The stakes for Saturday’s match at Subaru Park are clear. Third place and the Concacaf Champions Cup spot that goes with it are on the line for the winning team.Yet, even with that prize on the horizon, there’s no running from the fact that both the Philadelphia Union and Monterrey would rather have been playing in the late game Saturday, fighting for the inaugural Leagues Cup trophy.
Still, it’s a contest each team will take as one it wants to win, another game in which pride is on the line and competitive juices will get flowing.
“It’s tricky. To now play in a third-place game, it’s deflating, right? But we have to find a way because there’s a Champions [Cup] spot on the line,” Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday after the club's 4-1 loss to Inter Miami. “I know our players still want to win and finish the right way. We want to win more than anything. I know our fans know that and understand that. Forty-seven teams entered this competition, we’re in the final four and we want to finish the best we can right now, which is third place.”
The calculus may be a bit different for Curtin’s counterpart Fernando Ortiz. The Monterrey manager knows his team already has a spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup thanks to its performance in Liga MX play. Dreams of lifting the trophy and earning the automatic place in the CCC Round of 16 that comes with it were dashed by a 2-0 semifinal loss to Nashville SC.
So, were Rayados to top the Union, they’d really be doing a good deed for their Liga MX brothers. The spot would then head to the best team not yet qualified for the CCC based on the aggregate record in the Apertura and Clausura, with Club León hoping their Liga MX rivals will do them a big favor.
Now, after a tournament that saw Rayados explore much of the western portion of the United States, the team heads to the northeast still looking for a result.
Ortiz said his team will approach the game “in the same way we’ve been approaching matches: Seriously.” But also allowed it could be a game in which some of his rising stars could get a larger dose of international competition.
Forward Alí Ávila, a 19-year-old forward, already made his Leagues Cup debut, contributing in both a 1-0 Round of 16 win over rival Tigres and a 3-2 quarterfinal rally against LAFC. His attacking teammate Víctor López, who is 20, also is in line for more minutes.
The Union have their own cohort of young players, including U.S. U-20 alumni Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan, who have seen time this tournament as they often do in league play. Still, with the chance to get into the Concacaf competition again after a run to the semifinals in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, eventually won by Monterrey, the Union will be putting the strongest team it can on the field.
“It is a unique situation and scenario, but we want to win the last game. That’s kind of how our guys are wired,” Curtin said.
The Leagues Cup has shown that it seems that’s how all competitors are wired, with nearly every North American team showing it won’t go down without a fight. That certainly was true of Rayados, which until falling to Nashville was the only team left in the tournament that not only hadn’t tasted defeat but hadn’t even been pushed into the penalty shootout that comes after a draw in Leagues Cup play. The Union gritted out a pair of shootout wins in its first two knockout matches before topping Queretaro and falling to Miami.
Both teams had their eyes set on a bigger prize but now will turn their attention and their competitive spirit toward one last Leagues Cup game, with major implications for 2024 and beyond.