The Philadelphia Union are conducting a global search for roster improvements, especially at one key position.
Given the complicated nature of Borek Dockal’s contract with Chinese Super League club Henan Jianye, it’s unlikely the Czech Republic international returns to the club where he spent 2018 on loan.
“I’ll never say never, but at the moment the Chinese club owns him,” Union head coach Jim Curtin told Pro Soccer USA Thursday night. “It’s a hefty number that they paid to get him.
“Borek is a guy we know what he did for us last year and how important he was to making us go as a team. It’s a long shot, but it’s not completely closed.”
In addition to finding a new No. 10, the Union are in the market for an additional left back, potentially another midfielder and a backup goalkeeper.
“Finding a replacement for Borek Dockal is priority No. 1,” Curtin said. “Competition at left back is another, probably another two-way midfielder. We have eyes all over the world right now.”
An extra left back is needed to fill depth when Matthew Real departs for the U-20 World Cup in May, while an midfielder would help as David Accam recovers from sports hernia surgery.
At goalkeeper, Curtin is confident in Homegrown Matt Freese, but the club is actively looking for a backup to Andre Blake to allow Freese to develop with United Soccer League side Bethlehem Steel.
“We’re in the process of solving that to have someone that pushes Andre in the right way,” Curtin said.
“We’re confident in Matt Freese, but I would say it’s probably good for him to a year of tutelage under (goalkeeper coach) Oka (Nikolov),” Curtin said. “Again, I say I’m comfortable throwing him into a first-team game, but at the same time, we want to have that process be more of a Steel route.”
Sporting director Ernst Tanner is still on a scouting trip abroad and will soon join Curtin in Orlando, Fla., for the Major League Soccer combine, which began Thursday.
While the Union have been quiet of late, they made a few impact moves before the holidays, with forward Sergio Santos being the top acquisition.
Curtin was impressed with what he saw from Santos on film, and he recently met with the Brazilian’s family and agent in the United States.
Let's take our first look at Santos from his time at Audax Italiano 👀👀👀 pic.twitter.com/ltZ8jYopSX
— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) December 14, 2018
The Union manager hinted at utilizing a two-forward system with Santos as the centerpiece, which is a change from the strict 4-2-3-1 formation used in past years.
“We watched a lot of tape on him,” Curtin said. “He brings a lot of dynamic presence that is good around the goal. He adds to a stable of good attacking pieces that we have.
“It’s no secret we’re going to play with two strikers at certain points this year, which is exciting. I’m excited about it. He fits in as one of those guys that can play off another player, very fast and is really good around the goal.”
Curtin credited Tanner and technical director Chris Albright for going down to Chile to get the deal done for Santos, who received interest from clubs in Liga MX.
“We beat out some teams in Mexico for his services,” Curtin said. “He was impressed with the club. Again, credit to Ernst and Chris Albright who went down and met with him. Our interest went a long way in that regard because we scored him over a lot of interesting parties.
“It always goes down to the wire with these things, and I think the initiative Chris and Ernst showed by going down there and visiting with him, explaining our club’s philosophy and how we want to make him a top striker in this league, I think he was on board with that.”
There were also some hard decisions made by the Union in December, when right back Keegan Rosenberry was traded to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for allocation money and backup goalkeeper John McCarthy moved on to pursue a starting gig in MLS.
“Taking the coach hat off, there’s relationships that happen in soccer,” Curtin said. “Keegan’s a guy I coached dating back to when he was 16 years old, so yeah, there’s that emotional attachment seeing him play youth soccer, watching the great college career that he had, great seasons with the Union.
“John McCarthy is another guy I have a good relationship with that just wanted to be a starter. He’s at a point in his career age wise where he wants to get minutes. It was mutual when we spoke, and with Andre being Andre, he wasn’t going to get that here at this time so he decided he’s going to move and pursue another club.”
“(McCarthy) always did great for us, but with his age, he wants an opportunity to be a starter and I can’t blame him for that,” Curtin said. “I think he’s an MLS-caliber starter. I think there’s five or six spots out there that are open that he could push for a starting position in this league.”
There are other players Curtin is familiar with that could sign with the first team or Bethlehem Steel in the coming weeks as Homegrown players.
Curtin specifically pointed out Duke forward Issa Rayyan, Villanova midfielder Zach Zandi and Kentucky midfielder Kalil Elmedkhar among others from the Union academy who impressed in college this season.
“Offers will probably be made to different guys that fit the roster, and for some it might be for the Steel, and for others it might be a jump right to the first team,” Curtin said. “With each individual, there’s a different timeline, different path, so we’re excited to get these guys going. There’s some very good talent from the Union youth academy that did well in college, for sure.”