Is it time for Klberson to play more for the Union?

Is it time for Klberson to play more for the Union?

By Dave Zeitlin

CHESTER, Pa. – After the third consecutive question about
the Brazilian World Cup winner was fired at him, Philadelphia Union manager
John Hackworth paused and gave a nervous smile.

“This is a lot more Kléberson than
I thought there’d be in this press conference,” he said.

He probably should have seen it coming.

If you follow the Union even casually, you may have noticed
that Hackworth’s midfield selection is at the top of the list in terms of fan
gripes. And for good reason. Through eight games this season, Philly’s midfield
has accounted for zero goals and just three assists. And they’ve routinely
gotten smoked in the possession battle (a stat, it should be noted, that
Hackworth doesn’t think holds much meaning).

Meanwhile, Kléberson has played a grand total of 29 minutes in
the four games he’s been active since coming over on loan in part of the deal
that rid the Union of Freddy Adu’s contract.

Why has the 33-year-old Brazilian who once
played for Manchester United had such a limited role so far, even though he’s
said to be doing well in training?

We asked Hackworth about this Wednesday,
as we’ve had for much of the past month. And he answered in pretty much the
same way he has for the past month, saying that Kléberson still needs to time
to “get acclimated” and that they didn’t want to play him too much in last
Saturday’s game because he’s not used to playing on turf and that he’s still not
yet prepared to play a full 90 minutes.

You’d think the team’s Designated Player
(read: the guy who makes the most money) could be able to handle all the new
stuff being thrown at him in MLS – but, sure, those are all semi-logical
strategic reasons for holding him back initially.

The problem, it seems, that most Union fans have is that Kléberson – and, to a lesser extent Sebastien Le Toux and Gabe Farfan – seems
to be below Keon Daniel and Danny Cruz on the depth chart. And, it’s probably
fair to say, those are not two of the most popular players on the team. (For
the record, I think Cruz is a solid MLS player and I think the venom he gets
from fans is unwarranted a lot of the times.)

Naturally, both Daniel and Cruz came up during
Wednesday’s press conference. And Hackworth defended his choices for routinely
starting the two midfielders. He called Daniel “one of our best players this
year” and someone who has “superior technique to anyone on our team.” And he said
Cruz has been “one of our most effective players in possession" and “one of our
most creative players in getting entries into the final third of the field,
especially in the penalty area.”

While it’s true that Daniel has a smooth
touch and Cruz can use his speed and hustle to stretch a defense like few
players can, it’s hard to argue that a more creative midfield would probably include Kléberson
and both Farfan brothers playing in front of Brian Carroll and feeding in
passes to the fun-to-watch striker tandem of Conor Casey and Jack McInerney.

Will that ever happen? Will Gabe Farfan get back into the
midfield rotation and play alongside his brother Mike? Will Hackworth unleash Kléberson and see what he can do in MLS?

Or will be asking the same questions a month for now?

Dave Zeitlin covers the
Union for MLSsoccer.com and CSNPhilly.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com and follow him on
Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.

With new mindset, Nelson Agholor embraces competition to prove himself to Eagles

With new mindset, Nelson Agholor embraces competition to prove himself to Eagles

Nelson Agholor’s rookie season was a disappointment, but his second year in the NFL was a disaster, the pressure of which was clearly getting to him. Now Agholor finds himself on the roster bubble as his third year with the Eagles commences, and it’s fair to wonder what the wide receiver’s mindset is like in 2017.

“Confident and comfortable,” Agholor said Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, where phase three of OTAs had just begun.

Earlier in the day, Agholor had been involved at practice — cycling in with the first-team offense and getting plenty of looks, too. Later, he would be the last player to leave the field, continuing to run sprints alone after practice ended. Finally, back in the locker room, Agholor explained the epiphany he arrived at during the offseason, and how he knows he’s ready to put 2016 behind him.

“I just had a realization that the only thing that matters is the current situation,” Agholor said. “I’m here, I have an opportunity to get better and make myself a better football player.”

None of this means everything is about to click for Agholor, and he’s suddenly going to perform up to his status as a first-round pick. The Eagles clearly weren’t counting on that, either, when they signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency, then selected two more receivers in the draft.

If Agholor intends to turn his career around, a fresh outlook isn’t a bad place to start.

Failing to meet expectations and under relentless scrutiny, Agholor’s demeanor changed over the course of last season. Frustrations finally boiled over during a postgame rant after an Eagles loss to the Cowboys. Four weeks later, he was a healthy scratch against the Packers. Though Agholor suited up for the final five games, there was no discernable change from a production standpoint.

“That’s in the past,” Agholor said. “I practiced today. I got after it today. Anything that happened back then, it happened for a reason.”

Agholor — who turned 24 Wednesday — attributed the bulk of his struggles to youth and inexperience while denying mental or confidence issues were to blame for his performance. With only 59 receptions for 648 yards and three touchdowns to show after two years, the Eagles couldn’t wait for him to grow up any longer, which led to Jeffery and Smith being brought aboard.

“I took it for what it was,” Agholor said. “I said, ‘This was what happened, this is the new opportunity, so every day, just focus on getting better at some aspect of it.’

“It’s all about getting better consistently each day, even if it’s just a little. At the end of the day, the whole world will be like, ‘Man, this is the product?’ Some of the best players in this league, they didn’t just become really great the first day there. It took a process and continuous progression every day.”

But how exactly does Agholor go about making that jump? Because work ethic has never been a complaint, nor was talent a problem at USC, where he finished with 179 receptions for 2,571 yards and 20 touchdowns in 40 games.

There’s no telling whether Agholor will ever put it all together in the NFL. He has refined his approach, however.

“I focused on the simple grind, whether it’s conditioning, whether it was living weights,” Agholor said of offseason workouts. “I wasn’t trying to have just a miracle happen. I just started focusing on the simplest things.

“I got on the track and worked on my speed and worked on my conditioning. I was in the weight room, worked on my strength and my durability, making sure my muscles were working the right way. That’s all it was, little things like that.”

Coaches and teammates are seeing a difference in Agholor as well. Most of all, they believe competing against veterans like Jeffery and Smith will bring the best out of a young receiver still trying to find his way.

“Nelson's attitude has been great. He's worked extremely hard this offseason,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “As I've said all along, competition sharpens you, and that's what I've seen from Nelson.”

“I feel like competition is what’s going to help breed production,” Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. “If you’ve got more guys coming in and working, you don’t have time to worry about this, this and this. You have to worry about going in and keeping your job, you have to worry about going in and making plays every single day, and that goes for everybody, not just Nelson.”

Agholor does not disagree.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to compete vs. some really good players,” Agholor said of Jeffery and Smith. “These guys have proven themselves in the league, so if I show that I’m capable of performing the same way they are, then I’m in the conversation.”

That might seem like wishful thinking, but for this brief period in OTAs, Agholor has the upper hand — he knows the offense. And even if the Eagles wanted to move on from Agholor this year, his contract is such that a release would cost more against the salary cap than if he was to remain on the roster.

Financial ramifications aside, Agholor’s spot on the final 53-man roster legitimately appears to be in jeopardy. His hope in the meantime is to make himself indispensable.

“I feel like I want to be one of the best players on this team, and that takes care of it right there,” Agholor said. “I want to be a guy when you watch him on tape, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I need him.’

“The best players play, and I want to be one of the best players.”

For all of the doubts about his confidence, Agholor has seldom had any trouble expressing a general belief that he belongs in the NFL. Any doubts he did have, he obviously did not entertain for very long, based on his goals in 2017.

“I love this game, and I want to play this game for a long time, so I’m not going to allow anybody besides myself determine how long I do this,” Agholor said. “This is only Year 3, and I want to play 10-plus. The only way I do that is making myself available and making myself a good football player.”

Coming off of a season that nearly caused him to lose his swagger and cool, Agholor is doing and saying all the right things again, even as the Eagles bring in potential replacements. Perhaps the notion that it feels like a step in the right direction speaks to how poorly those first two seasons went.

Quick Slants podcast: Lane Johnson impressed by Derek Barnett

Quick Slants podcast: Lane Johnson impressed by Derek Barnett

It took Lane Johnson just one day to figure it out: Derek Barnett might be pretty good. 

The Eagles' right tackle went up against the 14th overall pick in last month's NFL draft several times during Tuesday's first OTA practice and the young pass-rusher more than held his own. 

Johnson was a guest on the Quick Slants Podcast with Derrick Gunn and Barrett Brooks and he said he was impressed by Barnett. 

"I had a chance to go against him today," Johnson said. "He's got a few moves in his arsenal just from being a rookie. I expect a big year from him just from seeing him go against other guys, me going against him. He's a very talented guy." 

What specifically impressed Johnson about Barnett? 

"He can get real low, dip that edge and shave a lot of yards off when he's rushing the passer," Johnson said. "Everybody was talking about Myles Garrett being the best rusher in the class, but I think they underestimated Derek."

Barnett was just one of the topics Johnson touched on in this week's podcast. He also talked about his future after PED violations and the state of the entire Eagles' offense. Check out the full podcast here