As empty seats multiply at PPL Park, Saturday could be judgment day for Union manager Hackworth

As empty seats multiply at PPL Park, Saturday could be judgment day for Union manager Hackworth

Union manager John Hackworth has plenty of pressure on his shoulders this season.

This week, I've gotten two emails from the Union pushing tickets for this Saturday's home game against D.C. United (4 p.m. - The Comcast Network). One was about honoring mom for Mother's Day by bringing her to the game, and the other offered a sharp discount offer on the pricier tickets at PPL Park.

Those emails -- and the empty seats that caused them -- are what should have Union manager John Hackworth looking over his shoulder, and what I think could force a change at the top as early as next week, if the fans who do show up on Saturday leave PPL Park disappointed yet again.

There's no doubt Hackworth is feeling the heat.

“We’re going to have to get out of this hole we dug, one step at a time,” Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com after the 2-1 loss to Seattle last weekend.. “But I know there’s only so much time to have that opportunity.”

I'm never one to call for a coach's firing prematurely. When I said in the preseason that this year was Hackworth's chance to put up or shut up, I assumed that meant he'd get the entire season to figure it out. And he still might. Changing coaches in the middle of the season won't lead to anything more than maybe a short-lived kick in the butt.

This is me, on the record, saying that while I think Hackworth is not the answer, I don't think a midseason firing is either.

But things have been so underwhelming, and so disappointing, that Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz (under pressure from investors weary of a long summer at the turnstiles) may have to pull the trigger much, much sooner, just to appeal to frustrated fans who are tired of spending their money to watch a team that can't score. Even as soon as Sunday or Monday if things don't go well on Saturday.

The Union not only need a win against a decent but beatable D.C. United team, but they need to entertain. They need to show some growth. They need to show some initiative. They need to show some chemistry. They showed a little bit of that in Seattle last weekend, but in the end, it was the same old story: shoulda, coulda, woulda.

The team's near-bottom-of-the-table standing isn't what will push the change. Nor will it be because vocal Union fans on the Internet calling for his head (some have been calling for it since the day he was hired).

It'll be the hard-to-ignore swaths of blue seats sitting empty on Saturday.

If you're at PPL Park, take a look toward the corners, especially the two corners close to the Delaware River. On Saturday, section 133 will be relatively full because D.C. United will bring a large contingent. But sections 101 and 102, as well as 113 and 121 are usually the last ones sold.

While paid attendance has been decent so far this season (according to this site, the team is averaging 94 percent capacity at 17,415), the warm summer months are coming. Kids are almost done with school, tailgating weather is improving, and the Union -- like every MLS team -- are hoping to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the World Cup next month.

Sakiewicz and Co. obviously hoped that the on-field results would fill PPL to capacity through those warm summer months. But if things don't turn around soon, he might have to show Hackworth the door just so he can stand up and say that he really is in it to win it.

Sure, there are other ways for the team to appeal to frustrated fans. The front office could make a splashy move in the summer transfer window (Jozy Altidore to the white courtesy phone...). Hell, they could just unveil another new jersey or offer 10 percent off at the Union Store.

Just kidding.

Firing Hackworth won't solve the Union's problems. Along those lines, it's about time for the players to stand up and take some responsibility for the dumpster fire this season is quickly becoming. Many of them have not performed anywhere near their potential (not you, Zac MacMath ... you're excused).

But at this point, if things don't turn around, Hackworth may be the sacrificial lamb intended to appease frustrated fans.

The Union have six games before the World Cup break.

John Hackworth might be watching some of them on TV.

10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

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10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

The Eagles wrapped up their Tuesday practice just before 12:30 p.m. under a hot summer-like sun.

Tuesday was the first day of four in the team’s final week of OTAs, which are voluntary. The mandatory minicamp starts next Tuesday and runs through next Thursday.

That’s when we might see Fletcher Cox and Darren Sproles, both of whom have been staying away from the team during the voluntary period. And that’s where we’ll start with today’s 10 observations:

1. With Cox still out, Mike Martin was again working with the first team at defensive tackle next to Bennie Logan, as he was last week. Two weeks ago, Taylor Hart was next to Logan at tackle. Martin was a depth piece in Tennessee and that’s how he’ll fit with the Eagles once Cox comes back.

Martin was also involved in the first little scuffle we’ve seen during these spring practices. Nothing too exciting … just a little shoving with left guard Allen Barbre.

2. Sproles is still out, but Ryan Mathews returned. Mathews missed the last practice opened to the media with an illness but participated Tuesday. The interesting thing was that Mathews didn’t get all the first-team reps. In fact, Kenjon Barner actually opened the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice with the first team.

It’s early, but Barner has looked pretty good this spring. It’ll be interesting to see if he fits with the team. He’s ahead of rookie Wendell Smallwood now, but would the team really elect to keep him over a fifth-round pick? Or will the team be OK keeping four running backs again?

Another note: Rueben Randle (gallbladder surgery) is still out.

3. We saw a little trickery from Doug Pederson’s offense on Tuesday against no defense. First, Chase Daniel threw a lateral screen to Josh Huff, who threw down the right to Smallwood. Then, Carson Wentz threw a lateral pass to Nelson Agholor and then Wentz ran a route down the left sideline, but Agholor overthrew him.

Maybe the trick plays are just way to keep practice lighter, but it might also mean the offense is moving along nicely and installing more and more of the playbook. It’s a good sign.

4. Wentz was up and down on Tuesday, but his best completion came on a deep pass down the right sideline to wideout Xavier Rush (who is a candidate for best name on the team). Rush wrestled the ball away from corner C.J. Smith, who should know Wentz pretty well. The two played together at North Dakota State.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had a shaky day, throwing several balls that could have been picked off.

5. Again, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks — the two Jim Schwartz guys in the secondary — were working with the first team. On Tuesday, Eric Rowe was the extra corner on the field in the nickel. When Rowe came in, Brooks shifted into the slot. It still looks like Nolan Carroll isn’t yet allowed to practice during team portions.

On the first play of 11 on 11s, Brooks broke up a pass from Bradford that was then picked off by Rodney McLeod and taken the other way. Not a good throw from Bradford, but Brooks was aggressive and jumped it.

6. Down by the goal line during the team period, Malcolm Jenkins made a nice play to get in front of a pass, but couldn’t pick it off. He’s in midseason form. Jenkins had a great year in 2015, but really struggled to intercept balls that he had in his hands.

7. Jordan Hicks didn’t participate in 7 on 7s or 11 on 11s Tuesday. Two weeks ago, he sat out with tightness in his legs, but returned last week. On Tuesday, with Hicks watching, Najee Goode filled in at first-team MIKE, flanked by Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

8. Chase Daniel overthrew two balls badly within a few plays during the 11-on-11 drills, but then capped off a drive by dropping a ball into the hands of wideout Paul Turner in the back of the end zone. Decent day for Daniel.

9. The Eagles ran some scout team looks for the first time (that we’ve seen) on Tuesday. Daniel ran the scout team, which makes sense. Normally, it would be the third-string quarterback, but Wentz probably has plenty on his plate. Not sure whom the offense was mimicking, but the two pinnies were Nos. 88 and 82. Perhaps the Cowboys?

10. At one point on Tuesday, the offense started to use a tempo offense, giving everyone in attendance flashbacks to Chip. Well, not exactly. The up-tempo didn’t last long and it did produce the ugliest Wentz pass since he’s been with the team.

We are seeing plenty of interesting looks from the Eagles. At times they’ve been using formations with three tight ends. And they even showed some designed quarterback runs on Tuesday. The progression and complexity of this offense is starting to be revealed by these practices, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Stupid Observation of the Day: Punter Donnie Jones has begun to wear a pretty sweet white and blue bucket hat at practice when he’s not wearing his helmet. Only a punter could get away with this. Here, you can see him in the background from last week.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Calling on Aaron Nola to stop 4-game skid

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Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Calling on Aaron Nola to stop 4-game skid

Phillies (26-25) vs. Nationals (31-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies are in a rut, an expected rut given their recent schedule.

On Tuesday, they'll try to get back on track behind the young right-hander who's emerging as their stopper.

Let's take a look at the second of their 10-game homestand:

1. Not measuring up
The Phillies have lost six of their last seven games and are riding their first four-game losing streak since they started the year 0-4. Prior to last week, they'd done a decent job this season of avoiding lengthy skids, but this is definitely the toughest stretch they've faced in 2016.

Over these seven games, the Phils have been outscored 34-21 by the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals, three veteran teams filled with power. Two of the games have been decided by one run and the Phillies lost both after holding late leads. 

At 14-5, the Phils still have far and away the majors' best record in one-run games, but this is what regression looks like. Hector Neris wasn't going to go through a full season without a hiccup. And the best example of how unsustainably productive he's been was that even after allowing three runs in just two-thirds of an inning, Neris' ERA is still 2.20. It's difficult for a reliever to get hit around and still have that low an ERA, especially this early in the season.

If the Phillies lose again tonight, they'll be right at .500 for the first time since they were 10-10. They've spent the last 33 days of the season with a winning record.

2. Nola gets the nod
Jeremy Hellickson turned in his second straight excellent outing against the Nationals on Memorial Day and Aaron Nola looks to do the same.

Nola, like Hellickson, struggled the first time he faced Washington this season, allowing seven earned runs in five innings.

Nola, like Hellickson, rebounded the next time he faced the Nats — both allowed two hits over seven shutout innings in their second start against Washington.

Now Nola looks to build upon that success the way Hellickson did Monday night, when he lowered his own ERA to 3.68 by allowing a run on three hits over seven innings.

Nola is 4-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 10 starts this season. He's struck out 70, walked 12 and allowed five home runs in 66 innings. His opponents have hit .200.

Nola has missed more bats and struck out more batters at the major-league level than anyone expected. His control has been as advertised — he's walked just 31 batters in 143⅔ career innings. This season, he's cut his home run rate in half. He allowed 11 in 77⅔ innings as a rookie.

Nola continues to lead the National League with 242 called strikes, 17 more than Tanner Roark, who is second. That number speaks to the effectiveness of Nola's knee-buckling curveball, which has generated 65 swings-and-misses, second-most in the majors to Jose Fernandez's 77. (Jerad Eickhoff is third in the NL with 33.)

Current Nationals are 19 for 65 (.292) against Nola with two doubles, a triple, two homers and 18 strikeouts. Bryce Harper, who left Monday's game in the seventh inning after being hit by a pitch on the knee, is 6 for 10 with two of those home runs. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon have also taken Nola deep.

3. Harper out?
Harper left the game in the seventh with what was diagnosed a right knee contusion. It would obviously be a huge relief for the Phillies if he's out of the lineup Tuesday, especially considering how he's hit lately at Citizens Bank Park.

Harper brought into Monday's game a streak of six straight games with a home run at Citizens Bank Park, tying the longest home run streak in MLB history for any player at a visiting stadium. 

Harper, who hit .330 last season, won an MVP and led the NL in practically every meaningful offensive category, has been in a lengthy slump. Over his last 32 games, he's hit .183 with just five extra-base hits in 133 plate appearances. Teams have stopped pitching to him. Harper has 35 walks over that span, nine intentional.

But Harper is obviously a threat any time he comes to the plate, and he's hit pretty much any pitcher the Phillies have thrown at him the last two years. In 104 plate appearances against them since the start of 2015, Harper has hit .346 with three doubles, 11 homers, 23 RBIs, 21 walks and 23 strikeouts.

4. Another crack at Ross
Nationals right-hander Joe Ross (4-4, 2.52) makes his 10th start of the season tonight against the Phils. He shut them down on April 15 in his second start, pitching 7⅔ shutout innings in his best outing of the year.

Ross has allowed one run or fewer in five of nine starts and two earned runs or fewer in seven of nine. He's given up more than three earned runs just once all season, on May 10 against the Tigers.

The younger brother of Padres opening-day starter Tyson Ross, Joe is mostly a three-pitch pitcher who throws a lot of sinkers and sliders. When he faced the Phillies earlier this season he threw 55 sinkers, 38 sliders and 14 changeups. 

Like his brother, Joe Ross loves the slider with two strikes, throwing it 73 percent of the time this season with two strikes on a right-handed hitter. His opponents this year are 16 for 92 (.174) against the slider with four home runs and 37 strikeouts.

Lefties (.295 BA, .757 OPS) have hit him much better than righties (.209, .598). Might that mean another start for Ryan Howard?

5. This and that
• Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 21 over his last six starts and is down to .222 on the season.

• Daniel Murphy had three more hits and drove in three runs against the Phillies last night. He's a .313/.363/.487 career hitter against them in 457 plate appearances. Playing in the NL East the last eight seasons, Murphy has hit lower than .293 just once vs. the Phils.

• Freddy Galvis, who homered off Roark on Monday, has hit well at home this season with a .284 batting average and .779 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Galvis is 12 for 33 (.364) over his last eight games overall with four doubles, a triple and a homer.

• Jonathan Papelbon has faced the Phillies six times since they traded him to the Nationals last summer. In those six games, he's allowed nine runs (six earned) and put 13 men on base. The Phils have seven hits (five doubles) against him in 2⅔ innings this season.

Source: Former Eagles safety Walter Thurmond retires at 28

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Source: Former Eagles safety Walter Thurmond retires at 28

Defensive back Walter Thurmond, who had a productive year with the Eagles in 2015 in his first season as a safety, is retiring at 28, a league source confirmed to CSNPhilly.com's Dave Zangaro.

The news of Thurmond's retirement was initially reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Thurmond was finally able to stay healthy in 2015. He played 16 games for the first time in his career, finishing with 71 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins formed one of the NFL's better safety duos, but the Eagles upgraded the position even more by signing Rodney McLeod to a five-year deal.

Thurmond battled injuries throughout his six-year NFL career, missing 44 of 80 games over his first five seasons. A broken fibula cost him most of the 2011 season, he missed significant time in 2012 with a hamstring injury, and a torn pectoral limited him to two games in 2014.