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.

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint in a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 2015 first-round pick deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front on a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.