Union-Timbers 5 things: Kicking off season-defining road swing

Union-Timbers 5 things: Kicking off season-defining road swing

Union (11-10-8) at Timbers (10-11-8)
6 p.m. on TCN

With the 2016 season nearly over, the playoff-hungry Union begin a defining three-game road trip Saturday, as they travel cross-country to battle the reigning MLS champion Portland Timbers at Providence Park.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Beginning the gauntlet
Hungry for points, the Union run into a three-game road swing at a bad time.

“When the schedule comes out, you see that block of three games and go, 'That’s a tough stretch right there,'" Union manager Jim Curtin said. “When it’s a block of three road games, the first one is critical.”

Currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, the club’s ability to scrape together results on the road, where it hasn't been particularly strong, could determine where it lands in a crowded East playoff picture.

If the Union can manage the third or fourth spot in the East, they get a first-round home game. If they fall to fifth or sixth, they visit the opposition. With that kind of positioning on the line, it’s crucial that the Union rise to the occasion against the Timbers.

“I think it is critical to start the road trip and get confidence,” said Curtin, whose club also faces Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls on the road swing. “Get a point or three out of the first game, because that sets the tone for the next two. I think it’s important to go into a tough place and get points.”

2. Midfield changes
Between Brian Carroll’s injury and Alejandro Bedoya’s international duty, Union midfielder Warren Creavalle has been a workhorse, filling in the gaps in what has often been a patchwork midfield.

“Warren has done a great job,” Curtin said. “There’s not many players that get a bigger smile on their face from playing defense. I like those kind of guys. There’s moments in the game where he looks exhausted and gassed, and then he’ll find that second wind and go on an 80-yard run, put out another fire for us and make a big play.”

But the Union might have to do without Creavalle on Saturday. The midfielder is suffering from knee tendinitis, meaning the Union could go back to Carroll at defensive midfield Saturday. Carroll is recovering from plantar fasciitis and hasn’t played since Aug. 6.

“He’s an important player to be getting back at an important time of the year,” Curtin said of Carroll. “Brian has had a quiet great season for this club. He’s looked sharp in training and I think it’s time where we would say we’re comfortable throwing him in as a starter.”

3. Weary Timbers
The Timbers are in an awkward situation.

On Wednesday, the club was defeated by Deportivo Saprissa, 4-2, in CONCACAF Champions League play, in San Jose, Costa Rica. Meaning the weary Timbers now have to travel back home for a Saturday clash with the Union.

“They have a big travel from Costa Rica to play a game at Portland in the afternoon,” Curtin said. “And on what they would deem a hot temperature day.”

If this match was played early in the season, the Timbers would likely rely heavily on squad rotation in which they would dress backups and younger players. But the Timbers need points. With 38 points, they are holding onto the sixth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“They’re fighting for points just like we are, just like everybody kind of at this point of the year,” Curtin said. “A lot of the same things that we did against Montreal we need to bring to the Portland game. We need to have that killer instinct to end the game.”

And the Timbers aren’t the healthiest, either. According to Jamie Goldberg of the Oregonian, Jack Jewsbury, Alvas Powell, Liam Ridgewell, Darlington Nagbe, Ned Grabavoy and Fanendo Adi are all questionable for Saturday.

“We need to shift gears and focus on the league,” Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. “We’re in a situation where we’re assessing guys and we may have some guys that are out, a bit banged up because of the week. We’re still assessing who is healthy.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Union: With Ilsinho unfit to put in heavy minutes, or even play at all, the right attacking midfield position will likely land with Fabian Herbers, who has started four consecutive games. And though he doesn’t have a goal over that span, Curtin feels he’s due. “Fabian, I think this last game, had four really good looks,” he said.

Timbers: Although former Union striker Jack McInerney is goalless in his last seven games, there’s no doubt he’d like to stick it to the Union. McInerney is mainly a bench forward but has five goals in 21 games this season.

5. This and that
• The Union’s front three of C.J Sapong, Chris Pontius and Herbers have combined for just one goal in each of their last five games. “I’d be more concerned with the three of them if we weren’t getting chances,” Curtin said.

• Should Carroll not be able to play at defensive midfield Saturday, the Union have the option of tapping Ken Tribbett. The rookie central defender played midfield at Drexel University.

• Behind the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, the Union are third in the East in goals with 48. However, the club is tied for fourth in goals against with 45.

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.