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.

Thinking man's pitcher, Phillies prospect Cole Irvin enjoying time with Clearwater

Thinking man's pitcher, Phillies prospect Cole Irvin enjoying time with Clearwater

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Clearwater Threshers pitcher Cole Irvin is a student of baseball, but maybe the word “student” – simply stated and in its base meaning – describes the young left-hander best.

A graduate of the University of Oregon who completed his undergraduate degree in sociology in just 3½ years, Irvin has applied a studious, methodical approach to his work on the mound, where he starred as a freshman and senior for the Ducks as a regular Friday night starter.

His 2014 collegiate season was marred by Tommy John surgery, but he reflects on it now as being an important part of him staying in college and obtaining his degree. He remained in Eugene another semester after getting drafted by Pittsburgh in the 32nd round, his second time getting selected.

“I look at it as a positive. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree at Oregon if I didn’t have the surgery,” said Irvin, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Phillies last June.

“Sociology covers so many topics. It’s a great degree to have. My studies varied from the population of salmon affecting society to the study of social media. There was so much I learned in so many diverse topics. I like interacting because everyone’s opinion mattered.”

The sociological background also easily translates to the diamond for the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Irvin.

“It’s the same in baseball. The more information you have about the opposing team, our team, if we’re doing the shift and other things… now you have all that collected information. Now you just go do your thing. I think I apply (sociology) to so many different aspects of what I do,” he said.

Sociology aside, Clearwater pitching coach Aaron Fultz has been impressed with the mental approach Irvin has displayed.

“Very (much so),” replied Fultz when asked if the southpaw is the quintessential cerebral pitcher. “He’s a no frills guy and he’s here to work.”

Fultz broke in to MLB and played three seasons with the San Francisco Giants – 2000 to 2002 – and the former big leaguer said Irvin reminds him from a work ethic standpoint of a Bay Area teammate of his.

“He kind of reminds me of Jeff Kent. He comes here and he wants to work and get better,” said Fultz of Irvin, who also bears a slight resemblance to the five-time all-star and 2000 NL MVP of the Giants.

That industrious attitude worked well for Irvin in his first spring training camp in the Grapefruit League in February. He broke camp by bypassing Low A Lakewood and joining the Threshers. Then he proceeded to overwhelm hitters in the Florida State League.

Irvin, 23, was 3-1 in four starts in April, posting a 1.04 ERA. In 26 innings, he allowed 22 hits, struck out 20 and walked just three. His WHIP stood at 0.96.

“His first four or five starts, I thought he was the best pitcher in the league,” Fultz said. “Since then, we’ve had a little hiccup here and there about location and just giving up some hits. He’s had some bad luck, too.

“But I love the way he goes about his business. He gets the ball and he’s ready to pitch. He has a very good idea and is a smart kid. He doesn’t throw 95, but he’s left-handed – that helps – and he has a really good change-up. His stuff is better than average, but his tenacity and the way he goes after hitters is a really good selling point for him.”

Irvin said he tries not read what is written about him or the multitude of numbers baseball produces.

“The past three outings haven’t gone the way I’ve anticipated, especially after the first five starts of the year,” said Irvin, who is 3-5 with a 3.20 ERA after four straight losses starting on May 4 against Jupiter.

He will try to break that winless skid on Tuesday when he faces Florida back in Clearwater.

Of his standout first pro season at short-season Williamsport last year (5-1, 1.97 in 10 games), Irvin admitted he doesn’t look at the stats, saying, “Honestly, I don’t know the numbers. I don’t get ahead of myself and look at stats. Every once in a while, I’ll look at media stuff, but I try not to follow that stuff.

“Once it gets in your head, you start to get anxious about moving up and thinking about things you’re not supposed to be thinking about. I’m supposed to be thinking right now, ‘What can I do to get better and get to the big leagues?’ It’s not about being in the minor leagues; it’s about being in the big leagues.”

Irvin has enjoyed his season so far and, like a good sociology student, is harvesting his own data.

“There’s a lot to build off of. It’s my first full season, so it’s exciting to spend a whole year playing baseball and doing something you love and is fun. It’s something I’ve dreamed of as a kid,” he said.

“I never thought I’d be here this quick, so I’m taking it one day at a time. I can only focus on this day, and tomorrow will come tomorrow.”
 
Three questions with Cole Irvin

You throw a one-seam fastball. What does it do?

“It’s literally across one seam, holding it with one finger. It depends on the wrist. If it’s on the side of the ball, it’s going to fade (versus righty batters). But if your wrist is more on the inside toward your body, it’s going to cut. I only use it as a strikeout pitch. [Laughing] I’d say it’s a wipe-out pitch, but I don’t have wipe-out stuff like most of the guys on this team. It’s an effect pitch, where there’s a little uncertainty where it’ll go.”

You’re from Yorba Linda, CA, the birthplace of Richard Nixon and home of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Have any good Nixon stories?

“Actually, I do. When I was 12, I had to do community service for the high school I was going to go to. I had to have so many hours. The library was looking for someone to clean the helicopter – Air Force One helicopter or whatever it was called. Every Sunday morning I’d show up at 5:30 a.m. to clean that helicopter. I had to go through the Secret Service back door and security checks. I was 12, so there wasn’t much information on me. I spent four or five Sundays cleaning that helicopter. It was so much fun.”

As an Oregon Duck, you were able to play in the Civil War against the Oregon State Beavers and New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto. Any success?

“My senior year was the first time we’ve ever gone to Goss Stadium and won a series at Oregon State. I pitched against Conforto and also played with him on the Team USA collegiate team that had (Chicago Cubs star Kyle) Schwarber. Honestly, Michael’s one of the great guys to know and talk to. He’s just a world-class, awesome guy.”