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.

Best of NHL: Canadiens score 10 goals in rout of Avalanche

Best of NHL: Canadiens score 10 goals in rout of Avalanche

MONTREAL -- Max Pacioretty had four goals, Brian Flynn scored twice during a six-goal first period and the Montreal Canadiens routed the Colorado Avalanche 10-1 on Saturday night.

Flynn, Pacioretty and Artturi Lehkonen each scored against Calvin Pickard in the opening 7:12, and then Pacioretty, Paul Byron and Flynn each had a goal among the first four shots on Semyon Varlamov.

Pacioretty completed his hat trick in the second period and added another in the third to give the captain seven goals in his last four games.

Alexander Radulov and Jeff Petry also scored for Montreal, which has shown no drop-off without injured scoring leader and first-line center Alex Galchenyuk. Montreal outshot the Avs 36-16 (see full recap).

Malkin, Crosby lead Penguins past Lightning 4-3
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sidney Crosby had another eventful night.

The Penguins star returned after passing concussion protocol following a first-period hit to get his 20th goal, and that stoked Pittsburgh's rally for its latest victory.

Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both scored their second goals on third-period power plays, helping the Penguins come back to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Saturday.

Crosby was shaken up by Luke Witkowski's check with eight minutes to go in the first but returned for the start of the second period (see full recap).

Late barrage helps Blue Jackets beat Islanders 6-2
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Jack Johnson, Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones each had a goal and an assist as the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New York Islanders 6-2 on Saturday night for their sixth straight win.

Josh Anderson, Brandon Saad and Lukas Sedlak also scored for Columbus and Sergei Bobrovsky had 25 saves.

Josh Bailey and John Tavares scored for New York, which had earned a point in a season-high five straight games (4-0-1). Jaroslav Halak made 32 saves until he was pulled after the Blue Jackets scored four consecutive goals in the third period.

Anderson put Columbus ahead 3-2 at 2:19 when he picked off a defensive pass and banged it in from the slot seconds after coming onto the ice for his shift (see full recap).

Matthews, Hyman score in 2nd, Maple Leafs beat Bruins 4-1
BOSTON -- The Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to overcome a poor opening period.

Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman scored in the second period, Frederik Andersen made 32 saves and the Maple Leafs beat the Boston Bruins 4-1 on Saturday night.

"The last three games the first period kind of did us in," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. "We didn't start on time. We were able to hold on. It still wasn't the first period we wanted, but we didn't give up the goals and we were able to execute a little bit."

After managing only two shots on goal in the first, Toronto was happy to get to the dressing room with the game scoreless (see full recap).

Best of NBA: Grizzlies dominate throughout, crush Warriors

Best of NBA: Grizzlies dominate throughout, crush Warriors

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol and Tony Allen scored 19 points each and the Memphis Grizzlies rolled over the Golden State Warriors 110-89 on Saturday night for their sixth straight win.

The Grizzlies led by as many as 30 points in the second half - the biggest advantage by any Warriors opponent this season. Seven Memphis players finished in double figures.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 21 points, while Stephen Curry added 17 points and Ian Clark finished with 10 points. Curry and backcourt starter Klay Thompson (eight points) were a combined 8 of 28 from the field, including 3 of 14 outside the arc.

Memphis built a double-digit lead early, led 61-38 at halftime and kept building in the third quarter (see full recap).

Butler, Wade lead Bulls to 105-100 win over Heat
CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler scored 31 points, Dwyane Wade added 28 against his former team and the Chicago Bulls held off the struggling Miami Heat 105-100 on Saturday night.

Butler scored Chicago's final 10 points to help the Bulls come out on top after Miami pulled within one.

Wade keyed a big third-quarter run in his second game against the Heat, and the Bulls hung on after handing San Antonio its first road loss two nights earlier.

Goran Dragic led Miami with 21 points and 11 assists. An energetic Hassan Whiteside added 20 points after being benched for part of Friday's blowout loss in Cleveland. Tyler Johnson scored 15, but the Heat dropped their fifth straight (see full recap).

LeBron scores 44, reaches assist mark as Cavs down Hornets
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James scored 17 of his season-high 44 points in the fourth quarter and reached another career milestone as the Cleveland Cavaliers won their fourth straight, 116-105 over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night.

James did it all, adding 10 assists and nine rebounds in 43 minutes. He took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 straight during one stretch to help the Cavs hold on.

As the final seconds ticked off, James stood at midcourt and spun the ball on his index finger as the crowd roared.

James, who moved into ninth place on the career scoring list Friday, recorded his 7,000th assist in the first half, becoming the first frontcourt player in NBA history to reach the plateau. James is the only player with 27,000 points and 7,000 assists (see full recap).

George has 37 points to lead Pacers over Blazers 118-111
INDIANAPOLIS -- Paul George scored a season-high 37 points to lead the Indiana Pacers over the Portland Trail Blazers 118-111 on Saturday night.

George made five 3-pointers, and Thaddeus Young hit six 3s while getting 24 points and nine rebounds. Myles Turner added 14 points for the Pacers, who had lost five straight regular season games to Portland.

C.J. McCollum made a career-high seven 3-pointers and had a season-best 34 points for the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard had 33 points behind five 3s.

George scored 13 straight points in the fourth quarter for Indiana. He was fouled on the go-ahead basket with 4:36 remaining and completed the three-point play to give the Pacers a 108-105 lead (see full recap).