The Philadelphia Union won a Champion’s League road game.

It’s hard to believe. If you look straight down, through the Earth’s crust, you’ll see that hell has frozen over.

This is, after all, the same team that didn’t even have a practice facility until about six years ago, when they had previously driven players by van to Chester Park in Wallingford. They were a fledgling team, training in a public park that was used for youth soccer games.

Fast forward to 2021 and they’ve now got a 1-0 lead in a two-leg Champion’s League tie, having knocked off Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa on Wednesday night in what was the Union’s very first game of the new season. Their opponents were already 16 games in, smack dab in the middle of their domestic campaign.

Jim Curtin’s team looked calm and composed throughout, and save for one bad tackle, which resulted in a huge altercation at the end of the game, did a good job of maintaining their poise in a tough environment, even though fans were not allowed in the stadium. That was a big advantage for a Union squad that was fresh off preseason and hadn’t played a competitive match since November 24th.

We don’t usually break down Union games on the site, but since it’s a big win and a special occasion, here are some thoughts on the performance:


Service on a platter

Olivier Mbaizo hit a couple of absolutely nasty crosses into the box, one of which led to the game-winning goal:

That’s a great sequence from the Union. It starts with a pinched-in Alejandro Bedoya winning a header in the air, like a target forward, then cushioning the ball for Anthony Fontana. Fontana touches the ball into space for Mbaizo, who rips a low curler back post for Kacper Pryzbylko to head home.

Mbaizo is the starting right full back this season, taking over after the sudden retirement of Ray Gaddis. With respect to Gaddis, he only put in a handful of these crosses in nine seasons with the club. What Mbaizo lacks in defending and passing, he makes up for with this ability to serve these balls into the box. Gaddis was a better defender but didn’t have much of an offensive game at all, so this is a different look on the right side of the field.

Team defending

The Union play an admirable defensive game, which is predicated on team commitment. They really do counterpress and move as one unit, and don’t give away anything cheap.

I really liked this sequence in particular:

This was coming off a Saprissa corner, with the home side carving out what initially looked like something dangerous up the right flank. But because the Union players are busting their asses to get back, they end up with five bodies to handle two opposing players.

Exploitation of space

Saprissa was playing a 5-3-2, and the Union did a good job of making their wing backs step up, where they would then exploit the space behind. On numerous occasions they put the LWB, Hernandez, in the spin cycle and attacked his flank, which allowed Mbaizo to get forward.

We’ll see if Saprissa adjusts in the second leg, but I thought tactically the Union looked like the side that was better prepared and able to attack specific weaknesses.

Saving bacon

Kai Wagner saved the win with a back-post clearance on a Saprissa corner kick:

This doesn’t seem like much other than a guy being in the right place at the right time, but some teams now do not put players on either post. It used to be that every team had a guy on the front post and back post at the same time.

The Union typically use a mix of man and zonal marking on corners, and only cover one post, and in this case Wagner was able to clear off the line when Bedoya got beat by Christian Bolanos at the near post. Schematically, it worked in their favor to cover for the lost 1v1 duel.

El Brujo

Jose Martinez – what a signing! Dude can run for days. He puts in crunching tackles, switches play, and douses fires. He was my Man of the Match, in a straight-up tie with Bedoya. Both were fantastic, as was Jamiro Monteiro. The Union really have a quality midfield, full of two-way grinders who do a lot of the small things with incredible consistency and quality.

CONCACAF nonsense

The Ricardo Blanco tackle at the end of the game was fucking ridiculous and should have been a red card. The referee went for a yellow card, then missed the Union’s Jakob Glesnes getting elbowed and headbutted in the ensuing scuffle:

In no world is that a yellow card. It’s a straight red every single time.

The problem is that earlier in the game, Matt Real got Blanco with a retaliation tackle for what he thought was a no-call on Pryzbylko. That set the precedent and led to this, which was a bunch of CONCACAF bullshit. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t get wrapped up in, because next thing you know somebody ends up with a broken leg, or you’re down to 10-men, or you lose your composure. Last year, in route to the Supporter’s Shield, the Union showed a lot of maturity and didn’t waste time with this kind of bullshit, so they have to just rise above it.

Second leg next week, April 14th, at Subaru Park in Chester.