A Concacaf Champions League semifinal isn’t unchartered territory for the Philadelphia Union but getting there through a result on the road in Mexico as they did on Wednesday night in Guadalajara certainly is.
Beating a reeling Atlanta United team in 2021 that was only in the Champions League for winning a U.S. Open Cup in 2019 was still a really big deal at the time.
Getting past Atlas FC in one of the more intimidating venues in North America, however, is something else entirely.
“This is a big step for our club,” head coach Jim Curtin said post-game Wednesday night. “This will be our first ever success in Mexico. It’s not easy to beat a Liga MX team. They have a great history and great players so it shows that we’re moving a little bit forward. We won’t get too far ahead of ourselves because we can still improve on a lot of things but this was a big victory tonight.”
Atlas sent an early message that they were going to be a tough out when they blitzed the Union back line for an early goal but as a shadow of the team that won the Liga MX double in 2021-2022, they ultimately did themselves in as they did in Chester not capitalizing on chances and getting another player sent off albeit much later than the end of the first half.
Playing at altitude, the Union were not their sharpest but Julian Carranza’s two goals not only signaled that he’s out of his goal-scoring funk but that the investment in the front line – the Union front three are all designated players – is continuing to pay dividends. Both of Carranza’s goals came after Atlas took a lead and were searching for another goal to offset the away goal tiebreaker in the Union’s favor.
“In this competition here on the road away goals are the best defense and we’re able to score two,” Curtin said. “(That) does not happen often in Mexico.”
The 3-2 win on aggregate sets up a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final and will undoubtedly bring out a lot of feelings among the Union fanbase. LAFC crushed Vancouver Whitecaps 6-0 in their quarterfinal and are unbeaten in league play but the two teams have a history now of heavyweight battles where just about anything can happen.
“Every game we play against them is I’ll just say a crazy game,” Curtin said. “The team that is disciplined and organized defensively and doesn’t concede will move on but, but the Champions League is a really special competition. It’s the biggest trophy on our continent, you know, and we want to push and try and go for it.”
The Union has Chicago Fire away and Toronto FC at home before hosting LAFC in the first leg on April 25 but the entire focus will be on Champions League in the coming weeks as the Union aim to be the team representing MLS in the final for the third time in four years.
“Let’s be honest it’s been a competition that has been completely dominated by Liga MX,” Curtin said. “We finally broke through and Seattle had a win last year and the hope this year is that an MLS team can lift that trophy again. I prefer that be us rather than LAFC.”
LAFC reached the final in 2020 where they lost 2-1 to Tigres UANL.
“(LAFC is) a team that looks unbeatable right now,” Curtin said. “When we get together with them, it’s been a lot of special moments in our league history so yeah we’re excited to move on.”