The Philadelphia Union can take a big step towards an Eastern Conference semi-final berth when they host the New England Revolution on Saturday at Subaru Park in the first game of that best-of-three series.
Philly finished fourth in the MLS Eastern Conference this year despite losing to the Revs on the final matchday 2-1, with New England winding up fifth due to an inferior goal difference.
For the Union, this is the time of year when the season truly begins as they seek to return to the MLS Cup Final for a second successive campaign.
This will be the fifth successive time they begin the playoffs at home, with the Union winning four of their last five post-season encounters at Subaru Park.
While this team should be accustomed to the post-season, making a sixth successive appearance, Saturday will be the first time in club history that they play a best-of-three format, while they have only played in one two-legged MLS playoff tie before, losing both of their encounters to the Houston Dynamo in 2011.
As per usual, Jim Curtin's men were stingy defensively throughout the 2023 regular season, conceding the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference, though they were a little shaky near the tail end of the campaign, with five goals allowed in their final three contests.
Uncharacteristically, they have struggled to hold onto early advantages of late, failing to win four matches since mid-September when scoring the opening goal, including their defeat versus the Revolution on Decision Day.
Philadelphia have never been eliminated from any cup tie when winning the opening game, and they have never advanced when losing the first match.
There has been a lot of uncertainty around New England since the dismissal of Bruce Arena, but despite the distractions, the Revs still managed to make the playoffs after missing out a year ago.
Interim boss Clint Peay has tried to navigate this group through that difficult time without much success, with his side winning just two of their seven encounters since he took charge.
Throughout the 2023 domestic campaign, the Revs' blueprint for winning has been to rely on plenty of attacking quality to get by, scoring the second-most goals in the Eastern Conference this season (58), losing just two of their 19 encounters this year when netting multiple times.
The Revs have not been in an MLS cup tie since 2014, emerging victorious on both occasions that year before losing in the final against their future manager, Arena and the Los Angeles Galaxy (2-1 in extra time).
They have failed to win two of their last three MLS outings when scoring the opening goal and have fallen behind 1-0 in their final four fixtures of the domestic campaign.
New England won just three MLS away fixtures in 2023, tied for the second-fewest this season, but they have triumphed in two of their previous three playoff contests on the road.
In their previous four encounters against New England, all of their goals have come courtesy of either Carranza, Uhre or Gazdag, while Andre Blake shut the Revs out the last time they hosted them this year (3-0).
Ian Harkes is unlikely to see the field for the Revs this weekend as he is dealing with a head injury, Damian Rivera has a sprained right knee, Brandon Bye will not be available after getting surgery to repair his right ACL, while Dylan Borrero is out as well following his left knee surgery.
On Decision Day, David Romney became just the second player in club history to feature for the Revs in every minute of a 34-game regular season, joining Jose Goncalves who did it in 2013, Matt Polster picked up his 100th career start with New England, DeJuan Jones was back with the team after missing their previous match because of international duty, while Jacob Jackson earned his first MLS victory between the sticks in what was his home debut.
A brace from Gustavo Bou helped the Revs erase an early deficit versus the Union last Saturday in what was the 100th career game for the Argentine in the regular season, as has now scored 50 goals with New England across all competitions, while Carles Gil assisted on both strikes and has 47 since 2021, which puts him in a tie with Marco Etcheverry and Carlos Valderrama for the fifth-most in league history over a three-year span.
Philadelphia Union possible starting lineup:
Blake; Glesnes, Elliott, Lowe; Harriel, Bedoya, Flach, Wagner; Gazdag; Carranza, Uhre
New England Revolution possible starting lineup:
Jackson; Jones, Kessler, Romney, Makoun; McNamara, Polster; Buck, C. Gil, N. Gil; Bou
We say: Philadelphia Union 2-1 New England Revolution
The Union were unbeaten in 16 of their 17 MLS home contests this season, conceding just 13 goals over that stretch, and they are more than accustomed to handling these pressure situations.
New England may have won their previous playoff matchup at Subaru Park (1-0 in 2020), but they leave too many gaps in behind, which the home side should be able to exploit.
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