Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

USA Today Images

Union predictions — Team MVP, surprises and disappointments

The Union accomplished what they set out to do this offseason.

After years of instability under former leadership, they wanted to remain consistent with their roster, system and decision-making — which they did.

They wanted to bolster the attack with two marquee playmakers, one on the wing and one in the attacking midfield — which they did with their draft-day trade for David Accam and Wednesday's acquisition of Czech playmaker Borek Dockal.

And they wanted to give opportunities to teenagers coming through their burgeoning youth academy — which they did with the signings of homegrown defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie followed by the preseason decision to give prominent roles to center back Auston Trusty and midfielder Anthony Fontana.

But is it enough to keep up with the rest of the Eastern Conference and make the MLS playoffs? Or win the first playoff game in the club's nine-year history? Will the newcomers be able to mesh with the returning core? Who will star? Who will disappoint?

Leading into Saturday's season opener vs. the New England Revolution (7 p.m., PHL17), it's prediction time. (Part 2 can be found here.)

Team MVP

DZ: Andre Blake
Try to argue that the Jamaican isn't the most talented goalie in the league. You won't get very far. And while Blake's gifts will likely get him to a top European league at some point, the 27-year-old showed commitment to Philly by signing a new multi-year contract in the offseason. Considering the Union have an inexperienced backline, locking down Blake was a good move — and he'll likely reward them with plenty of show-stopping saves.

RB: C.J. Sapong
With 16 goals in 30 games, Sapong had a career year that was so impressive, it opened opportunities with the U.S. national team. Now that the physical scorer has a legit playmaker feeding him passes, Sapong is set up for an even bigger and better 2018 season. He'll lead the team in goals and be an MLS All-Star. 

Top newcomer

DZ: David Accam
The Union shook up the draft by sending money to the Fire for the speedy winger. Accam was great in Chicago, scoring 33 goals over the last three seasons, but he has the opportunity to be even better in Philly, where head coach Jim Curtin's 4-2-3-1 system is designed to maximize the production of his wingers if they can get behind the defense or beat fullbacks one-on-one. Look for Accam to do both, early and often, and perhaps find the back of the net even more than he did in Chicago.

RB: Borek Dockal
He'll be the quarterback the Union desperately need. The offense will run through Dockal and he'll have no shortage of targets. With Fafa Picault on the right, Sapong in the middle and Accam on the left, Dockal will have every opportunity to get on the score sheet with that powerful trio.

Biggest surprise

DZ: Auston Trusty
Given how much exposure he's gotten this offseason, from starting and scoring goals in the preseason to reading the traffic report on the PHL17 morning news, the 19-year-old center back won't surprise anyone when he makes his MLS debut Saturday. What will surprise people is how well he grows into the role — and how much trust Curtin shows in him by keeping him in his starting spot even when he has a bad game or two. "Trusty the Process" indeed.

RB: Alejandro Bedoya
With expectations low, Bedoya will surprise by shining next to Dockal in the midfield. The Czech playmaker will be a safety valve for the US national team stalwart, who will feel less of a burden in possession and make more advantageous runs into the box. He'll have a good season.

Biggest disappointment

DZ: The strikers
Sapong is enjoying a nice moment in his career, coming off a terrific season and well-deserved appearances with the U.S. national team. But is it fair to think he'll be able to duplicate that production after he never hit double-digits in goals in his first six MLS seasons? If he has to miss any time, the dropoff to Jay Simpson or Cory Burke may be steep.

RB: Haris Medunjanin
With 12 assists last season, the well-traveled veteran helped hold a shaky Union team together with his poise on the ball. But the 32-year-old struggled to gain his footing in the preseason and could be primed for a slump in his second MLS season. While it may not be a bad campaign for Medunjanin, there's some reason to believe he won't match last year's success.

Borek Dockal's MLS debut uneven, but a start

USA Today Images

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

USA Today Images

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.