Union-Red Bulls Rivalry Is Great, But You Can Have too Much of a Good Thing

Union-Red Bulls Rivalry Is Great, But You Can Have too Much of a Good Thing

More than any other sport, rivalries are what define soccer.

From the very beginning – even before the team played its first game in 2010 – the Union have had no bigger rival than the New York Red Bulls, even if the cornerstone MLS franchise thinks it has bigger fish to fry than a fourth-year club.

Sadly, Major League Soccer is trying its best to reduce the power of some of its greatest rivalries. How?

By having the teams play more often.

Bear with me here. In the Union’s first two seasons, all MLS teams played a straight home-and-home schedule. Everyone in the league, once home and once away.

The two games against New York in 2010 and 2011 were massive occasions. The matches at PPL Park had a tension and edge that has not been present since, and the away games at Red Bull Arena were events not to be missed. The 2011 game in Harrison, N.J., with playoff seeding and positioning on the line, was one of my favorite sporting events I’ve ever attended in person.

The Sons of Ben filled multiple sections in the upper deck at RBA (the only sold-out sections in the entire stadium), and begrudgingly filed onto busses for the ride home after a 1-0 New York win.

It was an event not be missed.

But as the league has expanded in recent years, MLS has abandoned the round-robin schedule in favor of an unbalanced slate that limits trips out west and increases the frequency of conference rivalries.

The Union will play New York three times this season, beginning today on national television at Red Bull Arena (3:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network). In most cases, fans would argue for more rivalry games, not less. Hell, the NHL has gone solely to conference games during this lockout-shortened season.

But something is lost today by knowing that the Union will return to Harrison in August. It doesn’t feel like the same event it once was. The annual Eagles-Cowboys game at the Linc is one to circle on your calendar. If there were a second one or a third one, things just wouldn’t feel the same.

With additional expansion planned, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll ever return to a straight-up round robin in MLS. And that is a shame.

Today’s Game
New York Red Bulls (0-2-2, 2 points) vs. Philadelphia Union (2-1-0, 6 points)
3:30 p.m., Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J. — TV: NBC Sports Network

Today’s Opponent, in Haiku Form
Wins? Red Bulls have none,
Henry is likely to sit.
Seats still won’t be filled.

Real Facts About Today’s Opponent
The Red Bulls – yet again – have been disappointing out of the gate. They have no wins in four games, including a crushing loss in San Jose in which they led in the final minutes, only to lose, 2-1, thanks to the stupidity of Roy Miller.

Thierry Henry and new signing Fabian Espindola are likely out today due to injury, while Australian star Tim Cahill also is a question mark due to a long flight back from international duty.

New head coach Mike Petke is trying to right the ship in New York (or New Jersey), but a Union win (or even a draw) today in Harrison could send New York fans searching for that panic button.

They should know where it is by now.

A Real Fact About Today’s Opposing City (thanks, Wikipedia!)
Harrison, N.J. is a suburb of Newark, not New York City. Newark’s Branch Brook Park is the oldest county park in the country, and – much to the dismay of those in Washington D.C. – is home to the nation’s largest collection of cherry blossom trees (4,300).

The Player Most Likely to Doop
I’m still hopeful of some day getting to see Conor Casey on the field for the Union. John Hackworth said this week that Casey was finally 100 percent healthy. So I’m going to go out on that limb.

I’m sure that means Casey will never leave the bench.

Prediction Sure to be Way Off
The Union win over New England was the first time I predicted the right result this season (even if not the right score). So things are looking up. I think the Union really get it together today and turn New York’s early-season woes into a real cause for concern in Red Bull-land.

Union 2, Red Bulls 1

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.