Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Tale of Two Adus

The past week has shown us the best and worst of Freddy Adu. From the lows of a defeat at the hands of one of the worst clubs in the MLS, to a pair of goals in the USOC match over the Rochester Rhinos. Now the question one has to ask is, why do the Union play so poorly on Saturday, and so well just a few days later?

Lets examine the Toronto FC game first. Did anyone on the Union play well? No, not really. True some people did play better than others. Michael Farfan is one player who come to mind. Chris Konopka is another. But no one played well enough to win, and for Union, a win is the only thing they need right now. And Adu is a player who needs to step up.

Adu has a hefty price tag. And he has a lot of expectations on his shoulders. I'm willing to give him a pass for last season. Coming to a team in the middle of a season, and needing to get into match shape and learn the offense is no easy thing. But he's here now. He's has an off season to learn what he needs to know. He's had a preseason to get into match shape, and has played most of the Union's matches this season, when he isn't on  international duty.

So I have a real problem when the best we get from Adu is a pair of goals in a USOC match, and 1 good half against the New York Red Bulls before he commits two stupid fouls and gets himself a red. How much longer do we have to wait before Adu lives up to the expectations? Will he ever do it?

The problem is, i can't place all the blame on Adu. Nowak constantly plays new formations, new lineups, and ships off his best players. But Adu needs to be the professional and fight through that. And I want to see the brilliant play we saw against Rochester and in the Olympic qualifiers for more than just 40 minutes for the Union.

The question is, will it ever happen?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Rare Phillies Post

That's right readers, it's a rare Phillies post. I feel a post is in order, since the team is literally falling apart. Not in the way the Union are, from the coach on down. No, this is a much more literal breakdown. The Phillies are falling apart physically. A quick glance at the roster tells the story. Halladay, Worley, Utley, Howard. All big names, and names Phillies fans expected to make a splash this season. What do they have in common? They're all on the DL right now.

By far, the biggest letdown so far is Roy Halladay. Halladay has been a proven commodity for years now, both as a Blue Jay and Phillie. He's pitches deep into games, throws complete game shutouts. And he NEVER. EVER. misses a start. But that will change now with a strain in his shoulder. 6-8 weeks without the Doc, the Phillies ace and leader.

Vance Worley is due to come back to the lineup soon. So the Phillies will put a proven ace on the DL, and depend on Vance Worley to play the way he did in his rookie season. If he can do that, the Phillies will be able to survive in the absence of Halladay. Will they be in first place? No, probably not. But they can stay within striking distance.

And as for the field players? Utley and Howard? Who knows what we'll get? Utley is a Phillies player through and through. He works his butt off, and doesn't complain. But his knees just can't keep up with his spirit anymore. So Utley will be back. That much we know. But how long will we have Utley? no one knows. And how good will his play be? Again, there is no way to know. It's a gamble, but one the Phillies are stuck taking.

And Ryan Howard is much the same way. Yes, a player can come back from an Achilles injury. But as this season has shown, Ryan Howard has been the keystone for the Phillies offense for th past half decade. And the offense is struggling without him. So will he be back this season? Yes. Will he be the player he's been in the past? All Phillies fans can do is hope.

Any sports season can be destroyed by injury. Rarely does a team have to deal with this much. The Phillies have the potential to be a good team, even a team who can make deep playoff run. But Phillies fans need to hope that the team is still in the playoff hunt once everyone gets healthy again. Because this is an aging team, and they are running out of chances.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Last Straw?

So was this the last straw for Nowak? The Philadelphia Union were beaten by a team that started this season with the worst record in MLS history.  And they are running out of excuses. In fact, they are completely out of excuses. Let's take a look at the timeline from the past year.

Fall 2011
At this point, Union fans were on top of the world. Their team was fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They were playing well, scoring goals behind the power of their sure footed striker, Sebastian LeToux. And they were the MLS' 2nd stingiest defense, with Faryd Mondragon between the pipes, and Danny Califf leading the back line. Things were looking good for the Union.

Then the team lost in the playoffs. Union fans were disappointed, but happy. A playoff berth and a home game in their sophomore season? Any Union fan would be happy with that. So despite the loss, Union fans looked to the 2012 season with excitement. They were a club on the rise, with a legitimate star in Sebastian LeToux, a potential star in Freddy Adu, and a rising star in Michael Farfan.

So where are we now? Well let's take a look. Are the Union fighting for 1st place like they were last year? Hmmm, quick check, no. They're fighting for their lives to stay out of the basement. Is the problem LeToux and Mondragon and Califf not living up to their potential? Another quick check, and no. Since Nowak shipped them out, they are all playing well for their new clubs.And the players the Union picked up in their absence?

Well let's see. First you have Lionard Pajoy. Now granted, Nowak has played him as a single striker for much of the season, and that isn't Pajoy's game. But this past weekend, against the worst team in the league, Pajoy was invisible even though he had a partner up top. Gabriel Gomez? I have no complaints about Gomez. he's played well so far, the best of the off season pickups. And Pofirio Lopez? His hair his amazing, his play is not. And that't the nicest thing I can say about him.

The Union have picked up other players this season. But with the lack of playing time for Herdling and 1st round draft pick Chandler Hoffman, I can't make an accurate assessment of how well they'll fit in Nowak's "system"

So where does that leave us? A terrible team. And who can we blame? The constant throughout all of this. Peter Nowak. So what can the Union do? They have two options. Fire Nowak. To me this is the best option. Rip off the Band-Aid instead of peeling it off. Besides, if you fire Nowak now, he can't do any more damage to a team that is already reeling.

The other option is to wait until after the season to fire Nowak. This would be a terrible move. The Union fan base is fed up with Nowak, and waiting any longer will drive fans away. Fans are fed up with Nowak and the Union for the same reason they get fed up with the Eagles and Andy Reid. A coach who seems to wield all the power who refuses to tell his fan base anything. The difference between the Eagles and the Union? The Eagles are an established NFL team with a fan base that will complain but not leave. 50 years of rooting is a hard habit to break.

The Union have no such ties with a fan base. 2 full seasons is all the Union have. That's not much time to build up fan dedication. Granted, the Union still have the River End, and they are still selling out the stadium. But if the season continues the way it is now, that stadium wont be full on a hot and humid July night. So when it really boils down to it, fans need to ask themselves one question.

Who are the Union more loyal to? Nowak or the fans?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Coca Cola 600

It's time to bring a new sport into the game. That sport? Nascar! Now I will say now that I am a Kasey Kahne fan. So of course I think he'll win every race. But on to what's important, the race this weekend. The longest race of the season, the Coca Cola 600.

So what does this race mean? As points go, it's the same as any other. But it's one of the crown jewels of the season. It's a feather in a team's cap to win the longest endurance race of the season. And it comes on one of the biggest day's in motosports. The day of the Indianapolis 500. So who will win the race? A few years ago, that answer was easy. Lowes Motor Speedway was dominated by the man who drove the Lowes Chevrolet.

But that dominance had fallen off in recent years. Until Johnson won the All-Star race this past weekend. So has Jimmie returned to Lowes form? Is he ready to storm the field at a track he used to treat as his own? In short, no. I don't think Jimmie will do it. Winning back to back races at the same track on consecutive weekends is tough. I'll give you 3 drivers who I think stand a better chance of winning this race than Johnson.

1. Kyle Busch
The driver everyone loves to hate. Myself included. But he always seem to storm through the first half of the season, and this year is no exception. He'll fall off as he usually does in August and September, but this is Kyle's part of the season. And as much as I hate to admit, I think he stands a good chance of making a run at this year's 600.

2. Greg Biffle
Biffle has had an up and down season, but he's returning to a type of track that Roush cars usually run well at. Cookie cutter ovals have treated Roush cars well, and look for Biffle to return to early season form with a strong run in this year's 600.

3. Kasey Kahne
. Come on, you knew this was coming. But seriously, look at his trends. he's won here before. He's had only top 10's in the last month. And he ran well last weekend in the All Star race. So all trends are pointing to a strong showing from Kasey. And he needs a win to prove that Hendrick made the right call in picking him up this season to replace Mark Martin in the 5 car. And he also needs a win to solidify his chances at making the Chase.

So there you have. My 3 top picks for this weekend. Who do you think will win? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Then and Now: Peter Nowak

What has happened to Peter Nowak? A year ago, fans were in love with the manager. The Union were fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The offense wasn't clicking(like now), but fan favorite Sebastian LeToux was still an integral part of the team. Despite the comparable offense, the team seemed to win the matches they lose this season. And since Nowak sent away most of the players we had last season, we're left to scratch our heads. Why the losses? Is it the players he sent away? Or is it Nowak himself?

First, lets look at who Nowak let go in the off season. The players and positions are varied, but the impact they have on the Union plan of attack is huge. And the two most important are Sebastian LeToux and Faryd Mondragon.

Let's look at goalies first. At first glance, most people would say MacMath is a downgrade from Faryd Mondragon. But I would beg to differ. Modragon finished 2011 with 49 saves. And the Union contended for the Eastern Conference title. That's a tough mantle to live up to. But MacMath already has 26 saves this season. The season isn't even half over, and MacMath has more than half the saves Mondragon had last season. Granted, the team isn't in the same position it was last year, but still. MacMath is playing well.

Now many people will say the defense is a key part to saves. And I would agree. Nowak shipped out captain and stellar defender Danny Califf to Chivas U.S.A. A good move? Only time will tell. But MacMath has been facing offenses without Califf for weeks now. Imagined injuries or not, Califf hasn't played. And MacMath has played well in his absence. So Nowak was right. The youth on the team shines in net. MacMath is at least as good, if not better than Mondragon. Say what you will about experience, I'll take Big Orange in net over Mondragon any day.

So if Nowak made the right call in net, did he go wrong with the rest of the team? Logic would say that if he made one right call, the rest would fall into line. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy. And when examining an attack, one also has to look at the formations played, time on the field, etc. But still, logical conclusions can be drawn about players and managers.

So what do I think of the LeToux trade? Complete and utter nonsense. But before we discuss that, let's look at Lionard Pajoy. Pajoy is 2nd on the team in goals, and 1st on the team in shots. Why is this important? Because LeToux led the team in both these categories last year. I'm not here to lament the LeToux trade because of what we got for him. The trade is over and done with. It's time to move on. I'm here to lament what could have been.

LeToux and Pajoy could have been an amazing tandem. LeToux is scrappy player. Fighting for possession, and fighting for goals. He is always around the ball, and always ready to do what it takes to score. And Pajoy wants to score too. But he isn't LeToux. And the two would have complemented each other perfectly. An attacking striker with deft play and the ability to shoot. And a scrappy player who will fight through anything for the ball. Imagine LeToux of late last season with a Ruiz who fought harder. The tandem could have been unstopppable.

But it wasn't to be. And how Nowak handles it is one of the major problems the Union face this season. Without LeToux, the Union face a significant loss at the striker position. Mwanga has played at striker, and Pajoy has played alone. But the goals have been hard to come by. For the entire offense. But the goals must run through the striker, and as a replacement for LeToux, Pajoy has absorbed much of the blame for lack of offense. But he needs a partner up top to function in the role he is equipped for. And Nowak knows this

So enough about moves and trades and acquisitions. What has Nowak done this season? He has become the Andy Reid of the Philadelphia soccer community. Gone is the good will and the wins. Hello awkward press conferences and a season of doubt and loss. So Nowak has a tough season. His response?

Youth is the answer, we have so often heard. But is it? Does youth see the playing time that we expect from a coach who preaches youth? Adu, Okugo, Daniel, and the Farfans see time. But what about the striker position? What Mwanga? McIrnerney? Hoffman? Fans have accepted that youth is the future. Embraced it even. But not seeing a youth movement in attack does not sit well. Especially with the record the Union have.

So what is Nowak's grade so far? Can you grade him? It's a hard thing to do. I believe in the youth movement that Nowak preaches. I think a young team can go far in the MLS, and I think Nowak can coach them there. But when he preaches youth, and practices something else, that's when I get worried. We have promising rookies playing key roles, like Raymon Gaddis. And young players like MacMath playing key roles for the team. But only seeing youth on defense is not what Union fans expected of Nowak.

So I have to give Nowak a C-. And he has the potential to drop from here. Is the team record important? Yes and no. I want to see Nowak play out his grand experiment. Bring out the youth. I want to see the team I saw in the 2nd half against Real Madrid last season. I want to see the youth come out and take it to the MLS. And I want to see the Peter Nowak lead the charge.

The only question left is, will he?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Philadelphia Union vs. Schalke 04 Recap

So they won. And the Union improved to 4-0-0 in friendlies at PPL Park. And we saw something from the Union that we haven't seen in a long time. Attacking soccer. And guess what? It works!! Especially when you play the young guys! I'm not sure if Union fans remember what a goal celebration looks like, but here's a reminder.

So what does this tell us about the Union? Besides the fact that they can score, despite their season thus far? That Nowak is right and wrong. He's right when it comes to youth. For the second time in as many years, the Union faced off against a powerhouse European team, and had their youth do them proud. Last year, the friendly against Real Madrid showcased Union youth. In the second half, against Real's starters, the Union youth held stars like Ronaldo scoreless, and notched a tally of their own. And yesterday, against Schalke, Union youth again showed their quality. Mwanga had a near miss, and Hoffman scored. Keon Daniel played well yesterday. So Nowak is right. Youth is the future for the Union.

So how is Nowak wrong? Because despite the fact that he preaches to the fanbase youth and attacking soccer, he doesn't manage that way. Does youth make a showing? Sure. You have the Farfan brothers, and you see Keon Daniel and Freddy Adu in the midfield. But do you see Hoffman, Mwanga, McInerney  up top? No. You see Lionard Pajoy struggling to figure out which direction is up when he plays lone striker. I know that isn't what he normally plays, but at some point he has to figure out how to create something. Or else Nowak needs to change his strategy.

And one more thing. I know there have been rumors about Raul coming to play for the Union. Would that be a good thing? Of course! The leading scorer in Real Madrid history is always a nice edition to have for a team. But even if the Union do land Raul, will he turn the team around? There's no guarantee. Unless the Union can play a game more like what we saw last night and less like what we've seen all season, it's going to be a long summer. Because even if you lose, if they play like the did yesterday, they'll go down fighting.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

If You Could let Bryzgalov go, Would You?

As I was driving home today, I heard this question asked. And most people, including the on air talent, said that they would get out of Ilya Bryzgalov's contract if they could. And that made me think. Would I do the same thing? Could I cut loose Bryzgalov and hope to find something better?

In a word, no. Yes it's true, Bryz had a terrible goals against average in the playoffs. And yes, he let in a choke goal in game 5 against the Devils. But in the Pittsburgh series, the Flyers played out of their minds. I could have played goalie for the Flyers against the Penguins. When it came to the Devils, it was the defense that let the team down, not Bryzgalov.

I think the reason people would let him go is because of his attitude and regular season play. Bryz is a character. I don't think we need to rehash all the universe and bear in the woods quotes here. Suffice to say we all know he's said them. And I have to admit, I kind of like the attitude. He's a character, and after years of Mike Richards interviews, a character is just what this town needs.

So we come down to his regular season play. Streaky, yes. But after he settled down in Philly, and Laviolette stuck with him, Bryz began to play unstoppable hockey. He was the best goalie in the league coming down the stretch, until he broke his foot. And even with that injury, the Flyers won a playoff series. A settled Bryz is the Bryzgalov everyone was hoping for. And what this team needs.

So no, I would sure as hell not trade him. And I'm looking forward to hearing what he has to say for years to come.

Philadelphia Union vs. Schalke 04

Now I won't pretend to know all that much about Schalke 04. I know they're a German team, and I know they have a player named Raul who many Union fans want to stay with Philadelphia. I also can safely assume that they are better than the Union, since the Union have not exactly covered themselves in glory this season. Especially on the offensive side of the ball. So what does this game really mean for the Union?

In all seriousness, I would love for Raul to end his career in Philadelphia. As the leading goal scorer for one of the top clubs in the world, Real Madrid(323 in 741 appearances), Raul knows how to score. And he would be a good fit for the Union, because our current striker, Lionard Pajoy, doesn't even know how to take a shot, let alone put the ball in the back of the net. Will the Union court Raul? I hope so. It will be a tough sell, especially since the Union have declined larger contracts before(Le Toux) in favor of staying young. But Raul would be a force in the MLS. I think he could be as productive as Thierry Henry in the scoring column. And with our defense, that could be a potent combination.

But Raul isn't the only reason this is an important match for our boys in blue. They need a pick me up. After a pathetic trip to Seattle, the Union need to turn their play around. They play a style of play that most people would call boring, or perhaps losing soccer. They try to play a possession game, but can't control the ball enough. And their striker can't generate chances when he does see the ball. Which basically leaves macMath and the defenders hanging for a majority of the match. And if the defense and MacMath weren't playing as well as they are, the losses would be much worse.

So this match is a chance for the Union. A chance to ignore the scoreline, because this game means nothing. It's a chance to work on offense! Forget trying play defense and possessing the ball. Let's push forward and try to score some goals. Hell, at least take some shots. If this friendly ends with the Union taking one shot on goal, I will be very disappointed in their efforts for the evening. When the results don't matter, its how you play that is important. And I want to see a lot of aggressive attacking soccer from the Union.

So this game does matter. The Union have fared well against international foes(at least compared to the rest of the MLS), and I hope this game is no difference. At the very least, this game gives the Union 2 important chances. One chance to work on their offense and their attacking soccer. The other is to court a player would immediately increase the offensive firepower of the Union. A player the caliber of Raul would lessen the pressure on the midfield, give Pajoy more room to work, and open the offense up. So Union fans, let's hope for a good match, and a new Union squad member to root for.

The Flyers are Gone...

It was a brilliant opening playoff series. The Flyers dismantled the Cup darling Penguins. And scored 30 goals in the process. And  it looked for all the world as though the Flyers would be an unstoppable force after their opening round. Sadly, this was not the case. And one of the biggest reasons was a player in the same position on both teams. This man let us down.

And this man celebrated his 40th birthday in style.

So what happened? A lot of things happened. The first thing though is goalie play. Bryzgalov allowed 3 or more goals in 10 of 11 playoff starts. That won't win you a playoff series.(Unless you play the Penguins) And Brodeur stood on his head in net, and played like a the goalie he was in 2003. Can we blame the whole series on Bryz?(YES!!) No. Although Bryz let in key goals at stupid times. The turnover goal in game 5 against New Jersey comes to mind. It was a stupid goal, and it never should have gone in. But it did.

But Bryz was not the only problem. The offense did not generate goals at nearly the same rate they did against the Penguins. And tempers flared late in the series, as evidenced by Claude Giroux's hit on Zubrus. But the biggest letdown was the urgency. The Devils appeared to have, and the Flyers appeared to have lost it. What happened after the Penguins series? Did the Flyers think they could coast to an easy win over the Devils? Maybe in the beginning of the series, but after going down 2-1, you would think Laviolette would whip his team into shape.

Regardless, this will  be remembered as a lost opportunity. A chance for the Flyers to get to a another Cup has been squandered. And it's a team loss. Everyone played their best hockey against the Penguins. No player on the Flyers can say it isn't my fault we lost. But everyone in Philadelphia will be talking about one man and his play. Ilya Bryzgalov. And what could have been had he played just a little bit better.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Philadelphia Union: The Season so Far

I realize this is a rather odd time for an article like this. But I've been thinking about how the season has gone thus far, and I wanted to write down my thoughts on the season thus far. And it has been an up and down season! If I don't get to every player on the roster, don't worry, their time is coming.

We'll start off with the most recognizable name on the Union, Freddy Adu.

Freddy Adu
Freddy Adu may be the best known name on the Union outside of Philadelphia, but he is far from a fan favorite. And that is due to his play. He can have games where he shows brilliance, laying balls at the feet of his forwards, or scoring on a nifty backheel. But his game is just like his career, streaky at best. He does have games where he plays well. And then he has games where he doesn't. And that just isn't good enough. last season, Adu had the excuse of not being in shape or knowing the system well enough. This season he missed time due to Olympic qualifying. But now we're in the meat of the MLS schedule. And Adu does not have the luxury of those excuses any more. It's time to see some consistent play from Adu, not just flashes of brilliance. And I think we'll get that play from him.

Lionard Pajoy
The Colombian striker has big shoes to fill. Fan favorite Sebastian Le Toux out, and new and unknown Lionard Pajoy enters. And Pajoy has not played well. 1 goal through 7 games is not what a fan base expects from its best striker. But to be fair, Pajoy is not Le Toux. And perhaps we've been expecting too much. The team has not been playing to Pajoy's strengths, especially when they play him as the lone striker up top. So part of the blame lays on Nowak. But Pajoy needs to adapt. And the time has come to adapt. If we don't see a goal from the run of play from Pajoy by the 10th game, I think it is time to look for someone new up top.

Zac MacMath
It was a shaky start, I'll admit it. But MacMath has stormed back, and is playing the best soccer of anyone on the pitch. He commands his net, and his backline. He set the franchise record for shutout soccer. And yes, his backline has played very well. But MacMath makes the saves when they need to be saved. And that's all you can really ask of him. Does his team score for him in the run of play? No. But without MacMath, the San Jose match would have been over after 15 minutes, and probably would have ended up 5-1. So MacMath gets my man of the season award this far. And if he can keep it up, he'll be the leader of the clubhouse before the end of the season.

Philadelphia Union vs. Seattle Sounders Preview

The Philadelphia Union have fared well against Seattle, considering they are a West Coast team. The West Coast typically holds sway over the Union, but with a 2-1-1 record against the Sounders, the Union haven't done all that bad. The real question is, can that good fortune carry over to this season?

The Sounders sit in 3rd place in a strong Western Conference. They have 5 wins so far this season. The Union have 2, and can't score from the run of play. Seattle has scored twice as many goals as the union have so far this season. They have allowed 5 fewer goals than the Union have. This does not bode well for a team that at best, has an awful offense.

The only positive is the goals allowed in the last 4 games. The defense and MacMath have been on top of their game. I would argue MacMath has been one of the strongest, if the not best goalie, in the past 4 weeks in the MLS. Those early season slip ups are gone. And with a lesser goalie, the San Jose match could have been 2-0 in favor of the visitors after 15 minutes. And the back line, with stalwarts Valdes and Williams playing well, and rookie Gaddis playing better than anyone expected, the defense has kept the U in games, and let a 1-0 scoreline be a winning scoreline for your boys in blue.

So what will happen this weekend? Well, the Union still have a couple of suspensions to wait out. Garfan still has a couple games to miss, and Nowak won't be on the sidelines. But the Union will come into the match strong, and ready. And I think the defense will live up to their end of the bargain. The question becomes, can the Union poach a goal or two? Pajoy needs to play better, but he's just the tip of the iceberg.

The whole midfield needs to play better as well. The Union need to possess the ball, and not just in the defensive third. We have been losing time of possession the past few matches, by wide margins. If we stand a chance against the Sounders, we need to hold the ball. And we need to press forward. I know Nowak likes to play defensive soccer, play for ties or 1 goal wins. But I want to see some offense! At least a little bit of creativity and some willingness to take some shots.

If we can see that, we have a chance. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening. I see Seattle possessing for long periods of time, and not a lot of attack from the Union. My prediction? Seattle 3-1 Philadelphia.