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Union flex squad depth in Concacaf Champions League Round of 16



Photo by Carl Gulbish

For the past three years, the Union have had one of the best starting XIs in MLS. However, when it came to sustaining that excellence over 90 minutes, every game, the Union have found slight dips in form, energy, or tactical flexibility when going to the reserves, and those small margins made the difference in specific games of importance.

In the 2021 Champions League, Union coach Jim Curtin played mostly the same starting XI. The team reached the semifinals but not without dropping early points in the MLS season while managing the condensed schedule. Last season, during a brutal stretch in May in which the Union faced four playoff teams in consecutive games, they played a mixed squad against Orlando City in the Round of 32 of the U.S. Open Cup and crashed out after losing 2-1 on an Andres Perea winner. In November, the Union were minutes from hoisting their first-ever MLS Cup when LAFC’s Garreth Bale scored to tie the game at 3-3 in extra time. The Union went on to lose in PKs at the hands of LAFC backup keeper John McCarthy, a former Union player out of La Salle.

The single burning question during the offseason was squad depth. If the Union were to make it to the next level, in multiple competitions, they needed experienced players to rotate over a fifty-plus game season, which will include CCL, Open Cup, and the new Leagues Cup, on top of the 34-game regular season and expected internationals for numerous core players. It’s one thing to be a successful MLS team with one of the league’s lowest payrolls. It’s another to sustain that success in multiple competitions over many seasons.

The question was well received.

Ernst Tanner went out and acquired players who could appear in meaningful games without the level dropping. So far, the offseason moves have proved successful. Joaquín Torres lit up Subaru Park with an opening-day assist to Julian Carranza, then performed heroics when he scored the winner off the bench in the 1-0 win over Chicago Saturday night.

Tuesday night, Damion Lowe was a beast off set pieces and eventually broke the tie, heading home Kai Wagner’s corner in first-half stoppage time. Lowe had his share of chances in the second half and would have added an assist off another won corner if not for Daniel Gazdag being ruled offside by a slim margin. Lowe and Jakob Glesnes complemented each other well, with Lowe cleaning up any mess in front of goal while allowing Glesnes to push forward and spray diagonal balls to free players on the wings. Lowe also played 90 strong minutes alongside Jack Elliott in the first leg in El Salvador, preserving a shutout on the road with a largely reserve lineup, which allowed the Union to maintain freshness over a busy 10 days.

“The guys that went and played in El Salvador and fought for that 0-0,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after Tuesday’s game, “I don’t think people realize how important that is. We made eight subs in that game, and each one of those guys set us up in a big way so that tonight would look like it did.”

In the second leg on Tuesday, the Union played most of the first XI, but Torres, Lowe, Jack McGlynn, and Nathan Harriel all started, as well as Joe Bendik, who will be the first-choice keeper for the foreseeable future until Andre Blake returns from injury. “It’s certainly a growing moment for our group to know what these games are, having some experience in the Champions League with some of our veteran players.”

Curtin had much praise for his new center back, who was named Man of the Match by the Union faithful. “When you take in the elements,” he said, “the different things that go into playing in Concacaf and the Champions league, Damion has the experience at the highest level with the national team of Jamaica, playing opponents away, home, and has been through these types of battles.”

Lowe, who signed from Inter Miami in exchange for $250,000 and a first round pick as well as the Homegrown rights to Shanyder Borgelin, appeared 50 times for Jamaica and has been a regular in the previous three Gold Cups and the most recent Nations Leagues and World Cup qualifying cycles. “I thought he played excellent,” Curtin said. “The goal he scores before the
half changes the game.” Lowe’s last goal for Miami came against D.C. United last May.

Lowe wasn’t just a presence on the attack Tuesday night, he also helped hold Alianza to three shots, with the lone shot on target coming late in the second half from distance. In both legs, the Union never conceded, a recipe that has fueled their success in recent seasons. “He’s a defender,” Curtin added. “If you ask him, he prefers a clean sheet to anything, and that’s the name of the game with us. Defense is first and most important.”

“It’s huge,” Lowe said when asked how he felt about his early season contributions. “It’s the Champions League, the highest level of football in Concacaf at the club level. You want to play in these tournaments. You want to be able to go on the pitch week in and week out and show the boss that, hey, whenever you call on me I can deliver. And I just have to keep that focus and
keep that mentality, and I’ll get my chance.”

The Union have been dangerous on set pieces in previous seasons, but at 6’3”, Lowe adds another physical presence in the box to convert Kai Wagner’s free kicks and corners. Lowe has grown comfortable with the Union’s aggressive style on set pieces. “On the one I scored,” he said. “Jakob said to me, ‘let’s both attack the near post because guys are running with me and then the ball is going to come to you.’ And I said ok because I was going back stick for a couple of them or a third man run, but the run I made was good, and it was easy to flick on the back post when everyone was attacking the ball in the opposite way.”

Against Alianza, the Union played with different center back pairings, the most important position in the defensive-minded system outside of the goalkeeper. Lowe teamed with Jack Elliot in El Salvador, preserving a shutout on the road in a difficult environment, and Tuesday he played alongside Glesnes to again record a clean sheet. “It’s a good rotation,” Lowe said about the challenge of playing with multiple partners. “Players get to rest, players get different experiences. It doesn’t matter to me [who I play with] and I don’t think it matters to them. We’re quality players. We just have to keep focused, communicate, and practice on the training
ground hard, understand each other, and bring it on the pitch.”

Andrés Perea came off the bench Tuesday night and finished off the game with not one but two quality finishes. And though he’s still young (22), he’s another experienced midfielder added into the mix who will maintain the team’s high level of play and defensive energy throughout the long season.

“I’m so happy,” Perea said after the game about his two-goal performance. “This is why we are soccer players, so happy for my family, for me, for all the work I did this preseason, and now I enjoy the victory and keep going.”

The Union acquired the former Colombia and current U.S. youth international from Orlando City for what could total $850,000 in GAM. Appearing 74 times for Orlando after making his pro debut with his boyhood club Atlético Nacional, Perea earned his first U.S. senior cap last year in a win over Trinidad and Tobago. Three of the four goals Perea scored for Orlando came against
the Union. In addition to the winner over the Union last year, he scored in the 5-1 Union win last September, days after Orlando won the Open Cup, and he scored the winner in the 2-1 Orlando win in July 2021.

Perea started the first leg against Alianza, grinding out the defensive pressure on a choppy field that affected mostly every pass. Tuesday night, he came off the bench in the 65th minute, scoring his first goal less than twenty minutes later when he buried Quinn Sullivan’s cross to seal the game at 3-0. “Everybody’s prepared to play,” he said about pushing for his place in the
starting lineup, “everybody is working and making it difficult for the other guys.” His second goal came three minutes later, this time set up Michael Uhre, to extend the lead to 4-0 and book the Union’s place in the quarterfinals, where they will face Mexico Champions Atlas FC in early April.

Perea’s transition to the Union system has been an adjustment. In Orlando, under Óscar Pareja, he played alongside Uruguayans Mauricio Pereyra Facundo Torres, and César Araújo and Brazilians Junior Urso and Alexandre Pato, where possessive buildups and skilled attacks funneled through the midfield. “It’s a bit different,” he said. “Here the culture is more like an American culture where in Orlando it was a little bit more Latino because we had a lot of guys from South America and Brazil. It’s kind of difficult to try to play because everything is going fast.” But none of that has deterred him from making an impact. “Our team has a lot of years playing together. We’re making it step by step, working every day.”

And Perea also had to get used to the frigid opening to the season. “This is my first experience in a cold city,” he said, shivering as the twenty-degree wind chills blew through the Subaru Park tunnel. “Today it snowed a little bit. I was so happy looking around my house.”

In previous seasons, the Union relied more on their homegrowns to fill out their squad. The “Play the Kids” mantra bounced around Union fan conversations from all directions. And while playing the kids has benefited the team in the long run as well as benefited the individuals, Curtin has been adamant that it must be the right situation to enhance their development.

As the Union coach balances development and results with his younger players, who are coming into their own and finding their way in this specific system, he now has a more complete squad to be able to handle both. And while this could be the year we see breakout performances from McGlynn, Sullivan, Harriel, and Brandon Craig, the Union are not in the same situation as previous years where their young players are burdened by the pressure to perform.

Harriel was another bright spot for the Union over the first two legs of the CCL Round of 16. The U.S. youth international has played 34 games with the Union, including playoffs, but experienced his first Concacaf games, where the chippiness had been established from the opening whistle in both games. “Just stay calm,” he said when asked about how he maintained his composure with all the extras. “You know they’re going to try to kick you or try to foul you, but when you have a lead like we had and plus a man up, you just gotta keep calm and chances will come your way.”

Last season, Harriel had been one of the first Union players off the bench and remained locked in a battle with Olivier Mbaizo for the right back spot, the most contested place in the starting XI. Starting 20 of his 25 appearances, he’s as battle ready as any of the other young players, will contribute more this season, and could be in the fold for the U.S. U-23 team headed to Indonesia for the World Cup in June. “It’s always great to get minutes no matter what the competition is. You want to show up, always want to play your best. Tonight, I feel like I showed well.”

Harriel’s performances will lead to his number being called again very soon. The next international window is approaching, and with Mbaizo likely on Cameroon’s squad for AFCON qualifiers on March 24 th and 28 th , Harriel could start against Orlando at home on the 25 th or play a big role on April 1 st against Sporting Kansas City. And when the Concacaf CL quarterfinals resume in early April, the Union’s matchup with Atlas will sandwich a big league game against FC Cincinnati, so it’s likely he’ll feature prominently in some capacity.

When asked about what he’ll need to do be ready for the next round, he said, “Stay prepared like always, train throughout the week, play well. Even the games we have in the regular season, if that’s my chance to play, perform well, and the opportunities later on in this competition will come.”

“Stay ready” may be this season’s mantra. The Union are already down to backup keeper Joe Bendik, who’s yet to concede a goal in one and a half games. But with a steady flow of Concacaf and MLS games throughout the spring and summer in addition to multiple FIFA windows, a summer AFCON and Gold Cup on top of the first-ever Leagues Cup, which could add anywhere from two to six more games, this will be the Union’s most important year for preserving bodies and maintaining peak form. If they hope to grab a top spot in the MLS playoffs, ensuring the MLS Cup comes through Chester, every player on the squad will matter. And so far, a month into the season, they have.

Greg Oldfield is a teacher, coach, and writer from the Philadelphia area. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Barrelhouse, Maudlin House, Carve, and the Under Review, among others. He also writes for the Florida Cup and Florida Citrus Sports. In 2023, he received an award for Best Column from the United Soccer Coaches for his story "A Philadelphia Soccer Hollywood Story." His work can also be found at

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