Union Fire Up Home Crowd, Silence the Sounders

Union Fire Up Home Crowd, Silence the Sounders

It seemed somewhat fitting that Sounders FC would be in town for the Union's PPL Park inaugural game. The Union played their first ever match in Seattle, and a budding long-distance rivalry began. At least that's the way some of us fans saw it. Seattle is the high-water mark for new franchises and their fans. The Sounders' W-L record this season may not show it, but their attendance mark does. Throw in a few dives by their star player in that season opener and our sights were set.

The Union's showing at Lincoln Financial Field was spectacular, but we've been waiting to see what the atmosphere would be like at their permanent home, PPL Park in Chester. Yesterday we finally got that opportunity. 

The following is a random compilation of thoughts on the game and the stadium atmosphere. 

Enrico, Gootman, and I made our way to the Chester waterfront at about 3, and the tailgating was well underway. I was a little mindful about traffic and the overall parking situation, but we didn't run into any glitches, pulling right into Lot A and opening the cooler. Holy hell was it hot down there yesterday. I wondered how it might affect the game and the crowd's energy. On our way inside, we walked under the Commodore Barry Bridge, which provides a great man-made landscape backdrop for the stadium. 
One gripe I had was that I wasn't allowed to bring bottled water inside with me. Enrico and Goot got in with theirs, but security told me it wasn't allowed. With $4 bottles in the stadium on a mid-90s day, water should be allowed... 

Inside, Enrico pointed out that the park had a collegiate feel. The architecture is simple, with broad walls and walkways under the seating. We were stopped just before getting to our section, and temporary fences were put in place right in front of us for the players to come out of the locker room and onto the field. I would have liked to have made it to our seats for that, but it was pretty cool seeing them run out underneath. They were amped. 

Our seats in the supporters section were sun-drenched, but we knew going in that'd be the case. The field looked great, and it's impossible to overstate how close the seats are to it. The Barry Bridge behind the webbed metal "roof" to the sidelines was a great sight, and from a few rows above ours, you could turn around and see the river.
There wasn't much wind yesterday, but I'm looking forward to sitting at the breezy end for future games this summer.

The fans around us were all friendly and full of energy despite the heat. We're toward the corner, so the singing wasn't as loud away from the main SoB guys, but the chants were pretty good. Most of the songs are OK, but I'd add two to the mix: Under The Bridge and Down By The River Take Me To The River (Neil's song is great, but kind of a bad fit aside from the title. Al Green/Talking Heads fits a lot better). 

As far as the game is concerned, what more could we ask for? The Union romped the Sounders, even more than the decisive 3-1 result would indicate. They controlled the possession and tempo of the game, and perhaps inspired by USA's showing in the World Cup, they were able to come from behind after letting up a first half goal. 

We got to see the best possible outcomes from penalty kicks. Sebastien Le Toux absolutely buried his, and Chris Seitz set the place on fire by making the rare save on a PK. Seitz had a rocky start to his Union career, but his confidence has been on the rise, and he was a major force in yesterday's game. The crowd was enthralled with him, chanting for every save and challenge. So great to see the kid playing bold but smart in the box. 

Danny Mwanga got the start, and we thought he had a brilliant goal buried in the top right corner in the first half. Turned out it went just wide, hitting the pole that pinned the net up; the visual effect of it ricocheting down behind the goal looked to us at the river end like it was in. Danny would get, and take advantage of, another opportunity in the second half though, taking a Le Toux feed and sending the supporters section into a frenzy. Fred, frequently seen with a beaming smile on this day, also scored for the Union. When he was subbed off late in the game, the place went nuts for him. 

Is it any wonder the Union scored all three of their goals while shooting on the goal that sits below the supporters? 
After the game players from both sides gave respectful claps to the fans, who remained in the stands for a while to celebrate the win. The Union players made their way around the pitch, grabbing the outstretched hands of their supporters, and enjoying every second of it. After they made their way into the tunnel, the supporters section was still full and loud, and the players came back out for more. They'd earned it, and so had the fans. I don't remember ever seeing players in any sport so happy after a regular season game, and it was a great move to share that feeling with the fans rather than in the locker room. 

Can you tell I had a great time? Writing this thing like a fifth grade report on My Trip to the Soccer Stadium... We'll have more on the park itself in future posts. This time we just wanted to go in and get a little crazy, not think about anything but what's right in front of us. 

Oh, and Freddie Ljunberg got booed to no end. We'll take pride in that, thank you very much. The fans displayed the trademark Philly vitriol, but also the knowledge of the game, remembering Ljunberg's intolerable diving act in the season opener out in Seattle. He definitely heard about it. The Ro-gaine chants for Kasey Keller were kinda lame though.

After a huge letdown to our soccer weekend from the US side on Saturday, the Union pulled us back up and gave us an idea of what we can expect down by the river this summer and in the years ahead. Think they like playing at home? Two of their three wins have come in Philly, with their only other home game ending in a dramatic tie (yes, there is such a thing).  

I'm probably forgetting a lot (you can probably figure out why), and my "recap" of the actual game action leaves a lot to be desired. I recommend checking out Dave Zeitlin's account, Judah Levine's, and this amazingly shot gallery at the Union's FB. 

Sixers teased in preseason finale with Jahlil Okafor back, Nerlens Noel out

Sixers teased in preseason finale with Jahlil Okafor back, Nerlens Noel out


MIAMI — Jahlil Okafor called it a “tease.”

He was talking about his oh-so-brief 2016-2017 debut, but he could have also been summarizing the Sixers' constant state of taking one step forward and one (injured) leg back.

Okafor, a 6-11 center and the NBA’s third overall pick in the 2015 draft, played 7:32 minutes on Friday and produced four points, one rebound, one assist, one block and one turnover. He had been held out in camp previously because of knee soreness.

His return was the good news for the Sixers.

But before Friday’s 113-110 exhibition finale win over the Miami Heat even started (see Instant Replay), the Sixers announced that center/forward Nerlens Noel will have a “minor surgical procedure in the coming days” on his injured left knee (see story).

Sixers center Joel Embiid, who has missed the past two years because of foot surgeries, empathizes with Noel.

“It’s hard,” Embiid said. “Obviously we need Nerlens if we want to win. But that’s basketball. Things happen. You can’t control injuries.

“I feel bad for him because this is the beginning of the season. Everybody wants to play the beginning of the season. But I’m sure he is going to work hard to come back even stronger.”

On the positive side for the Sixers, there was the return of Okafor … even it felt like baby steps for him.

“I started to feel really good,” said Okafor, who had surgery on his right knee in March and experienced soreness on that same knee Sept. 30. “It was kind of like a tease to me because I really got going. I wanted to continue to play, but that’s why I have the medical staff to keep me disciplined.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown said before the game that he would keep Okafor to just six to eight minutes, and he was true to his word.

Okafor, who made the only shot he attempted from the floor and was 2 for 4 on free throws, did not play in the second half.

“The scoring piece to my game, that’s like riding a bicycle,” Okafor said. “I know I can score the ball. It was good to get back out there with my teammates and hear them cheer for me on the side.”

Okafor said he tried to convince Brown to let him extend past the script of no more than eight minutes.

“He was like, ‘Have your lawyer call my lawyer,'" Okafor said. “We will talk about the season home opener (on Wednesday night against Oklahoma City), and hopefully I can increase my minutes.”

Okafor said he didn’t want to put a number on how many minutes he thought he could’ve played in his season debut except to say he knew he could play more.

Interestingly, Embiid, who had 18 points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes, said he felt Okafor was a bit fatigued.

“I think he was a little bit tired,” Embiid said. “Obviously, he hasn’t played in a while. But just like me, he’s going to dig down. He is a proven scorer. He can do whatever he wants on the court.

“Once he gets back in shape, we as a team are going to be really good.”

Okafor was a minus-5 while he was on the court. But Brown said he was impressed by some of the less-hyped aspects of Okafor’s game.

“I thought he was really good defensively,” Brown said. “He sat in his stance and moved his feet. I thought he did a great job of fronting the post.”

Brown said the Noel injury was almost unfair.

“Clearly, it was a situation in the preseason where he would have played a lot,” Brown said. “The timing is unfortunate.”

Temple runs past South Florida, claims sole possession of AAC East

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Temple runs past South Florida, claims sole possession of AAC East

Temple didn’t mince words about its early setbacks in 2016.

The Owls were “hurt” after their season-opening loss to Army. They were “angry” after dropping a rivalry game to Penn State. They stressed a need to “finish” following a blown lead to Memphis.

All of that heartbreak went into making the Owls what they are today: leaders in the American Athletic Conference East Division.

Temple turned the tables on run-oriented South Florida to gash the Bulls for 319 rushing yards (210 coming from Ryquell Armstead) in a 46-30 win on Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field (instant replay)

The victory helped the Owls (5-3, 3-1 AAC) avenge last season’s blowout and, more importantly, move into a first-place tie in the conference’s East Division. With back-to-back wins over South Florida and Central Florida, Temple now holds tiebreakers over its two closest competitors in the East.

“Last year’s success we had as a team was built on the years we went 2-10 and 6-6,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “It might sound corny to you guys, but you lose games and you learn all these lessons and you learn how to win. 

“Toward the end of last year, you have some success. It doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. You come back this year, all those losses we had or the certain losses we had, we hated them but the kids did a good job of trying to learn from them.”

Temple showed just how much it learned from all of those tough lessons on Friday night. After getting shredded by the South Florida (6-2, 3-1 AAC) dynamic duo of quarterback Quinton Flowers and tailback Marlon Mack a season ago, TU opted to get its own ground game going in this one to help control both sides of the ball.

It worked to perfection early with Temple scoring on three of its first four possessions, including a 15-play drive that was capped off by a one-yard touchdown catch by tight end Colin Thompson and a 76-yard TD run by Armstead. 

Even later in the game when the Bulls used a quick three-play, 84-yard drive to take a 23-20 lead, the Owls didn’t panic like in past instances. They responded with a three-play drive of their own as Armstead broke free through the right edge for a 42-yard touchdown rumble.

A blocked punt on the ensuing possession provided excellent field position for the Owls, who only needed another two plays for Jahad Thomas to punch it into the end zone from nine yards out for a double-digit lead.

“Just powering guys in the first and second quarter. Just coming in and head-hunting, basically, not shying from contact,” Armstead said of his mindset in the run game. “By the end of the third and fourth quarter, they don’t want to tackle me. It’s just opening up.”

“Our big thing is just finishing the game as best we can,” fullback Nick Sharga said. “I think really just wearing teams down by running the ball toward the end of the game helps our offense out, so we take pride in it.”

The primetime effort was something the Owls’ offense as a whole could take pride in. Temple racked up 528 total yards, 26 first downs, dominated time of possession 39:07 to 20:53 and didn’t commit a turnover.

“There’s a way to win every game. Bill Parcells said that and I believe it,” Rhule said. “We get in the game and it just looked like the downfield passing game was going to be there in terms of some of the throws we threw at the end of the half. And it looked like the power run game was going to be there, so we stuck with it.”

Temple’s defense stayed the course as well. After letting the Bulls close the gap within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Owls’ D tightened with an interception that set up a TD and a sack for a safety to seal the win.

In all, the group held a potent USF team that came into Friday eighth in the nation in rushing (268.4 yards per game) and 15th in total yards (506.4 yards per game) to 165 and 352, respectively.

“We came in the game with a mindset that we were going to play really well,” defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said. “We knew what kind of guys they had. We knew they were going to get some plays on us. It was going to come down to the fourth quarter and it did, so we just kept playing the whole game.”

The ability to just keep playing is a mantra that should stick with Owls, especially now that they are back on top of the East Division. One slip-up and they could be right back to searching for words to describe their level of disappointment for this season.

“This was a team that mirrors us that they try to line up and pound you and they’re just so athletic and physical. This was a huge win for us,” Rhule said. “But as I told them in there, everything you did tonight won’t matter if you lose next week. You better get right back on the process that we do.

“It was just a huge moment for us with Army happening and then Memphis, letting it slip out of our hands. Then last week, kind of making some plays at the end. … There were just so many guys that made plays. That’s what makes it a huge win to me. Obviously it gives us some control, but that all can change in a week or the blink of an eye. They better stay focused.”