Union kick off U.S. Open Cup with win over Harrisburg City Islanders

Union kick off U.S. Open Cup with win over Harrisburg City Islanders

CHESTER, Pa. — In seven years of U.S. Open Cup tournament participation, the Union have never lost to the Harrisburg City Islanders, going 3-0-0 over that span. 

That streak continued against the USL side on Wednesday.

With first-half goals from C.J. Sapong and Derrick Jones, and a two-assist effort from Jay Simpson, the Union easily dispatched Pedro Ribeiro and the City Islanders, 3-1, in the fourth round of the Open Cup at Talen Energy Stadium. 

"These games are tricky," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "I don't want to say nothing good can come of it, but we're expected to win. We're expected to be the team that takes care of business. The only time it really gets talked about is if we lose a game like this tonight. It's a tricky game."

With the victory, the Union, who received a bye up to this point in the tournament, advance to the Round of 16, which happens on June 28. The time, opponent and location will be determined on Thursday. 

"We'll have to look at the pairing now and see who we get paired up with," Curtin said. "But as a club, the Philadelphia Union want to take this competition very seriously."

Controlling play early, the Union opened scoring in the 18th minute on an effortless play. While holding the ball up at the top of the box, Simpson slid possession over to Jones, who placed a delicate, right-footed shot through traffic and between Sean Lewis and the right post for the 1-0 advantage.

"It was a great goal," Jones said. "I was moving up and Jay had the ball and he just laid it out for me and I finished."

Simpson, who started next to Sapong, Marcus Epps and Roland Alberg up front, found his second assist just 15 minutes later when he dished to Sapong on the right side of the box. The Union leading scorer buried the left-footed finish for a 2-0 lead.

"If I can contribute to help the team in any way, that's what I try to do," said Simpson, who is behind Sapong on the Union depth chart at forward. "You want to score, you want to create goals, and at the end of the day, we all want to win. So I was glad I was able to give a couple assists."

Despite the deficit, the City Islanders weren't ready to pack it in. The USL side cut the Union lead in half in the 37th minute, when Paul Wilson beat Jack Elliott at the right side of the Union box. The play caused Josh Yaro to cover for Elliott and Keegan Rosenberry to move inside for Yaro. Wilson then sliced a cross-box pass that evaded the Union defenders and landed to Jonathan Mendoza, who found the goal.

"They score the goal and that gives them a little bit of life," Curtin said. "And you can feel that momentum, but credit to the guys for starting the second half, that was the key, the first 15 minutes of the second half."

It was Union rookie Epps that would end the visitor's hope. Breaking down the right side, thanks to a long-range outlet pass from Haris Medunjanin, Epps beat his man and climbed in alone on Lewis.

"Haris played the ball in well," Epps said. "There was space in behind and I tried to cover it down and get to it as quick as I can and hit the open space." 

Epps slipped a nifty touch between the goaltender and closing defender for his first professional goal, sealing the 3-1 Union win.

"It was tough," he said. "The keeper did well, but I saw the little gap so a slow roller, I thought, would work best."

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.