Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is FIFA's VAR going down the same road as video review in other sports?

Officiating in soccer is notoriously inconsistent, and at times horrendous. As technology has advanced rapidly, the capability now exists for decisions made by officials to not only be scrutinized on TV replays, but also by video assistant referees, or VAR. The system is making its major tournament debut at the Confederations Cup in Russia, and has already caused controversy. Is soccer heading down a path that other sports have trundled down with video review not litigating what it was intended to?

VAR has pluses and minuses, and both have already been seen in the tournament. Pepe scored a goal for Portugal against Mexico that was clearly offside, and VAR correctly overturned the call. Yet, in the following game between Chile and Cameroon, VAR overturned an Eduardo Vargas goal that may have been marginally offside, but nowhere near as egregious as what happened earlier in the day in Kazan. But even when it hasn't overturned calls, the delay to restarting games when referees are looking over plays for whatever reason has also drawn some ire, especially for goals that look to have no controversy about them whatsoever.

Naturally, as with any new system, VAR needs time to be fine-tuned by FIFA and the relevant authorities, but with the mandate to only rectify obvious mistakes, some of these early moments with VAR seem to not be following that mandate. Video review always seems fantastic in principle, but in practice, these moments where decisions split hairs always end up under the microscope more than they probably should, and soccer isn't the first sport where this has become the case.

Each of football, basketball, baseball and hockey all saw these growing pains when introducing instant replay to their sports in order to get calls correct. In hockey's example, coaches challenges were introduced after an egregious missed offside call in a Nashville/Colorado game led to a Predators goal, but now, coaches challenges litigate micrometers that may put a play offside as well as determining whether skates are on the ice or above it. The red flags, so to speak, were supposed to eliminate the egregious miscarriages of justice, but instead began litigating tiny things which can and have changed seasons.

Most everyone acknowledges that the human element of officiating causes referees to miss calls that they should catch, and that instant replay/VAR/coaches challenges do help get calls correct, which is the ultimate goal. But when Pandora's Box was opened, immediate problems became evident. It's happened in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL and in soccer, a sport where even more decisions fall under the referee's jurisdiction, some of the surprises inside Pandora's Box are coming with correcting obvious and blatant mistakes.

Instant replay is necessary in modern sports because of the technology and especially what the fans see at home when they could potentially know more about a play than the referees do. But when there are delays, many of them needless, and when calls that split hairs end up being extensively litigated when they don't need to be, these are the kind of discussions that everyone has to have.

In the end, getting the call right is paramount. In a sport like soccer, "right" is often in a grey area where the lines are blurred, making the lives of the referees on the pitch and in the video booth harder than ever when fortunes can hinge on inches and millimeters.

When a World Cup might be won or lost on a decision like this, VAR could see its ultimate vindication. Or, it could end up being at the center of controversy if a World Cup is won or lost on a controversial call. Such is what happens when Pandora's Box is opened, and FIFA is finding the good and bad in VAR after only using it in four games.

Work needs to be done to make the system better, and only time will tell if VAR becomes the NHL's coaches challenges, or the NFL's much more refined system, or even something in between.

Friday, May 12, 2017

My White Hart Lane Story

SB Nation's fantastic Tottenham Hotspur blog, Cartilage Free Captain, is posting stories from supporters about White Hart Lane, the venerable old ground for the club that will host its final game on Sunday against Manchester United. Since they have quite a backlog of stories to post, and seeing as they'll likely not post a story solely about a guided tour, it's probably best that I post my own story here.

But even though my story is only about a guided tour, it still is my only experience with the ground for a club that has quickly become one of my deepest rooting interests. When I went on that guided tour back in the summer of 2012, I had only been a "Spurs supporter" for maybe a year at most, and was still learning the lay of the English soccer landscape and what it meant to support Tottenham Hotspur. I had already learned the hard way that it would be a struggle after a certain Champions League Final with a certain club that shall not be named, but that pain wasn't quite as searing as it would be for supporters with longer histories.

In my lifetime as a sports fan, I've only seen one of my team's stadiums close down, and that was Shea Stadium for the Mets. I went to one game there that was called after 4.5 innings because of rain, and I only needed that long to learn that Shea was an absolute dump. But, since I had only been there once, I didn't quite feel the emotional attachment to it that many others did, so I wasn't that sad to see it go. But with White Hart Lane, I've felt something different, despite like Shea, only going there once.

When you see where White Hart Lane is, you marvel at how stadiums can appear in places like that in the first place, but then you realize it's been there in some form or another since 1899! Quite a bit changes from 1899 to 2012 when I sauntered up to it. And then you realize that it's actually kind of... dinky. English soccer is defined by cathedrals like Old Trafford and Anfield, and while White Hart Lane has plenty of history, it certainly doesn't meet those standards. The day I turned up also turned out to be the day that Spurs legend Ledley King had announced his retirement, which made the day a little more special. Even an idiot like me could sing the great Ledley King chant about him playing on one knee.

Inside the ground, what struck me was just how... small it was. The concourses barely fit three people across, the concession stands to buy pies weren't much more than shacks, and the plastic seats barely were able to fit 18 year old me and my then overweight frame. If you sat in just the wrong spot, you'd have a support post blocking your view of the pitch, too. But looking around at the whole stadium from those seats, and then the player's tunnel, you realized that was the charm of the place. With everything just not right by modern standards and the pitch being just small enough for Spurs to easily exploit it when they were good, you realized that everyone that played for Spurs and supported Spurs at that ground left a little bit of themselves there (in a good way).

In the tour, we saw pictures of all of the club legends that even I knew by heart at that point; Bill Nicholson, Ozzie and Ricky, Klinsmann, King and so many others. We saw the few trophies that Spurs had won, including the two UEFA Cup's, a Champions League ball from the magical 2010-11 campaign, which was even more special to see then because at that time it seemed like Spurs would never play in the Champions League again and even the dressing room, with the kits of players that would soon be sold to Real Madrid. And through all of it, I felt like I belonged there.

Keep in mind that my choosing an English soccer team to support was an un-scientific process that boiled down to rooting for a club that wasn't swimming in oil money, not owned by an idiotic American (much easier to do then than now) and was just good enough to be seen on FOX Soccer every weekend, basically leaving me with Spurs and Everton to pick. I settled on Spurs because I had a distant family member who used to have season tickets at the Lane, figuring that would be a good excuse and front if I ever had to explain myself. But sitting in the Spurs dugout that day, and trying to convince my guide that Clint Dempsey would actually be a good signing and just hoping that Andre Villas-Boas wouldn't be an awful manager, I felt like I belonged at Spurs.

The club was just good enough to attract idiotic Americans like me to their cause, but not good enough that they won all the time. They had a history, a soul, and a passion that just wasn't present at Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal that made the experience of supporting them seemingly worthwhile. And that day at White Hart Lane confirmed to me what I already thought: I made a good decision.

I left that day thinking I'd be back to see a game there once, and it never happened. That will be one of the biggest regrets of my life. But at least I can say I was there once, if just for a tour. I know that I'll see many games at the new stadium, maybe even call a game or two there. But White Hart Lane has a little piece of every Spurs supporter there, even a dummy like me who was there only for a tour. And since it's the first time I've ever watched a stadium like the Lane close down for one of my teams, it's a new feeling. But seeing how Spurs have become such a fundamental part of me in just six short years of fandom, I can't imagine what longer term supporters and those who have been around the club way longer than I have are thinking heading into the final game. My best Spurs experiences were waking up preposterously early to watch games and then yelling at my TV when they did something stupid. What could the same thoughts be like for people whose best Spurs experiences were watching Derby wins at the Lane and chanting how Ledley King playing on one knee will always be better than John Terry?

My abiding memory of the Lane will be talking to a steward about how Clint Dempsey will actually be good for Spurs if we signed him. That's my unique White Hart Lane memory, and it will always be mine. The picture I took looking at the golden cockerel which has watched over the Lane since 1899 and the entire stadium is still my phone background, and it probably always will be. When the stadium gets torn down bit by bit, a very small part of me is going with it.

And while that part of me is miniscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of Spurs supporters who left a bigger part of themselves there, I can say that I was there, and that my White Hart Lane experience, like my Spurs fandom, is unique to me and unique to this bizarre, maddening, but brilliant club that we all share.

I just spilled a lot of virtual ink for a ridiculous hunk of sheetmetal that I went to once, in a part of London no tourist ever ventures to for a club that I've supported for maybe six years.

But that's Tottenham Hotspur, and that's White Hart Lane.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Mike Milbury and the NHL's Popularity Crisis

    Last Friday night, PK Subban of the Predators was warming up for Game 2 against the St. Louis Blues by dancing. Not only can I not tell any hockey player how to warm up or not to warm up because that is far out of my purview, but far be it of me to tell PK Subban how to do anything related to hockey or even life. But on NBC's pregame coverage of the game, Mike Milbury, the utmost and highest authority on all hockey matters (at least he believes this), called Subban a "clown" for warming up like this.

   Now while I struggle to take anything seriously that Milbury says about hockey because he once attacked a fan in the stands with his own shoe, all hockey fans in the US have taken this comment seriously because it reflects on a major problem with the NHL, it's only rightsholder in the US and the problem of hockey's popularity in the US all in one fell swoop. And if the NHL wants to break through to the casual sports fan and create more hockey fans in general in this country, comments like that one from Mike Milbury about one of the games biggest stars isn't just an impediment against that growth; it's an active deterrent.

   NHL coverage in the US is in a fairly precarious place at the moment. As ESPN has gotten out of covering hockey almost entirely, there are very few places to turn to for coverage of the game outside of the NHL's only US rightsholder, NBC. And when hockey fans only hope for salvation and love of the game they so cherish comes from a network that employs talent that calls PK Subban a "clown" for dancing during warmups, what are hockey fans supposed to think about how networks view the sport they love? Sure, hot take artists are all the rage in sports television right now and maybe NBC thinks comments like this, which can be construed as thinly veiled racism, will stir the pot when everyone else is talking about LeBron, the Warriors or the Cowboys. But when hockey is such a non-factor to the casual sports fan, comments like this don't move the needle, and instead just serve to anger the small but incredibly dedicated fanbase of US hockey fans.

     And the real shame of it all is that NHL Network has been improving dramatically over the past few years. The network is hiring analysts like Kevin Weekes, Mike Johnson, Ryan Whitney, John MacLean and a host of others who cover the sport in ways the US audience generally hasn't seen before. But, NHL Network's audience is still a fraction of what NBCSN draws in for its coverage, which in of itself is a fraction of the sports marketplace in general. While the casual sports fan who occasionally tunes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn't going to necessarily cringe at the comments Milbury has made, where are they going to go if they want more meaningful coverage of the sport and learn about these players and teams for themselves? NHL Network isn't readily available, the hot take shows on ESPN and FS1 certainly don't cover hockey (though we should be thankful for that), and it takes effort to follow this sport in a way that it doesn't for any other major sport, even soccer.

     NBC Sports is the steward of hockey right now in the NHL. Since no other sports network gives barely a mention to league issues, storylines and players, NBC is the only place American fans can legally tune into on television en masse to watch games and hear commentary on the league and its issues. And when its major imprint on hockey coverage is Mike Milbury making another dumb comment, what else are hockey fans to say but, "why?" They legitimately can't go almost anywhere else to find coverage of the game, and these comments instead end up defining the only coverage of the NHL anywhere in the US to the point that the die-hards are tuning out, which isn't good for the league or the sport.

    Even though the NHL has a very obvious and not subtle role in deciding who the talent is on the NHL's front facing coverage on both sides of the border, expecting them to do something here is unlikely. Therefore it is incumbent on NBC to change its ways in order to not only grow the game for the sake of growing the game, but for its own bottom line. Bringing over more names from NHL Network as analysts is a start, along with hiring an insider that can break news on their own so hockey fans can go to them instead of local sources or up to Canada for that information.

   NBC's deal with the NHL lasts until 2021, and if they want to fully reap the rewards of it, and perhaps keep the league beyond then as a foundation of their cable sports network, changing their ways is a must. Become a destination for US hockey fans to find news, analysis and commentary, not just a place where they have to watch the games. Bringing on an in-house insider, minimize the voices like Mike Milbury and bringing in analysts from NHL Network is one way to start building back the trust between themselves and US hockey fans, and are steps that need to be taken.

   Coverage of the NHL and hockey in the US is in a precarious place at the moment. With almost no outside network coverage, NBC is basically the only destination for fans to go to to find the coverage they crave. And when they are given nonsense by Mike Milbury, it's a slap in the face by the only network in the country that has decided the NHL is worthwhile.

   For a company that produces the NFL and the Premier League so well, it still boggles the mind at how NBC can't cover hockey in the same way. And much like football and soccer fans deserve the coverage they get, hockey fans do too.

   If the NHL wants to grow the game in this country at a time where it seems to be stagnating or fading from view, the league needs to pressure NBC to make changes to their coverage. Hockey fans can only go so many places to find the coverage they want and crave, so why can't they get it from the league's only stakeholder in the US?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

2017 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

I'm never good with these predictions because they always end up being wrong, but here are my 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff predictions (God help me):

Eastern Conference Playoffs:
(M1) Washington over (WC2) Toronto in 5
(M2) Pittsburgh over (M3) Columbus in 6
(WC1) New York over (A1) Montreal in 6
(A3) Boston over (A2) Ottawa in 6

(M1) Washington over (M2) Pittsburgh in 7
(WC1) New York over (A3) Boston in 6

(M1) Washington over (WC1) New York in 6

Western Conference Playoffs:
(C1) Chicago over (WC2) Nashville in 6
(C2) Minnesota over (C3) St. Louis in 6
(P1) Anaheim over (WC1) Calgary in 5
(P3) San Jose over (P2) Edmonton in 7

(C1) Chicago over (C2) Minnesota in 6
(P1) Anaheim over (P3) San Jose in 6

(P1) Anaheim over (C1) Chicago in 7

2017 Stanley Cup Final: (M1) Washington over (P1) Anaheim in 5

Conn Smythe: Alex Ovechkin.

This is the year. I can feel it. Go Caps.

2016-17 NHL Season Predictions in Review

As I tend to do with every sports league I make serious predictions for, at the start of the postseason, I enjoy taking a look back at the predictions I made so long ago, especially looking back at how wrong I was. This year had even more turnover than expected in the NHL, so the wrong predictions I made will look even worse in hindsight. So before I post my playoff predictions (which will be right on top of this post), here's a look at what I got right, and wrong, in the NHL this season:

My Metro Predictions:
1. Washington (WSH)
2. Pittsburgh (PIT)
3. Philadelphia (CBJ)
4. New York Islanders (NYR)
5. New York Rangers (NYI)
6. Carolina (PHI)
7. New Jersey (CAR)
8. Columbus (NJ)

The biggest whiff that I made, and everyone else made, was the rise of the Columbus Blue Jackets. No one had them sniffing the playoffs, let alone finishing with the fourth most points in the NHL. Torts and a cap strapped team that hadn't shown much improvement figured to be a recipe for disaster, and it wasn't. How they do in the postseason remains to be seen, but they made just a few people eat crow. We also slightly overstated the Islanders and Flyers, who both regressed after playoff appearances last year, and slightly underrated the Rangers, who had more scoring than we expected.

My Atlantic Predictions:
1. Tampa Bay (MTL)
2. Florida (OTT)
3. Montreal (BOS)
4. Boston (TOR)
5. Detroit (TB)
6. Buffalo (FLA)
7. Ottawa (DET)
8. Toronto (BUF)

Heh. This division turned out to be topsy-turvy thanks to injury, a few egomaniacal owners and some insane goaltending. Montreal rebounded to make the postseason, and so too did Boston, who I figured would be just on the outside looking in. But both Ontario teams making it is a huge shock. Ottawa may have done it with some smoke and mirrors, but the Leafs are here maybe a year ahead of schedule. They are going to be terrifying in the years ahead, though they'll be sacrificial lambs to Washington this year. Buffalo is still skidding their wheels, and the Wings finally had the bottom fall out.

My Central Predictions:
1. Nashville (CHI)
2. Dallas (MIN)
3. St. Louis (STL)
4. Chicago (NSH)
5. Minnesota (WPG)
6. Colorado (DAL)
7. Winnipeg (COL)

Nashville was still pretty good, but just not quite as good as some folks thought. Chicago, despite their roster turnover, got some amazing performances from young players to prove that they are wizards and thus, won the Central again. They may have to take a few lumps again in the playoffs, but they're still the Blackhawks. St. Louis was still solid despite firing their coach and trading away their best defenseman, and Minnesota got the Boudreau effect to somewhat overperform. Winnipeg made a late charge up the standings, while Dallas and Colorado had the bottom fall out.

1. San Jose (ANA)
2. Los Angeles (EDM)
3. Calgary (SJ)
4. Anaheim (CGY)
5. Edmonton (LA)
6. Arizona (ARZ)
7. Vancouver (VAN)

Anaheim continues to win the Pacific division despite now being coached by Randy Carlyle and somehow avoiding serious regression, which is insane to me and many others. San Jose took a slight step back, but they're still the Sharks, and scary good when healthy. I'd like to take some credit for thinking Calgary would make the playoffs, but when most people overrated LA and underrated Edmonton, that's hard to do.

Awards Predictions, with commentary:
Hart: Alex Ovechkin (Not one of his better seasons, it's probably going to be Connor)
Norris: Erik Karlsson (It's either him or Brent Burns)
Calder: Patrik Laine (In most years, he'd win it. But Auston Matthews had 40 goals in Toronto)
Vezina: Carey Price (He'll be nominated, but a certain Bob in Columbus has this on lock)
Jack Adams: Bill Peters (Torts man, Torts. Or Babcock.)
Rocket Richard: Ovi (Sid had 44)
Art Ross: Connor McDavid (Yep)

Time for some playoff predictions, so if you want 'em, look up.

Friday, March 31, 2017

2017 MLB Season Predictions

Even as it feels as if it has snuck up on us, the 2017 MLB season begins this weekend. After last year's incredible season for both the Indians and the Cubs, it feels like it may well be hard to top all of the drama and demons and stories that permeated every day throughout the season. However, the league is getting younger, more athletic, and the big guns are still in line to be really, really good. While a 108 year title drought is over, there is still plenty to look forward to in 2017. So, let's look forward, shall we?

AL East:

1) Boston
2) Toronto
3) Baltimore
4) New York Yankees
5) Tampa Bay

NL East:

1) New York Mets (this is a homer pick but I don't care)
2) Washington
3) Philadelphia
4) Miami
5) Atlanta

AL Central:

1) Cleveland
2) Detroit
3) Kansas City
4) Chicago White Sox
5) Minnesota

NL Central:

1) Chicago Cubs
2) St. Louis
3) Pittsburgh
4) Milwaukee
5) Cincinnati

AL West:

1) Houston
2) Seattle
3) Texas
4) Anaheim
5) Oakland

NL West:

1) Los Angeles
2) San Francisco
3) Colorado
4) Arizona
5) San Diego

AL Wild Cards: 1) Toronto, 2) Seattle

NL Wild Cards: 1) Washington, 2) San Francisco

AL Playoffs:

ALDS: Cleveland over Toronto in 4
             Boston over Houston in 5

ALCS: Cleveland over Boston in 6

NL Playoffs: 

NLDS: Chicago over San Francisco in 4
             Los Angeles over New York in 5

NLCS: Los Angeles over Chicago in 7

2017 World Series: Dodgers over Indians in 6

Awards Predictions:

AL MVP: Mike Trout
NL MVP: Corey Seager
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
NL Cy Young: Thor! (Another homer pick from yours truly)
AL Rookie: Andrew Benintendi
NL Rookie: Dansby Swanson
AL Manager: Scott Servais
NL Manager: Dave Roberts

Simple, and effective. Last year, I was wrong, but not hysterically wrong (I had the Blue Jays and Giants in the World Series). I'm going a little against the grain this year, because it's not like the Dodgers winning is going way out on a limb, but with that lineup and that bullpen and two dynamite starters, they have a good a chance as any. If they solve the back end of that rotation, and they have the prospects and cash to do so, they can win it this year, though they'll have to grind their way through a brutal National League to do it.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

This is the Anthem and We Hope you Stand Up

Not so quietly and not so subtly, US Soccer injected themselves into a debate that has been subsuming the entire country since Colin Kaepernick's famous anthem protests last summer: what is proper conduct when the Star-Spangled Banner is played? A now infamous policy code, 604-1, mandates US Soccer players to stand respectfully during the anthem when it is played, obviously in response to Megan Rapinoe's kneeling during the anthem last September as she protested the injustices and inequality in this country in a most American way.

I've already spent many column inches speaking about how protesting during the national anthem is more American than robotically standing up and badly mouthing the words to Francis Scott Key's poem, and so have many others. You'll be surprised to hear my opinion hasn't changed in the last six months, and in fact I've not been standing for the anthem when its been played recently in my own personal protest against injustices, inequality and the like. But since I'm relatively unimportant and not famous outside of a few Twitter bots, my protest means little. When someone of Megan Rapinoe's stature protests in the same way I have however, it becomes a story, and therefore a "problem" or "distraction" away from the game.

Whatever you think of the anthem, and what is respectful to do when it is played, most people will end up agreeing on this, even after a long and wasteful argument: you can go do what you please. Such is the glory of free speech in this country that the government can't tell you what to do or not to do during the anthem. US Soccer, despite what people might think, is a private entity with no connection whatsoever to the government in Washington, meaning they can pass whatever codes and bylaws they wish. They aren't trampling over the 1st Amendment because they are a private entity. That does not mean they shouldn't be criticized for passing an arcane and anti-American rule while on the other hand Tim Howard and Abby Wambach aren't at least publicly sanctioned for making anti-American comments about foreign players.

In this country, especially after 9/11, the national anthem became a staple at every single sporting event, from high school to the pros and back. It is indelible. However, that is not the case everywhere. In England, "God Save the Queen" is not played before almost any sporting event, outside of national team games and the FA Cup Final. Hearing the Star-Spangled before a Tuesday night Carolina Hurricanes-Arizona Coyotes game is almost mechanical at this point, and the meaning of hearing the anthem, the images it invokes and the symbolism it draws upon. So when the anthem plays before a US Soccer match, some of that desired affect is lost because everyone rising for the anthem hears it so often; perhaps too often.

More specifically however, what is this policy designed to accomplish? Most players will stand with their hand over their heart during the anthem anyway without prompting from some code in a rulebook they've never seen, so why even bother? Are they really desperate to win support from a segment of the American populous that isn't likely soccer fans anyway? And what will happen if someone violates the policy? Will they be suspended for important matches if they happen to sit or kneel or don't put their hand over their heart? What would the reaction be then?

When standing for the anthem is such a knee-jerk and innate reaction, it takes concerted thought in order to not do that thanks to heavy cultural appropriation that all of us have experienced throughout our lives. Representing our country means representing the best values that we have, and one of those is the freedom of expression. That means if someone feels the country isn't serving the best interests of everyone, or they themselves feel personally under attack by a government that isn't doing its job, then they have the right to speak out.

The Star Spangled Banner is a projective surface; it means what each individual wants it to mean. It can be a symbol of the best of this country, a time to honor those who have served it with distinction and honor, or can be a reminder that this country is not objectively achieving the goals its founders set out to. But whatever you feel about the anthem, and what is appropriate conduct when it is playing, we can all agree at least on this: you have the ability to do what you want during its playing, whatever the reaction is from others.

US Soccer has the right as a private organization to dictate conduct from those who they employ, however that doesn't mean they cannot be criticized for policies that do not serve their best interests. Whatever the policy is supposed to achieve, and whatever consensus the policy apparently built inside the organization has not achieved the desired affect. This policy codifies something that without even thinking about, most of us do without instruction or prodding.

Whether you think this policy is great, anti-American or anything in that spectrum, it comes of as excessive, unnecessary and over-bearing. This is US Soccer legislating for events that happen as rarely as Haley's Comet blasting through the night sky, and for a purpose that doesn't accomplish much of anything other than empty satisfaction and a chorus of criticism from a vocal segment of their core fanbase.

Representing your country should mean more than robotically standing for a poem and the music it is put to. US Soccer knows this, even as 99% of players, coaches and fans will stand for it unimpeded and automatically.