'Who's That Guy?' Soccer Jerseys and Finding a New Way to Be a Sports Fan

'Who's That Guy?' Soccer Jerseys and Finding a New Way to Be a Sports Fan

If you’re even a casual sports fan, you’ve probably had the “whose jersey should I get?” discussion. Whether it’s an Eagles jersey for yourself or a Flyers sweater for a nephew, it’s always an important decision.

But for soccer fans around the world, this isn’t often an issue. Take a look at this photo of Manchester City fans doing the “Poznan,” where they turn away from the field to celebrate a goal.

Notice how few of those shirts have names and numbers on the back. I dare you to go to an Eagles game and find more than dozen fans with blank jerseys.

Soccer fans around the world learned long ago not to become attached to individual players. Especially in recent years, it’s hard to keep track of who plays where. Whether it’s because your team can’t seem to afford to keep its best players (see: Arsenal), or your owner is an insane Russian bazillionaire who likes to change the roster annually (see: Chelsea), fans root for the shirt over the player.

“But Philly fans are the same way,” you might say. Well yeah, we all love our teams, and would root for an American Legion team if they wore red pinstripes. But we all get very passionate about names and numbers. There are entire sports radio shows dedicated to “jersey violations,” and it’s universally accepted that you can’t wear that McNabb jersey out of the house.

After three seasons in Major League Soccer, Philadelphia Union fans are learning they’ll have to go one way or the other.

It’s relatively normal in the soccer world for players to come and go – even more so than in “traditional” American sports. Contracts seem to be mere suggestions, and given the worldwide nature of the sport, players often have off-field issues pulling them one way or another.

In MLS, those issues are amplified, since for 99 percent of the soccer players in the world – even those in the United States – suiting up for the Chicago Fire or Colorado Rapids is not the dream they go to sleep to every night.

In the last week, Union fans have waded through Google Translate to find Spanish-language reports that team captain and defensive anchor Carlos Valdes is likely on his way out. The 27-year-old made his debut for the Colombian national team in 2008, but spent a few years out of the loop before getting a few call-ups in 2012. Now, it appears he is likely headed back to his home country, partially because his national team coach wants him closer to home to keep track of his progress (don’t expect U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to demand Clint Dempsey leave Tottenham to return to MLS any time soon).


It’s yet the latest offseason heartbreak for Union fans, who have watched their favorite players disappear with disturbing regularity. From Danny Califf and Danny Mwanga to Sebastien Le Toux, Faryd Mondragon and Jordan Harvey, Union replica jerseys have gone out of date faster than the Hunter Pence shirt you bought two summers ago.

If you’re emotionally attached to these players, then you likely dread the MLS transaction wire each morning in the winter. And that’s perfectly fine. No one should tell you the “right” and “wrong” way to be a fan.

There’s no doubt it’s fun to feel attached to your favorite players. The Union encourage it with player appearances, autograph sessions and the intimate setting at PPL Park. I’ve been guilty of it before and I’m sure I will be again (try to ignore my Sheanon Williams jersey).
But in three years rooting for the Union, as well as a decade-plus supporting Manchester City (Claudio Reyna, for the win), I’ve learned it’s more enjoyable – at least in my soccer fandom – to focus on tactics, strategy, matchups and team performance over individual attachments.

Do I have favorite players? Of course. But I also have come to terms with what the business of soccer is about, and, more specifically, the transient nature of MLS.

With Peter Nowak’s ego out of the way, all Union fans are hoping to see less turnover on the roster in 2013. But if you want to fully enjoy your time at PPL Park – especially if you are a newer Union fan – try a new approach to sports fandom. You might just find that you enjoy it a little more, and are heartbroken a little less.

Save the date
The 2013 MLS schedule was released on Wednesday. In addition to opening at home for the first time – March 2 against Sporting Kansas City – the Union skip a few difficult road trips this year. The unbalanced schedule means the team won’t play road games against Seattle, Portland, LA Galaxy or Chivas USA. They do face multiple road tests against New York and D.C United – something many fans will actually enjoy.
If you’re a die-hard Union supporter, you’ve already dissected the schedule and planned your sick days. But to the rest of you, here’s a few games you shouldn’t miss – both home and away.

Saturday, March 30 at New York (3:30 p.m.): It’s the day before Easter, the kids are off from school, and there are PLENTY of seats to be had at Red Bull Arena. The Union’s biggest rival sits just over an hour up the road in Harrison, N.J., and plays in what is arguably the finest soccer venue in America. New York rarely sells out, so tickets are easy to get. Take a drive, take the train, or – if you want the full experience – join the Sons of Ben and ride the bus. For a few bucks, you get a game ticket, bus ride to and from, and a day you won’t forget. (If you miss it, don’t worry. The Union play there again on August 17.)

Sunday, April 21 at D.C. United (5 p.m.): All the same reasons as above, except for the location. Instead of a majestic soccer palace, you get crumbling, raccoon-infested RFK Stadium. Still just as enjoyable.

Wednesday, May 15 vs. L.A. Galaxy (7:30 p.m.): No more Beckham, but the Galaxy are still the class of MLS, and the two-time defending MLS Cup champions. Odds are they’ll add one or two more big names to the roster before then.

Sunday, June 23 vs. New York (5 p.m.): The Sons of Ben bring their full voice when New York comes to town, and you can count on at least a few visiting fans making asses of themselves and getting arrested. So that’s always fun.

Saturday, May 25 at Montreal (TBD): Looking for a different Memorial Day weekend destination than the Jersey Shore? You could do A LOT worse than Montreal in May. Go for the weekend, and join what will likely be a sizable group of Union fans at the beautiful Saputo Stadium.

You can find Steve at the top of Section 138 starting in March. Come by and say hi.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: All eyes on Jeremy Hellickson

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Phillies-Nationals 5 things: All eyes on Jeremy Hellickson

Phillies (26-24) vs. Nationals (30-21)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After a 1-5 road trip that concluded with a sweep at the hands of the MLB-best Chicago Cubs, the Phillies return home to face another strong opponent in the NL East-leading Washington Nationals. Can a return to Citizens Bank Park be an answer to the Phillies' woes?

Here's that and everything else you need to know for the Phils' Memorial Day showdown with the Nationals:

1. Power outage
The Phillies started last week 25-19 but ended it just two games over .500 after getting outslugged by the Tigers and Cubs. In the Cubs' series, the Phils mustered just five runs.

Through 50 games, the Phillies are averaging just 3.2 runs, narrowly ahead of the MLB-worst Atlanta Braves. Manager Pete Mackanin is taking some steps to rectify that, namely reducing Ryan Howard's playing time so the team can get a good look at rookie first baseman Tommy Joseph (see story).

Joseph alone won't be able to get the Phillies on the right track. The Phillies need to start getting more contributions throughout the lineup. Leadoff man Odubel Herrera is batting .320 and Tyler Goedell is hitting .313 in May, but those two have been the only other bright spots in the Phils' lineup recently.

While the Phillies sport a 4-2 record against the Nationals this season, they have just 15 runs in those six games. Luckily for the Phils, the Nationals haven't exactly been playing top notch baseball of late.

2. What have the Nats been up to?
When the Nationals began a three-game set in Washington against the Phillies in late April, they were 14-5 and sat three games up in the NL East. However, since the Phillies swept them, the Nationals have gone just 15-14.

The Nats just finished an up -and-down week by splitting a four-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals and losing two of three to the Mets. Washington tends to rely on Bryce Harper, who is currently mired in a slump.

Harper had just four hits in his 24 at-bats against the Mets and Cardinals. He failed to draw a walk in either series and struck out four times. The 2015 NL MVP is 1 for 3 with two walks this season against Monday's starter, Jeremy Hellickson. 

Former Phillies Jayson Werth and Ben Revere have helped pick up the slack, however. Werth's pinch-hit grand slam Sunday sealed the Nationals' win over the Cards. Revere has five multi-hit games in his last nine starts.  

3. All eyes on Hellickson
Hellickson is the man tasked with taming Nationals' bats that produced 10 runs Sunday. Hellickson's first matchup against the Nats was his worst start of the season, while his second start was his best. 

On April 15 at Citzens Bank Park, Hellickson gave up six runs — five earned — in just three innings, his shortest start of the year. He gave up a home run to the first batter he saw (Michael Taylor) and allowed a three-run double to Werth.

So expectations weren't high on April 27 when the veteran righty faced the Nationals in Washington. However, Hellickson came through for the Phillies on that day. He allowed just two hits in seven scoreless innings and struck out eight. 

Which Hellickson will we see this time? It's tough to tell, but he has produced quality starts in his last three outings, a good sign of things to come.

4. Ready for Roark?
The Nationals have some true aces in their rotation with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But Tanner Roark has emerged as another go-to guy in the rotation in the first two months of 2016. 

The 29-year-old pitcher shuffled between the rotation and bullpen last season, finishing with a 4.38 ERA in 40 appearances. However, the righty has returned to form with 10 strong starts, including seven shutout innings against the Phillies on April 28.

After giving up seven runs to the Marlins on May 14, Roark rebounded with quality starts against the Marlins and Mets, giving up just three runs in his last 13⅔ innings in those contests.

Historically, the Phillies have gotten the best of Roark. He has a 2-5 record with a 5.55 ERA in 35⅔ innings, including an 8.27 ERA at Citizens Bank Park.

5. This and that
• Howard is 4 for 12 with one home run and six RBIs in his career against Roark. Herrera has three hits and a walk in seven plate appearances.

• Harper is 3 for 6 with five walks against Hellickson. Werth is 3 for 11 with two doubles and a homer against Hellickson.  

• The Phillies are 2-5 in the first game of a home series this season. The Nationals are 5-3 in the first game of road series. 

Flyers 2015-16 Evaluations Part 1: Goaltenders

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Flyers 2015-16 Evaluations Part 1: Goaltenders

If there's one thing the Flyers proved during the 2015-16 season, it's that you can never understate the importance of having two capable goaltenders.

Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth both shared the top spot at various points, as goaltending was one of the club's strengths.
 
Without strong performances from both, Dave Hakstol's team never would have made the playoffs.

Among the more intriguing questions that will arise in training camp next fall is who wins the starter's job. If the playoffs proved anything, it's not a lock Mason is ordained the starter.
 
Competition in goal made the Flyers better.
 
“To have inner competition is a good thing,” general manager Ron Hextall said after the season. “We've got two good goalies and I think, as we saw this year, it's nice to have.
 
“If we have one of them this year, then we're probably nowhere near the playoffs. They were a strength of ours and I give them both credit for giving us a chance to win those nights.”
 
Neuvirth has made it clear that he sees himself as a No. 1.
 
“Michal Neuvirth's become a better player this year and I think that Michal Neuvirth has a belief that he can be a No. 1, maybe for the first time, maybe when he was younger he did,” Hextall said.
 
“He proved it to himself, he proved it to us, and on the other hand, Mase did the same thing. Mase has played the last month and a half and was terrific. He played a great game and quite honestly, there is no rounds to go, we didn't have another guy to go to.”
 
Hextall feels Anthony Stolarz likely needs one more year of AHL grooming.
 
“Stolie is a good, young prospect, but he's young and he's not ready to take the ball at this level, so Mase took the ball and ran with it,” Hextall said. “We get two guys that I think our team feels very comfortable with and so do I.”
 
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have both demonstrated during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs that you can win with a young goalie coming off the bench and stealing the top spot with a strong run.
 
He’s a recap of the goaltenders - not including Stolarz, who was on the roster for 16 games but did not play:

Steve Mason
Age: 28
Stats: 54 GP; 23-19-10; 2.51 GAA; .918 SV%
Cap hit: $4.1 million
 
Mason played his 400th career game in March. Despite a terrible start that had more to do with a serious personal matter off the ice, Mason was the Flyers' late-season MVP, starting 12 consecutive games down the stretch and enabling the Flyers to erase a three-point gap and claim the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

After a stellar showing in the season-opener in Tampa, Mason's off-ice issue hit full brunt. His focus was gone the remainder of October and it showed with a 3.39 goals-against average heading into November. More bad luck came as he got the flu and missed a series of games before returning as the Flyers struggled through a series of overtimes and shootouts during which Mason came up small.

While Mason has shown he can make a critical save on a breakaway during games, he seems to make himself small in net during shootouts, during which he was 2-6 this season.

True, you can argue the Flyers have lacked for goal-scoring in the shootout for years now. Yet, the point is, Mason's confidence in shootouts is poor.

A knee injury bothered him in the start of the second half, as he lost his job to Neuvirth, who kept the Flyers afloat. Mason's return to full health began in March.

Mason finally hit .500 — 15-15-7 — with a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on March 7. His sprint to the finish began March 19 and he went 6-4-2 to help push the Flyers into the playoffs.

In Game 1 against Washington, Mason played well, but he was terrible the next two games in which he allowed 10 goals, three of which were horrific, and then lost the net to Neuvirth as the Flyers faced a 3-0 deficit.

His playoff goals-against average of 4.09 and .852 save percentage were proof of his poor play. Puzzling stat: His save percentage when the Flyers were on the power play this season was just .878 after being .958 the year before when he faced more shots against.

Mason continues to mystify as to whether he has the mental toughness to overcome adversity. While he proven his value in the regular season, until he shows he can carry this team deep into the playoffs on his own, there will forever be a question as to whether he's capable of winning a Stanley Cup.
 
Michal Neuvirth
Age: 28
Stats: 32 GP; 18-8-4; 2.27 GAA; .924 SV%
Cap hit: $1.625 million

Where would the Flyers have been this season without Neuvirth, especially at the start?

You could make a compelling argument Neuvirth was the club's first-half MVP while Mason struggled. Neuvirth was 11-6-2 at the All-Star break compared to Mason's 10-12-6.

Bang vs. buck. He's a steal at $1.625 million. The only knock on Neuvirth, which has dogged him throughout his nine-year career, is his health. He has an uncanny way of getting hit with freak injuries and admits it's held him back.

In all, he had six different injuries that caused him to miss 18 games — almost a quarter of the season. Yet despite late-season knee surgery, which forced him to miss eight games, Neuvirth came on strong in replacing Mason for Games 4 through 6 in the postseason.

Neuvirth clearly showed he was far more on top of his game than Mason, winning two of three, one of which he faced 44 shots and earned a brilliant 2-0 shutout. Neuvirth has played half as many games as Mason in his career yet he has a chance in camp to get that coveted starter's job back, which he once briefly held in Washington.

Neuvirth's 2.27 goals-against average and .924 save percentage during the regular season were career bests. Interestingly, this is a contract year for both Neuvirth and Mason to show their value for that next deal.

In Neuvirth's case, it's about getting starter's money — not back-up. That said, even if this shy Czech becomes the Flyers' starter, his penchant for injury dictates wariness over the long haul.

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg stays unbeaten as Nats pound Cards

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Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg stays unbeaten as Nats pound Cards

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg (9-0) won his 12th consecutive decision dating to last season, pitching six innings of one-run ball as Washington salvaged a four-game split.

Strasburg improved to 12-0 in 15 starts since losing to the Mets on Sept. 9, and the Nationals have won all 15 of those games. The 12 consecutive winning decisions is a franchise record for a starter, breaking a mark shared by Livan Hernandez (2005) and Dennis Martinez (1989).

Jayson Werth connected for a pinch-hit grand slam. Wilson Ramos had three hits, including a two-run homer, and drove in four runs. Bryce Harper hit an RBI single during a three-run fourth off Michael Wacha (2-6), who lost his sixth straight decision (see full recap).

Dodgers score twice in 9th to top Mets
NEW YORK -- Adrian Gonzalez snapped a ninth-inning tie with a two-run single off suddenly struggling closer Jeurys Familia, and Los Angeles beat New York.

Curtis Granderson hit a tying triple for the Mets immediately after Clayton Kershaw was lifted with two outs in the eighth. But the Dodgers quickly regrouped for their sixth victory in seven games since losing four straight.

Kershaw struck out 10, walked none and capped a magnificent May with another sublime performance.

Adam Liberatore (1-0) got the win. Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 15th save.

Familia (2-1) allowed two runs on two hits and two walks (see full recap).

Castro's homer Yanks' only hit in victory
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Starlin Castro's two-run, seventh-inning homer off Jake Odorizzi was the Yankees' only hit of the game, enough to give New York a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.

According to Baseball Reference data going back to 1913, the Yankees' only other one-hit win was when Charlie Mullen had an RBI single to beat Cleveland in six innings in a doubleheader nightcap on July 10, 1914.

Nathan Eovaldi (6-2) gave up one run and six hits in six innings to win his career-best fifth consecutive start and beat Odorizzi (2-3).

Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman each pitched a perfect inning and combined for seven strikeouts. Chapman got his seventh save (see full recap).

Deitrich hurt on odd play in Marlins' win over Braves
ATLANTA -- Derek Dietrich hit a tiebreaking, two-run homer and drove in four runs before getting hurt on a foul ball hit into Miami's dugout.

Dietrich's homer landed deep in the lower section of the right-field seats in the sixth, giving Miami a 3-1 lead. A former Georgia Tech star, Dietrich added a two-run double off Eric O'Flaherty in the seventh inning, then was hit by a foul ball off the bat of Christian Yelich in the ninth.

The team said X-rays were negative and Dietrich was to remain in Atlanta on Sunday night for further evaluations.

Tom Koehler (3-5) allowed three runs -- two earned -- three hits and five walks in seven-plus innings. Julio Teheran (1-5) gave up three runs, five hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings (see full recap).

Correa's home run lifts Astros over Angels in 13
ANAHEIM, Calif.  -- Pinch-hitter Carlos Correa had a three-run homer off Mike Morin (1-1) in the 13th inning.

Correa got a run-scoring hit in the 13th inning for the second time in six games, following up his game-ending single against Baltimore on Tuesday.

Albert Pujols had three hits for the Angels, who blew an eighth-inning lead and stranded 14 runners while losing for the fourth time in five games.

Michael Feliz (3-1) pitched the 12th for Houston (see full recap).