Show Me Something: After 4 years, Union have 17 home games to convince masses to pay attention

Show Me Something: After 4 years, Union have 17 home games to convince masses to pay attention

Sebastien Le Toux, left, and the Union welcome the New England Revolution to town Saturday afternoon (AP Photo)

Last Saturday night, after the Union's 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers, I got a text from a co-worker friend of mine.

Now, this friend is a huge soccer-head. He not only has multiple Liverpool jerseys and listens to multiple Liverpool podcasts (and somehow understands the ridiculous "Scouser" accent), he manually keeps stats in an Excel spreadsheet for a fantasy English Premier League with some friends.

Despite all of those shortcomings, he has never been to an MLS game, and I'm not sure he had ever watched one from beginning to end on TV. He's not an out-and-out soccer snob, like many who turn their noses up at MLS, but says he's just never felt invested in a team or the league or any players.

His text read: "I watched ... I'm in on the Union finally. I saw enough quality for me to buy in, which is good news for next week."

"Good news" since he's tagging along to PPL Park on Saturday as the Union open their home schedule against the New England Revolution (4 p.m. - Comcast SportsNet).

My friend is a perfect example of MLS's largest target audience. But he's also the reason why this season is so critical for the Union, not so much as it amounts to wins and losses, but as it relates to butts in seats and eyeballs on TV.

While I would put the PPL Park match day experience on par with any team in the city, the "Have you been to a Union game yet?" allure is wearing off after four seasons.

That season ticket waiting list the team loved to tout in 2010 and 2011 has disappeared. There are still (a few) tickets available for Saturday's home opener. Season ticket holders this season were enticed with the offer of free parking for the ENTIRE SEASON, which is not a throwaway promotion by any stretch (a season parking pass has a face value north of $300).

I've met plenty of people in the stands who never watched a soccer game before 2010, and still don't know what color Liverpool wears. They love the tailgate scene, the stadium atmosphere, and the affordable season tickets. They'll likely be back (with their favorite local tailgating brews).

There are plenty of people like me who have jumped in with both feet and will likely hang around no matter what happens (to a fault, if it gets that bad).

But my friend is one of the countless people in the greater Philadelphia area (me included) who wakes up early on weekends to watch games between teams they've never seen in person.  These are the people MLS is now marketing to, and the people the Union may lose forever if they turn in a disappointing season.

Whether these people believe that they can't "dumb-down" to an inferior product, or they already have too much emotionally invested in their favorite EPL team is beside the point. The Union don't need to win the MLS Cup this year (though it'd help). They don't even need to send 5 guys to the All-Star Game or win a trophy.

What they do need to do is play an attractive, entertaining and exciting style. They need to show skill beyond the "MLS Standard" and do more than just hang on for 0-0 home draws. They need character, personality and players who are easy to like (something they're already excelling in, based solely on Maurice Edu's Twitter account and Cristian "Chaco" Maidana's Instagram account).

I'm not saying the Union need to jazz up their play at the expense of wins. Philly loves a winner, and if this team wins, people will pay attention. And you're never ever going to convince the ever-dwindling "Soccer is so stupid, there's no scoring!" crowd. MLS thankfully gave up on that a long time ago.

But my friend -- and many others like him -- may only give the Union one or two chances.  He's remarked to me in the past that he was a little turned off by what he felt was a "Look, we have a team, isn't that great?" attitude from the Union front office. And for most of the Union's four years of existence, he wasn't wrong.

But in the past four moths, the front office has pushed its chips to the center of the table with big names, flashy talents, and a full season to build chemistry. Now it's time to see if the payout comes.

Win some games, entertain the masses, and keep providing the best game day experience in town. Then you'll have people lining up to pay $20/game for parking.

...check back tomorrow for more on the home opener and enjoy a beer while you're waiting

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera leads off for first time in 84 games

Tonight's lineup: Odubel Herrera leads off for first time in 84 games

A day after going 0 for 5 with five strikeouts, Odubel Herrera is leading off for the Phillies in their series opener Friday night against the Reds (see game notes).

It's the first time Herrera is leading off since last Aug. 19, a span of 84 games.

Cesar Hernandez gets the night off, with Andres Blanco batting second and playing second.

Maikel Franco is back in the six-hole after going 1 for 5 with two strikeouts in the cleanup spot Thursday. Tommy Joseph bats fourth and Michael Saunders fifth.

Cameron Rupp, who walked three times in Thursday's win over the Rockies, catches Aaron Nola and bats seventh.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Andres Blanco, 2B
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Maikel Franco, 3B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Aaron Nola, P

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Aaron Nola looks to build on extremely impressive return from DL

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Aaron Nola looks to build on extremely impressive return from DL

Phillies (16-29) vs. Reds (22-24)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Following their first win in a week, the Phillies open a new series this weekend against a beatable team in the Cincinnati Reds, who are 3-9 in their last 12 games and 1-7 in their last eight road games.

Let's have ourselves a look-see:

1. Nola's turn
Aaron Nola is on the mound tonight for his second start since a month-long DL stint. He was extremely impressive his last time out, allowing one run on four hits over seven innings in Pittsburgh.

Nola's fastball reached as high as 95.5 mph against the Pirates, which is notable because he threw only two pitches faster than 94 mph all of last season. His velocity was up before the lower back strain and it's a great sign that the elbow injury which ended his 2016 season is truly in the past.

In Pittsburgh, Nola (2-1, 3.52) threw 19 of 27 first-pitch strikes. He got 11 outs on the first three pitches of at-bats. 

He's faced the Reds twice in his career and dominated them both times, allowing two earned runs in 14 innings with one walk and 17 strikeouts.

Current Reds have gone 7 fo 39 (.179) against him with just two extra-base hits. Joey Votto is 0 for 5.

2. What to do with Odubel
Pete Mackanin has an interesting decision to make this weekend with slumping Odubel Herrera, who on Thursday became the first player in the majors this season to go 0 for 5 with five strikeouts in a game.

Herrera is down to .226 on the season with a .275 on-base percentage. In May, he's hit .194 with one walk and 28 strikeouts.

Mackanin could bench Herrera like he did with Maikel Franco for two games earlier this week. It would send a message to the player that poor at-bats and wild swings have consequences. And, quite frankly, sitting Herrera for a day or two might give the Phillies a better chance to win.

The issue, of course, is that there's a thin line between giving a player a chance to clear his head and ridding him of opportunities to get back on track.

Plus, the Phillies don't have great options in replacing Herrera in the lineup. They have a four-man bench at the moment and the only options would be putting Ty Kelly or Brock Stassi in left field and moving Aaron Altherr to center.

(Update: Mackanin is taking the opposite approach with Herrera, leading him off Friday night.)

Herrera just has not been himself this season and it's troubling. At this point last season, Herrera was hitting .327 with a .901 OPS. He's been an undisciplined hitter in 2017 and when you have two of them in the middle of the lineup in Herrera and Franco, it makes things really easy on pitchers at times.

Herrera started the year hot, hitting in his first eight games. Since then, he's hit .203/.239/.324 in 155 plate appearances with six walks and 42 K's.

3. Tommy time
Tommy Joseph has been one of the very best hitters in baseball this month, batting .329/.400/.671 with six doubles, six homers and 15 RBIs in 22 games.

He's 148 games and 499 plate appearances into his major-league career and has hit .257 with 23 doubles, 28 homers, 69 RBIs and an .804 OPS. That's about 10 points higher than the league average OPS from first basemen over that span.

Had Joseph's April slump continued into May, prospect Rhys Hoskins might have already been called up. But Joseph has done enough so far to hold off Hoskins, who appears to have more upside because of his combination of power and plate selection.

Controlling the strike zone is the next step for Joseph. He has a .311 OBP so far with 33 walks and 112 strikeouts as a Phillie.

But over the last two seasons, he's been one of the few Phils who's taken advantage of this ballpark. Joseph's hit .276 with an .844 OPS at Citizens Bank Park compared to .240 with a .769 OPS on the road.

4. Scouting the Reds
The Phillies face 29-year-old Reds right-hander Tim Adleman (2-2, 6.19).

You look at the ERA and think, OK, maybe the Phillies' bats will wake up tonight. But keep in mind that the Rockies' four starting pitchers this week entered the series with a combined 5.27 ERA and the Phillies scored three runs against them in 27 innings.

There's nothing special about the 6-foot-5 Adleman. He throws his fastball and sinker in the 88 to 91 mph range with a mid-80s changeup and mid-70s curveball. His opponents have hit .300 against his fastball and have eight extra-base hits with a .290 batting average against his changeup.

In six starts this season, Adleman's yet to go deeper than six innings. The Phils faced him last season and scored three runs in five innings. Cesar Hernandez went 2 for 2 with a walk and Franco went 1 for 3 with a double.

As for Cincinnati's offense, Votto is obviously the hitter you worry about most. He's hit .299/.422/.591 this season with 12 doubles, 12 homers, 38 RBIs, 35 walks and 24 strikeouts. A typical Votto season.

Shortstop Zack Cozart has been surprisingly hot these first two months, hitting .340 with 20 extra-base hits, 22 walks and 29 strikeouts. It's most surprising to see him walking this much because he never has. He's 15 walks away from matching his career high.

Leftfielder Adam Duvall has killed the Phillies over the last two seasons. He went 5 for 11 with two doubles and a homer in the season-opening series in Cincy and went 8 for 18 with four doubles against them last season.

5. This and that
• Over the last seven games, the Phillies' bullpen has allowed just two earned runs in 22⅔ innings.

• Howie Kendrick started at third base for Lehigh Valley during his rehab assignment Thursday. He was hit by two pitches and removed from the game.  

• Reds closer Raisel Iglesias is one of the most underrated relievers in baseball. He's 8 for 8 in save chances this season with a 0.73 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. He's struck out 28 and allowed just one home run in 24⅔ innings. His ability to go multiple innings is what makes him stand out — he's Andrew Miller-like in that regard. Iglesias has pitched more than one inning in 7 of his 19 appearances.