What to Watch for: Union Host Sporting KC in US Open Cup Semis

What to Watch for: Union Host Sporting KC in US Open Cup Semis

The Philadelphia Union are on a brilliant run of success since John Hackworth took over as interim manager. In this guest post, Friend of the Level Gordon Strachan breaks down what's been going right for the U, looking at tactical deployments and individual player efforts, with an eye toward what we might expect to see tonight. Will their success continue and earn them a spot in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Final?
By Gordon StrachanSons of Benjamin West
With so many Union games being played in such a short period of time, there is no shortage of possible lineups that coach John Hackworth may throw at Sporting KC in Wednesday night’s USOC semifinal match. One thing is for certain, he will look to attack. 
Here are some observations from the success of the past two matches that will give us several things to look for in the upcoming games.
An Abundance of Offensive TargetsIn the Toronto game, Hackworth continued to play an attacking 4-3-3 lineup featuring forwards—Adu, McInerney, and Pajoy. At times during the game, this formation appeared to include as many as 5 or 6 players pressing the Toronto’s back line with Michael Farfan repeatedly getting involved on the wings and additional contributions coming from Gabriel Gomez, Sheanon Williams or Gabriel Farfan. With so many options, the Union are easily using the full width of the field and making it difficult for opposing teams to prevent exposing openings.
Better Distribution Through the Middle of the PitchOne of the challenges of playing a 4-3-3 is that the link between offense and defense can sometimes be lost with a thinner mid-field. In the last couple games Amobi Okugo’s distribution to attacking players at distance has been pinpoint accurate; and this has been critical in transforming possession into offensive chances. Gabriel Gomez appears to be playing a more centralized role in the middle of the pitch alongside Brian Carroll, compared to the loss vs. Houston. At times, Gomez could be found dropping back in support of the middle of the defense—as Sheanon or Garfan pushed forward and Amobi covered wide—or pushing forward into the box himself on attacks. His vision and passing strength offered an improvement to the Union’s fluidity of possession and helped organize the midfield.
Michael Farfan as a Wing in the 4-3-3 While he actually lined up in the midfield in the last two games, a major difference from earlier matches is that he could be found throughout these games pressing forward on either side of the pitch. Marfan’s skills on the ball make him a consistent threat moving the ball up the flanks. He offers an instinctive mindset to contribute defensively which allows him to track and cover opposing backs that may rush forward; an important attribute for a forward in the 4-3-3. 
Additionally, Farfan offers some tactical flexibility to the formation by providing the ability to effectively slide him back as an extra midfielder. It would be great to see him get a start in this role up top in one of the upcoming games.
Lionard Pajoy on the FlanksGone are the days of Pajoy being positioned alone as the sole advancing attacker. In several instances he has shown a great ability to create chances when options are in front of him. One of these instances came in the Galaxy game with an amazing back heel pass that sent Marfan on goal past 2 defenders. 
Pajoy has found success on other occasions when taking on defenders along the wing, while continuing to remain a sizeable target when moving forward as part of a building attack. 
How Will Freddy Respond? I’m a believer in Adu because of the brilliance he has shown at times, but I can’t argue with the criticism that he has been less than consistent. The Toronto game was arguably his best performance of the season. Will he build off of this and make it two dominant games in a row?
Both McInerney and Hoppenot Putting the Formation in Motion Much has been said about the precise runs and newly found confidence of Jack Mac. It is not only his runs towards goal that are creating chances, but his deliberate runs checking back to the ball, which create difficult choices for defending players and have initiated opportunities for his teammates behind him. 
This of course only works when you have additional attackers sliding into these spaces. In the case of Hoppenot, speed can be a killer in soccer, and he has shown that he is a very lethal threat to opposing defenses. Provided any space at all, Antoine has the ability and willingness to vertically stretch the field.
Game time is 7:30 this Evening at PPL Park. C'mon the U, We Want the Cup!
Gordon Strachan is a founding member of the Sons of Benjamin West (SOBW), a group of supporters based in Delaware County and centered in Swarthmore. On game day they live in the "West" endline (Section 118). 
Tickets are still available for tonight's match at PPL Park, which includes free parking and a Dollar Dog Night promotion. 
(Michael Farfan photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US Presswire; Freddy Adu photo by Joe Camporeale-US Presswire.)

Instant Replay: Knicks 110, Sixers 109

Instant Replay: Knicks 110, Sixers 109

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- A 17-point game came down to the final possessions. 

The Knicks squeaked out a 110-109 victory, holding on to this one after suffering a buzzer-beating loss to the Sixers on Jan. 11. 

The Knicks squandered a double-digit lead in the fourth as the Sixers slowly chipped away at their lead at the line. The Sixers got within one, 106-105, when T.J. McConnell drained a three after a series of Sixers’ free throws. 

Jahlil Okafor scored a go-ahead basket during a hustling Sixers possession with nine seconds remaining to give the Sixers a 109-108 lead. 

In the end, it was Carmelo Anthony, who had been running up the scoreboard all night (37 points), that nailed the game-winning jumper over Robert Covington. Kyle O’Quinn picked off the Sixers' final inbound attempt. 

Inside the box score
• Okafor finished with a season-high 28 points and 10 rebounds. He had eight rebounds in first half, including a coast-to-coast fast break.

• Dario Saric continues his strong Rookie of the Year push. He finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. 

• Robert Covington struggled from the field overall (7 of 19, 2 of 11 from three) but filled up the stat sheet with 20 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

• Anthony did what Anthony does. He scored 37 points on 15 of 25 from the field, including the game-winner.

Anderson debuts
Justin Anderson made his Sixers debut in the first quarter. Anderson is a multi-positional player and the lineup reflected that. He first played with Rodriguez, Stauskas, Covington and Holmes. Anderson played 3:47 and went 0 for 1 from three with a rebound and a foul. 

While Anderson said he had learned about the Sixers by watching his first game from the bench, he will get more on-the-court experience on Sunday when he plans to spend time at the training complex on the team’s off day. 

Bigs Convene
Joel Embiid was with the Sixers in New York. After the second quarter ended, he stayed on the court to talk with Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah. Both Knicks big men also were sidelined on Saturday.

Trust It
T.J. McConnell isn’t the only one to #trustthefriendship with Saric. Check out this no-look pass to Robert Covington. 

Up next
The Sixers have a day to bounce back from this loss. The 48-9 Warriors come to town on Monday. 

Villanova pushes past Creighton despite exhaustion before off week

Villanova pushes past Creighton despite exhaustion before off week

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, PA. – Jay Wright finally admitted what we could all see.

The Wildcats are gassed.

No. 2 Villanova beat No. 23 Creighton, 79-63, Saturday at the Pavilion to clinch the Big East Conference regular-season title outright (see Instant Replay).

The Wildcats are 27-3 and 14-3 in the conference, but the last couple weeks their lack of depth has shown.

With Omari Spellman ruled ineligible before the season by the NCAA, Phil Booth out since November with lingering knee pain and Darryl Reynolds out the last five games with a rib injury, Wright has essentially been limited to five starters, freshman Dante DiVincenzo off the bench and a few minutes a night from freshman Dylan Painter.

It's taken a significant toll on the six guys in the rotation. 

Big late leads have dwindled or, in the case of Wednesday’s game against Butler, disappeared. Three-pointers have front-rimmed. Defensive assignments have been missed.

Through it all, Wright refused to admit fatigue was an issue.

Now, with the Wildcats securely the top seed in next month’s conference tournament, Wright is being honest about his team.

They’re exhausted.

“I know you guys have asked a lot, 'Do I think we’re getting worn down with seven guys, 6 1/2 guys,' and I said I don’t think so, I think we can do it,” Wright said Saturday after the Senior Day win over Creighton.

“I gotta answer your question, but it just doesn’t do us any good saying we’re worn out. It’s not an excuse. Other teams have things to deal with. I get we weren’t pretty, we haven’t been pretty, today wasn’t pretty. But I think it just speaks to the leadership of these seniors and I think it speaks to the character of these seniors (that they got through it).

“Are they tired? Yeah. Are they worn down some? Yeah. But it doesn’t matter. Other teams got stuff too. It’s not the reason you lose. It can’t be the reason you lose. Maybe you were tired and you didn’t concentrate or we didn’t defend or we didn’t rebound. That’s what happened and that’s the way we look at it.

“I wasn’t trying to BS you, I was just saying that whether you’re tired or not doesn’t matter, you’ve got to get it done, and we got it done. I’m so proud of them and it’s senior leadership. It’s talented players and senior leadership.”

Villanova now has a week off before an essentially meaningless game next Saturday at Georgetown.

It’ll be the Wildcats’ first extended break since the season began.

“They haven’t had an off week because they played Virginia (two weeks ago in a non-conference game), and now they get it and a chance to get their legs back,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.

“It’s a long season and when you don’t really have a chance to catch your breath, especially because he’s riding six or seven guys pretty hard right now? I’m sure this week off will do them some good.”

Sophomore transfer Eric Paschall had a career day Saturday, with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting to go with six rebounds. Josh Hart added 16 points and eight boards, Kris Jenkins overcame another off shooting night from three (1 for 7) to record 15 points, four boards and three assists, and Mikal Bridges had 11 points and eight rebounds. DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson each scored nine points. 

The next meaningful game Villanova plays will be March 9 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament in New York.

Now it’s time to rest. And heal.

“It’s going to be good for us,” Jenkins said. “We get a couple days off. We’ll still watch film, still learn, still get better, but physically we need a couple days to regroup and get ready for Georgetown and then the Big East tournament.

“Georgetown is first, but we really do need this break.”

On Saturday, Villanova built an 11-point lead, gave it all away, fell behind, traded off seven second-half lead changes, then went on a 16-4 run midway through the second half to finally put away the Bluejays.

With the threes not falling, the Wildcats focused on attacking the rim and scoring in the post in the second half.

Jenkins in particular had an unusual game. He stopped shooting treys and made 5 of 8 shots from inside the arc. That’s the second-most two-pointers he’s ever made and the most he’s ever attempted.

“Just playing off my teammates and adjusting to how teams play me,” said Jenkins, shooting just 30 percent from three the last 10 games.

“They really take away threes and try not to let me get any clean catches so always being aggressive and trying to make the right play.”

For a tired team, backing off the threes was huge.

Villanova outscored Creighton 36-18 over the last 14 minutes after Creighton took its biggest lead – two points at 43-41.

Now comes rest.

“It’s big for these guys,” Wright said. “In my mind, we just had to get to today. We just gotta get through it without getting somebody else hurt and without just being dead.

“Because we’re going to get time off. We’re going to take Sunday off, we’re going to have a light day Monday, and then we’re going to take Tuesday off, because these guys really need the rest. So this is perfect timing for us.”