US Faces World Cup Champs in Gold Cup Tuneup

US Faces World Cup Champs in Gold Cup Tuneup

US v. Spain: This time it's for all the tapas (4:30PM/ESPN). On a serious note, I'd crush some patatas bravas right now.

A lot has happened since these two teams last met at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. The US stunned Spain 2-0 that day. Spain, the 2008 European Champions, was in the midst of a 15-game international winning streak.

The US, who looked completely overmatched in Confed Cup group play (losing 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil), miraculously advanced after beating Egypt 3-0 (it helped that Italy did not score again in the tournament following their 3-0 thrashing of the US). Somehow the US did the unthinkable and knocked off La Furia Roja (The Red Fury).

All Spain has done since then is win a World Cup and earn unanimous worldwide praise for their style of play.

While they've failed to win any trophies or plaudits for their style of play the Americans have no doubt enjoyed success since that Confed Cup match. They stunningly took a 2-0 lead into halftime in the final against Brazil - going toe-to-toe with the world power before ultimately losing 3-2. For the first time ever they won their group at the 2010 World Cup.

In so doing Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan authored the signature play in modern US Soccer history. No matter how many times I watch it the stoppage time goal against Algeria never gets old. Ever.

Sure, today's game is just a friendly, but whenever your national team has the opportunity to play the defending World Cup champions you've got to be at least mildly excited. I mean, take a look at the Spanish roster:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), José Manuel Reina (Liverpool), Víctor Valdés (Barcelona)
DEFENDERS (7): Álvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Raúl Albiol (Real Madrid), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), Carlos Marchena (Villarreal), Joan Capdevila (Villarreal), Andoni Iraola (Athletic Bilbao)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santiago Cazorla (Villarreal), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Bruno Soriano (Villarreal), Borja Valero (Villarreal)
FORWARDS (7): David Villa (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), Fernando Torres (Chelsea), Pedro Rodríguez (Barcelona), Manu Del Moral (Sevilla), Álvaro Negredo (Sevilla)

Three words for you - Re. Dic. Ulous. I mean, just look at their goalkeepers. Casillas, Pepe Reina, and Valdés. And, truth be told, you could have the same reaction when looking at the defenders, midfielders, and forwards. It's really just an embarrasment of riches.

For the US this is not about earning a result. Quite simply this is a tuneup for the Gold Cup. The US will face Canada just three days from now in Detroit. With that in mind I'd be surprised if Bob Bradley plays his starters the full ninety. Perhaps Michael Bradley, who was getting no run with Aston Villa, will be the lone starter to see extended minutes.

Beyond that I don't think you'll see Donovan, Dempsey, Howard, Bocanegra, or Altidore play much more than 65 minutes or so. If nothing else we may get a glimpse of Freddy Adu this afternoon, which I am legitimately excited for.

What should you look for in this one? Well, first and foremost take the time to appreciate the way Spain plays. Sure, Xavi isn't playing, but Iniesta likely will be. The guy is a virtuoso in the midfield and will likely dictate the pace of the entire game. Also, hope that the US emerges from this game without any injuries.

While they shouldn't struggle too much to get out of their Gold Cup group (US, Canada, Panama, Guadeloupe) they'll need to be healthy in order to navigate through the knockout stage of the tournament. Also, it'll be interesting to see what formation Bob Bradley puts out there. I don't think there is any reason to change tactics or formation because they are facing Spain. They should hopefully come out and give us a glimpse of the shape they'll deploy during the Gold Cup.

*UPDATE

US Soccer just released the 18 players included on the gameday roster. They couldn't have done this before I wrote the preview? No Donovan, no Adu, no Bocanegra. Thanks Bob!: 1-Howard, 2-Spector, 4-Bradley, 5-Onyewu, 6-Cherundolo, 7-Edu, 8-Dempsey, 9-Agudelo, 11-Wondolowski, 13-Jones, 14-Lichaj, 15-Ream, 16-Kljestan, 17-Altidore, 19-Rogers, 21-Goodson

NOTES

- They've installed grass over the artificial turf at Gillette Stadium for this game. Which reminds me of one of my favorite lines from The Fugitive. As the U.S. Marshals scour Chicago looking for Dr. Richard Kimble during the St. Patrick's Day parade the Chicago River is dyed green. One of the marshals asks "If they can dye the river green today, why can't they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?" So, why can't they keep the grass the other 364 days? Yes, I realize New England gets tough winter weather, but come on.

- It's a shame that Stu Holden is injured. His breakout season in Bolton's central midfield gave hope that he could provide the US with a more dynamic presence. Unfortunately, he's not available.

- The US is only carrying three forwards: Altidore, Agudelo, and Wondolowski. Spain? Well, they've brought seven and they're all class: Villa, Silva, Llorente, Torres, Pedro, Del Moral, and Negredo. Good lord is that a ridiculous amount of forward depth. Perhaps they'll play a 2-1-7.

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

Sixers-Celtics 5 things: Slowing down Isaiah Thomas

The Sixers (4-15) continue their homestand against the Boston Celtics (11-8) at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night (7:30 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup.

1. A green giant-sized challenge
Just crumple it up and move on.

That's about the only thing the Sixers can do after getting ran out of the gym by the Orlando Magic on Friday. Instead of looking like a team that hadn't played since Monday, the Sixers appeared flat in a 105-88 loss.

Outside of Joel Embiid's first 20-point, 10-rebound game (he had 25 points and 10 boards) and a strong effort from Jahlil Okafor (16 points and 13 rebounds), not much else went right for the Sixers.

Now Embiid will sit the second game of a back-to-back set and Okafor will be thrust into the starting lineup, as the Sixers try to deal with Boston big man Al Horford. 

Horford, the Celtics' prized free-agent acquisition, is coming off his best game so far for his new team. He recorded 26 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in the Celtics' 97-92 win over the Kings on Friday.

2. Little big man
Even with Horford coming off a productive performance, the Sixers' game plan against the Celtics has to focus on slowing down Isaiah Thomas.

The 5-foot-9 guard continues to put up big numbers in the scoring department. Despite his shooting percentages taking a dip this season, Thomas still ranks ninth in the NBA with a career-high 25.7 points per game. 

And even though he is a willing passer (averaging a career-high-tying 6.3 assists), expect Thomas to try and score early and often against the Sixers. After all, the reserve-turned-All-Star has put up 21.5 points per game against the Sixers during his career, his highest mark against any opponent.

3. Dial up the long-distance defense
The Sixers need to be aware of Thomas and just about all of his teammates when they toe that three-point line.

The Celtics rank fifth in the league in three-pointers attempted (31.1), three-pointers made (11.3) and eighth in three-point percentage (36.3) per game.

The C's have four players shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc, and perhaps a bit surprising, three of them are big men. Jonas Jerebko (46.4 percent), Horford (42.4 percent) and Amir Johnson (40.0 percent) have all been on target from long range.

4. Injuries
Robert Covington (knee) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are both questionable. Embiid (rest), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

The Celtics have no players listed on the injury report.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost five games in a row overall and eight straight to the Celtics.

• The Celtics rank 25th in rebounding with 42.2 a night.

• Dario Saric had two points Friday against the Magic and has failed to reach double digits in scoring five of his last six games.

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.