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.

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

Eagles' QB-rich support system for Carson Wentz paying dividends

In the wake of the Sam Bradford trade, the Eagles' announcement a week before the opener that Carson Wentz would start Week 1 was met with some skepticism and overwhelmingly tempered expectations.

But it looks like the kid can play.

And the Eagles aren’t just looking smart for drafting and playing Wentz. They’re also looking pretty smart for filling their coaching staff and quarterback room with decades of quarterback experience.

“It's a tight room,” head coach Doug Pederson said.

It’s also a knowledgeable one.

Pederson is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich is a former NFL quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is a former college quarterback and NFL quarterbacks coach. And backup Chase Daniel has been in the league since 2009 and in Pederson’s offense since 2013.

If Wentz has a question, he has plenty of guys to ask. And it seems like this support system, which at one time looked like overkill, might be one of the keys that has allowed the rookie to take the NFL by storm.

“There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt,” the veteran backup Daniel said. “Obviously, he’s a very bright young mind, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the coaching in the quarterback room has played a good part into his maturation and his bringing along so fast. There’s no doubt about it.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's the first rookie in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first three games of a career. Oh yeah, and the Eagles are 3-0.

It’s hard to believe that about a month ago, Wentz was gearing up for a redshirt year as the third quarterback behind Sam Bradford and Daniel. Now, he isn’t just the future franchise quarterback. He is the franchise quarterback.

And Wentz gives his quarterback-heavy coaching staff plenty of credit.

“It’s huge having them,” Wentz said. “I could never say enough how much they understand the game. They get it. They know what it’s like. As a former quarterback, they know what I’m going through and how I’m seeing things, so it’s been huge.”

The Eagles were clearly smitten with Wentz from the time they saw him in Alabama for the Senior Bowl. Eventually, de facto GM Howie Roseman was able to maneuver to the No. 2 pick to draft Wentz.

But Wentz went No. 2 and not No. 1, so it’s almost impossible to not peek over at Los Angeles and see how first overall pick Jared Goff is doing. So far, he isn’t doing much of anything. It doesn’t mean that eventually Goff won’t be a good quarterback, but through three games, he’s been inactive once and hasn’t yet played. The Rams are sticking with Case Keenum for now.

NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling compared the support system for Goff with the Rams and Wentz's with the Eagles. We’ll take a deeper look into what he started:

Rams
• Head coach Jeff Fisher: Defensive coach

• OC Rob Boras: Never a QB coach; coached tight ends in NFL from 2004-15

• QB Coach Chris Weinke: Former NFL QB for seven seasons; was highly-thought of QB draft guru with IMG academy for four years

• Vet QB Case Keenum: In league since 2012; best QB he's played with is Matt Schaub

Eagles
• Head coach Doug Pederson: 12 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Philly; OC in KC

• OC Frank Reich: 14 years as NFL QB; QB coach in Indy with Peyton Manning in 2009-10; QB coach and OC in San Diego

• QB Coach: John DeFilippo: College QB; QBs coach at Fordham, Columbia; QBs coach with Raiders, Jets, OC with Browns

• Vet QB Chase Daniel: In league since 2009; learned under Drew Brees; has been in Pederson's offense since 2013

It’s very possible if Wentz becomes a great quarterback that other teams copy the Eagles’ quarterback-heavy approach.

But it’s not just about getting a bunch of smart people and a talented rookie in the same room. Everything else has to work. The rookie has to be a diligent learner and all of the teachers have to check their egos and work together.

“I let John (DeFilippo), I let the quarterback coach run the meeting,” Pederson said. “If I interject, I interject. The way it works is I send my message through Frank (Reich), Frank through the position coaches. At the same time, if I want to interject something, I will interject. Just making sure there's one voice in the meeting room and they are not hearing three different answers from three different people, the message is the same.”

Practice squad quarterback Aaron Murray, who joined the team a couple weeks ago, thinks the quarterback room has “definitely” helped Wentz achieve his early success. While he is just a practice-squader, go ahead and add Murray — who was in the offense for two years in Kansas City — to the list of quarterback minds happy to help Wentz.

Murray, a fifth-rounder out of Georgia in 2014, has been impressed with Wentz’s ability to pick up protections and schemes at a young age. He compared him to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in that regard. While Murray, along with everyone else, is happy to give Wentz tips, he tries to not overload him.

“You still want him to just go out there and play,” he said.

Murray is the newcomer to the room, but he’s been impressed with the dynamic so far. He’s not the only one. It looks like this quarterback experiment might just work.

“It’s awesome. It’s great,” Daniel said. “Everyone has a say in there and everyone in the room, it’s pretty crazy, everyone in the room, really except Carson, has been around it, has been in it and played. Obviously, he’s played, but been around for a while. He’s just a sponge, he’s just taking it all in.

“Maybe some stuff he doesn’t need to take in. Maybe some stuff he wants to do his own way, which is great. You want your own personality out there. But yeah, he’s been great. It’s been great for us too as players. We have almost a 2-to-1 coach-to-player ratio. It’s been great. Everyone has little tidbits here and there and we roll.”

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Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

Pete Mackanin unloads on Phillies' bullpen after latest collapse

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies’ bullpen continued its ugly, late-season collapse on Tuesday night. It was tagged for six runs in a 7-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves rallied for the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).
 
The loss came two days after the bullpen gave up 14 earned runs in four innings in a 17-0 loss to the New York Mets on Sunday and it left manager Pete Mackanin more than a little bit frustrated.
 
“The bullpen has just not been doing the job,” Mackanin said.
 
Jerad Eickhoff gave up just one run (on a solo homer by Freddie Freeman) over four walk-free innings to open the game. He was up 6-1 after four innings when the rains came and stopped the game for an hour and 53 minutes.
 
With Eickhoff bounced by the weather, Mackanin had to go to his bullpen. He used four relievers — Severino Gonzalez, Luis Garcia, Joely Rodriguez and David Hernandez — and all gave up runs.
 
Phillies relievers have pitched 77 1/3 innings this month and allowed 69 earned runs for an ERA of 8.03. So that’s one more thing Matt Klentak has to fix this winter, along with the offense that Mackanin wants to see addressed (see story).
 
Ultimately, Hernandez took the loss when he gave up three hits and a run in the bottom of the eighth. The other run in the inning was charged to Rodriguez.
 
As unbelievable as it may sound with rosters being expanded in September, the Phillies played this game shorthanded.
 
They did not have reliever Edubray Ramos. He had a sore elbow, Mackanin said.
 
They did not have outfielder Peter Bourjos, who had gone home to be with his wife for the birth of their child.
 
They also did not have outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who is out with a concussion.
 
Not having Bourjos or Goeddel forced Mackanin to use Darin Ruf in left field after Roman Quinn went out with an oblique injury in the sixth inning. Ruf failed to make a catch on a long fly ball by Tyler Flowers to the gap in left-center. The non-play extended the eighth inning and fueled the Braves’ comeback.
 
“It should have been caught,” Mackanin said. “If Quinn's out there, he catches it. He wasn't out there.”
 
Hernandez was the only free agent that the Phillies signed to a major-league contract this winter. The Phillies signed him with an eye toward using him as the closer. But Hernandez struggled much of the season and slipped into the middle innings while Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez rose to high-leverage roles.
 
Gomez lost the closer’s job last week and Mackanin was saving Neris to close out this game. That meant Hernandez had to pitch the eighth. He couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up the game-tying hit to Mallex Smith and the go-ahead hit to Emilio Bonafacio.
 
“Neris was going to close for us,” Mackanin said. “I thought about using him with two outs in the eighth. But, at some point, somebody else has to do a (bleeping) job. Somebody else has to (bleeping) step up. In two games now, every reliever I brought in has given up a (bleeping) run. That's unheard of.”
 
The bullpen’s unraveling threw cold (rain) water on Eickhoff’s solid start and Ryan Howard’s big night. Howard belted his 24th homer, a grand slam in the first inning, to highlight a 14-hit attack and help the Phils jump to a 6-0 lead.
 
“Eickhoff looked like he was having one of his best games and then the rain came. So that was our first disappointment,” Mackanin said. "Other than that, Howie swung the bat great. Hit that grand slam. We got 14 hits, but we stranded 12 runners. We have to keep adding on.”
 
Quinn had three of the Phillies’ 14 hits then added to his collection of injuries with the oblique strain that bounced him from the game in the sixth. He hurt himself taking a swing.
 
Oblique injuries generally keep a player sidelined for at least three weeks, so Quinn’s season is likely over. He missed six weeks with a similar injury at Double A Reading this summer. The 23-year-old outfielder came up from the minors on Sept. 11 and has been auditioning for a spot on next season’s opening day roster.
 
“It looks like it,” Mackanin said when asked if Quinn was done for what remains of the season.
 
Injuries have been a consistent hurdle for Quinn ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. He has missed significant time with a ruptured Achilles tendon, a wrist injury that required surgery, a torn quad muscle and an oblique strain. Now he has another one.
 
“It’s the same one I hurt before,” Quinn said. “It’s frustrating.”
 
Right now, just about everything is frustrating with this team. Good thing there are only five games left.

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