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.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

uspresswire-psu-saquon-barkley.jpg
USA Today Images

Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.

Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.

But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.

"We've got to be patient," Barkley said Wednesday. "Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more."

Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.

Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.

It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.

Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.

"There's a lot of different ways," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.

"He's a game-changing player," center Brian Gaia said.

But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.

"I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast," Barkley said. "Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow."

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Take a look at the standings and you’ll see the Temple Owls are 2-2 so far this season with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte and losses to Army and Penn State.

But take a peek to the right of that 2-2 mark and you’ll see a 0-0 record in AAC conference play.

While the Owls would most certainly like to have a better record than the 2-2 record they sport at this very moment, the silver lining is that none of those games were conference games. Therefore, those games don’t affect Temple’s overall goal of defending its AAC Eastern Division crown.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that title defense finally begins when Temple welcomes SMU and its uptempo offensive attack to Lincoln Financial Field in the first of eight straight AAC games that will close out the regular season.

“It sort of feels like a new start to the season,” Temple senior quarterback Phillip Walker said following Tuesday’s practice on campus at Edberg-Olsen Hall. “It’s just another great opportunity for us not to look back on anything or think about anything that happened in the past in the first four games. Now it’s an opportunity to play our next eight games and enjoy playing the conference again.”

The good news for Temple heading into conference play is that the offense has found its stride. The Owls overwhelmed Charlotte last week, 48-20, behind 268 yards and two touchdowns throws from the arm of Walker and two touchdowns runs a piece from senior Jahad Thomas and Sophomore Ryquell Armstead. After early struggles, Walker is now up to 846 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

That’s after the tough loss at Penn State two weeks ago when the offense settled itself for the first time this season and found continuity. Thomas’ return to the backfield has helped, as he’s scored four touchdowns in two games since missing the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb.

The Temple defense is still hurting itself with a lackluster pass rush. The Owls have only five sacks through the first four games. Last season, they had 10 sacks in the first game alone. Big plays allowed are an issue, too, as Temple has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage through four games.

But the confidence is there and the Owls believe they are getting better each week.

“I think we’re better than where we were [earlier in the year,]” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who has five tackles for loss on the year. “A lot of guys are stepping up, locking in on the small details that were hurting us the first couple of weeks. We’ve got the younger guys playing better and harder, so I think we’ve come a long way. I still think there are some things we need to get better on, but we’re close.

“Those first four games, none of those teams were conference teams. It was like preseason to work out the kinks. Now it’s time to go. It’s full-throttle now. There’s no time to make mistakes. There’s no time to beat ourselves.”

Temple head coach Matt Rhule, on the other hand, doesn’t like to talk much about the “fresh start” or “restart” that comes with the beginning of AAC play this weekend.

He preaches the importance of conference play every week, and he has proof.

“Every week, I put up the conference rankings, no matter what,” he said Tuesday “Week 1 when we lost, I put up the conference rankings. Week 2 when we won, I put up the conference rankings. Week 3, Week 4, I do that every week because I want guys to understand the importance of conference wins, conference losses and conference play.

“I will say, to be fair, I did say we were going to try and get our kids to be ready for Week 4 or 5 or 6, because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young guys and knew we were going to have to teach them.”

All the Owls, young and old, know they need to be prepared on Saturday.

The Mustangs have already equaled their win total from last season and have the same record, overall and conference, as the Owls heading into Saturday. They hung tough with Big 12 powerhouses Baylor (6-6 at half) and TCU (6-3 TCU at half) before eventually succumbing in the second half of both games.

Defensively, SMU is tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions. But plenty of focus goes on the Mustangs’ uptempo offense, which break off chunks of yardage in the blink of an eye with 448 yards per game so far this year. Rhule and the Owls know that fact better than anyone. The last two times these schools have met, SMU earned a 59-49 win in 2013 and Temple came away with a 60-40 victory last season. That’s 208 points combined in the last two meetings.

SMU’s fast-paced attack is exactly the type of offensive system Rhule’s Owls have historically struggled with, too.

“They have, obviously, a lot of offense,” Rhule said of Saturday’s foe. “(SMU head coach) Coach (Chad) Morris was one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He did it at Clemson and he’s doing it there. There’s a lot to deal with. That’s the history of this series, though.”

Quarterback Matt Davis, who hurt Temple with both his arm and his feet last season, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Ben Hicks has stepped in and thrown seven interceptions compared to just two touchdowns. But big-play receiver Cortland Sutton is still there and he already has four touchdown grabs on the year.

In practice this week, speed has been the theme of the Owls' defense, which is 28th in the nation with 327.3 yards allowed per game this year.

“It’s difficult to prepare for,” Reddick said of SMU’s offense. “You’ve got to just work on it in practice, going fast and getting the defensive calls faster. You have to look and read to the offense faster to see what you have to do faster. So you have to kick it up.”