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.

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

The Eagles are 3-0. They’re alone atop the NFC East and have been the biggest surprise of the young NFL season.

Doug Pederson’s message to his team: You haven’t done anything yet.

Although the Eagles are riding high, Pederson doesn’t want his team to change its outlook or hard work. That’s what teams have to worry about once they’ve found some success.

“The biggest thing is complacency,” Pederson said Monday. “You think you've arrived. You think you are all that. When that creeps in, that's when you get beat. It's my job not to let that creep in. I've got to keep the guys focused and grounded. I told them this week they're going to travel and go home and people are going to pat them on the back and say how great they are.

“But next Monday, I'm going to tell them, ‘Hey, we're back to work. We're 0-0. This is Game 1 and let's go.’ That's just the way it has to be. You are building for one ultimate goal and that's a few weeks down the road. That's what you are trying to get to. But you can't get there unless you take care of the next opponent. It's my job to keep them focused that way.”

Being 3-0 (they’re one of five 3-0 teams) gives the Eagles a head start, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee them a playoff spot. This is the ninth 3-0 start in franchise history. They’ve made the playoffs just five times in the previous eight. And they recently missed the playoffs after starting 3-0 in 2014 under Chip Kelly.

In NFL history (before this season), there have been 276 teams to start with 3-0 records. Of them, 200 (72.3 percent) have made the playoffs.

“We just have to approach it the same, one day at a time,” Pederson said. “That's the way this business goes. You are on top of the world one minute, and you can be at the bottom of the heap the next. Just got to keep things even-keeled and can't get too high, can't get too low. Approach it the same. Like I mentioned earlier, you can't substitute for hard work. That pays off on Sundays. We just have to stay the course. Again, a lot of football left.”

While the Week 4 bye comes pretty early, the Eagles have a couple key players who will use the time to get healthy. And Connor Barwin pointed out that the bye is coming about closer to the halfway point between when the team started its tough training camp and the end of the season.

Pederson told his players to use the week to get away from football and free their minds. Meanwhile, Pederson and his coaches will use the extra time to self-scout and prepare for the final 13 games of the regular season.

With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action a week before the opener, expectations outside (and perhaps inside) the building were tempered.

The Eagles aren’t an underdog anymore.

“We kind of enjoyed flying under the radar, but obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “For us, nothing different. We’ll keep our preparation the same. We’ll stick our heads down and focus on the work day to day and understand what’s gotten us to 3-0.”

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Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

BOX SCORE

NEWARK, N.J. — How much of a horse is Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov?

Well, consider this:

The 19-year-old logged a game-high 28:48 of ice time Monday night during the Flyers' 2-0 split-squad loss to the Devils in which he also quarterbacked the first-unit power play (8:03) and had the most penalty kill time (3:58) (see story).

“I thought I played well,” Provorov said. “It took me a few shifts to get into the game. I competed as hard as I could.”

He said he was used to playing more than 25 minutes in Brandon (WHL), anyway.

“Of course, this is a better league, high pace and it will take a few games to adjust,” Provorov said.

Because the Flyers have yet to work on power play, the results aren’t there. They were 0 for 7 in the game.

“We haven’t done anything on the ice, but have done some video on the PK on the board but nothing on the power play,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s other priorities now with so many players (64) in camp.”

Provorov worked both points on the power play and had just one official shot in the game.

“We didn’t get to do much power play [in camp],” he said. “It will get better as the preseason goes on.”

Rookie forward Travis Konecny worked the low slot on the top power play. He logged 18:34 of ice time, including 6:01 PP time. Konecny had two shots in the game.

He was on Andy Miele’s line with Scott Laughton. Konency had the only shots on his line.

Hakstol said Konecny and Provorov each “settled in” as the game went on. Hakstol isn’t sure if one or both will play Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center against the Islanders.

Konecny’s body language in camp exudes confidence unlike a year ago when he was skittish in his first-ever Flyers training camp. Now he sits back, takes it all in and has that look on his face of been there, done that.

In fact, he was trying to calm down some of his buddies, Anthony Salinitri and Connor Bunnaman, who were seeing the lights before the game.

“Me and [Ivan] Provorov were just talking,” he said. “We feel a lot more comfortable this year.

“I’ve been in this position here. I have my guys Salinitri and Bunnaman, we all hang out together and it’s their first year.

“They’re excited for their first preseason game just like I was last year, but I’m not thinking, ‘Wow, it’s an NHL arena.’ I’m thinking about the game and getting ready to play.”

Konecny was impressive last fall as an 18-year-old and Hakstol said he takes everything into account with more emphasis on the now than the past.

“Your body of work includes your season last year,” Hakstol  said. “Includes everything. The most important information is what you do right now. No question in my mind. I take everything into account.”

Take this into account: Alex Lyon is going to be a contender with Anthony Stolarz for the starting job in goal with the Phantoms this season. He was outstanding with 28 saves on 29 shots.

“They spent some time in our zone and had their big guns out there,” Lyon said of being under siege for two-thirds of the game. “They had a few shots but we did a good job keeping them to the outside. No super grade A opportunities.”

Lyon stopped two breakaways by Beau Bennett, one within three minutes of play.

“I felt like a newborn deer and could barely stand up,” quipped the former Yale goalie. “I was so nervous. It felt good to stop the first one.”