Union Dominate New England, Who Remind Us How Good We Have It

Union Dominate New England, Who Remind Us How Good We Have It

The Union ended their long road swing with a 3-0 throttling of a struggling New England Revolution club at Gillette Stadium. The U came out firing and controlled the run of play throughout the first half, beginning with some attacking waves that would earn them a lead they'd hold throughout.

Carlos Ruiz opened the scoring, notching his team-leading sixth goal. His finish was athletic and praiseworthy, but Justin Mapp and Keon Daniel deserve their share of the credit on this one:

Mapp was marked well just outside the box and forced to go to his right foot, yet still put it right on target. Keon was in perfect place to head it back to Ruiz, who went up to get it, yet kept it under the crossbar. El Pescadito played hard early, and it bothered the Revolution, who ran at him a few times yet didn't slow him down at all. More on that in a bit.

While it was Ruiz's 88th career goal, both Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams opened their MLS accounts to round out the Union scoring. Full video highlights and a look at the current differences between the Union and the Revolution, whose fans walked out of the game, below.

The Union's second goal came on a set piece where Kyle Nakazawa drilled a perfect ball, Sebastien Le Toux headed down it to Valdes, who buried it from close range.

Look familiar? Great thinking by Le Toux to set up Valdes rather than try to turn it in. Despite being desperate for a goal of his own, Seba was unselfish, and the team went up 2-0 as a result. His 7 assists are tied for third in the MLS.

The Union owned the first half, playing with as much control as we've ever seen from them. The broadcast team of JP DellaCamera, Taylor Twellman, and Bob Rigby all agreed it was their best 45 minutes of the season, even better than their 3-0 first half en route to a 6-2 win over Toronto FC in late May.

In the win over Toronto, the Union conceded two quick goals coming out of the half. On Sunday, the Revs also had a little more fire in the latter 45, generating a few good chances, but they never soiled Faryd Mondragon's clean sheet.

The U kept the pressure on with their second half subs, including an energy injection in the form of birthday boy Danny Mwanga. They played somewhat conservatively late to preserve a lead that was well in hand, yet didn't stop making opportunistic runs. Williams' goal even came in extra time, a great moment for the Boston native.

THE FORT IS ON FIRE
The situation in New England is bleak, and last night their supporters walked out of the game in a statement of their dissatisfaction with ownership. From a joint supporters group statement:

For purposes of the Revolution vs. Union match, supporters in The Fort will protest by wearing black while refraining from standing, chanting, singing, waving flags or drumming for the first fifteen minutes of the match. The protest will conclude in the 16th minute with supporters walking out of the stadium for the remainder of the match, this in recognition of 16 seasons of (as yet) unresolved issues between fans and the Revolution organization.

The whole post and letter linked above is worth a read. Here's video of the walkout (in the background, across the corner):
Not quite the effect of how it might look and sound if the entire River End emptied out, but a statement nonetheless of the situation up there.

I personally haven't joined in the spirit of the Defend The Fort movement, which has taken root in the Sons of Ben as well, including a recent minute of silence at PPL Park (which showed that if the River End is silent, the stadium is a whole different place). Mostly this is because I don't have much interest in getting involved in what goes on between a rival fanbase and its team ownership, particularly over something kind of dumb (a lot of the current strife has to do with fans clashing with cops/security over the "YSA" chant that both the Union and the SoBs are trying to get rid of at PPL Park, although the battle has deeper roots than that).

If it were happening here, with the Union's ownership, I might feel differently. But I'm not going to get too caught up in it when our own gameday experience is so good.

Despite their being a rival though, I do wish things were different in New England. It's not the same as say, if Mets or even Patriots fans were mad at their owners because they'd set the cops on them for cursing in the stands. While on the surface it can be kind of amusing, fans who want soccer and the MLS to continue to grow in the US know it's important for strong fanbases to thrive in MLS markets, particularly those as big as New England. Nothing looks to be going particularly well in New England though, from the relationship of the ownership and its fans to the play on the field.

Aside: Speaking of their poor on-field product, Benny Feilhaber was a joke last night. His overt lack of discipline netted him a pair of yellow cards and the customary early exit that comes with them.

Now we all know Ruiz can flop, but Feilhaber clearly came at him late and basically put a body check on him. Then he petulantly complained as if he hadn't touched him at all. In stark contrast, Union captain Mondragon came across midfield to get his players out of any fracas that might result in a booking.

For the most part, it was easy just to focus on the great effort of the Union on the field. But it was also a good opportunity to take a bird's eye view and see that we have it really good in Philly and Chester so far. The Union are atop the table in mid-July of their second season, already a legitimate title contender. PPL Park is packed. Key members of the Union front office, including Peter Nowak, played in a friendly against key members of the Sons of Ben last week on the pitch at PPL. We're not stuck in a tarp-covered football stadium watching a game on a truncated astroturf surface and feeling the need to walk out for a variety of long-term reasons and a few new sensitive situations.

All is very well, and that's before we even get to the two high-profile international friendlies at home this week, followed by our first ever run at the playoffs. First, Everton comes to PPL Park on Wednesday, then Real Madrid visits Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday. Then it's back to the quest for the MLS Cup. This is far more than I expected to happen here so soon. 

FULL VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

Photo via the Union's Facebook page.

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews experienced something new on Sunday. Something he hoped he’d never have to experience. 

He was relegated to spectator.  

After never missing a game dating back to little league – through high school, college, and into his third season in the NFL – a right ankle injury kept him out of Sunday’s 32-14 loss in Cincinnati. 

“It’s definitely not fun,” Matthews said. “But it’s one of those things where I try not to dwell on it or be like ‘woe is me.’ There’s people going through way worse things in America than me missing a football game.”

The Eagles certainly could have used Matthews on Sunday. But they should get him back this weekend when the Birds host Washington for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the Linc. Along with Ryan Mathews and Dorial Green-Beckham, Matthews is listed as questionable. 

But he seems confident he’ll be good to go. 

“I think one game is definitely going to be enough for me,” Matthews said. “I’m definitely going to try to get back out there Sunday.” 

On Friday, during his first media availability in two weeks, Matthews said he chose to find the positives in his absence from Sunday’s game. Namely that Paul Turner and Trey Burton got some extra reps. 

Burton had five catches for 53 yards and Turner, in just his second NFL game, had six catches for 80 yards. 

“I try to see the positives,” Matthews said. “I liked seeing what PT was able to go out there and do. I was happy for him and his first live-game action, being able to go out there and make plays. I was also proud of Trey. His role got to expand with me being out and I think he played extremely well. He got to show what he can do and show how he can help this team. We just have to continue to utilize him moving forward. There’s always a positive in it. 

“We might not see it now, in a loss, but just think, some of those guys are going to be weapons for us in the future. And we saw they can go out and perform well without me in there, so I think it’s going to end up being a positive. But I definitely can’t wait to get back out there.”

Earlier in the week, head coach Doug Pederson said that even with Matthews’ returning, the team would still try to get Turner involved. Since the team sees Turner primarily as a slot receiver, that means Matthews could see time outside this weekend. There’s an even better chance when taking Green-Beckham’s injury into account. 

Before the season, Pederson talked a lot about wanting to play Matthews both inside and outside, but this season, Matthews has been in the slot for 74 percent of his snaps. Forty-four of his 57 catches have come from the slot too. 

On the play where Matthews hurt his ankle against the Packers, he was actually lined up outside and caught a back-shoulder throw from Wentz. 

“I was actually joking with Carson,” Matthews said, “I was like ‘bro, the reason I got hurt was because our back shoulder was better than Jordy [Nelson] and Aaron [Rodgers’]. So it didn’t mesh well with the universe. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way on Monday night for everybody to see, so the football gods took my ankle. So it’s all good. … That’s a joke.”

Matthews, despite being in his third season, is clearly one of the Eagles’ leaders on offense, especially in a very young receivers room. He’s looking forward to playing Washington after he thinks they were the first team that “actually came out and beat” them earlier in the year. 

With four games left in the regular season, the Eagles’ playoff chances are extremely slim. But Matthews thinks it’s important for the team to finish strong, especially with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. 

With Wentz, Matthews thinks the Eagles have already taken the first step toward building something special. 

“He’s the guy,” Matthews said. “He looks like the guy, he walks like the guy, he talks like it. And he goes out there and plays like it. It’s more we have to continue to ride around him and coach Pederson and be positive and go out there and produce.”

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. on Fox
Redskins favored by 2; over/under 47

When the Eagles went into FedEx Field in Week 6, they had an opportunity to leave 4-1 and in great position in the NFC East. Instead, what ensued was a stretch of three divisional losses in four weeks by a combined 18 points.

Two months later, the Eagles are out of the race at 5-7 while the 6-5-1 Redskins are still battling for an NFC wild-card spot. The 'Skins would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today — they currently hold the seventh spot in the NFC, behind the Bucs (7-5) but ahead of the Vikings and Packers (6-6).

This is obviously a crucial game for Washington, but the Eagles are just as desperate after losing by 11, 14 and 18 points the last three weeks. Don't underestimate the role desperation and a few weeks of embarrassment can have on a team's ability to bounce back. It was partly why I cautioned in these scouting reports the last two weeks not to count out either Green Bay or Cincinnati, teams that had more talent and stability than a few weeks of midseason losses indicated.

Cousins and Reed
The next time the Eagles limit Kirk Cousins will be the first time. In four games against them, he's completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 336 yards, thrown 10 TDs and two interceptions and rushed for another score. Washington has averaged 31 points and won three of the four contests.

The Eagles' margin of error on defense is extremely small in this game. To win, they'll need a better effort against a Redskins' ground game that gashed them for 230 yards last time, they'll need to generate consistent pressure on Cousins and they'll need Jordan Reed to not be himself.

Reed, the NFC's most dangerous tight end, is questionable with a Grade 3 AC joint separation suffered on Thanksgiving. Reed was a warrior on Turkey Day, leaving the game in the second quarter, standing on the sideline in a sling, probably receiving a little (ahem) help at halftime, and then dominating in the second half in Dallas. Reed finished that game with 12 catches for 95 yards and two TDs, but was hurt badly enough to miss last week's game.

The Eagles were fortunate to avoid Reed in the season's earlier matchup. Fortunate because he destroyed them last December, catching nine passes for 129 yards and two TDs in a 14-point win. Washington uses its tight ends more than any offense in the league, and Reed is a mismatch even for an Eagles team that has allowed the fewest catches (31) and receiving yards (327) to tight ends. 

With Reed out in October, backup Vernon Davis burned the Eagles for two catches, 50 yards and a TD. But it sounds like Reed will play Sunday after telling reporters that his range of motion is back.

The issue in stopping Washington is the Eagles just don't have enough defensive backs to defend everything. It's why they need Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to get consistent pressure and keep Cousins out of a rhythm. They haven't been able to do that. They had no sacks in Washington in Week 6 and have failed to sack Cousins in two of the last three meetings.

Without forcing Cousins to get off his spot and get the ball out quickly, the Eagles' secondary hasn't shown anything to inspire confidence they can stop DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, Reed and Davis at the same time.

To make matters worse, this is the first week Washington's All-Pro left tackle, Trent Williams, is back from a four-game substance abuse suspension. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed just three sacks in his last eight games against the Eagles.

Which Wentz will show?
Last week was Carson Wentz's worst game as an NFL quarterback. He missed wide-open throws, threw three interceptions and could have thrown more and barely exceeded 300 yards despite throwing the ball 60 times. 

He didn't look like the guy we saw the first four games of the season, and quite frankly he hasn't looked like a top-20 QB since October. 

The lack of weapons and occasionally poor protection are major reasons why, but Wentz isn't void of blame — he's simply missed some makeable throws.

Against Washington back on Oct. 16, Wentz was just 11 of 22 for 179 yards as the Eagles lost the time of possession battle. The best days belonged to Ryan Mathews (9 carries, 60 yards) and Jordan Matthews (three catches, 75 yards). Both are questionable heading into this one. 

Wentz didn't throw a single pass at Josh Norman in the first meeting. At times, Norman has followed the opposing team's top receiver, but don't expect him to do so this Sunday. Norman has lined up on the left side 64 percent of the time this season and in the slot just nine percent. 

Slot matchup
Matthews has run 73 percent of his routes from the slot and should draw third-round pick Kendall Fuller. As long as Matthews is sufficiently recovered from his ankle injury, this should be a good matchup for the Eagles. 

Fuller has been beaten repeatedly this season, allowing 42 catches (on 53 targets) for 542 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a 123.9 rating against him, third-worst among all slot corners. (Malcolm Jenkins is actually worst in this category with a 137.9 QB rating allowed in the slot.)

Fuller has also struggled to wrap receivers up after the catch, allowing an NFL-high 213 yards after the catch. Picking up yards after a reception is something the Eagles have struggled to do all year.

Run game
The Eagles were shutting running backs down until they played the Redskins in October. Since-demoted RB Matt Jones rushed for 135 yards, current starter Rob Kelley rushed for 59, and both had a run of 45-plus yards.

Cox, Barwin and LB Nigel Bradham had awful games that afternoon against the run. It also didn't help that the Eagles were credited with 12 missed tackles. 

Run-stuffer Bennie Logan left that game early with a groin injury and missed the next three weeks. Since returning, however, Logan hasn't been himself, struggling to rush the passer and stop the run.

The Kerrigan factor
The Eagles always have trouble containing Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who had three sacks in the first meeting. 

Kerrigan has been a force in 2016 with 44 QB hurries, which is three more than Kahlil Mack and second-most among outside linebackers to Von Miller.

Kerrigan has nine sacks in 11 career games against the Eagles, and Washington is 5-1 when he has at least one against them.

Prediction
Close game, better performance from Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with Jackson and Crowder, over the middle with Reed and short with Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27