National Writer: Charles Boehm

Philadelphia Union "raised our level" in slump-breaking win at Portland Timbers

It’s about 2,400 miles from Philadelphia to Portland by air. That’s a long traipse across a big continent, and for the Philadelphia Union, this weekend’s trip to face the Timbers was further complicated by a midweek game vs. Inter Miami CF and the usual difficulties of a long, loud night in front of the Rose City faithful at Providence Park.

The DOOP squad handled all that, seemingly with ease, in Sunday’s 2-0 road win, snapping a five-game league winless skid to end MLS Week 13 alone atop the Eastern Conference standings and underline their credentials as a championship contender.

“I think a lot of teams when they get on the plane, they kind of go ‘uh oh, we'll take our loss and get back on the plane,’ said Union head coach Jim Curtin postgame. “I don't think that this group has that mentality anymore. And I really am proud of the confidence that they showed, the character that they showed in the game.”

In a league where home-field advantage traditionally carries outsize statistical weight, results like Sunday’s are a precious commodity, and Philly have Daniel Gazdag to thank after their Hungarian playmaker resourcefully conjured an impressive overhead kick to set the game states in the visitors’ favor with an early lead.

After a plodding start to his MLS career after his midseason arrival last year, Gazdag now has seven goals – which puts him in a seven-way tie for third place in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race – and three assists this season.

“Gazdag, for me right now, 13 games into a season is really at a point where you can start to judge our team and what we're about, and he's carrying us right now on the offensive side,” said Curtin. “Actually, when you look back at all the tape, he probably deserves double-digit assists already too, the passes that he's played that we just haven't finished off. He's been a little unlucky on some of the goals that goalkeepers have made big saves.

“I'll be the first to say I respect all the other players in the league, and I know how good and talented some of the leading MVP candidates are. But I'm here to tell you I think Daniel should be a name that's brought up now, because he's doing that well.”

Speaking to reporters after the game, Gazdag acknowledged his slow start in Philly, and like Curtin, suggested that the famously atmospheric Providence Park was a source of inspiration rather than intimidation.

“Last year, I arrived during the season here, It was a bit tough for me. In the first two, three months I was without my family,” said Gazdag. “I came alone because of the visa situation and also the COVID situation at that time. So yeah it was a bit tough to adapt for the team the first time. But in this season, I feel more comfortable.

“I think it was a really good atmosphere and a really nice stadium to score a goal like this.”

This was a vintage Philly performance, a clear manifestation of the organized, efficient, bruisingly physical identity Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner have cultivated, and Gazdag’s early moment of magic placed the Union right where they usually want to be.

“It's easy in moments like that to kind of crumble and shrink [on] a night like tonight in a really hostile environment with a great crowd,” said Curtin, “and we didn't do that. We kind of raised our level. I thought we started the game the right way. Obviously, Daniel, it takes a special player to make a special play to get you going and Daniel scores a great goal for us. Then from there, I thought we were comfortable and in control of the game … that second goal that we haven't gotten in the other games, to kind of separate ourselves and get a little breathing room, was big.”

The clinching strike arrived via the head of striker Sergio Santos, who remains streaky and was nearly subbed out due to a muscular issue not long before his thumping header beat goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic.

“He had a little bit of soreness and tightness. I didn't want to be something that he injures himself and he said ‘no, keep me in, I'm good,’ And we trusted him and he scored a huge goal for us,” said Curtin.

“Sergio’s the type of striker that the goals come in bunches and when he gets hot, he can run off a couple, he can get into a rhythm where he's scoring and carrying us. So we need that from him. We need that from everybody. We're not a team that's going to have a – I hope we do, but I don't think we're going to have a 25-goal scorer, individually. So it's got to be by committee.”

Even as his side kept a step ahead of defending MLS Cup holders New York City FC atop the table this weekend, Curtin confessed that he remains tempted to rue the costs of their five consecutive draws, three of them at home, heading into this fixture. And that itself says a great deal about the scale of the Union’s hopes and ambitions for 2022.

“We know that it's still a long way to go. As the coach I'm still actually angry at some of the points we dropped because there could be some more separation in the Eastern Conference if we took care of business,” said the coach. “You guys have heard me say you are what your record says you are, it’s the old Bill Parcells [quote] and I kind of believe that. We're 13 games into a season, I think we have a really good team. We're not great yet.”