All wins are big during the MLS season, but Wednesday night’s 3-0 victory over Toronto FC carried extra weight. Yes, it was close to a must win, which may have drawn laughter from those who argue that nearly every team makes the playoffs, which is true and tends to water down singular results.
But the Union had only won once in their prior seven games heading into Toronto, and the lone win came against a DC United team that had been near the bottom of the table for most of the season. The previous performances created some causes for concern: un-insprired draws against Chicago, Red Bulls, and Inter Miami where the Union had to claw back from early goals and single-goal road losses to Nashville and Orlando City where the Union never appeared to get going. And with future fixtures such as New England twice, New York City FC, Orlando City, and two Concacaf Champions league semifinal legs against Club América, my own confidence in this team’s ability to get results was teetering.
Toronto was a good win, an important win, but the Union should have beaten a team that’s on its second coach of the season, suffered the league’s most lopsided loss a month ago, is without their best player, and is being led by two U.S. internationals whose great careers are clinging by threads. Wednesday night, Toronto tried to outplay the Union with a slow back three and a midfield that can’t match the Union’s organization for work rate, so the performance was the type this Union team can produce but hasn’t in recent weeks.
Still, there was a difference. Sergio Santos exposed Toronto’s back three in the first half by getting behind and finding the channels, which led to a number of quality chances and ultimately won a penalty in the 32nd minute that Daniel Gazdag deposited for his first Union goal. His own goal followed four minutes later, blowing the half open when he took a perfect first touch, accelerated past the entire Toronto defense, and slotted the ball into the far corner past Toronto keeper Alex Bono.
With four shots in 65 minutes, two on target, and two blocked, Santos created the chances the Union needed to pin Toronto back, which helped establish their rhythm through the midfield. And after an early goal from Jakob Glesnes put the Union up 12 minutes in, the game became ripe for Santos, and did he ever deliver.
In the 15th minute, Santos warmed up the home crowd with some fine dribbling when he spun Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez in the box, creating a look at goal before four defenders converged to poke it away. Less than 10 minutes later, he pulled a double Maradona at the D that beat three Toronto defenders and fell to Gazdag, whose low shot was stopped by Bono.
His impact strengthened with an incredible moment of joyful expression. Receiving a pass in the air that fell off his front shoulder, Santos back-heeled the ball over two defenders, then caught it off his chest while streaking toward goal before his shot was blocked by Chris Mavinga. Thirty seconds later, he made an arcing run to get free at the penalty spot on Leon Flach’s cutter, but Bono blocked his first-time strike with a reactionary kick save.
The game-changing moment came shortly after when Santos took a deflection off his shin that bounced toward the goal and most keepers would have snatched. But Santos had the pace to get to the ball before Bono, the skill to touch it past his arms, and the awareness to drag his legs, drawing a penalty. Santos put his stamp on the game when José Martinez threaded two Toronto defenders from well inside the Union half and into his path. Santos took a long first touch that gave him the start to outrun all three defenders. His second touch carried into the box and his third touch found the back of the net. Santos’ strong, decisive runs showed how well the Union can zip down the field and counter against opponents caught on the other end trying to force the game.
“That was us tonight,” Union coach Jim Curtin said after the game. “That was the Philadelphia Union at their best. The way that we started the game, the way we put Toronto under a lot of pressure, our commitment to run, three guys around the ball, to win the transition game, to score off a restart, all those little details, to play with the lead.” Curtin also offered praise for his striker. “Excellent game from Sergio,” he said. “Maybe best game ever was against Toronto last year, this was probably up there in top games for him as well. Just caused such problems for their backline, wanted to run into the hard spots, finished his goal off, could have had a couple more goals.”
With a healthy Santos in the lineup, whether it’s for 60 minutes or 30 minutes, the Union will be able to create more open space both vertically and horizontally and will allow a playmaker with Gazdag’s quality to fill in. “Of all the guys on our team with the physical attributes and the skillset that he has,” Curtin said, “he has such a high ceiling and can break out at any moment. And he’s almost un-guardable when he gets a head of steam running at the goal.”
Consistency will be key for the Union as well as for Santos. His suspension in Orlando for kicking the ball into the stands negated several Man-of-the-Match level performances, and he now has three goals in his last five matches and is second on the team in scoring with five goals in all competitions. Moving forward with matches against New England and Club América in Mexico City, Santos will play a vital role as the Union look to settle in defensively and find countering opportunities. Against Toronto, the Union may have rediscovered their identity and established some positive flow, which they needed heading into a stretch of games that will be more difficult than the previous one and demand results.