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.

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

NEW YORK — Phillies players were greeted by a message from Carlos Ruiz when they entered the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday.

“I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! Gracias,” (see story).

Ruiz did not actually write those words on the whiteboard by the entry to the clubhouse, but they were his. He reached out to visiting clubhouse manager Tony Carullo and asked that the message be written in just that way.

Ruiz, 37, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, ending an 11-season run with the Phillies that included five NL East titles, a World Series championship, an All-Star Game, a slew of clutch hits, many words of praise from the pitching staff and a million calls of Choooooch from fans in the stands (see story).

“Everybody loved Chooch for a number of reasons,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s the kind of guy you loved seeing every day, a hard-working, humble and appealing human being.

“I’d like to think when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Mackanin paused and laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job.”

Ruiz’s exit leaves Ryan Howard as the only member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club. Over the last few seasons, Howard has seen Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley depart.

It’s a topic that Howard seems to have grown weary of talking about.

“I've had to hear about it every year,” he said. “It's again the same thing. You play with guys your entire career and now you see them in different uniforms. It's definitely going to be something to get used to but that's baseball. That's the business aspect of it. Teams make moves and that's what happens.”

Like the rest of the core of that team, Howard, 36, has been available for trade the last few seasons, but there has been no real interest because of his decline in performance and huge salary.

So he will play out the final six weeks of his contract and try to hook on elsewhere next season.

Howard saluted his former teammate, Ruiz.

“I'm trying to think of the right words,” he said.

“The thing about Chooch — he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him. I hit him up yesterday a little bit after I found out. I was happy for him and wanted to wish him the best.

“Chooch, he was always very, very positive. Always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

The Phillies acquired veteran backup catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later for Ruiz (see story). Ellis is due to join the team Saturday. In the meantime, the Phillies added prospect Jorge Alfaro from Double A (see story). He will be the backup catcher Friday night, then return to a talent-rich Reading club that has the best record in minor-league baseball and a date with the Eastern League playoffs.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

For the third time in five seasons, the Soul and Arizona Rattlers will compete in the ArenaBowl. Prior to Friday night's 7 p.m. matchup, the leaders of both squads, Soul coach Clint Dolezel and Rattlers coach Kevin Guy, were each named Marcum Moss Coach of the Year.

Dolezel and Guy will share the award but not the ArenaBowl trophy, which the Soul haven't won since their lone triumph in 2008 over the San Jose Sabercats. Dolezel, who has been at the helm since August 2012, led the Soul to the ArenaBowl in 2012 and 2013 but lost to the Rattlers on both occasions.

This season, Dolezel, who spent over a decade as a quarterback in the AFL, coached the Soul to a 13-3 regular-season record. The team advanced to the ArenaBowl with a dramatic win in the American Conference championship game over the Jacksonville Sharks.

Dolezel also earned the Coach of the Year award last season for guiding the Soul to a 15-3 overall mark and a conference championship game appearance.

“Without a question, Clint is one of the best offensive minds in AFL history,” Soul majority owner Ron Jaworski said in a press release. “His success is attributed to a great deal of preparation and hard work. To make a playoff appearance every year as a head coach shows his dedication and willingness to win.”