Jim Curtin optimistic as Union travel to continue preseason in Florida

Jim Curtin optimistic as Union travel to continue preseason in Florida

CHESTER, Pa. — It’s only been a week, but Jim Curtin is feeling optimistic.

“There’s a lot of buy-in right now,” the Union manager said at Talen Energy Stadium.

Following a week of pushing his team through training at The Power Training Complex, Curtin didn’t hide his excitement over this particular group, which takes to Clearwater, Florida, on Tuesday for the next phase of their preseason. He likes the variety, and more importantly, the experience.

“We have a good young group with a good mix of veterans that can show the way,” he said. “It’s exciting, the core group of guys has been in two [U.S. Open Cup] finals and a disappointing playoff loss. There’s hunger to take that next step and that next step is the hardest one, it’s a big one.”

One benefit to returning 21 players is that the Union get a head start on chemistry. Still, the club is using its stint in Florida, which runs through Feb. 25, to build on that heading into their first match of the season against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 5.

“It’s not going to be a new team but it’ll give us the opportunity to get to know each other well, play together as a team and build on the identity that we began to create last year,” defender Josh Yaro said. “It’s about gaining confidence and getting ready for the season opener. Everything we’re doing now is going to be focused on getting a result in Vancouver.”

But to get ready for Vancouver, the Union will need to shake off the end of last season. Despite a strong start, the club went winless in its final eight games of the season, including a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Toronto FC.

“We’re all moving forward and you can tell it with the atmosphere that we have and in the training sessions,” forward C.J. Sapong said. “Everybody is glad to be back and want to take it a step further this season.”

Florida camp also gives the Union a chance for evaluation. Whether it’s competition at center back between Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and Oguchi Onyewu, left back between Fabinho and Giliano Wijnaldum or forward between Jay Simpson and Sapong, Curtin, there are big decisions to make.

“It’s to be determined and a work in progress,” Curtin said. “There will be healthy competition, just like there is at all spots. That’s [Union sporting director Earnie Stewart’s] one thing, it’s creating that. Tough choices for me, though, so that’s good.”

With that in mind, Curtin is ready to take the next step with a team he feels good about.

"There are 21 other teams that think they have something special too, so I'm not naive," Curtin said. "But I really like where our group is at. Everyone is contributing in a real positive way and the locker room is tight. That part of things goes a long way." 

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.