Union predictions — Biggest controversy; path to playoffs

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Union predictions — Biggest controversy; path to playoffs

Part 2 of our Union season predictions.

Part 1 can be found here.

Biggest controversy

DZ: Right back competition
The top battle in the preseason was between Ray Gaddis and Keegan Rosenberry for the starting right back spot, and as recently as Wednesday, Jim Curtin wasn't tipping his hand about who would get the opening-day start. The longest-tenured player on the squad, Gaddis is solid and well-liked. But Rosenberry has the kind of star potential Union fans crave. If Rosenberry spends much of the season on the bench again, as he did last year after his Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign in 2016, it could spell trouble — both for his development and fans' angst.

RB: Jim Curtin's job security
With the Union utilizing youth on defense and at depth positions, Curtin is going to feel every growing pain his club suffers through. Barring a hot start, the manager, who missed the playoffs last season and stumbled into them in 2016, will be on the hot seat throughout. It might not be fair, but it could be the biggest fan fight of 2018.

They'll make the playoffs if …

DZ: Young center backs Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty can avoid rookie mistakes and lean on the veterans in front of them, Borek Dockal gives them the same kind of value at the No. 10 spot as Tranquillo Barnetta did two years ago, and CJ Sapong remains one of the league's top goal-scoring threats.

RB: Dockal is the team MVP and Trusty can match Oguchi Oneywu's 2017 performance on the back line. If Dockal produces, the Union will be an offensive heavyweight in the conference. But that won't mean a thing if Trusty is overmatched and can't gel with Jack Elliott to form a playoff-caliber defensive line.

They'll miss the playoffs if …

DZ: The young backline implodes early to cause a freefall from which they can't recover, Accam and Dockal struggle to adapt to their new city and new team, and the Union continue to drop points on the road at an alarming rate.

RB: Things play out as you'd expect. Even if Trusty eases into his role and Dockal acclimates to his teammates, the Union are still facing a grueling Eastern Conference field. Surprises aside, the Union are doomed from the start.

Predicted finish

DZ: The Union have a better roster than they did last year and their patient build under Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart could soon pay big dividends. The biggest problem is that the Eastern Conference is loaded. Toronto FC, Atlanta and New York City FC arguably have more talent than anyone in the league, and Orlando and even Chicago may not be far behind. I think the Union make the playoffs but sneak in as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, before losing their knockout-round game and having to wait at least one more year to finally win a postseason contest.

RB: As tough as it may be to watch, the Union season goes nowhere and they finish ninth in the East. But not all is lost. Stewart and Curtin finally rely on the kids, which gives fans hope for the future as well as a finish ahead of the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact in 2018.

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.