The700Level

Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

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Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

If you’re a soccer fan in this country, you might always feel like you’re rooting for two things at once: your favorite team and the growth of the sport in this country.

It may sound silly to some, thinking about the latter, but that’s the way it is. You’re constantly on the defensive, constantly reminded of the uphill battle that soccer faces against some of the country’s more established sports, constantly telling people that we’re climbing that hill, slowly but surely. 

And if you’re in Philly, you’re hoping that the Union can help the cause by attracting big-name players and developing promising young ones, gaining more relevancy in a crowded sports market, and competing for championships.

Even when there are bumps in the road, that’s what soccer people think about: building toward something cool, something special.

And then 2017 happened.

On Saturday, the Union were officially eliminated from playoff contention in perhaps the most frustrating season in the franchise’s eight-year history as questions abound as to where the club goes from here.

Three nights later, in a far more crushing and unexpected blow, the U.S. national team’s stunning loss in Trinidad and Tobago, coupled with come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras, left the Americans out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Let’s start with the U.S. national team because that, obviously, has far more wider significance. It’s hard to overstate how devastating it is to miss a World Cup — a rare event that brings casual soccer fans and even non-soccer fans to their TVs. Of course, many of those people only watch soccer every four years but there are certainly some who then decide to follow their local team or pay attention the USMNT at other tournaments. Not being able to use the momentum of a World Cup is a big setback to growing the fanbase and getting the sport more into the mainstream (if a defeat as crushing as the USMNT’s on Tuesday happened elsewhere, it might grind that country to a halt; here, it didn’t even register with a lot of people).

More to the point, not being able to cheer on the US at a remarkable event like the World Cup is just gut-wrenching for the soccer diehards out there. The World Cup is the reason I fell in love with soccer and, if you’re reading this, it’s probably the reason you did too. The fact that the US isn’t nearly at the same level as the best soccer countries from Europe and South America is certainly cause for alarm and change (and the subject of plenty of other columns today) but it also makes for a fun, anything-is-possible underdog vibe on the biggest stage in sports.

From watching in a summer camp cabin in ’94 to waking up in the middle of the night in ’02 to jumping on barstools in ’10, I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every World Cup — and for people of my generation, it almost became a given that the scrappy US team would be there. If there’s any bit of solace it’s finally realizing that CONCACAF qualifying shouldn’t be taken for granted and that building around a new crop of players led by 19-year-old Hershey sensation Christian Pulisic is vital. More than anything, though, it’s painful to think about waiting at least five years to cheer on Pulisic and the Americans at the world’s biggest sporting event.

And then there’s a different kind of pain in Philly. While the passion soccer people have for the USMNT won’t ever diminish (which on days like today, manifests as a passion to be held accountable and figure things out), there’s a creeping sense that apathy has set in with some sections of the Union fan base. 

The Union have had bad seasons before but this one almost feels different because, you can argue for the first time, it seems like they’re moving in the wrong direction. Consider: 2010 was the expansion season when everything was new and exciting (and, hey, a World Cup year with a soccer moment for the ages). In 2011, they made the playoffs. In 2012, John Hackworth took over for the embattled Peter Nowak in the middle of the year and unleashed some young players, before leading an overachieving group to the brink of the playoffs in 2013. In 2014, another new coach in Jim Curtin took over and led the Union to the first of two straight U.S. Open Cup finals, in front of home crowds that shook with noise, and then pushed them back into the playoffs (albeit on a winless streak) in 2016.

But what did 2017 bring us? No playoffs. No Open Cup runs. No big changes. Uninspired play for much of the season, especially on the road. Alarming regression or lack of playing time from young players. No real nucleus to build around. Nothing, really, to inspire confidence heading into 2018 other than the hope that ownership opens up the wallet more, the youth academy continues to improve, and sporting director Earnie Stewart does a better job of finding talent around the world with the resources he has to work with.

The sad part is the Union may have had a fighting chance to break through a couple years back when Curtin, a big Philly guy, took over while the rest of the city’s teams struggled. Now, the other Philly teams are on the rise with marquee young superstars to build around while the Union remain on the periphery of a stubborn four-sports town without a true face of the franchise. (In perhaps the funniest little comparison, the Union’s best young player this season, rookie Jack Elliott, quickly become overshadowed by Eagles rookie Jake Elliott kicking a 61-yard game-winning field goal.) 

Perhaps that’s where the Union are destined to remain — on the periphery. Perhaps that’s where soccer as a sport and MLS as a league are destined to remain, too. Soccer players and coaches love to talk about the building process, and we love to believe them because the possibilities are endless. A Union-operated high school that chooses from the best teenagers in the region and nurtures them along so they can one day win a championship at Talen Energy Stadium? A huge, sports-obsessed country like the United States finding a way to develop enough stars to make them household names and potentially even win a World Cup?
It’s all so tantalizing, so exciting, so fun to think about it. But in a year and a week like this one, it feels like nothing more than a pipe dream.

Philly won weird Super Bowl bet with Brockton, Massachusetts

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Mayors of Philly/Brockton

Philly won weird Super Bowl bet with Brockton, Massachusetts

Mayor Jim Kenney doesn't seem to fully understand the concept of a sports wager.

The general rule I like to follow: if you win a bet, you GET SOMETHING OF VALUE in return.

Now, the Mayor of Philadelphia won a bet with the city of Brockton, Massachusetts, and he has to SEND THEM STUFF.

Makes no sense.

Anyway, I guess the city of Brockton now has to dress their Rocky Marciano statue up in Eagles gear. Lulz. So Mr. Kenney is shipping them some goods. I hope the people of New England had to pay for it.

As Eagles fans know all too well, the official Eagles gear is not cheap.

Did the Sixers Really Win That Game II: The Portis vs. The Process

Did the Sixers Really Win That Game II: The Portis vs. The Process

Geez, if you only watched the ends of the last two Philadelphia 76ers games, you'd think they were owed years' worth of good karma from getting perpetually screwed in the fourth quarter or something. That's right, the basketball gods may have finally approved the Sixers' line of credit: One game (and eight days) after Brett Brown's squad came back from 20-plus down to squeak one past the Miami Heat, the team again pulled out a miracle last night in Chicago, coming from five down in the final minute against the Bulls to win 116-115. 

And boy, did this one feel like a loss, too. After surging out to a 25-7 lead in the first, the Sixers quickly relinquished the majority of their lead to the Bulls, who pulled even in the third and kept the Sixers from ever running away with it. They hit an absurd 18 threes, tying a season high, and two role players posted career highs: starting wing David Nwaba (21 points on 9-14 shooting) and bench forward Bobby Portis (38 points on 15-26 shooting, including a stupefying 6-9 from three). 

Meanwhile, the Sixers went cold down the stretch; Robert Covington missed a clean look at a three, Ben Simmons missed two of two from the line, Joel Embiid dribbled the ball off his foot. When Zach LaVine hit a tough pull-up three to put Chicago up five with a minute to go, and then Cov missed an open baseline two, it almost felt a merciful end to our suffering. 

But somehow, that wasn't it. Portis shot a long two a little too quickly at the other end and missed, and Simmons put back his own miss at the other end for a quick two to cut it to three. LaVine bricked a tough jumper with 17 to go, and J.J. got fouled at the other end to prevent a possible tying three. He made both, and then good ball denial on the ensuing Chicago inbounds led to an Embiid steal and pass to Simmons, who got fouled. 

After going just 4-9 from the line to that point, Simmons calmly nailed both his free throws to put Philly up one. Embiid stonewalled a Portis attempt near the basket at the other end with seconds to go, Denzel Valentine's putback attempt missed, and the game was over, with the Philly outscoring Chicago 6-0 in the final minute to seal the W. 

It was beautiful, man. There aren't going to be many games in this life where you give up 18 threes, allow two opposing players to go for career highs, miss 14 free throws and go down five with 60 seconds to go and still somehow manage to win the damn thing. 

But there also aren't gonna be many teams in this life with a one-two punch as potent as Simmons and Embiid. The latter picked up where he left off at the All-Star Game, scoring 30 (on 11-17 shooting, including 3-3 from deep) with 13 boards, five assists, three steals and two blocks -- just a few box score tallies away from his first 5x5 game. And the former picked up where he left off before the All-Star Game, scoring a career-high 32 (13-18 shooting) to go with seven boards, 11 assists a steal and a block. And maybe most impressive of all? The two had just three turnovers between them in 69 combined minutes. 

Ben and Jo were nothing less than dominant on offense all night. They couldn't turn the faucet off on the Bulls defensively for most of the game -- though aside from a couple slow-ish rotations in the first half, I'm not even sure they played all that badly, rather just paying the three-point defense regression to the mean that Liberty Ballers writer Sean O'Connor had long been warning fans about

But in any event, Embiid finally got the best of Portis in the final minutes, shutting him down on a couple crucial possessions (including the final one), and he made the play of the night on that inbounds steal. When you have two transcendent talents -- as Embiid and Simmons undoubtedly have proven they are, even this early in their careers -- you win a lot of games you probably shouldn't, and gravity was finally on the Sixers' side tonight. 

Of course, the Sixers might not've needed such combined brilliance from their two best players if their supporting cast was able to pick up the slack a little. But no one else was really cooking for Philly last night, and as is becoming a distressingly frequent occurrence this season, Covington hit a couple shots early and then went flat for the rest of the game. Even on the Bulls broadcast, they were talking about how Cov was gonna have to hit shots in the playoffs for the Sixers to have a chance, and they're probably right: We need Rock's defense and smarts out there, but if he's gonna routinely brick open looks in big moments, he's gonna be a liability -- and he's now 6 of his last 29 from deep. 

But that's a concern for another day -- one that seems more and more likely to actually be upcoming at this point. In the meantime, Philly is 31-25, having won six in a row, and with a creampuff game coming up next at home against Orlando, before a three-game roadie against East playoff teams (Washington, Miami and Cleveland) that represents the only really tough swing remaining on the Sixers' schedule. The playoffs seem increasingly probable, and with Simmons and Embiid playing at this level, just about anything seems possible if we get there. Pity the foolish rival execs who still don't trust the process at this point.