It was just one play in a long night of them. In fact, it was just a small flick.
But the assist Dániel Gazdag provided for Sergio Santos in the Union’s 2-1 win over D.C. United on Saturday was the kind of play that showed his potential to take the Union’s attack to another level.
It was smart, it was instinctive, and it was an inch-perfect pass that swung around D.C. defender Andy Najar and into the path of Santos. The Brazilian did the rest from there, authoring a composed finish for the Union’s opening goal.
Now go back and watch the whole play develop, starting with José Andrés Martínez’s interception in the Union’s defensive third of the field. Gazdag watched that play from about 15 yards away. As soon as Martínez had the ball under control, Gazdag started heading upfield, knowing the Union might be able to spring a counterattack.
Martínez fed Olivier Mbaizo, who took the ball forward with some nifty dribbling and passed to Alejandro Bedoya on the right wing. As that pass was en route, Gazdag took off. He soon found himself in a pocket of space between four D.C. players, created by the speed of the counterattack and Santos and Kacper Przybylko pulling United’s back line apart.
Santos knew to keep running down the left side. Przybylko knew to keep running to the right, where he was pulling two D.C. players out wide and turning that pocket of space into a big hole. Bedoya knew where to play the pass, and Gazdag knew where to go get it.
It all came together perfectly. You would not have known that Gazdag had played just 167 minutes over four games for the Union up to then, such was the chemistry of the play.
Such is the power of having an attacking midfielder of Gazdag’s quality at the top of a counterpressing diamond. It may seem obvious to say given the talents of his predecessors, Marco Fabían, Brenden Aaronson, and Anthony Fontana. Nor should it be taken as a knock against Jamiro Monteiro’s skills overall.
But it has been said here repeatedly that the Union needed a true attacking playmaker at the top of the diamond, not a central midfielder who’s pushed forward. In Gazdag, they have the piece that fits the hole. And in his first start at the position where everyone’s been waiting to see him play, he delivered.
“I still don’t think we got him on the ball enough, but when he did get on the ball, things happened,” Union manager Jim Curtin said after the game.
Indeed, he didn’t have a box score-filling night overall: just 40 touches, 15-of-21 passing, 2 shots, 1 chance created, and 3 dribbles past opponents. His most impressive stats were on the defensive end, with 7 recoveries, 5 duels won, and 2 blocks.
“He actually makes an incredible tackle on the second goal,” Curtin said, referring to a play that forced a turnover and sparked that counterattack. “And maybe [No.] 10s aren’t thought about for making a play like that.”
So make it two moments of class from Gazdag on the night. Sometimes, that can be all it takes over 90 minutes to decide a game. And when those moments come from a midfield playmaker, it reminds everyone why that’s the game’s most sacred position.
Gazdag is still getting used to his teammates, and to the many eccentricities of life in MLS. He will encounter a few more this week when the Union head to Florida for a two-game swing, at Orlando City on Thursday (7:30 p.m., ESPN and ESPN Deportes) and at Inter Miami on Sunday (7:30 p.m., ESPN). It would be a rough stretch at any time of year, but it’s brutal in late July.
The hints are there, though, and we could see more with Monteiro back from suspension.
“You’re just seeing the beginning with Daniel,” Curtin said. “The more we give him the ball, the more special plays he’s going to make. But overall, certainly his best performance for us comes at a big time.”