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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Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint in a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 2015 first-round pick deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front on a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.