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.)

Patience being tested after Phillies' embarrassing 10-run loss to Marlins

Patience being tested after Phillies' embarrassing 10-run loss to Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Wednesday was a miserable day for the Phillies, but there was one winner among the group.

Bench coach Larry Bowa was ejected from the game in the fourth inning, sparing him from having to watch a full dose of the carnage that befell the Phillies in an embarrassing 11-1 loss to the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Manager Pete Mackanin wasn’t as fortunate as Bowa. He had to stick around for all nine innings as Zach Eflin struggled through a poor start and the weak-hitting Phillies came within an out of being shut out for the second straight game.

“He was mad at the umpire,” Mackanin said of Bowa. “He couldn't control himself. He had to let it out.

“In this game, when you win, you get giddy. When you lose, you want to hang yourself. You have to stay even keeled. You have to stay consistent. At least I have to. I have to try to stay consistent emotionally. 

“I used to be more emotional when I was younger. Over time, I just learned that it doesn't do you any good. My fate is left in the hands of the players.”

The players have not performed all that well since coming back from the All-Star break. Wednesday’s loss dropped the club to 4-9 since the break, dropping it to 11 games under .500. The Phils are averaging just 2.6 runs per game over that span and the pitching has been spotty. The baserunning, particularly by Cesar Hernandez, has been poor, as well.

“This game is all about consistency,” Mackanin said. “Repeating your delivery. Showing plate discipline. Not getting yourself out. Making the plays. Doing the little things on a consistent basis. Over the course of 162 games, the teams that do these things the best are the best teams.”

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Phillies to 2-4 on the first two legs of this 10-game trip. But all is not lost. The Phils play the Braves in Atlanta the next four days. The Braves have the worst record in the majors.

“We're going to Atlanta,” said Mackanin, not realizing he was about to damn his club faint praise. “I think we have a good chance to compete against Atlanta to end the month on a positive note.”

The Phils came up short offensively and on the mound Wednesday. Actually, they had 10 hits, but only one was for extra bases, and they left 10 men on base while getting just one hit in eight chances with a runner in scoring position. (The Phils were 2 for 21 in those situations in the series.) Marlins lefty Adam Conley pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings and pitched out of bases-loaded trouble twice.

Eflin was hit hard early. The Marlins scored three runs in the first inning, two on a scorching two-run homer to left by Giancarlo Stanton. The bruising line drive left Stanton’s bat at 112 mph.

In all, Eflin was tagged for nine hits, including the homer and a pair of triples, and seven runs in five innings. Mackanin said Eflin “was not the same guy” that pitched a three-hit shutout in his previous start at Pittsburgh.

“I didn't like the mix of pitches he used,” Mackanin said. “We were hoping he'd use his curveball a little bit more. I thought he made some good pitches that the umpire missed. But that wasn't the reason. He just wasn't the same guy. We stranded 10 runners — had some chances to get something going but couldn't capitalize.”

Eflin was grazed on his pitching hand by a pitch during batting practice Tuesday, but said that did not affect him at all.

“I was just up with everything,” he said. “I wasn't executing. That's what it came down to. I was leaving all my pitches up in the zone and didn't give my team the best chance to win the ballgame. I didn't do my job. I've got to work on being consistent and staying down in the zone.”

Eflin is just 22. He had a 1.80 ERA in four previous starts in the month of July. He will be right back out there when his turn in the rotation comes up again next week.

But Mackanin seems to be losing patience with others. He laughed when a reporter asked him if it was time for a lineup shakeup.

“What do you think?” Mackanin said with some exasperation. “We've faced some tough pitching lately. It's an up-and-down season. That's the type of team we have. We don't have consistency in the lineup. Let's put it that way. That doesn't bode that well.”

Riding out a rebuild means Mackanin doesn’t have a whole lot of options at his disposal. He probably will have a new face to put in the lineup Thursday night in Atlanta, though. It appears as if Peter Bourjos will go on the disabled list and Aaron Altherr will be activated (see story). Altherr was projected to start in the outfield until blowing out his wrist in spring training. He is healthy now (see story). Maybe he can bring a spark to a lineup that has been mostly lifeless since the All-Star break.

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

He looks like a small back. He's built like a small back. He wants to play like a big back.

Wendell Smallwood, trying to make the Eagles as a reserve tailback, stands 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, but he said he’s got a surprise for defenders that think he’s one of those itty-bitty backs that dances around looking pretty … until they get hit.

“I think that’s what most people expect,” he said. “But when I actually put my head down and fight for those extra yards and get under guys, guys start to say, ‘Hey!’ They start to feel me a little bit.

“So I definitely think that started to show my last year in college, and I started becoming more of an inside zone type of runer instead of an outside runner.”

None of this should be a surprise considering Smallwood’s position coach is Duce Staley, who during his 10-year NFL career was much more interested in running over people than around them.

Smallwood is nowhere near as big as Staley, who played at about 235 to 240. But that’s the kind of back he wants to be.

“It’s definitely important to me and it’s definitely what Duce wants me to do,” Smallwood said. “He wants me to hit the holes and hit ‘em hard and that’s the reason he got me here.

“Duce, he doesn’t like small backs. He doesn’t. I don’t think he believes in those guys. He was a big boy. Running dudes over left and right. That’s what he wants.”

Smallwood played sparingly as a freshman at West Virginia, shared time with Rushel Shell as a sophomore, then took over last year when he led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards and added nine touchdowns, 26 catches and a 6.4 rushing average.

The Eagles plucked him out of Morgantown in the fifth round, and in an uncertain running back picture, he’s got a realistic chance to not just make the team but play a role.

Just don’t expect him to play like a typical guy his size.

“I don’t consider myself a small back anymore,” he said. “People have always said that and I kind of started to agree, but then I looked at some of the guys who are around and I’m not a small back at all.

“I’m not little and the running style I like to do is suited for a big back, and my catching kind of throws people off. I definitely think I’m a mixture of both.”

Smallwood ranked 13th in Division I in rushing yards last year, and his 6.4 average was tied for ninth among backs with at least 200 carries.

He said a lot of defenders expect him to be a finesse back, a guy who likes to juke safeties and linebackers instead of bowling them over.

“Get me going downhill and I’ll get you what I can get you,” he said. “A lot of (defenders) kind of take the easy route and think it’s going to be easy and then the rest of the game they’re going low and trying to take my legs out.”

Look at the Eagles’ running back picture.

The starter is Ryan Mathews, who is talented but injury-prone. The backup right now probably is Kenjon Barner, who has 34 career carries. Then there’s Darren Sproles, whose 3.8 average last year was his lowest since 2009 and second-lowest of his 11-year career.

With a strong camp, there’s no reason Smallwood can’t work himself into that picture.

The last frontier for the Northern Delaware native is blitz pickup. Something he was never asked to do at WVU.

“I don’t think I did basically any in college,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to block at all. I was mainly running routes.

“But as soon as I got here, Duce emphasized, ‘If you want to get on the field, you’re going to block. If you’re not going to block, you’re not going to play.”

Staley’s No. 22 wasn’t available, but Smallwood is happy to wear the jersey number of another one of his favorite backs growing up, Correll Buckhalter’s No. 28, who he seems quite similar to.

It’s not fair to compare Smallwood to Staley, Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook or any other former Eagles back until the pads go on and we see what he’s really made of.

But Smallwood said he’s thrilled Staley is his coach and said there’s nobody he’d rather be playing for.

“I think he’s a great fit for me as a coach,” Smallwood said. “I need a kind of guy who drives me, tough guy, who’s not going to let up, who’s going to keep his foot on my back. I definitely need that kind of coaching.

“Just being around him growing up and seeing what he did when he was here and how he runs and him being one of my favorite backs, I was kind of star-struck to be around him, and now he’s my coach. It’s definitely a great situation for me.”

NFL Notes: Rams release former Eagles QB Nick Foles

NFL Notes: Rams release former Eagles QB Nick Foles

IRVINE, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams have released quarterback Nick Foles after failing to find a trade destination for the disgruntled quarterback.

The Rams announced the move Wednesday, one day before their veterans report to training camp.

Foles hasn't been around the Rams since they traded up to choose California quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick in the draft this spring. The veteran skipped offseason workouts while Los Angeles attempted to trade him.

Foles spent just one season with the Rams, who acquired him from Philadelphia in a trade for Sam Bradford. Foles started 11 games for St. Louis last season, throwing for 2,052 yards and seven touchdowns for the NFL's worst passing offense.

Goff and veteran Case Keenum are competing for the starting job at training camp.

Panthers: Former Eagles S Kurt Coleman extended 3 years
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have signed safety Kurt Coleman to a three-year contract extension through the 2019 season.

Coleman led the Panthers and finished tied for third in the NFL with career-high seven interceptions in his first season in Carolina last year. He contributed to a team that ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense and led the NFL in interceptions (24), takeaways (39) and points off turnovers (148).

The 28-year-old Coleman finished third on the team with 103 tackles. Financial details were not released Wednesday.

Coleman called the contract a blessing, saying "when you go through situations you want what's best for your family and what's best for the team, and I'm really excited. I'm fortunate to be a part of this team for three more years."

Ravens: Jake Long signs 1-year contract pending physical
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens have reached an agreement with veteran offensive lineman Jake Long on a one-year contract, pending the condition of his oft-injured right knee.

Long played in four Pro Bowls after being selected by Miami as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.

But he played sparingly in just four games with Atlanta last year after tearing his right ACL in back-to-back seasons.

The contract won't be official until the Ravens receive more information on Long's knee. He will visit Dr. James Andrews to receive an assessment of the knee, coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday.

The Ravens are willing to sign the 31-year-old Long if they're not on the hook to pay him for the entire season if he's forced out with another knee injury.

Baltimore has been looking for another tackle since releasing Eugene Monroe last month.

Vikings: 5-time All-Pro Kevin Williams to retire
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have signed five-time All-Pro defensive tackle Kevin Williams to a one-day contract so he can formally retire as a member of the team.

The Vikings announced the news Wednesday. Williams will finalize his retirement Thursday after 13 seasons, including 11 with Minnesota.

Taken with the ninth pick in the 2003 draft by the Vikings from Oklahoma State, Williams is eighth in team history with 60 sacks. His 171 regular-season starts are the most all time by a Vikings defensive tackle, and his five interceptions are tied for the most by a defensive tackle in NFL history.

Williams played for NFC champion Seattle in 2014 and New Orleans in 2015. He was picked for six Pro Bowls.

Jets: Bernard Pierce signed; Zac Stacy waived
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets are signing running back Bernard Pierce and waiving running back Zac Stacy, who failed his physical after missing the last half of last season with a broken left ankle.

Pierce ran for just 11 yards on six carries in seven games last season with Jacksonville after spending his first three NFL seasons with Baltimore. He ran for a career-best 532 yards as a rookie with the Ravens in 2012 after being a third-round pick out of Temple.

Pierce was released by Baltimore in March 2015, when he was charged with drunken driving. He was claimed off waivers by Jacksonville the next day.

The NFL announced in May that Pierce will be suspended for the first two games of this season, likely stemming from the DUI arrest.

Stacy ran for 89 yards in eight games for the Jets last season, but he was lost for the rest of the season in November when he broke his ankle on a kickoff return.