USA-Mexico: Soccer fans will be watching, and so should you

USA-Mexico: Soccer fans will be watching, and so should you

Long ago, I stopped trying to be “that guy” who insists everyone should love soccer.

Sure, I welcome newbies to watch a game or come to
PPL Park, and I’ll happily preach the virtues of the sport I love.
But I don’t get angry at the soccer “haters” anymore. There
are plenty of us who love soccer, and there are many who don’t. To
each his or her own.

But, for the next few hundred words, I will beg you
to carve out time in front of the TV tonight (Flyers-Rangers will be
over in plenty of time).

Today is a day for anyone who enjoys sports for what
it is: drama in its most simple sense.

Just after 10 p.m., the United States travels to Mexico
City for a critical World Cup 2014 qualifier against its biggest rival.
If you’re looking for predicted starting lineups and detailed tactics,
there are countless sites out there for you (and me), like this one, this one
and this one.

For everyone else, ignore the soccer-head details
and just enjoy a quick primer on a game you should be watching.

The Long Road

World Cup qualifying is a grueling process, especially
in North and Central America, where it began not long after the 2010
World Cup was over. The current (and final) round of qualifying – 
called the Hexagonal – includes six teams who will spend this
year playing each other home and away for a total of 10 games. Teams
get three points for a win and one for a draw.

Tonight is the third game of the cycle, after the
Americans lost the opener in Honduras and got three big points in a
blizzard on Friday against Costa Rica. (The Costa
Ricans protested the result with FIFA
, arguing
the game should not have been played in the snow. How do you say “sour
grapes” in Spanish? It was just announced their protest was denied.)

Honduras leads the group with four points, including
a big draw against Mexico on Friday. The U.S. is second with three points,
while Jamaica, Mexico and Panama all have two points. Costa Rica has

The top three teams at year’s end earn automatic
bids to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The fourth-place team will play
a home-and-home combined-goal series against New Zealand for a berth.

El Azteca

Mexico has arguably the greatest homefield advantage
in sports.

 “El Tri,” as they are known, play home
qualifiers in Estadio Azteca, their massive concrete home that
not only holds 100,000 screaming Mexican fans, but sits 7,200 feet above
sea level – nearly half a mile HIGHER than Mile High Stadium, where
NFL players constantly whine about not being able to breathe. That doesn’t
take into account the smothering pollution and smog that blankets Mexico
City at all times.

The United States posted its first-ever win at Azteca
in a friendly last year – but most soccer fans (including this one)
don’t take it too seriously. Friendlies never have complete rosters,
and you never know who is taking the game more seriously.

Mexico is has 32 wins and just 16 losses all time
against the U.S., and is 8-1-1 all-time against the Americans at Azteca
(the best soccer writer around – Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl
– argues today that the Azteca mystique may be dying

A loss tonight would not be the end of the world – 
no one expects points in Mexico City – but a win would serve
two purposes. It would not only all but lock up a World Cup berth (barring
an epic meltdown), it would send Mexico into full-scale panic mode.
It would likely cost Jose Manuel de La Torre his job.


Jurgen’s World

The Americans – and flashy head coach Jurgen
Klinsmann – are one week removed from a devastating
article by great soccer writer Brian Straus in the Sporting News
The article quoted unnamed players who seriously doubt Klinsmann’s
leadership and wonder if he’s the right man to help the team take
the next step.

Friday’s snowy spectacle against Costa Rica took
some of the shine off that story, but a lackluster effort tonight would
reignite the debate.

Klinsmann was hired to help U.S. Soccer take the next
step, and even flirting with non-qualification for the World Cup would
be devastating for the sport in this country. That is not hyperbole.

Just Watch

If you like sports, it’s a game not to miss. Plus,
you’ll get to hear the soothing
sounds of ESPN’s Ian Darke
, who will be joined by
former Philadelphia Union color analyst Taylor Twellman and current
Union analyst Alejandro Moreno on ESPN.

So after the Flyers lose to the Rangers (don’t kid
yourself, it’ll happen), crack open another beer, plan to miss that
Wednesday morning staff meeting and stay up late to root for the red,
white and blue.

A large group of hearty American fans, members of
the American Outlaws, will be in the upper reaches of the Azteca –
about 8,000 feet above sea level – surrounded by fans who enjoy throwing
bags and cups of their own urine (at least I assume it’s their own)
at American players and fans.

So the least you can do it stay up past your bedtime.

Follow Steve on Twitter @smoore1117.

Getting reacquainted with the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles' Week 8 opponent


Getting reacquainted with the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles' Week 8 opponent

For a team with so many recognizable faces, the Cowboys sure do feel different in 2016. Maybe that's because when the Eagles show up in Dallas to play for first place in the NFC East on Sunday night, they'll be trying to stop this rookie quarterback/running back pairing for the very first time.

That sure changes the makeup of a team, although the rest of the Cowboys roster is largely the same as last year. Even still, injuries and even the surprising development of a key player figure to shake things up as the Eagles renew their long-standing rivalry with the most hated of division opponents.



Quarterback: Dak Prescott

Forgive the comparison, but it's hard not to see a lot of Russell Wilson in Prescott. The way he keeps plays alive with his feet but always seems to keep his eyes downfield looking to pass is such a rare quality and one of the hardest plays in football to defend. Especially when the quarterback in question is as accurate and intelligent with the football as Prescott. Through six games, the Mississippi State product has completed 68.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns to only one interception. He's also run for three more scores and lost two fumbles. Much like Wilson as a rookie, Prescott is protected by a strong supporting cast that includes a great offensive line, dominant ground attack and excellent defense. Still, there's no denying the 23-year-old's talent. The kid has been great and should be under center in Dallas for years to come. 

Strength: Offensive line

Hands down, there isn't a better offensive line in the NFL. I'm not sure it's even close. Left tackle Tyron Smith is arguably the best O-lineman in the entire league right now. Zack Martin is about as dominant of a guard as there is too, and center Travis Frederick rounds out the Cowboys' Pro Bowlers up front — for now. Left guard La'el Collins seems destined to join them at some point. As you may recall, Collins would've been a first-round pick in 2015, but wound up going undrafted due to poor timing and unusual circumstances. Now he's living up to the pre-draft hype after just falling into the Cowboys' lap. 32-year-old Doug Free is as close to a weak link as there is on the line, and he's solid at right tackle. It says a lot about this group that Ronald Leary, who helped pave the way for DeMarco Murray's rushing title, is a backup, as is 2015 third-round choice Chaz Green. Unbelievable starters, unbelievable depth, and you better believe the unit is largely responsible for both Prescott's rapid development and Ezekiel Elliott's instantaneous ascension to the number one rusher in the NFL.

Weakness: Receivers

Until Dez Bryant returns and shows what he can do with that hairline knee fracture that's kept him sidelined since Week 3, there's at least some uncertainty as to the two-time Pro Bowler's effectiveness. If he's 100 percent, there are few more dominant receivers in the NFL than the 6-foot-2, 220-pound specimen with three 1,000-yard/double-digit-touchdown seasons to his name. If Bryant isn't himself, he's just another guy in an okay receiving corps. To call them a weakness might be going a bit far, as Cole Beasley is an outstanding slot receiver and Terrance Williams can stretch the field. Both Beasley have and Williams are building a nice rapport with Prescott as well, which is dangerous. These aren't typically thought of as gamebreaking receivers though. Tight end Jason Witten is getting a little long in the tooth at 34 years old as well. It all comes back to Bryant's health. As long as he's good, it elevates everybody else. Otherwise, you'll ask yourself why the Eagles can't cover these guys.



Strength: Bend, don't break

The Cowboys defense is very good, much better than it gets credit for anyway, but admittedly isn't dominant in any particular area. What the group does well, not to load this section up with cliches, is stick to their assignments and play well together as a team. That's how a defense can rank seventh in the NFL in points allowed, yet only 16th in yards, or 20th or worse in both running yards and passing yards per attempt. Dallas doesn't create an extreme number of turnovers either, currently tied for 12th with nine. The scheme isn't anything fancy and might give up some ground between the 20s, but points are hard to come by, as the unit has held four straight opponents to 17 or fewer, and no more than 23 all season. How? Solid players at every level: Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence up front, Sean Lee at linebacker and Barry Church, Brandon Carr and Byron Jones in the backfield.

Weakness: Pass-rush

If there is one area where the Cowboys could really benefit from more consistency, it's getting to the quarterback. The unit is tied for 24th in the NFL with only 11 sacks, and it's a big reason why opposing quarterbacks are posting a 95.0 passer rating, 10th-most efficient in the league. Lawrence is the defense's best rusher off the edge, but he's only played in two games this season after serving a suspension and has been limited by a back injury in those. Crawford is an underrated presence along the interior, yet while tied for the team-lead with 2.0 sacks, he can't carry the entire front four in this aspect. Lawrence should be healthier coming out of the bye, which helps, but that's not suddenly turning this into a group that instills a lot of fear.

X-factor: Morris Claiborne

The sixth-overall pick in 2012, Claiborne seemed destined to be a bust. Heck, you probably thought as I did that had already been well established. Well, it turns out that's not the case. After years of disappointment, the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year is actually performing at a fairly high level for the Cowboys, with 22 tackles, one interception and a team-leading five pass breakups. It's difficult to say where exactly the cornerback's suddenly improved play is coming from, as it often seemed like he was regressing the previous four seasons. Maybe it's simply that Claiborne is healthy for the first time since he was a rookie, as he's missed a total of 24 games over his career. Whatever the case may be, the 26-year-old is suddenly getting his hands on a lot of footballs, so Carson Wentz would be wise to be careful throwing in his direction.



Dan Bailey hasn't been automatic this season, missing two field goals, but that probably has something to do with the back injury he was fighting a few weeks back. He seems to be healthy now, quickly regaining his status as one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL. The Cowboys' longest punt return is 14 yards and longest kick return 33, so it's safe to say they haven't been getting much from this phase of the game.



Jason Garrett (50-44, 1-1 playoffs)

Say what you want about Garrett, and how it often seems like he's just a puppet for Jerry Jones. I still can't put my finger on exactly what his responsibilities are after all the high-profile hires that have been made to prop him up. Nonetheless, two things are true here: first, he's managed to make it seven seasons with Jones in Dallas, which is a feat in itself and second, his teams play for him. The bottom fell out in 2015 when Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were both hurt, but one year prior, Garrett had the Cowboys a reversed catch away from the NFC Championship game. Rod Marinelli is an excellent defensive coordinator as well and leads a very talented and underrated defense. Jones still meddles far too often, and who knows what Garrett would do in a different situation, but this seems to be working for everybody somehow.

Eagles-Cowboys scouting report: Birds just do not match up well

Eagles-Cowboys scouting report: Birds just do not match up well

Eagles (4-2) at Cowboys (5-1)
8:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC
Cowboys favored by 4; over/under 43

Sizing up the Eagles' highly anticipated Sunday night showdown with the Cowboys:

When the Eagles have the ball
Here we go. Biggest game of the season so far for the Eagles, who have already beaten two of the NFL's best in the Steelers and Vikings.

The Cowboys are surprisingly playing like the class of the NFC, making this an enormous game. If the Eagles win, they'll be in first place in the division at the beginning of November, and they'll have three high-quality wins under their belt. Winning a tough road game like this would do wonders for the confidence of Carson Wentz and whoever else plays a key role.

But a victory is far from certain. The Cowboys have exceeded expectations on both sides of the ball this year. We all know about the offensive attack led by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (more on that below), but Dallas' defense has also done its job well.

The Cowboys' secondary had been a mess for several years, but the unit has gotten better since the arrival of last year's first-round safety, athletic freak Byron Jones. 

In one of the most important developments for Dallas, Morris Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in 2012 who was a straight-up bust in his first four seasons, is playing the best football of his career. He's been targeted 40 times and allowed just 21 catches for 191 yards (9.1 average) and no TDs. Over the last two games, Claiborne has faced A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson and given up just three catches for 37 yards, breaking up two passes.

Claiborne signed a one-year, $3 million prove-it deal to stay with the Cowboys, and he's earning himself some money before heading into unrestricted free agency.

Veteran cornerback Brandon Carr plays opposite Claiborne and is also having a decent year after a few disappointing ones. Carr has two inches and 20 pounds on Claiborne, so one would think the Cowboys would try to match Carr up with the Eagles' biggest receiver, Dorial Green-Beckham.

Last season, Sam Bradford targeted Jordan Matthews five times when he was being covered by Carr and all five were completions, for 24 yards and a TD. In this one, Matthews will likely line up opposite Jones or Tyler Patmon in the slot.

Coverage has been the best aspect of Dallas' defense this season. Getting to the quarterback has been the worst. Lacking an explosive pass rusher, the Cowboys have just 11 sacks on the year and four came against the Bengals. Per Pro Football Focus, the only team in the NFL that has rushed the passer less effectively than the Cowboys is the Lions, who did sack the Eagles three times in Week 4.

If the Eagles can protect Wentz against this mediocre pass rush, they have a real chance to win. Wentz has been accurate and decisive when he's had a clean pocket, and while the Cowboys have made those aforementioned improvements in the secondary, this is still a defense you can move the ball against.

When Wentz has been kept clean — i.e. not faced pressure — he's 100 for 146 (73 percent) for 1,097 yards with seven TDs and two INTs. When under pressure, he's 18 for 39 (46 percent).

The Cowboys have been much better this season at stopping the run, thanks in large part to the health of linebacker Sean Lee. The former Penn Stater is instinctive and fast, a sure tackler and a sound coverage LB. He really does everything ... except stay healthy. In the four seasons prior to 2016, he missed 33 of 64 games to various injuries. Annually, the Cowboys' defense has fallen off a cliff without him.

Dallas is allowing just 92.2 rush yards per game, 10th-fewest in the NFL, and no RB has exceeded 75 rushing yards against them. The Eagles have not been a particularly effective running team so far, ranking 20th with 4.1 yards per carry and 17th with 111.5 rush yards per game. For reference, that's 50 fewer rushing yards per game than Dallas, which leads the NFL.

Look for the Eagles to try to get that ground game going quickly in the first quarter. If they can, it will open up the play-action game in which Wentz has thrived. It would also further mitigate the Cowboys' pass rush by making them a step slower reaction-wise.

The best formula for success would seem to be involving Ryan Mathews early, letting Wentz complete some short passes to Darren Sproles, Matthews and the tight ends, and then opening up the deeper stuff once an amped-up Dallas defense has been forced to adjust.

When the Cowboys have the ball
The Eagles have a very good defense and the Cowboys have a very good offense. Based on how the Cowboys move the ball, this is the worst possible game to be without defensive tackle Bennie Logan, who's missing his second straight week with a groin injury.

The Dak Prescott-Ezekiel Elliott tandem has worked wonders. 

Elliott has averaged 142 rushing yards and 5.9 yards per carry in his last four games. 

Prescott, like Wentz, has quickly become more than just a game manager. Over his last four contests, Prescott has completed 73 percent of his passes, averaged 9.0 yards per attempt and totaled nine touchdowns with one interception. He hasn't been much of a threat running himself, except on the goal line, where he has rushing TDs of one, five and six yards.

But before getting to the Cowboys' passing game, it's obvious that this defensive game plan will begin with stopping Elliott. That's no easy task. Elliott is a world-class running back behind the best offensive line in football. And stopping Zeke only becomes tougher with the expected return of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith.

The Eagles know they must rally to the ball when Elliott has it. Gang tackles are a necessity. Of Elliott's 703 rushing yards this season, 383 have come after contact.

The return of wide receiver Dez Bryant should also benefit Elliott. Bryant simply cannot be covered one-on-one in crucial third-down or red-zone situations. He excels at making tough catches when being well-defended. 

Bryant torched Nolan Carroll last season, catching a 51-yard pass and an 18-yard TD against him. And that was with Matt Cassel at the helm.

Cole Beasley and Jason Witten are factors over the middle. Malcolm Jenkins was great last year as the Eagles' slot corner but not against Beasley. In the first meeting, Beasley caught nine passes for 112 yards and two TDs and both scores were against Jenkins.

It seems that all small, white wide receivers get compared to Wes Welker, but that really is the type of player Beasley is. He's the go-to option on third down because of his shiftiness and ability to get that one foot of separation with a quick move. Prescott has targeted Beasley often, and without Bryant, Beasley has caught three TDs in his last three games. Prior to that he had never really been a red-zone threat.

The slow-footed, ageless Witten still somehow gets open, though it would seem the Eagles are equipped to defend him with Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and the safeties.

As it always is, the key here is pressure. The Eagles made Bradford uncomfortable all day last Sunday and that was the main reason the Vikings got nothing going offensively. But Minnesota was playing with two backup tackles. The Cowboys are playing with an O-line filled with first-round picks who've lived up to the hype. 

Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox have played well this season, but this needs to be their best game if the Eagles are to have a chance. 

Special teams
The Eagles are the only team in the NFL with a kick return TD this season and they have two, courtesy of Wendell Smallwood and Josh Huff. Both are good runners, but that has just as much to do with the other special teamers' preparation, scheme and blocking ability. 

Since ST coordinator Dave Fipp arrived, the Eagles have 21 return TDs — that includes kick returns, punt returns, interceptions, fumbles and blocked kicks. No other team in the NFL has more than 15 over that span.

Speedy second-year receiver Lucky Whitehead returns the kicks and punts for Dallas. He's yet to score in that role, but did return a kick 79 yards last year.

Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey is the most accurate in NFL history. In his six seasons, he's converted 90.1 percent of his field goals. He's also 222 for 222 in extra points. And at home, in Dallas' dome, he just does not miss (82 for 88, 93.2 percent).

I think this is going to be a great game decided by fewer than seven points that comes down to the final two minutes.

But, while the Eagles have played up to the level of competition in their two toughest games, I just don't see them going into Dallas after a Cowboys bye week and beating a balanced offense. This just is not a great matchup for a pressure-oriented defense against a gargantuan offensive line.

For the Eagles to win, they'll need surprising performances from a few players, whether it's Nelson Agholor or Josh Huff catching a deep ball, or Connor Barwin or Vinny Curry having a standout game. 

My score predictions have been wrong four weeks in a row, so let's hope this makes five.

Cowboys 27, Eagles 24