The MLS season is fast approaching so let’s break down some of the Philadelphia Union’s preseason battles

The MLS season is fast approaching so let’s break down some of the Philadelphia Union’s preseason battles

It might be snowing nonstop in Philly, but in three weeks the Philadelphia Union will go outside and start playing soccer games for real.

And with the Union’s March 8th regular-season opener looming, their lineup and formation is starting to take shape.

Last night, in a 2-1 preseason loss to the New York Red Bulls at Jacksonville’s EverBank Stadium, prized new acquisitions Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira all started together in the midfield. Along with captain Brian Carroll, those three players will make up the spine of the midfield and provide some muscle to a team that already features rising stars Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams.

But with a few more preseason games still on the docket, there will likely be some battles for starting spots heading into March. Here are five of them:

Jack McInerney vs. Conor Casey

With manager John Hackworth planning to start two attacking wingers and three central midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation, there doesn’t appear to be room on the field for McInerney and Casey at the same time. Considering both players were double-digit goal-scorers last season, this might be hard for some fans to accept. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which both players don’t rack up a significant number of minutes, whether starting or coming off the bench (or if the Union switch up their formation during certain games). Besides, there’s no way the 32-year-old Casey can play as many minutes as he did last season, so this situation could end up working out for the best

Who should start? McInerney

Who will likely start? Casey

Sebastien Le Toux vs. Danny Cruz

Despite starting 32 games last season, Cruz will probably have a hard time cracking the starting lineup again this year with the Union adding so many new midfield pieces. Or will he? Against the Red Bulls, Cruz started on the right wing along with the rest of the first team while Le Toux played with the subs in the second half. Cruz could certainly have an important role on the team this season but his speed and hustle seem like they would be better served late in games. If healthy, Le Toux should be able provide the team with kind of service they need from the right side. And like Cruz, he is a tireless worker.

Who should start? Le Toux

Who will likely start? Cruz

Fabinho vs. Ray Gaddis

With the team shorthanded at the position last season, the right-footed Gaddis was the team’s primary left back. But Hackworth has opted to move him back to his natural position during the preseason (behind starter Sheanon Williams), while slotting in Fabinho and rookie draft pick Robbie Derschang on the left back depth chart. Derschang still needs to earn a contract, and even if he does make the team, he probably won’t make much of an impact this season (barring an injury). That leaves the Brazilian Fabinho – a good attacker who played part of last season as a left midfielder – as the likely starter. But will the Union miss the insane speed and 1-v-1 defensive skills that Gaddis brings?

Who should start? Gaddis

Who will likely start? Fabinho

Richard Marquez vs. Ethan White vs. Kevin Cope vs. TBD

Of all of the spots up for grabs, the center back position is probably the most uncertain. Richard Marquez – a rookie draft pick out of Division III Redlands – got the surprise starting nod alongside Okugo last night and, by all accounts, has impressed the coaches in camp. Cope, meanwhile, didn’t see the field at all, which might not bode well for the second-round pick out of Michigan State. And White, who came over from D.C. United in the Jeff Parke trade, doesn’t seem to have as much of a leg up on the starting spot as some initially thought. It seems likely that the Union will bring in a veteran (perhaps Bolton captain Zat Knight?), rendering this current battle not as significant as some of the others.

Who should start? The yet-to-be-signed guy

Who will likely start? The yet-to-be-signed guy

Andre Blake walks on stage after being selected by the Philadelphia Union Thursday.

Zac MacMath vs. Andre Blake

It’s very likely that MacMath will remain the starter in goal for the third straight season. But the 22-year-old did himself no favors last night, giving up a pair of first-half goals, including one that could have been stopped. Meanwhile, Blake – who the Union traded up to take first in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft – made a couple of nice saves, including one on a close-range rebound (to be fair though, he scuffed the first save to give up the rebound). Even with his considerable shot-stopping skills, Blake would be best served spending his rookie season learning how to be a pro. And despite some of his shortcomings, MacMath should continue to mature in his fourth MLS season.

Who should start? MacMath

Who will likely start? MacMath

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Shayne Gostisbehere’s fist pump was so vicious and mighty, the celebration was probably felt back in Philadelphia.

This was an exultation the entire Flyers felt, too.

When it started to look like the bye week wasn’t the break they needed, the Flyers reached down deep and got one Sunday night at the Barclays Center in the form of a 3-2 overtime victory over the Islanders (see Instant Replay).

“It allows you to take a breath,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s one thing for sure.”

A sigh of relief for a team beaten and bruised — losers of three straight by a combined score of 15-4, not to mention 3-9-3 in its past 15 games. The Flyers had lost the day prior on home ice to the Devils, 4-1, with a performance not exactly inspiring confidence following five days off.

On Sunday, they trailed 2-0 in the second period.

“We've got to get better at dealing with adversity when something goes wrong,” general manager Ron Hextall said bluntly before the game. “We need to get back on the horse and get back going. Big deal, a team scored a goal. We need to react better to it.”

Finally, the Flyers reacted the way their GM had been hoping.

They flipped the deficit into a victory when Gostisbehere skated behind the net and put the puck on Claude Giroux’s stick for the game-winner with 1:40 left in the extra session. Gostisbehere whipped his arm through the air and embraced Giroux, along with Jakub Voracek, who started the play by stripping Islanders captain John Tavares.

“On a lot of different levels, it’s an important win,” Hakstol said. “It’s huge. And more importantly for us, a great effort. Thought we deserved the two points. Sometimes maybe that’s what it takes to get over the hump — a tremendous effort for 60-plus minutes. I thought we got that out of everyone tonight.”

For Giroux, it was his first goal since Dec. 21.

For Steve Mason, his first win since Dec. 21.

And for the Flyers, their first road victory since Dec. 14, as they went 0-6-3 in the previous nine games away from home.

Yeah, “it was needed,” as Wayne Simmonds said of the win.

“We’ve been fighting it lately and I thought that was a good game from start to finish,” he said. “I thought everyone played well. I think we made bounces go our way tonight instead of hoping and waiting.”

Simmonds scored what might have been the biggest goal of the game. The Flyers, down 1-0 in the second period, came up empty for 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play and the proceeding 5-on-4 advantage. The Islanders then padded the lead to 2-0 moments later, putting the Flyers’ backs against the wall.

But Simmonds kept his team from uncoiling with a goal at 14:10 of the period, giving the Flyers life at second intermission. If not for that score, who knows how the Flyers come out in the third period, trailing by multiple goals yet again.

"I think we were plying well,” Giroux said. “We had a lot of chances and [the puck] wasn't going in. Everybody on the bench was frustrated. When Wayne got that first goal, I think [there was] a little relief on the bench. I haven't seen a team celebrate so much just for a first goal. It was kind of a relief and we had a little boost out of that.”

Ivan Provorov scored the equalizer 1:47 into the final period when he maintained possession from the blue line to the circle, adeptly skating around two Islanders to put the puck on net. Provorov’s pass to Travis Konecny hit off the skate of New York’s Adam Pelech and into the net.

“I came off the bench and I saw [Brayden Schenn] was going into the zone, so I took a few hard strides, got the puck from him and I saw it was kind of an odd-man situation,” Provorov said. “I held on to the puck a little bit, saw T.K. going backdoor, passed it there and it went off their D skate.”

Just as important as the timely goals was the Flyers’ discipline. Against the Devils, the Flyers compiled 19 penalty minutes, forcing them on seven penalty kills. This time, the Flyers sharpened up, not allowing the Islanders a power play until midway through the third period. In total, they had just four penalty minutes and killed off both power plays faced.

That gave them a chance.

“We just kept saying it the whole time, ‘Keep going, keep going, guys,’” Simmonds said. “We just need one [goal] and from one comes two, and Mase held the fort.”

Mason made 17 of his 36 saves in the third period and overtime combined.

Now, the Flyers at least go into another important back-to-back — starting Wednesday at the Rangers before welcoming the Maple Leafs Thursday — with some confidence instead of a lost weekend.

“I thought the focus was purely on going out and playing well,” Hakstol said. “And you know, that’s harder to do than you might know — when you start to feel some of the pressure without a win in a little bit. I really liked that side of it. Even in that situation, all the guys played well. Hopefully that puts our entire team in the right direction.’’

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored two goals, Sidney Crosby added his league-leading 28th and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth straight game, 5-1 over the Boston Bruins 5-1 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh led 2-1 through two periods before breaking out in the third with three goals in a span of 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

Sheary scored his 17th and has nine goals in nine games. Bryan Rust added his 12th and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for the Penguins, who won a season-high seventh straight at home. Pittsburgh the NHL's best home team, is 13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.

Evgeni Malkin had two assists for a season-best seven-game point streak. Crosby added two assists for a three-point game. Matt Murray made 44 saves to win his fourth straight game.

David Krejci scored his 11th for the Bruins, who have lost four straight and five of their last six (see full recap).

Rangers shut out Red Wings in 1-0 OT win
DETROIT -- J.T. Miller scored at 1:56 of overtime to lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 61st of his career. The Rangers managed only 19 shots in a game that featured few memorable chances by either team.

The winner came when Mats Zuccarello and Miller swooped in alone on Detroit goalie Jared Coreau. Zuccarello made a simple pass to Miller, who lifted the puck over Coreau for his 16th goal of the season.

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall played for the first time since Jan. 4, returning from a lower-body injury. The Red Wings put forward Drew Miller on waivers (see full recap).

Atikinson lifts Jackets over Senators in wild OT win
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Cam Atkinson's second goal of the game at 1:09 of overtime lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets a 7-6 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Atkinson had a breakaway after a shot by Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed the Columbus net and went around the boards out to Atkinson, who was at center-ice.

The Blue Jackets trailed 5-3 after two periods before Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert scored 31 seconds apart to tie it less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third. Atklnson then gave Columbus a 6-5 lead with 9:10 remaining, before Kyle Turries tied it for Ottawa on the power play less than 2 minutes later.

Nick Foligno, Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski also scored for the Blue Jackets, and Joonas Korpisalo finished with 28 saves.

Zach Smith and Mike Hoffman each had two goals and Mark Stone also scored for the Senators. Mike Condon had 22 saves (see full recap).