4 Days Away: Questions and Answers for Union Die-Hards, and Newbies Alike

4 Days Away: Questions and Answers for Union Die-Hards, and Newbies Alike

Clearly, I am a soccer fan.

I played the sport (I still pretend to, on occasion), coached and refereed for a few youth teams and watched enough games on TV to have odd cravings for Singha Lager and Crabbies Alcoholic Ginger Beer – popular sideline advertisers in English stadiums.

I love soccer and I want other people to love it, too. But there is one thing I’ll never understand about many soccer fans who want to have their Singha and eat it too.

The same people who complain about a lack of mainstream soccer love – “it’s not on SportsCenter,” “the Inquirer had a 3-inch Union story,” “the game is on a channel I don’t get” – turn their noses up at “newbies” who ask questions about the game or say “field” instead of “pitch.”

You can’t have it both ways. You either want more people to appreciate the game, or you want it to be your cliquey little niche. I prefer the former, which is one of the reasons my three-plus years at PPL Park have been so enjoyable.

Sure, there are plenty of “soccer snobs”  hanging around on the banks of the Delaware. Folks who like to rattle off the current standings in the Dutch Eredivisie, brag about how they’ve “been here from the start” or tell you how you “don’t really understand the game” because you didn’t wake up at 4:45 a.m. to watch the Urawa Reds battle Yokohama in the J-League.

For those people – and soccer-heads who like to analyze formations and pick apart the SuperDraft (that includes me) – there are plenty of Union-specific blogs out there. Here at The Level, we’ll try to continue where @Rev215 left off before his Gareth Bale tattoo got infected (or he had a kid, not sure which). Plenty of smart, nuanced debate about the Union for the die-hards, as well as some light-hearted stuff for those of you who just like to tailgate outside PPL, have a beer (or two) and enjoy a sunny summer afternoon.

So with first kick just a few days away (forecast isn’t looking bad, by the way), here’s a few questions you might overhear on Saturday when the Union host Sporting Kansas City (4 p.m., 6 ABC) – whether it’s a seemingly uneducated ask from a “newbie” or a well-thought-out prediction from a scarf-carrying Son of Ben. We’ve even provided a few stock answers/statements you’re free to use, with or without attribution to The Level.


What happened to Freddy Adu?

John Hackworth happened, that’s what. Hack has made it clear he was not and is not on board with Adu’s game, and the former child prodigy will never suit up for the Union again. But he’s still collecting a BIG paycheck. The team claims to be searching for a way to dump Adu, but it’s much easier said than done.

So the Union are holding him hostage?

Actually, it’s more the other way around. Adu is guaranteed at least $400,000 this year, and, just as any of us would do, he’s not willing to simply ignore than fact and move on. Both sides have been relatively quiet, but Adu seems to be standing pat and waiting for the right opportunity. Given his inflated sense of his own abilities, he might be content to sit tight until Real Madrid comes calling.

Can we talk about something else?

Absolutely. That will be the last Adu reference here on The Level until he is dealt or steps on a field in another shirt. That’s a promise.

Will the 2013 Union be more like the 2012 side that struggled to score goals and win games, or the 2011 team that surprised us all with a playoff run?

If I had to guess, it will be somewhere in between. We’ll have a more in-depth look at this year’s prospects –  as well as a few predictions – later in the week, but it would be fair to expect much more from this team than we saw in 2012. Hackworth has had time to make the team his, and we’re well past “they’re still young” as an acceptable excuse. Anything short of a playoff berth would be a disappointment.

I want to buy that sweet new third jersey (which hasn’t been unveiled yet). Who will score the goals this year so I know what name and number to get?

Hackworth has indicated he will likely play three attacking players up front. At first glance, it seems you’d be safe going with the No. 11 of fan-favorite Sebastien Le Toux, No. 6 of newcomer Conor Casey or No. 9 of last year’s goal-scoring leader Jack McInerney. As was proven during training camp in Florida – where the first team struggled to score – it might take time for those three players to jell. We’ll have more on predicted formations and stat leaders later in the week, but for now, you might want to go with a blank jersey. Just ask anyone wearing a Carlos Ruiz or Jordan Harvey shirt at PPL.


What about Zac MacMath?

It’s put up or shut up time for MacMath. If you want to take the popular side of the argument at PPL, you can talk about how great the young goalkeeper is. If you’re feeling feisty, show a little more skepticism (like I often do on this subject). MacMath is immensely talented and amazingly athletic, but from where I sit, it’s time for the 21-year-old, former first-round pick to put the team on his back and win a few games on his own this season. With the departure of team captain and center back Carlos Valdes, he might get that chance early in the season as the defense finds its chemistry.

Why can’t anyone hit a good corner kick on this team?

I don’t really have an answer for that one. Sorry.

How ’bout a beer?

Options abound, but I’ll politely suggest that you skip the lines at Chickies & Petes. Enter through the southeast Supporters Gate and get a double-sized beer at the Snake & Shield, or walk toward the team store and hit up the Boddingtons cart just across the concourse. If you’re looking to use up all your Weight Watchers points for the week, find one of the Philly Favorites stands for my favorite PPL item: Philly Fries. A large boat of French fries smothered in steak, cheese and onions. Much more bang for your buck than a bready cheesesteak.

So you’re an overweight soccer fan, then?

[Hangs head in shame … orders a salad.]

* * *

So if you’re one of the die-hards and find yourself with an extra ticket, invite that neighbor who mocked your Sons of Ben scarf last weekend. And if someone mispronounces Hoppenot, be a nice guy and help him out.

And if you’re a soccer hater (not including those who will comment on this post – you’re a lost cause), stop by PPL this season. Even if it turns out you hate it, there are far worse ways to spend a summer afternoon.

Plus they have Boddingtons on tap.

Follow Steve Moore on Twitter @smoore1117. Stop by and say hi at the top of section 138.

NHL Playoffs: Vernon Fiddler provides big lift as Predators take 1-0 series lead on Blues

NHL Playoffs: Vernon Fiddler provides big lift as Predators take 1-0 series lead on Blues

ST. LOUIS -- One nifty little flip by Vernon Fiddler provided a big lift for the Nashville Predators on a rough night.

Fiddler scored with 5:05 left and P.K. Subban had a goal and two assists, powering Nashville to a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series on Wednesday.

The Predators lost Kevin Fiala to an ugly leg injury in the second period and blew a 3-1 lead before Fiddler poked a loose puck by Jake Allen in the third.

"They had a little push there," Fiddler said. "We got 3-2 and then 3-3 and the building's rocking. You have to give our guys credit. We just regrouped and went back at them and found a way to get the two points."

It was the fifth goal in 43 career playoff games for the 36-year-old Fiddler, who did not play in the Predators' first-round series sweep against the Blackhawks.

"He's a veteran guy so he's been in these situations before and he stepped up and got us a big goal," Subban said. "That was the toughest game of the season for us and they fought so hard and had so many chances, but we found a way to get it done."

Colin Wilson and Filip Forsberg also scored for Nashville, and Pekka Rinne made 27 saves.

Game 2 is Friday night (see full recap).

Draisaitl leads Oilers to Game 1 win over Ducks
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Adam Larsson scored his second goal of the third period with 4:40 to play, and the Edmonton Oilers blew a two-goal lead in a wild third period before beating the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 on Wednesday night in their second-round playoff series opener.

Mark Letestu scored two power-play goals and Cam Talbot made 33 saves for the upstart Oilers, who seized home-ice advantage from the Ducks with a four-goal final period.

Jakob Silfverberg scored the tying goal with 9:13 to play in regulation for the Ducks, who lost in regulation for the first time in 19 games since March 10.

Larsson scored just four goals in his first 85 games this season, but the Swedish defenseman improbably got two goals in 7 1/2 minutes.

Game 2 is Friday night in Anaheim (see full recap).

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.