It’s been anything but vintage Saprissa in recent weeks in league play heading into their first leg Round of 16 bout with the Philadelphia Union tonight in San Jose, Costa Rica.
The traditional Costa Rican power is winless in their last seven and sit in third place.
“The New York Yankees can have a bad season, that can happen, but at the same time, when you say New York Yankees, everybody knows who they are,” Union head coach JIm Curtin said in a pre-game press conference on Tuesday. “When you say Saprissa to Americans, in the United States they know that they’re one of the top teams in Costa Rica, if not the top.”
Status aside, Saprissa’s recent form and the fact that they won’t have their notoriously raucous fans in attendance would seem to give Concacaf Champions League debutants the Philadelphia Union somewhat of an edge. But Curtin said he doesn’t see his team as favorites.
“There’s no favorite,” Curtin said. “There’s no easy games in football so we recognize the challenge that is at hand, and then know that this will be a tough task to come to Costa Rica.”
Saprissa has had a lot of success in the past against MLS teams in the competition with a record with just three losses in 14 matches.
“In the last 10 years when Saprissa has been able to get drawn against an MLS team, they’ve been the most successful and that’s when they’ve made their deepest runs,” said Eddie Mendez, a New Yorker who covers Costa Rican football closely and runs the Twitter account @crcfutbol told me in an interview. “Having said all that, I would say, coming into it this year this is probably the most down I’ve been on a Saprissa team I would say in at least the last five to seven years.”
The Union come into the match having played just four preseason matches since their early playoff exit in November. They picked up a win in their last match against DC United last week behind a brace from Anthony Fontana. Saprissa has played eight matches since the draw in February with the lone win coming on February 21.
“Being able to be in form, have match fitness, have experience in the competition I think that carries its weight definitely in the first leg, especially with the first leg being in Central America,” Mendez said. “It’ll hurt not having the crowd because I think the crowd is like a big factor for (Saprissa) and even worse for the national team.”
The 2021 competition officially kicked off last night with the kind of drama that is often a regular fixture of Concacaf play. Atlanta United somehow beat the Costa Rican league leaders Alajuelense 1-0 on a PK despite losing Brad Guzan to a red card in the 43rd minute and Portland came back from a goal down twice to draw Honduran club C.D. Marathón.
The most shocking result of the night, however, was Haitian club Arcahaie FC holding Mexican giant Cruz Azul to a scoreless draw in their Concacaf Champions League debut.
Whether those results are a good sign or not for the Union remains to be seen but the Union’s pressing style that tormented the league last season en route to a Supporters’ Shield could be a key factor.
“It’s heavy reliance on build up, it’s heavy reliance on wing play,” Mendez said of Saprissa’s approach. “But I would say the backline, specifically this season they’ve been very susceptible to the press. If you were able to press them high and cut off the center back from the full backs, or even cut off David Guzman who plays the six from the two attacking midfielders in front of him it’s gonna lead to a lot of turnovers and that’s where Saprissa has given up a decent amount of their goals.”
Though the results haven’t been there, Saprissa’s defense has conceded only six times in their last eight matches.
Saprissa center back Kendall Waston, who played for FC Cincinnati the last two seasons and Vancouver Whitecaps for five seasons before that is perhaps the most recognizable face on the Saprissa roster. Union fans will probably remember left back Walter Cortes during his one-year loan stint with Bethlehem Steel. Other former MLS players include David Guzmán and Christian Bolaños.
“I think everybody from MLS circles is gonna want to talk about Waston because they know him,” Mendez said. “There’s two players in particular that I’m really high on that I think have futures in Europe: Jordy Evans and Jimmy Marín.”
Evans is an 18-year-old right back while Marín is a 23-year-old left-sided midfielder. Other players to watch include Ariel Rodríguez, who is Saprissa’s top scorer in Champions League with seven goals, captain Michael Barrantes and goalkeeper Aaron Cruz.
On the flipside, the Union will be without strikers Cory Burke and Sergio Santos and there will be question marks about Kacper Przybylko’s fitness leading the front line. Curtin said yesterday that the would be relying on some of their younger players to close out the match.
“They’re a little bit injured, we’re a little bit injured, and there will still be a good 90 minutes and things will be decided on the field,” Curtin said.
The match kicks off at 6:06 p.m. and will be broadcast live on FS1 and on the Concacaf app.