When the final whistle sounded Sunday night and the Union’s bench players charged the field to celebrate the team’s first trophy, they all ran toward Ray Gaddis.
They knew, as did everyone else at Subaru Park, what this moment meant for the Union’s longest-tenured player.
“Being here through all the ups and downs — last year was a remarkable feat winning our first playoff game, but now to add some silverware, the first-ever trophy to the team, I think all the guys really knew how much it meant to me,” he said. “It was a special feeling.”
Alejandro Bedoya is the Union’s captain and Andre Blake is the marshal of the defense from his post between the sticks. But Gaddis is the soul of the Union’s locker room in so many ways, from how he teaches the team’s younger players to his leadership in the Black Players for Change anti-racism campaign.
He has brought it on the field, too, quieting his critics this season. Ever since Ernst Tanner became the Union’s sporting director, there have been outside expectations that Gaddis wouldn’t be able to meet the high demands placed on outside backs in a counter-pressing system. But the 30-year-old has raised his game to arguably its highest level in his nine seasons as a pro.
“I want to be with Ray Gaddis for the rest of my coaching career,” manager Jim Curtin said after the game. “He’s that special of a player. He should never wear another jersey.”
Gaddis was especially good Sunday, reminding everyone of what the Union missed when he was injured last month. He recorded 53 touches, four clearances, two tackles and one interception, and completed 16 of 22 passes.
He even came tantalizingly close to scoring his first career goal on a shot in the 14th minute, only to see it blocked by Henry Kessler. The look of what-could-have-been on Gaddis' face was shared all around the stadium.
But the ultimate redemption came at the final whistle.
Here’s a look at some other key performances in the game.
He likely won’t make the MLS Best XI, the all-league team. But if you were to pick one Union midfielder to name to the squad, he should be it, and he showed why again Sunday. Monteiro finished with 66 touches, two shots, three chances created, seven dribbles downfield, five tackles and two interceptions, and completed 24 of 38 passes.
His claim to the title of best left back in the league grew stronger again Sunday. Wagner recorded 79 touches, three tackles, two interceptions, two clearances, and an astonishing seven aerial duels won. He completed 30 of 44 passes, including six of 12 long balls.
The box score said he only made one save, but it felt like he made a few more. Regardless of what the official scorer thinks, there was no doubt that Freese justified Jim Curtin’s gamble to start him over Joe Bendik.
For almost all of his six-plus years in charge, Curtin has been hounded by critics convinced that his lack of pedigree means he shouldn’t have the job. Now the Oreland native forever will be known as the manager of the first Union team to win a trophy.
His players have sworn by him from day one, and not just the academy products who’ve known him for a decade. The veterans and international players in the locker room vouch for him just as much. That was proven again Sunday when no one cheered more for Freese from the bench than Bendik.
“He knows how to push the right buttons tactically for our group, and he’s really a student of the game,” Gaddis said, specifically praising Curtin for “getting the best out of his players with such quick succession in games" during this upended season.
“He’s able to manage the roster. He’s listening to the players,” Gaddis added. “He’s continued to grow as a coach, year by year, as he learns more.”
» READ MORE: Union clinch berth in 2021 Concacaf Champions League
Curtin and Orlando City’s Óscar Pareja are the leading candidates for MLS Coach of the Year. Pareja has worked a minor miracle with the Lions, bringing stability and quality soccer to a franchise that has been among the league’s most underachieving since it launched in 2015.
But when Pareja took the job last December, he was already known as a successful manager. He led FC Dallas to the Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup in 2016, and helped develop elite prospects such as Paxton Pomykal, Reggie Cannon and Chris Richards. The latter two are now in Europe.
So while it’s been great to see Pareja win in Orlando, it hasn’t been all that surprising.
Curtin hasn’t had the same degree of outside respect, and obviously he hadn’t won anything until now. Only those who knew him knew how good he could be if he could coach the quality of player that could actually deliver victories.
Now he has those players; now he has those victories; and now, at long last, he has a trophy on his résumé. He should have this season’s Coach of the Year award on his résumé, too.