Catching up on some big Eagles storylines heading into Week 9: Foles starting, Sopoaga traded and winning the division

Catching up on some big Eagles storylines heading into Week 9: Foles starting, Sopoaga traded and winning the division

The Eagles are coming off of back-to-back losses to division rivals at the Linc by a combined score of 32-10. Chip Kelly’s offense has not produced a touchdown since October 13 against the winless Tampa Bay Bucs. We’re at the midway point in the season, and the buzz around Philadelphia has clearly shifted as many fans and analysts are beginning to look toward next year already.

Just don’t tell that to the locker room. Despite their 3-5 record, the Birds are only one game back of the Dallas Cowboys for first place in the NFC East, while DeSean Jackson says his teammates still have their eyes on the prize—a trip to the postseason. Per CSN’s Reuben Frank:

“The message, regardless of our record, we still have a good chance of winning the division in our eyes,” Jackson said. “That’s what we’re going to stick with and continue to just come out here and still work.”

“That’s definitely a goal, for us to make the playoffs,” Jackson said. “Throughout the locker room, the guys here, we haven’t made the playoffs the past two years. It’s just an inner goal that we put on each other. Like you say, no one in this division has really separated themselves. It’s a tight division. We just want to do everything we can to take advantage of that, and at the same time hopefully we can be one of the teams standing in the NFC East toward the end of the season. That’s just where our mindset is and that’s what we want to do."

Philadelphia may need to finish the season with a better record than Dallas to take the division. At the very least, the Eagles need to salvage a series split with the Cowboys in Week 17. Even then, they’ll need some help from the rest of the NFC East. Division record is the next tiebreaker after head-to-head, and Dallas currently has a 3-0 record compared to Philly at 2-2.

So barring a Cowboys collapse, the Birds have their work cut out for them. Nine weeks can be an eternity in the NFL though, and fortunes can change at a moment’s notice. It’s a good thing the Eagles are staying loose and positive, because there aren’t many people outside the organization who feel that way right now.

Since I’ve been away the past couple days tending to a personal matter, here’s a closer look at some more Eagles stories that may have slipped through the cracks this week.

Nick Foles to start

Foles returned to practice on Tuesday and on Wednesday was named starting quarterback for Sunday’s game in Oakland with Michael Vick likely out for awhile again with the hamstring injury. While you hate to see it at the expense of an injury to another player, it’s good that Foles is getting another shot.

Naturally there is some trepidation over going back to Foles after his disastrous performance in Philadelphia’s 17-3 loss to Dallas. The 24-year-old was incapable of moving the offense in his eighth career start, completing just 37.9 percent of his passes for a paltry 2.8 yards per attempt before he was knocked out of the game with a concussion.

Frankly, it was one of the single worst displays of quarterbacking Eagles fans have been exposed to in quite some time. Because Foles was undergoing treatment though, we had not yet heard his side of the story until this week. Was an unreported injury to blame? Did he crack under pressure? Is his confidence shaken?

An unflappable Foles didn’t make any excuses when he finally addressed the media on Tuesday. It wasn’t an injury, nor was it the magnitude of the moment. The second-year passer stressed that he simply did not play well that day. I especially liked this answer from his news conference:

“I did not play well, but one game never defines me and it never will. I’m going to continue to work and get better, and that’s what today was for.”

As poorly as Foles played two weeks ago, it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. Any quarterback who ever achieved any level of success in the NFL stumbled somewhere along the way, even the great ones. Maybe their worst day wasn’t as dreadful as that, but does one game erase everything Foles had accomplished beforehand?

Foles will be making his ninth start against the Raiders. Up until Dallas, he showed marked improvement in almost every appearance he’s made for the Eagles. Nobody is or ever has anointed him a franchise quarterback, but the only way we’re ever going to find out for sure what the team has in Foles is by giving him a chance to work through tough games like his last.

Is Foles NFC-Offensive-Player-of-the-Week good or 37.9-percent-completion bad? Likely somewhere in between.

Sopoaga trade

It turns out Isaac Sopoaga was right. The Eagles managed to shock the world after all—by finding a suitable trading partner for Isaac Sopoaga.

The NFL trade deadline came and went on Tuesday without much circumstance, but the Birds did send the interior tackle to New England along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for—drum roll please—a fifth-round pick. Given Philly’s sixth will likely be on the high side and the Patriots’ fifth low, the Eagles probably just moved up roughly 10-20 picks in the late rounds of the 2014 draft. Huge.

The question I’ve been posed is does this mean the Eagles were giving up on the 3-4 for the year and going back to a 4-3 alignment since Sopoaga was their only nose tackle? My guess is probably not.

Sopoaga may as well have been invisible when he was out on the field, so I would think the 10th-year veteran’s “production” in the middle could be replaced rather easily by Bennie Logan or Clifton Geathers. We could see a tad more 4-3 as a result (the Eagles already line up that way on occasion), but I doubt defensive coordinator Bill Davis is abandoning anything.

Besides, the Eagles are in nickel defense more often than not anyway, so the limited Sopoaga was coming off the field for an extra defensive back a lot of the time anyway. Sop only played on 35.8 percent of the team’s snaps this season per Pro Football Focus.

It’s tempting to label Sopoaga’s tenure in Philly a bust, but he gave the franchise what most expected, which was nothing more than a veteran presence at a new position for the defense.

Union goalie John McCarthy ready for 1st MLS start of season

Union goalie John McCarthy ready for 1st MLS start of season

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after Wednesday’s morning training session ended, John McCarthy remained on the practice field to sign autographs for a bunch of young campers.
 
This is a typical activity for the popular Philadelphia native, who in many ways is a perfect backup goalkeeper for the Union.

But this weekend, McCarthy will be more than just an ambassador for fans. With Andre Blake on international duty with the Jamaican national team, the La Salle alum will be thrust into the limelight and make his first MLS start of the season when the Union face the Chicago Fire on Saturday at Toyota Park (8:30 p.m./TCN).  

“Obviously he’s itching to get his first MLS game this year,” Curtin said. “He’s a professional. This is what he prepares for. It’s similar to a backup quarterback role — you have to be ready when your number is called, and I know Johnny will be. He’s a guy I trust a great deal. He’s a winner. He won big games last year, and I expect him to do the same in Chicago.”

McCarthy indeed had a memorable rookie season last year, starting 11 games in league play while playing a key role in the Union’s run to the U.S. Open Cup final. 

But with Blake overcoming injuries and growing into an All-Star this year, McCarthy’s opportunities for playing time have dried up. So far in 2016, he’s played in just one U.S. Open Cup game on top of the 11 starts he's made for the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC.

How has he dealt with such a change?

“You don’t want to change anything up,” McCarthy said. “You just want to be as consistent as possible, keep training the same and keep your mindset the same because it’s the same when you’re sitting on the bench. You’ve got to be ready to play — and the opportunity is here.”

Another international call-up for Blake left the door open for McCarthy to potentially start June 1 vs. Columbus Crew SC. But Curtin instead opted to go with Matt Jones, who gave up two goals but got the win in what's been his only MLS start. Jones has since been dealing with an injury though, which led to McCarthy getting the nod this weekend. 

Despite the competition, McCarthy insists he and Jones — and Blake too — have maintained a great rapport.

“We’re all really good friends,” he said. “We all sit next to each other in the locker room. We can give each other crap off the field, joke with each other and stuff, and then when it comes to [being] on the field, it’s time to work. And we work together as a group because at the end of the day, whoever’s playing, we want the best for them and we want to win.”

McCarthy certainly wants the best for Blake, who is set to start in net for Jamaica in a couple of key games vs. Panama and Haiti as the Reggae Boyz look to advance to the fifth round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. 

Alejandro Bedoya will also be involved in the final two games of the fourth round of qualifying as he joins the U.S. national team. And if he plays in Friday’s game vs. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as expected, it will mark just the second time in club history an active Union player plays for the USMNT.

That’s a big deal, according to Curtin.

“Listen, when kids watch the game and they see who’s on the national team, that’s who they should all aspire to be like,” Curtin said. “I think Alejandro is a player every kid should want to be like. … To have a guy from the Union with this badge represent our country is really powerful. I think that shows the growth of our club. We want more and more of our guys to represent our country.”

At the same time, Bedoya’s absence will naturally create a big hole for the Union, who are dealing with injuries to other midfielders. Blake — who’s usually good for a spectacular save or two — not being in Chicago will be tough for the team to cope with, too.

But Curtin is eager to see some of his bench guys fill important roles this weekend — especially McCarthy.

“All goalies are a little bit crazy in their own way,” Curtin said. “I put Johnny right in that category. So he’s not fazed by pressure. I think he embraces pressure. He’s a fighter. He has a good strong mentality and he works his tail off every day in training.
“He’s one of our hardest working guys. He stays after to take shots, and puts a ton of work in. I’m happy and excited for him to get his opportunity now.”

Phillies to add 3 players Friday; Nick Williams iffy for September call-up

Phillies to add 3 players Friday; Nick Williams iffy for September call-up

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said he expects the club to add three players from the minors on Friday. Rosters expand on Thursday, an off day for the Phils.

“A couple of relievers, maybe a hitter,” Mackanin said before Wednesday night's game against Washington.

Mackanin would not name names because a lot can change in a day or two.

Darin Ruf seems to be a logical choice to be the hitter Mackanin referred to. He opened the season with the big club, but got just 57 at-bats and hit just .158 before being sent to Triple A when Tommy Joseph came up. Since going down, Ruf has hit .298 with 20 homers, 65 RBIs and a .895 OPS in 94 games for Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies will likely add two relievers to fortify the bullpen. Patrick Schuster, a lefty who was recently claimed off waivers from Oakland, could be a possibility. Colton Murray, Luis Garcia, Dalier Hinojosa and Elvis Araujo all could be possibilities, as well. All have spent time in the majors this season.

The Phils can’t completely pick over the Triple A roster because Lehigh Valley’s regular season runs through Monday and that club is likely to be in the International League playoffs.

Once Lehigh Valley’s season is over, more pitching could come. Starters David Buchanan and Phil Klein could be possibilities. Alec Asher, currently serving a suspension for testing positive for PEDs, is expected to be activated by the big club next week and could provide some innings to the starting rotation.

It’s unclear which prospects will come up. Catcher Jorge Alfaro seems to be a shoo-in after Double A Reading’s playoff run. Shortstop J.P. Crawford is not on the 40-man roster and does not need to be protected on it this winter. That could prevent him from coming up as the Phillies look to use the 40-man roster spot on a player that they could lose if not protected. Outfielder Nick Williams seemed to be a lock to come up a month ago, but his performance has slipped at Triple A in recent weeks and he now looks iffy.

Williams, like Alfaro, was acquired from Texas in the Cole Hamels trade last summer. The lefty-hitting outfielder entered Wednesday hitting .265 with 12 homers, 62 RBIs and just a .294 on-base percentage in 119 games. He entered Wednesday hitting just .187 with a paltry .204 on-base percentage in the month of August. He had struck out 34 times and walked just once in 93 trips to the plate in August.

That certainly cannot sit well with a front office that puts a premium on players who "control the strike zone."

AFL rosters announced
The Phillies will send six players to the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. The group includes three pitchers, right-handed relievers Victor Arano and Miguel Nunez, and lefty starter Brandon Liebrandt, second baseman Scott Kingery, third baseman Mitch Walding, and outfielder Aaron Brown. Brown replaces outfielder Andrew Pullin, who recently went on the disabled list at Double A Reading with an elbow injury.

Sixers waive Carl Landry, Tibor Pleiss; officially sign Cat Barber

Sixers waive Carl Landry, Tibor Pleiss; officially sign Cat Barber

The Sixers made some roster tweaks on Wednesday night.

The team waived forward Carl Landry and center Tibor Pleiss, while officially announcing the signing of guard Anthony "Cat" Barber.

The Sixers were expected to cut Pleiss, who was acquired last Friday in a trade with the Jazz. On July 21, Barber and the Sixers reportedly agreed to a partially guaranteed deal.

Landy, a 32-year-old veteran, played one season with the Sixers after being acquired last summer in a trade with the Kings, a deal in which he was essentially a toss-in as it revolved around bringing Nik Stauskas to Philadelphia. Landry, who was under contract for 2016-17 at $6.75 million, battled injury to start 2015-16 and ended up playing in 36 games (12 starts), averaging 9.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

Barber, 6-foot-3, 173 pounds, will fight for a roster spot at point guard during training camp. The 22-year-old went undrafted in June after declaring following his junior season at NC State in which he averaged 23.5 points per game, seventh most in the country and best in the ACC.