WRITTEN BY: Dylan Coyle
The Philadelphia Union had been looking for answers in the midfield since 2016, and they seem to have found it in Borek Dockal.
The 2016 season started brilliantly for the Philadelphia Union. By the time Summer began to roll around, they took over first place in the Eastern conference. Before the season, the Union began to bring in strong players, including Chris Pontius and Ilsinho, in a declaration of intent. Everyone was clicking, but one of the centerpieces was battling through issues off the field.
Vincent Nogueira had been with the Union since 2014 at that point. While he never lit the world on fire statistically, that wasn’t his job. His job was to connect the dots and push the attack forward, and he did that wonderfully. Multiple injuries kept him sidelined for six of the first 14 games of the year, but there was more to his struggles than that. On June 16, the Union announced that the club and Nogueira had mutually terminated his contract due to personal health issues.
Thus, the downfall of the Union began.
The team sprawled down the standings, winning only five times in the final 20 games before being easily beaten by Toronto F.C. in the knockout round of the MLS Playoffs, 3-1. Without Vincent Nogueira in the number 8 role, the team had no choice but to move players out of their respective roles. Tranquillo Barnetta moved to the 8, while Roland Alberg spent some time at the 10, and the team never seemed to be able to find its footing.
Signing Alejandro Bedoya was a step in the right direction, and Haris Medunjanin expanded on that in 2017. But without a clear number 10, the Union would never be able to form a truly successful team.
Going into 2018, Dockal was hot on the Union’s radar. A player with Champions League, Europa League, and Croatian national team experience, Dockal left Sparta Prague to join Chinese side Henan Jianye in 2017. Henan Jianye loaned him out to the Union in February on a deal that will expire at the end of the season with no option to buy.
The team probably hopes they can reach a deal to buy him now.
Dockal started the season with a lot of pressure. He was deemed the player that would bring the Union to the next level, and with a lot of weight on his shoulders, he started out a bit poorly. He and the rest of the squad were not on the same wavelength at times, and with new signing David Accam playing poorly as well, it only looked to get worse as the season moved on. Fans started ragging on Jim Curtin for his constant playing of Dockal and Accam, and fans grew restless with Earnie Stewart for simply bringing those players in.
Three months into the season, Dockal has separated himself from any criticisms. He has brought a lot of talent on and off the ball to the Union and acts as the connector of their attack. Whenever he receives a ball in the midfield, it seems that he knows exactly what he wants to do with it, whether it be one-touch passing it off to the left or right wing or making a sharp turn forward and running with the ball.
Dockal has three goals and three assists in 14 MLS games, and those numbers aren’t too shabby. One could argue that he should be bagging more assists if the Union were able to finish chances more efficiently. As Jim Curtin has said many times, the team has lacked a “killer instinct” in front of goal this season.
The beauty of Dockal playing so well is that he isn’t simply a lone bright spot in the Union’s midfield. He is part of the best Union midfield since 2016. With him in the number 10, and Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin behind him, the Union have had a very stable central system throughout the season. Bedoya has been defensively responsible while occasionally taking a run into the box, and Medunjanin has been as strong as ever on both ends of the game. Curtin has pushed Bedoya to stop making as many runs into the box as he had done previously, and it seems to be paying off.
Dockal’s inclusion has kept the Union’s midfield from trying to do too much. Bedoya and Medunjanin have been able to focus on their positional play, and that has helped the young backline of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie develop without as much pressure as they would have had if they played last year.
“Our team will go as our central midfield go,” Curtin said following the Union’s 2-1 U.S. Open Cup victory over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. “When they’re on the ball a lot, we do a good job of putting them on the ball. That’s kind of how our system’s set up to have success.”
In the end, it’s all a domino effect. When Nogueira left the Union, Barnetta moved positions and it all went downhill. The 2017 Union midfield seemed to be lacking that final piece in the 10 slot. Dockal’s addition has not only positively impacted the current midfield’s composition, but it has also helped Trusty and McKenzie develop.
The Union need to find a way to get him back for 2019 and beyond, because his inclusion can lead the team to great success.