The Honeymoon Is Over, Union Have Problems

The Honeymoon Is Over, Union Have Problems

For the first two seasons of its existence the Union led a charmed life. Sure, there were natural growing pains the first season, but fans were simply grateful to have a club to support. Season two brought an unexpected playoff berth. Union supporters could point to the progress the team made as a harbinger of good times to come.

Everything was lining up beautifully for the franchise. They opened a soccer-specific stadium. Attendance, buoyed by the rabid support of the Sons of Ben, was robust. They seemingly announced a new corporate partner every week. They secured television and radio deals. Then came the coup de grace, the announcement that the Union would host the MLS All-Star Game.

There was nary a misstep along the way. Yes, Peter Nowak made the occasional odd choice of lineup or formation, but by and large the organization and fans were in lockstep. Then the Sebastien Le Toux trade happened. The fallout from the trade was bigger than just the reality that Le Toux would no longer be racing up and down the field in the familiar blue and gold #9 shirt.

Looking back, the Le Toux trade marked the moment when the honeymoon between club and fans ended. Le Toux’s post-trade comments to Chris Vito shook the foundation that had been built between the team and its fans. He accused the organization of being cheap and cash-strapped. The most cutting remark was when he said “I would be happy to just retire than play for Peter again”. Perhaps he was simply lashing out in anger at being traded, but when the most likeable player on your team lobs Molotov cocktails at the organization you cannot help but take notice.

Truth be told, the honeymoon period between the team and its fans was going to end at some point. It’s simply the nature of the business. Organizations make unpopular decisions. It happens. That it happened so spectacularly and so publicly was shocking. For the first time there was reason to question the decision-making of the team. On Sunday, the Danny Califf situation provided another opportunity to wonder what was going on.

Califf, the captain of team, did not start against Colorado. After the game Nowak revealed that he opted to sit Califf because he underwent an offseason procedure on his knee to remove meniscus and had a shot in the knee on March 5th (the shot was later revealed by Califf to be Synvisc, which apparently is a joint lubricant). Despite the offsesason procedure he was fit enough to play the full 90 minutes in the season opener against Portland the Monday before. In fact, prior to the home opener on Sunday he started all 62 games in which he appeared. He was apparently fit enough to be included in the gameday 18 against Colorado, but not fit enough to start.

Upon learning of Nowak’s rationale for omitting him from the starting XI Califf told Chris Vito “I guess I found out. Supposedly I have a knee injury.” Califf went on to say:

“I have no idea what’s going on in Peter’s head because he hasn’t said a word to me. To be honest, I don’t really have any idea. I would’ve thought that he at least would have a conversation with me. But he didn’t and maybe that’s his style and that’s the situation right now.”

Whatever Nowak’s motivation was for sitting Califf the reality is that, in light of the fallout from the Le Toux trade, fans are no longer willing to simply accept Nowak’s decisions (and by extension the organization) at face value. This isn’t to say there’s an adversarial relationship between fans and the club, but the blind faith from the first two seasons is a thing of the past.

I wouldn’t characterize this new reality as a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of things that makes following sports enjoyable. This tension provides talking points. Fans are able to debate the efficacy of front office decisions. We can question the tactics of the coach. It’s sports.

Califf doesn’t get the starting nod and his replacement, Chris Albright, is beaten for the game-winning goal. Starting right back Sheanon Williams was just called into the US U23 Olympic Qualifying camp. Who is going to step in and take his place? Did the Union leave themselves exposed and overburden Zac MacMath by not bringing in a veteran back-up?

The Eagles are cheap and disloyal. The Phillies and Flyers hide injuries. The Sixers started Jodie Meeks for the majority of the season. We deal with these issues year round. Now the Union gets to join the fun.

There’s a great old Chris Rock bit where he talks about why he likes Bill Clinton. He points to the fact that Clinton’s got real problems like running out of money, his wife being a pain in the ass, and how his friends are going to jail. These are real folks problems; not presidential problems.

Well, the Union now has real folks problems.

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova to face pesky Providence Friars

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova to face pesky Providence Friars

CSN anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and producer Sean Kane get you set for all of the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Providence (13-7, 3-4 Big East) at No. 1 Villanova (18-1, 6-1 Big East), Saturday at noon

AF: This is a first. In the three seasons that I have been privileged to co-author this column, I've never written about Villanova. Today, that drought ends. Thank you to all who made this possible, which really is just one person: Sean Kane. 

I think one of the reasons that he relinquished his iron grip, just for one week, is that a new, young fan is now on board with this Villanova team and will be attending his first Wildcats game this weekend. When I say that our 2-year-old son is a fan, that may be understating it a little bit. He knows the entire roster, from Josh Hart, to Donte Divincenzo, and every player in between. He knows the fight song, and proudly belts out V for Villanova. Of course, I'm proud of my son. I do wish he could sneak in a few bars of "On, On U of K" or know one other Kentucky player besides Malik Monk. But that's enough on the background of why I finally broke through and am writing about Villanova this week.

The Wildcats returned the No. 1 ranking this week as they welcome Providence to the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday. The Friars have given Jay Wright's teams fits over the past few seasons. You don't need to look much further than last year when you check the numbers of a Ben Bentil or Kris Dunn. In fact, in the last three seasons, Villanova has lost one home game, and almost a year ago exactly that loss came courtesy Providence. On Jan. 24, 2016, Bentil owned the low post and poured in 31 points, while the high-low game was working to perfection because Dunn racked up 14 assists. Of course, neither Dunn nor Bentil are on this year's Providence squad and that is a good thing for Nova.

The Friars come into this game on a short two-game winning streak, but that's bigger than it may seem. Before that, they dropped five of their previous six games, including a heart-breaking one-point loss to DePaul. Nothing seems to get Providence back on track better than Georgetown, already sweeping the season series with the Hoyas. Ed Cooley's team seems to do this every year, have a lull only to explode in March. They did it three years ago, when Villanova crushed them by 30 in January, only to see Providence steam roll it's way through the Big East Tournament.  So I'm never ready to count out a Cooley team. 

But Villanova is rolling after it's lone loss of the year, falling to Butler on the road after a spectacular performance at Creighton. Sean Kane wrote in this very column last week that the Wildcats needed to get more from their bench, specifically Divincenzo. No, I don't think Donte reads this (though he should; it's fun!), but it was as if he did. In the decisive victory over Seton Hall this week, Divincenzo posted 10 points, two rebounds and a monster block in 29 minutes of work, a solid effort off the bench. 

In the game before, at St. John's last weekend, Divincenzo had starter-like numbers in a two-man bench effort with he and Eric Paschall. Divincenzo tallied a career-high 19 points in the win at the Garden. And if the Wildcats are getting numbers near that from him, they should start thinking about a return trip to the Final Four. 

March is all about depth. Josh Hart is going to get his. But you need other players to step up (see: Phil Booth in the title game). Divincenzo could be that guy for Wright this year. This team certainly looks primed to go far in March. Seniors who are not only the team's best players but also providing leadership combined with young players stepping into the spotlight. 

The spotlight on the Wells Fargo Center will shine on the Wildcats and another win. 

Villanova 80, Providence 66

La Salle (11-5, 5-1 A-10) at VCU (14-5, 4-2 A-10), Sunday at 2 p.m.

SK: Which city team has the longest winning streak? It's not top-ranked Villanova. The correct answer would be the La Salle Explorers, winners of five straight games and seven of their last nine. The good times kept rolling Thursday night with a 91-83 victory over Davidson at Tom Gola Arena. 

Four different Explorers scored 12 or more points in the win, and the one starter who didn't - junior Demetrius Henry - provided three critical baskets in the closing minutes. Henry's contributions aside, the night belonged to Jordan Price. The senior guard scored 29 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Price knocked down 4 of 6 three-point attempts and went 7 of 8 from the foul line. The Explorers' leader is hitting his stride, averaging 26 points in the last two games while shooting 72 percent from the field.

La Salle now sets its sights on a Sunday showdown at VCU, which has a 14-5 record under second-year head coach Will Wade. The Rams will be hungry for a win, having dropped back-to-back road games at Davidson and Fordham. Wade has done an admirable job maintaining the success of the VCU program following the departure of Shaka Smart to Texas following the 2014-15 season. The Rams advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament a year ago and have a good shot at making their way into the Field of 68 again this season.

The Explorers shouldn't be phased by VCU's raucous homecourt advantage. La Salle won in double overtime in its last trip to Richmond to take on VCU two years ago. I can honestly see this game going either way and would be surprised if things weren't decided in the final minutes. But I'm riding the hot hand with the Explorers and Price. La Salle is a confident team right now, look for them to figure out a way to win a sixth straight game on Sunday.

La Salle 81, VCU 78

Pennsylvania (6-8, 0-3 Ivy League) at St. Joseph's (8-9, 2-4 A-10), Saturday at 7 p.m.

AF: The Quakers are in the midst of a tough stretch. They opened up Ivy League play with rival Princeton two weeks ago, and it started a three-game losing streak; first to the Tigers, then home losses to Yale and Brown. But it's not as if Penn hasn't been in these games. In the loss to Brown, the Quakers cut it to just a two-point deficit with under eight minutes to play, but a great defensive stand by the Bears led to Penn missing it's next seven shots. 

Next up for Steve Donahue, a Big Five matchup with St. Joseph's, a team also reeling a bit. Both of these teams struggle to find offense, especially when the game is still undecided. The bright side is that this game could be a remedy for one of those offenses. Of course, the downside, it would be more of the same for the other.

In the loss to Yale, Penn shot only 35 percent. The Quakers did improve upon that in the loss to Brown that same weekend, but even at 45 percent from the field, failed to capitalize on the opportunity the Bears gave them by going cold for seven straight shots. In it's most recent game, a five-point loss at UMass, St. Joseph's shot 32 percent overall, but an abysmal 26 percent in the second half. 

Once again, the Hawks did get a solid effort from James Demery. The junior had a career-high 11 rebounds to go with his team-high 19 points in the loss. One would think that if Phil Martelli keeps getting efforts like that from him, they will break through on a win soon. They are just short-handed with injuries right now.

This game will be played at the Palestra, which contrary to a silly Duke tweet this week, is the greatest home court in college basketball. Fun fact, Penn has enjoyed more success against Saint Joseph’s than any other Big 5 opponent in recent years, with three wins over the last six meetings.

But I don't know if that fun fact continues this weekend. Both teams are playing with a little desperation, and I think that the shooters for the Hawks will step up in this one with their backs against the wall.

St. Joseph's 62, Penn 60

Drexel (7-12, 1-5 CAA) at UNC Wilmington (18-2, 7-0 CAA), Sunday at 4 p.m.

SK: To say this is a tall order for Drexel would be an understatement. The Dragons have dropped six of their last seven games, including a 20-point loss at Elon Thursday night. Meanwhile, UNC Wilmington enters Sunday's game with a 18-2 record and a perfect 7-0 mark in CAA play. The Seahawks' two losses this season came at Clemson and against a very good Middle Tennessee State team.

The UNC Wilmington program has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround under third-year head coach Kevin Keatts, who previously served as Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville. The Seahawks won 25 games and made it to the NCAA tournament last year, losing a tightly contested game to Duke in the first round. After establishing themselves as the class of the CAA once again this season, it would come as a major surprise if they're not back in the Big Dance this March. 

UNC Wilmington has three players averaging 15 points or more -- C.J. Bryce (17.5), Chris Flemmings (15.9) and Denzel Ingram (15.5). The Seahawks simply have too much firepower for a Drexel team struggling to find its way under first year head coach Zach Spiker. For the Dragons' sake, I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see this being much of a contest.

UNC Wilmington 77, Drexel 59

Prediction Records
Sean Kane: 18-4
Amy Fadool: 13-7

Joel Embiid: All-Star voting 'shows fans support me, that’s why I’m not even mad'

Joel Embiid: All-Star voting 'shows fans support me, that’s why I’m not even mad'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid didn’t earn enough overall votes to be named an All-Star starter, but he has no disappointment about the outpour of fan appreciation he received during the campaign.

“It shows that the fans support me, that’s why I’m not even mad,” Embiid said after shootaround on Friday. “The fans are going stick up for who they love, and I love that.”

Embiid finished third among frontcourt players in fan votes behind only LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, which counted for 50 percent of the votes this season. He made a late push after trailing Kevin Love for third place in the second return of votes last week.

“They’re behind me and they want me to succeed,” Embiid said. “That’s what I took from it.”

Embiid ranked fifth in media votes (25 percent), but there was a drop-off in the player votes (25 percent). Embiid was eighth among players, behind James, Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kristaps Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony and Love.

Embiid is averaging 19.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game. He is under a 28-minute restriction this season and sits out one matchup of each back-to-back series. Veteran Gerald Henderson believes Embiid’s lack of games was a factor the player votes.

“I feel like since all the players vote, it’s probably important for you to play consistent and let all the players see night to night how good you are,” Henderson said. “I think that’s the difference. You’ll see Joel’s numbers are better than a lot of guys, but because some guys have been doing it year after year consistently and guys have seen how good they are, it helps them. I think if Joel continues to play like he’s been playing, he’ll earn everybody’s respect.” 

Embiid saw the competitiveness of the frontcourt race as a sign the league should revert back to the previous voting format which included centers. He has been advocating for that the entire season as he’s faced high-caliber players on the court.

“There’s a lot of talented big men in the league, especially at the center position,” Embiid said. “That’s something the NBA should think about, putting the center back on the All-Star ballot.”

Part of Embiid’s All-Star push centered around his opportunity to land a date with an unnamed celebrity if named a starter. So what happens now if he gets in as a reserve next week from the coach’s votes?

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure that out.”

In spite of battling illness, Embiid plans to play Friday in front of the home crowd that was behind him during the voting process.

"I feel pretty sick still but I’ll be fine," he said. "I've been coughing a lot, sneezing, headaches, sinuses, can’t really breathe. But I'm fine."