Matchday 14: Union Look To Make It Two In A Row

Matchday 14: Union Look To Make It Two In A Row

The Union return to Houston for the first time since being eliminated from the MLS playoffs by the Dynamo last season (8:30PM/The Comcast Network). Interim head coach John Hackworth has rejuvenated a long struggling Union offense. The blue and gold have scored 9 goals over the last two games (a 4-0 win of Sporting KC and a 5-2 win over the Harrisburg City Islanders in US Open Cup play).

They'll need to continue their recent run of good form if they hope to hand Houston its first home loss of the season. This will be the Union's first trip to the brand new BBVA Compass Stadium, where the field dimensions are the same as they were at Robertson Stadium, which is to say narrow. Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear made certain that his team would continue playing on a 70 x 115 pitch, which is an advantage for a team as dangerous as Houston with Brad Davis whipping left-footed crosses into the box.

It's been only three games since Hackworth took over, but there's an unmistakeable sense that a huge weight has been lifted of the shoulders of the players. They're playing freely. They seem more committed to each other. Players seem to have clearly defined roles. And, most importantly, they've started putting the ball into the back of the net.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change has been Jack McInereny. The former first round pick has started all three games under Hackworth and has responded with three goals over the last two games. He's not playing as a withdrawn forward or as a midfielder - he's playing a position he's accustomed to; up top and central in a 4-3-3. McInereny is not going to blow you away with his pace, or overpower you with his size, but he has a nose for goal and a sense for how to slip behind opposing back lines. Hackworth recognized this and has finally put him in a position to succeed.

Another area of improvement under Hackworth has been the consistent play of the midfield. The threesome of Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud and Michael Farfan have been terrific. It will be interesting to see if Hackworth replaces Lahoud with Gabriel Gomez, who is returning from knee tendonitis. Gomez actually played and scored a cheeky goal against Harrisburg midweek. If I had to guess I'd say that Lahoud will retain his starting spot and Gomez will likely come off of the bench.

However, with Ray Gaddis out serving a suspension and Sheanon Williams listed as doubtful there may be a hole to fill at right back. Chris Albright is listed as probable and could get the start. Another option would be to play Michael Farfan at right back and start Gomez in his place. Whatever they do I am firmly in the play anyone other than Porfirio Lopez camp.

No matter who is along the back line they'll have to deal with Dynamo forward Will Bruin, who is fourth in MLS with 9 goals. There's no real mystery to what the Dynamo want to do offensively. They want Brad Davis to serve balls into the box from the run of play, from corner kicks and from free kicks. He'll aim for the heads of Bruin, Brian Ching, Andre Hainault, Bobby Boswell and Geoff Cameron. It's simple, but it's incredibly effective. We saw during the playoffs last season how difficult it can be to stop.

In reviewing the game notes I was surprised to read that the Union are undefeated all-time against Houston (2-0-2). They'll need to continue playing the free-flowing style they've shown of late if they hope to stay undefeated against the Dynamo. I think the Union will be satisfied if they earn a point on the road tonight.

I see the Union earning a road point with a 2-2 draw.

Photo Credit: philadelphiaunion.com

Record-breaking crowds flood the Parkway for NFL Draft Experience in Philly

Record-breaking crowds flood the Parkway for NFL Draft Experience in Philly

Who needs to the Pope when you have Ginger Jesus?

The NFL Draft Experience joined a long list of wildly popular events in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and all along the Ben Franklin Parkway.

The NFL announced today that nearly 100,000 fans enjoyed the experience, the most-ever for a draft-related event, on day 1 of the draft alone.

Fans flooded into the Experience with people from all across the country in town to support their respective teams. Eagles fans clearly dominated the crowd, however, as you couldn't go a few minutes without hearing an E-A-G-L-E-S chant. 

ESPN also showed some love all night long. SportsCenter's Scott Van Pelt called the story of the night in Philadelphia the city of Philly itself. Adam Schefter called it the "wildest, most raucous crowd in draft history." Jon Gruden called Philly "one of the greatest football towns on the planet."

Aside from not being totally in love with their first pick Derek Barnett upon first blush, Philly fans showed off wonderfully. Even the booing of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came off as cute.

The Draft Experience is open again on Friday from noon until 11:00 pm and on Saturday from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm. It's free for all fans.

Try the games, avoid the cheesesteaks. And bring some sunscreen (ugh).

By the numbers: Jeremy Hellickson legitimately among NL's best the last year

By the numbers: Jeremy Hellickson legitimately among NL's best the last year

Unless you're a die-hard Phillies fan, you might not grasp just how good Jeremy Hellickson has been since the start of 2016.

Hellickson, who allowed one run in six innings Thursday to improve to 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA this season, hasn't just been solid — he's legitimately been one of the best pitchers in the National League.

Some stats to back it up:

• Hellickson has a 1.11 WHIP the last two seasons. That's a better mark than Noah Syndergaard, Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Quintana and Chris Archer have.

• Over the last calendar year, Hellickson's 3.29 ERA ranks ninth-best in the NL. Over that span he has a lower ERA than some really good pitchers like Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Carlos Martinez, Hamels, Quintana and Rick Porcello. It's almost identical to Chris Sale's 3.26 ERA over that span.

• Hellickson over the last calendar year has walked 2.03 batters per nine innings. That's fifth-best in the NL behind only Mike Leake, Bartolo Colon, Madison Bumgarner and Syndergaard. (Jerad Eickhoff is a spot below Hellickson at 2.05 and then comes Max Scherzer at 2.08).

• How has Hellickson been so effective with so low a strikeout rate? He's thrown exactly 250 pitches since 2016 on the low-outside corner and low-inside corner. That's fifth-most in the majors, behind only Jon Lester, Zach Davies, Keuchel and Kyle Hendricks. Paint.

This stat refers to zones 17 and 19 in the image below.

Of course, Hellickson has done this with an extremely low strikeout rate. He's never been a big strikeout guy, but he did say Thursday he's been a bit surprised to have this much success in 2017 with his lowest career K rate. 

Hellickson has a very low batting average on balls in play which will regress closer to his career average, but it's not as if luck is the sole factor here. As mentioned above, he's hit spots as well as almost anyone in the majors. 

And the changeup, his elite pitch, gets some swings and misses but more often results in weak contact and quick outs. The worm will turn at some point, but Hellickson shouldn't be expected to fall off a cliff and revert back into a pitcher with a high-4.00s ERA.

The Phillies did well with this acquisition two offseasons ago and may have been fortunate things with Hellickson worked out the way they did. He has even more trade value now than he did a year ago.