Archive for June, 2010

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The World Cup? Meh.

June 22, 2010

We are now underway with the 2010 World Cup!  Soccer’s (or football’s if you want to get all worldly about it) premier showcase!  The event that unites the entire world in a celebration of sport!

I don’t get it.

I mean, sure I want the United States to win the World Cup.  Why wouldn’t I?  I’m an American, and if the U.S. wins, that makes our country – and by extension, me – better than other countries.  But to me, my desire to see them win is about the same as my desire to see the U.S. curling team win the gold in the Olympics.  It would be nice, but win or lose, I’m pretty much going to forget about it immediately afterwards.

Like many of my generation, I grew up playing soccer.  I started off early, getting enrolled in a pee-wee soccer league at the age of five.  I continued to play throughout my childhood, all the way up until high school.  By that time I had become a pretty good defender for my league team.  Actually, I was a somewhat dirty player.  I would slide tackle all over the place, and often take out people’s legs.  Opponents didn’t like that too much, and I actually got punched in the back in a game.

Despite my success, I never went out for the high school team.  I don’t recall why exactly.  I think I didn’t want to deal with all the running.  My coach told me I should have at least tried out.  It remains a regret in my life.

Although I had played soccer as a youth, I never got the urge to follow the sport professionally.  One problem was that soccer games weren’t readily available for me to watch.  I didn’t have cable TV until I was in the 7th grade, and the broadcast networks certainly weren’t showing any games.  Even if I could have seen games, I’m not sure they would have appealed to me anyway.  For me to want to watch a sport, it needs to either be entertaining or I need to have a rooting interest. 

I’m sure some people will argue that soccer is the most entertaining game ever invented, but to me, it’s kind of boring.  You can claim that watching masterful dribbling and expert passing is more exciting than seeing a bunch of goals being scored.  But some people would also argue that the And1 basketball tour is more exciting than watching an actual basketball game.

For those unfamiliar with the And1 tour, here’s a clip:

Since the sport in general doesn’t excite me, I would need to have a rooting interest to watch it regularly.  But what team would I root for?  Maybe if Philadelphia had a Major League Soccer team when I was younger, I would have gotten behind them.  But they did not, so I never felt any urge to follow the sport.  And since I don’t follow the sport on a regular basis, should I really care about the World Cup?

Despite what ESPN would have me believe, I think the answer is no.

Aside from the above mentioned issues, here are some of my biggest quibbles with the sport of soccer:

Tie games

That USA vs. England game was hyped up so much, and then it ended in a tie.  Really?  You’ve got this monumentally huge game and you don’t even get a winner out of it?  What the hell is that all about? 

I know that you get a certain number of points for a win, and a certain number for a tie, and your point total determines who advances.  But why can’t they adopt a system similar to the NHL? 

A few years ago, the NHL (finally) figured out that ties – even in the regular season – sucked.  So they started doing shootouts at the end of overtime.  They awarded two points to the winning team, and one point to the losing team.  It leads to some exciting finishes. 

I know that some soccer games do indeed end with a shootout.  So why not adopt a similar strategy for every game?

Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan annoys the crap out of me.  He has been touted for years as being the best American player.  And yet, with him leading the way, American teams always seem to disappoint in international competitions.

A few years ago, he was unhappy and struggling playing in a European league, so he came to MLS and became the league’s showcase star.  This is probably the equivalent of Joakim Noah going to a French basketball league and becoming their biggest star.  The competition levels just aren’t the same.

Plus, when David Beckham came to MLS and joined his team, he got all whiny about it, complaining that Beckham got all the money and attention, but wasn’t as good a player.  Continuing with the above scenario, it would be as if Shaquille O’Neal went to Noah’s French team and Noah got jealous of all the attention Shaq received.

Sorry, Landon, but Beckham is an international star.  Maybe if you were more of an appeal, MLS wouldn’t have had to bring him in to raise the league’s profile.

Maybe I just don’t like him because of his name.  Parents, please don’t give your children names like Landon.  It doesn’t do them any favors.

People Who Cheer for Other Countries

If you’re originally from a different country, or even one generation removed, I can understand cheering for your home nation.  But if your family has been in America for a couple of generations, then your #1 team should be the good old USA.

I get that people of Irish or Italian descent like to cheer for those countries, even if they have never visited them and couldn’t even locate them on a map.  So if you want to keep them as a secondary focus, I suppose I’m cool with that.

But to cheer for them over your home country is wrong.  If America is playing them, you should be rocking the red, white, and blue.  After all, if the two countries went to war, which side would you be on? 

And don’t pull this “I cheer for them because America isn’t good at soccer” crap either.  That’s like the kids who grow up in Washington but say the Cowboys are their favorite football team because “the Redskins aren’t any good.”   Sorry, but geography should be the primary decider of what team you cheer for.  It may seem unfair, but that’s how it goes.

Anyway, I guess the U.S. team has to beat Algeria in order to advance into the next round of the World Cup.  I suppose I’ll be pulling for them, and I might even smile a bit if they do win.  But will I really care?  Nope.

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And So Ends That

June 10, 2010

You’d think that an overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup couldn’t possibly be anticlimactic, and yet that’s how last night’s game six ended.

After the Flyers tied the game late in the third period – and just missed on several good chances to win it in regulation – the Blackhawks won it with a soft goal that pretty much nobody saw go in.  The announcers certainly didn’t and we were left with a bizzare scene where the Blackhawks began to celebrate while everyone else just kind of sat there in confusion.

So the Blackhawks are the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions, and the Flyers have now gone 35 years without hoisting the big trophy. 

It shows just how difficult it is to win a championship.  The Flyers had an incredible run, made a historic comeback, and caught a lot of breaks, and still came up two games short.

Why did they lose?  Two main reasons:

1. While both teams’ top players struggled early on in the series, the Blackhawks star players like Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien came on as the series progressed, while the Flyers got little out of Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne.

2. Once again, the Flyers were undone by a goalie letting in bad goals.  Michael Leighton played poorly throughout most of the series, and let in some killer goals.  The game winner last night was a shot that absolutely needs to be stopped.

On the other hand, while the Blackhawks Antti Niemi was not great, and he certainly didn’t carry the team to victory, but he made the saves he had to.

Looking ahead, should the Flyers proceed as if they were a team that was only two wins away from the championship?  I think that would be a huge mistake.

The Flyers’ playoff run was a bit fluky.  First, they needed to win a shootout on the final game of the season just to make the playoffs.  And then, they continued to draw teams that they matched up very well against.  Thanks to the Montreal Canadiens upsetting both the top seeded Washington Capitals and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers got easier matchups than their seed would normally dictate in each round.

And as I’ve said before, in Olympic years, the Stanley Cup playoffs tend to be much less predictable.  There are typically more upsets in an Olympic year than in others.  Can the Flyers count on the same kind of breaks next season?  Probably not.

So what do the Flyers need to do?

They first need to settle their goalie situation.  After the Canadiens series, there was talk of signing Leighton to a long term contract.  But these finals have to make them wonder if he is a Cup-winning caliber goalie, or simply a journeyman who went on a hot streak this season. 

If they don’t think Leighton is the answer, then they need to figure out where their goalie is coming from.  They tried signing Ray Emery before the season, but injuries have put his career in jeopardy.  I’m not sure any free agents are going to be any better than Leighton, and teams rarely trade away championship quality goalies.  Besides, after trading for Chris Pronger last season, the Flyers don’t have much they could offer in a trade.

Backup Brian Boucher played well at times this season, and would probably be good to bring back as a backup next season as well.  It would be foolish to count on him as a starter though.

The playoff showed that they could also use another good defenseman as well.  The top four of Pronger, Kimmo Timmomen, Matt Carle, and Braydon Coburn are very solid.  But the coaches clearly didn’t trust guys like Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek, and their playing time decreased dramatically as the playoffs progressed.  The top four had to play longer minutes to compensate, and it is worth wondering if they didn’t wear down a bit because of it.

As for their forwards, they appear to have good depth, yet many of their players are either injury prone or streaky.  Can they count on Simon Gagne or Danny Briere to make it through a season without getting hurt?  Should they expect more than they got out of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and James Van Riemsdyk? 

If these players can stay healthy and become less volatile in their play, the Flyers could avoid the inconsistencies they showed this past season.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how the Flyers can improve themselves greatly.  The salary cap will prevent them from doing much damage in free agency, and they don’t seem to have any tradeable pieces that won’t weaken the team.

So basically, the Flyers have to hope that this year’s run wasn’t a fluke.  They have to hope that Leighton is an answer in goal, and their younger players can develop more consistency.  Or else next year at this time, we’ll be talking about how the Flyers’ Cup drought is at 36 years and counting.

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The Debut of the Baseball Jesus

June 8, 2010

As most baseball fans probably know, tonight will be the debut of Stephen Strasburg aka The Greatest Baseball Prospect Ever aka The Baseball Jesus aka The Man Who Will Save Baseball in Washington.

For those who aren’t familar with him, Strasburg is believed by some to be the most talented pitcher ever.  He can throw his fastball over 100 MPH and has good secondary pitches to supplement it.  He has blown away hitters in both college and the minor leagues.  And tonight, he finally shows what he can do against major leaguers.  (Or at least against a reasonable fascimile in the Pittsburgh Pirates)

How did the Washington Nationals get such a talented prospect?  By being really bad in the 2008 season.  Due to their league worst record, they were awarded the first pick in the draft.  Strasburg seemed like an obvious choice, but as often happens in baseball, money turned a sure thing into a question mark. 

Strasburg’s agent is Scott Boras who is known for trying (and usually succeeding) to get every possible dollar for his clients.  There was some speculation that the Nats, worried about not being able to sign him, would select a different player. 

Doing so would have essentially killed the remainder of the Nats’ fan base.  After four years of mostly horrendous baseball, the fans needed a sign of hope.  For the team to not select the best prospect in years, it would have sent the message that the team wasn’t committed to building a championship team, and they were more concerned with money than winning.

When draft day came, the Nats made the right move.  They selected Strasburg, and then eventually signed him to a record deal.  Some criticized the team for overspending, but they really had no choice.  By not signing him and letting him re-enter the draft the following year, it would have been a bigger blow to the fans had they not drafted him at all.  And some team would have given Strasburg the money he wanted.  In baseball, there’s almost always a team willing to give a player the money he wants.

Immediately, there was renewed interest in the Nationals.  The team had finally gotten attention for something besides constant losing and misspelled uniforms.  Despite the fact that Strasburg wouldn’t debut for another season, at least the Nats now had a potential franchise player and a tangible piece of a brighter future. 

Some speculated that Strasburg might actually debut in the majors at the beginning of the 2010 season.  But that didn’t seem to ever really be a consideration for the Nats, and he started out in the minors.

One concern was that Strasburg needed some time to adjust to professional baseball.  He had never before been part of a set pitching rotation where he would pitch every five days.  He also needed to get used to constant life on the road, and the new challenges that a professional player faces.

Of course, the more pressing concern for the Nats was the financial side.  By delaying his debut until June, the Nats have pushed back when Strasburg is eligible for arbitration and free agency.  I’m not going to get into too much detail about the baseball arbitration process, but it essentially means that Strasburg is locked into his current deal (which by no means is small) for another three years.

By delaying his debut, the team has received some much needed mid-season buzz.  Normally, most people wouldn’t have cared that much about the Nationals right now.  But because of Strasburg’s debut, the focus of the baseball nation is squarely on Washington.  They’ve sold out tonight’s game, and can probably expect large crowds for his next few home starts as well.

Now that he’s here, what can we expect from Baseball Jesus?

He has been built up so much that some people expect him to be an immediate star.  They figure that since he dominated both college hitters and minor league hitters, he should be able to do the same against major leaguers.

They have to remember that major leaguers aren’t going to be fazed by him.  I’m guessing that many of the batters he faced in the minors were a bit starstruck, since they had never before faced a pitcher of his caliber.  On the other hand, major league batters are used to facing Cy Young Award winners like Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, and Johan Santana.  If they’ve faced those guys, why should they be intimidated by a rookie?  And yes, he may throw 100+ MPH, but so do other pitchers in the majors.

On the other hand, popular belief states that a pitcher typically has the advantage the first time he faces a batter.  Even a heavily touted rookie like Strasburg doesn’t have nearly as much video footage on him as most major league pitchers.  And since Strasburg hasn’t pitched in a major league game before, it’s more difficult to know how he will react in any given situation.  Plus, it is difficult for a hitter to know exactly what a pitcher’s pitches look like until he’s faced him.

And even though major league hitters have seen great pitchers before, it doesn’t mean that they’ll have any success against him.  If Strasburg’s stuff is as good as reported, he will surely be able to get big league hitters out.

One thing we definitely shouldn’t expect is a long outing.  Strasburg, like most young pitchers, is on a very restrictive pitch count.  With so much money invested in these pitchers (and Strasburg in particular) teams don’t take any chances with them.  They strictly limit the amount of pitches they throw so as to minimize the chances of injury.

Personally, I feel that strategy is almost counter effective.  I’d rather build up a young pitcher’s arm as much as possible.  At some point in his career, a good young pitcher is going to see a large increase in innings pitched.  Usually, this does take a toll on the pitcher the following season (See Cole Hamels in 2009 for an example) but wouldn’t you rather this adjustment period take place earlier in his career rather than later?

So unless Strasburg is especially efficient with his pitches, he’ll probably only last about six innings at the most.  And for those of you who are hoping his arrival will help fuel a Nats playoff push, I have bad news for you.  The team will probably shut him down at the end of the season (Once again, trying to “preserve” his arm) regardless of his or the team’s success.

You can also expect lines at the team’s merchandise stands in the sixth inning.  I believe that team’s aren’t allowed to sell merchandise featuring a player until they’ve played an official game.  Once five innings are complete, the game is official, and the team will be permitted to sell Strasburg merchandise.  I’m thinking that more than just a few people will walk away with Strasburg T-shirt jerseys tonight.

In the past, the Nats haven’t handled it very well on the few occassions when they get large crowds to the stadium.  I guess it is to be expected since they don’t often draw well, which means when they need extra staff, those workers are going to be mostly untrained.  So, don’t expect things to run that smoothly, and you should give yourself some extra time when heading to the concession stands.

You also shouldn’t necessarily expect to see the game in high definition in the Washington area.  The Nats and Orioles rotate their games between the MASN and MASN2 cable networks.  While both stations have HD equivalents, many local cable companies only carry MASN HD, and not MASN2 HD. 

Of course, the Nats would naturally be scheduled to be on MASN2 tonight.  It is sure to be the most watched Nats game in four years, and most local viewers won’t even be able to see it in high def.  Nationally, the MLB network is broadcasting the game in HD, but that will be blacked out locally.

And so the Stephen Strasburg era begins.  Will he live up to the hype and be a star who carries the Nationals franchise to success?  Or will he end up as another touted prospect who couldn’t match the expectations placed on him?  Only time will tell.

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Momentum? Not in this Series

June 7, 2010

People in sports love to talk about momentum.  As in, when a team gets hot and starts doing well, they tend to continue to do well.  While there are many examples of this phenomenon throughout sports history, it certainly has not been the case in this year’s NHL Playoffs.

If momentum were a huge factor in the playoffs, then the Flyers wouldn’t have been able to come back from that 0-3 deficit against the Bruins. 

In the Finals, neither team has been able to do anything with any supposed momentum they might have.  In each game, it seems that as soon as one team scores a goal, the opponent quickly counters with one of their own. 

After winning the first two games in Chicago, the Blackhawks seemed to have a ton of momentum, and looked like they were on their way to a series sweep.  Then the games moved to Philadelphia where the Flyers were able to win the next two.  After game four in which the Flyers outplayed the Blackhawks, it looked like all of the series’ momentum had shifted to the Flyers.

That lasted right until the puck was dropped in game five in Chicago.  The Blackhawks dominated from the start of the game and earned a 7-4 victory that puts them one win away from the Stanley Cup.  It seems that while momentum may be nice to have on your side, it isn’t nearly as important as playing hard and having home ice advantage.

Does last night’s crushing defeat mean the Flyers are done for?  Definitely not.  Throughout the first five games of the series, the play in each game has had almost no correlation to the games played before and after.  We’ve seen a wide open, high scoring game one be followed by a tight, defensive game two.  The Flyers physical domination in game four was followed by a swarming Blackhawks attack in game five.

One thing that is certain is that the Flyers will have to win a game in Chicago in order to win the Cup.  Both teams have played much stronger on their home ice (and much weaker on the road) but the onus is on the Flyers to reverse that trend.  The Blackhawks can suffer a loss in game six and still have home ice in game seven to fall back on.

So here is where the Flyers stand: Game six is at home, and they need to win.  They’ve played very well at home (especially goalie Michael Leighton) so hopefully they can continue that strong play. 

And if they can win game six, then maybe momentum will be on their side, and that might be enough to carry them to victory.  But I wouldn’t count on it.

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The Holiday Weekend Goes Sour

June 1, 2010

Saturday had the potential to be among the greatest days in Philadelphia sports history. 

In Saturday night’s Phillies game, pitcher Roy Halladay pitched a perfect game.  It could be argued that it was the best pitched game ever.  It was not only just the 20th perfect game in history, but even more remarkable was that it didn’t even require many great defensive plays.  In a typical no-hitter or perfect game, you’ll see one or two amazing defensive plays made, but in Halladay’s performance, there was nothing especially worthy of the highlight reel.  Sure, Halladay was getting the benefit of a large strike zone, especially at the end, but that happens pretty much anytime a pitcher has a perfect game going in the late innings.

The Flyers had a chance to make it a historic night as they were playing the Blackhawks in game one of the Stanley Cup Finals.  I’m guessing no city has ever had a perfect game pitched the same night as a finals victory.

The Flyers started off well as they took an early 1-0 lead.  But they could not hold the lead, nor could they hold the other two leads they had later in the game.  In fact, it appeared that no lead in this game would be safe as the teams kept trading goals.  But ultimately, the Blackhawks scored one in the third period that the Flyers could not match, and Chicago escaped with a 6-5 victory.

So much for the greatest night in Philly history.

Then again, compared to the remainder of the holiday weekend, Saturday night was a bright spot.

The Phillies baffling offensive slump continued, as they were shut out on Sunday, and then scored three late, meaningless runs on Monday.  Halladay’s performance overshadowed the fact that the Phillies were only able to score one unearned run of their own on Saturday night.

Their offensive struggles merit a blog post of their own, but the team has learned that it is hard to win games without scoring runs, and because of it, they’ve fallen into second place.

It would be up to the Flyers to redeem Monday.  They knew that if they played the same type of up-tempo game that they did in game one, their chances wouldn’t be great.  While the Flyers were able to score five goals in that game, the style of play was much better suited to the Blackhawks.  The Flyers would need to play a much tighter, defensively focused game.

And the Flyers did exactly that.  Unlike the high scoring game one, game two was a tight defensive battle until midway through the second period when the Blackhawks scored the first goal on a rebound that the Flyers’ defense wasn’t able to clear. 

Still, a one goal deficit wasn’t debilitating.  What happened next was the killer.

28 seconds after that goal, Chicago’s Ben Eager – a player not known as a great scorer – fired a long shot that somehow eluded Flyers’ goaltender Michael Leighton.

For Flyers’ fans, the goal seemed hauntingly familiar.

Over the years, a major reason why the Flyers haven’t been able to win the Stanley Cup is because their goaltenders have not come up big.  Obviously, the Flyers’ lack of Cups since 1975 can not just be blamed on the goalies, but they haven’t had a goalie play well enough to carry them to a title either.

For the most part, the Flyers goalies have  played adequately, or even “good enough to win.”  And yet, in every series that they’ve lost,  there always seemed to be one key goal – while not necessarily soft – was one that a Cup winning goalie needs to make.  No matter who the goalie has been – Hextall, Vanbiesbrouk, Boucher, etc. – they always seem to let in that one killer goal that sabatoges the team’s chances.

And typically, in the games where the Flyers goalie would give up that goal, the opposing goaltender would play extremely well.  That happened last night as Chicago’s Antti Niemi was stellar, especially in the third period.  The Flyers had many quality scoring chances, and some shots that seemed destined to be goals, and yet they couldn’t get the tying goal past Niemi.

It’s way too early to give up on the Flyers.  The teams have looked fairly even, and with the next two games at home, the Flyers can, and I think will, win them.  But that second goal just seemed way too familiar, and felt like a sign that this year they’d once again be coming up short.

I hope I’m wrong.