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Week 9 Preview: Union vs. Atlanta United

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The wait is finally over! After a three week break, the Union return to MLS play with a trip down south to take on Atlanta United in their continuing quest to snag the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Union are coming into this match with four wins in their last five games, including a 3-0 victory over the Portland Timbers going into this extended break. Atlanta, on the other hand, have taken just two wins away from their last five matches.

The Boys In Blue are recovering from a shaky start to the MLS season, and it will be the hopes of both the players and head coach Jim Curtin, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, that the three week break will not have negatively affected the momentum the Union had been gaining before the pause in play.

Tactically speaking, Union will most likely be employing their tried-and-true back four defense and diamond midfield formation, as Curtin has not been known to stray from the 4-4-2 strategy he’s used all of 2021. The only regular starter this season that will not be available for selection is Jose Martinez, who was called up to represent the Venezuelan national team for the first time as they compete in the Copa America. While Martinez is the preferred man for the defensive midfield spot, the Union has admirable depth in midfield, so Curtin will not be scrambling to find an adequate replacement as long as Martinez is away on international duty.

Predicted Lineup: Andre Blake; Jack Elliott; Olivier Mbaizo; Kai Wagner; Jakob Glesnes; Leon Flach; Anthony Fontana; Alejandro Bedoya; Jamiro Monteiro; Sergio Santos; Kacper Przybyłko

  • Anthony Fontana will likely fill in for Martinez, given that Curtin has said multiple times this season that he’s committed to giving the younger players more minutes in the senior team. While the Union have fared well against Atlanta so far this season, Curtin won’t be taking any chances with his offense, stacking the forwards with Santos and Przybylko, and giving them ample assistance in midfield with Bedoya and Monteiro.

Score Prediction: The Union looked good going into the break, and while the same can’t be said for Atlanta, the Union have been known to somewhat struggle in away games. However, they are only without Martinez, meaning that the starting lineup that defeated Atlanta in these teams’ two previous meetings this year will be on the field. It’ll be an even matchup of skill and chances, but the Union will come away with a 2-1 win.


Phillies Place Knapp, Joyce on IL; Summon Marchan, Vierling

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The Phillies had somewhat of a double blow on Friday night.  They lost their backup catcher and a backup outfielder to injury.  This comes as the Phillies were already extra short on depth due to injuries to infielder Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius.  This time the Phillies lose Andrew Knapp and Matt Joyce.

The Phillies announced that Knapp was placed on the 7-day Concussion Injured list.  This is shorter than a typical injured list stint by design, though the Phillies could transfer him to the 10-day injured list if he is not ready to resume baseball activities in seven days.  Rafael Marchan returns to the club.

The Phillies placed Joyce on the IL with a lower back strain.  Joyce has been used sparingly, despite injuries in the outfield to Bryce Harper and with Andrew McCutchen sometimes struggling against right-handed pitching.  Even though this was an injury to an outfielder, the Phillies declined to summon either Adam Haseley or Mickey Moniak.

The Phillies instead will go with right-handed outfielder Matt Vierling.  Vierling began the season at Double-A Reading and was promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley just this past Tuesday.  After 13 at bats, Vierling is getting promoted once again.

The Phillies selected Vierling with their fifth round pick of the 2018 draft out of the University of Notre Dame.  Vierling is not ranked among the Top 30 prospects in the system by MLB Pipeline.  But he has impressed so far in Triple-A.

Vierling was batting a combined .354 with six home runs and 17 runs batted it over both levels.  Vierling played center field more than any other position in 2021, but also played a good amount in right field and one appearance in right field.

Vierling has made some appearances in Spring Training, including one memorable play in Clearwater against the Yankees in which he robbed the Yankees of a grand slam. Over 35 Spring at bats in 2019, 2020 and 2021, he batted .229.

The Phillies did not need a 40-man roster spot, because Chase Anderson is currently on the COVID-related injured list.  No information has been provided to a possible return for Anderson, so the Phillies have the space for now.  Anderson probably would need a rehab assignment before re-joining the Phillies, anyway.


Jim Curtin Signs Two-Year Contract Extension

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

The second longest-serving head coach in the MLS is officially staying with the Union for (at least) two more years.

It was announced on June 16 that Jim Curtin had officially put pen to paper and signed a contract extension that would keep him the Union head coach for two more years. It’s not a huge shock to Union fans, seeing as Curtin has been edging closer to the Union’s ultimate goal—an MLS Cup—since he first took the head coaching job in 2014. He’s been behind the Union’s most notable successes, including the Supporters’ Shield in 2020, the best season in Union history in terms of points, goals, assists, and wins in 2019, and seeing the Union to their first appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2020. Curtin turned the Union into a powerhouse with one of the youngest rosters and lowest payrolls in MLS.

However, in addition to the fantastic stats and trophies, Curtin also has the personality to make him an extremely likeable coach. Even in a press conference focused on him and his contract extension, Curtin didn’t give himself much of the credit for the Union’s success. To him, owner Jay Sugarman believed in him throughout these seven years. The players are the ones who actually go on the field and get good results. Sporting director Ernst Tanner and technical director Chris Albright are arguably the best in the league at their jobs. It would be easy for him to accept the praise being lavished upon him, but that’s not, and never has been, Curtin’s style.

“I really enjoy the collaboration with Jim,” Tanner told media in a press conference. “He’s a great coach...We are very, very lucky to have a leader like Jim. It’s totally difficult to find people like him.”

It’s clear that Curtin’s colleagues respect him, and are genuinely enthusiastic about keeping him around. Curtin is not the kind of head coach you keep around simply because he wins a lot—it’s because he as a person adds value to the club.

Even though he has so much to brag about at the current moment, Curtin doesn’t even think to do it. Instead, he’s assuring people that he’s going to make the most out of the time he has at the Union because there is still a host of unfinished business.

“I think I’ll know when my time here is done, I think the game tells you that,” Curtin said in his press conference. “But right now, it’s telling me, and I think that, we owe it to the fans and some of our new young signings that there’s still more work to be done here.

Very, very lucky indeed.


Podcast: Making Sense of Fletcher Cox Rumors & Expanding the College Football Playoff

 

Doc & Brett discuss the "rumors" surrounding Fletcher Cox and his status with the Eagles.  Is now the time to trade the former All-Pro?  Plus, will the expansion of the College Football Playoff reopen the door to conference realignment?  

 

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Flyers F Oskar Lindblom Wins Masterton Trophy

By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor 

While it may have been a disappointing year on the ice for the Flyers, one story certainly stood out as an inspiration.

At the end of the previous season, for the final two games of the playoffs, Oskar Lindblom made his return to the ice following months of cancer treatments after being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in December 2019. He was deemed cancer-free in July 2020 and returned to the ice in September.

When the new season began in January, Lindblom was right back on the ice as a regular. In the first game of the season, Lindblom scored a goal. He added a second into an empty net in the second game. And while he finished the season with eight goals and six assists for 14 points, he played in 50 of 56 games, marking his official return from cancer.

A year ago, Lindblom was a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, an award presented to a player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. In 2021, Lindblom takes home the hardware, officially winning the award in an announcement made on Tuesday night.

Continue reading "Flyers F Oskar Lindblom Wins Masterton Trophy" »


Union Academy Ranked First in MLS

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

Move over, FC Dallas! There’s a new top academy in MLS.

SoccerWire, a site that publishes monthly rankings of the top 100 youth soccer teams in the United States, has named the Union’s academy system as the top youth development program in the country. This is the first time in the history of SoccerWire’s rankings that any club has overtaken Dallas’ number one spot since the list was first published in February 2020.

For a team that’s only been around for a little over a decade, they’ve produced two of the biggest success stories in MLS youth development—defender Mark McKenzie and forward Brenden Aaronson. McKenzie and Aaronson both featured in the 2020 MLS Best XI, with McKenzie finishing second in the race for 2020 Defensive Player of the Year. Following their impressive 2020 season, the pair garnered serious attention from, and subsequent moves to, clubs in Europe within two years of making their debuts for the Union’s senior team. Aaronson’s reported transfer fee of $6 million to Austrian club RB Salzburg is the most expensive fee of any homegrown transfer in MLS history.

“Player development is one of the three core areas we want to excel at to build our club into a consistent winner and giving players a chance to continually challenge themselves is part of that ideology,” Union principal owner Jay Sugarman said at the time of Aaronson’s transfer. “Brenden’s success will inspire everyone involved in developing our young talent and will be just one of many success stories we expect to see out of our academy in the coming years.”

“This has always been the goal of the club,” Union sporting director Ernst Tanner added. “We want to establish a unique identity of developing young players through our academy with an end goal of cultivating and developing their talent to the level that allows them to compete against the very best in the world.”

It should come as no surprise then that the Union’s academy sit at the top, seeing as the Boys In Blue are one of the few teams in MLS that emphasize youth development and give their young players real opportunities in the senior team. During the 2020 MLS season, the Union came in second for minutes played by players under the age of 22. Aaronson, McKenzie, Matt Real, Anthony Fontana, Jack De Vries, and Cole Turner accounted for 22.9% of the team’s total playing time that season.

After bringing in a new wave of Homegrown signings for the 2021 season, most notably Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan, the league will have to get used to seeing the Union at the top of lists like these for the foreseeable future. Would it be arrogant to start making comparisons to the academies of Ajax and Borussia Dortmund? Perhaps. However, if the Union keep producing legitimate, consistent, and internationally recognized talent at the rate that they have been in recent years, it’s safe to say that the MLS will have their very own youth development dynasty to boast about.


Phillies Head West with Massive Momentum Swing

By Ben Ballier, Sports Talk Philly Staff

Just one week ago, the Phillies were sludging their way through a spell of mediocrity. One bad stretch and “panic mode” may have been in full effect.

The club was just 4-6 in their last 10 games, and they would prepare to take on the Atlanta Braves next, a series in which they ended up losing game one. This ultimately landed the Phillies at a subpar record of 28-31.

But more importantly, the Mets continued to extend their division lead, and the Phillies had a treacherous June schedule staring directly at them.

Then, the Phillies altered the outlook of their season in dramatic fashion.

Three straight walk-offs and a 7-0 blowout in the remaining 4 games of the homestand against quality baseball teams spurred hope in the team and fanbase.

Arguably the most significant development throughout the win streak was the offense.

The offense may be heating up with the weather after months of inconsistent offense from an oft-injured lineup, one that appeared to sleepwalk through many games. They averaged 5.2 runs per game versus the Braves and Yankees opposed to 4.26 runs per game on the season.

For reference, the difference in average runs per game between the teams with the highest (Astros--5.51 runs) and lowest (Pirates--3.48 runs) in MLB is 2.03, so jumping nearly an entire run per game is significant.

I attribute some of the offensive uptick to Alec Bohm, a key contributor to the elite 2020 Phillies lineup, who has heated up in June. He is batting nearly .400 this month, and the “clutch factor” appears to be back as well.

In addition, Jean Segura is tearing the cover off the ball. The should-be-All-Star has raised his batting average to .339, and he was responsible for 2 of the 3 walk-off hits in crunch time.

Pair that production with Odubel Herrera’s .347 average in the leadoff spot and you have got a LETHAL one-two punch to begin ballgames.

This offensive surge comes at an opportune time. They will need to scratch and claw for runs in the upcoming Dodgers series, although the pitching matchups do seem to be slightly in the Phillies favor.

Spencer Howard, piggy-backed by rookie Bailey Falter, faces off versus Tony Gonsolin in game one. Zach Eflin opposes Julio Urías in game two, and Zack Wheeler is set to duel future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw in game three.

Speaking of starting pitching, the Phillies rotation ranks 11th in the majors in ERA and sixth in WAR.. It has undeniably been a strong suit for the ballclub this season.

It is precisely why it is imperative for the Phillies lineup to continue having success.

If you combine the 2021 rotation and improved bullpen with the elite production of the 2020 lineup, a lineup that is nearly identical to the current one, the Phillies suddenly look like a threatening playoff contender.

Only time will tell if the Phillies can sustain this level of production on both sides of the ball, but two series wins against the NL West's best teams would turn heads around the baseball world.

 


Report: Phillies to Promote Falter to "Piggyback" Howard

The Phillies had Bailey Falter on the active roster briefly in 2021. In need of an arm in April, the Phillies got two innings out of Falter.  He allowed two earned runs in two innings.  But after a strong performance at Lehigh Valley, Falter appears to be headed back to the Philadelphia active roster.

Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Falter is in Los Angeles with the Phillies:

The extra left-handed arm could profile well out of the Phillies bullpen against the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup.

Spencer Howard has struggled to maintain his velocity deep in games so far.  With Ranger Suarez moving further back in the Phillies bullpen, the Phillies could use a bridge to Howard and the Phillies bullpen.  Suarez provided the Phillies several three-inning appearances that added to short starts from the rotation.

The Phillies will have to make a roster move to add Falter.  Falter is on the 40-man roster.

The Phillies are making this choice as they look for a role for Matt Moore, who made another rehab start yesterday at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.  Moore went five innings and allowed three earned runs.  Could the Phillies be stretching out Moore for the rotation spot?

Perhaps.  In the meantime, the Phillies appear poised for two players to do the job tonight in Los Angeles.

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FYI, Alejandro Bedoya Is an Iconic Philadelphia Sports Captain

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By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer

Coming into the Union, then-29-year-old Alejandro Bedoya had an extensive international resume. He had played for Swedish clubs Orebro SK and Helsingborgs IF, Scottish club Rangers FC, and French club FC Nantes, along with having made 55 appearances for the United States men’s national team up to that point. Upon signing, someone with such diverse and extensive experience seemed natural for a captain’s distinction. Naturally, it wasn’t long until he received the armband.

Bedoya is everything one could ask for in a captain. He’s disciplined, mature, vocal, and commands respect from his teammates. Not only is he active in the community outside of the Union, but he is enthusiastic and loyal to the team itself. He leaves it all on the field every game, holds the midfield together, and keeps his teammates in line. You can always count on Bedoya to be the leader that he needs to be.

One thing about Bedoya that shouldn’t go as unappreciated as it does is the fact that he is both loyal to his team and can still play like he’s in his prime. Carson Wentz had a dip in form that was so debilitating that he departed Philadelphia for the Indianapolis Colts—which isn’t to say that Wentz wasn’t loyal and appreciative of his time in the city, but regardless, he still lef). Claude Giroux, who has probably been the most well-known Philadelphia captain since he was first given the distinction in 2013, has been a Flyers player since he was drafted in 2006, but even the most diehard Giroux supporters can’t deny that he isn’t playing as well as he used to.

However, Bedoya, who is 34 years old (which is the twilight of most soccer players’ careers), is still putting in admirable shifts in the midfield and proving that his captain’s armband isn’t the only thing keeping in the starting lineup. He is the kind of player and locker room presence that the Union won’t ever be able to truly replace. Bedoya is personable and a friend to his teammates, but isn’t afraid to call them out when they act rashly. Even when he does, he doesn’t do so in an accusatory or condescending way.

Take, for example, when he commented on the red card Jose Martinez received against NYCFC, which incited a further two-game league suspension for Martinez. Bedoya simply acknowledged that Martinez “[has] just got to be smarter” and that Martinez’s actions were “unacceptable.” It was public accountability without the spectacle of a harsh criticism of his teammate. The Union aren’t focused on shock value and making headlines off the field—they let their playing do the talking.

Perhaps the most enviable quality of Bedoya’s is the fact that he doesn’t try to hog the glory on the field. As the captain for four years and one of the most beloved Union players in the club’s history since his arrival, it would be easy for the outpouring of support to go to his head. But he understands that Philadelphia fans can, and will, rescind their love if he doesn’t do his job well, and therefore keeps his head down to put in the best performances he can in every game he features in. Obviously, he won’t be spectacular every time, but he makes sure that nobody can accuse him of not putting in the work.

It’s disappointing that Bedoya probably won’t receive the recognition he deserves beyond the Union’s little bubble in Chester, but that doesn’t deter him from being a superb leader. It’s such a cliche at this point, but Bedoya is the personification of the sentiment that the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back. He plays for the Union, not just for Alejandro Bedoya. He plays for the betterment of his club, not just himself. And even if 700,000 people don’t show up to the Union’s Broad Street parade when they win the MLS Cup, that won’t matter to him. What matters is that there will be another trophy in the Union’s trophy cabinet, and he will be able to sleep at night knowing that the Union may have been born in 2008, but they truly came alive under him.