Union at Orlando City SC
7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet
The Union’s roll continued last weekend with a win over D.C. United in extra time, giving Jim Curtin’s club nine points in its last five games and a spot atop the Eastern Conference standings. But that momentum will be tested starting Wednesday night when the Union (5-3-3) make a quick turnaround to take on Orlando City SC (3-3-5) at the Camping World Stadium.
Here are five things to know for the matchup:
1. Defending first place
At first it was a fluke, then a random hot streak. But at the near quarter mark of the 2016 season, the Union are riding high in first place in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday’s match against Orlando City SC.
“I’ve always believed that you start to get an assessment of your group after about a third of the games,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “That’s a good barometer. We are starting to form an identity as a team that’s very tough to break down defensively and is a very good home team. Now, we need to carry that mentality on to the road.”
That mentality, the one that’s helped the Union to a 5-3-3 record, is about consistency on the defensive side of the ball. The Union have given up only 11 goals in 11 games, good for second in MLS.
“We’re a team that’s going to be tough to score against,” Curtin said. “One goal against per game is good — that’s good goalkeeping and that’s good defending. There’s some things you’re starting to see that maybe define us and give us a little bit of identity.”
With nine points in their last five games, the Union take their hot run on the road, where they haven’t been good. First up, Orlando City SC on Wednesday and then the Western Conference-leading Colorado Rapids on Saturday. The Union are 1-3-1 away from Talen Energy Stadium.
“Two very hostile places, two very good teams,” Curtin said. “We’ll take every player on our roster on the trip, which is unique. We haven’t done that before. We are a deep team and everyone is going to contribute.”
2. Blake’s availability
The big question for the Union entering their two-game road swing was would star goalkeeper Andre Blake play after being called up to the Jamaican national team for the Copa America tournament? And if so, would he make both games?
Curtin had the answer on Wednesday, stating that Blake will play in both road matches (see story).
“Jamaica’s been excellent with us,” he said. “What is best for both parties is that he is with us up until [June 1]. The Columbus game is the only game he’ll miss.”
And that’s good news for the Union. Blake has been stellar this season, often making game-saving stops a habit on the road to three shutouts and a 76.1 save percentage — placing him among the best in MLS.
“He’s a big part of us getting points,” Curtin said. “Going into two hostile environments knowing that he’s going to be in there is very valuable.”
3. Orlando’s momentum
Despite just one win in their last seven games — a run that includes a 2-1 loss to the Union — Orlando City is still keeping pace in the East by way of three draws over that same span.
But coming off a win over the Montreal Impact, and in the midst of four home games of five matches, the Florida club wants to go from staying afloat to rocketing up the standings.
“Any time we step on the field, we’re looking to get three points,” Orlando’s Kevin Alston said. “For us, we want to build off of last game and move forward.”
But they have to go through the Union first to get that momentum rolling.
“They are a confident team,” Orlando coach Adrian Heath said. “You can see it’s a happy camp. They keep working hard, they don’t give in, it’s gonna be tough because they are coming here with confidence.”
4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: The Union are a better team with Vincent Nogueira in the midfield. Which made it even more concerning when the Frenchman went out with an oblique injury prior to the match against D.C. United last Friday. And though Nogueira isn’t believed to be seriously injured, he, along with Ilsinho, will be a question on Wednesday. “I honestly don’t know whether they’ll be available by Wednesday,” Curtin said. “We’ll assess after Wednesday’s game and see what it looks like for Colorado.” If Nogueira can’t go, the Union will likely go with the same midfield lineup as they did against United, with Warren Creavalle in Nogueira’s spot and Brian Carroll sitting deeper as defensive mid.
Orlando: At 21 years old, Cyle Larin is already one of the most dangerous strikers in the league. He scored 17 goals in 24 starts in his rookie campaign and is continuing his ridiculous pace with six goals in nine starts this season. And the Union have taken notice. “He’s a great striker, one I rate very highly,” Curtin said. “We dodged a bullet because he wasn’t in the last time we played, so it’ll be a real challenge to shut him down, especially in their building.”
5. This and that
• The Union are undefeated against Orlando City all-time with a 2-0-1 record.
• Orlando City’s star midfielder Kaka came alive last weekend, notching two assists in his club’s 2-1 win over the Impact. Heath noted that as Kaka goes, Orlando goes, leaving Curtin to wish the legendary player was invited to the Brazilian national team for the Copa America tournament, missing the match. “Yeah, I’d rather play them without Kaka, for sure,” Curtin laughed.
• Dating back to Aug. 1, 2015, Orlando City is unbeaten at Camping World Stadium. The club is 6-0-6 in its last 12 matches at the venue.
It's only May, but already something is very different about the Eagles' offense. It's moving a lot slower these days — and that might actually be a good thing.
Gone from practice is the frenetic, breakneck pace that focused on quantity of repetitions and play calls over quality, what became the hallmark of a Chip Kelly team. Under Doug Pederson, the offense huddles and makes adjustments at the line of scrimmage, uses snap counts instead of sheer speed to keep the defense off-balanced, and the head coach will even briefly halt the action if he feels the need to bark out instructions.
The two philosophies couldn't be more opposite, although there's probably a reason why Pederson and 30 other coaches in the league don't do everything as fast as possible, 100 percent of the time. One of those is to keep players fresh for the grueling football season that lies ahead.
"We have a lot more time to preserve our bodies," right tackle Lane Johnson said of Pederson's offense. "We're still going hard, but we're still going to have a lot in the tank come December or January, whenever we need our bodies to perform for us."
While it was often noted how Kelly's uptempo attack put pressure on his own defense, rarely was any mention made of the added strain it put on offensive personnel, as well. After all, they were running a higher number of plays than average too, which Johnson admits may have had an adverse effect on his performance and that of his offensive line mates.
"I can speak for myself, I can speak for a lot of the guys on the O-line, we don't have any rotation, it's us the whole year," Johnson said. "You go so fast for so long, there's only so much your body can do before ultimately it's going to fail you. I don't care who you are.
"But I think we're taking a better approach this year. We're getting our work in, but it's a better approach."
Reducing fatigue is only one potential benefit to Pederson's more traditional tactics. Players are also noticing they have more time to observe and react to what the defense is doing, rather than simply carrying out the calls that come in from the sideline as quickly as humanly possible.
The mental dynamic — at least on an individual level — had long been absent from the Eagles' offense. Players were given minimal time to prepare for what was coming on the next play, and if a call put somebody in poor position, there was precious little ability to adjust. Now all of a sudden, the quarterback has more freedom to change the play, while everybody has the opportunity to read the defense pre-snap.
"The biggest thing, obviously, is coming in out of the huddle," wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. "More time to assess situations, different checks, audibles, things like that that didn't come with a fast, hurry-up offense."
"You just have a lot more time to assess everything that's going on with the defense," Johnson said. "Instead of getting up to the line and snap the ball quick, you have more time to glance around, see where the blitz is coming from. You have more time to operate."
Another benefit to Pederson's traditional approach was on full display at Tuesday's practice (see 10 observations), during which the defense was caught jumping offsides numerous times. The Eagles have been reintroduced to snap counts, a seemingly minor wrinkle that's proven to be a very welcome return for the offense.
Snap counts are a simple device that keeps defenses honest, forcing linemen and blitzers to go off the sight of the ball moving alone rather than the sound of the quarterback's call. And if the defense crosses the line of scrimmage before the snap, it's a penalty that results in five yards and, sometimes, a free play.
It's not quite the same as getting lined up and snapping the ball in under 15 seconds, but it does give the offense a slight head start, even when it doesn't draw a flag.
"They're taught to get off the ball, but we're taught to have different snap counts," Johnson said. "That's the beauty of it. If they want to jump offsides, we'll take five yards every time.
"It just helps the offensive line. Guys want to jet up the field and rush and try to get off the ball quick, and if they do that and the ball's not snapped, then it's gonna be five yards for us. We try to incorporate that. It's different for us because we haven't had that the past few years with Chip. We just got up there and snapped the ball, tempo operation, so I think it's definitely going to be to our advantage."
Who would've thought something as basic as a snap count, which is employed by nearly every team at every level of football, might be something the Eagles would want to try?
If it sounds at all like any of this is throwing shade at Kelly, well, maybe it is, if only a little. While describing the differences between offenses, Matthews sort of implied tempo is used in part to hide flaws, rather than to attack the opponents' vulnerabilities.
"Last year, we just did stuff pretty much always in two-minute mode," Matthews said. "So it was a regular NFL offense, it was just two-minute drill the whole game, whereas now it's slowed down with longer play calls.
"Usually in that kind offense, the speed and the scheme is what people feel like are going to take care of most of the problems. When you come out slow and are dissecting what the defense is doing, they're not gassed, they're ready for every single play and we have to run plays more so off of what they give us, so it's a little different in that aspect."
Time will tell whether Pederson's style is more effective, but players certainly seem pleased by the changes thus far. Even something as simple as the head coach talking to the offense between plays or asking the players to run something back — not remotely unusual on most practice fields — had become unfamiliar to the Eagles.
"Sometimes in between plays we'll have a little time to discuss it," Johnson said. "We're going back to the huddle so the coach has time to discuss what went wrong on that play, what we can do to fix it the next time.
"It's just more input. We have a lot more time to communicate and get things communicated that way to help fix problems."
Imagine that. By slowing things down, Johnson just made the case Pederson is actually getting more done. Maybe you don't always have to go 100 miles per hour to maximize the offense.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Suddenly, these Golden State Warriors who have been compared all season to the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s are on the brink of elimination.
Russell Westbrook had 36 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Warriors 118-94 on Tuesday night to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State, which won a league record 73 games in the regular season, lost consecutive games for the first time this season.
The Warriors must win Game 5 on Thursday in Oakland to keep their season alive.
"We all have to bounce back," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "The good news is, we go home. Obviously we play well at home. The idea now is to go home and get one win. Do that, and we put some pressure on them and we'll see what happens."
Klay Thompson led Golden State with 26 points, but two-time league MVP Stephen Curry was limited to 19 points on 6-for-20 shooting. Curry's shooting performance was so uncharacteristic that reporters asked if he was hurt.
"He's not injured," Kerr said. "He's coming back from the knee, but he's not injured. He just had a lousy night. It happens, even to the best players in the world."
The Warriors lost consecutive playoff games by at least 20 points for the first time since Games 2 and 3 of the 1972 Western Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks. Golden State's Draymond Green, who was fined for kicking Steven Adams in the groin in Game 3, finished with six points, 11 rebounds and six turnovers.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City got a boost from an unlikely source. Andre Roberson, a player the Warriors have ignored at times during the series, scored a career-high 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Kevin Durant added 26 points and 11 rebounds and Serge Ibaka added 17 points and seven rebounds.
As for Westbrook, it was his first triple-double of the playoffs after posting 18 in the regular season. It was his fifth career playoff triple-double.
"I play every game like it's my last, regardless of who's in front of me," he said. "That's my job, and my job is to worry about my team, and that's all I do."
The Thunder know they have to close. Nine teams have rallied from 3-1 deficits to win.
"I think we're in a good place, but like I said, this game is over," Westbrook said. "We've got to move on to the next game. Every game is different."
The Thunder led 30-26 at the end of the first quarter, then gained control in the second. In the most unlikely of connections, Adams threw a bullet pass to Roberson near the basket for a dunk that gave the Thunder a 56-43 lead with just over four minutes left in the first half.
Oklahoma City finished with a flurry and led 72-53 at halftime. The Thunder matched the most points they have scored in a first half in franchise playoff history, a mark they set the previous game against the Warriors. It also matched the most points Golden State has allowed in a half this season for the second straight game.
Westbrook had 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the first half, and Durant had 18 points and six boards.
Thompson tried to keep the Warriors in it, scoring 19 points in just over seven minutes to start the third quarter. But the Thunder maintained their composure, led 94-82 at the end of the period and remained in control in the fourth.
"This is a tough situation to be in, but the series isn't over," Curry said.
Kerr, on the pressure of trying to win a title after setting the regular-season wins record: "We had a tremendous regular season, our guys competed every single night and did something no one has ever done and they're proud of that. But in the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0. So there's no extra pressure, whether you're talking about defending our title or trying to back up the regular season."
According to Thunder Public Relations, the last team to score 72 or more points in the first half of two straight playoff games was the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers.
Warriors: Curry went 1 for 7 in the first quarter, and made just 1 of 4 3-point attempts. ... Thompson committed his third foul with 7:55 left in the second quarter, and C Andrew Bogut committed his third about two minutes later. ... Curry made a 3-pointer for his 48th consecutive playoff game, extending his NBA record. ... The Warriors were 12-0 this season the game after a loss.
Thunder: Westbrook had five points, six assists and three rebounds in the first quarter. ... Oklahoma City forced 13 turnovers in the first half. ... The Thunder improved to 19-0 this season when Westbrook gets a triple-double. ... The Thunder outrebounded the Warriors 56-40 and outscored them 31-19 from the free throw line.