Thursday, August 8, 2019

2019-20 Premier League Predictions

The transfer window has shut in England, Jim White has been put back in his cryogenic storage chamber until January 31 thanks to the new money from Comcast, and the Premier League's new season is just around the corner. More than ever, the league feels like an hourglass: very little in the middle, but quite a bit at the top and the bottom. Liverpool vs. Manchester City part two will be a spectacular show, the race for the top four will be entertaining as always, and a whole host of teams will try to stay in the big time. There's nothing quite like the Premier League on the planet, and this season should be no different.

Here are predictions you will probably discount and that will probably look dumb by November, in inverse order of predicted finish:

20. Norwich City

Copycats about in English soccer. When Jurgen Klopp proved that a German manager with a German style could bring reward, soon came the imitators on a lesser scale. Huddersfield pulled off multiple minor miracles with David Wagner which earned them two top flight seasons. Daniel Farke at Norwich has practically done the same. With a good dash of German nous, plus some promising young players, he transformed Norwich into a great attacking side. He will be relying plenty on players like Teemu Pukki, Max Aarons along with a couple of new loanees to keep the Canaries up. Farke hasn't exactly been backed with cash though. Their outgoing spend according to Transfermarkt was 3.75 million pounds. Can Norwich do what Huddersfield did a few seasons ago? They have more goals in them than the Terriers did, but they're not quite as solid defensively. Huddersfield staying up was a miracle, and Norwich staying up also will be a miracle.

19. Sheffield United:

Chris Wilder could be the next Eddie Howe, i.e. the next next big thing. Not too long ago, the Blades were in the third tier. They're in the Premier League now, well ahead of schedule. They haven't spent ridiculously, and have picked up quality in players like Oli McBurnie, Mo Besic and they even took a flyer on Ravel Morrison. Continuity will help in a major way, and their manager has proven he can do more with less, but does this group have the same potential as Bournemouth did? Probably not. Like with all teams at the bottom though, they have a punchers chance.

18. Brighton

Any Brighton fan would have taken two seasons in the top flight when they were promoted a couple of seasons ago, but it feels like they aspire to be more than a team that scrapes by to stay up, which is what Chris Hughton brought. Hiring Graham Potter, a manager who cut his teeth in Sweden with Ostersunds and took them from the fourth tier to the Europa League Round of 32 playing Arsenal in eight seasons, is certainly going in a different direction. He wants to play beautiful soccer, which is not exactly what they've been playing in the Premier League. They've made a couple of signings from the Championship, including big scorer Neal Maupay from Brentford because their big signings haven't exactly worked out. When Glenn Murray is still the club's leading marksman, that shows there have been problems in recruitment.

Potter took Swansea to 10th place last year, which isn't exactly amazing. But he could stay with the club for the long haul even if they're relegated. That, sadly, looks like it's in the Seagulls future.

17. Crystal Palace

When the calendar turns to December, that's when Palace wakes up and finally starts winning, no matter the manager. Roy Hodgson has done an incredible amount with what little he has, and what he nearly could have lost if Wilfried Zaha left this window. Thankfully for Palace, he didn't, but that situation is unsettled still. The big additions are James McCarthy from Everton who was lost in the shuffle and Victor Camarasa who was a very good player for a quite bad Cardiff team last term. They still don't have enough goals in their team, but with Roy's "magic" and some veteran experience, they'll have enough to scrape by, but it'll be a close shave.

16. Newcastle

Rafa Benitez finally had enough with the boardroom politics at St. James Park and departed for China, taking a huge amount of success with him. Not only did Newcastle finally feel safe from relegation for the first time in forever, Rafa felt like the glue holding the club together. But now that he's gone, the risk is back. Everyone sided with the Spanish manager and not ownership, which was the correct decision. Steve Bruce doesn't feel like an inspiring choice to replace him, but he has been backed with big signings Joelinton from Hoffenheim and Allan Saint-Maximin from Nice, who both have big potential. But do the players believe in the same way in Bruce as they did in Benitez? Whatever the case may be, the boardroom politics always translate to the pitch in the Northeast, and that means Newcastle are going to have to work hard to stay up, again, which they never should.

15. Aston Villa

Last year when Fulham was promoted, they spent the big bucks on trying to stay up and it flopped spectacularly. Aston Villa, back in the big leagues for the first time since 2016, are trying to do the same. They've spent a lot on players like Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett who have experience in England's top two flights, as well on other like Wesley, the Brazilian striker who came over from Belgium and Marvelous Nkamba, a midfielder who also came over from Club Brugge. The spending is always a risk, especially when it comes to building an entirely new squad. Dean Smith seems like a manager who is able to put it all together, however, and with far more stable ownership than when they went down, Villa looks to be on the right path to sustained success again. But the first year is always one of the toughest, and their saving grace might be just how many other teams are in their position.

14. Southampton

For the last few seasons, the Saints spent a lot of time dancing around possible, if not sometimes probable relegation. Ralph Hassenhuttl, the man who brought RB Leipzig into our lives, did a ton of work to keep Southampton up last season with not all that much. The signings haven't been there either, though there is potential with Che Adams from Birmingham City and Moussa Djenepo from Standard Liege. The squad is still a little bloated, but at times last year, Saints did look truly impressive. They're not what they were when they were a team challenging to break the Sky Six, but they may have enough this year to not dance around relegation for the first time in a while. However, teams like them, including Villa, Swansea and Sunderland, eventually did go down dancing around that fire for too long. There is major risk for Southampton now, but they seem to know just what to do to get out from under the trap door.

13. Burnley

Burnley are the new Stoke. They don't play beautiful soccer, they don't have the most talent around, but they always do enough not just to annoy you, but beat you by being their annoying selves, and they always stay up. In the new fast and fluid Premier League, a club like Burnley should have been relegated ages ago. But they're not going to be, not so long as Sean Dyche is at the club. They're managed well and run well, even though they don't spend a ton of money. Their biggest impact player could be Dwight McNeil, the young attacking midfielder from their academy who really picked up his form at the end of last season. They may never do what they did in finishing seventh a few seasons ago ever again, but until something major changes, rightly or wrongly, they're a Premier League club.

12. Bournemouth

What is more surprising: Bournemouth being in the top flight for their fifth straight season, or that Eddie Howe is still their manager? Both are pretty surprising, but since the latter directly influences the former, it's not as big of a surprise as it once would have been. They will never been in a direct relegation scrap, and they'll probably never push much higher than where they are right now, but so long as Eddie Howe is there and not at a big club, they'll be a consistent Premier League club. Their signings confirm that this summer. David Brooks had a really good season, and he alongside Leicester's James Maddison feel like the next big movers to big clubs in short order.

11. Watford

By Watford's standards, this summer was fairly quiet. The major outgoings were players who were either on loan or on the fringes, and they brought in fliers like Danny Welbeck in addition to their big signing of Ismaila Sarr to augment a squad that was already solid. Keeping Abdoulaye Doucoure, who is one of the most underrated midfielders in England, was a good piece of business. Nothing about Watford is spectacular, but they've become a pretty solid Premier League club that can always pull a shock against one of the league's big boys, as evidenced by their FA Cup Final run last year. It also feels like Javi Gracia is a manager that one day will be destined for a bigger club, too.

10. West Ham

It feels like West Ham are suffering from an old creed from "Bill Nye": inertia is a property of matter. They're never going to be in a relegation scrap ever again, but they never feel like they'll ever seriously challenge for Europe. Sebastian Haller and Pablo Fornals are ambitious signings, but ones that carry enough risk that the big boys stayed away. They have potential as ever. Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko are players who have bigger clubs in their future, but something always holds them back, something that the three clubs above them always seem to possess.

9. Wolves

They had a spectacular season last term playing exactly the way Nuno wanted them do, and they did it to the effect of being the most successful newly promoted team ever. There's no reason to think that they can't do that again with the entirety of their squad back plus smart additions like Patrick Cutrone and Jesus Vallejo, but there is an elephant in the room: Europa League. It's called a poisoned chalice for a reason. Bigger and better clubs have been tripped up by Thursdays in random parts of the Schengen area and beyond, and Wolves have to contend with that and with the grind of another Premier League season with clubs knowing what to do against them now. That's a tough needle to thread. Expect a little regression this year, but they'll still be a top half side.

8. Everton

Remember when the thing holding Everton back was ambitious ownership that would spend big? Well that's not a problem anymore, and they still always hit the glass ceiling no matter the manager. Marco Silva hit it last year, in spite of Everton spending gobs of cash and not doing it so well. They've done it again, but this time losing quite a bit more from their squad, including Idrissa Gana and Ademola Lookman. They've reinvested well in Moise Kean, Fabian Delph and perhaps Alex Iwobi, but it still feels like something is missing. They're deeper than Wolves and West Ham, but they're not seemingly what they want to be, strive to be; mostly because they are what they can be and no more. They could make a European appearance this year, but finishing a relatively mediocre but safe eighth seems like it's Everton's destiny.

7. Leicester

They are not the team that won the Premier League in 2016, far from it. That's not something that will ever happen again. But every summer, they lose a critical piece (last year Riyad Mahrez, this year Harry Maguire) and they don't lose a step. Brendan Rogers has a very good squad to work with this year including two great young Belgian midfielders in Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet, a budding superstar in James Maddison and that Vardy guy. Bu they're not as strong in central defense as they once were, and if Vardy's not scoring goals, who is? They are the best of the rest in England, especially with their manager (I know we all laugh at Deluded Brendan but he's not really that anymore). It's hard not to be impressed with what they've done.

6. Manchester United

Into the Sky Six we go, and we find Manchester United in a very weird spot. They've spent big on three British players that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted, but yet something is missing. Romelu Lukaku is gone with his replacement possibly being a revitalized Alexis Sanchez or maybe a 17 year old. Paul Pogba is still evidently not happy, and after that initial burst when Solskjaer arrived, Manchester United scuppered to the finish. Would anyone be shocked to see United sack him if they're hovering around 10th in November? Probably not, but the club's problems go deeper than him. Recruitment, structure, vision are all missing. The other five above them seem to have more of that in spite of their issues. United seem not just stuck, but listless.

5. Chelsea

Frank Lampard, after one season of nearly taking Derby County to the Premier League, is now Chelsea's manager. He comes in after Maurizio Sarri won the Europa League and finished third, but left a sour taste in Chelsea's mouth on the way out. Chelsea were also on a transfer ban, so their winter signing of Christian Pulisic is their only true new incoming, if you don't account for young players like Mason Mount. Losing Eden Hazard, the one true transcendent player they had through all the ups and downs, means this club is going to look quite strange. No Ruben Loftus-Cheek for a while will also hurt. Will some of the loan army that is returning give Chelsea a chance at the top four? Yes. Will Christian Pulisic be good, but probably not live up to his transfer fee? Probably. Were they handcuffed this window to do anything notable? Yes. All of this means that while they made the Champions League a season ago, they may not make it again.

4. Arsenal

I'm an unabashed Spurs supporter, and still laugh at pretty much everything Arsenal has done in the last four or five years as their North London neighbors basically lapped them. But this summer, they did put their money where their mouth is and made some good additions. Nicolas Pepe has a chance to be a star forward and combine well with Aubamayeng, Lacazette and perhaps even Mesut Ozil. Dani Ceballos isn't an Aaron Ramsey replacement, but he's going to help fill the void. Torreira and Guendouzi is a wonderful midfield duo for Unai Emery to build around. But that defense is still an absolute mess, particularly at centerback. David Luiz still looks and defends like Sideshow Bob, and who else is going to help him out? At least with Bellerin and Kieran Tierney, they have the fullbacks to cover up some of those ills.

But after what happened at the end of last year with the collapse in league form and the second half in Baku, questions still must be asked. But with United and Chelsea in various states of transition and disarray, the Champions League beckons because at least Stan Kroenke put his money where his mouth is... that is if he ever talked publicly.

3. Spurs

Last year for Spurs was a season of miracles coming together to create magic when it looked like inertia was going to hit the blue half of North London. The stadium didn't open until April, they made no new signings and injuries ravaged just about everyone. Mauricio Pochettino took a team put together with spit and duck tape, got them safely in the top four and they made the Champions League Final. It was an insane ride.

And after an 18 month wait for new signings, the incoming names were major. Tanguy Ndombele is a midfield star in the making, and he already performed on the big stage with Lyon, so slotting in next to Moussa Sissoko or Harry Winks could create a dominant central midfield which Spurs have used so spectacularly in the past. Giovani Lo Celso could be a Christian Eriksen running mate or replacement, and he has all the tools to be one of the best young attacking midfielders in Europe. Ryan Sessesgnon is a young player with promise that Spurs under Pochettino have turned into gold.

So why can't they challenge for a Premier League title? They still lack depth behind Harry Kane, their defense is not spectacular, especially at right back, and that run last year took a lot out of them. While they don't have to worry about the concerns of an entire squad coming in late for the season because of World Cup excursions, it still feels like they're not totally right until the frontrunners are well out of the blocks already. But with the new signings, and the new stadium, it feels like Spurs are finally on solid footing. Maybe this year, it finally leads to a trophy.

2. Manchester City

What City did last year domestically was absolutely insane. They almost never put a foot wrong, and as Pep often does, he recreates his tactics and takes everyone by surprise every time he does. They had a real sparring partner last year in Liverpool and still outlasted them. Getting good work out of Oleksandr Zinchenko and Phil Foden certainly helps, and if they take another step, then that could be it for everyone else. Rodri is also going to be a star. But there are worries. David Silva and Sergio Aguero can't keep this up forever, can they? Leroy Sane's ACL injury is a major concern too. And will they put more resources in the Champions League to finally win it after so many close calls? A triple Premier League winner would be fitting for Pep, but considering their big rival from last year has everything but a domestic crown now, and considering that the allure of Europe is still super strong, perhaps it means there's a swap at the top coming.

1. Liverpool

Liverpool did everything right last year, and still didn't win the Premier League. But once they got a little fortune in Europe, they hoisted another European crown. For this new campaign, they bring back basically everyone, but very little has changed. That's not a bad thing for a team that last year was better than everyone except City, but a little freshening up in some key areas, like up front, may have helped add a new dimension to a team that was already frightening. Perhaps a step up for Naby Keita could be just that.

Having won in Europe, but being denied in England could be an interesting motivator this campaign. Do Liverpool go all out in the league, leaving a little in Europe, to win the one trophy they haven't won? It seems like it's destiny for them to complete that mission, and even after a rough preseason, it seems like that may be the aim. If Liverpool win the league, and City win the Champions League, it would feel fitting. Maybe most fitting would be if those two played in the Champions League final too.

So these are my Premier League predictions, sure to fail as they always tend to. But it's good to have the world's biggest sporting circus back, we all kinda missed it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The @footballergay hoax, and what's next in helping athletes come out

On July 5, a Twitter account came into life. It was called "the Gay Footballer". On that day, its first tweet said that the owner of the account was a player in the EFL Championship, England's second tier soccer league who had come out to his family, was under 23 and was getting ready to tell the world his story. For 19 days, the account picked up nearly 50,000 followers while tweeting play-by-play of the process of meeting high ranking club officials to carefully plan the next steps. All seemed positive. On July 21, the account tweeted the date July 24, 2019 with a rainbow flag emoji, signifying that would be the day when the player would reveal who he was. But on July 23, after cryptically deleting more than 60 tweets and unfollowing the nearly 1,500 accounts it had followed, the account was deleted after sending tweets saying the player "wasn't strong enough" and couldn't come out while furiously denying that this whole episode was a hoax.

It's clear that this account was a well constructed, incredibly insidious and evil hoax. I wanted to believe it was real even though my first thoughts when seeing the account pop up were, "that's odd." Most high level celebrities and athletes when they come out have not narrated their climbing of that mountain through anonymous social media accounts. All of the hard work happens behind the scenes, with little indication that an announcement is coming publicly until it happens. When Collin Martin, Robbie Rogers and Jason Collins came out publicly, the announcements in many ways came out of nowhere. Knowing that made the circumstances regarding this account questionable, but as time passed, I began to believe that it was real, not because of anything it was saying, but because creating a hoax like this would be a gigantic risk to whoever constructed it. The English tabloids, though they didn't cover this story as intensely as you think they would when it first emerged, would be all over trying to figure out who was behind the account and exposing them if it wasn't real. For the person who constructed the lie, they'd be putting themselves in hot water knowing they'd have to put even more work into the cover up than the account itself.

Since the account is now gone and no one publicly came out, the skepticism turned out to be correct. Instead of focusing on who concocted the lies and why they did it, it's time to focus on why in 2019, there are so few high level male athletes that are out worldwide and how we can help change that.

Part of the amazing story of the US Women's National Team winning the World Cup the way they did was how openly queer they were. Megan Rapinoe especially made no bones about her sexuality and embracing it, which along with the five other out players on that team, made a statement that has not been made in sports like that before.



But while their unabashed queerness is trendsetting and groundbreaking, it's not entirely analogous to the situation with the now deleted twitter account. There's an insidious expectation that high level female athletes are automatically gay because high level athletics is "manly", and queer women are expected to try to act like men. That isn't why there are scores more openly queer female athletes than male, far from it. But watching Kelly O'Hara, who wasn't previously out publicly, walk up to her girlfriend in the stands in Lyon after winning the World Cup and kiss her, you understand just how different the playing field is for out female athletes and out male athletes, and just how different the expectations and stereotypes are.

Sports are supposed to be "manly", "tough", and a host of other synonyms for those two words, and gay men are decidedly not that, according to popular, deep-rooted and factually incorrect stereotypes. Being "feminine", as gay man are assumed to be is not possible in sports because you need to be a "man" to deal with the raw physicality, toughness and other stereotypes that dominate the perception of sports to this day. None of that is anywhere near close to true obviously, but those regressive ideas are still stuck in too many corners of the male sports world, which is why you get stories about how overwhelming majorities of teenage queer athletes are not out and feel afraid to be, and a not insignificant number feel unsafe in locker rooms. That culture translates to the language used, which includes a number of demeaning slurs including calling people girls for not being "tough" and of course, the British slang term for a cigarette I won't use here.

The irony is that most athletes who use this language aren't homophobic, far from it. Mostly, they're saying it because they think it's either funny, or that it's "normal", because no one has ever told them said language is neither of those things. Most would be perfectly fine with a gay teammate, but don't realize the impact their language has on closeted individuals.

"The use of this language also appears to be motivated by a desire for social acceptance", researchers at Monsah University in Australia said in their study on the issue, "rather than overt homophobia or sexism and players had misconceptions around how others on their team view this language, and also around how this language use would create an unwelcoming environment for LGB people and women."

Those words make people not only feel like they don't belong, but they are lesser than, and that is not an environment conducive for success. These closeted athletes then more than likely leave before ever reaching a high level, and those that end up breaking through are still deeply closeted when they do succeed. And once those kids, who have been raised in a conforming, non-questioning culture end up staying in it as coaches to teach a new generation, the cycle repeats itself. Only now has the cycle started to break with a higher interest in addressing this problem, but this is still a major problem all across male sports, particularly male team sports.

That culture still exists in many ways even at the highest levels of all sports, certainly still in English soccer. And while the leagues are starting to realize what they have to do in order to foster culture that allows queer athletes to feel open to be themeselves, let alone feel safe in these spaces, there is a long way to go. When Collin Martin, Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins among others came out, they rose above the fray because they were uniquely situation to overcome the challenges that an openly gay male athlete still faces, but they still vividly documented the difficulties they had in accepting themselves in that space to get to that point. They are certainly not alone.

It's extremely unlikely that there are zero other high level gay professional soccer players playing right now across the globe; it is statistically impossible. It's also highly unlikely that in the four major leagues in this country, there are zero gay athletes in those locker rooms too. There are perhaps hundreds of untold stories past and present waiting to be told, but these people never received the direct or indirect support to tell them. They never felt anywhere near safe enough to do so.

Put all of this into a blender, and you can see why so many were hopeful that @footballergay was real, and not what it turned out to be. Sports seems to be the final frontier for the queer community, particularly queer men, and that finish line is getting ever closer, but still so far away. As societal attitudes change, someone soon is going to come out. They will not be anonymously tweeting the play-by-play of their behind the scenes process; they will come out much like how Rogers, Martin, Collins and others did. How can we help them do so, so that they feel comfortable being themselves by default?

If you hear homophobic language and slurs, tell those people not just to stop saying them, but why they hurt and what you can say otherwise. While you'll inevitably get some resistance, the large majority of people don't know what damage those words can do, and don't want to hurt anyone. Newly out Australian soccer player Andy Brennan recently told a story about how he did that during a game and how the reaction was of shock and regret from that player about his words, not resistance and anger.

Progress here is not linear. We are thankfully light years ahead of when Graeme Le Saux was rumored to be gay because he read the Guardian and wasn't interested in the typical lifestyle of a high level English soccer player, and where hockey coaches would call places on the ice where you shouldn't pass the puck "queer street", but not far enough ahead for episodes like this one to be a fear, not a reality. Someone, somewhere, is preparing to come out, and they need support not just from their own circle, but beyond to feel safe in doing so.

The fevered interest in @footballergay and it's story, and the largely positive support it got when people believed it was real shows that at the very least, something here has changed for the better.

"It is a not a personal desire to be perceived as a pioneer of any kind," the account wrote early on. "My hope is simply to be able to pursue the career and dream I've had since childhood, while simultaneously being permitted to be myself". Obviously, the person behind that account had no desire to do any of that, but people who have come out did that and those who will follow will want to do that too. They need the chance to do so, and it's incumbent on all of us, even those who already came out to make that possible.

We can all be angry at this particularly false dawn, but know that there is hope in that disappointment. Hopefully it isn't just people like me who have a vested interest in these stories who are angry and hurt. But that anger can be channeled into doing actual good for people who desperately need it so when they feel it's time to tell the world their truth, they can do so confidently, safely and freely.

For the heartbroken and closeted young soccer player who desperately wanted this to be real, there needs to be hope that one day a story like this will be. We all, queer or not, have a responsibility to help make that a reality. Hopefully after this sad episode, the lessons learned will make it easier for someone to feel free and safe to tell their truth, and be celebrated for doing so.

It's more than past due.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions + a look back at Regular Season Predictions that went wrong

In another installment of this blog's "cheap content" machine, here we'll look back on my regular season predictions for the last NHL season that went terribly, while also giving out my sure to be wrong predictions for the playoffs. Some content is better than none.

Division Winners (predicted): PIT, TB, NSH, SJ
Division Winners (actual): WSH, TB, NSH, CGY

Not too bad. Pittsburgh finished third in the Metro and San Jose finished second in the Pacific, and would have won the division if Martin Jones could have stopped a beach ball.

East Playoff Teams (predicted): TB, TOR, BOS, FLA, PIT, WSH, PHI, CBJ
East Playoff Teams (actual): TB, BOS, TOR, CBJ, WSH, NYI, PIT, CAR

Overrating the Panthers and Flyers might be a sad new trend I've started that I will be sure to end in October. Both teams should have been far better than they were, but a gross combination of bad coaching and bad goaltending sunk them. I had Carolina as team nine in the East, and they ended up being team seven, and I thought the Islanders would be one step removed from the Senators in the East's basement, and they had the fifth best record. Barry Trotz is a wizard.

West Playoff Teams (predicted): NSH, WPG, STL, DAL, SJ, VGK, LA, CGY
West Playoff Teams (actual): NSH, WPG, STL, DAL, CGY, SJ, VGK, COL

Those LA Kings..., I deserve no credit for predicting the Central as it happened because it didn't sort itself out until the last day of the season, and I looked pretty dumb in January when the Blues were terrible. No one saw the Flames being this good, although I did have them sneaking into the postseason.

Awards (prediction then comments):
Hart: Connor McDavid (he could win it every year, but Nikita Kucherov is running away with this)
Art Ross: McDavid (again, Kuch ran away with this)
Rocket Richard: Patrik Laine (he has goalless streaks that make your mind go numb. Also Ovi is immortal).
Norris: Erik Karlsson (spent too much time injured, although over a full season he would have been in the race. Mark Giordano has won this)
Calder: Andrei Svechnikov (good, but not great season. Elias Pettersson has it locked up)
Jack Adams: Jim Montgomery (he did a good job, but not "best NHL team in a quarter century" or "reviving the Islanders from the scrap heap" good.)
First Coach Fired: Todd McLellan (4th of 4 fired in November. Congrats to John Stevens!)

Preseason Conference and Stanley Cup Finals Picks:
TB/PIT, SJ/NSH, TB/SJ.

All could happen, but they don't look as likely now.

Postseason Predictions:

East:
TB over CBJ in 5
BOS over TOR in 7
WSH over CAR in 6
PIT over NYI in 6

TB over BOS in 6
WSH over PIT in 7

TB over WSH in 6

West:
NSH over DAL in 7
STL over WPG in 6
CGY over COL in 5
VGK over SJ in 7

STL over NSH in 6
VGK over CGY in 6

VGK over STL in 6

2019 Stanley Cup Final:
TB over VGK in 6

Conn Smythe: Nikita Kucherov

Pretty chalky. Enjoy the playoffs!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

2019 MLB Season Predictions

I do apologize for those of you who remember when this blog had fleshed out ideas for columns beyond making jokes about Mike Milbury and prediction pieces to populate the blog with cheap content. Sometimes, the sports media world can chew up your will more than you expect. But for now, here comes another prediction piece, this one for the upcoming MLB season!

After an offseason of drama because of "collusion", big name free agents being frozen out from signing until the start of spring training and long features on how minor leagues can't make minimum wage because of somewhat shady lobbying, the baseball itself can finally begin. Even though baseball's system has created more parity in recent years, the sport has never felt more top heavy with just as many teams openly tanking and tearing down as there are trying to win at the highest level. Such intrigue leads more to talk about the next CBA rather than who wins the World Series, but with baseball to be played, there are predictions to come. And here they are:

NL East:
1. Philadelphia
2. Washington
3. Atlanta
4. New York Mets
5. Miami

The Phillies said openly that they were basically going to spend funny money, and they did. They added not just Bryce Harper, but J.T Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson. While their rotation and bullpen are not deep, and Gabe Kapler hasn't exactly endeared himself to Phillies fans yet, sometimes talent may just win out in the end. Washington has an even deeper rotation now that Patrick Corbin is added to the mix, and having super prospect Victor Robles take up some of the Bryce Harper airspace will only help the Nats transition away from him. Atlanta snuck up to win an open division last year, but it feels like the other two teams ahead of them took their shine a little bit, though they will be competitive. It seems as if the Mets picked the wrong time to contend as the rest of the NL East loaded up, but if they can stay healthy and get offense from some unlikely sources, they can be a playoff team. And the Marlins will be good one day, so let's celebrate how awesome their new look is so we can say something nice about them in the present.

AL East:
1. New York Yankees
2. Boston
3. Tampa Bay
4. Toronto
5. Baltimore

Everything last year seemed to go perfectly for the Red Sox, from Mookie Betts to J.D Martinez, Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel. Repeating all of those tricks again seems hard, especially if there are more questions at the back end of the rotation and bullpen that are still unanswered. For that, and since the Yankees made a deep bullpen even deeper, and they still have that lineup. It seems like it's their time. For how much everyone hates "the Opener", it certainly worked for the Rays, and for all of their limitations, they manage to find great talent and cultivate it well. It's certainly not enough in the AL East, but perhaps it's enough for a Wild Card. In Toronto, we're all waiting to see Vlad Guerrero Jr., and the sooner the better. And in Baltimore, what's the baseball equivalent of tanking for Tua?

NL Central:
1. St. Louis
2. Chicago Cubs
3. Milwaukee
4. Cincinnati
5. Pittsburgh

Adding Paul Goldschmidt is a big deal for the Cardinals, who needed that extra pop in the lineup last year and didn't get it. They have plenty of young pitching, and it's certainly provided more upside for the predictions machines than a certain rival, who those predictions weren't exactly bullish on. While St. Louis made some upgrades, the Cubs basically stood pat, and that was a team last year who seemed a bit long in the tooth, particularly on the mound. That difference is going to be enough to swing the division. Milwaukee took such a great step forward last year and it couldn't close the deal in Game 7 against LA, and it remains to be seen how long that window for them will stay open. It's good to see a team like the Reds spending and trying to compete even when the in-vogue logic would tell them not too, but losing Scooter Gennett for nearly three months hurts. And for the Pirates, balling on a budget is pretty dang hard to do.

AL Central:
1. Cleveland
2. Minnesota
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Kansas City
5. Detroit

Once again, the AL Central seems to be about the Indians and everyone else, and the Indians are starting to falter. They're not as deep as they've been, and Francisco Lindor is already fighting major injury problems. The only issue is that there's no one else in the AL Central that can really touch them, with Minnesota being the closest. Do they have enough with some of their additions to really push the Indians, or is it token competition? The White Sox went big game hunting this offseason, didn't get anyone, and are handing out mega-contracts to players who haven't played a major league game yet. At some point, all their talent has to come good, right? Kansas City is a long way away from the team that won the World Series, and the Tigers are trying to rebuild the old fashioned way, which maybe is the new market inefficiency if you squint hard enough.

NL West:
1. Los Angeles
2. Colorado
3. San Diego
4. Arizona
5. San Francisco

The Dodgers have been left at the altar the last two years in the World Series, and they still don't seem to be a team that got that final piece of the puzzle. Clayton Kershaw not being healthy to start the year doesn't help, but they were awful early in 2018 and that didn't seem to matter. Are the Dodgers going to be able to pitch well enough to win at the highest level? The Rockies were dispatched easily from the playoffs because their highly paid bullpen collapsed, but after re-upping MVP candidate Nolan Arenado, there's a good feeling in Denver. The NL Wild Card race is crowded, but that slight uptick in bullpen performance could get them there. San Diego signed Manny Machado, and brought up a top prospect for an opening day assignment. That will make them interesting, but not necessarily a contender. Arizona wanted to contend, saw how difficult it will be, and decided to tear it all down again. And the Giants would be a World Series contender if this was 2012.

AL West:
1. Houston
2. LA Angels
3. Oakland
4. Seattle 
5. Texas

It's all about the Astros here again, but now that some of their World Series building blocks are elsewhere, how high is the ceiling? They're certainly good enough to win the division, but the Red Sox handed it to them in the ALCS last year. Speaking of ceilings, will the Angels finally be good with Mike Trout in his prime putting up Mickey Mantle like numbers? They should be, but it's still an open question. After last year's impressive run to the Wild Card with seemingly so little, especially in the rotation, one wonders if the A's can hold it together for one more run. Seattle, like Arizona, saw that contending would be hard so they sold off just about everyone and are trying to rebuild from the ground up, though they have a little bit more in the stable than other rebuilding teams. The Rangers are going to open up a new ballpark with a roof in 2020, that's exciting. 

NL Playoff Teams: 1. LAD 2. PHI 3. STL 4. WSH 5. CHC
AL Playoff Teams: 1. NYY 2. HOU 3. CLE 4. BOS 5. LAA

NL Playoffs:

Wild Card: Cubs over Nationals
NLDS: Dodgers over Cubs in 4, Cardinals over Phillies in 5
NLCS: Dodgers over Cardinals in 7

AL Playoffs:

Wild Card: Red Sox over Angels
ALDS: Yankees over Red Sox in 5, Astros over Indians in 3
ALCS: Yankees over Astros in 6

2019 World Series: Yankees over Dodgers in 5

Awards:
NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt
AL MVP: Aaron Judge
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
NL Rookie: Fernando Tatis Jr.
AL Rookie: Vlad Guerrero Jr.
NL Manager: Dave Martinez
AL Manager: Aaron Boone

These are sure to go wrong quick, so sorry to all who I picked to do well. 

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?