Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

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Union's Maurice Edu embracing adversity in 1st-team comeback

Away from MLS game action for nearly two years, Maurice Edu has learned a little something about himself.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pretty strong-minded person and I’ve dealt with other adversity throughout the course of my career,” he told the media on Tuesday. “It’s another challenge. But when put in situations that are unexpected, it brings out parts of you that you maybe didn’t even know you had.”

The veteran midfielder, moving from one year-long leg injury to another, hasn’t played an MLS match since Sept. 20, 2015. But the road back hit a milestone on Sunday, when Edu made a start for the Union’s minor-league club, the Bethlehem Steel. 

He logged 32 minutes and completed all 17 attempted passes in a defensive midfield position.

“It doesn’t make sense to dwell on things that have happened in the past because it takes the energy I need to put into other things,” he said. “So I’m just focused on what’s happening here and now for me, focusing on conquering every challenge that’s put in front of me every day.”

Though he never wavered, no one could blame Edu for losing his spark. The 31-year-old’s mental mettle was thoroughly tested over the last two seasons as he was hampered with leg injuries. In late 2015, Edu suffered a stress fracture that abruptly ended his season. One year later, just as he was ready to make his long-awaited return, he broke his left fibula. He’s been out ever since.

“I felt I’ve always been mentally strong but this has definitely challenged me in ways that are slightly different,” he said. “I’ve kind of had to play a waiting game and just be patient and be smart and also be smart with the thoughts I have in my head and how I channel my energy.”

On Sunday, Edu’s comeback began. And for him, it was just the beginning of something big.

“I’m happy because this year’s been hell,” Edu said. “Definitely happy with that. But the real excitement will be when I walk out on the pitch with the first team. Baby steps. A longer process than maybe I anticipated. Pleased with that but at the end of the day, my focus and my goal is to play with the first team. It’s not to be content to just be back fit, be back training or be back playing with the Steel.”

But that plan won’t be a given. The Union are currently stacked at the No. 6, No. 8 and center back spots, forcing Edu, currently in less-than-preseason form, to work through a number of players on the depth chart to make his dream first-team debut.

“He has some real competition,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “Haris (Medunjanin), (Alejandro) Bedoya, (Warren) Creavalle, Derrick Jones, Brian Carroll, you can go through the list of guys he’s behind on the depth chart because they’re on Week 24 of the season and he’s on Week 1. He has still some work to do to get over that next barrier.”

Getting over that barrier means getting fit and up to game speed. 

“He has to work his way back to 90 minutes of fitness, which is hard for a guy who’s missed almost going on two seasons now worth of games,” Curtin said. “It’s great for him to get that first 30 minutes under his belt, connect his passes, gain the confidence he can do it again. Now he has to work his way to start for 90 minutes for the Steel. From there, we can then talk about being in the 18 for us.”

After two years away from meaningful soccer, Edu is ready for the challenge.

“These are all steps along the way,” he said. “To get to the bigger picture.”

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.