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Match preview: Deportivo Saprissa vs Philadelphia Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Who: Deportivo Saprissa vs Philadelphia Union

What: Concacaf Champions Cup – Round One

Where: Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá, San Juan de Tibás (San José), Costa Rica

When: Tuesday, February 20, 10:00 p.m.

Watch: FS2, TUDN

Whistle: TBD

The Philadelphia Union begin their 2024 campaign with a Concacaf Champions Cup clash against Costa Rican side Deportivo Saprissa. This match is the first leg in the Round One series, with leg two scheduled for Tuesday, February 27 in Chester.

The winner of the series will be determined by aggregate goals scored across both legs. Concacaf Champions Cup still utilizes away goals as the first tiebreaker in the event that both teams are even on aggregate goals at the end of regulation of leg two.

This will be the second time that these two clubs have been drawn against each other in Round One. This will also be the second time that the Union’s first game of the season is against Saprissa at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá.

Fans of both teams will remember the first time these teams met in Costa Rica, on April 7, 2021 in what was then known as the Concacaf Champions League. It is remembered not so much because of the final scoreline (Union 1 – 0 Saprissa) but because of the egregious tackle on Kai Wagner in stoppage time, which led to five yellow cards being issued. Should you need refreshing: Saprissa vs Union; CCL Round 1, 4/7/2021

The Union would go on to win that series 5-0 on aggregate after a 4-0 victory in the return leg in Chester on April 14, 2021.

It is worth noting that the 1-0 Union victory in that Round One match took place in an empty Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. When filled with Saprissa supporters, the environment can be extremely difficult and intimidating, which over the year’s has earned the stadium its nickname:  The Monster’s Cave.

Saprissa are currently unbeaten in their last 18 home games.

Scouting Report: Deportivo Saprissa

Deportivo Saprissa compete in Costa Rica’s Primera Division. Similar to Mexico’s Liga MX, the Primera Division splits their season into two sections: the Apertura (Opening) and the Clausura (Closing).

This past weekend concluded Matchday eight of the Clausura portion of the season.  Saprissa drew 0-0 against LD Alajuelense on Saturday evening. They currently sit in third place and just one point behind leaders Club Sport Herediano.

Saprissa were dominant in the Apertura portion of the season which concluded in December. They finished in first place with 55 points (nine points above second place Alajuelense) and led the league in goals scored with 53 and conceded the least amount of goals with 19.

Leading the attack in head coach Vladimir Quesada’s usual 4-4-2 formation are forwards Ariel Rodriquez and Javon East. Both players have scored 12 goals across the Apertura and Clausura.

In the midfield is club legend and captain Mariano Torres, now in his eighth season with Saprissa and the driving force of the offense. He is one of the few players who was with the team when they last played the Union in 2021.

Goalkeeper Kevin Chamorro has started seven out of eight matches in the Clausura and can be expected to start on Tuesday night.

Scouting Report: Philadelphia Union

Union head coach Jim Curtin is back at the helm for his 10th full season with the team. Back with him is his entire 4-4-2 diamond starting lineup from 2023.  As has been echoed amongst various media outlets this offseason: the Union are running it back.

How that will fare in terms of results remains unclear.  In’s season preview released over the weekend, predictions from their experts had them finishing anywhere from first to eighth in the Eastern Conference. Time will tell.

Up first though is Concacaf Champions Cup, in which the Union reached the semifinals last year before bowing out to LAFC (1-4 on aggregate). The Union will be searching for a different end result to the competition this year, but it will likely begin with a similar lineup to what was featured in their 0-3 leg two loss against LAFC last year.

Anchoring the back line again this year are veteran centerbacks Jack Elliot and Jakob Glesnes. Fellow centerback Damion Lowe also returns after a sound 2023 season and remains a viable option should Curtin want to preserve either Elliot or Glesnes for the team’s MLS opening match four days later on Saturday (vs Chicago, 7:30pm)

Returning at left back is Kai Wagner, who signed a new three year contract with Union in January despite strong rumors of a potential  move to Europe. At right back, Curtin has his selection of either Oliver Mbaizo or Nathan Harriel, both of whom formed somewhat of a right back platoon throughout the 2023 season.  It was Mbaizo who started all four quarterfinal and semifinal matches during last year’s tournament, but Harriel was given the nod in both of the Union’s Round One matches against Allianza FC.

In the midfield, Union favorite Jose ‘El Brujo’ Martinez is back at his usual No. 6 slot while Hungarian international Daniel Gazdag should be expected to start at his usual No. 10 slot. The outside slots of the midfield diamond are where Curtin has some flexibility.

Midfielder and team captain Alejandro Bedoya is back for his ninth season with the Union.  It would not be surprising to see the veteran in the starting XI on the right side of the midfield diamond for this tough away matchup. However, it was Union homegrown Quinn Sullivan who started at right-mid in the Union’s final preseason match against the New England Revolution last Wednesday.

Fellow homegrown Jack McGlynn was often featured as Bedoya’s counterpart on the left side of the diamond throughout 2023 and should be a regular starter for the upcoming season.

Additional midfield options include Jesus Bueno, whose progress was notable last year and proved a viable option in replacement of El Burjo at the No. 6 and the shuttler positions at times, as well as newcomer Sanders Ngabo, the 19 year old who was signed from Danish side Lyngby of the Superligaen this past November.

Returning up top are forwards Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre, who finished 2023 with 14 and 10 goals respectively. Forwards Tai Baribo, Chris Donovan, Jeremy Rafanello and newcomer Markus Anderson are all available for selection as well.

Player Availability: Leon Flach (OUT) Isaiah LeFlore (OUT)

Key Matchup: Midseason Form vs Fresh out of the Gate

It’s always interesting to see how the MLS clubs fare in the early CCC rounds against clubs that are already in midseason form.  Vancouver battled hard for three halves against Liga MX giants Tigres before being overpowered in the final 45 minutes in their second leg match last week. Saprissa isn’t quite the caliber as Tigres, but they are in good form and the Union will need to shake off any offseason rust quickly to move through to the next round.

Player to Watch: Andre Blake

The Union have one of the best goalkeepers in MLS history returning again this year in Andre Blake. A strong first leg from the keeper would give the Union a good chance of coming back to Chester in the driver’s seat for leg two.

Prediction: Deportivo Saprissa 1 – 1 Philadelphia Union


  1. Can’t believe it is a 10pm game! Would be going to Brauhaus Schmitz if it was earlier… Will just DVR it.

  2. All values in euros, from transfermarkt.
    U – 54 mil
    Saprissa – 7.5mil
    Sap highest value player – Luiz Diaz (1.5mil), who spent the last 3.5 season with Columbus and Colorado and was not re-signed by Colorado.
    It is not easy to play on the road in Central America. But it is clear that our players are much better.

    • Replace “much better” with “more highly valued by Transfermarkt’s value-calculating algorithm,” perhaps?
      Ben points out the turnover at Saprissa since the last matches, unlike Philly. And he points out mid-season playing against season opener, which may be even more important.
      Your point about Luis Diaz has value.
      The differences in style of play between Costa Rica’s very best and a strong MLS team will be interesting.
      Herediano took out Liga MX’s Toluca earlier in round one, reinforcing that Costa Rica plays good soccer.


    AR1: JORGE SANCHEZ (Mexico)

    AR2: ENRIQUE BUSTOS (Mexico)

    4TH: MARCO ORTIZ (Mexico)


    VAR1: OSCAR MEJIA (Mexico)

  4. Hopefully the Union can keep it close tonight against the in form team and take advantage next week when the weather is likely to be cold and blow them away at home. Don’t forget that when the teams met in 2021 it wasn’t until April due to COVID so Saprissa has probably not experienced February weather in Philly.

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