qualified in the less complicated path, as they defeated New England 3-1 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on Sunday afternoon.
However, the win did not always look like the likely outcome. Early on, New England had all of the ball and threatened the Union on a couple of instances that were thwarted by goalkeeper Matt Freese. The Revs midfield was calm and collected on the ball and regularly found dangerous pockets to attack behind the Union backline, especially in wide areas. They looked like the side that would break the deadlock in the first 10 minutes of play, but that didn’t last long.
In the 14th minute, Jeremy Rafanello took a corner kick that found the head of Matthew Real, who blasted the ball into the chest of Revolution II goalkeeper Maxwell Weinstein. Weinstein bobbled the ball on the doorstep for Real to follow up and smash home to put the Union in front 1-0. Real also recently scored for the Union’s first team against Colorado Rapids in August, and has become one of the most reliable academy alums in the club at both the MLS and MLS Next Pro levels. Real was also positioned at center back as opposed to his normal left back position, and put in quite a shift. A supreme performance for the young defender, who will surely see his fair share of first team minutes in the future.
Shortly after Real’s goal, Matthew Freese made two of his seven saves in the match on one play to deny New England from leveling the match. The double save seemed to give the squad confidence, as the Union went right down the pitch in the 20th minute (just three minutes after Freese’s saves) and Jeremy Rafanello capitalized on another goalkeeping error from New England’s Weinstein to double the Union’s lead. Weinstein mishandled a Chris Donovan cross and Rafanello quickly pounced on the loose ball to get his first MLS Next Pro goal of the season - and a timely one at that. Rafanello ended the evening with a goal and an assist to his name and is in excellent form heading into the MLS Next Pro Playoffs.
And in true Union fashion, the first half goals did not end there. Less than 20 minutes later, Donovan added a goal of his own to put the Union three goals to the good. He reacted first to a second ball from a free kick and coolly slotted home his eighth goal of the MLS Next Pro campaign. A tidy finish from the former Drexel Dragon.
But that wasn’t all. The first half had one last dramatic moment left. In the 41st minute, the Union conceded a penalty to New England and seemed to hand their opponent a way back into the match. Enter Freese, who isn’t fond of blown leads, apparently. He stepped up and made a massive penalty save, as well as a follow-up save with his feet to keep the Revs off the scoresheet. He looked like first team goalkeeper Andre Blake from the night before in Atlanta. His heroics allowed the Union to enter the locker room up 3-0 at the half.
The second half was a bit of a pedestrian effort from Union II as they had some decent moments, but conceded a goal from Ryan Lima in the 79th minute to make things interesting. However, the Revs weren’t able to build on their momentum for the rest of the match, and the Union II’s came away with a hard-fought 3-1 victory to secure an MLS Next Pro Playoffs position.
And while Union II manager Marlon LeBlanc may be worried that he won’t have Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan and Brandan Craig — all away with the U.S. U20s in Mexico — for the MLS Next Pro Playoffs, he has to be excited to be competing for the trophy. His side has been solid all season long, and they were rewarded for it Sunday afternoon.
With a third place finish on 40 points, U2 will travel to play Toronto FC II to open the playoffs next weekend. The date and time for the match hasn’t yet been announced but the first round will be played September 23-25, the conference finals September 30-October 2 and the final on October 8.