SECOND LEVEL: Clint Dempsey has 8 goals ... the Union have 9; this could be a problem

SECOND LEVEL: Clint Dempsey has 8 goals ... the Union have 9; this could be a problem

Seattle's Clint Dempsey moves the ball against FC Dallas on April 12. (AP Photo)

In our continued quest to give you great pretty good adequate soccer coverage here at The 700 Level, we’ll be launching a new feature where Philadelphia Union writers and old newspaper buddies Steve Moore and Dave Zeitlin discuss (read: argue about) a Union-related topic every week until the end of time. We'll call it "Second Level" until we come up with something better.

As someone who covers the team for MLSsoccer.com and CSNPhilly.com, Dave will bring you the perspective of a seasoned, award-winning journalist. And as someone who watches games from the River End while drinking a beer, Steve will give you the perspective of an occasionally sober fan.

This week’s question: between zero and one zillion, how many goals will red-hot striker Clint Dempsey score against the Union on Saturday in Seattle (10 p.m., The Comcast Network).

Dave: I really just picked this topic so we can show you some videos of Dempsey, who’s been LIGHTING IT UP for the Sounders of late.

After mostly struggling at the end of last season (and drawing unjust criticism from a sector of jump-off-the-cliff-at-the-sign-of-any-trouble fans), Dempsey is now hitting his stride in MLS.

The 31-year-old star currently has more goals (eight) than anyone else in the league – and just one fewer than the Union have scored all season. Here’s one of them in which he makes a ridiculous pass before finishing the job himself on a rebound.

[nbcsports_video src=//www.youtube.com/embed/9F7PQvSy87o width=620 height=349]

It’s nice to see one of the best American soccer players playing so well leading into next month’s World Cup (holy crap, is the World Cup really next month?!?). And that extends to Union manager John Hackworth, who used to coach Dempsey on the national team and gave the old I’m-happy-for-him-but-this-weekend-he-is-the-enemy routine before leaving for Seattle.

The big question is whether a Union backline that features a converted midfielder (Amobi Okugo) and converted striker (Aaron Wheeler) at center back slow him down.

When asked about Dempsey this week, most Union players said they have to pay close attention to him but not at the expense of forgetting about other players on the first-place Sounders, especially his partner-in-crime, Obafemi Martins. In other words, they didn’t reveal any sort of gameplan about how they plan on stopping the leading MVP candidate, on the road, in perhaps the toughest place to play in the country.

Dave's Prediction: since the Union seem to be better in an “underdog” rule than when they play winless or slumping teams, I’ll say Dempsey finishes with zero goals and one assist while the Union manage to escape Seattle with a 1-1 draw.

* * *

Steve: So the underachieving Union are going on the road, to play the best team in MLS, in front of the biggest crowd in the league, on crappy artificial turf, against the best American goal-scorer there is.

That probably means a 4-0 Union win.

Seriously though, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from the Union Saturday night. Hackworth might start Austin Berry at striker and Antoine Hoppenot at goalkeeper. I don't know which way is up anymore.

One thing I do know is that Dempsey is going to be a nightmare for the Union back line. Whether it's Berry or Wheeler (it'll be Wheeler, and I'll be upset), Dempsey will get loose and create problems.

As an aside, my favorite Dempsey goal of the year so far:

[nbcsports_video src=http://player.ooyala.com/iframe.js#ec=AzNjgxbToagDg1OdTT2xua8MPmQMderw&pbid=4bfc225f82bf46c48dfb065eda97f74f width=620 height=349]

As much as the "we need to watch him but not at the expense of others blah blah blah" is just coach speak, it's the truth in this case. I have a feeling it'll be other Sounders players who burn the Union Saturday night. Wheeler and Okugo will need to be on their game, but the responsibility will also fall on Brian Carroll to track back with Dempsey and Martins.

And as much as Maurice Edu wants to push forward more often, he'll really need to pay attention to Dempsey and Martins, too.

Hackworth's seat is absolutely heating up in recent weeks, but this is not really a game that will make or break him. The Union are expected to lose this one.

Unfortunately, I think they will.

Steve's Prediction: Dempsey gets on the end of a rebound for a goal, Martins gets another, and the Union give up a header from a defender on a set piece. Conor Casey gets one for the Union. Sounders 3, Union 1.

Nerlens Noel to get one-on-one experience while Sixers on road

Nerlens Noel to get one-on-one experience while Sixers on road

Being immersed in the team is important for Nerlens Noel, and so is continuing his rehab. 

While the Sixers are on the road for three days to play the Grizzlies and Pelicans, Noel will remain in Philadelphia to work out at the training complex in Camden, New Jersey. The team is not scheduled to practice in between games, so staying back allows Noel another day to get on the court.

“[I want him to] just start playing more and have a ball in his hands, get hit, physical, feel people, play one-on-one,” head coach Brett Brown said.

Noel has yet to play this season because of elective arthroscopic left knee surgery in October. He rejoined the Sixers after completing the first phase of his rehab in Birmingham, Alabama. There still is no timetable for his return. 

Brown has said there is a “classroom” element to Noel’s return. He has to learn a roster with new players and schemes. 

The on-the-court side of it is a reacclimation to the intensity of the league. Regardless of how many games Noel already has played in the NBA, there is an adjustment period getting back into the grind of the competition. Brown believes the time in the gym this week will help Noel prepare for the level of intensity he will face in his return. 

“It’s such fool’s gold to think somebody’s going to jump back into NBA basketball after you haven’t played for so long. I don’t care how athletic he is,” Brown said. “It’s a man’s world, this league, and there’s a physicality and there’s a real-time reaction you have to have to play in the game. You can’t make that up in practice, you can’t make that up playing one-on-one, but you can better position him instead of just going out to get shots. I want him to feel a body, get hit, hit back, play one-on-one, those types of things.”

Noel had been assigned to the Sixers’ Development League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers, to get in practice time when the Sixers had a game. The Sixers may forego another assignment and keep Noel at their facility as the Sevens also have two games in the next three days. 

Joel Embiid finally struggles in Sixers' loss to Nuggets

Joel Embiid finally struggles in Sixers' loss to Nuggets

BOX SCORE

Joel Embiid has been making the NBA look easy. Rookie of the Month honors, five double-doubles in 13 games, seven performances of 20 points or more … all having missed the last two years rehabbing from foot injuries.

Embiid, though, still is a player learning the league. Night’s like Monday’s lackluster showing are going to happen, even if it seemed unexpected against the struggling Denver Nuggets. 

“We’ve been used to seeing Jo have superhuman nights,” Brett Brown said after the Sixers’ 106-98 loss (see Instant Replay). “I thought Joel was down tonight.” 

Embiid tallied a total 16 points (5 for 15 from the field, 1 for 3 from three, 5 for 6 from the line) with four rebounds, one assist, a career-high five blocks, three turnovers and three fouls in 25:32. 

He had a quiet first half with six points (2 for 5 from the field) and one rebound in 9:21. The biggest struggle came in the third quarter. Embiid scored a single point off a free throw and shot 0 for 6 from the floor. By the end of three, he was shooting 18.2 percent. 

The big man said he needed to be better at passing out of the double team. He committed two turnovers in the third. 

“I wasn’t getting to my spot and I wasn’t getting what I’m used to getting,” Embiid said of the first three quarters. “I’m going to go back and watch the tape and see what I did wrong.” 

Embiid bounced back for another Embiid-like offensive effort in the fourth. He dropped nine points off an efficient 3 for 4 shooting in 7:31. Still, it wasn’t enough. 

“I made a couple shots,” Embiid said. “It didn’t help us win, so I don’t think it matters.”

Brown noticed Embiid rushing his game. He also thought Embiid’s balance was off, something the big man has been dealing with all season as he continues to find his legs. 

Embiid will not play in Tuesday's game against the Grizzlies. It is part of his workload management in which he does not play both games of a back-to-back. Expect him to hone in on game film until his next matchup, and get back on the roller coaster that can be a first year in the NBA. 

“It's just part of a young man's growth,” Brown said. “It just happens. I don't think we need to read too deeply into it. I think, in many ways, to expect from time to time not as good of a performance as we have been used to is fair enough.”