Between the Lines: For McInerney and Casey, chemistry class in session

Between the Lines: For McInerney and Casey, chemistry class in session

I've been playing soccer since I was a little kid, and watching it on
TV for more than a decade at this point. But aside from one U.S.
National Team game in 2009 at the Linc, I didn't start watching soccer
(not counting high school or college soccer) in person until the Union's
first home game -- also at the Linc -- in 2010.

After just a few
games, I quickly learned how much there is to actually watch when you
can see outside the boundaries of the TV screen.

So,
on occasion here at The Level, I'll try to showcase something that the
average fan might not have noticed "Between the Lines."

I've been
pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I've gotten from my posts,
not only from die-hard Union fans, but even more-so from
self-proclaimed "novices" who have gotten into the Union and really
would love to know more about what they're watching (see: Campitelli,
Enrico).

Take a look at the Union's first goal from Sunday's win over D.C. United. Just watch it through once, I'll wait.

So, you might have noticed a few things: An absolutely stone-cold,
precise finish from Jack McInerney, for sure. Maybe the nice through
pass from Conor Casey. If you were really paying attention, you might
have seen the atrocious turnover by Dejan Jakovic that started
everything.

But go back and watch it again. This time, focus on
McInerney from the beginning of the clip (No. 9, starting at the bottom
of the frame).

He jogs slowly toward the center circle, and even
applies a bit of token pressure on Jakovic at midfield. But as Jakovic
hits the soon-to-be-failed pass, you'll see McInerney curl upfield
BEFORE Brian Carroll even slides to intercept the pass. By the time
Carroll hits Casey with a short pass, McInerney is already running,
nearly at full-speed.

Casey gets the pass from Carroll and doesn't
even look up before sliding the ball in front of McInerney. The D.C.
player at the top of the screen -- Brandon McDonald -- doesn't realize
what's happening until it's too late. His slow reaction keeps McInerney
onside, and the current Major League Soccer scoring leader does the
rest.

Granted, McInerney still had a lot to do to finish the play,
and he did it without even looking like he broke a sweat. With his left
foot. But the story of that play -- and the Union's second goal by Casey, where Danny Cruz delivered a perfect pass -- was the chemistry up front for the Union.

If
you've followed the Union since their inception, you haven't seen that
kind of chemistry, maybe ever, save for a few glimpses from Sebastien Le
Toux and a few teammates in 2010 and 2011. In fact, one of the few
really "pretty" goals that I can remember off the top of my head -- by
"pretty" I mean a goal with a perfect setup from a teammate and a great
finish -- was Le Toux's second goal in that home opener at the Linc in
2010, off an unreal cross-field pass from current Union TV analyst
Alejandro Moreno (skip ahead to 1:30).

Why do the Union seem to have at least the beginnings of some
chemistry up front? Of course McInerney is coming into his own -- and
may find himself wearing the red, white and blue this summer -- and
Casey is an experienced player in this league. But for the first time in
a while, the Union have some sort of consistency up front.

In
this case, "consistency" is a relative term. Casey and McInerney have
now been paired together up front for THREE MATCHES IN A ROW! You'll
have to pardon the all-caps, but former Union manager Peter Nowak
would've used McInerney's inclusion in the MLS Team of the Week to bench
him this Saturday night in New England. Nowak made changes in his
lineup just to prove he knew more about soccer than the average fan.

So,
while Union manager John Hackworth still makes a few lineup decisions
and substitutions that baffle me (more Kleberson, less Lauhoud), he
seems to see what the rest of us are watching: that McInerney and Casey
are developing that unspoken communication that makes soccer fun to
watch. For goal-starved Union fans, that can't be a bad thing.

So,
the next time you watch a game on TV (the Union face New England
Saturday at 7:30 on The Comcast Network) or watch from the stands (the
team is home three times in May: the 4th, 15th and 18th), take your eye
off the ball for a few minutes and focus on a player seemingly on the
periphery. You just might notice something worth talking about.

Report: Flyers re-sign RFA Brandon Manning to 2-year deal

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USA Today Images

Report: Flyers re-sign RFA Brandon Manning to 2-year deal

One day after avoiding arbitration with Brayden Schenn, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall dodged another meeting with his final restricted free agent.

The Flyers on Tuesday signed defenseman Brandon Manning to a two-year, $1.95 million contract, according to Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman.

With Manning's contract, Hextall has now taken care of all of his restricted free agents and successfully avoided arbitration with both Schenn and Manning.

Manning had an arbitration meeting scheduled for Aug. 2. Schenn had his meeting scheduled for Monday, but agreed to a four-year contract at the last minute.

The 26-year-old defenseman scored one goal and seven points in 56 games last season, his first full campaign up with the orange and black.

Dion Waiters signed elsewhere, Sixers fans almost out of bullets to dodge

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USA Today Sports photo

Dion Waiters signed elsewhere, Sixers fans almost out of bullets to dodge

Ah, was it only a month ago that we feared signing up for $60-$80 million worth of Dion Waiters, a player who has barely (and rarely) scraped the surface of "good" over his four-year NBA career? A classic "Philly Guy" — which really makes you hope for an eventual reevaluation of our home city's cultural priorities — the perennially over-confident Syracuse swingman had been regularly (if erroneously) linked to the Sixers for the majority of his pro career, and the rumor mill began churning again this offseason, with the Sixers one of several teams linked to the free agent. Chances seemed at least decent that we would wake up to an Instagram of Waiters at Geno's signing his new contract in cheese wiz — one of those four-year, $70 million-type deals NBA teams seem to be giving out to middling players like complementary after-dinner mints this summer. 

Well, turns out the Sixers didn't have any interest in giving Dion Waiters that kind of money, and neither did anybody else. Neon Dion ended up signing with the Miami Heat for a blockbusting two years and $6 million dollars, and Sixers nation breathed a collective typhoon of relief. Short of trading Jahlil Okafor for every Boston Celtic under the age of 25, this was just about the best news the Colangelos could offer us at this point in the offseason. 

And speaking of: It might — might — now finally be safe to say that the Colangelos aren't as dumb as we feared. With Dion off the board, there just aren't any free agents left to worry about the Sixers overpaying. Well, J.R. Smith technically, but the chances of him leaving Cleveland for Philadelphia under any circumstances are even worse than him being the starting two-guard on a championship team to begin with. (And technically of technicalliest, LeBron James too, but we could give him all our remaining cap space and half the Liberty Bell to boot and he'd still be dramatically underpaid.) 

Anyway, point is: We've worried since the Colangelo clan took over that they would make one dramatically dumb move to hamstring this team in the name of Winning Now-ish, and it would look silly in the short term and be absolutely befuddling in the long-term. The Sixers have even been attached to a couple such deals in reports from NBA experts, deals that had them offering Nerlens Noel and further bounty for the No. 5 pick, or offering absurd free-agent dollars to Jamal Crawford, or being in the mix for ol' DW. Maybe there was truth to some or all of it, but the more rumored deals that sizzle-then-fizzle, the less likely it seems that any of them were ever actually going to come to fruition. 

Dion may represent the smoking gun. Here's a player, that as final evidence would suggest, the Sixers could have had virtually uncontested at any point this offseason — a player that ended up signing a two-year make-good deal for what essentially amounts to the veteran's minimum. Forget four years, $80 million, the Sixers could've offered eight mil for one and Dion probably woulda lunged at the opportunity. (Sure, there are market benefits that might've given Miami a competitive edge, but South Beach ain't what it used to be: With Dwyane Wade gone to Chicago and Chris Bosh unsure to ever even play again, the Heat are only predicted by ESPN to finish two spots ahead of Philly in the East next season.) There's really no conclusion to be reached except that the Sixers were never actually that interested in signing Waiters in the first place. 

So, offseason crisis averted, time to rest easy as we count the days to most exciting Sixers training camp in franchise history? Perhaps, but there is still one shoe left to drop: The Sixers are all but pot-committed to trading one of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor before the season proper finally tips off. It's mostly encouraging that the Colangelos have waited this long; they said that they weren't going to jump at an early deal that wasn't the right deal, and so far their patience has borne their words out. But as the summer begins to peter out and teams begin talking themselves into the roster they already have — while urgency increases for Philly to make a deal before their opening-night lineup is bottlenecked with blue-chip bigs — a desperation trade certainly isn't out of the question just yet. 

Still, after a month of respectable draft choices, measured free-agent signings, and zero totally thoughtless panic moves (even if they tried unsuccessfully to make one or two) it's getting on time to start giving the Sixers' new front office the benefit of the doubt. It'll never feel quite as safe as we did with Our Once and Future Dark Lord — and the overflow of assets Hinkie equipped Jerry and Bryan with will be all the body armor they really need anyway — but we need no longer fear for our lives with every passing Woj Bomb, and we just might be able to root for the Sons of Sam next year without being constantly interrupted by pangs of crippling regret. Not having to watch Dion Waiters jump and shout for the ball so he can jack a contested 20-foot fadeaway is a pretty good start.

Healed from torn ACL, CB JaCorey Shepherd eager to show how time off helped

Healed from torn ACL, CB JaCorey Shepherd eager to show how time off helped

The hardest days were game days. Sunday afternoons. When his teammates were playing football and JaCorey Shepherd was stuck on the sidelines watching.

“It was tough, man,” Shepherd said Monday. “I never had to miss a season. I never had to really miss a game. Missed two games in college but other than that, I never missed anything.

“Game days were the toughest. Sitting on the sideline and I couldn’t do anything. Practice was tough, but I got used to it. But games? That was the hardest.”

Shepherd, then a rookie sixth-round cornerback out of Kansas, was having a very good preseason last year when he tore his right ACL during practice in early August in a sideline collision with running back Darren Sproles.

Season over.

“Second half of the season it started to get easier because the season was starting to wind down,” Shepherd said. “I’m in the moment, but I was also looking forward to moving forward.”

There are two ways to go when you’re hurt. You can feel sorry for yourself, tune out and wait to get better. Or you can make use of every single moment available to you during your rehab.

Shepherd, always a workaholic, always a film hound, always the hardest worker on the roster in college, didn’t hesitate to make the right choice.

As disappointed as he was, he made sure his 2015 rookie year didn’t go to waste.

“JaCorey, you could tell it was really hard for him to not play,” said veteran corner Nolan Carroll, whose 2015 season was also cut short. “But he made the best use of his time last year.

“Chip (Kelly) let the injured guys stand on the sidelines for games and even brought them to road games, and when me and Walter (Thurmond) and Malcolm (Jenkins) would come off the field, he was always right there listening when we went over what just happened with (defensive backs coach Cory Undlin).

“You could see that he wanted to make the best of his situation and learn as much as possible, even though he couldn’t play. That’s not always easy for a young guy to do, but JaCorey, you could tell he just wanted to learn as much as possible.”

You have to give some credit to Undlin — Kelly’s defensive backs coach last year and still here this year under Doug Pederson — for taking the time to coach up a rookie sixth-round pick who was on injured reserve.

“Coach Cory, he always made the time for me,” Shepherd said. “The defense would come off the field and he would be like, ‘Watch this on this side,’ ‘Watch this route concept,’ just making sure I’m staying in tune.

“They kept me occupied and busy and preparing like I was still playing. ... The older guys would always question me to make sure I was on my P’s and Q’s so that way when I got back, I had the mental part down and it was really just a matter of getting my feet down under me and I’d be ready to go.”

Now that training camp is here, Shepherd is fully healed, 100 percent healthy and certainly not lacking in confidence.

His practice Monday on the opening day of training camp for rookies, quarterbacks and players who finished last year on injured reserve was his first real workout in a year.

“Two years I haven’t played in a game, man,” he said. “So it feels real good just to be out here. This has been a big test for me, but I think it’ll pay off. I learned some patience. That’s one thing I’ve always needed to work on, my patience, and being a smarter player.

“I feel like I’m a lot smarter than last year after sitting on the sideline for a year having to pay attention and learn. I feel like I’m a better player this year than last year even though I didn’t play a snap.”

Along with guys like Jalen Mills, Randall Evans, Jaylen Walker, Eric Rowe and Denzel Rice, Shepherd is one of a number of promising young corners on the Eagles’ roster.

Shepherd loves the competition. He embraces it.

“All of us love to compete,” he said. “That makes it fun. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, it’s a job.’ It’s fun because we’re all out there competing against one another and having fun together.

“We know we’re fighting for spots, but at the end of the day, if you’re having fun and just competing? You don’t want to be thinking about that. Especially around this time. You really can’t afford to because why are you worried about something you can’t control?”

How can Shepherd separate himself from all the other young corners?

After all, he’s not one of Pederson’s guys, he’s not one of Jim Schwartz’s guys. He’s a Chip Kelly draft pick, so he may have to do a little bit more than others just to open some eyes.

“All I can do is continue to do what I do and control what I can control,” he said. “You know? That’s the way the game is. There’s always going to be competition. Frankly, I love competition, so that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve never been worried about competition, and I’m not going to start now. Just going to do what I do.

“If there’s not a job here, there’s a job somewhere else. All I can control is give it my all on every play.”

Shepherd said Monday’s initial practice was a big step for him, and another comes Saturday, the first practice of the summer in pads.

But the big one, the date circled on his calendar, will be Aug. 18, the preseason opener and Shepherd’s first game since Kansas-Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, on Nov. 29, 2014.

“Everybody wants to know what JaCorey is all about,” he said with a laugh. “Keep watching. I’m planning on showing them.”