For Pete's Sake

Three thoughts on the Union’s Leagues Cup run

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Philadelphia Union are playing in the semifinal of the Leagues Cup on Tuesday. They’re hosting Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF.

Let’s step back and reset before the mania comes to town.

Chris Donovan has his moment

Coming into the tournament, some (myself included) wondered whether Jim Curtin would dip deeper into his reserves from the start, giving a rest to some of the higher-profile players.

That didn’t happen, but down-the-roster players have still had chances to make a memorable moment. One is Jesus Bueno, not a regular starter, who has a shootout winner and a big goal against Queretaro.

But no one managed a more dramatic moment than reserve striker Chris Donovan — hammering home a winner deep into stoppage time to send the Union through to the semifinal.

It’s a great run and an even better finish from Donovan, redirecting the inch-perfect cross in stride into the back of the net.

Donovan is an interesting player for the Union. He’s not particularly pedigreed — signed out of Drexel to Union II in 2022, just 105 minutes last season with the first team, three total MLS starts. And the recent signing of Israel international Tai Baribo figures to squeeze Donovan’s opportunities even more.

But there are signs of potential, too. Donovan scored his first league goal in the last game before the Leagues Cup break, and he’s appeared in more than half of the club’s MLS matches. He’s exactly the kind of player Curtin loves, as someone willing to do dirty running from the striker position and pay attention to his defensive responsibilities. Baribo isn’t integrated into the group, Julian Carranza may have picked up an injury, and Mikael Uhre isn’t getting it done. (Just one goal in twelve matches; Curtin curtly summarized Uhre’s performance on Friday as “not good.”)

Maybe Donovan has a bigger role to play this season than we thought.

Getting Messi 

It’s an undeniably juicy semifinal for the Union — hosting the greatest living soccer player for the first time, looking to put an end to Inter Miami’s dominant run through Leagues Cup.

I’ve seen some bravado about Jose Martinez & co. being able to shut down Lionel Messi. Undoubtedly the Union have the best defense of anyone that Miami’s faced so far in the tournament. But we should set realistic expectations here: Messi isn’t a washed-up Gonzalo Higuain shambling around the pitch. As recently as eight months ago, he was tearing apart the France national team in the World Cup final.

And it’s not like Messi is unfamiliar with Jose Martinez. Martinez went the full 90 in Venezuela’s two World Cup qualifiers against Argentina in this cycle, and Messi’s men won both with an aggregate score of 6-1.

All that said, I’m optimistic about the Union’s ability to get a win in this one. The key to beating Miami is being tight defensively, soaking up pressure, and looking to spring counterattacks against the Floridians’ oft-shambolic defense. Philly’s defense is well-organized and the attackers are frequently lethal in transition. If the Boys in Blue are able to generate odd-man rushes and take advantage of them, they would be well-positioned to get a result.

Of course, that probably requires Carranza and Gazdag to be healthy, and Uhre to put on his shooting boots.

The Union’s big picture

Let’s zoom out before we wrap up. How does this tournament fit into the season as a whole?

Finishing in the final four of any knockout tournament is a big accomplishment. (Well, maybe not the 2015 IMG Suncoast Pro Soccer Classic. But other knockouts, sure.)

Things have worked out well for Philly in the Leagues Cup. They’ll end up playing every single match at home, and — unless they drop two straight matches here at the end — they’ll qualify for the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup. Two straight wins, and the Union have their first cup final win in club history, a big monkey off the team’s back.

I had quite a bit of skepticism coming into the tournament that there’d be good atmosphere for these games. I haven’t been able to make it to any of the games so far, but — although attendance has definitely been below league play — the crowds have seemed into it and have enjoyed dramatic moments at the end of all three knockout matches. And Subaru Park should be absolutely rocking for the semifinal, with (seemingly) higher demand than any game in team history.

So there’s been more good than many expected in this competition.

However, if the primary goal is to win this year’s MLS Cup, there’s a little less to be happy about. The game load on these players is and continues to be immense. Friday’s game was the 35th of the season; that’s how many the Union had played at the start of last year’s playoffs. As Matt De George pointed out yesterday, Philly is almost guaranteed to hit 50 games played this season, a franchise record by a significant margin.

With all these minutes have come injuries. Alejandro Bedoya has missed all of Leagues Cup with a leg injury, though he is expected to return Tuesday. Gazdag likewise missed a match with a knee sprain; he, too, may be back Tuesday. And Carranza left Friday’s quarterfinal early and may miss time.

The performances haven’t been particularly good, either. The first two knockout stage games were dreary draws to midtable Eastern Conference foes, and the Union didn’t do enough to bury a mediocre Queretaro side in the quarterfinal.

The Union need their best players to be in form and healthy when the playoffs arrive. Leagues Cup hasn’t helped that goal.

But maybe that’ll all be forgotten if there’s a trophy raised at Subaru Park next Saturday.


  1. Deez Nuggs says:

    If we have Gazdag, Carranza and Uhre on the field to start, I think we will see a strong fight from the boys. Messi tends to raise the ability of his competitors as much as his own team. It may not be enough to win. Without them, I suspect it’s a bridge too far.
    I’m interested in seeing us play Miami in our top gear though. They’ve not faced anyone at our level and it will clarify whether they are suddenly a legit contender or just good enough to take down lesser foes. A nice line in the sand.
    I worry about both scenarios tbh.

  2. santo bevacqua says:

    A very realistic assessment (having said all that i think the union can get a result). I like to reinforce your take by adding that the defense with Blake being the catalyst for the Union is key not withstanding the injuries.

  3. Even if Gazdag plays he will have a difficult time cutting, planting and kicking etc. The only way we have a chance is to play the best defensive game we have ever played and we can put in a header on a corer kick. We will have to body up in the midfield and wear them down and beat them on all 50/50 balls. I dont see us winning many other ways.

  4. PhilliBear1872 says:

    The semi final can’t come soon enough.

    Up against some of the best players in this league in Martinez, Gregore, Pizarro etc. and they recently acquired lional mesy aswell which will help them a bit as he seems to be a good player statistically.

    Hopefully we can take a lead early and put ourselves into the final. Come on Philly

    • Couldn’t agree more. It must also be said that we were a much better team than Inter mimi before they got messi so maybe our players could try to injure him so he can no longer play this would make us regain our advantage and insure an easy passage to the final. We just need to make sure we quickly take him out of the game before he can score or maybe he will suddenly fall ill before the game even starts??

      • Personally I’d feel no sadness if he suffered a long term injury that stops this price gouging. Aging stars are BAD for the league.

    • I am all Philly, but your statement about Messi is the understatement of the year. ” Messi will help them a bit as he seems to be a good player statistically”

    • I think Gregores injured and Pizarro was sold

  5. If we manage to win on Tuesday night, I think it will be because (1) Miami will play a possession game that plays to the Union’s strengths, (2) our backline + Martinez will have an outstanding game holding Miamin’s potent attacking line and (3) our attack will find a way to snap out of its torpor and score some quality goals. Also, don’t give up any free kicks in Messi range (looking at you, Martinez) and watch him on those trailing runs. He’s been wide open doing the same thing for at least three of his goals so far this tournament.

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    Just saw a Facebook post from the Union that Gazdag trained fully and is ready to go tomorrow. Ale will be available as a sub.
    No word on Carranza.

    • Picking up pieces from folks in the know on Twitter, it looks like he didn’t train today and is doubtful for tomorrow. Has a mild hamstring injury and might be available as a late sub.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Carranza has a grade 1 hamstring strain. That’s apparently the best news possible, as that’s the most mild strain (if I understand correctly). He said he wants to play a role tomorrow (all of that is per Curtin), but it seems like he definitely won’t start. Honestly, for the sake of the rest of the season, I wouldn’t play him at all, but I’m not the manager. And Bedoya is back, which could be helpful if Miami/Messi get an early (and/or spectacular) goal – to help settle the Union down – if needed

  7. The officiating will be one sided and I would not be surprised if Miami is awarded a PK and/or Union get a red card.

    Need to play solid defense and pounce and finish. Every ball or dribble Messi has in the Union half should be sideways or backwards.

    Predicting 4-2 Union but if there is an early red I could see 0-4.

    Late game Messi free kick curling into the top corner only to be blocked by Blake to preserve the Union win would be the ideal outcome to me

  8. pragmatist says:

    Maybe some of the injuries are a blessing. As long as they aren’t too serious, these guys will have gotten some extra rest instead of playing games every 4 days.
    And with that in mind, I wonder what kind of toll that will have on Miami’s newcomers. They aren’t exactly rookies, and they will pretty much have to run the table to make the playoffs.
    All in all, this tournament has been more of an inconvenience than anything. It will be great to win it, but if we do, it will definitely be a Cinderella story. Having to beat Miami and Monterrey consecutively, even at home, is a tall ask.
    It’s a fascinating experiment, but I wish it was just a one-year experiment.

  9. The thing that made Corey Burke so effective during last season was his ability to come on as a sub and just be absolutely relentless in pressing the backline, running down balls, etc. Essentially, just being a pain in the a$$ for centerbacks to deal with.

    We’ve seen Donovan display all of those same qualities. Plus, he has that very rare combination of a tall player who is good aerially, but also has pace. He’s definitely earned Curtin’s trust and the minutes that have come with it.

  10. When will Tai Baribo be available?

    • The visa paperwork process always seems to take longer for Union. There are probably PSP authors or readers who could explain—there are variables, of course—but the perception persists.

  11. santo bevacqua says:

    playing home will be a big factor lets have the kids beat the old barcelone geriatrics.

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