Down the Stretch They Come: What the Union Need to Do to Make Waves in MLS

Down the Stretch They Come: What the Union Need to Do to Make Waves in MLS

With just one game a week (usually) and 34 games to play, it seems like the Major League Soccer season goes on forever. But, if you can believe it, the Union have just nine games left before playoff positioning is decided.

And the Union are right in the thick of that chase, and are even in the discussion for the Supporters Shield, an absolutely massive trophy given to the team with the most regular season points. In case you were curious how much one bounce or one mistake can make a difference in a long season, I present this tweet that caught my attention from last week from Union writer Kevin Kinkead:

That free kick came back on July 3 while you were out watching fireworks, when the Union watched a  sure three points slip away in Salt Lake City.

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Since that tweet from Kinkead, Real Salt Lake picked up another point with a draw against Portland, but the discussion remains the same. Your Philadelphia Union, with all their flaws, hiccups and bumps in the road, are -- at least right now -- part of MLS's elite tier.

The Union begin the final stretch on the road Sunday night in New England before returning home next Saturday for a critical home game against Montreal.

The way I see it, there are three realistic scenarios for the Union: Get hot and stay in the hunt for the Supporters Shield, play solidly and secure a playoff berth, or fall apart and watch the postseason from home.

Here's what the Union will need for each scenario:

To Win the Supporters Shield (or at least be there at the end):

As optimistic as I'd like to be, this seems somewhat unlikely. But it's not impossible.

In the last three years, the Supporters Shield winner had 66 (San Jose), 67 (LA Galaxy) and 59 points (LA Galaxy). The total this year is more likely to be in the 50s than the 60s, considering the parity in the league right now -- Real Salt Lake has 42 points while four teams have 39 (Sporting KC, New York, Colorado and Portland). The Union and Montreal are on 38 points, while EIGHT other teams have over 30.

With nine games left, that means there are 27 points on the table. To stay in the race or win the Shield, the Union likely need at least 20 of those (likely more). Here's how to get there:

  • WIN ALL 4 HOME GAMES (12 points): This is much easier said than done, with Montreal coming next week and Sporting Kansas City to end the year (Houston and Toronto are the other two). But top teams win their home games. End of story.
  • 2 WINS, 2 DRAWS AND 1 LOSS AWAY (8 points): This could actually prove easier than Step 1. Road games at New England and DC United are must-wins, while the game against a disappointing San Jose team needs to be at least a draw. A win at Sporting KC might be too much to ask for, but draws in Montreal and San Jose could be enough.

To Finish Top 3 in the East (and earn a first-round bye):

This is more realistic -- and more important -- than winning the Shield. To get there, the Union likely need 16-18 points.

  • WIN 3 HOME GAMES AND LOSE 1 (9 points): Ideally, the fourth one would be a draw, but let's say the Union lay an egg against KC or Montreal. If they can get wins over Houston, Toronto and KC or Montreal, that would still be a strong finish.
  • 2 WINS, 1 DRAW AND 2 LOSSES AWAY (7 points): Beating DC United is a must, plus a win over either San Jose or New England. Draw the other one and lose to Montreal and KC, and the Union would still have 54 points. That should be enough for a top-three finish.

To Miss the Playoffs or Be on the Bubble come late-October:

With the way this team has played -- especially on the road -- I don't see this happening. We've officially reached the point of the season where this would be a MASSIVE disappointment (10 points or fewer).

  • WIN JUST TWICE AT HOME (6 points): With Montreal and KC coming in, this is still possible. But it would make things quite difficult for the Union.
  • WIN 1, DRAW 1, LOSE 3 AWAY (4 points): OK, the Union beat DC United. But they only draw on Sunday in New England and then lose to Montreal, San Jose and KC. On their own, those are all very possible. But as a whole, this would be a huge collapse.

As it stands now, the second scenario is the most realistic and would be a great result. A Supporters Shield would be an enormous shock, but so would missing out on a top-three finish.

We'll have a much clearer picture in nine days time, after Sunday's trip to Foxboro and next week's home date with Montreal. As for Sunday...

PREDICTION SURE TO GO WRONG:

UNION 2, REVOLUTION 0

The Revs are much better than they have been in recent years, with Juan Agudelo (please watch the video below for the goal of the year) and the world's second-most-famous Boston College product (Doug Flutie, of course) -- Charlie Davies -- on the roster.

But, I'm loving Fabinho at left back and Zac MacMath is playing like a man possessed of late. Jack McInerney breaks out of his slump and Conor Casey ices the game with a second-half goal.

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Raudabaugh throws 10 touchdowns, Soul clinch home-field advantage

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USA Today Images

Raudabaugh throws 10 touchdowns, Soul clinch home-field advantage

The Soul (13-3) defeated the Orlando Predators (12-4)  67-59 at the Amway Center in Orlando on Saturday night.  

With the win, the Soul will have home field advantage throughout the American Conference Championship game.

Reigning league MVP Dan Raudabaugh completed 21 of 29 passes for 335 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Four of those scores were to receiver Chris Duvalt, who led all receivers with nine receptions and 155 yards.

The Soul will host the Tampa Bay Storm (2-14) next Sunday, August 7 at 6 p.m. With a win, the Soul will return to PPL Center for the conference championship on August 14. 
 

Hellickson wins possible Phillies swan song, but sustains minor hand injury

Hellickson wins possible Phillies swan song, but sustains minor hand injury

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA – Though he wasn’t happy with the way he pitched in what might have been his last start with the Phillies, Jeremy Hellickson still helped the ballclub win on Saturday night.
 
He just did it more with his bat than his arm.
 
Hellickson’s two-run double – the first extra-base hit of his career – gave the Phillies the lead in the fifth inning of what eventually became a 9-5 win over the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay).

“The big hit for me was Hellickson’s double,” manager Pete Mackanin said after the game.
 
Mackanin was so happy with Hellickson’s double down the leftfield line that he absolved the pitcher for not being able to get a bunt down earlier in the at-bat.
 
Well, sort of.
 
“We’re going to have to do extra work with all the pitchers because we’re not getting bunts down,” said Mackanin, who was happy to get the win but a little exasperated by the sloppiness of the three-hour, 40-minute dull toothache of a game.
 
“At least we won,” he said. “A win’s a win.”
 
Hellickson's at-bat in the fifth was actually a little more adventurous than anyone would have liked, particularly with the pitcher being on the trading block. Before stroking the double to left, Hellickson got jammed while hitting a foul ball to the right side. The jam shot caused some soreness and bruising on the palm of his right hand and prevented him from getting through the sixth inning. He left after 5 2/3 innings with a 5-3 lead that he helped build.
 
“I’m still not really sure what it is, a bruise or I popped something in there,” Hellickson said after the game. “But I felt fine, though, after I did it. It was just a little tough to grip -- just the curveball.”

Mackanin sent pitching coach Bob McClure to the mound to check on Hellickson in the sixth. The pitcher told McClure his palm was sore so Mackanin got him out of there.
 
“It jarred him,” Mackanin said. “But he’s OK now. In the end, it’s not a big deal. It’s not like his elbow was hurting, you know what I mean?
 
“Anyway, his hit was the big hit of the game. It turned it around for us.”
 
It remains to be seen whether Hellickson’s sore hand will affect his trade status. The issue seemed minor enough that it shouldn’t, but one never knows.
 
The Phillies, according to sources, have received significant interest in Hellickson and he could be on the move by Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline. A number of teams including the Orioles, Pirates, Blue Jays and Cardinals have been monitoring him. The Dodgers and Tigers, both in the market for a starter, had scouts at Saturday night’s game. The Tigers scout parachuted in specifically to see Hellickson.
 
Hellickson finished the month of July with a 2.34 ERA in six starts and gave up just four runs in his last three starts. So if someone trades for him, they will be getting a hot hand. He is 8-7 with a 3.70 ERA in 22 starts with the Phillies.
 
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Hellickson said. “I'll find out Monday. 
 
“I can't control any of it. So I've just been focused on every start and in between starts. Whatever happens happens. Hopefully I'm still here on Tuesday.”
 
Mackanin echoed that thought.
 
“He’s been an outstanding guy, a real likable person,” Mackanin said. “He’s got a good work ethic. He’s focused and poised on the mound. He’s a true pitcher. He knows how to change speeds. I’d like to keep him.”
 
Atlanta out-hit the Phils, 14-9, but the Braves made two errors and their pitchers walked eight, including four in the eighth innings when the Phillies sent nine men to the plate and scored four times without getting a hit.
 
“When you score four runs without a hit you better win the game,” Mackanin said.
 
The Phillies were able to do that because Cameron Rupp had three hits and scored two runs and reliever Edubray Ramos got four big outs, three via strikeout. Trade candidate Jeanmar Gomez closed out the game in a non-save situation.

“I wanted to win the game,” Mackanin said of his decision to use Gomez. “I didn’t want to take any chances with anyone else. I just wanted one of my best guys knowing that he’s well rested and we have a day off Monday.”
 
Not everyone will be off Monday. The front office will be working the phones as the minutes tick away until the 4 p.m. deadline. Vince Velasquez is in play (see story). Gomez could go. David Hernandez could go. And so could Hellickson. If this was his last start with the Phillies, he finished up with a win.

Best of MLB: Happ gets 14th win, Blue Jays take over 1st place

Best of MLB: Happ gets 14th win, Blue Jays take over 1st place

TORONTO -- With one big inning and another strong start from J.A. Happ, the Blue Jays moved into the AL East lead.

Happ won his eighth straight decision, Devon Travis homered and Toronto used a seven-run fifth to beat the Baltimore Orioles 9-1 Saturday, taking sole possession of first place for the first time since early April.

"There's still a lot of baseball left, but I feel we're starting to play good ball," Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin said.

Toronto, which won for the 16th time in 22 games, had not been alone atop its division since a 2-0 start. The Blue Jays have scored seven or more runs in an inning three times this season.

Kevin Pillar had two hits and drove in four runs to match his career high. Major league RBIs leader Edwin Encarnacion drove in his 89th run (see full recap).

Giants find just enough offense for rare win since break
SAN FRANCISCO -- Hunter Pence is healthy at last. Joe Panik has been back a few days from a concussion and is driving in runs again. The San Francisco Giants sure are starting to look like themselves again.

Oh, with that new face in the infield of Eduardo Nunez.

Panik hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the seventh inning, Nunez had a two-run double in his first start with San Francisco and the Giants snapped a three-game losing streak by beating the Washington Nationals 5-3 on Saturday.

Pence was activated from the disabled list after missing 48 games with a strained right hamstring that required surgery.

"It's huge, just his presence in the lineup," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's one of our guys. In addition to the talent, he brings energy and all those intangibles. He charged up the troops being out there (see full recap)."

De La Rosa, Rockies win 5th straight, Mets lose 4th in row
NEW YORK -- Jorge De La Rosa earned his 100th career victory and the Colorado Rockies eventually caught up with Bartolo Colon, beating the New York Mets 7-2 on a rainy Saturday night for their fifth straight win.

The Rockies improved to 12-4 since the All-Star break and won despite losing NL home run leader Trevor Story to a jammed left thumb. He seemed to get hurt on a scrambling slide in the fourth, exited early and X-rays on the rookie shortstop were negative.

On the day the Mets retired Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza's No. 31, the Mets lost their fourth in row. The 43-year-old Colon (9-6) faltered in his first start on three days' rest since 2005, and slugger Yoenis Cespedes left in midgame because of a nagging quad injury (see full recap).

Rea injured in Miami debut, Marlins win 11-0
MIAMI -- The Miami Marlins' big win might have come with a price.

Newly acquired Colin Rea left early with an elbow injury in his Miami debut in the Marlins' 11-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night.

"We obviously needed the win, but it's not at that cost," Marlins reliever David Phelps said. "Hopefully, it's nothing, but you never like to see a starter come out of the game when you're strapped for starters to begin with."

Rea, acquired in a trade with San Diego, pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four.

"I kind of felt something in my elbow and it gradually got worse throughout the game," Rea said. "I don't know if I could have thrown another pitch, but we'll see. We don't know anything yet."

Rea initially felt a pain in his arm during warm-ups before the game, but tried to pitch through it (see full recap).