Thursday, February 28, 2019

2019 MLS Predictions

Remember when I promised at the end of 2018 that I wouldn't fill this blog with solely preseason prediction columns and/or cheap looks back at what I got wrong when the seasons end? Two months in to 2019 and I'm doing a terrible job of that already. I personally blame Kingdom Hearts 3 for that, but since this blog is not about explaining the intricate plot details of a game I have waited for since I was sixth grade, let's focus on a new season starting this weekend: MLS. The league that is constantly changing, growing and evolving by the second is beginning a new campaign, and even now as some teams try to break free of single entity's chains, the league still feels as wide open as ever. With that, here are some predictions that are sure to be wrong in May, let alone October:

Eastern Conference:
1. Atlanta
2. Red Bulls
3. DC United
4. Union
5. Crew
6. Impact
7. NYCFC
8. Toronto FC
9. Fire
10. Orlando
11. Revolution
12. FC Cincinnati

Western Conference:
1. Sporting KC (Supporters Shield)
2. LAFC
3. Timbers
4. Sounders
5. Galaxy
6. Real Salt Lake
7. Minnesota
8. FC Dallas
9. Colorado
10. Vancouver
11. Houston
12. San Jose

MLS Cup 2019: Sporting Kansas City vs. New York Red Bulls

Award Predictions:
MVP: Zlatan (obviously)
Coach: Jim Curtin
Defender: Walker Zimmerman
Rookie: Andre Shinyashiki
Golden Boot: Zlatan
Comeback: Jordan Morris

Zlatan will singlehandedly will a broken LA Galaxy team to the postseason after a two year absence. Atlanta United will still be very good, but with everyone gunning out to beat them, inconsistencies will slip in with a manager that hasn't ever hit his stride outside of Holland. MLS' best and most consistent team will be Sporting Kansas City, and that should allow them to outlast everyone and win the Cup. The best surprises will be the Union taking to Ernst Tanner's style better and quicker than anticipated, Montreal mastering a counter-attacking style to make the postseason, and Minnesota United finally making with a core of solid MLS veterans to push that team over the line.

One final predictions: CBA negotiations starting after MLS Cup in November are going to be wild, nasty and fascinating. How much if at all will the league's structure change?

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 NFL Season Predictions in Review (plus playoff predictions)

Before making the standard "cheap content" joke I usually make when writing these pieces, I would like to apologize to the few of you that still bother to click on this link for the lack of content this year. I got lazy. One of my New Year's resolutions I will try my best to keep will be to write more here, and not lazy season predictions in review pieces such as this. But looking back on how awful my preseason predictions were, it's worth making fun of myself as a nice goodbye to 2018. Let's look back at the carnage:

Division Winners (Mine): NE, PIT, JAX, LAC, PHI, GB, NO, LAR
Division Winners (Actual): NE, BAL, HOU, KC, DAL, CHI, NO, LAR

Three out of eight ain't bad...? To be fair, at least the Chargers and Eagles did make the playoffs even as wild cards, but it was quite a bad year for the Packers, Jaguars and Steelers, who all fell off a proverbial cliff. It's probably the fewest division winners I've picked correctly in the years I've done them on this website, and the gory evidence is plain for all to see. I got four of the six AFC playoff teams right, missing on the Steelers and Jaguars (in place of the Chargers and Ravens) and in the NFC, I got three of the six right, missing on Seattle, Dallas and Chicago (in place of Green Bay, Minnesota and Atlanta). Seven out of 12 is at least a passing grade.

Worst overestimations: Jacksonville, Green Bay, San Francisco, Atlanta, Minnesota

My team at the top of the list. I legitimately thought even the Jaguars couldn't screw up what they did last season, and boy was I ever wrong. I will never predict the Jaguars to be good again until they make the postseason in three consecutive seasons, that's a hard and fast rule. Green Bay, Atlanta and Minnesota all collapsed for various reasons, injuries, defensive lapses and less than stellar QB play, and we'll never know how good the 49ers could have been because of Jimmy G's injury.

Worst underestimations: Indianapolis, Chicago, Dallas

Andrew Luck's comeback this year is only one of the great transformations from Frank Reich's Colts. Their defense and offensive line play have sparkled this year, which is why they're such a dangerous team. They have an underrated running game too. The Bears made bold moves in adding Khalil Mack and now have a lethal defense to go along with a growing Mitchell Trubisky, and now this Bears team is dangerous too. But the best Bears teams in recent years have flopped at home in the postseason and turned out to be one-and-done teams, so that is a concern. Dallas took advantage of a bad division to win it, even after a 3-5 start.

Award Predictions (mine first, then thoughts):

MVP: Aaron Rodgers (Not even close, it will be either Mahomes or Brees and I lean Mahomes)
OPOY: Antonio Brown (good season but not great, whoever loses MVP wins this)
DPOY: Aaron Donald (lead the league in sacks and was dominant, so he could actually win)
OROY: Saquon Barkley (there are good choices, but Saquon will win this)
DROY: Roquan Smith (good season but overshadowed, Darius Leonard of the Colts had a spectacular year)
Comeback: DeShaun Watson (would be the winner if not for the QB he's facing in the playoffs)
Coach: Bill O'Brien (nothing wrong here, but Frank Reich and Matt Nagy will be the leading contenders).

Now, for some playoff predictions, with a few thoughts on each game along the way:

Wild Card Round:

(6) Indianapolis over (3) Houston)
(5) Seattle over (4) Dallas
(5) LA Chargers over (4) Baltimore
(3) Chicago over (6) Philadelphia

The Colts have a solid defense that will be able to get after DeShaun Watson, who was sacked 62 times this season. That's a critical weakness that Indy will exploit, and their offense is more balanced. It's easy to trust Russell Wilson over Dak Prescott, and Seattle has just enough to edge out Dallas, even though this is the most even game of the round. The Chargers are a nasty team to face when they're on the road, and the Chargers won't play as poorly as they did two weeks ago, and will now defend Lamar Jackson better. The Bears have the balance to frustrate Nick Foles and end his magic carpet ride while making the plays on offense that are needed.

Division Round:

(1) Kansas City over (6) Indianapolis
(3) Chicago over (2) LA Rams
(2) New England over (5) LA Chargers
(1) New Orleans over (5) Seattle

Kansas City has too many weapons for the Colts to contend with, which means the Chiefs will win a playoff home game for the first time in multiple presidential administrations. The Bears have the balance to frustrate the Rams again, just as they did in Week 14. New England is such a great proposition at home, which the Chargers won't be able to contend with. New Orleans is a force that has too much for Seattle to keep up with in the Superdome.

Conference Title Games:

(1) New Orleans over (3) Chicago
(1) Kansas City over (2) New England

Both one seeds have too much for their opposition, but these games will be fascinating tilts. Chicago can maintain balance on both sides of the ball that will keep New Orleans at bay, but that can only happen for so long. New England's weaknesses will be exploited by Kansas City even though they already beat the Chiefs once before, but in Foxborough.

Super Bowl 53:

New Orleans over Kansas City

If these predictions hold, we'll have the highest scoring Super Bowl ever. New Orleans has just enough defense to hold out over Kansas City in this scenario.

Happy new year, and I'll do my best to put more content on this website in the next 365 days.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

2018-19 NHL Season Predictions

Amidst Lebron's Lakers debut, Pat Mahomes' domination of the universe and the Red Sox and Yankees playing what will likely be a one sided playoff series, the NHL's new season is about to begin. In many ways, the NHL is less relevant but more exciting than ever. The paradox makes it immense fun to be a hockey fan, while also wondering why so few people are excited then remembering #pleaselikemysport nonsense exists.

Anyway, this season could prove to be one of the most fun yet, with an influx of amazing young talent, offense on the rise and a more competitive race for the Cup than almost ever. There is more reason than ever to put the NHL's baggage out of your mind for a minute and remember how good the game itself is now. That's worth something, right? Here come the predictions, sure to be hilariously wrong come April:

Metropolitan Division:

1. Pittsburgh
2. Washington
3. Philadelphia
4. Columbus
5. Carolina
6. New Jersey
7. New York Rangers
8. New York Islanders

It's hard for the Penguins to have a chip on their shoulder, but watching the Caps finally beat them in the playoffs and oust them from the postseason may well give them a chip they almost have never had before. With Sid, Geno, Phil and a cast of players who will become household names because they play with those players, the Penguins will actually win the division for once this year. Washington will slide neatly in behind, probably starting a little slow because that summer party was a banger, wasn't it? Philadelphia is also sneaky good in terms of their foundation, but they don't have the top end talent yet to firmly challenge those two for division supremacy.

Every question in Columbus is about the future of two Russian stars, Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. They are integral to what the Blue Jackets are trying to do, and it seems like both don't want to be there beyond next year. So does Columbus trade them, or hold onto them for one last run? It's a dilemma that will define the franchise for perhaps a decade, but right now, they are a playoff team. Everyone's in-vogue team, Carolina, has new ownership, process and ideas, but whether that translates to results may come down to goaltending and getting a real center. New Jersey made the postseason last year on the back of a historic season from Taylor Hall and flukey goaltending that's not likely repeatable, and both New York teams are in the midst of long rebuilds to see which team can get more lottery balls for Jack Hughes.

Atlantic Division:

1. Tampa Bay
2. Toronto
3. Boston
4. Florida
5. Buffalo
6. Montreal
7. Detroit
8. Ottawa

Predicting this year's Atlantic is one of the easiest tasks in sports predictions ever. Almost everyone agrees on that order above. Tampa is a dominant team in all facets that would have won the Cup last year if they played their fourth line less, so it figures this year they probably will learn from their mistakes. Toronto finally got a prodigal son to return which should help push this team up a notch, but they still don't match up pound for pound up and down the roster with Tampa just yet. Boston has a good group of young players and an ageless Zdeno Chara backstopping them, but their stars are a little older, and last year's flameout against Tampa shows they may be a fair way away from true contention. Florida has a dominant top six and may be just good enough everywhere else to not just make the playoffs, but give someone fits in the first round, if they can get out of their own way.

The rest of the division is varying levels of mess. Buffalo resembles an actual NHL team this year, and with Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Middelstat around to help Jack Eichel get out of his Buffalo blues, there should be progress in Western New York at long last, maybe even a playoff race. Montreal has Carey Price back and a couple of interesting young forwards, but the blue line is a mess with Shea Weber, let alone without him. Detroit is firmly in rebuild territory with what seems like more cap dollars on IR than on their opening night roster, but there are promising future signs. And the less said about Ottawa, the better.

Central Division:

1. Nashville
2. Winnipeg
3. St. Louis
4. Dallas
5. Colorado
6. Minnesota
7. Chicago

It should be Nashville and Winnipeg once again duking it out for central supremacy, and they are on basically equal footing. Nashville's biggest weakness may be figuring out if and when to go to Juuse Saros, and hoping Zac Rinaldo doesn't cost them games. Winnipeg is thinner than they were last year, but boy are they going to be fun to watch. Their playoff experience now has to be an asset, especially having beaten Nashville when the chips were down already. St. Louis added some beef up front in Bozak, Perron and O'Reilly and to go along with their young bursting stable of prospects, they could be really, really good... if the goaltending holds up. Dallas has more depth up front now than they had in the last two years, and their top end talent is still fantastic. They should have enough gas now for the postseason.

Colorado's amazing run to the postseason last year was almost entirely Nate MacKinnon fueled, and while he's fantastic, he needs more help from his running mates to repeat the feat this year, and it's an open question whether he can get it. But don't weep for the Avs, the Sens gave them a potential #1 overall pick to make this group even better. Minnesota has Bruce Boudreau, a coach who is an expert in getting his teams to the postseason, but if he can do it this year, it will be his best job yet with an older group and a core that might not be all it was hyped up to be. Chicago's bottom finally fell out last year with injuries and a top heavy roster, all problems that haven't really been fixed this year. They won't be terrible, but that's a bad place to be in the Central.

Pacific Division:

1. San Jose
2. Vegas
3. Los Angeles
4. Calgary
5. Anaheim
6. Arizona
7. Edmonton
8. Vancouver

San Jose went big game hunting this offseason. They couldn't get John Tavares or Ryan O'Reilly, but they got one heck of a consolation prize in Erik Karlsson. Him and Brent Burns on the same power play? Yes please. Doug Wilson is going for it and kudos to him for knowing his group and knowing the chance his team has this year. Are they the best team in the West? Probably not, but facing an easier division than the Central helps their cause. Vegas will not surprise anyone this year, and they are deeper up front than last year with Paul Stasny and Max Pacioretty buffering an already fantastic group. But some of that magic last year with a less than stellar D corps and a historic Marc-Andre Fleury season is probably not repeatable. They are still absolutely a contender in the Pacific though.

LA is still fairly old and slow up front, and Ilya Kovalchuk in spite of his offensive gifts won't change that. Their difference makers could be Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan because they may be the only players with foot speed on the roster. They have enough to make the playoffs, but probably not enough to do anything when they get there. The fourth spot in this division was wide open, but I leaned towards Southern Alberta because of Johnny Hockey, Sean Monahan and James Neal. If some of their offensive additions can help a D corps in flux, and Mike Smith can make a save or two, this team may finally live up to its own hype.

Anaheim is primed for a Chicago style fall because of their injury issues and roster construction from a by-gone era in the league. John Gibson is great, and some of their younger talent is good, especially on the back end, but last year's playoff exit against the Sharks is a warning sign too big to ignore. Arizona should be a lot better than last year, especially if they can keep their fantastic second half play up and get good-ish goaltending from Antti Raanta. Edmonton is a team I will not predict anything good for until they prove to me they deserve it, because Connor McDavid cannot do it on his own, nor should he. And while Vancouver gushes over Elias Pettersson, it's worth reminding them how much money they spent on Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle.

Playoffs:

Eastern Conference:

Tampa (A1) over Florida (WC2) in 6
Toronto (A2) over Boston (A3) in 6
Pittsburgh (M1) over Columbus (WC1) in 5
Washington (M2) over Philadelphia (M3) in 7

Tampa (A1) over Toronto (A2) in 7
Pittsburgh (M1) over Washington (M2) in 6

Tampa (A1) over Pittsburgh (M1) in 6

Western Conference:

Nashville (C1) over Calgary (WC2) in 5
Winnipeg (C2) over St. Louis (C3) in 6
San Jose (P1) over Dallas (WC1) in 6
Vegas (P2) over LA (P3) in 5

Nashville (C1) over Winnipeg (C2) in 7
San Jose (P1) over Vegas (P2) in 6

San Jose (P1) over Nashville in 6

2019 Stanley Cup Final: Tampa over San Jose in 6

Awards:

Hart: Connor McDavid (EDM)
Art Ross: McDavid
Rocket Richard: Patrik Laine (WPG)
Norris: Erik Karlsson (SJ)
Vezina: John Gibson (ANA)
Calder: Andrei Svechnikov (CAR)
Jack Adams: Jim Montgomery (DAL)
First Coach Fired; Todd McLellan (EDM)

So please feel free to tell me how wrong I'm going to be, because I often am. Happy hockey season!

Monday, October 1, 2018

2018 MLB Season Predictions in Review (plus Playoff Predictions)

I can say I sometimes neglect this blog in lieu of my other work, so I feel bad when there's a clear barren spell on this website I've had up and running for over eight years. So sometimes, that means I go for the easy way out and write up pieces like looking back on preseason predictions, which means as the pair of Game 163's in the NL just ended, that's what I'm going to do. I always enjoy seeing where I was right, wrong or in the wrong galaxy, so let's do that. And of course, playoff predictions follow too.

What I got Right: Not as much as I should have. I predicted three of the five NL playoff teams (LAD, CHC and MIL) and four of the five in the AL (NYY, BOS, CLE, HOU), but all of those seemed like givens. Everyone missed on the Nats implosion, and didn't quite see the rise of the Braves coming, but maybe I should have listened to myself a little more than I did when writing about the A's:

"Oakland signed Jonathan Lucroy, which allows this writer who needs to pay more attention to teams not named the Mets to name someone on this team. But the A's often find a way to surprise in spite of everything working against them, but their lineup seems balanced and they have a farm system worth mentioning. Someone is going to be like Milwaukee or Minnesota of last year and contend out of nowhere, and if it's not the Phillies, it'll be their AL equivalent."

Well, I was right, but didn't predict that they would be this good. In any other year, they'd be one of the best teams in all of the AL, and this year, they'd have the best record in the NL! But those super teams ruin fun sometimes, and the A's wonderful rise is stifled by geography and history when it comes to October fortunes. And the Phillies were contenders until mid-September too!

What I got wrong: Overhyping the Nats (as most everyone did), the Cardinals and Angels, but there weren't any predictions that were overtly awful, other than expecting the Rays to bring up the rear of the AL East when they ended up winning 90 games. Most of the wrong came in underestimating how bad certain teams would be, like Baltimore, the White Sox and Kansas City. And in awards predictions too. Speaking of...

NL MVP: I predicted Bryce Harper. Nope. Christian Yelich should be the favorite based on how he carried the Brewers to winning the NL Central, and he has some strong competition from Javy Baez, who

AL MVP: I predicted Carlos Correa, who was very good, but Mookie Betts was better, and his team was better than Mike Trout's, who is always the AL MVP, but his team never backs him up.

NL Cy Young: I said Noah Syndergaard, and at least I got the team right. Jacob DeGrom's season was historically good, and if he doesn't win the award based on wins and losses, it's an embarrassment to the sport of baseball.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale was not a bad shout, but his slowdown in the latter half of the season should tip the award to Blake Snell of the Rays, who for a team that coined "the opener" ended up having the best ace of any staff in the Junior Circuit.

NL Rookie: Ronald Acuna was a pretty easy yet smart call, because he is the face of the Baby Braves renaissance. Juan Soto was also pretty dang good too as well Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler (who was great in Game 163) and Harrison Bader for the Cardinals.

AL Rookie: How could it not be Shohei Otani, even with the Tommy John surgery coming?

NL Manager: Craig Counsell did a dang good job with the Brewers, but Bud Black getting the Rockies to consecutive postseasons is one that probably gets some more value, as does Brian Snitker's season with the Braves.

AL Manager: Hey, Aaron Boone was great! But everyone expected the Yankees to be great, and they were. No one expected the A's to be good, or nearly as good as they were. Kevin Cash deserves a dap too.

With all that taken care of, here are some playoff predictions:

National League:

Wild Card Game: Cubs over Rockies
NLDS: Dodgers over Braves in 4, Cubs over Brewers in 5
NLCS: Dodgers over Cubs in 6

American League:

Wild Card Game: Yankees over A's
ALDS: Red Sox over Yankees in 5, Astros over Indians in 4
ALCS: Red Sox over Astros in 6

2018 World Series:

Red Sox over Dodgers in 5

It was Yankees over the Dodgers in the spring, but now it's the Red Sox. Go figure.

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.