The Philadelphia Union will open up their 2021 season with a trip to Costa Rica to face Deportivo Saprissa in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16.
The first leg match on Wednesday (6 pm ET | FS1,TUDN) marks the Union's debut in an international competition; for many, it's a clear indication of the progress the club has made over the last several years.
"When I first came here, I was pitched the ambitions of the club and all that and you’ve seen now the fruits of the labor," Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said in a pre-match virtual press conference Tuesday. "[Our goal] was to get into playoffs, win a playoff game — we did that. Now we got the Supporters’ Shield, but now can we be consistent in terms of making the playoffs year in and year out, going far. MLS Cup is obviously something we have to strive for and now it’s Concacaf."
The Union will have Kacper Przybylko available for the match after he spent parts of preseason out with an injury, though head coach Jim Curtin noted the forward may not be 90 minutes ready. Przybylko and the entire Union squad will be working to build match fitness, as MLS teams regularly do at this phase of the competition, and Curtin said younger players will get minutes on Wednesday as a result.
"There certainly will be some younger players on the field at the end of the game, which is a challenge especially in a Concacaf setting," Curtin said during the press conference. "[We're] a little bit injured at the forward spot, but we won’t make excuses. We’re not at our strongest, but at the same time this is the challenge that we have."
Both Curtin and Bedoya said the challenge of beating Saprissa may be easier without home supporters at Estadio Saprissa, nicknamed "The Monster's Cave," but the task still provides plenty of opportunity to learn about the grueling nature of continental competition.
"For the young guys, they won’t experience that hostile environment that they would otherwise in normal circumstances, but at the same time you have to deal with the traveling, with the conditions," Bedoya said. "Starting the game with an earlier kickoff, when it’s probably hotter outside, and I’m not sure what the field conditions are like, but the gamesmanship that occurs with teams from the area. All those things that grow and mature you as a player are things that the young kids are going to have to deal with and a great opportunity for them to experience that."
The tie is also Curtin's first two-leg series as a coach, with a singular focus on the first leg.
"It becomes about now getting through the first 90 minutes," Curtin said. "That’s essentially halftime, then recognizing you cannot necessarily win a tie in the first 90 minutes, but you can lose it."
The overall aim, though, is to demonstrate the Union's strength against a new and particularly strong group of opponents.
"By winning the Supporters’ Shield and being champions last year, we moved the club further," Curtin said. "The next step is, how do you do in international competitions? How do you test yourself against other champions, top clubs in the Concacaf region? That’s something that we’re proud of. That’s something that we’re excited by, but that’s something that also brings a big responsibility: to represent MLS, to represent our league in the right way."