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 teased in preseason finale with Jahlil Okafor back, Nerlens Noel out

Sixers teased in preseason finale with Jahlil Okafor back, Nerlens Noel out


MIAMI — Jahlil Okafor called it a “tease.”

He was talking about his oh-so-brief 2016-2017 debut, but he could have also been summarizing the Sixers' constant state of taking one step forward and one (injured) leg back.

Okafor, a 6-11 center and the NBA’s third overall pick in the 2015 draft, played 7:32 minutes on Friday and produced four points, one rebound, one assist, one block and one turnover. He had been held out in camp previously because of knee soreness.

His return was the good news for the Sixers.

But before Friday’s 113-110 exhibition finale win over the Miami Heat even started (see Instant Replay), the Sixers announced that center/forward Nerlens Noel will have a “minor surgical procedure in the coming days” on his injured left knee (see story).

Sixers center Joel Embiid, who has missed the past two years because of foot surgeries, empathizes with Noel.

“It’s hard,” Embiid said. “Obviously we need Nerlens if we want to win. But that’s basketball. Things happen. You can’t control injuries.

“I feel bad for him because this is the beginning of the season. Everybody wants to play the beginning of the season. But I’m sure he is going to work hard to come back even stronger.”

On the positive side for the Sixers, there was the return of Okafor … even it felt like baby steps for him.

“I started to feel really good,” said Okafor, who had surgery on his right knee in March and experienced soreness on that same knee Sept. 30. “It was kind of like a tease to me because I really got going. I wanted to continue to play, but that’s why I have the medical staff to keep me disciplined.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown said before the game that he would keep Okafor to just six to eight minutes, and he was true to his word.

Okafor, who made the only shot he attempted from the floor and was 2 for 4 on free throws, did not play in the second half.

“The scoring piece to my game, that’s like riding a bicycle,” Okafor said. “I know I can score the ball. It was good to get back out there with my teammates and hear them cheer for me on the side.”

Okafor said he tried to convince Brown to let him extend past the script of no more than eight minutes.

“He was like, ‘Have your lawyer call my lawyer,'" Okafor said. “We will talk about the season home opener (on Wednesday night against Oklahoma City), and hopefully I can increase my minutes.”

Okafor said he didn’t want to put a number on how many minutes he thought he could’ve played in his season debut except to say he knew he could play more.

Interestingly, Embiid, who had 18 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes, said he felt Okafor was a bit fatigued.

“I think he was a little bit tired,” Embiid said. “Obviously, he hasn’t played in a while. But just like me, he’s going to dig down. He is a proven scorer. He can do whatever he wants on the court.

“Once he gets back in shape, we as a team are going to be really good.”

Okafor was a minus-5 while he was on the court. But Brown said he was impressed by some of the less-hyped aspects of Okafor’s game.

“I thought he was really good defensively,” Brown said. “He sat in his stance and moved his feet. I thought he did a great job of fronting the post.”

Brown said the Noel injury was almost unfair.

“Clearly, it was a situation in the preseason where he would have played a lot,” Brown said. “The timing is unfortunate.”

Temple runs past South Florida, claims sole possession of AAC East

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Temple runs past South Florida, claims sole possession of AAC East

Temple didn’t mince words about its early setbacks in 2016.

The Owls were “hurt” after their season-opening loss to Army. They were “angry” after dropping a rivalry game to Penn State. They stressed a need to “finish” following a blown lead to Memphis.

All of that heartbreak went into making the Owls what they are today: leaders in the American Athletic Conference East Division.

Temple turned the tables on run-oriented South Florida to gash the Bulls for 319 rushing yards (210 coming from Ryquell Armstead) in a 46-30 win on Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field (instant replay)

The victory helped the Owls (5-3, 3-1 AAC) avenge last season’s blowout and, more importantly, move into a first-place tie in the conference’s East Division. With back-to-back wins over South Florida and Central Florida, Temple now holds tiebreakers over its two closest competitors in the East.

“Last year’s success we had as a team was built on the years we went 2-10 and 6-6,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “It might sound corny to you guys, but you lose games and you learn all these lessons and you learn how to win. 

“Toward the end of last year, you have some success. It doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. You come back this year, all those losses we had or the certain losses we had, we hated them but the kids did a good job of trying to learn from them.”

Temple showed just how much it learned from all of those tough lessons on Friday night. After getting shredded by the South Florida (6-2, 3-1 AAC) dynamic duo of quarterback Quinton Flowers and tailback Marlon Mack a season ago, TU opted to get its own ground game going in this one to help control both sides of the ball.

It worked to perfection early with Temple scoring on three of its first four possessions, including a 15-play drive that was capped off by a one-yard touchdown catch by tight end Colin Thompson and a 76-yard TD run by Armstead. 

Even later in the game when the Bulls used a quick three-play, 84-yard drive to take a 23-20 lead, the Owls didn’t panic like in past instances. They responded with a three-play drive of their own as Armstead broke free through the right edge for a 42-yard touchdown rumble.

A blocked punt on the ensuing possession provided excellent field position for the Owls, who only needed another two plays for Jahad Thomas to punch it into the end zone from nine yards out for a double-digit lead.

“Just powering guys in the first and second quarter. Just coming in and head-hunting, basically, not shying from contact,” Armstead said of his mindset in the run game. “By the end of the third and fourth quarter, they don’t want to tackle me. It’s just opening up.”

“Our big thing is just finishing the game as best we can,” fullback Nick Sharga said. “I think really just wearing teams down by running the ball toward the end of the game helps our offense out, so we take pride in it.”

The primetime effort was something the Owls’ offense as a whole could take pride in. Temple racked up 528 total yards, 26 first downs, dominated time of possession 39:07 to 20:53 and didn’t commit a turnover.

“There’s a way to win every game. Bill Parcells said that and I believe it,” Rhule said. “We get in the game and it just looked like the downfield passing game was going to be there in terms of some of the throws we threw at the end of the half. And it looked like the power run game was going to be there, so we stuck with it.”

Temple’s defense stayed the course as well. After letting the Bulls close the gap within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Owls’ D tightened with an interception that set up a TD and a sack for a safety to seal the win.

In all, the group held a potent USF team that came into Friday eighth in the nation in rushing (268.4 yards per game) and 15th in total yards (506.4 yards per game) to 165 and 352, respectively.

“We came in the game with a mindset that we were going to play really well,” defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said. “We knew what kind of guys they had. We knew they were going to get some plays on us. It was going to come down to the fourth quarter and it did, so we just kept playing the whole game.”

The ability to just keep playing is a mantra that should stick with Owls, especially now that they are back on top of the East Division. One slip-up and they could be right back to searching for words to describe their level of disappointment for this season.

“This was a team that mirrors us that they try to line up and pound you and they’re just so athletic and physical. This was a huge win for us,” Rhule said. “But as I told them in there, everything you did tonight won’t matter if you lose next week. You better get right back on the process that we do.

“It was just a huge moment for us with Army happening and then Memphis, letting it slip out of our hands. Then last week, kind of making some plays at the end. … There were just so many guys that made plays. That’s what makes it a huge win to me. Obviously it gives us some control, but that all can change in a week or the blink of an eye. They better stay focused.”