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.

" frameborder="0"
allowfullscreen>

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

Cubs reward Theo Epstein for turnaround with 5-year extension

Cubs reward Theo Epstein for turnaround with 5-year extension

CHICAGO -- Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts had dinner with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein in Arizona around the start of spring training.

If Epstein had any doubt about a contract extension, it ended right there. And on Wednesday, it became official.

Chicago announced a five-year extension, rewarding Epstein for an overhaul that has the long-suffering franchise eyeing its first championship since 1908.

"He started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might have hurt his leverage a little bit, and then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn't work out a contract it would get awkward because I would just keep showing up to work," Epstein said. "As an employee, I will. I kept ruining my leverage."

The deal comes with the Cubs wrapping up one of the greatest seasons in franchise history and their fans believing this just might be the team to end the 108-year World Series title drought.

Chicago reached 100 wins for the first time since 1935 and was a major league-leading 101-56 heading into Wednesday's game at Pittsburgh. The Cubs clinched the best record in the majors with more than a week left in the regular season.

"In the five years under Theo's leadership, he has brought in a strong executive team and acquired and developed some of the best players in the game," Ricketts said. "Now, the results are on the field."

Terms were not disclosed.

It looks like Epstein isn't the only Cubs executive with a new deal. He said contract extensions for general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod will probably be announced in the next day or two.

Epstein, who was in the final season of a five-year deal when he left Boston in October 2011, had repeatedly said a new contract was a formality, that there were more immediate priorities. Ricketts had echoed that and indicated in the spring that he was prepared to make him one of the highest-paid executives in baseball.

"There was never any real drama throughout the summer," said Ricketts, adding the agreement was finalized a few days ago.

What took so long?

"We sat down at spring training, had a nice dinner, talked about getting an extension done," Ricketts said. "Basically, I told him I thought he was the best in the game at what he did. He told me no matter what I paid him he wasn't going to leave Chicago, so we were off to a good start. We checked back in on it a couple times during the summer. There was no real time pressure."

The new deal is a reward for a striking transformation that began with the arrivals of Epstein along with Hoyer and McLeod -- his friends from Boston -- following the 2011 season.

The Cubs tested some fans' patience by taking the long approach rather than going for a quick fix, but they have seen the benefits the past two years. Chicago is eyeing even bigger things after breaking out with 97 wins and reaching the NL Championship Series last season.

"When you have great leadership at the top, it usually filters through the rest of the group," manager Joe Maddon said. "A successful organization has that. We have that. I was very happy to hear the news. I'm very happy for Theo and his family and of course, us. It is great. It's a feel-good story. He deserves it. He's earned it. I'm very happy for him."

High draft picks such as 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant made big impacts, as did a number of trade acquisitions, including last season's NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo and potential Gold Glove shortstop Addison Russell.

The hiring of NL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon and signing of starter Jon Lester before the 2015 season showed just how serious the Cubs were about jumping into contention. And the additions of three-time Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, pitcher John Lackey and veteran infielder Ben Zobrist along with the re-signing of outfielder Dexter Fowler this past offseason added to an already deep roster.

Throw in the emergence of Kyle Hendricks as a Cy Young candidate, and the Cubs are widely considered a postseason favorite.

There were missteps along the way, but the Cubs are in a far different and far better place than they were five years ago. And if they win it all under Epstein, it won't be the first time he helped end a long championship drought.

Before he took aim at the Billy goat curse, he took down the Bambino.

Epstein oversaw two World Series winners in nine seasons as Boston's general manager.

In Chicago, Epstein parted with high-priced veterans and loaded up the minor league system while expanding the team's scouting and analytics operation as part of an overhaul that saw the organization get stripped to its studs.

The Ricketts family also invested heavily in infrastructure in recent years, including new training facilities in the baseball-rich Dominican Republic and the spring training home in Arizona. They are also overhauling Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood.

"There really wasn't anything important to me besides finding common ground, making sure that we could stay and see this thing through," Epstein said. "Our mission has not been accomplished yet."

Roman Quinn likely done for season; Aaron Nola is throwing in Fla.

Roman Quinn likely done for season; Aaron Nola is throwing in Fla.

ATLANTA – Roman Quinn spent Wednesday getting treatment on his freshly strained left oblique. The rookie outfielder will try to gauge his condition by doing some jogging and light throwing on Thursday, but all signs point to his being shut down for the remaining days of the season and continuing his bid to make the opening day 2017 roster in spring training.

“He’ll let me know tomorrow and be honest with me if he still feels it,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. "There’s no sense in him getting hurt with only four or five games left in the season.”

Quinn injured himself taking a swing in the fifth inning Tuesday. He blew out the same oblique at Double A Reading this summer and missed six weeks.

“I think he’s more scared than anything that it’s going to recur and he’s going to make it worse,” Mackanin said.

That should be enough to shut down Quinn right there.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Quinn said.

Quinn was 15 for 57 (.263) with four doubles, six RBIs, eight walks and five stolen bases in 15 games before going down. He struck out 19 times but had a .373 on-base percentage on a team that struggles to get on base.

Mackanin sees Quinn as a player who could make the jump to full-time duty in the Phillies’ outfield as soon as April, but first Quinn must clear the injury hurdle that has cost him so much time since he was picked in the second round of the 2011 draft. Quinn has missed time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a torn quad muscle, a broken wrist and oblique issues.

“He mentioned to me that because he’s so lean and doesn’t have a lot of body fat that might be part of the issue,” said Mackanin, referring to Quinn’s oblique issues. “They have so much health food available for the players that this could be a good way to make a change, so we can have a pizza and a burger once in a while.”

Mackanin got serious.

“With him, his big question mark is staying on the field,” the manager said. “That’s always going to be in the back of everybody’s mind because he doesn’t seem to stay on the field as much as you’d like him to. Resilience and reliability are important. So that’s going to be a big test for him next year. It’s obvious what he brings to the table as far as making things happen. He’s a catalyst for a lot of things, the least of which is coverage in the outfield, so it’s a matter of whether he can stay on the field or not.”

In other health matters ...
Reliever Edubray Ramos has a sore elbow and is day to day, and day to day at this time of the year might mean he’s done for the season. Mackanin said the elbow issue is not serious and could be a result of Ramos' pitching longer than he ever has in a season.

Also, Aaron Nola has begun to test his ailing elbow by throwing on flat ground in Florida. He will progress to a mound and eventually face hitters in the coming weeks as the club gauges whether he is fully recovered from his elbow strain or will require surgery that could cost him the 2017 season.