As empty seats multiply at PPL Park, Saturday could be judgment day for Union manager Hackworth

As empty seats multiply at PPL Park, Saturday could be judgment day for Union manager Hackworth

Union manager John Hackworth has plenty of pressure on his shoulders this season.

This week, I've gotten two emails from the Union pushing tickets for this Saturday's home game against D.C. United (4 p.m. - The Comcast Network). One was about honoring mom for Mother's Day by bringing her to the game, and the other offered a sharp discount offer on the pricier tickets at PPL Park.

Those emails -- and the empty seats that caused them -- are what should have Union manager John Hackworth looking over his shoulder, and what I think could force a change at the top as early as next week, if the fans who do show up on Saturday leave PPL Park disappointed yet again.

There's no doubt Hackworth is feeling the heat.

“We’re going to have to get out of this hole we dug, one step at a time,” Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com after the 2-1 loss to Seattle last weekend.. “But I know there’s only so much time to have that opportunity.”

I'm never one to call for a coach's firing prematurely. When I said in the preseason that this year was Hackworth's chance to put up or shut up, I assumed that meant he'd get the entire season to figure it out. And he still might. Changing coaches in the middle of the season won't lead to anything more than maybe a short-lived kick in the butt.

This is me, on the record, saying that while I think Hackworth is not the answer, I don't think a midseason firing is either.

But things have been so underwhelming, and so disappointing, that Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz (under pressure from investors weary of a long summer at the turnstiles) may have to pull the trigger much, much sooner, just to appeal to frustrated fans who are tired of spending their money to watch a team that can't score. Even as soon as Sunday or Monday if things don't go well on Saturday.

The Union not only need a win against a decent but beatable D.C. United team, but they need to entertain. They need to show some growth. They need to show some initiative. They need to show some chemistry. They showed a little bit of that in Seattle last weekend, but in the end, it was the same old story: shoulda, coulda, woulda.

The team's near-bottom-of-the-table standing isn't what will push the change. Nor will it be because vocal Union fans on the Internet calling for his head (some have been calling for it since the day he was hired).

It'll be the hard-to-ignore swaths of blue seats sitting empty on Saturday.

If you're at PPL Park, take a look toward the corners, especially the two corners close to the Delaware River. On Saturday, section 133 will be relatively full because D.C. United will bring a large contingent. But sections 101 and 102, as well as 113 and 121 are usually the last ones sold.

While paid attendance has been decent so far this season (according to this site, the team is averaging 94 percent capacity at 17,415), the warm summer months are coming. Kids are almost done with school, tailgating weather is improving, and the Union -- like every MLS team -- are hoping to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the World Cup next month.

Sakiewicz and Co. obviously hoped that the on-field results would fill PPL to capacity through those warm summer months. But if things don't turn around soon, he might have to show Hackworth the door just so he can stand up and say that he really is in it to win it.

Sure, there are other ways for the team to appeal to frustrated fans. The front office could make a splashy move in the summer transfer window (Jozy Altidore to the white courtesy phone...). Hell, they could just unveil another new jersey or offer 10 percent off at the Union Store.

Just kidding.

Firing Hackworth won't solve the Union's problems. Along those lines, it's about time for the players to stand up and take some responsibility for the dumpster fire this season is quickly becoming. Many of them have not performed anywhere near their potential (not you, Zac MacMath ... you're excused).

But at this point, if things don't turn around, Hackworth may be the sacrificial lamb intended to appease frustrated fans.

The Union have six games before the World Cup break.

John Hackworth might be watching some of them on TV.

End to End: Which 1 move will Flyers most likely make at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline?

End to End: Which 1 move will Flyers most likely make at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline?

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End this week are CSNPhilly.com producers/reporters Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

Today’s question: Which one move is most likely at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline?
 
Dougherty
There has been a lot of chatter about why the Flyers should sell at Wednesday's trade deadline. They won't be buying. Sell is the wrong word here. The Flyers are not selling and changing course. They are not trading Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and starting over. Instead, the next logical step in the rebuild is to shed an expiring contract and open up a spot for a kid.

It just so happens the Flyers have three expiring contracts on defense, and one player comes to mind who would be attractive to contending teams and also paves the way for a defenseman at Lehigh Valley to gain some valuable NHL experience the rest of the season.

That player is Mark Streit, a 39-year-old puck-moving defenseman who can help a team's power play and provide some veteran leadership to boot. Streit has a modified no-trade clause in his contract, meaning he has a list of 10 teams he can be traded to, but that should not be a roadblock in moving him. He'll be a free agent on July 1 and a playoff run is far more attractive than wasting away the final two months of the season in mediocrity.

Streit does have a high cap hit ($5.25 million), but the Flyers could retain some of it. He comes off the books on July 1 and a rental for an acquiring team anyway. The cap hit would not be a deal-breaker here. That is an easy hurdle to clear in this situation.

There are valid arguments against trading Streit, and moving, say, Michael Del Zotto, another attractive expiring contract. Streit is a veteran voice in the Flyers' room and respected within the organization. He's still a valuable piece here. In a perfect world, general manager Ron Hextall can shed both Streit and Del Zotto and open up two spots on the blue line, clearing the way for two (2!) Phantoms defensemen to get some experience.

But, trading Streit is the one move I see as most likely to happen before Wednesday's deadline. Acquire a draft pick for Streit and call up Robert Hagg or Sam Morin. In this scenario, the bet here would be on Hagg. And remember, it's not selling, it's the next step.
 
Hall
Before the season, I was a big believer in trading one of the Flyers' goalies at the March 1 deadline.

Now, it makes even more sense in a season that appears to be headed for not much of anything.

Why hold on to two goalies set for unrestricted free agency when you'll almost certainly lose at least one for absolutely nothing this offseason? 

Michal Neuvirth turns 29 next month, as does Steve Mason in May. Both are having down seasons, but are still tradable and capable goalies -- whether it be in a starter's role or backup duty.

Is either goalie the Flyers' future when the team is ready for contention?

The orange and black are stocked with goaltending prospects in Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon, Carter Hart and Felix Sandstrom. Stolarz got a small taste of the NHL earlier this season and could more than hold down the second-string fort the rest of 2016-17. When the offseason comes, then you worry about what's next between the pipes.

But right now, one of the most rational decisions for the Flyers at the trade deadline would be moving a goalie. Neuvirth currently carries a more reasonable cap hit at $1.625 million, while Mason is at $4.1 million. Make a tough decision and start prepping more for the road ahead.

I think a trade can and should be done by Wednesday.

Paone
Thanks to injury and Dave Hakstol's recent emphasis on defensive structure, Del Zotto hasn't been in the Flyers' lineup much recently. Del Zotto is now healed from the lower-body injury that kept him out for a couple of weeks, so the part about an emphasis on defensive structure is important here when talking about his status with the Flyers.

Del Zotto has never been a defense-first type player. His strength is clearly his offensive ability. But unfortunately for Del Zotto, that's just not what the Flyers need out of their defensemen these days. So it should be no surprise he has slid down Hakstol's depth chart as the need for his role has decreased dramatically. But there are plenty of teams out there, contending ones, too, that could use some offensive punch on the blue line and on the power play. Del Zotto has played in only 30 games this season with four goals and six assists and is a role player these days, but there's a role for him somewhere out there. It's just not in Philadelphia anymore.

His $3.875 million cap hit is a bit steep, but he's a UFA at season's end, so it will come off the books. That should make a team much more willing to take a chance on Del Zotto and his cap in exchange for a draft pick, which Hextall values. Plus, he's not likely to be back here next year anyway, as the Flyers will likely start infusing more of the defensive talent they have in the minors into the big club. So might as well get something for him while you can. Contending teams can never have too much depth and those teams like to build depth through the trade market at this time of year. There's a fit somewhere out there for Del Zotto before the March 1 trade deadline.

Phillies 10, Blue Jays 3: Jeremy Hellickson limbers up, offense continues to hit

Phillies 10, Blue Jays 3: Jeremy Hellickson limbers up, offense continues to hit

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jeremy Hellickson did not shine in his spring debut Sunday, but he didn’t have to.

Hellickson projects to be the Phillies' opening day starter for the second straight year, but with five weeks to go before it all starts for real in Cincinnati, he has plenty of time to put a coat of polish on his game.

The right-hander knocked off some wintertime rust with two innings of work against the Toronto Blue Jays. He gave up four hits and two runs, walked one and did not strike out a batter.

"I felt great," Hellickson said. "I wasn't really commanding the fastball like I wanted, but my arm and my body felt good."

Hellickson went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season and could have opted for free agency in the offseason. However, he surveyed the marketplace and determined he'd be better off taking the Phillies' qualifying offer of $17.2 million for 2017 and trying his luck on the free-agent market next season.

So he's betting on himself.

"That's kind of how I'm looking at it," he said. "It was easy to do that just with the way I felt last year. I think I can definitely repeat or exceed what I did last year."

The Phillies can't give Hellickson another qualifying offer after this season so it's quite possible they will look to deal him in July. But that won't necessarily be easy. The Phils had talks with a number of teams about Hellickson last July and were unable to consummate a deal. It will be tougher this July as Hellickson’s salary has jumped by $10 million. The Phillies may have to eat some of that salary to get a deal they like.

Hellickson was asked if he was ready for another summer of trade rumors.

"No," he said with a wry smile. "But I know it's coming."

He's holding out hope that the Phillies will play their way into contention and the front office keeps the rotation together. He believes it's possible.

"I think we have a really good team here," he said. "Hopefully we're the ones trading for guys at the deadline.

"I've been reading some stuff saying (Aaron) Nola is a No. 5 guy. If Nola's your No. 5 guy, you have a pretty good rotation. I definitely think one through five we can give six, seven, eight strong innings every time out. Then with the guys, we signed for the back of our bullpen, it'll make our jobs that much easier. The days we don't have it, I feel like we can hand it off to those guys after five or six. We're in pretty good shape."

The game
The Phillies beat the Jays, 10-3, on the strength of 13 hits and three Toronto errors. The Phils had eight hits in Saturday’s win over the Yankees.

Cam Perkins, Pedro Florimon and Daniel Nava all had two hits. Rhys Hoskins and Ryan Hanigan both walked twice. Andres Blanco homered. Brock Stassi doubled. Nick Williams had a hit, two RBIs and a walk. Power-hitting rightfielder Dylan Cozens stole two bases.

Cozens is a legitimate stolen-base threat. In addition to belting 40 homers at Double A Reading last season, he swiped 21 bags and was only caught once.

"You've got to like his tools," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's really an athletic guy. He's got good hands at the plate. I think he's going to hit because he doesn't have a lot of excess body movement. He hits a lot with his hands and I think in time he'll cut down on the strikeouts and he'll be an even better player. He looks like a solid defender, good hitting ability, a lot of power and some speed."

On the mound
Ben Lively and Alberto Tirado both pitched two scoreless innings and Pat Neshek and Michael Mariot had one each.

Up next
Jerad Eikchoff makes his spring debut when the Phillies host the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday afternoon.

Clay Buchholz will get the start Tuesday against Baltimore.