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
one.

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.

Really.

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.

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Tuesday night he'd still like another veteran bat in addition to Howie Kendrick, though he understands the front office is conscious of not blocking young prospects.

The Phillies need offense and the clearest area to upgrade is an outfield corner. But don't expect to see the Phils go after Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders or anyone of that ilk, because those players will require multi-year guarantees and everyday playing time. If you sign one of them, you're basically telling two of Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr that they won't be needed much the next three years. 

That would be unwise. The whole point of rebuilding is filling a roster with young, inexpensive talent and then eventually supplementing that core with established players who fit. Look at what the Cubs did. Look at what the Astros are doing now, adding older players like Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick to fill in the holes around Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

For that reason, a player like Seth Smith would be a worthwhile addition for the Phillies.

Smith, 34, makes $7 million in 2017, the final year of his contract with the Mariners. When Mackanin discusses "professional hitters," Smith is the type. He has one of the better batting eyes in baseball, chasing about eight percent fewer pitches outside the strike zone the last three years than the league average.

He's a career .261/.344/.447 hitter who averages 29 doubles, 16 homers, 56 walks and 102 strikeouts per 162 games.

The left-handed Smith can play both outfield corners, and he's always been very effective against right-handed pitching. He has a .272 career batting average with an .827 OPS against righties compared to .202 with a .594 OPS vs. lefties. 

Smith is a fit for the Phillies for several reasons. They need more offense from the corner outfield. Logically, that outfielder should be a left-handed hitter because the Phillies' projected middle of the order has four right-handed bats in Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp and Kendrick.

Furthermore, Smith, unlike Saunders, for example, does not require everyday playing time. Smith shouldn't start against lefties. That would provide opportunities to Altherr and Quinn in 2017, while protecting against ineffectiveness from Altherr and another injury to Quinn.

And lastly, Smith is not going to cost anything meaningful via trade. He's a 34-year-old platoon player in the final year of his deal. The Phillies could likely land him for an insignificant prospect, perhaps a pitcher who had a high strikeout rate last season in the low levels of the minor leagues. 

For Seattle, it would be more of a salary dump. The Mariners' 2016 payroll is already $20 million more than it was last year, and per reports, they seem willing to spend to improve their starting rotation.

Smith is not a game-changer, that's not the argument here. He's not J.D. Martinez, a much bigger name and better player. Martinez would also fit the Phillies as a one-year option, and they'd likely be interested in keeping him around longer if they could acquire him. But any trade with the Tigers for Martinez wouldn't be nearly as painless for the Phils as acquiring Smith. 

So perhaps more than other available outfielders, Smith would be an offensive upgrade and a player who fits the Phillies' goal of improving without stunting a top prospect's growth.

Connor McDavid, Oilers' speed, skill present Flyers with 'real good challenge'

Connor McDavid, Oilers' speed, skill present Flyers with 'real good challenge'

VOORHEES, N.J. — They are among the very best – and highest scoring — lines in the NHL this season.
 
And they’re gunning for the Flyers on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
 
Connor McDavid’s unit with Milan Lucic and Leon Draisaitl have a combined 30 goals and 78 points worth of offense. 
 
Among them, the lightning quick McDavid leads the NHL with 36 points. All 11 of his goals are even strength. 
 
He doesn’t have a single power-play goal, but is tied for the league lead with several players, including Claude Giroux, with 10 power-play assists.
 
You can expect to see Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s unit with Chris VandeVelde and Dale Weise against this line with defenseman Ivan Provorov drawing McDavid for the first time this season.
 
“Speed and skill that Edmonton has up front presents a real good challenge for our team,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “We have to be better with the puck tomorrow. 
 
“We didn’t do enough when we had the puck. Gave it up a little too easily and because of that, you end up playing defense a lot of the night and that’s what happened last night to us.”
 
Bellemare, who had his share of forward battles with Jaromir Jagr in Tuesday, likes to analyze the matchups against McDavid.
 
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Bellemare said of the 19-year-old McDavid. “It’s tough not to be excited when playing against a guy who plays like this. He competes every second he is on the ice. That line is an impressive line.”
 
The Flyers better have some bad, choppy ice to slow McDavid down. Edmonton has some of the fastest ice in the league and the Oilers use it to their full advantage. 
 
Asked of McDavid’s tendencies, Bellemare said, “Is that a tendency? To be super fast?”
 
Yes it is. 
 
“When you play against them, he is a kid who is freaky fast right from the start,” Bellemare said. “Against that line, you saw [against Buffalo] that everyone knows how fast he is and he still had two breakaways.”
 
Which means the Flyers need to watch their turnovers, especially in the neutral zone where McDavid can go 60 feet in a flash.
 
“Even blue line to the top of the circle, you can’t turn the puck over,” Bellemare said. “Or he’s gone. This is a tendency we have to be careful of. All of the ice, you can’t give him any time or space. The less time you give him, the bigger chance you have to frustrate a player like this.”
 
Bellemare did some talking with Jagr a couple times in Tuesday’s game. So did Provorov. Bellemare says it helps to add psychology to the mix.
 
“You try to be in his face,” Bellemare said. “If you can win that battle against that line and our first line can win the battle against their fourth line, then it’s a win-win situation. I was trying to be in [Jagr’s] face.”
 
Jagr actually got angrier at Provorov and it showed with his hooking calls. But when Bellemare and Jagr went into the corner, Jagr got testy with his stick there as well.
 
“He was trying to give it to me a little harder,” Bellemare said. “Exactly what I need. If he is less focused on the puck, then maybe I have a chance to win that puck.”
 
McDavid’s focus will be solely on the puck.
 
“McDavid has been playing some pretty good hockey,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “They’re a high-tempo team. A smart team. We’ve got to be ready.”
 
Loose pucks
Boyd Gordon came off long term injured reserve onto the active roster to give the Flyers 13 forwards. In doing that, Matt Read (oblique pull) went on injured reserve. … Defenseman Michael Del Zotto will sit against the Oilers while Radko Gudas returns from an illness. Gudas will be paired with Mark Streit, as Ivan Provorov remains with Andrew MacDonald for now. … Steve Mason, who did not practice Wednesday, will start in goal.