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.

Agholor, Huff and Green-Beckham avoiding Eagles' trade rumors

Agholor, Huff and Green-Beckham avoiding Eagles' trade rumors

While head coach Doug Pederson denied reports the Eagles have inquired about the availability of veteran wide receivers Wednesday (see story), it's fair to wonder how those rumors affect the psyche of the guys who are already here. True or not, there's a reason why stories about trades are believable.

The Eagles' current crop of receivers hasn't been very impactful, particularly Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff and Dorial Green-Beckham. Yet despite disappointing numbers, constant questions about their lack of production and now rumblings somebody like Torrey Smith or Alshon Jeffery could be coming to take their jobs, the young trio doesn't sound too worried.

"We all have a job to do here, and if you're worried about somebody else, you're going to lose sight of your own job," Agholor said. "Just like anybody else in any workplace, you need to focus on yourself and execute your job."

"That has nothing to do with me," Huff said. "As long as I'm confident in the way I do my job, everything else will speak for itself."

"It's something I'm completely not worried out," Green-Beckham added. "I'm really just focusing on myself and whatever happens, happens."

Not only do the Eagles' wideouts sound genuinely unconcerned by trade rumors, they almost seem to welcome the competition.

"It motivates you, especially if you're still around," Agholor said. "Or if you get sent somewhere else, you understand that you have to wake up. You have to wake up and you have to make plays."

"I'm a competitor," Huff said. "I'm not going to say no to a competition, but if they do want a veteran receiver, so be it. It doesn't bother us."

It's certainly the right attitude to have, maybe even the only one. Still, trade rumors — whether rumors are all they are or not — is a clear indictment of this group's performance this season.

Jordan Matthews has been OK, but far from a prolific No. 1 receiver who makes up for a lack of complementary weapons. The third-year player is currently on pace to finish 2016 with 67 receptions for 944 yards and five touchdowns, all of which would be down from his previous season's totals.

Agholor is second on the team with 18 receptions for 191 yards, Huff has 12 catches for 63 yards and Green-Beckham has 13 for 139. All three have found the end zone once as well.

What's troubling about those numbers is that not only the lack of production, but the lack of plays they've made down the field. Agholor and Green-Beckham are both under less than 11 yards per reception, while Huff is averaging a paltry 5.3.

It's no wonder the Eagles' front office would show interest in deep threats like Smith and Jeffery, both of whom are proven capable of stretching the field.

"I just work every day and try to get separation to the best of my ability," Agholor said. "I have a great receivers coach that tries to help me with my releases and fine tune that, but the most important thing I feel like with creating separation is a mindset, because this is a league, where it's good on good every day."

"It's just what the coaches see, what the coaches want from us," Huff said. "Obviously, would I want to get the ball downfield? Yes. Has it gone that way? No, but my job is to continue to get better each and every day, and once my number is called, I'll be ready to make that play."

Pederson, who earlier denied the Eagles were looking into trades, defended the big-play ability of his wideouts.

"Nelson can stretch it," Pederson said. "Josh can stretch it. But I think it's protection and design of the play. When I think of stretching the field, I mean, a guy can run fast and that can be stretching the field, but who can really take the top off?

"Those two guys are two that can do that."

Agholor, the Eagles' first-round pick in 2015, has faced these kinds of questions since his underwhelming rookie season. He's getting used to people doubting his ability, but that's not stopping him from keeping a positive attitude.

"I think the most important thing is to progress each day, and have a next-play mentality too," Agholor said. "Some of the greatest players in this league, they drop balls, I'm sure guys have probably jammed them before, however it goes, but the best thing they can do is just bounce back, line up again and win the next matchup.

"I want to continue to have that mindset and allow it to speak for itself so I don't have to sit here and tell. If every time you're all asking me that, it must mean you all don't see that."

Green-Beckham has a little bit more of a unique perspective on this matter than Agholor and Huff. While the second-year receiver is staying positive and motivated as well, he's been on the other end of these rumors and was ultimately traded from the Titans to the Eagles back in August.

Because he's only been with the team for a couple of months, Green-Beckham didn't seem too worried he's running out of opportunities with the Eagles.

"I just got here, so I don't think I'm going to end up leaving when I just got here," Green-Beckham said. "For some guys, you really have to worry about that, and you just have to focus on trying to compete, trying to get better and better each and every day and doing the little things."

Green-Beckham also knows better than anyone how such a trade would increase expectations on the players already inside the locker room, and he had a message for his teammates.

"I just know how it feels for guys who come in as traded, and for guys who've been here, you just have to understand you're going to have to compete when stuff like that happens," Green-Beckham said. "It makes your job a lot hard, but you just have to focus more.

"It's a business. Like they say, the NFL stands for not for long, so you always have that in your thoughts, and know every opportunity, you have to take advantage of it."

Joel Embiid the gold standard by wearing gold shoes to NBA debut

Joel Embiid the gold standard by wearing gold shoes to NBA debut

For the better part of two years, most of Sixers fans' worries focused on Joel Embiid's foot.

Before his first NBA game on Tuesday night against the Thunder, Embiid made sure his very large feet were still the center of attention.

Embiid walked into the Wells Fargo Center sporting a flashy pair of gold shoes.

Hopefully he has a pair of matching basketball sneakers for tonight's game.

Also, this is cool: