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Sergio Santos’ late goal steals a 1-1 tie for Union at Red Bulls

Observations and analysis on a night where Sergio Santos scored in the 85th minute, saving a game in which goalkeeper Matt Freese was ejected early in the second half.

Sergio Santos, right, celebrates after scoring his late tying goal for the Union.
Sergio Santos, right, celebrates after scoring his late tying goal for the Union.Read moreAndrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

HARRISON, N.J. — The Union stole a 1-1 tie against the New York Red Bulls Thursday night at Red Bull Arena, thanks to Sergio Santos’ 85th-minute goal after starting goalkeeper Matt Freese was ejected in the 56th.

Here are some observations on the game.

Gazdag starts over Santos

Union manager Jim Curtin sent two strong messages by choosing to start Dániel Gazdag next to Kacper Przybylko at forward instead of Sergio Santos. The first was that he wanted Gazdag to be really involved in the attack. The second was that he’d rather have Santos come off the bench as a substitute than bring his energy as a starter.

Moving Gazdag up allowed Curtin to start a defense-first midfield of Jamiro Monteiro, Leon Flach, Alejandro Bedoya, and José Andrés Martínez. And it definitely freed Gazdag to create, as he showed with a series of pretty charges down the field during the first half.

The midfield also worked well. With so much cover around him, Flach contributed more to the attack than he usually does.

Freese’s nightmare

Freese had a strong first half in his first start since the Supporters’ Shield-clinching win last November. But his big night turned into a nightmare when he bear-hugged New York’s Wikelman Carmona on a breakaway play, earning an immediate ejection from referee Victor Rivas.

The pain of the moment was heightened by it being just over a week since Freese’s father died. But it was the right call, and everyone knew it. Gazdag was withdrawn, Joe Bendik entered, and Bendik was beaten on the penalty kick that ensued from the foul.

Freese is automatically suspended for the Union’s next game, July 17 vs. D.C. United. Bendik will likely start that game.

» READ MORE: Dr. Andrew Freese, noted neurosurgeon and pioneer of gene therapy, dies at 61

Curtin’s bet pays off

Santos’ 85th-minute equalizer came against the run of play to say the least. But when Curtin sent Santos in for Flach in the 73rd, he made a bet that his team could steal a goal. The payoff came with a goal that the many Union fans who traveled north for the game will remember for a while.

From there, it was about holding on for the rest of regulation and seven minutes of stoppage time. The Union (5-3-5, 20 points) did so, and delivered a theft of a result.

» READ MORE: Sergio Santos needs to step up for the Union while Cory Burke is with Jamaica at the Gold Cup

Martínez shines

After playing too recklessly in the loss at Nashville, José Andrés Martínez played a terrific game. He recorded 89 touches, 15 recoveries, 11 duels won, four tackles, three clearances, two dribbles past opponents (from seven attempts), and 37-of-48 passing. He beat New York’s Cristian Cásseres Jr. decisively on multiple occasions, notable since the two players were recently Venezuela teammates at the Copa América.

“I thought José was an animal all over the field,” Curtin said.

Pinball soccer

If you’re a fan of possession-based soccer, this game was not for you. If you think soccer is a slow game, you would have been confounded by a first half that featured 13 combined shots, 265 combined passes, 13 fouls, and a big fracas in stoppage time after Dru Yearwood upended Monteiro.

The dynamic of the game changed in the second half because of Freese’s red card and the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa’s heavy rain. But the spirit of both these teams is clear. They both like to speed up games with fast attacks and high-pressure defense.

Curtin and his New York counterpart Gerhard Struber knew the contest would be decided by which team could play their style better. There were times when it felt like the Union had the upper hand, and perhaps an even-strength contest for all 90 minutes would have ended differently.

But this Red Bulls team (5-5-2, 17 points) is the most talented there’s been in a few years, not least because the front office finally spent money on serious attacking talent in Patryk Klimala and fellow striker Fábio. They will rue the dropped points, but the rest of MLS is paying attention to them.