Just about 2 months into the 2023 campaign and Philadelphia Union are already playing games that will play a vital role in the success of their season. The biggest test of the season thus far is ahead of them on Wednesday night as Union takes their 1-0 advantage down to Guadalajara, Mexico for their second-leg matchup against Atlas FC with a chance to punch their ticket to the CONCACAF Champions League Semi-Finals. Already in the semi-finals and waiting to see who advances between Union and Atlas is the reigning Supporters Shield and MLS Cup winners LAFC.
There’s no denying the electricity an MLS Cup rematch between Union and LAFC would create – two games, one home game each, with a spot to play in the CCL Finals. Union fans are already salivating at the thought of sweet revenge. But first, Union must take care of business on the field in what’ll be a hostile environment at Jalisco Stadium if they’re going to reach the CCL Semi-Finals for the second time in 3 years.
Slow start to the season so far, but Union are confident a breakout is coming
You’re probably just as tired of hearing it as I am saying it, but Union isn’t off to the start that almost anyone was predicting. Even with the woes MLS teams typically face while competing in CCL, Union finds themselves struggling to find the form and consistency that made them one of the favorites for 2023, to begin with. Seven weeks through the MLS season and Union have just two wins and a draw, which lands them in 10th place in the East with just seven points.
What’s probably most concerning so far, is that Union has scored more than once in just two of those seven games. Union has scored five goals across three games in CCL, but it should be noted all five goals were scored at home, and with Union having a man advantage due to red cards given to their opponent. The good news is that Union look to be getting back to their best defensively, which head coach Jim Curtin touts as the foundation of his team’s success, conceding just one goal in the past three games.
The security at the back does allow for a bit of patience while the attack finds their scoring touch, but Union knows they’ll need to get it going offensively and see the big stage on Wednesday as an opportunity to do so.
“In this competition we haven’t conceded a goal yet. In a lot of our matches so far in the league, while we’re not where we want to be in the standings, we still have been difficult to play against. Getting our attacking group going is something that we need to do, and what better place to do it than in a Champions League game in a tough environment. We’re working very hard and I know the players and I are very confident that we will breakout in terms of attacking”Head Coach, Jim Curtin
How Union will approach the 1-0 advantage on the road
On Tuesday afternoon, Head Coach Jim Curtin addressed the media down in Mexico ahead of the Second Leg clash to give updates on team fitness and how they’ll approach their 1-0 advantage.
“I explained to our players, if we score a goal at any moment during the 90[minutes], they[Atlas] have to score 3, which is really, really valuable. It does create a unique approach to the game. If it’s a 0-0 game and we’re defending and they’re throwing numbers forward, then we’re the team that’s feeling under pressure.”
Curtin noted that they’ve thought of all the possible ways a goal on either side could shift the approach of the game and who the pressure is on more, but continued to say that he believes in his team most when they come face to face with adversity.
“Both teams have everything to play for. Again, I prefer and I know my group responds best when we’re brave and we’re not just sitting in deep and absorbing pressure, so we’re gonna go for it. Our guys are excited for the challenge, but we know it wont be an easy one.”
Curtin also provided some positive updates on the fitness front, noting that other than having to deal with rotation due to a congested schedule, almost everyone should be available for selection on Wednesday night.
Center Back Damion Lowe whose recent performances have gained him popularity amongst Union fans, did suffer a bit of a hamstring injury in training after his demanding display against Atlas in the first Leg, but Curtin says he’s progressing well and would be a game-time decision against Atlas. Whether he’s set to go for Wednesday night or not, having someone with solidity in the back is going to be important for Union with no sign of the important games on short rest slowing down.
Another player that’s dealing with a slight hamstring injury is Left Back Kai Wagner, who not only plays an important part in the Union backline but also provides so much to the attack. After missing the last few games because of said injury, Curtin updated in his press conference that whether he starts or plays a role off the bench, Kai Wagner will be back in the lineup on Wednesday night against Atlas.
What’s the lowdown on Atlas?
There’s no hiding from the fact Union has started slower than expected and is feeling a bit of pressure because of it, but Union isn’t the only team in this matchup that is seeking a big result to relieve some of the tension. Amidst criticism already being thrown at Atlas Head Coach Benjamin Mora’s way this season for waves of inconsistent form, a disappointing result in Liga MX play on Sunday night saw Zorro fans putting pressure on Mora once again, making the prospect of completing the comeback against Union in the second leg that much more important.
Despite needing a big performance midweek in CCL, Sunday night’s league match against FC Juarez saw Atlas roll out nine of the same players that started in the First Leg against Union. Two of those nine players, however, Anderson Santamaria and Brian Lozano, will both miss the Second Leg due to suspensions they received in the first.
Atlas’ forward put Julian Quinones up 1-0 in the 6th minute, and after controversial red cards were handed out to FC Juarez on two separate occasions before the stroke of halftime, It looked like Atlas would be able to wrap up the game quickly and rest key players for the important CCL tie against Union on Wednesday night. But things just didn’t go that way.
FC Juarez set up shop and stifled the two-man advantage attack from Atlas, until the 78th minute when Atlas’ Brian Lozano received a sending-off of his own. Atlas ran their top goal scorer in Julio Cesar Furch until the 66th minute, while Julian Quinones who looked the most threatening in Leg 1 went a full 90.
Despite getting an early goal and playing most of the game with more men on the field than their opponents, Atlas never found the breakthrough goal to secure them the win. And to top off a frustrating night for Atlas, one of Liga MX’s best keepers in Camilo Vargas looked to injure his knee late in the game while diving for a shot attempt. Vargas stayed in the game, but looked visibly uncomfortable putting full pressure on his knee, causing big concern for Atlas fans.
Atlas seems to be keeping the status of Vargas under wraps, not providing an update on his fitness, either way, heading into Wednesday night’s match. There have been some conflicting reports on whether he’s trained normally or not. But either way, without Center Back Santamaria, key midfielder Lozano, and potentially keeper Camilo Vargas, Union has an opportunity to find the important away goal and put all the pressure on the home team.
There are a lot of Union players you could look at in this matchup as potential game-changers, but I think one of the most important will be Daniel Gazdag. Gazdag has become one of Union’s most threatening and proficient attacking players, scoring 22 goals and adding 6 assists in his second season with Philadelphia. As of late and in Leg 1, we saw Gazdag dropping deep in the midfield to collect the ball early on in the game, which Jim Curtin admitted was by design.
Union hoped finding Gazdag a bit closer to midfield would allow Union to control and possess the ball through the middle and allow Gazdag to find support to spring Union’s attack. Gradually as the game progressed, Gazdag was receiving the ball much closer to the penalty area, which is when you saw Union start to get some chances on net.
Atlas is going to be very aggressive toward Union’s ball carriers, and I think Gazdag will have to do much of the same Wednesday night if they want to move the ball with fluidity and find the away goal.
On the other side of things, I think you’ve got to look at Julian Quinones for Atlas. He looked the most threatening against Union in Leg 1, almost providing Atlas with the important Away Goal early in the game with a dazzling bicycle kick attempt from outside the box that sailed just wide.
Quinones is Atlas’ target man. They love to send the ball over the top of the defensive for a fast and physical Quinones to run onto, and his finishing is really good. Although he played a full 90 on Sunday night, shutting down Quinones is going to be essential to Union punching their way to the CCL Semi-Finals
This is going to be a cagey game, no doubt. Beating Atlas, which is a very physical team, in a very hostile environment, with fans who very blatantly just don’t like Philadelphia, is going to be a strong gut check for Union early on in the season, but one which reaps big rewards. Union knows how important getting a goal on the road will be, and while keeping a clean sheet is priority number one, they’re going to be searching for their chance to suck any hope and momentum from Atlas early.
Because of this, I think Union will roll out a strong lineup with defensive solidity through the midfield, looking for countering opportunities. While Union could throw out a number of formations and configurations to achieve that, I think Curtin will line his team up in his preferred Diamond formation, with Uhre and Carranza up top and Gazadag as the 10 just behind them.
Though he played 90 against Atlas in the first leg and 70 against FCC on the weekend, I think Jose Martinez and his physical presence at the defensive midfield spot will play a big role in shutting down the Atlas attack. On either side of Martinez is truly a toss-up, but I think we could see the return of Andres Perea tonight pairing with Captain Ale Bedoya.
Making up the backline I think we’ll see Kai Wagner return from Injury at Left Back, Oliver Mbazio at right back, Jakob Glesnesis in superb form at Center Back, and either Jack Elliott or Damion Lowe as the other, depending on Lowe’s injury status. And of course, your three-time goalkeeper of the year, Andre Blake will be between the posts as the Union’s last line of defense.
I think this is going to be a nervy game with the moment and pressure of switching sides throughout the night, but ultimately I think Union walks out of this one with a 1-1 draw, sending them through to the CONCACAF Champions League Semi-Finals by an aggregate score of 2-1, where an MLS Cup rematch is waiting for them. Get your nap in and your coffee ready and be sure to tune in for Union’s biggest match of the 2023 season yet on FS1 Wednesday Night at 10:00 pm EST.
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