By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 9, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Philadelphia Union added to its list of firsts on Wednesday night. Just five months removed from securing the club’s first trophy, Jim Curtin and his team traveled to Costa Rica to face Deportivo Saprissa in the quarterfinal round of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
Not only was it Philadelphia’s first match in the continental competition, but it also turned out to be the club’s first win as well. The Union prevailed 1-0 on a goal by striker Kacper Przybylko, a header slammed in on the run at the back post from an excellent cross by Cameroonian fullback Olivier Mbaizo. The bulk of the match we’ll politely describe as “physical.”
Such is life in the Champions League for MLS teams, regardless of the opponent. Despite Saprissa’s pedigree as the most successful Costa Rican club, both domestically and in international competition, the matchup looked favorable for the Union. Saprissa is currently in a run of underwhelming form in the Liga FPD. They’re in 3rd place behind Alajuelense and Santos de Guapiles after 16 matches.
“Favorable” is relative in a competition that puts MLS teams at a distinct disadvantage for a host of reasons. Remember that the Union, just like every other MLS team in the Champions League, is still in its preseason. The win at Estadio Saprissa was Philadelphia’s first competitive match of 2021. It’s also the first since exiting the 2020 playoffs against New England back on November 24 of last year.
Union head coach Jim Curtin is still working out what his best team looks like on the field. A winter of change, including the departures of midfielder Brenden Aaronson and defender Mark McKenzie through big-money transfers, complicated the Champions League debut.
Fitness was a problem. The Union’s energy notably sagged in the second-half. A handful of promising forays forward ended with poor decisions or crosses sent into the stands. Curtin’s side did manage to defend well as a unit, however, maintaining organization in the face of the predominant Saprissa attack in the second half.
A key moment came with 20 minutes to go when defender Kai Wagner cleared a header from a Saprissa corner kick off the line. A ball to the back post beat Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, but Wagner’s presence there saved Philadelphia’s lead and eventual win.
“We had to defend a lot of set pieces, which is something we wanted to avoid because they’re strong in the air,” Curtin said after the game. “We had too many silly fouls around the box that were avoidable and then conceded probably too many corner kicks that we maybe could’ve put out for throw-ins rather than corners. Those little plays can be the difference between advancing in this competition or going home, so we have to clean that up.”
It wasn’t the defensive plays or even the buildup to Przybylko’s goal that earned the most attention after the match. That honor went to an added time tackle by Saprissa’s Ricardo Blanco, a wild, irresponsible challenge that sent Wagner head-over-heels and sparked a confrontation between the teams.
Referee Ismael Cornejo pulled a yellow card for Blanco’s transgression, a shocking decision that transformed the moment from just another example of over-exuberant play in a competition known for that into viral video content on social media. Even long-time watchers of the Concacaf Champions League aware of the quirks of the tournament were shocked to see Blanco get away with just a warning.
“Welcome to Concacaf, right?” Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya said on the post-game video call. “I mean, look, I didn’t want any of us to get into some fighting or anything like that or let them pull us into something like that, so I just tried to pull guys away, and obviously bodies from all over the place were coming together. But, look, that’s something that the referee has to take better control of. If he makes a better decision there it might not happen.”
Playing Concacaf soccer requires some reconciliation on the part of players and coaches. The biggest prize on the continent can play out amid substandard conditions and with baffling refereeing.
“Just like I have to get up here and be held accountable for my play, the referee should be the same,” Bedoya continued. “He should be explaining that decision because that’s a red in every part of the world. I don’t understand how that was not a red card. So, that was a disgraceful decision. But, hey, we move on. We got a victory, we got a good result, and I’m glad that we didn’t get a red card and nobody did anything stupid. So, obviously for me, I’m the captain, I’ve got to try and get in there and pull guys away so we don’t get drawn into anything dumb.”
The Champions League put the club new to its unique experience to the test. That new club passed. The Union holds the advantage going back to Chester for the second-leg and would like its chances to advance to the last eight in its first Champions League.
Philadelphia, like each of the MLS teams that started the tournament on the road, benefited from the lack of fans in the stadium. Under normal circumstances, MLS teams face packed houses of raucous supporters who can tilt the balance of play just with their presence.
MLS clubs won’t look that gift horse in the mouth. Even without fans, it’s tough to get a result away in Concacaf. After the first round, MLS is five for five. There’s a flip-side to the lack of fans in the away legs and the help it gives visitors. It will be the same for the clubs visiting MLS teams for the second-leg of proceedings next week.
The good results in the initial matches of this year’s Champions League promise nothing. Rather, if history is any guide, they might actually promise even greater disappointment than MLS fans usually feel when clubs crash out of the tournament.
Maybe this week represented a turning point in the history of MLS in the Champions League. Maybe MLS clubs are savvier, less naive, than before. Or maybe it’s a false dawn. There’s still work to do, and future rounds against Mexican giants still await.
More From Jason Davis:
- The new coaches in MLS
- NYCFC will ask a lot of its midfield
- MLS in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League
- Preview: Northern Ireland vs USMNT
Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union