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Monday, September 1, 2014

2014-15 Premier League Transfer Window Recap/Predictions

Since the transfer window hilariously ends after the season starts, I try to hold off on final predictions until the window shuts, which it now has. A record amount of cash has been spent, and big names have come and gone. Now we can finally recount and reflect, and prognosticate. The order is going from worst to first, so that you actually read the whole way through.

20. Burnley

The Premier League newboys made no bones about the fact that they don't spend funny money on players, and while that's a nice philosophy to have, the club has to compete with many clubs that do. So their window, which brought in some lower quality Premier League players like Marvin Sordell, Steven Reid, George Boyd and Matthew Taylor, is not inspiring. They've proven to be tough already at Turf Moor, but they're going to have to find a way to scalp games on the road against relegation rivals and this squad doesn't suggest that they can. It would be a great story if they stayed up, but it's highly unlikely.

19. Crystal Palace

If they were able to keep hold of Tony Pulis, then they would not be down in the bottom 3. His importance to their turnaround last season was nothing short of immense, and had he stayed there would have been a solid platform on which to build. Now Neil Warnock is in charge, and his last spell in the league didn't go so well. The team isn't really that talented, and Pulis got the best out of them. I have my doubts that Warnock can do the same despite the re-introduction of Wilfried Zaha. The squad has quality in spots with players like Joe Ledley, Dwight Gayle, Marouane Chamakh and now James McArthur, but their manager was the difference last year, and it will be again, but in the wrong direction this time.

18. QPR

What would deadline day be without Harry Redknapp and his in-car interviews? Apparently not much to Sky Sports since they didn't have one today, but old 'Arry was just as busy as ever. He signed former Spurs players of his in Sandro and Niko Kranjcar, and some quality from Serie A in Edu Vargas and Mauricio Isla earlier in the window. Yes the Rio Ferdinand signing was/is hilarious, but it's a Harry special and who doesn't love those? So why are they here? Glenn Hoddle's 3-5-2, which QPR can't play with this personnel. Their 3 centerbacks are slow and old, and the wingbacks aren't good enough natural defenders. They also lack quality up top behind Austin and Vargas, which is a shame since their midfield is very good. Unfortunately, that won't be good enough to keep them up.

17. West Bromwich Albion

Until a Pulis meltdown, Albion were prime candidates to go down. They're still not good by any means, but now there are clearly 3 teams worse than them. Their signings didn't inspire much confidence and they still don't, but adding players like Silvestre Varela, Georgios Samaras and Sebastian Blanco add a little spice to an otherwise dull, predictable squad. Alan Irvine hasn't proven to be as tactically inept as Sheffield Wednesday supporters led me on to believe... yet, at least. They'll need good performances from their somewhat older back 4 throughout the season, and the goals to come from not only record signing Brown Ideye, but also Saido Berahino and the other new signings. If they hold up at the back, they may just squeak it out and stay up.

16. Leicester City

They've already proven to be a scrappy bunch with the draws against Everton and Arsenal, and that was until they signed Esteban Cambiasso. He will provide amazing leadership and grit in the middle of the park, which the Foxes weren't necessarily lacking before, but he'll add to it. Their strength has and will continue to be wide play, and that's already shown itself to be true with players like Mahrez, Knockaert and Albrighton. If they can continue to get goals from Ulloa and a few from their other strikers, they'll have no issue staying up. In that process, the King Power Stadium will be a difficult place to go and take 3 points from. They were, and still are the best of the promoted lot.

15. Aston Villa

Despite their flying start, they'll have a good chunk of bumpy moments. Most of the signings from past windows which had some promise haven't panned out, so a small army of players are now out on loan from Villa Park. The ones they've brought in don't inspire much confidence at all, but the cohesion of the remaining squad will be important to their survival. Mainly, the fact that they haven't sold Ron Vlaar is proof enough that they'll stay up, even with a struggle. Carlos Sanchez and Aly Cissokho aren't bad players, but they're nothing compared to what other clubs around them have done. Paul Lambert will keep them up, but just, and since that's where Villa have been since he took over, where is the progress?

14. Sunderland

The Black Cats won't be in nearly as big a hole as they were a year ago, but the squad still has some obvious deficiencies. The midfield has good grit and toughness with players like Jack Rodwell in tow, and has good creativity in wide areas with players like Ricky Alvarez and Emanuele Giacherrini, but the defense still leaves something to be desired despite the fact they've improved it. Sebastian Coates and Patrick Van Aanholt are good players, but are they amazing by Premier League standards? No. Their issues are going to come up front, with striking issues still prevalent, and exacerbated with no Fabio Borini. The midfield will likely provide enough goals, and their defense will be nowhere near as bad as it was under Paolo Di Canio, but the squad could certainly be better than it is. Maybe we'll even have a Danny Graham sighting at some point this season... but for Sunderland supporters hopefully there isn't.

13. Hull City

Hey big spender... Who knew they'd be so active in securing some quality players on deadline day to add to an already solid squad. Abel Hernandez, Gaston Ramirez, Mo Diame, and even Hatem Ben Arfa are all quality additions to a squad that did lack it at points last season and in the early points of this one. With the lack of major outgoings as well (Boyd and Long being the notables), Hull now find themselves with a very solid backbone that allowed them to take some unusual risks, and they may well pay off. Hull's 3-5-2 has actually worked once in awhile (cough Mr. Van Gaal cough), and the additions will help out since their midfield did need a little more guile in it. Without the Europa League distractions, Hull will likely find themselves well secure in their Premier League status, and further cement themselves in the top flight.

12. Stoke City

The transition from sparker (Pulis) to Sparky has gone pretty well in the Potteries thus far. Now in his second year in charge, Mark Hughes continues to blend the old and the new pretty well, and his squad shows it. There are still Pulis players in there such as Steven N'Zonzi, Charlie Adam and Ryan Shawcross, but I doubt under Pulis Stoke would have signed 2 players from Barcelona. Also, Mame Diouf has already proven to be a good player up front, and with the likes of Bojan, Peter Odemwinge, Victor Moses and Peter Crouch around him, Stoke do have a pretty formidable attack. Where could they slip up? The defense isn't all that deep, and there is a lack of true creativity in the middle of the park. Also, there is early season hilarious inconsistency, especially in struggling to beat 10 man Hull and Villa at home, yet going to the Etihad and winning. Expect that to continue.

11. Swansea City

What a start to the season for the Swans. 3 wins out of 3, and they looked pretty comfortable in doing so. Despite the exodus of Spanish players, Swansea's style is firmly entrenched, and seeing players like Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge have success has to be good news for England supporters (why hasn't Dyer gotten a call-up yet is beyond me). They've added considerately in spots, like buying Fede Fernandez from Napoli, and getting back Gylfi Sigurdsson who will fit in better at Swansea than he did at Spurs. And they still have Wilfried Bony, and that's crucial. Their other additions are solid, and Garry Monk is starting to come into his own as a manager. They won't continue this torrid pace, but they'll certainly not have the struggle they did a year ago.

10. West Ham United

Finally they bought different types of players! Mauro Zarate, Enner Valencia, Carl Jenkinson, ALEX SONG (!!!!!). West Ham are trying desperately to get out of the old Big Sam stereotypes, even if he insists on starting Carlton Cole alongside Mauro Zarate. Adding Morgan Amalfitano should add a little creative spark to a midfield that was all bite and no bark. The difference between them being garbage and them challenging for Europe will be the players that have been around for awhile stepping their game up, and avoiding cataclysmic disasters like the ones against Spurs and Southampton. They now have the squad to do it, but can Big Sam push the Hammers on further up?

9. Newcastle United

Last summer the question was "why didn't Mike Ashley back Alan Pardew"? He didn't, and after Newcastle's great start they naturally fell off a cliff after Yohan Cabaye was sold. This summer Pardew has been backed with some quality additions such as Remy Cabella, Siem De Jong, Emmanuel Riviere among others, and he's also seen the emergence of a young player like Rolando Aarons who has already made his impact felt. And getting the cancer that was/is Hatem Ben Arfa out of that dressing room can only help. If only Newcastle's back 4 was any good... and their manager... Since those 2 things haven't really changed yet, Newcastle's ceiling is just where it was before, and that has to be frustrating to the St. James' Park faithful.

8. Southampton

So the mass fire-sale that coincided with Mauricio Pochettino heading to London meant that the Saints were in deep trouble right? Guess not. Ronald Koeman has already shown some great things with his style, and now he has players to prove it. He didn't have to sell Morgan Schneiderlin or Jay Rodriguez (yet), and he's brought in quality players like Dusan Tadic, Toby Alderweireld, and Saido Mane (who is sneaky good by the way). The clarion calls from Saints faithful to buy players finally were heard, and Southampton may now have a better squad than they did all of last season, which is hard to imagine. There aren't as many young players involved as before, but the few that are there are still very good and will have an impact. All is looking up roses on the South Coast again after a dreary few months at sea.

7. Everton

Last year was such a fun one at Goodison Park thanks to Roberto Martinez, his tactics, and the way young players developed under his tutelage. This season has started a little different, especially since his defense has been incredibly leaky already, and the business has been less than stellar. Despite the greatness that was spending 28 million pounds to permanently buy Romelu Lukaku, their squad is still thin in other areas, and that will be tested dearly this season with a tough Europa League group ahead of them. The back 4 hasn't really been addressed, and if the issues with Distin/Jagielka continue, then problems could seriously mount. Injuries haven't helped, especially to players like Ross Barkley who added another dimension last season. The success of last season unfortunately looks fleeting.

6. Tottenham

Last season's transfer window was all about the big bucks spent in replacing Gareth Bale, and then laughing at Spurs because only one of the players had a good season. Mauricio Pochettino's job is to get the best out of them (which he has already started to do), and have the club playing a consistent style for once. The first 5 games under his watch have already shown that to be the case. The signings have addressed the need for depth at the back, and they are all very solid and can prove dividends immediately, as Eric Dier already has. Benjamin Stambouli should add the pressing capabilities that Pochettino wants in his midfield 2, and the other defenders are all players with room to improve. Their is a lack of depth at striker, and just a step down in quality of signing compared to the 5 teams above them, but this was a season Spurs needed to build on with a new manager regardless of whether the signings were awesome or not. 6th and a cup run will be enough to tide Spurs fans over, and the signs are already positive.

5. Manchester United

(Insert obligatory United can't play 3-5-2 joke here). So yes, early on the tactical system for Louis Van Gaal hasn't worked, and it will take time for the new players to bed in and understand a vastly different tactical system than those customary in England. So long as Tom Cleverly isn't starting, then United is probably going to be fine. They've spent truckloads of money bringing in quality like with Falcao, Daley Blind and Angel Di Maria, and while their attack now looks frightening once it clicks, the back 4 is still a big question mark especially if the system stays. The thought of Phil Jones in a back 3 is still frightening. It is also hilarious to see players like Anderson and Marouane Fellaini at the club when players like Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa have left, but them's the breaks. It will take Van Gaal some time to bed in the big money new boys, and while many supporters and media folk may not let him, it is imperative that they do. Unfortunately that process will hinder their chances of an immediate return to the Champions League, but the process is what's key this season above all else.

4. Arsenal

Arsenal finishing 4th? What a surprise. Their signings this summer have shown their new financial clout, especially in getting a quality player like Alexis Sanchez and another solid striker in Danny Welbeck, who will help offset the loss of Olivier Giroud. But the main issues for Arsenal still exist, and haven't been addressed. They still have no defensive midfielder of note, and it's already bitten them in their first 3 PL games this season. They have next to no depth along the back 4, with only 6 first-team defenders available, and given Arsenal's injury record that number won't be 6 for long. Those issues are what keep Arsenal from being a title contender, and keep them rooted in 4th. The attack is scary, and the defense is just as scary. Arsenal can't be content with the same old same old every year despite now ending their trophy drought... right?

3. Liverpool

At first I was skeptical about their spending spree in replacing Luis Suarez, but the early signs have been positive. Despite the fact that Steven Gerrard is a holding midfielder for Brenden Rodgers and that is a disaster waiting to happen, the other signings have been effective thus far. Mario Balotelli provides a solid complement to Daniel Sturridge, and the fullback signings have already proven to be great thus far. Dejan Lovren improves their centerback corps, and the other players are young ones that can and will improve under a great manager. The lack of a holding midfielder and top class goalkeeper are still issues, and the extra fixtures will put this newly enlarged squad under the microscope, but if there's any manager that can pull this off it would be Brenden Rodgers. While the title seems a bit out of their grasp, it should be fun to watch Liverpool play again.

2. Manchester City

The defending champions looked every bit like ones in their first 2 games. In their 3rd? Not so much. That being said they've already done great business adding to an already impressively deep squad, especially with Fernado who looks to be a coup for 12 million pounds. The midfield is still strong in spots and creative in others, and with Stevan Jovetic looking to have improved dramatically, City can now expect goals from 3 very talented forwards. Even though the squad looks thin in some spots overall, they are still incredibly deep and will make a run in every competition they are in. A goal for this season has to be improving their Champions League lot, which may be hard in a brutal group, but Manuel Pellegrini should be able to pull it off. But one team is still a touch better, and they were a year ago aside from one thing...

1. Chelsea

Jose Mourinho spent all of last season trying to convince everyone Chelsea couldn't win the title, and in the end he was right, even though he shouldn't have been. Already we've seen one of his points proven, and that's with Diego Costa being a relative coup already. Their forward line is better now too with Torres and Eto'o gone for Costa and Loic Remy, and in adding Cesc Fabregas they've made an already stacked midfield even more ridiculous. There is quality everywhere, and the 6 goal outburst against Everton shows what they are capable of. They need to win trophies this season, and the early signs are that they will be favored to do so at every turn.

So these are the predictions, and hopefully they go better than last year. And hopefully Jose Mourinho doesn't respond to this with more mindgames... don't think I could take any more than he dished out last season.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Viva los (Insert future-NHL team nickname here)!

Unless your head was in the desert sand this week, rumors started to fly that Las Vegas was in line to get a NHL team either via relocation or expansion in the next handful of years. For most sports, Vegas is a toxic waste dump (for the obvious reasons) and one that should not be tread on. But once one league takes the plunge and dips their toe into the 100 foot pool that are professional sports in Sin City, it figures that others will follow, right? I'm not Ladbrokes, but I'm not going to be the one taking a punt with those odds.

Sports in Las Vegas have a checkered history, even if they are all mainly minor league flops and the Haley's Comet of college hoops in UNLV. Why go to see the Las Vegas 51's play the Memphis Redbirds when the Wynn is down the street? Or, why go see the Las Vegas Wranglers (when they existed) when Siegfried and Roy are far more interesting entertainment (and that's not saying much)? Sure minor league and college sports are totally different animals to the big fish in the pond, but Vegas as Vegas isn't changing any time soon. As much as us looney's that are sports fans may not want to admit, sports are entertainment that compete for your dollar with everything else on offer, and in Vegas that's exacerbated even further. Then there's the potential fanbase... does one exist for a Vegas team when the population is mainly transient, and tourist based? If the casual Canadian hockey fan is going to get on South Florida and Phoenix for having garbage attendance based on the appearance of snowbirds and tourists, then Vegas would be the coup de grace for those folks, even if the building was filled every night. And there's that little gambling thing too...

Why would the NHL want be the first to test the waters of professional sports in Las Vegas? If hockey can't work in Phoenix and Miami (allegedly), why would it work in Vegas? It has a chance. For one, no one who casually bets on sports has any clue how to bet on hockey. I'm 21 and I've known how lines and the O/U have worked for at least 10 years, and that's a bad thing considering how much the NFL publicly discourages it (I never even watched Jimmy the Greek). If a gambling dummy like me can figure it out, anyone can. Basketball, and to an extent baseball are the same way. As every casual football fan knows how to take the Broncos and the points, no casual hockey can explain to me the hockey gambling parlance, if there is one to speak of. So the gambling fears for the NHL suits might be less prevalent then those for messrs Goodell, Manfred or Silver. And, as Vegas has always loved its novelties, hockey in Las Vegas has a history of being that. There was an outdoor preseason game played in Vegas in September of 1991 that might be the most hilarious game of hockey ever played, and just ask the grasshoppers who got frozen into the ice about that. As a show, a Vegas hockey team would at least fit the bill.

The in-arena experience at a Vegas "Gamblers" game would be fun, too. Would they (the high rollers in the box seats that is) be rooting for Vegas, the visitors, or on how many goals were scored to cover the over/under? And would the people in the proletariat seats be rooting for Vegas or the visitors, especially if they are there on vacation coincidentally at the same time as their team having a road game there? The rink would have a "sellout" every night, but would it be like a United Center or Bell Centre sellout? The answer is pretty clear.

So I've spent most of this article rehashing claims about why pro sports in Las Vegas can't work that have holes in them the size of craps tables. But there's one reason why the NHL might be just the league to make it happen in spite of all of the consistent obstacles.

The NHL has done very little in Gary Bettman's time as commissioner to create buzz. Hockey is a distant 4th out of 4 in the US among the major sports, and odds are soccer is going to pass it soon. The product on the ice is as good as ever, profits are soaring through the roof and the league is as stable as it has been maybe ever. This league is the most likely to take the plunge not only for the buzz, but because they are the most capable of dealing with the fallout if it fails. The NFL can never go to Las Vegas when the siren songs of London and Los Angeles are still playing, let alone having a team there, the NBA needs to get a team back in Seattle before Vegas is even sniffed, and MLB has to get kids back into the game before trying to get 51 year old Johnny Roller into it some more. If the NHL has a fail-safe ready in case it fails (which is highly possible), why shouldn't the NHL walk the uncharted road?

Only two suggestions for you Mr. Bettman if Vegas does have a team by the league's 100th anniversary: One is that Brent Musberger becomes the local TV play-by-play guy, and two, please keep Rick Tocchet as far away from this team as possible. For our own sake.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What does Alabama have against the Vancouver Canucks?

If you've taken a dive down the internet's endless rabbit hole recently, you would have noticed that sports hate maps have popped up. Thanks to the geniuses from the Reddit subfeeds for every sport, we now have maps for all of the major sports in this country, and they've uncovered some interesting things. Here are my personal favorites:

NFL: 

1. In Kentucky and Tennessee, apparently there is a lot of hatred for the Houston Texans. This is fascinating because not only did latter state steal Houston's first team and didn't even show the common courtesy to give them their silly name back, now they're hating the new team on top of that! And it's not like the teams have had any moments of true hatred... aside from Cortland Finnegan attacking Andre Johnson with his helmet. Well now that both teams are bad, they can share in their mutual loathing of the Colts who are light years better. 

2. It's nice to know that most of the South hates the New Orleans Saints, which proved to me that Falcons fans had something to hate aside from Bobby Petrino. At least the Saints fans reciprocated by hating the Falcons in equal measure. 

3. Yes apparently Giants and Jets fans can unite on one thing: The Pats suck. 

4. Philly fans clearly had a stronger influence in Pennsylvania because the Cowboys are the most hated team in that state instead of the Ravens. The rest of the AFC North thanks them, because Ohio, West Virginia and even Maryland hate the Steelers most of all. 

5. Internationally, the Pats are most hated almost everywhere as expected, but the Ravens are apparently the most disliked in Europe. I guess they have stronger stances against domestic abuse than most people in the league office. 

NBA:

1. Everyone either hates the Heat or the Lakers except for a few outliers: I can get why folks from the Volunteer State dislike the Clippers because of the playoff encounters with the Grizzlies, but with Mississippi and Louisiana joining in, apparently there are more Grizzlies fans than I thought. Or the Hornet/Pelicans are still bitter about Chris Paul. Nice touch from the folks from Washington State in hating the OKC Thunder. 

MLB:

1. Everyone hates the Yankees! What a shocker. 

2. People from Arkansas I guess really dislike the Cubs. This is bizarre, because even the people from Missouri don't dislike the Cubs as much as they dislike the Cardinals, which is even weirder. Do Royals fans really have that much say? 

3. In Canada's Northwest Territories, there is a substantial amount of Padre hatred. Must be San Diego's weather. In Newfoundland, they don't hate anyone which is a great sign. Hatred is bad, kids.

NHL:

1. If you thought everyone in the world hates the Yankees, apparently everyone in the world hates the Bruins too. Even Florida's cadre of retirees hates the Bruins too. I'd have picked the Canadiens because their fans are none too nice when they crudely invade BB&T Center, but my vote didn't swing anything.

2. The Ottawa Senators are hated in Wyoming. I hope this is a sample size issue, or maybe it's where Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson planned their Ottawa escape route. Maybe Eugene Melnyk's hidden money stash is there and he just won't bring it across the border to Canada. I should be careful though, or some Ukrainian hackers are going to take down my blog. 

3. Why does Africa hate the Winnipeg Jets? What did they ever do to you Zimbabwe? I have only one theory: All of the old unused Atlanta Thrashers jerseys and merchandise were sent to Africa and the kids who received them were mad that they got stuff from a team that no longer exists. I assumed they liked their "New York Rangers 2014 Stanley Cup Champions" gear more.

So students of the world, according to these maps all of these things are true: You probably hate the Boston Bruins, New York Yankees, Miami Heat, and a NFL team of your choosing. We can find world peace based on this colossal agreement of the many races and creeds.

Call the UN, I have an idea... 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing it...

Advanced stats in hockey are a part of the game now, and almost anyone not trapped in their own 1970's idealism would probably agree with that thesis. There are still a few holdouts (hello there Steve Simmons), but the vast majority of hockey executives, players and fans all now at least acknowledge the role of advanced stats in the modern game. One of the more notable holdouts wasn't any one individual person, it was an organization: the Toronto Maple Leafs. But as Kyle Dubas moves from Sault St. Marie in the OHL to the Leafs front office, the most famous of knuckle-draggers may now be on the forefront of the cutting edge. And that's a great moment for all of hockey.

Following the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last couple of seasons have been an astonishing view into the advanced stats debate in the sport. The Leafs would get off to these fast starts only to fall off (last season spectacularly), and the advanced stats usually bore the warning signs that a demise was coming. Some denied it, but the Leafs amazing capitulation at the end of last season could well end up changing not only that organization but the rest of hockey for the better. Now out go some of Brian Burke's brain-trust, who were some of the true old school in hockey executives, and in comes a 28 year old who has made his name in turning a junior hockey club into one of the best in all of hockey for advanced analytics. Finally, the supposed $10 million analytics budget will now be spent instead of collecting dust in a Rogers utility closet. As amazing as it was that the NHL's glamor franchise was so adamantly against advanced stats as the team became the game's biggest case study, it's for the betterment of everyone that has finally changed.

Hockey is not near baseball in terms of widespread acceptance of advanced stats just yet, but as a sport hockey has come a long way. Fans are blessed with the advent of sites like Extra Skater and Boucher Scouting being greater among equals, and public figures who have already accepted them like James Mirtle, Tyler Dellow and others who have made advanced stats as mainstream as they can be. Turn to them if you want a numerical and analytical approach to what the Leafs hiring Dubas will really mean for hockey's biggest team, but in terms of a global perspective something has to move the needle, and this may well be the move that makes it. Not necessarily insofar as individual teams, since it's common knowledge that if most teams don't use Corsi and Fenwick they use their own numbers for analytic purposes, but maybe for the public that hasn't yet accepted the role of these stats. What stock you individually put in them is up to you, but as a piece of an overall analysis they have proven to be remarkable sturdy in predicting future outcomes and giving us a clue into a deeper performance by players and teams.

The Leafs being the battleground team was important to move the debate along, and now what the Leafs have just done is important for the widespread acceptance of analytics on a larger scale. Even among some hockey fans who have incorporated things like PDO into their basic analysis, the Leafs going in the direction of advanced stats will have more people turning to sites like Extra Skater, or even asking the basic question of "what is Fenwick anyway?" and hockey absolutely will be better for it.

In Toronto this is being analyzed, dissected and carved up in almost every measurable way, and for the "center of the hockey universe" to be having this discussion in the dead of summer about something that 2 years ago would have been regarded as almost witchcraft is a bit of a watershed moment. Soon we'll find out more about newer stats to tell us about true possession of the puck, or how a goaltender has really been performing, or maybe even what individual teams are using as their advanced stat of choice. The tip of the iceberg was found years ago, and now most of the hockey world is finding out how deep the iceberg goes, and as baseball found out with moneyball and the A's years ago, that's how the sport will move into the future and adapt with the times.

Maybe this will start the trend for casual fans talking about a players FF% in the same breath as they talk about his compete level and truculence soon enough. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Well the US is out... so Soccer is Done for 4 Years Right?

The US is now out of the World Cup at the hands of Belgium (and I will not quote what Monty Python thinks of Belgium in this piece... not PC), and that has hurt everyone from those who have been around this team since Asamoah Gyan did the same thing 4 years ago to those who just realized the Sunday before the Ghana game that the US even has a national soccer team. This team bridged long widened gaps and hopefully put to bed a few long held stereotypes about soccer and the people that follow the game in this country. Unfortunately, because the World Cup is a perfect combination of noxious patriotism and big event marketing (2 things America loves the most), many who have been captivated by this tournament will go back to ignoring soccer until the World Cup circus turns up in Mr. Putin's garden in 4 years. This is not a plea to them, but some advice: soccer never stops, and maybe giving it a little more of your time will reap rich rewards. Here's how:

Amazingly, the European club season kicks into high gear only about a month after the World Cup Final. There is quality soccer played in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France, and in other places too. Our modern media world means it is no longer incumbent on you to have FOX Sports World or go to a hole-in-the-wall pub in Soho to watch the games every weekend. The Premier League is on NBCSN every weekend, and they make it so easy to watch the games and enjoy it as a die-hard or newbie. Need a club? Usually this is not something I advise, but Tim Howard plays for Everton, Geoff Cameron plays for Stoke, and Jozy Altidore plays for Sunderland (now at least). That could be your way in. If none of that suits you, there are many US players that play in Germany too. If all of that just made your head spin, go and ask someone what club to latch on to. They'll help you find a club that makes sense, and one that you'll get into quickly. International soccer is only a small fraction of the game. If you also need help with a club, odds are one Euro club is playing a friendly in your town this summer. Look around and find out, because you may soon find that Real Madrid is playing Manchester United at the Big House in Ann Arbor (that is happening by the way).

Speaking of that, the US national team plays again in Prague against the Czech Republic in September. They'll play many more friendlies from now until next summer, when another edition of the Gold Cup (CONCACAF's confederational tournament) rolls around. The US will likely win that. Also next summer: The FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada, the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand (for someone who really wants to be a soccer hipster), the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup, and many other things too. If you can't wait that long, there will be "competitive" European qualifiers for Euro 2016 on FOX and ESPN coming up this fall as well. There is no shortage of international footie to watch even when the next World Cup is a distant dream of the future.

But what if you're itching to watch footie at home? There's MLS, and yes it's not the highest of quality in the world, but it is just as fun to watch and has some of the same atmosphere you saw with the US watch parties this summer. 2 new clubs are coming into the league next summer, and more big name players are coming over every day. No MLS club near you because you live in say, Atlanta? Try the NASL's Silverbacks, and if somehow MLS or NASL doesn't cover your back, try even USL Pro. It's soccer, and while it isn't amazing quality, it's soccer, and live it is a sport that you can't beat in the stands. It may never trump a day out at Williams-Brice stadium for excitement for many, but seeing the fun at low levels may make you clamor to see it a higher ones.

Soccer doesn't stop between World Cups; in fact it never really stops. There is always something going on in the game every day of every year, and while every sport in this country usually takes a break, soccer never does. It may never be your number 1 sport, but it is something worth adding into your repertoire. It is harder to follow than the Big 4 and college sports in this country I grant you, but the initial effort is the hard part, and everything once you've figured out how to follow the game with ease is downhill from there. The internet is a magical place...

It's said that true heartbreak often begets true love. Lots of people just experienced true heartbreak with the US National Team. I just hope that 10 people are soon going to find out what true love of soccer really is because of it.

All you need to do is ask.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This One Time... Ann Coulter wrote about Soccer...

Usually on this blog I am not one to delve into politics or anything close to partisan discussion of that nature. It is a minefield which I do not dare wish to have my feet blown off in. I also don't participate in the "Hot Takes" of the day, because I believe I've moved above that segment of the sports-loving populous. I also don't comment on the old sports-writer bashing soccer, because everyone's done that before and I can add almost nothing new to it. But today, I'm throwing all of those things out the window because Ann Coulter (yes that Ann Coulter), decided that she would write about soccer today. And since I'm also not above aping other people's fantastic work (thanks Matt Yoder and Awful Announcing), I've decided that I couldn't resist so it's time to see what the amazing political and social theorist Ann Coulter thinks of the beautiful game...

I'm going to need an acid bath after this...

She begins, "I've held off writing about soccer for a decade... or about the length of an average game... so as not to offend anybody." Miss Coulter, you make a living by offending people, so talking about soccer is probably tame in comparison. "Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nations moral decay", she continues... Well guys, it has been a fun run but I'm afraid I've been found out... I'm a part of moral decay in America! I didn't think after spending nearly 21 years on this earth leading what I thought was a clean and healthy life that I'd find myself as part of the degradation of American society but... those columns invoking Rich Kotite finally did me in.

We've barely scratched the surface here though. After saying that there is no individual achievement in soccer (failing to mention a few folks, namely Lionel Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Zlatan (!!!!)), she then says "Everyone runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in. Then we're supposed to go wild. I'm already asleep." Well that's not so bad... it means Ann Coulter will be quiet and miss the "accidents" that are some of the amazing goals in history... I'm sure Marco Van Basten and Pele are weeping at the sight of Ann Coulter asleep at the wheel.

More from the "stale" pile: "No 'sport' ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer... If Michael Jackson had treated his chronic insomnia with a tape of Brazil/Argentina instead of Propofol, he'd still be alive, although bored". First... didn't know you were such a fan of the shootout Ann. Gary Bettman would like to see you in his office now. Second, while some soccer games are boring and some are sleep inducingly bad I will admit, you picked one of the most exciting rivalries in world football to describe that with... instead of possibly, West Ham vs. Stoke on a rainy Tuesday night perhaps...

But, if you can even imagine, it gets better: "The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport. Most sports are sublimated warfare." Soccer doesn't have personal humiliation or major injury? Tell that then to Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Mario Balotelli... or even if we dare invoke major injuries like the ones Aaron Ramsey, Stuart Holden, David Busst, or others who have seen their careers derailed by serious injuries like SNAPPED KNEES among other things have suffered. About personal humiliation though... how do you think John Terry felt on that night in Moscow? Or Roberto Baggio on that afternoon in the Rose Bowl? Or the many others who I have spared for I have a conscience willing to do such a thing, which apparently Ann Coulter doesn't possess because she wants to see her athletes have mental breakdowns on the field of play for her amusement?

"You can't use your hands in soccer. What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs." Unfortunately, I cannot call Ann Coulter a lesser beast since she does have opposable thumbs, although about the soul thing, this next quote should explain a good deal.

"After a football game, ambulances carry off the wounded. After a soccer game, every player gets a ribbon and a juice box." Yes, Ann Coulter does in fact want to see your 7 year old son taken off the field on a stretcher after he just suffered his 3rd concussion, because football is a "real sport" with the threat of injury... and permanent brain damage (I'm not commenting on this any further... temptation is hard to resist). She's also loves hockey fights... even more of a reason to outlaw it entirely from every level of the sport, and I'm not one to want to ban it!

"It's foreign" she says next. "One group of sports fans with whom soccer is not 'catching on' at all is African-Americans. They remain distinctly unimpressed by the fact the French like it." Hmm... I do seem to remember viewing tweets from African-American athletes across the many different sports tweeting their support for the US Men's National Team recently, and I bet they are very impressed that the French like the sport because they're pretty dang good at it... and I'd be impressed too watching Paul Pogba play (although the Le-Pen family probably agrees with you Ann, but those are not people you want to associate with).

After devolving into a rant about liberals and the metric system (no you haven't dropped acid, you're still here), she ends with a true kicker, one that should sear right into the heart of every full-blooded patriot in this land:

"If more 'Americans' are watching soccer today, it's only because of the demographic switch effected by Ted Kennedy's 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time".

HOW DARE YOU DISRESPECT IAN DARKE. HE IS MORE OF A PATRIOT THAN YOU'LL EVER BE. AND HIS GRASP OF ENGLISH IS FAR SUPERIOR TO THAT OF EVEN THE LEAD SCRIBE OF THE OXFORD DICTIONARY.

Oh, and one of my great-grandfathers was born in this country, and I'm watching soccer. Whoops. I know my last name might be German, but it's true. Sorry Ann. And I have just typed out a long response in the English vernacular to your own column saying I don't know English Ann... maybe I should go back to school to remedy that problem... I knew the SAT was good for something...

I won't link you to the column here, since I've already given her enough publicity; more than she even merits in fact. I try my very hardest to ignore these things for you dear readers, because you (should) expect more of me than that. But this was just too hard to resist, and I should have known better. One would think someone like Ann would be into the noxious patriotism a World Cup can bring but apparently not...

At any rate, remember that if you like soccer, Ann Coulter thinks you don't know English, you don't know "true sports", and you lack the ability to understand true humiliation or suffering that they can provide.

You know... just like reading one of her columns, or writing a response to one. On that front Ann, maybe you're right.

(Downs a gallon of bleach)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

For World Cup and Soccer Newbies Everywhere

To the non-soccer crowd that is just as entranced by this World Cup as I am: welcome to the party. I hope you stick around.

Too much of this World Cup build-up has been characterized by the typical battles between the soccer die-hards and soccer newbies about the usual "defending your turf", "you don't know anything about these players", etc, etc. It's tedious and tiresome as always. Even when it's completely justified (cough *Mike Wilbon* cough), it still feels ancillary and unnecessary. It's given soccer fans a bad reputation as people who almost don't want to see their sport get big in the mainstream US conscience. And while some of us having an itchy trigger finger doesn't help the group, this is not a one way street. So non-soccer people, here is my advice to you:

--> Ask questions. This World Cup and the US National Team in particular have many interesting sub-plots with interesting questions to be asked. So ask them. Ask us about the tactics of the teams, ask us about the diamond formation, or the worries about Jozy Altidore's Sunderland form. It will tell us that you've done more than the basic trumpeting of popular narratives that the rest of us tired of long ago.

--> Do research. I know that seems sacrilegious, but bear with me for a second. "Research" sounds like a dirty word, but if you look up players and teams and histories when the US inevitably fails, you'll have another team or player to watch. And maybe then that is your gate to staying with the sport for more than 2 weeks every 4 years.

--> Appreciate. Appreciate what the die-hard soccer fans have done ever since the last World Cup in building up to this one.  They are the ones that watch the games no one dared to, they are the ones who woke up at 7:30 to watch West Ham play Hull in the Premier League, they are the ones who know about the names of future US stars and were just as heartbroken when the US failed in Olympic qualifying 2 years ago as they will be this summer. A large part of why you're seeing what you're seeing now is because of the work these people have done, and simply they just don't want to see the fruits of their labor eaten by people who did none of the labor.

--> Stifle your pre-conceived notions. Everything you think you know about soccer will have moments when they may be justified, and that is natural. There will also be moments when that all goes out the window. For the month that this tournament goes on, choke down on your stereotypes of soccer even when they are itching to escape, because it will help out everyone if you do.

--> Find a reason to stay. If you want this sport to get bigger, or better yet, if you don't want the angry twitter soccer crowd banging at your door with pitchforks and torches, find a reason to stick around. The World Cup is amazing, but this is not like 2002 when it was hard to keep the momentum going. The Premier League is widely available, so is the Champions League. MLS is getting a fat new TV contract next season with consistent TV windows for you to see. The internet is a treasure trove of quality soccer writing, podcasting, and analysis if you just look hard enough. You will never be wanting for the reactions and readings you'll need to gain context. And best yet, it won't come with Baylessian shouting and narrative trumpeting that would make FOX News shudder!

So as the World Cup begins, please take all of what you read above into account. We don't want people turned off of the game because of us, we just want people to appreciate and love the game as much as we do. You don't have to know the ins and outs of the tactics of Harry Redknapp by the end of the World Cup, or what transfer source is most trustworthy, just appreciate the game and what has been built slowly but surely. The game will grow without you, and you can either jump on or stand by, but do the latter at your own peril.

And don't fight us about Gus Johnson. You'll lose that one.