Klinsmann Era Begins Here in Philly

Klinsmann Era Begins Here in Philly

Philadelphia will be the center of the American soccer world tonight as Jurgen Klinsmann makes his debut as coach of the U.S. national team against regional rival Mexico (9PM/ESPN2). I don’t think I am going out on a limb here by stating this will be the most heavily scrutinized friendly in the history of U.S. Soccer.

 It’s a perfect storm of soccer storylines, and it will all come to head this evening at Lincoln Financial Field.

The New Coach

Fans of the USMNT watched U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati very publicly and very unsuccessfully fall all over himself in an effort to hire Klinsmann – twice. The sticking point centered around the amount of control Klinsmann wanted over the entire U.S program, from the national team on down to the youth levels.

It’s hard to say what finally persuaded Gulati to cede to Klinsmann’s demands, but the 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup Final was almost certainly the breaking point. A little over four weeks after that humiliating and deflating loss at the Rose Bowl Gulati formally introduced Klinsmann as his new coach.

So, who is Jurgen Klinsmann? What can you expect from him? How will his tenure as coach differ from Bob Bradley? Well, as a club player he played in the top flight in Germany (VfB Stuttgart), Italy (Inter Milan), France (AS Monaco), and England (Tottenham Hotspur). He’s won a UEFA Cup (with Inter Milan), and a World Cup (West Germany, 1990). To put it simply, he was a world class player with a gift for putting the ball in the back of the net.

If you are so inclined, check out this profile of Klinsmann, written by Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff prior to the 1994 World Cup.

He went on to coach Germany to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup. En route, he was credited with introducing a flowing attacking style to the traditionally staid defensive-minded German team.

Klinsmann’s style, both tactically and personally, could not be any more different than his predecessor. Bradley was tight-lipped, and whether by preference or necessity played a defensive counter-attacking style. Klinsmann seems completely at home in the spotlight and appears to enjoy the back and forth with the media. He’s stated that he wants to bring a similar free-flowing, possession oriented, attacking style to the US program.

This is not to say Bradley did a poor job. In fact, under the circumstances I don’t know how much more you could have reasonably expected from him. I am simply highlighting the differences between the two.

Now, it’s one thing to say that you want to implement a positive possession-heavy style. It’s another thing to execute that style in light of the current US player pool. Klinsmann’s style demands attacking play from the flanks. He needs his outside backs to make overlapping runs. He needs his midfielders to run at people on the flanks. This could be a problem considering: 1) the US strength is in the center of the midfield, 2) they’ve been searching for a left back forever and 3) Their best right back (Steve Cherundolo) will be 35 years old when the next World Cup rolls around.

What You Can Expect Tonight

Klinsmann met his team for the first time on Sunday. Yes, this past Sunday. To expect him to completely change the style of play in four days is absurd. Would a result be nice? Sure. Is it worth getting bent out of shape if they don’t win? No way.

Realistically, the two most telling takeaways from this whole exercise is/will be his roster selection and choice of formation. In keeping with his desire to introduce more a more Latin influence to the team he’s brought in a number of players who play in the Mexican first division, who presumably are more familiar with the players on the Mexican roster (Jose Torres, former Union player Michael Orozco-Fiscal, DaMarcus Beasley,  and Edgar Castillo).  

He’s also called in previously out of favor players like Freddy Adu (who prior to the Gold Cup semifinal and final couldn’t sniff a national team call), Heath Pearce, and Kyle Beckerman. Youth was also served as players like Brek Shea, Tim Ream (who was benched following a shaky performance during the Gold Cup group stage), and Bill Hamid were brought in.

Perhaps the most interesting roster choice, from a storyline standpoint, was that of Michael Bradley – the son of the just fired Bob Bradley. How will he adjust to playing for the man who replaced his father? The change could liberate him as claims of nepotism (which were wholly unfair) will no longer hound him. National team stalwarts Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Cherundolo, and Carlos Bocanegra provide a veteran presence.

Due to either club obligations or injuries you will not see Clint Dempsey, Timmy Chandler, or Maurice Edu. Mexico will be without Chicharito, who is recovering from a concussion suffered during Manchester United’s North American Tour.

Formation-wise the conventional wisdom says that Klinsmann will trot out his preferred 4-3-3. If that’s the case perhaps we’ll see a lineup of: Howard (GK), Castillo (LB), Ream (CB), Bocanegra (CB), Cherundolo (RB),  Jermaine Jones (Center Midfielder), Bradley (Center Midfielder), Torres (Attacking Midfielder), Break Shea (left wing), Donovan (right wing), and Buddle (striker).

What Will the Crowd Be Like?

Last I saw the advance sales were in the 25,000 range. No matter where in the United States the Mexican team plays they always seem to have more support. This was obviously true in Los Angeles for the Gold Cup Final, where at a minimum the crowd was 80/20 Mexican.

I’d imagine this will be a pro-Mexican crowd, but nowhere near the extent we saw in LA.

I’ve debated this topic with a few people on Twitter, but the powers that be (US Soccer and the Eagles – who obviously own and operate Lincoln Financial Field) have done a terrible job of marketing this game. You couldn’t go more than ten minutes on sports talk radio or Comcast SportsNet without hearing or seeing a promo for the July 23rd Real Madrid/Union game.

This game? I’ve barely seen banner ad on the various soccer websites I frequent. Also, the tickets are expensive. After all of the fees/price gouging the cheapest ticket is $46.75, and that’s for a seat in the upper level behind the goals. Also, the game is taking place just two weeks after 57,0000+ people shelled out money to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid. Finally, the game is at 9PM on a Wednesday night.

This will be third time the USMNT has played in Philly/Chester over the last 15 months. So, why play this game in Philly? Perhaps the Eagles, fearful of losing precious preseason gate money due to the NFL lockout, pushed to host the game to offset potential losses.

Perhaps there will be a strong walk-up crowd, but I am skeptical there will be more than 30,000 in the building. It’ll look awful on television, but what can you do?

If nothing else, and for better or worse, we’ll always be able to say that the Jurgen Klinsmann era began here in Philadelphia.

With rotation gone, Mychal Kendricks preparing for comeback season

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With rotation gone, Mychal Kendricks preparing for comeback season

Getting in a rhythm, getting in a flow, is important for Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. 

Really important. 

“That’s everything,” Kendricks said after Tuesday’s OTA practice. “It truly is.”

That’s why last season was so tough on the veteran linebacker. Under former defensive coordinator Bill Davis and head coach Chip Kelly, Kendricks was forced into a rotation with DeMeco Ryans, Kiko Alonso, and later Jordan Hicks. 

In a year when he did nurse a hamstring injury for a few weeks, Kendricks played just 52 percent of defensive snaps in 2015. After playing all 77 snaps in the opener, Kendricks never got above 90 percent again and didn’t play more than 70 percent of snaps in any of the last five games of the season. 

That’s quite a departure for someone who is widely considered to be a three-down linebacker. In 2014, Kendricks played 100 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in seven games. 

“I just feel like it was too much hot and cold, with all the players rotating in and out and whatnot,” Kendricks said about his 2015 season. “No one was able to get in the flow. It was odd. But I didn’t feel like I played as good or as much. For the time that I was in, I feel that my numbers were OK. But it’s hard to be a force or something to reckon with when you’re not on the field.”

Kendricks admitted the rotation was tough on him, but did what he was told. 

This season, he’s not expected to be in a rotation. For now, he’s the team’s starting weakside linebacker, while Jordan Hicks is in the middle with Nigel Bradham on the strongside. All three, however, are versatile and could be moved around. 

“All of those guys are pretty much interchangeable,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “And you have to be now.”

Aside from the rotation at inside linebacker a year ago, Kendricks also dealt with another injury. He basically missed a total of four weeks in 2015 with a lingering hamstring injury. In 2014, Kendricks missed four games with a calf injury. 

While Kendricks has never made a Pro Bowl, before last season, when healthy, he has played to that level. In fact, making the Pro Bowl is a personal goal for Kendricks this season. 

“I feel like if I stay healthy, you’ll see me in the Pro Bowl,” he said. “Those are things that you can’t control. Unfortunately, a couple times, I’ve fallen short of my personal goal because of an injury. No one wants that. I’m not making any excuses or anything, that’s just what it is. 

“I used to beat myself up over that, but as you get older and you start understanding the game, you know that there’s some things that you just literally do not control. You can’t beat yourself up over it.”

If Kendricks does get named to the Pro Bowl this season, his production will match the four-year, $29 million contract extension he signed before the 2015 season began. 

From the outside, it seems possible that Kendricks’ new contract might have been a factor in his decline last season, but the linebacker doesn’t seem to think it played much of a role. 

“Have I thought about it? Yeah,” Kendricks said. “But then I look back at all the scenarios that could have played an effect. I got paid and I didn’t play as much as I’d like to. It could have went both ways. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have played at all. I don’t know. Sometimes the grass is greener; sometimes the grass isn’t greener. I’m not a fortune teller or a future teller, I just go with my gut.”

Sixers draft target: F Ben Simmons

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Sixers draft target: F Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons

Position: Forward

Height/Weight: 6-foot-10/239 pounds

School: LSU

The 19-year-old Australia native was the favorite to be the top pick in the 2016 NBA draft before he ever took the court for LSU. Here we are less than a month from the draft and that still may very well be the case.

It's hard to ignore Simmons' production in his only season with the Tigers: 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and two steals per game. The 6-foot-10 forward with guard skills was named SEC Freshman of the Year and was named to the conference's first team. But for all his personal accolades, Simmons' team failed to make the NCAA Tournament after taking a 71-38 whooping at the hands of Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. He's been criticized from everything to his lack of maturity to his inability to shoot consistently from the outside.

Strengths
It's so rare to see a player of Simmons' stature with the ability to handle and see the court so well. Watching Simmons grab the ball off the rim and then go the length of the floor to either finish or find the open man is a thing of beauty. I love how smooth he is. It looks effortless for him. You almost forget he's 6-foot-10. His basketball IQ is excellent. He forces contact down low with his big body and draws fouls. His rebounding ability should translate very well to the next level.

He has the ability to guard multiple positions with his length and athleticism... if he's motivated. His size is going to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. A traditional four will struggle with his quickness. He'll be able to take a lot of wings down low and punish them in the post.

Weaknesses
The biggest thing is his shot. It's been well-documented. His three-point output in college: 33 percent. As much as that number reflects a weakness, he's at least self-aware. He knows his weaknesses. His free-throw percentage (67 percent) is just OK. The good news is, if you actually watched him shoot, this isn't a total rebuild.

Are the maturity and competitiveness concerns legitimate? I don't know. It's a 19-year-old kid we're talking about. The Sixers will have to decide if those concerns are something he'll outgrow or a serious red flag going forward. Playing under Brett Brown, who coached Simmons' father in Australia, would hopefully mitigate some of the concern.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
This is a really interesting question that I'm not sure anyone has the answer to yet. At 6-foot-10, he almost has to play the four, but where does that leave Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and possibly Joel Embiid and Dario Saric? There could be nights where Brown could get away with playing Simmons on the wing given his ball skills. But it might be a struggle for Simmons defensively depending on the matchup. In any case, Simmons will need a shooter/scorer or two in the lineup to complement his skill set.

NBA comparison
This is next to impossible. How many players have there been that are built like power forwards but handle like point guards? Magic Johnson is a lofty comparison, but Lamar Odom may not be quite strong enough. Much like Simmons, Magic was not a shooter (19 percent from three in his first nine years in the NBA), but at 6-foot-9, Johnson was one of the greatest facilitators in league history. If Simmons is somewhere between Johnson and Odom, the Sixers will be just fine.

Draft projection
I'd be shocked if the Sixers don't take Simmons at No. 1. It's the right call.

Union-Orlando City SC 5 things: First-place test for Jim Curtin's club

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Union-Orlando City SC 5 things: First-place test for Jim Curtin's club

Union at Orlando City SC
7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Union’s roll continued last weekend with a win over D.C. United in extra time, giving Jim Curtin’s club nine points in its last five games and a spot atop the Eastern Conference standings. But that momentum will be tested starting Wednesday night when the Union (5-3-3) make a quick turnaround to take on Orlando City SC (3-3-5) at the Camping World Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Defending first place
At first it was a fluke, then a random hot streak. But at the near quarter mark of the 2016 season, the Union are riding high in first place in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday’s match against Orlando City SC.

“I’ve always believed that you start to get an assessment of your group after about a third of the games,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “That’s a good barometer. We are starting to form an identity as a team that’s very tough to break down defensively and is a very good home team. Now, we need to carry that mentality on to the road.”

That mentality, the one that’s helped the Union to a 5-3-3 record, is about consistency on the defensive side of the ball. The Union have given up only 11 goals in 11 games, good for second in MLS.

“We’re a team that’s going to be tough to score against,” Curtin said. “One goal against per game is good — that’s good goalkeeping and that’s good defending. There’s some things you’re starting to see that maybe define us and give us a little bit of identity.”

With nine points in their last five games, the Union take their hot run on the road, where they haven’t been good. First up, Orlando City SC on Wednesday and then the Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids on Saturday. The Union are 1-3-1 away from Talen Energy Stadium.

“Two very hostile places, two very good teams,” Curtin said. “We’ll take every player on our roster on the trip, which is unique. We haven’t done that before. We are a deep team and everyone is going to contribute.”

2. Blake’s availability
The big question for the Union entering their two-game road swing was would star goalkeeper Andre Blake play after being called up to the Jamaican national team for the Copa America tournament? And if so, would he make both games?

Curtin had the answer on Wednesday, stating that Blake will play in both road matches (see story).

“Jamaica’s been excellent with us,” he said. “What is best for both parties is that he is with us up until [June 1]. The Columbus game is the only game he’ll miss.”

And that’s good news for the Union. Blake has been stellar this season, often making game-saving stops a habit on the road to three shutouts and a 76.1 save percentage — placing him among the best in MLS.

“He’s a big part of us getting points,” Curtin said. “Going into two hostile environments knowing that he’s going to be in there is very valuable.”

3. Orlando’s momentum
Despite just one win in their last seven games — a run that includes a 2-1 loss to the Union — Orlando City is still keeping pace in the East by way of three draws over that same span.

But coming off a win over the Montreal Impact, and in the midst of four home games of five matches, the Florida club wants to go from staying afloat to rocketing up the standings.

“Any time we step on the field, we’re looking to get three points,” Orlando’s Kevin Alston said. “For us, we want to build off of last game and move forward.”

But they have to go through the Union first to get that momentum rolling.

“They are a confident team,” Orlando coach Adrian Heath said. “You can see it’s a happy camp. They keep working hard, they don’t give in, it’s gonna be tough because they are coming here with confidence.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: The Union are a better team with Vincent Nogueira in the midfield. Which made it even more concerning when the Frenchman went out with an oblique injury prior to the match against D.C. United last Friday. And though Nogueira isn’t believed to be seriously injured, he, along with Ilsinho, will be a question on Wednesday. “I honestly don’t know whether they’ll be available by Wednesday,” Curtin said. “We’ll assess after Wednesday’s game and see what it looks like for Colorado.” If Nogueira can’t go, the Union will likely go with the same midfield lineup as they did against United, with Warren Creavalle in Nogueira’s spot and Brian Carroll sitting deeper as defensive mid.

Orlando: At 21 years old, Cyle Larin is already one of the most dangerous strikers in the league. He scored 17 goals in 24 starts in his rookie campaign and is continuing his ridiculous pace with six goals in nine starts this season. And the Union have taken notice. “He’s a great striker, one I rate very highly,” Curtin said. “We dodged a bullet because he wasn’t in the last time we played, so it’ll be a real challenge to shut him down, especially in their building.”

5. This and that
• The Union are undefeated against Orlando City all-time with a 2-0-1 record.

• Orlando City’s star midfielder Kaka came alive last weekend, notching two assists in his club’s 2-1 win over the Impact. Heath noted that as Kaka goes, Orlando goes, leaving Curtin to wish the legendary player was invited to the Brazilian national team for the Copa America tournament, missing the match. “Yeah, I’d rather play them without Kaka, for sure,” Curtin laughed.

• Dating back to Aug. 1, 2015, Orlando City is unbeaten at Camping World Stadium. The club is 6-0-6 in its last 12 matches at the venue.