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.

Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

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Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

DETROIT — Back when they were racking up National League East titles and filling Citizens Bank Park night after night, the Phillies could slug with anyone.
 
Those days are gone.
 
So even on a night when they got some power from two young up-and-comers in their lineup, the Phillies still couldn’t get enough to match up with the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.
 
“We don’t have enough pop to go blow for blow with them,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
The Tigers belted four home runs, three against starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, in beating the Phillies, 5-4, at Comerica Park (see Instant Replay).
 
Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph both homered for the Phillies, but Ryan Howard, no longer even close to the player he was during those aforementioned title years, slipped deeper into the May quicksand. He went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May.
 
“Man, it’s been brutal,” Howard said after the game. “I’m not going to lie. I need some breaks, man. It’s been tough. I’ve hit some balls hard, but they’re not finding any real estate out there.
 
“I have to keep grinding and swinging. Luckily, it’s still early to get it turned around.”
 
Yes, it’s early for some guys.
 
But it might not be that early for Howard. He’s 36 and in the final year of his contract. His slump has coincided with Joseph’s ascension from the minors. Joseph played first base Monday night and looked good at the position. In addition to hitting a game-tying homer in the sixth, he had a double. Half of his six hits in his first seven games in the majors have been for extra bases.
 
Joseph will continue to play first base while Howard serves as the designated hitter in the final two games of the interleague series in Detroit. After that, Joseph is expected to start against lefty Jon Lester in Chicago on Friday. If he keeps hitting — and Howard keeps struggling — the situation could be ripe for Mackanin to continue to play Joseph, even against the right-handers Howard usually sees.
 
“I'm going to look at it a week at a time,” Mackanin said. “We'll see. At some point it might come to that, but I can't say it's imminent.”
 
If Howard starts spending more time on the bench, it will be part of a downhill progression that started in the second half of last season when he became a platoon player. Will a progression to the bench ultimately lead to his being released in the coming weeks? Well, if Joseph keeps hitting and continues to earn playing time, management may have to seriously ponder the move.
 
Even with Franco and Joseph hitting home runs, the Phillies didn’t have enough to match the Tigers’ thunder.
 
Miguel Cabrera belted two home runs and in the seventh inning clubbed his 500th career double. He then came around to score the go-ahead run on a single by Victor Martinez.
 
Entering the game, the Tigers were among the top teams in the American League in batting average (.265), runs per game (4.60), homers (56) and OPS (.758).
 
Meanwhile, the Phillies couldn’t get much lower in offense. They ranked near the bottom in the National League in batting average (.233), runs per game (3.23), homers (32) and OPS (.651).
 
“You look up and down their lineup on the scoreboard and it looks like everybody is hitting .300 with eight or 10 home runs,” Mackanin said. “It can be daunting.
 
“The middle of their lineup hurt us with the long ball. We knew they were swinging the bats well lately. They weren’t earlier. Now they’re swinging well and we couldn’t contain them.
 
“We got 12 hits of our own. But they’ve got a lot of power on that team.”
 
The Phillies are at the start of a challenging trip — three in Detroit followed by three against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have the majors’ best record. The Phillies, a surprising four games over .500, will be tested on this trip.
 
They did not pass the first test. Velasquez had trouble commanding his pitches and for the second straight start ran a high pitch count. He took a 3-1 lead to the mound in the fifth, but it evaporated quickly under the weight of homers by J.D. Martinez and Cabrera. Reliever Colton Murray also gave up a homer in the inning. He also allowed the go-ahead run in the seventh as Mackanin held David Hernandez back in case the Phils got a lead.
 
“Velasquez didn’t have any command of his secondary pitches, pretty basic stuff, and he left some fastballs over the plate,” Mackanin said. “You have to throw quality pitches to a lineup like this. If you make mistakes against them, they don’t miss. If you don’t command your secondary pitches against good hitters, they become like sharks and smell blood and hit the fastball.”
 
Velasquez said he should have gotten the loss, not Murray.
 
“You can’t shy away from hitters and I did that,” he said. “You’ve got to pitch inside. I pitched around them.
 
“I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to challenge hitters.”

With game on the line, Pete Mackanin benches his best player for lack of hustle

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With game on the line, Pete Mackanin benches his best player for lack of hustle

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin made a strong statement Monday night when he benched his best hitter in the seventh inning of a tie game.
 
With Odubel Herrera on the bench for the final innings, the Phillies went on to lose, 5-4, to the Detroit Tigers (see Instant Replay).
 
Mackanin did not regret his decision to yank Herrera and his team-high .335 batting average from the game.
 
“It’s important to me to set that tone,” Mackanin said. “When you don’t hustle, I’ve got a problem.”
 
Herrera had singled in each of his first three at-bats. He drove in the Phillies’ first run with a hit in the third inning.
 
But when he bounced back to the pitcher and took his time getting to first base in the seventh, Mackanin abruptly pulled him. Even Ryan Howard said something to Herrera in the dugout.
 
“He didn’t run,” Mackanin said. “One of the ingredients to our success to this point is the fact that guys play with energy and they play hard. We’re training them to play the game the right way and not running is not the right way.”
 
Herrera said he did not run because he was “frustrated” and “angry” with the at-bat. He said Tigers reliever Justin Wilson “got in his head” by varying his delivery times. Herrera even mentioned that Wilson quick-pitched him.
 
“The pitcher was playing with me,” he said. “I have to learn from it. I didn’t think [Mackanin] was going to bench me, but I understand why. I can’t argue. I was frustrated. I respect the decision. I know that I did wrong. I have to learn from my mistakes and it won’t happen again.”
 
Mackanin is a huge fan of Herrera. He has predicted the 24-year-old Venezuelan will someday win a batting title.
 
But Mackanin indicated after Monday night’s game that Herrera might be developing some bad habits — at least when it comes to the hustle that Mackanin values. The front office values it, too. Playing with “energy” is something the front office frequently says it wants to see, and the ability to get his players to play with energy is one of Mackanin’s strengths.
 
“I’ve seen it in the past and it’s been trickling in,” Mackanin said of Herrera’s occasional lapses in hustle. “I didn’t like it and I made the decision. He knows he should have run.”
 
Jonathan Papelbon put a chokehold on Bryce Harper’s neck last year in Washington for a similar transgression.
 
In the Phillies’ dugout Monday night, Herrera got a little talking-to from Howard.
 
“That was great to see,” Mackanin said.
 
Said Howard: “Doobie's got a lot of promise. He’s going to be around this game for a long time. He makes things happen. He brings energy to the game.
 
“The pitcher lost the grip and had to double-pump. If you’re running hard, maybe he makes a bad throw and you’re on base.
 
“I just told him, ‘You’ve got to keep going. I know it’s not the at-bat you wanted, but look at me, bro, I’m still out there grinding.’ If he’s running there, the pitcher could throw it away and he could be on second and we could squeeze a run out.”
 
Howard went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May (see story).
 
Mackanin said his message to Herrera was complete. Herrera will be back in the starting lineup on Tuesday night.

NBA Playoffs: Raptors hold off Cavs to even East Finals 2-2

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NBA Playoffs: Raptors hold off Cavs to even East Finals 2-2

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- A series that once looked lopsided is now even.

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points, including a driving layup in the final minute, and DeMar DeRozan had 32 as the Toronto Raptors evened the Eastern Conference Finals by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-99 in Game 4 on Monday night.

DeMarre Carroll scored 11 points and Bismack Biyombo had 14 rebounds as Toronto improved to 8-2 at home this postseason and got back on level terms after big losses in Games 1 and 2.

"We've been counted out, and we like that challenge," DeRozan said.

The next challenge for Toronto? Game 5 on Wednesday night in Cleveland, where the Raptors are 0-3 this season, losing by a combined 72 points.

"We have to continue to make sure that when they punch, we punch back," Lowry said. "And if they punch three times, we punch four times."

The Raptors are 2-6 on the road in the playoffs.

After a 10-0 start to these playoffs, the Cavaliers are counting on home court advantage to help them reach their second straight Finals.

"Going back home we have to play a lot better and I think we will," LeBron James said.

Cleveland lost consecutive playoff games to an Eastern Conference opponent for the first time since dropping the final three games of the conference semifinals to Boston in 2010.

"We had a few defensive breakdowns that you can't have down the stretch of a game, especially in the playoffs," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "They executed every time we made a mistake."

James scored 29 points and Kyrie Irving had 26 for the Cavaliers, who trailed by as many as 18 points. Channing Frye scored nine of his 12 points in the fourth quarter.

Lowry scored nine in the fourth and DeRozan had 12, connecting on five of six shots.

"It's a cakewalk for me when (Lowry) gets going," DeRozan said. "It opens up everything."

The Raptors led 78-69 to begin the fourth but Frye made consecutive 3-pointers as Cleveland opened the final quarter with an 8-0 run, cutting it to 78-77. The Cavaliers made their first 11 shots of the fourth quarter.

"It wasn't enough because we got off to a horrible first half once again in this building and you're playing catch up the whole game," James said.

Frye's errant 3-point attempt at 4:12 was Cleveland's first miss of the fourth. DeRozan made two free throws at the other end and, after another miss by Frye, Carroll made one of two to put Toronto up 99-96 with 3:23 to go.

A long 3 by Irving made it 101-99 with 2:00 left, but DeRozan answered with a driving bank shot at 1:33. Toronto got the ball back after Biyombo blocked J.R. Smith's 3, and Biyombo kept the offensive possession alive by rebounding Lowry's missed shot. After a timeout, Lowry let the shot clock wind down before driving for the decisive layup, making it 105-99 with 22 seconds to go.

Toronto jumped out to a 13-5 lead as Cleveland missed eight of its first 10 shots. Following a timeout, the Cavs made five of their next six to cut the deficit but the Raptors led 27-24 after one quarter.

Lowry scored 15 points in the second, making three of Toronto's four 3-pointers, as the Raptors opened a 57-41 halftime lead despite not shooting a single free throw in the first two quarters. It marked the first time a team led by 15 or more at halftime in a conference finals game without shooting a free throw since Game 2 of the 2001 East Finals between Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Bucks made two of six from the line, the fewest ever made in an NBA playoff game at the time.

DeRozan shot Toronto's first free throws at 6:13 of the third after being tackled by Smith on a drive. The foul drought came after Raptors coach Dwane Casey was fined $25,000 for criticizing the officials following Toronto's Game 3 win.

Fans cheered derisively when Matthew Dellavedova was called for Cleveland's first foul of the game at 8:56 of the second.

Not much to Love
After shooting 3 for 19 in Game 3, Kevin Love shot 4 for 14 in Game 4. He finished with 10 points. Love did not play in the fourth after appearing to injure his left ankle when he stepped on referee David Guthrie late in the third. "It didn't feel too great," Love said. Lue said Love's health was "no concern."

Fair and foul
Cleveland didn't shoot any free throws in the third quarter and had just two in the fourth. Twelve of Toronto's 19 free throws came in the fourth.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: James and Irving each had six assists. ... Cleveland shot 3 for 23 from 3-point range in the first half. The finished 13 for 41. . Cleveland's Dahntay Jones served a one-game suspension for hitting Biyombo in the groin in Game 3.

Raptors: Raptors C Jonas Valanciunas was active but did not play. He's been out since spraining his right ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 against Miami on May 7. ... Toronto is 10-1 in the playoffs when holding opponents below 100 points.