Is it time for Klberson to play more for the Union?

Is it time for Klberson to play more for the Union?

By Dave Zeitlin

CHESTER, Pa. – After the third consecutive question about
the Brazilian World Cup winner was fired at him, Philadelphia Union manager
John Hackworth paused and gave a nervous smile.

“This is a lot more Kléberson than
I thought there’d be in this press conference,” he said.

He probably should have seen it coming.

If you follow the Union even casually, you may have noticed
that Hackworth’s midfield selection is at the top of the list in terms of fan
gripes. And for good reason. Through eight games this season, Philly’s midfield
has accounted for zero goals and just three assists. And they’ve routinely
gotten smoked in the possession battle (a stat, it should be noted, that
Hackworth doesn’t think holds much meaning).

Meanwhile, Kléberson has played a grand total of 29 minutes in
the four games he’s been active since coming over on loan in part of the deal
that rid the Union of Freddy Adu’s contract.

Why has the 33-year-old Brazilian who once
played for Manchester United had such a limited role so far, even though he’s
said to be doing well in training?

We asked Hackworth about this Wednesday,
as we’ve had for much of the past month. And he answered in pretty much the
same way he has for the past month, saying that Kléberson still needs to time
to “get acclimated” and that they didn’t want to play him too much in last
Saturday’s game because he’s not used to playing on turf and that he’s still not
yet prepared to play a full 90 minutes.

You’d think the team’s Designated Player
(read: the guy who makes the most money) could be able to handle all the new
stuff being thrown at him in MLS – but, sure, those are all semi-logical
strategic reasons for holding him back initially.

The problem, it seems, that most Union fans have is that Kléberson – and, to a lesser extent Sebastien Le Toux and Gabe Farfan – seems
to be below Keon Daniel and Danny Cruz on the depth chart. And, it’s probably
fair to say, those are not two of the most popular players on the team. (For
the record, I think Cruz is a solid MLS player and I think the venom he gets
from fans is unwarranted a lot of the times.)

Naturally, both Daniel and Cruz came up during
Wednesday’s press conference. And Hackworth defended his choices for routinely
starting the two midfielders. He called Daniel “one of our best players this
year” and someone who has “superior technique to anyone on our team.” And he said
Cruz has been “one of our most effective players in possession" and “one of our
most creative players in getting entries into the final third of the field,
especially in the penalty area.”

While it’s true that Daniel has a smooth
touch and Cruz can use his speed and hustle to stretch a defense like few
players can, it’s hard to argue that a more creative midfield would probably include Kléberson
and both Farfan brothers playing in front of Brian Carroll and feeding in
passes to the fun-to-watch striker tandem of Conor Casey and Jack McInerney.

Will that ever happen? Will Gabe Farfan get back into the
midfield rotation and play alongside his brother Mike? Will Hackworth unleash Kléberson and see what he can do in MLS?

Or will be asking the same questions a month for now?

Dave Zeitlin covers the
Union for MLSsoccer.com and CSNPhilly.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com and follow him on
Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.

Joel Embiid now as dominant as Henry Sims

Joel Embiid now as dominant as Henry Sims

There are seemingly countless metrics one can use to detail Joel Embiid's supremacy as a Sixer, but perhaps no stats more clearly tell the story of how indefatigable the rookie has been this season than those of his free-throw shooting. Despite ranking just eighth on the team in total minutes, he's already gotten to the line 215 times this season and made 169 of them, about 250% more than the second-most made FTs on the team (Ersan Ilyasova, 65). What's more, his seven games with ten or more free throws attempted is already more than Thaddeus Young (six), Evan Turner (three) or Jrue Holiday (zero) ever had as a Liberty Baller. 

But yesterday against the Bucks saw JoJo hit a new level with his foul drawing. Despite essentially being shut down by the Bucks in the first half -- I can't remember if he even had a single bucket at the break -- The Process eventually imposed his will in Milwaukee in a major way, parading to the line in the second half, ending with 22 points (as well as 12 rebounds and five blocks) on 4-9 shooting, getting to the line an astounding 18 times. 

Who was the last Sixers giant to accomplish such a feat, you might wonder? Well... 

Yes, it's been an impressive season for our double-redshirt rookie, and every game he seems to add another immortal name to his list of historical analogues. But not until now could we afford to mention him alongside the great Henry "Lickface" Sims, two-year Process legend whose 18 trips to the free-throw line on April 4, 2014 totally helped us win that random late-season game against the then-rebuilding Boston Celtics. As impossible as it once seemed, it now appears that soon, Embiid's folk herodom will be as self-evident and undeniable to the Sons of Sam as that of Hammerin' Hank himself. 

Get this guy to the All-Star team already.

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

They can’t win away from the Wells Fargo Center. They’ve seen a nine-point cushion in the wild-card standings vanish and when they resume play, they’ll be out of the playoff picture.

The Flyers are who we thought they were. A fringe playoff team lacking in too many areas to be considered a serious contender, despite the overachievement of last season.

When the Flyers entered their bye week, they sat one point ahead of Carolina for the final wild-card spot and two points ahead of Florida and Ottawa. They are 3-8-3 in 14 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped, and were blown out in back-to-back games in Boston and Washington by a combined score of 11-3.

Yet, they’re still on the brink of the postseason — for now. Perhaps it’s time for a trade from the front office to send a shockwave through the locker room? Not so fast.

“If we can make our team better, we will,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey. “But we’re staying on course.

“I don’t care if we win every game the rest of the year or lose every game, we’re staying on course. We set out on a course two and a half years ago — we’re not deviating from what we planned. I’m not going to make a trade to send a message.”

It’s easy to get carried away in win streaks and unexpected playoff appearances, especially in Philadelphia, where the four major sports teams are rebuilding. It’s even easier to scream for a team to go for it when it shows a glimpse into its full potential.

That is what makes sports fun. It’s what makes for good sports debate programs and entertaining talking heads. But it’s not how organizations should run their operations.

It’s certainly not how Hextall runs his regime with the Flyers. Hextall has a clear vision, and time and time again has shown no signs of expediting his plan for immediate help. He has made it a purpose to build through the draft. We have to remember that, and realize that the Flyers’ front office is playing the long game here, not the short game.

“Right now, we’re gonna stick with what we’ve got here and move forward,” Hextall said Sunday in Washington. “But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better, and if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it.

“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not gonna happen. But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”

Let’s take a step back and make some sense of the Flyers’ current state. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference with 50 points as of Tuesday morning. They are 8-12-3 on the road, with nine straight defeats away from South Philadelphia. They are a top-10 scoring team, with 127 goals, but have allowed a league-high 144 goals against.

Steve Mason’s confidence is completely shook. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better, if at all. Claude Giroux hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games and has just one marker in his last 17 games. (To be fair, he does have seven assists in his last eight games.)

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch twice this season, with his latest coming last Saturday in Boston. He’s struggled with his gap defense, among other areas, and is enduring growing pains in his second NHL season — as expected.

While the Flyers’ defense has scored 102 points, second most in the NHL, it struggles with gaps, turnovers and has too many breakdowns. Ivan Provorov, 20, has been the lone bright spot among the group of eight defensemen.

Head coach Dave Hakstol has juggled his lines and defensive pairs in attempts to find something that works. Some of the moves have worked, others have not. Questioning some of Hakstol’s lineup decisions is fair, but there’s no question his systems work.

There is only so much Hakstol can do with what he has to work with. Part of the blame can be placed on Hextall because this team, as currently constructed, is not there yet. It is, however, unfair to put every decision Hakstol makes under a microscope.

“Hak has tried a lot of things,” Hextall said. “In the end, it’s a group and we win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when something doesn’t go our way. That’s bottom line. … Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase, Neuvy. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”

One of the reasons Hextall opted to hire Hakstol, who came directly from college with no prior NHL coaching experience, is development. Growth takes time, and there is rhyme or reason behind each Hakstol benching, whether we see it or not.

The Flyers’ play the last few weeks has been dumbfounding because a lot of the same mistakes that plagued the team in the beginning of the season — lax team defensive coverage, bad decisions with the puck, letting opponents enter the zone too easily, among others — are reappearing and that’s a fair criticism on the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal before he turned 20 last Friday. Travis Konecny is here, and while he’s been the victim of a Hakstol benching, he’s shown glimpses of what’s to come. Jakub Voracek (41 points) has bounced back, Wayne Simmonds is an All-Star and added penalty kill to his résumé. Brayden Schenn leads the NHL in power-play goals with 11, though his 5-on-5 scoring could improve. And there’s a lot of upside on the farm system, with the potential of seeing an influx of kids joining the Flyers as early as next season. 

“The window is actually starting to open, the way I see it,” Hextall said last week. “The kids we have on our team. The kids we have coming. There’s things happening here that are good. We’re going to get better here. We’re not going to get worse.”

And Hextall is right — the window is just opening and will only open wider. Patience remains key here, and don’t trust the process with the Flyers. Just enjoy the course.