Any doubts about the lingering effects of last week’s sketchy offensive performance against FC Cincinnati were extinguished 16 minutes into the game against the Chicago Fire Saturday night at Subaru Park.
After pressing Chicago’s backline repeatedly in the opening minutes, Dániel Gazdag proved again why he’s the worthy MVP candidate that national writers seem to forget. Running onto a Julián Carranza through ball on the transition, Gazdag cut the ball back, putting Frederico Navarro on the ground, then faked to the near side before chipping Chelsea-bound Gaga Slonina to the far side to give the Union a 1-0 lead. The Union never looked back, finishing with a 4-1 victory to extend their lead on top of the Eastern Conference and their home league unbeaten streak to 18 games (13W, 5D).
“It was a good transition from us,” Gazdag said after the game of the goal. “I saw the defender and the keeper waited that I will keep the ball on the ground to the left side, so that’s why I chipped it to the other side because I knew nobody’s going to be there.”
With relentless pressure off fine-tuned combination play, which led to the second goal by Jack Elliott off a Union corner kick, Gazdag and company put their coach at ease by halftime. “Daniel got us going with a special transition goal where he has a little magic and does some special things,” Curtin said. “From that point on, I think we grew in the game, grew in confidence. To be up 2-0 at home is not a guaranteed win, but it puts us in a really strong spot because we don’t give up a whole lot of chances.”
The front three of Uhre, Carranza, and Gazdag, flummoxed a week ago by a physical Cincinnati back three that at times played like a back five, found the back of the net again on another transition in the 53rd minute, four minutes after Chicago cut the Union lead to one. After a long ball from Andre Blake, Gazdag found Uhre through, but the pass took a deflection, and
Uhre’s first-time poke forced Slonina to the ground to make the save. Carranza followed with a delicate chip over the keeper and into the net to extend the Union lead.
“As our forwards go, we go,” Curtin said. “When they work hard together and fight for every ball, I don’t care if they make mistakes and have turnovers, but if the effort’s there and they’re getting on with the next play and not worrying about a mistake, they have the green light in the attacking third to do whatever they want.”
Finding the rhythm between the front three had been a key point of emphasis this week in training according to Curtin, and it appeared like the trio didn’t need much time to get going.
“The connection between the three of us is really good, not only tonight but since a while,” Gazdag said. “They [Uhre and Carranza] can run behind defenders if you need but they can play soccer if you need. I’m happy to be with them, and we’re happy that we scored goals.”
The Union have scored 21 goals in their last five home games. Only LAFC (22 in 2019) and LA Galaxy (22 in 1998 and 2015) have scored more home goals in a five-game stretch. Gazdag, Uhre, and Carranza have been fantastic during that stand, combining for 14 goals and 7 assists.
While holding a considerable MLS lead with only 19 goals against, the Union are tied at the top of the Eastern Conference with New York City FC on 45 goals for and rank third in the league behind LAFC (54) and Austin FC (53). Though the Union are built defensively and had a few rare mistakes in the back last week, Curtin admitted the quality of attacking play needed to improve, starting with the front three.
“In the Cincinnati game, [they] put too much pressure on themselves and tried to make a play every time they touched the ball,” he said. “That’s not a way for a striker or an attacking player to play.” Against Cincinnati, the front three combined for three shots, one hitting the target. Against Chicago, both Gazdag and Carranza finished with a goal and an assist while Uhre added an assist. Individually, their chance creation went up dramatically a week ago with an expected goal plus expected assist ratio (XG+XA) of .51 for Gazdag, .49 for Uhre, and .41 for Carranza compared to last week’s .2, .11, and .01 respectively. Stats aside, their combination play in front of the back line was excellent and led to numerous building attacks, allowing the midfielders and defenders to get ahead in waves, something Cincinnati did well to maintain.
The quick rebound means bad news for FC Dallas and DC United, next week’s Union opponents, considering the Union front three are now among the league leaders in goals plus assists. Gazdag 18 (12/6) is tied for third with Lucas Zelarayán and Diego Rubio while Carranza 15 (9/6) and Uhre 11 (8/3) are not far off the pace. “They’re a handful when they get going and they get confident,” Curtin added. “It’s really tough for any backline, entries into the green zone, little combinations, little deception, and all the runs, and their movement was really good tonight.”
Dallas is fifth in the lead in goals against, and it’s unlikely the Union will put up another seven spot against DC now that Wayne Rooney is at the helm, but on the road, Curtin’s side will look to defend and counter quickly, meaning more of what we saw Saturday from Gazdag, Uhre, and Carranza.