National Writer: Charles Boehm

What makes Philadelphia drawing Saprissa so compelling

Alejandro Bedoya - Jim Curtin - Philadelphia Union

This week's Concacaf Champions League draw laid out the path to the 2021 edition of our region’s top continental honor, and the new guys got the most interesting assignment.

The Philadelphia Union are this year’s sole CCL debutant among the MLS contingent, and they were handed a daunting Round of 16 matchup against Deportivo Saprissa, “the Bayern Munich or Manchester United of Costa Rica,” in the words of Union head coach Jim Curtin, “a big club where the only expectation is to win and to win championships.” The first leg will be played away April 6-8, then Subaru Park hosts the return leg April 13-15 (exact dates to be determined).

Safe to say that this was… not universally embraced by many Philly fans still accustomed to bracing for the worst even after their team hoisted the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, their first piece of hardware in a decade of existence.

Costa Rica in general, and Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Ayma specifically, has historically been a graveyard for US teams at both club and international levels. This is “the Monster’s Cave,” after all, the cradle of the Ticos’ admirable overachievement in Concacaf – a tradition so well-established that it’s not really overachievement anymore, just standard operating procedure.

Three-time winners of the Concacaf Champions Cup, the CCL’s predecessor, Saprissa love to spring traps on northern visitors. They own a 6W-5L-5D all-time record against MLS opposition (and only one of those losses came at home), a track record that earned them a place on the CCL website’s list of “the top five Central American teams in CCL history.” Their current squad is led by MLS alums Christian Bolanos, David Guzman and Kendall Waston, and they’ll be in mid-season stride while Philly will be playing their first matches of the year. The 2021 MLS season is slated to begin April 17.

The Union’s maiden Champions League voyage could very easily be over before it begins. But if they can avoid getting well and truly ambushed in that all-important first leg in the Monster’s Cave, I actually like their chances.

They need to get their cardiovascular levels high enough, quickly enough, to press at or near their usual tigerish intensity. They have to integrate the replacements for Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie (a transition they’ve had ample time to prepare for). And they have to weather the storms that inevitably descend upon MLS teams in distant CCL locales – which I think their transition-centric tactical outlook sets them up well for.

“Look, there is the unfortunate fact that the calendar is a little different for MLS teams and we aren't in our mid-season form going into the competition. But that's the reality that we have to deal with and we've dealt with in the past as a league. So it puts a big emphasis on our sports performance department,” Curtin said after the draw. “Fortunately in Philadelphia, we have a great sports performance department and we get our athletes fit and ready to play very fast.

“While we are the new team in this competition, I don't think that we are going to sneak up on anybody or surprise anybody like maybe we have in the past three seasons in MLS, where we've had a lot of success. So we're maybe the new kid on the block, but we’re coming into this competition not just to be happy to be here, but to come and try to win and get results.”

Curtin also said he’s “very confident with our preparation” and alluded to his players putting in extra work this offseason with CCL in mind – granted, what coach wouldn’t say that – and it may help that their purple-clad adversaries are in some degree of flux.

Saprissa just disposed of manager Walter Centeno after back-to-back losses to their rivals and current domestic leaders Alajuelense, first in the Concacaf League final and four days later in the league. Los Morados fell short in the postseason of the fall Apertura and, in fourth place, are lagging well off the pace in the current Clausura, pretty much unacceptable underachievement for them.

New boss Roy Myers took over the hot seat on Monday, bringing another fun bit of cross-pollination: The 1990 World Cup veteran is also an ex-MLS player who ping-ponged back and forth between the MetroStars and LA Galaxy at the turn of the century. He's billed as a caretaker who ascends from the club’s academy staff and will return there at season’s end, charged in the meantime with bringing along some youth talent to refresh an aging first team.

If Philly can navigate past Saprissa, they’ll meet the winner of the Atlanta United-Alajuelense tie, and there’s only one Liga MX side, Club America, on that side of the bracket. So who knows? Lots can happen between now and the first week of April, and it’s the job of Curtin and his staff to make the most of that time.

In an appearance on the Union Soccer Pod, Curtin hinted at potential transfer acquisitions beyond the five Homegrowns signed in recent months and called their offseason work “not a complete overhaul and a rebuild,” but “just a retooling,” which bodes well for a serious approach to CCL. Philly will probably gather at their Power Training Complex home at month’s end before decamping for the favored preseason site of Clearwater, Florida next month, then travel directly to the first-leg match at Saprissa from there.

Last year, Champions League newcomers LAFC carried the MLS banner furthest in continental competition, and the Tigres UANL team they nearly beat in the CCL title bout just gave Bayern Munich a pretty good game in the Club World Cup final. As different as the Union and LAFC may appear to be, I’ll wager the DOOP squad can pull off a similar trick in 2021.