Commentary / CONCACAF Champions League / For Pete's Sake

Misunderestimated Union rise to the occasion

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Former President George W. Bush once described himself by coining – intentionally or not – a new word: misunderestimated.

As in, they made a mistake underestimating me.

After last night’s demolition of Deportivo Saprissa, it’s beginning to feel like many watchers (myself included) misunderestimated the Philadelphia Union.

The Union spent their offseason quietly.  Three key starters, including two Best XI players (Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson) heart of the clubhouse (Ray Gaddis), departed from the roster that won a Supporters’ Shield last year. Replacing them?  Two relatively unheralded players from overseas and a gaggle of youngsters from the club’s Academy.

After a preseason that saw injury after injury to the team’s attacking corps – and a commensurate lack of goals in the early scrimmages – many wondered if Jim Curtin’s men would have the juice for their first-ever opportunity in the Concacaf Champions League.

Over the course of two legs against Saprissa, the Union made the doubters look silly.

Philly opened the floodgates last night after a tight win in the first leg, sealing the club’s first continental win in front of a damp-but-raucous Subaru Park crowd of over 5,000 – the largest in Chester since the end of the 2019 season.

(Seriously, the way that the boos rained down on villain-of-the-week Ricardo Blanco, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the stands were full.)

Blasting Saprissa

Start with a variable few expected: that was one bad Saprissa team.  In poor form, plagued by injuries and COVID, the Costa Rican giants offered little.  “Feeble” is probably too generous a way to describe their attempts to counter against the Union.

But, even as untroubled as Philadelphia was on defense, the first half of Wednesday’s match saw the home team’s attackers fluff chance after chance.  Some were just bad luck – Jakob Glesnes’s rocket off the post – while others were more akin to slapstick – whatever the hell Kacper Przybylko was doing.

Credit the Union, then, for the way they came out and put the match to bed in the second half.  From the moment Anthony Fontana won a penalty not even 60 seconds into the half, it was on.  Three goals in the first minutes of the second half – Monteiro’s penalty, a redemptive header by Przybylko, and a characteristically clinical finish from Fontana – all in front of the braying River End.

The Union’s two midfield Ms – Monteiro and Jose Andres Martinez – are the engines of this team, and they were everywhere last night.  When those two are at their sharpest it is a nightmare for opposing teams.  They harass the ball, clog passing lanes, and are always one or two touches from starting a dangerous attack of their own.  “When Jamiro is on his best, he’s undefendable,” Curtin said after the game, “and when Jose wants to be, he’s a man amongst boys.”  And it is clear that the entire team feeds off their fire.  It seemed like the Union won every fifty-fifty ball last night, with the midfield and fullbacks buzzing across the pitch.

And – impressively – they did so without letting their emotions get the best of them, even after a bad tackle late in the first half by Saprissa that sparked memories of the quasi-brawl at the end of the last match.  Curtin commented that he was happy with the way the players managed “the game within the game,” staying professional while still giving their all.

The version of Philadelphia Union we saw last night is an MLS Cup contender.

The tests keep coming and they don’t stop coming

The club’s plate these next few weeks is as full as it is mouthwatering.

First, the MLS season opener is just a few days away, a nationally televised visit to the defending champion Columbus Crew, who are coming off their own strong CCL performance.  The Crew were something of a boogeyman for Philadelphia last year, and the match will be yet another chance to make a statement.

After the home opener against a question mark in Inter Miami, the CCL starts up again with two legs against Atlanta United – the first time two MLS sides have matched up in the competition since 2011.

Philly and Atlanta had the embers of a rivalry going before the pandemic, which ensured that the two sides did not meet last year.  But who can forget the 2018 match where both Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin saw red?  Or the 3-1 victory for the Union in front of a sellout crowd in Chester in 2019?  Or… well, the revenge of the Five Stripes, when Atlanta knocked Philadelphia out of the playoffs in 2019.

(Oh, and those two matches sandwich another tough league contest against NYC FC.  No pressure.)

It’s an intense start to the season, and there will be much work to do if the Union want to stay near the top of the table.

But looking at what comes ahead should not overshadow what this team did in their debut on the international stage.

A comprehensive defeat of a regional power?

Not bad for a team I misunderestimated.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    W and SmashMouth in the same article is… something

  2. Was so glad to be one of the 5,000 in the stadium. Is was an epic night!!

  3. I think that one of the reason that people misunderestimate this team is that they think the Union we lost its best two players in the off-season – they didn’t.
    They sold two young-yet-established-players who had proven they have a ceiling befitting the European top leagues.
    I loved watching BA and MM and wish them the best. But you could make a case that Aaronson was our 3rd or 4th best starting midfielder. Likewise, while McKenzie was the best of the 3 central defenders, there is not a huge fall off to Glesnes and Elliott.
    Montiero may be more tenacious and skilled then BA at the #10. If Fontana plays #10 he might not be as tenacious a presser as BA, but is clearly a superior finisher.
    In limited exposure Flatch and Findley already look like good pickups and Tanner said to expect another signing soon.
    It’s entirely possible this team could be as good as last year.

    • ^^^EXACTLY THIS. All of it.

      I think our biggest question is at RB. We’ll see how good Mbaizo is, and/or if Tanner gets someone else to replace him or push him.

      And of course, there’s always the specter of injuries. Not sure we have the depth we had last year… At least until Tanner works some more magic.

      But I do believe this club will be about as good as last year’s. With another year of chemistry to gel them further.

  4. And I guess if we recognized both—without explanation, for the record—we have dated ourselves. 🙂

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    The Columbus game poses an interesting dilemma. Only in exceptional circumstances is it worth planning to play for a draw rather than a win, given the difference between 3 points and 1 point compared with the difference of only 1 point between a draw and a loss. However, in this case there is also the question of qualifying for the Open Cup and given that is only a 3 game window, every point is much more likely to make a difference.

  6. Was really surprised to see the possession stats from the game. The Union had 53 % of possession. That felt low to me. Maybe I don’t understand how its calculated or maybe its not useful without the passing grid / locational heat map.

  7. I’m a bit more of a 70’s 80’s slant. But I did pick up on the reference! One more reason to read this site! Keep up the great work! Both PSP and the U!!

  8. Chris Gibbons says:

    Amen, @wbev

  9. Watching the Saprissa tape will teach every subsequent opponent to do a better job contesting Martinez in the deep-lying central midfield area.
    It may have been accidental, but Monteiro at the 10 creates better defensive pressure over a wider area of the pitch, and Fontana dropped back into the midfield defense attacking Saprissa from behind several times with energy, enthusiasm and success.
    Cory Burke has a lot of conditioning ground to make up before he’s game ready, and Sergio Santos is also behind, although not as far.
    If some combination of Flach, de Vries, and McGlynn can cover the nominal left central midfield responsibility, and it will depend on match-ups, they seem to have a line-up, particularly if it is effective against Columbus.
    WE need to remember that Saprissa lacked the pace to threaten the green space behind the Union’s aggressively high restraining line. We have not yet seen for ourselves whether Findlay has enough pace to counter such threats. Glesnes and Elliott have two combine intelligent anticipation with their “wheels” to do so, and Blake must become and even better sweeper keeper.

  10. with Jose Martinez on this team, I am much more content with Montiero playing an advanced role. I used to argue for Montiero to play as the HDM as I think he could be very good in that role.
    I think this gives them the best chance to play well (which is always foremost in my mind), which means, Anthony Fontana gets to be the False 9 type striker—which befits his game best. Which then means, its Kasper, Corey and Sergio –to fight it out– based on form for the lone striker role and in my opinion that is exactly what they should do week in week out–as none of them are bona fide consistent scorers to the tune of 18-20 goals a season. I bet Montana-Fontana scores as many as at least the second best striker on the team, if not more.
    Fontana better not be the odd man out again as I’ll then be convinced he needs to leave ASAP.

  11. As we think along with Tanner about any future acquisitions, remembering that there are only two roster slots left, since 28 individuals are under contracts to the first team that count, we all need to remember his key phrase, “unsustainable contracts.”
    Those are what he is seeking, players who have to be unloaded because the economics of closed stadiums in Europe are changing those clubs’ economic possibilities.
    WE also need to keep in mind that old, formerly USL professional contracts are probably now in some type of legal limbo, since Union 2 is no longer affiliated with USL. That limbo may perhaps explain why Selmir Miscic was mentioned as signed by the first team before he was loaned out to North Carolina FC, but that he does not count against the first team roster because he is loaned out. It is a work around of some flavor, almost assuredly.
    Similar work arounds may have to be used for the other two players who had signed USL contracts, Ofeimu and Borgelin, should those roster assets be moved in some way.

    • @Tim Jones: “Those are what he is seeking, players who have to be unloaded”
      ..(Tanner)….”Hello, is this Inter Miami? I hear you have a an extra DP you need to unload with a deadline of today, a guy named Pellegrini?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: