Inside Doop: Union start crucial road trip with frustrating loss

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Inside Doop: Union start crucial road trip with frustrating loss

The Union started a three-game road trip on the other side of the country against the defending champions in one of the toughest stadiums to play in … and played pretty well.

Just not quite well enough to win.

Here’s a look back at the Union's 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Saturday and what they need to do to get points as two more daunting road games approach and the regular season nears its conclusion.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Lack of finishing killed the visitors is this one as the Union put a very respectable eight shots on target but were robbed a couple of times by Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson. C.J. Sapong also hit the post after an incredible setup by Tranquillo Barnetta, continuing the run of bad luck from the Union striker. Over his last six games — all starts — Sapong hasn’t scored and has only put two shots on frame. And he’s only scored two total goals since mid-May — a troubling statistic for a player that was counted on for a lot coming into the season. It almost goes without saying that Sapong needs to turn it on over the next couple of months or the Union could be facing a short stay in the playoffs, if they get there at all. (But it should be noted that thanks to some other results in the East, they still remain in very good position to get there.)

2. Keegan Rosenberry has been touted for MLS Rookie of the Year by many Union teammates and fans throughout the season. And he probably deserves it, even if the award is likely to go to Sounders striker Jordan Morris. But for one of the only times this season, Rosenberry looked like, well, a rookie, as he struggled to deal with the speed of Darren Mattocks, who assisted on both Portland goals. And his fellow first-round pick from Georgetown, Joshua Yaro, also had a tough night, getting shown two yellow cards. Before he was ejected, Yaro actually made a couple of very nice defensive plays, including a goal-line clearance, so his presence will be missed next week when he serves his one-game red card suspension.

3. Chris Pontius proved once again that when the Union need a goal, he’s the player to turn to. Continuing his remarkable comeback season after an injury-riddled stint in D.C., Pontius upped his team-high goal total to 11 — one off his career high. And he probably could have had another if not for a great kick save from Gleeson. Like Sapong, Pontius is going to be counted on for a lot of offense in the home stretch. And he looks like he’s poised to deliver.

Three question for the week ahead
1. With Saturday’s loss, the Union’s road record dipped to 3-8-4. And two of those three wins came against Columbus Crew SC, who are tied for the second fewest points in MLS. That probably doesn’t inspire much hope in Philly fans as the Union prepare to hit the road to face Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. But getting at least one or two points during that stretch could be vital so the Union can avoid going back on the road in the playoffs. If they can remain in fourth place or higher, they’ll host an opening-round game. If they fall to fifth or sixth, they could make a trip to, say, Montreal where their chances of moving on to the Eastern Conference semifinals drop precipitously. 

2. Could it be time to give Sapong a day off? Sometimes that’s the perfect remedy for a slumping player and the Union do now have a solid option to replace him in the seasoned Charlie Davies, who head coach Jim Curtin likes to say heats up when the weather gets cooler. The Union could also give rookie Fabian Herbers time up top and return Ilsinho to his starting role on the right wing now that he’s healthy. Or perhaps Curtin will keep riding Sapong, who to be fair does do a lot of little things well even when he’s not scoring. 

3. With Yaro suspended, Curtin will almost certainly turn to Ken Tribbett, who’s been platooning with Yaro for much of the season anyway. The big question is how Tribbett will fare against arguably the league’s best attack that features reigning MVP Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. national team standout Jozy Altidore. It didn’t work out so well the last time when Tribbett was repeatedly burned by Giovinco and pulled from a 3-1 loss on Aug. 20 at halftime. Perhaps he learned something from the experience. Or perhaps it will help him to have a defensive specialist like Brian Carroll shielding the backline — or, dare we say it, Maurice Edu, who’s now made three rehab appearances with Bethlehem Steel FC as he looks to finally make his season debut.

Stat of the week
After missing the previous six games with plantar fasciitis, Brian Carroll made his 366th career appearance Saturday. That moved the midfielder ahead of Jeff Cunningham and into fourth all-time for field players in MLS history, behind Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis and Steve Ralston.

Quote of the week
“It’s tough on the road in this league. I think the data shows it’s the toughest league in the world actually, percentage-wise, to win on the road.” — Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
On top of his goal and other near-goals, Chris Pontius also had a couple of nice setups and was unlucky not to get at least one assist. Andre Blake made another superhuman save but Pontius was the man of the match for Philly. 

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.