New Life at PPL? Union Sharp Despite Loss

New Life at PPL? Union Sharp Despite Loss

It's been a month since we filed in for a regular season home match at PPL Park. Might as well have been two with how long it felt. On Saturday night, with perfect summer weather the likes of which we probably won't see again this season, the place was packed, electric from the intros and receptive to a rally video moment from new boss John Hackworth. It also helped that nearby rival and first place side DC United were in town, complete with their travel contingent. The east end of the stadium sounded like a drum circle all night, echos bouncing throughout the whole building. 
It was a lot more than the just the result of month away, this energy. I don't recall it like this all season so far. 
The team on the field looked a whole lot different too. From the opening tap, the Union were running. They controlled the run of play, generating great opportunities and limiting the potent DC attack. For the better part of the night, it looked like we might be in for an outstanding 0-0 match. I know that doesn't sit well with a lot of non-soccer folks, but the action was highly entertaining despite the lack of scoring. 
Then a reality we know a bit too well came back to the stadium. A late concession, a Union loss. A Lancaster Kolsch-soaked look at how Hackworth deployed his selections and how they fared below, along with video highlights from a great match. 
The night on the whole was a positive step forward for the Union, who outshot DC 15-7. Chris Pontius, who scored for United in the 78th minute on the receiving end of a controversial free kick, tweeted after the game: 

Props to Philly 2night. Took it 2 us most of the night. We have a lot to work on and will get back to work this week. Safe travels everyone!

We'll enjoy that progress for now, but the Union still lacked finish on all those opportunities, and they once again allowed a late goal. If they play like they did last night, the results should often be better than they've been so far. At the very least, the matches should be more entertaining. 
Tactically, Hackworth deployed a trio of Freddy Adu, Jack Mac, and Josue Martinez. When Lio Pajoy returns from suspension, it will be interesting to see what the Union do up front. It will be tempting not to break them up after the amount of opportunities they generated. Adu played with intensity and flashed the skill that can set him apart. When once he got too cute and lost the ball in the attacking third during the first half, he raced back and retrieved the stolen property himself, turning the play back toward Bill Hamid. That broken play may have been my favorite part of his night. Martinez had one of the match's best opportunities, but couldn't get around Hamid. The first half saw a flurry of action in the DC box, but Hamid stood tall when the shots were on target. When it came time for second-half subs, Adu remained while Martinez came off for Antoine Hoppenot and Jack Mac left for Chandler Hoffman. Hoppenot saw one shot hit the frame and another sail wide, but man did he look dangerous. It may be hard to coach the group to the next level, as they were tactically on-point and got the opps they needed and then some. They just lacked finish. Only the players themselves can deliver that, and some luck is probably in the cards as well. A little will go a long way, hopefully soon. 
At midfield, the Union were still without Roger Torres, who watched the game along with others from the stadium club. Torres told me he'll be back next week, which could add creativity and a scoring threat to the middle while allowing Adu to play forward again. Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, and Michael Farfan made up the middle in this one, and they moved the ball well. Notably absent, at least to me, was unused sub Keon Daniel. Due to all the personnel issues lately, Keon's been moved around and used outside of the roles we saw him do well in last season, not always looking as effective in 2012. Maybe as roles become more consistent (presuming they do), so will he. 
Gabe Farfan and Sheanon Williams returned to the outside of the Union back line, with Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo paired inside. They all played very well from my vantage—quick and physical—and it's likely we'll see this quartet work together more frequently. The Union won't face many tougher tests than the DC attack, and they held up against all but one well-placed free kick that Pontius was on the right end of. As Rev pointed out in the pre-game, the Union are susceptible on set pieces, and we saw the business end of that damn them to zero points on the night. Whether you agree with the referee's call on Valdes or not, they need to stop bleeding goals off of free kicks and corner. 
But, there truly did seem to be progress from start to finish. Gone were the long-ball Hail Mary's to the forwards, stretching the field instead with short passes and measured control. The Union looked confident and cut through DC with speed and well-placed passing, using the entire field and being opportunistic. 
Next up in regular season action is a meeting with Sporting KC on Saturday at PPL Park. For the first time in a while, the Union gave us good reason to raise our expectations. 

Sixers-Bucks 5 things: Joel Embiid back to face the 'Greek Freak'

Sixers-Bucks 5 things: Joel Embiid back to face the 'Greek Freak'

Sixers at Bucks
3:30 p.m. - CSN/CSNPhilly.com/streaming live on the NBCSports App

The Sixers (12-26) look to get back in the win column when they face the Milwaukee Bucks (20-19) at the Bradley Center in a Martin Luther King Day matinee.

Let's take a closer look at Monday afternoon's matchup:

1. Back on the Embiid express
The Sixers have started to show flashes of coming together and finally turning the corner on their massive rebuild. However, they are nowhere near the point that they can remove the biggest piece of the puzzle and still expect to win games.

The Sixers found that out again on Saturday night, as they were pummeled during the second half of a 109-93 loss to the Washington Wizards with Joel Embiid sidelined for rest.

The team didn't want to use the rookie phenom's absence as an excuse, but it was clear his presence was missed.

“We didn’t have that extra oomph,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the loss. “Obviously, the omission of Joel Embiid clearly is impactful, but that’s the challenge. We just didn’t have it tonight.”

Embiid and his 19.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game will be back in the lineup against the Bucks.

2. Freak of nature
The Sixers won't be the only squad with a star in the making on the court Monday afternoon.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has shown plenty of potential since he was selected by the Bucks 15th overall in the 2013 draft (Anthony Bennett, who was recently released by the Brooklyn Nets, was taken No. 1 overall that year, for those of you keeping track at home). But the man known as "The Greek Freak" has taken his game to new heights this season.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 23.4 points on 53.5 percent shooting in addition to 8.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.8 steals per game this season - all career highs. He's also coming off a 33-point, eight-rebound and six-assist performance in the Bucks' 111-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.

With Antetokounmpo playing point guard full time now and the Bucks' starting five boasting players all above 6-foot-7, it's hard to determine how the Sixers will match up on defense. Whatever the plan is to slow down "The Greek Freak," it will have to be a total team effort.

3. Protect the paint
All of that size and athleticism for the Bucks is a big reason they attack the rim so much. Milwaukee is tied with Oklahoma City for the league lead in points in the paint with 50.6 per game.

The Sixers were dominated on the low block for 54 points by the Wizards on Saturday with Embiid out. For the season, they rank 14th in the league in points in the paint allowed at 42.3 a night.

One thing that might help the Sixers is their shot blocking. They swat 5.6 shots a game (sixth in the NBA), which could deter some of those romps to the rim by the Bucks.

4. Injuries
T.J. McConnell (right wrist), Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Khris Middleton (hamstring) is out for the Bucks.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost 12 of their last 14 games to the Bucks.

• Ersan Ilyasova spent the first seven seasons of his NBA career with the Bucks (see story on his return to Milwaukee). This will mark the fourth time he has faced his former team.

• Jabari Parker, selected No. 2 overall in the 2014 NBA draft right before Embiid, has emerged this season with 20.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

Sixers' T.J. McConnell (sprained right wrist) out Monday vs. Bucks

Sixers' T.J. McConnell (sprained right wrist) out Monday vs. Bucks

The Sixers will get Joel Embiid back in the lineup when they meet the Bucks on Monday afternoon in Milwaukee, but they'll be without their starting point guard.

T.J. McConnell will miss Monday's game with a sprained right wrist suffered in Saturday night's loss to the Wizards in D.C., the Sixers announced Monday morning.

McConnell reportedly did not travel with the team to Milwaukee and is back home in Philadelphia.

The 24-year-old McConnell has been a presence this season for a Sixers team that desperately needed something from the point guard spot. In 38 games this season, McConnell has averaged 4.8 points, 5.8 points and 4.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists a night in an average of 22.3 minutes a game.

The highlight of McConnell's season, of course, came last week when he nailed the game-winning shot at the buzzer to give the Sixers a 98-97 victory over the Knicks.

Sergio Rodriguez is expected to start in McConnell's place Monday against the Bucks.