Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

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Union Notes: Long overdue strategy change pays off vs. Fire

CHESTER, Pa. — It took months of mediocrity and lack of production from the No. 10 spot for Union manager Jim Curtin to finally move away from Ilsinho and Roland Alberg and try something new.

In their places Saturday, in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire at Talen Energy Stadium, the Union tapped the athletic Warren Creavalle to protect the back line, which allowed playmakers Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya to be more flexible in how they attack the game.

“The best thing about the formation is there can be fluidity in it,” Curtin said. “We thought, matchup-wise, he’s been in good form and with what Chicago likes to do, we thought it was important to invert the triangle a little bit in some moments to get pressure to Dax McCarty, who is the engine of that team.”

Although Curtin insisted it wasn’t a formation change, saying, “it’s still a 4-2-3-1,” it was a breath of fresh air for a 9-12-9 team that needed a change. Ilsinho, who was out with Achilles tendinitis, and Alberg, who rode the bench for 90 minutes, entered Saturday with a combined seven goals and four assists.

“I think it worked well in terms of staying compact,” Bedoya, who captured an assist, said. “They struggled all night to play balls in between the lines in the middle of us. I think we got some good goals off some good combinations in the midfield.”

Curtin called it fluidity and Bedoya mentioned combinations. Creavalle continued that theme.

“I think it’s providing that balance,” he said. “Being able to help that back line and be able to connect them so they can make the game and have everybody connected.”

Agony over for Pontius
After 27 games of pure agony, Chris Pontius finally scored.

“About six months too late,” the Union’s 2016 leading scorer said jokingly. “But no, it feels good. Nice to get a win. Came back to a nice crowd and a big three points for us.”

Snapping the curse came easy against the Fire. Pontius potted his first two goals of the season Saturday — one was a header from a Keegan Rosenberry cross in the 10th minute, the other came off a rebound in the second half.

“It comes in bunches at times,” Pontius said. “You feel like you can do everything right in a few games and then other games you’re putting in so much effort and things just aren’t falling for you. Certainly, confidence is a big key for that and it was nice to get one especially early in a game like this.”

Record (almost) broken
With a second-half goal Saturday, C.J. Sapong nabbed his franchise-record tying 14th tally of the season. The total tied Union legend Sebastien Le Toux for most goals in a season, a mark set in the Union’s expansion season of 2010.

“Well, for me, it means that I’ve been able to score,” said Sapong, who was able to tap in a left-to-right cross from Fafa Picault along the goal line Saturday. “It’s a number that shows I’m having an impact on the field for my team.”

Without a strict No. 10 on the field for the Union and with right-wing Fabian Herbers injured all season with a sports hernia, service has been tough to come by for the Union. It’s one reason Pontius struggled so mightily all year. It’s possible that if the Union can find a skilled playmaker this offseason, Sapong could be set for an even more productive 2018 if he continues this form.

“The goals are a product of the guys getting him service,” Curtin said of Sapong. “His movement on the night was good, we’re happy with him and his individual accomplishments.”

Elevated effort
All during the week, Curtin mentioned pride and jobs as two reasons the Union players would show up Saturday and compete. After crushing the Fire, 3-1, it’s clear the club doesn’t lack the proper motivation.

“If you’re not putting the effort in,” Pontius said, “you can be out of a job next year. I don’t think there’s any more motivation than you need right there.”

Rosenberry mentioned another possible factor for the elevated effort.

“I don’t think we’re used to being counted on,” he said. “Playing as an underdog is something we’re used to and we’re going to embrace that until the end and see where we can go.”

Quote of the night
“Nope,” Creavalle deadpanned after several silent seconds when asked if he was happy to see Pontius get a goal. “He’s been working all year so I’m happy to see him get on the scoresheet. Keegan dropped him that dime so he has him to thank for that.”

Stat of the night
2,024 Minutes — How long Pontius went without a goal this season (including U.S. Open Cup).

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.