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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Report: Nerlens Noel expected out 3-5 weeks after left knee surgery

Report: Nerlens Noel expected out 3-5 weeks after left knee surgery

It appears the Sixers' frontcourt logjam may not be an issue early on.

Nerlens Noel, who is having surgery Monday for an inflamed plica in his left knee, will miss the first three to five weeks of the season, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Noel suffered a left groin injury in the first preseason game against the Celtics and missed the rest of the preseason. While undergoing treatment, Noel reported left knee soreness, which led to the discovery of the inflamed plica.

It's been an odd start to the season for Noel. The big man was outspoken about his displeasure with the Sixers' frontcourt situation early in camp. With the deadline for Noel's rookie contract extension approaching on Oct. 31, the team has not had conversations about it, according to a report.

The Sixers are already without No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons as he recovers from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot. The team will also be without their starting point guard Jerryd Bayless who is dealing with a ligament issue in his left wrist. Bayless won't require surgery and will be reevaluated in two weeks.

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Riding a two-game losing streak, the Eagles (3-2) return home Sunday for the first time in nearly a month and welcome a familiar face to the confines of Lincoln Financial Field. 

Sam Bradford and the Vikings (5-0) will come to Philadelphia fresh off a Week 6 bye and, most notably, as the league's lone unbeaten team. Minnesota boasts one of the league's top defenses, ranking first in points allowed (12.6 per game) and second in yards allowed (287.6 per game), and is looking to improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2009.

The last time these two franchises met was back in December 2013, when Matt Cassell and the Vikings put up 48 points in a win over Chip Kelly's Eagles.

To get a better handle on this year's Vikings, here's what they're saying about the Eagles' Week 7 opponent.

Brian Robison poses yet another challenge for Big V
Making his NFL debut in a start against the Redskins last week, Halapoulivaati Vaitai struggled mightily. Ryan Kerrigan beat Vaitai and got to Carson Wentz for 2½ sacks, all of which came in the first half.

It won't get any easier for the rookie right tackle this week either, as he'll likely be lined up against Brian Robison for most of the afternoon. Robison has four sacks and two forced fumbles on the season and, according to Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune, the versatile 10-year defensive end could be difference maker on the defensive side of the ball Sunday.

"Whether his hand is in the turf at left end or he’s standing over a guard or center as the defensive tackle, Robison could be dropping back to cover a tight end or running back," Krammer wrote. "At the line, he’s given responsibilities to call stunts or twists depending on their own play call. Sometimes he’s setting the pick to free another teammate. ... And on Sunday against the Eagles and their rookie right tackle, keep an eye on Robison when he lines up at his traditional spot of left end. All four of his sacks this season, including two strip-sacks, have come from there."

Makeshift offensive line remains a question mark
The Vikings may be undefeated, but by no means are they made up of perfect parts. As the midway point of the NFL season approaches, Minnesota's injury-battered offensive line is still a work in progress. 

Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith are both sidelined with season-ending injuries. Starting guard Brandon Fusco suffered a concussion Week 5 against the Texans, but is expected to return against the Eagles. Center is the only position on the line the Vikings haven't had to replace because of an injury at some point this season.

But despite the constant changes up front, Minnesota has been stout overall in protecting the quarterback, allowing eight sacks and 27 quarterback hits across five games. According to Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, the performance of that makeshift offensive line is going to be key in the Vikings' potential success down the road. 

"What’s best for Bradford and the Vikings’ standing as the NFC’s top dog is better pass protection," Murphy wrote. "He was sacked twice when Houston defenders turnstiled Clemmings and hit hard in the pocket other times. ... Offensive line intrigue never is a sexy storyline, but how well the Vikings manage the unit week to week figures to be an underlying factor to their continued success."

Strong away from home
The Vikings are a just a few years removed from going winless on the road, finishing 0-7-1 away from home in the 2013 season. Minnesota secured wins in only two of its first 10 away games under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer, but have since gone on a tear.

Minnesota has won seven of its last eight road games dating back to last season and, in their most recent game away from U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings took down the Panthers, 22-10, in Week 3. A testament of a true contender is having the ability to win consistently on the road, which holds true with the Vikings.

According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, the Vikings' vast improvement over the past two-plus seasons has contributed to them becoming a stronger team away from home.

"Facing a tough opposing crowd once was a tall order for the Vikings, but it’s much less of one now. After being one of the worse road teams in the NFL earlier this decade, they’re now one of the best," Tomasson wrote. "Overall, the Vikings have improved, having gone from 7-9 in 2014 to 11-5 last season to 5-0 this year. That’s the main reason the road record has gotten so much better. Still, players say the continuity the team has had has especially helped when entering rugged road environments."

While Vegas has the Vikings as light favorites on the road, national experts have them heavily favored straight up to hand the Eagles their third straight loss.

ESPN: All nine experts picked the Vikings

CBS Sports: Seven of eight experts picked the Vikings

FOX Sports: Three of five experts picked the Vikings