It’s Groundhog Day again.
MLS’ 13-year Concacaf Champions League schneid continued on Wednesday night as the Philadelphia Union raged and raged, but could not stop the dying light at Subaru Park, falling 2-0 to Club América and 4-0 on aggregate in their semifinal series.
Philly’s exit ends MLS’ involvement in this year’s edition, ensuring that whatever happens in Thursday’s Cruz Azul vs. Monterrey semifinal second leg, 2021 will feature the ninth all-Liga MX CCL final of those 13 years.
Here’s three key talking points from the evening.
Staring at a two-goal aggregate deficit on home turf in what your coach, among others, dubbed the biggest match in club history: This was an occasion on which to stand up and be counted. After an uneven start to the game, the Union did so, with admirable tenacity.
The hosts geared up to Las Aguilas’ speed of play toward the back end of the first half, working the flanks and imposing themselves physically despite the flurry of yellow cards dished out by Honduran referee Said Martinez (more on him later). And their looks at goal soon stacked up accordingly.
Jakob Glesnes flashed an invitingly free header over the crossbar from close range. Kacper Przybyłko’s downward header drew a sharp sprawling save from Guillermo Ochoa at the bottom corner just before halftime. Then Przybyłko and his strike partner Cory Burke knitted together a savvy combination that sent the Pole in clear behind the América backline in the opening moments of the second half, instigating a cynical takedown by Bruno Valdez to earn Philly a vital penalty kick.
And Jamiro Monteiro couldn’t beat Ochoa from the spot. These are the chances that you simply must seize on and convert when you’re aiming to upset a side with the talent and experience of the Mexican giants.
“I'm proud of the effort, we just lacked that finishing touch in the final third, which has been an issue for us this season,” said Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya. “Just kind of lacking that final bit of quality in the final third.”
Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
“So there's a lot of moments tonight that we were close to getting that breakthrough to get the crowd really into it, on our side, and putting a little pressure on Club América,” head coach Jim Curtin said postgame. “As very good teams and championship-type teams do, they bend a little bit but they never break, and then you have to give them credit for that. Santi Solari is an incredible coach, he has them very well organized and look, I hope they go on and win the final.”
As the above passages indicate, opportunism is vital if the burdens of history are to be overcome in this setting, and so is a timely dose or two of good fortune.
This category is admittedly hard to measure. But the eye test suggests that the Azulcrema got a few more breaks in their direction over the 180 minutes – which, combined with their quality, pedigree and organization, shrank the Union’s window even further.
Philly were aggrieved to see one penalty shout go against them and one of their own be waved off in last month’s first leg in Mexico City. And even when Martinez pointed to the spot after Valdez’s rugby tackle on Przybyłko, the DOOP squad felt hard done by, because Martinez elected to show América’s Paraguayan defender a yellow instead of a red for denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Was the ref interpreting it as a case of the newish “no double jeopardy” rule adjustment intended to remove the penalty+ejection double-whammy for imperfect but well-intentioned tackles in the box? That seemed like a stretch to Curtin & Co. considering that Valdez made no attempt on the ball, simply tugging back Przybyłko by the shoulders to stop him from going 1-v-1 against Ochoa.
“When you play a team as great as América, you need a couple of things to go your way,” said Curtin. “Basically starting from the non-penalty kick call that was missed in [Estadio] Azteca, to the 100% red card tonight, you have some questions about the officiating. For me that was – whether you're playing in the biggest league in the world, the smallest league in the world, the most corrupt league in the world – that's 100% a red card.
“So from there, whether you make the penalty or miss the penalty, I think that that changes the game, playing with one less man for 45 minutes. I think you guys know me well enough to know I don't like to complain about officiating, but here I sit complaining about it because it was a big turning point of the game.”
In recent years some of MLS’ most impressive CCL runs have been followed by brutal backslides when those teams turned their full focus back to the league.
Toronto FC’s 2018 might be Exhibit A, as the Reds faded from imperious treble winners to playoff-missing also-rans in the wake of their agonizingly narrow loss to Chivas Guadalajara in the tournament’s final, wracked by the physical and mental toll of the travel, the calendar congestion, the early ramp-up in their fitness periodization and much more.
Philly are now in real danger of a comparable fate. Having dawdled in mid-table for much of the season, results elsewhere over the past few days have pushed them below the Audi MLS Cup Playoff line in the Eastern Conference as they prepared for this massive match. Now they must find a way to swiftly turn the page and shift their focus to domestic matters.
Curtin and Bedoya proclaimed their optimism of doing just that, pointing to the intensity and commitment shown on Wednesday as justification.
“I said it from the beginning of this season, we can finish anywhere from second through ninth. And right now we're a good result out of being back in the playoffs,” said Curtin. “So it's going to go down to the wire. I can say with confidence, though, if we play like this – look, we can play with any team, certainly in our league, that's for sure. If we bring the energy and the effort that we had tonight, we'll be in a good spot by the end of these last 11 games.
“It's all in our hands. It's up to us.”
That starts with Orlando City SC’s visit to Chester on Sunday afternoon (4 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes).
“Tonight we showed what we're all about, right?” said Bedoya. “I think if we play like this in the league, there's no doubt that we should be in the playoffs and beating most teams.”