Watch: Things Get Ugly in Union-United Draw

Watch: Things Get Ugly in Union-United Draw

Just
a few days after the Union and DC United exchanged a pair of players in
the trade of Lionard Pajoy for Danny Cruz, there was little in the way
of pleasantry exchange when the teams met in a Eastern Conference match
with playoff implications. The three points on the line were critical to
the Union's chances at a playoff run, but at the very least, they
wanted to leave DC with a draw. In large part due to a very visible
second half by referee Mark Geiger, the match was marked by
score-altering calls, bookings, and activity at the penalty stripe. Some
were justified and tough calls to make, but Geiger, who was a ref at
the Summer Games in London, sent off three players and disallowed a pair
of United goals in a calamitous second half. 

The Union would escape with a point in the 1-1 draw,
but no individual on the field featured more prominently than the man
wearing bright yellow. 

Getting started, each
team deployed its new attacker, with Pajoy up top alongside Dwayne De
Rosario for United and Danny Cruz handling the right side of a forward
trio including regulars Freddy Adu and Jack McInerney in the Union's
4-3-3. 

The Union struck early, converting on an Adu
freekick that pinballed across the line of United keeper Bill Hamid. The
long service by Adu was perfect, dropping into the box right in front
of the net, where Amobi Okugo was far forward and put a head on it.
Fellow centerback Carlos Valdes got a piece of the ball too, but his
attempt was blocked by a United defender. It took a fortunate carom, and
Brian Carroll got just enough to guide it into the net. 

Exactly how they drew it up… 
That lead
would hold until the 72nd minute, when Okugo was again on the receiving
end of a freekick in the box. Unfortunately, Okugo was "credited" with a
score on the play, charged with an own goal on a miscommunication
between the CB and his goalkeeper. Branko Boskovic had come on as a
second half DC sub for Pajoy, and he laced a strong service into the box
that the Union once again could not handle. One of these days… 

While the ball found the net behind Zac MacMath
twice more in the half, neither would count. Before the goal on the
freekick, DC had a goal disallowed due to a foul called on Hamdi Salihi.
United played skillfully in getting the ball into the Union third, with
nice leading passes and a dummy ball execution. Boskovich and De Ro
sliced through the Union defense with quick one-touches, and De Ro put a
sharp shot on MacMath. The Union keeper stopped it, but he couldn't get
it under wraps. Salihi more or less fell over the curled up MacMath,
not really making any attempt to brace himself away while going limply
to the ground, but not exactly slamming into him either. Gabe Farfan
tried to clear the ball, swiping it out of the reach of MacMath, but it
wound up on the foot of DC's Nick DeLeon, who put it on the open target.
The goal was disallowed due to referee Geiger's belief that Salihi
interfered with MacMath, and the Union dodged a major bullet. It
wouldn't be the last. 

More often than not, a well-dressed Roger Torres can
be found in the Stadium Club at PPL Park during home games. He has
rarely seen the field since returning from injury, but he dressed Sunday
and was brought on as a sub for Jack Mac in the 80th minute. The
skillful playmaker gets his name in the game coverage for an unfortunate
reason though, as a clear foul on Chris Pontius in the box during the
85th minute led to penalty kick that could have meant a loss for the
Union. Instead, it sparked an odd series of events that would see a goal
disallowed and a United player sent off. 

The dangerous Dwayne De Rosario lined up for the
kick, and buried it. However, Geiger whistled United for encroachment
and ordered the kick retaken.

 In the confusion immediately following the first
PK, there were some physical exchanges as the heat escalated. Players
from both sides pled their cases to the crew in yellow, and Geiger went
to his pocket. DC's Boskovich, who tussled with Torres, drew a red card
from Geiger while Garfan and Torres each got a yellow. 

When De Ro lined up to take the second attempt, he skied it. 
Though the crisis was over, the chaos wasn't yet through. 
In
extra time, two more bookings would come. You know how when you're
playing FIFA and you feel like you're getting robbed by the computer
side or your buddy is just taking it to you and it's late in the game?
Mmmmaybe you just start hitting that foul button despite the obviousness
of your tactic? That's what it looked like when DC's Emiliano Dudar
tackled Antoine Hoppenot in the 91st minute. Again, Geiger went to the
card, dismissing Dudar from the match. 

The Union will be without a player in their next
match as well though. Sheanon Williams had drawn a yellow for delaying
on a throw in during the first half, and he got another in the 95th
minute when he was booked for what was actually a brilliant ball-first
tackle. Geiger was fooled by the angle, which saw Williams make the play
from behind on a sprinting player. It looked cleanly done, but perhaps
at spot that was tough for a running ref in real time to accurately
call. 

More pushing and shoving ensued, and Bill Hamid was the next to draw yellow. 
After
the match, a clearly and understandably frustrated United side started
pushing each other. A surreal night in DC ended with a fortunate point
for Philadelphia. 

Notes:Ray Gaddis will likely start in place of Sheanon on Friday night, when the Union host Real Salt Lake. 
Hoppenot
is a force. Rev pointed out to me that the supersub has now drawn as
many red cards (2) as he has scored goals in his rookie season. 

Both sides had some thrilling chances in a
well-contested first half. The second half devolved quickly, first for
the Union, who saw the lesser end of play, but then United for all the
reasons detailed above. The Union were lucky to escape with the draw. 

I only plucked a video or two from the many that
exist over at MLSsoccer.com. Every play described above and more are
available there, and here's the full video recap. Pretty entertaining in
short form. 

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

• Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

• Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

usa-tranquillo-barnetta.jpg
USA Today Images

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”