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CONCACAF Champions League: Union trying to build on history of success against Mexican teams

The two-leg tie that the Union played in 2021 against Club America has become, in many ways, an inflection point.

That CONCACAF Champions League semifinal didn’t go the Union’s way. But it preceded a run to the Eastern Conference final, then MLS Cup final in 2022 and the CCL semifinals in 2023. Along the way, at least the Union have consistently proven capable of beating Mexican opponents.

Tuesday brings the latest test of that ilk, the club’s eighth game against a sixth Liga MX club in four seasons, when Pachuca visits Subaru Park in the CONCACAF Champions Cup Round of 16 (7 p.m., FS2).

The crucible of cross-border competition is one Union manager Jim Curtin enjoys.

“Liga MX is a great league, a league that I watch very closely, a league that is very entertaining and has real high-quality players,” Curtin said Monday. “There’s also a lot of former MLS players that are playing there, and a lot of Liga MX players in MLS. It’s a good, healthy rivalry. To be playing in the Champions League as consistently as we are is something we’re very, very proud of.”

Since losing to America, both 2-0 results here and at Estadio Azteca, the Union are 5-0-1 against Mexican clubs. They beat Atlas in the CCL quarterfinals last year in Chester before gutting out a 2-2 draw in Mexico. In Leagues Cup, they routed Tijuana and Queretaro in the group stage, again bested Queretaro in the knockout stage and beat (an albeit less-than-motivated) Monterrey in the third-place game to reach the revamped Champions Cup this year.

Pachuca presents another challenge, the Liga MX champion in 2022 for the seventh time in club history. Winner of the 2022 Apertura, Pachuca sits third in the standings this year with a 7-1-2 record. It leads the tournament with 24 goals allowed, and its 18 allowed is third-most in the league. Rarely are its games boring.

The club is not dissimilar philosophically from the Union. Like many Mexican clubs, Pachuca emphasizes homegrown talent, bolstered strategically with foreign attacking signings. That includes Moroccan winger Oussama Idrissi, who had a long career in his native Holland, and former English Premier Leaguer Salomon Rodon from Venezuela.

Against that attack, the Union are boosted by the return of goalie Andre Blake, who suffered a right adductor strain in the opening round match in Costa Rica against Deportivo Saprissa and has missed the last three games. Oliver Semmle performed well in his absence, including six saves in a 1-1 draw at Sporting Kansas City Saturday. But having Blake back is an unqualified boon.

“I think Oliver did a great job in his absence,” Curtin said. “I think we learned a lot about Oliver and gave him a taste of those first-team minutes, which is important early in the season. But it’s great to have the best goalkeeper in our league back behind us.”

The Union have gotten suddenly thin in goal, with Holden Trent out indefinitely after surgery on a fractured finger. That forced a short-term emergency deal for Academy product Andrew Rick to back up in KC.

The Union are sweating the fitness of Julian Carranza, who suffered a thigh strain against Chicago and didn’t travel to KC. Curtin said he’s a game-time decision.

The Union rotated heavily in Kansas City. Both Jack Elliott and Damion Lowe – suspended Tuesday for a red card and yellow-card accumulation, respectively, in the second leg against Saprissa – went 90. Jakob Glesnes rested, while Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo played a half each. All three will be called upon, likely with Nathan Harriel deputizing over ostensible fourth center back Olwethu Makhanya.

The challenge of so many games so early in the season isn’t new.

“You get used to playing all the games all the time,” forward Mikael Uhre said. “It’s what we play for as players. We want to play as many games as possible. It’s the fun part. It’s going to be tough and it’s going to be hard, but this early in the season, that definitely can’t be an excuse. We just started. It’s just nice being back playing this many games, and the experience of playing in so many different competitions and against different opponents. It’s what you play for as a player.”

The winner of this two-leg tie has a relatively easy path to the semifinal, getting either Costa Rican club Herediano or Surinamese club Robinhood. Herediano upset Mexican club Toluca in the opening round, while Robinhood is the Caribbean Cup champs, in the competition for the first time since 1994.

Curtin always maintains that these tests, while arduous, bring long-term benefits.

“We’ll look to try to learn about our group,” he said. “I think you learn about your group in the hardest games, in the biggest games, and there’s none bigger than playing Pachuca in our building in the Champions Cup.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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