It feels like the 2018 Union season is a carbon copy of 2017, which went something like this:
- horrible start
- fans become disinterested
- make a few changes to the starting XI
- win some games in late May and early June
- head above water, treading the playoff line
- ultimately fall apart in September and October
Right now we’re at bullet point #4, with the Union winning in Montreal and blasting Real Salt Lake in consecutive weeks.
There are a million reasons to be negative about this franchise based on recent months/seasons/years, but I’ll give credit where it’s due – they looked really good on Saturday night. The offense was clicking, the personnel changes were refreshing, and Borek Dockal looked like a $1.7 million playmaker.
Head coach Jim Curtin has apparently been annoyed with the criticism of the franchise’s record signing:
Jim Curtin said Borek Dockal has been treated unfairly by "snarky Twitter heroes" — otherwise known as everyone on Twitter.
— Dave Zeitlin (@DaveZeitlin) May 20, 2018
And that’s fine if he feels that way.
I think everybody understood that Dockal came into preseason incredibly late and needed time to adjust to a new team, new league, and new country. There was always going to be transitional period; fans just hoped that he would figure it out sooner than game 11 of a 34-game season, because we’ve seen what happens when this team starts slow and plays from behind for two-thirds of the campaign. The Union have had past issues with late transfer window acquisitions, which forces players to adapt on the fly. Some guys figure it out rather quickly, like Vince Nogueira and Ilsinho, while the likes of Fernando Aristeguieta, Steven Vitoria, and now Dockal need time to get going (or never really get going at all). I think we as sports fans and writers constantly downplay the importance of a full offseason. Maybe it’s on Earnie Stewart and Chris Albright to get these deals done sooner.
One thing I’ll say about Dockal is that he looks like he cares. The body language earlier in the season made it look like he was annoyed with his teammates, but I sensed that it came from the position of “I give a shit” and not “well, this team sucks, I give up.” The demonstrative gestures are more like Haris Medunjanin and less like Roland Alberg, if that makes sense. It’s not really sulking; it’s more about getting angry because you’re a competitor and you wanna win the damn ball game.
Are the Union an offensive juggernaut? No, not right now. Saturday’s four-goal outburst now comprises 33% of their scoring this entire season. Twelve total goals is still worst in the Eastern Conference and third-worst league-wide, but MLS is a forgiving competition that pathetically allows 12 of 23 teams into the postseason. That’s what happened in 2016 when the U stumbled into the playoffs with a losing record and negative goal differential and were promptly bounced by Toronto.
However, one of the positives with Dockal is that you see him getting more meaningful touches in and around the final third. In the weekend win, he bagged his goal and assist inside the 18 and rolled a key pass against the grain for Keegan Rosenberry to clank off the near post. By my count, he had 15 pass attempts that took place in the final third or were directed into the final third:
Compare that to a typical road game where he just isn’t finding those penetrating spaces up top. This map is from the 1-0 Columbus loss from about two weeks back:
Just one key pass from a corner kick, one shot, and more actions taking place closer to midfield and further from the opponent’s goal.
You see the guy has quality when gets the ball on his foot. His 2.2 key passes per game are now 16th in the league, tied with Diego Valeri and just 0.1 behind Miguel Almiron. He’s still a little more comfortable drifting to the right, where there isn’t a ton of space because Alejandro Bedoya also floats out there naturally. The front six are still slightly lopsided in attack, but because they have players who are decent in possession out there (Dockal/Bedoya/Rosenberry), it creates more meaningful moments on the flank, where they can hold the ball and be more creative.
This is improving slightly as the season wears on.
Look at these three maps from Saturday night, starting with the left back, left mid, and Haris Medunjanin, the left-footed #6:
Ray Gaddis is right footed and has never been an attacking player. Medunjanin always plays deeper by default. That combo sort of limits whomever plays left mid, be it David Accam or Fafa Picault, who are often double teamed and closed down far from goal.
Now look at the right side, which is Marcus Epps, Keegan Rosenberry, and Bedoya as the #8:
Just a lot more push up the right flank, obviously, based on the tendencies and skills of Bedoya and Rosenberry.
Now tie it all together and toggle the entire front six, leaving the fullbacks out but bringing Dockal and C.J. Sapong into the mix:
Not bad. Definitely better than it was. It’s still patchy on the left side but you see some more meaningful chunks over there with David Accam sitting on the bench. That’s another issue for another time, the fact that he can’t figure it out since coming over from Chicago.
Otherwise, the defensive home grown teenage pair of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie is becoming a solid partnership and Rosenberry looks more like the player we saw in 2016. Andre Blake is Andre Blake. There are more positives than negatives in defense, especially with a very young group playing behind a #6 who isn’t exactly a ball-winner. It’s a tough setup in which to start your career.
From a macro sense, I don’t know if winning a couple of games changes anything for apathetic Union fans who are 80% off the bandwagon right now. Is this team legitimately decent and starting to figure it out? Or is it the same old story, where they aren’t good enough but aren’t bad enough either, and we never bottom out to the point that justifies a coaching, front office, or ownership change?
Based on past history, I feel like we’re inevitably headed to another fall sputtering, when the cream of the Eastern Conference rises to the top. I could see the Union pushing New England for sixth place, but Toronto and Chicago will probably improve. Orlando is overrated and will drop. I don’t know who else gives up their current playoff spot. It’s not Atlanta, the New Yorks, or Columbus. Even if the Union do sneak in as the 5th or 6th place team, you’re again the underdog in a midweek road playoff game. That’s why the goal every year needs to be 4th place, at the very least.
Union fans probably want to be great or awful, and not back in the purgatory where the team currently sits. 42 points and 7th place continues the cycle of mediocrity that began in 2012 and continues into 2018. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m happy to give credit where it’s due. They’ve played well these past two games.
A couple of random thoughts:
- I would start Cory Burke at striker on Saturday. He just has better attacking instincts than C.J. right now and looks like he has more confidence.
- I still like Bedoya as a right midfielder more than a #8, but there’s a log jam on the winger depth chart.
- Free Derrick Jones. I don’t care how shitty his work ethic or attitude is. You were so excited about signing him to the first team last year and now he can’t even make the 18.
- Matt Real is still raw, but he’s a left footed LB and your future at that position. Gaddis has been a flexible and reliable trooper for years, but we went through his last year, when he was brought in for a struggling Rosenberry, who eventually reclaimed the job that everyone knew was his.
I’ll leave you with this:
Two straight wins for your team, your town, your Philadelphia Union.
Poll: does the U challenge for a playoff spot?
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) May 20, 2018