Matchday 4: The Return of Le Toux

Matchday 4: The Return of Le Toux

It's really a perfect storm for a third-year franchise facing the first real crisis of fan confidence. A tumultuous offseason has been followed by a nightmare 0-3 start. Now, needing a win in the worst way, the most popular and productive player in franchise history returns to the stadium where he became a beloved figure - his new team undefeated and atop the MLS Western Conference table.
Putting the Le Toux drama aside for a moment, the reality is that the Union is desperate to pick up the three points today against Vancouver (4PM/6ABC). This is a team attempting to integrate a new first choice keeper, a new left back who has at times looked overmatched, a new and possibly redundant holding midfielder and two forwards new to MLS. Rationally, in light of all the changes we knew the team would likely struggle at the outset. It's not so much that they've begun the 2012 campaign 0-3 - it's how they've gone about it.
They've looked disorganized in the back. Zac MacMath has made multiple game-changing mistakes. Porfirio Lopez has struggled (and that's being kind). Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez, two similar players, have not figured out how to work together. Aside from a brief spell against Colorado (who was playing a man down) the midfield has been non-existent. Although Lionard Pajoy has played fairly well, the forwards as a whole have failed to finish their chances.
This is not to say that the team as currently constituted is destined to finish at the bottom of the table. They've yet to develop an identity. The new acquisitions are getting acclimated to a new league. Two presumed starters (Freddy Adu and Sheanon Williams) have spent time away from the club with the US U-23's. It's an incredibly long season. There's a ton of time to right the ship. It'd just be nice to start seeing some positive signs.
The good news is that for the most part Peter Nowak will have a full, healthy side at his disposal. Adu, who played a ton of minutes with the U-23's last week, likely will not start, but may be in the game day 18. Danny Califf, who has not played the last two weeks, should be fit and ready to rejoin the back line. Speaking of that back line, anyone else in favor of Nowak returning to a back four? I know I am.
As mentioned, Vancouver comes to town undefeated (2-0-1). Much has been written about their attacking options, but their early success has been a result of a defense yet to concede a goal. Goalkeeper Joe Cannon has recorded two of those three clean sheets. Former US international Jay DeMerit is the linchpin of the Whitecaps back line.
The Union will catch a break as Whitecaps forward Eric Hassli, who is nursing an ankle injury, did not make the trip. However, they will have to deal with the tireless running of Sebastien Le Toux. Seba, who scored in his first appearance for Vancouver, will be beyond motivated to show the Union brain trust that they made a major mistake in letting him go.
How will Le Toux be received? I don't think there's any question he'll be given a hero's welcome by the PPL Park faithful. However, once the game kicks off he'll be treated as any opposing player would. The will he or won't he shake Nowak's hand is a petty sideshow. Granted, Peter Nowak has not handled the Le Toux situation all that well himself, but he was right when he stated that no one player is bigger than the club
This is a must-win game for the Union. They are playing at home, against a team who has traveled across the continent, in what is sure to be a charged atmosphere. If Danny Mwanga is ever going to be motivated to perform it'll be today on the same field as Le Toux - the player he's replaced.
It should be a fantastic atmosphere at PPL Park this afternoon. The Union has 90 minutes to make a statement.
Starting Lineup I'd Like to See: MacMath, Williams, Califf, Carlos Valdes, G. Farfan, Carroll, M. Farfan, Gomez, Torres, Daniel, Mwanga, Pajoy.
Final Score Prediction: Mercifully, the Union earn its first point of the season with a 1-1 draw.

Sarah Baicker: I don't skate like a man, just a darn good woman

Sarah Baicker: I don't skate like a man, just a darn good woman

In late December, I was invited to play in a pick-up hockey game with some other members of the local sports media community. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was one of only two women there that day. Even now, female ice hockey players aren’t exactly common.

After the game, a reporter I’ve known a while — a guy I like a lot — said to me: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you skate like a man.” I didn’t take it wrong, of course; he meant it as a compliment. The reporter wanted nothing more than to tell me I’d impressed him.

I thought about this exchange a lot in the days that followed. Had someone told me I played hockey like a boy when I was 15, I would have worn that description like a badge. Hell yeah, 15-year-old Sarah would have thought, I do play like a boy. I’m as tough as a boy. I’m as fierce and competitive as any boy on my team. I would have reveled in it, just as I reveled in a similar label I’d received even earlier in my adolescence: tomboy.

Yeah, I was a tomboy. I hung around with the neighborhood boys, riding bikes between each other’s houses or catching salamanders in the creek that ran through town. I loved sports, and my bedroom walls — papered with newspaper clippings and photos of Flyers players — were a far cry from the pink-tinged rooms that belonged to the girls at school. 

As much as I could, I dressed like a boy too, even once cutting the sleeves off of an oversized T-shirt before I went out to rollerblade with our next-door neighbors. My grandmother, who was visiting at the time, pulled me aside to tell me I really ought to dress more appropriately. I rolled my eyes.

I was a tomboy, and I loved the word and everything it stood for. I felt pride in my tomboyishness, believing that the things I liked — the things boys liked — were clearly better than the things stereotypically left to the girls.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it was a conversation with a 15-year-old that changed my perspective, just a few days after my reporter friend had compared my hockey skills to those of a man. I sat down with Mo’ne Davis, the female Little League pitching phenom, for this very project. I asked her if she identified as a tomboy, and she shrugged. Not really, she said. Maybe other people wanted to define her that way, she suggested, but that wasn’t how she viewed things.

You know that record scratch sound effect they play on TV or in the movies? The one that denotes a sort of “wait … what?!” moment? That’s what happened in my head. Mo’ne Davis, the girl who played on the boys’ team and excelled, didn’t consider herself a tomboy?

Something clicked in my head after that. I’ve long identified as a feminist, and I’ve been a big supporter of girls in sports for as long as I can remember. I coach girls hockey, I’ve spoken at schools and camps about playing and working in sports as a woman. For some reason, though, it took a 15-year-old shrugging her shoulders at the label “tomboy” to take the power out of the word for me. Why does one have to be a tomboy, when one can simply be a girl who kicks ass? How had I never considered this before?

In many ways (and especially in sports) if something is male, it’s considered superior. It goes beyond just the things kids like to do, and it’s all old news. It’s also something I’m ashamed to admit I’ve bought into for practically all of my life. But no longer. How can I help change the narrative if I’m too busy playing along with it?

And if I could do it over, when that reporter approached me after our hockey game to tell me I skated like a man, I would have smiled, shook my head and said: Nah. But I skate like a darn good woman.

Flyers-Capitals 5 things: Washington on ridiculous roll into Wells Fargo Center

Flyers-Capitals 5 things: Washington on ridiculous roll into Wells Fargo Center

Flyers (28-24-7) vs. Capitals (39-12-7)
8 p.m. on NBCSN, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

After finding some offense to finish up a 1-2-0 road trip, the Flyers return home for a not-so-glorious welcome when they host the NHL-leading Washington Capitals on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

We’ll get into that and more with five things to know:

1. Capping things off
What’s the Flyers’ reward for salvaging the final game of a road swing through Canada? A date with the Capitals, who are the NHL’s hottest team since New Year’s Eve, and by a landslide.

Just how dominant has Washington been?

Dating back to Dec. 31, the Capitals are 19-3-2 and have scored an incomprehensible 104 goals in those 24 games. That’s 4.33 goals per game, while yielding only 50 markers over that stretch.

Meanwhile, the Flyers have scored an NHL-low 40 goals since New Year’s Eve and allowed 62 for an Eastern Conference-worst goal differential of minus-22.

Washington, coming off its first back-to-back defeats since Dec. 27-29, has lost three straight games only once this season.

2. A Ghost sighting
On Sunday, for the first time in close to four months, we saw the Shayne Gostisbehere from the Calder Memorial Trophy (top rookie) runner-up season last year.

The sophomore blueliner delivered his first three-point game of his career to ignite the Flyers to a 3-2 win over the Canucks.

Although Gostisbehere has made it clear he’s focused on his defensive game, the Flyers are a different animal when he’s generating offensive chances at 5-on-5 and the power play.

“He had his confidence and a little bit of swagger,” Wayne Simmonds said of Gostisbehere’s performance Sunday.

“Ghost has had his ups and downs this year, but he's a heck of a player and has unbelievable skill. He can be a catalyst offensively for us, that’s for sure.”

3. Good cage match
This one makes for an intriguing goalie matchup between Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, who were once battling for the net in Washington.

Holtby is having another stud season after winning the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy (top goalie). Among all netminders, he is tied for first in goals-against average (2.01) and shutouts (seven), while he hasn’t been beaten in regulation since Dec. 27.

The 27-year-old blanked the Flyers twice in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and stopped 149 of 154 shots over the first-round series that the Capitals won in six games.

Neuvirth hasn’t been too shabby himself, starting eight of the Flyers’ last 10 games. Aside from a bad showing in a 6-3 loss to the Oilers, Neuvirth has not surrendered more than two goals in any other outing during that span.

A 2006 second-round pick of Washington, Neuvirth was brilliant last postseason against his former club, making 103 saves on 105 shots faced to get the Flyers two victories.

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare can be crucial in these types of games. The fourth-line forward often sees work against the opposition’s top offensive threats and is the Flyers’ most important piece to the penalty kill. Bellemare has played 16-plus minutes in both meetings with the Capitals this season, while the PK is 15 for 17 in February and tied for the NHL’s third-fewest goals against this month.

Capitals: T.J. Oshie is such an underrated asset for Washington. The right winger, who played his college hockey at North Dakota under Flyers coach Dave Hakstol, leads the NHL with a 22.8 shooting percentage, a big reason why the Capitals are scoring 3.34 goals per game, good for second most in hockey. Oshie has 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in his past 22 games and is a plus-24 on the season.

5. This and that
• Neuvirth has just two career regular-season matchups against the Capitals, going 1-0-0 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.

• Holtby is 6-4-7 with a 2.71 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 18 lifetime matchups with the Flyers.

• The Flyers are three points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot, trailing the Panthers, Bruins and Islanders, all of whom have 66 points.

• Simmonds has four goals in his last five games.

• Claude Giroux has two points (one goal, one assist) in his previous 10 games.

• Washington ranks first in the NHL with a plus-69 goal differential.

• Jordan Weal (upper-body injury) is expected to miss his second straight game.