There are times when the Union play teams with better talent and win, because soccer is a sport where a good tactical plan can overcome a talent gap.
Then there are times when the team with better talent also has a good tactical plan, and ends up winning. That’s what Toronto FC did Saturday night in a 2-1 win that reminded everyone of why the Reds have made three of the last four MLS Cup finals.
The Union were in second place heading into the weekend on merit. But the questions about this loss are merited too.
Here’s a look at some of the notable player performances in the game.
Toronto’s game plan made a point of neutralizing him, and it was successful. Aaronson had 22 touches in 55 minutes, but was held to just 9-of-14 passing.
Yet one of those completions created Jamiro Monteiro’s shot that Quentin Westberg just barely tipped off his crossbar. If the shot had gone in — or if the deflection had fallen over the line instead of just outside it — the game could have been totally different.
Toronto did not need the reminder that Aaronson can impact the game with just one chance if he’s allowed to.
There shouldn’t be too many caveats on the Union’s performance because they were so close to getting a result. But there was one reasonably big one: both starting outside backs, Kai Wagner and Ray Gaddis, were out injured.
Real has improved this year, and if you just looked at his defensive statistics you’d think he had a decent game. He recorded 65 touches (fourth-most on the team in the game), four clearances, one interception and one block, and won one aerial duel. He also created one chance and took one shot at the attacking end.
But that all gets overtaken by a poor passing night: 26-for-42, including 0-for-2 on crosses and 3-for-9 on long balls.
The Union have Wednesday games coming up this week and next week, and Wagner won’t be able to play through them all with a nagging leg injury. Real will be needed for as long as Gaddis' absence requires Olivier Mbaizo to start at right back. If Real doesn’t step up, his backers will have to admit Mbaizo is better at the job right now.
Sometimes, you just need a havoc-wreaker on the field. Santos played that role perfectly, adding three clearances, two tackles and an interception to his two shots. He also has plenty of skill, and he showed it with his terrific chip-shot goal.
We can only wait so long before finally calling him a bust, and the time might be coming. Wooten has just one goal in 22 Union games now, and that’s simply not enough. Even worse, this was his 10th time in 12 appearances this season that he didn’t record a shot.
His pedigree is too good to believe he can’t score in MLS, but his continuing inability to do so stands out.
José Andrés Martínez
The Union still don’t have a deal yet on whether Martínez will join Venezuela’s national team at the end of this week, but they know how much they’ll miss him if he does.
Martínez’s 67 touches and 46-of-56 passing were team bests. He also won one aerial duel and recorded one tackle and one interception, though his presence all over the field made it seem like he did a lot more.
His postgame news conference would have passed without much incident had he not bristled a bit more than expected at a question about playing the East’s other top teams. That earned Curtin two more questions on the subject, and he didn’t like those either.
The exchanges would have been little more than insider theatrics had Curtin not slipped in a line about his players that “we ask them to punch above their weight, and they do that.”
That was true for most of the Union’s history, but it’s not now, and that’s meant as a compliment. This team’s talent has earned a place in the East’s top weight class. And while this was just one game in a campaign, the Union’s winless record this year against the conference’s other three heavyweights — Columbus, Toronto and Orlando — does matter.