And Then They Could Finish: Union Continue Trending Up With 4-0 Victory, CB Addition, US Open Cup Quest

And Then They Could Finish: Union Continue Trending Up With 4-0 Victory, CB Addition, US Open Cup Quest

It's
been a long time since a Monday rolled around and we could look back on
a win in league play for the Philadelphia Union—two months, in fact.
That string of Lose, Lose, or Draw matches and a whole host of other
things resulted in the team's first boss being handed his walking
papers. What's transpired since has given fans further reason to believe
Peter Nowak was holding the team down this season, though it's still
early for any real judgements. 

No matter what came before, the results in John
Hackworth's two matches as manager of the same players have been
exceedingly impressive. After a hard-luck loss to first-place DC United
in a game they largely owned, the Union returned to PPL Park on Saturday
night and absolutely devastated second-place Sporting KC. 

Highlights with some interesting storylines and entertaining video from the 4-0 Union win below. Yep… 4-0 win. 
Hackworth, Thy Name Is Lineup ConsistencyOne
of the most frustrating things about being a Union fan during Peter
Nowak's reign was the lack of any consistency or predictability in his
game-day lineups. I can't imagine how that must have felt for the
players. Since taking over, one thing Hackworth has sought is regularity
in the personnel to the degree possible, as well as their formations.
This week, he made only two changes to the starting XI, neither being to
tinker. Lionard Pajoy rejoined the starters after serving a suspension
in Hackworth's debut, and Raymon Gaddis took the right back position
vacated by Sheanon Williams due to a broken toe. The Union again based
their formation in the 4-3-3. 

Jack Mac's Redemption SongEarlier in the
week, Daily News Union beat Kerith Gabriel published a story on how Jack
McInerney was buried in Nowak's puzzling depth charts.
The 19-year-old rarely found his name on the game-day sheet and became
increasingly disgruntled at his lack of any semblance of a consistent
role on the team. As soon as Hackworth took over, not only was Jack Mac
dressing, he was starting. With the team deployed in a 4-3-3, he started
the match against DC United up top along with Josue Martinez and Freddy
Adu. The combination provided plenty of fireworks in opportunities, but
frustratingly lacked finish. Still, it seemed more a matter of poor
luck than lacking ability, as they were dangerously close. 

On Saturday night, the goals came. And fast. 
Before
some fans had even found their seats, the Union were up 1-0 on a Jack
Mac goal. Clearly in attack mode from the tap, the Union scored in the
second minute after Raymon Gaddis served in a rainbow into the box that
was pushed across the goal mouth, just out of range for Pajoy to convert
on. The Colombian striker craftily yet simply stopped it and skidded it
backward, where Jack Mac came in to blast it home. PPL erupted with
surprise and jubilation at the sight of the net exploding from a shot
blasted comically hard, considering the cluttered box and the distance
from which it was taken. 

Jack Mac made another deposit in the 43rd minute,
giving the Union a far more probable shot at the elusive W just before
the teams broke for the half. Again, the goal came with multiple touches
from very close, a garbage goal if you will. Freddy Adu unleashed a
brilliant ball on a free kick, it pinballed around in front of KC keeper
Jimmy Nielsen before Carlos Valdes charged forward to break it loose,
and McInerney again sopped up the gravy with a biscuit. 

All that talk about a lack of finish last week and
before that, and neither of the game's two first goals required much
final touch. 

Attack of Antoine the Supersub
Adu was subbed out relatively early in the second half, with
Antoine Hoppenot coming on. Hoppenot shined in his opportunity last
week, so I can understand the desire to see it again. I will admit,
though, that I didn't fully understand Hackworth's strategy until I saw
it unfold. Up two goals, the second half subs might have been used to
bring on more defense and a modified formation. SKC's attack is good
enough to overcome a two-goal deficit in hurry. But after last week,
there'd be no complaints heard when Hoppenot came on. My lack of fully
comprehending the move constitutes the tip of the iceberg as to why I'm
watching from the stands and not the sidelines. Hackworth knew that KC
would need to press, bringing their backline up and making the middle of
the field susceptible to long, low-risk services. Already in the lead,
the Union could afford to take unsuccessful shots down the field. A
successful attempt might ice the game. 

They continued to connect on their long passes, with
Hoppenot playing the role of the deep threat. In the 68th minute,
Valdes snuffed out a long KC pass attempt and dished it up to Michael
Farfan, who casually played it back and ran to receive a return feed.
Marfan then sailed a long, beautiful ball to Hoppenot, whose first touch
cleanly corralled the pass. Hoppenot showed a ton of confidence,
chipping the ball rather than firing it on frame. He missed high, but
not by too much. On replay, he probably would have been better served by
just drilling one, but he may have just been getting his range down…

Another Union stretch ball in the 80th minute came
off the boot of Okugo, who sent a pass straight down the middle of the
field to a streaking Hoppenot. KC defender Aurelien Collin got back, but
appeared gassed as the rookie blew past him. Collin then just grabbed
Hoppenot by the shoulder and pulled him to the ground, drawing a penalty
kick but escaping a red card. The move by Hoppenot was a thing of
beauty and confidence. 

Pajoy took the PK, a stutter-stepped delay shot that
got Nielsen to bite hard to his right, only to see the ball go the
opposite way. Damn it felt good to see a goal scorer dance along to the
DOOP song as the Union went up by three goals. 

And the scoring wasn't done yet. In the 89th minute,
another long feed up the middle came from Michael Farfan, and once
again, Hoppenot was there to haul it in—all alone on goal. With cheek
leftover from his first attempt, he chipped another shot, but this one
deflated at just the right moment, falling into the goal behind
Nielsen. 

After narrowly missing on his first attempt and
getting hauled down on his second, it was great to see Hoppenot convert.
So close to a brace, if not more… as a sub. He's gonna hear some great
noise the next time he comes on at home. 

Zac and the BackZac
MacMath had another fine night in net, blanking KC's potent offense. He
was helped by strong play from the four in front of him, particularly
Valdes. Don't take my word for it though

While the Okugo experiment has been a success so
far, he'll likely return to the midfield mix once newly acquired
centerback Baky Soumare is fit for match play
. Either way, along with another nice job by Gaddis on the outside, this
time filling in for Sheanon Williams, the back line is starting to look
versatile and even a little deep. 

In Closing…There remain several barriers
to the MLS's growth despite its increasing success. Among the most
frustrating is the quality of the refereeing. Just dreadful some nights
with the man in yellow commanding far too much attention. 

Video Highlights

Up NextOn Tuesday night, the Union return
to US Open Cup play, hosting their affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders
club. That's a lot of soccer in a short amount of time, but Hackworth
has talked up the importance of the tournament, and it's unlikely he'll
want to take his foot off the gas right now, so we should see a strong
effort. The Union then head to Houston on Saturday night at 8:30 to see
if they can't put together back-to-back wins. 

It's not too early to get completely reinvigorated
if you lost hope for this season. It was understandable, and they look
like a whole new team right now.

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

In his second-to-last game in a Phillies uniform, Ryan Howard will man first base and bat fifth against the Mets on Saturday afternoon (1:05/FOX).

Howard went 1 for 4 Friday night with a double. The first baseman has three home runs and five RBI in 44 at-bats against the Mets this season. 

Andres Blanco takes Freddy Galvis’ starting spot at shortstop and bats second. Galvis left Friday night's game with hamstring tightness. Blanco has not made a start since Sept. 16, but is batting .294 against the Mets this year.

Cameron Rupp catches and bats sixth for the second day in a row. Rupp went 2 for 3 on Friday night with an RBI. Jimmy Paredes and Aaron Altherr follow Rupp in the lineup and man the corners in the outfield.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Andres Blanco, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Phil Klein, P

And the Mets lineup:
1. Jose Reyes, 3B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
4. Curtis Granderson, CF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. T.J. Rivera, 2B
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Travis d'Arnaud, C
9. Bartolo Colon, P

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts. 

You know when the last year the Sixers went into the preseason without a devastating injury to a frontcourt player hanging over their heads was? 2011. Back when LMFAO was big. Since then, it's been:

2012: Andrew Bynum
2013: Nerlens Noel
2014: Joel Embiid
2015: Joel Embiid
2016: Ben Simmons

Even the Blazers, heretofore the NBA franchise with the most cursed big-man luck, got years, decades in between the NBA tragedies of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden to grieve. The Sixers seem unprecedently determined to get their bad juju all out of the way at once. 

The last item on that list was, of course, announced last night - Simmons has a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot -- and is especially tough, mostly because it was so unforeseeable. Andrew Bynum had a long history of injury. Nerlens Noel was ruled out for the season before draft night, as was Joel Embiid. But as far as we knew, Ben Simmons had lived a long and healthy life that, failing a Shaun Livingston-type freak injury, was just going to continue in its elongated healthiness. Foot trouble was definitely not in the plan. 

It's also tough because it proves we're not out of the woods yet. Not like anyone thought Philly was gonna win 40 games and challenge for the playoffs this year, but certainly most of us allowed ourselves to believe that the worst was over, and that karma was gonna finally owe us for a little while. Turns out, we may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us. Doug Collins musta really sold this team's soul to get us to that Game 7 against Boston in the conference semis four seasons ago. 

But we can deal. For better and worse, Sixers fans have developed a hard-earned resilience to news of such maladies, and this revelation isn't nearly as bad as some other casually-in-crisis press releases we've had to deal with in recent years (yet). So once we're done processing the initial sorrow that comes with hearing we're not going to get to see our No. 1 overall pick play meaningful basketball as soon as we deserve, let's make our parents proud by being good little Process Trusters, and approaching this situation rationally: 

This is only a two-month injury. 

This isn't yet, and shouldn't be, a season-ender. ESPN estimates Simmons will be out eight weeks; a wise bet would probably have him staying sidelined a little longer than that Just to Be Sure. Christmas seems like the reasonable mental goalpost for his return, which means -- barring setbacks -- at most he'd miss the team's first 30 games. 

That's a lot, but not really: Jahlil Okafor missed 29 games last season, and I don't think most of us even remember injuries as being a particularly notable part of his rookie year. By this point, the Sixers are used to going entire seasons without proof of life from our star rooks. Two months? We can do that standing on our heads. 

This doesn't necessarily mean anything for Simmons' long-term prospects. 

Feet-related injuries are rivaled only by head stuff as the scariest thing you can see on an NBA medical report — especially for big men, as memories of giants like Walton and Yao having their careers plagued by such maladies continue to reverberate. In Simmons' case, his injury is reminiscent of Nets center Brook Lopez, who lost the better part of several seasons to recurring problems stemming from an initial foot fracture. 

But as that above list shows, the great majority of NBA players to have suffered this injury -- presumed to be an avulsion fracture, not the ghastlier Jones fracture -- have bounced back from it pretty quickly, and not been subsequently effected. Pau Gasol and Mike Bibby both went on to have long, productive, mostly health-drama-free-careers -- hell, Pau just averaged 19 and 13 in 72 games as a 35-year-old. C.J. McCollum suffered the injury as a rookie just three years ago, and I'd already forgotten it was even part of his story. Our Once and Always Dark Lord-willing, it doesn't have to be part of Simmons', either. 

The Sixers — and Simmons — were gonna be bad anyway. 

Not like this much hurts the Sixers' playoff chances, which were basically 0 to begin with. As much excitement as we could have expected from the early parts of this season, "wins' was not gonna be part of the deal just yet — Vegas set our over-under at 27.5, and most of our local experts have logically taken the under. Hopefully we actually get at least one of our first 17 this year, but with a poorly balanced rotation consisting mostly of rookies and free agents, W's were always gonna be slow-coming. 

And I personally believed that Simmons was gonna take a while to blossom himself. We'd get some gorgeous passes and fun full-court shenanigans, sure, but we'd also get a lot of clanked jumpers, missed rotations, and soul-sucking isos that take up 18 seconds of the shot-clock and still finish where they started. He'll still have that rough adjustment period two months or so later, but at least with the season already underway and the rest of the squad maybe finding their footing a little, hopefully there'll be less pressure on him to do everything immediately. 

Simmons can still put in work while sidelined. 

Remember how horrific Nerlens Noel's shooting form was coming into the NBA? The upside of him missing a year with his torn ACL was that he was able to spend a good portion of his should've-been-rookie season rebuilding it. He's still not Kevin Garnett on offense and likely never will be, but he was able to reach Respectably Bad at the free-throw line, and that alone will make an enormous difference in the arc of his NBA career. 

Simmons' jumper isn't nearly so broken, but he could also use the work. Time spent perfecting his mechanics while he doesn't have any other aspects of the game to really worry about could be huge for Benny's early development, and hopefully will give him the confidence to take -- if not yet make -- those open jumpers when first presented to him. 

We still have the two other guys. 

Truth is, Simmons was only the rookie I was third-most-excited about on the Sixers this year, and the other two -- Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who we've waited a combined four seasons for -- are still on track to play. Of course, putting all (or at least half) our eggs in Emiid's basket is never gonna be a particularly secure feeling, and the mind goes even catatonic considering the possibility of Embiid also getting hurt before season's start. But if (knock on lumber-yard) this as bad as the preseason news gets for the Sixers, and we enter with just the two mega-hyped rooks, with a third on the way shortly... that's still cupcakes and sprinkles as far as I'm concerned. 

So yeah, this is a bad weekend, and a rough development for a fanbase who'd finally begun to let their guard down the teensiest amount. That said, it's not the end of the world, the end of the season, or really the end of anything besides our foolishly unbridled optimism. A valuable lesson in hoping for the best and always fearing the worst, but just because we're not floating in the clouds anymore doesn't mean we're plummeting to the ground yet, either.