Rotated Union earns draw in leg one of the CCL Round of 16

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The Philadelphia Union took the International stage on Tuesday night as they faced off against Alianza FC in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16.  The team’s trip to El Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlá came just 3 days after the Union was handed their first loss of the 2023 MLS campaign against Inter Miami. Philly required a quick bounce back in order to return home with the two-legged Champions League tie in reach.

While a heavily rotated Union lineup presented itself with the higher quality scoring chances which would have seen control of the tie going Philadelphia’s way, The Union won’t be too disappointed with a 0-0 draw, liking their chances to advance with a win back home next Tuesday night.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych

Union shows full faith in off-season signings and depth in first-leg of CONCACAF Champions League

Philadelphia Head Coach, Jim Curtin has been candid about the need for rotation and utilizing the entire roster with the number of games on deck this season. Tuesday night’s contest saw eight different players enter the starting lineup for the first time this season. This was met with discomfort from some fans, as a heavily rotated Austin FC were upended 3-0 by Violette AC were in the first leg of their tie. However, Jim Curtin has full faith in the players that make up his bench and showed that with his changes tonight. 

Amongst the 2023 starting XI debutants were off-season acquisitions Joaquin Torres, Damion Lowe, and Andrés Perea. The additional new faces starting the match were Homegrowns Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Nate Harriel, accompanied by Jesus Bueno and Chris Donovan. The only 3 players maintaining their starting spot were Kai Wagner, Jack Eliott, and Andre Blake.  Philadelphia wasn’t the only side going into this game omitting important players from their starting lineup, as Alianza FC was forced to rotate a number of key pieces as well due to injuries and suspensions.

Union grinds quality chances through tough conditions, but missed opportunities leave both teams with a 0-0 draw

It was difficult not to notice the pitches conditions and how it would require Union to adjust their style of play early on, but it didn’t stop the rotated side from creating quality chances. In the 12th minute, new center-back Damion Lowe sent a ball over the top of the Alianza defense, which found its way in the box to the feet of Quinn Sullivan who’s shot went over the bar.  The best of the first-half opportunities came to a corner kick in which Kai Wagner sent in a picturesque ball that fell directly to an unmarked Chris Donovan, who was unable to redirect the ball on target. 

While Alianza did grow into the first half following the scoring chances from Sullivan and Donovan, it was only a volley at that back post that missed the net. A bad-angled shot and a free kick that goalkeeper Andre Blake punched away were the only tests the Union backline faced in the first 45.

The second half saw the Union find their rhythm some more which presented another opportunity for Quinn Sullivan whose attempt was rushed by the oncoming Alianza goalkeeper and once again sailed over the bar. The best opportunity for either team, however, was the product of great link-up play between newcomers Joaquin Torres and Andrés Perea. They played the ball out wide to Kai Wagner who launched another beautiful ball into the box, which Torres was able to head back across the goal to the corner of the net, before being knocked away by the diving hand of Gonzalez.

The Union did bring on reinforcements in Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, Jose Martinez, Leon Flach, and captain Ale Bedoya from the 63rd minute onward. The first and second halves alike showcased the type of physical, chaotic, and unpredictable contest a CONCACAF Champions League match can be. It was summarized perfectly when the pitch was invaded in the 68th minute by a stray dog. While I’m not sure if it were the introduction of the dog, or defensive midfielder, Jose Martinez, the match did have a different bite moving forward.

Though the Union did control much of the game from that point on, the only other notable chance came from a low, fizzing Nate Harriel cross that was pushed behind the end-line for a corner from the Alianza keeper.

Union like their chances heading back to Subaru Park

Although the ever-important away goal never came for the Union as they had planned, Jim Curtin was quick to note the team’s performance and execution. Despite playing the tough playing conditions, Curtin spoke highly of the new faces that entered the lineup, which he admitted went against his norm.

“ We rotated, we changed eight players from Miami, which is not in my nature. I’ve told you guys before, when you rotate more than four, you’re really putting your group at risk, but I have to say we believe in our depth for sure.“

Head Coach Jim Curtin

The rotated lineup will not only allow for fresh legs in the Union’s upcoming weekend MLS matchup with Chicago and the Champions League second leg at home. It goes a long way in proving the depth the Union has prepped in the off-season to deal with the onslaught of fixtures across a number of competitions this season.  A bounce-back performance from a heavily rotated squad on the back of a 2-0 loss in Miami has earned the Union a 0-0 draw on the road in El Salvador.

Now, with a win at Subaru Park on Tuesday night at 8:00 pm, Philadelphia could earn their spot in the CONCACAF Champions League Quarter Finals.  Philly has to like their chances to advance at Subaru Park, a venue in which the team has not lost dating back to December 5th, 2021.

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Mandatory Credit: Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union, Andrew Zwarych