Union 2012 Season Preview: Youth to be Served

Union 2012 Season Preview: Youth to be Served

The Philadelphia Union open their third season on
the road in Portland tonight. The team that will face the Timbers is
a vastly different one than walked off the field at Robertson Stadium
following the playoff loss to Houston in November. If there’s one
thing we learned about the Union this offseason it’s that they do
not fear change.

Their captain and starting goalkeeper? Gone. The face
of the franchise and all-time leading scorer? Gone. Make no mistake,
you do not jettison your two most popular players and risk alienating
a rabid fan base without having the courage of your convictions. Whether
you agree with them or not, this is an organization with a clearly defined
philosophy.

What is that philosophy? They value youth and they
exploit inefficiencies in undervalued player acquisition markets like
Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama. When taken as whole, the stunning
offseason moves are consistent with those two tenets.

So, with that mind let’s take a look at the offseason
moves and the key storylines to look for in Season Three.

Key Departures

Sebastien Le Toux (traded to Vancouver) – We’ve covered
the Le Toux trade here and here.
The reality is that the Union are going to need to find a way to replace
a prolific goal scorer. In two seasons Le Toux scored 31.6% of the Union’s
goals. He didn’t wait long to open his account in Vancouver – scoring
just three minutes into his first game with the Whitecaps
.

Faryd Mondragon (released by Union so he could rejoin Colombia’s
Deportivo Cali) – The captain and starting goalkeeper was a huge reason
why the Union went from conceding 49 goals in 2010 to 36 in 2011. Truth
be told, Mondragon’s greatest contribution was his ability to organize
his back line. His lateral movement wasn’t great and he wasn’t the
quickest, but he was a tremendous leader.

Justin Mapp (selected by the Montreal Impact in the expansion
draft) – Mapp, ever the enigma, was left unprotected in the expansion
draft. His propensity for wandering in and out of games was maddening.
The only thing consistent about him was his inconsistency.

Kyle Nakazawa (traded to the LA Galaxy) – He was never able
to establish himself as a regular in Nowak’s lineup. His service on
set pieces was a strength, but he only managed to crack the starting
lineup eight times last season.

Key Arrivals

Gabriel Gomez (acquired from Indios de Cuidad Juarez) – Gomez,
a Panamanian international, will partner with Brian Carroll in the center
of the Union midfield. Physically the guy is a rock. He’ll bring a
rugged, physical presence to the center of the park. He looks and plays
much bigger than his listed 6’0”, 178 lbs. Also, he’ll provide
the bulk of the service on free kicks.

Josué Martinez (acquired from Deportivo Saprissa) – Martinez,
a Costa Rican international, is a 21-year old striker who the Union
hope will help fill the void left by Le Toux. He brings a ton of pace
and an ability to stretch opposing defenses.

Lionard Pajoy (acquired from  Itagüí Ditaires) – Pajoy is
yet another Colombian player to join the Union. Like Martinez, Pajoy
is a forward. He brings good size (6’1”, 185 lbs.) and finishing
ability. He scored 13 goals in 27 games last season in the Colombian
first division.

Porfirio Lopez (acquired from Deportiva Alajuelense) – Lopez
is being counted on to step in and assume the starting left back spot.
Gabe Farfan, playing out of position there last season, was serviceable,
but Lopez is a natural left back. Easily identifiable by his afro, Lopez
will be the lone new member of the Union’s back line.

Youth to be Served

In light of the roster turnover the Union will need
a number of young players to step up. Roger Torres (20 years old) will be counted on to provide a
creative presence in the midfield. He’s the closest thing the Union
has to a string-puller. He’ll likely play in front of Gomez and Carroll,
who will provide defensive cover and allow the diminutive playmaker
to initiate the offense.

Zac MacMath (20 years old) was the fifth overall pick in the
2011 MLS Super Draft. He deputized for Mondragon last season, and will
assume the starting role. There aren’t a whole lot of questions surrounding
his ability. However, it remains to be seen whether he can assert himself
and organize his back line.

It’s hard to believe, but Freddy Adu is only 22 years old. He struggled to make an impact
with the Union after joining the team in August, but should benefit
from his first full preseason camp under Nowak. I am not sure exactly
where he’ll play, but he was a confident, attacking force for the
US U23’s on the right wing. He’s too creative and skilled to not
find a role on this team. Quite simply, it’s time for Freddy to step
up. Union fans understand his desire to play overseas, but would appreciate
him focusing on his responsibilities to his current club.

Danny Mwanga (20 years old) will likely be given every opportunity
to step in and take over for Le Toux. The former first overall pick
has all the physical attributes you want from a forward (size, pace,
skill). The one thing he has not shown is a consistent work rate, which
was one area where you could never question Le Toux. Fair or not, his
performance is going to be compared with the Frenchman. Although, work
rate aside, at the end of the day the only thing that will matter is
the number of times Mwanga puts the ball in the net.

Michael Farfan (23 years old), who is fresh off a training
spell with Premier League team Sunderland, was the best of the Union’s
young players last season. His contributions were recognized league-wide
as he was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year. There isn’t one particular
area of the game where Farfan excels. He doesn’t blow you away with
his speed. He isn’t physically imposing. He’s not flashy. He just
has “it”. It’s plain to see whenever he’s on the ball. I could
write 1,000+ words on the subtlety of his game, but I’ll spare you.
Just watch the guy play and you’ll know what I am talking about.

Sheanon Williams (21 years old) was just rewarded with a new
contract. The starting right back is a tireless runner. He provides
width to the Union attack and has the green light to get forward and
make overlapping runs. He has room for improvement, particularly in
his man marking, but he’s exactly the sort of young player the Union
wants to build around.

All six of the players mentioned above should likely
start for the Union. However, they are not the only young players who
will factor into the equation this season. Jack McInereny (19 years old), Amobi Okugo (20 years old), 2011 first round pick Chandler Hoffman (21 years old), and homegrown signings Cristhian Hernandez
(18 years old),
Jimmy McLaughlin (18 years old) and Zach Pfeffer (17 years old)will all play a role this season.

STORYLINES

Will the Depth at Forward Compensate for the Loss of Le Toux?

The departure of Le Toux opened an opportunity for
someone to step up and claim his minutes (and he played every minute).
The good news is that there is no shortage of forward attacking options.
The group of forwards assembled by the front office is the deepest in
the short history of the franchise. Mwanga, Martinez, Pajoy, McInerney,
and Hoffman will all fight to be included in the first XI.

I’d imagine that Mwanga, Martinez and Pajoy will
see the bulk of the minutes. I would love for McInerney to be given
an opportunity to play a full 90 minutes at his natural forward position,
but I currently see him as fourth in the pecking order.

Can Zac MacMath Handle the Full Time Goalkeeping Duties?

Honestly, he has to. The Union decided not to bring
in a veteran backup. MacMath stepped in and played well when Mondragon
was injured last season. He went 3-0-4 with a 1.07 goals against average
– posting three shutouts. I don’t think Union fans are the least
bit worried that MacMath will be overwhelmed in the same manner Chris
Seitz was in 2010. However, the question remains whether MacMath can
be the assertive, vocal organizer capable of commanding his box like
Mondragon.

How Many Players Can the Union Expect to Lose for Olympic Qualifying
and the Olympics?

At various points this summer five Union players were
in the US U23 camp (Adu, MacMath, McInerney, Okugo, and Williams). However,
only two of those players (Adu and Okugo) were called in for the most
recent camp and friendly with Mexico. The Union are in a decent position
to absorb the temporary losses of all of those players save for MacMath
and Williams. There is a frightening lack of depth on the back line
and between the sticks. Losing either player for a significant period
would be a major problem. Ultimately, I think US U23 coach Caleb Porter
selects Adu and Okugo.

Which Union Player Will Have a Breakout Season?

If I had to put money on it I’d bet on Michael Farfan.
As mentioned, the guy just has “it”. And yes, this goes way beyond
him chipping the keeper against Real Madrid. He plays way beyond his
years. He exhibits unbelievable patience on the ball. He’s proficient
in working out of tight spaces. His game doesn’t jump up and grab
you, but the more you watch him the more you appreciate just how good
he is.

You’re This Far Into the Season Preview and You Haven’t Mentioned
Danny Califf  or Carlos Valdes?

Yes, I know. Califf, who will wear the captain’s
armband, and Valdes are probably the two most important players on the
team. Their partnership in the middle of the back line was crucial to
the Union’s success last season. Their struggles against Houston on
set pieces during the playoffs overshadowed what was otherwise a stellar
season for the center back pairing. With goal scoring a question mark
the Union will have to be even better defensively this season. It all
starts with Califf and Valdes.

What Formation Will Peter Nowak Play?

Your guess is as good as mine. I honestly have no
idea. He could play an 8-1-1 and it wouldn’t surprise me. Realistically
though I think the formation that best suits this team is a 4-2-3-1.
I’d fill in that shape with Williams, Valdes, Califf, Lopez, Carroll,
Gomez, M. Farfan, Torres, Adu, and Mwanga. Again, I don’t think there’s
any shot Nowak does that, but that’s the way I’d like them to set
up.

SEASON PREDICTION

With all of the new faces it may take a bit of time
for the Union to start clicking. Fortunately they play in the MLS Eastern
Conference, which is much less competitive than the West. The top five
teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs. I see the Union
battling for either that fourth or fifth spot. Kansas City and Houston
are absolutely the class of the conference. I think the Union fall into
the second tier of teams along with New York, Chicago, Columbus, and
an improving D.C.

FINAL VERDICT: I’ll say the Union gel as the season progresses
and make a late push to clinch the final playoff spot in the East.

Mets hand Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies 'embarrassing' 12-1 loss

Mets hand Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies 'embarrassing' 12-1 loss

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK – Pete Mackanin didn’t nibble around the edges in summing up this one.

He threw it right down the middle.

“Tonight was embarrassing,” the Phillies manager said after his team was knocked around like a ragdoll in a 12-1 loss to the New York Mets at Citi Field on Saturday night (see Instant Replay).

The Phillies have lost the first two games of the series by a combined score of 21-5.

“Bad pitching,” Mackanin said.

And no real offense in this one. The Phils had just three hits.

But Mackanin was right. The pitching has been awful in the first two games. Phillies pitching has given up eight home runs – good for 18 runs – in the two games.

“The Mets seem to know what's coming,” Mackanin said. “They just seem to feast on our pitching. We've just got to regroup.”

In this game, the Mets feasted on Jeremy Hellickson, who had been the Phillies’ most consistent pitcher for weeks.

The right-hander was tagged for five runs, the most he’d given up in a start since June 10, in just four innings of work. All the runs came on a pair of homers.

“They’re an aggressive lineup and they’re hot right now,” Hellickson said of the Mets, winners of seven of their last eight. “They’re not missing mistakes. They’re grinding out at-bats and making us work.”

Hellickson entered the game with a 2.60 ERA in his previous 11 starts.

“He just didn’t have the command he usually has,” Mackanin said. “He's allowed to have a bad start. He's been so good for us. But it wasn't one of his better ones.”

Hellickson’s recent success made him attractive to at least one other team this month. According to sources, he was claimed on waivers recently, but the Phillies pulled him back. That makes him ineligible for a trade, so he will stay for the rest of the season and head off to free agency this winter. The Phillies will be awarded a compensation draft pick if they extend Hellickson a qualifying offer for 2017 and he rejects it.

Hellickson gave up a two-run homer to Asdrubal Cabrera in the third inning and a three-run shot on a full-count fastball to Yoenis Cespedes in the fourth.

Hellickson walked three, his most in a game since June 15.

“When I got ahead, I couldn’t put them away,” he said. “And I had three walks. That can’t happen.”

Phillies starting pitchers have had a poor month of August. They have allowed 92 earned runs in 114 innings for a 7.26 ERA and given up a majors-high 33 homers.

And yet, amazingly, the club is 11-11 in the month.

“From what we've seen over the last couple of weeks it hasn't been the same as it was the first four months of the season,” Mackanin said of the pitching. “We've just got to regroup and put these two games behind us.”

The Phillies have been manhandled by Mets pitching in these two games. Bartolo Colon got them on Friday and Noah Syndergaard in this one. The gas-throwing right-hander reached 100 mph on his heater. He held the Phils to two hits in seven innings and struck out seven. He gave up a solo homer to Freddy Galvis in the third inning for the Phillies’ only run.

The Phillies problems on the mound continued after Hellickson departed. Reliever Michael Mariot was tagged for six runs in the seventh inning, four on Kelly Johnson’s pinch-hit grand slam.

The Phils have lost 13 of their last 17 at Citi Field. They are 9-21 against the Mets the last two seasons.

The series concludes Sunday afternoon. Vince Velasquez will try to stop the skid. He'd better keep that fastball out of the heart of the plate because these Mets hitters are locked in.

10 observations from Eagles-Colts

10 observations from Eagles-Colts

BOX SCORE

INDIANAPOLIS -- There wasn’t much not to like Saturday night.
 
There was Nelson Agholor. And Cody Parkey.
 
And that may be it.
 
The defensive line was unstoppable, Sam Bradford was razor sharp, Josh Huff made a bunch of big plays, the secondary got another takeaway, Ryan Mathews and Kenjon Barner ran the ball with authority, the first offensive line looked solid and even Chase Daniel threw the ball around pretty well.
 
The usual caveats apply. Yes, it’s only the preseason. Yes, the Colts were missing half their defense. Yes, we all know what happened after Green Bay last year.
 
Still. Looking good beats looking bad. Especially in the third preseason game. And the Eagles in just about every phase looked very good in their 33-23 win over the Colts (see Instant Replay).
 
So let’s dive into my 10 Instant Observations at Lucas Oil Stadium.
 
1. We got a nice, extended look at the Eagles’ defensive line against a real offense, and it was one heck of a dominating performance. That group, with everybody rotating in, generated tremendous pressure on Andrew Luck, didn’t allow anything against the run and really controlled the football game. Brandon Graham, Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and of course Fletcher Cox all played at a high level, with Cox even lining up at defensive end on occasion. This group is the strength of the football team, and judging by the way they played Saturday night, it is quite a strength. They were tremendous.
 
2. I felt like this was really an important game for Nelson Agholor. It’s not like he’s going to get cut. As a first-round draft pick a year ago, he has some built-in protection. But with the Colts missing half their secondary, it seemed like a real opportunity for Agholor to shine, to build up some confidence and make some big plays down the field. Which we’ve been waiting for since he got here. Instead, he booted the only ball thrown his way and it turned into a Colts interception, big return and three points. Bradford never threw his way again. We keep waiting for Agholor to show up, and it just isn’t happening. What a disappointment so far.
 
3.  On the other hand, there’s Josh Huff, who showed exactly why the Eagles feel he can be such a weapon. The former third-round pick, such a disappointment the last two years, had a tackle-breaking 38-yard catch and run, a 22-yard catch and a nine-yard touchdown run. When Huff isn’t doing something stupid, he can look downright electrifying, and that’s the Josh Huff we saw Saturday night. Can he do it in the regular season? I still think he can. He’s teased us before and maybe that’s what Saturday night was. But it was certainly encouraging to see.
 
4. Green Bay last year, I know, I know. Still, Bradford was exceptionally sharp and really looked in command of the offense. Yes, the Colts were missing a bunch of cornerbacks – six defensive backs in all and a seventh got hurt during the game – but Bradford distributed the ball, showed good pocket presence, used a bunch of different weapons and most importantly put points on the scoreboard. Bradford was 17 for 20 for 167 yards with two TD passes and an INT off Agholor’s hands. He should have had just two incompletions. Bradford engineered touchdown drives of 63, 71 and 68 yards in addition to a 54-yard field goal drive. (For those of you who care about these things, Bradford’s career Week 3 preseason stats as an Eagle are 27-for-30 for 288 yards with five touchdowns and one INT and a passer rating of 132.4)
 
5. Haven’t said much this preseason about Ryan Mathews, but he looks terrific running the football. Mathews got only three carries Saturday night but ran for 31 yards. He’s turned 10 carries this preseason into 64 yards – a 6.4 average. We all know his injury history, but with Barner also looking sharp – 6 for 39 Saturday night, 19 for 115 (6.1 average) this preseason – hopefully the Eagles can limit Mathews’ carries, keep him healthy and get good production from both backs. With a handful of carries per game from Darren Sproles as well.
 
6. I didn’t mention Beau Allen earlier in my post about the defensive line, but the former seventh-round pick, now in his third year with the Eagles, made a couple big plays with the first unit Saturday night and has quietly had an impressive preseason. The 330-pound defensive tackle isn’t just earning a roster spot, he’s earning playing time.
 
7. A few words about Trey Burton. Has this kid ever dropped a pass in his life? Five catches for 35 on Saturday night. They aren’t huge numbers, but he’s just smooth and consistent and steady. Burton was just a special teamer last year and obviously Zach Ertz and Brent Celek are going to be the top two tight ends in most situations, but I still think a kid with the combination of speed, size and hands that Burton has is too valuable to get rid of, and hopefully the Eagles find a way to use his talents on offense.
 
8. You don’t want to get too carried away with preseason, but interesting to note that the Eagles’ defense has allowed just one touchdown and has nine takeaways. I don’t care when the games are, that’s impressive. I’ve been impressed not just with the takeaways but with coverage, tackling, speed, angles to the ball. They just look disciplined, smart, fast and athletic.
 
9. Cody Parkey of 2014 vs. Caleb Sturgis is a no-brainer. You keep Parkey. But this isn’t the same Cody Parkey as the record-setting 2014 Pro Bowler. Maybe he’s not totally recovered from the groin injury that derailed his 2015 season. Whatever it is, Parkey is not the same guy who made 89 percent of his field goal attempts as a rookie. Sturgis has routinely out-performed Parkey in training camp, and the disparity between the two was on full display last night, with Sturgis easily making both his field goal attempts – a 32-yarder and a 47-yarder – and Parkey missing a PAT. Parkey has only attempted one field goal this preseason – he made a 40-yarder in Pittsburgh last week – but right now the Eagles really have no choice but to keep Sturgis, who made an unspectacular but acceptable 82 percent of his field goals last year. Parkey may have more upside and maybe he’ll regain his form somewhere else. But the Eagles can’t afford to wait.
 
10. Chase Daniel has put together a couple nice games in a row. Yes, working against scrubs, but his performance in the preseason opener vs. Tampa Bay was so bad it’s encouraging to see Daniel functioning like a real quarterback. He followed a 10 for 16 for 82 yards in Pittsburgh with 9 for 12 for 104 yards and a sharp 28-yard TD lob to David Watford in Indy. Considering Sam Bradford’s injury history, it’s a little reassuring to see some solid quarterbacking from Doug Pederson’s hand-picked backup.

Instant Replay: Mets 12, Phillies 1

Instant Replay: Mets 12, Phillies 1

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK – Jeremy Hellickson’s string of strong starts ended Saturday night in the Phillies’ 12-1 loss to the New York Mets.

The Phillies had just three hits and were overpowered by Mets starter Noah Syndergaard.

Hellickson was tagged for five runs, the most he’d given up in a start since June 10, in just four innings. All the runs came on a pair of homers.

The Mets have clubbed eight homers – good for 18 runs – in the first two games of the series.

Phillies starting pitchers have had a poor month of August. They have allowed 92 earned runs in 114 innings for a 7.26 ERA and given up a majors-high 33 homers.

The Phils have lost 13 of their last 17 at Citi Field. They are 9-21 against the Mets the last two seasons.

Starting pitching report 
Hellickson entered the game with a 2.60 ERA in his previous 11 starts. He was victimized by the long ball in this one. All five of the runs he allowed over four innings came on home runs, a two-run shot and a three-run shot.

Hellickson is 10-8 with a 3.80 ERA in 26 starts this season.

By the way, Hellickson is staying for the remainder of the season. According to a baseball source, he was claimed on waivers this month and pulled back, making him ineligible for a trade.

Syndergaard’s fastball reached triple digits. He held the Phillies to two hits and a run over seven innings. He struck out seven. He is 12-7 with a 2.55 ERA.

Bullpen report 
David Hernandez relieved Hellickson and pitched two scoreless innings, but Michael Mariot was tagged for six runs in the seventh, four when he served up a grand slam.

At the plate
Freddy Galvis’ solo homer in the third inning was the Phillies’ offense.

Asdrubal Cabrera belted a two-run homer for the Mets in the third inning. Yoenis Cespedes smacked a three-run homer on a full-count pitch in the fourth. Cabrera has three homers in the first two games of the series.

Kelly Johnson cracked a pinch-hit grand slam to give the Mets a 10-run lead in the seventh. Neil Walker homered in the eighth.

Ellis arrives
A.J. Ellis, acquired from the Dodgers in the Carlos Ruiz trade, joined the club before the game. The veteran catcher is ready to offer some wisdom to the Phillies’ young pitchers (see story).

Up next
The series concludes on Sunday afternoon. Vince Velasquez (8-6, 4.31) pitches against Mets right-hander Robert Gsellman (1-0, 0.00). Gsellman will be making his first big-league start.