MLS NEXT Pro Match Report / Philadelphia Union II

Match report: Philadelphia Union II 2-1 Columbus Crew 2

Photo: Ben Ross

In the most dramatic and biggest win of Union II’s 2022 season, Marlon LeBlanc’s team defeated league leaders Columbus Crew 2. All it took was a stoppage-time, out-of-the-air, waist-high, full-volley bullet into the left upper 90 to take all three points.

Ten Union reserves started and all ten played the full 90 minutes. The 11th is on an MLS NEXT Pro contract.

Cole Turner found Chris Donovan, who in turn found Paxton Aaronson for the match opener in the 33rd minute.

In the 53rd minute, with Columbus rampant in the attack, Head Coach Marlon LeBlanc brought off Jose Riasco and brought on Stefan Stojanovic, his first appearance since being hurt in the friendly against Ukrainian Nationals June 7th. Columbus equalized in the 64th.

In the second minute of stoppage time however, Nathan Harriel lofted a cross toward the outer central edge of Columbus’s penalty area, and Stojanovic struck what is surely the Goal of the Week to take the spoils from the league leaders.

Anticipations

Union II played at home the day after the Union did the same, so extra reinforcements were possible. Matt Freese must serve his suspension during Union II’s MLS NEXT Pro match against Orlando in September under the mid-season rule change, so he was available. The only position not filled by a first-teamer was one of the striker spots, Jose Riasco.

Jack Jasinski has returned to availability. Stefan Stojanovic has resumed full contact training and was also available. Gino Portella has advanced to some non-contact technical work, but remains in the hands of the medical staff and is not available. The usual recovery time frame for Portella’s injury is six-to-nine months, so if it were to have occurred very late in last season’s practices, nine months would be sometime in September.

Readers anticipating the arrival of members of the U17 MLS NEXT championship squad are warned the arrival may be slow. Head coach Marlon LeBlanc has said the U17s played a 4-2-3-1 primarily. They must learn the changes needed to go from the double pivot to the narrow diamond. And since the 2006 birthyear players have another year of U17 eligibility, his focus is primarily on the 2005s.

Columbus Crew 2 led the league with 38 points from 16 games and a +25 goal differential. Two Crew 2s have been signed to the first team this season so far, striker Jacen Russell-Rowe at the end of June and defender Mohamed Farsi at the end of July. In addition to talent, one of the reasons Crew 2 succeed is age. When compared to Union II, teenagers are comparatively under-represented in their midfield and defensive roster listings.

Players under 20
Crew 2 (38) Union II (39)
Keep 3/5 60% Keep 2/5 40%
Defs 5/15 33% Defs 5/11 45%
Mids 3/10 30% Mids 12/17 71%
Fwds 4/8 50% Fwds 3/5 60%

(Small data sets require caution. Joe Bendik’s single game in a Union II goal drops that percentage 10 full points.)

Columbus’s philosophy for their player development professional side is quite different from Philadelphia’s. Their experience is also different. They have never had such a team before this year and signed several good second team-quality professionals for their MLS NEXT Pro side specifically.  The only position where they seem to rely on first-team loan-downs is goalkeeper.

First Half

A match between the best side in MLS NEXT Pro and ten Union reserves plus Raisco was organized, technically skilled, tactically well adjusted, and played almost exclusively between the two penalty boxes for the first half an hour. Union II kept getting caught offsides by Columbus’s five-man backline and deep lying mids. Union II first team intensity and coordinated high press usually blunted Columbus thrusts before they resulted in shots.

At the 33-minute mark, an excellent long ball from Cole Turner broke Chris Donovan to the end line on the right side of Columbus’s penalty box. He drove a feed back through the penalty spot, deflecting off a Crew 2 defender and falling to Paxten Aaronson, who struck for a goal that took a deflection but found the back of the net.

From that point, Union II began to have better luck completing long balls into the attack. In the 36′, the best of these found both Donovan and Sullivan alone against a single Columbus defender. Donovan gave Sullivan a nice feed to get him alone in front of the keeper, but Brady Scott saved the shot.

Second Half

Columbus made two subs at halftime and came out swarming.

LeBlanc’s previously mentioned first substitution meant the Union’s press now had ten effective field participants and the even balance of the match seemed restored. Union had at least three decent half-chances. On one Cole Turner struck the near post hard from long range, and at least twice there were crosses through the box that were just too strong for the opposite post closer to reach.

Union II’s creatively improvised defensive line, with Matt Real playing left center back for the first time since the team was still Bethlehem Steel FC, did very well. But there was a breakdown in communication in the 64′. Crew 2 striker Noah Fuson received a lofted ball without pressure and headed home past keeper Matt Freese to equalize.

Learning from such mistakes is why Union II exists.

At that point, the match had already become less compact. Union II’s first team level pace of play was wearing Columbus out. And the first-team “benchies” were once again proving that the only way to be 90 minutes match fit is to play actual 90 minute matches. As more time passed, the match went from “less compact” to “stretched.” Aaronson and Sullivan in particular seemed thoroughly gassed as the penalty kick shootout loomed.

Hearts were willing, but legs were done.

Then Harriel lofted his service, Stojanovic got inside his mark, and the former Georgetown man struck the waist-high ball on a shot that would have beaten Andre Blake. It was a sweet way to return from injury, and an even sweeter way to score a first professional goal.

Next Match and Standings

Union II next play away to Cincinnati Sunday, August 7th at 6:00 pm. They remain in seventh place in the Eastern conference on 23 points, three points under the playoff line behind both Toronto II and New England Revolution II, and two points behind Inter Miami II. They continue to be last in the Northeast division. They have a game in hand on most of the conference.

Three Points
  1. A proposal. As we approach late summer, the MLS NEXT Pro playoff candidates seem to be the older sides in both conferences, according to coach LeBlanc. PSP wonders whether the league might follow its younger brother, MLS NEXT, and create post-season “showcase” events for the sides that do not qualify for the post-season’s championship. In broadest strokes, such an idea partially reflects the championship and relegation playoffs systems used in several leagues overseas.
  2. A principle. Coach LeBlanc’s two substitutions re-illustrated an oft-repeated principle of Jim Curtin’s, that the Union’s system demands fully committed effort from all ten field players all the time. The contrast between the team when the first not-Donovan striker was shy and the second was keen was stark.
  3. Different ceilings. The most important difference between the two evenly matched sides that produced such an enjoyable display of quality soccer is that the older one, Columbus, has reached its individual ceilings. The younger one, Philadelphia, has not.
BOXSCORE
Lineups

Union II (4-2-2-2, “empty bucket” L-R): Matt Freese; Anton Sorenson, Matt Real, Brandan Craig, Nathan Harriel; Cole Turner; Jesus Bueno, Quinn Sulllivan; Paxton Aaronson; Chris Donovan (Nelson Pierre 74′), Jose Riasco (Stefan Stojanovic 54′). Unused substitutes: Brooks Thompson; Nathan Nkanji, Frank Westfield, Maike Villero, Bajung Darboe, Juan Perdomo, Carlos Paternina. Distribution: 1st – 10, 2nd – 8, Am – 2. Injury rehab: Gino Portella. Coach’s Decision:  Boubacar Diallo, Jack Jasinski.

Crew 2 (5-2-3, L-R): Brady Scott; Jake Morris (Isaac Angking 74′), Justin Malou (Daniel Strachan HT), Philip Quinton, Abdirizak Mohamed, Mohamed Farsi; Sean Zawadzki, Isaiah Parente; Michael Vang (Ryan Telfer HT), Noah Fuson, Michael Micaletto. Unused substitutes: Stanislav Lapkes; Stephen Tuffour, Jordan Knight, Zion Scarlett, Coleman Gannon, John Thomas Kamara.

Goals

U II        33rd minute       Paxten Aaronson (Chris Donovan, Cole Turner)

Crew 2   64th minute      Noah Fuson (Abdirizak Mohamed)

U II        90+1 minute      Stefan Stojanovic (Nathan Harriel)

Cards

Crew 2     35th minute      Jake Morris (foul)

U II           45+1 minute   Jose Riasco (retaliation)

U II           48th minute   Jesus Bueno (foul)

Crew 2      50th minute   Mohamed Farsi (foul)

Whistle   

Ref: Luis Arroyo,  AR1: Joe Franks,  AR2: Robert Cordrey,  4TH: Marie Durr

Stats
U II   Crew 2 U II   Crew 2
39.9 Possession % 60.1 7 Offsides 4
8 Shots 8 55 Duels won 51
3 Shots on goal 3 20 Tackles won 10
2 Blocked shots 4 2 Saves 1
383 Total passes 563 14 Clearances 11
74.2 Passing accuracy % 83.1 17 Fouls 14
2 Corners 5 2 Yellow cards 2
5 Crosses 19 0 Red cards 0

2 Comments

  1. Andy Muenz says:

    One small correction. Early in the article you mention that all 10 Union reserves went the full 90. As the box score correctly notes, Nelson Pierre came on for Donovan late in the second half.
    .
    I thought it was an interesting contrast in styles where Columbus had the better team cohesion (playing within their system, players knowing where each other would likely be when they passed the ball, etc.) whereas the Union had more raw talent. Fortunately, in the end, talent won out.

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