USA-Mexico, Dos a Cero, and the Cap On a Great Football Weekend

USA-Mexico, Dos a Cero, and the Cap On a Great Football Weekend

An official holds up a red card against Mexico in a World Cup qualifying soccer match against the United States, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States won 2-0. (AP Photo)

Sports fans love to talk about bandwagoners. That word has a negative connotation in nearly every sports context, and "real" fans love to rag on anyone they think just bought their first replica jersey at the team store. "Yeah, well I had an Eagles onesie AND a Rodney Peete jersey!"

I join in often when it comes to some people (I'm looking at you, Lakers/Heat fans), but when it comes to soccer, I always open the door. Everyone can have a seat on the bandwagon. The more the merrier.

When it comes to the United States national team, that is especially true. So settle in, cancel all your calls, and find a (preferably large) TV.

(And yes, I know, this is a Philly sports blog. But as the cradle of liberty, it's our duty to out-American all the other American cities)

The United States hosts archrival Mexico tonight in Columbus, Ohio. The Americans play Mexico often, usually at least once per calendar year. Most of those games are relatively meaningless, and serve to provide a decent test and make a boatload of cash for the U.S. Soccer Federation (see August, 10, 2011 at the Linc, the one USA-Mexico game I've seen in person).

The fact that tonight's game (8 p.m. - ESPN) is in Columbus shows it means something. It means the U.S. will have a true "home" game.

If that seems odd to point out, realize this: When U.S. Soccer needs to sell a lot of tickets and make a few bucks, they schedule USA-Mexico friendlies in big stadiums near large Mexican immigrant populations, like Philadelphia, Houston, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, etc.

When they need to win, they play at cozy Crew Stadium -- a 20,000 seat building that holds the distinction of being the first real soccer-specific stadium in America.

It's also where "Dos. A. Cero." was born.

The guys at SB Nation have a great rundown of the history of "Dos A Cero." ("2 to 0" if you chose to take French in high school). Basically, it began during World Cup qualifying in 2001, when the Americans beat Mexico, 2-0, at Crew Stadium, in a critical match. The Mexicans were cold, the crowd was -- for the first time ever -- intimidating for the visitors, and a trend was born.

It peaked at the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea, when the U.S. won the biggest game in the history of the rivalry, beating Mexico 2-0 to reach the quarterfinals -- the high-water mark for American soccer. A game I vividly remember waking up to watch at around 3 a.m. during vacation at the Jersey Shore.

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Tonight's match doesn't have as much at stake, but there's still plenty to play for. The Americans are pretty safe bets to make the World Cup, and would do so with a win tonight along with a Panama loss or tie in Honduras (a Panama win would be a big surprise). If that doesn't happen, there are still two more qualifiers.

The big storyline is the complete and total dumpster fire that is the Mexican team right now. "El Tri" fired its coach on Saturday, lost a qualifier at home for the first time in a bazillion years, and is in very, very real danger of not earning one of CONCACAF's three automatic berths for next summer's World Cup (a fourth-place finish means a home-and-home playoff vs. New Zealand for a berth).

People like to make American sports analogies to explain the disappointment level in Mexico if "El Tri" miss the World Cup. There really is none I can think of. That's how bad it would be.

The United States will be without a few key players tonight due to injury and CONCACAF's ridiculous rules that combine yellow cards issued more than a year ago with those issued in last Friday's loss in Costa Rica. Michael Bradley gruesomely turned his ankle during Friday's warmups (NSFW photo at left), while Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler are all suspended. Besler's yellow card came on the most ridiculous soccer dive in history.

Mexico will be hungry tonight, while also playing with the weight of 112 million Mexicans (and countless more fans worldwide) on its shoulders. If the United States can survive the first 20 minutes, and control the possession at least a little bit in the midfield -- something it didn't do Friday in Costa Rica -- the raucous Columbus crowd could be celebrating a World Cup berth before midnight. But give up an early Mexican goal (goalkeeper extraordinaire had arguably his worst game I've ever seen him have in red, white and blue on Friday), and things could get really dicey.

Whatever happens, it's must-see TV for any sports fan, and the end to an incredible weekend of football (and football). If you're watching U.S. Soccer for the first time, or the 100th, follow me on Twitter during the game for incoherent and far-too-frequent live-tweeting.

And finally, after suffering through Jon Gruden on Monday night, I think we all deserve a little Ian Darke in our lives.

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MRI on T.J. McConnell's wrist comes back negative; Nerlens Noel has ankle sprain

MRI on T.J. McConnell's wrist comes back negative; Nerlens Noel has ankle sprain

The Sixers will be without their starting point guard for the time being, as T.J. McConnell has left the team to return to Philadelphia to receive treatment for a right wrist strain and will miss Monday's game vs. the Bucks in Milwaukee.
 
An MRI taken on McConnell’s right wrist came back negative, according to Sixers coach Brett Brown.
 
“He has a strain,” Brown said. “There’s no structural damage. In relation to what that means with regards to his return to play, I don’t know that yet.”
 
McConnell is averaging 4.8 points and 5.4 assists in 38 games. He has started Philadelphia’s last seven games, a stretch during which the Sixers have gone 5-2.

With McConnell out, Sergio Rodriguez will start at point guard Monday against Milwaukee.

Rodriguez started 29 of the first 30 games he played this season, his first in the NBA since 2009-10. The 30-year-old is more of an offensive threat than the defensive-minded McConnell, averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 assists.  

“You immediately go to losing that defensive energy T.J. is known for,” Brown said. “Sergio is a more gifted scorer. T.J. is a more gifted defender. To have Nerlens (Noel) and Joel (Embiid) behind the scenes, we can make up some ground with Sergio.
 
“People understand Sergio’s pedigree. He’s a 30-year-old legend in Europe. He has a wealth of experience. He’s a medalist and an MVP of the Euro league. He also was our starting point guard for a while. We’re happy to give him back that responsibility.”

No Noel
In addition to McConnell, the Sixers on Monday will also be without the services of Nerlens Noel, who is dealing with a left ankle sprain. Noel came down with a season-high 12 rebounds in Saturday's loss to the Wizards.

Still restricted
Sixers center Joel Embiid will still be on a 28-minute restriction Monday against the Bucks.

Embiid sat out Saturday’s 109-93 loss to Washington after playing 28 minutes in a 102-93 win over Charlotte on Friday. He has reached 30 minutes just once in his 27 games this season.

Changes coming? Ron Hextall says Flyers 'not very happy right now'

Changes coming? Ron Hextall says Flyers 'not very happy right now'

WASHINGTON — As the Flyers filed into the visiting locker room of the Verizon Center, no temper tantrums were thrown, nor were any chairs.
 
In the end, “What good does that do?” head coach Dave Hakstol asked.
 
Instead, the Flyers’ dressing area Sunday felt like a morgue. Players quietly and somberly stuffed their gear away. Once all dispersed, in walked Ron Hextall — and none too pleased.
 
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for us,” he said softly, “and quite honestly, we’re not very happy right now.”
 
For a man that loathes losing more than anyone, nobody expected him to be. That much was already understood during the third-period catastrophe of his team’s demoralizing 5-0 defeat to the Capitals.
 
What wasn’t known was what follows? The Flyers have gone from 10 consecutive victories — the franchise’s longest winning streak in 31 years — to 11 losses over the following 14 games and a state of dismay.
 
As the Flyers limp into their NHL mandated five-day bye week, do players sense an imminent shakeup within the roster?
 
“It’s a good question,” Claude Giroux said, “but I don’t know.”
 
Despite never losing his sense of prudence, Hextall ruled nothing out.
 
“Obviously we always keep an eye on the big club and the Phantoms, as well,” Hextall said. “Right now, we’re going to stick with what we’ve got here and move forward. But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better and, if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it."
 
If Hextall wants to add some fresh blood from within, the organization is not lacking for young and spry prospects full of energy down at Lehigh Valley, where the Phantoms are 24-10-2 and third among the entire AHL entering Monday.
 
For the Flyers, who have surrendered a league-worst 144 goals, could defensemen T.J. Brennan, Travis Sanheim or Robert Hagg be options? Brennan owns NHL experience, has 30 points and is a plus-10 with Lehigh Valley. Sanheim, a big and touted prospect, is also a plus-10 to go along with seven goals and 11 assists. And Hagg, a seasoned 21-year-old, is “just about NHL-ready,” according to Flyers assistant general manager Chris Pryor, via ESPN’s Craig Custance (see Future Flyers Report).
 
“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not going to happen,” Hextall said. “But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”
 
Hextall’s biggest gripe with his current team is its mental fortitude.
 
“Right now we’re making a lot of mental mistakes and it’s killing us,” he said.
 
And then it snowballs, Hextall said, which good teams prevent from happening.
 
“When things are going wrong, all of a sudden something happens and things tend to really go wrong,” he said. “That’s where we have to get better. Mentally we have to be better, have to be better. If something goes wrong, let’s move on. It happened a lot earlier in the year where things go wrong and we fought through it. Right now, the negative energy seems to be a landslide.”
 
Following the meltdown in Washington, players didn’t question the effort.
 
“We care,” Michael Del Zotto said. “No one likes losing. It’s not fun for anyone. But sometimes effort's not enough. Everyone wants to win in this league. It's a matter of execution. Whether it's offensively or defensively in all situations, we're not doing it.”
 
Hextall believes the effort has been “sufficient.”
 
“Again, the mental mistakes,” he said. “It seems like when something goes against us, it goes against us hard and that’s something we’ve got to battle through. You can’t let a little bit of adversity turn into a lot of adversity. You’ve got to nip it in the bud and we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
 
As for the leadership structure and coaching, Hextall defended both.
 
“Our leaders haven’t been good enough. Neither have our lesser guys,” Hextall said. “Nobody’s been good enough right now. You don’t win 10 and then go through a stretch like this without responsibility being everywhere.
 
“Line changes, different D combinations, flipping [Steve Mason] and [Michal Neuvirth]. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end, it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens. That’s the game of sports, right?”
 
The game goes away for the Flyers this week (see 10 observations). When it returns, who knows which team we’ll see.
 
“We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror, hold ourselves accountable,” Del Zotto said. “As far as changes and personnel moves, that's out of our control.”
 
That, of course, is up to Hextall.
 
“We’ve got to keep our heads now,” the GM said. “Nobody’s going to get us out of this. It’s the whole group. This isn’t about one thing or one move or one player not playing or one player playing. This is about our whole group.”