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.

Week 13 NFC East Recap: Hey, the Eagles aren't the only ones that lost

Week 13 NFC East Recap: Hey, the Eagles aren't the only ones that lost

As the sun slowly sets on another Eagles season, and gut instinct is to focus exclusively on an offseason of secondary upgrades and potential wide receiver free agents, there is still great pleasure to be found here in 2016.

After all, the NFC East might not be as great as we thought.

Sure, Dallas seems on their way to home field advantage throughout the playoffs, which feels like getting your earlobe stuck in a car door. And sure, currently the Giants and Washington are in the Wild Card spots, which is a lot like someone trying to pierce your belly-button while you’re trying to remove said earlobe from said car door. But none of that matters this week! Because this week, two out of three of the Eagles division rivals provided concrete evidence that neither may be as good as their playoff-worthy records dictate.

And when you can’t find joy in your own accomplishments, well, it’s always recommended one finds a little silver lining in the demise of those closest to you. That’s just life.

Here’s a look at what happened this week in the NFC East:

 

Dallas Cowboys

What Happened: It was one of Dallas’ tougher victories on the year, which is like saying the Chicken Mini Quesadilla is the healthiest item on the Taco Bell value menu. Minnesota played the Cowboys extremely tough, forcing two turnovers, winning the time of possession, and holding Canton-bound Dak Prescott to a measly 139 yards in the air. 

Alas, none of that ended up mattering because with 25 seconds remaining, Sam Bradford’s two-point conversion pass sailed out the back of the endzone, and the Cowboys were able to hold on for their 11th consecutive victory, 17-15. 

Sure, there was a lot more to it than that. Prescott fumbled on a 3rd-and-1 that could have allowed Dallas to run out the clock. A Vikings punt returner fumbled in the 4th quarter that gave Dallas a key redzone opportunity. And Bradford did lead an impressive 65-yard touchdown drive to give his team the chance to send the game into overtime.

But none of that really matters, as Dallas walked away with another win. And before you get too down about it, just thank the higher powers that you’re not a Minnesota Vikings fan this season. 

What It Means: The Vikings have dropped to 6-6, which is a good thing for the Eagles first round pick, and a completely irrelevant thing for the Dallas Cowboys. Jason Garrett’s squad has now clinched a playoff spot (thanks to a Washington lost) and can turn their focus onto clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, before inevitably resting their starters before facing the Birds in Week 17. They’re now at the point of a successful season where the most important debate is how best to avoid rust heading into the playoffs. Earlobe, meet car door.

The Cowboys are an interesting study. Last year, they lost their quarterback, then lost seven games in a row. This year they have the quarterback, and have won eleven in a row. Sure, Ezekiel Elliott has been tremendous, but it’s not as if the Cowboys running game was so atrocious in 2015. And yet, when you watch Prescott, he’s not doing SO much to warrant an 8-game (and counting) improvement.

The full reasoning behind ‘How Dallas Went From Garbage Eaters To The NFCs Top Team’ can’t be attributed to just one move. But it does stand as a nice reminder that in the NFL, things can turn around very quickly.

Unfortunately, it just seems like forever since they turned around for us.

What’s Next: Dallas faces the Giants in New Jersey, the last (and only) team to beat them this season. They then face Tampa Bay and Detroit, both teams fighting for a playoff spot, so no gimme-games between now and Week 17.

 

Washington

What Happened: Like last week against Dallas, Washington found themselves in an early hole and couldn’t fight back. Kirk Cousins was good-not-great, throwing for 271 yards but putting up a costly interception. And Washington’s defense had no answer for the Cardinal’s David Johnson, who had 175-total yards (thanks in large part to nine receptions) and a pair of touchdowns.

Also, their was a weird rumor on Sunday morning about DeSean Jackson being an Eagles target in the offseason. It’s unlike the Eagles to leak rumors about offseason targets, especially during the regular season, so the most likely scenario is this is information provided by Jaccpot’s agent. While I’ll always have a soft-spot in my football heart for the guy who did this, the idea that an aging wide receiver whose game is built on speed will cure the Iggles woes seems about as likely as Sam Hinkie replacing Howie Roseman.

Not like that’s a excuse for the woeful Washington defense, however. They’ve now given up 31 points in consecutive games, which sets a nice bar for Carson Wentz and Co. on Sunday.

What It Means: For the second week in a row, Washington failed the test, and while I don’t remember too much from High School, I imagine there's only so many times you can retake an exam. 

The Cardinals are a good and desperate team playing at home; there's no shame in going down swinging. However this is the second week in a row Washington fans have to build themselves up over the positives to take from defeat. To make something happen from a wild card spot, Dan Snyder’s squad will need to win games on the road against tough opponents. The past two weeks, they didn’t, and it’s fair to wonder if we’ve seen this team’s ceiling.

What’s Next: A trip to Philly where the Eagles have been hard to beat this year. Let’s not forget; the Birds playoff chances were denied the past two seasons by this very Washington squad. In a season suddenly lacking in joyous victories, a W on Sunday would feel phenomenal. 

 

New York Giants

What Happened: Like Washington, the Giants faced a real test on Sunday, and like Washington, the Giants failed miserably. New York was never really in this one, falling behind 14-0 to Pittsburgh in the first half and never bringing it within a score again. Eli Manning threw a pair of interceptions, both in the redzone, though in his defense one of them was on a fourth-and-13 and the Giants were already way behind because of how terrible Eli had been earlier in the afternoon. So, in theory, not fully his fault there.

Oh, and did Odell Beckham say something silly? But of course! The Giants headline-creating wide receiver had a number of complaints against the officiating on Sunday, saying it felt like it was “us against the world.”

The Giants were called for four penalties on the day, while the Steelers were called for twelve. Beckham’s claims that the refs made it “the Giants against the world” has as much base in reality as the theory climate change is caused by bullfrogs spending too much time in the rain. This man is like a living, breathing, fake-news site. But no, LETS BLAME THE REFS.

What It Means: At 8-4, the Giants would need a lot of things to go wrong to miss out on a Wild Card spot. Tampa, Minnesota, Green Bay --- all three are two games behind Big Blue. With just four games remaining, that’s a lead even Willie Randolph feels safe with.

That being said, the Giants final four games are all against playoff teams (oh, and also the regressing Eagles), so in order to cement their spot in the postseason, New York will have to do something they haven’t done since Week 6: beat a team over .500.

What’s Next: It’s Dallas Week for the Giants, so what else could matter? Sweeping the season series against the team with the best record in the NFL would go a long way towards preparing this team mentally for the playoffs.

Sixers fail to take care of business against Denver Nuggets

Sixers fail to take care of business against Denver Nuggets

It really felt like we could've gotten this one. The Denver Nuggets are hardly pushovers, but they came into this one a 7-13 team that'd lost their last three games, and even last night they seemed fairly beatable, even for a Philadelphia 76ers team still missing Robert Covington (in additional to our usual mini-roster of absentees). But Philly's energy sagged in the third quarter as Denver caught a second wind, and they spent the final frame hitting shots that the Sixers couldn't answer. Final score: Nuggets 106, 76ers 98. 

The most sobering part of the loss was that Joel Embiid finally played what would best be described as "a bad game." Not that bad, of course — even at his worst, Joel still managed 16 points and notched career-high five blocks. But he only shot 5-15 from the field, turned ball over three times, grabbed just four boards and played a large part in the sinkhole offense that the Sixers played in the late third and early fourth that ultimately cost them this one. JoJo still has trouble reading double teams and knowing when not to attack into traffic, and his frustration was extremely evident as he kept trying to do too much and paying the price for it. 

Nonetheless, even with an off Embiid night and a still-slumping Sauce — officially down to Left in the Car Overnight temperature after a night of 4 points on 1-7 shooting in 35 minutes — Philly probably still coulda gotten this one. Sergio Rodriguez appears to have swiped Nik's swag at least temporarily, with a season-high 17 points on 7-14 shooting to go with seven dimes and three steals, while Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova also poured in 17 and 8 each, and the Nuggets wings were largely kept quiet for two and a half quarters. But even while struggling, the Nuggets paraded their way to free-throw line — 34 FTAs for the night, including 12 for Danilo Gallinari alone — and once they caught fire late, the Sixers just couldn't keep up. 

A bummer for a team that's now lost seven in a row, and has to face the Grizzlies tonight in Memphis — their fourth game in five nights, and the first of a three-game road trip — without Embiid and also without Jahlil Okafor, out with illness. Even with the Grizz missing their own big names (no Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, Zach Randolph or Vince Carter lately) and likely suffering from fatigue of their own after a double-OT road win last night in New Orleans, the 4-17 Sixers are gonna have a tough go matching Memphis' grit and grind tonight. Anytime you feel like Supermanning in and saving the day now would be cool, Nerlens Noel. Just sayin'.