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Union face tricky trip to Miami with Concacaf Champions League opener looming



Photo by Carl Gulbish

The Union play their first road game of the season at Inter Miami on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET at DRV PNK Stadium. 

The match is on Apple TV but free to watch – Keith Costigan and Brian Dunseth will have the call. 

Both teams picked up wins in their season openers: the Union came back to batter the Crew 4-1 at home while Miami managed a 2-0 victory at home against Montreal. 

The Union have hit their first thicket of fixtures with the Concacaf Champions League starting on Tuesday against Alianza on the road. Jim Curtin confirmed in his midweek press conference that the team would go directly to El Salvador from Miami. The team then hosts Chicago on March 11 for its third game in seven days. 

The Union will have to show their hand in how much they prioritize CCL amid two MLS contests against two of the less touted teams in the East. It will be interesting to see how Curtin uses his squad, starting with what changes he makes to his starting XI. 

Before getting there, it’s important to note that despite Miami’s status – in’s season preview, their average preseason prediction was between 10th and 11th in the East – road games in the MLS are tough. They’re tougher with CCL looming, and even trickier in the slog of the South Florida heat. It won’t be the worst conditions, with a forecast of 80 degrees for kickoff on Saturday evening, but the 75% humidity will be a factor. 

The betting markets have the Union as +115 to win, with Miami at +210 and draw at +250. 538’s projections have the Union at 47% to win, Miami at 29%, and a draw at 25%. The betting markets are nearly exactly in sync with 538 after giving out good value on the Union last week. 

So, consider this a fair warning. Despite a league favorite playing a team projected to miss the playoffs, the Union are NOT favored to win. I’m not sure how much the models are even taking Curtin’s potential squad rotation into account. 

Curtin said in his midweek press conference: “Miami is the priority but we have a plan in place. We trust our roster.” 

Trying to guess which players Curtin will and won’t rotate is a mostly fruitless proposition, especially since we don’t have any data on Curtin’s thought process this season.

Curtin has said before that his analytics team has suggested that rotating more than three players at a time leads to a drop-off in a team’s ability to have the same efficacy. Rotating three usual starters against Miami, and then a different three against Chicago a week later, with a few holdovers who start all three matches and see 60-70 minute starts seems straightforward, however, Curtin has more depth than ever. 

My best guess is that we could see either Brandan Craig or Damion Lowe at center back, either Nathan Harriel or Matt Real at right or left back, and either Joaquin Torres in for one of the strikers or Jack McGlynn in for Flach or Bedoya. I truly have no idea. I would bet that Bedoya comes off early, and the rest depends on game state. 

Miami’s attack is not exactly fearsome, as I’ll get to shortly, and I think the Union could get away with two changes to the backline.

Let’s dive into Miami. They finished sixth last year in the franchise’s third season, largely on the back of Gonzalo Higuaín’s parting swan song, and then bowed out rather easily to NYCFC in the first round of the playoffs, 3-0. 

They lost Higuaín to retirement, former MVP (for Toronto in 2020) Alejandro Pozuelo and Damion Lowe to the Union, while adding Josef Martínez from Atlanta, center back Sergii Kryvtsov from Ukrainian powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk, left back Franco Negri from Godoy Cruz, and attacking midfielder Nicolás Stefanelli from AIK in Sweden. They also secured the return of Rodolfo Pizarro, who was on loan at Monterrey in 2022. 

While Miami added some starting-quality players, there is a definite lack of firepower, and the club remains linked with a summer signing of the one and only Leo Messi, as well as his former teammate Sergio Busquets. 

The club’s best attacking piece on the roster is Leo Campana, who totaled 11 goals and two assists last season. He missed the opener and will miss the game against the Union. 

Without him, Miami’s attack was relatively pedestrian in the 2-0 win over Montreal. Miami did outpace Montreal in xG, 2.5 to 1.8, but Miami’s first goal came on a point blank shot on a set piece, and second goal came on a rebound of a rebound from a missed chance. Without the rebounds and the set piece, Miami created 0.75 of xG in open play. 

After watching the game against Montreal, it was still a strong effort in organization and possession for Miami, who controlled the tempo in a 4-2-3-1 and never let Hernan Losada’s pressing approach in a 3-5-2 kick into gear. The double pivot of Gregore and Jean Mota were solid, and Kryvstov’s presence immediately gave the back line a gravitas that translated into a clean sheet. 

Josef Martínez is not the dynamic striker he once was, and while the pure finishing is still there, his best asset is hanging in pockets in space just in front of the backline. He doesn’t make the same hard runs from his best days, and with Miami, he doesn’t get a lot of great service either. Out of the attacking quartet of Stefanelli, Martínez, Pizarro and Corentin Jean, only Pizzaro looked like an above-average MLS starter. 

Pizzaro is all guile, and while he looks like he never physically moves past second gear, he roams inside to drag defenders, eliminates defenders with crafty touches, and plays probing balls into pockets of space. He needs just one other running mate in the final third with quality to unlock a defense, but it wasn’t there against Montreal. 

I was really intrigued by Miami’s subs, mostly Shanyder Borgelin, a physical forward at 6-foot-5 who backs into defenders. It immediately gave Miami a different dimension to spring counterattacks while playing with a 1-0 lead, and while his goal was actually bad finishing and luck, he might be more dynamic than Josef already, who also can probably go only 60-70 minutes. 

Bryce Duke, another sub, is a 22-under-22 honoree at the 10 and was just off the sharpness to really nail some transition sequences.

Montreal’s attacking talent is one of the worst in the league, but the midfield and backline are still strong from last year’s squad, and Miami managed those challenges well. Another thing that jumped out to me is just how slow the game was – a noticeable 10-20% drop off in speed from the Union-Crew match. Part of that is the Union’s approach to the game, part of it is the heat, and part of it is the lack of defensive workrate from Miami’s frontline, in particular from Martínez and Pizzaro. 


My first key to this game is for the Union to be patient. I always expect hard pressing from them to start both halves, but it might have a little less juice than usual for all the reasons discussed. Miami will see what the Crew did in their first half and Phil Neville will bet that his team can use the ball to defang the Union’s preferred method of playing. 

The Union have to be okay with letting Miami have the ball for long stretches of the game. Their settled defense should be enough to keep Miami from creating anything dangerous, especially as both fullbacks, DeAndre Yedlin and Francisco Negri, are not overt attacking threats. 

Gregore and Mota will look to pull the strings, but if their best options are Yedlin, Negri, Pizzaro and Jean, the Union just have to keep the ball in front of them. 

When the Union do want to ramp up the intensity, they can borrow from their second half against Columbus, when they denied space in the middle of the field by overloading Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris. The Crew got nearly nothing from their wing backs going forward and the Union were able to force turnovers in a packed middle. Creating 3v2s and 4v2s against Gregore and Mota is key. 

My second key for the Union is to use the ball in possession as a weapon more than they usually do, especially if they can find an early lead. Even in a neutral game-state, Miami does not have the desire to press on the front line and draws a relatively deep block. 

The Union prefer to progress the ball with relative directness and speed, but in a patient, slower game, they can make Miami chase and prevent them from getting into a rhythm by using the ball. It’s a great game for Jack McGlynn, and one for Jose Martínez to try and control. It’s maybe a great opportunity for Andrés Perea, who is used to keeping the ball in Florida from his time in Orlando with Oscar Pareja.

Lastly, if the game is the ugly battle I’m expecting, and the Union have to chase a point or three in the final 20-30 minutes of the game, I’m excited to see Curtin use his toolbox of adjustments and personnel to chase a result, and how much he will sell out with Tuesday looming. A lot of that is on the electricity of Torres, but the Union’s ability to solve problems in real time is one of the most underrated facets of the team.


I think this game will not be one of the more enjoyable experiences for the Union all year. As always, there is the quality to jump to an early 2-0 lead and ride that to a win, but I expect a 0-0 or 1-1 score late into this game. 

My brain sees the odds/models and thinks 1-1 draw, so I don’t feel the best about this, but I think the Union can find a late, scrappy goal to steal a 2-1 road result.

Amit grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and has been a Union fan since the franchise started. He has contributed to coverage of the Union and the United States Men's National Team for this website dating back to 2017. At his previous job, Amit was a collegiate sports information director, including time with men's and women's soccer programs. He also was one half of the World Cup After Dark podcast in 2018 and 2022. He is pursuing a master's degree in data science and lives in Chicago.

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