Union-Atlanta United thoughts: Facing a 'darn hard' road match


Union-Atlanta United thoughts: Facing a 'darn hard' road match

Union (9-12-9) at Atlanta United (14-8-7)
7 p.m. on TCN

While the Union may have tied the Atlanta United, 2-2, in a messy but hard-fought battle back on Aug. 26 at Talen Energy Stadium, Wednesday’s match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be a different kind of animal. 

One of the worst road teams in MLS, the Union have the unadmirable task of taking on a scorching United team of the league’s most potent home-field advantage.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

• To say the United have built a fortress at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is correct. It also might be an understatement. The expansion club, which opened the venue on Sept. 10, is 4-0-1 in its last five matches (all at home) and has stunned the league by outscoring the opposition, 19-3 while registering four shutouts in those five games. The United are 10-2-2 at home.

“That’s our task,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “It’s a darn hard one.”

• Despite the challenge of facing a dominant team that is averaging over 40,000 fans per game, the masochistic Union are almost excited to absorb the punishment. Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong said last Saturday that it’s a moment to “cherish,” playing in front of a big crowd, while Curtin said players “crave” making large crowds go silent.

But that aggressive road mentality hasn’t paid off in wins for the Union. Although it has experienced back-to-back road draws, the club is a paltry 1-8-6 away from Talen Energy Stadium this season.

• In the second half Saturday, Sapong tapped in a Fafa Picault cross at the goal line for his 14th goal of the season. The score was a historic one as it tied Sebastien Le Toux for the franchise record for goals scored in a single season set in 2010. 

“He’s done everything we could have asked and more,” Curtin said. “We don’t want him to press but we want him to break that record. He’s had an exceptional season.” 

Scoring .48 goals per game, Sapong has a strong chance of claiming the title for his own in the final four matches, beginning Wednesday.

• Snapping a ridiculous goalless streak that dated back to Oct. 2, 2016, Chris Pontius buried a pair against the Fire. He needs only 10 more to tie last season’s total.

• Luckily for the Union, midfielder Miguel Almiron will miss Wednesday’s match with a hamstring injury. The pacesetter of the United offense has nine goals and 13 assists in 29 games. Also, hit in the hamstring is fullback Greg Garza, who is questionable.

Unluckily for the Union, however, Josef Martinez will play. He has 17 goals in 16 matches, including eight of those in his last five matches.

• Of the Union’s five players questionable for Wednesday, only two missing pieces could change the lineup. Oft-injured defender Josh Yaro is set to miss his third game with a knee injury and Ilsinho continues to fight Achilles tendinitis for the second game. 

If Yaro can’t go, Richie Marquez could get his third consecutive start next to Jack Elliott. While Marquez has been solid on the back line, Curtin said Saturday he thought Marquez made too many risky mistakes against the Fire, saying “there’s always room for improvement.”

• Warren Creavalle is heading home. The athletic Union midfielder was born and raised in Acworth, Georgia, about a half hour north of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

It could be an eventful homecoming for Creavalle. On Saturday, Curtin axed the No. 10 position from his lineup and played Creavalle instead as a No. 6, allowing Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya to move more freely up the field. The more defensive set could be something Curtin goes back to in Atlanta.

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.