New Life at PPL? Union Sharp Despite Loss

New Life at PPL? Union Sharp Despite Loss

It's been a month since we filed in for a regular season home match at PPL Park. Might as well have been two with how long it felt. On Saturday night, with perfect summer weather the likes of which we probably won't see again this season, the place was packed, electric from the intros and receptive to a rally video moment from new boss John Hackworth. It also helped that nearby rival and first place side DC United were in town, complete with their travel contingent. The east end of the stadium sounded like a drum circle all night, echos bouncing throughout the whole building. 
It was a lot more than the just the result of month away, this energy. I don't recall it like this all season so far. 
The team on the field looked a whole lot different too. From the opening tap, the Union were running. They controlled the run of play, generating great opportunities and limiting the potent DC attack. For the better part of the night, it looked like we might be in for an outstanding 0-0 match. I know that doesn't sit well with a lot of non-soccer folks, but the action was highly entertaining despite the lack of scoring. 
Then a reality we know a bit too well came back to the stadium. A late concession, a Union loss. A Lancaster Kolsch-soaked look at how Hackworth deployed his selections and how they fared below, along with video highlights from a great match. 
The night on the whole was a positive step forward for the Union, who outshot DC 15-7. Chris Pontius, who scored for United in the 78th minute on the receiving end of a controversial free kick, tweeted after the game: 

Props to Philly 2night. Took it 2 us most of the night. We have a lot to work on and will get back to work this week. Safe travels everyone!

We'll enjoy that progress for now, but the Union still lacked finish on all those opportunities, and they once again allowed a late goal. If they play like they did last night, the results should often be better than they've been so far. At the very least, the matches should be more entertaining. 
Tactically, Hackworth deployed a trio of Freddy Adu, Jack Mac, and Josue Martinez. When Lio Pajoy returns from suspension, it will be interesting to see what the Union do up front. It will be tempting not to break them up after the amount of opportunities they generated. Adu played with intensity and flashed the skill that can set him apart. When once he got too cute and lost the ball in the attacking third during the first half, he raced back and retrieved the stolen property himself, turning the play back toward Bill Hamid. That broken play may have been my favorite part of his night. Martinez had one of the match's best opportunities, but couldn't get around Hamid. The first half saw a flurry of action in the DC box, but Hamid stood tall when the shots were on target. When it came time for second-half subs, Adu remained while Martinez came off for Antoine Hoppenot and Jack Mac left for Chandler Hoffman. Hoppenot saw one shot hit the frame and another sail wide, but man did he look dangerous. It may be hard to coach the group to the next level, as they were tactically on-point and got the opps they needed and then some. They just lacked finish. Only the players themselves can deliver that, and some luck is probably in the cards as well. A little will go a long way, hopefully soon. 
At midfield, the Union were still without Roger Torres, who watched the game along with others from the stadium club. Torres told me he'll be back next week, which could add creativity and a scoring threat to the middle while allowing Adu to play forward again. Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, and Michael Farfan made up the middle in this one, and they moved the ball well. Notably absent, at least to me, was unused sub Keon Daniel. Due to all the personnel issues lately, Keon's been moved around and used outside of the roles we saw him do well in last season, not always looking as effective in 2012. Maybe as roles become more consistent (presuming they do), so will he. 
Gabe Farfan and Sheanon Williams returned to the outside of the Union back line, with Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo paired inside. They all played very well from my vantage—quick and physical—and it's likely we'll see this quartet work together more frequently. The Union won't face many tougher tests than the DC attack, and they held up against all but one well-placed free kick that Pontius was on the right end of. As Rev pointed out in the pre-game, the Union are susceptible on set pieces, and we saw the business end of that damn them to zero points on the night. Whether you agree with the referee's call on Valdes or not, they need to stop bleeding goals off of free kicks and corner. 
But, there truly did seem to be progress from start to finish. Gone were the long-ball Hail Mary's to the forwards, stretching the field instead with short passes and measured control. The Union looked confident and cut through DC with speed and well-placed passing, using the entire field and being opportunistic. 
Next up in regular season action is a meeting with Sporting KC on Saturday at PPL Park. For the first time in a while, the Union gave us good reason to raise our expectations. 

Union-Galaxy 5 things: Union aim for 1st win against 'angry' Galaxy

Union-Galaxy 5 things: Union aim for 1st win against 'angry' Galaxy

Union vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
10:30 p.m. on TCN

The Union travel to the west coast this weekend in search of anything resembling success. Fresh off a bitter draw, which snapped a four-game losing streak but involved spoiling a three-goal lead, the beleaguered Union (0-4-3) will take on the angry Los Angeles Galaxy (2-5-0) on Saturday night (10:30 p.m., TCN) at the StubHub Center.

Here are five things to know:

1.Getting Away In LA
The Union could use a vacation. 

Two weeks ago, the league's lone winless club, were left embarrassed as New York City FC's David Villa scored a goal from midfield to cement the Union's fourth-straight loss. Last week, the hard-luck club gave up a three-goal lead in a span of 50 minutes to draw the Montreal Impact. 

"In some ways, our guys getting away right now, maybe clearing their head, to sleep in a different bed, can be an advantage for us," Union manager Jim Curtin said. "Nobody is happy with how things have gone. We have to look towards LA and try to get a result out there."

It's been said before, but the Union desperately need positivity. The club hasn’t felt victory since Aug. 27, 2016, and has gone winless through roughly 20-percent of their season. Once loaded with playoff aspirations, the Union are nearly four wins out the postseason picture.

"We're looking to take three points," Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. "We've been waiting so long, even some games we play good but don't take the points. This Saturday, we're going to play as a team, fight for every yard on the field and hopefully take three points to Philly with us."

Fafa Picault echoed his teammate's message. 

"We're looking for three points," he said. "We need them." 

2.Finding a Balance
Last week, the Union's focus was on scoring goals, finishing chances and making the most of their limited offensive opportunities. But after scoring three first-half goals against the Montreal Impact last Saturday, the focus is now on keeping goals out of their net.

"The balance isn't quite there," said Curtin, who is still looking for the perfect starting combination to deliver a win. "We've had good moments in 35-minute spurts but we haven't maintained it for 90 minutes, so we're still in search of a group that can go out and execute for 90 minutes." 

Yet that group Curtin is searching for won't be easy to find. Early in the season, the Union tried defensive-minded Derrick Jones at the No. 8 spot, which Alejandro Bedoya at No. 10. It didn't work, which forced Curtin to bench Jones, move Bedoya to his more natural No. 8 position and activate Roland Alberg at the 10. 

Last week, the manager even benched right back Keegan Rosenberry in favor of Ray Gaddis, making Saturday’s starting roster a mystery.

"It's very challenging right now," Curtin said. "The group still remains together, they continue to work and it's not for lack of effort. It's about getting little plays cleaned up in front of both goals."

Those little plays have cost the Union. The club has allowed an Eastern Conference-worst 14 goals in seven games, including eight in their last three matches. 

"I've said it every time, if we're gonna give up a minimum of two goals every game, we're not gonna win a game," Bedoya said. "You can't. You can't win a game if you"re letting two goals every game. We need to get better and step it up defensively and get a shutout, at least."

3. Troubled Galaxy
Much like the Union, Curt Onalfo's Galaxy are struggling. 

The typically powerful club was destroyed, 3-0, by the Seattle Sounders last weekend, marking its third loss in its last four matches. The downturn is an unusual sight for a team that boasts players like Giovani Dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Jermaine Jones. 

"It's a matter of when you go through adversity and difficult times, you find out what you're all about," Onalfo told LAGalaxy.com. "That's when people step up and true character rises. I believe in the group and the vision of what we're doing. We didn't draw it up this way at all, but we stay strong and stay confident. We're looking forward and we're going to get a result on Saturday."

Knowing that the Galaxy are marking Saturday as a must-win match, the Union are preparing for the host's best and most aggressive punches. 

"They are a dangerous team coming off a 3-0 loss at home, so they will be angry," Curtin said. "It won’t get any easier for us. We have to work on some things defensively and in our attack, we're fighting to get our first win."

And while the Union hope preying on the limping Galaxy can give them a spark, the Galaxy hope facing the struggling Union can help jump start their season.

"We have to start collecting points so we can move up," Galaxy center back Daniel Steres told the website. "We're just worried about the next game, that's why it's a must-win. It's at home and we have to get three points."

4. Keep an eye on
Jermaine Jones: Looking to spark the Galaxy attack, Onalfo may choose to play Jones in a more aggressive midfield position. Jones has never scored against the Union in three tries and has one goal this season.

Roland Alberg: Once again, Alberg is the player to watch for the Union. Expected to make his third consecutive start on Saturday, the Union’s new starting No. 10 scored twice against the Impact. As he goes, so does the Union’s offense.

5. This and that
The Union are an unfavorable 1-6-2 against the Galaxy all-time. 

Former Union forward Jack McInerney could face his old club on Saturday. McInerney, who was signed by the Galaxy on April 18, wasn’t quite ready to be activated because of conditioning. He played four full seasons with the Union.

Because of injury, the Galaxy will be without Sebastian Lletget and Robbie Rogers, while the Union will continue to miss Josh Yaro, Maurice Edu, John McCarthy and Ken Tribbett. 

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.