Borek Dockal has been a midfield playmaker for a long time, but he has never worn the No. 10 jersey that's traditionally bestowed on the role.
Now the sport's most hallowed number is set to be his with the Union. And as he spoke to the Inquirer and Daily News on Thursday, the Czech Republic native left no doubt that he knows what he's getting into.
"It means a lot," Dockal said. "I've always said you need to have courage to wear the No. 10. … They [the Union] offered me No. 10, and I was like, 'Okay, I'm actually coming to play the role No. 10, so why should I hide? I should have this courage to take this number and play the game.'"
Dockal has been in a global spotlight before. He played for the Czech national team at the 2016 European Championship. His move from Czech club Sparta Prague to China's Henan Jianye in February of 2017 drew a $9 million transfer fee.
The money was impossible to turn down for Sparta, where Dockal had spent four seasons, and the allure was impossible for him to ignore. But there was a lot of risk involved.
"That was probably the most difficult decision in my football career, and in my life, too," Dockal said. "I was not sure if I wanted to go there, because everything in China is so different compared to the rest of the world."
He and his wife traveled there before the contract was signed, so they could see the club and the city of Zhengzhou where it's based. They found a metropolis with over 9.5 million residents, and new construction all over the place. They decided to give it a shot.
Over time, they learned it wasn't as cosmopolitan as Beijing or Shanghai, especially when it comes to finding fellow English-speakers.
"You have everything that you need, but it's not an international city, and people there aren't used to meeting people there from the rest of the world," Dockal said.
After a while, Dockal and his wife wanted out. When the Union came calling, he started researching MLS. He knew a few things about the league, thanks to the big-name players who've moved here in recent years. Video highlights were easy to find, thanks to the league's global media deals.
He liked what he saw.
"It looked like it's more open games" than the Czech league, Dockal said. "You attack, I attack, you go up and down and there is much more space."
A few weeks ago, technical director Chris Albright paid a visit.
"I had a great first impression," Dockal said. "He tried to describe to me what they expect from a player playing this position, and playing this role in a team. I felt like, yeah, you're actually looking for me — you're talking about how I like to play, and what I like to do on the pitch."
The Union's negotiations with Henan Jianye were long and complicated. Dockal thought at one point that the move might not happen. But when he flew last week to the Union's preseason training camp in Clearwater, Fla., he was pretty sure the deal would get done.
Dockal was already antsy enough, as he hasn't played in an official game since mid-November. The Chinese Super League runs on a spring-to-fall schedule similar to MLS. He trained on his own in Prague while waiting for the new campaign to begin.
But he isn't worried about getting back up to speed. And he's excited to work with Union stalwarts Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, fellow globetrotters who now call Philadelphia home.
"I've talked to those two quite a lot," Dockal said. "It's great to have this quality around you, because they can make you better and hopefully I can make them better as well."
Of course, as he admitted a moment later, "we have to wait for the real games to see if it works well or not."
That moment is coming soon, but not quite yet. Dockal gave the interview for this story from Toronto, where he was waiting for immigration paperwork to be cleared. Although he spent a week in the U.S. with the Union, federal law required him to leave the country in order to complete his visa application.
Once everything is resolved, the time will finally come for Dockal to be the big-time player the Union and their fans have long sought. He's clearly ready for it.
The Union’s offseason additions
Borek Dockal isn't the Union's only new player this year. Here's the full list of their acquisitions:
M Anthony Fontana: Signed to a pre-contract last July 17 that took effect on Jan. 1.
F Cory Burke: Signed from the Union's minor-league USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel on Dec. 21.
D Matt Real: Signed as a homegrown player on Jan. 18.
D Mark McKenzie: Signed as a homegrown player on Jan. 18, along with Real.
M David Accam: Acquired in a trade with the Chicago Fire on Jan. 19.
M Borek Dockal: Acquired on a one-year loan from Chinese Super League club Henan Jianye on Feb. 28.