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

Big night in Columbus as rookies star for Union and Jim Curtin quotes Rasheed Wallace

Big night in Columbus as rookies star for Union and Jim Curtin quotes Rasheed Wallace

What’s the best way to respond to a controversial game-tying goal on the road?

If you said score the game-winner 62 seconds later, celebrate by shushing the crowd, and then quote Rasheed Wallace after the game, the Union agree with you. 

That’s what happened Wednesday night in Columbus as Crew SC were credited with scoring a second-half equalizer even though it looked like the ball may have been cleared off the line before it crossed (where’s goal-line technology when you really need it?). But before the cameras could even get back to the game, the Union charged down the field off the ensuing kickoff with Keegan Rosenberry scoring a very pretty goal to lift Philly to a 2-1 victory — and then put his finger to his mouth to quiet the crowd.

Watch the whole chaotic sequence here:

Remarkably, the goal was the second of the night for a Union rookie as Fabian Herbers scored the opener. Herbers got the start on the right wing in place of Ilsinho and another rookie, Joshua Yaro, started at center back instead of Ken Tribbett.

If you’re scoring at home, that’s three of the team’s top six picks from this year’s draft all starting together (for just the second time ever) and two of of them scoring.

That was certainly an exciting development for Curtin, who praised the rookie trio for growing up in a hurry before touting Rosenberry as an MLS Rookie of the Year frontrunner.

But none of those comments were as good as when Curtin quoted fellow Philadelphian Rasheed Wallace for the karmic retribution that happened after Crew SC’s controversial goal.

“It’s a true Philadelphia-type team — blue-collar, tough, doesn’t let adversity get in the way,” Curtin said. “And I guess in words of Rasheed Wallace, the ball doesn’t lie.

Then, after completing the season sweep of Crew SC, the Union coach added a little insult to injury.

“You guys won’t get that in Columbus but the ball does not lie.”

Hear that, Columbus? ’Sheed is ours.

MLB Notes: Miami Marlins acquire Jeff Francoeur from Atlanta Braves

MLB Notes: Miami Marlins acquire Jeff Francoeur from Atlanta Braves

MIAMI -- A person familiar with the deal says the Miami Marlins have acquired outfielder Jeff Francoeur from Atlanta in a three-team trade.

The person spoke to The Associated Press under condition of anonymity Wednesday night because the trade hadn't been announced.

The Texas Rangers also were part of the trade. Francoeur was the only major leaguer involved.

Miami is contending for an NL wild-card spot and isn't sure whether star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton will return this season from a severe groin strain.

Francoeur was hitting .249 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs in 99 games for the Braves. The 32-year-old plays left field and right field and is known for a strong arm.

Nationals acquire lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski from Athletics
WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals have acquired left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski from the Oakland Athletics for minor league infielder Max Schrock.

The A's also sent cash to Washington as part of the trade announced Thursday.

Rzepczynski gives the Nationals another lefty out of the bullpen since trading Felipe Rivero and putting Sammy Solis on the disabled list. He is 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 56 appearances this season for Oakland.

The 32-year-old joins the sixth team of his major league career. It was not clear if he'd be available for Washington's game Thursday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The 21-year-old Schrock was a 13th-round pick in 2015.

Red Sox place rookie Benintendi on 15-day DL with knee sprain
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.  -- The Boston Red Sox have placed rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi on the 15-day disabled list with a left knee sprain.

Benintendi was hurt in the seventh inning of a 4-3 loss in 11 innings to Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. He tried to avoid a tag while running toward second base, but was tagged out on a double play.

Red Sox manager John Farrell says team doctors are evaluating the results of an MRI exam on Thursday. He says the severity of the injury isn't clear and will be "determined after the review."

Farrell is hopeful Benintendi, a first-round draft pick in 2015, will return before the season ends.

Chris Young will be the primary left fielder with Benintendi sidelined. Infielder Marco Hernandez was recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket.

Future Phillies Report: Jorge Alfaro ticketed for a September call-up?

Future Phillies Report: Jorge Alfaro ticketed for a September call-up?

Minor-league schedules are wrapping up and both Reading and Lehigh Valley have just a dozen regular-season games remaining. From there, both teams will be in their league's playoffs, giving many of the Phillies' top prospects a chance to win a championship.

Even if the Fightin Phils and IronPigs fall short, 2016 has provided many of the Phillies' top young players with a taste of winning. In that respect, it's been a successful season. Even at the major-league level, guys like Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and the Phillies' young starting pitchers have seen what winning feels like. The Phils played very well for the first six weeks of the season, and even though they've faded from contention, they're not nearly as irrelevant as they were at this time a year ago.

This week, the Future Phillies Report begins at Double A:

C Jorge Alfaro (AA)
Alfaro, hitting .279/.322/.444 on the year with 13 homers and 60 RBIs, could be playing with the Phillies by mid-September. He's the only catcher on their 40-man roster other than Carlos Ruiz and Cameron Rupp. With the 40-man roster filled and teams routinely bringing up a third catcher when roster expand in September, it seems likely Alfaro could get his first taste of The Show.

Reading is the favorite to win the championship, which ends on Sept. 17 if it goes the full five games. The Phillies will almost certainly keep Alfaro with Reading through the end of its run; it would make little sense to keep him at Double A all year only to move him when the Fightin Phils are within striking distance of a title.

But those Alfaro skills you've been hearing and reading about for a year — power, arm strength, athleticism — could be on display at Citizens Bank Park for a few games in mid-to-late September. That opportunity would be as positional as anything else, because Alfaro is likely to begin 2017 at Triple A.

OF Dylan Cozens (AA)
It's not a huge surprise that Cozens has gone homerless in his last six games, all on the road. He has 37 homers and 114 RBIs on the year, with 28 HR and 77 RBIs coming at FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading.

Cozens is 1 for his last 20 with 10 strikeouts. Those K's just continue to pile up for him — he has 162, second-most in the Eastern League and 43 more than teammate Rhys Hoskins, who ranks fourth with 119.

Cozens has the tools. He has impressive raw power, he can run, he can field his position. But the tendency to swing and miss could hold him back from ascending the minor-league ladder as quickly as Phillies fans want. It certainly has this season. If Cozens had his same numbers — .284/.361/.608 with 36 doubles, 37 HR and 114 RBIs — but with 40 fewer strikeouts, he'd probably be in Triple A by now. But a 30-percent strikeout rate is impossible to overlook. For reference, only six players in the majors have a higher strikeout rate than Cozens: Steven Souza Jr., Chris Davis, Chris Carter, Mike Napoli, Trevor Story and Giancarlo Stanton.

And keep in mind this is Double A pitching Cozens is whiffing against. It's not like he's faced an assortment of experienced former major-leaguers with five-pitch mixes. 

Look for the Phillies to work this offseason and next spring training with Cozens to correct the issue. He has so much power potential that he could be a true difference-maker if he makes more contact and becomes less of a liability vs. lefties (.205 BA, four HR).

1B Rhys Hoskins (AA)
Reading's powerful first baseman has slowed down in August, going 54 plate appearances without an extra-base hit. But Hoskins continues to walk, so he has a .352 on-base percentage over that span despite hitting .190.

As I outlined in last week's Future Phillies Report, Hoskins' walk rate has increased in each of the last four months — he walked in seven percent of his plate appearances in May, nine percent in June, 13 percent in July and 21 percent in August.

That's a valuable skill for an all-offense slugger like Hoskins to develop. 

He's hitting .278/.369/.562 this season with 25 doubles, 35 homers, 107 RBIs, 61 walks and 119 K's.

OF Andrew Pullin (AA)
An underrated member of the Phillies' farm system, Pullin has had an impressive year. In 80 games, the left-handed hitting corner outfielder has hit .321 with 14 homers, 51 RBIs and an .885 OPS. 

In 44 games since his promotion to Reading, Pullin has hit .344 with with nine doubles, 10 homers and 32 RBIs. He's hit at home and on the road, against lefties and against righties. Pullin, who had a two-homer game on Sunday, has hit .348 with a .400 OBP in 100 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitchers this season.

A fifth-round pick in 2012 out of Centralia HS in Washington, Pullin is still just 22 years old after five seasons in the Phillies' farm system. He doesn't have the same prospect label as a Nick Williams or a Cozens, but he's produced.

Pullin, citing personal issues, actually retired in April before returning to Clearwater in May. The Phillies are glad to have his bat back. The organization has so much more young outfield talent now than it did a year or two ago, when that position group was as bleak as it got.

OF Nick Williams (AAA)
Williams' bat has picked back up this week. He had multi-hit games Tuesday and Wednesday, and four of his last eight hits were doubles.

But again, he's striking out a lot and not walking. Over his last 150 plate appearances, Williams has one walk and 40 strikeouts. He's hit .236 with a .240 OBP over that span. If you're hitting .236 with, say, a .320 on-base percentage, you can still provide your team value during a slump — especially if you're a middle-of-the-order hitter like Williams. 

But Williams doesn't do that. When he's cold, there's no production at the plate. That's an issue and it's not one you just correct at the major-league level, where pitchers have more control and command than anywhere else in the world.

Williams has power. He has bat speed and foot speed. But if his plate selection doesn't improve in a tangible way, his ceiling will be limited. There are plenty of guys in the majors with power and speed and a sub-.300 on-base percentage. They're mostly role players, not stars.

SS J.P. Crawford (AA)
Crawford has three errors in his last five games to give him 19 on the season. For most of the year, he was well ahead of last year's pace, when he committed 27 errors. Now, he's in line to finish with 22 or 23, which wouldn't represent meaningful progress.

Of course, defensive ability is not perfectly illustrated by an error total. Errors don't take into account all the balls an infielder reaches that others don't. Things like range and arm strength don't show up in that one counting stat.

Crawford has range and impressive arm strength. He has the tools that will enable him to stick at shortstop and potentially be an above-average defender there one day. But talent alone doesn't make you a good defensive shortstop. Look at Freddy Galvis as an example — for years, the Phillies touted Galvis' glove as he showed flashes of brilliance but also made a lot of mental mistakes or miscues on routine plays. There was a difference in the defense of Jimmy Rollins and Galvis — Rollins had the flashiness while also making just about every routine play every season. It took Galvis a few years, but finally in 2016 he's lived up to his defensive potential. It could take Crawford a similar amount of time.

Offensively, Crawford continues to walk — he has 69 walks and 69 strikeouts this season. He's hit .253 with a .342 OBP in 334 plate appearances at Triple A.

RHP Nick Pivetta (AAA)
Pivetta lasted just four innings on Thursday night, giving up two runs in a loss to the Pawtucket Red Sox. He hit 95 mph and struck out six more batters, though, giving him 20 K's in 15 innings since his promotion to Triple A.

The Phillies appear to be monitoring his innings count. Pivetta is at 139, seven above his career-high with probably three more starts to go. He'll finish somewhere between 155 and 160 innings in his age-23 season. 

The rising strikeout rate and decreasing walk rate with Pivetta are true signs of progress. He's struck out 8.5 batters per nine this season and walked 3.0. Prior to this season, his K/9 was 6.9 and his BB/9 was 3.3.

RHP Jimmy Cordero (AA)
Cordero, the hard-throwing reliever the Phillies acquired from Toronto last summer for Ben Revere, has pitched well lately at Double A. After giving up three runs in his first two appearances with Reading, he's allowed just one run over his last 7⅓ innings.

Cordero's presence on the Phils' 40-man roster and his potential as a setup man or closer could get him a look in the majors in September. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin wants more relief options, and Cordero has the stuff to spell Edubray Ramos or Hector Neris. Ramos has made 24 appearances since July 1, and Neris has pitched in a MLB-leading 64 games.

CF Roman Quinn (AA)
Quinn has homered in two of his last three games, both from the left side. That's good news for the switch-hitter because he is naturally right-handed.

All five of Quinn's homers this season have come from the left side. But he's actually hit 35 points better (.319) from the right side. It's important for a switch-hitter to hold his own against both sides. We saw for years with Shane Victorino, for example, that when a hitter is so much weaker from one side (Victorino was from the left) it almost nullifies that switch-hitting ability.

Quinn, who has deceptive power, has hit .320 over the last week with a double, a triple and those two homers. He's hit .278 with a .355 OBP with Reading this season and has 29 steals in 37 attempts.