Union-Timbers 5 things: Desperate Union host best in West

Union-Timbers 5 things: Desperate Union host best in West

Union vs. Portland Timbers
7 p.m. on TCN

Reeling from back-to-back losses and two points through their first four games, the winless Union (0-2-2) return to Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) to face the Western Conference-leading Portland Timbers (3-1-1) to kick off a crucial three-game homestand.

Here are five things to know.

1. Restarting the season
After dropping their second consecutive match, a 2-1 loss to D.C. United last weekend, the Union find themselves in the Eastern Conference basement. They are one of three MLS teams without a win through the first four games of the season. 

"There's a sense of urgency," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "If you look at the table, we're in a bad spot."

But there is hope. Beginning on Saturday against the Timbers, the Union kick off a three-game homestand that could revitalize their young season. 

"We've played three of four games away so we're definitely looking forward to a long streak of home games," Union defender Oguchi Onyewu said. "Hopefully we can start winning and get the points we feel is deserved from our work ethic on the field. Hopefully, we can turn things around right now."

Although it's early, this home set is crucial for the Union to remain competitive in an improved East. As it stands, the Union are four points out of the postseason picture. Curtin's club made the playoffs last season with 42 points, taking the tiebreaker winner over the New England Revolution.

"You don't want to fall too far behind," Curtin said. "The good news is only one team has three wins in the East right now so we're not too far off the pace. But there is a danger that if you don't take care of business at home, you can fall into a hole. It's a tough league to chase from behind."

Because of that, the pressure will be ramped up Saturday.

"We now have three at home and still have 30 games left of the season, so we have time to get things right," Curtin said. "But there's urgency. We've lost two games in a row and it doesn't taste good to anybody and we're not happy with that."

2. Union center back shuffle
If the Union want to revitalize their season Saturday, they might have to do it with a rookie at center back. Jack Elliott, a 6-foot-5 defender drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, teamed up with center back Oguchi Onyewu when one of the club's most valuable players, Richie Marquez, suffered a concussion at D.C. United last weekend. 

"Jack came into the game in a tough spot," Curtin said. "I thought he passed the ball very well. D.C. was sitting back a little bit but he was good positionally in stopping counters. We're happy with how he played."

Marquez, who wasn't able to practice with the team all week, is expected to be cleared by Saturday but would be a coach's decision after that. Marquez has played 58 games over the last three seasons for the Union.

"There will be a tough decision to make," Curtin said. "We're confident in both guys, we're confident in Jack to play in MLS. He has the size, the feet, the passing ability to play in the league. He showed that against D.C. United, it was a good performance."

3. Slowing the Timbers
The Timbers enter Saturday's match tied for the MLS lead with 10 points. And it's easy to see why, as the club is armed with players like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Fanendo Adi and Darlington Nagbe.

"They are dangerous, there's no question about it," Curtin said. "They are fluid in their attack, great in possession. You have to be decisive against them in transition because they recover so quickly with the speed that they have. They present a lot of problems and can beat you a lot of different ways."

But while his team is more individually skilled, Timbers manager Caleb Porter knows his club is facing a wounded animal in the Union. He's coming prepared.

"They'll definitely play in a way they are desperate for a win," Porter said. "That could be tough to deal with but also maybe help us open up some opportunities. We're going to focus on what we want to do and respect the individuals and their team. It'll come down to the matchups and who executes.

"They are a lot better than their record, I think they are a dangerous team because they haven't won." 

4. Keep an eye on …
Diego Valeri: When it comes to the Timbers, Valeri is the player to stop. He's currently on pace for a career season, sitting second in MLS in goals with five, including two penalty kicks. He has 16 shots in five games.

C.J. Sapong: One of the few bright spots in the first four games, the Union forward is riding a three-game scoring streak while coming off the bench. "C.J. is giving us some life now," Curtin said.

5. This and that
* The Union are 1-3-3 against the Timbers all time but are 1-0-2 at Talen Energy Stadium in the series. 

* Despite the lopsided lifetime series, the Timbers haven't scored a goal on the road against the Union in three games. The Timbers were crushed, 3-0, in 2015, during their latest trip to Talen Energy Stadium.

* Union backup goalkeeper John McCarthy is still suffering a concussion and will be out for his second-consecutive game Saturday. He will be replaced by Jake McGuire.

* According to Opta, Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin leads MLS in chances created with 13. He has one assist on the season, however.

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.