Towards A More Perfect Union? Previewing Year Two in Chester

Towards A More Perfect Union? Previewing Year Two in Chester


Finally. After five long months the Union open their second season Saturday on the road against the Houston Dynamo (8:30PM, 6ABC). With an inaugural 8-15-7 record, the U have plenty of room for improvement. Quite simply, in the offseason they needed to address the two-headed problem of conceding too many goals and scoring too few.

They've allocated resources towards revamping their defense and tweaking their offense. Defensively, they kept just two clean sheets in league games last season. Even more alarming was the fact that they finished the year with a dismal -14 goal differential.

Offensively, their 35 goals scored was fifth worst in the MLS. Sebastien Le Toux (14 goals) and rookie Danny Mwanga (7) carried a disproportionate amount of the scoring load, combining to score 21 of the Union's 35 goals. It doesn't take Jose Mourinho to figure out that they need more balanced scoring.

So, what can you expect from Peter Nowak's club in Season Two?

Well, as mentioned you'll see new faces. Lots of new faces. On the flipside, some familiar faces have moved on. Here's a quick primer on some of the Union's key additions and subtractions.

Welcome to Chester: Faryd Mondragon (GK), Carlos Valdes (D), Carlos Ruiz (F), Brian Carroll (M), Zac MacMath (GK).

Thanks for Your Service: Chris Seitz (GK), Brad Knighton (GK), Michael Orozco-Fiscal (D), Shea Salinas (M), Alejandro Moreno (F), Fred (M), Andrew Jacobson (M).

The most striking thing about the transactions listed above is the turnover at the goalkeeper position. The Union jettisoned both Chris Seitz and Brad Knighton. Seitz' struggles between the sticks were well documented. Knighton was a slight upgrade, but not a standout. Enter Faryd Mondragon.

Mondragon, a 39 year old veteran of both the Bundesliga and the Colombian National Team, brings a much needed veteran presence to the team. Neither Seitz nor Knighton lacked size or athletic ability. They lacked experience and  confidence. Mondragon  has both and will have no problem barking at his back four and taking charge of his box.

Carlos Valdes, another Colombian international, should bring a bit more athleticism to the center back position. The combination of Orozco-Fiscal and Danny Califf was often shaky and uncertain. They allowed opposing players to turn too easily and were often caught out of position. The hope is that a Valdes-Califf pairing can make the center of the Union defense a strength.

Sheanon Williams provides some much needed pace from the outside back position. Jordan Harvey, who seemingly played every minute last season, should benefit from Mondragon's ability and willingness to organize his back line. Here's hoping we never have to see Harvey tracking back 90+ yards in an attempt to cover a blown assignment.

What did the Union do to address their shortcomings in the offensive third? Well, they brought in El Pescadito, Carlos Ruiz. Ruiz is a former MLS MVP, who has scored 82 career goals in MLS play. Although short and squat he plays as a target man and possesses a unique ability hold up play.

He's somewhat similar to Alejandro Moreno (both spend an inordinate amount of time picking themselves off the ground), except that unlike Moreno he's an accomplished goal scorer.

Adding Ruiz will enable Nowak to slot Le Toux in the hole behind Ruiz and Mwanga. Playing as an advanced midfielder Le Toux's ability to run all day will be that much more evident and effective. Ideally, Ruiz plays with his back to goal, holds up play, knocks balls to an oncoming Le Toux, and the Union are off to the races.

The most notable new face in the midfield belongs to Brian Carroll. Carroll, a veteran of 200+ MLS games, is reunited with Nowak, who coached him when both were with D.C. United.

He'll likely combine with some combination of Roger Torres (the most creative Union player), Justin Mapp (the biggest enigma), and either Stefani Miglioranzi (just a plain solid veteran) or Kyle Nakazawa (other than Le Toux the most dangerous in dead ball situations) in the midfield. Carroll should provide a steadying, calming, ball winning presence in the middle third.

My mancrush, Jack McInerney, has another year under his belt and will be a nice changeup to Ruiz in late game situations. Amobi Okugo should provide fresh legs to the central midfield. First round pick MacMath can ease his way into the lineup and learn from a veteran like Mondragon.

If you notice, the one consistent thread in the Union's offseason moves was to bring in veteran players who ply their trade through the middle of the pitch. Mondragon, Valdes, Carroll, and Ruiz all play in the middle of their respective third of the field.

Peter Nowak can now rely on seasoned professionals who have represented their national teams in the pressure cooker provided by international matches. Soccer is no different from any other sport in that you need to be strong in the middle. The moves they made should go a long way towards turning that weakness into an area of strength.

So, with all of that being said what's a fair expectation for the Union in their second campaign? I think it's realistic for them to contend for a playoff spot, cut down on the goals against, keep a few more clean sheets, and have more balanced scoring.

Season Prediction: I am not ready to definitively state that the Union will absolutely make the playoffs, but if they're able to improve their road record (they were just 2-12-1 away from the Linc/PPL Park) they should be in the mix come playoff time.

Best of NHL: Rickard Rakell, Ducks snap Bruins' win streak at 4

Best of NHL: Rickard Rakell, Ducks snap Bruins' win streak at 4

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Rickard Rakell broke a tie with his second goal with 2:34 to play, and the Anaheim Ducks snapped Boston's four-game winning streak under new coach Bruce Cassidy with a 5-3 victory over the Bruins on Wednesday night.

Rakell also scored in the second period for the Ducks and has 24 goals in his outstanding season. Ondrej Kase, Josh Manson and Andrew Cogliano also scored for Anaheim, and Jonathan Bernier made 26 saves in his first victory since Jan. 23.

Frank Vatrano scored the tying goal in the third period for the Bruins, who hadn't lost since Cassidy replaced Claude Julien on Feb. 7. Defensemen Brandon Carlo and Zdeno Chara scored early goals, and Tuukka Rask stopped 20 shots.

Anaheim beat Boston for the seventh straight time (see full recap).

Rare goal from Russell lifts Oilers over Panthers
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Kris Russell's goal with 7:58 left was his first in more than a year and lifted the Edmonton Oilers over Florida 4-3 on Wednesday night to snap the Panthers' five-game winning streak.

Russell's goal was his first since Feb. 11, 2016, when he played for Calgary. He went goalless in his first 48 games with the Oilers.

Fellow defenseman Oscar Klefbom also scored for Edmonton, as did forwards Zack Kassian and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Connor McDavid, who came into the night leading the NHL scoring race, had an assist on Russell's goal.

Aleksander Barkov, Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Florida. Keith Yandle had two assists for the Panthers, giving him 400 points for his career.

Cam Talbot stopped 31 shots for the Oilers, who have won their last eight games at Florida -- last losing on the Panthers' ice in 2002. James Reimer made 31 saves for the Panthers, who just completed a 5-0-0 road trip (see full recap).

St. Joe's can't overcome Phil Martelli's ejection in loss to St. Bonaventure

St. Joe's can't overcome Phil Martelli's ejection in loss to St. Bonaventure

BOX SCORE

A coach receiving an ejection usually fires up a team. Phil Martelli’s ejection in the second half Wednesday night set St. Joe’s back against St. Bonaventure, as the Hawks lost, 83-77, at Hagen Arena (see Instant Replay).

In the middle of the second half, St. Joe’s held possession for four straight plays thanks to offensive rebounds. The Hawks were trying desperately to trim a 59-55 deficit into a one-possession game.

For nearly a minute and a half, the Hawks had four attempts to score before Brendan Casper drove the lane, drawing contact — a foul that would go in the Bonnies' favor.

Martelli went ballistic, a move that would result in two technical fouls and automatic ejection. The head coach left the court as boos showered the officials and chants of Martelli's name rained down from the stands.

St. Bonavenure’s deadliest offensive weapon of the night, Matt Mobley, drained all four free throws to make it a 63-55 game.

"There was a play in front of me, maybe it was 50-50, I have no idea,” Martelli said. “And all heck broke loose. I’ll have to look at the film and figure it out. Now the second guy warned me, he didn’t just fly off the handle.”

James Demery, who led St. Joe's with 21 points, wouldn't use his coach's tossing as an excuse for the failed rally.

“It is tough but at the end of the day," Demery said, "we still have to continue playing and keep that energy high."

Martelli’s ejection certainly was a turning point, but it wasn’t the only reason the Hawks lost. The coach described it best: “It still comes back to the numbers for me: turnovers and foul shooting.”

The Hawks went 18 for 27 from the free throw line, 3 for 18 from beyond the arc and had 15 turnovers, which were converted into 24 points for the Bonnies.

The numbers don't lie, but Martelli never wavered when asked about the effort his team put forward — instead, he offered there needs to be improvements made.

“It’s not will, it’s skill. It’s skill,” Martelli said. “I don’t have any question about their efforts. Their skill, and that’s not an excuse, but with the limited bodies, we just don’t get enough skill.”

With four minutes remaining, the Hawks found themselves down, 72-62, and all hope seemingly lost. But a small surge brought St. Joe's to within three with 26 seconds left to play. Charlie Brown went 4 for 4 from the free throw line, Demery added a layup and Chris Clover drained a three during the stretch. Nick Robinson capped it off with a three, whittling St. Bonaventure's lead down to 78-75.

“We don’t give up over here, everybody on this team has heart,” Demery said. “Every day we are going to go out there and give 110 percent. There’s some plays we didn’t finish. I mean, I had five turnovers, so we just have to finish.”

The Hawks tried to foul to stop the clock but the Bonnies were too efficient from the free throw line. The charity stripe and lack of time were St. Joe's ultimate demise.

In Robinson’s mind, his effort still wasn’t enough.

“If I would have made three free throws, we would have been tied,” Robinson said, referencing the three free throws he missed earlier in the game.

“We picked up the intensity and the positive energy,” Demery said of the late surge. “That’s what we need as a unit to be great. Everybody lifting each other up, that’s what it takes.”

The Hawks' next game will be at Saint Louis this Saturday (4:30 p.m./ NBCSN).