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Graduate student RC Williams on the ball during Penn men's soccer's 2-1 overtime victory against Dartmouth at Rhodes Field on Oct. 16.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Yet another visiting soccer team arrived in Philadelphia to claim a conference title on their hosts’ turf and spoil their opponents’ final home match of the season. 

Yesterday, New York City Football Club (NYCFC) emerged victorious at Philadelphia Union’s Subaru Park to become champions of the MLS Eastern Conference. And a month prior, just up the river at Rhodes Field, the culprit was Princeton, who fiercely celebrated its Ivy League title win following Penn’s 1-0 loss to the Tigers.

Clearly, the circumstances between these matches were worlds apart. Union’s home on the river sold out for a record crowd on Dec. 5, but concluded the night on an immense “what if” with a squad abbreviated under MLS COVID-19 protocol. On Nov. 6 at Penn, family and fans of both schools converged for an evening match in the cold Schuylkill winds, but the Princetonian visitors would ultimately be the ones to leave in celebration of the spoiled Penn senior night.

Perhaps last night’s Union team had a bit too much in common with Penn than it would have preferred.

With 11 players unavailable due to COVID-19-related restrictions, the Union roster was one of the youngest the team had ever brought out to field. The MLS team shuffled together a nearly college-age team, as the bench outfield players averaged just 19.5 years in age — with the whole roster rounding out to just 23.3 years.

This season was unique to the Quakers by means of years as well. Two classes of rookies teamed alongside three years of upperclassmen above them, including graduate student players Joey Bhangdia and RC Williams, who brought their experience back to the field with their fifth-year eligibility.

As expected of the young squad, Philadelphia was intently focused on maintaining good defensive ground through the first half. And then Union's opening goal that set the atmosphere ablaze for two minutes before New York immediately equalized was the development of a midfield relentless on extracting chances.

Credit: Chase Sutton Subaru Park, the home of the Philadelphia Union, seen on Feb. 27, 2019.

One of Penn's concerns early this season was conceding goals immediately after scoring; most evident, in the 2-2 overtime tie against Loyola Maryland, and the 5-1 win against Mount St. Mary's the following match. Eager to patch any holes in their play early, Penn seemed to have effectively dissolved its defensive issues heading into the second half of the season.

Yesterday's impressive first-half effort by Union eventually fell short after a goal in the 87th minute by NYCFC’s expensive acquisition Talles Magno. The well-timed pass by experienced substitute Gudmundur Thórarinsson after an exceptional first touch in the penalty box was a textbook demonstration of a shot the Quakers have attempted plenty but couldn’t finish on, especially in their final few matches. 

And the preceding equalizer by NYCFC was similar to ones Penn seemed to trouble with into the late season as well: a score erupting from the latter phases of an attack on goal, with persistence from the offense following either a deflection from the defense or a block by the keeper. In Union’s case, it was both.

Unfortunately, such a scene was familiar of some of Penn’s concessions as well. The winning goal by Princeton on Penn's senior night, and the week prior, when Penn gave up a second goal to Brown in the second phase of a corner set-piece by the Bears, caught the Quakers in disarray after a successful first phase of defending.

Coming into the 2020-21 season, Union had to trial with trusting their academy home-growns to fill the vacancies left by the departures of defender Mark McKenzie and attacking player Brendan Aaronsen.

Sending off a class of graduating players, Penn will have a chance to mend their attacking shortcomings with a new class. Hopefully Penn can trace the same success as Philadelphia in reinforcing the squad after the departure of key players.