Union plan to lean on Brian Carroll, who's back in playoffs for 10th time

Union plan to lean on Brian Carroll, who's back in playoffs for 10th time

CHESTER, Pa. — Five years ago, there were few certainties in MLS ... but one of them was Brian Carroll making the playoffs.

From his first season in the league in 2003 all the way through 2011, Carroll’s teams got into the postseason every single year, leading then-Union manager Peter Nowak to quip, on the cusp of Philly’s first-ever postseason game, “That’s why we got him — because he never misses the playoffs.” 

But then things, um, changed.

Carroll himself remained a consistent player for the most part, but all around him, the Union were shook by turbulence, missing out on the playoffs in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, sometimes in crushing fashion, other times by a country mile.

Now, five years later, as the Union prepare to return to the postseason with Wednesday’s knockout round matchup in Toronto (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), Carroll is the only Union player left from the team’s last playoff squad in 2011. And you can be sure his playoff streak followed by his playoff drought makes the return trip that much more gratifying for one of the league’s longest-tenured players.

“I had a great run to start my career qualifying for the playoffs, carrying that through up to here,” the 35-year-old midfielder said. “But it hasn’t been easy of late. It’s a great feeling having accomplished that goal of getting back into the playoffs. Now that’s in the past and it’s already about what we can do and how well we can play and try to get a win, try to keep it going.”

With Maurice Edu officially on the shelf until 2017 and Warren Creavalle also nursing an injury, Brian Carroll will likely start in the defensive midfield, just as he did when the Union were swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals. And he’ll play a critical role, shielding a young backline matching up against a star-studded attack that features two of the league’s top offensive players in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.

Perhaps just as importantly, Carroll will bring a veteran, winning presence to the lineup. During his stretch of making the playoffs in nine straight seasons — three shy of the MLS record — he captured championships with D.C. and Columbus, meaning he’s one of the only players on the team who knows what it’s like to win in the MLS postseason.

“Brian has been a guy who’s done it and won championships and lifted trophies,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “It was a long absence for him. There are a lot of guys in our locker room that have been in the league for a long time that have never been on a team that’s made the playoffs. It’s a new experience for a lot of guys. Brian will fall in the category of a guy I’ll lean on to talk with those guys and tell them what it’s like, what happens when that first whistle blows — and to really embrace the moment because you never know when you’re gonna be back.”

What will Carroll try to tell the young guys based on his past experiences?

“Everything is more intense,” Carroll said. “Everything is heightened. Just go out there and play without any fear. Play as best we can — connect passes, create chances, make defensive plays, play solid, control your emotions, but use the playoff adrenaline in a positive way. Put everything we have and lay it all out there. It’s one game and you never know what can happen, so hopefully we can go out there and play together and get something done.”

While it’s certainly true anything can happen in an elimination game, it’s also true that few people will think the Union can go up to Canada and beat a Toronto team that, despite stumbling to the finish, remains a top contender to win the MLS Cup. And given the Union’s history and the fact that they’re winless in their last seven games, that will make for an even bigger upset if the Union can return with a victory.

But even if just getting to the playoffs is an accomplishment for the franchise, Carroll knows winning the club’s first-ever playoff game would be a far greater one.

“It’s good to be back in the playoffs,” Carroll said. “We have a chance in the second season to come together and do something that maybe nobody is giving us much of a chance to. We’re going to go up there and do the best we can and enjoy the opportunity. Hopefully we’re able to accomplish something that nobody’s expecting right now.”

Once upon a time, everyone expected Carroll to be in the playoffs. But, as he says, sometimes it’s just as much fun doing things nobody expects.

That can happen Wednesday for a team that’s never won a playoff game and for a player who continues to turn back the clock every day as retirement draws closer and closer.

“It’s never a given,” Carroll said. “It’s a lot more difficult to accomplish this feat with more teams and better competition. But I think it’s a real positive step for our club and a good building block to do what we’ve done in accomplishing [making] the playoffs this year. Now it’s about taking the opportunity as best we can.”

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.