C.J. Sapong's natural hat trick helps Union end long winless drought

C.J. Sapong's natural hat trick helps Union end long winless drought


CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union can finally breathe.

With a three-goal burst in the second-half, C.J. Sapong and the Union stunned the New York Red Bulls, 3-0, Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium, snapping the Union’s nine-match winless streak in 2017 and 16-game winless run dating back to Aug. 2016.

“You can’t put it into words,” said Sapong, whose club is now 1-4-4 on the season. “It’s been a long, hard working road for us to get this win. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re going to let this marinate, but then we still have a lot of climbing to do.” 

The hat trick was the first of Sapong’s career as he moved into a tie with Houston Dynamo’s Cubo Torres for the lead league with seven goals. Andre Blake earned the four-save shutout to claim back-to-back clean sheets. The Red Bulls move to 5-5-1.

“I’ve been adamant about keeping shutouts, being better defensively and giving us a chance to win games toward the end,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said. “Credit to the whole team. All 11 players, even guys who came in subs, playing together, sliding, shifting, doing all the hard work. C.J. does a lot up there and pays himself back with a hat trick.”

Despite holding 57.8 percent of the possession and playing generally well in the opening half, it was a vanilla stanza for both clubs. The Union, with Oguchi Onyewu in for the ill Richie Marquez and Ray Gaddis in for Keegan Rosenberry at right back, the hosts outshot the Red Bulls, 2-1 but couldn’t generate much else.

“I thought the first half was even the better half for us,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I thought we actually played great soccer with the ball, passed and made them run a little bit with the passes out of the back from the outside back to the opposite center back and made them work a lot.” 

But that changed in the 63rd minute, when Curtin made two tough substitutions, subbing Rosenberry, making his first appearance in three games, for injured Gaddis, while Derrick Jones also replaced hobbled Roland Alberg at the same time.

The moves began a momentum shift for the Union that came to a head in the 74th minute. On a fast break with Alejandro Bedoya, Sapong put the game on his shoulders and fired off a shot that deflected off the leg of Aaron Long and through Luis Robles for the 1-0 Union lead.

“The defender was doing well blocking off Ale,” Sapong said. “I knew I wouldn’t have too much space to get too far wide so I figured to just take a quick touch and shoot. I’ve been a little inconsistent sometimes, I’ll get four shots one game and no shots the next day. I just tried to keep it on goal, it’s a beautiful thing.” 

Sapong wasn’t finished. The forward put an exclamation point on the match in the 81st, when a ball placed across the box was headed down by Pontius and to Sapong at the top of the crease, where he easily placed it in. Sapong completed the hat trick in an 85th, capitalizing on a penalty kick to take the victory.

“I want to thank our fans, the ones that stuck with us now through this tough time,” Curtin said. “It’s difficult. Now you can see when a team has confidence, it’s pretty fun to watch. The building was loud. It was electric. And for the fans that have bailed on us, we understand and we will work hard to win you back. This is a good first step.”

“Relief,” Bedoya said. “It’s a big sigh of relief. Joy is finally back in here. It’s a good solid win against a rival. Red Bull is a good team. I think I can speak for everybody here: it’s a big weight off our shoulders. And smiles everywhere, which is good.”

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.