Season review: The Union’s #10 problem

Photo by Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: This post is part of PSP’s 2018 Season Review series, in which PSP breaks down the season that was and look at the off-season ahead. To read the full series, click here.

The Union have another offseason full of decisions ahead of them. The top priority might be what to do with the most successful attacking midfielder in the team’s history, Borek Dockal.

Dockal arrived on loan from Chinese side Henan Jianye late and took a month or so to acclimate. Once he settled in however, the Czech #10 simply laced up his boots and led the league in assists (becoming the first Union player ever to do that and setting a team record in the process). Beyond that, Dockal and midfield mates Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya served as emotional leaders on a side that played some truly beautiful soccer while wildly overshooting preseason expectations.

Dockal is worth keeping, but keeping Dockal will be expensive.

His Chinese team, despite getting shellacked on the last day of the season 4-0, finished their campaign winning 5 of 7 matches and avoiding relegation. Having their attacking midfielder back would certainly go a long way in improving that table position for next season. Furthermore, Dockal’s home club, Sparta Prague, is showing interest and has welcomed their former player to train now that the Union’s season is over.

One of those teams owns this Dockal’s rights, the other his heart. Neither is the Philadelphia Union.

How to build a roster

Soccer is a “weak link” sport according to noted author Malcolm Gladwell.

A weak link sport is one where in order for a team to improve, it should upgrade its worst players before its best. Such a high percentage of those players have to contribute in order for a goal to occur that raising the level of the weakest player makes that outcome more likely.

Basketball, by contrast, is a “strong link” game. In order to improve in basketball, a team need only to upgrade its best player. So little needs to happen for a basket to be scored that having the best player on the court at any given time makes that outcome much more likely.

As Gladwell says, “you’ll never see a soccer player dribbling the whole length of the field to score a goal”, but that kind of play happens all the time in basketball.

In short, it’s why Barcelona is good and why LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers were good.

The Union have built their team’s foundation on the weak link premise and rightfully so. The obvious measure is the way in which they’ve sown seeds in their academy that are bearing fruit in players like Austin Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Derrick Jones, Anthony Fontana, and Matt Real. The less obvious measure is the way they’ve kept average players like Ray Gaddis, CJ Sapong, and Warren Creavalle. Each was never the best option at their position in the league, but was also certainly not the worst one over any period of time. Thus, upgrades elsewhere.

The Union have been at their best, however, when they’ve maximized the value of both weak and strong links.

Finding a strong link

In success, the Union have always had a strong link player or two raising the team’s average skillset: Faryd Mondragon and his defenders with do-everything attacker Sebastien Le Toux in 2011, Tranquillo Barnetta, Chris Pontius, and Andre Blake in 2016, and most notably Borek Dockal in 2018.

As difficult as the task was finding and signing these players, the more pressing one for the Union has always been keeping them: Other than Blake and Seba, none of the Union’s best players lasted more than 2 full seasons with the club.

It’s unlikely Dockal will make it even that long.

Henan Jianye paid more than double Dockal’s market value to get him in 2017 when they splashed approximately $10 million in transfer fees. As foolish as that may have been from an economics standpoint, it seems unlikely the team will be willing to take another bath on the same player without him making another contribution to the club.

Thus, Dockal will either head back to China or someone will have to pay to take him from there. Prague has the money to make it worth the Chinese’s while: Henan Jianye gave it to them not two years ago.

The Union do not.

2019 and beyond

Everything the Union want to accomplish offensively flows through their #10. Dockal’s assist numbers and the team’s nearly 25% increase in expected goals year over year prove it. More importantly, everything the Union want to accomplish defensively flows through the same position.

Jim Curtin sets his offense from the back of his formation and his defense from the front: defenders need to be able to pass and attackers need to be able to press.

Lack of defensive commitment is why players like Roland Alberg and Cristian Maidana, in spite of their obvious offensive gifts, stayed in Chester only briefly. Good positioning, real grit, and a bit of a nasty streak are the reasons why Dockal’s move could have worked permanently.

Money talks, though, and what it seems to be saying at this stage is that Dockal’s most recent match in Union blue was also his last.

Therefore, should Dockal not return, the Union must do the following to build on their relative success:

  1. Keep getting Brendan Aaronson starting minutes in Bethlehem. Then, start getting him time with the Union as a late-game sub in regular season matches and as a starter in the U.S. Open Cup early rounds. He’ll be the team’s #10 sooner than later, so get him acclimated to the speed of the game.
  2. Take the $1.7 million allocated to Dockal and divide it up on 3-4 new players. In Major League Soccer, $400,000 goes a long way in relative quality and the Union could use it in defense, on the wing, at striker, and of course on a #10.
  3. Keep being ambitious! The Union had the league leader in assists on their team in 2018, a player who also moonlighted as the captain of his European national team. Those players aren’t found by accident and aren’t gotten cheaply. While you raise the bar systematically through weak link growth, raise it individually through strong link, high level acquisitions.

Union fans should be happy they got a chance to watch Borek Dockal play. More importantly, Union fans should be happy they got to see their organization nab high level talent for bargain basement prices. They should also demand that the front office do it again.





  1. Agree with option 2. Don’t forget you can toss in Simpsons 500K salary too.

    We are in a position to add 2-3 really good players in positions of need. I would say Striker, LB, RW/CAM.

  2. Dockal is definitely not going back to China because he and his family hated it there. That said, I doubt he’s coming back to us either although I would love it because he fits perfectly.
    This makes #10 the highest priority on the team (again) with Striker, RW, LB, and CDM all places we need to get better.
    RW (Accam), LB (Real), and CDM (Jones) have potential in house replacements. Really need to get rid of Sapong and spread the money we have allocated to him, Simpson, and Dockal (and more) to 2 attacking starters.

  3. Salary Dump! The annual Union tradition.

  4. I read the article and it looking like your trying to shine a turd… The Union have been abysmal from their inception. I know, I have had season tickets since year 1.

    The Union needs to pony up to keep Dockal, and upgrade some of their lower level talent so as to keep the team competitive…

    Otherwise, stop charging $14 for a beer and go to minor league pricing across the board as this is the level of product we have gotten from the Union for the last 10 years.

    Union ownership reminds me of the Phillies ownership through the late 80’s and 90’s when they lamented that they were a small market team and couldn’t spend big money…. But they raked in huge profits, and that’s what Union ownership is doing to the fans now….

    • Charlie's_Wart says:

      Oy ve…
      Please don’t leave fantasy land next season, just stay home. Reality is not the place for you.
      Also, let’s make that dermatologist appointment we’ve been talking about. I want to get off the ride now.

  5. I didn’t have room for it in this article, but unlike most of the world where the team who spends the most wins the most, there is little correlation in MLS between spending money and being good. Of the top 10 teams in spending in 2018, only 5 made the playoffs. Paying for Dockal means a transfer fee and a salary that is more than 12x what Fafa Picault makes… money that could much more wisely be used on other players AND a replacement for Dockal.

  6. Dockal won’t be coming back at any high price nor should he. He’s north of thirty and the team wouldn’t get anywhere near the ROI compared to what it would cost to keep him. Makes no sense for a club like the Union. That type of money could be spent more wisely over more players at cheaper prices. He will be missed though.

  7. Would miss him for sure. But this team needs to step up and spend that money wisely! It would be great to see the 3 or 4 area’s of need addressed. Here’s to hoping!!

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