After lost 2016, Union captain Maurice Edu eager to get back on field

After lost 2016, Union captain Maurice Edu eager to get back on field

CHESTER, Pa. — Maurice Edu still can't believe the brutal timing of it all.

After waiting patiently the entire year to return from a stress fracture, the Philadelphia Union captain was set to make his 2016 season debut in late October vs. the New York Red Bulls, just before the club's first playoff appearance in five years.

But then he suffered what he called "a freak accident" in practice, snapping his left fibula and damaging his ankle while planting his foot, which officially ended his season without any appearances.

So after an entirely lost 2016, it was only natural that the midfielder was immediately asked how he's feeling heading into the 2017 campaign.

"I knew that was coming, right?" Edu said Tuesday, following the team's first practice of the preseason. "You guys are probably tired of hearing the same answer and the same story. I'm just taking it day by day, recovering. ... It's just a gradual progression with the obvious mindset of getting on the field as fast as possible."

Edu said he had surgery in early November and was on crutches and in a walking boot for about the next six weeks. But he's felt better since then, and Union head coach Jim Curtin hopes the veteran midfielder is cleared to run by early February while the team is in Florida for preseason camp.

At the same time, Curtin admitted he was wary of putting a timetable on it after last year's saga when Edu was initially expected to return early in the season before being diagnosed with a stress fracture that was supposed to keep him out for an estimated 3 to 4 months. Then, even after returning to practice in July and making several rehab appearances with affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC, Edu was kept out of the lineup for a couple more months before suffering his second major injury.

"I hate putting timelines on it but ... it's not too far off," Curtin said. "He's been progressing well. All things are positive but, at the same time, we have to be smart how we manage it. It's a completely separate fracture from the previous one."

While injured last year, Edu took on a different role, trying to still be the leader of the locker room and encourage other players. But having been sidelined since the 2015 U.S. Open Cup final, he's eager to get back on the field with those teammates and play alongside Alejandro Bedoya, Philly's prized pickup last summer, for the first time in what could potentially be a dynamic midfield.

But Edu also doesn't want to be "too eager," as he says he was at times during his recovery last year — a lesson he'll take with him into the 2017 season.

"For whatever reason, it just wasn't meant to be [last year]," Edu said. "So I'm just trying to come in here with a clean mindset and not dwell on what happened last season, not let that impact me now in terms of how I'm going about my rehab and the things I'm doing.

"I can't dwell on it, can't feel sorry for myself. I've just gotta put my head down and get to work again."

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.