2017 Union fearless forecast

2017 Union fearless forecast

A few months after qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs for only the second time in franchise history -- which preceded an early postseason exit -- the Philadelphia Union are ready to take the next step in their eighth season of play.

But can the franchise finally win its first-ever playoff game? What can fans expect from the offseason acquisitions? How much better can the team's young core of Andre Blake, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers get? Who will be the star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into their season opener vs. Vancouver on Sunday (9:30 p.m., TCN), CSNPhilly.com soccer writers Dave Zeitlin and Ryan Bright break it all down and offer some sure-to-be-wrong predictions for the Union's much-anticipated 2017 campaign.

Team MVP
DZ: Alejandro Bedoya -- Most Union fans probably weren't wowed by Bedoya over the final 10 games of the 2016 season after he was signed. But it's important to remember that midseason acquisitions often struggle to get their footing, especially when coming from Europe. It's also important to remember that Bedoya had a full preseason to mesh with his teammates and get settled in Philly. Oh and one more thing: he's a regular starter with the U.S. national team. If that doesn't translate to MLS success, I'm not sure what does.

RB: Andre Blake -- The reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year has an overall better team in front of him but a shaky-enough backline to give him nightmares. Luckily for the Union, Blake is the fixer. Coming off a good preseason, the Jamaican international will be relied upon to be the team's best player on a nightly basis -- and he'll deliver once again.

Top newcomer
DZ: Oguchi Onyewu -- World Cup veteran Haris Medunjanin is an easy choice here, and you can also make the case for English striker Jay Simpson, US national team player Fafa Picault or even rookie Adam Najem. But something says that 34-year-old center back Onyewu will surprise some of the people that assumed his career was over and recapture a little bit of the magic that made him one of the most feared American soccer players of his generation. (Or he'll get hurt and barely play. I immediately regret this decision.)

RB: Haris Medunjanin -- The Bosnian native won't move the needle when it comes to name recognition, but he could be the Union's most impactful ball-mover. Playing deep in the midfield, Medunjanin will be the primary facilitator that links the attack together. He will be a mainstay for the Union all season.

Biggest surprise
DZ: Derrick Jones -- Union head coach Jim Curtin had a surprise up his sleeve last year when he decided to start unheralded rookie Ken Tribbett in the 2016 opener, and now he appears poised to go with another opening-day surprise starter in 19-year-old midfielder Derrick Jones. It may be tough for Jones to retain his spot in the defensive midfield when Warren Creavalle and Maurice Edu recover from injury. But if Jones -- who Curtin calls the franchise's first true Homegrown signing from their growing youth academy --  is able to deliver some first-team minutes and score a few goals, it would be a very nice surprise for the club's future.

RB: Ilsinho -- Although Ilsinho is a known entity, he will stun the league this season with his goal-scoring prowess. The aging Brazilian has leaned down from his rookie MLS season and has been instructed by Curtin to shoot more, a little-known ability he put on fine display this preseason. Ilsinho will be the goal-scorer the Union didn’t know they had.

Biggest disappointment
DZ: Maurice Edu -- It's not unreasonable to ask, at this point, if Edu will ever be healthy again. After being sidelined for the end of the 2015 campaign and all of the 2016 season, he's set to now miss some time at the start of 2017 with his recovery going slower than expected. He's only 30 years old so it's too soon to start thinking about retirement. But even if he does find his way back onto the field, will the former US national team starter be the same player he once was?

RB: Chris Pontius -- Pontius led the Union with 12 goals last season but will disappoint in 2017. The Union will still rely on his finishing ability and he will be a productive asset, but last year's prowess matched with his recent call-up to the U.S. national team's January camp will elevate expectations that Pontius won't be able to reach.

Biggest controversy
DZ: Roland Alberg's minutes -- When Tranquillo Barnetta decided to leave the Union to finish his career in his native Switzerland, Roland Alberg seemed poised to take that over the starting No. 10 attacking midfield role. But heading into the season, it looks like Bedoya will take that spot as Alberg tries to find some minutes off the bench while maybe competing for time with guys like C.J. Sapong and Ilsinho. After scoring nine goals in only 1,153 minutes last season -- his first in MLS -- how would the talented 26-year-old Dutch midfielder handle an even more limited role this season? Something says he won't like it too much. 

RB: Jay Simpson vs. C.J. Sapong -- The battle between Sapong and Simpson for the top striker spot will be pronounced all season long. But the controversy will truly begin when Curtin rides one of his forwards through a slump. If the club's offensive lights go out for an extended stretch, how Curtin manages the forward group will be a very hot topic.

They'll make the playoffs if … 
DZ: Bedoya and Medunjanin form the potent midfield combo that Curtin hopes, Pontius continues to carry much of the scoring load, and Blake remains the shot-stopping phenom that wins them points in tough spots.

RB: Onyewu, Richie Marquez and Blake form an unbeatable holy trinity of defense. Scoring goals shouldn't be an issue for Curtin's squad, but giving them up might be. If the center back grouping of Marquez and Onyewu can control play, and Blake can put out enough fires, the Union will win enough games to sneak into the playoffs.

They'll miss the playoffs if … 
DZ: Other players join Edu and Joshua Yaro on the injury list, Rosenberry and Herbers endure sophomore slumps, and Simpson and Onyewu prove not to be the right answers at the two trouble spots of striker and center back.

RB: The Eastern Conference is as good as it looks on paper. With impressive looking clubs like Toronto FC, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, the Montreal Impact and Atlanta United all tightly competing for the postseason, the Union won't have much room for error.

Predicted finish
DZ: Considering their only key loss from last season was Barnetta and they acquired at least four potential starting-caliber MLS players, the Union should improve upon last season's sixth-place result. But it's hard to see them climbing higher than fifth place in the East, and another Knockout Round playoff exit seems like the most likely scenario.

RB: Despite adding talent around a solid core and showing a more consistent form, the Union fail to keep up in the East and miss the playoffs by a hair. It won't be a late-season collapse that does them in but an improved conference that remains one step ahead throughout.

Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

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Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

CHESTER, Pa. — When Saturday’s game ended, Union midfielder Borek Dockal told head coach Jim Curtin two things: that his body felt fine and that he knows he can play a lot better.

That’s probably just about all Union fans need to hear.

Sure, it was a mostly uneventful and somewhat disappointing MLS debut for the team’s new Designated Player in a scoreless draw with Columbus Crew SC (see observations). But it’s also a long season and Dockal is still trying to mesh with his teammates and get his fitness up after dealing with a preseason ankle injury.

“I think he had some good moments,” Curtin said. “I think you can see his quality and how comfortable he is on the ball. He can pass and he looks forward. … [But] it’s been a week where he’s really trained with the group, so you see a ball played behind when he’s looking to play through. It’s going to take a little bit of time. But overall [I’m] happy with the amount of minutes he was able to push.”

Dockal, signed only three days before the start of the 2018 season, was a tougher critic on himself after sometimes struggling to connect passes and move to the right spot in his 77 minutes of action. But the Czech playmaker also acknowledged that he needs more time to adapt to MLS and learn his teammates’ tendencies.

“For me, it was the first game so it was a little bit about how to find my space on the field, to see how my teammates are moving, which kind of positions should I be in the most to help them,” said Dockal, who sat out the Union’s first game — a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution. “So I just have to learn from this first game and be better the next game.”

Expectations will certainly be raised when the Union play their next game, in two weeks, on the road against the Colorado Rapids. But expectations are already high for Dockal, who has experience in the Champions League and with the Czech Republic national team.

Along with fellow newcomer David Accam — who he said the team needs to find more on the wing — Dockal is filling in what was a major position of need last year and should provide a major offensive punch in the midfield, playing in front of veterans Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.

It just hasn’t happened yet.

“My performance definitely can be better,” Dockal said. “But I have to start at some point so it would actually be a miracle if I played an excellent game today.”

“Overall, it’s a first step and nothing replicates these games,” Curtin said. “We didn’t put him on the ball as much as we would have liked. ... But he's an incredibly talented guy."

Union lifeless in draw with Crew

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Union lifeless in draw with Crew

CHESTER, Pa. — In a matchup of two teams with perfect records, it ended up being a stalemate.

On Saturday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union and Columbus Crew SC fought to a scoreless draw as goalkeepers Andre Blake and Zack Steffen finished with three saves apiece.

The Union move to 1-0-1 on the season while the Crew, who entered the day in first place in the Eastern Conference, sit at 2-0-1.

• With the Union coming off a weird early bye week, the game lacked fluidity for much of the first half as both teams only put one shot on target before halftime. 

• Borek Dockal, the Union’s new Designated Player, made his MLS debut after sitting out the opener. The Czech playmaker looked tentative early in the match and had some giveaways in the second half before coming out in the 77th minute. It’s too early, of course, to make any judgements but that probably wasn’t the kind of debut head coach Jim Curtin hoped to see.

• David Accam, the team’s other prized newcomer, enjoyed good start to the second half and was active throughout in his second game in Philly. It shouldn’t be long before he opens his account for the Union.

• Steffen came through with a couple of big saves early in the second half for Columbus. It might be hard for some Philly fans to see the Downingtown native and former Union academy player on the visiting side, even if they do get to cheer for a star ’keeper of their own in Blake.

• CJ Sapong, fresh off signing a new contract, couldn’t get on the ball much or even get any shots off. The Union striker had three goals and three assists in seven previous meetings against the Crew.

• On the other end of the field, Gyasi Zardes was held in check after scoring three goals in his first two games for Columbus following a trade from the LA Galaxy. That’s a good sign for the progress of Philly’s young center backs, Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty.

• Ray Gaddis entered the game as a halftime sub for Fabinho, who left with a leg injury. Fabinho and Gaddis are both two of the club’s longest-tenured players, and Gaddis being able to play as both a left back and right back is a nice luxury to have off the bench.

• Despite an announced attendance of 15,323, the crowd at Talen Energy Stadium looked smaller than usual — and with less energy. A lot of that probably has to do with the on-field play but in general, the Union seem to have a better home-field advantage during night games, when the atmosphere is more electric.

• A shoutout to the Sons of Ben, though, for unveiling some cool Philly tifo before kickoff — a “cheesesteak shark” preying on a boat of Crew rowers underneath the word “Jawns.” 

• The Union — who are 4-1-1 in their last six meetings with the Crew — are off again next weekend before before facing Colorado on March 31 in their first road game of 2018.