Throughout the Union's CONCACAF Champions League run, manager Jim Curtin has encouraged his players to dream big and try to ride the wave as far as it goes.
As the team prepares to host Wednesday's semifinal second leg against Club América, the biggest game in Union history, Curtin is keeping up that spirit. And he's not just doing it because the Union will have to overcome a 2-0 aggregate deficit, which has them wanting to attack from the start.
"Any time you get the chance to play in a final, you never know when you're going to get that chance again," Curtin said. "There has to be a belief in the group that we can get that first goal and shift the momentum in our favor. ... We know with a perfect performance tomorrow, it still is possible."
MLS teams have knocked Mexican opponents out of the Champions League 10 times since the Seattle Sounders did it first in 2013. Only once has the MLS team overcome a multiple-goal deficit: Los Angeles FC, managed by Curtin's mentor Bob Bradley, won 3-0 at home over León after losing 2-0 in Mexico.
"We know that we're capable of scoring more than a goal in this building, and we're capable of keeping a clean sheet," Curtin said. "That is our belief, that is our hope. We know it will take maximum effort and 100% from every player that steps on the field."
It will be a night unlike any in Union history, and maybe even in Philadelphia's century-plus soccer history. While the Union have played prestigious teams in friendly matches before — remember when they hosted Manchester United and Real Madrid at Lincoln Financial Field a decade ago? — they've never played in a game of actual consequence against a team of Club América's size.
América is Mexico's equivalent of the Yankees and Cowboys: lots of stars, lots of trophies, a huge fan base, and a big spotlight from Mexico's media. That's why the game kicks off at 9 p.m., much later than Union games usually do. Mexico City is in the Central time zone, and Mexican television wanted the broadcast in its prime time. (FS1 and TUDN will have the broadcast here.)
There are millions of América fans in the United States, too. The club is as popular in this country as Manchester United and Real Madrid, especially in cities like Los Angeles and Houston that have huge Mexican immigrant populations.
"We are ready, and hopefully tomorrow every fan enjoys this game," América manager Santiago Solari said. "We know we have fans all over the world. I don't know if Philadelphia is one of the places where we have the most — I don't think so — but we hope to see some of our fans in the stadium, of course."
Solari is right that Philadelphia's Mexican immigrant population isn't as big as other cities'. But it's growing fast and will be out in force Wednesday night. Expect to see thousands of yellow-clad Aguílas supporters in the stands rooting for their team against a Union franchise they've rarely been convinced to come see over the years.
And convinced is the right word. As the Union's failure to market Marco Fabián's 2019 tenure here showed, the region's passionate Mexican soccer fans won't just show up because a Mexican star plays here. They'd like to be welcomed, just like the Union has marketed over the years to other local soccer communities. If the Union put on a good show, perhaps those fans will want to come back for more games in the future.
Speaking of the right words, let's teach a little Spanish to those of you who don't speak it: América's nickname, Las Aguílas means "The Eagles" in Spanish. This means Union fans will be rooting against the Eagles as they cheer on their own team.
If that's not a sign of soccer's growth in town, nothing is.