Union Making Noise in MLS, Philly

Union Making Noise in MLS, Philly

The Philadelphia Union had a successful inaugural season in drawing fans and interest toward their new soccer-specific stadium in Chester. In the off-season, they picked up a $12 million sponsorship and a few game-changing players. The corporate name on the front of the jersey was unpopular, and the three biggest-name additions to the roster were far from "household." Not the most conventional way to go about attracting more fans, but the sponsorship was forged to bear fruit, the new faces are just the first step in that.

Six games into the 2011 season, the Union are only a point out of first place in the MLS's Eastern Conference, with a game in hand on first-place New York. They're drawing increased recognition in the league and the global soccer community, and locally, the team is inarguably on the map. That much was made very clear this past Saturday afternoon. When the Flyers' second-round playoff schedule was announced and included a home game completely swallowing the Union's home match against the San Jose Earthquakes—starting before it and ending after it—I thought the Union would have trouble drawing the big crowd that has been at PPL Park for all but the monsoon-drenched draw with Seattle this season. The Phillies were also playing in South Philly that afternoon, hosting the Mets to boot (not that opponents are influencing attendance at Citizens Bank Park much these days), and the Penn Relays were going on. Quite the perfect storm for the region's newest franchise to see a slow day attendance-wise.

And yet, PPL Park was nearly full, with a paid attendance of 18,279 (capacity is 18,500, though that's been topped already this season). I don't know how many people came versus paid for tickets, but the first thing I thought upon seeing the crowd was, "I was wrong, this place is packed." The Phillies and Flyers home games didn't seem to have hurt attendance at all, with very few empty seats peeking out.    

Great weather and some additional marketing of that particular game probably each played a part in drawing the crowd, with the Union hosting their first Dollar Dog promo, as well as a promo for local college students that involved a player meet and greet. The young folk do like their discount dogs, as the Phillies showed years ago, and player accessibility seems to be a hallmark of the Union to date.

To the soccer itself, the Union have had some well-documented scoring issues, but it hasn't slowed down their pace in terms of winning. They've lost only once so far, and after posting only two shutouts in 2010, they already have four clean sheets in their six league matches in 2011.

NEW FACES
Two big reasons for that improvement are the aforementioned non-household names that local even many soccer fans didn't know before they were on the backs of Union jerseys—Colombian nationals Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Valdes.

Although the Union haven't yet used their designated player slot to add a high-profile player such as the Red Bulls' signing of Thierry Henry, the impact of the new players has been immediate and plain to see, even for the soccer-uninitiated. The Union are able to lock down their end of the field every match, limiting even the stacked LA Galaxy to a lone goal.

Oh Captain, Mon-dragon
From the stands, you can really see the difference between a goalie finding his way (Chris Seitz) and an established veteran with experience in far higher-stakes matches (Mondragon). A soccer goalkeeper obviously doesn't shut down the game in the same way as in, say, hockey, when he's actively stopping 30, 40, or even 50 shots in a night, so you can't look to Mondragon's save totals to determine his impact. If you're watching the games, you don't even bother. His control of his end is unmistakeable, and for me, it's been the most noticeable change in the Union from their first season to their second.

Mondragon is the general barking out orders as the opposing side attacks, in particular on free kicks and corners. Simply put, he's a dominant force. And, perfectly for this town, he has a marked aggressive side, which we got to see in this past Saturday's cardfest. Mondragon is among the largest guys on the field, very physically fit and imposing in stature, and he seems perfectly willing to mix it up. There's a hard man on the sidelines running the team in Peter Nowak, but now there is one on the field as well.

Carlos Valdes
Valdes added a defensive dimension the team was sorely lacking last season, an ability to close on the ball and shut the water off before it gets dangerous. Part of the reason Mondragon's sheets are so clean is that attacks aren't getting past #5.

The Other Chooch
The Union's added attack weapon gained immediate recognition in Philly simply because he shares a name with the very popular Phillies catcher. The photo of the two together made the rounds, which, for as meaningless a thing as it is, still made for good PR. That's all well and good, but El Pescadito made a name for himself long before coming to Philly, and so far, his acquisition has paid off as well. Ruiz leads the team with a pair of goals, but in watching the team's offense struggle overall, I get the feeling he could get very hot this summer as all the pieces on the field get used to each other and more balls find their way into the open spaces upfield.

Sebastien Le Toux had his best game of the season on Saturday, possibly the man of the match for the Union in my opinion, although others would cast votes for Mondragon and Valdes with good reason. Seba hadn't really found his touch before this game, possibly not fully knowing his new role with so many veterans replacing the inexperienced faces he was leading last season. One thing that hasn't changed is his work rate, which was on full display against San Jose. Le Toux was burning it out there, blowing past a few Earthquakes who thought they had a safe beat on the ball before 9 showed up. Then he scored the game's only goal on a PK.

TOWARD THE HEAD OF THE CLASS?
The Union didn't outclass too many teams in 2010, but they have shown that they can this year. Saturday was a great example, even with a lowly team coming for a visit. The referee had too much of a stranglehold on this game (although I don't necessarily disagree with Jordan Harvey's red card) for the full impact to be seen on the scoreboard, but the Union continued to play their game and eventually got the result. To be frank, a lot of that was on San Jose too, who errantly booted the ball out of bounds about as often as a youth team. Bad, bad soccer. I'm biased (if you couldn't tell from reading all this), but I chalked it up in part to feeling the pressure the Union were putting on, even when down a man.

There are 28 league games remaining, so it's premature to gaze in wonderment at the standings. But Saturday
's game was telling to me in many ways, from the field to the stands. National recognition also continues to come, with Union players comprising three of the MLS's Team of the Week (Valdes, Sheanon Williams, and Keon Daniel, who also had an amazing game, particularly after Harvey was sent off). Popular site Soccer By Ives also named three Union players to his Best IX, and only Valdes was on both lists (Ives also had Mondragon and Le Toux).

Finally, as Rev pointed out, not long after a friendly was announced between the Union and Everton of the English Premier League, the Union will be featured in the MLS's first ever nod on Fox Soccer Channel's Soccer Night in America this Friday, facing the impressive expansion side Portland Timbers. The atmosphere in Portland's home is perfect for the national spotlight, as is PPL Park—an outstanding sign for the growth of the league.

Are there still improvements to be made, both on the field and in the stands? Certainly. But I get the feeling that will come with time. If not with the current personnel, changes will be made, as we saw in the club's first off season.

Photos courtesy of the Union's Facebook gallery

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).