The Philadelphia Union take on LAFC tonight, in a rematch of last season’s MLS Cup final, this time with a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League final on the line. Both teams are looking to follow up on Seattle’s success last season and become just the second MLS side to win the continental competition. Despite having only played each other five times, there is a developing history and budding rivalry between the two teams*, a result of opposing (but equally successful) styles of team-building and close battles (three of the five matches between the teams have been draws, and a fourth, the MLS Cup final, required a penalty shootout to separate the teams).
*See Union vs LAFC: The History of a Budding MLS Rivalry from Paul Frenzel for more
Contrasting Starts to 2023
LAFC have followed up their 2022 double of Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup by coming hot out of the gates, winning five of their eight MLS matches so far, and drawing the other three, making them the only undefeated team remaining. While they currently sit in 3rd in the MLS Western Conference, they are only a point behind St. Louis and Seattle, and have a game in hand.
They have been equally impressive in the CCL. While they did suffer a 2-1 defeat against Costa Rican side Alajuelense, it came after a 3-0 first-leg away victory that all but wrapped up the tie. Most MLS sides find it difficult to balance the CCL with MLS league play (see Seattle missing the playoffs last year after winning the CCL), but so far, LAFC has struck that balance with ease.
The Union, on the other hand, has struggled to shake off the bitter end of the 2022 season, already losing four matches in league play. Shocking defensive frailty- from the same players who contributed to one of the best defenses in MLS history last season- have combined with stretches of lackluster finishing and poor final balls to doom Philadelphia more than once. Even Subaru Park, a fortress where the Union hadn’t lost in well over a year, couldn’t help offset the team’s issues.
All that being said, the Union had a much-improved league performance against Toronto FC over the weekend, running out 4-2 winners after a first half that saw them deliver on all fronts like we haven’t seen since 2022. Additionally, they have saved their best performances so far in 2023 for the CCL, combining dominating home wins with competent away performances to progress to the semifinal.
Before the season began, Union fans were full of talk about getting revenge; Jim Curtin spoke about trying to win every available trophy, and fans were all-in. The slow start to the season curbed such talk temporarily, but now, facing an LAFC team who beat the Union to two trophies by the slimmest possible margins last season, that talk, that desire for revenge has come, not so much bubbling to the surface as gushing forth, a fountain of bitterness, anger, and four lost trophies across three sports worth of hurt. Nothing less than victory will suffice to bust the ghosts of last season and truly begin the healing process for Union fans.
The opaque, questionable decision by the league to postpone LAFC’s weekend match against Houston has only served to fuel the fires of the “Philly vs Everybody” mentality. The Union, specifically Ernst Tanner, planned carefully, anticipating the possibility of a CCL semifinal before the MLS schedule was created, and made sure their lone bye week of the season fell between the two legs. LAFC, as many of MLS’s favored teams have done in the past when flagrantly breaking league rules around Designated Player signings, simply fluttered their eyebrows at a league they knew wouldn’t refuse them.
No one likes us, we don’t care. Unless it’s to blatantly help our opponents, then we care a bit.
The three recent draws between the Union and LAFC, each great match in their own right, have all come in Los Angeles. Even with their struggles to start the season, the Union is a different animal at home. As Jim Curtin said in his pre-match press conference*, these two teams bring out the best in each other. I’m predicting a Union goal from Dániel Gazdag to be canceled out with one from MLS MVP front-runner Denis Bouanga, only for Julián Carranza to net a late winner for the Union.
*For more from the pre-match presser, check out Jimmy King’s article: Union Presser Notes: Curtin and Bedoya ready for Leg 1 CCL Semi-Final Clash against LAFC
It remains to be seen how a two-legged matchup impacts the close-fought nature of this battle. The result tonight will go a long way towards dictating how both teams approach the second leg. Union fans will be hoping the team provides some measure of catharsis and put themselves in a strong position for the second leg in the process.
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