Lacking first-rounder, Union seek hidden gem in 2017 MLS SuperDraft

Lacking first-rounder, Union seek hidden gem in 2017 MLS SuperDraft

After engineering a franchise-altering splash at the draft last season, sporting director Earnie Stewart and the Union enter the 2017 MLS SuperDraft on Friday in Los Angeles from a different perspective.

“It’s not going to be as exciting as it was last year,” Stewart said.

Unlike last year, when Stewart changed the course of the franchise by drafting Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers in the 2016 first round, the Union do not possess a first-round selection in Friday’s draft. Instead, the club will have the 33rd and 42nd selection of the second round, along with the 55th, 77th and 82nd picks of the third and fourth rounds which will be selected on Jan. 17.

“We’ve done our homework when it comes to scouting players and what's in the draft right now,” Stewart said. “There’s always those guys that fly under the radar.”

The challenge is identifying that talent. Stewart, who didn’t close the door on trading up in the draft, admitted that his team has its eye on a number of players that could fall to No. 33.

“With the picks that we have, we hope they keep flying under the radar and we’ll be able to pick them up,” he said. “That would be fantastic.”

However, the Union, who traded their original No. 11 pick to the Chicago Fire to move up in allocation order to sign Alejandro Bedoya, and acquired the No. 42 pick from the Colorado Rapids in the Zac MacMath trade, view their position as an opportunity to find a steal.

“It’s great,” Stewart said. “Even with the picks that we have, it’s exciting that we can get players that fly under the radar, good players for the Philadelphia Union. You never know how things shake out. Tom Brady (former sixth-round pick and New England Patriots’ quarterback) is the best example of all. They are there. We try to look at it in a different way. Those guys need to be identified.”

While Stewart wouldn’t tip his hand to whom the Union were looking at, he did shine some light on his draft strategy. The club is always looking for immediate help but is just fine selecting a project.

“You try to look short term,” he said. “If that’s not there, you look a little longer term. You look at our roster, you look at contracts running out and you try to get young kids a chance. We’ll see if we can get a long-term solution.”

The reason a project might work is the Union’s USL affiliate, the Bethlehem Steel. The Union feel comfortable drafting a player to let them mature with heavy playing time and under close guidance of the parent club in the USL.

“With the picks that we have right now there will be young talent there,” Stewart said. “We’ve seen it last year with younger guys that came through our academy like Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty, that we can pick up players who can get valuable minutes with the Bethlehem Steel.”

Although Jeremy Ebobisse, a forward from Duke and the expected first overall pick of expansion site Minnesota United, won’t likely be in the Union’s wheelhouse, local players might.

Guys like forward Alec Neumann from Penn, forward Connor Maloney and defender Robert Sagel from Penn State and Temple forward Jorge Gomez Sanchez could be on the Union’s shortlist as the project they are looking for.

“Everyone says there’s not a lot of talent here but players emerge and have an impact in MLS,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “We have a good eye on the entire country but even stronger understanding the talent in our area and players in our backyard.”

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.