For the second time in half a year, the Philadelphia Union have seen their dreams of a major trophy get dashed in agonizing fashion at LAFC's BMO Stadium.
Given an opportunity to avenge last December's riveting MLS Cup final in which the Union were narrowly bested by the Black & Gold in penalty kicks, Philadelphia were sent home empty-handed once again by their cross-country rivals on Tuesday evening. This time it was a 4-1 aggregate defeat in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals, which saw a highly-anticipated second leg in LA turn into a one-sided 3-0 rout for the home side.
Afterwards, Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin said the match got away from his team thanks to self-inflicted errors you simply can't afford to make against LAFC, including a pivotal second-half red card to right back Olivier Mbaizo that left the Union down a man for the last half-hour.
"It's a very strong opponent where you have to be almost perfect to get a result and we've learned that now through the years," Curtin said.
"... Against a great team like them, you have to be clinical. You can't make mistakes," he added. "And you certainly can't play down a man because they'll punish you. ... Obviously a team like them, when they're up a man and the way they move the ball, it becomes very challenging. So my players still put a ton into it, created a couple half-chances even down a man, gave everything. But, again, you have to be perfect – can't concede on set pieces like that to beat a good team like this in a high-stakes game."
Mbaizo's red card and the subsequent lopsided result took some of the luster out of what has become one of the league's premier matchups.
Curtin nonetheless spoke highly of what he deemed a legitimate rivalry between the clubs, fostered by some epic regular-season clashes and last year's instantly-legendary MLS Cup. That's despite holding a 0W-3L-4D all-time record against the Black & Gold, and having now lost two CCL semifinals in three years (2021 to Liga MX's Club América).
"I have a ton of respect for what this club is all about here in LA," Curtin said. "I have a ton of respect for what the Union's about. Two good clubs and obviously one of us was going to get to a final and represent MLS. I think rivalries are healthy, so we have a rivalry between us and them. But now there's also a bigger rivalry which is MLS vs. Liga MX. And you're going to get a great final regardless of whether it's Tigres or León – two special teams.
"So we know LAFC will represent our league very well. Of course, we wish it was us that was going there but, again, they deserved to win on the night."
With their CCL dreams extinguished, the Union won't be lacking in opportunities to atone for the disappointing result. A return to their 2023 league campaign awaits, with the US Open Cup now also underway, and the revamped edition of the 2023 Leagues Cup slated to kick off in July, pitting MLS clubs against Liga MX counterparts during a month-long pause in league play.
The challenge, Curtin acknowledged, will be recharging the batteries and maintaining a healthy squad after a grueling and demanding CCL run, and ideally avoiding a dip in league form that has often been known to afflict the tournament's participants.
The Union enter Matchday 11 having already experienced some of those difficulties, sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference (3W-4L-2D, 11 points) ahead of Saturday's return to MLS action at the New York Red Bulls (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
"It certainly does take a big toll out of the players, probably causes some points to be dropped, probably an injury or two," Curtin said. "And the reality is we don't know what it's going to look like because this season does have even more competitions between Open Cup starting up now, also the Leagues Cup and obviously regular season and playoffs. It becomes highly demanding on these players and you're seeing all teams pick up little injuries here and there.
"So, again, we want to get them healthy, recover as quick as possible and avoid that letdown. I think we have a strong enough group to do that, but certainly pushing and trying to get to a final takes a lot of these guys' legs, the travel, all the things that go along with it. But we want to be a part of these games and we want our club to always be in Champions League."