The last-second goal that the Union gave up in Saturday’s 2-2 tie at Montreal will fade into the history books soon enough, especially if the team recovers to win at Minnesota on Wednesday.
That should be easier to do if some of the players who missed this contest return to the field, such as José Andrés Martínez (who certainly will), Andre Blake, Sergio Santos and Cory Burke.
But before then, Union head coach Jim Curtin had to face one big question after leaving the field at Stade Saputo: Why did Dániel Gazdag get passed over not just once, but twice for Saturday’s starting lineup?
Sure, Gazdag was gone with Hungary’s national team for the last week-plus, but he didn’t play in either of the Magyars’ games during that span. So he wouldn’t have been down that much gas in the tank.
No matter. Paxten Aaronson started as the playmaker at the top of the midfield diamond, and Quinn Sullivan started as the second forward in the 4-4-2 setup – a role that the 17-year-old hasn’t played much, as versatile and skilled as he is. Gazdag didn’t enter the game until the 57th minute, when he replaced Sullivan as part of a formation shift to a 4-2-3-1.
“[Gazdag] was away on international duty, didn’t get minutes there, and obviously came back to the team late in the week,” Curtin said after the game. “Paxten has been in great form, we wanted to reward that form, [he] had a good week of training and a full week of training. So we just thought that was what would make sense.”
Sullivan, Curtin said, was “kind of the same thing: Has really been excellent in practice and worked to get his chance, and we put him in there.”
Gazdag ended up turning in one of his best performances yet in a Union jersey: 18-of-19 passing, six recoveries, four duels won, two clearances and one tackle.
“Daniel came into the game tonight and made a big impact on it” Curtin said. “I thought [he] was really active, was really dynamic at that 10 spot: getting on the ball, drawing fouls for us, getting us out of tight spaces.”
There were some nice combination plays with teammates as the Union turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, the kind of plays that come from building chemistry over time in games. And if you don’t get the time in games, well, you don’t have to be a soccer fan to figure out the rest.
Because now it’s not just about the fact that Gazdag isn’t starting. He hasn’t played a full 90 minutes since July 26, a span of 11 games. He hasn’t played more than 70 since Aug. 5, the day when he scored his only Union goal to date on a penalty kick, and recorded the second of just two assists so far.
If Aaronson and Sullivan keep beating Gazdag to starting spots as the Union chase the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed, that’s going to become a big deal, and not just for Union fans who roasted Gazdag on Twitter when the lineup was posted Saturday afternoon.
Some of those fans might crow about how it would be the second time an Aaronson has overtaken a star playmaker signing on the Union’s depth chart. Brenden Aaronson did it to Marco Fabián two years ago.
But Fabián still holds the title of scorer of the biggest goal in Union history, the one that delivered the team’s first playoff win that same season.
More importantly, the Union only committed to Fabián for one season. Gazdag is under contract at least through next year, with team options for 2023 and 2024. And while Fabián earned a $2.27 million salary, he was signed on as a free transfer. Gazdag cost a $1.8 million fee, the second-highest in team history, plus whatever salary he’s earning (the MLS Players Association hasn’t updated its salary database since he arrived).
Curtin said “the form of Paxten [and] Dániel being away for a little bit, with a little bit of travel in his legs” were “really all there was to the decision” to not start Gazdag on Saturday.
“Certainly, all of our players now are going to be called upon down the stretch, and we’re going to need big performances to get into the playoffs,” Curtin added.
That needs to be true, for a lot of people’s sakes.