Match Preview: Philadelphia Union kick-off 2024 season against Deportivo Saprissa in CONCACAF Champions Cup

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Just under 3 months have passed since FC Cincinnati’s Yerson Mosquera netted a controversial stoppage-time goal that served as the blue and gold’ final dagger and felt like the perfect way to encapsulate Union’s season. Oh, what a bitter ending to the 2023 season it was, and it hasn’t gotten all that much sweeter since with Union staying quiet on the transfer market and seemingly putting the onus on the talent already within the squad and academy system to stay competitive in 2024 and the coming years ahead.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union vs Saprissa Preview

The newest campaign starts Tuesday for Jim Curtin’s Union side, a team that’s already proven they can compete at the highest level, and with a new season of opportunities upon them, Union fans are ready to dump all their hope of a trophy returning to Philadelphia back on this team.  But it starts with a tough test – on the road against Deportivo Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, a two-legged affair with the team scoring the most goals on aggregate score advancing.  Let’s take a look at the matchup between these two teams.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union


This isn’t the first time Union and Saprissa have met, with the two having a memorable meeting in the 2021 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League after a crunching tackle was laid on Union’s Kai Wagner in stoppage time of a 1-0 opening leg match down in Costa Rica at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá – 5 yellow cards were handed out as a result of the late tackle and the ensuing coming-together it caused on the pitch. 

Union would bring the tie back to Philadelphia and do what they do best at Subaru Park – win games. A 4-0 win in leg 2 and a 5-0 aggregate score for Philadelphia means they got the better of Saprissa when all was said and done, but there are still a few guys from each squad who will remember the events that took place in leg 1 back in 2021.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Saprissa’s Scouting Report 

Deportivo Saprissa comes from Costa Rica’s top flight of soccer the Primera Division, which splits its league season into two halves in a similar fashion to Liga MX.  Saprissa breezed through the Apertura – the opening portion of the season – with a record of 18W-1D-3L for a total of 55 points and a top-of-the-table finish. 

Saprissa outscored their opponents by a total of 53-19 across those 22 games led by forward Javon East, who finished 2nd in the league during the Apertura season in both goals and assists with 12 and 5 respectively.  Ariel Rodriguez added another 10 goals for Saprissa which was 3rd best during the Apertura, and 7 from Orlando Sinclair – a former Loudon United loanee.

Saprissa is off to a pretty good start in the early days of the Clausura season, currently sitting in 3rd place with a record of 4W-2D-2L and just 4 points behind Herediano at the top of the table.  34-year-old Ariel Rodriguez – whom Head Coach Jim Curtin gave a lot of respect to in his press conference on Monday morning – is once again amongst everything happening for Saprissa in the attack early on, and is someone Union will have their eyes on come Tuesday night.  

Interestingly enough, despite Sapissa’s dominance during the Apertura and a strong start to the Clausura season, some Saprissa fans seem to be voicing some displeasurement over social media with head coach Vladimir Quesada recently. Saying things like “When will Vladimir leave? We want to see good football”, and “The rival coach must be planning the game only in the offensive aspect, because if he has followed Saprissa’s game in this tournament, he realized that Saprissa’s forward line is useless, it is in the middle of the street”. 

Quesada is approaching his 1st anniversary with the club, a manager that likes to play in a 4-4-2 formation with Rodriguez and East up top and club captain Mariano Torres in the midfield.  Some of Saprissa fans’ frustrations might come from the fact that Quesada chose to rotate a moderate amount against 2nd place Alajuelense over the weekend only to draw 0-0. 

Fidel Escobar, Joseph Mora, Kevin Chamorro, and Pablo Arboine – starters in Quesada’s defensive structure – all played a full 90 minutes against Alajuelense, as well as club captain and 36-year-old Mariano Torres. Javon East also started and played 70 minutes, while Ariel Rodriguez and Orlano Sinclair came on around the time East came off the pitch.

Union, PSN
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Union’s Scouting Report

No, you’re not feeling Deja Vu, Union fans – Union is “running it back” once again. After bringing back Kai Wagner and club captain Ale Bedoya, Union didn’t do all that much in the transfer market to make an immediate impact – but they’re putting a lot of hopes in players like Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, Jesus Bueno, Tai Baribo, etc to take that next step to keep Union competing at the highest level, and hopefully bring a trophy back to Philadelphia.

Head Coach Jim Curtin enters his 10th full season with Union.  He’s undoubtedly proven he can manage this team to compete across multiple high-profile competitions at once, but Union fans only have one acceptable outcome on their mind these days – actually winning trophies.  Lots of media members around the league seem to think Union will have a dip in performance this season, to which I can’t argue too much. 

It’s not necessarily the talent in Union’s squad that I think is the issue, but more so how much better the teams around them are getting.  Plenty of teams are spending serious cash to improve their squad while Union continues playing money ball and hopes guys reach or go above their ceiling.  But once again – just competing is no longer good enough, Union fans need to see this team win before the window closes for good.  

Heading into 2024, I’m expecting to see a lot of similarities to Jim’s gameplan with maybe a few slight alterations here or there – Ale Bedoya will likely (and hopefully) take on more of a reserved role this season, while Quinn Sullivan will likely be utilized much more on the right side of the diamond where Bedoya usually sits as opposed to up top.

The addition of Markus Anderson is adding some much-needed competition amongst the forward group, and of course, the club is still hopeful that forward Tai Baribo will start to find his footing after a dreadful start to his Union tenure last season.  I also wouldn’t be shocked to see Damion Lowe used much more in 2024, either as a straight swap for either Glesnes or Elliott or as the 3rd CB in a 5 back formation. All-in-all, I’d expect to see Union sit in their typical 4-4-2 diamond, with an occasional 5-3-2 thrown in there. 

 Jim Curtin has time and time again called out Andre Blake(no surprise), Damion Lowe, Quinn Sullivan, and Julian Carranza during pre-season as players from each positional group who seem extra motivated to have a strong 2024 season.  Julian Carranza, whose future beyond Philadelphia is still up in the air, feels like Union’s most important piece to the offense over the last year or so after netting 33 goals across all competitions for the blue and gold in 2 seasons

Union fans are hopeful that record signing Mikael Uhre can reach new heights in 2024 after scoring just 11 goals in all comps last season, and young homegrowns Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn, who looks ready to make the whole world know his name in the next few years, seem like they’ll be given a lot of responsibility in the midfield in the upcoming season. 

From a defensive standpoint, Union probably looks as good as ever in the backline.  Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes are two of the best CBs in the league, and while bringing back Kai Wagner comes with some controversy, he undoubtedly makes Union a better team.  Nate Harriel looks set to have the keys to that right-back position this year after taking a big step in performance on both sides of the ball in 2023 and getting called up to the USMNT for the first time.  And of course, Andre Blake is one of MLS’ best to ever do it in net – so I don’t need to say much there.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union


Admittedly, it’s a bit hard to predict the first lineup of the season when rotation has to come into play as Union travels back to Philadelphia to kick off their MLS season against Chicago on Saturday. But what we do know is Jim Curtin’s approach to their 2-legged tie with Saprissa – Keep Saprissa off the board in Leg 1, and go back to Subaru Park where they feel they can beat anybody.  Because of that, I think we might see a bit more of an experienced, defensive-minded lineup on Tuesday night.  

Some have wondered if going to the 5-3-2 might be the best formation Saturday night, but I tend to think Curtin will stick with the 4-4-2 diamond.  Up top, I suspect both Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza will get the start, with Daniel Gazdag as the 10 behind them.  Jack McGlynn will likely take up the left side of the diamond with Jose Martinez at the bottom. 

The big question mark to me is who takes up the right side of the diamond – is it Veteran Ale Bedoya? Does youngster Jesus Buneo take up that spot to add a bit of defensive solidity to the midfield? Does Quinn Sullivan get the nod as he has in a lot of the pre-season matches?  Much to Union fan’s chagrin, I could see Ale Bedoya getting the start on Tuesday night to add some experience in Union’s midfield. 

But if I were Jim Curtin – which I’m most definitely not – I’d give the keys to Jesus Bueno, a guy who plays with snarl and grit in a similar way to Jose Martinez.  If keeping Saprissa off the board is objective #1, mucking up the midfield is going to be key to ensuring Union achieves that. 

I think this will be a very tight, chippy game with both teams reluctant to open themselves too much in fear of conceding.  But maybe that plays into Union’s hands.  Jim Curtin said on Monday that one of Union’s biggest advantages is how quickly they can go from defending to attacking, back to defending – and that they’re OK with Saprissa likely having a majority of possession Tuesday night. 

I suspect Union will bunker down, play physical and frustrating defense, and look for their moments to strike – but I think they’ll likely be a little more reserved in the attack than we might see when they play the return leg at Subaru Park.  It might be a boring start to the season, but I’d be totally OK with a 0-0 draw on Tuesday night.  Get back to Philadelphia unscathed and earn the right to advance at home in the second leg.

Venue: Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá, San Juan de Tibás (San José), Costa Rica
Time: Tuesday, February 20, 10:00 pm EST
Watch: FS2, TUDN
Kick-off: 10:06 pm EST

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union