Matchday 2: The Home Opener

Matchday 2: The Home Opener

PPL Park will be packed late this afternoon as the Union host Colorado in the 2012 home opener (4PM/NBC Sports Network). The Union, who have never beaten the Rapids, look to rebound from a season opening 3-1 loss at Portland on Monday night. Their performance in Portland provided few answers and raised a number of issues which bear monitoring against Colorado.
First, the positive. Lionard Pajoy had a very strong first half before running out of gas and service. In one half he provided the Union with the best back to goal forward presence in its short history. He shrugged off challenges, won 50/50 balls, and held up play. He was physical and intelligent in his runs. For my money he was the best Union player over the first 45 minutes.
It may sound strange to laud the performance of a goalie who conceded three goals - including an absolute mess of a first goal - but I thought Zac MacMath played fairly well. He was incredibly aggressive. I think he came off of his line more in one game than Faryd Mondragon did all last season. I am obviously exaggerating, but MacMath was confident and decisive in dealing with crosses. Importantly, he did not shrink after spilling that awful first goal. He had no chance on the Kris Boyd header and was beaten on a misfired cross for the third and final goal. Going forward, I am not too concerned with MacMath.
The rest of the team? Well, that's a whole other matter. The Union failed to create anything from the run of play. The midfield was completely overrun. The outside backs were undressed all night. New acquisition Porfirio Lopez struggled mightily. He was turned inside out for 90 straight minutes.
Now, I say all of this recognizing that Portland is an incredibly difficult place to play. I did not expect them to get a result, but I did expect them to play better. They played as if they'd never taken the field together before. Which, when you consider the fact that Gabriel Gomez, Josue Martinez, Lopez, and Pajoy were making their Union debuts, wasn't too far from the truth.
So, what do the Union need to do today to pick up the three points against Colorado? Defending set pieces would be a good place to start. Portland caught the Union on a quick restart for their third goal. Yes, it was a wayward cross that ended up in the back of the net, but the Union were not in a position to shut down that service.
Some possession would also be nice. The Timbers enjoyed a 55.6% to 44.4% advantage in possession. Further, there was not a consistent link between the Union back line and Pajoy. Too often the midfield was either completely bypassed or too easily gave up possession. To that end, Roger Torres, who did not play on Monday, should be in the lineup today and will no doubt help with possession. 
Two players who will not be available for the Union are Freddy Adu and Amobi Okugo, who are with the US U23 team as they prepare for Olympic qualifying.
Colorado brings a balanced team to PPL Park. In Marvell Wynne and Kosuke Kimura they have two supremely fit backs who can run all day. The holding midfield pairing of Jeff Larentowicz (a Chestnut Hill Academy alum) and former US international Pablo Mastroeni provide a sturdy presence in the middle of the park.  Omar Cummings, who had a down 2011 season, scored 14 goals in 2010, and has the sort of pace that can give the Union back line trouble.
MLS did not do the Union any favors by having them open the season on the road at Portland. Facing Colorado in the home opener isn't any easier a task. I think most fair-minded Union supporters assumed it'd take this team some time to gel. They'll have needed to sort out a number of issues in a short period of time in order to avoid starting the season 0-2. 
Starting Lineup I'd Like to See: MacMath, Sheanon Williams, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, Lopez, Gomez, Brian Carroll, Torres, Michael Farfan, Danny Mwanga, Pajoy.
Final Score Prediction: As mentioned, Colorado is a very sound, balanced team. I am not convinced the Union are a cohesive side capable of putting 90 minutes together. Colorado wins it 2-1 as the Union falls to 0-2.
Photo Credit: Scott Olmos, US Presswire

Nerlens Noel excited for impending return to game action

Nerlens Noel excited for impending return to game action

NEW ORLEANS -- The weeks and months have quickly piled up. Nerlens Noel has not played an NBA regular-season game since last season ended for the Sixers on April 13. Nearly eight months later, Noel is nearing the return he has been eyeing for quite some time now. 

“It’s always an excitement to be able to play basketball after this amount of time, including the summer, not being able to play organized basketball at a competitive level,” Noel said Thursday. “I’ve been really looking forward to this. I think I’ve gained some momentum coming back from this minor surgery, and I think I’m in a really good place and I’m feeling good with my body. Everything is on point.”

Noel has been sidelined since undergoing elective left knee surgery in October to address an inflamed plica. He traveled to New Orleans on Wednesday to join the Sixers ahead of their 99-88 win over the Pelicans (see game recap). Noel continued his rehab Thursday while the team prepped for the game. 

“I’ve been able do five-on-five, full contact,” Noel said. “I’ve tried to maximize my opportunities of that with the team being gone on the road. I came down here and went through most of shootaround and it went well. Now these next couple of days, [I will be] going through practice, still working on my wind. I do like where I’m at now.”

The Sixers’ next game is Sunday against the Pistons in Detroit. Brett Brown had given Noel’s availability for that game a “maybe” (see story)

“I’m not sure,” Noel said of playing Sunday. “I’m ready to go with these next couple of days and see how my wind feels and how my body feels, which I have been feeling good. So it’s a possibility.”

When Noel does return, there is a scenario in which he could be paired with center Joel Embiid. Last year, the Sixers struggled finding the best way to utilize Noel and Jahlil Okafor, also a center, at the same time playing the four and five positions. As Okafor has said of playing with Embiid, Noel also believes his off-the-court friendship with the towering rookie would translate onto the court. 

“I think it would be something that’s experimented,” Noel said. “It’d definitely be interesting.”

Noel candidly expressed his opinion of the Sixers’ logjammed frontcourt at the start of the season. Since speaking to the media after his surgery, Noel has mentioned he is in a good mental place (see story). For him, that means being out on the court again. 

“I love myself and I love the game of basketball,” Noel said. “When I step out here to come and play, it just brings a lot of enjoyment and excitement to me. Regardless of what the details of it are, I just love the game and I’m happy to just be playing.”

Best of NHL: Flames edge Coyotes in OT for fifth straight win

Best of NHL: Flames edge Coyotes in OT for fifth straight win

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Dougie Hamilton scored 1:09 into overtime, Chad Johnson stopped 27 shots and the Calgary Flames beat the Arizona Coyotes 2-1 on Thursday night.

Mark Giordano scored for the Flames in a chippy game filled with big hits and multiple fights.

Hamilton capped a fast-paced overtime by deking Arizona's Mike Smith with a forehand before flipping in a backhander. Calgary has won five straight and eight of 11 (8-2-1).

Max Domi scored before leaving with an upper-body injury and Smith stopped 33 shots for the Coyotes, who have lost six straight and 11 of 14 (3-7-4).

Arizona captain Shane Doan became Arizona's all-time assist leader and is the fifth player in NHL history to own his team's records for games played, goals, assists, points, game-winning goals and power-play goals (see full recap).

Crosby, Penguins roll over Panthers
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Sidney Crosby got his 18th goal and added an assist to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Florida Panthers 5-1 on Thursday night.

Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and Carl Hagelin also scored for Pittsburgh. Matt Murray made 28 saves.

The Penguins have won four straight and five of their past six.

Jaromir Jagr scored his 755th career goal, and Roberto Luongo stopped 25 shots for the Panthers. Luongo allowed three goals on Pittsburgh's first five shots.

Panthers coach Tom Rowe, who replaced Gerard Gallant on Nov. 28, made his home debut. The Panthers have lost five of six under Rowe, but managed a point in three of those losses (see full recap).

Price loses cool as Habs beat Devils
MONTREAL -- Carey Price lost his temper after being bumped twice in his crease and made 19 saves to help the Montreal Canadiens beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2 on Thursday night.

Torrey Mitchell scored twice and Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen and Max Pacioretty also had goals for the Canadiens in their return from a five-game trip.

Adam Henrique scored a goal and set up one by Taylor Hall for New Jersey, which ended a two-game winning streak.

Montreal had a season-high 49 shots on Cory Schneider.

A wild first period included three goals, four goal reviews and Price's meltdown (see full recap).