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Jim Curtin’s gamble on bringing Sergio Santos in down a man paid off big with Union’s late goal

“What’s the difference if you lose 3-0 or 1-0?” Curtin said. “So we decided to go for it.”

Sergio Santos (left) leaps into the arms of Jim Curtin (front right) and Aurélien Collin after scoring the late tying goal for the Union against the Red Bulls.
Sergio Santos (left) leaps into the arms of Jim Curtin (front right) and Aurélien Collin after scoring the late tying goal for the Union against the Red Bulls.Read moreAndrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

HARRISON, N.J. — A lot of managers around the soccer world wouldn’t have done what Jim Curtin did in subbing in Sergio Santos late in the second half Thursday night.

They certainly wouldn’t have sent Santos in for Leon Flach, who played arguably his best game in a Union uniform, with their team down a man and Flach among the most important people in keeping the Red Bulls’ attack at bay.

But Curtin decided to go for the gamble, and it paid off big. Twelve minutes after taking the field, Santos leaped high to head Olivier Mbaizo’s cross in off the far post for an 85th-minute equalizer in the Union’s 1-1 tie at the New York Red Bulls.

» READ MORE: Sergio Santos’ late goal steals a 1-1 tie for Union at Red Bulls

The many Union fans in the announced crowd of 10,013 who braved flood-causing thunderstorms on the way in and the arrival of Tropical Storm Elsa on the way out roared with delight as Santos leaped into Curtin’s arms in front of the Union’s bench.

“We had it in our mind that, at 75 minutes, give Sergio roughly 20 minutes, at least [counting] extra time, to make a play, and he came up and was a beast,” Curtin said.

Most of the time when the Union go down a man, Curtin makes subs to play with one forward to preserve his team’s strength with a four-man midfield. This time, he saw New York’s players starting to tire and decided to push the accelerator with two forwards and three midfielders.

“The decision to switch formations, to go 4-2-1-2, which is risky on the road against a good team,” Curtin said, “what’s the difference if you lose 3-0 or 1-0? So we decided to go for it.”

Hang that quote on the office wall of a manager with a newly extended contract in his back pocket and a team brimming with character.

“The grit, the fight, the belief that they showed for the entirety of the 97-plus minutes, I couldn’t be more proud,” Curtin said. “I would have been proud of this team even had we lost this game, to be honest, because of the way that they fought, the way that they played. I would have said we’re going to be just fine if we continue to bring that kind of effort and mentality and play that way.”

Santos’ live-wire attacking style is an example of that. Curtin expects to start the Brazilian in the Union’s next game, against D.C. United at Subaru Park on July 17. With nine days off, Santos will hopefully have time to build up his stamina to play for most of the game.

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

And the Union will need him even more than they already have because Jamiro Monteiro will be suspended for yellow-card accumulation after drawing a booking amid a last-minute fracas in front of the Red Bulls’ bench.

Monteiro’s absence will move Dániel Gazdag to the attacking midfield role everyone has been waiting for him to play, including Curtin. We saw plenty of hints of Gazdag’s potential Thursday night in his spell as a second forward with Kacper Przybylko.

“He’s getting used to this league and getting acclimated,” Curtin said. “I warned him as much as I could that Red Bull games are chaotic. They’re crazy. He got a full dose of it. … You can tell he’s a quality soccer player, and I think people are going to see that sharpness in front of goal is going to come as well.”

It’s likely that Quinn Sullivan will be one of the players to come off the bench, and Curtin hopes Ilsinho will be fit to return to action as a sub, too. That would give the Union’s attack a needed boost as the team seeks its first win since its last home game, June 23 against Columbus.

» READ MORE: Quinn Sullivan’s bicycle-kick goal in his first MLS start was a dream moment for one of Philly soccer’s most famous families