Great Expectations: UnionDynamo, Game One

Great Expectations: UnionDynamo, Game One

Expectations are a tricky thing. Set them too high and you
risk disappointment. Temper them and you risk missing out on the thrill of your
wildest ones coming true.

The most fun I’ve had following Philly sports is when a
local team is on the ascendency, when the weight of expectations has not yet
threatened to crush our heightened hopes. For me, the 1994-95 Flyers, 1998-99
Sixers, 2001 Eagles, and 2006 Phillies are all examples of teams who weren’t
yet burdened by expectations, but showed glimpses of the good times to come.

Which brings me to the Union, who are set to make their
playoff debut on Sunday at PPL Park (5PM/ESPN2). Clearly, this is a team on the
rise. As a second year franchise they don’t carry the scars of past playoff
losses. They aren’t expected to lift the MLS Cup at the conclusion of the
playoffs. To be fair, anything from this point forward is gravy. They’re
playing with house money, which is incredibly fun.

Now, this isn’t to say the Union can’t, or won’t, win this
two-game series with Houston. They’re 2-0-2 against them all-time. They match up
incredibly well with the Dynamo. What I am saying is that there’s something
special about watching a team taking those first steps, so enjoy it.

Speaking of those matchups, let’s take a closer look at some
of the key one’s heading into the first leg on Sunday.

Brad Davis v. Sheanon
Williams (and whichever midfielder Peter Nowak plugs in on the right side)

The left-footed Davis, who led MLS with 16 assists this
season, is a menace on the left flank. His ability to provide service to the
Dynamo forwards will go a long way towards determining which team wins this
series.

Williams and the TBD right-sided midfielder will be tasked
with closing Davis down and limiting his space and ability to whip balls into
the box. The Union defense need to walk a tightrope though, as the last thing
they want is to foul Davis and give Houston set-piece opportunities.

Houston’s Height v.
Union’s Back Four

Four Dynamo players (Geoff Cameron, Brian Ching, Will Bruin,
and Bobby Boswell) share the team goal-scoring lead (each has scored five
goals). What do they all have in common? They are all 6’1” or taller. Cameron
is 6’3”, Ching 6’1”, Bruin 6’2”, and Boswell is 6’2”. Oh, and the Dynamo player
who scares me most (based on his international performances for Honduras) is
Carlo Costly, who stands 6’2”.

Needless to say, the Dynamo pose a major threat on
set-pieces and on balls in the air. Union center backs Danny Califf and Carlos
Valdes are both listed at 6’. Fortunately, both Califf and Valdes are physical
players who are crafty enough to hold their ground and win aerial battles.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen Gabriel Farfan fall asleep before and allow opposing
players to run free in the box. Brian Carroll will have to provide additional
cover. Goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon’s ability to organize his back line, and his
decision-making as to when to come off his line and pick balls out of the air
will be huge.

Dynamo Midfield v.
Union Midfield

It’s an old soccer axiom that games are won, and lost, in
the midfield. Whichever team is able to control the middle third of the field
will likely advance to the Conference Finals.

Both teams feature ball winning defensive midfielders. Brian
Carroll has been a stalwart the entire season. He does all the little things
(reading and the breaking up plays, winning 50/50 balls, settling the tempo and
relieving pressure) you need from a holding midfielder.

The real question for Peter Nowak is who plays alongside
Carroll in the midfield? He’s shuffled his midfield all season. Michael Farfan
will likely start on one side, but who gets the starting nod for the other two
midfield spots? Considering Houston is prone to defensive breakdowns I’d insert
Freddy Adu on the right side. Centrally, I’d pair Amobi Okugo with Carroll. I
like having the flexibility of bringing a creative player like Roger Torres off
the bench, particularly if you are down a goal and need to get level.

What Brian Carroll is to the Union, Adam Moffat is to the
Dynamo. However, one key difference, as Zach
Woolsey pointed out in our Q&A with Dynamo Theory
, is that Moffat is a
threat to have a go from 35+ yards out.  In
addition to Moffat and Davis, the Dynamo midfield will likely be rounded out by
Danny Cruz and Luiz Camargo.

Road Form v. Away
Form

Both teams were incredibly good at home. Houston posted a
10-3-4 record at Robertson Stadium. The Union went 7-1-9 at PPL Park. Neither
team was particularly impressive away from home. Houston was just 2-6-9 on the
road. The Union were slightly better, picking up three more road points, going
4-7-6 away from PPL.

However, with the aggregate goal format it’s (naturally) all
about goals scored. The away goals rule is not used in the MLS playoff.
However, considering the goal scoring success these two teams have had at home
(Kerith
Gabriel points
out that Houston has scored 32 of its 45 goals at home,
while the Union has scored 24 of its 44 goals at home) a road goal could be the
difference in the aggregate score line.

Game One Outlook

The first leg of this tie (soccer term for two-game series)
is massive for the Union. They’ll make things much easier on themselves if they
head to Houston up a goal. In an aggregate goal format like this the Union
cannot afford to let chances go begging. Simply put, they need to finish.

You know what you are going to get out of Sebastien Le Toux.
He’s going to run all day. He’s going to put himself in position to score.
Houston is going to focus the bulk of its defensive efforts on shutting down Le
Toux, who either scored or assisted on 20 of the Union’s 44 goals. Will the
Union be able to generate offense through outlets other than Le Toux?

Veljko Paunovic is
dealing with a hamstring injury and may not play. Can Danny Mwanga, who by
numerous accounts may finally be completely healthy, step in and provide that
secondary scoring threat?

Could Freddy Adu be that guy? During the Gold Cup he showed
a knack for playing well in the biggest moments.

How about Michael Farfan? Although it was only a friendly,
he showed incredible poise and class when he chipped the keeper for a gorgeous
goal against Real Madrid. He appears impervious to pressure.

This is a giant step forward in Union franchise history.
Qualifying for the playoffs in year two is an accomplishment in and of itself. Why
not take that house money and let it ride?

Lineup I'd Like to See for Game One: Mondragon, G.
Farfan, Califf, Valdes, Williams, Carroll, Okugo, Adu, M. Farfan , Le Toux,
Mwanga.

Final Score Prediction: 
Union win it 2-1. I don’t
know why, but I have this gut feeling that Michael Farfan will be involved in
both Union goals. He just strikes me as the type of player who is completely
unfazed by the magnitude of the game. He has a certain unique calmness about
him when he’s on the ball. He’s wise beyond his years in terms of his soccer
sense and maturity. I look for him to have a major impact on this one.

The Toni Stahl Memorial Player Most Likely to See Red:
I was hesitant to include this pregame staple for a playoff match, but in
watching the wildcard games I’ve seen players commitment to challenges they
normally would not during the regular season. So much is on the line. There’s
desperation to win every single ball. I honestly don’t think any Union player
will be sent off, but if I have to pick one I’ll take Valdes.

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Sixers' game vs. Rockets Jan. 27 moved to national TV

Sixers' game vs. Rockets Jan. 27 moved to national TV

With the Sixers winning and Joel Embiid turning heads nationally, interest in Brett Brown's team continues to grow. So much so, apparently, that the Sixers' home game against the Rockets on Jan. 27 has been moved to ESPN.

The announcement that Sixers-Rockets would replace Bulls-Heat was made by the NBA Tuesday night. It will be the second Sixers game on national TV this season and they'll look for a better result than the 24-point loss in Minnesota on TNT Nov. 17.

The Sixers host the Rockets a night after the NBA announces the All-Star Game reserves. (Starters are named Jan. 19.) It seems likely at this point Embiid will have a spot on the Eastern Conference roster.

The Sixers have five games before then and all will be challenging: vs. Toronto, vs. Portland, at Atlanta, vs. Clippers, at Milwaukee. Add in Houston and those teams are a combined 151-101 (.599).

They will catch a break in one of those games by missing Clippers PG Chris Paul, who will miss six to eight weeks after having left thumb surgery.

The Rockets, at 32-12, are third in the Western Conference, 1½ games behind the Spurs and 4½ behind the Warriors. Houston is on pace to shatter some NBA three-point records under first-year head coach Mike D'Antoni, an assistant on Brown's Sixers staff last season.

The Rockets set the NBA record on Dec. 17 for threes made (24) and attempted (61) in a game. And this past Sunday, the Rockets and Nets tied the NBA record by attempting 88 threes.