Tied at 1-1, Philadelphia Union can open up the attack and be aggressive as another shootout in Los Angeles benefits the Boys in Blue against LAFC in the Concacaf Champions League Semifinals.
After battling to a draw for the fifth straight match between the two sides, a high scoring tie is all the Union need to advance to their first CCL Final. In leg one last Wednesday night, the Union got the opening goal with revenge from the penalty spot as Daniel Gazdag converted in the 86th minute. As has been the case with this growing rivalry, stoppage time isn't something to just overlook as the Black and Gold snatched an all important road goal through Kellyn Acosta.
With the first tiebreaker being away goals, the easiest route for how the Union can advance is via a 1-0 victory in LA. A 1-1 draw would see extra time and penalty kicks loom over the match and should the Union score two goals, they would advance so long as they got at least a draw.
The first leg saw both sides battle like a heavyweight fight with the game seeing surges of momentum in 15 minute bursts. The Union need to bring the intensity early in the contest like they have the past few matches where they put away Toronto FC in league play and had LAFC on their heels. Finishing their chances will be key especially on the road because you can bet LAFC will be looking early and often to get the ball to the playmaking duo of Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga who were limited to just three shots at Subaru Park.
When the 2023 MLS schedule was announced, all eyes darted to September when the Union will host the California side at Subaru Park. But then the CCL draw took place and when the bracket was slotted an even earliest rematch between the two sides was made possible. Big results early in the season were needed by both sides in order to set up this massive match in North America's largest tournament and both delivered.
Philly's path to the semifinals has showcased their depth and ability to shine when the pressure is on. In the Round of 16, the Union began their tournament with a scoreless draw which set up a must win contest against Alianza F.C. With road goals carrying extra weight, the Union defense had to been perfect and were with back-to-back shutouts. Damion Lowe broke the scoring open just before the halftime whistle and Andres Perea added a pair of goals in the second half to send the Boys in Blue through via a 4-0 aggregate.
The challenge got even tougher with a Quarterfinal matchup against Liga MX side Atlas F.C. who rallied back from an astounding first leg deficit to advance. The two leg series was a physical one and tested the Union's abilities both physically and mentally. At Subaru Park the Union kept the shutout and Daniel Gazdag converted from the penalty spot in the 89th minute to send Philly to Guadalajara with the one-goal lead. In Mexico, Atlas grabbed an early lead to tie things up but the Union continued to show heart with Julian Carranza netting a brace to secure another berth in the CCL Semifinals for the second time in club history.
The Union's 2023 CCL journey has been a special one and it continues and promises to see create even more memories when you look at just how this East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry has gone so far.
Nothing has separated the two sides since 2020 but all three matches have taken place in California. In 2020, the world was introduced to Jakob Glesnes via a blazing free kick finish that echos throughout Union lore til this day. Jose Martinez became a fan favorite in just one start, doing whatever it took to play sound defense in the middle of the pitch even if it required a new kit after taking a knock to the face. That first contest ended 3-3 and we had to wait two years for the next one.
Last May saw another late night thriller that lived up to heavyweight billing. Returning to the California again it was end to end action from the opening whistle. Knowing they’d need to capitalize on any scoring chance that presented itself, the Boys in Blue converted in counter attacking fashion with Kai Wagner on the flank leading the charge and delivering a curling cross that skipped through the defense and led to a calm finish by Daniel Gazdag to make it 1-0 just nine minutes after the opening whistle. LAFC responded in the second half through Kwadwo Opoku for the one-time finish. Just like the city they represent, the Union didn’t put their heads down and try to settle for just a lone point on the road. They fought back in the city of stars with Carranza giving the fans one of the most spectacular finishes in 2022 from the Boys in Blue with a a left-footed flick that bent around the keeper and the post to make it 2-1. The home side swung back in the heavyweight prize fight with their abundance of corner kicks finally netting a goal in the 83rd minute. The Union succeeded in getting the first touch but saw it fall to Franco Escobar at the far post. Blake made a strong reaction save but saw it fall right back to the LAFC defender who quickly fired it back at goal for the equalizer.
Philly and LA went back and forth in the league table throughout the remainder of the season. On Decision Day the table had both sides even on points but the Supporters' Shield and homefield advantage going to LAFC via the league's first tiebreaker. Despite the unpredictability of the MLS Cup Playoffs the best two offenses, the best two defenses and the best two goal differentials were due to meet once again.
90 minutes wasn't enough in December and neither was 120 minutes. The sport can be cruel sometimes but the penalty kick shootout loss has fueled the Union since they watch LAFC raise MLS Cup with a former Union goalkeeper getting the spotlight.
This time around thanks to the format of Concacaf Champions League, fans get an additional 90 minutes more on Tuesday night.