Mar 26, 2013, 11:25 AM EDT
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.
Mexico has arguably the greatest homefield advantage
“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.
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.
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.
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