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.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”