Taut nerves, tactical cat-and-mouse, penalty-kick controversy at both ends and a brutally unlucky deflection on the game-winning goal – the Philadelphia Union’s Concacaf Champions League visit to Estadio Azteca had all the drama we’ve come to expect from the latter stages of this tournament.
But Olivier Mbaizo’s tooth was probably the truest microcosm of Philly’s luckless night in Mexico City.
Some 24 minutes into Thursday’s semifinal first leg, the Union’s Cameroonian fullback found himself victimized by one of the more bizarre injuries you’re likely to witness on a soccer pitch, as the flailing arm of Club America’s Mauro Lainez somehow dislodged a tooth and sent it flying from his mouth as the two dueled in pursuit of the ball.
No caution was awarded by Guatemalan referee Walter Lopez; not even a foul was called. But the play left Mbaizo in pain and eventually forced his exit from the match, just one of many small setbacks that added up to a 2-0 hole for the competition’s sole MLS survivors, who host the second leg at Subaru Park in a month’s time.
“I thought that overall, we made it uncomfortable for them. Obviously, conceding in the first half was disappointing, but at the same time I thought at 1-0 we were fairly comfortable, came into the game pretty good,” said Philly’s Jim Curtin postgame.
“Keeping it at 1-0 would have been the key, that would have been almost a perfect result. But now we have a little more work to do at home.”
Richard Sanchez’s early deflected strike and a second-half Emanuel Aguilera penalty kick – given for Jose “El Brujo” Martinez’s foul on Sanchez via a lengthy Video Review check after Lopez waved play on in real-time – were the reward for America’s dominance of possession and organized defensive shape.
But neither were unexpected, with the Union happy to play against the ball and prey on transition moments as they so often do to good effect. The visitors were peeved to see a late clattering of Cory Burke in the America box go unreviewed and generally felt hard done by far from home.
“Is it a penalty? He doesn't call it on the field. There needs to be something to really [show] it’s clear and obvious to overturn it, I don't know if there is,” contended Curtin. “You had some calls, big calls, that went against us. I think the Cory one is a penalty, [Canadian referee] Drew Fischer’s up there [in the VAR booth] and decided that it wasn't worth looking at, I guess. The elbow to Olivier’s face where he literally loses his tooth on the field was interesting as well. So the little things went against us.”
As Union captain Alejandro Bedoya recounted, Philadelphia felt they’d weathered the storm and just needed to manage the final quarter-hour when disaster struck to double America’s aggregate advantage.
“I was just telling the guys, We were fine, mentally, we were staying compact, let’s just make sure we get out of here with 1-0, you know? Keep working hard for each other, get each others’ back and keep playing the way we were playing,” said Bedoya.
“Look, I don't want to stoop down to that level to blame the referees. I think you guys saw it. I have my thoughts of what it should be, right?” he added with a sardonic chuckle. "I think that we didn't get the calls our way. But that's how it is.”
As Curtin had warned pregame, this intense environment often punishes the slightest missteps and the two-goal cushion gifted by Martinez’s PK foul may prove to be the costliest. The hard-tackling Venezuelan defensive midfielder had started the trouble by coughing up the ball under Las Aguilas’ press as Philly tried to build out of the back, then compounded matters by rashly sliding in to close down Sanchez some 16 yards out from Andre Blake’s goal.
“He takes risks, obviously. We have to work on taking calculated risks, but you have to live with it,” said Curtin of Brujo. “There’s going to be highs, there's going to be lows, there’s going to be mistakes, there's going to be great plays, too. So I love the way Jose plays, I always want him to play the same way. In that instance, if you had it back, he had plenty of time to just clear the ball, and the play is over and you live to fight another day. It was at a point in the match where I felt like we were under control and comfortable. So it's disappointing, and the game changed, obviously.”
The Union certainly aren’t the first MLS side to endure a hard-luck CCL experience at Azteca. Their hopes of turning around the tie will hinge on their ability to flip that narrative with an epic fightback on their own turf in the second 90 minutes of the series.
“We believe in ourselves. I believe in every single player on this team,” vowed Bedoya. “It’s halftime.”