Eighteen months ago, Dániel Gazdag was locked into a relegation battle in the Hungarian top flight. It wasn’t glamorous, but through some excellent individual performances, his career was beginning to illuminate.
Gazdag carried a few caps with Hungary’s national team and was about to enter his prime. A change was coming, but not one he could have planned for.
From almost 4,500 miles away, the Philadelphia Union identified him as a top target – a player mostly unknown to MLS, a career path mostly unknown to Hungarians. Then a couple of phone calls with head coach Jim Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner quickly convinced Gazdag he’d be right at home in Philadelphia.
So, he went.
“It’s not a typical move from Hungary,” Gazdag told MLSsoccer.com. He’s only the ninth Hungarian player in MLS history and only the fourth to come directly from a Hungarian club. “It was a bit surprising for some people when I came here, but as soon as the club reached out, I felt they really wanted me. Jim called me, the sporting director called me. How they talked to me, they really wanted me to be part of the Union. It’s why I came here.”
Things have worked out beautifully for the player and the club. After a career year as Gazdag exploded into becoming an MLS star, he’s now a mainstay for Hungary while the top-seeded Union are preparing to host NYCFC for the Eastern Conference Final on Sunday at Subaru Park (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
“He’s been above and beyond anything we could have hoped for,” Curtin said.
Gazdag adapted to life off the field pretty quickly after a bit of a culture shock in 2021. He’s even now a big Philadelphia 76ers fan.
“We can say it worked out well so far,” Gazdag added with a laugh. “I’m really happy here.”
Year two breakout
Talks were ongoing between the Union and Gazdag’s previous club, Budapest Honved, throughout the winter and into the spring. A potential deal was agreed upon in principle for a bit, but Honved wanted to keep Gazdag around until it was mathematically certain they wouldn’t be relegated. The Union understood that was the only way to sign the player, so they agreed.
Mathematical safety took longer than Philadelphia hoped and the deal didn’t become official until May 11, 2021. He debuted on May 23 off the bench, then immediately had to return to Europe for national team duty. He didn’t get settled in with a run of starts until July, which is normally his offseason.
Ultimately, Gazdag went from July 2020 through November 2021 straight without a break between Honved, Philly and the national team. His debut season in MLS wasn’t bad but wasn’t glittering either, with 4g/5a in 1,337 minutes.
“I mean, last year I arrived during the season. That’s not the most optimal,” Gazdag said. “I also came right after my season in Europe ended, so I couldn’t rest any. That wasn’t the best. I just needed time to get used to the team and my teammates needed time to get used to me.”
This season, Gazdag started hot and never slowed down, to the tune of 22 goals and 10 assists in nearly 3,000 minutes as he was ever-present for the league’s most productive attack.
The attacking trio of Gazdag, Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre exploded in the summer, as the Union set records for goal outbursts that included games with seven goals, six goals (three times!), five goals and four goals (three times) over the last 16 matches of the year.
“They’re really good players,” Gazdag said of Carranza and Uhre. “Our styles fit so well with each other and we’re so happy when any of us score – we’re not selfish guys. We like to help each other. I can say the whole team is like that, not just the three of us. That’s the secret.”
Carranza finished with 14g/9a and Uhre with 13g/6a to complement Gazdag’s output. Off the ball, all three are integral to the club’s high-pressing system.
“Dániel does so much work defensively for us that a lot of players can’t match,” Curtin said. “His goals and assists are incredible – the way he links our back four to our forwards is great – but I love the defensive work he does.”
Throughout the year, Gazdag enjoyed highs with the national team. They were promoted to League A of the Nations League, the top tier, and were grouped with Italy, England and Germany. They shocked the continent, finishing second in that group, including a 4-0 thrashing of England in which Gazdag scored in, as well as a win over Germany.
“He’s a great player to work with and he’s about as humble as a player I’ve ever worked with,” Curtin said. “Especially a player who plays for his national team, who goes and beats Germany, but comes back to this team and treats everyone the same way and not think he’s better than anybody. Great person, great player. I hope he’s here for a long time.”
When the list of year-end award finalists came out, Gazdag was conspicuously not among the five finalists for 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors. He finished tied for second in goals (just one behind Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Hany Mukhtar) and was second in goals + assists (also trailing only Mukhtar).
Gazdag was undoubtedly one of the league’s best players on one of the league’s best teams, but he didn’t make the cut.
“I’m not frustrated,” Gazdag said with a pause. “Anymore.”
The Union have been heavily represented this awards season. Andre Blake was nominated for MVP and took home Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors for the third time in his career. Curtin earned Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year honors for the second time, while Jakob Glesnes was dubbed Defender of the Year, a category Kai Wagner finished second in.
“Dániel is having as good of a year as any player has ever had in this league,” Curtin said. “When we’re talking about MVP, it’s an award he should have been up for. I actually thought he would have finished second. To not be nominated is kind of criminal.”
Gazdag is a favorite to place on the Best XI presented by Continental Tire though, so there’s still a chance he’s not completely shut out from personal accolades this fall.
“It hurts. When you’re working for something all year and feel you’ve done a good job but you’re not on the list, it was bad for me.” Gazdag said. “I was disappointed, but it is how it is.”