Wednesday, September 5, 2018

2018 NFL Predictions

For these predictions last year, I did think New England would make it to the Super Bowl and beat... Seattle. I didn't have the Eagles in the postseason, nor did I have their NFC Title game opponent, Minnesota. I also picked Oakland to win the AFC West, which was probably not wise either, and didn't see the rise of the Jaguars coming. You try to guard against foolish predictions at this time every year, but no matter how well thought out your arguments are, they end up meaning little because reality is stranger than anything the wilds of your mind can cook up.

With that said, here's what I think we see in 2018 in the NFL. May these predictions be better than the last set, and never as bad as I fear they could be.

AFC East:
New England: 12-4
New York Jets: 7-9
Miami: 6-10
Buffalo: 3-13

So long as those Brady and Belichick surnames are on the Pats payroll, they're going to win the AFC East, especially as everyone below them has yet to figure out what they're doing. With the Jets, they will see improvement on offense with Sam Darnold and they have a solid defense to backstop some growth at long last, though it will be well short of anything meaningful record wise. Miami finally gets Ryan Tannehill back after missing nearly 20 meaningful games, but will that change the Dolphins fortunes with a mediocre roster? And after finally ending their playoff drought, the Bills dumped their QB, drafted a new one who has been compared to Blaine Gabbert and will start someone who threw five interceptions in his first career start. They're a contender for the number one pick in April's draft.

NFC East:
1. Philadelphia: 11-5
2. Dallas: 8-8
3. New York Giants: 7-9
4. Washington: 6-10

Philly, Philly. They will have one of the tougher runs in the NFC to get back to the Super Bowl, but will probably have the easiest run to win their division. Nick Foles can steer the ship steadily until Carson Wentz is healthy, and they certainly have the defense to pick up the slack. Their problems come in the postseason, where everyone else got better and they were forced to stand pat. Dallas suddenly has health issues in their most important unit on the team: the offensive line. If they can't get what they need there, Dak and Zeke will underwhelm. Their cap mess has prevented them from substantially improving, so it's more likely they stay flat than anything else. The Giants will improve with a real running game and a better offensive line, but the defense has plenty of holes. Washington is relying on the aging Alex Smith to be a better answer at QB than Kirk Cousins, which is a bold call considering Cousins gave them their only meaningful successes in recent years. So long as Daniel Snyder owns the team, this is where they'll be stuck.

AFC North:
1. Pittsburgh: 11-5
2. Ravens: 9-7
3. Bengals: 8-8
4. Cleveland: 5-11

While the Steelers wait to see if Le'Veon Bell will ever show up again, they won't be wanting for much in terms of offensive talent elsewhere, and James Connor isn't getting the appreciation he deserves. In the mediocre AFC, Pittsburgh is still absolutely a favorite to make the Super Bowl, but oddly, it's their defense that may hold them back. Baltimore was a fourth down meltdown away from making the postseason, and since they're really no worse than last year, it stands to reason even with Joe Flacco that they'll compete for the postseason again. The Bengals changed both coordinators and added some young talent to go along with Dalton, Green and Mixon, and since last year was about as bad as its been in recent years, odds are it will get a little better in 2018, but not enough to make the playoffs. And yes Cleveland, five wins. There's talent on this team and Hue Jackson seems to have struck a cord with this group, if Hard Knocks is an indication. It's a step in the right direction, at least.

NFC North:
1. Green Bay: 12-4
2. Minnesota: 11-5
3. Detroit: 8-8
4. Chicago: 7-9

Now that the Packers have Aaron Rodgers back and healthy, and handsomely paid, the Packers become a Super Bowl favorite. With a new GM in place and a slightly tweaked philosophy, the roster is in better shape than it has been in recent years. Rodgers' presence puts them over the top. Minnesota will not be easy to dethrone though, because with Kirk Cousins, in theory they have more stable QB play plus a newly healthy Dalvin Cook, great receivers and a young and hungry defense. There may be a new coach in Detroit, but they seem to be the same team they've been in recent years: hanging around the playoff race but not good enough to make it or win a game. Chicago went for broke with the Khalil Mack trade, which means their window is now open to win for Matt Nagy, but they need a year to grow. Next year, could the Monsters of the Midway be back?

AFC South:
1. Jacksonville: 11-5
2. Houston: 10-6
3. Tennessee: 8-8
4. Indianapolis: 6-10

The Jaguars have built their roster in such a way that they will try to win without asking Blake Bortles to do much of anything, which is much how the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Bucs became champs. It may be harder to do that in 2018 than then, but with their talent on defense and on the offensive line, they sure could pull it off. Don't discount them either, because that will make them angry. The Jaguars angry could be more dangerous than the Jaguars out of the blue. With Houston's big stars now healthy, they will absolutely be a contender to win the division and perhaps make the Super Bowl, if DeShaun Watson's growth curve wasn't stunted in any way by the ACL injury. Tennessee is a bland and mediocre team that lucked out in both getting to the postseason and winning a game last year, but with other teams around them getting better, average won't be good enough in the AFC this year. Indianapolis finally has Andrew Luck back which means they won't be a disaster, but with very little on the roster, they won't be that great either.

NFC South:
1. New Orleans: 12-4
2. Atlanta: 10-6
3. Carolina: 9-7
4. Tampa Bay: 3-13

Another team going for broke are the Saints, who last year were a miracle play away from the NFC Championship game. They may have been favorites against Philadelphia too. They don't really have many serious weaknesses on their team, even with Mark Ingram suspended for four games. They seem to be a cut above the rest of the very good NFC South and perhaps the NFC too. If it wasn't for some poor play calling in 2017, the Falcons may have not just beaten the Eagles, but won the NFC too. With Calvin Ridley, they have even more talent on offense, and aren't exactly lacking it on defense either. In another division, they'd be favorites to win it. Carolina looks like the odd one out here, which is a shame because they're pretty dang good too. Christian McCaffrey is going to be an amazingly fun to player to watch, but perhaps the entire team will be undone by a slightly bare roster in their front four and secondary. And for the Bucs... a housecleaning is in order. Justin Herbert, anyone?

AFC West:
1. LA Chargers: 11-5
2. Kansas City: 10-6
3. Denver: 7-9
4. Oakland: 5-11

If it wasn't for the Chargers being snakebit with terrible kicking and injury luck, they would have waltzed away with the AFC West last season. They still have bad injury luck, but with Philip Rivers looking rejuvenated, an immensely talented running back in Melvin Gordon and a great defense, they're AFC West favorites, perhaps even sneaky Super Bowl contenders. Kansas City went to Pat Mahomes at QB and he will not be the reason why the Chiefs fail to make the playoffs, if they do. That will be their lackluster defense. But with all their offensive talent, they should be just fine. Denver will be better than last year with any semblance of offense, but they seem deficient talent-wise in key areas compared to their rivals. Jon Gruden has come back to Oakland only to see the Raiders now accumulate the oldest roster in the league and trade away their best player for futures. That doesn't seem like a winning formula for a coach who seems to be stuck in 2008, when his team gagged away a playoff spot.

NFC West:
1. LA Rams: 11-5
2. San Francisco: 10-6
3. Seattle: 8-8
4. Arizona: 6-10

The Rams have gone completely Hollywood with all the star power they've added, meaning that after stunning the world to win the NFC West last year, there can be no surprises this year at the Coliseum. It'll be Sean McVay's task to glue everything together, which he seems apt to do. Jimmy G will lose games he's starting this season for sure, but the improvement the 49ers made was good enough to think they will contend for a playoff spot, even with injuries playing a role. The Seahawks are not the Legion of Boom they once were, and may now just want to put Russell Wilson's outline on their helmet, because it is on him alone that they will succeed or fail, but he can't do that much himself. In the desert, Larry Fitzgerald's career will end with a whimper as Sam Bradford guides a flawed roster until Josh Rosen takes over.

AFC Playoff Order:
1. New England
2. Jacksonville
3. Pittsburgh
4. LA Chargers
5. Houston
6. Kansas City

NFC Playoff Order:
1. Green Bay
2. New Orleans
3. LA Rams
4. Philadelphia
5. Minnesota
6. Atlanta

AFC Playoff Predictions:

3. Pittsburgh over 6. Kansas City
5. Houston over 4. LA Chargers

1. New England over 5. Houston
2. Jacksonville over 3. Pittsburgh

1. New England over 2. Jacksonville

NFC Playoff Predictions:

6. Atlanta over 3. LA Rams
5. Minnesota over 4. Philadelphia

1. Green Bay over 6. Atlanta
2. New Orleans over 5. Minnesota

1. Green Bay over 2. New Orleans

Super Bowl LIII:

Green Bay over New England

Award Predictions:

MVP: Aaron Rodgers (GB)
OPOY: Antonio Brown (PIT)
DPOY: Aaron Donald (LAR)
OROY: Saquon Barkley (NYG)
DROY: Roquan Smith (CHI)
Comeback: DeShaun Watson (HOU)
Coach: Bill O'Brien (HOU)

No fantasy columns for me this year, but you can always solicit me on Twitter if you need help. And here's hoping these predictions are better than last year, and sorry in advance if they aren't.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

2018-19 Premier League Predictions

With the transfer deadline moved up three weeks in the Premier League for reasons only understood by a few executives, not only can we collectively put Jim White back in his cryogenic chamber a little earlier, but I don't have to write two prediction pieces based on new movements in the transfer window after the start of the season! It saves me internet ink, but also makes these usually pretty poor predictions slightly better, or at least one can hope that. So with a wonderful World Cup and a traditionally silly transfer window now behind us, let's look ahead to see how the new season will play out.

20. Cardiff City

Neil Warnock is managing his 15th different club and has managed to get eight teams promoted in his tenure. That's a fairly remarkable accomplishment all things considered. Keeping this Cardiff team in the Premier League may be the biggest of his career if he can pull it off. They haven't spent wildly this summer, and their additions are mainly Championship quality players adding to a Championship quality squad. They seem almost nailed on for immediate relegation, but so did Huddersfield and Cardiff at this time last season too. If they stay up, it might not be Neil Warnock who gets them there, but whoever can may well be knighted in south Wales.

19. Huddersfield Town

By sheer force of will, David Wagner kept a talent deficient Huddersfield Town in the Premier League season despite scoring 28 goals and shipping 58. Sadly, it seems that second season syndrome is coming for the Terriers. Their business hasn't been terrible, but where are their goals coming from? Unlike most teams around them, they also haven't made a standout signing that could singlehandedly change their fortunes. Wagner deserves credit for what he's done with this club, but asking him to keep this team in the league for another year might be asking too much.

18. Brighton & Hove Albion

In some ways, it was more surprising to see the Seagulls stay up last year than Huddersfield. Chris Hughton isn't the personality in the dugout like David Wagner, and their squad was less impressive. But they too stayed up against the odds. But like with the Terriers, I fear for Brighton's future in the league. Hughton wore out his stay at Norwich in a similar position earlier in the decade, and that may happen here too. Brighton have made better signings such as the Iranian winger Alireza Jahanbaksh who is a talent, and they still have dynamism going forward with Solly March and Jose Izquierdo, but it seems like they hit their ceiling last year and to replicate what worked before will be incredibly difficult.

17. Watford

With all of their changes in the dugout and in the dressing room, it certainly seemed that Watford wouldn't be as consistent as they have been in staying up. They always seem to find just enough to stay up, and as it stands, that may be the case again. Losing Richarlison will hurt, but he went off the boil by November. Abdoulaye Doucoure is an underrated part of Watford's success, but they will need goals from Andre Gray and Troy Deeney to have any chance. Javi Gracia's CV also isn't incredibly impressive, but he got enough out of his squad last year to inspire enough confidence to think he can do it again.

16. Burnley

Burnley's season last year was nothing short of incredible considering their budget vis-a-vis everyone else in the league. Sean Dyche is one of the most underrated managers in the game and deserves immense credit for what he has accomplished with a Championship club at best. It's almost impossible for them to repeat what they did a season ago, which will be made even more difficult if they end up making the Europa League group stages. That's a poisoned chalice for the best of teams, let alone those like Burnley. With Dyche, they now are pretty much assured to not get relegated, and their signings should help re-enforce their precarious position in the league, but if they play on Thursdays and Dyche picks up admiring glances from other clubs needing a change in the dugout, then trouble could be coming.

15. Southampton

For all the players they've sold for profit since re-entering the big time earlier in the 2010's, it's an accomplishment to see how well they've performed for years. Last year, the house of cards almost collapsed completely as the Mauricio Pellegrino experiment failed spectacularly and some of their signings failed to pan out in a big way. Their squad is tighter now for old Sparky, Mark Hughes, but they'll need flashes of past brilliance from Charlie Austin, Manolo Gabbiadini and Shane Long to put away relegation fears. They have enough quality to ensure that last year is more of a fluke than the new rule, but this is not the club that was safely top half a few years ago.

14. Newcastle United

Why and how does Rafael Benitez continue as manager of a big club run so cheaply? Perhaps it is because he is beloved on Tyneside and did his darndest to keep a Championship level squad up last year, but he has the same concerns this year in terms of the quality of players he has. His signings aren't bad, and he is a good enough manager to get the most out of very little, but this is not a club that should be in the lower half of the Premier League at any point and yet they are. If Rafa leaves, Newcastle is immediately in danger again, but should he stay, they'll be fine. But this club has so much potential, and yet it is almost entirely wasted. It's a shame.

13. Crystal Palace

Palace had the worst start to a Premier League season ever last year by going seven games without a goal, and yet they stayed up without a whole lot of incident after. Roy Hodgson may be old, he may have coached England to embarrassment against Iceland in Euro 2016, but he got the most out of that group to keep them in the top flight. Roy doesn't have a big squad still, but he did keep hold of Wilfried Zaha and signed Max Meyer from Schalke on a free transfer, which is an amazing bit of business. If they can get any goals from Christian Benteke or Alexander Sorloth, they won't have much trouble avoiding relegation. After surviving their start last season, anything is really possible in South London.

12. Bournemouth

If anyone told you before the 2015-16 season that Bournemouth wouldn't just survive their first season ever in the top flight, but thrive, you would have been called insane. But Eddie Howe is one of the most underrated managers not just in England, but anywhere across the globe. This is his club from top to bottom, which is probably why he's stayed so long. They haven't spent big this summer, and their signings are gambles, but Bournemouth are still in the top flight despite that being their summer since they joined the division. So long as Eddie Howe is in the dugout, Bournemouth are a Premier League team.

11. Fulham

Fulham are a club famous for their ground being on the River Thames and having a Michael Jackson statue right outside said ground because their old owner was a huge fan. They also once made a Europa League final and some of the clubs best ever players are Americans in Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey. Now that they're back in the top flight for the first time in four years, they've spent a huge amount of cash to get their squad to mid-table quality. Jean-Michael Seri is a coup, so too is Andre Schurrle and and Luciano Vietto. They also added Alfie Mawson, a great center-half who could and probably should be playing somewhere better. That's just the start of their business. It's a huge gamble to spend big when you've just been promoted, but their business is so good, and Slavisa Jokanovic is such a good manager, that Fulham aren't just seemingly safe by newly promoted standards, they may well be in mid-table and stay there.

10. Wolves

Last year's Champions of the second tier absolutely demolished the league they way they played; a 3-4-3 with expansive attacking play and creativity that most clubs in the Championship couldn't match. In the Premier League, it's going to be a lot harder for them to do that, but they have the players to pull it off. Some of their business has been wonderful, especially Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker in midfield. The ownership's connections to super-agent Jorge Mendes is how Wolves went from the third tier to projected mid-table in the top flight so quickly, but don't discount how good they could be if they play the way they can. They're really, really good.

9. West Ham

In the last couple of seasons, West Ham's ambitions of being a Champions League caliber club almost blew up in their face with disastrous results, fan protests and pitch invasions. But they survived that, and David Moyes to now come out firing with huge spending in the summer window. Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko among others are now in and add some quality to a squad that already had a good deal of it going forward. Their back line is problematic, but they did add quality there too, if unproven. Manuel Pellegrini is a good manager who will keep this talented yet testy group of players out of trouble as was a problem in recent years, and will nestle them safely in the top half.

8. Leicester City

Two years later than most expected, one of the key cogs in the Champions from 2016 has moved on to pastures new in Riyad Mahrez. He was so good and so critical to everything Leicester did that it's almost a stretch to say they'll match their form from recent years again, right? They still have Jamie Vardy, Harry Maguire and added quality in James Maddison and some reinforcements on the back line that will help. Their midfield isn't spectacular though; there's no real N'Golo Kante type waiting in the wings. But Vardy's goals, Kasper Schmeichel's magic and enough of that pixie dust from a few years ago will keep Leicester safely in the top half.

7. Everton

Everton are spending real money now after for years supporters claimed that they had none, and they're really starting to throw it around. They made three signings from Barcelona and spent over 40 million pounds to sign Richarlison from Watford. That's on top of their ridiculous cash outlay from last year, when most of their signings were busts. Their squad is really bloated with signings from three different managers playing a major role, but if Marco Silva can knit them together, as he proved he can do at worse circumstances at Hull and Watford, Everton will be playing in Europe again.

6. Arsenal

Arsene Wenger is no longer the manager at the Emirates, and that even now is something odd to say. Arsenal have been so defined by that man and his style for multiple generations that to see him as a pundit is strange. Unai Emery is an interesting choice to replace Wenger, considering his successes at Sevilla but failing to live up to expectations at PSG. The signings pulled off by former Dortmund director of recruitment Sven Mislintat are good ones, but not standout signings by any stretch. Lucas Torreira could be a coup, and the club has yet to see the best of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Defensively, they still are a mess and the midfield still has holes, and with Europa League obligations, they could still be a ways off from Champions League play. But they have at least gone in a positive new direction... that is until Stan Kroenke meddles too much and probably ruins it, as he's done with every single team he's ever owned.

5. Chelsea

After sending Thibaut Courtois out the door, they immediately spent over 75 million pounds on a new goalkeeper that is David De Gea's deputy for Spain. Interesting, right? New manager Maurizio Sarri wants Chelsea to play in a more streamlined, beautiful fashion as opposed to the pragmatism of Antonio Conte, which could mean Chelsea are in for more 3-2 games than in past season. But Conte's message wore thin fast, and Sarri's introduction of players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Callum Hudson-Odoi and newcomers like Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic will help spark a stale squad. Do they have enough to make it back to the Champions League? Eden Hazard may have to score all their goals for that to happen.

4. Spurs

New stadium, three straight Champions League appearances and no new signings. For a club that often makes a mess of transfer windows, this is a new experience entirely for Tottenham Hotspur. Whatever the reasoning behind the non-activity is, Daniel Levy made a hash of the window in a major way. The aura of a new stadium will help wash that away a little, but if they start slowly in the new season, the knives will be out. Their squad is still very solid though, especially when players like Lucas Moura will feel like new signings, as cliched as that phrase is. So long as Harry Kane continues to score for fun, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen provide the creativity and Hugo Lloris continues to be one of the best keepers in the world, Spurs should be able to sneaky into the Champions League again.

But this club should be aiming higher, and no stadium debt should prevent them from doing that. Their January is going to be fascinating, isn't it?

3. Manchester United

The only person who is angrier with the summer transfer window than most Spurs supporters is Jose Mourinho, who is already talking like he knows his time at Old Trafford is done. Fred is a quality player, but Mourinho's moaning about his squad rings hollow when you see how much money he continues to spend on players only for him to never get the best out of them (Paul Pogba). On balance, Manchester United should be winning trophies and seriously contending for the Premier League, and since Sir Alex retired they haven't. That's not on Ed Woodward so much as its on Mourinho, who burns the candle at both ends in every one of his managerial stops, and by this time, the good times run out. United will still be plenty good, but not good enough by their standards, and for Mourinho, he needs to look in the mirror to see why.

2. Liverpool

If it wasn't for Loris Karius giving the website "What a Howler" the material for eternity he did in the Champions League Final, perhaps Liverpool would have just nicked it. Of course having a healthy Mo Salah would have helped. All of those goals and all of that Champions League success does cloud a team who consistently dropped points against inferior opposition all the time, despite how well they played against the big boys. But their cash outlay this summer should allay concerns about those issues a little. Naby Keita is a star, Alisson is one of the world's best keepers and Xherdan Shaqiri is quite a substitute. Consider what they have in terms of potential young stars as well, and you have a legitimate contender on all fronts. But do they have enough on the backline to allay all fears? That remains to be seen. What is not in doubt is that this is Klopp's best team yet at Anfield, and now is the time to turn promise into silverware.

1. Manchester City

They won the Premier League in September last year and looked so calm doing it. There was never any fuss about City in anything they did, because they were so dominant. Tactically they were always superior, and any concerns about their defense were put away almost immediately. Now, they add Riyad Mahrez to an already stacked attacking band, and their biggest concern might be how no team has repeated as Champions for nearly a decade. There are some concerns deeper in midfield that will have to be addressed eventually, but for now they are the clear favorites to win the league again, and it will take a lot for something to change that.

Other winners:
League Cup: Chelsea
FA Cup: Liverpool
Golden Boot: Harry Kane
Player of the Year: Kevin De Bruyne

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Soccer: America's sport since 1970, but transformed in 2026

Soccer has always been the sport of the future in the United States, because eventually, the hunkered down sports hatches that kept America's big sports at home would eventually break down, and not only would this country be a great exporter of sport, but it would import them too.

Or, if you're a believer in "demography is destiny", eventually, the changing demographics of the country would eventually take hold in the sports that America holds closest to its heart. That has already begun to take shape with the challenges that football is facing existentially and the consumption changes of new generations of Americans, larger than any previous to them, but with the 2026 World Cup coming to the United States (and Mexico and Canada), perhaps America's sport of the future for over 50 years at that point may well become the sport it cherishes the most.

The 1994 World Cup is a distant memory now, but still a vivid one for anyone in this country who was touched by the tournament. Watching a rag-tag US group beat mightily favored Colombia, play to two crowds of over 94,000 at the Rose Bowl (and indoors at the old Silverdome), transformed a group of youngsters into soccer fans and players who formed the backbone of soccer in this country as it is now. Soccer in this country wouldn't be what is without the 1994 World Cup, Paul Caligiuri's goal against Trinidad in November of 1989, and Landon Donovan's heroics in two World Cups in the following decade, but the 1994 World Cup sprouted the seeds that were heavily watered in future years, creating the garden that is soccer in this country now.

Said garden was starving for water after the US failed to qualify for the World Cup that is to start tomorrow, but the garden did get a fresh injection with this announcement. As much as it seemed to be a shoe-in that a combined North American World Cup bid would be accepted without much handwringing, FIFA has proven time and again, even in this "new era" that the accepted standard and the obvious answers aren't always so obvious.

Mexico and Canada presence helped the bid get away from more of the delicate geopolitical issues that even if they didn't weigh the bid down all that much were still certainly present no matter who will occupy the White House in the summer of 2026. Their 10 games each will feel secondary to the overarching narrative of the tournament (though maybe not in Canada as much), but some of the decisions made by first Sunil Gulati and then Carlos Cordeiro helped rebuild some pride and prestige in US Soccer that certainly has been lost from the Couva catastrophe in October, to the contentious US Soccer Presidential race in February and then the politicking to get this bid to be successful at all.

And even if FIFA turned over a new leaf after the FBI and CIA came knocking, the reality is that money still talks. This tournament has the potential to be a financial bonanza for FIFA, whose coffers are draining and for a President in Gianni Infantino who needs to fulfill some of his promises to the forces that ultimately determine his fate. But this announcement shouldn't be so much about FIFA and the politics that went behind the vote, it should be about soccer in North America, particularly in this country.

Soccer is a force culturally in this country more than it has ever been because of the rapid globalization of sports and demographic changes that are coming slowly, but surely. This is a country of 320 million people now, and millions more will be around eight years hence. And even if very little brings that entire melting pot together, one thing that can is patriotism. A World Cup in this country with soccer's 32 years of growth since 1994 can mean this sport hits the football exclusive stratosphere, especially if the team does well. For Canada, 10 games in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton could mean the sport has its moment like the 1994 tournament did in this country. For Mexico, the team may finally have the chance to take advantage of circumstances not present in the last 40 years since they hosted the tournament in 1986.

On the pitch, US Soccer is at its lowest ebb since Mexico last hosted the tournament. But considering some of the young talent that has already blossomed, see Christian Pulisic, they will be in their primes in 2026, playing in front of packed stadiums rooting for them, with the potential to take this sport into a new era of popularity. It may never attain the cultural significance that football or baseball has, but it can sure take a step in that direction. And the presence of the tournament will cause further introspection into development at home and how US Soccer and its players will look potentially even more different come then too.

Nothing about Wednesday morning's decision was inevitable, which is something far too oft assumed in US Soccer since 1994 that everything would be. The men's game in this country is reeling a little after what happened in 2017, but the train is back on the tracks now in a big way.

A new generation will be have their 1994 moment and transform the sport in this country in the same way that those kids who were in the stands at the Rose Bowl, Giants Stadium et al had 24 years ago. They took the sport from the wilderness to where it is now. Those kids could take the sport to a new cultural place that most only dreamed of when wondering what soccer could become in the cultural and political powerhouse of the globe.

Soccer has been the US' sport of the future for decades, and still is in some ways in 2018. But with this World Cup in 2026, it will certainly be the sport of the present, and the future.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World Cup Predictions

Even though the US is not at the 2018 World Cup, the show/circus will go on with plenty of amazing stories to cover on and off the pitch. While the group stage might not be as enthralling as recent tournaments because of who didn't qualify, the possibility for surprises always exists, and when the tournament is hosted by off the beaten path nations, the tournament can often throw a surprise or two.
Here's my semi-uneducated view on the 2018 World Cup, and who will be World Champion in a month's time:

(EDIT: now re-jiggered to consider Spain amazingly firing their manager the day before the tournament starts)

Group A:
1. Uruguay
2. Russia
3. Egypt
4. Saudi Arabia

If it wasn't for Mo Salah's injury concerns, Egypt might have been the favorite to finish second here. But with the injury questions left unanswered, Russia would be the pick now to just sneak through into the knockout stage. Russia has more of their first line talent than they did at the Confederations Cup, but it probably won't change their fortunes too much. If Salah can be healthy by the time the two nations play, perhaps Egypt could pull off a bit of an upset. But with Salah potentially at only 75% at best, it doesn't seem likely that the Pharoahs will advance.

Group B:
1. Spain
2. Portugal
3. Morocco
4. Iran

Even though Spain fired Julen Lopetegui for not telling any of his co-workers that he was considering the Real Madrid job the day before the tournament, it's hard to imagine Spain being that negatively affected by this, at least initially. Fernando Hierro is no outsider to the national team and has said that he won't change many plans for the tournament, and his major task may now be guiding a fractured squad through the inevitable ups and downs that will come. Thankfully for la Roja, their group is not very challenging and their most difficult game is first up. But for a team that looked so good under Lopetegui, it's hard to imagine the sailing being anything but choppy for Spain after everything that the squad and federation has gone through.

Perhaps Portugal are the biggest beneficiary of the entire mess their neighbors in Iberia are dealing with. No strangers to World Cup circuses themselves (see 2002 and 2014), their unity and defensive solidity might help them snatch something from the first game, perhaps taking them to the top of the group, instantly changing the dynamic of not only the group, but the tournament. Their squad outside of Ronaldo is not as talented as Spain's is, but that didn't matter much when they won the Euros two years ago. They may have more challenges from a pure footballing perspective with Iran and Morocco than Spain may, but even after what happened with Spain, Portugal's destiny might not be all that different from when Lopetegui was manager.

Group C:
1. France
2. Peru
3. Denmark
4. Australia

France have not been inspiring in their pre-World Cup friendlies, and Didier Deschamps is not what anyone would call a tactical mastermind. They play too often like a team of individuals, which for a team of this talent level is a disappointment. However, that problem will only become evident perhaps during the quarterfinals, not during the group stage, though a couple of teams here could give them a tricky run. Peru with Paolo Guerrero is a different team than they are without him, and his presence enough may be enough to send Peru through. Denmark have Christian Eriksen, which may be enough to see them through, but he has 22 goals himself and the rest of his team has 44. If another star emerges, they could go through themselves. Australia has a better chance of getting points in this group than they did in 2014, at least.

Group D:
1. Argentina
2. Croatia
3. Nigeria
4. Iceland

Argentina have not looked nearly as good as they should under Jorge Sampaoli, especially considering the time Sampaoli has had with the squad now. Their 6-1 loss to Spain in March is glued to the memory, and that's not a good final impression to have. Of course they have as much talent as anyone else in the tournament, and there's still this Messi guy that may be good at soccer, but these factors haven't come together to help Argentina win anything before, and it's the doubt that recent performances have cast over la Albiceleste that is a major concern here.

Croatia may not have another major tournament with the Modric-Rakitic-Mandzukic troika that has propelled them to becoming one of the better sides in Europe recently, and there isn't much behind them. Time hasn't yet been called on their international prowess just yet, so their brilliance should be enough to get them through. Nigeria have always been one of the better African nations at World Cup's past, and if they can summon what they summoned in 2014 against Argentina again, they could easily make it through again. Iceland's fairy tale story was amazing at Euro 2016 when they shocked the world, but no one will be surprised by them this time around, and the sum of their parts is exceeded by everyone else in their group, sadly.

Group E:
1. Brazil
2. Switzerland
3. Serbia
4. Costa Rica

Roberto Carlos says that this Brazil team has sacrificed a little of its attacking verve for defensive solidity, which may play as sacrilege at home, but to neutral observers is a fresh take for a Brazil team that desperately needs that spine, which they have from back to front now. Casemiro could be one of the most important players if Brazil are to win a sixth star this World Cup. Having Neymar, Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus also helps too. They're a favorite for a reason.

The race for second is going to be one of the more fascinating battles during the group stage. Switzerland is always solid and has a pedigree of making the knockout stage at big tournaments, especially recently, and they do have some good gamebreakers that Serbia and Costa Rica don't. Serbia's best player, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is going to be a breakout star of this tournament, but the Serbs don't have much beyond him that would concern many teams. And while Costa Rica are always going to be difficult to play against, there's the sense that they won't be surprising anyone this time around, and that they might be getting a little long in the tooth too.

Group F:
1. Germany
2. Mexico
3. Sweden
4. South Korea

Germany will look a fair bit different to the 2014 team that won the World Cup, even though many of the parts will be the same. They'll be playing with true forwards instead of the false nines they used throughout the last couple of major tournaments, which changes how they're going to play in a big way. It also makes them better, and more tactically flexible, in spite of how they looked in some pre World Cup friendlies. Their oldest player is also 32, which tells you a lot as to how Germany continues to be so good.

Mexico always find a way to make it out of their group during these tournaments, and they will again because this is their easiest World Cup group in some time. Germany will probably beat them, but they can easily beat Sweden and South Korea. Sweden don't have enough goals in their team if they get broken down defensively, and South Korea have only player that would scare you in Heung Min-Son, and he doesn't have the Spurs attack with him for his nation.

Group G:
1. Belgium
2. England
3. Tunisia
4. Panama

Belgium have won the "best team with the worst manager" award in their last two tournaments since with Marc Wilmots, they always looked three steps behind their opponents tactically. Roberto Martinez has his faults as a manager, but they aren't going to be as exposed during a short tournament as they are during a long club season. Because of that, we can now focus on how talented they are, and have been, for years now. If Vincent Kompany isn't fit, that could be a major problem, but this is their best chance yet to win a trophy for their golden generation.

England don't have nearly the pressure they often carry with them coming into major tournaments, and perhaps its the skeptcism of Gareth Southgate and his tactics, or that the team is so young and a great generation of youth is coming behind this group, but there is a youthful optimism about the Three Lions in this tournament. That's exciting and refreshing for once. And no Tony Adams, the Spurs players will not be England's downfall here.

Tunisia could be a tricky out for the two big boys here, and Panama will be happy to be here, but in the end will be cannon fodder. Imagine how much trickier this group would have been if Panama was replaced by the US.

Group H:
1. Colombia
2. Poland
3. Senegal
4. Japan

Colombia aren't quite as youthful and exuberant as they were in Brazil, but they are still very, very good. They've looked solid throughout qualifying, and have the potential with their stars to break games open that other teams in this group do not have. Jose Pekerman's tactics will probably hold Colombia back as the tournament goes on, but they should have enough to win the group.

Poland will be very much Robert Lewandowski focused and for good reason, but keep an eye on Arkadiusz Milik, the Napoli forward who also has a fair few goals in him. They could win this group, but they don't have quite enough to overcome Colombia here, and they also have a threat behind them in Senegal, who in their only World Cup made it shockingly to extra time in the quarterfinals in 2002 before finally being felled. They have a good spine of players familiar to Premier League fans and a couple of intriguing forward options in M'Baye Niang and Keita Balde, so it would not be a surprise at all if they advanced, or maybe even won their group. Japan always put in a decent account of themselves at major tournaments, but always end up looking like they have a talent deficit too.

Knockout Stage (in bracket order):

Round of 16:
Uruguay over Portugal (A1 over B2)
France over Croatia (C1 over D2)
Brazil over Mexico (E1 over F2)
Belgium over Poland (G1 over H2)
Spain over Russia (B1 over A2)
Argentina over Peru (D1 over C2)
Germany over Switzerland (F1 over E2)
England over Colombia (G2 over H1)

Quarterfinals:
France over Uruguay (C1 over A1)
Brazil over Belgium (E1 over G1)
Argentina over Spain (D1 over B1)
Germany over England (F1 over G2)

Semifinals:
Brazil over France (E1 over C1)
Germany over Argentina (F1 over D1)

Final:
Brazil over Germany (E1 over F1)

Awards:
Golden Ball: Neymar
Golden Boot: Timo Werner
Best Young Player: Kylian Mbappe
Golden Glove: Brazil's keeper (Alisson or Ederson)

After Spain's decision to sack Lopetegui, no changes to this bracket or the Group B standings were made.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The NHL, NBA and the inevitability of expectations

As both the NHL and NBA seasons ended within a day of each other, it gives us a good inflection point to look at both leagues and where they stand after another completed season, and the comparsions are much starker than they used to be.

The NHL's season, and playoffs, were dominated by unexpected and the cinderella runs. Watching the most snakebit postseason team in the last decade perhaps in all sports go up against an expansion team in its first season is quite the marked difference from Cavs/Warriors part four. These Stanley Cup Playoffs were certainly missing something in spite of both the Capitals and Golden Knights doing what they did; the playoffs were filled with more uncompetitive games than usual and the fewest OT games since 2000 (10 to 9) and none after the second round, but no one could see this Final coming, not even in Vegas or Washington. Meanwhile, the usually dramaless NBA playoffs had plenty of it before the seemingly inevitable Cavs/Warriors round four, which for more than awhile wasn't so inevitable at all. One league prides itself on the unexpected, even when a team repeats as champion, and the other prides itself on the inevitable, even with an unexpected path to the inevitable.

The Stanley Cup Finals ended with primal joy from the Capitals who finally exercised all their spring demons and ignited a celebration in Washington that made the Warriors almost muted celebration after dispatching the overmatched Cavs seem like they just got out of watching Infinity War for a third time (complete with mindless popcorn munching). Both Finals series ended prematurely but while in the NHL we were all wanting more, in the NBA we were wanting for something. As soon as JR Smith forgot to look up at the clock, the inevitability of the result was there for all to see. It wasn't quite like that when Braden Holtby made his miracle save late in Game 2 (because the entire world has lingering Caps skepticism that will never go away), but even drawing the comparison puts into the mind's eye how different these supposedly similar leagues are, and how much farther they're drifting apart.

Every move the NBA has made under Adam Silver has been calculated greatness. Major sports leagues are often run poorly and the comissioners are under the ire of the fans and media for ordering the wrong cut of steak at dinner, but the NBA contradicts that at every turn, and for the better. It seems as the league becomes more dominated by three to four teams, the product is more compelling than ever in spite of the certain inevitability of the season's outcome.

Meanwhile in the NHL, Gary Bettman even gets booed when he's awarding the Cup in Las Vegas. As the product on the ice gets better as the game gets faster and scoring has gone up, the league seems less interesting than ever. This magical Stanley Cup final between the two unlikeliest teams to make the final since maybe the Oilers and Hurricanes happened by complete accident. The NHL's staunch insistence on psychotic parity means that the worst Caps teams in years and an expansion team making the Final makes perfect sense in the twisted logic of the NHL's parity. Compared to the NBA, where the Finals series seems inevitable in July, it's a stark contrast. And the contrast isn't just evident in the games themselves.

The NHL's major "social media moments" during the Finals were a football player joking about how easy hockey is to play, and then Twitter promptly freaking and Ryan Miller telling Chrissy Teigen that being a goalie is in fact hard to do, while in the NBA the wife of a GM had burner accounts revealing confidential injury information about Sixers players. See the contrast? The NHL is hankering for casual relevance with just about anyone outside of the hockey bubble, while the NBA seemingly walks into it without trying. It's as if with everything each league does, the NHL's try-hard sweaty insecurity is dwarfed by the NBA's calm coolness at every possible turn.

Both offseasons are going to be dominated by superstar free agents going to market. In the NHL this almost never happens, but the drama of LeBron or any other superstar's free agency in the NBA now seems normal and dominates all the oxygen in sports because that move will dictate the future of a league. If John Tavares had a brain cramp and signed with Montreal, he could easily miss the playoffs next season (or even if he stayed with the Islanders). Watching the sagas will be eminently different too. There will be LeBron speculation and gossip every day from every corner of every alley, while John Tavares speculation is seemingly relegated to the same sort of gossip, but entirely less interesting. People will read into every social media post from LeBron looking for coded clues to see if that means he's going to be Laker or Sixer, while the radio silence from the Tavares camp is almost astounding to watch in today's social media age. 

Even on draft night, there's a stunning contrast in fortunes for the leagues. While Marvin Bagley thinks the assumption that DeAndre Ayton is going to be the number one pick is "disrespectful", the NHL Draft is dominated by one Swedish defenseman who everyone knows is going first overall but can't actually say it because in hockey, you can't actually say "I" in interviews about even yourself.  

Both leagues are swimming in money, and even hockey's miniscule popularity is on the upswing. Ratings from the Stanley Cup Final indicate that perhaps, the leagues fans are shaking their parochial nature, even if it is to just to see if a team that yours tortured finally could overcome their demons (thanks Pittsburgh) or to just watch good hockey at all (hello Buffalo). The NBA Finals ratings clearly showed Cavs/Dubs fatigue after great ratings throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. And while the team that LeBron goes to next year will probably be the favorite to play the Warriors in the Final (or Western Conference Final), even the league's most awful teams are somewhat compelling in a way that the NHL could never get with Arizona, Buffalo, Florida or even Edmonton. But that can't change what has always been constant about both leagues; one tries desperately to be relevant and can't get there, while the other smoothly goes from one success to another without even trying.

Teams not in the LeBron sweepstakes and those not named the Sixers, Celtics and Warriors might as well take the season off while they trust the process, while in the NHL it actually seems to take more effort to be consistently bad than fluke one season into a great playoff run. The teams that tank in the NHL almost never get rewarded for being that bad, while in the NBA, the only way to have any chance if you're not one of the best three teams is to tank and hope luck falls your way once or twice to have a three or four year window with a star before he departs for greener, more lucrative pastures.

None of these observations about the NHL and NBA juxtaposed against each other are new, and none are meant to be a #PleaseLikeMySport take from someone who is firmly in team hockey. But after watching the two seasons end the way they did and the way that they were shaped is the perfect contrast, especially when considering one league is expontentially growing in popularity and the other only knows how to spin its wheels. So much goes into why one league is popular and the other isn't, from the marketability of stars to the presentation and coverage of the games to the accessibility of each sport, but in a time where the NFL's goliath is falling from grace, there should be an opportunity for the one lacking in almost every department to finally take advantage of one that may be open, but they are never able to do it. 

With the NBA, everything looks so effortless, calculated and designed and every almost every decision pays off in spades. The NHL's best moments of the last decade are almost all happy accidents, and when they do make a smart decision, they're burnt into the ground before anyone can appreciate the smart decision itself. That's why the least compelling NBA Finals in a decade plus, even after an unexpected path to get there, felt like a subsuming tidal wave of intrigue whereas the most unexpected of Stanley Cup Finals perhaps ever felt like accidentally tripping over a vein of gold in the Nevada desert, which is something they'll never do again. 

The sports ecosystem would be better if the NHL was anywhere near half of what the NBA is, or is becoming, but a league with so many stars, storylines and a great product to show can't ever seem to get out of its own way, whereas for a league whose results feel inevitable and sometimes academic, it is more compelling than ever.

Gary Bettman may be a basketball guy, but he only wishes his league could do what his former league seems to do with ease, and after the seasons for each league have concluded, there is no easier line to draw between the two than this year. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Now that you've hopefully review how hopeless my preseason NHL predictions were, it's time to see how hopeless my playoff predictions are going to be. I never do well with these even though I try to use logic to make these picks, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs have no logic in them whatsoever.

I encourage you to listen to this podcast where I made my picks in audio form (you have to get through 50 or so minutes of other nonsense to get to them, but its worth it, trust me), but if you prefer the written word, and I can understand why you would, here they are:

Eastern Conference:

TB (A1) over NJ (WC2) in 4
BOS (A2) over TOR (A3) in 7
WSH (M1) over CBJ (WC1) in 6
PIT (M2) over PHI (M3) in 6

BOS (A2) over TB (A1) in 7
PIT (M2) over WSH (M1) in 6

BOS (A2) over PIT (M2) in 6

Western Conference:

NSH (C1) over COL (WC2) in 5
WPG (C2) over MIN (C3) in 6
LA (WC1) over VGK (P1) in 6
SJ (P3) over ANA (P2) in 6

NSH (C1) over WPG (C2) in 7
SJ (P3) over LA (WC1) in 6

NSH (C1) over SJ (P3) in 6

2018 Stanley Cup Final:

Nashville (C1) over Boston (A2) in 6

Conn Smythe Winner: Filip Forsberg (NSH)

Sorry to the Preds in advance, but this is a team that seems motivated and stung by what happened last year to the point where they are so loaded that it's hard to see any team stopping them over a seven game series. Winnipeg will get close, but it's the biggest challenge I believe they'll face over these two months.

People are underestimating the Bruins I think, even though they were hockey's best team for four months in spite of everyone being hurt. They have potentially the best line in the sport, a goalie who can get hot and young players who are in the prime position to get hot. It would be nice if Rick Nash played decently in the playoffs once in his career, but he's not the focal point for the Bruins. Some of these young players already tasted a playoff sting last year, which should help them in their big challenges ahead in the East.

But Nashville has just enough to overcome Boston in the Final and hoist the Cup, and since they are the deepest team, they deserve to win. Rarely does that mean they actually do, especially since winning the President's Trophy is often a guaranteed jinx, but something tells me this Preds team is different.

Watch me be 100% wrong again though.

How Did I Do: 2017-18 NHL Season Predictions Reviewed

In an effort to post #content to this website without exerting much effort, it's time to review what turned out to be terrible preseason NHL predictions. Making predictions is an inherently worthless but somehow still necessary enterprise in the world of sports, making reviewing them even more worthless, but sometimes I like to see how wrong I was. Speaking of... (predictions first, actual standings in parentheses).

Metro Division:

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

Atlantic Division:

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

Central Division:

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

Pacific Division:

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

Five correct playoff teams in the East for me and four in the West. Even by my standards, that's a fairly poor hit rate. But the NHL is always upside down and topsy turvy and this year was no different. There are seven new playoff teams this year, as it seems there are every year, though some are more surprising than others, of course (hi Colorado and New Jersey). My Conference Finals were Tampa over Pittsburgh and Edmonton over Dallas and then Tampa over Edmonton, so let's just throw those picks in the garbage and start over.

How did I do with awards?

Hart: Connor McDavid (he has a candidacy in the eyes of some but he's not winning it over a whole host of other more deserving players on actual good hockey teams)
Art Ross: Connor McDavid (Bingo!)
Calder: Alex DeBrincat (he was good, but nowhere near as good as Barzal, McAvoy, Luc-Dubois, etc.)
Norris: Victor Hedman (he has a great chance if he can get by someone from Nashville first)
Vezina: Matt Murray (no way. Injuries and absences hurt his form. Rinne, Vasilevsky or maybe John Gibson)
Jack Adams: Mike Babcock (Gerard Gallant won this award in November)
First Coach Fired: Paul Maurice (October Matt thought coaches would get fired. That's funny).

So most of my October hockey predictions were in fact garbage. Par for the course. Are my playoff predictions going to be better? I hope so.