Friday, September 11, 2020

2020-21 Premier League Predictions

Two prediction pieces in three days? Must mean the writer is getting lazy and wants to shill for content. That's definitely true, but it's a strange 2020 coincidence that the Premier League and NFL seasons start so close to one another that two prediction pieces are needed. Perhaps this should wait until the transfer window closes in October, but these games still matter. So here are the sure-to-go-wrong as always predictions for the Premier League:

Standings predicted from worst to first.

20. Fulham

When Fulham was promoted a few years ago, they spent wildly and all that got them was three managers, 26 points and an immediate return to the Championship. After winning the promotion playoffs, they're back, with considerably more financial restraint and a squad that doesn't look nearly as enticing on paper. That might mean better for the balance sheet but not form the performance on the pitch. They won't be as bad defensively as they were two years ago, but they may also not be as good going forward either. Staying up is a success, and that success looks hard to come by.

19. West Bromwich Albion

West Brom stumbled out of the Premier League just like Fulham did two years ago, and spent largely on their manager to get them back to the top flight. Slaven Bilic proved to be right the man, and with a few shrewd signings (and dumb luck at the end of last year), they won promotion. Most of their money spent this window was re-signing players who were on loan, and that can only be part of the equation. They need a striker as a focal point to be the line leader, which every promoted club needs, and as of now they don't have that. Bilic has the managerial chops, but the squad is lacking in some key areas, which will prove to be fatal.

18. Burnley

At some point, this club is going to go down because they will get outstripped by clubs with more resources. Sean Dyche is a miracle worker keeping this club in the Premier League as long as he has, but even he might not be able to do much with a squad that rapidly thinned out and has made no additions this window outside of a reserve goalie. Somehow, even through Dyche openly feuding with management about money invested in the squad, he's back, and he might be enough to keep them up again, and safely. But at some point, predicting Burnley to go down will be correct, and this year may be just weird enough that even miracle workers can't pull another rabbit out of their hat.

17. Aston Villa

For most of last season, it looked like Villa would go the way of Fulham: big spenders whose transfer outlay barely papered over the cracks of a squad that was barely Premier League quality. But, they found a great escape last year, perhaps solely because of an incident against Sheffield United when Hawkeye failed to give a clear goal that almost assuredly would have sent them down. They still have Jack Grealish, who could and probably should be at a bigger club right now, and they spent lavishly on a new striker from Brentford in Ollie Watkins. They need to get those goals from one of their forwards if they're going to stay up, and it would help if their defense settled a bit. Will they be bitten by second season syndrome? 

16. West Ham United

This club, for all its faults, has no business being in relegation battles. They've spent and spent on countless players with potential who failed to meet it, which has meant a mid table club has ended up here. Now, they can't spend without selling, and David Moyes, for all of his faults, needs players to work with and doesn't really have a squad to do the job. However, they haven't sold Michail Antonio, Declan Rice or other key cogs, meaning that they should have enough quality to scrape by once again. But for this club, scraping by should never be good enough.

15. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace were basically safe by March, when last season was suspended due to the pandemic. It became obvious after the restart that they knew they were safe, since their run of form, particularly towards the end of project restart, was horrific. Roy Hodgson knows this and always manages to get more out of a squad that is in a desperate need of a major refresh, but after last season when the squad was even more stale, he was still able to get results. Bringing back Michi Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea is a move that should do plenty to ease those concerns, at least temporarily. Wilfried Zaha, as of this writing, is still at Palace, and that bodes well as he's still their best player through all the transfer turmoil. This club will have its ebbs, but should be relatively safe come the end of the year.

14. Brighton & Hove Albion

Graham Potter's team at times looks absolutely overawed when they play the Premiership's big boys, but at times, they pull off amazing results, like against Spurs and Arsenal at home last year. Potter was able to get Brighton to play better looking soccer last year, which worked well against teams at their level. They were always a bit wasteful with their chances, but they made their chances count when they needed to. They were also relatively poor defensively, but adding Joel Veltman from Ajax and bringing back a star from Leeds' promotion campaign in Ben White should help solidify things somewhat. They also are developing some young players with promise. The Seagulls should be a good neutral watch this season, and a club that looks to be sticking around, too.

13. Sheffield United

Overlapping centerbacks. That sounds off, but the tactics worked, because Sheffield United spent no time in the relegation zone and conceded the fewest goals of any promoted side in Premier League history. Part of that has to do with Dean Henderson, the Manchester United loanee that is now back with his parent club, but the team buy in to the tactics and approach was truly amazing to see. While they didn't generate many chances, when they did, they finished them. That combination made the Blades much tougher than anyone saw coming. No player stands out above the rest, and that's what makes them unique. There's almost no way they compete for Europe this season, but there's little reason to see them going down, either.

12. Leeds United

If you have never watched a second of Premier League soccer, watch Leeds United this year and you'll be hooked for life. Leeds are a gigantic club that once made a Champions League semifinal, but was mismanaged into the dirt and only just returned to the Premier League this season. Their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, is nicknamed "El Loco" for a reason. His teams run, and run, and run. Bielsa's inspiration on managers like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and others cannot be overstated, and now the man himself gets to tackle the Premier League challenge. Last year, they were even better than their points haul indicated because they wasted so many good chances; according to Sky Sports, they underperformed their xG by 11 last year. You can't have that in the top flight. But this team is a little like Wolves; they're not any real threat to go down and could become a top half team in short order. And most importantly, they're going to be fun as hell.

11. Newcastle United

No club in this league has squandered more potential than Newcastle. They are a gigantic club that too often flirts with outright disaster. They were to be taken over by a group with ties to the Saudi Arabian government, which fell through in spectacular fashion, so the loathed Mike Ashley is still around. There are concerns, as always with this club. Their preseason has been dour, and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka could be out for months. But this club has quality, or at least enough of it, to stay away from relegation. Miguel Almiron is still special, Allan Saint-Maximin has been a bright spark and bringing in Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Fraser on free transfers is worth the risk. There is always something going on with Newcastle, and if they survived last season in tact, they'll probably do well enough again.

10. Southampton

Southampton have been a staging post for some of the greats in the Premier League in the last decade to launch. Players and managers alike have found their careers taking off on the South Coast, though there were moments where that looked almost impossible. They flirted with relegation a few too many times, and they lost 9-0 to Leicester at home last season when the whole project was on the verge of falling apart. But Ralph Hassenhuttl survived, and his team started to play a high pressing, high energy style that lead to success. Last season, Saints were absolutely terrible at home, which makes basically no sense. Should that turn around, they could and should challenge for Europe.

9. Everton

Carlo Ancelotti is one of the best managers in recent time, so to see him managing Everton is quite a shock, even now. It's even more of a shock to see players like James Rodriguez in Toffee blue as well. Their squad features players with so much potential: Richarlison, Allan, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, etc. They now need to reach it, which has been a problem for Everton in recent years. This manager has achieved so much, but this is his biggest challenge yet. Can they break the Sky Six hammerlock? They have the grit, but now they need the guile.

8. Leicester City

Watching Leicester lay waste to the league in the fall of last season was truly impressive, which makes it even more stunning to see them finish fifth when it looked like they had a Champions League spot in the bag. They really did collapse towards the end of last season in spectacular fashion. Key players like Jamie Vardy and James Maddison aren't leaving, but not many new players are coming. Their exquisite transfer business from the past also doesn't look to be continuing into the Brendan Rogers era. Add the Europa League to the mix and you get a club destined to slide down the table a little. It's now a matter to see whether they've hit their ceiling.

7. Wolves

An aside: Wolves apparently spent 40 million Euros on a young player from Porto who has played less than a dozen games, whose agent happens to be an adviser to Wolves ownership and also has direct ties to the manager and much of the squad. Hmmm... if you're not a Jorge Mendes fan, Wolves is not the club for you. But if Jorge Mendes FC doesn't turn you off, you'll find that they're still a fun team to watch that plays great soccer and has impressive talent that clubs around them envy. Raul Jimenez is one of the best strikers in the league, Adama Traore is a bulldozer on the wing with great skill and intelligence to boot, but their squad is extremely thin. With so many games in such a short period of time, even with the additions of young players from Jorge Mendes rolodex, at some point that's going to bite them. No Europe this year helps a tad, but it seems like this team found its ceiling last year and is now butting up against it. Maybe turning outside the Mendes sphere of influence would be worth it.

6. Spurs

Going from Mauricio Pochettino to Jose Mourinho was one of the biggest managerial shocks in recent years, especially for a club that seemed so in love with its manager for the first time in decades. Mourinho was able to scratch a European finish out of last season, benefited morbidly by the pandemic shutting down the season when most of his squad was on the training table. During the restart, Harry Kane recovered lost form which helped Spurs only lose once during that period. They've also signed players prior to deadline day in Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in two spots of need, which is a welcome change. They will play a ton of games this season thanks to the Europa League, and the demands for Mourinho are what they were when he came in: Champions League and/or a trophy. It feels long past due that this Spurs team will get the latter, but they haven't yet. Is this the year, or is this the year the Mourinho shtick starts to wear thin?

5. Arsenal

Arsenal supporters are almost never optimistic, and that's with good reason: the club has frayed in recent years during the latter tenure of Arsene Wenger and the failure of Unai Emery. He's already won  a FA Cup and Community Shield, so some of the worries about his tenure have already been soothed, at least temporarily. They were able to beat Liverpool, City and Chelsea in that run of form too. Can Arteta fix Arsenal's chronic, ever-lasting problems in central defense and central midfield? Gabriel from Lille and William Saliba should help the former, but they're not the first centerbacks to come to Arsenal with hype and not meet it. Having one of the best strikers in the world in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang certainly helps paper over those cracks. They're developing a distinct identity and playing style, which has been lacking for a few years. Making the Champions League doesn't seem so far fetched now, nor does finishing ahead of Spurs for the first time since 2016 either, but there's still a noticeable gap between them and the top four for a reason.

4. Manchester United

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right manager for this club that has been looking for far too long to find their true next man up after Sir Alex's retirement seven years ago. He's getting the most out of young players and those already there, and with additions like Bruno Fernandes, Harry McGuire and Donny Van De Beek, There was no silverware to back up the distinct progress made, but returning to the Champions League is an important milestone. If United sign Jadon Sancho, which is oft rumored but doesn't seem likely to happen, that could push them up a step or two. Clubs in their position see incremental progress, and incremental might not be good enough at United considering who and what is ahead of them. But for the first time in a long time, they're on the right path, and for good this time.

3. Chelsea

Roman Abramovich apparently has no idea that the world is in the grips of a global pandemic/financial crisis the likes of which we haven't seen in generations, because he's spending money like a drunken sailor. These are splashy signings too in Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. They're exciting additions to a group of young players and holdovers that Frank Lampard melded together into a great attacking force after a transfer ban and losing players like Eden Hazard. They'll score goals, no doubt, but they might give up a ton too, especially when their big addition to central defense is 35 year old Thiago Silva, which may help steadying the ship, but not raising it above the water line. They're better than last year's team that finished third for sure, but how much better? Are they still a cut below City and Liverpool? Oh, and we can't forget Kepa. Don't forget about Kepa. 

2. Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp's methodical build finally brought Anfield a title, and they did so in such spectacular fashion that the wait was worth it. But repeating as Champions is going to be extremely difficult, as City and others learned the hard way. This task is made harder since the only new signing they've made is a back up left back. That's not to say that their squad has suddenly begun to fall apart, but more is needed to keep up the pace with those around them. Will some of these hyped young players from the academy fill in the gaps? There's no doubt Liverpool are going to have a great chance to retain the title, but repeating will be harder than winning it the first time.

1. Manchester City

For all of Pep's spectacular collapses late in the Champions League, his teams know how to win trophies at home. And it's not like City were that "bad" last year either; in most other years, they'd have won the title. But they set such a standard that Liverpool did so well to beat that at some point, they were inevitably going to have to step aside. They're in transition away from the era of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany to younger players like Phil Foden and others. Last year, the surprise for City was not that their attack wilted, but the defense didn't play up to standards. Signing Nathan Ake from Bournemouth should help a little in that regard. Winning the title might not even be the biggest goal for City this season considering their European misadventures, but they are currently favorites to do it, simply because they might be less flawed than everyone else around them.

So those are the predictions for 2020-21, sure to be wrong in May or whenever the season ends if the pandemic flares up again, which is more than possible, and might be the surest bet in all these words. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

2020 NFL Season Predictions

 It doesn't seem real that there's going to be a full NFL season during a global pandemic still killing on average 1,000 Americans, but in a typical headstrong, stubborn American way, our true national pastime will soldier on. In many places, cheering fans will be replaced by awkward fake crowd noise and overbearing ads, but in a normal world, NFL games still featured plenty of that. With no preseason, it's hard to know what these games will even look like, but for many, sloppy football is still better than no football. These predictions are bad even in years with certainty, so these picks may end up even worse than usual. At least these won't be the only ones.

AFC East:

1. New England 10-6

2. Buffalo 9-7

3. Miami 7-9

4. NY Jets 4-12

2020 is so strange that the Patriots are still predicted to win the AFC East even though they'll have their first non-Tom Brady opening day starter since 2001 and many of their good players opted out thanks to the pandemic. But Cam Newton with a chip on his shoulder is scary, even though the rest of the Patriots are decidedly not that scary anymore. On paper, the Bills have the most talent in the division, but when the lasting memory of them from last year is Josh Allen not knowing which way was up during the Wild Card game, they end up getting a handicap. If the simplest question is which QB do you trust more, Newton or Allen, the answer is simple. Tua does not start the season for Miami as their QB but he'll end it under center, and the Dolphins will be competitive in every game since they now have the talent to go with the coaching from last season. The Jets had their best player opt out due to COVID-19, and Frank Gore might be starting over Le'Veon Bell even though he's old enough to have a child currently playing college football.

NFC East:

1. Dallas 11-5

2. Philadelphia 9-7

3. NY Giants 5-11

4. Washington 3-13

Somehow, Dallas conspired to throw the NFC East away last year, and that finally cost Jason Garrett his job. With better coaching this year, and small but necessary upgrades across the board, they should finally be able to put away this listless division. Philly's success this year will come largely if they stay healthy, but with history as a reference, that's nowhere near certain. They can win the division, but they're not as deep as Dallas, especially on defense. Daniel Jones has a new coach and a new offense, but his team still doesn't have the defense to back him up. And as for the team with no name, Ron Rivera has a massive clean up job to do, and that's more hoping the mess above him becomes slightly less messy. Is Dwayne Haskins the answer? Is he still the starter by the end of the year?

AFC North:

1. Baltimore 12-4

2. Pittsburgh 10-6

3. Cleveland 7-9

4. Cincinnati 5-11

The Ravens have the best QB and best player in the division, and though they won't win 14 like they did a year ago, having the best player and best QB be one and the same will tilt this division towards them again, though they'll have far more stiff competition this year than last. With Big Ben healthy, an offense with great potential could be back to their strength from the Killer B's era, and the defense might be starting to look somewhat like Steelers' defenses of old again. They're for sure a playoff team, and a sneaky Super Bowl contender in a top heavy AFC. Everyone thought this time last year that the Browns would finally turn the corner, and predictably, they didn't. They have the talent to finally make the postseason, but do you trust them? Joe Burrow will win the Bengals some games they shouldn't win, but this roster overall is still talent deficient, but the arrow is at least firmly pointing up.

NFC North:

1. Minnesota 10-6

2. Green Bay 9-7

3. Detroit 7-9

4. Chicago 6-10

Minnesota lost twice to Green Bay last year which cost them a division title, but they still pulled off a great upset at New Orleans in the Wild Card round. With Dalvin Cook and just enough on offense, even though they traded away Stefon Diggs for some reason, they should be the favorites in the division though they are more flawed than in recent years. Green Bay's 13-3 record last year was a fluke and everyone knows it, and after some bizarre moves this offseason, particularly in the draft, many are starting to wonder what the future of this team looks like. Their defense will be better than their offense again, which is strange to write. Matt Patricia looks to be another in a line of failed Bill Belichick disciples to have success as head coaches elsewhere, even though he's got a renewed Matthew Stafford throwing the ball around easily. And the Bears QB competition between Nick Foles and Mitch Trubisky tells you everything about where this team is heading: straight to the basement of this division.

AFC South:

1. Indianapolis 11-5

2. Tennessee 9-7

3. Houston 7-9

4. Jacksonville 4-12

If Andrew Luck didn't stunningly retire during the preseason last year, they would have been a contender for the Super Bowl. To finish 7-9 after that even with mediocre QB play, shows the talent on this roster that will carry them forward this year now that they've upgraded at that position. Late stage Philip Rivers will be enough with this roster construction to get the Colts where they need to go. Teams that play like Tennessee; run heavy with just enough QB play to get by are not bets for long term success, and the Titans are perpetually 7-9/8-8/9-7, but with the expanded postseason that might be enough to get them in again. When you trade away your best non-QB player for peanuts, your team isn't destined for success, and the Texans, beneficiaries of being in a terrible division for so long, are finally going to see that catch up to them. The Jaguars aren't tanking, that requires a plan which they don't have, but they're not the automatic worst team in the league that so many are saying they are. Not only do they have competition for it, but they're not as talent bereft as you think, just extremely young, which isn't a formula for success in a year with a giant global pandemic.

NFC South:

1. New Orleans 12-4

2. Tampa Bay 10-6

3. Atlanta 8-8

4. Carolina 6-10

This might be the last kick at the can for the Saints as currently constructed, which is a shame. They've been one of the most fun and fascinating teams in the NFL in recent years, only to be eliminated from the postseason in excrutiating fashion each time. It's not a matter of what they do in the regular season, it's a matter of getting over those mental hurdles in the playoffs. Tampa has the stars, and has the pieces, but can they put it all together in a year without a preseason? They are the Bucs, a team that has made the playoffs only twice since winning the Super Bowl in 2002. Atlanta feels like a team that is distinctly stuck in the messy middle; not good enough to contend for the playoffs but not bad enough for the bottom to fall out, which is evidenced by two consecutive 7-9 finishes, and it seems they're not budging from that. Carolina is going all out on the college model of success, and while that will benefit Christian McCaffrey's fantasy owners, what else do they have around him?

AFC West:

1. Kansas City 12-4

2. LA Chargers 7-9

3. Las Vegas (still weird) 6-10

4. Denver 6-10

No team has repeated as Super Bowl champ since the Patriots in 2004, but it feels like if any team in recent history is going to do it, it would be these Chiefs. Though hit by a few notable COVID-19 opt outs, they still have the best player in football and have the depth to overcome those losses. It also helps they play in a mediocre division. The Chargers will go with Tyrod Taylor instead of rookie Justin Herbert, probably wise since Herbert is such a divisive prospect and nowhere near polished yet, but this team always confounds and conspires to be worse than the sum of its parts. They could have the DPOY in Nick Bosa, a talented offense with Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, and yet they don't have the look and feel of a playoff team. Derwin James being out is tough. A new city beckons for the Raiders, yet Vegas won't singlehandedly change this team's luck. Derek Carr might be on the last of his seemingly nine lives, and ever since that great 2016 run, he hasn't been able to recapture that form. The Broncos may have just lost Von Miller for the season, Bradley Chubb isn't healthy yet either, and the offensive line might well be a sieve. Not a great combination for a team that hasn't won in five years and a young QB with plenty of question marks.

NFC West:

1. San Francisco 11-5

2. Seattle 9-7

3. LA Rams 8-8

4. Arizona 7-9

10 years ago, the NFC West's division winner finished with a below .500 record, yet for most of the decade after, it was the best division in football by far. That's again the case in 2020, where a convincing argument can be made that all teams finish above .500. Though the 49ers are going to have a Super Bowl hangover of some kind, they're still a cut above everyone else in the division, even with perhaps the third best QB in the division. They're already a little banged up, but especially at WR, and thinner on the OL than last year, but every other team has a more fatal flaw than theirs. Seattle was also extremely flukey with their record since they won so many close games, and that is not replicable in 2020. They also don't have a good pass rush, or much of a running game to speak of. Relying on Russell Wilson to do absolutely everything is great in principle, not so in practice. Jared Goff is a perfectly acceptable QB making top 5 QB money, which is a bad combination on a roster that has become pretty lopsided and uneven even with superstars like Aaron Donald. If the Cardinals were in any other division, they'd probably make the playoffs considering Kyler Murray now has the best receiver in football to throw to. They're definitely going to be fun, but they may not be quite ready yet.

AFC Playoff teams:

1. Kansas City 12-4

2. Baltimore 12-4

3. Indianapolis 11-5

4. New England 10-6

5. Pittsburgh 10-6

6. Buffalo 9-7

7. Tennessee 9-7

NFC Playoff teams:

1. New Orleans 12-4

2. Dallas 11-5

3. San Francisco 11-5

4. Minnesota 10-6

5. Tampa Bay 10-6

6. Green Bay 9-7

7. Seattle 9-7

AFC Playoff Predictions:

Wild Card Round:

2. Baltimore over 7. Tennessee

3. Indianapolis over 6. Buffalo

5. Pittsburgh over 4. New England

Divisional Round:

1. Kansas City over 5. Pittsburgh

2. Baltimore over 3. Indianapolis

AFC Championship Game:

1. Kansas City over 2. Baltimore

NFC Playoff Predictions:

Wild Card Round:

2. Dallas over 7. Seattle

3. San Francisco over 6. Green Bay

5. Tampa Bay over 4. Minnesota

Divisional Round:

1. New Orleans over 5. Tampa Bay

3. San Francisco over 2. Dallas

NFC Championship Game:

1. New Orleans over 3. San Francisco

Super Bowl 55:

Kansas City over New Orleans 35-24

Award Predictions:

MVP: Patrick Mahomes (KC)

OPOY: Lamar Jackson (BAL)

DPOY: Aaron Donald (LAR)

OROY: Joe Burrow (CIN)

DROY: Chase Young (WSH)

Coach: Mike McCarthy (DAL)

Comeback: Cam Newton (NE)

Will there be a full season finishing on time? There will be a hiccup or two along the way considering the unprecedented nature of the season, but the NFL will have a full season either way. Whether it finishes on time is another matter, but surprisingly there haven't been any major disruptions yet. It seems more plausible than ever that the season will chart a normal course with regards to the calendar.

Apologies to anyone I jinxed with these predictions.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

How should we view the return of sports during the Coronavirus pandemic?

Four months ago, when the shock of almost all sports globally being shut down still very fresh, I wrote that "we didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again." It was a positive, hopeful thought in a time where there was far more uncertainty and fear than hope.

On the eve baseball, basketball and hockey returning to play, my comment about not being able to wait to see what life is like with sports again seems hollow. The pandemic that shut down sports is in many ways even worse than it was when they were shut down in March, particularly in this country. Famous athletes, like everyone else, have contracted COVID-19 and in many cases were hit very hard by it. There are testing shortages across the country for those who need it the most, and delays for those lucky enough to get their tests, and yet leagues have been able to accumulate tests, use them daily and get almost instant results. 

Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals put it pretty bluntly:
So what are we to make of sports returning to our lives when so much is still not normal, and might not be for some time yet?

Sean Doolittle among others have asked an important question: should sports be returning with the virus still very much out of control? When there are distinct ethical questions about whether sports leagues should take up the testing capacity needed for essential workers and the general population, society isn't functioning as it should. There is the real risk that when some athletes catch COVID-19, they may suffer long lasting and permanent damage, not just to living a healthy life but keeping their high standards as a professional athlete, and hundreds of athletes have already caught the virus in the course of living normal life during the pandemic. Some have pre-existing conditions that make contracting the virus even more concerning, and many have opted out of playing. Should they even be asked to put themselves on the line in circumstances like this, healthy or not?

However, thanks to the money on the line, some leagues have gone to great extents to restart play even when the outside world isn't conducive to it. MLS, NWSL, the NBA, WNBA and NHL have all constructed bubbles to keep players insulated from potential infection, and the early returns are somewhat positive. NWSL has had no positive tests inside their bubble, though Orlando Pride had to withdraw before the tournament because of positives they picked up at home, and though two teams had to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament because of the number of positive tests, the league has had five straight reports of no positive tests inside the bubble as of July 22. The NBA's bubble is also off to a good start with no players testing positive during their first week. Ethics about testing aside, the bubbles seem to be a cohesive strategy that gets play resumed and keeps players and staff safe, and one with the least amount of concern for the public at large.

But not every league can operate in a bubble. Are the ethical and moral concerns greater for MLB, who will be traveling from city to city, though playing in empty stadiums? Are they greater for the NFL, who will be doing the same, though with more players to test, no preseason and highly limited capacity for fans in stadiums if that? And what of college football and college sports in general, whose scatterbrain, scattershot philosophy on play has left conferences on their own, lost in the dark looking for direction that isn't coming? These leagues and sports have had immense trouble just agreeing on testing protocols, let alone what return to play functionally looks like. Should college athletes, amateurs according to the NCAA, be even forced to play in a situation like this when large events are almost entirely banned and they don't have the same control over their own destiny as pro athletes in unions have?

Even with the large ethical, moral and health questions looming over sports' return, plenty of sports fans are eager to have them back. 78% of self-claimed sports fans are excited about their return in spite of the raging pandemic, which is up from 65% in April. Many seem perfectly content with the idea of bubbles, and playing in empty stadiums if it means sports returning. Plenty will watch in spite of the concerns, and will be happy to have them back even if they themselves may have moral quandaries about it. Sports have an outsized role in American culture, and people are craving some sort of normalcy which is a distant memory even four months after the pandemic began to rage. Perhaps sports are the perfect place to scratch that itch, since going to concerts, museums, plays, movies are still not possible.

For all that is concerning about the return of sports in America, there is so much that they have done in this unique and challenging moment in American history. They have brought even more attention to the systemic racism that has plagued this nation, with powerful symbols of support and solidarity. Athletes have been using their platform more than ever to speak out, which is more needed than ever. None of these leagues returned to play to solely make statements of solidarity, but their return has brought us indelible moments that will stay in memory forever, and that's before baseball, football and basketball have brought their voices to the discussion.

It's amazing that the actual play feels tertiary to these discussions, if that. How can anyone reasonably predict a 60 game MLB season with perhaps 16 playoff teams? There are certainly teams that will shine in the NBA and NHL bubbles, but these will be postseasons like no other. What can anyone glean from MLS is Back for a possible regular season resumption after it ends? Perhaps it's the wild unpredictability that adds to the eagerness for sports to return, even with everything else surrounding it.

How should we view the return of sports in the US? It's certainly not business as usual, and these leagues, teams and players have had to walk an extremely fine line just to consider returning. Perhaps the best phrase to use in this case would be "your mileage may vary". Many have internalized the moral and ethical concerns about the return of sports and while they are there, they're happy to have them back while they're there. It's fair to ask question of these leagues and their plans, it's certainly fair to ask whether American society has "earned" sports' return, and if you don't like the answers, you have every right to be nervous and worried.

For many, the return of sports is a sign of hope that better days are coming. Many know that nothing is normal right now, and won't be for a while, but they want that crumb of comfort, and a glimmer of light.

We can at least be happy that light is back, even if it's dimmer than usual. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

You don't know what you have until it's gone: Life with sports during the Coronavirus Pandemic

When I wrote about Kobe Bryant's death in January, I wondered aloud why even though his impact on me personally wasn't great, the emptiness I felt that day was nothing like I've experienced before. I concluded that it was because he was an ever present constant beyond basketball; his presence was taken for granted. His story was the prime example of "you don't know what you have until it's gone".

In the last week, the sports world across the globe went from looking nervously at the coronavirus pandemic to being almost entirely shut down with a Thanos snap. There may be a few stragglers, but on the whole, professional and amateur sports are shut down as the world tries to fight back against this pandemic. Even at the lightest time in the sports calendar, there is more than enough going on to keep your attention. "You don't know what you have until it's gone" couldn't be a more perfect phrase to describe what sports means to us as a society; never thinking that they could ever go away like this, perhaps for months. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone. But without them, not have we gained a better appreciation for what they mean to us, but what they've done to get us through these difficult times.

Sports are a cultural meeting ground, an exchange of ideas, beliefs and experiences where disparate people come together to laugh, cry and scream. What happens when that meeting ground is closed? Do those people get to come together anymore? Can they come together in another way? Do these people have another outlet with their time now that their primary love has vanished? What about those people whose lives depend on sports indirectly, like those arena and stadium workers who aren't going to get their paychecks, or the bar owner down by the stadium who overnight has no business? Perhaps until now, no one ever fully grasped how wide the sports net is cast not just in this country but across the globe and how many peoples lives depend on the machine continuing to hum.

But morbidly, sports meant so little so recently. As the pandemic began to spread rapidly across North America and Europe, watching sports felt so empty. Sean Farnham of ESPN said this during halftime of a ACC tournament game after the news broke that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19: "does any of this really matter?". In one fell swoop, sports went from considering playing in empty arenas to almost entirely going silent in a matter of hours. As much as us the collective misses sports, having them go on right now would be entirely pointless. Out collective energies need to be spent fighting this pandemic, not yelling at a referee for a bad call.

A week without games of any kind should have felt emptier, lonelier and worse than it actually has. Perhaps that's the gravity of the global situation hitting home after too long of not taking it seriously. Perhaps that's the realization that sports of any kind like we took for granted for so long might not return until Memorial Day, perhaps even later, and that this week is the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps its knowing that the tangled web of those affected by this virus, from Gobert to Kevin Durant to a CAA Tournament referee would eventually affect almost everyone sooner rather than later, playing in empty stadiums or not. Could we as sports fans and human beings collectively hold that guilt that we endangered people because of our own blind devotion to "normal"?

But without sports, who knows if the world, particularly the United States, takes this as seriously as they needed to. Without Rudy Gobert testing positive, the dominoes that knocked all sports out might not have reached the corridors of power, which forced them to activate every tool in their arsenal to deal with a public health crisis like none of us have ever seen. When the history of this pandemic is written, sports will play an incalculable roll in that history. Without Rudy Gobert, sports might still be playing in full arenas and stadiums, and how many people would have been infected, hospitalized and killed because of that?

Our nation's first PSA about safe practice during the pandemic even came from a football coach:
When this pandemic is finally under control, sports will play an outsized role in bringing society back to normal. Coming together is something that puts so many people in danger during the pandemic, but when it's safe to put 19,000 people in an arena and 70,000 in a stadium, it will be a celebration of not just sports, but what life was like before social distancing and flattening the curve. That first sporting event in a full stadium will be a cathartic release for everyone, like when the Mets and Braves played at Shea Stadium right after 9/11. It will be a sign that the normal we took for granted is coming back, and that we can come together again. Our partisan allegiances will be put aside because even through the worst most bitter rivalries in sports, we're all there because we love these games, and what these games mean to us.

For most of us, sports were an ever present constant in our lives that we are all desperately yearning for in these trying times. As much as we miss them, think of this even through the horrible news of the pandemic: they might be the reason we beat it in the first place, they will be one of the first places where society can let out a collective sigh of relief when we do beat it, and our love of them will grow exponentially when they come back because we now know what life is like without them. The small collective sacrifice we made when it was needed the most will save lives, and will help us get back to the normal we all crave.

Even in their shocking absence, sports have taught us so much about the world that we didn't know or appreciate before. That might help us save lives during the pandemic, and be even better fans and people when it's done. We didn't know what we had with sports until they were gone, but even through the dark times without them, I can't wait to see what life is like with them again.

Friday, February 28, 2020

2020 MLS Predictions

With MLS' 25th season about to get underway, here's a prediction column with my likely to be wrong thoughts about the new season. If you want more detailed analysis of certain aspects of the new season, you can find it here. With that said, here are conference predictions and more for 2020:

Eastern Conference:
2. Atlanta United
3. Toronto FC
4. Columbus 
5. Philadelphia
6. New England Revolution
7. DC United
8. Inter Miami
9. New York Red Bulls
10. Orlando City
11. Montreal Impact
12. Chicago Fire
13. FC Cincinnati

Almost every team in the East has the potential to be something greater than what they were, or what their predictions say they could be. One could argue that almost every team in the East can make a playoff push. In reality, about nine teams have a realistic playoff argument, and only three or four can be guaranteed a spot. Inter Miami as an expansion team is closer to LAFC and Atlanta United than Minnesota or FC Cincinnati, but there are quite a few unknowns that keep them from being a playoff team at this time. The most surprising non-playoff team is probably the New York Red Bulls, who are at the bottom of the league in payroll, and constantly punch above their weight. But this season, with this deep a table, that doesn't seem feasible anymore.

Western Conference:
1. Seattle
3. LA Galaxy
4. Portland
5. FC Dallas
6. Sporting KC
7. Minnesota
8. San Jose
9. Real Salt Lake
10. Colorado
11. Houston
12. Nashville
13. Vancouver

With Seattle's shocking CCL exit, they now have more time to focus on MLS exploits, and they will be angry. They're going to be really angry. They often stumble in the early parts of MLS seasons and that could happen again, but it's more likely that their focus is sharpened even further now. LAFC will have more CCL exploits which will affect their league form, and winning a trophy is more important than another points record. Sporting Kansas City is one playoff team that didn't make it a season ago because the standards they have will allow them to improve defensively after a horrific season last year. RSL are a team that have intriguing roster questions to answer, and their preseason hasn't answered them in a cogent way. Nashville SC is much more like FC Cincinnati and Minnesota compared to their other expansion bretheren.

Supporter's Shield Winner: NYCFC
East Champ: NYCFC
West Champ: LAFC 
MLS Cup 2020 Winner: LAFC

MLS MVP: Nico Lodeiro (SEA)
Golden Boot: Josef Martinez (ATL)
Newcomer: Chicharito Hernandez (LAG)
Comeback: Milton Valenzuela (CLB)
Rookie: Henry Kessler (NE)
Defender: Eddie Segura (LAFC)
Goalkeeper: Stefan Frei (SEA)
Coach: Ronny Delia (NYCFC)

Last year, my predictions were fairly disastrous. That's why there's never a bad time to try again. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The NFL, London, the Jacksonville Jaguars and fandom

Sports fandom is inherently irrational. Why would anyone invest so much emotional energy, time and money into something they cannot control as so many do? The euphoria and catharsis of watching your team win is one aspect of the phenomenon, but mostly, it's about the shared experience of being a part of something larger than yourself. For whatever reason someone is fan, there's someone else someone that shares your feelings, experiences and ideas and that makes this human experience a little less lonely.

So many sports stories are tied to civic pride, the pride in a community that has been passed down from generation to generation like a right of passage. That pride is tapped into and mined for all its worth, for better and for worse, by the sports leagues that use it to make the billions of dollars they make. Sports teams are considered integral parts of their communities, part of a cultural fabric that not only defines a team for its own community, but shines a light on that community elsewhere. Nothing else in the human experience is quite like sports fandom.

Why am I starting a piece about the NFL's London games with this screed on sports fandom? Because when the Jaguars announced they'd be playing two home games in London and not just one, the veneer, the appearance and the image of fandom the NFL is trying so desperately to market, cultivate and produce is shattered. If fandom is a matter of civic pride, how can anyone take pride in a team that plays one quarter of its meaningful games in "its" city somewhere else? How can these teams make so much money off of selling something they themselves can't even sell anymore? And how can this league claim it is about the fans, even when the veneer of that is so easily thrown away for uncertain propositions and unanswerable questions?

The NFL has wanted a team in London ever since it started playing games there in 2007. A team in London means an untapped revenue source is now tapped for all its worth, and the NFL can expand its reach beyond North American shores in a way that other leagues do that they haven't. They believe what they're selling that has made them so much money in North America is going to make them even more in Europe. That's the short of it. 

Every business wants to make as much money as possible, and some do a better job of it than others. Some businesses also hide their inherent greed behind a message that's easily digestable and marketable. For the NFL, that's the fandom story from earlier. Trying to move a team to London is an attempt to build that narrative in a new market, but is at the same taking it away from a place where they had already built it up: in Jacksonville. Take away the logistical hurdles a team would have in being in London, even if they're primarily based in the United States, the labor laws, the currency conversion, the collective bargaining issues, take that all away for a second. 

If the NFL's core business is getting people to spend all this money on their product in season tickets, concessions, merchandise and in time, and its based largely in civic pride, how does moving two of those critical money making dates to another city help a team do that? How does that build a long term fanbase in that city based on said marketing plan when one quarter of those dates are somewhere else, even if the team is branding itself based on the city they're supposedly based in? In other words: how does playing two home games in London make the Jacksonville Jaguars more likely to stay in Jacksonville? How does it help them win a Super Bowl, which is the ascribed goal of every NFL team?

The Jaguars have talked so often about "local revenue", which is marketing speak for ticket sales, sponsorships, things of this nature. The Jaguars are low in this regard not just because their market is small compared to other teams, but under Shad Khan's ownership, the Jaguars are 38-90. Most people in Jacksonville and the surrounding area have decided to not spend bad money on a team that hasn't proven it can win, which is the entire point of running a sports team and the entire point of following a team in the first place. The London games are basically an accounting trick for the Jaguars to increase their local revenue to be "competitive" with other teams, allowing them to invest more money into the region, the team, etc. But there are multiple problems with this line of thinking.

If winning brings in revenue, and moving two home games to London doesn't help the Jaguars in any way get closer to winning a Super Bowl (they're 3-4 in London since 2013), how do these two things line up? They don't. And there is another issue: NFL teams don't need local revenue to make money, certainly not in the way they have become multi billion dollar business on their own, let alone the league as whole. In the Jaguars example, Shad Khan paid $875 million for the team in 2011. It's now worth, according to Forbes, $2.325 billion. His team, though it has a winning percentage of less than .300 since Shad Khan bought the team, and has so many local revenue issues it must play two games in London to cover that shortfall, is now worth $1.5 billion more than Khan paid for it at the very least. This is before the NFL signs new TV deals that could be worth $10 billion combined or more per season all predicated on TV ratings in the United States that forms the backbone of the league's advertising behemoth. How does that improve with a team playing two games in London, especially a team in a market where every game is so crucial? Other small market teams like the Packers, Bills, Bengals, etc. do not seem to have this problem. When it was clear the NFL's Toronto experiment with the Bills failed, they stopped it.

The Jaguars are not any more popular a team in London than they were when they started playing games there, which was supposed to be the entire reason the NFL played games there in the first place. If you weren't a football fan to begin with, why would your entry point to the sport be a team that is this bad no matter where they play? And if you're already a fan of a team, you're not giving up your allegiance just because a team started playing games a little closer to you. If your team is not playing in those games against the Jaguars Jacksonville or London, you're not going. The NFL even gave money to Tottenham Hotspur to retrofit their billion dollar new stadium for NFL games and the Jaguars won't even play there because Shad Khan owns a different London soccer team!

If the NFL's entire marketing empire was built on capitalizing on the irrationality of fandom, the house of cards falls apart when a team is splitting its time between two cities where it cannot plausibly claim to be one or the another. This was the issue with the Chargers, Rams and Raiders in their disastrous moves to their new cities. When it became clear the league and the teams were not operating in good faith with the fans and their cities, people opted out. The Chargers are a lame duck in Los Angeles without a fanbase in the place they left or they place they went to, so much so that their new shared stadium with the Rams is becoming a financial drain on both because PSL's for the Chargers aren't selling even at dramatically cut prices. 40% of Raiders PSL's in their new Las Vegas stadium come from outside Nevada, showing the Raider brand is far stronger than the city they play in, but how long can that last? 

Shad Khan and Mark Lamping have talked all the time about being invested in Jacksonville, but how can they be when the biggest civic asset, its football team, isn't playing 25% of its meaningful games there? Does playing games in London bring any key business to the city of Jacksonville that would help the Jaguars and the city be more successful? Does it show a commitment to the civic and business community that investing in the team is worthwhile with advertising dollars, building projects and down the line a new stadium? The Jaguars seem to think so, but do the other stakeholders, including the fans? Based on the anger coming out of Jacksonville with the news, even though it was expected, it doesn't look like it. It's made worse by Khan somehow expecting a positive reaction from the news, which is the height of tone-deafness. 

So are these London games a not-so-subtle push from the Jaguars ownership to get tax payer dollars invested into new projects designed to make the Jaguars money and will probably not return their investment to the city proper, using the threat of relocation as a specter to get those deals? Is the NFL using the Jaguars as a guinea pig to test the overall viability of a permanent franchise in London with eyes to eventually move them there as they greased the wheels for it? Are both entirely clueless as to how to market themselves locally and abroad? It's not entirely clear. The NFL's history of moving teams from city to city is lurid, and its history of coaxing cities out of taxpayer money for stadium projects that don't create any appreciable benefit is even more lurid. What the league has been really good at for a long time is hiding that greed behind the veneer of fandom, civic pride, love of the game, etc. 

But in recent years, that veneer has been shattered, and this episode with the Jaguars and London is breaking it even further. Good fans and a vulnerable city are being used and abused by people who have far less to lose than they do, and the NFL is complicit in forcing the situation deteriorate to a point where the fans in the city the Jaguars claim to represent don't want them and the place they want to go doesn't want them either. And if the NFL's entire money making empire is built on the irrationality of fandom, then the house of cards quickly falls apart with no way to put it back together again. 

The worst feeling for a fan is apathy. If they're happy or angry, they're invested. Apathy is the opposite of that. When apathy seeps in, the money making machine doesn't work so smoothly anymore. Fandom shouldn't feel like a job, it shouldn't feel like the travails of every day life. Watching a team chronically lose is bad enough, but when the central reasons for being a fan are slowly sucked away, apathy becomes the only way to cope and eventually move on.

Every move the Jaguars have made under Shad Khan has replaced intensity with apathy, love with anger and hope with despair. And what for, a move to London that may never materialize or never work, all for a few more dollars out of a city to build projects that should have been built ages ago? What is the point of that? Fans want to talk about wins and losses, players and coaches, not about tax payer dollars going to a building project that should have been done already because if it is finished, it might keep the team around

Shad Khan and the NFL better be careful. They are acting like everything they have, they've made and earned is a given; a rite of life. During the Great Recession, many business acted like that, hence the term "too big to fail". Is the NFL too big to fail? It might not seem it, but based on the way this league and this franchise is treating the London question, they're acting like it. Jacksonville can eventually move on, but can the league?

The NFL can be successful internationally and its Jacksonville franchise can be successful locally without this policy of mutually assured destruction. They don't seem interested in trying. And it is costing the league money, but more than anything else, trust. With that, the entire empire begins to crumble. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

What does it mean to always be there?

Kobe Bryant's tragic death left so many people shocked, heartbroken and empty. I spent all of yesterday trying to parse out why I felt as empty as I have ever felt in my life before. Kobe Bryant was a generation defining athlete, but he never played for a team I supported. He is a Delaware Valley native, as am I, and I know people who had a much closer relationship to him than I did. I never even saw him play in person. I had no idea why I felt as I did; bereft of thought, ideas and even a concept of reality.

After an entire day of retrospectives, tributes and unvarnished pain from so many across the world, I think I figured out why I felt the way I did and still do: Kobe Bryant's presence was so outsized that it felt like he would always be around; he was so ubiquitous and influential that it felt like he was a fact of life. He wasn't just immortal, he was a constant like gravity or the earth's axial tilt. To see him go, so fast, so suddenly and so young is not something any of us were and are able to understand.

Kobe Bryant was always there. Even if he wasn't playing, he was a constant presence over everything in sports. You could see him at any given NBA game, or on the sidelines for a US Women's National Team game, or giving a bear hug to PK Subban or Alex Ovechkin because he was that ubiquitous. Athletes the world over have cited him as inspiration for what they do and why they are who they are, even if some of them can't make a shot if they yell "mamba". He wasn't just a generation defining athlete, he took that and expanded upon it after he was done playing, the likes of which no one had done before. Nothing would ever deny him in anything he ever did, and that included being a presence absolutely everywhere.

In his best moments, he was always there. In his worst moments, he was always there. When he wasn't his best self, a good teammate or even a good person, he was there. Whether he learned from his mistakes on or off the court, he was just there. Whether you personally believed he repented for his actions and learned from them, he made us ask questions no one else could. Such is a man who earned the right to be an outsized presence in our collective lives that his every move was important somewhere to someone, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of that intense and insatiable competitive fire that drove him to his greatest successes and also dragged him to his lowest moments had flickered in retirement, but he was still a constant presence because he earned that right to be one. It wasn't just in basketball; he was announcing a major sponsorship deal for his sports drink Body Armor in MLS a week or two earlier, for instance. But even when he wasn't directly there, doing something that reminded you of the five time NBA champion and to-be Hall of Famer, he was still there because his impact, his influence and his legacy transcended his otherwordly skill set.

What he did, what he started and what he meant will not go anywhere though he himself is no longer with us. Such is a human being with such a giant impact in so many places that his untimely death may have physically registered on the Richter Scale. Our fundamental understanding of what is, what was and what will be feels irreparably shaken because Kobe Bryant is no longer physically here, even if so much about him always will be.

Every human being is there for a small group of family, friends, colleagues, etc. Some manage to create a larger impact than just that, and there are a select few who rise to the level of what Kobe Bryant became; someone whose death took away so much from so many who he touched, because his presence became so large, so great and so impactful that he himself felt like a fact of life; a constant and something in a world so divided that everyone agreed on without hesitation.

My prevailing emotions weren't so much sadness and despair as they were confusion, emptiness and bewilderment when I saw those tweets scroll by. I couldn't process how or why something like this could happen, because someone like Kobe Bryant is more than just an athlete, a father, or even a human being. He had become something more than even a superhero. He felt like a fact of life because he was always there. He was going to do something that made you go "yep, that's the Mamba", even if not as often as he once did because that's what he was and what he was always going to be.

That's gone now. It can't make sense to so many because a fundamental aspect of our lives and our understanding of it is gone now. It may never make sense.

How long will it take for us to feel whole again? For some, perhaps never again. His legacy, his impact and his name are eternal, and so too might his presence even after death, but that might not even be enough because he is no longer here. He was going to do something that re-enforced to us all that he was still the Mamba because he is, was and will be, and now he can't.

Perhaps that's why I and so many others felt so empty and drained. Life will go on, and there will be a new normal without Kobe Bryant around, but it won't be the same without him being there, because he always was, and we figured he'd always be.

But he's not anymore. That doesn't make sense. It may never make sense.