The Union lost, 2-0, to Club América in Mexico City on Thursday in the first game of their Concacaf Champions League semifinal series. Here are some observations on the game, and how the rest of the series shapes up as it shifts to Subaru Park next month.
The Union played a smart game
You’re allowed to wonder what could have been if Kacper Przybylko’s second-minute heel shot went in the net instead of rolling just wide. But on the whole, the Union played the game they should have. They yielded possession, sat back, and countered when they could, knowing that the combination of América’s attack and the Estadio Azteca’s 7,200-foot altitude could knock them out in a hurry.
The Union weren’t there to entertain anyone. They were there to get the best result they could to give themselves a chance at Subaru Park on Sept. 15.
Both of América’s goals came with some bad luck. Richard Sánchez’s hammered shot for the opener in the 17th minute took a deflection off Dániel Gazdag on the way in. The second goal came from an 80th-minute Emanuel Aguilera penalty kick given after the video replay booth caught José Andrés Martínez tripping Sánchez with a trailing leg.
Union fans howled on social media, but they knew Martínez had put himself in danger with more than just the tackle. The sequence started when he got caught under pressure from Álvaro Fidalgo and gave up the ball. When Martínez went to slide at Sánchez a moment later, he took a big risk and got nailed for it.
Manager Jim Curtin said after the game that keeping the score at 1-0 after Sánchez’s 17th-minute opener “would have been almost a perfect result.”
But in the big picture, a 2-0 total means the Union will take the field in Chester still alive in the series. Especially if they can score an early goal in front of what should be the most electric home crowd in the team’s 12-season history.
“This is halftime — we’ve got to go back to Philly and do our best to come out in Philly and give it all,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “I know we were big, big underdogs here, but at home, I think [it] will be different. … We believe in ourselves, I believe in every single player on this team, and I know we’re going to keep on fighting and do our best to advance.”
Don’t say you weren’t warned
Bedoya was right about the odds the Union faced. It was said here, too, repeatedly in the last few weeks. The purpose of being so blunt was twofold: to avoid giving Union fans false hope, and to make the point to people who watch only the Union and European soccer that Mexico’s powerhouses are this continent’s biggest teams.
Club América is to Mexican soccer what the Cowboys are to the NFL: the biggest, richest, most popular, and most hated team in its country. (Though, like the Cowboys, they often get beaten to titles by smarter opponents.)
The gap in talent between the hosts and visitors was exemplified by América striker Henry Martín’s coming off the bench in the second half. A scorer of 15 goals in 32 games last season, he’d have started had he not just gotten home from the Olympics, where he helped Mexico win the men’s bronze medal.
If Thursday’s game was your introduction, now you know more than you did before. And you’ll be better for it, whether watching club games on the continent or the big Concacaf World Cup qualifiers that start next month.
Powell answers the call
Among the bright spots for the Union was the play of Alvas Powell, who entered the game in a big spot when he replaced Mbaizo at right back in the 33rd minute. In his return from a hamstring injury suffered during the Gold Cup, the Union needed Powell to play as a savvy veteran and not make any big mistakes.
Though it took him a little while to get into the flow of the game, he ended the night with five recoveries, four duels won, three clearances, one tackle, and one interception.
Flach quietly shines
Leon Flach didn’t see too much of the ball, with just 28 touches. But he quietly played a great game: 15-of-18 passing, five recoveries, and three duels won. The more he plays like that for the Union, the better the odds that he’ll be back at the Azteca in the future — with the U.S. national team.