The 3rd place game that actually mattered – Union punch ticket to 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup with 3-0 Win VS Monterrey

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

A 3rd place game, really? Seems super pointless. Except…this one’s not – Thanks Leagues Cup. Because of the expanded CONCACAF Champions Cup field in 2024, the top three finishers in Leagues Cup earn their way into next season’s competition. Okay cool, so this game DOES mean something to the Union! Playing a 3rd place “Losers” game kinda stinks but for a spot in this continent’s biggest competition? I can get behind that! Should make for a pretty exciting matchup. 

Except there’s one more thing – Monterrey have already qualified for the competition and as a result of that and accumulating a lot of miles traveled over the last few weeks, they decided to heavily rotate the squad in this one.  This makes this game even more of an important game for Union to show up in.

Not because of just what the win achieves for Union, but because I’m scared of what a loss, in a 3rd place game, against Monterrey’s B-squad, with a CCC spot on the line means in the long term for Union.  I really, really don’t want to go down that road.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

The Starting XI we probably should have seen on Tuesday night

Seeing the lineup for this one kinda felt similar to when you try to eye-ball the ingredients while baking cookies and they turn out awful, and you’ve got to shamefully remake them while having your significant other remind you to follow the instructions this time.  You KNOW the recipe – but sometimes you just screw it up by throwing an ingredient you don’t need in the mix and have to do it again.

The lineup on Saturday felt like that – admitting that Tuesday night was a major mistake.   And that’s okay, we criticize in Philadelphia, but we also forgive and support when it’s needed most.  That re-do “Recipe” was the 4-4-2 diamond, a formation many not only wanted but thought we would have seen on Tuesday night. 

Wagner, Glesnes, Elliott, and Mbaizo as the back 4, with Jose Martinez, Jack McGlynn, Jesus Bueno, and Daniel Gazdag as the diamond in the midfield, and Mikael Uhre and Quinn Sullivan as the two strikers up top.  Of course, Andre Blake was back in net to set the record straight after Tuesday night’s howler of a match.  Newly acquired Tai Baribo would make the bench for the first time as a Union player.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Quick Start for Union settles nerves early

If there were any nerves about Union failing to show up for a third-place game, after getting fleeced 4-1 at home in a semifinal, those feelings of uneasiness were settled early on in this one against a mostly reserves team for Monterrey. There was a really quick start for the blue and gold when a deflected pass found Mikael Uhre in the penalty area to the keeper’s left-hand side.  Uhre squared the ball to Daniel Gazdag in the middle of the box whose one-touch attempt was denied by the post.  But the rebound fell directly to Jesus Bueno, who tapped the ball into an empty net to give Union the 1-0 lead in the first minute of the game. 

It was the perfect start for Philly and the best way to move on from Tuesday night.  The early goal allowed Union to settle into the game without the urgency and pressure of Tuesday’s loss looming over them.  They didn’t dominate possession, but they didn’t allow Monterrey to get too many serious threatening looks on net either.  Every time Monterrey was able to stretch the back line and ask questions, Union’s defenders did well to recover and snuff out the play without any real danger, a completely different story from Tuesday night.

The Union only racked up 48% of the possession in the first half, but they did well to be efficient with the time they had with the ball, outshooting their opponents 9-4 in the first half.  Union almost doubled their lead in the 24th minute with Gazdag firing a pass into the feet of Quinn Sullivan at the top of the box.  Sullivan collected the pass and laid it off to Jack McGlynn waiting at the top of the box.  McGlynn lined the shot up with his left foot but didn’t get much on it and it dribbled to the keeper, keeping the game at 1-0. 

Just a few minutes later Jesus Martinez almost pulled off another beauty when he lined one up from about 25 yards out that was labeled for the bottom corner of the net, but Luis Cardenas was able to keep the ball out with a sprawling save.  Once again, while Monterrey wasn’t getting in any sort of threatening positions, the longer the game stayed at 1-0, the more you wonder what could happen if Union didn’t double their lead. 

But right before half time, Union put those worries to rest when Jack McGlynn threaded a ball around the defense that sent Mikael Uhre alone with the keeper, and Uhre made no mistake with the opportunity, directing the ball past Cardenas and giving Union a 2-0 lead just before half-time.  That one has to feel pretty good for Uhre. 

He’s received a bit of scrutiny this season for his lack of production after a promising first season, and after starting on the bench in the game against Miami, a goal in this one has to have him feeling good after a frustrating night.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union cruise to CCC Berth in the second half

Though it was mostly self-imposed, the 2nd goal just before half-time relieved any pressure put on Union to get a result in this one.   A 2-0 lead at home against a reserve team is a comfortable position to be in and inches them closer to competing in next season’s CONCACAF Champions Cup.  But in Union’s nature over the last few years, being comfortable with a lead isn’t in their game plan and they continued to push for more goals to extend their lead early in the second half. 

Philly almost added a 3rd to their lead in the 49th minute, when Kai Wagner fizzed a cross along the pitch toward the middle of the box that just evaded the out-reached foot of a sliding Quinn Sullivan. The next big chance for Union would come in the 63rd minute when Kai Wagner let a right-footed shot fly from outside the box that was denied by the post. 

An awaiting Quinn Sullivan pounced and smashed the rebound into the back of the net, but the flag went up to signal Sullivan offside, and the decision was upheld after a quick VAR review to keep the game at 2-0. 

Philly kept coming, and in the 69th minute, Union cycled a failed corner kick around a few times and the ball was eventually lifted into the penalty area by Jakob Gleses.  Glesnes’s ball was headed on net and palmed away by Cardenas, but Union Captain Ale Bedoya was quick to jump on the loose ball and fire it into the back of the net to give Union a comfortable 3-0 lead, and all but booking the Blue and Gold’s ticket for next seasons CONCACAF Champions Cup. 

This was Ale Bedoya’s second game back from another injury stint, and the second game in which he’s scored within 4 minutes of being subbed on. And that would pretty much do it for the night.  Union would do a good job of keeping Monterrey from getting anywhere near the net and would see the game out pretty untested.  Newly acquired forward, Tai Baribo would make his Union debut tonight, but only featured for quite literally six seconds before the ref blew the final whistle.  When asked about his thoughts on Baribo’s first runout, Jim Curtin jokingly responded that he had a “Flawless Debut”.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Looking Forward to MLS

So look, obviously lifting the Leagues Cup trophy would have been the better outcome, but ultimately, punching their ticket to next season’s CONCACAF Champions Cup is a big accomplishment for the club.  three times in the last four seasons that Philadelphia Union will compete in the continent’s biggest club tournament, something that this front office probably dreamed about doing consistently someday.

That puts an end to Union’s first Leagues Cup run, and having punched their ticket to CCC means they can walk away not calling this competition a complete disappointment.  But now that conversation of “how do we consistently compete at the highest level of competition?” has been achieved, both the conversation and model the front office uses need to change to “How do we finally win one of these competitions, and win them on a consistent basis?”.

The Union will turn their attention to their next chance at that with MLS play opening back up in a week as they head down 95 to take on Wayne Rooney and D.C. United for the 3rd time this season in pursuit of another deep MLS Cup run.  Tune in to PSN all week long for coverage leading up to the next match.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union