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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.

Life is so much easier with three-point shooting

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USA Today Images

Life is so much easier with three-point shooting

Feels like a pretty long time ago that the Sixers were shooting 40 percent from three, one of the league's best marks. The team has now slumped down to 35.7 -- which in past years would still at least be decent on NBA average, but in the sharpshooting days of 2017, leaves the Ballers in the league's bottom third. When things were going right beyond the arc for Philly, they had five regulars shooting over 40 percent themselves. These days, it's down to two: T.J. McConnell, who's only shot 16 triples this season, and Robert Covington.

The Sixers nearly stole their biggest upset win of the season last night in Cleveland, and Covington was one of the biggest reasons why. Aside from playing his typical lockdown D, combining with Ben Simmons to limit LeBron James to 9-23 shooting (LeBron still posted a 30-13-13 triple-double, natch) and picking up four steals in the process, he kept Philly in this one with his shooting, hitting 5 of 7 beyond the arc. But when he dove for a loose ball with the game on the line in the fourth and ended up hurting his back, he headed to the locker room and the game slipped away from Philly -- 105-98 final, in favor of the Cavs. 

Philly better hope he's back soon. After a six-game slump in late November that saw him shoot just 23 percent from deep, Cov has been back on target since the calendar flipped to December, hitting 17 of 36 over the team's four games. Rock is essential to the Sixers' lineup even when he's not hitting, but when he is, he's as dangerous a weapon as anyone on the team -- and with the Sixers in the midst of a three-game slide, and a tough Western Conference mini-swing coming up on the schedule, we need all the munitions we can manage. 

RoCo seems likely out for today's game against the Pelicans, so it'll be on the Sixers' other range-lifers to help provide space Simmons (third triple-double last night against LeBron, NBD) and a returning Joel Embiid. JJ Redick had a bounceback half in Cleveland, finishing 4 of 9 on the night from deep, but the rest of the team struggled, going just 2 of 17 from range between them. (Dario Saric, otherwise sparkling last night, went just 1-6, including a couple late clankers that could've put the game close to out of reach for the Cavs if they'd dropped.) Philly's shot just 31 percent overall from three over their last seven games, and they've lost five of those, despite Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons being mostly brilliant. This team largely goes as their shooting goes. 

So yeah, rest that back up and come back soon, Cov. We're in danger of falling back to .500 with a loss today -- which still feels a funny thing to complain about for a team that hasn't even sniffed .500 this late in the season in a half-decade, but c'mon, the Sixers are good now. Let's not let our record start to reflect otherwise.

Eagles, Rams a mirror image in many ways

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Eagles, Rams a mirror image in many ways

Who would’ve thought the Eagles would be 10-2 and preparing to face a 9-3 Rams squad when the schedule came out in April? Yet, here were are, waiting for an unlikely Week 14 showdown between two of the top teams in the conference.

This is no fluke. The Eagles and Rams both have talented rosters from top to bottom, with ascending, young quarterbacks in the midst of breakout seasons, and outstanding coaching staffs with sharp, fresh minds and time-tested defensive coordinators.

In many ways, these teams are like a mirror image of each other when you begin to compare.

Quarterbacks
The No. 1 and 2 choices in the 2016 NFL draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, will be linked — and therefore compared to one another — forever. So far, you’d have to take what's behind Door No. 2. Most of their 2017 stats are comparable, but Wentz has nine more touchdown passes with the same number of interceptions and is a threat to run with the football. Wentz is further along in his development in terms of responsibilities at the line of scrimmage, too. Goff looks legit, and time will tell who is going to be better. Right now, it’s probably Wentz.

Slight advantage: Eagles

Running backs
LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement are great backs. So what does it say that you would trade all of them for Todd Gurley? With 1,502 yards from scrimmage, Gurley ranks second in the NFL behind Pittsburgh's Le’Veon Bell. That’s only 279 yards less than the entire Eagles’ backfield, including Wendell Smallwood and an injured Darren Sproles. There’s a reason Gurley is a rare viable MVP candidate at running back. Who needs three or four backs when one guy can do it all?

Advantage: Rams

Wide receivers and tight ends
The Rams’ leading receiver — Robert Woods with 703 yards — is doubtful to play Sunday with a shoulder injury. Goff still has quality weapons. Sammy Watkins leads the club with six touchdown catches while Cooper Kupp has a team-high 51 receptions playing largely in the slot. Woods has been the most consistent, though. Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor all have at least 40 receptions, 599 yards and seven touchdowns, giving the Eagles one of the most well-rounded receiving corps in the league. The Rams need Woods for there to be any comparison.

Advantage: Eagles

Offensive lines
Halapoulivaati Vaitai has started to struggle a bit at left tackle for the Eagles the past couple weeks, perhaps a sign Jason Peters' replacement is coming back down to earth. But from center Jason Kelce to tackle Lane Johnson, the Eagles still have arguably the best right side in the NFL. Similarly, from tackle Andrew Whitworth to center John Sullivan, the Rams have one of the best left sides after rebuilding in free agency. However, their weak link is right guard Jamon Brown. All things considered, both are strong units.

Even

Defensive linemen and linebackers
Aaron Donald leads all defensive tackles with 8.0 sacks this season, and that’s after missing the first game of the season over a contract dispute. He’s also tied for eighth among all players with 20 quarterback hits. Donald may very well be the most feared pass rusher in the entire NFL, but beyond him, the Rams’ front seven is a little lacking. Look no further than these run defenses. Los Angeles ranks 27th; the Eagles are atop the league. Donald is great, but there is strength in numbers — such as the collective of Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Nigel Bradham up the middle.

Mild advantage: Eagles

Cornerbacks and safeties
These are two of the most opportunistic secondaries in the league. The Eagles hold the slightest of edges over the Rams statistically, with 16 interceptions to 14, and a 77.0 opponents’ passer rating against a 77.3. Once again, the difference may come down to injuries, as Rams free safety Lamarcus Joyner is banged up with a shoulder injury. Even if he plays, Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are head and shoulders above John Johnson III and Joyner, while the cornerbacks are comparable.

Slight advantage: Eagles

Special teams
The Rams are the rare opponent who can actually boast better special teams than the Eagles. Greg Zuerlein has been by far the best kicker in the NFL this year, and punter Johnny Hekker has been named to the Pro Bowl in three of the past four seasons. Pharoh Cooper has emerged as one of the league’s top return specialists as well, averaging 12.6 yars on punt returns and 28.7 on kickoff returns with a touchdown. Even their coverage units are superb, limiting opponents to 5.3 yards on punts and 20.9 on kicks.

Advantage: Rams

Coaching
Doug Pederson and Sean McVay are two of the brightest young head coaches in the NFL. It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where these two are meeting in the playoffs for years to come. With such limited résumés, it’s difficult to choose one or the other, so look at their respective staffs. As much credit as Jim Schwartz deserves for turning the Eagles defense around, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is an all-timer. Phillips has taken a front with only one dominant player in Donald and assembled one of the most disruptive pass rushes in the NFL — almost entirely by his scheme.

Slight advantage: Rams

Overall
One could argue the Eagles might be the better product altogether. Of course, that’s at least partly a result of injuries. The Rams likely won’t have their complete receiving corps or secondary intact Sunday. Otherwise, things might look a little different. Even with the perceived advantages in the Eagles’ favor, the Rams can make up the difference with stellar special teams play and coaching. In other words, the comparison between these two opponents is very, very close, injuries or not. Assuming they can keep their respective teams together, it should make for a fun rivalry for years to come.

Even