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

Report: Sixers have shown interest in Timberwolves PG Tyus Jones

Report: Sixers have shown interest in Timberwolves PG Tyus Jones

With Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless hurt, the Sixers are still lacking a distributor, and so it makes sense that they've been in contact with the point guard-rich Timberwolves.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, the Sixers and New Orleans Pelicans have shown interest in T'wolves backup point guard Tyus Jones. 

With fifth overall pick Kris Dunn and Ricky Rubio, Minnesota is set at PG. Jones, 20, is third on the totem pole a year after being drafted 24th overall. 

According to Wojnarowski, the Timberwolves are more inclined to trade Jones than Rubio. 

Jones has a connection to the Sixers in Jahlil Okafor, a former teammate at Duke. Both were one-and-dones for the 2014-15 National Championship team. Jones averaged 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists for the Blue Devils. 

He played sparingly as a rookie last season with Minnesota (37 games), averaging 4.2 points and 2.9 assists in 15.5 minutes, but stood out this summer, winning Las Vegas Summer League MVP.

T.J. McConnell has started the majority of the preseason at point guard for the Sixers. Sergio Rodriguez got the nod in the last game against the Pistons. Brett Brown is also looking at Nik Stauskas to fill the spot in a non-traditional role.

Elton Brand announces retirement after 17 NBA seasons

Elton Brand announces retirement after 17 NBA seasons

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Elton Brand walked out to the practice court clad in a gray suit and tie. As he approached the media with his family, the Sixers' players and staff gathered to watch and, more importantly, pay their respect to the news he was about to deliver. 

“After 17 years of playing the game that I love, and it’s been great to me, I’m officially retiring,” Brand said standing next to his wife Shahara. “It’s for real this time. It was a wonderful journey.”

Brand, 37, played 17 seasons in the NBA with a career average of 15.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists. A two-time All-Star, he recorded four 20-and-10 seasons. 

This summer he signed his final contract, a one-year deal with the Sixers worth $980,431. Brand announced his intention to retire on Thursday and the roster move will be officially completed at the conclusion of training camp. Brand’s retirement clears up a roster space for the Sixers. 

“Me personally, playing, being out there, the mentoring role, it was great. I enjoyed it,” Brand said. “But I really couldn’t be out there giving my all after 17 years, helping the team, being in the right place on defense, and giving the coaching staff the energy they deserve from their players. I thought it was time.”

The Bulls selected Brand with the first overall pick in the 1999 draft out of Duke, a moment he considers a highlight of his career. He played his first two seasons in Chicago, followed by seven with the Clippers. The Sixers signed Brand in July of 2008. He was a member of the team for the next four years, including two playoff runs. Brand played one more season with the Bulls, followed by two with the Hawks. 

His already-lengthy NBA career appeared to be over at the end of the 2014-15 season, but he made a surprise decision to return to the league in January of 2016 with the Sixers. He appeared in 17 games last season, averaging 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds in 13.2 minutes. 

While Brand was needed to log time because of injuries, including 20-plus on back-to-back nights, his biggest contribution came away from the game. The young team signed Brand to serve as a mentor to players such as fellow Blue Devil Jahlil Okafor, who struggled with off-the-court issues as a rookie. Okafor developed a big-brother relationship with Brand, talking often — and rarely about basketball itself. 

Brand shared his messages of discipline and work ethic across the locker room. He stayed late after practices to work on fundamental drills with then-rookie Richaun Holmes. On game days he often could be seen dressed in a suit, a visualization of professionalism for his teammates. At the end of the season, Brand paid for the team to take a trip to Miami. 

“We felt his presence,” Okafor said. “Having another vet in there, knowing who he is, his accolades, it was a respect factor to him. Whatever he said goes. I remember hearing his voice at halftime if we were playing poor, he would let us know about it. It was good to have somebody on your team tell you you’re playing bad rather than hearing your coach’s mouth all the time.”

Brett Brown described his emotions as "sad" when Brand informed him of his decision. In less than a year of working together, Brown has learned from Brand's NBA experiences. 

"He's as elite in class as anybody I have ever coached," Brown said, adding, "He's got the ingredients that make him, I feel, highly attractable down the road. Surely he's got stuff to offer after this is all done. Compassionate, hard-working, educated, real, tough. He was a great example for our locker room."

Brand plans to spend time away from the game and has not made any decisions on his next career move. He will be accessible to the Sixers and plans to spend time around the team but not in an official role. He has had conversations with the team about possible opportunities in the future, just not right now. 

The Sixers broke out in applause at the conclusion of Brand's announcement. He didn't know they were going to be present and joked that as the "OG" of the team, he doesn't like surprises. Brand wanted a simple no-frills gathering of media, a low-key departure from the game. It was fitting for a career based on quietly putting in hard work. 

“It’s been an honor, it’s been a privilege to play this game, the game that I love, and I’m certainly going to miss it,” Brand said. “But it’s definitely time now.”