The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)
Textbook goal shows Union haven’t missed a beat in season opener
The Union’s season-opening 4-1 win over Columbus Saturday night will live long in fans’ memory for the sensational spin and assist by Joaquin Torres to Julian Carranza for the fourth goal.
But the more salient of the Union’s quartet of tallies was the night’s second, also by Carranza. It’s the distillation of all of the Union’s principles, near the platonic ideal of counterattacking soccer that Ernst Tanner prizes.
It started, as many of the Union’s preferred goals do, with the opponent having the ball, in the 52nd minute. But a tackle by Jose Martinez on Lucas Zelarayan just inside the Crew’s defensive half sent the Union off to the races. A quick and decisive forward link-up between Martinez and Daniel Gazdag, and suddenly what had been a five-against-five press turned into a 4-on-3 break for the Union. Eight touches and nine seconds later, and the Crew were picking the ball up out of their net.
That’s literally a training drill the Union have repped thousands of times, a quick action to goal that reinforces how to make decisions and execute at speed.
“That’s what we train every single week,” Carranza said. “We try to turn them over, play in behind them, try to cross the ball, get people in the area. That’s clearly how we play always, so it was a nice goal.”
Saturday, it meant Gazdag feeding Alejandro Bedoya’s run on the right channel, and the captain threading a one-touch low cross through the six-yard box that Carranza, making a driving near-post run, tapped home.
There’s an instructive snapshot in that action. When Gazdag receives the pass from Martinez and gallops at the backline, the Union have a numerical advantage. They hold a quality advantage in the momentary game within the game, too: The Union’s four, including Mikael Uhre, combined for 55 goals and 31 assists; Columbus’s crew in the moment includes two MLS debutants (defender Philip Quinton, later to be skewered by Torres, and goalie Patrick Schulte) plus a right back (Steven Moreira) playing out of position.
But most important is the edge in familiarity. While it’s a high-percentage chance, of the ilk that the Union’s press is designed to generate, it still requires someone putting the ball in the net. And the continuity from last year makes that easier, from four guys who know each other’s tendencies.
“They know each other really, really well,” manager Jim Curtin said. “And they know where to give certain guys the ball, who wants it at their feet, who wants it in behind, who wants it to their left foot, who wants it to their right foot. They really understand that, and that comes with playing 90 minutes together over and over and over.”
The cohesiveness is starkest in the opening game, when so many teams are trying to divine an identity. The Crew are at the opposite pole of familiarity: It finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last year, which cost coach Caleb Porter his job. Wilfried Nancy is implementing the ideas that made him a coach of the year candidate last year in Montreal. He has the pieces – Zelarayan as one of the league’s top No. 10s, Cucho Hernandez as a prolific finisher in his first half-year in MLS, Darlington Nagbe as one of the league’s most elegant midfielders of the last two decades – to be what Curtin called “a very, very, very good team” eventually. That was sufficient to make the Union uncomfortable for long stretches, before a Gazdag penalty kick on the stroke of halftime sent the teams into the break even at 1.
“The first half was difficult for us,” Carranza said. “We couldn’t manage to keep the ball, to press them well. They were playing pretty good. We were far from the ball all the time, and the penalty at the end of the half gave us some more energy to come on the second half and to do better the things we were doing pretty bad, to be honest.”
The Union have learned, in their multi-year growth curve under Curtin, the difference between good for stretches and consistently excellent. They were decidedly the latter last year. Goals like Carranza’s show the path toward replicating that this season.
“I think the second goal was very nice,” Gazdag said. “It was a Union goal. We practice that a lot, so I was really happy that we scored a goal like that today. It was an important goal because we took the lead with that goal.”