23MLS_Playoffs_PHI_CIN_Elliot_Vazquez

The parallels between FC Cincinnati and the Philadelphia Union are pretty clear.

Both teams struggled to find consistency in their first MLS seasons – Philadelphia making one Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance in their first six tries (2010-15) and Cincinnati finishing dead last in the overall table in their first three years (2019-21).

Both teams employ an intense but controlled press that forces opponents into errant passes – each side finished top seven in the league in interceptions and recoveries.

And since settling on their respective styles of play, both teams have been dominant – six straight playoff trips for Philly and a Supporters’ Shield in 2020, two straight playoff trips for Cincy and a Supporters’ Shield in 2023.

Now, as if written in a script, the two clubs that have so much in common will square off at TQL Stadium in Saturday’s Eastern Conference Semifinals (8 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). Adding to the drama, the clash will be a rematch of a 2022 Eastern Conference Semifinal that Philadelphia, then the East’s No. 1 seed, won 1-0. This time, though, Cincinnati host as the East's top seed.

“I think they high press like us," veteran Union center back Jack Elliott told MLSsoccer.com of the two teams' similarities. "Their forwards are strong and get to the ball quickly. So it does mirror us a little bit, which I think is good for us because we've been doing it longer.”

Intensity rises

If Philadelphia are the proverbial older brother of the matchup, then it’s clear where Cincinnati got their inspiration. Both Cincy’s head coach (Pat Noonan; the 2023 MLS Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year) and general manager (Chris Albright) honed their craft for years in assistant roles with the Union, so there should be few surprises in store when the two sides face off, especially when it comes to a heightened level of physicality.

“I don't think there's necessarily bad blood, but when it gets that physical, obviously it can lead to tension, and you know things can happen and can over blow sometimes,” said Elliott, who was given his marching orders after receiving a second yellow card in stoppage time when the two teams played last in September.

That red card – one of 12 total cards given in the match – came when Elliott had to commit a tactical foul to slow down Brandon Vazquez, one of a few big-bodied strikers for Cincinnati who takes pride in doing the inglorious scrapping that may not show up in the boxscore, but can definitely contribute to wins.

“I'm all about doing the dirty work for the team, the tracking back, the pressing, the set pieces, coming back for those and helping the team defend and being the first line of defense,” Vazquez told MLSsoccer.com. “It's a tough job to do. But you know, I want this team to win. I want to do anything to win a championship for the city. And like me as a player, I'm willing to do everything it takes to be able to get it done.”

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Asked if preparing for Philadelphia requires honing a particularly battle-ready mindset, Vazquez didn’t hesitate: “I was just thinking that last night. ... We know it's not gonna be easy. We know it's gonna be very physical and every duel, every challenge, every player on that field is gonna go with 100% intensity into this game. It's just preparing for battle and mentally knowing that we're strong enough to win every challenge."

So what happens when 22 players who believe in fighting for every 50-50 ball practice what they preach?

Elliott explains: “I think the last time I played [Cincinnati] at home, within 10 minutes Sergio [Santos] was throwing me into the goalkeeper. And, you know, it was a really good game.”

Underdog mentalities

Though both teams are happy to stand their ground in a scrap, neither is philosophically married to slowing the game down for the sake of it. They tied for fifth-most goals (57) in the league in 2023, for example. If anything, their shared don’t-give-an-inch mentality stems more from their players’ personalities, though that doesn’t mean their collective attitudes came together by chance.

Both head coaches are unafraid to put down-roster players in the XI – and keep them there if they’re outperforming higher-paid stars – and that egalitarian approach naturally breeds squads with DNAs built on worth ethic, determination and competitive spirit.

“If someone has the right mentality to make it and really compete every day, you get those people,” said Elliott of the two clubs’ player acquisition strategy.

The center back out of West Virginia University is living proof. Taken in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Elliott was given the chance to earn starter’s minutes from a position where most are immediately loaned to their club's second teams, if not cut outright. He seized his moment and has now earned 185 starts in seven seasons while becoming a key figure in Philly's unprecedented run of success.

“It can be a gamble sometimes,” said Elliott of giving minutes to less-heralded players. “But I think sometimes it's a good risk to take."

Vazquez, while not a SuperDraft pick, has a similar story in Cincinnati. Despite rising through Club Tijuana’s youth academy and featuring regularly for US youth national teams, the forward found minutes difficult to come by during his first three MLS seasons with Atlanta United. He was stuck behind Josef Martínez on the depth chart. Yet upon landing in Cincinnati via trade in 2020, Noonan gave him a fresh chance to earn his place.

“Not every team is like that,” said Vazquez, a US international. “Other teams are more political, they play the players who have big transfer fees or are on big salaries. … But I think both of us, Philly and this team, are teams where if you’re the best performer, you’re going to be playing on the weekend.”

Since earning a regular starting role for Cincinnati in 2022, Vazquez has rewarded his coach’s trust with 26 goals and 12 assists, earning MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tires honors last season.

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Battle for the East

An added benefit of having players fight week-in, week-out for their place is keeping depth pieces sharp and ready for their moment. Both clubs will need to rely on that strength in the absence of key figures on Saturday. Cincinnati will be without starting center backs Matt Miazga (suspension) and Nick Hagglund (injury), while Philadelphia will miss left back Kai Wagner (suspension).

The status of other key starters, like Cincinnati’s Obinna Nwobodo and Santiago Arias, as well as Philadelphia’s Jakob Glesnes and Julián Carranza, remains up in the air.

“I think any player who's called upon in these games is going to be ready for it,” said Vazquez. “The way everybody trains in sessions, the intensity and the quality every player brings to it is exactly what's needed in the game and is game realistic.”

Elliott holds a similar view, citing strong play from Philly's depth players during deep runs in the Concacaf Champions League and Leagues Cup while noting “everyone knows what to expect” when it comes to the match’s inevitable intensity.

And perhaps ironically, it’s the same faith in their teams’ collective strength that has Vazquez believing his side are ready to avenge last year’s playoff exit while Elliott maintains Philadelphia are the team to beat in the East, and will be for many years to come.

“Having everybody push each other, the chemistry filled more and more throughout the year,” said Vazquez. “... I think everybody's really bought in and believes this team is capable of achieving great things and winning everything this year.”

Said Elliott of Philadelphia's perennial contender status: “It's not a Philadelphia Union that's gonna go away or it's not gonna go away anytime soon. There's always gonna be a huge threat of us winning everything and there's always going to be a huge threat of us being at the top of the table.”