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

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.