The Philadelphia Union's attacking display stood out in the team's 4-1 win against the Montreal Impact on Sunday, though an unlikely player contributed to that display: Mark McKenzie. The defender picked up assists on the Union's third and fourth goals, a performance that showed his importance to the Union. Head coach Jim Curtin was raving about McKenzie's showing, including his assist credit shared with Brenden Aaronson for the third goal scored by Kacper Przybylko.
"The ball he plays to Brenden, I get excited by," Curtin said after the match. "He looks off the defenders, he threads that through a window that is incredibly tight with the deception that he puts into that pass. At field level, you could see it and it made two to three guys move in such a way that cleared space. If you could compare to basketball, it was almost like a no-look pass on the fast break that kind of threads the needle so it was a special pass, that one for me was one that I actually shouted up to Chris Albright in the stand."
McKenzie himself said his attacking contributions are the result of work in training, and joked that he was a natural No. 9. For the pass on the third goal, McKenzie said he wanted to take advantage of an opportunity presented to him.
"Montreal’s left back, he was cheating a little bit out to [Matt Real] and the center back was a little slow so I noticed," McKenzie said, and noticed Aaronson had a head start. "It’s just about at that point executing the pass, making sure I put the right weight on it so that way I could give Brenden a chance to catch up to it and then ultimately to make the play, which he did."
Capitalizing on chance was a theme of the Union's win over the Impact, which saw them ended a sloppy first five minutes by conceding a goal courtesy of a free kick from Romell Quioto. The dynamic of the match permanently shifted ten minutes later when Quioto elbowed McKenzie and was sent off, giving the Union a chance to recalibrate.
"They gave us a lot of problems in the first half, even when they went down a man," Curtin said. "We needed to start the second half with a little more tempo, eliminate the loose passing and the sluggishness. I thought too often in the first half, we were caught in between. Do we step? Do we drop? We were kinda … aggressive. To the players’ credit, they really responded at the start of the second half and killed the game off pretty quickly, which I was happy with."
McKenzie's two assists came in that crucial second half, the first just two minutes after the break to really put the match out of reach for Montreal. McKenzie noted that the Union's focus on attack allowed them to demonstrate the capability to be one of the best teams in the East as teams get closer to the playoffs.
"It shows our maturity," McKenzie said. "I wanted to win games. Not just win them 1-0, 2-1 but wanting to do them in decisive manners and tonight we had the opportunity. We’re up a man, they’re a little wounded and that’s time for us to really maximize on our opportunities. At the end of the season, those little details matter so ultimately it’s about making sure we’re putting our chances away and separating ourselves from the rest of the pack so that way come November, we’re in a good position."
McKenzie's performance was crucial in the victory, and he demonstrated an evolution, who had already proved his credentials as a center back but has increased his level lately.
"Mark has emerged as one of the best center backs in this league," Curtin said. "Mark has really stepped it up and I’m really happy to watch him grow and get better each and every game, but two balls to set us up against a team that was playing a pretty aggressive high line."