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Grand slam tournament titles for Roger Federer, who won’t play rest of year

After Chip Kelly led the Eagles to 10 wins and a division title in his first season as an NFL head coach, expectations are even higher for his second season. But will the Eagles improve upon last season? Gordon Glantz evaluates their chances.

The news that Saint Joseph’s center C.J. Aiken was turning professional was lost in the frenzy of the NCAA Tournament. But not to Eric Fisher, who first wrote about Aiken when he was a 7-year-old boy battling cancer.

Eric Fisher admits he is addicted to the NCAA Tournament. He’s high on overtimes, Cinderellas and buzzer-beaters. He’s obsessed with pools, live look-ins and TV timeouts. And he’s enjoying every minute of it.

Archive for the ‘Union’ Category

Union preview: Seeking end to playoff drought

Posted by Eric Fisher On March - 5 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

After major roster overhauls the past two seasons, the Union were, by comparison, quiet this offseason.

They didn’t sit back and do nothing. But they added just a few key players, building around their core rather than replacing it.

The strength of the Union is at midfield. That’s why the Union added pieces up front and on the back line, but left the midfield intact.

But will the midfield be good enough to lift the Union to their first playoff berth since 2011? Another way to phrase the question is: will the front and back lines be good enough to take advantage of the midfielders’ skills?

After so many changes last season, including Jim Curtin replacing John Hackworth as manager after the Union won just three of their first 16 games, the roster remained relatively stable.

The Union, who host Colorado on Saturday (4 p.m.) in their season opener, know they can’t afford another awful start. A promising development is that they won the IMG Suncoast Pro Classic Championship in Florida. By contrast, they were winless during the five-game preseason last year and experienced difficulty scoring goals.

Let’s examine the Union’s strengths and weaknesses as they pursue a playoff berth – and maybe even the first postseason victory in franchise history.

MIDFIELD

The Union brought in Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana last season. It may have taken a year, but that trio may start to pay major dividends this season.

Edu spent a portion of last season at center back. Maidana, who led the Union in assists (11) last season, spent time at forward in an attempt to spark the Union’s offense, which was particularly anemic early in the season.

This season, this talented trio is expected to start at midfield. If Edu, Nogueira and Maidana can control the midfield, making it the strength of the team, the Union will have a solid foundation upon which to build success.

FORWARDS

Sebastien Le Toux, the Union’s leading scorer (12 goals) last season, returns, but the Union would like to take some of the scoring burden off the 31-year-old veteran. There are two players being counted upon heavily to help with the scoring: Fernando Aristeguieta and Andrew Wenger.

Aristeguieta is a 22-year-old Venezuelan with a scoring touch. But Aristeguieta is going to need room to display his finishing touch, and that’s where Wenger can help. Not only can Wenger feed Aristeguieta the ball, but he’s going to need to draw defenders to create space.

Wenger, the first player picked in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, scored six goals last season after being acquired from Montreal in a swap for striker Jack McInerney in early April. He needs to produce more consistently, surpassing his four assists from last season as well, to help the Union’s forward line become a dangerous unit.

If Wenger can’t get the job done, C.J. Sapong, acquired from Sporting KC during the offseason, is waiting in the wings.

DEFENSE

Perhaps the most suspect area for the Union is the back line. Amobi Okago, who bounced back and forth between midfield and the back line, and veteran Carlos Valdes were both moved during the offseason. Austin Berry, a former MLS rookie of the year, was recently loaned to a South Korean team.

These transactions doesn’t mean there was complete turnover on the back line. The consistent Raymon Gaddis and Sheanon Williams return. Williams looked like a potential star in 2013, but his game didn’t progress last season. In fact, it may have regressed.

Ethan White, acquired before last season in exchange for veteran Jeff Parke, never seemed completely comfortable last season. The Union are counting on White to be more consistent this season.

The big addition to the back line is 6-foot-5 Steven Vitoria. His size should help the Union contend with large opposing forwards and win contested head balls. But it remains to be seen how well he will mesh with the back line.

If the defense doesn’t hold up, it could turn out to be the Union’s weak link.

GOALIE

Many questioned why the Union brought in Rais Mbolhi midway through last season. They already had starter Zac MacMath and Andre Blake, the top pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. The questions intensified as Mbolhi fumbled away one game and didn’t look like an upgrade over MacMath.

Mbolhi, who excelled for Algeria during the World Cup, needs to be sharp this season because he’s the starter. If the defense struggles through some rough times, it will be crucial that Mbolhi play well. If he doesn’t, Blake must be prepared to fill the void.

OUTLOOK

With fewer moving parts than last season, the Union have the opportunity to be much better than last season, when they finished 10-12-12 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

All three starting midfielders should benefit from a full season together. This is also the second season with the Union for White, Wenger and Mbolhi.

The hope is that the group improves with experience. The concern is that the problems from last season, when the Union seemed to repeatedly squander points late in the season, will continue.

The presence of Curtin from the start of preseason shouldn’t be underestimated. He has an opportunity to instill his system and coaching style from the start of the season rather than try to fix things that were broken, as he did when he replaced Hackworth last season.

If the offense kicks it up a notch, it will take some of the pressure off the back line and Mbolhi. The defense worries me enough that I could see the Union missing the playoffs for a fifth straight season, but I’m going to predict the playoff drought ends with a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

If the Union don’t make the playoffs, next season will feature many more roster changes than this past offseason.

 

Union preview: Blending new parts together

Posted by Eric Fisher On March - 6 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

After fading during the latter part of the season and missing the playoffs, the Union aggressively made major changes during the offseason.

The question is whether all those changes will bring renewed success.

The Union almost completely revamped their midfield, bringing in Maurice Edu, whose rights were acquired in a draft week trade, and Vincent Nogueira. Edu is a transfer from Stoke City of the English Premier League. Nogueira is a transfer from Sochaux in France’s top league.

The Union also added Cristian Maidana, a transfer from Argentina. He could play midfield or, if Union manager John Hackworth makes the expected switch from a 4-4-2 alignment to a 4-3-3, on the forward line.

Austin Berry was a late addition, acquired from Chicago to solidify the back line. Berry, the 2012 MLS rookie of the year, is expected to start at central defense alongside emerging star Amobi Okugo. Defender Ethan White was also picked up in a trade that sent veteran defender Jeff Parke to D.C. United.

Draft day was another important part of the Union’s offseason. They traded up to get the No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft, choosing goalie Andre Blake. Midfielder Pedro Ribeiro was selected 15th overall.

But will all this additional talent help the Union improve upon last season’s seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference? It should. But sometimes it takes time to fit so many new pieces together to make the sum as great as its parts.

If the preseason is an accurate barometer, the Union may have difficulty scoring goals this season. The Union went 0-2-3 during the preseason, scoring one goal apiece in its first three games and failing to score in the last two (against 2013 non-playoff teams Columbus and Toronto). Their goal-scoring will be put to the test immediately in the season opener Saturday (10:30 p.m.) against Portland, which allowed the second-fewest goals in the Major League Soccer last season while winning the Western Conference.

FORWARDS

Jack McInerney, just 21, led the Union last season with 12 goals. McInerney was inconsistent, starting off on a hot streak before enduring a long drought in the middle of the season that ended with goals in the final few games. McInerney didn’t even start sometimes, which spoke volumes about his inconsistency.

The only other Union player with more than three goals last season was veteran Conor Casey, who bounced back nicely in his first season with the Union. Casey scored eight goals and had five assists. But the 2010 MLS Cup MVP has been sidelined with a “soft tissue” injury during preseason and may not be ready for the start of the season.

Sebastien Le Toux scored just three goals last season – far below his days as a double-digit scorer in 2010 (14 goals) and 2011 (11), but his creative skills were essential, and he was particularly adept at finding McInerney. Le Toux led the Union last season with 12 assists.

One of the questions up front is how much the 30-year-old Le Toux and 32-year-old Casey have left in the tank. Another question is how well Maidana will work with his new teammates. Danny Cruz and Antoine Hoppenot, a spark off the bench the past two seasons, will compete for playing time.

MIDFIELDERS

The Union will score more goals if it can control the ball. The hope is that Edu and Nogueira help the Union maintain possession for longer periods and improve their transition game.

Edu, 27, burst on the scene with a flourish at the start of his career, but has languished in Europe in recent years, failing to distinguish himself. Edu may have a bit of a chip on his shoulder, determined to show that he is an elite player and was underutilized by Stoke City. He is expected to help at both ends of the field and, obviously, in the middle of the field.

Dependable veteran Brian Carroll, 32, is expected to start at the other midfield position. Keon Daniel, who started 20 games last season, appears to be the odd man out. Hackworth may also try to make time for Leo Fernandes.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the contributions of Edu and Nogueira may make or break the Union.

DEFENDERS

With Okugo and Sheanon Williams on the back line, defense would appear to be a strength for the Union. Okugo, 22, had three goals and three assists last season and might take the leap up to star status this season. Williams contributes on defense and on the rush, dishing out eight assists last season, second on the team to Le Toux.

The wild card on defense is Berry. He was the MLS rookie of the year two years ago, but the Fire obviously considered him expendable as they revamped their defense. It may take time for Berry and Okugo, who flourished last season playing next to the reliable Parke, to feel comfortable in the central defense. The Union must hope the adjustment process doesn’t take too long.

The left defense position could be manned by Fabinho or Raymon Gaddis, who made 31 starts last season. Fabinho may give the Union a little more on the rush. Gaddis may be more dependable. It will be interesting to see how Hackworth manages that situation.

GOALTENDING

Zac MacMath returns for his third season as a starter. Or is he the starter?

MacMath will begin the season as the starting goalie, but there’s a question as to whether he’ll finish the season in that role.

The Union drafted Blake with the No. 1 overall pick. That couldn’t have made MacMath secure in his starting role. The 6-foot-4 Blake, from the University of Connecticut, is actually older than MacMath (23 to 22), so this isn’t a case of a young player backing up an experience veteran for a year and then taking over. There may be competition in goal.

The question is whether competition in goal is a good thing. It’s important to have stability in goal. If Hackworth is switching goalies throughout the season, it may lead to some doubts and lack of confidence among the players.

The best-case scenario is for MacMath to play so well that there’s no need for Hackworth to consider starting Blake. If MacMath spends the season looking over his shoulder, however, that could damage his confidence, which, in turn, would damage the Union’s playoff hopes.

OUTLOOK

The Union upgraded their talent. If the talent upgrade doesn’t lead to a playoff berth, it will be extremely disappointing. The Union probably aren’t good enough to catch the Red Bulls or defending MLS champion Sporting KC, but they should be good enough to finish third through fifth in the Eastern Conference and earn a postseason berth.

The Union should be better at the end of the season than at the beginning. That could make the Union a dangerous playoff opponent. The key will be how quickly Hackworth can meld the new pieces into a cohesive unit.

Will the new pieces come together in time for the Union to make the playoffs? We’ll start to find out Saturday night.

Tim Duncan Highlights