And Then They Could Finish: Union Continue Trending Up With 4-0 Victory, CB Addition, US Open Cup Quest

And Then They Could Finish: Union Continue Trending Up With 4-0 Victory, CB Addition, US Open Cup Quest

It's
been a long time since a Monday rolled around and we could look back on
a win in league play for the Philadelphia Union—two months, in fact.
That string of Lose, Lose, or Draw matches and a whole host of other
things resulted in the team's first boss being handed his walking
papers. What's transpired since has given fans further reason to believe
Peter Nowak was holding the team down this season, though it's still
early for any real judgements. 

No matter what came before, the results in John
Hackworth's two matches as manager of the same players have been
exceedingly impressive. After a hard-luck loss to first-place DC United
in a game they largely owned, the Union returned to PPL Park on Saturday
night and absolutely devastated second-place Sporting KC. 

Highlights with some interesting storylines and entertaining video from the 4-0 Union win below. Yep… 4-0 win. 
Hackworth, Thy Name Is Lineup ConsistencyOne
of the most frustrating things about being a Union fan during Peter
Nowak's reign was the lack of any consistency or predictability in his
game-day lineups. I can't imagine how that must have felt for the
players. Since taking over, one thing Hackworth has sought is regularity
in the personnel to the degree possible, as well as their formations.
This week, he made only two changes to the starting XI, neither being to
tinker. Lionard Pajoy rejoined the starters after serving a suspension
in Hackworth's debut, and Raymon Gaddis took the right back position
vacated by Sheanon Williams due to a broken toe. The Union again based
their formation in the 4-3-3. 

Jack Mac's Redemption SongEarlier in the
week, Daily News Union beat Kerith Gabriel published a story on how Jack
McInerney was buried in Nowak's puzzling depth charts.
The 19-year-old rarely found his name on the game-day sheet and became
increasingly disgruntled at his lack of any semblance of a consistent
role on the team. As soon as Hackworth took over, not only was Jack Mac
dressing, he was starting. With the team deployed in a 4-3-3, he started
the match against DC United up top along with Josue Martinez and Freddy
Adu. The combination provided plenty of fireworks in opportunities, but
frustratingly lacked finish. Still, it seemed more a matter of poor
luck than lacking ability, as they were dangerously close. 

On Saturday night, the goals came. And fast. 
Before
some fans had even found their seats, the Union were up 1-0 on a Jack
Mac goal. Clearly in attack mode from the tap, the Union scored in the
second minute after Raymon Gaddis served in a rainbow into the box that
was pushed across the goal mouth, just out of range for Pajoy to convert
on. The Colombian striker craftily yet simply stopped it and skidded it
backward, where Jack Mac came in to blast it home. PPL erupted with
surprise and jubilation at the sight of the net exploding from a shot
blasted comically hard, considering the cluttered box and the distance
from which it was taken. 

Jack Mac made another deposit in the 43rd minute,
giving the Union a far more probable shot at the elusive W just before
the teams broke for the half. Again, the goal came with multiple touches
from very close, a garbage goal if you will. Freddy Adu unleashed a
brilliant ball on a free kick, it pinballed around in front of KC keeper
Jimmy Nielsen before Carlos Valdes charged forward to break it loose,
and McInerney again sopped up the gravy with a biscuit. 

All that talk about a lack of finish last week and
before that, and neither of the game's two first goals required much
final touch. 

Attack of Antoine the Supersub
Adu was subbed out relatively early in the second half, with
Antoine Hoppenot coming on. Hoppenot shined in his opportunity last
week, so I can understand the desire to see it again. I will admit,
though, that I didn't fully understand Hackworth's strategy until I saw
it unfold. Up two goals, the second half subs might have been used to
bring on more defense and a modified formation. SKC's attack is good
enough to overcome a two-goal deficit in hurry. But after last week,
there'd be no complaints heard when Hoppenot came on. My lack of fully
comprehending the move constitutes the tip of the iceberg as to why I'm
watching from the stands and not the sidelines. Hackworth knew that KC
would need to press, bringing their backline up and making the middle of
the field susceptible to long, low-risk services. Already in the lead,
the Union could afford to take unsuccessful shots down the field. A
successful attempt might ice the game. 

They continued to connect on their long passes, with
Hoppenot playing the role of the deep threat. In the 68th minute,
Valdes snuffed out a long KC pass attempt and dished it up to Michael
Farfan, who casually played it back and ran to receive a return feed.
Marfan then sailed a long, beautiful ball to Hoppenot, whose first touch
cleanly corralled the pass. Hoppenot showed a ton of confidence,
chipping the ball rather than firing it on frame. He missed high, but
not by too much. On replay, he probably would have been better served by
just drilling one, but he may have just been getting his range down…

Another Union stretch ball in the 80th minute came
off the boot of Okugo, who sent a pass straight down the middle of the
field to a streaking Hoppenot. KC defender Aurelien Collin got back, but
appeared gassed as the rookie blew past him. Collin then just grabbed
Hoppenot by the shoulder and pulled him to the ground, drawing a penalty
kick but escaping a red card. The move by Hoppenot was a thing of
beauty and confidence. 

Pajoy took the PK, a stutter-stepped delay shot that
got Nielsen to bite hard to his right, only to see the ball go the
opposite way. Damn it felt good to see a goal scorer dance along to the
DOOP song as the Union went up by three goals. 

And the scoring wasn't done yet. In the 89th minute,
another long feed up the middle came from Michael Farfan, and once
again, Hoppenot was there to haul it in—all alone on goal. With cheek
leftover from his first attempt, he chipped another shot, but this one
deflated at just the right moment, falling into the goal behind
Nielsen. 

After narrowly missing on his first attempt and
getting hauled down on his second, it was great to see Hoppenot convert.
So close to a brace, if not more… as a sub. He's gonna hear some great
noise the next time he comes on at home. 

Zac and the BackZac
MacMath had another fine night in net, blanking KC's potent offense. He
was helped by strong play from the four in front of him, particularly
Valdes. Don't take my word for it though

While the Okugo experiment has been a success so
far, he'll likely return to the midfield mix once newly acquired
centerback Baky Soumare is fit for match play
. Either way, along with another nice job by Gaddis on the outside, this
time filling in for Sheanon Williams, the back line is starting to look
versatile and even a little deep. 

In Closing…There remain several barriers
to the MLS's growth despite its increasing success. Among the most
frustrating is the quality of the refereeing. Just dreadful some nights
with the man in yellow commanding far too much attention. 

Video Highlights

Up NextOn Tuesday night, the Union return
to US Open Cup play, hosting their affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders
club. That's a lot of soccer in a short amount of time, but Hackworth
has talked up the importance of the tournament, and it's unlikely he'll
want to take his foot off the gas right now, so we should see a strong
effort. The Union then head to Houston on Saturday night at 8:30 to see
if they can't put together back-to-back wins. 

It's not too early to get completely reinvigorated
if you lost hope for this season. It was understandable, and they look
like a whole new team right now.

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (see full recap).

Westbrook triple-double lifts Thunder over Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.

Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.

It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.

Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson each set a career high with 19 points, and Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers (see full recap).

Pacers beat Grizzlies to snap six-game skid
INDIANAPOLIS -- CJ Miles made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, Paul George had nine points and nine rebounds after remaining with Indiana following the trade deadline, and the Pacers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 102-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Monta Ellis finished with 16 points, Myles Turner scored 12, and Lavoy Allen, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young each added 10 for the Pacers.

The Pacers outscored the Grizzlies 64-42 across the middle two quarters and never relinquished their lead, leading by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Grizzlies finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor (35 for 84).

Troy Daniels had 13 points for Memphis and Marc Gasol scored 12. Indiana outrebounded Memphis 50-39 and scored 29 points off 17 Grizzlies turnovers (see full recap).

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

Thrust into bigger role, Sixers' Holmes stars in win over Wizards

BOX SCORE

For as much as the Sixers’ bigs are talked about, Richaun Holmes often is left out of the conversation. 

He’s not the centerpiece of the team like Joel Embiid nor was he heavily involved in trade talks like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. He is the backup center who bides his time on the bench and quietly stays ready when he gets the nod.

And on Friday, he was the standout player in the Sixers’ 120-112 win over the Wizards (see Instant Replay)

“He’s been sort of the person that people forget about because of the logjam of five men,” Brett Brown said. “We all sort of think, ‘Well, he should just accept it because he’s behind Joel and Nerlens and Jahlil. Good ol’ Richaun. Go to the D-League and it’s OK.’ And that doesn’t work. He’s a pro, he’s competitive. He’s handled it. He’s really been a wonderful teammate.”

Holmes was bumped up in the rotation following the trade of Noel to the Mavs. He moved into the second-unit role while Okafor started in place of the injured Embiid. 

Holmes recorded his first double-double with 12 points (6 for 9 from the field) and 10 rebounds (three offensive). He also blocked a career-high five shots, tying Embiid for the most by a Sixer this season. The second-year big man put together this impressive performance in 26 minutes off the bench (see feature highlight).

“Just play hard,” Holmes said of his approach. “Just go out there, show what you’ve been working on, play hard every second you’re out there. That’s the motto I’ve got.”

Holmes is averaging 16.1 minutes and has appeared in just 32 of the Sixers’ 57 games. This season, he also spent time with the Delaware 87ers of the Development League to get playing time. Holmes embraced an opportunity similar to Friday’s a month ago when he scored 18 points in as many minutes against the Clippers. 

“I try to approach every game this season the same way, whether everybody was playing or people were hurt,” Holmes said. “Prepare like I’m going to play 30 minutes a game. I think having that mindset helped me to stay ready at all times and be aggressive when I had a chance.”

Brown did not rule out the possibility that Holmes could start at some point if he continues this production. The Sixers are limiting Okafor to 20 to 24 minutes per game, according to Brown. That, combined with Embiid’s injury, could lend itself to an increased role for Holmes. 

“I think in that environment, it wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary for Richaun to get a start from time to time,” Brown said. 

Even if he remains on the second unit, Holmes proved he can provide a spark off the bench. Dario Saric noted how Holmes’ impact on both ends of the floor bolsters the frontcourt in addition to a more offensively-minded Okafor (11 points, two rebounds). 

“I think he played unbelievably good in both ways,” Saric said. “Everybody knows he’s an elite guy finishing around the rim, and he stepped in Nerlens’ place, he replaced him unbelievably good. I hope he will get the same minutes for the next game because we have Jahlil, who is more like a post-up player, who likes more to score from the low-post block, and we for sure need some guy like Richaun who will play in both ways." 

Perhaps the person least surprised by Holmes' game was Holmes himself. It was the result he puts in long hours to produce.

“It’s all about the grind,” he said. “All about keep working, keep trying to move up, keep trying to get better every second and it’ll pay off.”