May 26, 2018; Harrison, NJ, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Borek Dockal (10) plays the ball against New York Red Bulls midfielder Florian Valot (22) and New York Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis (27) during the first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
HARRISON, N.J.—Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin posed a question to reporters after each of the team’s last two games.
It was a simple question with a complicated answer that needs to be explained by a variety of factors.
“We have good players. We have good quality. We’ve known that. I asked the question last week, ‘Are we a good team?'” Curtin said. “It’s up to you guys to write what you want on that. We have a team that can play with anybody.”
The final part of that statement rang true Saturday night, as the Union went up to Red Bull Arena and earned a valuable road point by way of a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls.
The Union are on a three-game unbeaten run, and the process installed by Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart is reaping rewards as the Homegrown centerback pairing of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie held Bradley Wright-Phillips without a shot on goal.
“You can watch two centerbacks that are kids going against Bradley Wright-Phillips, and did he have a couple chances and looks? Yes, but overall their growth and development limiting opportunities for Red Bull was very good,” Curtin said.
The strong run of form from Trusty and McKenzie was helped by the chemistry they gained playing through the Union academy system.
McKenzie especially looked like a wily veteran on the field Saturday night, as he made six interceptions, three clearances and three tackles while displaying poise in front of his own net.
The communication between the centerbacks helped keep Wright-Phillips at bay, and even the veteran players in the squad are noticing their improvement.
“You have to be tuned in for the whole 90 and know where (Wright-Phillips) is even when he doesn’t have the ball, and be able to deal with the weak side and the back shoulder and keeping in contact, making sure you get an arm on him so he doesn’t find any space,” McKenzie said.
Union goalkeeper Andre Blake agreed they did all of that well during the match, saying, “They did a great job staying engaged and always knowing where he is. I try to talk to them before the game and tell them what his tendencies are and what he likes to do. I think we did a very good job today organized, talking and sniffing out everything.”
In addition to the stellar outings produced by the centerbacks, Curtin found the right chemistry in attack. Marcus Epps slid into the starting lineup over a struggling David Accam and he looked like the most dangerous player on the field during his 64-minute shift.
Offseason addition Borek Dockal, who came into camp late, showed signs of promise after a heavily-criticized start to the campaign.
The Union are even finding a way to get results on the road recently, as they earned four points over a two-game road span for the first time since late April and early May of 2017.
Although last season’s 1-10-6 road mark isn’t a high standard to reach, the Union are close to halfway to their road point total from a year ago.
However, there is one glaring concern at the moment: the play of forward C.J. Sapong. He took a poor penalty kick in the second half that turned out to be the Union’s best chance of the night.
Sapong scored in the opener against 9-man New England and once more in the 3-2 win over D.C. United, but since his last goal he’s put only two shots on target. He also went without an attempt on goal in the last two contests.
The last attempt on target recorded by Sapong was a late chance in front of the net against the Columbus Crew on May 9. The ball went right to Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
Although the play up top is concerning, the Union are trending in the right direction, and they’ve mostly beaten teams they should beat with the exception of the early stumble in Colorado at the end of March.
Stealing a point on the road Saturday was a step in the right direction for a team looking to make progress and challenge for the postseason.
So, yes Curtin, the Union are playing like a good team right now. But a four-game stretch starting Wednesday at home against Chicago and includes league games against Atlanta and Toronto, as well as an U.S. Open Cup game with the Richmond Kickers, will show more about the quality of the Union.
While Saturday’s result featured a complete team effort, it won’t be remembered if the Union stumble against the Fire.
“It’s important to get points on the road, but this game and performance will mean nothing if we don’t follow it up on Wednesday,” Curtin said.