Reenergized Oguchi Onyewu ready to keep 'silencing the critics' in DC homecoming

Reenergized Oguchi Onyewu ready to keep 'silencing the critics' in DC homecoming

CHESTER, Pa. — Oguchi Onyewu isn't sure yet how many of his family members will be in attendance at RFK Stadium for Saturday's game against D.C. United (7:00 p.m., TCN). But the first-year Philadelphia Union defender is guessing there will be quite a few.

"You can definitely expect a double-digit number," Onyewu said after practice Thursday, before adding with a smile: "If not triple."

That makes sense considering Onyewu grew up in the D.C. suburbs and used to train in the summers with United as he was beginning his long professional career overseas. And as his time in Europe drew to a close, the 34-year-old center back admitted that D.C. United could have worked well as a soft landing spot, especially when you consider that head coach Ben Olsen was a former teammate of Onyewu's on the U.S. national team. 

But when it came down to it, Onyewu never got a chance to play for his hometown team. And now he wants to do the next best thing: beat 'em.

"For me, D.C. was always an option," Onyewu said. "It would have made sense, in terms of proximity and my roots. But the reality of the situation is the club never approached me for an opportunity like that."

"Right now, I'm more than happy in Philly," he added. "This is probably the best situation MLS-wise I could have ended up in. We have a great training facility, a great stadium, great fans — and outside of that, I have a number of friends on the team I've known prior. The locker room is probably the best locker room I've ever been a part of in my career."

The fact that Onyewu calls the Union locker room the best he's ever been a part of is quite the statement, considering he's played for more than 10 teams during a 16-year professional career. And his success with the US national team as a key player in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups is well-documented too.

Still despite his past success, there were questions coming into the 2017 MLS season as to how the veteran center back would fit in during his first spell in MLS — and also how he'd be able to perform after missing more than a year due to injury.

To both points, Union head coach Jim Curtin thinks he's thus far passed with flying colors.

"I think he's been excellent," Curtin said. "I think if you take each game, he's faced a different challenge and has done really well. … He's worked very hard to get his body back to full fitness and to be able to go 90 [minutes], 90, 90 three games in a row, we're really happy with where he’s at."

At some point soon, Curtin will be faced with a tough decision as second-year center back Joshua Yaro is progressing nicely from shoulder surgery and could supplant Onyewu in the starting lineup.

But at the moment, Curtin is more focused as to how Onyewu has interacted with Yaro and other young defenders. How the playing time shakes out with everyone healthy is almost a secondary concern.

"Gooch has a ton of experience and has done a lot for Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty," Curtin said. "Maybe people don't see it from the outside. But I'd have to say Jack's growth as a player has been accelerated really quickly. He's a guy we now pick for our 18 and part of the credit needs to go to Gooch for talking with him, keeping him going."

Curtin also has liked the on-field partnership Onyewu has honed with fellow starter Richie Marquez through the first three games, calling the 34-year-old "our anchor back there."

But after a shutout on opening day, the Union have given up two goals in each of the past two games and are still searching for the first win of the season as they prepare to take on a D.C. team that will be hungry to score their first goal of the season.

How does Gooch assess both his own performance and that of his new team's so far?

"I don't feel like I've hit my peak performance yet," Onyewu said. "That's to be understood. It's early in the season and the reality of the situation is I had a year off playing due to injury. But I don't think there's any visible rust as people would have probably assumed and I read. For whatever reason they made assumptions early on. But I think thus far I've kind of silenced the critics.

"Right now, it's up to us to kind of turn the corner on the season," he added, "and start getting some wins."

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.