When it comes to the Concacaf Champions League, it's always wise to expect the unexpected.
For the Philadelphia Union, that was a lesson they had to learn on the fly in their first-ever match in the continental tournament, which saw the reigning Supporters' Shield champs take home a 1-0 aggregate lead following the first leg of their series against Costa Rican giant Deportivo Saprissa.
The match gave the Union a taste of everything a CCL road match has to offer, most notably just before the final whistle when Philadelphia's Kai Wagner was launched to the ground with a flying tackle from Saprissa's Ricardo Blanco, setting off a lengthy confrontation between the sides that lasted well into second-half stoppage time. Much of the postgame discussion after the match ended centered around the sequence and whether Blanco's tackle, which saw him get a yellow card, should have resulted in him getting sent off with a straight red.
"Welcome to Concacaf, right?" Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya said on his postgame video call. "I mean, look, I didn't want any of us to get into some fighting or anything like that or let them pull us into something like that, so I just tried to pull guys away and obviously bodies from all over the place were coming together. But, look, that's something that the referee has to take better control of. If he makes a better decision there it might not happen.
"Just like I have to get up here and be held accountable for my play, the referee should be the same. He should be explaining that decision because that's a red in every part of the world. I don't understand how that was not a red card. So, that was a disgraceful decision. But, hey, we move on. We got a victory, we got a good result, and I'm glad that we didn't get a red card and nobody did anything stupid. So, obviously for me, I'm the captain, I've got to try and get in there and pull guys away so we don't get drawn into anything dumb."
For all the talk about the wild ending, the Union emerged from Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma with an aggregate lead and an all-important road goal thanks to Kacper Przybylko's 34th-minute header. There's still plenty of work to be done in the second leg in Philadelphia on April 14, but head coach Jim Curtin said he was pleased with how the group handled everything that came with its first venture into the competition, especially given his players are in preseason form.
"For us to win our first international game, on the road, is big for the club," Curtin 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 improve, a lot to work on. But in terms of the fight, the grit, the determination in the hard moments, we only utilized two subs at the end of the day. This early and essentially in preseason, I give the players a ton of credit on the field for showing a lot of heart. I think our city and our players can all be proud of what we did today.
"It was a difficult match. As you could see at the end, it was an intense match, one where our goal was to survive and advance when you come to a difficult place to play like Saprissa against a big club."
It might be new to the majority of their players, but Curtin said he has full confidence that his group has the mental make-up to make a run at becoming the first MLS team to ever win the tournament.
The Union, of course, are coming off their best season in club history with 2020's Supporters' Shield title, and could stand to regain the services of some key contributors going forward that missed Wednesday's first leg, including Sergio Santos and Cory Burke.
"Overall, we pass our first test," said Curtin. "We're at halftime here, and we want to make a run in this competition."