Inside Doop: Union tumble from 4th to 6th in the East

Inside Doop: Union tumble from 4th to 6th in the East

Things just got a lot dicier for the Union in their quest to make the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. And a postseason home game may be slipping away too.

In this week’s Inside Doop, we’ll look back at the Union’s detrimental 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls — which, coupled with D.C. United and Montreal wins over the weekend, sent them tumbling from fourth to sixth place in the East. And we’ll look ahead to what now may be two must-win games to close the regular season.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game

1. It certainly was an exciting, playoff-like contest at Red Bull Arena as two rivals traded goals, leads and big plays from their biggest players. But for the Union, it also proved to be frustrating and scary as two starters — center back Joshua Yaro and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya — had to leave early with injuries. The Yaro one was especially bad as the rookie, who was coming off a concussion, got sandwiched between two players on a jump ball and fell to the ground motionless before getting stretchered off the field. He later tweeted he was feeling better but with a head injury like that, you have to wonder if he’s done for the year (more on that later). More immediately, his 31st-minute exit seemed to shake the team up as they lost their early lead and struggled defensively the rest of the way.

2. The good news for the Union is that All-Star goalie Andre Blake made a couple more Superman saves in a season that’s been full of them. The bad news is that even with Blake bailing them out, they still allowed three goals due in large part to some shoddy marking in the box on set pieces. The game-winning goal from Dax McCarty was particularly glaring as the diminutive Red Bulls captain got a free header after losing C.J. Sapong (who continues to be stuck in a nasty slump). Ken Tribbett, who came in for Yaro, also let the speedy Bradley Wright-Phillips get behind him for a goal earlier in the second half, but it’s naturally unfair to blame him entirely for the shift of momentum that resulted from the center back switch.

3. Despite the loss, the Union enjoyed some standout performances on the offensive end with Fabinho logging a pair of assists, rookie Fabian Herbers scoring a goal after getting assists in three straight games, and above all else, Chris Pontius matching a career high with his 12th goal of the season. Pontius also had an assist with a clever pass on Herbers’ goal and nearly scored what would have been an incredible game-tying goal on a bicycle kick but was denied by a great save from Red Bulls goalie Luis Robles. Pontius, who scored just six total goals between 2013 and 2015, has to be a leading contender for the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award.

Three questions for the week(s) ahead

1. While the Union dropped two spots over the weekend, the Eastern Conference playoff picture did become clearer. The two New York teams and Toronto will fight for the top two spots and the accompanying first-round bye, while Montreal, D.C., Philly and seventh-place New England will occupy three of the final four spots. The Union are still in good shape to hold off New England and make the playoffs but they’ve lost control of their own destiny to finish in the top four, which would give them a first-round home game. Meanwhile, their next opponent — ninth-place Orlando City SC — was eliminated from contention over the weekend, which makes for an interesting dynamic. Will Orlando be lifeless at the end of such a disappointing season? Or will they relish the role of spoiler? And how will the Union prepare them with an extra week since the game is not until Oct. 16 due to an international break?

2. It remains to be seen if Yaro will be able to return but you can be sure Curtin and the Union coaching staff and training staff will not be hasty and put his career first. Curtin has shown he’s comfortable with Tribbett as a starter but Tribbett has had some rough moments against some of the league’s top strikers — which they’ll naturally see in the playoffs. Captain Maurice Edu, meanwhile, is healthy and should be able to return for at least some action over the final two games of the regular season and the playoffs. But the Union have been comfortable with either Warren Creavalle or Brian Carroll in his defensive midfield role and have seemed wary of putting Edu in to disrupt the chemistry. It’s been asked before and mostly brushed off but it probably bears repeating at this point: should Edu finish the season as a center back, where he’s played well for most of his Union tenure? Or, put another way: if your option is Tribbett or (a possibly rusty) Edu for an elimination game, who do you go with?

3. Bedoya’s injury appeared to be a minor one as he left early in the second half with rib soreness. He initially was called up to the U.S. national team for their game against Cuba on Friday but had his name withdrawn because of the injury. An extra week between games should help him recover, as should remaining in Philly instead of traveling with the USMNT. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on heading into the Orlando game — and what kind of ripple effects his possible absence or perhaps more limited role could create.

Stat of the week
Fabinho’s six assists this season are the second most for a Union defender in club history. Sheanon Williams had eight in 2013.

Quote of the week
“I think we gave away too many soft goals, two goals on set pieces, and that is inexcusable. We’ve got to do better.”

Alejandro Bedoya, Union midfielder

Player of the week
Despite Blake’s heroics and Herbers staying hot, Pontius is an easy choice here. With his 12th goal, he moved into a tie for second place on the Union’s all-time single-season scoring list with Jack McInerney (2013) and Sebastien Le Toux (2014). Le Toux holds the record with 14 goals in the Union’s expansion season in 2010.

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.