Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Aim to finish strong against streaking New York

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Aim to finish strong against streaking New York

Union vs. New York Red Bulls
4 p.m. on TCN 

Having all but officially made the postseason for the first time since 2011, the Union, who are already locked into a first-round road match, could rest players Sunday in the season finale against the New York Red Bulls (15-9-9). But that doesn’t mean the Union (11-13-9) will be mailing it in.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playoff recovery
The Union had hope that last Sunday’s home match against mathematically eliminated Orlando City SC would work as a slump buster, breaking the club’s five-game winless run. 

Instead, with a 2-0 loss, it just extended the Union’s slump to six.

“We had a good meeting with the group, we talked a lot about accountability,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Everybody does have to look in the mirror.”

With their last win coming in late August, the Union seem fresh out of ideas. Passing up the ripe opportunity to gain confidence against Orlando City, the club must now host the best team in the Eastern Conference as a pre-playoff test.

“We shot ourselves in the foot in a big spot and we came up a little short,” said Curtin, whose club flubbed an outside chance to host a first-round game and will be on the road regardless of Sunday’s outcome. “It’s the past, though. We have to look forward to the challenge that Red Bulls will present. They are the perfect team to play in terms of a tuneup, to get up to speed with the tempo of a playoff game. It’ll be good for our guys, we’ll use that to get prepared.”

2. Refreshing the lineup
Because Sunday’s match comes just days before the Union’s midweek postseason game, Curtin could look to rest some starters against the Red Bulls, especially the injured ones.

“There are discussions,” he said. “You have to do what’s best. Maybe it’s a new face, a change or a tweak. We won’t change our formation, we won’t change the style that we play but maybe there’s a new body that comes out on the field and gives us a little bit of a lift.”

But Curtin’s team doesn’t just need a lift, it needs healthy bodies. C.J. Sapong suffered a concussion against Orlando City and will likely sit out Saturday. If he does, Charlie Davies could see a chunk of playing time. Davies has only played 81 minutes in eight games since being acquired by the Union in August.

Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius are also banged up with lower-body ailments.

“Charlie’s been a little bit sharper each day in training,” Curtin said. “It’s tough to forget that he as recently as a month and a half ago was beating cancer so, the sharpness and the fitness is starting to come back. He wants to start, he wants to play, like any striker does, but we have to be smart about what makes the most sense for the team to get a result this weekend.”

3. Mighty Red Bulls
With the Red Bulls already locked into a first-round playoff bye, claiming the top seed in the East, they could float into Sunday’s match like it’s an exhibition — resting starters and providing minimal effort. 

But while riding an unbeaten streak that dates back to early July, the Red Bulls aren’t likely to pull their foot off the gas just yet.

“It’s a challenging game for us,” Curtin said. “It’ll be a high tempo, playoff atmosphere. With Red Bull already securing their bye, I envision them playing their full-strength lineup because they don’t want to rest guys for two weeks, and then you could have some rust. We expect their best.”

Though the Red Bulls want to keep things moving Sunday, the Union also want to finish the season strong. Although the match doesn’t hold the importance it could have for either club, Curtin’s team, winless since late August, is grasping for anything it can to catapult itself into the postseason with momentum. 

“We want to finish the season the right way for our fans,” Curtin said. “We want to come out with some confidence after the game.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Union: With Sapong hobbled from a concussion, Sunday’s match could put Charlie Davies’ effort on display. The forward, who has been seldom used as he regains conditioning after beating cancer earlier in the year, was acquired by the Union for this exact scenario — providing quality attacking depth.

Red Bulls: Although the match is practically meaningless for the Red Bulls, it could mean something for Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 31-year striker could claim his second golden boot in three seasons. He currently leads MLS with 23 goals — one ahead of David Villa. He has a goal and an assist against the Union this season and 11 goals in his last nine games.

5. This and that
• The Union are 0-1-1 against the Red Bulls this season but did score a win in the U.S. Open Cup round of 16.

• The result of Sunday’s match will leave the Union with one of three postseason road opponents — New York City FC, Montreal Impact and D.C. United. The match will be played the following Wednesday or Thursday.

• With a win on Sunday, the Union would match a club-high in wins with 12 — a record set in 2013.

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.