The Philadelphia Union took the field in their historic first-ever Concacaf Champions League (CCL) match against Costa Rica Giant’s Deportivo Saprissa. This first leg of the round of 16 was played in San Jose Costa Rica. Saprissa is in midseason form, while this was Philly’s first competitive match of 2021. You wouldn’t have known that though once the game kicked off. The Union outlast Saprissa and won their first-ever CCL match 1-0!
Union outlast Saprissa
In route to their first-ever CCL win, the Union played their pressing style to perfection to stifle Saprissa preferred style of play. Saprissa likes to play in the counter and rely on their width to create chances. They were without some starters due to injury, but so was Philadelphia. From the first minute, the Union took control of possession and used their press to make Saprissa feel uneasy when in possession.
Philly’s form was the main question mark, and Saprissa was hoping to see a team that wasn’t fit. The Costa Rican giants seemed to overlook the team that won the Supporters Shield in MLS last season. The Union proved that even though this was their first competitive match that they were up for this new challenge! Here’s a look back at how the Union was able to secure their first-ever CCL win!
Union had all the possession inside the first few minutes. They took the game to Saprissa but couldn’t put a finishing touch on any of the chances. After the first five minutes, The Union’s backline looked organized dealing with some set pieces. It was clear that Saprissa was content to sit back and try to find a way in on goal through the counterattack. They created a great chance inside the eighth minute but couldn’t find the final ball to get in on goal. As the match went past the first 10 minutes, Philly looked like the team on top but there was still 80 minutes of the match to go!
Once Saprissa realized that the Union was for real. They began to push the ball wide when they had possession. Luckily for Philly their narrow shuttler midfielders. On his Union debut, Leon Flach showed he had the pace to cover and help out left-back Kai Wagner. Alejandro Bedoya alos was able to aid Mbazio on the right side. Once the Union was able to press those wide players they looked to spring forward. Flach and Bedoya combined well with Jose “El Brujo” Martinez to spring Jamiro Montiero, Anthony Fontana and Kacper Pryzybylko in on goal. It was clear that that combination was working however the place to be exploited was in the wide attacking positions.
With the Union’s press on and wide spaces there to be exploited, outside backs Mbaizo and Wagner were called upon to connect with the Union’s attack. It almost paid off a couple of times when Wagner sent a ball into the box toward Pryzybylko. He had a clear chance but had his feet tangled and hits the charging goalkeeper. This was not the only chance that the one healthy Union striker had, soon he was able to put a real chance on goal.
In the 33rd minute, the Union was able to get the most coveted thing they could get in an away leg of a two-legged competition, an away goal. A long ball was played up the field and Alejandro Bedoya won a header somehow getting the ball to Fontana who sprayed the ball wide to Mbaizo who hit a perfect cross into a wide-open Pryzybylko who headed the chance home! It was 1-0 and the Union stayed on the front foot.
For the rest of the half, the Union dominated possession and made Saprissa uneasy when on the ball. This led to the Union being up at half time 1-0, but could they muster up the will to hold off Saprissa for 45 more minutes?
The answer to that question is yes, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing! The second half started off the same as the first ended! Mbaizo and Flach continued to stand out with their efforts. If Saprissa wasn’t awake after the first half they were when Philly came out firing in the first 10 minutes of the second half. After that, the Union began to tire and Saprissa sprung to life. The home side was able to hit the Union on the counter-attack but Andre Blake stood tall. The Union now pivoted to their strong defensive shape. Kai Wagner and Jack Elliot were key with their blocks. Philly then looked to the counterattack.
El Brujo Martinez showed his wizardry in the middle of the pitch, Mbaizo and Bedoya flew down the right flank, the Flach-Wagner connection was clicking on the left. Unfortunately, the Union seemed to burn themselves out with this type of play, but they stayed strong. Flach was replaced with Matt Real to sure up the defensive response, while Saprissa pushed forward getting some set-piece chances. From the 75th minute on the match turned into a normal style of Concacaf Champions League match. We all got Concacafed!
The Union had heavy legs and sat deep. Saprissa was grinding and went into desperation mode inside the last 10 minutes of the match Amid cramping legs from the Union and half-baked chances from Saprissa, it seemed like the Union would close things out. Saprissa made attacking subs to try to find that equalizing goal. The Union hunkered in as Union fans were on the edge of their seats hoping their team could hold on. As the match went into four minutes of extra time things became even wilder.
Four minutes of second-half stoppage time were added on. Inside of that first minute the Union was on the front foot. They held possession and won some free kicks. Unfortunately, those led nowhere, and Saprissa countered off of one to create their most dangerous chance of the night. A great chance needed to be saved by the outstretched leg of Union keeper Andre Blake; Blake soon after had to leap over his own defender to snatch a ball away from Saprissa. The Union tried to make time go faster by making a late substitution as homegrown Quinn Sullivan came in for an extremely tired Kacper Pryzybylko. Inside the final minute of the four added minutes, peak Concacaf was achieved.
After a failed Saprissa attack the Union looked to clear their lines. Kai Wagner went to put the ball into the open field when Saprissa’s Ricardo Blanco slid with two feet into Wagner, missing the ball completely. The referee was quick with a yellow card, and Union players thought it should be a red. The tackle sent Wagner into the air and was vicious. A scrum ensued after the tackle as Union players and Saprissa players shoved each other. A scrum ensued that lasted about four minutes longer than the extra time was meant to. After a plethora of yellow cards were issued to both sides. The Union cleared the ball upfield and the referee blew the whistle to end the game! The Union just won their first-ever CCL match in an impressive fashion! Now, we wait a week until leg number two!
Full match highlights
Union win; Second Leg next week in Chester!
Now the attention shifts to next weeks as the teams will play again, but this time at Subaru Park. The Union will have about 5,000 fans and an away goal tucked in their pocket. Philly most definitely has the advantage, but should not underestimate Saprissa in the second leg.
The Costa Rica giants may not be at their best right now, but they have been in this competition many times before. If they find a way to get a goal or two, the Union could be in real trouble. On the flip side, if Philly can get an early goal in front of their fans for the first time in 2021 there will be a party in Chester for the rest of the match.
No matter what happens, the Union has shown that they belong on this international stage. Could they make the most of this opportunity and make a deep run? Could they do what no other MLS side has ever done and win the competition? We’ll have to go along for this crazy Concacaf ride to find out!
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Mandatory Credit: Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League