Extra Time: International Friendlies - Including the USMNT & US U-23's

Extra Time: International Friendlies - Including the USMNT & US U-23's

It's tough to get too excited for a February FIFA international date ahead of World Cup Qualifying and the upcoming European Championships, but there are some intriguing fixtures - including the USMNT and the US U-23's.

Jürgen Klinsmann and the USMNT are in Genoa, Italy where they'll face four-time World Cup Champion Italy (2:30PM ESPN2, ESPN3). These two teams met in an absolute brawl back in the 2006 World Cup (see video above), the most recent World Cup won by the Azzuri. The game was marred by three red cards - including a straight red for Daniel De Rossi's elbow to the face of Brian McBride (the other two players sent off were Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni of the US).

This was supposed to the first time that Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey would take the field together under Klinsmann, but Donovan will not play due to bronchitis. It's unfortunate because both have been in excellent form.
 
Dempsey has scored 16 goals in all competitions this season, including the first ever Premier League hat trick for a US born player. Donovan is fresh off of a succesful loan spell with Everton, where he had six assists in nine games, helping to lead the Toffees to upset wins over Manchester City and Chelsea. Alas, their first combine appearance under Klinsmann will have to wait another day.
 
The US roster is composed primarily of European-based players. In fact, only four MLS players (Break Shea - FC Dallas, Nick Rimando - Real Salt Lake, Geoff Cameron - Houston Dynamo, and Edson Buddle - LA Galaxy) play domestically. 

One of the more interesting names on the US roster is Terrence Boyd. Boyd, like his US teammates Danny Williams and Timmy Chandler, is the son of an American father and German mother. All three were raised in Germany - where they also play professionally. 

What makes Boyd so interesting is that he's yet to play a game in the Bundesliga for his club (Borussia Dortmund), yet he's been called in to the senior national team. Klinsmann has been criticized for his decision to include so many German-born players in the US squad. Personally, I don't have a problem with it. The deeper the US-eligible player pool, the better.

One quick note on the Azzuri. If you watch the game pay close attention to Andrea Pirlo. There are few players in the world able to pick out and play a ball 60 yards in the air on a dime. The guy is just pure class. He'll dictate the entire pace of the game. He's not particularly flashy, fast, or spectacular, but he's a devastating playmaker.

I mean, just watch him here...

Other international games of note include:

Ghana v. Chile - For some reason this game is being played at PPL Park. It's great to have international soccer right in our backyard, but this game was announced less than two weeks ago. Also, the Black Stars have knocked the US out of consecutive World Cups, so there can't be too much love for them locally.

Germany v. France (2:45PM, ESPN3) - The two European powerhouses will meet in Bremen, Germany. France, still trying to rebound following their disastrous 2010 World Cup, will try to knock off Die Mannschaft on German soil. Good luck with that. Although, Germany will be without its captain Phillip Lahm, who is out due to a knee injury.

England v. Netherlands - Consider it a win for the Three Lions if they simply arrive at Wembley on time. With all the drama surrounding Fabio Capello's departure as manager of England, the associated speculation as to who will replace Capello for the Euros (Spurs boss Harry Redknapp is the odds on favorite), and the controversy over which English player will wear the captain's armband it'll be a miracle if England manage to lace their boots up.

US U-23's v. Mexico U-23's (10PM, Univision Telefutura) - If you are a Union fan this is the game you should be most excited about. Three Union players (Freddy Adu, Amobi Okugo, and Jack McInerney) are part of Caleb Porter's US roster. Mexico, whose youth and junior teams have been the class of the CONCACF region over the last few years - including a third-place finish at the U-20 World Cup, will be a huge test for the U-23's. 

Of all the game being played on Wednesday I am most excited about this one. I love getting a glimpse of the young talent in the US pipeline.

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity. Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

The Toronto Raptors were the latest victims of the red-hot Sixers on Wednesday.

The Sixers held the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference to more than 20 points below their average in a 94-89 win at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay).

The visiting Raptors were visibly and vocally frustrated after the game.

"They're a good team, they've been playing well, no disrespect to them, but we missed a lot of wide-open shots," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Those are shots we normally make but we knew we had our hands full coming in here. We knew it was gonna be a grind-it-out game."

Blaming it on bad luck and missing "wide open shots" seems to be oversimplifying it just a tad. Toronto was held to 39.5 percent from the field and went just 6 of 24 from three.

A big factor in slowing down the Raptors is containing the dangerous backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Villanova product Kyle Lowry. DeRozan finished with 25 points, below his average of 28.2, which was in the top five in the league coming in.

Lowry was even more frustrated by the Sixers' swarming defense. He finished with 24 points but on just 5 of 13 from the field. He also committed five turnovers, picked up a technical foul and fouled out in the final seconds. When asked what the Sixers did to slow him down, Lowry wasn't buying into the hype.

"I think we got everything we wanted," Lowry said. "We got every shot we wanted. We just didn't convert it.

"They won the game. Give them credit. They played with passion and energy. That's one thing they got us on tonight."

You don't win seven out of nine games and take down the second-best team in the conference with sheer will. The Sixers have become a strong team on the defensive end of the floor.

They're currently 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. A big part of that has been the emergence of Joel Embiid as an elite rim protector. For as great as "The Process" has been offensively, his largest impact is really on the defensive end.

He wasn't the only rookie engaged on defense Wednesday night. Dario Saric came through with consecutive blocks of Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger in the early fourth quarter, denying the Raptors a chance to cut into the Sixers' lead (see video).

"Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row," Embiid said. "Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years."

Taking the torch from Saric, Embiid's block on a Lowry drive with 22.9 seconds left sealed arguably the Sixers' biggest win of the season, moments after Covington rejected a Lowry three (see video).

"One thing I care about is defense," Embiid said. "Everybody around me has to follow my lead because I am the last line of defense. One thing I care about in my career is winning Defensive Player of the Year. These guys know they can go for steals, and make stops, since I am the last guy there to block the shot.

"I don’t think it’s a fluke. We’re competing, playing great defense, winning games, and we found what we’re looking for. Everybody was trying to find themselves, and we all still have a lot to learn. We have some great players that are coming together."

Prior to the game, Casey had some lofty praise for the rookie big man. He compared Embiid to a former Rookie of the Year and 2016 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Shaquille O'Neal.

He walked away from this game even more impressed.

"He's a very talented player," Casey said of Embiid after the game. "He made a difference at the rim. Challenging shots. Offensively, he's different because if you go out on him too quick, he's gonna drive by your big. His ability to attack the rim and shoot the three, his post play. And again, he's becoming a better passer so he's gonna be a handful. We know that."

Like any season, there are going to be ups and downs. For the Sixers it's been mostly downs for three straight years. This recent run has breathed new life into this franchise and this fan base.

Embiid's ascension into a legitimate superstar has been a huge help. Dario Saric coming from overseas to provide his grit, skill and basketball IQ has been key. T.J. McConnell's promotion to the starting lineup and the additions of veterans like Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson have steadied the ship.

But as Brett Brown has said many times, the Sixers bread is buttered on the defensive end of the floor.

"I get very excited and proud of our group when they hear me talk so much about defensive identity," Brown said. "You know, who are we? How are you going to build a program? How are you going to grow the program? Words are cheap. I think results are real. And lately, they're buying in and executing our defensive game plan and they're playing with a tremendous spirit and togetherness, they really get into playing defense. That is beyond exciting for me."