Union's Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie gearing up for first playoff game

Philadelphia Union defenders Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie at MLS Homegrown Game training — July 30, 2018

CHESTER, Pa. — Two years ago, when the Philadelphia Union traveled to Toronto for a daunting Knockout Round game, they brought along a recently signed 18-year Homegrown to round out their bench.

Auston Trusty didn’t end up playing in that game, a 3-1 loss to the eventual runner-ups Toronto FC, or in any other contest until this season kicked off in March.

But after becoming one of just four players in the league to play every minute in 2018, and forming a promising center back pairing with fellow Homegrown Mark McKenzie that helped Philly qualify for the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs for the third time in the club’s history, Trusty is ready to step into the spotlight when the Union return to the Knockout Round to face New York City FC on Wednesday (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMás; TSN, TVAS).

“I’ve been in big games before,” Trusty told MLSsoccer.com last week. “But being in that locker room [in Toronto], it was good. I got to see what it felt like, I got to see the crowd. It was a very positive thing.”

The Union are a very different team than the one in 2016, with the Trusty-McKenzie center back partnership fueling a youth renaissance that’s given the club more of a distinct identity. But just like two years ago, when they were winless in their last seven games before getting eliminated by Toronto, the Union limp into the postseason after two straight losses dropped them to sixth place in the East.

And the young center backs have been something of a microcosm for the club, playing brilliantly at times but also making the kind of mistakes you might expect from teenagers. (Trusty, it should be noted turned 20 in August; McKenzie is 19 and will depart for the Concacaf U-20 Championship as soon as Philly’s playoff run ends).

On the same day Trusty became the youngest field player to play 3,060 minutes (every minute of every game in a 34-game regular season), he also had a brutal own goal in a Decision Day loss to NYCFC, which followed another own goal in Philly’s U.S. Open Cup final loss last month. McKenzie, meanwhile, has traded spots in the starting lineup with Jack Elliott for much of the season but has come on strong recently, delivering what head coach Jim Curtin called his best performance of the season in last week’s 1-0 loss to the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls.

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“You gain experience each and every time you step on the field, playing minutes against top players in this league,” McKenzie said. “Each and every time you learn something new. You’re constantly having to refine your game and improve, even in the smallest ways. For me, I still have a lot to improve on. But I’m happy with how I’ve improved and how I’ve grown this season.”

Part of the growth has been in how McKenzie and Trusty communicate with each other. Although they’re good friends who came up through the Union youth academy together, they’ve been working on balance more constructive criticism with the usual playful ribbing.

“You know, he’s your guy so you don’t want to be too hard on him,” McKenzie said. “But as the season goes on, you grow and you mature and you’re like, ‘Listen, this is not anything personal. I’m trying to help you get better and you’re trying to help me get better.’ I think that part of our relationship has grown this season, just constantly being on each other to improve.”

Trusty hasn’t tried to hide from the critics, calling his rough performance in the U.S. Open Cup final a game that “definitely helped a lot” because “you learn more from the bad games” than the good ones. And although he said that he still feels like “the young guy,” the 20-year-old has evolved into being more vocal and assertive, too.

“Since the first game of the preseason, it’s been about getting to be more of a leader and running things,” he said. “It’s not just me; it’s everyone around me providing that pathway for me and leading me into it.”

Of course, it may feel very different for Homegrown center backs when they walk out of the tunnel for a do-or-die playoff game. But the duo will do their best to stay calm, keep it simple and build on everything they’ve learned throughout the year — both the good on the bad — to try to lead the Union to the franchise’s first-ever playoff win.

“It’ll definitely be something brand new for me,” McKenzie said. “I’ve never been in a game of this magnitude. There’s going to be pressure there. But I’m confident in my abilities and the abilities of my teammates.”