After a lot of questions, debating, waiting, disgruntlement, anticipation, and excitement, the inaugural edition of the Leagues Cup is finally here. The group stage and knock-out style competition between MLS and Liga MX will kick off for the very first time on Friday night. Philadelphia will get to enjoy the first night of the new tournament’s matches from the comfort of their own homes, with Union’s first match taking place on Saturday night at Subaru Park against Liga MX’s Club Tijuana.
Union vs Tijuana preview
This will be one of two Leagues Cup group stage matches for Union, with the second taking place on Wednesday night against Querétaro. The top two teams from each group will advance to the knock-out stage of the tournament. It’s 3 points for a win just like normal and 1 point for a draw, but unlike most competitions, no games can end in a draw here, and the extra 2 points will be awarded to the team who wins the subsequent penalty shootout. With all group stage games in the group being played at Subaru Park, Union has to like their chances of advancing through to the knockout round.
2023 Season so far
The first portion of Liga MX’s 2023/2024 split season, Apertura, just kicked off a few weeks ago and as a result, Club Tijuana has only played 3 games thus far, so it’s a small sample size to go off of with the most recent edition of this squad. So far across 3 games, Tijuana has 1 win, 1 draw, and 1 loss. Across those 3 games, they’ve both scored and conceded a total of 5 goals.
Through the early part of the season, until the break for Leagues Cup came about, newly acquired 30-year-old forward Carlos Gonzalez Espinola leads Club Tijuana with 3 goals across 3 games. He’s also leading the team in total shots, shots on target, goals per shot, and goals per shot on target.
From the looks of things so far this season, it seems that Tijuana wants to start the attack from the back and heavily relies on their defenders to work the ball up the pitch.
Right back Diego Barbosa and Center Back Kevin Balanta are up near the top of the leaderboard in a majority of passing statistics for this team so far – Total Passes Attempted, Total Passes Completed, Total Passing Distance, Progressive Passing Distance, Attempted Short, medium and long Passes, Completed short, medium and long passes, Expected Assists, Key Passes, Passes into the final third, and progressive passes.
They are also near the top in stats like total touches, Touches in the middle third, Carries, Total Carrying Distance, Progressive Carrying Distance, Passes Received, and Progressive Passes received. Tijuana seems to love to use Diego Barbosa up the right-hand side. We should see a really good battle between him and Kai Wagner, pending both of them starting.
It’s hard to tell what kind of team Tijuana is going to bring to Subaru Park and how seriously they’ll take this competition, but for everyone’s sake, I hope we get to see the matchup of Diego Barbosa and Kai Wagner, both really attacking outside backs for their team. Barbosa, as mentioned before, has a lot to do with Tijuana getting the ball up the pitch and into the box. While Barbosa is near the top in all of the statistics listed above, the following are the stats that Barbosa leads the team in the following.
Assists, Expected Assisted Goals, Assists Per 90 Minutes, Total Shots, Total Shots on Target, Short Passes Attempted, Short Passes Completed, Key Passes, Passes Into The Final Third, Passes Into The Penalty Area, Crosses Into Penalty Area, Crosses, Shot Creating Actions, Tackles, Tackles Won, Tackles in the Defensive Third, Tackles In The Middle Third, Touches in the Middle Third, Touches in the Attacking Third, Take-Ons Attempted, and Progressive Passes Received.
On the other side of the ball, Kai Wagner can deliver much of the same for Union. Kai Wagner is near the top of the leaderboard for all Union players in stats such as:
Expected Assisted Goals, Progressive Carries, Progressive Passes, Progressive Passes Received, Attempted Passes, Completed Passes, Total Passing Distance, Progressive Passing Distance, Attempted Short, Medium and Long Passes, Completed Short, Medium and Long Passes, Key Passes, Passes into the Final Third, Passes into the Penalty Area,
…stay with me now…
Crosses Into the Penalty Area, Free Kicks, Switches, Crosses, Corner Kicks, Shot Creating Actions, Tackles, Tackles Won, Total Touches, Total Touches in Defensive Penalty Area, Defensive Third, Middle Third, Attacking Third, Total Carries, Progressive Carries, and Progressive Carries Into Final Third.
Whew. Thanks for sticking with me there.
Needless to say, the battle between Tijuan’s Right Back and Union’s Left Back is going to be one to watch, and I’m willing to bet one of those guys has a say in their team getting on the scoreboard Saturday night, pending both are in the lineup of course.
Listen, I have no idea what to expect as far as lineups go, It’s a mystery as to how serious any of these teams are going to take the first edition of this tournament. That being said, I do think Union sees this as a real opportunity to get their hands on some silverware this season, and I lean towards thinking they’re going to be competitive with this competition.
Not having MLS play to think about while Leagues Cup is going on, unlike the US Open Cup or Champions League, is going to benefit many teams in allowing them to field their best team without as much caution behind it.
So yeah, I think we might see a relatively normal lineup for Union on Saturday. We know they don’t lose very much at home, and a win in regulation in game 1 means they’d likely only need a draw in match 2 in order to advance to the knockout stage.
And While this isn’t MLS play, I don’t think Jim Curtin or any Union players take playing in front of their home fans lightly, no matter what. They’ll know that the crowd both in the stands and at home will hold them to the same standards and they always do while at Subaru Park, so they’ve got to come out strong.
As I said, not having any other competitions means Union can throw out their normal starting XI on Saturday if they want, especially after having a whole week of rest after beating NYCFC at home last weekend. Do I think that’ll happen?
I’m honestly not sure, but I do hope it’s a relatively strong lineup, as there are some names that have been in and out of the starting XI this season. I think Union will go with Andre Blake in net. He’s the guy and there’s no reason to go with anyone else if you’re going to take this even remotely seriously.
At defense, I think Union might go back to a back 5 for the first time since Damion Lowe left for International Duty with Jamaica at the Gold Cup. Kai Wagner, Jakob Glesnes, Damion Lowe, Jack Eliott, and Olivier Mbaizo at the back.
Jose Martinez at defensive midfield, let him get in there and do his thing. This is where things get a little tricky. It seems like Ale Bedoya might miss some time after re-aggravating an injury that had him miss out on more than a month earlier this season. Leon Flach, Jack McGlynn, and even Jesus Bueno have all played really well in the midfield recently, so I think it’s a toss-up between which of them get slotted into the starting lineup.
I think this could be a perfect game for Andres Perea to get some minutes, but for whatever reason I don’t think he’s currently in contention to start…or play very much at all, which is a shame – I feel like Perea could have a great effect in a competition like this.
Up front you’ve got to go with Daniel Gazdag at the 10, having scored 2 PK goals against Nashville to make him just the 3rd Union player to reach 40 goals scored for Union across all competitions. And up front, I do think we’ll see both Mikael Uhre and Juliana Carranza in the starting XI, especially with Carranza missing out against NYCFC last weekend due to a red card received against Nashville, he should be rested and ready to go.
Not only should Union take care of this game, but they should take care of the group pretty easily. Union has only lost two games at Subaru Park since early September of 2021. They don’t lose at home very often, and I don’t think they’ll jeopardize that here. I’m going with a 3-1 win at home, with Julian Carranza, Daniel Gazdag, and Mikael Uhre as the goal scorers.
I just had a look at the tickets available for the match, and there isn’t a whole ton up for grabs right now. We do know that Union like to release a bunch of tickets leading up to the game, but less than 48 hours til kickoff and it looks like there are quite a few tickets sold, and we could have a pretty decent crowd.
I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near sold out and I do think a lot of people with tickets will skip out on making the trip to the game, but I do think there is going to be a solid crowd there, and I hope it’s enough Union fans to keep the stadium feeling like home, with how well fans from Mexico tend to travel.
I highly encourage getting down to Subaru Park Saturday night to catch the first match of this new tournament against new competition the Union has never faced before. The weather looks like it might be really nice, and there are very few better ways I can think of to spend your Saturday night than at Subaru Park with the U. But of course, if you can’t make it out, check out all the action at 7:30 pm EST on MLS Season Pass via Apple TV.
Be sure to return to Philly Sports Network for more Philadelphia Union and other soccer content!
Follow our Union team on Twitter:
Doop on Union fans!
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union