When the Philadelphia Union lace up their boots tonight, their sights will be set on getting a leg up on Mexican side Club América in the Concacaf Champions League semifinal.
Coming into the match, Club América is unbeaten in their last eight matches in al competitions dating back to April 14, and has only lost one out of their last 16 matches. That loss came in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 against Honduran side CD Olimpia.
Obviously, given their position in the semifinal tie against the Union, they still managed t advance. The Mexican squad, guided by ex-Real Madrid manager and one-time Stockton University player Santiago Solari, is historically strong. They are led by Mexican international goalkeeper Guillerme Ochoa, who has just recently returned from the Tokyo Olympics where Mexico won the bronze medal. However, even without Ochoa and a few other players from the Mexican Olympic squad, “Las Águilas” have found ways to win matches in the early part of their Liga MX season.
Their squad also includes a creative young midfielder in Álvaro Fidalgo, the brother of Diego Lainez and winger Mauro Lainez, as well as stalwart right back Miguel Layún. The team boasts a lot of experience at the international level, and will be ready to go tonight.
For the Union, the key to the match will be to control the midfield. Throughout the course of the season, we have seen games dictated by the play of the midfield. When they are up to the task, they can be dominant and boss matches for the full 90. When they take a night off and release their foot from the gas pedal, they can be beaten or held to a draw by teams considerably below their talent level. Going into a match against a quality opponent like Club América, the midfield has t be up for it.
Expect Leon Flach, José “El Brujo” Martínez, and captain Alejandro Bedoya to anchor the midfield in Mexico City. Look for Daniel Gazdag and Sergio Santos to play just underneath Kacper Przybylko, much like in the Toronto match on August 4.
Another massive X-Factor in the match will be the play of the Union back line. While Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott have (for the most part) been solid this season, the outside backs have a tendency to be exploited on the wings. The Union are a squad that likes to let their wing backs drive up the pitch and enjoy the ball, so they tend to be a bit vulnerable on the counter attack. When you play against a team that can punish on the break like Club América can, your outside backs will need to be locked in on both ends of the pitch. How Olivier Mbaizo and Kai Wagner perform on Thursday night could end up deciding the first leg of the tie.
But records and recent form aside, the first leg of this Concacaf Champions League semi will be a fun and nervy one. It is a rare opportunity for a U.S. club to prove themselves on the continental stage. It is a chance to show supporters across Concacaf that the MLS is not the runt of the litter, like their recent history in the competition would suggest. But most of all, it is a chance for the Philadelphia Union to make history.