Union-Crew 5 things: Curtin expects reinforcements for crucial match

Union-Crew 5 things: Curtin expects reinforcements for crucial match

Union (6-9-5) vs. Columbus Crew (10-10-1)
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Feeling the sting of a punchless effort and defeat last Saturday, the hobbled Union return home Wednesday with revenge on their mind as they face the Columbus Crew at Talen Energy Stadium in the second half of a crucial Eastern Conference home-and-home series. 

Here are five things to know.

1. Quick recovery
After a season of relative health and fortune, the Union’s roster has taken a hit. The club lost Chris Pontius and Andre Blake to international duty, and spent Saturday without suspended Roland Alberg and injured Fafa Picault and C.J. Sapong.

The result? One goal and back-to-back losses. 

“At the midway point we had hoped to have everyone in the group back and clicking on all cylinders,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “For a variety of reasons we weren’t really together. Whether it was suspensions, injuries, the birth of a child, international call-ups, we had some tough variables to overcome and we didn’t pass the test on the road.”

Overall, the defense hasn’t been an issue for the Union, as they only allowed three goals over the last two games on the road. It’s the attack that is limping, a fact highlighted by the shot-less performance in their 1-0 loss to the Crew over the weekend. 

“Columbus did defend well but at the same time to not have a shot on goal is inexcusable,” Curtin, who expects to have Sapong back with Alberg in the attack, said. “It’s not a good indication of us. We are missing our front four in the game and it looked that way. We need to step up as a group and recognize we weren’t decisive enough, not good enough on attack and didn’t create enough chances.”

As a way to re-charge that offense Wednesday, the Union, who have scored 17 of their 26 goals this season at Talen Energy Stadium, will try to utilize that home field advantage. 

“The good news is we get to regroup quickly and I'm very confident in our group that we’ll have a good response on our home field against a Crew team we’re very familiar with,” Curtin said. “It’s a chance to get things right in our home building with our fans behind us.” 

2. Sold on McCarthy
While there hasn’t been much to celebrate for the Union over the last two games, there has been a lone bright spot that Curtin can look to.

“As disappointed as we are as a club over the last two games, the one thing we really learned is John McCarthy, across the board, has raised the bar in terms of where we view him,” the manager said. “He’s been excellent.” 

The third year backup goalkeeper has made 13 saves in his last three matches and is set to make his fourth start of the season Wednesday. Firmly planted behind starter Andre Blake, who has established himself as the star of the Gold Cup while captaining Jamaica, McCarthy kept the listless Union in games they otherwise shouldn’t have been.

“He’s shown he can start in this league,” Curtin said. “He makes you feel comfortable, he's done a great job and that’s something that maybe gets lost. We are still doing good defensive work, need to get a little sharper on offense but Johnny has really turned the head of the coaching staff in the last three games.” 

Thanks to Blake’s success, McCarthy will get another chance to impress Wednesday.

“[The Crew] is a team we’re real familiar with,” the goalkeeper said. “We have to get points at home, we need a big win here and take care of business.”

3. Stingy Crew
Coming off back-to-back shutout wins, including one of the Union, manager Gregg Berhalter, and the Crew are feeling confident entering Wednesday’s rematch.

“It gave us confidence,” he said. “It was a total team performance and it gives us confidence that we can break through and keep going. It was more about team defending than individuals, it was a really good compact unit and I thought we made it very difficult for them.”

Curtin didn’t disagree. With playmaker Federico Higuain likely out again for the Crew with a knee sprain, Berhalter could return to the efficient 3-4-3 formation that dominated the Union on Saturday.

“We didn’t do a good job against their three center backs, we really made it easy for them,” Curtin said. “They had a comfortable day and they basically stayed in the width of the center circle, we never pulled them out and made it uncomfortable for them.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Roland Alberg: After serving a one game suspension, Alberg will return to the Union on Wednesday. Expected at the No. 10 spot, the goal scorer will be the host’s desperately-needed offensive catalyst. “This will be an opportunity for Roland tomorrow to play another 90 minutes,” Curtin said.

Justin Meram: The midfielder leads the Crew in goals with nine and assists with six. If the Union want to keep a clean sheet at home, they’ll have to stop Meram.

5. This and that
• Union right back Ray Gaddis was a late arrival to the MLS injury report, listed as questionable with a hamstring strain. If Gaddis can’t play, Keegan Rosenberry would make his first start since April 14. 

• Along with Gaddis, Picault, who missed the match Saturday because of a hamstring strain, is questionable again for Wednesday. Forward Jay Simpson has a lower-body injury but is off the injury report. “Jay has the injury from the tackle, he might be able to go,” Curtin said. “Fafa did stuff on the side, he said it feels a lot better today.”

• The Union are 7-11-1 against the Crew all time and 5-4-0 at home.

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.