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.)

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

The Sixers (4-15) continue their homestand against the Boston Celtics (11-8) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night (7:30 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup.

1. A green giant-sized challenge
Just crumple it up and move on.

That's about the only thing the Sixers can do after getting ran out of the gym by the Orlando Magic on Friday. Instead of looking like a team that hadn't played since Monday, the Sixers appeared flat in a 105-88 loss.

Outside of Joel Embiid's first 20-point, 10-rebound game (he had 25 points and 10 boards) and a strong effort from Jahlil Okafor (16 points and 13 rebounds), not much else went right for the Sixers.

Now Embiid will sit the second game of a back-to-back set and Okafor will be thrust into the starting lineup, as the Sixers try to deal with Boston big man Al Horford. 

Horford, the Celtics' prized free-agent acquisition, is coming off his best game so far for his new team. He recorded 26 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in the Celtics' 97-92 win over the Kings on Friday.

2. Little big man
Even with Horford coming off a productive performance, the Sixers' game plan against the Celtics has to focus on slowing down Isaiah Thomas.

The 5-foot-9 guard continues to put up big numbers in the scoring department. Despite his shooting percentages taking a dip this season, Thomas still ranks ninth in the NBA with a career-high 25.7 points per game. 

And even though he is a willing passer (averaging a career-high-tying 6.3 assists), expect Thomas to try and score early and often against the Sixers. After all, the reserve-turned-All-Star has put up 21.5 points per game against the Sixers during his career, his highest mark against any opponent.

3. Dial up the long-distance defense
The Sixers need to be aware of Thomas and just about all of his teammates when they toe that three-point line.

The Celtics rank fifth in the league in three-pointers attempted (31.1), three-pointers made (11.3) and eighth in three-point percentage (36.3) per game.

The C's have four players shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc, and perhaps a bit surprising, three of them are big men. Jonas Jerebko (46.4 percent), Horford (42.4 percent) and Amir Johnson (40.0 percent) have all been on target from long range.

4. Injuries
Robert Covington (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are both questionable. Embiid (rest), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

The Celtics have no players listed on the injury report.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost five games in a row overall and eight straight to the Celtics.

• The Celtics rank 25th in rebounding with 42.2 a night.

• Dario Saric had two points Friday against the Magic and has failed to reach double digits in scoring five of his last six games.

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.