Just over five and a half months after what some call the best MLS Cup Final to date, Union and LAFC went toe-to-toe again Wednesday in another high-stakes battle. This time around, Union would play host to LAFC in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Semi-Finals, after missing out on hosting MLS Cup on a tiebreaker last season. Not only was it a great opportunity for Union to hit back at LAFC and get their first win against the 2023 Supporters Shield and MLS Cup winners, but a good result would send them to LA for the second leg with less to do in order to land a spot in the CCL finals.
A strong start to the opening half
Union head coach Jim Curtin made his plan clear heading into this game – keep a clean sheet, find a good balance between defending and attacking LAFC’s backline, find a goal from somewhere, but most importantly…keep a clean sheet. Union was able to find that balance early and ask questions of LAFC’s backline. The earliest chance came in the 8th minute and was almost a replica of the game-tying goal scored against Chicago when a cross from Kai Wagner on the left found Daniel Gazdag at the back post.
Gazdag headed the ball back across the face of the goal to Carranza who squandered the opportunity to put Union up early and rang it off the post, but the play was ultimately called offside. If Carranza had put the ball in the net, I think there would have been a close VAR review on the offside call, but regardless LAFC escaped an early scare. In the 10th minute, Wagner tried to send Mikael Uhre over the top of the defense with a ball that landed right around the top of the penalty area, but it narrowly escaped the foot of Uhre looking to settle the ball and beat McCarthy.
Union stuck to their plan of finding a good balance between attacking and not leaving too much open for a potent LAFC offense, and they did really well to deal with everything that was being thrown at them. Most of LAFC’s possession in the attack was being snuffed out by a good defensive shape and an aggressive backline that was reading the game and stepping really well to deny the attackers the ball in the final 3rd.
It took LAFC until the 25th minute to take their first shot of the game, when Denis Bounaga came down Andre Blake’s right side, cut the ball back against Jakob Gelsnes, and fired a shot that sailed wide without ever worrying Andre Blake.
Looking to sneak behind the defense to get ahead
Union continued to find themselves in threatening positions by putting dangerous balls behind the backline, and it was creating some chaos for LAFC’s defense. Jack McGlynn found himself in space with the ball in the 36th minute and whipped a cross that skidded along the pitch to the top of the six-yard box, just past the outreached legs of LAFC’s Jonathan Murillo.
Julian Carranza attempted to stab the ball at the net as it came across the face of the goal, but he couldn’t get enough contact to put the ball on frame. Just a few minutes later, Union had their best chance of the first 45 when Julian Carranza dropped deep into his own half to collect the ball and sailed it over the top to spring Mikael Uhre past the defense and in one-on-one with the keeper.
Uhre beat Murillo to the ball in the air and after 3 touches he tried to slide the ball past the oncoming McCarthy with his left foot, but McCarthy made himself big and kept the game level at 0. The temperature between these two teams was turned up a bit before halftime when Jakob Glesnes and Carlos Vela both went sliding in for a 50-50 ball.
Glesnes won the ball with his feet under control and directly in front of him, while Carlos Vela who left his leg dangling was caught by the momentum of Glesnes’s successful tackle. Both teams came together to show their disdain for one another before halftime, with Olivier Mbaizo and Diego Palacios at the forefront of that pushing and shouting match.
Fairytale ending ruined by familiar story
The start of the second half was much the same for Union. They were on the front foot searching for the breakthrough and asking questions of LAFC’s backline, but just lacked the final ball to muster up a quality opportunity. In the 59th minute, it looked like Union finally found just what they had been searching for in the 58th minute when John McCarthy left the rebound of a Julian Carranza shot right on the six-yard box for an unmarked Daniel Gazdag who slammed the opening goal home. Still, the celebrations quickly came to a halt with the waving of the offside flag.
The score would stay 0-0 after an hour of play. LAFC forced Andre Blake into his biggest save of the night in the 66th minute when a Jose Cifuentes cross from Blake’s left side found Denis Bouanga in the middle of the penalty area. Bouanga one-timed the cross towards net, which took an early bounce causing trouble for Andre Blake, but Blake was able to react in time and push the ball to safety with a diving left hand.
The following 15 minutes or so were really back and forth with little real chance to open the scoring, but everything changed in the 83rd minute when the ball found Jack McGlynn inside the penalty area. McGlynn one-timed the ball with his favorite left foot, and the ball was deflected high and wide of the net, but Union players swarmed the referee and insisted the ball was played by a hand of an LAFC player.
After a VAR check, the referee was sent to the monitor to have another lock and came back rewarding Union with a penalty kick, and a chance to break the draw late in the game. Gazdag, who slipped and sailed his MLS Cup PK attempt over the crossbar, with an opportunity to give his team the advantage and exercise some personal demons, steps up and makes no mistake, placing the ball to the opposite side of the diving McCarthy and giving Union a 1-0 lead.
Now that they’ve found the goal they were looking for, Union needed to clamp down and make sure they see through priority #1 – The clean sheet. LAFC tried their best to get numbers up the field and penetrate the good shape of Union’s backline in the final 15 minutes, but Union didn’t offer them much before the clock hit 90.
But, as fate would have it, in the 1st of 5 stoppage time minutes, a botched clearance by Jack Elliott ricocheted off of Leon Flach which found LAFC heading the other way with numbers already up the field. Timothy Tillman collected the ball outside of the box and sent it toward the penalty spot with his left foot. Denis Bouanga stuck his foot out to flick the ball on towards the middle some more, which found its way to an on-running Kellyn Acosta, who extended his leg behind his run to deflect the ball on the net, which was placed perfectly out of Andre Blake’s reach in the top corner.
It’s heartbreak for Union as they give up another late equalizer to LAFC, this time with the important “Away Goal” adding insult to injury. The match ended 1-1.
A glass-full perspective: Recent history is on Union’s side
Look, there’s no way around it – that’s a disappointing result. It’s the 5th consecutive game Union has given up a lead to LAFC in the second half, four of which came after the 80th minute. It’s officially a problem for Union against LAFC. But here’s the important, albeit difficult thing to remember and something Jim Curtin and his players have been sure to reiterate – This was only halftime.
In the big picture, this feels like a negative result because of the nature of the goal, and the recent trauma it resurfaced for Union fans everywhere, and giving up the away goal makes it feel even worse now that you’ve got to head to LA. But here’s the thing, Union was always going to have to go to LA and score goals. It’s the Champions League Semi-Finals against one of the highest-powered offenses at home, you’re going to need to put up some goals if you want to get yourself to the finals of a major competition. And they’ve proven they can do that in LA time and time again.
So now, Union has to head to LA and do just that; score goals. A win for the first time in their History against LAFC next Tuesday night in LA would send Union through to the CONCACAF Champions League Finals for the first time in the club’s history. But they don’t need to win. A multi-goal draw sees Union through to the finals on away goals as well. Union’s last 3 trips to LA, you ask? 3-3(LAFC win on PKs), 2-2, and 3-3. Don’t throw the towel in on Union just yet. Tune in for the decisive Leg 2 next Tuesday, May 2nd at 10 pm EST.
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