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. 

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”