The700Level

2017 Season Preview: The Union are now a stable franchise ... but will they be any good?

2017 Season Preview: The Union are now a stable franchise ... but will they be any good?

For much of the Philadelphia Union’s existence, the preseason has been as dramatic as any game-winning golazo.

There was figuring out who everyone was before the 2010 expansion season (while they trained out of a public gym). There was Michael Orozco Fiscal arriving at camp in 2011 before soon leaving over a contract dispute. There was losing club icon Sebastien Le Toux (to a bizarre trade) and then-captain Faryd Mondragon (he requested an untimely release) at the start of camp the following year. There was Freddy Adu getting his contract terminated in 2013 and Carlos Valdes getting loaned away just after awkwardly reporting to camp the year after that. There was head coach Jim Curtin going through his first preseason in 2015 and sporting director Earnie Stewart putting his own stamp on things after arriving last year.

But things have been much calmer at the start of 2017. No contract disputes. No unexpected comings or goings. No coaching or front-office shakeups. One very good player left very graciously (Tranquillo Barnetta) and a few other players came in, none big enough to send shockwaves through the league. There doesn’t seem to be any locker-room drama. Curtin and Stewart are growing into their jobs and ready to build something.

I guess the best way to describe the 2017 preseason is that it’s been, well, boring. But for a franchise that’s gone through such tumult in the past, that’s a good thing. The big question now is whether this kind of stability can lead to success on the field when the season opens Sunday night in Vancouver. 

Perhaps it will. But it may largely depend on these five things:

1. So can this British dude play?
Stewart is known for making unique moves, to try to pluck players from obscurity into stardom, to find good values where others don’t know where to look. Meet Jay Simpson, perhaps one of the Union sporting director’s most ambitious projects yet. 

Before signing with the Union in the offseason, Simpson was playing for a fourth-division team in England and now looks poised to be Philly’s opening-day starter at striker. There is another prominent example of an Englishman from lower-tier leagues coming over to MLS and dominating — and Simpson would like to emulate him — but it’s hard to know at this point if the new Union forward can carry the goal-scoring load. In Earnie we trust?

2. Is Gooch still Gooch?
First, he was just training with the team just to stay fit. Then, he had a chance to sign. Then, he was a veteran backup. Now, he’s getting ready to start at center back, on turf, following a six-hour flight, in his first pro game in two years. What could go wrong? 

A lot of people are rightfully skeptical that 34-year-old center back Oguchi Onyewu can be an effective player in MLS and stay healthy after some recent injury issues effectively kept him out of pro soccer for two years. But for those of us who grew into soccer fans watching him, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley come up through the US national team together, it will still be fun to see a former star player suit up in MLS for the first time. Maybe he’s still got it?

3. Will Maurice Edu ever be healthy again?
Looks like Union writers may have another few weeks (or months?) of asking Curtin the same question about Edu’s recovery from injury and Curtin giving the same kind of hopeful but sometimes frustrated answer. 

I’ll go on the record as saying Edu will return to game action in the first couple of months of the season but, after missing the entire 2016 season, one more setback could spell the end of the 30-year-old midfielder’s time with the Union. And it would be a shame if we never get to see a midfield triangle of Edu, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya — all guys who have played in a World Cup.

4. Sophomore slumps — is that gonna be a thing?
The play of Keegan Rosenberry and Fabian Herbers was one of the best storylines of the 2016 season with both emerging as top rookies in MLS. They’ll be counted on for even more in 2017 but can they keep it up or improve? The same question can even be asked of Andre Blake and Richie Marquez, two other young players coming off their first full seasons as starters? And then there’s Joshua Yaro, the third member of last year’s vaunted rookie class along with Herbers and Rosenberry, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery. 

It’s a talented young core, to be sure. But Union fans have seen enough promising young players fail to grow into stars or even stick with the team (McInerney, Amobi, Sheanon, Farfan, etc., etc.) to measure their excitement with a dose of caution.

5. Can they take the next step?
This is a vague question but soccer can be hard to quantify too, with teams often dominating games but still finding ways to lose. Too often in the past, the Union have been burned by rough calls, unlucky bounces, late lapses, or injury problems that have forced them to field weaker-than-expected lineups.

This year’s team has the kind of depth where it should be able to overcome having key guys out to take more points in tough spots. But do they have the mental fortitude to win games when they don’t play well? Or escape with road draws when things don’t go their way? 

In other words: Can the 2017 Philadelphia Union join the league’s elite echelon of teams — or are they destined to remain in the middle of the pack?

A surprising Eagle keeps getting drug tested

jake2.jpg
Jake Elliott IG

A surprising Eagle keeps getting drug tested

Jake Elliott has been a revelation for the Philadelphia Eagles after Caleb Sturgis went down with an injury early in the season.

But has he been too good...

The rook has made 12 of his 14 attempts for the Birds this season.

If you're looking for a good laugh today, go check out this reddit thread that starts with a photo from Elliott's Instagram story in which he points out he got flagged for his third drug test in two weeks!

The comment section is as good as a Jake Elliott 61 yarder.

"Well, he does bleed green...," abenyishay says..

"Is kickers doping really a thing?" ChaosFinalForm wonders, as do we.

What do you think? Just the way the random drug draw fell the last few weeks, or does the NFL think Jake Elliott is into something?

76ers Season Opener: One more moral victory before we start winning for real

76ers Season Opener: One more moral victory before we start winning for real

We've all been so excited about the start of the Philadelphia 76ers season that it feels like nobody even bothered to look at the first three games on the schedule this year: At Washington, home for Boston, at Toronto. The Sixers may be the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference when healthy this season -- Jeff Van Gundy thinks so, at least, as he kept gushing last night on the ESPN (!!) broadcast of 76ers-Wizards -- but they play three of the four teams ahead of them to kick off the season, their first after the supposed summation of The Process. It's a pretty cold way to welcome the Sixers to the land of the NBA living, really. 

So yeah, the Sixers lost last night in their season opener for the fourth time in four seasons -- and forever shout out to Michael Carter-Williams, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, and the rest of the squad that pulled off arguably the greatest regular-season upset in franchise history against LeBron and the Heatles on opening night, 2013. But the Sixers lost last night merely because they were playing the Washington Wizards, arguably the second-best team in the East last season and only stronger in the new year, in DC. And they still came a couple late-game deflections away from walking away with more wins than losses on their docket for the first time since... hey, don't forget James Anderson and Tony Wroten on that '13-'14 squad, either. Remember James Anderson? 

No, you don't, of course, because the Sixers don't have any James Andersons anymore: They have 10 professional basketball players, and arguably even more on the bench who might not crack the rotation this year until things go very south. (I'd take Furkan Korkmaz over all but maybe three players on the '15-'16 squad; we might not even see him on the court until we reach the deepest recesses of December garbage time.) And all of 'em looked good last night -- except for Amir Johnson, who went 2 for 27 from within three feet of the basket and somehow fouled out in 15 minutes. Even he should have nothing on the infuriating Sixers of years past: Brandon Davies ain't walking through that door anytime soon.

Everyone else was beautiful. Ben Simmons had a sparkling debut, posting an 18-10-5 with just one turnover, with shocking efficiency for a ball-handler who didn't attempt a shot outside six feet. Markelle Fultz was really impressive making plays for himself and others around the basket -- though he similarly balked at shooting from any kind of range, and his free-throw motion still looks disturbingly close to my fourth-grade form -- and fought on defense, generally showing that he can be a positive contributor even while he works on fixing his busted jumper. And we probably should've known that Joel Embiid's minutes limit was just a red herring: He played 27, posted 18 and 13, and got the crowd chanting "Trust the Process" like the Verizon Center was just an oversized Chickie's and Pete's. Dario Saric played unexceptionally -- 3 points on 1-5 shooting -- but he's Dario, so he's beautiful by default. 

But the real difference was in the wings. Robert Covington and J.J. Redick combined for an absolutely staggering 11 triples on 19 attempts -- the Sixers routinely went entire months at the beginning of the Process without the team making double-digit threes in a single game, now we have two guys doing it entirely on their own. Covington was of course the real superstar, accounting for seven of those triples on his way to a game-high 29 points with typically exceptional D. But man, when Redick pulls up into a quick-trigger three off the dribble... it's like, you didn't even know players were allowed to do that. Not Sixers players, anyway. 

And even with all that, the Sixers still lost, 120-115. Oh well. If Bayless can get the ball to an open Simmons under the basket in the final minute, or if Covington can swing a pass to an open Bayless in the corner a possession later -- both passes were deflected and stolen -- the game may have ended very differently. But it also may not have -- the Wizards have John Wall, they have late-game experience, and they have organizational consistency: In other words, they should win games like this, even against a team as improved (but still as green) as the Sixers. It's fine. It's great, honestly.

Of course, Redick and Covington won't always combine for 11 three-pointers, Embiid won't always be available for 27 minutes a night, and Simmons won't maintain a 5:1 assist:turnover ratio for the entire season. But it's not like any of that won't ever happen again, either: This is just a good team of good players now, and there will be games where they hang in against teams they shouldn't be hanging in against, and even escaping with the win on occasion. 

Will it happen in any of the team's first three? Maybe, maybe not -- it's a little frustrating that the Ballers might not get to demonstrate how improved they are in their W-L record for the season's first stretch, and you have to hope the team (and fanbase) don't fall into some Same Old Sixers malaise as they scrap against the conference elite. But watching the team last night in Washington, the feeling couldn't have been more different than even last year, when they nearly scraped together an opening-night win against an undermanned OKC team. It's not gonna be long before the Philadelphia 76ers are the team that makes the rest of the East go "Oh crap, we have to play them on opening night?"