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.

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

NEW YORK — Phillies players were greeted by a message from Carlos Ruiz when they entered the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday.

“I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! Gracias,” (see story).

Ruiz did not actually write those words on the whiteboard by the entry to the clubhouse, but they were his. He reached out to visiting clubhouse manager Tony Carullo and asked that the message be written in just that way.

Ruiz, 37, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, ending an 11-season run with the Phillies that included five NL East titles, a World Series championship, an All-Star Game, a slew of clutch hits, many words of praise from the pitching staff and a million calls of Choooooch from fans in the stands (see story).

“Everybody loved Chooch for a number of reasons,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s the kind of guy you loved seeing every day, a hard-working, humble and appealing human being.

“I’d like to think when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Mackanin paused and laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job.”

Ruiz’s exit leaves Ryan Howard as the only member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club. Over the last few seasons, Howard has seen Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley depart.

It’s a topic that Howard seems to have grown weary of talking about.

“I've had to hear about it every year,” he said. “It's again the same thing. You play with guys your entire career and now you see them in different uniforms. It's definitely going to be something to get used to but that's baseball. That's the business aspect of it. Teams make moves and that's what happens.”

Like the rest of the core of that team, Howard, 36, has been available for trade the last few seasons, but there has been no real interest because of his decline in performance and huge salary.

So he will play out the final six weeks of his contract and try to hook on elsewhere next season.

Howard saluted his former teammate, Ruiz.

“I'm trying to think of the right words,” he said.

“The thing about Chooch — he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him. I hit him up yesterday a little bit after I found out. I was happy for him and wanted to wish him the best.

“Chooch, he was always very, very positive. Always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

The Phillies acquired veteran backup catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later for Ruiz (see story). Ellis is due to join the team Saturday. In the meantime, the Phillies added prospect Jorge Alfaro from Double A (see story). He will be the backup catcher Friday night, then return to a talent-rich Reading club that has the best record in minor-league baseball and a date with Eastern League playoffs.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

Soul's Clint Dolezel shares Coach of the Year award with Rattlers' Kevin Guy

For the third time in five seasons, the Soul and Arizona Rattlers will compete in the ArenaBowl. Prior to Friday night's 7 p.m. matchup, the leaders of both squads, Soul coach Clint Dolezel and Rattlers coach Kevin Guy, were each named Marcum Moss Coach of the Year.

Dolezel and Guy will share the award but not the ArenaBowl trophy, which the Soul haven't won since their lone triumph in 2008 over the San Jose Sabercats. Dolezel, who has been at the helm since August 2012, led the Soul to the ArenaBowl in 2012 and 2013 but lost to the Rattlers on both occasions.

This season, Dolezel, who spent over a decade as a quarterback in the AFL, coached the Soul to a 13-3 regular-season record. The team advanced to the ArenaBowl with a dramatic win in the American Conference championship game over the Jacksonville Sharks.

Dolezel also earned the Coach of the Year award last season for guiding the Soul to a 15-3 overall mark and a conference championship game appearance.

“Without a question, Clint is one of the best offensive minds in AFL history,” Soul owner Ron Jaworski said in a press release. “His success is attributed to a great deal of preparation and hard work. To make a playoff appearance every year as a head coach shows his dedication and willingness to win.”