Matchday 13: Three Is a Magic Number

Matchday 13: Three Is a Magic Number

The Union, winless in league play since a 1-0 road win against Chivas USA on April 21st, host Sporting Kansas City this evening at PPL Park (7PM, The Comcast Network). The U need three points in the worst way. As Matt P. pointed out last week, despite falling at home to D.C. United in their last match, the Union were a much more confident team than they had been.

Interim coach John Hackworth trotted out a 4-3-3 which carried the game for long stretches against United. Gone were the hopeful long balls into space. Gone was the maddening frequency with which the Union bypassed the midfield. Granted, the lone goal they conceded was on a set piece - a bugaboo they've struggled with for far too long now - but overall the performance was much crisper and better organized than we'd seen in quite some time.

Yes, it was a loss. Yes, they still sit in ninth place in the ten team MLS Eastern Conference. But, and this is a big but, they played really well. Finishing in the final third is still a major issue. Perhaps Lionard Pajoy, who missed the D.C. game while serving a suspension, will thrive in Hackworth's system.

For me, the most positive development from last week was Hackworth's decision to pair Amobi Okugo alongside Carlos Valdes in the middle of the Union back line. Okugo brings a deft passing touch out of the back. Having played so much as a holding midfielder he is sound defensively, is aggressive going into challenges, and perhaps most importantly is composed on the ball. His skill on the ball, paired with Valdes' rugged play, is a nice combination.

Another positive was the manner in which Hackworth used his bench. With the game level at 0-0 with just under 30 minutes left he introduced rookie Antoine Hoppenot into the game. Hoppenot was a revelation. He played with incredible confidence - never hesitating to take someone on 1 v. 1. He consistently ran at people and drove to the end line.

Similarly, after going down a goal Hackworth inserted the recently acquired Jorge Perlaza into the game. Perlaza's greatest attribute is his pace. Bringing him in late in the game, after the United back line had expended so much energy chasing the Union around, was great to see. Hackworth actually played to Perlaza's strength - letting him try to stretch the United defense. It sounds elementary, but too often Peter Nowak's substitutions left you scratching your head.

The challenge this evening is just as difficult as it was against first place D.C. Sporting K.C. comes to town in second place in the conference. Should he choose, SKC head coach Peter Vermes has the ability to send out one of the most offensively talented lineups in the league. Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury and Soony Saad (who I fell in love with when he played at Michigan) are all incredibly gifted in the final third.

In the run up to the game Hackworth has talked about just how devastating SKC is in transition. With that in mind the Union will need to be incredibly organized and disciplined in getting back and behind the ball. That task will be more difficult without the services of Sheanon Williams, who is out with a toe sprain.

Perhaps the Union will benefit from the fact that SKC played midweek - traveling out to Seattle where they played to a 1-1 draw against the Sounders. Maybe the short turnaround and the cross-country flight will leave SKC a little heavy-legged. The Union can obviously use all the help they can get.

Granted, SKC is a terrific team. However, considering the totality of the circumstances (the way the Union performed last week, the short turnaround and cross-country flight for SKC and an inspired home crowd) I think the Union have a realistic shot to end this winless streak.

Union win it 2-1.

Photo Credit: Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  -- Dustin Hopkins kicked a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter for his fifth of the game and the Washington Redskins avoid a near-disastrous 0-3 start with a 29-27 win over the penalty- and error-prone New York Giants on Sunday.

Kirk Cousins threw touchdown passes of 44 yards to DeSean Jackson and 55 to Jamison Crowder as the banged-up Redskins (1-2) handed new coach Ben McAdoo his first loss with the Giants (2-1).

Su'a Cravens ended the Giants' final drive with an interception in New York territory. It was Eli Manning's second pick of the quarter, with the other coming in the end zone by Quinton Dunbar after New York got to the Redskins 15 on a big play by Odell Beckham Jr.

This was a wild NFC East matchup that see-sawed the entire second half after Washington rallied from a 21-9 deficit (see full recap).

Prescott, Cowboys rout Bears on SNF
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dak Prescott led scoring drives on all four Dallas possessions in the first half before throwing his first career touchdown pass, and the Cowboys beat the Chicago Bears 31-17 on Sunday night to snap an eight-game home losing streak.

With his second straight win, Prescott doubled the number of victories the Cowboys (2-1) had in 14 games without injured quarterback Tony Romo over three seasons before the rookie fourth-round pick showed up.

Prescott's first TD pass was a 17-yarder to Dez Bryant for a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and he's up to 99 throws without an interception to start his career. Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz has 102, and those are the two highest career-opening totals in NFL history.

Brian Hoyer had trouble moving the Chicago offense early with Jay Cutler sidelined by a sprained right thumb as the Bears fell behind 24-3 at halftime and dropped to 0-3 for the second time in two seasons under coach John Fox (see full recap).

Vikings stop Newton, snap Panthers' home win streak
CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- The Minnesota Vikings keep finding ways to overcome injuries --and keep finding ways to win football games.

Sam Bradford threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a score and the Vikings snapped the Carolina Panthers' 14-game home winning streak 22-10 on Sunday.

The Vikings put the clamps on Cam Newton, intercepting the league's reigning MVP three times and getting eight sacks, one of those resulting in a safety by Danielle Hunter. The eight sacks were the second-most ever against Newton.

"We have a great team -- the best team I have been a part of," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who had three sacks. "We come from every area on the field and we get sacks."

Said Newton: "They were dictating to us after they got the momentum."

The Vikings improved 3-0 despite losing running back Adrian Peterson and offensive tackle Matt Kalil to injuries last week. They lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the preseason (see full recap).

Bills bounce back with win over Cardinals
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.  -- LeSean McCoy scored twice and safety Aaron Williams returned a botched field-goal snap 53 yards for a touchdown in leading the Buffalo Bills to a 33-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also scored on a 20-yard run at a time the Rex Ryan-coached Bills spent the past week taking the brunt of criticism after opening the season 0-2.

The win also came on the heels of Ryan firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replacing him with running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

McCoy scored on 24- and 5-yard runs, and finished with 110 yards rushing after combining for just 117 in his first two games. Taylor had 76 yards rushing, including a 49-yarder, the longest by a quarterback in team history (see full recap).

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Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

On his way to the locker room following his team's stunning 34-3 victory over the Steelers, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson reacted, well, like you probably did.

Pederson had to be surprised by what had just transpired. After all, this wasn't the Browns or the Bears. This was the Steelers, who entered the game with the second-best odds behind New England, per Bovada, of winning the Super Bowl (the Patriots were first). 

And the Eagles didn't just beat them. They clobbered them.

But minutes later, when Pederson met the media for his postgame press conference, he tried his best to act like it was no big thing.

“I told the team way back in OTAs that it just takes a little bit of belief," Pederson said. "Belief in themselves. Trust the process. Believe in the coaches and the coaches believe in one another. That’s what they did tonight. 

"Am I surprised? A little. But at the same time, I know that locker room, I know those guys and I know what they are building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves that they are coming together as a football team.”

Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Doug. It's OK to be surprised. Scratch that. Make that stunned. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But now? Forget that. 

At least for the next two weeks. The Eagles are on their bye week and don't play again until Oct. 9 at Detroit. 

“It is still a young season, only three games. This was a good benchmark," Pederson said. "That’s a good football team, the Steelers are a great football team. They are going to be there at the end, they always are. Coach (Mike) Tomlin always has those guys ready to play. 

"But for our guys, it is just a little glimpse of that belief that I have been saying since the spring and summer. If they just do their jobs, I just feel that good things can happen. We just protect each other in that dressing room in there and keep coming to work everyday.”

Pederson is the only head coach in team history to win each of his first three games. It's only the ninth time the Eagles have started 3-0.

And of course, a big reason they've done so is their prodigy quarterback Carson Wentz, who became only the second rookie in team history to record a 300-yard passing game (Nick Foles is the other).

More impressively, Wentz now has attempted 102 straight passes without an interception, the longest streak ever begin an NFL career (per ESPN). Dallas'  Dak Prescott is at 99 after the Cowboys beat up the Bears.

But don't ask Pederson to admit he's amazed by Wentz or the fact he had the presence of mind to make plays like the riveting 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles (much more on that here).

“You know, you just put on his college film. Just watch him," Pederson said. "We exhausted his college tape and those were the plays that he made at North Dakota State. That play tonight was just a tremendous play by both he and Darren Sproles. Those are the types of things that we know he can do. He just keeps gaining confidence every single week.”

As does the defense, which kept one of the league's most potent offenses out of the end zone

"They just weren’t going to be denied," Pederson said. "They just weren’t going to bow their necks. They weren’t going to let them in the endzone. It just came down to our will versus theirs and I was just so happy with the way the guys played. Just a great team effort.”