Borek Dockal shows what he can do for the Union, especially if his teammates help

Borek Dockal celebrates after scoring his first goal for the Philadelphia Union in the team’s 3-2 win over D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium.
Borek Dockal celebrates after scoring his first goal for the Philadelphia Union in the team’s 3-2 win over D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday.

Borek Dockal played his best game yet for the Union in Saturday’s 3-2 win over D.C. United. And that would be true even if he hadn’t scored his first goal in MLS.

Dockal was on the ball and did things with it all day, launching smart passes all over the field. The statisticians at Opta judged seven of them to be key passes, which means they helped create a scoring chance.

The key passes metric is helpful beyond quantifying chance creation: it’s a reminder that if Dockal sets up a teammate with a good pass, the teammate’s failure to do something with it isn’t Dockal’s fault.

Dockal hasn’t fully lived up to the hype yet, including his own expectations. The Czech Republic native hasn’t commanded a game in the way that other MLS playmakers do, like Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela or the Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri.

But it’s worth looking back at some plays over the last few weeks to see what kind of a player Dockal is, and can be. As good as Saturday’s performance was, there were signs before then, too.

April 7 vs. San Jose Earthquakes

This was Dockal’s second game with the Union. All three of his official key passes came in the second half, but some lesser plays in the first half were just as important.

In the second minute, Dockal sprung Fafa Picault with a one-touch pass down the right wing.

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In the fourth, Dockal made a simple and smart play: a square pass to a wide-open Picault, who then fed Alejandro Bedoya, who won a corner kick.

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Seven minutes later, Dockal and David Accam combined for a pretty sequence that led to a shot on goal by Dockal. Note not just Dockal’s initial pass to Accam, but how he continues his run up the field to be in a position to get the ball back.

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Another notable play came in the 13th minute: As the Union built out of the back, Dockal took the ball at midfield, ran forward, and fed C.J. Sapong. The striker muscled his way past two defenders, but his next touch failed him and he didn’t get a shot off.

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April 13 vs. Orlando City

This was a forgettable game, but Dockal had one moment worth remembering.

The sequence again started with Bedoya. He fed Dockal, who took the ball in stride. As Dockal ran forward, he looked up, then sent Picault off to the races. Picault would have scored if not for a fine save by Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik.

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April 21 at FC Dallas

The Union spent most of the match on their heels, chasing down Dallas attackers who ran at the young back line. When Dockal was able to get on the ball, he had a frustrating night.

But Dockal was responsible for starting the Union’s best play in the 2-0 loss. With a floated cross from the right wing, he set Accam up for a shot that was saved brilliantly by Dallas’ Jimmy Maurer. If Accam had finished the chance – or if Sapong had put the rebound into a wide open net – what could the final score have been?

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Maybe it would have been 2-1 Dallas. They certainly deserved the win. But it wasn’t Dockal’s fault that his teammates wasted what he gave them.

April 28 vs. D.C. United

As you read about in Sunday’s Inquirer, Dockal spoke about how much he wanted to assert himself in the 3-2 win. He made his first impact in just the fifth minute, receiving the ball from Sapong and returning it after a run forward, but Sapong wasted the chance. He declined to shoot when open from 16 yards, dribbled forward, and ended up stuck in a crowd of defenders.

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Dockal outsmarted himself in the ninth, laying a pass back without realizing there weren’t any teammates to receive it. He redeemed himself by finding his target on a breakaway in the 18th – again, it was Sapong. The striker made a great run between two defenders, but one of them kept up the chase and blocked Sapong’s ensuing shot.

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There are three big themes here. The first is that Dockal has the skill and vision to put the ball where he and his teammates want it to go, especially when on the run.

The other two aren’t as nice. One is Sapong’s failures on many of the aforementioned chances. It’s a harsh spotlight, but he earns it by playing soccer’s most important position. He has two goals from 23 shots this year, and that doesn’t count the dribbles that came to nothing.

Then there’s a lack of shots by Dockal. He admitted Saturday he hadn’t taken enough of them before then. He had 11 combined in his first five games.

Although Dockal’s best skill is helping to set up teammates, he knows the No. 10 role demands shots and goals too. Against D.C., he recorded season highs in both: five and one respectively. His key pass total was also a season best, nearly double his previous high of four against San Jose.

It helped that D.C. is one of MLS’ worst teams. Toronto FC will pose a much tougher challenge on Friday. So will playing two road games in the seven days afterward.

But the signs about what Dockal can do for the Union are clear. Now it’s up to him to keep producing. And just as importantly, it’s up to his teammates to do their jobs when he sets them up for it.