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.)

Once ridiculed in Philly, Terry Francona is 4 wins from Cooperstown

Once ridiculed in Philly, Terry Francona is 4 wins from Cooperstown

If Terry Francona wins four ballgames over these next nine days, he is going to Cooperstown.

And not as a visitor.

Francona sits at the helm of a Cleveland Indians team that has so far rolled through the postseason, winning eight of nine games as it opens play Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs in a World Series that is filled with compelling storylines.

Of course, the biggest storyline is the “Lovable Loser” angle.

Both clubs long ago became punch lines for their failures. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and their shortcomings have been blamed on everything from the curse of a billy goat to black cats to too many day games at Wrigley Field to Steve Bartman. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. They were so notoriously synonymous with losing that Hollywood made a couple of movies about them. Well, sort of.

With four more wins, one of these teams will shed the Lovable Loser tag forever.

And if it’s Francona’s Indians, he will forever be honored with a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. You can bank on it. That’s where managers who win three World Series end up.

Time flies.

It was 20 years ago this week that the Phillies hired Francona for his first big-league managerial job. He was 37 at the time. He’d managed at the Double A level with the Chicago White Sox and been on the Detroit Tigers’ big-league coaching staff. Loaded with personality, smarts and the experience that came with growing up in baseball family (his dad played 15 seasons in the majors), being the best college player in the nation at the University of Arizona, and, probably most important, having been humbled by the ups and downs of 10 injury-riddled years as a big-league player, Francona was considered an excellent managerial prospect when the Phillies hired him. But he never deluded himself. He knew he got the job because the Phillies were rebuilding, because they were going to be young and bad for a while and he had the personality and youthful resilience to deal with it all. “If the Phillies were ready to win, they would have hired Jim Leyland or somebody like that,” he used to say.

Francona took over a 95-loss team in Philadelphia. He managed the club for four years, never had a winning season and was jeered out of town with slashed tires after the club lost 97 games in 2000.

Was Terry Francona a great manager in Philadelphia? Nope. Few people are great out of the gate in any line of work. But Francona had little chance to succeed in those Phillies years. There wasn’t close to enough talent on the field. The club was going through a sloooooow rebuild and the organizational focus in those years was probably more about getting a new stadium than putting a winning team on the field.

Francona was committed to becoming a successful manager when he left Philadelphia. That’s why he didn’t want to take a year off after he was fired. He wanted to stay in the game, stay in sight. He took a job in the Indians’ front office, then a year later was back in uniform, first as a coach with the Texas Rangers, then as a coach with the Oakland A’s.

In the fall of 2003, Francona interviewed for managerial jobs in Baltimore and in Boston. At the time, reporters in Baltimore asked him about the possibility of getting a second chance to manage.

“It would be like getting a mulligan,” Francona said.

The answer infuriated some in Philadelphia.

It shouldn’t have.

Francona’s use of the word ‘mulligan’ showed self-awareness, humility and accountability. It showed that he knew he had hooked his first chance into the woods, that he had made mistakes, that he’d learned from them and was ready to tee it up again. Francona’s use of the word mulligan showed how human he was and that is a priceless quality in the art of leading a group of men through the ups and downs of seven months of baseball and getting them to lay it all out for you night after night. Joe Torre had that quality. Charlie Manuel had it. Joe Maddon, the man Francona beat out for the Boston job and now squares off against in the World Series, has it. Francona has it. Just look at the way he kept the Indians believing after injuries wounded their starting pitching.

Of course, all of these aforementioned managers have or had talented players. That ultimately is how you win. Just ask Torre, who was dismissed as a loser until George Steinbrenner gave him some talent. Torre led it beautifully and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Francona got his second chance to manage in Boston in 2004 and quickly led a talented group of players to a curse-busting title, that franchise’s first World Series championship in 86 years.

He won another in 2007.

He has managed 12 seasons since leaving Philadelphia and the growth experience that it provided. He has won 90 or more games in eight of those seasons. Yeah, he has had good players. But he’s led them well. And he’s done it particularly well this month, maneuvering his bullpen pieces like a master chess champion.

The World Series is upon us and it should be a good one as baseball’s two Lovable Loser franchises vie to end decades of frustration.

And 20 years after his managerial odyssey began with many losses and much ridicule in Philadelphia, Terry Francona, already a big winner in his career, has a chance to punch his ticket to the ultimate winner’s circle, the Hall of Fame, with four more victories and another World Series title.

Forget Torrey Smith, Eagles should go after Alshon Jeffery


Forget Torrey Smith, Eagles should go after Alshon Jeffery

The Eagles offense has lacked a consistent deep threat since 2014, a role Torrey Smith could potentially fill. Smith's career 17.2 yards per reception are second only to DeSean Jackson among active players, so it makes sense vice president of football operations Howie Roseman would contact the 1-6 49ers about the wide receiver's availability.

The problem with Smith is he's a bit of a one-trick pony in that regard. Even when the 27-year-old could benefit from competent quarterback play, he wasn't a star. In four seasons with the Ravens from 2011 through '14, Smith averaged 53 receptions, 898 yards and 7.5 touchdowns. That kind of production might look good on the Eagles, especially if the price is right, but it's just adding yet another number-two receiver to the mix.

Not like, say, if the Eagles were to trade for Alshon Jeffery. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora was just throwing the idea out there, noting that Roseman is always working the phones and the Bears are 1-6 as well. That being said, if the Eagles are going to trade for a receiver at this point, they might as well go for the guy who could actually solve their problem.

There are concerns, of course. First and foremost, Jeffery is a free agent at season's end, although the Eagles could begin ironing out a contract extension immediately, and if all else fails, the franchise tag would be at their disposal while they work out a new deal. And while he hasn't missed a game yet in 2016, the fifth-year veteran continues to be nagged by injuries, which is certainly something to monitor.

But when healthy and part of an offense that's firing on all cylinders, Jeffery looks like a transcendent talent. In 2013, his second season in the league, he racked up 89 receptions for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns en route to the Pro Bowl. His follow-up campaign only went for 85 catches, 1,133 yards, 10 scores, but that still bests any year Smith has ever had in the NFL. Last season, Jeffery managed 54 catches for 807 yards and four touchdowns despite only playing in nine games.

As you can tell from the numbers, Jeffery isn't merely a deep threat. The 26-year-old can get down the field with 4.4 speed, then use his 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame to box out defenders. With that size advantage, Jeffery has also proven to be a weapon on short and intermediate routes, as well as in the red zone, which has been another trouble spot for the Eagles.

Jeffery is going to waste in Chicago. With Brian Hoyer at the helm for most of the first seven games, the wide receiver has 32 catches for 520 yards, but no touchdowns. Regardless, that's still on pace to put him over 1,000 yards quite easily, and with Jay Cutler returning from injury this week, Jeffery will have a chance to showcase his talents for a potential trade.

Should the Eagles be on board? The price no doubt will be steep. Then again, they would be getting a known quantity, unlike if they tried to find their solution in the NFL draft, and unlike Smith, a nice complementary receiver, Jeffery is the kind of wideout who has proven he can absolutely dominate at this level under the right circumstances.

Pairing Jeffery with Carson Wentz sounds like it could be the right circumstance to me.

I don't normally get behind this kind of sensational trade conjecture, but going big on Jeffery is more logical to me than Smith. One is a bandage, the other a game-changer. The cost would be great, both in terms of draft picks and the new multi-year deal the Eagles immediately would want to award Jeffery. The risk could be so worth it though when Jeffery and Wentz both become perennial Pro Bowlers.