Towards A More Perfect Union? Previewing Year Two in Chester

Towards A More Perfect Union? Previewing Year Two in Chester


Finally. After five long months the Union open their second season Saturday on the road against the Houston Dynamo (8:30PM, 6ABC). With an inaugural 8-15-7 record, the U have plenty of room for improvement. Quite simply, in the offseason they needed to address the two-headed problem of conceding too many goals and scoring too few.

They've allocated resources towards revamping their defense and tweaking their offense. Defensively, they kept just two clean sheets in league games last season. Even more alarming was the fact that they finished the year with a dismal -14 goal differential.

Offensively, their 35 goals scored was fifth worst in the MLS. Sebastien Le Toux (14 goals) and rookie Danny Mwanga (7) carried a disproportionate amount of the scoring load, combining to score 21 of the Union's 35 goals. It doesn't take Jose Mourinho to figure out that they need more balanced scoring.

So, what can you expect from Peter Nowak's club in Season Two?

Well, as mentioned you'll see new faces. Lots of new faces. On the flipside, some familiar faces have moved on. Here's a quick primer on some of the Union's key additions and subtractions.

Welcome to Chester: Faryd Mondragon (GK), Carlos Valdes (D), Carlos Ruiz (F), Brian Carroll (M), Zac MacMath (GK).

Thanks for Your Service: Chris Seitz (GK), Brad Knighton (GK), Michael Orozco-Fiscal (D), Shea Salinas (M), Alejandro Moreno (F), Fred (M), Andrew Jacobson (M).

The most striking thing about the transactions listed above is the turnover at the goalkeeper position. The Union jettisoned both Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton. Seitz' struggles between the sticks were well documented. Knighton was a slight upgrade, but not a standout. Enter Faryd Mondragon.

Mondragon, a 39 year old veteran of both the Bundesliga and the Colombian National Team, brings a much needed veteran presence to the team. Neither Seitz nor Knighton lacked size or athletic ability. They lacked experience and  confidence. Mondragon  has both and will have no problem barking at his back four and taking charge of his box.

Carlos Valdes, another Colombian international, should bring a bit more athleticism to the center back position. The combination of Orozco-Fiscal and Danny Califf was often shaky and uncertain. They allowed opposing players to turn too easily and were often caught out of position. The hope is that a Valdes-Califf pairing can make the center of the Union defense a strength.

Sheanon Williams provides some much needed pace from the outside back position. Jordan Harvey, who seemingly played every minute last season, should benefit from Mondragon's ability and willingness to organize his back line. Here's hoping we never have to see Harvey tracking back 90+ yards in an attempt to cover a blown assignment.

What did the Union do to address their shortcomings in the offensive third? Well, they brought in El Pescadito, Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz is a former MLS MVP, who has scored 82 career goals in MLS play. Although short and squat he plays as a target man and possesses a unique ability hold up play.

He's somewhat similar to Alejandro Moreno (both spend an inordinate amount of time picking themselves off the ground), except that unlike Moreno he's an accomplished goal scorer.

Adding Ruiz will enable Nowak to slot Le Toux in the hole behind Ruiz and Mwanga. Playing as an advanced midfielder Le Toux's ability to run all day will be that much more evident and effective. Ideally, Ruiz plays with his back to goal, holds up play, knocks balls to an oncoming Le Toux, and the Union are off to the races.

The most notable new face in the midfield belongs to Brian Carroll. Carroll, a veteran of 200+ MLS games, is reunited with Nowak, who coached him when both were with D.C. United.

He'll likely combine with some combination of Roger Torres (the most creative Union player), Justin Mapp (the biggest enigma), and either Stefani Miglioranzi (just a plain solid veteran) or Kyle Nakazawa (other than Le Toux the most dangerous in dead ball situations) in the midfield. Carroll should provide a steadying, calming, ball winning presence in the middle third.

My mancrush, Jack McInerney, has another year under his belt and will be a nice changeup to Ruiz in late game situations. Amobi Okugo should provide fresh legs to the central midfield. First round pick MacMath can ease his way into the lineup and learn from a veteran like Mondragon.

If you notice, the one consistent thread in the Union's offseason moves was to bring in veteran players who ply their trade through the middle of the pitch. Mondragon, Valdes, Carroll, and Ruiz all play in the middle of their respective third of the field.

Peter Nowak can now rely on seasoned professionals who have represented their national teams in the pressure cooker provided by international matches. Soccer is no different from any other sport in that you need to be strong in the middle. The moves they made should go a long way towards turning that weakness into an area of strength.

So, with all of that being said what's a fair expectation for the Union in their second campaign? I think it's realistic for them to contend for a playoff spot, cut down on the goals against, keep a few more clean sheets, and have more balanced scoring.

Season Prediction: I am not ready to definitively state that the Union will absolutely make the playoffs, but if they're able to improve their road record (they were just 2-12-1 away from the Linc/PPL Park) they should be in the mix come playoff time.

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Shayne Gostisbehere’s fist pump was so vicious and mighty, the celebration was probably felt back in Philadelphia.

This was an exultation the entire Flyers felt, too.

When it started to look like the bye week wasn’t the break they needed, the Flyers reached down deep and got one Sunday night at the Barclays Center in the form of a 3-2 overtime victory over the Islanders (see Instant Replay).

“It allows you to take a breath,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s one thing for sure.”

A sigh of relief for a team beaten and bruised — losers of three straight by a combined score of 15-4, not to mention 3-9-3 in its past 15 games. The Flyers had lost the day prior on home ice to the Devils, 4-1, with a performance not exactly inspiring confidence following five days off.

On Sunday, they trailed 2-0 in the second period.

“We've got to get better at dealing with adversity when something goes wrong,” general manager Ron Hextall said bluntly before the game. “We need to get back on the horse and get back going. Big deal, a team scored a goal. We need to react better to it.”

Finally, the Flyers reacted the way their GM had been hoping.

They flipped the deficit into a victory when Gostisbehere skated behind the net and put the puck on Claude Giroux’s stick for the game-winner with 1:40 left in the extra session. Gostisbehere whipped his arm through the air and embraced Giroux, along with Jakub Voracek, who started the play by stripping Islanders captain John Tavares.

“On a lot of different levels, it’s an important win,” Hakstol said. “It’s huge. And more importantly for us, a great effort. Thought we deserved the two points. Sometimes maybe that’s what it takes to get over the hump — a tremendous effort for 60-plus minutes. I thought we got that out of everyone tonight.”

For Giroux, it was his first goal since Dec. 21.

For Steve Mason, his first win since Dec. 21.

And for the Flyers, their first road victory since Dec. 14, as they went 0-6-3 in the previous nine games away from home.

Yeah, “it was needed,” as Wayne Simmonds said of the win.

“We’ve been fighting it lately and I thought that was a good game from start to finish,” he said. “I thought everyone played well. I think we made bounces go our way tonight instead of hoping and waiting.”

Simmonds scored what might have been the biggest goal of the game. The Flyers, down 1-0 in the second period, came up empty for 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play and the proceeding 5-on-4 advantage. The Islanders then padded the lead to 2-0 moments later, putting the Flyers’ backs against the wall.

But Simmonds kept his team from uncoiling with a goal at 14:10 of the period, giving the Flyers life at second intermission. If not for that score, who knows how the Flyers come out in the third period, trailing by multiple goals yet again.

"I think we were plying well,” Giroux said. “We had a lot of chances and [the puck] wasn't going in. Everybody on the bench was frustrated. When Wayne got that first goal, I think [there was] a little relief on the bench. I haven't seen a team celebrate so much just for a first goal. It was kind of a relief and we had a little boost out of that.”

Ivan Provorov scored the equalizer 1:47 into the final period when he maintained possession from the blue line to the circle, adeptly skating around two Islanders to put the puck on net. Provorov’s pass to Travis Konecny hit off the skate of New York’s Adam Pelech and into the net.

“I came off the bench and I saw [Brayden Schenn] was going into the zone, so I took a few hard strides, got the puck from him and I saw it was kind of an odd-man situation,” Provorov said. “I held on to the puck a little bit, saw T.K. going backdoor, passed it there and it went off their D skate.”

Just as important as the timely goals was the Flyers’ discipline. Against the Devils, the Flyers compiled 19 penalty minutes, forcing them on seven penalty kills. This time, the Flyers sharpened up, not allowing the Islanders a power play until midway through the third period. In total, they had just four penalty minutes and killed off both power plays faced.

That gave them a chance.

“We just kept saying it the whole time, ‘Keep going, keep going, guys,’” Simmonds said. “We just need one [goal] and from one comes two, and Mase held the fort.”

Mason made 17 of his 36 saves in the third period and overtime combined.

Now, the Flyers at least go into another important back-to-back — starting Wednesday at the Rangers before welcoming the Maple Leafs Thursday — with some confidence instead of a lost weekend.

“I thought the focus was purely on going out and playing well,” Hakstol said. “And you know, that’s harder to do than you might know — when you start to feel some of the pressure without a win in a little bit. I really liked that side of it. Even in that situation, all the guys played well. Hopefully that puts our entire team in the right direction.’’

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored two goals, Sidney Crosby added his league-leading 28th and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth straight game, 5-1 over the Boston Bruins 5-1 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh led 2-1 through two periods before breaking out in the third with three goals in a span of 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

Sheary scored his 17th and has nine goals in nine games. Bryan Rust added his 12th and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for the Penguins, who won a season-high seventh straight at home. Pittsburgh the NHL's best home team, is 13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.

Evgeni Malkin had two assists for a season-best seven-game point streak. Crosby added two assists for a three-point game. Matt Murray made 44 saves to win his fourth straight game.

David Krejci scored his 11th for the Bruins, who have lost four straight and five of their last six (see full recap).

Rangers shut out Red Wings in 1-0 OT win
DETROIT -- J.T. Miller scored at 1:56 of overtime to lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 61st of his career. The Rangers managed only 19 shots in a game that featured few memorable chances by either team.

The winner came when Mats Zuccarello and Miller swooped in alone on Detroit goalie Jared Coreau. Zuccarello made a simple pass to Miller, who lifted the puck over Coreau for his 16th goal of the season.

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall played for the first time since Jan. 4, returning from a lower-body injury. The Red Wings put forward Drew Miller on waivers (see full recap).

Atikinson lifts Jackets over Senators in wild OT win
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Cam Atkinson's second goal of the game at 1:09 of overtime lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets a 7-6 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Atkinson had a breakaway after a shot by Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed the Columbus net and went around the boards out to Atkinson, who was at center-ice.

The Blue Jackets trailed 5-3 after two periods before Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert scored 31 seconds apart to tie it less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third. Atklnson then gave Columbus a 6-5 lead with 9:10 remaining, before Kyle Turries tied it for Ottawa on the power play less than 2 minutes later.

Nick Foligno, Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski also scored for the Blue Jackets, and Joonas Korpisalo finished with 28 saves.

Zach Smith and Mike Hoffman each had two goals and Mark Stone also scored for the Senators. Mike Condon had 22 saves (see full recap).