Union’s Leagues Cup Quarter Final rematch against Queretaro on Friday night looked like it was heading to Penalty Kicks for the 3rd consecutive game. But in the 100th minute of the match, Joaquin Torres played a perfect ball to spring Kai Wagner behind the defense down the left flank. Wagner played the ball into the box finding former Drexel Dragon, Chris Donovan in stride, who one-touched the ball into the back of the net, sending Union through to the Semi-Finals where they’ll host Inter Miami and Lionel Messi.
Leagues Cup Legend, Chris Donovan – what a moment for him, probably the biggest of his career thus far. And what a moment it’ll be for Union! Hosting the Leagues Cup Semi-Final at Subaru Park, and playing against a team that’s been instantly transformed by the arrival of the best player in the world and a few of his friends.
Five ways the Union can beat Miami
I don’t need to tell you how big Lionel Messi is. If you’re here reading this you already know the effect Messi has everywhere he goes, and this game is no different. Subaru Park sold out in a matter of minutes despite the highest prices the park has ever seen. People I didn’t know watched soccer were frantically texting me asking how to get tickets.
It kinda feels like a big deal, and it is! But less of that focus should be on the opponent coming into Chester on Tuesday night, and more should be directed on the opportunity Union has in front of them – Beating Miami, inching a step closer to punching their ticket to next season’s CONCACAF Champions Cup, and hosting the Leagues Cup Final at home.
But how does Union beat Messi and Miami, something no team has been able to do since his arrival? You don’t stop Messi, but how can you minimize the effect he has on the game, and maximize your chance of putting a better team effort that gets the job done together? There are a few things I think will factor heavily into whether or not Union can achieve this.
1.) Don’t let the game become a track-meet
As exciting as it is for the fans, a back-and-forth high-scoring game isn’t the type of match Union want out of this one. We’ve seen what happens when teams fly forward against a Miami defense that does give up chances and concede goals – they punish you going the other way if you don’t convert. And with former Inter Miami player Julian Carranza looking unlikely to go on Tuesday night, Union are going to be lining up without one of their most in-form goal scorers over the last season and a half.
They haven’t been exactly blowing teams out of the water offensively as of late anyway, so I don’t think Jim Curtin’s game plan is going to be to just out-score Miami and Lionel Messi. Instead, they’ll likely try to keep the game much tighter, do their best to keep their shape and from getting pulled out of position, and not allow Miami’s best a lot of time and space with the ball.
2) Force Miami to go through their worst player
This is something head coach Jim Curtin has been open about before, and that’s Union’s tactic of forcing their opponents to play through their worst player. What does that mean, exactly? In this specific scenario, it means limiting the amount of touches players like Messi and Busquets get, and instead forcing players less confident on the ball to make plays in difficult positions. In his Press Conference leading up to the match, Jim Curtin said something to the effect that If Messi gets the ball, it’s almost too late and Union hasn’t done their job.
They’ll need to cut out the players who get Messi the ball, and that starts with Busquets. With that said Union is going to need a big game out of Jose Martinez and the rest of the midfielders. They’re going to need to work really hard to put pressure and cut Miami’s best player’s out of the game and force other players to make plays as much as possible.
3) Don’t give away free kicks in threatening positions
It didn’t take long for Messi to show he’s still got it since coming to America, and that’s included a number of stunning goals from free-kicks, including a last-minute winner in his debut. He’s the best in the world, and sometimes he makes a free-kick feel like a PK with how easy he makes hitting the back of the net look. So needless to say, don’t give up any cheap fouls around the boxing you’re Union, especially late in the game.
4) Stick to their game
Union have earned their success over the last few years by sticking to their game, even if it’s not the most appealing at times. Let your opponents have the ball and pay no mind to the possession numbers, rely on your defensive structure, and hit your opponents with long, direct passes that stretch the backline out of position and force their most uncomfortable players to make plays under pressure. Union’s game isn’t about one player making a 40-yard run, beating multiple players, and finishing it off by chipping the keeper.
But it looks a lot more like the one we did on Friday night that got Union to the Semi-Finals – win a ball in the midfield by putting pressure on the other team, making a pass that springs a player through the back line, and hit a centering pass for one of your goal-scorers waiting in the middle to slam it home.
5) Take full advantage of Home Field Advantage
A lot of people pushed for this game to happen at Lincoln Financial Field where the Philadelphia Eagles play. And I’ll admit there are a few positives to that. More tickets sold, a bigger stage, makes the game feel like a bigger deal, allows more fans a chance at tickets, etc. But I reject that idea wholeheartedly, I think you’ve got to save that for a game that isn’t as important.
Regardless of how people have viewed Leagues Cup, Union have prioritized this competition based on the way results around MLS have gone thus far – they see this as a great opportunity to not only punch their ticket to next season’s CONCACAF Champions Cup but to host a final, and ultimately lift a trophy at Subaru Park.
The Union has worked really hard to get them to the point where they are fighting for trophies on a consistent basis, and now that one of those opportunities is in front of them and two wins away, a lot of the focus has been pushed toward their opponent.
In their last 43 games at home, Union has a record of 36 wins, 5 draws, and just 2 losses. They’ve outscored their opponents by a total of 106 to 25 during that span, and a lot of that has been attributed to how good the home support is. Over half of the stadium is occupied by season ticket members every game, a sell-out is becoming the norm down in Chester.
And even on games where it isn’t sold out, the fans can get extremely loud behind their team like they did on Friday night against Queretaro. I don’t care about the positives of hosting Messi and Miami and The Linc, you don’t move this game away from Subaru Park. You keep this team in front of their fans, in their most comfortable setting.
What will we see on Tuesday night?
It’s going to be really interesting to see the split of Union to Messi/Miami fans. Most, if not all of the tickets were sold out 7 minutes into the Season Ticket Member on-sale, which was discounted from the public on-sale but not by much, and still a hundred more expensive than the auto-opt in which a majority of season ticket members took advantage of. So hypothetically, there shouldn’t have been many tickets for non-Union fans left to buy.
But that isn’t to say Union fans haven’t cashed in on a ridiculous payday via the secondary market with re-sales going for up to $400 for standing-room tickets. I’m not one to advise people financially, but if Philly fans are the die-hard fans they say they are – they’ll hold your tickets and be at this game and backing your city’s team. And you’d get a lot of respect from head coach Jim Curtin and keeper Andre Blake, who both urged the importance of Union fans packing the stadium to push their team on Tuesday night.
This really is one of the most passionate sports cities in the world, and I really hope the Messi effect doesn’t have too much of an impact on how good a Union crowd can be. I understand all the excitement, I really do. But I think Union is building something beautiful in their own way, much different from the likes of LAFC and Miami, and what a beautiful opportunity they have to beat one of the game’s best, at home, with a lot of new eyes watching.
All while punching their ticket to next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, and giving their fans the opportunity to see their club host and lift a trophy at home. It feels like the players that work hard every day deserve the best support Union fans have ever given them, with so much of the attention going to the opponent.
Maybe it’s just me, but this feels like a big one that people will regret missing one day, so if you were lucky enough to get your hands on a ticket and you’re not in the place where you need to sell to cover an emergency, get down to Subaru Park, and help push Union on to the next chapter in this teams story.
Best Philadelphia Union Bets
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: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky & Philadelphia Union