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

Santos has scored just one goal in 700 minutes across 15 games this year, and hasn't played a full 90 minutes since March 1 of last year.

Sergio Santos (left) battles New England's Andrew Farrell at Subaru Park in mid-May.
Sergio Santos (left) battles New England's Andrew Farrell at Subaru Park in mid-May.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

As the Union prepare to likely spend the rest of this month without Andre Blake, Cory Burke, and Alvas Powell, there’s pressure all around the team to step up in the absence of the Jamaican Gold Cup team trio.

It’s natural to think that the most pressure will be on backup goalkeeper Matt Freese since Blake is in the midst of another outstanding season in net. And we can only imagine what will be on Freese’s mind, playing a week after his father’s death as the starter for the Union’s visit to the New York Red Bulls on Thursday (8 p.m., PHL17).

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

But the player who is under the most pressure is Sergio Santos. With Jack de Vries and Anthony Fontana still in concussion protocol, the Union are down to two healthy forwards, Santos and Kacper Przybylko.

The alarms about Santos aren’t just because he has scored one goal in 700 minutes over 15 games this year. They’re because he hasn’t played a full game since March 1, 2020, last year’s season opener, a stretch of 38 contests.

Santos is the Union’s best player at shattering opponents’ back lines on counterattacks. He’s a streaky scorer, but the Union can live with that when other players are finding the net.

None of that matters, though, if Santos isn’t on the field in the first place. His durability has been a quiet concern for a while now, and it could become a loud concern this month.

“What we’ve worked on with Sergio is his ability to combine, to maybe run a little smarter,” manager Jim Curtin said. “There’s no question that when he’s on the field he always leads our team in sprints and running. But now can we do that so that maybe we can last a little longer in the game?”

If Santos again cannot play a full game, the next option would be Dániel Gazdag. He played as a withdrawn forward at times for his previous club, Honvéd in Hungary. Doing so here would free him to show his attacking skills to the greatest degree he has yet with the Union.

» READ MORE: Jim Curtin played Dániel Gazdag out of position in the Union’s loss to Nashville, and it backfired

Gazdag might not be fit for a full 90 minutes, either. His 56 minutes on the field in the Union’s loss at Nashville on Saturday were his first game action since suffering a knee injury at Hungary’s pre-European Championship training camp.

Curtin indicated his new star playmaker is improving his full fitness and, just as important, his chemistry with his new teammates.

“He’s certainly a guy that can play as a No. 10, can play as a second striker. He’s really good around the goal, and we’re seeing that in training,” Curtin said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to get him up to speed and acclimated with the group, and most of that pressure is on us. It’s not on the player. So I think you’ll see big things for him as he gets more fitness, as he gains more continuity with his teammates, as he gets used to our system and style.”

Gazdag playing a more advanced attacking role could lead to a midfield quartet of Jamiro Monteiro, Alejandro Bedoya, Leon Flach, and José Andrés Martínez. It’s a lot of defense, but Thursday’s game is a business trip.

And if a stout defensive effort gives Freese a boost amid a rough time off the field, it will be all the better.

“Often times we just expect [players] to come to work and, you know, be fine at all times,” Curtin said. “They’re not robots. They’re not cyborgs. They’re not superheroes. They’re human beings. … He’s a great young professional. He wants this moment, and I’m sure in the back of his mind he wants to make his father proud in a certain type of way as well.”