Sunday, May 19, 2013

2012-13 Premier League Review

That was a fun, and turns out influential Premier League season. So many notable retirements from Ferguson to Carragher to Owen, a title that was clinched very early, and the perennial drop avoiders finally did drop to the Championship. So how did I do with my predictions? Let's see:

-- I did predict City to overtake United to win the title. Whoops.

-- I got Arsenal's point title exact, and missed by one for Chelsea (73 and 76 were my predictions), and got their places exactly right. I also predicted for Spurs to finish 5th because of a lack of strikers. I must be a Spurs supporter (I am by the way).

-- I flipped Liverpool and Everton's places as well. Not like that matters.

-- I did severely overate clubs like Newcastle (8th to 16th), Stoke (9th to 13th), QPR (11th to 20th). I underrated clubs like Swansea (16th to 9th), Norwich (17th to 11th), and worst of the lot West Brom (19th to 8th). I said teams 9 to 20 were all so close together, and I was right, they were.

-- My 3 relegated teams at the beginning of the year were Reading, West Brom, and Wigan. I hit on 2, so that's not too bad. Most people did have trouble figuring out who would drop this season.

So overall, I didn't do too bad for my first season of really paying attention to the Premier League. I should do better next year, but there will be far more uncertainty.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

To Leafs Fans

Dear Toronto Maple Leafs fans that might be reading this,

       I feel for you.

      This is an empty statement from a nearly anonymous internet sports blogger (from a college dorm room, not his mother's basement), but sometimes sympathy is the first thing to begin the healing process from a brutal loss.

      Maybe this bit of information might help soothe your soul somewhat (or fill you with the same confusion you have about Cody Franson scoring 2 Game 7 goals): I'm a Florida Panthers fan, and what I went through last year is similar to what you've gone through this year. Before you close this piece and immediately assume I'm crazy, think about it, both teams were/are:

-- League laughing stocks, for different reasons sure, but laughing stocks.

-- Awful the year before, then came out of nowhere with a new GM and coach to surprise everyone and make the playoffs.

-- Supposed to lose in 3 to the teams they played in the first round, but then surprised everyone, including the fans themselves by taking the series to 7.

-- Both teams had crushing blown leads, the Leafs in Game 7, the Panthers being up 3-2 in their series and nearly eliminating the Devils twice in back-to-back OT games, which they lost. The Leafs one might be worse, but as some of your fellow fans said, if you were told you'd be in OT of Game 7 of the series before it started, you wouldn't complain. I didn't.

-- Better than the sum of their parts, and statistical overachievers, if you're into advanced metrics.

-- Told that their playoff run was a blip on the radar for a team that is not nearly as good as their run might indicate.

     I could probably go on, but then it would get boring. Us fans of the Leafs and Panthers need get to know each other better, since we'll both be in the same division next season, and many of your fellow fans will come down to watch hockey in Sunrise, Ontario at some point next year. And yes, I don't mind waiting 15 minutes past 7 on Saturday nights to play you guys because Hockey Night in Canada needs a longer intro.

    I know it seems weird that a Panthers fan would sympathize and even empathize with Leafs fans and their suffering, but despite Toronto being the center of the hockey universe and Sunrise being essentially a shopping mall with a hockey team, we have a lot in common. Brutally long playoff droughts that are not supposed to happen in the salary cap NHL, horrible mismanagement by countless GM's and coaches, one glorious 90's playoff run remembered in lore since nothing has happened to replace it yet, etc. The only difference is the money, but that doesn't really matter.

    It took me a few days to shake off a Game 7 OT loss, but what will bring you back is the feeling that despite massive heartbreak your team is at least out of the playoff muck. It might be hard to replicate the success next year, but the drafts of Burke and Ferguson (I know) have bore some fruit, like the drafts of Tallon and his litany of predecessors, as will the next few drafts for Nonis and company. The long-term future is better than it has been in quite some time, and that's at least a light at the end of the long tunnel.

    It was once said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Well, sometimes crushing Game 7 playoff defeats do as well. I know Leafs fans that being told your team is like the Panthers doesn't sound like an endorsement, but when you think about it, the Panthers are an example of a team the Leafs are like in some ways, and maybe the long-term positives can ease the pain of a brutal night, as well as sympathy from an unlikely source.

    Think of this as well: We'll have at least 2 nights next season to commiserate our uniquely tied sufferings at BB&T Center over expensive beers and terrible music choices while looking at an empty exclusive club after intermission.

    Eh, maybe that one hit too close to home.

Monday, May 13, 2013

2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Predictions

Well that was a fun first round, wasn't it? Amazing that tomorrow the second round begins. Time for predictions on the second round series, with some blurbs for the series attached to each.

Eastern Conference:

Pittsburgh over Ottawa in 6

-- I know the Senators were really good against Montreal, and that the Penguins were on the verge of going down 3-2 to the Islanders if they didn't switch goaltenders. I have a feeling that series was more first round jitters and pressure getting to the Penguins than being indicative of the Penguins in truth. The Senators will give the Penguins trouble, especially if Jason Spezza comes back, but Pittsburgh will have learned from their first round mistakes. This series will be close, with Craig Anderson likely stealing a game or two. The release of some pressure will send the Penguins through.

Boston over NY Rangers in 7

-- Talk about two completely different ways to win a Game 7. The Bruins used a historic 3rd period comeback and OT win, while the Rangers just whitewashed the Capitals on their home ice. When these two teams meet up, it will likely be a slugfest with plenty of low scoring games and lots of hitting. The Rangers will likely hold serve on home ice, and it's just a matter of whether Boston can at TD Garden. I think they can. The X-Factor is the Rangers power play, which if it can ever find some consistency, will be the difference between New York advancing, or going home.

Western Conference:

Chicago over Detroit in 5

-- This is a nice parting gift to hockey fans who will miss Chicago-Detroit playoff games. The Wings narrowly escaped Anaheim, while the 'Hawks didn't have much trouble with Minnesota. The Wings are not the same team as they have been in the past, and the Blackhawks are a different animal than the Ducks, and the matchup doesn't favor them. The scary part for Chicago is that Kane and Toews have yet to hit their stride. When they do, watch out. Detroit might cause in-game problems, but not on the series board where it matters the most.

Los Angeles over San Jose in 6

-- The Sharks are playing with house money in this series since the pressure is on the defending champs to defend. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are the focal points for the Sharks now, taking place for the old guard who can now skate without so much burden. The Kings out muscled the Blues, and should be able to do the same thing against the Sharks. Niemi can and will steal a game, but the Kings will have just enough to oust the Sharks.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The (Possible) Return of the World Cup of Hockey

The World Cup of Hockey was a late summer event in 1996 and 2004 that pitted the best of hockey's best international teams again each other. The NHL organized event was designed to be the successor to the Canada Cup, and was successful, until the 2004-05 lockout doomed any hope of it returning, along with the increased importance of the Olympic Tournament. Now, as per reports from Russia, and the new transfer agreement the NHL signed allowed for, the World Cup of Hockey could be returning in 2016, maybe even with IIHF backing. This is great for the NHL and the IIHF, but what does it really mean? A few quick thoughts:

- Expect this event to replace the Olympics as the dominant international hockey tournament, and the Olympic tournament will end up becoming similar to what it is for soccer, a U-23 or maybe even a U-20 tournament.

- Since the World Cup of hockey will be likely in late August or early September, and with the NHL and IIHF blessing, there will never be a problem with NHL players playing in the tournament, unlike the mess that is getting the NHL to Sochi.

- Everyone like the revenue the NHL is generating now? This will be a massive windfall for the league, so all the residual effects of a new TV deal apply here, including a possible raise in the salary cap.

- The IIHF World Championship, already marginalized by when it takes place on the calendar, will probably end up bowing out the year of each World Cup, if the IIHF doesn't want to even further minimize the importance of that tournament.

- The World Cup will probably take place before training camps open in the NHL, so releasing players to play will also not be a problem.

- The NHL and hockey will have a showcase event for the sport not marginalized by the rest of the Winter Olympics, and will take place at a good time for viewing as well at the end of the summer.

- Everybody involved wins!

The return of the World Cup of Hockey is not a certain thing to work, but the good days of the Canada Cup and the old World Cup of Hockey could be coming back, and everybody involved at the highest levels of the sport will win, and with the Olympics it's not a sure thing everyone does. Whether it will end up like the soccer World Cup, who knows, but hockey fans might have a good new marquee event to look forward to every 4 years.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sir Alex Ferguson's Legacy Beyond the Pitch

      Sir Alex Ferguson is retiring after 27 seasons behind the Manchester United touchline. Without his runaway successes with the Red Devils over those 27 seasons, it's quite possible that I never would have been introduced to the Premier League, so I owe him a (small) personal debt of gratitude. On the pitch, his dynasty teams have defined the Premier League, and later European football and made Manchester United the team of the world. The football world of 2013 is amazingly different from that of 1986, but Sir Alex has managed to keep his same style and approach to the game while adapting to the new trends and vanquishing every possible understudy in becoming the next dynasty.

  Sir Alex was charged with bringing back the glory days of Sir Matt Busby and the Busby babes when he took over in 1986, and somehow he's surpassed that legacy and left one larger. His list of great teams is large and extensive, and if I somehow wrote about every one of them, this piece would be 10,000 words long. From his first double winning side with Eric Cantona, the treble winning side of 1999, to the Champions League winners of 2008, Manchester United have never been too far away from having a side that will be remembered in history.

   Sir Alex's eye for talent and taking risks also was amazing. The aforementioned Eric Cantona, purchasing Andy Cole, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the list could go on in perpetuity. But even when the sum of the parts might not have been as strong as Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, or now Manchester City had, his teams were always better, and even when they didn't win a trophy, United were always prepared to make a move so that they'd win another trophy or title.

  The best quality of the Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United sides has been the ability to beat back their nearest challenger who wanted to become the next Manchester United, or dynasty side. No matter how stark the arrival to the scene, United would always gain the upper hand eventually. Whether it was the mid 90's Newcastle United squads, then Arsene Wenger's Arsenal teams including the Invincibles, to Jose Mourinho's upstart double champion Chelsea teams that immediately followed, or now the noisiest of the noisy neighbors at Manchester City, Manchester United always have fought back against the formation of new dynasties by stamping their own print right after, even if the United squad isn't all that glamorous.

  David Moyes, a great manager in his own right, has the unenviable task of replacing Sir Alex. Whether he is in fact the manager to lead United forward into a new era is debatable, and whether he will be able to live up to the standards at Manchester United is also debatable, and will be seen in the near future. There is no doubt though, that Moyes has incredibly large shoes to fill, and the legacy of trophies and dynasties will always stay at Manchester United no matter how much success he has in the dugout. But the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson goes way beyond the pitch at Old Trafford, or even England.

  It's at my keyboard, and with the many children around the world wearing a Manchester United kit, because of what Sir Alex has done. He's made English football the global standard, and no one can replicate that.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Did You See That: Other Failed Sports Petitions to the White House

Since ESPN can't go 5 seconds without mentioning their favorite mediocre backup quarterback Tim Tebow, they talked about a petition created by (morons) Tebow fans to bring him to his hometown Jacksonville Jaguars, which garnered around 250 signatures before being taken off the White House Petitions page for violating terms of service. What you don't know, is that the White House has received many more petitions relating to sports and things the president of this great land should intervene in. They've been removed from the page, but I've unearthed them for your own viewing pleasure.

- Some Jets fans wanted the president to declare that team a disaster zone so federal funds could be used to buy out Mark Sanchez's contract.

- A few die-hard Bobcats supporters decided to petition the White House to force Michael Jordan out of retirement to play for his own team, because a 50 year old MJ is better than anything they can put on the court now.

- SEC football fans want the White House to declare the SEC Championship as the National Title Game, because we all know the SEC champ is so far better than any other team in the country.

- Houston Astros fans are pushing for the president to pass a bill that would force Jim Crane to spend more than the pennies he found between his couch cushions on the baseball team he just bought.

- On the flipside, Marlins fans have petitioned the White House to press charges against Jeffrey Loria for asset stripping because his crimes are more obvious than those of Gordon Gekko.

- Pittsburgh Penguins fans have filed a petition that would protect  Matt Cooke from forensic investigations headed by a certain Ukranian-Canadian businessman living in Barbados.

- US Soccer fans have filed petitions that would call for the president to ban "The best player in US Soccer history" from taking any more sabbaticals (note that the term is not specific to one player).

-  Cowboys fans have asked the White House to force out Jerry Jones from his GM role on the grounds that the president should be able to intervene since the Cowboys are of course "America's Team".

- Some hockey fans have petitioned for the removal of Pierre McGuire from NBC broadcasts since his head could clearly be used by enemy states to bounce satellite signals off of. Oh, and no one in the US cares about the Peterborough Petes either.

- Some Canadian ex-pats have asked the White House to block FOX Sports' hiring of Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole because Americans don't deserve quality and funny sports anchors, especially Canadian treasures like these two.

Well there you have some buried petitions I found. Their existence shocks me just as much as when I first found them.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On the UEFA Europa League

     The 2013 UEFA Europa League final has been confirmed to be Benfica vs. Chelsea, which should be an interesting game between two very good European sides. There's a twist here however: both teams were Champions League washouts, and don't really value the competition the way a team like Newcastle or even Liverpool did. Chelsea's ticket allotment for the final of 9,800 might well be evidence of that. So if the champion for UEFA's second biggest competition doesn't value the trophy they win, then why does it exist? It can't be pity for European football minnows... right?

    UEFA had more competitions in the past that were even more redundant than the current iteration of the Europa League. They had the Intertoto Cup (which I still don't understand), and the Cup Winners Cup, both of which have now been folded into the new behemoth that is the Europa League. Sure it helps smaller teams across Europe access the glory that is European football, but that's devalued some when Champions League losers enter the pool late on anyway, rendering the inclusion of the minnows even more silly. So, the current structure isn't conducive for bigger clubs to pay it much mind, but this competition is not going away. So, what to do about it?

   If the Europa League is to gain a place of prominence for clubs that are participating in it (and not just for Andre Villas-Boas managed sides), UEFA needs to beef up the incentives for it. One of the suggestions is to have either both finalists, or solely the champion qualify for the following year's Champions League, which is certainly a prize worth shooting for. The prize money pool is also far shallower for the Europa League, but UEFA is trying to inject some more cash into the tournament, which is a good step. And while these steps are on the right path to making the Europa League better, there is one step that needs to be taken above all.

    Don't have Champions League washouts enter the competition at any point.

    Those teams clearly don't value the competition the same way that teams who qualified for it do, and if they do, their quality wipes out that of the lower sides that might care even more. FC Basel, who played some good football during the tournament, got whitewashed by Chelsea at the end because they have far more quality, and it's not solely because Basel are a Swiss club (ask Spurs fans). And if the Champions League washouts don't care about the competition, then it's solely a hindrance for the rest of their domestic seasons, and an advantage for the teams they play against that might care. All of that combines to make un-watchable football that no one wants to see.

   The UEFA Europa League has a place in Europe for many teams, especially those that might not have the quality to make the Champions League, but certainly deserve their shot against good clubs in other countries. For those clubs that clearly don't see the value in winning/competing in it, there's no purpose for them to be in it. The Champions League and cash incentives might make those clubs care more, but it would be at the detriment to those clubs that value their participation in the Europa League. Preventing knocked out Champions League sides from entering the Europa League might seem out of the realm of likelihood, but it might make the competition more interesting, and isn't just a tune-up for the domestic season for quashed European giants.

   Give lesser European sides their shot. They're pushed around enough domestically, why can't continental competition be different?