Can Union upset Toronto FC's 'best roster MLS has ever had?'

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Can Union upset Toronto FC's 'best roster MLS has ever had?'

On one hand, you can say that the Union are catching Toronto FC at a good time considering they’re injured and feeling the after-effects of a grueling run through the Concacaf Champions League. 

On the other hand … 

“We have to go now on the road now to Toronto to [face] probably what is the best roster MLS has ever had,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said.

Oh.

“They have some injuries, we recognize that,” Curtin said leading up to Friday night’s game vs. Toronto FC at BMO Field. “But it is a deep team that is very well-coached by Greg Vanney and just did some pretty amazing things in the Championship League and is hungry for points.”

Like everyone else associated with MLS, Curtin watched in awe as Toronto came agonizingly close to winning the CCL, the premier competition for club teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Led by Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore — three of the best players ever to play in MLS — TFC knocked off two Mexican powerhouses before losing to a third, Chivas Guadalajara, in the final, on penalty kicks, last week.

Had they won, they would have been the first MLS team to prevail in the competition and advance to the FIFA Club World Cup. 

“You can tell they’re the elite club in our league,” Curtin said. “They’re the champions of our league. They probably had the best performance I’ve ever seen an MLS team have in Concacaf. Full credit to them, but we hope they have a letdown this weekend.”

A letdown is certainly possible, considering the stakes of a regular season MLS game are much smaller than a major tournament final. Plus, the defending MLS Cup champs are dealing with some injuries from their tourney run, including one to Altidore (hamstring) as well as a slew of defenders.

In their first MLS game since the CCL ended, Bradley, a natural midfielder, was forced to play center back in Toronto’s 2-2 home draw with the Chicago Fire last weekend.

“Michael’s career speaks for itself,” Curtin said. “He’s a top player in our league, a guy that has the ability to run and control the tempo of the game. ... We’re prepared for him at center back; we’re prepared for him as the No. 6.”

Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, a longtime teammate of Bradley’s on the U.S. national team, may play a role in slowing down the Toronto captain. Bedoya — who’s scored two goals in Toronto, including one in the 2016 playoffs — will also be asked to help the Union maintain possession as well as they did in last week’s 3-2 win over D.C. United as they attempt to open a three-game road swing with a huge upset.

“When you look it up, we are one of the better possession teams in the league, and toward the top in chances created,” Curtin said. “If you play the percentages over the course of the year, we know that some of those chances with start to go in the net.”

Jay Wright during Villanova championship parade: 'This is truly a Philly team'

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Jay Wright during Villanova championship parade: 'This is truly a Philly team'

Most people who packed into Dilworth Park on Thursday probably didn’t expect Jay Wright to give Penn coach Steve Donahue a shoutout. Or talk about the Palestra in the 1960s. Or pump up Phil Booth’s Philadelphia roots so much that he said they have to bring him a soft pretzel after every game.

Whether or not in response to the largely silly debate over whether Villanova is a “Philadelphia team,” the Wildcats coach made his opinion on the subject clear during the team’s national championship parade.

“We are so proud to represent the Big 5, the Big East, and most importantly, the great city of Philadelphia and Philadelphia basketball, which has the greatest tradition in the country,” Wright boomed to the crowd in front of City Hall. “Everywhere we go, when we play in the national tournament, all the Big 5 schools, we root for each other. I was afraid to say this during the tournament but Penn coach Steve Donahue helped us with the scout of Kansas. I didn’t want to say it when we were in the tournament but there’s a tight bond in the Big 5 and we all stick together.”

Now maybe that’s true for the coaches and even some players but it’s doubtful too many Temple and St. Joe’s fans were rooting for Villanova. And yes, the fact remains that Villanova University is located in the Philly suburbs.

But if you do want to wade into the debate, you can also look at the fact that Villanova recruits and develops many local kids, has fans and alums from all around the city, has a storied tradition playing Big 5 schools at the Palestra, and played all of its home games this year at the Wells Fargo Center.

“This is truly a Philly team,” Wright said, before encouraging everyone to throw streamers like they did starting in the 1960s at the Palestra after the first basket of every game.

“We thank everyone at the Wells Fargo Center, we thank the entire city of Philadelphia for coming out and making it a great home for us this year — and home of the national champions.”

Oh and you can also look at where the parade was held — a point 2016 national championship hero Kris Jenkins has been trying to (somewhat saltily) make.


Anyway, walking the parade route on Market Street this year, it was clear there were many people stopping out of their offices to watch and many more who hopped on the train from the suburbs to get there. (After the parade, I overheard a couple of Villanova students yelling, “Where’s Shake Shack?” and “This city is so dirty.”) The crowd seemed a little lighter than the one two years ago (perhaps because of the cold or Phillies opening day) but definitely filled up closer to City Hall. There were plenty of “E-A-G-L-E-S” and “Trust the Process” chants and a crazy amount of people hawking Villanova T-shirts (the price dropped from $10 to $5 when the rally ended).

A few other highlights for those who didn’t go or watch:

• The biggest applause may have been when team chaplain, Father Rob Hagan, was announced. Sister Jean residual effect?

• “I thought you guys would get tired of parades,” Wright said to the #CityofChampions. (Not yet.)

• Mikal Bridges kept his speech short, to which Wright quipped; “He only weighs 185 pounds, he’s freezing.”

• There were “One More Year” chants directed at Bridges. Wright mostly shot it down by saying he’s about to get his degree anyway.

• National player of the year Jalen Brunson introduced title game star Donte DiVincenzo as the “red-headed Italian” before leading a “Di-Vin-Cen-Zo” chant.

• There was a “One Shining Moment” video with only Villanova highlights, which was pretty cool.

• There didn’t seem to be too many signs out there but I did spot at least one interesting one:


Only in Philly?

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."