Okugo is Driving the Union, So Its Time to Let Him Run Wild

Okugo is Driving the Union, So Its Time to Let Him Run Wild

Any coach or manager not looking to get fired would
be as hands-off as possible with a player on a hot streak (or in nerdy
British soccer terms: a “rich vein of form”).

I’m here to argue the exact opposite.

Even a novice soccer evaluator could have told you
who the best player in blue was during last week’s Union win in Colorado.
Amobi Okugo not only scored a perfect header, but he was
all over the field on both ends. He helped neutralize the Rapids’
attack – including a potential goal-saving clearance at one point
– and provided some poise when the game got sloppy, which seemed to
be nearly all the time.

So, not-so-logically, I think he should change positions.

Okugo has been playing as a central defender since
last year, now playing alongside newcomer Jeff Parke. But he is a natural
midfielder, and has proven it by often sliding farther forward to help
play the ball out of the back and keep possession.

Captain Brian Carroll starts in the defensive midfielder
position, and there still could be a spot for him of Okugo was moved
forward. But Carroll has not played well the first two weeks, and Okugo
could have even more influence over the game as a midfielder, without
having to worry about holding a line next o Parke.

Enter Bakary Soumare – unless your name is John
Hackworth, who seems to have forgotten the high-priced central defender
he signed with his first post-Peter Nowak move last season.

I don’t pretend to know what happens in every training
session – maybe he’s just not jelling with Parke or learning
the system – but Soumare’s health is clearly not an issue anymore.
Not only was he dressed and on the bench last week, he was
called up this week to the Mali National Team for a World Cup qualifying
match against Rwanda on March 22
(he will only miss
next Saturday’s friendly against Pumas (Mexico) at PPL Park).

No matter what is going on between Soumare and Hackworth
behind the scenes, it’s time we all at least got a look at the 6-foot-4
defender in some live action. If he fails miserably, then so be it.
It’ll just be another notch on the list of bad signings/trades/draft
picks. But if Soumare can play beside Parke in the back (and a left
back option better than Ray Gaddis can be found), the Union could slowly
get back to the staunch defense that was the lone bright spot in 2012.

It would also allow Okugo to play farther upfield,
either alongside Carroll or by himself, where his abilities would be
better used. He’s poised on the ball, a pinpoint passer (something
Carroll has struggled with mightily in the first two games), and seems
to understand the right moment to join the attack. Not to mention that
his headed goal last week proved that he also might
be the team’s best aerial threat.

It’s time for the Union to recognize what they have
in Okugo – a player who has to be on the shortlist for a United States
call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup – and adjust the rest of the
lineup accordingly. If that means a veteran like Carroll has to adjust,
or even come off the bench when Hackworth wants to play a more attacking
formation, then so be it.

When 3 Points are More than 3 Points

As I mentioned, last week’s win was ugly. Both goals
were nice, but the Union never really had much possession or control
of the game.

But for a fanbase tired of moral victories, it was
nice to get a real one, especially on the road. The way the Union won
should also inspire confidence in the locker room.

Out of the 15 games last season in which the Union
held a lead, they lost that lead nine times. Four of those nine times,
they showed some resilience and came back to win – including a memorable
Fourth of July win in LA against the Galaxy.

But in four other games, the Union had a lead, only
to walk away with no points – just as they did in this year’s
opener against Kansas City (they also had one draw, on the road in DC).

Three points is three points – especially on
the road. And that kind of result should never be questioned.

But getting three points while proving you can shake
off the frustration of losing a lead is something to build on.

Follow Steve on Twitter @smoore1117.

Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for anthem in protest

Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for anthem in protest

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the national anthem before games because he believes the United States oppresses African Americans and other minorities.

Kaepernick sat on the team's bench Friday night during the anthem before the Niners played host to the Green Bay Packers in an exhibition game. He later explained his reasoning in an interview with NFL Media .

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Saturday that "players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem."

The 49ers issued a statement after Pro Football Talk initially reported on Kaepernick's stand, saying that Americans have the right to protest or support the anthem.

"The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pregame ceremony," the team said. "It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose to participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem."

Kaepernick, who is biracial, was adopted and raised by white parents. He has been outspoken on his Twitter account on civil rights issues and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kaepernick is not the first U.S.-based athlete to use the anthem for protest. In 1996, NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the anthem, saying the United States had a history of tyranny and doing so would conflict with his Islamist beliefs. The NBA initially suspended Abdul-Rauf for his stance before it was lifted when he said he would stand and pray silently during the song.

Kaepernick said he is not worried about any potential fallout from his protest.

"This is not something that I am going to run by anybody," he told NFL Media. "I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. ... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."

Kaepernick's agent did not immediately return a request for comment.

Kaepernick is in competition to win back the starting quarterback job in San Francisco that he lost to Blaine Gabbert last season. He made his first appearance of the preseason on Friday night after missing two games with a tired shoulder. He finished 2 for 6 for 14 yards and added 18 yards on four runs.

Dorial Green-Beckham out to prove to Eagles he's the gamebreaking WR they need

Dorial Green-Beckham out to prove to Eagles he's the gamebreaking WR they need

He knows how desperate Eagles fans are for a breakaway wide receiver, a gamebreaker, a big-play down-the-field speedster.
 
He knows that a fan base robbed of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin wants nothing more than to see him take advantage of this second chance and become the playmaker they all crave.
 
Dorial Green-Beckham knows how much Eagles fans want this to work.
 
“Yeah, I get a lot of stuff every day from the fans,” Green-Beckham said. “They look forward to seeing what I can do on the field and they look forward to seeing what I can do in this offense.
 
“I just want to go out there and impress everybody and show why I’m here.”
 
Green-Beckham, who joined the Eagles 11 days ago, played a few snaps last Thursday night against the Steelers, but he hadn’t even practiced yet.
 
Now he has a week of practices behind him, he’s learned a good chunk of the playbook and he even knows some of his teammates’ names.
 
And he’s hoping to show Saturday night what Eagles fans have been waiting to see for a couple years now.
 
DGB is expected to get a generous helping of work with the first offense Saturday night when the Eagles and Colts meet in a preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (see 10 players to watch).

The first group is expected to play into the third quarter, which will be their most playing time this summer.
 
Green-Beckham says he's ready.
 
“Whatever is called, I’ve been through the playbook, I should be able to know what to do, where to line up, things like that,” he said.
 
“It’s just playing football. We’ve been doing it for a long time. Coming from a different organization, you hear different calls. You come here and everything is different. But it’s up to you to putting in the effort and making sure you’re accountable.”
 
Still seems odd the Titans would give up on the 40th pick in the draft after just one year. A year in which Green-Beckham caught 32 passes for 549 yards, sixth-most among rookie wide outs.
 
But here he is, trying to jumpstart a moribund Eagles wide receiver group.
 
It can’t be easy forgetting one playbook and learning another. But that’s his job right now.
 
“I just have to erase those memories from there and put a whole new playbook in my head and try to pick up as fast as I can to be able to help my team,” he said. “And I feel like that’s one thing I’ve done as a young guy, erase the memories that I had there and put in the extra time (here).
 
“Right now, I feel comfortable being around those guys. Using the older guys as a resource. Asking them questions, trying to figure out what I need to do.”
 
With his size and speed, it’s hard to imagine Green-Beckham not helping the Eagles.
 
Then again … the Titans didn’t want anything to do with him just a year after making him the 40th pick in the draft.
 
“He looks good,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “Just continue to build, build, continue to build.
 
“He's an impressive, physical specimen, obviously. It’s funny. You stand out there as a coach, and they're running routes on air and sometimes as a coach you stand across from the receivers that are running at you. And when he runs at you, his size and speed, it just kind of grabs you.
 
“So really excited about having him here. Just like anybody else though, it's a process. It's a process and we keep giving them little chunks at a time to allow him to play fast and use his ability.
”
 
At 6-foot-5, Green-Beckham becomes the Eagles’ second-tallest wide receiver ever, behind the great Harold Carmichael, who was 6-8. Don Luft, who was with the Eagles in 1954, and Brian Finnegan — who had a drop that cost the Eagles a win in Doug Pederson's first start in an Eagles uniform — were also 6-5.
 
So he’s an obvious candidate to run the fade, which we saw in Pittsburgh.
 
But he wants it to be known he’s more than just a tall receiver who can catch a jump ball.
 
“It starts with being physical, showing that you’re a physical player, showing that you can play other positions besides just having jump balls thrown to you,” he said.
 
“Catching slants, being physical. Looking at the Calvin Johnsons, the Dez Bryants, all those type guys … trying to (base) my game based on what they do.”
 
You try to think of a similar instance of a team giving up on a player so quickly and that player becoming a force with the Eagles.
 
And there really isn’t a parallel.
 
So who knows?
 
Maybe Green-Beckham won’t pan out here either. But maybe he’ll take advantage of this second opportunity and give the Eagles something they’re sorely lacking.
 
“I feel like it’s a great opportunity, especially for me to move from one team to another and me being here a short period of time an being able to play with the 1's (Saturday night), it’s a big opportunity for me to just go out there and show them why I’m here, what I came here to do," Green-Beckham said.
 
“That’s my mindset, just stay focused and try to do those little things and try to impress my teammates.
 
“I feel like the whole team accepted me since I got here, since Day 1. Everybody was glad that I was here, everybody accepted me. They treated me like a brother. For me, that’s big. I feel more like it’s more of a family atmosphere and we all have each others’ backs.”

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union-Sporting Kansas City 5 things: Looking for back-to-back wins

Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

The Union kept afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race last weekend by completing the season sweep of the Columbus Crew. Now, they have an opportunity to do something they’ve only done once this season — win back-to-back games. The Union (10-9-7) face Sporting Kansas City (11-11-5) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Rookie power
In a surprising move, Union manager Jim Curtin tapped Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers to accompany Keegan Rosenberry as starters on the road against the Crew. 

And the 2016 MLS SuperDraft trio, starting for the first time together, didn’t disappoint. 

“If you were to tell me before the game started that we’d get goals from Herbers and Rosenberry, I would probably tell you you were a little crazy,” Curtin said. “But we’re happy for them. I think it’s a big step in a tough atmosphere.”

Herbers opened the scoring for the Union by powering home a deflection off his own original shot. The goal was followed by a Rosenberry game-winning goal from a Tranquillo Barnetta pass into the box. 

“For Keegan, for Josh, for Herbers to step up the way they did in what I would call a big boy game, I think it shows them growing as players,” Curtin said. “It’s a real game out there where a team is fighting and is desperate to make a playoff push, we had to be alert for 90 minutes.”

The three had such an impact on last Saturday’s match that Curtin is likely to go to the kids again against SKC. Herbers made the start in place of Ilsinho, who is currently fighting off a foot injury.

“We’re a club that trusts young players and believes in playing young players,” Curtin said. “They rewarded us.” 

2. Bedoya’s impact
Although he won’t make the scoresheet, in three games, Alejandro Bedoya has impressed Curtin with his poise in the midfield and big-game calmness with the ball. 

“To think he’s in his preseason now is a scary thing,” said Curtin, who has played Bedoya 90 minutes in his last two games. “Three great performances and it’s only going to get better. I can’t say enough positives about him.”

What Curtin likes the most is Bedoya’s ability to keep possession and relax the game, something that helps a club overflowing with young players. 

“He has been a great influence on us keeping possession,” Curtin said. “It’s the simple balls that don’t show up in the stat sheet, where he catches it and just plays it to our outside back. That gives us time to catch our breath — it’s so valuable.”

SKC has noticed it, too. 

“They added a very good player, someone with a lot of experience and commitment to the game, especially in the midfield” SKC coach Peter Vermes said. “He poses a problem for any team they play against. For us, we have to be compact, we have to be smart and we have to take our chances really well.”

3. Tired SKC
The Union are catching Sporting Kansas City at the right time. Vermes’ club is winded after just one home match in its last seven. 

“We’ve had a lot of travel these last couple weeks, so going into this Philly game we want to conserve as much energy as possible,” SKC’s Benny Feilhaber said. “They are a really good team this year, so we’ll have our hands full. But we’re confident we can go in and get something out of it.” 

And the club has a right to be tired. In 11 days from Saturday’s match, SKC will have played in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, home at Children’s Mercy Park, then away at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps, before traveling cross-country to face the Union.

“Every game is very important, so we have to be able to give everything we’ve got, even though we’re running on fumes a little bit here,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to dig down deep and muster up something with Philadelphia being as good as they are.” 

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: It doesn’t appear that Ilsinho will return in time for Saturday’s match, leaving Herbers as a starter on the right side of the midfield. He has two goals and four assists in five starts this season.

SKC: Although Dom Dwyer has four goals in his last five matches, Feilhaber has the ability to get everyone involved. The veteran midfielder has a goal and three assists in his last four matches.

5. This and that
• The Union are 4-5-4 against SKC all-time and an even 2-2-2 at home. 

• Despite being in playoff position, the Union have yet to win back-to-back games more than once this season. The only time they’ve claimed consecutive wins was on March 12 and March 20. And that started with a win over the Crew. 

• Each scoring a goal against the Crew, Rosenberry and Herbers were the first two rookies to score in a match since Colorado Rapids’ Deshorn Brown and Dillon Powers did it in 2013.