Top of the Table on the Line as Union Face Crew in Columbus

Top of the Table on the Line as Union Face Crew in Columbus

I am going to go out on a limb and say that if you looked at the MLS schedule at the beginning of the season you likely did not think first place would be on the line during a late August match between Columbus and Philadelphia. Well, here we sit in late August and the Union travel to Crew Stadium with first place in the Eastern Conference at stake (8PM/The Comcast Network - the game was originally scheduled to begin at 7:30, but due to travel issues the Union did not arrive in Columbus until 2PM this afternoon).

Coming off of their inagural season there was little to suggest the Union would challenge for the conference crown. Similarly, after gutting their roster most experts believed this would be a rebuilding season for the Crew. How did these two teams find themselves in this position? In a word - defense.

The Union and Crew are one-two in the East in goals against - with the Union having conceded just 22 goals in 23 games, and the Crew 23 goals in 24 games. Both teams rely heavily on the combination of a strong goalkeeper and versatile center back.

The Crew back line is led by two-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who was selected second overall, one spot behind current Union player Freddy Adu, in the 2004 MLS Superdraft. At 6'4" Marshall is an absolute monster in the back. Good luck winning a ball in the air against him. Goalkeeper Will Hesmer, who recently returned from injury, leads MLS with a 0.72 save percentage.

A year after giving up 49 goals the Union shored up its defense by acquiring goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and center back Carlos Valdes. All Mondragon has done is assume the captain's armband, provide a much-needed veteran presence between the sticks, and help to organize one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

Valdes has provided an athletic presence alongside Danny Califf in the center of the Union back line. He's been so solid the Union front office moved quickly to secure his rights on a permanent basis from former club Independiente Santa Fe.

Both teams have also struggled offensively. The Union are 12th in the 18-team league in goals scored with 29, while Columbus has scored just 27, which is good enough for 14th in the league.

Designated Player Andres Mendoza leads the Crew with seven goals. Here's hoping Union keeper Mondragon is not left screaming "Mendoooozzzza" a la McBain.

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Emilio Renteria, who is listed as probable with a quad strain, is the Crew's second leading goal scorer. Eddie Gaven, who made his MLS debut at age 16, has contributed four goals this season, but is listed as doubtful with a leg contusion.

The Union, whose struggle to score goals has been a season-long storyline, did score two last week against F.C. Dallas - although both came from the penalty spot. As a Union fan you have to hope that Sebastien Le Toux, who converted both PK's, gained some confidence from simply seeing a ball he kicked hit the back of the net.

Freddy Adu, who played just over 60 minutes last week, should feel slightly more comfortable with his new team having had the opportunity to actually practice with his teammates for a full week. Last week Danny Mwanga came in off the substitutes bench and replaced Adu.

Perhaps this week we'll see both Adu and Mwanga get starting nods. It'd certainly be nice to see Adu, Le Toux, and Mwanga develop some sort of chemistry.

Finally, Brian Carroll, who is listed as questionable with a foot contusion, returns to Columbus where he helped the Crew win the 2008 MLS Cup. Carroll, who tirelessly disrupts plays from his defensive midfield position, has certainly fit in well with the Union. You could argue that acquiring Carroll has been just as important to the Union defensive turnaround as were the signings of Mondragon and Valdes.

This is obviously a huge road test for the Union. These are the sort of matches - on the road against a conference opponent with first place on the line - Union players and fans have wanted to see. Hopefully the travel issues the Union encountered en route to Columbus do not interfere too much with their pre-game routine.

Here's the lineup I hope we see tonight: Mondragon, Sheanon Williams, Califf, Valdes, Gabriel Farfan, Justin Mapp, Brian Carroll (if he can't go you'll likely see Stefani Miglioranzi), Le Toux, McInerney, Mwanga, Adu.

Final Score Prediction: I see it 1-1 as the Union tie for the ninth time in their last 13.

The Toni Stahl Memorial Union Player Most Likely to See Red: I'll go Califf for persistent fouling against Mendoza.

Photo Credit: Greg Bartram, US PRESSWIRE

No. 16 Villanova vs. No. 23 Albany: With or without Bednarczyk, can Wildcats rebound?


No. 16 Villanova vs. No. 23 Albany: With or without Bednarczyk, can Wildcats rebound?

No. 16 Villanova (5-2, 3-1) vs. No. 23 Albany (4-2, 1-2)
Villanova Stadium, Villanova, Pa.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Fresh off a rare loss, Villanova looks to get back on track during its homecoming game against another nationally ranked foe. Here’s a look at the matchup:

Scouting Villanova
The Wildcats saw their five-game winning streak snapped in resounding fashion as they were shut out for the first time since 2004 in a 23-0 loss to Richmond. Sophomore quarterback Zach Bednarczyk left the game in the second quarter with an injury, a big reason why the Wildcats finished with just 222 yards of total offense. But despite the final score, Villanova’s defense played well again with Austin Calitro and Rob Rolle each hitting double digits in tackles. The unit is ranked fifth in the FCS in scoring defense (16.3 points per game) and sixth in total defense (237.9 yards per game) and has scored four defensive touchdowns.

Scouting Albany
After winning their first four games, the Great Danes lost their next two, a 36-30 triple-overtime heartbreaker to Richmond followed by a 20-16 setback to Maine. Sophomore quarterback Neven Sussman led Albany with 187 passing yards and 75 rushing yards. But for the season, their offensive strength has been with sophomore running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who’s second in the CAA in rushing, averaging 105 yards per game. Albany’s defense is only behind Villanova in points allowed per game (19.3) in the CAA, but interestingly enough is last in total defense (420.2 yards per game). The Great Danes lead the league in turnover margin (plus-15), led by linebacker Michael Nicastro and safety Mason Gray with three interceptions apiece.

Series history
Villanova has only played Albany twice, beating the Great Danes, 48-31, in 2014 and steamrolling it, 37-0, last season. 

Storyline to watch
The big question going in is whether Bednarczyk will play with Villanova saying it will be a game-time decision after the QB suffered a concussion last week. If he can’t go, Adeyemi DaSilva will get the start in his place after replacing him in the second quarter vs. Richmond. DaSilva is a promising player but Bednarczyk was coming into his own this season and his absence would naturally be a difficult one. Of course, the Wildcats have been through this before with Bednarczyk taking over as the starter last season when star John Robertson went down with an injury of his own.

What’s at stake?
Villanova still has a chance to win the CAA but probably can’t afford a second loss in the league. And of course, there’s nothing better than winning in front of a homecoming crowd.

A lot depends on whether Bednarczyk can play … but even if he doesn’t, the Wildcats’ dominant defense may be enough to get the job done. 

Villanova 20, Albany 17

Anthem singer at Sixers-Heat game kneels during performance

Anthem singer at Sixers-Heat game kneels during performance

MIAMI — A woman performing the national anthem before an NBA preseason game in Miami on Friday night did so while kneeling at midcourt, and opening her jacket to show a shirt with the phrase "Black Lives Matter."

The singer was identified by the Heat as Denasia Lawrence. It was unclear if she remained in the arena after the performance, and messages left for her were not immediately returned.

Heat players and coaches stood side-by-side for the anthem, all with their arms linked as has been their custom during the preseason. Many had their heads down as Lawrence sang, and the team released a statement saying it had no advance knowledge that she planned to kneel.

"We felt as a basketball team that we would do something united, so that was our focus," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Throughout all of this, I think the most important thing that has come out is the very poignant, thoughtful dialogue. We've had great dialogue within our walls here and hopefully this will lead to action."

The anthem issue has been a major topic in the sports world in recent months, starting with the decision by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to not stand for its playing. Kaepernick cited racial injustice and police brutality among the reasons for his protest, and athletes from many sports -- and many levels, from youth all the way to professional -- have followed his lead in various ways.

"All I can say is what we've seen in multiple preseason games so far is our players standing for the national anthem," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in New York earlier Friday, at a news conference following the league's board of governors meetings. "It would be my hope that they would continue to stand for the national anthem. I think that is the appropriate thing to do."

The NBA has a rule calling for players and coaches to stand during the anthem.

Heat guard Wayne Ellington often speaks about the need to curb gun violence, after his father was shot and killed two years ago. He had his eyes closed for most of the anthem Friday, as per his own custom, though was aware of Lawrence's actions.

"At the end of the day, to each his own," Ellington said. "If she feels like that's the way she wants to stand for it, then more power to her."

Making a statement in the manner that Lawrence did Friday is rare, but not unheard of in recent weeks.

When the Sacramento Kings played their first home preseason game earlier this month, anthem singer Leah Tysse dropped to one knee as she finished singing the song.

Tysse is white. Lawrence is black.

"I love and honor my country as deeply as anyone yet it is my responsibility as an American to speak up against injustice as it affects my fellow Americans," Tysse wrote on Facebook. "I have sung the anthem before but this time taking a knee felt like the most patriotic thing I could do. I cannot idly stand by as black people are unlawfully profiled, harassed and killed by our law enforcement over and over and without a drop of accountability."