Union 2012 Season Preview: Youth to be Served

Union 2012 Season Preview: Youth to be Served

The Philadelphia Union open their third season on
the road in Portland tonight. The team that will face the Timbers is
a vastly different one than walked off the field at Robertson Stadium
following the playoff loss to Houston in November. If there’s one
thing we learned about the Union this offseason it’s that they do
not fear change.

Their captain and starting goalkeeper? Gone. The face
of the franchise and all-time leading scorer? Gone. Make no mistake,
you do not jettison your two most popular players and risk alienating
a rabid fan base without having the courage of your convictions. Whether
you agree with them or not, this is an organization with a clearly defined
philosophy.

What is that philosophy? They value youth and they
exploit inefficiencies in undervalued player acquisition markets like
Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama. When taken as whole, the stunning
offseason moves are consistent with those two tenets.

So, with that mind let’s take a look at the offseason
moves and the key storylines to look for in Season Three.

Key Departures

Sebastien Le Toux (traded to Vancouver) – We’ve covered
the Le Toux trade here and here.
The reality is that the Union are going to need to find a way to replace
a prolific goal scorer. In two seasons Le Toux scored 31.6% of the Union’s
goals. He didn’t wait long to open his account in Vancouver – scoring
just three minutes into his first game with the Whitecaps
.

Faryd Mondragon (released by Union so he could rejoin Colombia’s
Deportivo Cali) – The captain and starting goalkeeper was a huge reason
why the Union went from conceding 49 goals in 2010 to 36 in 2011. Truth
be told, Mondragon’s greatest contribution was his ability to organize
his back line. His lateral movement wasn’t great and he wasn’t the
quickest, but he was a tremendous leader.

Justin Mapp (selected by the Montreal Impact in the expansion
draft) – Mapp, ever the enigma, was left unprotected in the expansion
draft. His propensity for wandering in and out of games was maddening.
The only thing consistent about him was his inconsistency.

Kyle Nakazawa (traded to the LA Galaxy) – He was never able
to establish himself as a regular in Nowak’s lineup. His service on
set pieces was a strength, but he only managed to crack the starting
lineup eight times last season.

Key Arrivals

Gabriel Gomez (acquired from Indios de Cuidad Juarez) – Gomez,
a Panamanian international, will partner with Brian Carroll in the center
of the Union midfield. Physically the guy is a rock. He’ll bring a
rugged, physical presence to the center of the park. He looks and plays
much bigger than his listed 6’0”, 178 lbs. Also, he’ll provide
the bulk of the service on free kicks.

Josué Martinez (acquired from Deportivo Saprissa) – Martinez,
a Costa Rican international, is a 21-year old striker who the Union
hope will help fill the void left by Le Toux. He brings a ton of pace
and an ability to stretch opposing defenses.

Lionard Pajoy (acquired from  Itagüí Ditaires) – Pajoy is
yet another Colombian player to join the Union. Like Martinez, Pajoy
is a forward. He brings good size (6’1”, 185 lbs.) and finishing
ability. He scored 13 goals in 27 games last season in the Colombian
first division.

Porfirio Lopez (acquired from Deportiva Alajuelense) – Lopez
is being counted on to step in and assume the starting left back spot.
Gabe Farfan, playing out of position there last season, was serviceable,
but Lopez is a natural left back. Easily identifiable by his afro, Lopez
will be the lone new member of the Union’s back line.

Youth to be Served

In light of the roster turnover the Union will need
a number of young players to step up. Roger Torres (20 years old) will be counted on to provide a
creative presence in the midfield. He’s the closest thing the Union
has to a string-puller. He’ll likely play in front of Gomez and Carroll,
who will provide defensive cover and allow the diminutive playmaker
to initiate the offense.

Zac MacMath (20 years old) was the fifth overall pick in the
2011 MLS Super Draft. He deputized for Mondragon last season, and will
assume the starting role. There aren’t a whole lot of questions surrounding
his ability. However, it remains to be seen whether he can assert himself
and organize his back line.

It’s hard to believe, but Freddy Adu is only 22 years old. He struggled to make an impact
with the Union after joining the team in August, but should benefit
from his first full preseason camp under Nowak. I am not sure exactly
where he’ll play, but he was a confident, attacking force for the
US U23’s on the right wing. He’s too creative and skilled to not
find a role on this team. Quite simply, it’s time for Freddy to step
up. Union fans understand his desire to play overseas, but would appreciate
him focusing on his responsibilities to his current club.

Danny Mwanga (20 years old) will likely be given every opportunity
to step in and take over for Le Toux. The former first overall pick
has all the physical attributes you want from a forward (size, pace,
skill). The one thing he has not shown is a consistent work rate, which
was one area where you could never question Le Toux. Fair or not, his
performance is going to be compared with the Frenchman. Although, work
rate aside, at the end of the day the only thing that will matter is
the number of times Mwanga puts the ball in the net.

Michael Farfan (23 years old), who is fresh off a training
spell with Premier League team Sunderland, was the best of the Union’s
young players last season. His contributions were recognized league-wide
as he was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year. There isn’t one particular
area of the game where Farfan excels. He doesn’t blow you away with
his speed. He isn’t physically imposing. He’s not flashy. He just
has “it”. It’s plain to see whenever he’s on the ball. I could
write 1,000+ words on the subtlety of his game, but I’ll spare you.
Just watch the guy play and you’ll know what I am talking about.

Sheanon Williams (21 years old) was just rewarded with a new
contract. The starting right back is a tireless runner. He provides
width to the Union attack and has the green light to get forward and
make overlapping runs. He has room for improvement, particularly in
his man marking, but he’s exactly the sort of young player the Union
wants to build around.

All six of the players mentioned above should likely
start for the Union. However, they are not the only young players who
will factor into the equation this season. Jack McInereny (19 years old), Amobi Okugo (20 years old), 2011 first round pick Chandler Hoffman (21 years old), and homegrown signings Cristhian Hernandez
(18 years old),
Jimmy McLaughlin (18 years old) and Zach Pfeffer (17 years old)will all play a role this season.

STORYLINES

Will the Depth at Forward Compensate for the Loss of Le Toux?

The departure of Le Toux opened an opportunity for
someone to step up and claim his minutes (and he played every minute).
The good news is that there is no shortage of forward attacking options.
The group of forwards assembled by the front office is the deepest in
the short history of the franchise. Mwanga, Martinez, Pajoy, McInerney,
and Hoffman will all fight to be included in the first XI.

I’d imagine that Mwanga, Martinez and Pajoy will
see the bulk of the minutes. I would love for McInerney to be given
an opportunity to play a full 90 minutes at his natural forward position,
but I currently see him as fourth in the pecking order.

Can Zac MacMath Handle the Full Time Goalkeeping Duties?

Honestly, he has to. The Union decided not to bring
in a veteran backup. MacMath stepped in and played well when Mondragon
was injured last season. He went 3-0-4 with a 1.07 goals against average
– posting three shutouts. I don’t think Union fans are the least
bit worried that MacMath will be overwhelmed in the same manner Chris
Seitz was in 2010. However, the question remains whether MacMath can
be the assertive, vocal organizer capable of commanding his box like
Mondragon.

How Many Players Can the Union Expect to Lose for Olympic Qualifying
and the Olympics?

At various points this summer five Union players were
in the US U23 camp (Adu, MacMath, McInerney, Okugo, and Williams). However,
only two of those players (Adu and Okugo) were called in for the most
recent camp and friendly with Mexico. The Union are in a decent position
to absorb the temporary losses of all of those players save for MacMath
and Williams. There is a frightening lack of depth on the back line
and between the sticks. Losing either player for a significant period
would be a major problem. Ultimately, I think US U23 coach Caleb Porter
selects Adu and Okugo.

Which Union Player Will Have a Breakout Season?

If I had to put money on it I’d bet on Michael Farfan.
As mentioned, the guy just has “it”. And yes, this goes way beyond
him chipping the keeper against Real Madrid. He plays way beyond his
years. He exhibits unbelievable patience on the ball. He’s proficient
in working out of tight spaces. His game doesn’t jump up and grab
you, but the more you watch him the more you appreciate just how good
he is.

You’re This Far Into the Season Preview and You Haven’t Mentioned
Danny Califf  or Carlos Valdes?

Yes, I know. Califf, who will wear the captain’s
armband, and Valdes are probably the two most important players on the
team. Their partnership in the middle of the back line was crucial to
the Union’s success last season. Their struggles against Houston on
set pieces during the playoffs overshadowed what was otherwise a stellar
season for the center back pairing. With goal scoring a question mark
the Union will have to be even better defensively this season. It all
starts with Califf and Valdes.

What Formation Will Peter Nowak Play?

Your guess is as good as mine. I honestly have no
idea. He could play an 8-1-1 and it wouldn’t surprise me. Realistically
though I think the formation that best suits this team is a 4-2-3-1.
I’d fill in that shape with Williams, Valdes, Califf, Lopez, Carroll,
Gomez, M. Farfan, Torres, Adu, and Mwanga. Again, I don’t think there’s
any shot Nowak does that, but that’s the way I’d like them to set
up.

SEASON PREDICTION

With all of the new faces it may take a bit of time
for the Union to start clicking. Fortunately they play in the MLS Eastern
Conference, which is much less competitive than the West. The top five
teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs. I see the Union
battling for either that fourth or fifth spot. Kansas City and Houston
are absolutely the class of the conference. I think the Union fall into
the second tier of teams along with New York, Chicago, Columbus, and
an improving D.C.

FINAL VERDICT: I’ll say the Union gel as the season progresses
and make a late push to clinch the final playoff spot in the East.

New Jersey product Tim Adleman limits Phillies to 1 hit over 8 innings

New Jersey product Tim Adleman limits Phillies to 1 hit over 8 innings

Cincinnati Reds starter Tim Adleman came into Friday night’s start against the Phillies with an ERA above six, having allowed 10 runs in his last 5 2/3 innings. 

So, naturally, he gave up just one hit over eight scoreless innings. 

The 29-year-old righty dominated the Phillies in just his 20th career MLB start en route to his third win this season, pitching easily the best game of his young career in a 5-2 Reds’ win (see game recap).

It was understandably the best that Reds manager Bryan Price had seen from Adleman.
 
"It wasn't just because of the line score," Price said. "It was really command-based. Really good both sides of the plate. Had a nice sinking fastball, could straighten it out when he needed to. A very, very good changeup. I don’t think he even used a breaking ball there until the eighth inning.

"So it was really that good."

At just 100 pitches through eight, naturally the question for Price was whether to allow him the chance at a complete game. However, Price needed to get reliever Asher Wojciechowski work to get him ready for a start next week.

"I wanted to stay in there pretty badly, but you understand the move," Adleman said. "Wojo needed to get some work. It had been a while since he threw and it's a game in May. It's not a game that's deeper in the season. … I totally understand."

For his eight innings, Adleman attacked the Phillies' batters early in counts and didn't allow a batter to reach third all night. He retired the leadoff batter in all but one inning and allowed just four batters to reach base.

The Phillies' only threat came in the first inning. An Andres Blanco single was followed by an Aaron Altherr hit by pitch. That brought up Thursday's hero -- Tommy Joseph -- with two men on and just one out. Adleman utilized his changeup on a 1-2 pitch, inducing a weak grounder back the mound for a 1-4-3 double play. 

In three at-bats against Joseph, Adleman recorded three ground ball outs, all on the changeup, which is his primary off-speed offering.

"The scouting report is that he's a really good fastball hitter. Does a lot of damage on fastballs," Adleman said, "So if you can get him in situations where you're confident he's looking for a fastball and then cut a changeup on him, it can be really effective. Obviously, you have to keep it down, but that's the same with all your pitches."

Joseph's at-bats set the trend for the rest of the Phillies' lineup. The Reds’ starter kept the ball down and didn’t allow another baserunner until he walked Blanco to lead off the seventh. Sixteen of his 24 outs came on ground balls and only five pitches were hit past the infield. 

Adleman stated his goal was to use the Phillies’ aggressiveness against them with strikes early in the count and it worked. It was his first time pitching into the eighth inning in his career and he did so with almost exclusively his fastball and changeup.

"I think it had a lot to do with that little pause [in his delivery] and he did a good job changing speeds on us," Joseph said. "He basically did it with two pitches, which says a lot about how hard this game can be. Hats off to him. 

"Next time we'll see if we can't get him back."

In a way, Adleman was getting the Phillies back. He made the third start of his career at Citizens Bank Park last year on May 14. He took the loss against Friday’s starter, Aaron Nola, while allowing three runs in five innings.

Born in Staten Island, Adleman was raised in New Jersey, but grew up a Yankees fan. He hadn't been to CBP until college, where he faced Villanova while playing for Georgetown. 

At 29, he's a little old for a second-year starter because he took a winding road to the major leagues. Drafted by the Orioles in 2010, he was nearly out of baseball by 24. He spent two years in independent leagues before catching on with the Reds and debuting in the show last season.

The journeyman starter had struggled in his last few starts, which helped his ERA balloon to 6.19. However, his Friday night opponent seemed more than happy to take some air out of the balloon. Adleman became the fifth pitcher in the last six days to come into a start against the Phillies with an ERA of 5.00 or above and allow one run or less over at least five innings. 

"It feels good," Adleman said of his night. "Philly's a good young team and Nola is making quite a name for himself. He out-pitched me last year and coming into tonight I knew I had an opportunity to right the ship so to speak."

Pete Mackanin calls team meeting after Phillies hit low point with 21st loss in 26 games

Pete Mackanin calls team meeting after Phillies hit low point with 21st loss in 26 games

BOX SCORE

When the opposing pitcher comes in with an ERA that matches the area code for San Diego -- 6.19 -- and holds you scoreless on one single over eight innings, well …

You've reached the low point of your season.

And it's time for a team meeting.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin called for a little powwow after his club suffered a 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night (see Instant Replay). Don't let the final score fool you. It wasn't that close. The loss was the Phillies' 21st in the last 26 games. They were held to three hits for the fourth time in the last six games -- five losses -- and have scored just nine runs over that span.

Mackanin acknowledged that this was the low point for his team, which owns the worst record in the majors at 16-30. Cincinnati starting pitcher Tim Adleman entered the game with a 6.19 ERA, but he pitched like an ace in holding the Phillies to just a first-inning single over his eight shutout innings (see story). Adleman walked two, struck out four and at one point set down 16 straight Phillies. The 29-year-old right-hander has made 20 starts in his big-league career and this was by far the best.

"Yeah," Mackanin said when asked if the loss was the season's low point. "We need to step it up. We’re better than this. I know we’re better than this. We’ve just got to start playing as aggressive as we can and take it to the other team. Be aggressive at the plate and pound the strike zone."

That apparently was Mackanin's message to the club in his postgame meeting, though he would not talk about it.

"He just wants to see us play with a little more fire and a little more energy," Aaron Altherr said. "You know, it’s something we’ve got to do. Today wasn’t too great. But, like I said, hopefully we can right the ship and start winning some games again."

Tommy Joseph was tight-lipped on the content of the team meeting.

"That's basically stuff that was between us," he said. "There's a pretty good understanding that we need to get going in here and that was really it. I think the rest is pretty self-explanatory and what he had to say is between us.

"It's definitely not a lack of effort. Everybody is out there trying to get the job done. I think there are certain nights when the job is getting done. When things start to spark a little bit, everybody feeds off that. Obviously there are some nights where that doesn't happen. It's definitely not from a lack of effort. Everybody is going out there busting their ass, so it's just a matter of sometimes it goes our way and sometimes it doesn't."

Mackanin used slumping Odubel Herrera in the leadoff spot for the first time this season and he produced a ninth-inning double after Adleman exited. The Phillies actually loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, but a fielder's choice ground ball and then a strikeout by Maikel Franco, the potential tying run, ended the game. Franco struck out swinging wildly at a full-count breaking ball from Raisel Iglesias.

Joseph mentioned that Adleman changed speeds well and used a slight hesitation in his delivery to throw off hitters.

But was it more the pitcher or more just a bad offense?

"It’s hard to tell," Mackanin said. "That's a daily question. Are we not hitting the ball like we should or is the pitcher that good? It seems like I look up and every other pitcher we face has a 6.00 ERA, but I think it’s all because we’re missing good pitches to hit. We’re getting pitches to hit and we’re not hitting them."

Aaron Nola did not have a good start. He gave up a pair of homers in falling behind, 3-0, after two innings, and, obviously, there was no coming back, not with this offense.

The Philies are 5-18 in the month of May.

Or should we say Mayday?

"We’re trying to stay positive, as positive as we can throughout this stretch," Altherr said. "You know, it’s tough sometimes when things are going the way they are. We’re just going to keep being positive, keep trying to bring as much energy as we can to win some games."