When the Philadelphia Union visit San Jose, Costa Rica in early April for their first Concacaf Champions League match in franchise history, it will bring back some memories for head coach Jim Curtin.
Curtin was a member of the Chicago Fire in 2004 when they took on Deportivo Saprissa in the two-leg semifinal of the Champions Cup.
“It was a long time ago,” Curtin said Wednesday night after the two teams were drawn in the Round of 16 of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
The Fire lost the first leg of the semifinal 2-0 and fell 3-2 on aggregate despite winning the return leg 2-1 at Soldier Field (Curtin scored in the second half). Saprissa lost to Costa Rican club Liga Deportiva Alajuelense in the two-leg final.
Playing Saprissa in early April will present some challenges for Curtin’s squad, which will be in early season form — the match in Costa Rica will be their first official contest of 2021 — and it will be against a formidable opponent in midseason form. Saprissa has 10 matches on their schedule between now and the first week of April.
“(Saprissa is) a team that is the Bayern Munich or the Manchester United of Costa Rica, a big club where the only expectation is to win and to win championships,” Curtin said.
While there will plenty of chances for the Union technical staff to scout their opponent, there’s already familiarity with the roster with former Vancouver Whitecap Christian Bolaños, former Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Cincinnati defender Kendall Waston and former Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew midfielder David Guzmán on the team.
The challenge the Union will face is a welcome one for Curtin as the team strives to continue building on the momentum from winning a Supporters’ Shield in the Covid-19 disrupted 2020 season.
“You want to play against the best and that’s what this competition brings out,” Curtin said. “You’re challenging yourself against the best teams in your region.”
Nine years after announcing a “strategic partnership” with the club that didn’t seem to yield too many results — former Union forward Josue Martinez played for Saprissa and former Bethlehem Steel left back Walter Cortes is currently on the team — April’s opening match will be an historic one for a Union team new to the competition and the expectations that come with it.
“We’re coming into this competition not just happy to be here but but to come in and try to win and get results,” Curtin said.