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?

Eagles still better off at QB than Giants

Eagles still better off at QB than Giants

The Eagles may have lost Carson Wentz for the season, but it could be worse. A lot worse. The Eagles could be in the New York Giants’ shoes.

How much better are the Eagles than their loathsome NFC East rival to the north this season? Even with a season-ending injury to an MVP-caliber player under center, the Eagles still look vastly superior to their Week 15 opponent Sunday. In fact, would you even trade their quarterback situation with the Giants?

We try to answer that question and more while we examine whether the Giants do anything better than the Eagles in 2017. Anything at all!

Probably not though.

QUARTERBACKS
Eli Manning may have a couple of Super Bowl rings, and his supporting cast with the Giants is awful, but I can’t understand why there was such a clamoring to have him remain the team’s starter. Their record is 2-11. He’s averaging 6.0 yards per pass attempt this season — only Joe Flacco has been worse. And Manning turns 37 in less than three weeks, so what’s the upside? He looks shot. At least Nick Foles gives the Eagles some hope heading into his 29th birthday. At this stage of their respective careers, you would take Foles, and it’s a no-brainer. Heck, plenty of people would take Davis Webb over Manning.

Advantage: Eagles

RUNNING BACKS
The Giants’ backfield is better than many suspected at the beginning of the season. Of course, turning out marginally better than the worst backfield in the NFL isn’t a huge accomplishment. Orleans Darkwa runs with power, and Wayne Gallman is a nice change of pace when he’s not fumbling the football. Both average better than 4.0 yards per carry. Shane Vereen looks cooked in the third-down role. Of course, the team doesn’t run the ball much, and none of the trio is a home-run hitter of the caliber of Jay Ajayi for the Eagles. Neither Darkwa nor Gallman looks like a better prospect than Corey Clement, either.

Advantage: Eagles

WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS
The Eagles have three players with more yards and touchdowns than the Giants’ leading receiver. Alshon Jeffery has 732 yards and eight touchdowns, while Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor both have 663 yards and seven scores. New York’s receiving corps was also decimated by injuries to Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall. Despite the losses, speedy Evan Engram is having an incredible rookie season for a tight end, becoming the primary weapon in the passing attack with 55 catches, 623 yards and six touchdowns. Clearly, Engram’s stellar play hasn’t been enough to compensate. Now wideouts Sterling Shepherd and Roger Lewis are questionable to play Sunday, too.

Distinct advantage: Eagles

OFFENSIVE LINES
The Giants’ best O-lineman, right tackle Justin Pugh, is questionable as well with a back injury and hasn’t suited up in weeks. That’s a problem because their line wasn’t very good to begin with. Left tackle Ereck Flowers has improved as the season has progressed, and isn’t nearly as bad his reputation might suggest. Otherwise, there aren’t many bright spots up front. The Eagles have had their issues. The hope is Stefen Wisniewski can go with an ankle injury, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai has looked beatable in recent weeks. At least their issues are confined to the left side. From center to right tackle, the unit is great.

Advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE LINES AND LINEBACKERS
If games were won and lost on reputation, the Giants’ D-line would be among the scariest units in the league. Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon are all All-Pro/Pro Bowl players, yet New York ranks 31st against the run and is tied for 30th in sacks. The stars are not living up to the hype. Surely, it hasn’t helped that roughly all of their linebackers are on injured reserve. The Eagles still rank No. 1 against the run, though they’ve looked a little shaky of late, and are tied for ninth in sacks. Their defensive end rotation with Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Derek Bennett is becoming quite dangerous, with 20.5 sacks between them.

Slight advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Don’t worry, the Giants’ issues on defense aren’t limited to the front seven. The club also ranks 31st against the pass, and unlike so many other areas of the roster, injuries aren’t solely to blame. Janoris Jenkins was hurt all year and eventually landed on IR. For Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple, it’s been a question of effort and will they or won’t they quit on their teammates. Apple has since been benched and left on the inactives list. The Eagles’ secondary has its flaws, but attitude isn’t one of them. They’re also an opportunistic bunch, with three players — Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod and Patrick Robinson — with three interceptions, and three more with two.

Advantage: Eagles

SPECIAL TEAMS
As bad as the Eagles’ special teams have been for at times this season, the Giants have been worse. Their kicking game stinks — Aldrick Rosas has made only 75.0 percent of field-goal tries. Their coverage units stink, with a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown. And their return game stinks, with a 19.4 average on kickoffs and a 5.1 average on punts. We’re going to assume the re-signing of Bryan Braman this week (see story) fixes some of the issues the Eagles have experienced, and they’re back to being one of the top all-around units in the league.

Advantage: Eagles

COACHING
Ben McAdoo had one of the most meteoric rises and falls you will ever see. In a matter of three years, McAdoo was hailed as a genius for reinventing Manning, usurped the head coaching job from Tom Coughlin, and guided the Giants to the playoffs. Eleven months later, he was out of a job. Perennially overrated defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took over in the interim, so no groundbreaking changes on the sideline for the time being. McAdoo’s timeline might be a cautionary tale for Doug Pederson and the Eagles. As far as this game is concerned, the staff that’s not in the midst of upheaval has the edge.

Distinct advantage: Eagles

OVERALL
There was no shortage of warning signs for New York heading into 2017. Sure, they managed to go 11-5 and make the playoffs a year ago but had not won more than seven games in any of the previous three seasons. I’m not sure anybody saw 2-11 coming, although, with an aging quarterback, shaky offensive line, and no running game, the Giants needed their defense to shoulder the load. Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Eagles have the injury under center, but I’ll take Foles with his roster over the current version of Manning and his crew of flunkies. And I wouldn’t think twice.

Distinct advantage: Eagles

Richaun Holmes' mishap does not end well

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ESPN broadcast

Richaun Holmes' mishap does not end well

You will not find Billy Donovan on the Thunder's injury report after Friday's game against the Sixers.

But Oklahoma City's head coach may be icing down alongside his players or popping a few Advil.

Why?

Donovan took an errant pass straight to his face during the Sixers-Thunder game at the Wells Fargo Center. Richaun Holmes was looking to collect an assist on a JJ Redick jumper, but the Sixers' big man put a little too much mustard on the pass.

The one-handed dish went right to Donovan … who was not ready to catch it, and why would he be? Holmes also just barely missed former Sixers player and head coach, Maurice Cheeks, who is an assistant under Donovan.

At least that was Holmes' only turnover of the game.