Matchday 18: I-95 Derby, Union Take On Le Toux and the New York Red Bulls

Matchday 18: I-95 Derby, Union Take On Le Toux and the New York Red Bulls

Can they make it four league wins in a row? That's the goal this afternoon as the Union travel up 95 North to Harrison, New Jersey where they'll face the New York Red Bulls (2:30PM/ESPN). To capture their fourth consecutive league win they'll have to do what no other visiting MLS team has been able to this season - walk out of Red Bull Arena with all three points.

I know I've said in the past that Sporting Kansas City can throw some serious offensive firepower at you, but the triumvirate of Thierry Henry, Kenny Cooper and recently acquired former Union star Sebastien Le Toux has to be up there too. New York sits second in the Eastern Conference table, one point behind SKC. With a win today they'll leapfrog SKC atop the standings.

The Union are winding down a brutal stretch where they'll have played six games in just 17 days. Despite the compressed schedule the U have regained their footing under interim coach John Hackworth. The ship has been righted and the blue and gold have played their best soccer of the season since the coaching change.

Roles are defined, players are being put in a position to succeed and the results have been coming. Yes, the Union sit in ninth place in the ten team Eastern Conference, but along with Columbus they've played the fewest games in the conference. In fact, the Union sit just four points out of sixth place. With the All-Star break looming (the game is at PPL Park on Wednesday night) they'll finally have an opportunity to rest and gear up for the second half of the season.

Amazingly, the three game winning streak is the first in franchise history. In order to make it four straight they'll likely have to do it without Michael Farfan, who is listed as doubtful with a groin strain. If Marfan can't go then you may see Josue Martinez get the starting nod in the midfield. As much as I'd love to see Roger Torres get the call I do not think he's fit enough to put in a 60-65 minute shift as he works his way back from injury.

Whomever plays in the center of the midfield will have to work hard to interrupt the passing of Dax McCarty, who is one of my favorite under-the-radar MLS players. You don't hear a whole lot about him, but McCarty can pick out a pass and spray the ball around the field.

Oh yeah, there's that Henry guy to worry about too. Carlos Valdes, the lone Union All-Star, and Amobi Okugo cannot let Henry receive the ball in dangerous positions. His first touch is too good, he's too creative and his finishing instincts are still there. This is   huge challenge for the U's centerback pairing, who have played so well over the last month or so.

The Union have been incredibly resilient recently. They'll have to work incredibly hard to earn even a point this afternoon. I say the do just that with a 2-2 draw.

Lost in Joel Embiid's night, Jahlil Okafor returns with new role

Lost in Joel Embiid's night, Jahlil Okafor returns with new role

Joel Embiid’s regular-season debut headlined the Sixers' home opener Wednesday, a night two years in the making. He wasn’t the only player coming back from injury, though.

Jahlil Okafor took the court in a regular-season game for the first time since Feb. 28. Okafor underwent surgery in March to repair a right meniscus tear. He suffered a setback during training camp and was limited by soreness in that knee.

Okafor subbed in for Embiid with 7:47 remaining in the first quarter. He totaled eight points (4 for 10 from the field), three rebounds, one block, two fouls and three turnovers in 16 minutes, exceeding the Sixers’ initial minute projection of 12 to 14.

Okafor said his knee felt “good” after the game and did not experience discomfort. 

“I enjoyed myself,” Okafor said following the Sixers' 103-97 defeat to the Thunder (see Instant Replay). “Even though we lost, I enjoyed myself. We had a sold-out crowd. We had a hard-fought battle.”

Okafor’s role on Wednesday was different than it had been his rookie season. The former third overall pick is coming off the bench with a minutes restriction, broken down into segments. 

“It’s different for me,” Okafor said of his playing time. “I’m not used to playing in four-minute clumps. You’re more aware of when you’re going to go in. It kind of helps you a little bit. But it’s not something I want to get used to.”

Okafor is adjusted to a new in-game experience as a reserve. Last season, he started 48 of his 53 games and averaged 30.0 minutes. 

“My main thing was being able to come off the bench, which I’m not really used to, and still stay engaged, trying to stay loose,” Okafor said.

Opening night marked new starts for Okafor, as a player and a member of the Sixers (see 10 observations).

“I was taking a flashback to last year when we were 0-15, 0-16 and we so badly wanted to just restart the season,” he said. “Now we have the opportunity.”

Carson Wentz on recent struggles: 'I need to be better'

Carson Wentz on recent struggles: 'I need to be better'

Through the first six games of his NFL career, Carson Wentz has had some magical outings. 

Sunday wasn’t one of them.

While the Eagles won the game and Wentz was able to do enough when it counted, the Vikings' game was the worst of his young career. He completed just 57 percent of his passes for 138 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. 

The 52.4 passer rating was the lowest he’s had in any game this season — over 20 points lower than his 77.7 against Washington. For the second straight week, he had the worst game of his NFL career. 

So how would Wentz assess his play? 

“I need to be better,” the rookie said. “I think most importantly, I need to play better, I need to be smarter, I need to protect the football. I had three turnovers. Any time you have that many turnovers, as an offense we had four balls on the ground, those things we need to just clean up. 

“I think that, kind of like Doug (Pederson) said, goes back to the fundamentals as well. Things we just have to get in order. But, yeah, I have to play better.“

Wentz's 52.4 passer rating Sunday was just the 15th time ever an Eagles rookie has had a passer rating below 55 (with 20 passing attempts) and the first since Matt Barkley in 2013. Donovan McNabb had three such games during his rookie season in 1999. 

For as magical as Wentz has looked at times this season, he had a bad day Sunday and the Eagles still squeezed out a win. Now, it’s about getting him back to form. 

“I think it’s just going back to refining my footwork primarily is the biggest thing,” Wentz said. “Just being in rhythm and the reads and everything. I don’t think it’s anything that we need to overanalyze or freak out about, but it’s something that you can just kind of focus in on each week.” 

Pederson on Wednesday said this week was about refocusing on fundamentals and mechanics. Pederson specifically pointed to Wentz’s missing a couple throws to his left, where Pederson said Wentz needs to adjust his target line. 

Wentz’s reasoning for those missed throws was much simpler. 

“It’s really nothing you need to fix,” Wentz said. “You just have to make the throw.” 

Aside from the mechanics of throwing left, Pederson also said the team is working with Wentz this week on situational football: knowing down and distance, what defenses are trying to do, personnel. 

Specifically, Pederson said it’s important for Wentz to know which running back is in the backfield because angles change depending on who is back there. 

“Those are all things now that we're trying to bring into his game, and he understands that,” Pederson said. “Now it’s just sort of [that] we have to magnify it just a little bit.”

There’s probably no need to panic. Wentz wasn’t going to have magical games every time he stepped on the field as a rookie. And even in his worst game, there were moments where he showed glimpses of the guy he’s expected to be. 

Despite his ambition, there’s a learning curve for all rookies. And especially for one that has played just six NFL games.  

Even if he doesn’t want to hear it. 

“At this point, I don’t really get caught up in that,” Wentz said. “I’m too busy getting ready for the next week’s opponent. I don’t believe in the rookie excuse or anything like that. I’m all about just winning ballgames and winning them now.”