Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin and club captain Alejandro Bedoya both expressed the excitement of representing the city of Philadelphia and MLS against Club América ahead of tonight’s first leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinals.
“We know it’s an incredible opponent in Club América with a ton of talent,” Curtin said Wednesday, “but our players have worked hard to get here into the final four of this competition. I’ve asked them to dream that we could eventually move on in this competition and play against the champions of Europe.”
The Union enter the first semifinal leg with two wins in the last nine games, including a 3-0 win over Toronto at home in what was the team’s most complete performance in weeks.
Despite a 2-1 loss to New England over the weekend with many of the squad seeing reduced minutes, this game presents its own challenges.
“There’s a hundred different variables going into every game,” Curtin said about playing in a stadium with its unique home field advantages, which will be reduced to a 20,000 max capacity and will have favorable weather conditions compared to what we’re currently experiencing in the Philadelphia area.
“They’re a special team,” he said. “Everybody sees how dynamic they are in attack with a great striker like [Roger] Martinez, but what stood out to me was how strong they are defensively.”
Martinez scored in América’s 2-0 win over Puebla last Saturday while Henry Martín has been among the scoring leaders in Liga MX the past two seasons and was also one of four América players to win the gold medal at this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
With Mexico’s number one goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa also back from the Olympics, América should have a full squad available, and Curtin singled out the ability of 21-year-old center back Sebastián Cáceras, who has led América to two shutouts in three games of the new Liga MX season. After finishing second in the Clausura standings this spring, losing in the quarterfinals, América has found success in the Champions League, defeating Olimpia on away goals in the round of 16 before a 4-2 aggregate win in the quarterfinals over the Portland Timbers, which the Union beat 3-0 at home in late May.
The Union will also be up against the elevation and its own habitual slow starts.
“We have to be very disciplined, intelligent with our approach,” Curtin said, “and survive the first fifteen to twenty minutes, which is always the most difficult at altitude.”
At 7,200 feet above sea level, Azteca is higher than every MLS Stadium, with Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado the closest at 5,200 feet. The Union last played Colorado in 2018 and haven’t ventured much higher than a couple hundred feet above sea level all season.
“You get that second wind, then all of a sudden you start to get a little more confidence,” Curtin said. “But it’s critical to get through the opening minutes of the match.”
The Union are among the best in MLS in goals conceded, but most as of late have come in the early stages, conceding within the first ten minutes in three of the last five games.
As the lone American side left in a competition that has been dominated by Mexican teams throughout its existence, the Union will have the advantage of being in the middle of a competitive season whereas América’s season is just getting started.
“We’re 25 (sic) games into the season right now,” Curtin said. “So that can only help from a fitness standpoint at being ready to play at altitude.”
For Curtin, the past few days has been about finding the right balance for his players.
“We have to keep things loose for the guys, so we’ve had fun in training and kept them as relaxed as possible, but then we’ll also remind them that this is a big opportunity for them.”
The game represents another first for the Union, and positive results will edge the club closer to representing Concacaf on the world stage in December at the FIFA Club World Cup, which already includes Chelsea and Al Ahly. That significance has not been lost on the team either.
“You learn the most about your players in the biggest games,” Curtin said, “and I have full confidence that our players will step up and rise to the occasion.”
“Everybody should have butterflies,” captain Alejandro Bedoya said when asked about how the players will handle the emotions and maintain focus, “and once that whistle blows, you just forget about everything and it’s onto the game.”
Bedoya will play at Azteca for the first time, but with his experiences representing the U.S. National Team, he’s accustomed to the pressured environment and is looking forward to the bigger stage.
“This is kind of what dreams are made out of,” he said. “The Estadio Azteca is one of the most world-renowned stadiums, so much history and tradition here, and it’s a great opportunity for all of us to come here and get a result not only for ourselves but for our club and our fans.”
For Bedoya, the Union’s chances of coming away from Mexico City with a result are simple.
“As long as we have the belief in our team, within our squad, within our own players, that’s all that matters,” he said.
Bedoya and a majority of his teammates have played in the Union’s biggest games over the past two seasons, setting new standards for the club, and for him this game feels no different.
“We can continue to rely on that, stick to our game plan, play our way, the transition moments are going to be crucial.”
Both Bedoya and Curtin referred to the Toronto game as the latest example of how the Union can control a game. The Union kept a clean sheet, pushing Toronto away from the box all night, and added three first half goals, two from Sergio Santos and one from Daniel Gazdag, who will make his Champions League debut. Against América, Bedoya will be searching for the same kind of performance to continue this historical run.
“If we play like that,” Bedoya said, “we can exceed expectations.”