Daniel Gazdag needed time to settle in. After playing a full season before joining a new team in a new country during a global pandemic, the former Hungarian Player of the Year had to make multiple adjustments on and off the field. And for a number 10, the hardest position on the field to adapt, with high expectations after becoming the club’s most expensive signing, a club that had won the regular season title in 2020 and was competing in an international competition for the first time, the pressure of meeting those expectations loomed.
Scoring four goals and dishing out three assists in his first 23 games, Gazdag’s production came in spurts: a goal and assist versus Toronto in August, a brace on the road against Minnesota in October. He looked like a 10, moved like a 10, had an impeccable touch, wasn’t afraid to receive the ball in traffic, made decisive passes into the box, well-timed runs between the strikers. As the season progressed, his quality became more evident. With goals in back-to-back games for Hungary in World Cup Qualifiers in November ahead of the MLS playoffs, Gazdag entered the postseason primed to lead the Union to its first MLS Cup. He produced mixed performances against the Red Bulls and Nashville SC, where he scored despite the team’s difficulty penetrating the final third. Against New York City FC, while missing half the squad, the team’s struggle to score the decisive goal in the second half fell on his shoulders, whether fair or not.
This season, Gazdag’s statistical value is coinciding with his quality. His 7 goals are tied for third in the league, and he’s ranked third in MLS in non-penalty expected goals (5.9), an odd and confusing statistic which means he’s putting himself in good scoring positions and is able to do it more often than his counterparts. Among MLS attacking midfielders, Gazdag ranks in the 95th percentile in npxG (.41) and the 83rd percentile in npxG+A (5.4) over the past year.
“I feel that I am in good form now,” Gazdag said after the Red Bulls game when asked about the difference in his play to start the season. “I scored already in the second game of the season. So I got confidence after that.”
Gazdag has contributed toward a goal in 9 of the last 12 games, directly playing a role in 56% of the Union’s goals. “I try to give my best every time and now I feel that the things are happening right when I touch the ball, so I feel I need to keep it up,” he said.
Gazdag has also made strides on the defensive end. After 12 games, he ranks 14th in mid-third pressures with 129 (Flach-first with 181). As a key second or third defender in the Union’s pressing system, he’s improved his recognition of timing and closing angles during pressing situations, which has already created more Union chances from defensive actions and more goals than this time last season, including his steal and tap-in against Charlotte FC and his beauty against the Red Bulls.
Over the past five MLS games, he’s had 3 goals and 2 assists, forming partnerships with Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre, and Sergio Santos, all of whom have been in and out of the lineup over the past several weeks, which makes it more difficult to develop synchronous movements.
Gazdag was excellent against the Red Bulls, unfazed receiving the ball with a swarm of defenders. He was controlling, made surging runs into space, and challenged opponents one vs one, megging multiple players, exuding the greatness we’ve come to expect from our best player. Then came the goal.
Following Jose’ Martinez’s long ball over the top, Gazdag sat in the “green zone,” the space between the defensive line and the central midfielders, anticipating the second ball. He received a favorable clearance from Sean Nealis but settled the ball with his first touch and immediately rolled it into Sergio Santos’s feet, initiating a one-two into the penalty area. His decisive movement signaled his demand for the ball and his finish left no chance for Carlos Coronel and was reminiscent of the highlight reels we devoured upon his arrival.
GAZDAG with goal No. 7 of the season pic.twitter.com/xNNwZ1dpey— Brotherly Game (@BrotherlyGame) May 23, 2022
He followed that up with maybe his best goal in a Union uniform with an overhead kick goal in the 5th minute against Portland on Sunday. The goal stunned the raucous crowd of 22,288 at Providence Park and the Timbers never really recovered in the 2-0 loss.
Union coach Jim Curtin said he’s pleased the fans now recognize the player he’s seen in training since last summer.
“You could still see his quality last year, but now I think he’s raised his level even higher,” Curtin said. “And I think part of it is as simple as he’s just used to being here. He’s used to his teammates, he’s used to the way the guys play. Everybody’s now programmed to get him the ball as much as possible.”
In a matchup of two of the league’s highest pressing teams in the Red Bull game, Gazdag looked at ease.
“He has the quality,” Curtin said, “he sees the game a little differently, he passes and moves, and he’s that type of guy that when the game gets fast, like it was chaotic in the first half, he’s the one we needed to put on the ball a little more where now it kind of calms down.”
As Gazdag continues to grow confidant and comfortable and pace the Union offense, he’s making an early case for consideration for the league’s MVP, at a bargain. Among the goal leaders this season, Gazdag has the third-lowest salary and earns a fraction of notable players in his position (Alejandro Pozuelo $3.8 million, Luiz Araújo $3.6 million, Carles Gil $3.25 million, Lucas Zelaryán $3.1 million, Luciano Acosta $1.94 million, Hany Mukhtar $1.63 million, Sebastián Blanco $1.34 million).
MLS Top Goal-Scorers - May 2022
|Player||Goals (as of May 24)||2022 Base Salary|
|Player||Goals (as of May 24)||2022 Base Salary|
With one game remaining before the international break, the Union have played some of the league’s best in the last month and a half. Though five straight ties and a U.S. Open Cup loss can be frustrating, Gazdag’s play has not. He’s one of the reasons why the Union are still holding onto first place. Along with three assists, his .54 goals per game average is on pace to finish second-highest in club history (Picault/Burke .58 in 2019). The Union’s next five opponents are a combined 22-25-15 with an average of 1.37 goals against per game, so Gazdag will have plenty of opportunities to create more scoring chances.
Gazdag continues to prove himself on the world stage as well. He’s been included in Hungary’s Nation’s League squad for matches against England (2), Italy and Germany in the first two weeks of June, and he’ll likely return for the mid-season push in his best form yet, a scary thought for upcoming opponents.