What to Watch for: Union Host Sporting KC in US Open Cup Semis

What to Watch for: Union Host Sporting KC in US Open Cup Semis

The Philadelphia Union are on a brilliant run of success since John Hackworth took over as interim manager. In this guest post, Friend of the Level Gordon Strachan breaks down what's been going right for the U, looking at tactical deployments and individual player efforts, with an eye toward what we might expect to see tonight. Will their success continue and earn them a spot in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Final?
By Gordon StrachanSons of Benjamin West
With so many Union games being played in such a short period of time, there is no shortage of possible lineups that coach John Hackworth may throw at Sporting KC in Wednesday night’s USOC semifinal match. One thing is for certain, he will look to attack. 
Here are some observations from the success of the past two matches that will give us several things to look for in the upcoming games.
An Abundance of Offensive TargetsIn the Toronto game, Hackworth continued to play an attacking 4-3-3 lineup featuring forwards—Adu, McInerney, and Pajoy. At times during the game, this formation appeared to include as many as 5 or 6 players pressing the Toronto’s back line with Michael Farfan repeatedly getting involved on the wings and additional contributions coming from Gabriel Gomez, Sheanon Williams or Gabriel Farfan. With so many options, the Union are easily using the full width of the field and making it difficult for opposing teams to prevent exposing openings.
Better Distribution Through the Middle of the PitchOne of the challenges of playing a 4-3-3 is that the link between offense and defense can sometimes be lost with a thinner mid-field. In the last couple games Amobi Okugo’s distribution to attacking players at distance has been pinpoint accurate; and this has been critical in transforming possession into offensive chances. Gabriel Gomez appears to be playing a more centralized role in the middle of the pitch alongside Brian Carroll, compared to the loss vs. Houston. At times, Gomez could be found dropping back in support of the middle of the defense—as Sheanon or Garfan pushed forward and Amobi covered wide—or pushing forward into the box himself on attacks. His vision and passing strength offered an improvement to the Union’s fluidity of possession and helped organize the midfield.
Michael Farfan as a Wing in the 4-3-3 While he actually lined up in the midfield in the last two games, a major difference from earlier matches is that he could be found throughout these games pressing forward on either side of the pitch. Marfan’s skills on the ball make him a consistent threat moving the ball up the flanks. He offers an instinctive mindset to contribute defensively which allows him to track and cover opposing backs that may rush forward; an important attribute for a forward in the 4-3-3. 
Additionally, Farfan offers some tactical flexibility to the formation by providing the ability to effectively slide him back as an extra midfielder. It would be great to see him get a start in this role up top in one of the upcoming games.
Lionard Pajoy on the FlanksGone are the days of Pajoy being positioned alone as the sole advancing attacker. In several instances he has shown a great ability to create chances when options are in front of him. One of these instances came in the Galaxy game with an amazing back heel pass that sent Marfan on goal past 2 defenders. 
Pajoy has found success on other occasions when taking on defenders along the wing, while continuing to remain a sizeable target when moving forward as part of a building attack. 
How Will Freddy Respond? I’m a believer in Adu because of the brilliance he has shown at times, but I can’t argue with the criticism that he has been less than consistent. The Toronto game was arguably his best performance of the season. Will he build off of this and make it two dominant games in a row?
Both McInerney and Hoppenot Putting the Formation in Motion Much has been said about the precise runs and newly found confidence of Jack Mac. It is not only his runs towards goal that are creating chances, but his deliberate runs checking back to the ball, which create difficult choices for defending players and have initiated opportunities for his teammates behind him. 
This of course only works when you have additional attackers sliding into these spaces. In the case of Hoppenot, speed can be a killer in soccer, and he has shown that he is a very lethal threat to opposing defenses. Provided any space at all, Antoine has the ability and willingness to vertically stretch the field.
Game time is 7:30 this Evening at PPL Park. C'mon the U, We Want the Cup!
Gordon Strachan is a founding member of the Sons of Benjamin West (SOBW), a group of supporters based in Delaware County and centered in Swarthmore. On game day they live in the "West" endline (Section 118). 
Tickets are still available for tonight's match at PPL Park, which includes free parking and a Dollar Dog Night promotion. 
(Michael Farfan photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US Presswire; Freddy Adu photo by Joe Camporeale-US Presswire.)

Louisville's Lamar Jackson wins Heisman Trophy

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USA Today Images

Louisville's Lamar Jackson wins Heisman Trophy

NEW YORK -- Lamar Jackson is the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy, beating out preseason favorite Deshaun Watson of Clemson despite some late-season struggles.

The sensational sophomore quarterback leapt over a loaded field of Heisman Trophy contenders early in the season and by the time he slowed down nobody could catch him.

The highest honor in college football was handed out Saturday night in New York.

Baker Mayfield finished third and Oklahoma teammate and fellow finalist Dede Westbrook was fourth. Michigan's Jabrill Peppers was fifth.

Jackson, at 19 years, 347 days, is the youngest Heisman winner ever.

Eagles-Redskins 5 things: One-side rivalry and it's getting ugly

Eagles-Redskins 5 things: One-side rivalry and it's getting ugly

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
1 p.m. on FOX
Eagles +2.5

With a 5-7 record, the Eagles may be all but eliminated from postseason contention, although if they're not going to the playoffs, at least they can take a division rival down with them.

At 6-5-1, the Washington Redskins still have a shot at the playoffs, but a loss at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday could prove devastating to their cause. And while playing the role of spoiler might not be what the Eagles had in mind at this point in the year, should they manage to come away with the win, their own slim hopes aren't necessarily finished just yet.

In other words, there's plenty left to play for this week. That, plus an opportunity to reverse some disturbing trends should be motivation enough.

1. It's getting ugly
The fact that the Eagles enter Sunday mired in a three-game losing streak is only part of the problem. It's how they're losing.

The Eagles have actually dropped seven of their last nine, but at one point, they were at least competitive. Their first four defeats were all by a touchdown or less, or an average just under five points per game. None of the last three have been particularly close however, and the disparity has only gotten worse — by 11 against the Seattle Seahawks, by 14 to the Green Bay Packers and by 18 to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Most distressing during that span is the lack of offensive production by the Eagles, averaging exactly 14 points per game during the streak and topping out at 15 in Seattle. Their previous low score this season was 20.

It's getting late in the year, when fatigue and injuries can take their toll on a young, thin roster, which is what's happening here. Regardless, the Eagles need to show some signs of life this week, before this season spirals completely out of control

2. One-sided rivalry
Though these NFC East foes meet twice per season, you have to go back more than two full calendar years to find the last time the Eagles were victorious in the series.

The last time the Eagles defeated Washington was in September 2014 in a thrilling 37-34 tilt at the Linc. Since then, the Redskins have taken ownership of the rivalry, winning four straight matchups for the first time since 1985-87.

The current streak has been especially depressing however, as it's also served to eliminate the Eagles from postseason contention each of the past two seasons. While that wouldn't be the case this time around in any technical sense, a loss would make a playoff berth almost impossible to secure.

If nothing else, the Eagles are playing for pride Sunday. After all, nobody wants to let an opponent they see twice a year secure the kind of bragging rights Washington holds now.

3. Anomaly or cause for concern?
Last time these two teams met, the Eagles authored one of their worst defensive performances of the season. 26 first downs and 493 yards of total offense surrendered remain season highs, although perhaps most alarming was the way the unit was gashed on the ground.

Washington ran for 230 yards in the 27-20 win, as Matt Jones racked up 135 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries with a long gain of 57 to pace the offense, while Robert Kelley ripped off a 45-yarder as well. As inconsistent as they are, this was very unlike the Eagles. Only three other opponents have even gone over the century mark against this group, so it's one thing they generally do well.

The question is whether the Eagles were merely having a bad day, as they are prone to do, or if Washington exploited something. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan was injured in the second quarter, a huge blow to the run defense — although it was struggling before that happened.

One thing is certain, and that is the Eagles can't let anything like it happen again on Sunday. All three games this season in which the defense gave up over 150 yards on the ground have resulted in losses.

4. Can't stop, won't stop?
It's official: Kirk Cousins has the Eagles' number. Not only does Washington's franchise quarterback hold a 3-1 record in the series, but he's carved up his division rival with surgical precision while doing it.

Cousins had a ho-hum day in their first meeting this season, completing 18 of 34 passes for 264 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His line over four games is far more impressive, as he's averaging 336.3 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

Meanwhile, Cousins has not experienced quite such loft success against the rest of the NFC East, with a combined record of 3-7 against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. He's played particularly poor against the Giants, throwing for fewer total yards than he has against Eagles in one less game, with five touchdowns to eight picks. It definitely seems like an Eagles thing.

And Cousins' game is likely continue to be successful against this Eagles defense. He likes to get the ball out of his hands quickly, which this secondary really struggles against, and he has the receivers to do it. Even in a losing effort, his numbers should look pretty good.

5. A peek at the standings
As unlikely the playoffs may be, the Eagles have a shot if they can turn their fortunes around against Washington.

If either the Atlanta Falcons or Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose Sunday, the Eagles can be no worse than one game back of the NFC's sixth and final playoff berth. That doesn't begin to delve into any tiebreakers, and as many as five teams could still be ahead in line for that spot — including Washington — but it would be a start.

Do the Eagles even belong in the playoffs? Would they honestly have a chance if they made it? Would missing out this season and getting a higher draft pick be better for the franchise anyway? Those are questions for another column.

All we're saying is there's a chance.