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

Best of NBA: Russell Westbrook posts 5th straight triple-double in Thunder's win over Pelicans

Best of NBA: Russell Westbrook posts 5th straight triple-double in Thunder's win over Pelicans

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook became the first player with five consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-92 on Sunday night.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook's triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook's 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA's leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state (see full recap).

Rose, Anthony help Knicks hold off Kings
NEW YORK -- Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony each scored 20 points and the New York Knicks held off the Sacramento Kings 106-98 on Sunday night for their eighth win in 11 games.

The Knicks took a 21-point lead in the first half, gave up 18 consecutive points in the third quarter but outplayed the Kings down the stretch to win their third straight overall and improve to 9-3 at home.

Brandon Jennings added 19 points for New York and Kristaps Porzingis finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

DeMarcus Cousins had 36 points and 12 rebounds for the Kings, but shot just 9 for 30 and looked fatigued while struggling late while playing the entire second half (see full recap).

Ibaka's big night leads Magic past Pistons
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, helping the Orlando Magic beat the Detroit Pistons 98-92 on Sunday night.

Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Magic.

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit's first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

On Jackson's first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play -- he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Canadiens avoid winless California trip with SO win over Kings

Best of NHL: Canadiens avoid winless California trip with SO win over Kings

LOS ANGELES -- Paul Byron scored the clinching goal in the fourth round of the shootout, and the Montreal Canadiens avoided a winless swing through California with a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday.

Max Pacioretty had two goals and an assist for the Canadiens, who won for just the second time in seven road games. Montreal had only one win in its previous 11 games in California before scoring three times in the four-round shootout.

Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw also scored and Carey Price made 27 saves for the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens.

Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty had a goal and an assist apiece for the Kings, who lost for only the second time in eight games. Peter Budaj stopped 26 shots (see full recap).

DeKeyser gives Red Wings OT win over Isles
NEW YORK -- Danny DeKeyser scored 1:02 into overtime to give Detroit a victory over New York.

Mike Green scored twice and Henrik Zetterberg had a goal and assist for Detroit, which improved to 4-1-2 in its last seven games. Peter Mrazek stopped 32 shots to improve to 3-0-2 in his past five starts.

Anders Lee, Johnny Boychuk and Josh Bailey scored for New York, which had won a season-high three straight. Jaroslav Halak finished with 30 saves.

Detroit's Frans Nielsen had an assist while facing his former team for the first time since leaving the Islanders for a six-year, $31.5 million deal with the Red Wings last summer. The 32-year-old Danish center was selected by the Islanders in the third round of the 2002 draft and had 119 goals and 230 assists over 10 seasons in New York (see full recap).

Late goal lifts Jets over Blackhawks
CHICAGO -- Andrew Copp scored the tiebreaking goal with 4:45 left, Bryan Little got his third goal in three games and Winnipeg edged Chicago.

Copp beat Scott Darling on the stick side with a shot from the right circle that slipped just inside the left post.

Chicago's Artemi Panarin scored with 6:54 remaining to tie it at 1, moments after Copp hit the post, to spoil Connor Hellebuyck's bid for a second shutout against Chicago in less than a month. Panarin completed a give-and-go with Patrick Kane, beating Hellebuyck to the glove side.

Hellebuyck finished with 25 saves and outdueled Darling, who started his second straight game for the Blackhawks in place of No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford. Darling made 30 saves, including three on breakaways.

Little's power-play goal with 43.4 seconds left in the second period was his fourth point in four games since missing 23 with a lower-body injury (see full recap)