"Two heavyweights": Philadelphia Union, LAFC meet in massive CCL semifinal


Whenever the Philadelphia Union and LAFC cross paths, fireworks tend to follow.

The brief history between the sides has been defined by frantic, goal-filled contests, even before last year's legendary MLS Cup Final in Los Angeles, when LAFC narrowly edged Philadelphia in penalty kicks, aided by an iconic stoppage-time equalizer from Gareth Bale.

Go time

Now, the stakes don't get much higher for the next clash between the cross-country foes, who meet in the 2023 Concacaf Champions League semifinals, starting with Wednesday's first leg at Philly's Subaru Park (9 pm ET | FS1 and TUDN). The second leg is set for next Tuesday at LAFC's BMO Stadium, where aggregate score is the first decider and penalty kicks may be required. 

The reward for the winner is a coveted opportunity: A ticket to the CCL final, where they'll have a crack at either Liga MX's Tigres UANL or Club León and look to become the second straight MLS club to win the prestigious continental tournament following the Seattle Sounders' breakthrough victory last year.

"We tend to bring the best out of each other," Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin said on Tuesday. "I think we’ve had some special matches versus LAFC.

"Obviously a very important match. You have now over the last year, the last calendar year, you have the four best teams on the continent left. You have a great matchup of two MLS teams that played in last year’s MLS Cup, and you have Tigres and León, two incredible Liga MX teams."

LAFC's approach

LAFC are in red-hot form heading into the semifinal series, sitting as MLS's last undefeated team (5W-0L-3D) through Matchday 9 and notching convincing aggregate victories in each of their first two CCL series. The Western Conference club first beat Costa Rican outfit Alajuelense in the Round of 16 (4-2 aggregate), then vanquished Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the quarterfinals (6-0 aggregate). Each of those results were aided by dominant 3-0 victories in the first leg on the road.

To put themselves in a similarly advantageous position in this series, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo is focused on containing a Philadelphia side that's among the few MLS teams to find consistent success scoring goals against his team.

"[They do] what they do against every team: It’s very direct, it’s very vertical and that’s always a lot to handle for any team," Cherundolo said Tuesday. "I thought we’ve dealt with it pretty well. Most of the goals have come off set pieces. Out of the run of play, not too many. It’s nothing we don’t know, but it’s much the same they do to everybody.

"They don’t have a special recipe against us. It’s the same style they play every week. And that’s what makes them very good and dangerous, because they’re comfortable in those ways, and their habits and their behaviors are well known by everybody in their organization."

Cherundolo added he's expecting the two-legged format in CCL to lead to a different dynamic than a regular 90-minute fixture.

"I’m sure there will be lulls here and there in both games," Cherundolo said. "I think after both legs we’ll all sit down and we’ll talk about an intense two legs. I do think the intensity is important. It’s important to both clubs’ styles of play. And it’s something we’re prepared [for].

"The goal in both rounds previous to this round has been to put ourselves in position in order to advance at home. Nobody can predict the score and we didn’t predict those scores, but we were able to put a performance in both times that put ourselves in a great position to seal the deal at home, and that’s exactly what we’re going to try to do in Philly as well."

Philly payback?

After last year's MLS Cup heartbreak, the series offers Philadelphia a chance to pursue payback in pursuit of the Eastern Conference club's first continental trophy. They've never beaten the Black & Gold, who hold a 2W-0L-3D all-time series lead.

"You know, the word ‘revenge,' I wouldn’t use that one," said Curtin, whose team lost in the 2021 CCL semifinals to Liga MX's Club América. "It’s an opportunity for us to now try to beat a very good team and get into the final of a major competition in our continent. I’m not going to give you any fuel for the fire or the bulletin board, but, again, I think the games on the field between us in the past speak for themselves.

"… I think you go to the old boxing adage that styles make fights. It’s different styles, no question about it… It’s similar to two heavyweights getting together that have a different way of playing."

LAFC have their own notable history in CCL, making the 2020 final before losing to Tigres. But hopes of completing the job, four years later, means first getting through Subaru Park. And Philly have their own strong form in the competition, overcoming El Salvador's Alianza FC (4-0 aggregate) in the Round of 16 and Mexico's Atlas FC (3-2 aggregate) in the quarterfinals.

"Look, we’re going to be facing one of the best teams in MLS," said Philadelphia captain Alejandro Bedoya. "A rematch of last year’s incredible MLS Cup and we are all excited, looking forward to it… Hopefully we can go to LA after finishing the first leg with a good result here at home. We gave them a run for their money in the MLS Cup final in their home, and we haven’t played them in our home in quite some time."