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

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

Steve Mason named NHL's 1st star after strong week

There’s a number of reasons why the Flyers have a five-game winning streak, why they’re playing better hockey, and why they own the No. 1 wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
 
Perhaps the biggest reason of all is goaltender Steve Mason, who has won four of those games, compiling a 1.71 goals against average and .945 save percentage during that span.
 
Mason was named the NHL’s first “Star of the Week” on Monday. St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko and San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones were second and third stars.
 
“The team is on a roll right now and I’m a benefactor of that,” said Mason, who needs a win Tuesday against Florida to tie his career-high streak of five set Dec. 17-30 in 2013, during his first, full season as a Flyer.
 
“There’s strong play in front of me. The team is playing a little tighter in our defensive zone of late and making the goaltender reads that much more simple. 
 
“Right now, there’s a comfort level with the guys in front of me … Winning five in a row is nice and we’d like to keep making ground in the standings.”
 
His four victories last week were tops in the NHL. Among them, he had a season-high 45 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against Boston. 
 
Like many goalies, Mason prefers action. Games such as the 3-2 overtime win at Ottawa last week when the Senators only fired 21 shots, bother him.
 
“Those games, when you are not getting a lot of shots, the ones you do get will be a high-grade scoring chance,” he said. “And when you’re sitting around a few minutes not seeing the puck and all of a sudden see a chance like that …
 
“It’s more difficult to play [those games] than the games where there is a constant workload and you’re not thinking, but just playing. For myself personally, those are the games I enjoy the most. When I see a lot of pucks.”
 
The Flyers have seen dramatic improvement over the past month in their overall defensive play, from both their defensemen in down-low coverage in the slow and with their forwards on the backcheck.
 
Mason said the team has gone through “growing pains” with trying to integrate some younger bodies to the lineup this season – Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nick Cousins  come to mind.
 
“You have to familiar with everybody,” he said. “Have a constant lineup where guys go out  shift after shift and night after night, you know what to expect from one another. When you have that kind of confidence in guys, it makes playing easier.” 
 
Mason’s 4-2 victory at Nashville on Sunday saw him go over .500 for the first time this season with a 9-8-3 record. 
 
His GAA is coming down at 2.76 while his save percentage has risen to .904.
 
“I was aware of it obviously, just because of the way the year started,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get it above the .900 level.
 
“We’re obviously going to continue to work at getting it even better. The way the team’s playing right now and the way everybody’s clicking, we’re going at a good pace right now.”