Daily Times (Primos, PA)
Elliott, Union blank Costa Rican foe
There are some events that occur in CONCACAF Champions League with frightening regularity. Others are rare.
The Union knew of both trends from afar, but in their debut in the competition Wednesday, they got to experience both.
For just the second time in the CCL, an MLS team beat Deportivo Saprissa at home, the Union using Kacper Przybylko’s first-half goal to claim a 1-0 win in Costa Rica in a match that ended, as many affairs do, with questionable officiating and a melee.
Przybylko headed a ball home in the 33rd minute, left unmarked at the far post to meet a sublime cross from Olivier Mbaizo. The move was set up by a superb overthe-top pass by Jose Martinez from deep in midfield to open up the Saprissa defense, part of a man-of-the-match outing from the Venezuelan.
“The ball that Jose plays is something that’s so simple and such a subtle thing, but it’s that ability to turn in a tight spot and just switch a ball that leads Olivier into space and almost invites him forward,” manager Jim Curtin said. “… When you speak about Jose Martinez, this is the type of game that’s right up his alley: It’s about tackles, altercations, duels, whatever you want to talk about, he comes out on top more times than not.”
The victory, in the Union’s first game of 2021, is just Saprissa’s fifth loss in 39 CCL matches at home, though Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Amya – known as “The Monsters Cave” for its hostility to visitors – was devoid of fans due to COVID-19 restrictions. Still, only one MLS club (Columbus Crew in 2009) had managed a win there in 11 games (1-8-2).
The Union will try to defend the one-goal lead at home in the second leg of the match next Wednesday at Subaru Park. The team with the higher aggregate score will advance to the quarterfinals, but the tiebreaker is away goals, making Przybylko’s marker even bigger.
The three-time champion in the competition and fivetime finalist (and last nonMexican club to win CCL, back in 2005) is in a bad way. Saprissa is winless in eight games in all competitions, its worst stretch in 28 years. With injuries and a late formation change, interim coach Roy Myers sought to alter the team’s fortune, but the Union answered with proactive soccer rather than merely aiming for a scoreless draw. Each team had five shots, and the Union managed 47 percent possession despite Saprissa chasing the entire second half.
“We worked really hard last year to get this opportunity,” Curtin said. “We’re not going to just sit in and absorb pressure. Oftentimes, that backfires, especially in tough environments like this. So we were brave, I think we pressed high, we turned them over a few times.”
“It’s our style of play,” Alejandro Bedoya said. “I think even throughout last season, you saw that. Wherever we played, we’re still going to be able to press and be able to switch it up. That’s important as well. We can play different styles and mix it up. But we’re not going to back down from anybody. … I’m proud of how we stepped on the field with them toe-to-toe and imposed ourselves.”
The Union’s preference for soccer over theatrics didn’t hold for its opponent, when Ricardo Blanco delivered a heinous tackle to Kai Wagner in the fourth minute of stoppage time. The dangerous, two-footed leg-breaker of a lunge warranted only a yellow card from Salvadoran referee Ismael Cornejo, in the latest chapter of reason-defying refereeing in CONCACAF.
“That’s a red in every part of the world,” Bedoya said. “I don’t understand how that was not a red card. That was a disgraceful decision.”
It let to a brouhaha, with Jakob Glesnes shoving Blanco and getting a forearm shiver to the back of his head from Daniel Colindres for his trouble. Cornejo flashed six yellow cards.
Before pandemonium broke out, the game was finely poised, thanks to the Union’s stellar defense. Glesnes and
Jack Elliott were nearly errorfree in central defense, with Bedoya, Martinez and Jamiro Monteiro, in the No. 10 role, patrolling. Leon Flach, signed just two weeks ago, started on the left side of the diamond, garnering praise from Curtin for “a great debut.”
The Union were on their heels in the second but managed just enough possession to defuse Saprissa’s threat. Colindres’ shot from distance in the 47th was handled easily by Andre Blake, one of only two saves. Blake went into a split to kick away a Christian Bolanos cross in stoppage time.
Kendall Waston, like Bolanos an MLS veteran, headed wide on an open chance off a quickly taken free kick in the 68th. Wagner played the hero in the 71st, manning the far post to clear a glancing Bolanos header off the line from a corner kick. Captain Mariano Torres nearly shaped a curler into the top corner in the 81st, but it fluttered over the bar.
Curtin, who earned his 100th coaching win in all competitions, stressed multiple times that his team is only at halftime in the tie. But the first half went close to perfect.
“For us to win our first international game on the road is big for the club,” he said. “We still know we have a lot of work to do. The good news is the Philadelphia Union did not play its best soccer game; there’s a lot to work on, a lot to improve. But in terms of the fight of the group, the grit, the determination in the hard moments … I give the players a ton of credit for showing a lot of heart.”