Top of the Table on the Line as Union Face Crew in Columbus

Top of the Table on the Line as Union Face Crew in Columbus

I am going to go out on a limb and say that if you looked at the MLS schedule at the beginning of the season you likely did not think first place would be on the line during a late August match between Columbus and Philadelphia. Well, here we sit in late August and the Union travel to Crew Stadium with first place in the Eastern Conference at stake (8PM/The Comcast Network - the game was originally scheduled to begin at 7:30, but due to travel issues the Union did not arrive in Columbus until 2PM this afternoon).

Coming off of their inagural season there was little to suggest the Union would challenge for the conference crown. Similarly, after gutting their roster most experts believed this would be a rebuilding season for the Crew. How did these two teams find themselves in this position? In a word - defense.

The Union and Crew are one-two in the East in goals against - with the Union having conceded just 22 goals in 23 games, and the Crew 23 goals in 24 games. Both teams rely heavily on the combination of a strong goalkeeper and versatile center back.

The Crew back line is led by two-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who was selected second overall, one spot behind current Union player Freddy Adu, in the 2004 MLS Superdraft. At 6'4" Marshall is an absolute monster in the back. Good luck winning a ball in the air against him. Goalkeeper Will Hesmer, who recently returned from injury, leads MLS with a 0.72 save percentage.

A year after giving up 49 goals the Union shored up its defense by acquiring goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and center back Carlos Valdes. All Mondragon has done is assume the captain's armband, provide a much-needed veteran presence between the sticks, and help to organize one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

Valdes has provided an athletic presence alongside Danny Califf in the center of the Union back line. He's been so solid the Union front office moved quickly to secure his rights on a permanent basis from former club Independiente Santa Fe.

Both teams have also struggled offensively. The Union are 12th in the 18-team league in goals scored with 29, while Columbus has scored just 27, which is good enough for 14th in the league.

Designated Player Andres Mendoza leads the Crew with seven goals. Here's hoping Union keeper Mondragon is not left screaming "Mendoooozzzza" a la McBain.

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Emilio Renteria, who is listed as probable with a quad strain, is the Crew's second leading goal scorer. Eddie Gaven, who made his MLS debut at age 16, has contributed four goals this season, but is listed as doubtful with a leg contusion.

The Union, whose struggle to score goals has been a season-long storyline, did score two last week against F.C. Dallas - although both came from the penalty spot. As a Union fan you have to hope that Sebastien Le Toux, who converted both PK's, gained some confidence from simply seeing a ball he kicked hit the back of the net.

Freddy Adu, who played just over 60 minutes last week, should feel slightly more comfortable with his new team having had the opportunity to actually practice with his teammates for a full week. Last week Danny Mwanga came in off the substitutes bench and replaced Adu.

Perhaps this week we'll see both Adu and Mwanga get starting nods. It'd certainly be nice to see Adu, Le Toux, and Mwanga develop some sort of chemistry.

Finally, Brian Carroll, who is listed as questionable with a foot contusion, returns to Columbus where he helped the Crew win the 2008 MLS Cup. Carroll, who tirelessly disrupts plays from his defensive midfield position, has certainly fit in well with the Union. You could argue that acquiring Carroll has been just as important to the Union defensive turnaround as were the signings of Mondragon and Valdes.

This is obviously a huge road test for the Union. These are the sort of matches - on the road against a conference opponent with first place on the line - Union players and fans have wanted to see. Hopefully the travel issues the Union encountered en route to Columbus do not interfere too much with their pre-game routine.

Here's the lineup I hope we see tonight: Mondragon, Sheanon Williams, Califf, Valdes, Gabriel Farfan, Justin Mapp, Brian Carroll (if he can't go you'll likely see Stefani Miglioranzi), Le Toux, McInerney, Mwanga, Adu.

Final Score Prediction: I see it 1-1 as the Union tie for the ninth time in their last 13.

The Toni Stahl Memorial Union Player Most Likely to See Red: I'll go Califf for persistent fouling against Mendoza.

Photo Credit: Greg Bartram, US PRESSWIRE

Instant Replay: Rockies 8, Phillies 2

Instant Replay: Rockies 8, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

The Colorado Rockies laid the wood to the Phillies again Tuesday night. The Rockies hit three home runs en route to an 8-2 win at Citizens Bank Park. The Rockies beat the Phillies, 8-1, on Monday night.

The Phillies have lost four in a row, eight of their last nine and 19 of their last 23 to fall to 15-28.

Two games into this four-game series, the Phillies have been held to just two runs in 13 innings against a pair of rookie Colorado starting pitchers.

Starting pitching report
Zach Eflin had his second straight poor outing. He was tagged for 10 hits and eight runs in six innings. He gave up three home runs.

Eflin has given up 21 hits and 15 runs in his last two starts.

The Rockies got another good start from a rookie. This time it was German Marquez, who held the Phillies to a run over six innings. Rookie Jeff Hoffman held the Phillies to a run over seven innings in the series opener on Monday night.

Bullpen report
Mark Leiter Jr. stopped the bleeding with two scoreless innings.

The Rockies' bullpen has given up just one run in five innings in the series.

At the plate
The Phillies scored their first run on a bases-loaded walk in the third inning. Andrew Knapp homered in the ninth to make it a six-run game.

Rockies leadoff man Charlie Blackmon hit a pair of two-run homers against Eflin. He leads the majors with 62 hits. Blackmon has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. He hit five in a three-game series last season.

Gerardo Parra also homered for the Rockies, who have the best record in the National League at 30-17.

Transactions
The Phillies placed outfielder Daniel Nava on the 10-day disabled list with a slight hamstring strain. He is expected to return sometime next week. The team opted for an extra bullpen arm and recalled reliever Adam Morgan from Triple A to take Nava's roster spot.

Health check
Howie Kendrick took outdoor batting practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering an abdominal strain on April 15. He could head out on minor-league rehab later this week and be ready to return sometime next week. Kendrick can play corner infield and corner outfield, so he could take away at-bats from Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders if they don't get going. Both were benched Tuesday night (see story).

Up next
The series continues Wednesday night. Jeremy Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) will pitch against Colorado right-hander Tyler Chatwood (3-6. 5.09).

More WRs, more buzz, but Jordan Matthews unfazed with Eagles

More WRs, more buzz, but Jordan Matthews unfazed with Eagles

After leading the Eagles in passing targets for the past two seasons, Jordan Matthews suddenly became an afterthought when the club signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency. There's even speculation Matthews might be available in a trade if a solid offer comes along.

The Eagles' investments at the wide receiver position this offseason would certainly appear to put Matthews' future with the team in question. In addition to Jeffery and Smith, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson were brought aboard in the draft, all as Matthews enters the final year of his rookie contract.

None of which seems to concern Matthews, who described the trade rumors as "fake news" on Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, where Phase 3 of Eagles OTAs was underway.

"I don't care about any of that stuff," Matthews said. "I feel like it's the NFL, if you think about it, everybody has a price. Those talks, they happen, so it really doesn't faze me."

To be clear, there has been very little noise to suggest the Eagles were at any point actively shopping Matthews or the fourth-year veteran is on the trade block. A reporter merely stated a belief the Eagles would be open to moving Matthews in the right deal. It was enough to get people talking, and once Jeffery and Smith signed days later, the rumors weren't going away.

Matthews' contract situation has a lot do with the reaction. Apart from all the new faces in the receivers room, this offseason was the first he was eligible to sign a contract extension.

There is absolutely nothing to report on that front. Instead, the Eagles directed funds toward Jeffery and Smith — who are viewed by some as his potential replacements.

"I haven't really talked to anybody about that," Matthews said. "I really don't focus on that too much, to be honest.

"I think you all know me by now. That's not really what fuels me, so it's like one of the last things I actually really think about. Whatever is going to happen is going to end up happening, so I just try to come out here and play hard and do what I need to do for my team."

Matthews turns 25 in July and has impressive numbers for the Eagles, recording 225 receptions for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns. Only six players in NFL history amassed more in all three categories their first three seasons.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Matthews will reprise his role as the Eagles' primary slot receiver in 2017, downplaying the possibility of a reduced role. Pederson also noted Matthews' tight bond with quarterback Carson Wentz.

Pederson also declined to make mention of Matthews' standing with the club beyond '17, nor is it really this coach's place to say.

"Jordan has been a big part of this offense, and he is still a big part of this offense," Pederson said on Tuesday. "He's got a great relationship and a great rapport with Carson, and Carson feels very comfortable with him."

Despite trade rumors, his contract situation and the simple fact the Eagles brought in a bunch of players who would gladly take his targets and his job, Matthews remains positive. In fact, he sees Jeffery and Smith making life easier for the rest of the offense.

"I'm glad, to be honest," Matthews said. "I'm glad to have Torrey, glad to have Alshon, the rookies.

"Obviously, having more guys on the field that have that type of production over a long period of time, they're going to garner attention. That's going to help me get free."

Matthews is coming off of his worst season, posting 73 receptions for 804 yards and three touchdowns. Much of his problems seemed to stem from the lack of options in the passing attack, particularly at receiver, allowing defenses to hone in on Matthews.

Furthermore, Matthews was plagued by an ankle injury for much of the season, from which he is still recovering.

"Still getting there," Matthews said. "An ankle messes up the whole chain. It's not like an upper-body extremity injury. When you're dealing with an ankle, there's a lot more stuff that you have to continue to get right from the back down."

Despite the increasing competition at the Eagles' receiver position, Matthews doesn't sound very worried about his ankle, either. Like trade rumors and concerns about his contract, that too will pass in time.

"We've got a lot of time," Matthews said. "I know I'll be good when it's time to roll."