Philadelphia Soccer Is Reborn Today

Philadelphia Soccer Is Reborn Today

Well, it's finally here. The Philadelphia Union will kick off their inaugural MLS season tonight in one of the best sports venues in the country, Qwest Field in Seattle, at 9:30 PM Philly time. 

There have been some bumps along the way, from battles over state and local funding, stadium construction setbacks and opposition to its location, and a league players strike that threatened all the efforts and dollars put toward founding this new team. Some of those difficulties are still underway, but for the most part, the franchise and its supporters have weathered the initial storm, and now they are ready to represent the city and suburbs of Philadelphia. 

In a region dominated by Eagles football, and more recently, championship-caliber Phillies baseball, along with the Flyers and Sixers, the Union have quickly made surprising inroads into building a fanbase. First and foremost, they have captured the existing soccer fans in the area, many of whom had been clamoring for a pro team here—and let's face it, without whom there would be no franchise, at least not yet. The Sons of Ben have led that charge, and done it well while gaining a lot of media exposure for the team, but there are a lot of unbranded fans showing support too. 

Without a doubt, there is still opposition to an MLS club—to any soccer entity—being here. I still don't fully understand the hate on a sporting level, thinking it'd be a lot easier to just ignore that which you don't care for (those who are against it for tax and funding reason are a different story). I ignore LOST and Muse every day. 

But from what I've seen, the franchise isn't begging for universal fan acceptance. They want the soccer fans—those already in love with the beautiful game, and those who someday will be. They seem confident in their product, in their future stadium atmosphere, and they haven't shown any signs of compromising their soccer purist culture to make the team more acceptable on a mainstream level. 

The team has a very classic approach. It isn't flashy, or named after a dinosaur or something from space, and even its colors and logo are simple. Their visual-branding–oriented TV commercials are the furthest thing from overselling or hyping. 

One of the biggest criticisms of soccer is that it is too low scoring, that there aren't enough game-changing events within each contest. Knowing this, while starting a new team and hoping to fill a stadium in Chester, the Union are built on defense, on limiting opposing scoring opportunities. We all love our great Phillies defense, long for the days when the Birds played better without the ball, enjoy big hits and turning the field upside down, but it's offense that really puts asses in the seats no matter what the sport. 


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The Union's primary focus is on building a successful franchise though, not just selling a 2-hour show for its entertainment value. 

Their coach, Peter Nowak, is known as a hard ass who believes that defense wins games. Sure, a 5-3 loss might appear more interesting than a 2-1 loss or a 1-0 win, but these guys aren't looking for unpredictable, shootout soccer. Nowak wants to control the tempo, dictate the pace, and decide when and how to strike. It's strategy over flash, and maybe the difference between the interest level of the enthusiast and the casual fan. Again though, they're not interested in compromising their soccer values.

Only time, attendance, and dollars will tell if that is the right move in the long term. With ticket sales already exceeding many people's expectations and sponsorships lined up for many team elements, it's hard to find fault in their decisions to date. What remains to be seen is how those soccer fans who have never been interested in the MLS—guys like me—will take to a slower game with less talent on the field than we are used to seeing when we choose to watch soccer. This won't be waking up early on a Saturday to watch Drogba score two highlight goals, or Manchester City take down Man U, or USA in the 2006 World Cup. But it will be a team representing where we live, taking on a squad from some other place, and we've always been into that on every level, from football in sweatpants to the Olympics. It's fun to support your side, and even better when they win. 

I admittedly don't know much about the MLS, nor how the Union will fare in the W-L columns. Some experts think they're not bad though, and having an average-to-good team will go a long way in helping the franchise take root, rather than what we're used to seeing from expansion teams in most other sports. If the latter happens, interest could wane in the half-interested fans, and not grow initially in the soccer-curious crowd. But the crazies won't slog off after a few bad games, or even seasons, which is huge if this season doesn't go well in terms of ya know, winning.

We'll have a bit more on tonight's game later today, with a look at some of the on-field questions facing the team in its first game. 

Instant Replay: Sixers 113, Bucks 104

Instant Replay: Sixers 113, Bucks 104

BOX SCORE 

The tone was set in the opening minutes of the third quarter. 

The Sixers quickly made up a halftime deficit and rolled from there, outscoring the Bucks, 67-50, in the second half for a 113-104 victory over Milwaukee on Monday.

The Sixers have now won four of their last five games with their only loss in the stretch coming the game Joel Embiid sat out. 

Milwaukee used a 19-4 run to take a 54-44 lead, but the Sixers scored the final basket of the first half and the first eight points of the third quarter to tie the game. 

Embiid scored 12 points in the fourth quarter to finish with 22 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high tying five blocked shots.

Inside the box score
• The Sixers scored 18 of their 24 first-quarter points from the 3-point line, connecting on 6 of 13 attempts from beyond the arc. Philadelphia hit on 14 of 37 three-point attempts, while Milwaukee was just 5 for 14. 

• Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 21 points in the first half, but battled foul trouble after the break and finished with 23 points for the game. He picked up his fourth foul with 6:04 left in the third quarter and was whistled for his fifth foul just 38 seconds into the fourth quarter. 

• Eight Sixers scored in double figures, led by Embiid with 22. Dario Saric added 17, Ersan Ilyasova scored 12, Gerald Henderson and Robert Covington had 11 and Sergio Rodriguez, Jahlil Okafor and Chasson Randle each added 10. 

McConnell MRI negative
The Sixers will be without their starting point guard for the time being, as T.J. McConnell left the team to return to Philadelphia to receive treatment for a right wrist strain and did not play against the Bucks (see story).
 
An MRI taken on McConnell’s right wrist came back negative, according to Sixers coach Brett Brown.
 
“He has a strain,” Brown said. “There’s no structural damage. In relation to what that means with regards to his return to play, I don’t know that yet.”

Sergio Rodriguez started in McConnell’s place and scored 10 points with seven rebounds and six assists. 

Monster jam
Embiid threw down a thunderous dunk to give the Sixers a 77-76 lead with 1:00 left in the third quarter. He then forced a turnover on the other end and later blocked a shot attempt by Matthew Dellavedova at the third-quarter buzzer. 

Noel sits
Sixers center Nerlens Noel was a late scratch from Monday’s game due to a sprained left ankle. 

Up Next
The Sixers will host Toronto (27-13) on Wednesday and Portland (18-25) on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center before traveling to Atlanta to face the Hawks (24-17) on Saturday. 

MRI on T.J. McConnell's wrist comes back negative; Nerlens Noel has ankle sprain

MRI on T.J. McConnell's wrist comes back negative; Nerlens Noel has ankle sprain

The Sixers will be without their starting point guard for the time being, as T.J. McConnell has left the team to return to Philadelphia to receive treatment for a right wrist strain and will miss Monday's game vs. the Bucks in Milwaukee.
 
An MRI taken on McConnell’s right wrist came back negative, according to Sixers coach Brett Brown.
 
“He has a strain,” Brown said. “There’s no structural damage. In relation to what that means with regards to his return to play, I don’t know that yet.”
 
McConnell is averaging 4.8 points and 5.4 assists in 38 games. He has started Philadelphia’s last seven games, a stretch during which the Sixers have gone 5-2.

With McConnell out, Sergio Rodriguez will start at point guard Monday against Milwaukee.

Rodriguez started 29 of the first 30 games he played this season, his first in the NBA since 2009-10. The 30-year-old is more of an offensive threat than the defensive-minded McConnell, averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 assists.  

“You immediately go to losing that defensive energy T.J. is known for,” Brown said. “Sergio is a more gifted scorer. T.J. is a more gifted defender. To have Nerlens (Noel) and Joel (Embiid) behind the scenes, we can make up some ground with Sergio.
 
“People understand Sergio’s pedigree. He’s a 30-year-old legend in Europe. He has a wealth of experience. He’s a medalist and an MVP of the Euro league. He also was our starting point guard for a while. We’re happy to give him back that responsibility.”

No Noel
In addition to McConnell, the Sixers on Monday will also be without the services of Nerlens Noel, who is dealing with a left ankle sprain. Noel came down with a season-high 12 rebounds in Saturday's loss to the Wizards.

Still restricted
Sixers center Joel Embiid will still be on a 28-minute restriction Monday against the Bucks.

Embiid sat out Saturday’s 109-93 loss to Washington after playing 28 minutes in a 102-93 win over Charlotte on Friday. He has reached 30 minutes just once in his 27 games this season.