It wasn’t too surprising when Paxten Aaronson subbed in for Dániel Gazdag 57 minutes into the Union’s game against Atlanta United on Saturday at Subaru Park. Though the Union had largely dominated play, there was no score, and the Union needed all three points in a big game in the playoff race.
But what happened after Kacper Przybylko’s 71st-minute goal was just as eye-catching as the superb run-and-cross by José Andrés Martínez that set Przybylko up.
All three of Jim Curtin’s late-game substitutions — the kind a manager makes to close out a close game at this time of year — saw young academy products replace big-time veterans. Quinn Sullivan replaced Przybylko and Jack McGlynn replaced Martínez in the 78th, and Anthony Fontana replaced Sergio Santos in the 88th.
It was a big gamble by Curtin, and it paid off. Atlanta didn’t record a shot after Przybylko’s goal as the youngsters helped closed out the 1-0 win. Curtin called it “Overall, our best performance of the season,” and while he might have had some recency bias, it certainly belongs high up the list.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Curtin admitted to having “nerves” as he sent a 17-year-old (Sullivan), two 18-year-olds (Aaronson and McGlynn), and a 21-year-old (Fontana) in to face an Atlanta lineup that cost nearly $40 million in transfer fees to assemble — and that’s without star striker Josef Martínez, who missed the game due to a knee injury.
“You saw all of them step on the field and in a big way, make a big imprint on the game, which isn’t easy to do,” Curtin said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not nervous when I do it, but at the same time, more times than not when you give young players an opportunity, they step up in a big way — and they did tonight.”
Martínez added his own praise. He said through a translator that “it’s not just the coach who has trust in those players. We all have trust in all the homegrowns.”
Aaronson said Curtin kept the instructions to him simple: “Go on, be creative, play your game, and make the impact.” And he thanked Curtin for handling the crop of academy products “with a lot of respect.”
Curtin even praised McGlynn and Aaronson for the most veteran of moves, wasting time on the ball in the game’s closing minutes. Aaronson pled guilty.
“You kind of pick up on those things as you get more experienced in the game, but you also can pick up things like that like by watching the game,” he said, citing his veteran teammates and their rivals in the Concacaf Champions League as examples.
Aaronson probably didn’t learn the sport’s dark arts in the classrooms of the Union’s high school in Wayne. But as his brother Brenden showed playing for the U.S. men’s national team in World Cup qualifying, those street smarts are a vital tool for success in the world’s game.
“Sometimes you can use it to your advantage, but sometimes the ref’s obviously going to pick up on it,” the younger Aaronson said. “It’s just kind of reading the game and the situation and how the ref’s dealing with the game and the opponent.”
That Paxten Aaronson has already established himself as Gazdag’s backup is a great sign, since Aaronson wasn’t supposed to be really ready for the big stage until next year. But it begs a question about Gazdag, who looked good at times Saturday but still hasn’t scored a goal from open play for the Union.
In answering that question, Curtin noted that Gazdag has played 50 games for clubs and country over the last 12 months, and that Tranquillo Barnetta and Bořek Dočkal also needed time to settle in here. Curtin was right about all of that, but he knows what everyone else is seeing.
“There’s an adjustment for all players one way or the other,” Curtin said. “But still we see the quality in training. We believe in Daniel, we know those performances will continue to get better and better.”