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

Penn State president 'pleased' to see Penn State thriving again

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Associated Press

Penn State president 'pleased' to see Penn State thriving again

NEW YORK -- NCAA President Mark Emmert says he is pleased to see how well Penn State's football team has bounced back from the sanctions the program received in 2012 after the Sandusky scandal.

No. 5 Penn State (11-2) is having its best season since Jerry Sandusky, a longtime assistant of late Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, was arrested in 2011 for sexually abusing boys. The Nittany Lions won their last nine games and the Big Ten title.

"I think it's terrific," said Emmert, who spoke at an intercollegiate athletics forum sponsored by Learfield Communications on Wednesday in Manhattan.

"I think what Penn State went through is an awful situation and it's still playing out sadly. But the football program is still Penn State and they showed it and they did really well. The university has done an amazing job to put in place all of the things their board wanted and our board wanted."

The NCAA went outside its usual process to sanction Penn State in 2012. The school was hit with massive scholarship limitations and a four-year bowl ban, along with fines. The school also agreed to enact dozens of reforms recommended in a report by former FBI director Louis Freeh on the scandal.

The original scholarship and postseason penalties were eventually rolled back. Emmert said he was pleased the roll back helped Penn State recover more quickly, and that NCAA sanctions are not meant to cripple an athletic program.

"I've always said and always believed that Penn State first and foremost is a great university ... and secondly it's got wonderful sports traditions. How could you not be pleased that they're playing good football again? That's very good stuff," he said.

Emmert covered numerous topics in a 30-minute question-and-answer session, and after he spoke with group of reporters for 15 more minutes.

-- He declined to weigh in on whether the College Football Playoff selection committee made the right decision with the four teams it chose to compete for the national championship, but he did say he would prefer an eight-team playoff that would include automatic bids for the Power Five conference champions.

"I think a conference championship ought to count for something. I think how you determine your champion is up to somebody else," Emmert said. "I'd like to see all five of the conference champions get in the playoff."

The NCAA has no authority over the College Football Playoff.

"That's why we live in America. Everybody can have an opinion," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany joked, when asked about Emmert's comments. "He doesn't have a vote, though."

-- Emmert said he would like to see the new NCAA football oversight committee better define the purpose of bowl games. There are 40 and some spots are given to teams with sub.-500 records. The NCAA does not run bowl games. It does have a sanctioning process, but mostly it lets conferences decide whether they want to put on games.

"What do we, the membership of intercollegiate athletics, want bowl games to be?" Emmert said. "Are they a 13th game that's an exhibition game? Are they a reward for having won something? We have teams in now that can get into a bowl game having won two or three of their conferences games."

-- The NCAA pulled its championship events out of North Carolina in September because of a state law that limits anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. The decision was later criticized by Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins in an Wall Street Journal op-ed. Jenkins said the NCAA should not be a moral arbiter.

"He and I have chatted a lot about that issue, and obviously I disagree and obviously, more importantly the board of governors disagreed," Emmert said.
The NCAA will choose sites for future championship events in April and part of that is a "fairly complex process," Emmert said, of looking at the local and state laws of potential host locations.

"One of the considerations we have now as we make those decisions, as the sport committees make decisions about where they go, is going to be LGBT rights," he said. "I think and hope and believe, maybe wishfully, that North Carolina will modify their position because citizens want that."

-- Emmert said the Big 12 deciding not to expand was a "good thing for college sports."

"I think the last round was very disruptive. It had a negative impact on so many schools, even personal relationships. It was hard and I'm glad we didn't have to go through that again. Even on a smaller scale," Emmert said.

Trade front quiet, but Phillies could lose a player or 2 in Rule 5 draft

Trade front quiet, but Phillies could lose a player or 2 in Rule 5 draft

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies have a history of adding players in the Rule 5 draft. The annual event, designed to prevent teams from stockpiling minor-league talent without giving it a shot in the majors, has netted the Phillies players such as Dave Hollins, Shane Victorino and Odubel Herrera over the years.

The year’s Rule 5 draft will be held Thursday morning at the conclusion of the winter meetings, but it’s highly unlikely that the Phillies will be active. After adding 11 prospects to their 40-man roster two weeks ago, the Phillies are simply out of room. Selecting a player in the Rule 5 draft would first require the Phils to cut a player loose and that did not seem to be the plan as the sun set Wednesday.

While an addition is unlikely, there’s a strong possibility that the Phils will lose a player or two in the draft. Outfielder Andrew Pullin, a 2012 draft pick, is the likeliest to go. He hit .322 with a .885 OPS between Single A and Double A in 2016 and a number of teams are buzzing about him. A late-season elbow injury prevented Pullin from playing in the Arizona Fall League and factored into the Phillies’ decision to leave him unprotected.

If a team rolls the dice on Pullin, it must keep him in the majors all season or offer him back to the Phillies.

Other players who could go include first baseman/outfielder Brock Stassi, outfielder Carlos Tocci and pitchers Miguel Nunez and Hoby Milner.

All quiet for now
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak spent Wednesday meeting with agents and representatives from other clubs.

“Nothing is hot at the moment,” he said late in the day.

Klentak has brought back starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, added relievers Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek and traded for outfielder Howie Kendrick this offseason. The biggest remaining issue/question on his plate is whether to add a veteran hitter in a corner outfield spot or keep the pathway open for young players such as Roman Quinn and eventually Dylan Cozens and Nick Williams. 

“Successfully balancing the present and the future is the single greatest challenge that a baseball operations department faces,” Klentak said. “We’ve talked about it all offseason. The decisions that we are making right now about giving playing time to a young player that has cut his teeth in Triple A and needs that opportunity to take the next step as opposed to a shorter-term solution from the outside — that’s one of the main challenges that we’ve run into this offseason.”

While it’s uncertain whether the Phils will add a hitter, they most surely will make other roster tweaks as the winter moves on. They are likely to fill their backup catcher’s spot in-house (see story), but could add a utility infielder and more bullpen depth on minor-league contracts.

“I think there will probably be another move or two before we get to Clearwater,” Klentak said. “Who and when remains to be seen.”