MLS NEXT Pro Playoff openers: By the Numbers

Jacen Russell-Rowe’s goalscoring run carried over to the first round of the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs on Saturday as the Golden Boot winner netted a hat trick against RNY FC. TFC II also booked its place in the Conference Finals after defeating Philadelphia Union II for the third time this calendar year. St Louis CITY2 and Tacoma Defiance also advanced out of the first round, capping off a 4-0 record for home teams so far in the postseason. 

Here’s your MLS NEXT Pro by the numbers for the First Round of the Playoffs:

Jacen Russell-Rowe registers back-to-back hat tricks 

Columbus Crew 2’s offensive success has been led by Jacen Russell-Rowe’s stellar campaign and in Saturday’s playoff opener vs. RNY FC, the Canadian forward earned Man of the Match honors for the second-straight match.

Russell-Rowe recorded his second hat trick in as many matches, helping Crew 2 eliminate RNY FC by a 4-1 scoreline. After scoring four goals in the regular season finale against FC Cincinnati 2, the 20-year-old celebrated three goals in Crew 2’s playoff opener. 

Russell-Rowe now has 24 goals in league play this season, continuing what could be an MVP campaign for the striker.

Home teams post 4-0 record in Round No. 1 of playoffs

Home field advantage was crucial for all four winners from this weekend’s playoff action as Columbus Crew 2, Tacoma Defiance, TFC II, and St Louis CITY2 all advanced to the second round. 

TFC II and St Louis CITY2 were the only teams to post shutouts in Round No. 1 action, while Tacoma Defiance fought back late to oust Houston Dynamo 2 in a shootout. Columbus Crew 2 rolled to a 4-1 victory as the aforementioned Jacen Russell-Rowe stole the limelight for the umpteenth time this season. 

Crew 2 and CITY2 will remain on home turf for this weekend’s Conference Finals, knowing fan support will be at a high once again.

TFC II eliminates Union II, moves to 3-0 in head-to-head meetings

Marlon LeBlanc and his Philadelphia Union II players won’t want to think of TFC II anytime soon following Saturday’s playoff exit at BMO Field.

TFC II completed the season sweep of Union II, using a Hugo Mbongue first-half goal to claim a 1-0 victory. After downing Union II twice in the regular season, Toronto FC II rode an early goal and some strong defense to a spot in this weekend’s Conference Finals.

The victory was TFC II’s second in a row overall and third from their past five in September. 

Matt Freese steals show with six saves for Union II

On a night that didn’t go Philadelphia Union II’s way, Matt Freese did everything he could to keep his team in the match. 

Despite a 1-0 playoff exit at the hands of TFC II, Freese made six saves, keeping Union II from avoiding a much larger margin of defeat at BMO Field. The former U.S. Youth National Team goalkeeper was the bright spot for Union II on a night they struggled offensively. 

Freese’s time with the Union first team has mainly been as a backup with Jamaican international Andre Blake remaining one of the league’s best. However, an impressive season with Union II could help springboard Freese into a role elsewhere to fight for a starting job in MLS.

St Louis CITY2 claims first home win since August 6

John Hackworth’s squad left it late against North Texas SC, but found a way to earn a first home win since August 6 and advance to a first-ever Conference Final. 

Tomas Ostrak and Celio Pompeu both netted goals in the final 20 minutes at Ralph Korte Stadium as CITY2 advanced by a 2-0 scoreline. Michael Creek posted a two-save shutout for CITY2 while Josh Yaro and Kyle Heibert frustrated NTX top scorer Bernard Kamungo for 90 minutes.

Up next is a mouthwatering showdown between CITY2 and Tacoma Defiance, where CITY2 has previously defeated Wade Webber’s side once at home. 

Marlon Vargas’ first goal since July helps lead Tacoma Defiance comeback over Dynamo Dos

Marlon Vargas struggled to find the same goalscoring consistency over the past two months that he did earlier in 2022, but his tally in Sunday’s comeback win over Houston Dynamo 2 might just be the spark he needed.

Vargas’ first goal since July 30 helped Wade Webber’s squad erase a two-goal deficit at Starfire Sports Complex to eliminate Dynamo Dos 5-4 on penalties. The 21-year-old came into Sunday’s match with 11 goals on the season, but had struggled to offer anything in the final third over recent weeks.

Vargas’ PK finish paired with a Paulo Lima own goal forced spot kicks between the Defiance and Dynamo Dos, before the hosts eventually advanced. Webber and his Defiance players will be hoping Vargas can offer something similar next weekend at St Louis CITY2.