Union looking as transfer window opens: 'We have flexibility to do something'

Union looking as transfer window opens: 'We have flexibility to do something'

With the summer transfer window now open, the Union are shopping for help. 

“We have some flexibility to do something,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We have a lot of guys that we’ve been looking at and the right thing that comes up, we’re always looking to strengthen our roster, offensively or defensively, there isn’t one position we’re targeting. We’ve been actively looking but nothing to report.”

Though Curtin wouldn’t tip his hand to what the Union’s strategy may be when it comes to adding talent, the club will likely look at attracting offense. The eighth-place Union are currently 13th in MLS in goals per game and believe a touch of potency on the offensive side could ignite their run at a playoff position. 

“We’ve probably come up a little short in terms of the quantity of chances and shots that we’ve created,” said Curtin, who believes his club’s eighth-ranked plus-four goal differential is a sign it could take the next step in the Eastern Conference. “But the quality of those shots, we come out tops in the league in terms of where we’re getting our shots from, so that part is good. We need to really improve the overall volume and quantity of those shots.”

But achieving that likely means adding a playmaking No. 10. The would-be quarterback of the Union’s offense, which is currently held by converted right-winger Ilsinho, and is the weak point of the club’s current attack, could make a significant difference. 

The club believes that current attacking pieces like Fafa Picault, C.J. Sapong and Chris Pontius are enough to be successful, the group simply needs a spark and some service.

“I like the group, I like all the players,” said Curtin, who hasn’t been able to fulfill the playmaking vacancy left by Tranquillo Barnetta last season. “I think it’s a strong group and if we’re able to add something, it’s a bonus.”

Curtin noted that making an addition at the 10 spot isn't easy because the Union aren’t the only team looking for that type of primary facilitator. The club recently hosted Costa Rican midfielder Elias Aguilar as a trialist but later stated it wasn’t the right fit. 

“It’s a position everyone in the world is looking for,” said Curtin, who along with sporting director Earnie Stewart demand all attacking players buy into the club’s defense-first mentality. “It’s a hard one to find the perfect player; the combination of attack, playing the final ball and doing the defensive work, cutting passing lanes off and doing all of those things.”

If the Union do bring someone in, there’s evidence it won’t be a band-aid for 2017 but part of a longer-term strategy. Ilsinho has been unproductive this season, scoring just two goals and no assists in 13 starts, while Roland Alberg, who has four goals and no assists, has been productive but doesn’t hold favor with the coaching staff, earning just four starts.

Curtin suggested that the two players, who combine for $912,583 in guaranteed salary, may not be in the Union’s plans for next season. That would make any significant mid-season addition at attacking midfield one that could alter the club’s future.

“Roland is in really good form right now, he’s been doing well and we’re having discussions about doing what’s best for him and the club moving forward,” Curtin said. “But that will be more towards the end of the year. Ilsinho will be the same thing. There are decisions to be made at the end of the year, they won’t be made right now.”

Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

USA Today Images

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

USA Today Images

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.