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

Brian Carroll's goal in 92nd minute gives Union draw with Rapids

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Brian Carroll's goal in 92nd minute gives Union draw with Rapids

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- Brian Carroll tied it in 92nd minute and the Union escaped with a 1-1 draw with the Colorado Rapids in a showdown of the Western and Eastern conference leaders.

Carroll ran underneath Fabian Herbers' high-arching header and slotted the finish under goalkeeper Zac MacMath from close range.

The Union (5-3-5) responded only 5 minutes after the Rapids (8-2-4) opened the scoring on Sam Cronin's header in the 87th minute. Cronin made a deep run to connect with Marlon Hairston's cross from the right flank, redirecting it into the far corner of the goal.

Both Dillon Powers and Luis Solignac had shots crash off the crossbar for the Rapids after the 70th minute.

The Union extended their unbeaten streak to seven while the Rapids stayed unbeaten in their nine home games this season.

Chase Utley haunts Mets in Dodgers' rout at Citi Field

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Chase Utley haunts Mets in Dodgers' rout at Citi Field

NEW YORK -- Chase Utley hit a grand slam and a solo homer after Noah Syndergaard threw a 99 mph fastball behind his back, and the Los Angeles Dodgers went deep a season-high five times in routing the New York Mets 9-1 on Saturday night.

In a scene that seemed inevitable since October, Syndergaard was immediately ejected following the third-inning pitch -- almost certainly his shot at retaliation against Utley for the late takeout slide that broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in last year's playoffs.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari tossed Syndergaard, sending Mets manager Terry Collins into a rage, but no trouble ensued between the teams. A longtime New York nemesis, Utley raised one hand slightly in the direction of the Dodgers' bench to keep teammates calm -- and later answered by doing all sorts of damage with his bat.

Kenta Maeda (4-3) shook off an early line drive that appeared to hit him in the pitching hand and threw five shutout innings for the win. The right-hander yielded two hits, both in the first, and snapped his three-game losing streak.

Adrian Gonzalez homered and had four hits for the Dodgers, who spoiled the Mets' 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 World Series championship. Corey Seager and Howie Kendrick also connected, all after Syndergaard was gone.

Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares homered in the eighth for New York, long after the outcome was decided.

The stoic Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since Tejada was injured. The Mets -- and their fans -- were incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules this season designed to protect infielders in what some call the Utley Rule.

But the Mets had not tried to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard's first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman's back by a considerable margin.

Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected after screaming at Hamari and pointing in his face during an animated argument. The manager was finally escorted back toward the New York dugout by another umpire.

After waiting near the mound with teammates for some time, Syndergaard walked calmly to the Mets' dugout without showing any emotion as the crowd cheered him.

Logan Verrett (3-2) entered for the Mets and, with a vocal contingent in the sellout crowd of 42,227 urging him to hit Utley with a pitch, eventually threw a called third strike past him. But then Utley homered on Verrett's first pitch of the sixth to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead.

Booed all night, Utley added his sixth career slam off Hansel Robles in the seventh, giving Los Angeles a 6-0 cushion with his 38th career homer against the Mets.

In the series opener Friday night, Utley was greeted with loud jeers and derisive chants. He had four RBIs in a 6-5 loss, including a three-run double that tied the score with two outs in the ninth.

Where are you now?
Tejada was released by the Mets during spring training and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who designated him for assignment Saturday.

Trainer's room
Dodgers: RF Trayce Thompson exited in the fifth with lower back soreness. He was replaced by Yasiel Puig, who hit an RBI single off Verrett in the sixth.

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores (hamstring) went 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly in his fifth rehab game for Double-A Binghamton. Before the game, Collins said it was reasonable to think Flores could come off the disabled list Sunday.

Up next
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-1, 1.48 ERA) starts the series finale Sunday night against 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (4-3, 3.44). Kershaw, coming off a two-hit shutout against Cincinnati, is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 10 starts against the Mets. He is 5-0 with a 0.64 ERA in May -- including a three-hit shutout of New York on May 12 at Dodger Stadium. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has struck out 55 and walked two this month.

Soul drop 1st road game of season to Gladiators

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USA Today Images

Soul drop 1st road game of season to Gladiators

The Soul fell on the road to the Cleveland Gladiators, 63-49, at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night.

The loss was just the second of the season and the first away from the Wells Fargo Center for the Soul. Quarterback Dan Raudabaugh completed 25 of 44 passes for 342 yards and seven touchdownsi in a losing effort.

The Gladiators were led by receiver Quentin Sims, who finished with 10 receptions for 114 yards and three touchdowns, and signal caller Arvell Nelson who completed 22 of 36 passes for 307 yards and seven touchdowns.

Next week, the Soul travel to Jacksonville to take on the Sharks on Saturday, June 4. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports and 97.5 The Fanatic.  Kick-off is set for 7 p.m.