Recap: Jacen Russell-Rowe, Hugo Mbongue heroics advance Crew 2 and TFC II to Eastern Conference Final

The MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs got underway on Saturday with a pair of home teams advancing to next weekend’s Eastern Conference Finals. 

Russell-Rowe hat trick leads the way in Crew 2's 4-1 win over RNY FC

Jacen Russell-Rowe’s goalscoring abilities carried Columbus Crew 2 to the Central Division title and No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and the in-form forward continued his stellar 2022 year by leading Laurent Courtois’ squad into the MLS NEXT Pro Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday.

Russell-Rowe scored a hat trick on Saturday in Crew 2’s convincing 4-1 first-round victory over RNY FC. The stellar individual performance from the Canadian international bumped him up to 24 goals this season. 

Crew 2 started the match on the front foot, watching as Isaiah Parente and Russell-Rowe were both repelled by Caique. Russell-Rowe’s half volley in the 28th minute was punched away by the Brazilian goalkeeper, keeping RNY FC level at Crew Stadium. 

However, Crew 2’s pressure eventually paid off as Sean Zawadzki sent Russell-Rowe in towards goal, allowing the 20-year-old the chance to slot into the bottom-left corner. 

Marco Micaletto doubled Crew 2’s lead in the 50th minute, pouncing on a pass from Russell-Rowe and beating Caique to the left corner of RNY FC’s goal. Noah Fuson’s original effort was saved, but Crew 2 kept their pressure on and added to their lead.

Despite Caique’s penalty-kick save on Parente just after the hour mark, Russell-Rowe scored his second goal of the day, catching the veteran shot-stopper out of position before looping a shot into the back of the net.

Russell-Rowe’s perfect day was completed in the 85th minute, as the forward picked up a pass from Coleman Gannon and delivered a right-footed shot into the bottom-right corner.

Dante Brigida’s stoppage-time header gave Bruno Baltazar’s side a consolation goal, but RNY FC’s playoff stint came to an end. 

MLS NEXT Pro Best XI selection Patrick Schulte did not have to make a single save in the victory, sending the No. 1 seed into Sept. 31st’s Eastern Conference Final. Crew 2 will host TFC II at Historic Crew Stadium following the Canadian club’s advancement past Philadelphia Union II 1-0 on Saturday.

Hugo Mbongue winner propels TFC II past Union II and into ECF 

Toronto FC II scored early and grinded things out defensively to punch its ticket into the Eastern Conference Final. 

Hugo Mbongue’s sixth-minute finish propelled Gianni Cimini’s squad past visiting Philadelphia Union II by a 1-0 scoreline. The result completed a season sweep for TFC II, handing them their third-straight victory over Union II in 2022.

Mbongue needed only six minutes to open the scoring from BMO Field, getting on the end of Jordan Perruzza’s cross and guiding a one-time effort into the top corner of Matt Freese’s net. It was Mbongue’s fifth goal of the season in league play.

Union II created several chances later in the first half as Jose Riasco and Francis Westfield tested their luck against TFC II goalkeeper Luka Gavran. Gavran denied both Riasco and Westfield, keeping the hosts in front on home soil. 

Freese kept the deficit at only one goal for Union II, repelling a pair of Mbongue efforts before halftime.

TFC II continued to keep its foot on the gas after halftime, but Freese was up to the task, denying Themi Antonoglou, Mbongue, and Alonso Coello on separate chances. Despite the introductions of Stefan Stojanovic and Carlos Paternina, Union II couldn't offer much in the final 30+ minutes of the match, failing to record a shot on target the remainder of the match.  

Marlon LeBlanc’s squad lacked the cutting edge offensively as Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, and Jack McGlynn all missed the match due to international involvement with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team.

Gavran finished the match with a three-save shutout for TFC II, continuing an impressive individual campaign as one of MLS NEXT Pro’s best goalkeepers. TFC II will now aim to knock of Crew 2 away from home next weekend after failing to earn a regulation win against the Central Division Champions in three attempts this year.