The Faceoff at Fenway: Classic Teams, Classic Venue...

The Faceoff at Fenway: Classic Teams, Classic Venue...

It's finally here. The game we've been waiting for all season. 


2010 Winter Classic - building the rink 18, originally uploaded by misconmike.

Although the pond hockey concept itself is among the most primitive aspects of the sport, two professional teams playing on an outdoor rink on New Year's Day has become the most unique experience in hockey. The NHL's missteps in recent years are well-documented, but one thing they continue to get right is the Winter Classic. I'm not just saying that because the Flyers are in it this year; I've watched every one of them, geeking out over camera angles that capture an expanse of white ice against a stadium backdrop and players skating in throwback jerseys. This year, we'll see those shots set against backdrops that include the Green Monster and Pesky Pole. 

The game has a distinct nostalgic feel despite this being just the third Winter Classic, and the fact that it's played in a structure built and widely known for another sport. By all accounts, the league has done an outstanding job of setting up the 2010 Winter Classic, from selecting two teams with amazing histories and pairing that matchup with a legendary venue, to constructing an ice surface that the players say is perfect despite the obvious challenges by the elements. 

We're in for an amazing experience today, and that's before we even look at the game itself. 

The rivalry between the Flyers and Bruins remains strong today, renewed annually with games characterized by big hits and gamesmanship, despite the fact that these teams virtually never face each other in the playoffs. Seven points separate them in the Eastern Conference, representing four places in the EC standings. Maybe we'll see them in the 'offs this year—what a matchup that would be.  

Michael Leighton gets the start over Woonsocket, Rhode Island, native Brian Boucher. I'd have loved to have seen Boosh get the hometown start (imagine yourself getting to start in net at CBP for context), but Leighton is the man of the moment, coming off of four wins including a shutout in his last. Leighton Master MUST keep that going today. There's no other option. 

The B's aren't known for their attack as much as they are for their defensive strengths, and Tuukka Rask has the league's best GAA by a large margin and a slight lead in save percentage. Plus, he's got a sweet mask just for the occasion. [Update: Tim Thomas will start for the Bruins] With the elements possibly imposing on the festivities today, scoring could be at a premium. Fortunately, the Flyers look as though they've shaken the snake, with their goal-scoring ability on display in a 6-0 rout of the Rangers in their last game before the Classic. 

Ideally, we'll be seeing a continuation of that today, with Peter Laviolette's system finally in fruition. Lavvy emphasizes sending wave after wave into the offensive zone, which requires active defensemen to start the rush yet be ready for any counters that should arise. It's the kind of hockey the national audience will want to see, more so than a dominant performance by Thomas. So let's give the people what they want, eh, Flyers?   

You'll hear it said that when it comes down to it, this game matters only as much as all the others—it all comes down to the points in the standings. I don't buy it. You can see it in the players' faces that this one is different. The Bruins have something amazing to give the fans of Boston; the Flyers can announce to the league that they've regrouped and are once again a threat to hoist the Cup this year. 

Andrew is the lucky Leveler who will get to see the game from the Fenway bleachers, while I'm feeling pretty good hosting some of my Flyers peeps back here in the Philly area. As always, we're looking forward to watching it with all you. 


 LET'S GO FLYERS!

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union-Crew 5 things: Still in good position, Jim Curtin's club looks to rebound

Union at Crew
7:30 p.m. on TCN

Despite being dominated by Toronto FC on Saturday, the Union (9-9-7) managed to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, thanks to a handful of fortunate results around the league. But if the club wants to better its odds for the postseason, it needs to take care of business at Mapfre Stadium on Wednesday night against the Columbus Crew (4-8-11).

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Playoff push
It hasn’t been a convincing few weeks for the Union. Although the club still sits fourth in the Eastern Conference despite one win in its last six games, it needs points to stay afloat. That quest begins on Wednesday against the Crew.

“The focus is getting points,” Union defender Richie Marquez said. “For us, home or away, we need three points because we need to solidify that playoff spot.”

As of now the Union are in snug playoff position with 34 points — one ahead of the Montreal Impact and six in front of D.C. United and Orlando City for the sixth and final playoff spot. On the plus side, the club is one point behind the New York Red Bulls with a game in hand.

“It’s a push to get into the playoffs and try to see how high we can end up in the table,” Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “It’s important we don’t look too much at the standings because anything can happen in this league. It’s all really tight. It’s important we go to Columbus with the right mentality and come back to Philly with three points.”

2. Coming off a loss
Speaking of the playoff push, the Union’s dream of being a top-two seed in the East took a major hit on Saturday in a 3-1 bashing by Toronto FC. The loss put Toronto up six and New York City FC up seven on the Union. 

Worst of all, it crushed all Union momentum coming out of a 4-0 win over the New England Revolution a week prior. Still, the club maintains its confidence heading into Wednesday.

“I feel good about this team and the players we have,” Bedoya said. “The goals we gave up were too easy. We have talent on this team, but there’s little things we have to fix. Once we get those right, we’ll be tough to break down.” 

As Jim Curtin explained, the short turnaround from Saturday actually works in the Union’s favor. 

“We were smart with how we managed the past two days in terms of getting the guys massages, taking care of their bodies, eating right and getting enough sleep,” he said. “They’ll be ready to go, they’re itching to get the bad taste out of their mouth after the Toronto game.”

3. Win-starved Crew
With the help of Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain, the Crew took down the floundering Revolution over the weekend. But that’s nothing to celebrate over. It was just the club’s fourth win of the season and second since May 28. 

The Crew are currently closer to having the lowest point total in MLS than a playoff spot.

“It’s been tough,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a team that I believe in deeply but it’s natural that confidence dips when you don’t get the results. It’s about believing in our playing style and fine-tuning things, approving in some areas. I think we did that in the last game.” 

Though the Crew attempt to climb out of the basement on Wednesday, they know what they are up against. The Union took the first season meeting against the Crew, 2-1, and the second, 3-2. 

“They added Bedoya, who is a quality player,” Berhalter said. “Other than that, it’s similar to what they’ve been doing all year with [C.J.] Sapong and talented players behind him. Bedoya makes a good difference there, but they are a solid group and they’ll play with intensity. From our side, we’ll have to be smart how we approach the game.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Facing the Crew twice this season, the Union have five goals. Chris Pontius has three of them. The Union forward scored the brace on March 12, then buried another on June 1. 

Crew: MLS rookie Ola Kamara leads the Crew with 10 goals, including one against the Union on June 1. Since May 28, the forward has 10 goals and one assist in 12 games.

5. This and that
• Facing the Crew has always been tough for the Union. Including two wins this season, the Union are 6-10-1 against the Crew all-time.

• The Union have only suffered back-to-back losses twice this season, and both times it happened in the club’s last 10 games.

• Of Kamara’s 10 goals this season, six have come at home. 

• The first-ever meeting between the Union and Crew happened on Aug. 5, 2010, and was a 2-1 loss for the Union. Sebastien Le Toux scored a penalty kick but Steven Lenhart buried the brace.

How Jim Schwartz changed Stephen Tulloch's career

How Jim Schwartz changed Stephen Tulloch's career

Stephen Tulloch hasn’t just had a successful NFL career under Jim Schwartz. He’s had a successful career because of Jim Schwartz.

“I have a lot of love and respect for Coach Schwartz,” Tulloch said following his first practice with the Eagles (see story).

On Tuesday, the Eagles’ newest linebacker credited Schwartz for the Titans’ drafting him with the 116th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft. He said Schwartz pushed for him, “when nobody else really wanted to go after” him.

“I’ll leave you with this story,” Tulloch began.

“So in 2006, I go to the NFL combine. I measure in at 5-10 and some change, whatever I was. It was the second day of the draft and [the Titans] were about to draft a guy from another school, so Coach Schwartz goes into [Jeff] Fisher’s office and makes a little tape of my highlights from college, and (former Titans linebackers coach) Dave McGinnis at the time. He changed Coach Fisher’s mind and Floyd Reese at the time was the general manager. I was the 116th pick in the [2006] draft. That was it. I came to Tennessee and the rest was history.”

So, who was the player the Titans almost drafted?

“I’m not gonna put it out there,” he said. “It was another guy and I’m fortunate enough to get drafted and still be here in the league.”

The decision worked out well for the Titans. Eventually, Tulloch became a starter and played five total years in Tennessee before moving on to Detroit. 

As for the other linebackers in the 2006 draft, well, Tulloch was one of 15 linebackers taken in the fourth round or later in 2006. To date, Tulloch has started 111 games. The other 14 have started a combined 138.

The other two linebackers taken in the fourth round in 2006 were Leon Williams to the Browns and Jamar Williams to the Bears. Leon Williams (pick No. 110) last played in 2012 and started just 12 NFL games, while Jamar Williams (pick No. 120) played five years and has just three career starts to his name.

Tulloch is still going strong. And he owes a lot to Jim Schwartz.

“I always thank him for the opportunity I had in Tennessee,” Tulloch said.

Jake Thompson left searching for answers after latest rough start

Jake Thompson left searching for answers after latest rough start

BOX SCORE

CHICAGO — On the whole, the Phillies have made steady progress in their rebuild this season.

Cameron Rupp has improved. Maikel Franco has had a nice year. Odubel Herrera, even with his recent inconsistency, has had more ups than downs. Cesar Hernandez has been on a good roll. Freddy Galvis has 36 extra-base hits, and Tommy Joseph has opened eyes with his power. In the bullpen, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos have shown that they just might be future studs.
 
For a good chunk of the season, the young starting pitching has shown promise, as well.
 
But lately, that corner of the team has taken some hits. Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin were both ruled out for the remainder of the season last week with elbow and knee injuries, respectively, and hard-throwing Vince Velasquez has been tagged for 19 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings over his last three starts.
 
Jake Thompson’s first four major-league starts haven’t exactly inspired confidence, either. The 22-year-old right-hander was hit hard in a 9-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay). He gave up eight hits, including five for extra bases, and seven runs as his ERA swelled to 9.78. Only Mike Maddux (9.98) in 1986 had a higher ERA for the Phillies in his first four big-league starts.
 
“I’m not used to this,” Thompson said after the defeat. “I feel certain that I’m a lot better than my performance has indicated.”
 
Few pitchers come to the big leagues and dazzle right away. There is a learning curve and occasionally growing pains. But no one expected Thompson to have this much trouble out of the chute, not after what he did in his final 11 starts at Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
Thompson went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
In four starts with the big club, he has given up 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He has walked 13 and struck out 13.
 
He was advertised as a control and command pitcher. He has yet to show that in the majors.
 
“A lot of it has to do with his age and, I think, the fact he’s in the big leagues for the first time trying to make a good impression,” manager Peter Mackanin said. “He probably feels like he needs to make perfect pitches every time. All he’s got to do is keep the ball down. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He relies on command and control and he hasn’t shown that. I attribute a lot of that to his youth and inexperience.”
 
So does Rupp, the catcher.
 
“How many guys do you see come to the big leagues at 22 years old and just flat out dominate every time they go out?” Rupp said. “Not very many. He's young. It was his first time in Triple A this year and he pitched really well and now he's got a chance in the big leagues. I'm sure he feels like there's pressure. When you come up and you pitch so well all year and then you finally get your opportunity, you want to impress. It puts a lot on you. And as a kid, you've got to be able to control it and it's tough. It's hard.

“Nobody wants to see anybody fail. It's hard to go through. It's something that's going to make him better when he does finally figure it out."
 
Two of the walks Thompson gave up Tuesday night became runs. He gave up back-to-back homers to Jose Abreu and Justin Morneau in the fifth inning as the White Sox turned it into a rout.
 
“Just too many pitches up in the strike zone,” Mackanin said. “Everything he threw was thigh high, waist high. He couldn’t get the ball down. It’s as simple as that.”
 
Thompson concurred with his manager.
 
“The issue is pretty evident,” he said. “I'm not throwing strikes and when I am throwing strikes, they're not good strikes. It’s a frustrating thing because it's a relatively easy thing to do. I don't really have the answer right now to fix it.”
 
The game moves fast at the big-league level and confidence can become bruised quickly. Thompson said his confidence was unshaken. Still, Phillies officials have to be careful that this difficult baptism to the majors does not snowball and become something that adversely impacts Thompson's growth.
 
“It’s something that you’re concerned about and I’m concerned about,” Mackanin said.
 
Concerned enough that Thompson might not make his next start?
 
Mackanin said he expected Thompson to stay in the rotation, but added that he would speak with general manager Matt Klentak on the topic.
 
“I don’t want to see him keep getting beat up and keep struggling like this,” Mackanin said. “We’ll talk about it and see what Matt wants to do.”