Monday, December 28, 2009

Weird weekend of football

First off, Urban Meyer came out and retired from the sweetest coaching gig in college football due to health problems related from being a coach expected to contend for the national title every year. I don't mean to minimize the strain that job puts on a guy, and its admirable that a guy at the top of his profession would make the choice to put his health and family over his job. Of course, Meyer muddied the waters just a day later when he unretired and instead decided to take a leave of absence after Florida's bowl game. Something doesn't quite add up here, unless Meyer's family is as fond of his arrogant nature as opposing teams are, and told him they don't want him home 24/7.

Then, Jim Caldwell, when faced with a fork in his road, chose the gutless path. Now, the Colts owe nothing to any other team in the league, and they owe nothing to the "integrity of the game". But there is no evidence that taking games off simply because you have locked up your playoff position is at all helpful on the road to a Super Bowl. For evidence, please see the Colts of 2005, 2007, and 2008. Also see the New York Giants of 2007. If you're committed to the gutless route, then why let your starters go midway into the third quarter? Did the stars align so that the 4th quarter was that much more dangerous for Peyton's knees than the first 3 quarters? The fact that Manning had been hit once all day made you that afraid for his health? And why stick Curtis Painter into a situation up only 5 stuck deep in his own territory? Why not give Manning one more shot to try and get a two-score lead? The Jets were doing nothing on offense. Forcing Mark Sanchez to have to try and win the game would likely have resulted in him handing the game to you without Curtis Painter having to take off his training wheels. Instead, you make the poor guy the symbol of the most unpopular decision in Indianapolis since Ron Artest went into the crowd. Instead of taking the chance to fire up your team, you let them down. Good luck getting them up for their first playoff game after 2 weeks and one quarter of not bothering to show up for games.

Sunday was also marked by terrible efforts from teams allegedly fighting for playoff berths.

Exhibit A is the Giants no-show at home against already eliminated Carolina to the tune of 41-9. Maybe it's for the best that their tearing Giants Stadium down. In the last 5 seasons, in which the Giants have not finished below .500 and have been to the playoffs 4 times and won a Super Bowl, the Giants have won just 57% of their home games. That's not much of a home field advantage.

On that note, the case for John Fox should come down to one question, are you satisfied going into 2010 with Jake Delhomme as your starter? If his answer isn't an immediate "NO!" fire him.

Baltimore went into Pittsburgh to face a wounded Pittsburgh team, and committed 11 penalties for 113 yards.

Jacksonville forgot to show up for their game in New England, and the gametime temperature was 50 degrees, so you can't use the they were cold excuse.

Oh, and of course, how can I forget the New Orleans Saints, who went up 17-0 on Tampa Bay in the first half AT HOME and lost, 20-17. Really??? What happened to the team that started the season 13-0? Losing to the Cowboys is one thing, but Tampa Bay? This ruined Tampa Bay's season too, as the win makes it that much harder to fire Raheem Morris at the end of the season and go hard after Cowher.

And then finally, on Monday Texas Tech suspended head coach and pirate enthusiast Mike Leach for mistreating a player who had been diagnosed with a concussion. Leach allegedly banished the player to a dark closet for the duration of practice (about 3 hours) more than once. This player also happens to be the son of ESPN football analyst Craig James. There is no good (or mediocre) reason to stick a player in a closet. Mike Leach is crazy, both in a mad scientist way and a you can't have a long conversation with him and follow it way, but there's no way he could think this was a good idea. The only rationale that makes sense is Leach didn't think he was really hurt and he stuck him in a closet to teach him a lesson. In a year where painstaking efforts have been made to educate people about concussions and their severity, this is a crying shame. Kudos to Texas Tech for acting swiftly, though their decision to suspend him before the investigation is completed may have as much to do with Texas Tech's annoyance at Leach's dalliances with other schools last offseason as it does with their opinion of what truly happened. Either way, it's the right move.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Offense, FIFA, but You're a Total Joke

Imagine this scenario:

In every season since the NFL went to 6 playoff spots per conference, the playoff spots have been taken by division winners first, and then the remaining slots have been filled with the teams with the top records in each conference, so that each conference starts the playoffs with 6 teams.

Now let's flashback to 2008. The season is over, everyone has played their 16 games. The standings are as you see here. At the end of the season, Roger Goodell meets with a group of senior NFL personnel. They make the following 2 decisions:

1) San Diego does not deserve a playoff spot. They're 8-8, for pete's sake. They were 4-8, they basically had to go to a pre-playoff for the last 4 games, just to squeak in by the skin of their teeth. Meanwhile, you have the Baltimore Ravens, who breezed through the AFC with an 11-5 record, despite starting a rookie quarterback all season long. Plus there are the Colts, they put up 12 wins, and Peyton Manning is a top player. Is that really what we want? To give San Diego a seeded spot and make Baltimore and Indy go on the road?

2) Arizona made the playoffs. After that 49-7 loss at Gilette. The Patriots didn't even make the playoffs! Do we really want to reward these clowns a home game, simply because their division couldn't beat a team of the Octomom and her kids? Look at Atlanta, another rookie quarterback, another 11 win season. We should reward the Falcons with a home game, to give Arizona one just doesn't feel right.

Okay, now that they've decided how they feel the seedings should be, now all that's left is determining how to get the seeds to work out that way. An easy way to punish the teams that struggled to get in is to make the playoff seedings based solely on records and remove division titles from the seeding equation. That would cause the seedings to look like this:
AFC: 1) Titans 2) Steelers 3) Colts 4) Dolphins 5) Ravens 6) Chargers
NFC: 1) Giants 2) Panthers 3) Falcons 4) Vikings 5) Eagles 6) Cardinals

Imagine the uproar when the NFL announced, "These are the seedings, as we changed the seeding criteria from what we used last year to just look at records this year." Chargers and Cardinals fans would be furious. The established guidelines stated that winning the division guaranteed a home playoff game, but the NFL decided they didn't like the results of those criteria, so they changed the criteria after all of the games had been played so they'd know exactly what the outcome of their chosen criteria would be.

It would be like handing over the management of their league to 6 year olds. When a 6 year old plays a game, s/he'll play by the rules as long as s/he keeps winning. Oh come on, I'm not the only one that did this at that age, stop shaking your head. As soon as the tide turns, new rules start popping up. "Oh, you rolled a 12? You have to go back to the start." Or, something like, "I win with an all evens straight." When a 6 year old does this, it's cute (see here. When a bunch of old men do this, is it really cute anymore?

Well, this is exactly what FIFA did, and it's what they do every 4 years. Every 4 years, they rank the World Cup teams 1-32. The host country and the top 7 other countries in the rankings are each placed into a unique group of 4, so there is a real advantage to being seeded. It means you won't have to face a Brazil, or a Spain, or an England before you make the round of 16 at the earliest.

For the 2002 World Cup, the seedings were based on the team's performance in the prior 3 world cups (1990, 1994, 1998), and the FIFA World Rankings of 1999, 2000, and 2001.

For the 2006 World Cup, the seedings were based on the team's performance in the prior 2 world cups (1998, 2002), and the FIFA World Rankings of 2003, 2004, and 2005.

For next year's World Cup, the seedings were based on the October, 2009 FIFA World Rankings. That's it. For reference, if FIFA had used this exact criteria back in 2006, the United States would have been seeded, along with the Czech Republic, and Italy would not have been.

Why was it done this way? Well, no one from FIFA will say it, but it was done to punish France. The only change in seeding between last time's criteria and this set is France loses its seed to the Netherlands. I don't know if it was because the Thierry Henry handball was an embarassment (I highly doubt it), or whether it was because France had to win a playoff against Ireland just to get into the World Cup by the skin of their teeth (I'd put money on this). Had France won their qualifying group instead of needing to go to a playoff, this change would not have been made.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I'm against the idea of keeping a team that had to win a home-and-home series to qualify because they couldn't do it by winning their qualifying group from a seeded slot in the World Cup. However, I am strongly against running the World Cup like a bunch of 6 year olds. Pick a set of criteria at the beginning of qualification, not at the end. If you feel that a team in France's (or Portugal's) shoes doesn't deserve a seed, fix the criteria for the next World Cup. Don't just go changing it willy nilly so you can get the result that you want.

The unspoken message here (for a US Soccer fan) is don't ever get your hopes up for a World Cup seed. You can do everything right, but if we (FIFA) don't think you deserve a seed, we'll just change the criteria to knock you down and out of the running. Since US Soccer gets no respect on the world stage, barring a 10 year run where the US wins 2 World Cups and is ranked #1 in 98% of the monthly rankings, the US is not getting a seed. And, to be frank, even that may not be enough.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hines Ward (and apparently 50% of the Steelers locker room) is a Moron

The Steelers lost a big game last night to the Ravens, thanks in part to the inexperience of their starting quarterback that night, 3rd stringer Dennis Dixon. Before that game, Steelers WR (and amateur neurological expert) Hines Ward addressed the decision to not play starter Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday Night Football:

"This game is almost like a playoff game. It's almost a must-win. I could see some players or teammates questioning, like 'It's just a concussion. I've played with a concussion before,'"

"It's almost like a 50-50 toss-up in the locker room: Should he play? Shouldn't he play? It's really hard to say. I've been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there. Ben practiced all week. He split time with Dennis Dixon(notes). And then to find out that he's still having some headaches and not playing and it came down to the doctors didn't feel that they were going to clear him or not – it's hard to say. Unless you're the person [himself]. … I've lied to a couple of doctors saying I'm straight, I feel good when I know that I'm not really straight."

It's nice to see that the NFL's new emphasis on head injuries went totally over Ward's head.

I've had a concussion, it's not much fun. And mine wasn't that bad of a concussion on the scale. Still, it was a couple of days before I was totally back to normal, and over a couple week before I was running around again. And that was taking a week off, not going through practices and studying lots of videotape each day.

There's a reason you're supposed to be very cautious with head injuries, they can have long lasting effects. Ask Al Toon, who battled vertigo and depression for years after being forced to retire due to concussions. Ask Ted Johnson, who has said he loses periods of time occasionally. Ask Mike Webster, who ended his life homeless and suffering from dementia. And there are many more where they came from. Concussions won't necessarily get better if you take time off in the offseason, each concussion does more damage and leaves you more vulnerable to future concussions. It's kind of like how a sprained ankle leaves you more susceptible to future ankle injuries...only if you needed your ankle to perform basic day-to-day functions like remembering to eat.

And now, you've got Ward questioning Roethlisberger's manhood for not lying to the team doctors and gutting it out. Nevermind that this is the Berger's 4th concussion, or that he's thinking of his future not to try and avoid a hip or knee surgery later in life, but to try and ensure he doesn't become a vegetable at age 45 or 50.

There is a huge difference between gutting through a sprained shoulder (like Matt Stafford did against Cleveland), and trying to push through a concussion (like Hines Ward wants). The shoulder will repair itself and won't interfere with brain operation later in life. The concussion very well might.

Even worse than Ward's comments, is all the talking heads defending his words. Look, I understand the athlete mentality. You're supposed to sacrifice everything for the team. Taking a cortisone shot to mask the pain of a sprained knee or busted shoulder is expected. And I'm not arguing that it shouldn't be. Part of the beauty of sports is becoming a part of something bigger than yourself and giving yourself over to that greater entity. That's all well and good, but head injuries are a different beast. Giving yourself over to the team should not include frying your brain. Walking with a limp or 2 replaced hips at 40 years old is one thing. Regressing to the mental acuity of a 4 year old is entirely different.

The NFL is finally getting this. Coaching staffs are coming around. It's time the players themselves catch up. Expecting a guy to run away from the trainer with a separated shoulder is one thing. Expecting a guy to lie to play through a concussion is idiotic and malicious.

Hines Ward, you are an idiot and an a******. You, and the unnamed 50% you referenced owe the Berger an apology. And Mike Tomlin, you should require this of your moronic wideout.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

NFL Quick Hits

- Wow Thursday's games were terrible. I'm not sure if it was the turkey or the games that put me to sleep.

- For those of you who were confused after last week's Bengals-Raiders game, no, Bruce Gradkowski is not the answer. For Oakland's fans' sake, I hope the Russell benching is just to send a message, because Gradkowski has proven that he's terrible (of course, so has Russell). If the Raiders truly believe Gradkowski is the better option, then either Russell is even worse than he's looked, or whoever's making the decision doesn't understand the quarterback position.

- I'd say the most disappointing part of Thursday's slate was that the NFL forgot to tell the Giants that this wasn't a bye week for them. Given the news that Eli has a stress reaction in his foot, perhaps they should have just sat at home and ate turkey.

- Carson Palmer, thank you for just going through the motions today. I wasn't counting on you for my fantasy team or anything, for only the second time all season. It's not like you were playing a real NFL team, either. You were playing the Browns. They're barely a college-level team. You couldn't have done better than 13/24, 110 yards and 1 TD? And 16 points total? Really? Was it necessary for you to let your charity work spill over into your job? I know the Browns are sad-sack, but it's not your job to keep them within striking distance of your team. Next time, maybe you'll put a full effort into things? Or at least warn us before the game starts? Please?

- 4 interceptions, Miami? Against Buffalo? Jeez, at least Cincinnati won their game against Cleveland. I wonder who Tony Sparano is going to whack after that putrid showing.

- No matter how bad things get for the Seahawks (and they're bad, believe me), at least beating the Rams is still right up there with death and taxes. Matt Hasselbeck threw for 95 yards (don't ask, I don't know how that happened either), and the game was never in doubt. What does this mean? The Rams are awful.

- Jake Delhomme threw 4 more INTs. Congrats on that extension this offseason, Panthers, it looks really great right now.

- Chris Redman has a pretty good gig. He gets to play once every couple of years, chuck the ball all over the place, and win a game. And probably gets 6 figures for it. This one was a real barnburner. Yes, it was against Tamap Bay, but it still goes into the books as a comeback win for Redman, and good for him.

- Philly is the worst good team in the NFL. They're probably going to the playoffs, and they do not put teams away. The Redskins should never have been in this game, and Philly needed a touchdown, 2 point conversion, and field goal in the 4th quarter to pull this one out. Yuck. They won't get back to the NFC Championship game this year. I sense a one and done effort.

- SI writer Don Banks opined that Houston needs to fire Gary Kubiak and go in some other direction. I can't really argue with that. Houston cannot finish a game to save their lives, and it's not because they don't have talent. They have it on both sides of the ball, but it's always either a come-from-ahead loss or a near loss. At some point, it's a pattern and that falls on the coach. I think we're a few games past that point. On the other side, what more needs to be said about Indy. You're going to have to kill them twice, because they've been down in the 4th quarter 5 times now this season, and they're 11-0.

- For anyone wondering why Philly gets the worst good team label over Jacksonville, the reason is simple. Jacksonville isn't good. I don't care if they're over .500, they're not a good team. At all.

- Vince Young just might be a real NFL QB after all. He one-upped Matt Leinart once again, almost 4 years later with some late game heroics. This time it was an 18-play, 99-yard drive featuring 3 4th down conversions, including a 10-yard TD pass to Kenny Britt as time expired for the 20-17 win. Don't look now, but Tennessee has now won 5 straight after starting 0-6 and they take their hot streak to Indianapolis next weekend.

- Baltimore is now losing to the Steelers in the 4th quarter. A Steelers team without their best defensive player (Polamalu, he's too busy shooting commercials), their starting quarterback, or their backup quarterback. This is officially an embarassment. Joe Flacco, pull your head out of your...rectum.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Fantasy Football Owners buy Insurance, Reason #37

No, I'm not kidding: see for yourself.

Sure, the main (and right now it seems, only) reason is for injury, but there are plenty of other reasons why fantasy football owners suffer indigestion.

Last night qualifies as one of those causes. Going into the game, I needed Chris Johnson to score 15.8 points to win my head to head matchup. Every yard is 0.1 points, and a touchdown is worth 6.

Tennessee received the ball at their own 6 with 2:52 left in a tie game, and Johnson was 39 yards short of the 158 yards he (well, I) needed. No chance, I've resigned myself to losing the game. Johnson proceeds to rip off 32 yards on the first 3 plays of the drive, which, combined with a (terrible) 15 yard penalty on Houston, put Tennessee at their own 48 with over 1:30 left. Wow, my chances have gone from 0 to well over 50/50. Tennessee proceeded to give the ball to Johnson 0 times over their next 5 plays before Rob Bironas (impressively) booted a 53 yard field goal for a 20-17 lead. Game(s) over, less than 7 yards from victory.

Houston proceeded to drive down to the Tennessee 31 with 6 seconds left. Incredible! Overtime is coming, and I have a chance again. Surely if the Titans touch the ball, Johnson will get a few opportunities and can pick up 7 yards with them, if not significantly more than that. Then Kris Brown steps up, and, true to form over his entire career, shanks the ball so that it goes nowhere near the goalposts.

Brown is a career 77.8% kicker, which isn't bad, but isn't outstanding. However, I don't think I have ever seen someone botch so many end-of-game kicks so horribly. He's pretty much the anti-Vinatieri. Even when Houston was terrible and picking first in the draft, Brown was kicking balls into the parking lot when the game was on the line. Really, it was my own fault for getting my hopes up.

And, just to add icing onto this cake, none of this should have been necessary. On a 2nd quarter drive where Johnson accounted for 42 yards on 3 carries, who did Jeff Fisher call on for 1st and goal from the 1 yard line? Lendale "fatty tequilla" White. Humbug.

In the interest of full disclosure, I cannot complain too much. I've been on both ends of narrow margins of victory this season, and over time, the breaks do even out. Still, it does make one think (only for a second) about this insurance thing. Then you quickly remember that it's fantasy football, and you're definitely not the guy who buys insurance on his fantasy players. Much better to be the guy who uses his blog for therapeutic rants. Yeah, that's a totally different class of person. Much, much suaver.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Quick Hits

Chuckles Weis should do the honorable thing next weekend. And what I mean by that is, at the end of the game against Stanford (win, HAH, or lose) he should do what Olympic wrestlers do when they hang up their spikes: remove his shoes, leave them in the middle of the field, waddle off and consume 150% of his daily recommended calories at dinner, then retire from collegiate head coaching. Given Notre Dame's talent at the offensive skill positions, there is no way they should be 6-5. Are they a great team? Heck no. But should they be losing to the UConns of the world? No. Whatever "schematic advantage" Weis thought he was giving the Irish, something's getting lost in the translation from Weis to the players.

Everyone who thinks the BCS is right up there with the Edsel should be rooting for the following things to happen:
- Oklahoma State to lose to Oklahoma
- Texas to lose the Big XII Championship Game
- Cincinnati loses to Pittsburgh
- TCU and Boise State win their remaining games
What this will do is one of 2 things: Put Boise State in the BCS AND put TCU in the BCS title game, or force the voters to engage in hijinks to keep one or both of those events from occuring. IF there is going to be a change in how the national champion is crowned in college football, it's going to take- either the most blatant screwjob of a non-BCS team ever, or a couple of bowls with such terrible ratings (due to non-name schools playing in them) that even the bowls and conference commisioners have to take notice. Odds aren't good (Texas is much better than Nebraska, as Texas plays defense AND offense), but it's at least possible.

- Terrible (wait, let's cue up Bill Walton) TERRR-IBLE day for the AFC North. Pittsburgh kicks things off by losing to Kansas City. The Berger leaving in OT with what looked like a concussion isn't good either, but losing the the Chiefs is just about unfathomable.
Shortly thereafter, Cleveland fell to Detroit despite jumping out to a 24-3 lead. Against Detroit. Cleveland gets some credit as the referee's threw a flag for defensive PI on what should have been the final hail mary play of the game. In order to qualify for PI on a hail mary, there should be a dead body on the field. I haven't seen a good replay yet, so I won't lambast the refs, but I'm inclined to believe Cleveland got a bit hosed. Still, if you go up 24-3 on Detroit (even if you're Cleveland), you shouldn't be in a position for that hail mary to matter.
Then Baltimore fell to the Colts. That in and of itself wasn't so bad (the Colts being undefeated and all), but Baltimore lost because Flacco threw a pick easily within field goal range with less than 3 minutes to go while down just 2 points. Seriously? You're not a rookie anymore, Joe.
And then Cincinnati, the class of this division, topped it all off by losing to the Raiders. Yes, the Oakland Raiders. For shame.

- Seattle lost. It wasn't close. Favre went 22-25 and 4 TD. Tarvaris Jackson even threw a TD off the bench. Steve Hutchinson did not suffer a season-ending injury. I hate this season.

- Did you see how that guy drove around a track so much faster than all of the other guys (even the older guy who used to be sponsored by Viagra)? I hear it was really exciting. More importantly, NASCAR is over. Back to real sports.

- Buffalo lost their first game under new head coach Perry Fewell. Perry needs some tutoring in 2 minute clock management. He took a first-half situation with the ball at about the 6, about 15 seconds left and the clock running with 1 timeout and turned it into 1 running play that had no chance of scoring and barely 1 second left after calling the timeout. Instead, he could have called the timeout right away and gotten about 2 shots at the end zone before kicking the field goal. He did get the field goal, but he blew the chance for at least an extra shot (and at least 2 extra better shots) at the end zone in a game his team lost by 3. I think it might have made a difference.

- Mark Sanchez looked, ahh, less than up to the task against New England. He's a rookie, and there will be growing pains, but he's trying way too hard to make a play, and is showing his inexperience (he started for just over 1 full season in college) running an offense, especially an offense where his supporting cast isn't significantly better than the defenses he's facing. 4 picks, 1 pick-6, and lots of missed receivers. Bad showing.

- Arizona beat St. Louis, but it was closer than one would expect (21-13). This is explained by Kurt Warner missing about half the game as a precaution due to concussion-like symptoms after a first-half hit. Arizona better hope Warner is ready to go next week, as unless Tennessee is willing to settle things with a contest of how many coeds you can get into a hot tub with your QB, Matt Leinart isn't going to be much help.

- Hey, MLS, what nitwit decided to put the MLS Finals on Sunday in primetime directly up against the NFL? Why oh why wouldn't you put it on Sunday afternoon, or (even better) some OTHER day of the week? How many viewers are they missing out on? Luckily we have twitter.

- Denver had (an admittedly gimpy) Kyle Orton under center and still lost to San Diego 32-3. Apparently the annual Denver fade has come a few weeks early this year.

- Dallas scored a grand total of 7 points against the Redskins. That's awful, that offense should be ashamed. Luckily for them, because they were playing the Redskins, it was enough and the Cowboys won 7-6.

- Finally, Jay Cutler looks awful but Eagles ineptitude and a showing by the Bears defense still have Chicago up 20-17 in the 4th quarter. Cutler has morphed from gunslinging Jay who kills his team with interceptions to gunshy Jay who kills his team by being too scared to make tough throws. It's really odd to watch.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Girl Gone Wild

The BYU-New Mexico Women's soccer game quickly turned into something else least for Elizabeth Lambert.

Disgusting display from Lambert. Hard fouls are a part of the game, yes. But she could have ended someone's career with a couple of those tackles. She has since been suspended indefinitely from the team by her school, and has issued the terse "I'm sorry I got caught" response those who follow athletes know well. However, as bad as Lambert behaved on that pitch, she was failed herself as well.

First, the officiating crew for this game should be suspended. One of the jobs of a referee and his/her assistants is to not let the game get out of hand. This crew failed miserably. The only reason this game didn't get totally out of hand and end in a riot, is that the BYU players did not step up and protect their teammates. If there were 2 serious infractions and they missed one, okay, referees aren't perfect. But there are 6-7 instances of rough and dangerous play from Lambert, and at least half of those are on the ball, where the referee's eyes should be. You're telling me none of the 3 pairs of eyes officiating this game saw anything but the one trip that earned her a yellow? Quite frankly, the tackle before the hair pull on the video above should have been sufficient for a red card. There was no attempt to play the ball and full attempt to go after the player's knee.

If this were a men's soccer game, there's no way the defender would have gotten 6 or 7 shots like Lambert did. But there's a mindset among many that girls don't want to win at all costs like boys do. That's crap, and it does women a tremendous disservice.

Another failure was Lambert's coach. As a coach your first instinct is to back your players. And, as BYU was the better team, he might have told his players to get physical with them. But there's getting physical and there's assault. Once Lambert started to veer out of control, the coach had to do something to try and calm her down. He does have a responsibility to make sure his team isn't intentionally injuring theother team, yes. But he also has a responsibility to his team to protect them from the inevitable frustrated retaliation by the BYU players. It's hard to say the coach did nothing, as I've just seen the highlights, but he certainly never took Lambert off, so he didn't do enough. This makes the suspension look purely like CYA, and had the cameras not caught Lambert's behavior, I'm not convinced she would have suffered any punishment.

Finally, I was shocked by one other thing (though I won't call it a failure): BYU's players didn't seem to retaliate. This is why the referee has to maintain control, as soon as the players feel like you're not keeping others in line, they start taking actions to protect their teammates. Sure, maybe it results in a card or 2 and yes, this is the conference tournament, and BYU expected to move on (and was winning), but it got to the point where every interaction with Lambert was an injury risk for the BYU players. Sometimes, when the system fails, the only people who can look out for you and protect you are your teammates. To be fair to BYU, they never should have been put in this position.

Good luck to BYU for the remainder of the season, and hopefully New Mexico's team, the officials, and Lambert will take a long hard look at themselves for allowing this to happen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NFL Quick Hits

The Quick Hits are a little slower getting off the ground, this week, but they are here nonetheless:

- Normally I wouldn't talk about the Rams-Lions game, as it pretty much lived up to its pregame Toilet Bowl designation, but 2 things caught my eye:

We've all heard of the pick-6, well the Rams went ahead and came up with the pick-minus-2. Rams DB James Butler intercepted a tipped pass from Matthew Stafford in his own end zone, got up, started to run with the ball out of the end zone, in the course of his run looped back into the end zone and was tackled there. Now, had he caught it in the end zone and stayed there, the Rams would have gotten the ball on their own 20 yard line. Because he left and came back into the end zone, the Lions got 2 points and the Rams had to kick off to the Lions. Of course, it being the Lions, they didn't score again until the 4th quarter.

3 touchdowns were scored in this game. 1 of those TDs was the result of a fake-FG pass from Rams kicker Josh Brown. Normally, an avid fantasy football player like myself would consider this a slap in the face, but this being the Rams, more people are likely to have Josh Brown on their team than Rams QB Marc Bulger.

One more note: my favorite comment I heard regarding this game: "Scouts came away from this game convinced Rams RB Steven Jackson can make it at the next (read: NFL) level."

- The Seahawks, excuse me...(retching noises)...there, that's better.

- The Colts actually had a game on their hands Sunday from the 49ers. I know, I'm as shocked as you guys. Given Arizona's implosion at the hands of Carolina, the 49ers just might have the defense to win the NFC West, even with their offense in the hands of former-failed-1st-overall-pick Alex Smith.

- Maybe this isn't true in general, but on Sunday, coaches were idiots about going for 2 points. This will be covered more in a follow-up post, but met me start with Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. You're up 11 and you go for 2...why? To be up 13 instead of 12? With the rate that kickers are hitting extra points these days, the penalty for missing (Jets needed a TD, 2pt, and a FG to tie instead of 2 TDs) is much greater than the reward for making it (if you can block/use voodoo to cause a miss of 1/2 the XPs, you won't fall behind). Indefensable decision.

- Remember that Eli? I remember that Eli. Giants fans remember that Eli, and not fondly either.

- The Broncos finally lost a game. Having not seen it, I can't be sure of the reasons for that, but this stat seems to mean something:

Kyle Orton: 23-37, 153 yds, 0 TD, 0 INT

You want to know why people refused to take the Broncos seriously? It's because of Orton? Why not take Orton seriously? Lines like that*. 6.7 yards per completion? 4.1 yards per attempt? That's awful, I don't care what defense you're playing against.

*Well, and the neckbeard

- The Jaguars, with the exception of Maurice Jones-Drew, have given up. Tennessee used this to win their first game of the season. It had nothing to do with Vince Young starting, and everything to do with the Jags not tackling Chris Johnson.

- Brett Favre throws 4 TD passes and rips the hearts out of Green Bay fans in Lambeau. And now he has a groin injury. I'd make a tasteless joke about Fox, but I think all that's been played out.

- The Cardinals are officially the NFL's Jekyll and Hyde team. They had just won 3 straight road games, beat the Giants in the 3rd of those 3 games (which looked a lot more impressive last week) and were coming home to Carolina this week. Carolina, of course, having Jake Delhomme at quarterback, the same guy who, the last time he saw the Cardinals, turned the ball over 6 times. So naturally the Cardinals allow 270 yards rushing, Delhomme only has to throw the ball 14 times, and the Panthers win 34-21. Of course.

- Are we really ready for a Colts-Saints Super Bowl? Neither of these offenses can be stopped for 60 minutes, even when they're only allowed to be on the field for 15 minutes (see Colts v Dolphins back in week 2). If both are able to secure home field, watch out.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

John Carney

When John Carney missed the extra point that would have put the Saints up 38-34 in today's game, I thought it was, well, interesting.

That clip was from a game played on December 21, 2003. It was the 16th week of the 17 week season, where the Saints had to win to remain in the playoff hunt. Making things worse, Jacksonville was 4-10 entering that game. To say that loss hurt would be a bit of an understatement, but really, it was just another wacky happening during the Jim Haslett era in New Orleans.

NFL Quick Hits

- An Alex Smith sighting in San Francisco? A competent Alex Smith sighting in San Francisco??? I'm shocked. You mean it's better for the head coach to not snipe at the #1 overall draft pick QB and to actively undermine his confidence in every way possible? That's an interesting theory. Oh, and to all those who kept asking why Shaun Hill never seemed to get the opportunities to start before? That's why. He's just not that good.

- Oh, and Houston, you're allowed to play well for 60 minutes, instead of 30.

- There were 5 games in which one team scored at least 30 points, and the other team socred less than 10. Perhaps a few teams need a refresher on the definition of parity. Even better, one of these 5 games was the showcase game to the English public. I understand the desire to not take away a home game from an NFL team that will actually put that home game to good use (though by that measure, Oakland should play one of their home games in England every year), but if you're actually serious about trying to expand to London, using crap teams for these showcase games is probably a bad idea. Tampa Bay? Really? That seemed like a good idea at any point this offseason?

- Thank you, Pittsburgh (I will never utter these words again). For one week, the Brett Favre hype machine can take the week off, now that Minnesota is no longer undefeated and 2 Brett Favre turnovers became 2 Steeler defensive touchdowns. Now we can focus on...what's that you say? Minnesota's next game is where??? %$#@!!!!!!
(If you can't guess where the game is, you haven't watched ESPN yet this year)

- You had to see this Jets-Raiders game coming. Angry defensive-minded genius coming off 3 straight losses versus terrible QB in a dysfunctional organization. Just makes Philly's loss last week all the more mindboggling. And Mark Sanchez makes waves again, as he's caught eating a hot dog on the sidelines towards the end of the game. I believe this means he has brought the curse of Rick Mirer upon himself, which means he either is going to regress into a skittish QB who refuses to go through his progressions by year 2, or he's going to ruin a Chicago Bears draft at some point in his career. I'm not sure which one.

- Okay, I give you a box-score. Team A outgains Team B 425-167. Team B gets only 9 first downs all game, gives up a safety, and loses the time of possession battle by about 10 minutes. Then I tell you that Team B won by 11 and never trailed in the game. You'd be confused. Befuddled, even. Then I'd tell you Team A's quarterback is Jake Delhomme. And suddenly it would all make sense. And Carolina signed him to an extension this offseason. John Fox has just joined Jim Zorn in the dead man walking zone.

And will someone please explain to me what it is about Buffalo that forces both them and their opponents to turn their games into poop-slinging contests? These last 3 Bills games have been some of the ugliest football games I've seen, though the Bills are 2-1 in them, go figure.

- Cutler throws 3 picks. Bears lose big. Broncos fans laugh.

- Miami shocks everyone by going up 24-3 on the Saints, but can't hold on. The first crack came with 5 seconds left in the first half. New Orleans had just scored a touchdown that was reviewed. The review showed that the Saints player was actually down inside the 1 yard line. This meant the officials would spot the ball, and then start the clock, and the Saints had no timeouts left. Saints coach Sean Payton left his kicking unit on the field (they were already there to kick the extra point before the review), content to get 3 points before halftime. Then Miami coach Tony Sparano made the boneheaded decision to call timeout. This gave Drew Brees the chance to get in his coach's ear to make his case to go for the touchdown instead and get within 2 scores. Payton was convinced, and Brees snuck the ball over the line for the touchdown. And instead of going into halftime up 18, the Dolphins instead went in to the locker room up 14, which became 7 less than 1 minute into the thrid quarter.

Would New Orleans still have been able to come back from an 18-point halftime defecit (instead of the 14 point one they actually faced)? They certainly had the offesne for it. But Coach Sparano needlessly gave away 4 points of their lead. Thos 4 points could have come in very handy late in the game. Bad bad decision that really had no upside. Are the Saints really going to set up a fake in the 15 seconds between getting the word back from the officials and when the clock starts? Especially with their extra-point kicking unit on the field? I highly doubt it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Top 7 Calls that made me want to put a fist through the television set (luckily I created this blog instead), #3: Darrell Jackson Pass Interference

Back to the main series of this blog. Let's go back once again (last time, I promise) to Super Bowl XL. This play is 4 plays into a promising Seattle drive in the first quarter with the score still 0-0. Matt Hasselbeck drops back to pass, rolls around to buy more time, then launches a pass down the deep middle of the field for #1 target Darrell Jackson. Jackson makes the catch in the end zone, seemingly giving Seattle a 6-0 lead, pending the PAT.

But then the referees would make their first large stamp on this game.

Jackson was called for offensive pass interference, which is traditionally called once every 3 years (unless the receiver is Plaxico Burress or Randy Moss). I have included a very brief clip of the play below:

Yeah, I wasn't kidding about the brief part. Anyway, I acknowledge that Jackson did push off and he did extend his arm, which is a red flag for the officials. However, I still have 2 major problems with this play:

1) As Jackson is moving around towards the end of this play, the Steeler defensive back is all over him, grabbing him and jostling him. This is normally an automatic illegal contact penalty, but because Hasselbeck left the pocket during his scarmbling around before the throw, the DB cannot be called for illegal contact. But, just because that jostling isn't illegal in that setting, doesn't mean he should be allowed to grab Jackson without Jackson being allowed to try and shed the DB. I also believe that the Steeler DB is still grabbing Jackson after the pass has left Hasselbeck's hand, which means it's defensive pass interference at that point. Unfortunately, there's no camera angle to show this.

2) If this is offensive pass interference, you are compelled to call the more egregious examples of offensive pass interference over the rest of the game. Number of other OPI calls over the rest of the game? 0. Curious. Especially when you consider at least once Hines Ward fully extended his arm and pushed off of Seattle cornerback Kelly Herndon's face mask to get open later in the game, but this was not called. If you're going to set the precedent, then you have to follow it. This is too big of a game to try and make a bigger statement. Call it both ways, or let the players dictate the outcome of the game.

Seattle would subsequently face 1st and 20 at the Steeler 26, and turn that into a field goal, instead of a touchdown.

Anti-Quality of call: (4/10 at first, 10/10 once I realized they weren't actually going to call this ever again)
Effect on game situation: 5/10
Effect on my mood: 9/10

And now please excuse me while I go take a shower to wash off the filth of watching all of those highlights.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Criticism gets to MLB, Shift in Umpiring Assignments for World Series

Apparently, the bad press the umpires have generated for MLB has actually gotten a response.


Stung by a rash of blown calls in the playoffs, Major League Baseball is breaking tradition and sticking with only experienced umpires for the World Series.

CB Bucknor was in line to work the World Series for the first time this year. But he missed two calls in Game 1 of the division series between the Red Sox and Angels, damaging his chance to get picked, one of the three people said.

So, in the end, baseball does a good thing, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

This is at least the third year that I have heard references made to the fact that CB Bucknor is one of the least respected umpires in MLB. He then proceded to blow 2 calls at first base in the first game of the Angels-Red Sox series. Taking Bucknnor out of a World Series assignment is the right thing to do.

However, it's not the right thing to do because Bucknor is inexperienced. It's the right thing to do because he's not a good umpire. And this is MLB's problem. It categorizes umpires as experienced or inexperienced, instead of good or bad.

Other leagues give championship game assignments based on merit. They grade officials and give the ones with the highest marks postseason games. Not MLB. They give out these assignments based on experience instead of merit.

Is it really a shock that all of these calls are being blown in the playoffs, when all that matters to MLB is how much experience an umpire has?

Monday, October 19, 2009

NFL gets call right during game, then wrong the day after

The NFL got this one wrong, after the referees got it right.

Dante Wesley of the Carolina Panthers is a gunner. The guy who runs down the sideline on a punt who becomes the first line of defense once the returner catches the football. The best thing a gunner can do? Lay a huge hit on the returner just after the ball gets there to try and cause a fumble.

What Dante Wesley did yesterday in the game against Tampa Bay, though, can only be called one thing: dirty.

It's true that the gunner cannot find the ball in the air while running full speed downfield and getting blocked by 1 or 2 guys. It's true the gunner has to rely on visual cues from the returner. But there are no visual cues from the returner. The returner hits the deck before the ball does. And Wesley didn't accidentally hit Clifton Smith, he launched himself into Smith with no reason to believe the ball would get there when he hit him. That's dirty, and that's dangerous.

The referees made the right call: personal foul penalty and an ejection for Wesley. There's no place in the game for that, and if they didn't do it, the Tampa Bay players would have rioted. The the NFL got to weigh in, and they suspended Wesley (good) for just 1 game (wait, WHAT???).

Let's compare this to an event from a couple years ago that resulted in an ejection and a 5-game suspension: the Albert Haynesworth stomping incident:

Haynesworth stepped on the face of a prone Andre Gurode, who didn't have a helmet on at the time. That was dangerous and dirty, and could have ended Gurode's career. All of those things are true of the Wesley hit as well.

I guess you can make the argument that Wesley just mistimed his hit, and at least it was a football play, whereas stepping on a helmetless player's head is never an okay play, but Wesley left his feet to take off Smith's head a full second before the ball got there against a defensless return man.

To suspend Wesley for only 1 game is to minimize the danger of concussions to Clifton Smith's health and his career. At a time where the NFL has commissioned a study on concussions, and stories like Ted Johnson's and Kyle Turley's, among many others, that is the last message the NFL should want to send.

With great speed and power has to come great responsibility, otherwise, as Carson Palmer said to SI's Peter King in a quarterback roundtable before the season started, "The truth of the matter is . . . somebody is going to die here in the NFL. It's going to happen." The NFL had a chance to take a stand on a clearly dirty play, and failed to do so.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Maccabi Tel Aviv coach bigger than the game

Usually I'd ignore NBA preseason, but this is too good to pass up.

The Maccabi coach recevied 2 technical fouls in an exhibition game against the Knicks. Rather than do the normal thing (leave the floor) or the Bobby Knight thing (throw a couple of chairs, swear a lot, then leave the floor), he just stayed there and kind of hung around. This caused an 8 minute delay as I imagine the referees tried to communicate to him that he had to leave.

Eventually, he left, but not before a rabbi tried to intervene on his behalf, saying the following (per ESPN):

"I explained that this is not a regular game and the kids are watching and [it's] important that there will be peace and forgive him," Rabbi Yitchak Dovid Grossman said of his discussions with the officials. "If you forgive him, I can speak to the children and say, 'You also forgive. If you have a fight, you forgive.' But he says this is the law, that you must obey."

I don't even know where to start with this. I don't think I've ever heard "Think of the children!!!!" in an NBA game before (maybe when Dennis Rodman was still playing). This rabbi certainly has never played organized sports before.

I shudder to think of how all those Israeli kids are going to go wrong because the NBA referees followed ther rules instead of "forgiving" this coach. Just think, we could have had peace in the Middle East but for these replacement referees putting the rulebook before the children. For shame.

NFL Quick Hits

- This is why Matt Schaub was getting talked up before the season, and why he's reached "Start unless on a bye" status on my team:

28-40, 392 yds, 4 TDs.

Of course, the fact that my backup is David Garrard and he just managed to lead his team to victory over the Rams in overtime doesn't hurt either.

- I'm already sick of Brett Favre's latest comeback and all the talk it's going to lead to. I'm wishing really bad things on the Ravens kicker for forcing that garbage down our throats by missing a 43 yard kick indoors.

- That's the Detroit we remember from 2008. Hurry back, Matt Stafford.

- The Giants are a good team, and I think they'll be near unbeatable at home in January, but New Orleans is a terrible matchup for them indoors. The Saints OL did a tremendous job keeping Drew Brees clean, and without pressure the Giants can't stop that attack. Of course almost no one can stop that attack in the dome.

- On a drive after recovering a fumble, the Browns had WR Josh Cribbs throw the ball twice and QB Derek Anderson throw the ball 0 times. And even though it ended in an INT, who could argue with the strategy? This is almost certainly what hell looks like for Brady Quinn.

And Anderson's final stats? 9-24 for 122 yds and 1 TD. Just about 1000% better than last week's effort.

- Jim Zorn has to be fired. Combine the abysmal showing today (6 points against the Chiefs), the lack of development by Jason Campbell (benched at halftime), and the owner (Daniel Snyder, good friend of Tom Cruise), and the bye week coming up for the Redskins (the usual time an in-season change would be made) and I just don't see how he survives.

- Was it really that hard to figure out you were playing Oakland, Philly? I know you let JaMarcus Russell throw a TD pass, and I can see how that would be confusing, but to go touchdown-less against the Raiders??? There is no excuse for that, and for at least this week, McNabb deserves all of the abuse Philly fans have given him since he was drafted. Oh, and the last Philly play? Fittingly, a pass thrown at DeSean Jackson's feet. Classic McNabb, missing only the on-field retching.

- The Seahawks both are almost historically unlucky with injuries (MLB Lofa Tatupu is now out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle), and embarassing to watch. Biggest game of the year, and they fail to show up against a divisional rival. Terrible effort on all 3 sides of the ball, and 6 games into the season, they're pretty much looking toward 2010.

- But if we're going to talk embarassing, I have to mention the Titans. Yes, it was snowing (I still don't understand that), and yes, you guys are down, but to give up 45 points in the first half??? And score nothing all game long? There's a word for that: Quitters.

- And Rex Ryan has to be feeling a little less comfortable now that his Jets have gone from 3-0 to 3-3. And this week's loss to the Bills was especially unnerving. Mark Sanchez had looked like he'd come out of the Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco mold over 4 of the first 5 games. But in the Buffalo wind, he threw 10 completions and 5 interceptions. That's terrible. My biggest fear back in April on draft day was that Seattle would draft Sachez at #4 overall. Over the first few weeks of the season I was worried that perhaps I was wrong and that would have been the smart choice. But now that the Jets have come back to earth (and the outstanding play of LB Aaron Curry), I feel much better about the decision.

USA 2 Costa Rica 2, Part 2: Reason

Okay, we dealt with the emotion of the last-second equalizer, now let's look at the game from a more rational context:

Another uneven performance, which can essentially sum up qualifying for the US. The offense was still too much focused on the long ball to one of the forwards (usually Altidore) who would try to possess the ball and make something happen. The fact that Altidore was a man possessed that night and made the strategy work pretty well does not take away from the fact that it was a flawed strategy. Especially for a superior team at home.

If this was part of an overall strategy to sit back and play for the tie, it failed. Miserably. Not just because Costa Rica went up 2-0, but because there were plenty of defensive breakdowns (including the ones that led to those 2 goals) and Costa Rica was able to maintain possession in the offensive half for 45-60 seconds at a time. If you're going to sit back and play for the tie, you have to choke off the attack once they get within 35-40 yards of the goal, not rely on your back 4 alone to stop the attack when it gets within 20 yards of goal.

Whatever Bradley said to the team at halftime made a difference. It would have been nice for him to have said those things to the team before the start of the game, because the US looked sluggish and lethargic. On one cross, the US defender didn't make an effort to get to the ball about 3 yards out from net, and only Tim Howard's existence as a superhuman being saved a goal on that shot (how Howard managed to get his hands up to parry that shot I will never understand). Even Onyewu wasn't immune, as the stalwart let a Costa Rican attacker get around him inside the box to lead to the first goal.

Then we come to the second goal, which was scored off of an incredible shot that even Howard could do nothing about. However, that clean shot came off of a give and goal where late-game hero Jonathan Bornstein just stood and watched the attacker go by him. I don't know what game John Harkes was watching (he said Bornstein had a great game after his goal), because he had countless miscues (both defensively and offensively) in the first half. I was hoping Spector would come out of halftime as the left back, because Bornstein was making a mess of half of his challenges and 95% of his touches.

Of course, in talking about the 2-0 defecit I'd be remiss not to point out the fact that before even the first goal, the US had squandered at least 3 chances to take the lead. None more mindboggling than Conor Casey's decision to not take a controlling touch before firing the ball at the net in the 9th minute. Altidore had laid off a perfect pass to a wide open Casey, and Casey totally missed the net in trying to one-time the shot. Terrible, terrible job by Casey. In fact, when later Donovan shot the ball from a terrible angle instead of trying to get the ball to a wide open Casey 6 yards in front of the net, I was only a little angry, because I couldn't fault him if he assumed Casey would just make a mess of it again.

But even the level of play pales in comparison with the injury situation. Charlie Davies suffered massive injuries in a car wreck 2 nights before the game, and if he plays for the national team again it will be a great story. He certainly won't be back for the World Cup. Onyewu's patellar tendon injury won't keep him out of the World Cup, but it will keep him out 2-3 months. So 1/2 of the best US forward tandem and by far their best defender are out of commission for at least the next 2-3 months, which is by far the worst news to come out of the game.

The point of this post is not to throw cold water on the good feeling the last-second equalizer brought, just to point out that there is still a ton of work to be done. As uneven as the US played throughout qualifying, they still ended up first in the region. This won't be enough to get them a seed at the World Cup, but it won't hurt their standing.

I said after the Confederation Cup that the US had to build off that in the remaining qualifying. I don't think they ever played that well in those 5 qualifying games, but they got the result they needed, so while the momentum has slowed, it didn't stall. Now all that's left before South Africa 2010 is friendlies and club games, so it will have to be individual momentum that helps bring the US to a better place than 2006.

Oh, and I hope the USSF response to AC Milan asking for money because Onyewu was hurt in US team duty is a single finger.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

USA 2 Costa Rica 2, Part 1: Emotion

The US came back from down 0-2 in this game to salvage a 2-2 tie at home against Costa Rica. There is plenty to say on the subject, so I'm breaking it down into 2 parts. This first part, is essentially everything that was running through my head once the final whistle sounded.

What. An. Ending!

The US didn't always make it look pretty, but they never stopped pushing to get back in the game. They missed a ton of giftwrapped chances early on, and then went down 2 goals by halftime, but not once did they let their heads hang and accept their first home loss in qualifying since 2001.

Not only did the US never give up, but in the 2nd half we finally saw shades of the US team we have been hoping to see all qualifying long. A team that methodically worked the ball up the field, only attacking into the box once they had worked enough players up to have 2 lines of attack: 1 line in the box, and another at the 18 as backup. Too many times the US puts everyone on the same level, then the ball squirts out to the 18, and no one is there to ty and clean up.

Man of the match is unquestionably Jozy Altidore. Wearing a Charlie Davies shirt, Altidore was a man possessed. Twice I saw him try and succeed in stealing a ball away from 3 opponents passing it back and forth. He created a golden chance for Conor Casey that Casey horribly botched in the 9th minute, drew 3 fouls just outside the 18, and had 2 quality chances on net (although he missed one and the other was saved). He was carrying the US offense for stretches at a time, taking the long balls, possessing, and making the right play. If he was playing to honor his friend in the hospital, he definitely made Davies proud.

I remember remarking during the game how Bradley always leaves his subs very late, and how sometimes you need to make the change earlier to shake things up. Sure enough, Bradley makes changes in the 62nd, 68th, and 78th minutes, and the first 2 changes have direct bearing on the 2 goals that were scored. Torres and Rogers injected a real shot of energy into the sagging US team, and without their play, this is at best a 2-1 loss for the Americans.

When a team misses as many good chances as the US did in the first 60 minutes of the game, it's either a sign that nothing is going to go right all game, or the karma is building up enough that eventually something is going to break your way. Last night it was the latter, as Bradley's shot was one of the lowest quality shots the US put on net. But that shot is the one that bounced off the sliding keeper and worked its way into the net to bring the game back to 2-1 in the 71st minute. And yes, it was unquestionably a lucky bounce, but it was the culmination of both a lot of outstanding chances the US created all game long, and of about 5-10 minutes of sustained American attack.

After this goal, the game fell into a mix of sloppy American attacks, and any effort possible by the Costa Ricans to waste time. In fact, they were so brazen about it, the their coach and an assistant were sent off for berating the 4th official, endangering what at the time looked to be their availability for Costa Rica's first 1 or 2 world cup games.

Also, the best US defender in years, Oguchi Onyewu went down in the last 10-12 minutes with what was later diagnosed as a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. Unfortunately for the US, this came after they had already subbed 3 times, so the Americans were forced to play with just 10 men for the rest of the game.

The second goal should never have happened. Given 5 minutes of stoppage time, the US started pressing about 2 minutes in. About 3 minutes in, the US lost the ball and Costa Rica dribbled it down into the US end with a 3 on 3 situation (and a man up overall). A situation many teams turn into the final whistle. And Costa Rica was thinking those thoughts, when all of a sudden Torres comes in and picks the Costa Rican player's pocket deep in his own end. The US brings it up the field and eventually secures a corner kick with over 4 and a half minutes gone in stoppage time. As soon as the ball is cleared by Costa Rica, it's game over. Do or die situation. Then, this happened:

Jonathan Bornstein runs in from the 18 onto a brilliant Torres corner kick, and stuffs it into the net with essentially no time left on the clock. With that header, the US won CONCACAF (thanks to Mexico tying Trinidad and Tobago) and Costa Rica is dumped from automatic berth in South Africa to a home and home playoff with Uruguay for a spot. Instead, Honduras, thanks to a 1-0 win over El Salvador, moves on, and the country torn apart by political strife hopefully has at least one day to unite and celebrate their first berth in the World Cup since 1982.

What a game, what an ending.

An interesting side note: the Costa Rican coach on the bench who looks crushed in the video above? He's the strength and conditioning coach, as once the head coach and assistant coaches were sent off, it was left to him to try and maintain order on the sideline and communicate with the players on the field.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Matt Holliday

You know how coaches say, "No one play or player lost this game, we lost this as a team?"

Well, the St. Louis Cardinals did not lose game 2 of their NLDS matchup with the Dodgers. Matt Holliday (and only Matt Holliday) lost it for them. He out-Bill Buckerned Bill Bucker.

That was quite possibly the worst job of fielding I have ever seen. Even Manny Ramirez wouldn't have blown that catch like that. He may have tripped over himself, and he may have not reached that ball, but he would not have taken an easy fly ball, mangled it enough to have it hit him in the privates, and then trip over himself...all with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth with a 1 run lead.

Holliday should take $10 million out of his free agent contract he's going to sign this offseason, and buy enough booze to make all of the Cardinals fans in the world forget that this game ever happened.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bad calls of the weekend: BC-FSU

Maybe I'll tackle week 4 of the NFL season at some point, but right now, all I've got is, the Seahawks got blasted, the Broncos (Seattle has their 1st round pick in 2010) improved to 4-0 (thanks Tony Romo), and Pittsburgh is currently winning 7-0. I hate my NFL fan life.

Instead, I'd rather talk about a couple of atrocious calls I witnessed during yesterday's college football action. The first such call happened during the Florida State vs Boston College game and came early in the 4th quarter.

BC had jumped out to a surprising 21-3 lead in the first half, but Florida State had chipped away at this lead, getting back to 21-13 at the start of the 4th quarter. BC drove out to their own 37 yard line, where they faced 3rd and 1.

This snapshot gives you a good idea of just how far they have to go to get the first down at the start of the play (the yellow line signifying the first down).

BC (wisely, given the distance needed) calls for a QB sneak to try and get the first down. Their QB takes the snap, the line gets good push, and he pushes his way forward to about half a yard beyond the first down marker. But, don't take my word for it, see for yourself. I took the liberty of circling BC QB Dave Shinskie.

Then, the defense does what defenses always do in this situation: they stop his momentum and then push him backwards as far as they can, hoping to influence the official spot of the ball. Thanks to the general pile up of bodies, the FSU defense manages to shove Dave Shinskie back behind the first down marker, as seen below (again, Shinskie is circled).

Now comes the interesting part. One of the linesman on the officiating crew runs in at the spot where Shinskie's forward progress was stopped. By rule, this is where the ball should be spotted. Notice how the circled linesman runs in ahead of the yellow first down line.

Now, it's true that the yellow line isn't official (it's put there by ABC, who's broadcasting the game) but at this stage of the yellow line's development, you will never see a ball spotted entirely past the yellow line that is not actually a first down.

Okay, so 1 linesman believes the ball shouls be spotted ahead of the first down marker. Maybe the other linesman had a better view, and maybe he has money on FSU, and he believes the ball should be spotted behind the marker.

Hmmm, this doesn't seem to be the case. The circled linesman in the image above clearly believes Shinskie reached a good half yard further than the first down marker (as displayed by the much cruder but incredibly accurate yellow line). However, linesman #1 (not circled in this image) has moved about a yard backwards for seemingly no reason at all.

The official marking the spot should NEVER move off of that spot, even if it's to get the ball. There are 7 officials on the field, and this is one of the reasons why. Another official should hand the linesman the ball so that his spot can be as accurate as possible. Did he think his buddy was going to keep track of the spot while he got the ball from the pile? Did he magically change his mind? We'll never know. What we do know, is that linesman #1 influenced linesman #2's opinion of the proper spot, as seen below.

Now both linesmen are setup behind the first down marker as something caused them to change their minds regarding the spot. After many hours of consideration, I have decided that either they were sneakily abducted briefly by aliens on their way in from the sidelines, or Bobby Bowden broke down into a blubbering mess at some point and begged the officials for help getting back in the game. Whatever it was, the end result was the terrible spot seen below.

In case all of this evidence isn't enough for you, let me add the following:

- The spot was so bad, Matt Millen immediately noticed it and called out the officials for a bad job. This is the same Matt Millen who spent the last 6 years demonstraitng who little he knew about successful football (and carving the heart out of the city of Detroit, but that's another matter), and he saw it right away.

- Every college football play is reviewed by a separate replay official. They have the option to signal down to the referee on the field to stop play and give the replay official more time to review the play and render a decision. The replay official (wisely) sent this signal down to ask for more time. Inexplicably, the replay official then decided there wasn't enough evidence to overturn the spot. I have an image of poor resolution screen-grabbed from a standard definition replay of the game that clearly shows the call was blatantly wrong. The replay official had a high definition video of the same thing, and he gutlessly shrunk from his obligation to right the on-field wrong.

This was a total failure by both linesmen and the replay official, all 3 of whom should be suspended for at least the next game for gross incompetence. I very much doubt this will happen, so God help whatever ACC team draws this crew next week.

The real issue is that this wasn't a pass interference call gone bad. This wasn't a holding call that later didn't hold up to video scrutiny. At least those are jugdment calls, and with jugdment calls there will be some variation from official to official. This was a simple spot of the ball call where both linesmen showed the correct initial instincts, then inexplicably went away from those instincts. The mistake was compounded when the replay official, with plenty of evidence to the contrary, upheld the initial call. It's a call that should never have been allowed to stand, but stood.

Luckily for BC (and this officiating crew), even after FSU tied the game at 21 on their ensuing possession, BC managed to win the game 28-21. I have a feeling the next team to be wronged by this crew won't be so lucky.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Lone Pennant Race* of 2009

If you haven't been paying attention, there is still one race that has not yet been wrapped up: the AL Central division race. Not only has it not been wrapped up, but Detroit and Minnesota have identical 85-76 records with one game left in the regular season.

This scenario is being spun as a total collapse by Detroit, and I was all ready to pile on to the Tigers. The I took a look at the numbers, and I was surprised at what I found. Here are Detroit's and Minnesota's record by month, with how many games Detroit was ahead of Minnesota in the standings at the end of the month in parenthesis:

April: 11-10 11-11 (+0.5)
May: 17-11 14-16 (+4.5)
June: 15-13 15-12 (+4.0)
July: 10-14 12-12 (+2.0)
August: 16-13 14-14 (+3.5)
Sept/Oct: 16-15 19-11 (0)

So, in actuality, Detroit has never been that far ahead of Minnesota. Sure they may have jumped more than 5 games ahead at a point in the season, but they never were able to pull away from Minnesota. So why is everyone piling on the Tigers? Here are their records over the last 9 games:

Detroit: 3-6
Minnesota: 6-3

So over the first 22 games of September, Minnesotsa made up 0.5 games of a 3.5 game defecit. Over the last 9 games, they've made up 3 games. So, clearly it looks like Detroit has choked, right? Let's look at who they've actually played.

They played 4 games against each other, and split those games. That means Detroit has gone 1-4 against the White Sox and Minnesota has gone 4-1 against the Royals. Now, Chicago is practically a .500 team (as of this post, they are 79-82), while the Royals are just 2 games out of the AL cellar.

So is this really a total choke on the part of the Tigers? I'm going to say no. It looks bad because Detroit has been on top of the division for so long. In fact, the Tigers will make history if they lose the division in becoming the first team to lead their division since May 10, only to lose their lead in the last week of the season. But while you'd expect Detroit to do better than 1-4 against a team with nothing to play for, if you're going to take issue with the Tigers, you should look back earlier in the season where they didn't pull away from Minnesota, not to these last 10 games of the season.

The real winners in all of this? The New York Yankees. The only thing that scared the Yankees for their first round matchup was the prospect of facing Tigers starter Justin Verlander in games 1 and 4 of the series. Now, because Detorit needs tomorrow's game, they have to put Verlander out there tomorrow, which means he won't pitch until Friday in the playoffs, which would be game 2. Let's be real, these 2 teams are looking at about 86 wins, while the Yankees have 102 and have their starters set up exactly how they want them.

Anyway, the Tigers send Verlander to the mound around 1 PM tomorrow, while the Twins send epic Yankee failure Carl Pavano to try and push themselves to a W around 2 PM.

*Technically this isn't true, as if Colorado beats LA tonight and tomorrow, the Rockies will steal the division from the Dodgers. But since both of these teams are in the playoffs already anyway, it doesn't really count.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Let me get this off my chest...

Since I haven't checked in for a touch over a week, lots of things have happened that deserve a comment or two.

Brown-Harvard: I know no one watches Ivy League football, but indulge me for a second. You're Brown. You're playing Harvard in Cambridge under the lights on a Friday night. You are physically outclassed by your ivy league brethren, but you manage to keep it close, recover an onside kick, and have the ball at the Harvard 25 with 16 seconds left and 1 timeout. Oh, and Hermoine Granger is watching, so there's a little extra pressure. Do you
a) Set yourself up for a field goal
b) Try to get another 5-10 yards to set up the field goal attempt because you don't trust your kicker to hit anything over 30 yards
c) Throw the ball towards the end zone 3 times, even though that's where all the defenders are, you still have 1 timeout left, and your quarterback needs a full windup to get the ball those 25 yards.

To Brown's credit, they got 3 plays off in the 16 seconds. To their, ahh, noncredit, they chose option (c), and as you can guess, all 3 passes fell incomplete and they lost by those same 3 points. Emma Watson was crushed, I'm sure.

Seahawks lose to da Bears: There are a lot of directions I can go with this game, and had I written this post right after the game, it would have been 6000 words of mostly anger. Since then I've mellowed...on every point but one: Seneca Wallace and his running, or lack thereof.

Seneca Wallace is Seattle's backup quarterback, and for the sake of brevity, I'll describe him as a poor man's Michael Vick. He's on the short side, not the most accurate quarterback around, and can run like...well, see for yourself:

Now, against a defense like the Bears, I'd expect a QB like Wallace to run significantly more than 0 times. I'd expect a QB like Wallace to put the good of the team in that game over his desire to be seen as a quarterback and not a slash-type player. But I'd be wrong, and quite disappointed. Come back soon, Matt.

Brett Favre: Favre chucks ball as hard as he can, Greg Lewis makes outstanding catch. 98% of nation throws up...the other 2% are Vikings fans and ESPN employees.

Cleveland...well, doesn't all: Eric Mangini has changed quarterbacks, again. Brady Quinn is out, and Derek Anderson is back in. I'm pretty sure we've seen this picture before, and Derek Anderson is not the answer. Brady Quinn may very well not be the answer either, but I think Cleveland should give him enough time to actually find out one way or the other. 3 games with a shoddy supporting cast is not enough time. I have to say, Mangenius is quickly giving way to Manidiot.

Oh, and Eric Wedge got canned. He had to see this coming, as Cleveland couldn't be farther away from where they were in October, 2007. Not all of this is Wedge's fault, as Cleveland couldn't re-sign some key cogs (Sabathia, CC) and a few that stayed have simply seen their abilities take a nosedive off of a cliff (Haffner, Travis). But, while this accounts for the reason the Indians haven't seen the playoffs since then, it doesn't fully account for their inability to even be halfway competitive. For that, Wedge's time ran out.

And, finally: as a Mariners fan and someone who is a huge fan of "King" Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke deserves the AL Cy Young award. He's been better than Felix on a significantly worse team (the Royals have at least 4 Mariners castoffs, and the Mariners are a medicore team at best). I hope Felix wins many Cy Youngs as a Mariner, but not this year, give it to the guy who deserves it most.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sarcastic Guy, Vol. 4

As I discussed in a post a couple of weeks back, I found myself in the unenviable position of looking to Matt Schaub to give my QB position a shot in the arm for this season. I'm pretty sure Schaub owns the mantle of, "Best QB who will give you 11 games max in a season". The issue isn't talent, it's just that you'd better have a good backup because Schaub tends to gets hurt. I held my breath when Schaub sprained his ankle in the 3rd preseason game, but he seemed to come through that episode okay.

So the first game of the season comes, and Houston is playing the Jets, a team with a lot of question marks. Schaub's line?

18/33 166 yds, 0 TD 1 INT, 55.9 rating = 6 points

Okay, clearly the Texans aren't ready for prime time yet. Next up are the Tennessee Titans, a team that had the best record in the AFC last season, and went toe-to-toe with the Pittsburgh Steelers in week one before losing 13-10 in OT. Naturally, the thought of this Schaub facing Tennessee made me somewhat queasy. So I benched him. His line?

25/39 357 yards, 4 TD 0 INT, 127.8 rating = 35 points

Now, it's quite possible I overreacted after week 1, but 35 points against the Titans defense??? That's just mean-spirited. Why not play defense and record a couple of interceptions too? And, quite frankly, even with the Jets' surprising win over the Pats in week 2, I'm not willing to give you a pass for the week 1 stinkbomb you dropped on my computer.

The worst part? I know how this is going to play out. Schaub's going to have an inconsistent year, and I'm going to leave about 150 points on the table guessing wrong week-to-week with my quarterback position.

Of course, it could be worse, I could be the poor sap who drafted Tom Brady very early ready for another 2007, and now he's being outperformed by the likes of David Garrard. Hey Tom, slants are your friend. I know throwing deep to Randy Moss is sexy, and I know you now have an image to maintain, but you can make teams pay for blitzing you. Wait, what am I saying? i don't have Brady on any of my teams. Keep up the average-to-good work buddy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

MNF: Part I

If before the game, you had set the Pats-Bills line at Pats -17, I would have taken the Pats. Buffalo just doesn't play the Pats well, they realize they're dealing with their betters, and they fade meekly into the night.

But not tonight. Their defense bothered Brady, who is clearly not fully back yet. You could see him getting antsy anytime someone got near his legs (and rightfully so, it takes the mind a lot longer to recover than the body after a catastrophic injury like that). Interestingly, New England looked a lot like Pittsburgh: they started the game making a concerted effort to have a balanced attack. I'm not sure how much of that strategy was an effort to ease Brady into the season, but that, as much as the Bills defense, stopped the Pats offense. The only back doing much of anything was Fred Taylor, and I don't remember seeing him touching the ball in the 2nd half.

Once New England realized they had a fight on their hands, they started throwing every down, and their offense started moving the ball up and down the field. Add in the fact that Buffalo was running a no huddle offense all game, and not running it that well, so their defense was on the field almost twice as long as the offense, and it was inevitable that New England would click offensively.

But even with all this, Buffalo was still up 24-19 with 2:06 to play with New England kicking off. Buffalo had the hands team in, with 10 people 10 yards away from the kicker and 1 guy deep. New England kicked deep, and the kick reached the end zone. Here Buffalo return man Leodis McKelvin had a choice: take it out, or take a knee and get the ball on the 20 yard line.

McKelvin brought the ball out. And you know what? It was the RIGHT DECISION, despite what the game analysts said. Here's why? there was 2:06 remaining, and the Patriots had all 3 timeouts. If Buffalo goes 3 and out after a kneeldown in the endzone, the Pats likely get the ball back with ~1:40 left and 1 timeout at about their own 40. 60 yards with that much time and with those receivers? Almost a certain TD drive. Take away the timeout, and all it takes is one sack to put a lot of pressure on the New England offense. Taking the ball out was correct...

...but fighting for every yard on the kickoff return was horribly wrong. The only thing Buffalo cannot afford is a fumble, so as soon as McKelvin gets breathed on, he needs to hit the turf. He did not do this, and Buffalo being Buffalo, he fumbled, and handed the Pats the ball at the Buffalo 30 or so. Once the Pats recovered the fumble, the outcome was inevitable.

So for the 2nd time in 3 years, Buffalo loses on Monday Night in heartbreaking fashion by the score of 25-24, for their 12th straight loss to New England. The story was markedly different, but the ending was the same as always.

Week 1: Finally!

I'm so excited for football, not even the steaming turd of a lineup given us in the Northeast could dampen my spirits on Sunday.

I guess things really started on Thursday, and I don't know what horrified me more: Pittsburgh stealing a game Tennessee should have won, or Cris Collinsworth's attempt to have Troy Polamalu's baby during the first half, only to be thwarted by Polamalu's knee injury.

Back to Sunday, we kicked things off with the 3rd straight year where the Texans' big jump to a playoff team turns into the Texans taking a giant dump on the field. As disappointed as Houston should be in its defense for letting Mark Sanchez look like a 7-year veteran, their offense is what really stood out to me. Ever since Houston traded for Matt Schaub, the book on Schaub has been, excellent skills, bad bone structure. Having selected him on 2 different fantasy squads, I was understandably nervous when he sprained his ankle in the 3rd preseason game. But when I heard he'd play in game 1, I figured the proverbial bullet had been dodged. He should have taken the day off, he was horrid. Now his coach admits he wasn't close to 100%. Yuck.

The other early game? Philly at Carolina. Now, the last time we all saw Jake Delhomme, he was being Arizona's MVP in Carolina's home playoff loss with 5INTs and a fumble lost. Jake's first drive: 7+ minutes and a touchdown. The rest of the first half? 4 INTs and a fumble lost. If there was such a thing as anti-fantasy football, Jake Delhomme would be the #1 overall draft pick. If he doesn't get benched, Steve Smith is going to knock out 12 of his teeth by week 5 at the latest. Luckily Carolina didn't give him an extension this offseason. Oops. As for Philly, the game was great...except for McNabb fracturing a rib. (One of those teams I have Schaub on? McNabb's my other QB...should have gotten that fantasy insurance.) The crazy thing? Jeff Garcia was available...and he chose Philly over Carolina. Chose to be a backup who maybe gets 3-4 games over the chance to be a starter by week 4? Interesting choice by Jeff.

Of course, this mess of 2 games was almost made up for by the 1 minute we got of the Denver-Cincinatti game, featuring the incredible defelction touchdown pass "to" Stokeley, followed by Gus Johnson's on-air climax. Gotta love Gus.

The Giants-Redskins game was a lot like last year's Giants-Redskins opener, with the slight change where Washington looked like an NFL team instead of a high school team, but still not really a threat to beat the Giants. The fake field goal with the punter running it in for the TD was exciting though.

Of course I didn't get to see it, but my Seahawks took advantage of playing one of the worst teams in the league (Rams), overcoming one of the sloppiest first quarters I've ever watched on NFL Gamecast to blank the Rams 28-0. Seattle was helped by St. Louis' inability to do anything on offense, a missed chip shot field goal by hero-turned-traitor Josh Brown, and a blocked field goal returned for a TD that was called back (wait for it) because the Rams had 12 men on the field.

Finally we got the best game of our day, Chicago vs Green Bay. In this game, we got the answer to the Jay Cutler question. No, he cannot manage the game and fit in to the defense and strong running game that exists on the Bears. Instead, the Bears will win or lose based on where and when Cutler feels like chucking the ball. Last night, that was frequently across his body into 3-4 Packer defenders. As you can imagine, bad things happened (4 INTs, a career high for Jay). Despite all this, Chicago was ahead with 2 minutes to go, thanks to the worst performance by a right tackle since the pudgy uncoordinated kind in Little Giants. But the 3rd and 1 playcall that led to a 60+ yard TD pass for the win? Outstanding call, and outstanding throw by Rodgers. If he goes on to have a good NFL career, he'll look back on that night as when he finally threw off the yoke of Brett Favre.

Now excuse me while I try and figure out why Buffalo isn't down by 21 points already.

You cannot be serious

Apparently "I'm going to ram this ****ing ball down your throat!" is the new "You cannot be serious!"

I'll be honest, I first read about the end to Serena's match online and my first thought was, "How on earth could the officials have essentially defaulted Serena in a major semifinal?!? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" I couldn't even put into words what she would have had to do for the response to not have been a travesty.

Then I saw the highlight...and that was exactly the scenario I had been trying to put into words. She embarassed the poop out of herself with her tirade against the line judge. Was it a foot fault? I don't know, it was pretty darn close. Maybe the official was sure, and if so, she was absolutely right to make the call. There's a difference between allowing more physical play at a game's climax and simply tossing out the rulebook.

She lost the match, was fined, and I think that's the end of it. Which is fine.

One other thing bothered me. Could the head official have attempted to head this off? In this instance, with Serena being replaced by Beezelbub, quite possibly not. But I couldn't help but think, part of an official's job is to maintain control of the match. Never should an official's first move/response be to toss a player. Even if it's just a "Serena" to try and snap the player out of it, there has to be some attempt to resolve the conflict without tossing the player/ending the match. Again, I'm not saying Serena could have been reasoned with (even when she hasn't gone insane she doesn't seem like a reasonable person), but some sort of attempt should have been made.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

US 1 Trinidad and Tobago 0

The US got the result they needed last night, 3 points on the road. However, rather than calling this match the jump start they need to get to and make noise at the World Cup, instead, it's like breaking a losing streak by taking 2 of 3 from the Washington Nationals.

For a half, the US looked exactly like the team that's given up early goals in the majority of their last 5 qualifiers. Slow, sluggish, terrible decision making, heck, Dempsey looked like he either had swine flu or put money on T&T. And they came about 3 inches from getting burned, as T&T hit the crossbar after beating Tim Howard with a looping floater of a shot. It looked almost like the US was playing for a draw in the first half, looking to shorten the game before they stepped on the gas. I saw Altidore come back within 35 yards of his own goal multiple times from his forward spot, something I haven't seen in the last 5-6 games.

Whatever Bob Bradley said to them in the 2nd half, it worked. The US team post-halftime was a different beast. There was sustained possession, there were attacks developed over a period longer than 15-20 seconds, and there was pressure on the ball starting more than 25 yards from the goal. It all culminated in Ricardo Clark's first offensive contribution of the first 62 minutes. Luckily, that contribution was a beatufiul bending shot that beat T&T's portly (but agile) keeper.

The US certainly looked better holding this lead, but a) consider the opposition and b) they still were unable to add to it despite creating a few good chances over that last 30 minutes.

I was disappointed that Bradley didn't yank Dempsey earlier. Dempsey was listless in this game, almost looking as if he'd rather lose possession than help launch a sustained attack so he could rest quicker. Even at his best Dempsey is going to ignore the defensive part of the game, which means someone has to cover for his responsibilities since he's an outside mid (in this game it was frequenctly Bradley). What that means is he has to give a lot on the offensive end to be valuable. To put it in baseball terms, he needs a Manny Ramirez like contribution on offense, otherwise he's a net minus on the pitch with his Manny-like defense. Once the goal happened, I thought Dempsey needed to be pulled to send a message of, "You're not guaranteed a full 90 every match."

Even though it wasn't pretty (heck, even Onyewu looked rusty after missing the last match due to yellow card accumulation), the US got the result they needed and achieved their 6 points in 4 days. What does it mean for the standings?

1) US - 16 pts - +5 diff, @ Honduras, vs Costa Rica
2) Mexico - 15 pts - +3 diff, vs El Salvador, @ T&T
3) Honduras - 13 pts - +6 diff, vs US, @ El Salvador
4) Costa Rica - 12 pts - -4 diff, vs T&T, @ US
5) El Slavador - 8 pts - -2 diff, @ Mexico, vs Honduras
6) Trinidad and Tobago - 5 pts - -8 diff, @ Costa Rica, vs Mexico

Bottom line: A draw with Costa Rica at home in their final game puts the US into the World Cup.

As much as the US has been picked apart by the media and blogosphere recently in qualifying, the situation could be far worse. They could be Costa Rica.

Costa Rica led CONCACAF with 12 points halfway through qualifying. Then they went into Honduras and were smoked 4-0. Honduras is playing very well in this round of qualifying, so the loss wasn't necessarily a cause for concern, but the lopsided score was a little unnerving.

Then Mexico came to Costa Rica 5 days ago. They were a hot team, but Costa Rica hadn't lost in their first 3 home qualifiers. Mexico throttled them 3-0. All of a sudden Costa Rica had dropped from 1st to 4th place in 2 games (though only 1 point separated 1st from 4th).

Then they went to El Salvador, licking their wounds and needing a positive result. They give up a goal in stoppage time for El Salvador's 2nd win in 8 games. Now Costa Rica are alone in 4th place, and looking like they're headed for a home-and-home playoff against also-tanking-at-the-worst-possible-time Argentina for a World Cup berth. Not an enviable position.

Monday, September 7, 2009

US takes care of business in Utah

The US got the result they needed, but there's still plenty to be concerned about on the road to South Africa.

The US carried the play for the better part of the first half. This was important, but it's hard to extrapolate much from doing so against El Salvidor. However, they were not able to get any goals out of this advantage, so when Jonathan Bornstein botched a clearance in the 32nd minute and El Salvador took advantage, the US fell behind in yet another home qualifier.

Now to their (mostly Landon Donovan's) credit, they came back, attacked aggressively, and ended up with a 2-goal lead before halftime. However, the fact that their first goal wasn't disallowed was a minor miracle. On their free kick, El Salvador pulled an offsides trap, catching 2-3 Americans offsides. However, Clint Dempsey snuck through from an onsides position and headed the ball into the net. The no call was absolutely correct, but Michael Bradley was close enough to Dempsey that it was a needless chance. Bradley should have turned away from the play and gotten out of there when he saw the ball coming near him. Luckily, it didn't result in the unnecessary disallowing of a goal (this would come later).

The real problem came after about the 60th minute, as the US decided at that point to sit back, give El Salvador unencumbered possession until they were about 25-30 yards out, then attack the ball. I said this after the Mexico game, and I'll say it now, you beat Spain, the #1 team in the world, by attacking them in the middle of the midfield, forcing them out wide, and not letting them get comfortable. Against Mexico, the US did NOT do this, and they lost despite staking themselves to a 1-0 lead. Against El Salvador, who is not even close to the calliber of Spain or even Mexico, the US did the same thing, and it allowed El Salvador a handful of strong chances. If you don't trust you players to aggressively hold a lead agianst El Salvador, how can you expect to do it against real teams? Or, asked another way, if you DO trust your players to aggressively defend against Spain, how can you NOT trust them to do so against a team like El Salvador.

In truth, the US beat El Salvador 3-1, at least according to everyone except the Honduran* referee. At about the 58th mintue, Clint Dempsey poked the ball ahead to Jozy Altidore who shook off a defender and put the ball in the back of the net. It was a clean goal, yet it was called back for a reason that was never explained, either to the American broadcasters or the coaching staff. The call could not have been offsides (and everyone remarked the linesman's flag did not indicate that was the call), and any call against either Dempsey or Altidore would have had to be made up. The whistle was indefensible, and immediately shoots up the list of terrible calls.

So where does this leave the US? Well Costa Rica's home loss to Mexico leaves the US and Honduras tied at 13 points and Mexico and Costa Rica tied with 12 points. Since only the top 3 get guaranteed berths, the US needs a win on Wednesday against Trinidad and Tobago. A tie will make things difficult, and a loss (aside from being unthinkable, it's Trinidad and Tobago) would be catastrophic. Even a win won't clinch anything, but ideally it would put 4 points between 1st place and 4th place.

The US gets Onyewu back for the T&T matchup, which will hopefully allow Bradley to aggressively defend the midfield. If the US doesn't do so, I will begin losing my faith in Bob Bradley. I'm assuming the excuse against Mexico was the altitude (which is terrible, but whatever), and the excuse against El Salvidor was the absence of Onyewu and DeMerrit. There will be no excuse against T&T. Do it Bob.

*Yes, the same Honduras who (like the US) is locked in a 4-team struggle for 3 guaranteed berths to the World Cup. I'm not saying the ref was actively on the take, I'm just saying the whole setup smells a little funny.