Union 2016 awards: From best goal to most surprising moment

Union 2016 awards: From best goal to most surprising moment

The Union’s 2016 is hard to explain.

There were jaw-dropping ups, headshaking downs and an impressive playoff berth that felt hollow after a late-season collapse. The club had young players, like Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Andre Blake, give fans a taste of the future, while old guys like Chris Pontius, Brian Carroll and Fabinho outdid themselves. Maurice Edu broke his leg. Twice. Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies joined the team, and Vincent Nogueira disappeared almost overnight. 

To wrap up this crazy year, here are Ryan Bright and Dave Zeitlin’s 2016 Union awards. 

Most memorable moment
The 2016 MLS SuperDraft 
It’s rare that the MLS draft changes a franchise, but that’s exactly what it did for the Union, who snagged Yaro, Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers with the second, third and sixth overall picks. While Yaro had a promising learning year, Rosenberry became a star, playing every minute of the season and getting U.S. Men’s National Team attention. Herbers led the club with seven assists. 

Dave: Big roster moves
The thing that stands out the most in 2016 might be something that happened off the field. It’s not every year, after all, that the Union sign a U.S. national team World Cup starter. But that’s what they did when they locked up Bedoya to a long-term deal during the summer transfer window, before signing his good friend and former USMNT veteran Davies while trading away franchise legend Sebastien Le Toux. When they stopped to catch their breath, the club’s future suddenly looked a whole lot different. 

Most disappointing moment
Not hosting a playoff game 
After back-to-back wins against the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City in late August, the Union had the opportunity to not only make the playoffs but host a playoff game. That didn’t happen. The club went winless in their final seven games, traveling to BMO Field, where the club lost the first-round playoff match to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, Toronto FC.

Dave: Playoff washout
It wasn’t a surprise that the Union lost their first-round game in the playoffs considering they went on the road to face a superior Toronto FC team that ended up hosting the MLS Cup final. But it still stung to get bounced from their first postseason berth in five years so quickly and finish the season winless in their last eight. Making the playoffs was an accomplishment, but the fact remains the club has never won a playoff game in seven years.

Best game
Union vs. D.C. United, May 20
It wasn’t a goal-scoring fest, but the Eastern Conference win at Talen Energy Stadium sent a message throughout the league that the Union might be for real. Richie Marquez scored his first-ever goal in the 91st minute from Le Toux, and Blake stood tall for the two-save shutout, as the Union’s unbeaten streak ran to five games, which they eventually pushed to eight. It was the club’s fifth win in their first 11 games, marking an unprecedented start for the unsuspecting Union.

Dave: Union vs. Orlando City SC, May 25 
This won’t sit well with the ties-are-terrible crowd but Philly’s 2-2 draw with Orlando on May 25 had a little bit of everything. Among the highlights: Drexel grad Ken Tribbett had his first career goal and first career assist after only coming in because of an injury; Blake saved a penalty kick from the legend Kaka; Orlando scored two controversial goals that had Union head coach Jim Curtin fuming; Philly’s Warren Creavalle was taken down in the box without the ref blowing his whistle, which had Curtin even more upset; Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute; and the Union ran a smoothly designed set piece that should have resulted in a goal. When all the smoke cleared, the Union upped their unbeaten streak to six, which they would extend to eight leading into the Copa America break. 

Best goal
Ryan: Alejandro Bedoya’s chip against Toronto FC 
Just when Bedoya began feeling the criticism for not being as impactful as his new MLS contract warranted, he struck on Sept. 24 against Toronto FC. Accepting a pretty pass from Herbers, Bedoya accepted possession with one turn and lofted a volley that found space between Clint Irwin and the crossbar for his first with the Union.

Dave: Fabian Herbers’ rocket against Columbus Crew
With all due respect to Tranquillo Barnetta’s masterful free-kick goals and Bedoya’s jaw-dropping chip, I’ll go with the fans on this one and say the best one — perhaps because it was the most unlikely — was winger Herbers’ perfectly placed rocket into the top corner vs. Columbus on June 1. The goal not only was the eventual game-winner to push Philly’s unbeaten run to eight with an exciting 3-2 win over the Crew but it was also the first of the rookie’s MLS career. Not a bad way to open your scoring account.

Ryan: Andre Blake
Selected as the league’s best goalkeeper, Blake was responsible for being the fixer when the Union’s young back line faltered. Though the keeper wasn’t flawless, he was good for at least one game-saving stop per match, earning countless points for the Union throughout the year.

Dave: Chris Pontius
All-Star selections Blake and Rosenberry rightfully won most of the praise for their breakout seasons. Perhaps slightly more overlooked was Chris Pontius, who finished with a team-leading 12 goals and six assists in his first year in Philly while overcoming the injuries that had plagued him with former club D.C. United. Pontius is now back in the U.S. national team conversation, earned MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors, and is my choice for team MVP.

Unsung hero
Ryan: Chris Pontius
Even though he was recognized with MLS Comeback Player of the Year, Pontius was the most consistent attacking force on the Union. In 2016, he had the most productive season of his career, leading the Union with 12 goals, adding six assists in 33 games. On a team with a plethora of up-and-coming talent and budding star power, MLS veteran Pontius was the club’s attacking MVP.

Dave: Richie Marquez
While much was made of Rosenberry being the only MLS player to play every minute of the season, center back Marquez quietly finished third in the league in minutes played, having played all but one game. Philly’s defense wasn’t always great, but Marquez still provided a steadying presence in the back in his first full season starting, and should only improve in 2017 if paired with a more experienced center back. 

The surprise of the season
Ryan: Vincent Nogueira leaving
With the Union rolling midway through June, the worst-case scenario happened -- their most important midfielder abruptly terminated his contract. Nogueira, who had been with the Union for the previous two seasons, cited a medical condition before heading back to France. The move was a stunner and sent the Union into a tailspin they couldn’t recover from, going 5-11-4 the rest of the way.

Dave: Vincent Nogueira leaving
Nogueira leaving in the middle of the season for a personal health reason naturally took a lot of people by surprise. And it was not a good surprise, as the well-liked, talented and underrated playmaker left a big hole in the midfield that the club could not recover from as they sputtered to the finish line.

One word to describe 2016 Union
Ryan: Promising
Dave: Rising

Why 2017 will be better
Ryan: With a year in MLS under his belt, Union sporting director Earnie Stewart knows what he needs and will go out and get it. Hosting a playoff match will be the 2017 end goal and there’s reason to believe Stewart will add to his core and put the right pieces in place to do that.

Dave: Losing an influential midfielder like Barnetta will be difficult, but giving Bedoya a full preseason and possibly getting Edu back from injury could make the midfield even more potent. The fact that players like Rosenberry, Herbers and Blake are coming off such great seasons gives the team a good young core to build around. And Stewart and head coach Curtin seem well aware that finding a big-time striker and experienced defender are holes that need to be filled before preseason begins.

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.