Matchday 1: Union Open Season Three in Portland

Matchday 1: Union Open Season Three in Portland

It's finally here. After a long, rollercoaster of an offseason the Union will open the 2012 season on the road in Portland (9:30PM, ESPN2). 
If you're on the fence about getting into the Union this season, tonight should be a good litmus test. The environment in Portland is pretty awesome. Despite their being an opposing team, it's everything any MLS fan should want a club to have. Compared to the venues that still have many empty seats, it's encouraging to see the support the Timbers get. 
This will be an extremely challenging season opener for the Union. In general, road teams are awful in MLS. Only two teams (LA and Seattle) were above .500 on the road last season. Combine that sobering league-wide away record fact with a cross-country flight, add in the fact that the Timbers compiled a 9-5-3 record at Jeld-Wen Field last season, and you've got a recipe for a nightmare of a season opener. 
The Timbers enjoy fanatical fan support - to the point that they averaged approximately 16,000 for their preseason matches. Also, their fans have been featured in an episode of Portlandia.

The field itself will also pose a challenge for the Union. The Timbers play on a short, narrow, turf field. The dimensions are 110 x 70, which just meet FIFA's minimum field dimension requirements. By contrast, PPL Park measures 120 x 75. What does this have to do with anything?

Well, a smaller field means there will be less room for players to operate (it's science!). Like any other sport it's important for a soccer team to be strong up the middle. This is particularly true when playing on a compact field. Fortunately, with Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez the Union are stout in the middle.
One player who would normally operate in the center of the field, Roger Torres, will not play tonight. Peter Nowak told Jonathan Tannenwald of The Goalkeeper blog that Torres picked up an ankle injury during preseason training in Costa Rica. It does not sound like it's too serious, but Nowak cited the turf field and the Portland weather as reasons why Torres did not travel with the team.
Where will the Union generate offense post-Le Toux and without Torres? Freddy Adu and Michael Farfan will likely be called on to carry the bulk of the offensive playmaking responsibilities. Oregon State product Danny Mwanga returns to the Pacific Northwest as the Union's main goal scoring threat. Newcomers Lionard Pajoy and Josue Martinez may see time up top as well.
Defensively goalkeeper Zac MacMath and the back four of Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Sheanon Williams, Porfirio Lopes will have their hands full with Timbers designated player Kris Boyd (the all-time leading goal scorer in Scottish Premier League history) and second year midfielder Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe has been nursing an ankle injury, but should play. 
Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury, the lone Portland all-star last season, contributed seven goals last season and is an engine in the midfield. Diego Chara combines with Jewsbury to give the Timbers two dangerous attacking options out of the midfield.
Two key Timbers will not play tonight. Futty Danso has a broken bone in his left foot and will not play. Franck Songo'o also will not play - he's in Spain dealing with visa issues.
Even without Danso and Songo'o the Union will have their work cut out for them. Portland is truly one of the great atmospheres in the league. 
Starting Lineup I'd Like to See: MacMath, Williams, Valdes, Califf, Lopes, Carroll, Gomez, Adu, Okugo, M. Farfan, and Mwanga.
Final Score Prediction: It's incredibly difficult for a road team to earn a result at Jeld-Wen. With that being said, I do not like this spot for the Union. Portland takes the season opener 1-0. 
Photo Credit: [http://concacaf-futball.blogspot.com/2011/11/mls-soccer-is-growing.html ]

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.

No longer feeling like a rookie, Wendell Smallwood more comfortable as lead back

No longer feeling like a rookie, Wendell Smallwood more comfortable as lead back

As the Eagles prepared to face the Green Bay Packers last week, rookie Wendell Smallwood readied himself for a big role.
 
Then he got just nine carries. 
 
It wasn’t that those carries went elsewhere, it was that the Eagles got away from the run game early in the 27-13 loss to the Packers despite being down one score for most of the game. Ultimately, he had half of the team’s carries. 
 
On Friday, head coach Doug Pederson said the disparity in play-calling didn’t have anything to do with having Smallwood as the lead back instead of Ryan Mathews. 
 
“Not really,” Pederson said. “Again, that's something – when I go back ask evaluate after the game – it's something I have to consider more of: Did I run the ball enough or throw the ball enough or not enough or did I do it too much, one way or the other. 
But no, that did not dispel anything, run or pass.”
 
For the second straight week, Mathews is out with an MCL sprain, which means Smallwood is preparing for a bigger role in the offense again. That could also mean his second career start in as many weeks. 
 
Having gone through this process last week has made this week even easier. 
 
“I think I'm very comfortable, more than I was last week,” Smallwood said. “I kind of knew I was going to have a lead role, kind of thinking about a lot, how to play better and take on the load that I was probably going to get. So this week, I think it was kind of natural for me, not really worrying about it.”
 
Smallwood, who was a fifth-round pick out of West Virginia, has 66 carries for 290 yards and one touchdown this season. Smallwood's average of 4.4 yards per attempt is sixth in the league among rookie with at least 60 carries this season. He also has the most rushing yards of any Eagles rookie since Bryce Brown in 2012. 
 
While the Eagles would probably have preferred to use Mathews more this season, the veteran has played just 53 more snaps than Smallwood. 
 
Does Smallwood even feel like a rookie anymore? 
 
“Nah, definitely not, definitely not,” he said with a smile. “Probably after Week 3 I stopped feeling like a rookie. And guys tell me all the time, 'we need you to play, we don't need you to be a rookie right now.' So kind of forced not to be a rookie.”