Matchday 3: Union Look for First Win of Season in Chicago

Matchday 3: Union Look for First Win of Season in Chicago

The Union look to earn its first points of the season tonight as they travel to Chicago to face the Fire (8:30PM/The Comcast Network). They've started a season 0-2 for the first time in the short history of the franchise. They'll look to pick up a road result without the services of some key contributors.
Freddy Adu, Sheanon Williams, and Amobi Okugo are with the US U23 team as they continue their quest to qualify for the Olympics. Their captain, Danny Califf, did not make the trip to Chicago as he continues to deal with the knee injury that maybe is not a knee injury. Porfirio Lopez, who really hasn't distinguished himself over the first two games, should be in the lineup after joining the Costa Rican national team for a friendly against Jamaica this past Wednesday.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Chris Albright, who started against Colorado last week, is listed as questionable with a groin strain. If Albright cannot go you may see either rookie Raymon Gaddis or Gabriel Farfan (who is also listed as questionable with a quad strain) fill in along the back line.
Interestingly, last week Nowak played 3-2-3-2 (you could argue it was a 3-5-2, but Gabriel Gomez and Brian Carroll were withdrawn from the midfield and played in front of Albright, Carlos Valdes, and Lopez, so I'll call it a 3-2-3-2). I actually liked that shape, but considering he'll be without Williams and potentially without Albright I am not sure he'll want to take that formation on the road and isolate either Gaddis or Garfan along the flank like that.
Chicago enters the game 0-0-1, having earned a road point last week in Montreal. Fire head coach Frank Klopas looks to continue the momentum his team created towards the end of last season when they made a late push for the playoffs - winning seven and drawing one over their last ten games.
A depleted Union back line will have their work cut out for them as they try to cope with the pace of Dominic Oduro and Patrick Nyarko. Oduro scored the Fire's lone goal last week against Montreal. Meanwhile, Nyarko is an absolute handful when he's running at people.
Klopas may have a new face in his lineup as recent acquisition Arne Friedrich may make his MLS debut tonight. The German international, who played for Die Mannschaft at two European Championships (2004 and 2008) and two World Cups (2006 and 2010) trained with his new team all week and may feature along the Fire's back line this evening.
For the second straight week the Union will face a Chestnut Hill Academy grad. Last week it was Jeff Larentowicz. This week it is Dan Gargan. The Union can only hope Gargan meets the same fate as his fellow CHA alum Larentowicz, who was sent off in the 58th minute last week.
Despite dropping the game to the Rapids last week there were some positive developments. Danny Mwanga played well over the first 45 minutes. Lionard Pajoy opened his MLS account with a diving header. The two combined well in the first half. Hopefully Nowak trots out that pairing once again.
Roger Torres made his 2012 debut and immediately changed the complexion of the game. He popped up in space, played dangerous passes, and pretty much orchestrated the Union offense. He served the ball to Pajoy for the Union's lone goal. He is the creative force for the Union, and should play the full 90 tonight.
Goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who has struggled over the first two games, will need to be sharp tonight. He spilled a ball for a goal against Portland in the opener. Last week he allowed a cross to go right through his hands which led to Colorado's first goal. I admire his aggressiveness, but he's got to play a clean game if the Union hope to pick up its first win.
Starting Lineup I'd Like to See: MacMath, G. Farfan, Valdes, Gomez, Lopez, M. Farfan, Carroll, Torres, Keon Daniel, Mwanga, Pajoy
Final Score Prediction: The Union drop to 0-3 as the Fire win it 2-1.

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Sixers' game vs. Rockets Jan. 27 moved to national TV

Sixers' game vs. Rockets Jan. 27 moved to national TV

With the Sixers winning and Joel Embiid turning heads nationally, interest in Brett Brown's team continues to grow. So much so, apparently, that the Sixers' home game against the Rockets on Jan. 27 has been moved to ESPN.

The announcement that Sixers-Rockets would replace Bulls-Heat was made by the NBA Tuesday night. It will be the second Sixers game on national TV this season and they'll look for a better result than the 24-point loss in Minnesota on TNT Nov. 17.

The Sixers host the Rockets a night after the NBA announces the All-Star Game reserves. (Starters are named Jan. 19.) It seems likely at this point Embiid will have a spot on the Eastern Conference roster.

The Sixers have five games before then and all will be challenging: vs. Toronto, vs. Portland, at Atlanta, vs. Clippers, at Milwaukee. Add in Houston and those teams are a combined 151-101 (.599).

They will catch a break in one of those games by missing Clippers PG Chris Paul, who will miss six to eight weeks after having left thumb surgery.

The Rockets, at 32-12, are third in the Western Conference, 1½ games behind the Spurs and 4½ behind the Warriors. Houston is on pace to shatter some NBA three-point records under first-year head coach Mike D'Antoni, an assistant on Brown's Sixers staff last season.

The Rockets set the NBA record on Dec. 17 for threes made (24) and attempted (61) in a game. And this past Sunday, the Rockets and Nets tied the NBA record by attempting 88 threes.