Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A few NBA notes on the eve of free agency

- Carlos Boozer decided to remain in Utah for next season, exercising his player option for $12.7 million. He will remain in Mormon country for another year because a) the economic slowdown and the subsequent reluctance of many teams to pay the luxury tax meant his options to better that amount were very limited and b) he felt the need to continue his penance for stabbing the blind owner of the Cleveland Cavs in the back a few years back. Well, maybe only one of those reasons actually factored into his decision.

- Mehmet Okur also exercised his option, which gives the Jazz the bulk of their frontcourt back, but makes it harder for them to re-sign another key piece: Paul Millsap. As far as I know, there's no karmic reason for his decision to eschew free agency.

- Detroit, in an effort to make their team a more attractive destination for free agents, fired coach Michael Curry after just 1 year on the job. The main reason appears to be the fact that he lost a number of the veterans on the team when he decided to bring Rip Hamilton off the bench to accomodate Allen Iverson. It apparently got so bad that Hamilton and Curry weren't speaking by the end of the season. Of course, this situation was brought about by the midseason trade made by the very man who fired Curry, GM Joe Dumars.

- Houston may be facing a tougher offseason than they initially thought. They already have a decision to make on Ron Artest, and must decide whether to let playoff hex Tracy McGrady anywhere near the team, but now Yao Ming's feet aren't healing from the break he suffered in the 2nd round series loss to the Lakers. There is talk Yao might miss all of next season, or his career may be in jeopardy.

Of course, this may be a devious ploy by Yao to avoid playing through the entire offseason on behalf of the Chinese sports federation. To be fair, I'm not sure there's another way he could really say "no" when the Chinese government "asks" him to participate in national team events. For his sake, especially given the fact that he's missed 95 games in the past 4 seasons due to foot issues, I hope that's the case.

I agree with Chris Evert, up to a point

The grunting in tennis, especially in women's tennis is idiotic.

But I disagree with her conclusion. She says the WTA (and, I'll extrapolate, the ATP as well) should step in and put a stop to the theatrics. I say, let them yell, scream, grunt, whatever all they want. But end the restrictions on the crowd. Let them also make whatever noises they want.

After all, if you're going to allow Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, or Rafa Nadal to recreate Meg Ryan's famous scene in When Harry Met Sally every shot, then forcing the crowd to be quiet during every point seems kind of pointless, no?

And if there are players who can't handle the noise, they'll fall out of relevance and other, mentally tougher players will take their spots.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Top 7 Calls that made me want to put a fist through the television set (luckily I created this blog instead), #5: She Got Interfered With

I realized it's probably about time I got back on this particular horse. #5 actually doesn't involve the Seattle Seahawks...well, at least not directly.

Let's go back to November 29, 1998, in Foxboro, MA. Doug Flutie has made his return to Foxboro Stadium after years in Canada, but this time he's playing for the visiting team, the Buffalo Bills. Flutie had what looked to be a triumphant return, passing for 339 yards and rushing for 30 more, and staking his team to a 21-17 lead with just over a minute remaining.

Then Drew Bledsoe went to work (this was Drew Bledsoe before years of bad decisions and hard hits from holding on to the football for too long turned him into Zombie Drew Bledsoe), with a broken finger no less. He drove the Patriots into Bills territory, where the drive stalled a bit. Facing 4th down, Drew completed a pass to Shawn Jefferson at the Bill 26, and Jefferson got out of bounds with time for just one more play. The Bills were not happy, as they felt Jefferson was out of bounds BEFORE he caught the ball on the play, which should have negated the catch and won the game for the Bills. The referees disagreed, and the Bills (the year being 1998) had no recourse (this would be dramatic foreshadowing).

Anyway, one play left, from the Bill 26 yard line. Bledsoe drops back, waits, then launches a pass for Terry Glenn in the back left corner of the end zone. There is some jostling, maybe a shove, but the pass falls incomplete as time expires. Bills win! Flutie is successful, and strikes a blow for short, Heisman-winning quarterbacks everywhe...what?

There's a flag on the field?

Oh, okay, I'm sure it was back by Bledsoe and was offensive holding or something, so let's get back to the celebra...wait...it's in the END ZONE? Are you sure? I mean, officials NEVER call a foul on a hail mary type pass unless the defense rips off the wide receiver's leg or stabs him through the heart, or something like that. (Note: Given the long career of Terry Glenn, highlights including being suspended for basically all of the Pats' Super Bowl winning 2001 season and fumbling away a ball for a safety in one of my favorite playoff games of all time, despite a lack of video evidence, I feel safe declaring Glenn's leg is still attached and thus, was not ripped off on this play; nor was he killed wth a knife through the heart.) Besides, the receiver in question is Terry Glenn. As a rookie, when asked how he was rehabbing from a bad hammy, his own coach Bill Parcells responded, "She's doing fine." Clearly, if you breathe on Terry Glenn, he's going to fall over. This clearly isn't a flag for defensive pass interference.

Yes, the flag was for defensive pass interference. It's at this point I'd normally embed a video of this outrageous decision, but I cannot find one, which is part of the reason this post took so long to write. Anyway, this call gave New England one untimed down at the 1 yard line. The play was a play action pass which ended with Bledose hitting tight end Ben Coates for the touchdown.

The Bills were so incensed with this turn of events, and so disgusted with the officials over the Jefferson catch and the phantom PI call, that their coach (disclaimer, it was Wade Phillips) declined to put out 11 players to defend the point after this touchdown. In fact, he neglected to put 1 defender on the field for the PAT. The Patriots' reaction? Instead of having kicker Adam Vinatieri kick the PAT for a 24-21 win, the holder handed him the ball and Vinatieri ran the ball in to the end zone, for a 25-21 win.

Now, to be honest, I cannot comment on whether Jefferson was in or out. But I can safely say the PI call was horrid. When I first saw this game, I thought the call was terrible, but it benefitted the Patriots and most of my friends were Pats fans, so I wasn't too upset. It did hurt Doug Flutie, who I pulled for, so that stunk. But overall, there were plenty of worse things that could have happened.

Anti-Quality of call: 8/10
Effect on game situation: 9/10
Effect on my mood: 2/10

It was only later, after a far more catastrophic set of circumstances occurred, that this game would take it's place on this list. For the rest of the story, well, you'll just have to wait till we get a little higher on this list.

Brazil 3 (well, 4), USA 2

Well, that was a ride that ended in vast disappointment.

Okay, let's get this out of the way first. No, this does not, in any way, invalidate the wonderful run US Soccer went on starting in the Egypt game. This Confederations Cup was unquestionably a success, whether you stop watching after the first half of this game or at the actual end of the tournament. And the first half was what you point to when you envision US Soccer having success in this type of environment. Get some chances, convert early, and let their counterattack put the pressure on the opponent trying to catch up. And for most of one half of play, that is what happened.

That all being said, the second half of play was a major disappointment. First, giving up the first goal less than 2 minutes into the second half brought back the beginning of the game demons the US has suffered from coming into this Confed Cup. That it happened in the second half doesn't change the fact that the US got caught either flat footed or complacent against their opponent, and it cost them dearly.

Once that goal happened, the cracks in the US foundation split open. Not all at once, but every minute they grew wider and wider. It started with the attack. If you can find evdidence of a sustained US attack in the second half, please post a comment below and point me to it. Part of this can be explained by the overall defensive mentality the US employed in the second half. But another part looked like general tightness and fear of making the big mistake. It's hard to fault the US team for this fear, as bad giveaways led to a couple of Italy's 3 goals, but no team can withstand 45 mintues of Brazil's attack without some sustained possession, just to give the defenders and goalkeeper an occasional rest (even if it's just a mental one).

It's hard to draw the line between what the US didn't do and what the US simply cannot do. The US isn't Brazil, it isn't Spain. It's not going to overwhelm the opposition with ball possession and constant attacks (well, maybe against Barbados or Guatemala). The US will need some lucky bounces, and will need to convert a smaller amount of opportunities. But the US is much better at possessing the ball and launching sustained attacks than they were 8 or 12 years ago, and they have to keep pushing themselves to get even better at this facet of the game.

There is a lot of talk about how this tournament was a stepping stone for the US. It can be, but I won't call it that until I see the Aug 12 game against Mexico. Mexico is a team in disarray and the US is fresh off of this Confed Cup. If there was ever a year for the US to finally break through with a win in Mexico, this is the year. Win THAT game, against what can only be described as a currently inferior opponent, and we can talk about stepping stones. For taking the next step doesn't just mean advancing at the World Cup, it starts within the USA's region, on the road to South Africa in 2010.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

USA 2 Spain 0


The team I saw barely show up against Brazil would have lost this game 5-0. For that matter, the team I saw against Brazil would have lost to Egypt as well. Just getting to this game took a complete 180 from that Brazil game, but then the US took it about 20 more steps in downing Spain 2-0, setting up a rematch with Brazil, who made them look like a U8 team about a week ago.

Now, the upset over Spain definitely featured a lot of lucky breaks for the US, and any win over Brazil would need a similar bout of luck to smile on the Americans, but what the US showed (and what the US needed to show in this tournament) was that yes, this team can play with the elite teams of the world and can get results against them. In 3 games against the top teams, the US has 1 excellent showing with a good result (Spain), 1 good showing without the result (Italy), and 1 abominable showing with no result (Brazil). A good showing, even without the result, would really put a nice ribbon on this tournament experience, but this tournament has to be considered a success even without that.

One final note: hopefully their good showing at this tournament will gain the US some respect with the referees, as yet again against a good team the US was the victim of a very soft red card, which takes Michael Bradley out of the lineup for the Brazil game.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brazil 3 US Dignity -47

I had originally planned a detailed write up along the same lines as the US-Italy game, but after watching the first half I felt the need to purge what I had seen from my system.

Every possible good point from the Italy game that the US team could use to build off of was completely undone in the first half of the Brazil game. It's not the result, or even the fact that Brazil jumped out to the lead in the 7th minute (though that qualifies as a very concerning recent pattern), but the lack of energy and focus the US showed.

The first goal Brazil scored happened because right fullback Jonathan Spector simply let his man get inside position on a free kick. The second goal came off of a corner kick...a US corner kick that DaMarcus Beasley missed, and Brazil took the length of the field for a counterattack goal. The US also showed none of the sustained possession attacks they had working in the first half hour of the Italy game.

The only positive that came from this game is that DaMarcus Beasley showed more than enough for Bob Bradley to never call his name again. Beasley was a young star in 2002 and a steady vet in 2006, but he hasn't shown much of anything since then. Whether it's injury, too many miles on his odometer, or a crisis of confidence, the US team can no longer wait for Beasley to get back to his old form. He is finished as an effective part on this US team.

By all rights, the US should be eliminated from advancing to the semifinals of the tournament. But, with Italy's shocking loss to Egypt, all it will take is Italy losing to Brazil and the US beating Egypt by about 6 goals. And the US could pull it off...if they had 5 games to do it. With just 1 game, advancing is out of the question, but it would be nice to see them put 2 halves together with energy, focus, and without stupid tackles that result in questionable red cards.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Italy 3 USA 1

Thoughts on Team USA's opening game of the Confederations Cup:

- The discussion of this game has to begin with the Red Card given Ricardo Clark. On the one hand, it was a reckless tackle, and committing a reckless tackle leaves you open to being sent off. That type of tackle (especially with his leg as high as it was) needlessly puts your ability to remain in the game in the referee's hands. That doesn't mean it wasn't a terrible decision on the ref's part. He should only give a red in that situation so early in the game if a) it was a blatantly dangerous effort of b) it was part of a series of escalating fouls that threaten to send the game out of control. This wasn't close to either one. Furthering the ridiculousness of the call was the 2-3 more dangerous tackles later in the game (the elbow to Donovan's face, and Feilhaber's tackle from behind in the second half being two examples) which either were met with merely a caution or no booking at all.

- Jozy Altidore gave a good effort, especially since 75% of the US team's offense boiled down to send the ball long to Jozy and hope for the best. Most of the time it was simply maintaining possession or putting pressure on the defenders, but one time Altidore earned a penalty shot that Landon Donovan buried. Altidore would get higher marks, except for his incomprehensible decision to pass the ball after a Donovan feed gave him a great scoring opportunity from 8-10 yards out.

- Oguchi Onyewu was probably the man of the match for the US. He protected his area of the pitch well, whether against dribbling attackers or in the air. But alas, even Oneywu made a critical error, whiffing on De Rossi's goal while screening Tim Howard. Landon Donovan also made the most of his touches, but with the US playing with 10 men for the better part of the match, Donovan did not get as many chances to affect play as coach Bob Bradley would have liked.

- Those fans who are on Giuseppe Rossi's case are idiots. The New Jersey-born Italian player is making the correct decision. It's like being mad at a Boston bred baseball player for choosing the play with the Yankees over the Washington Nationals.

Well, on second thought, that's not really fair to the US Soccer team. It's more like the Bostonian chose the Yankees over Pawtucket. He SHOULD make that choice. If he wants to be the best player he can be, he has to play for the significantly better team. Both practicing with the higher calibur Italian players and playing Spain, France, and the Netherlands instead of Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama will force Rossi to either raise his game or be left by the side of the road. Being angry at Rossi is short-sighted and stupid. Don't be one of those people.

- This game highlighted 2 major differences between the US and the Italians: 1) Talent level of individual players. I don't see anyone on the US squad who could have hit either of Italy's first 2 goals. Not from those distances. 2) The US will make mistakes that can be turned into excellent scoring opportunities 5-6 times a game. The Italians? 1-2 times a game, maybe. When 1 goal is the difference between winning and failure, that's a huge difference.

- Part of what made the first 2 Italian goals was lack of pressure on the shooter. Yes, the fact that the US was down to 10 men for over 20 minutes already played a big part in that lack of pressure, but another part is that CONCACAF teams aren't dangerous from that far out. They either lack the talent or the wiring to be lethal from that far out. The US played 2 CONCACF teams in World Cup qualifying just a week ago, which underscores just how important this tournament is. In order to make noise, the US has to be ready to get results against a team like Italy or Brazil. That means being ready for the threats teams of this level present, not simply the threats Mexico or Costa Rica present.

- All in all, I liked what I saw from the US. It was certainly better than the World Cup 2006 team put forth, even if the results didn't show it. Now the US has to regroup for Brazil, and they have to do it without Clark, their best disrupter in the midfield. Brazil won't be quite as stingy with good opportunities defensively, but they will put considerably more pressure on the US defense.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Marian Hossa: FML

In 2008, Marian Hossa was a member of a team that made the Stanley Cup Finals. His team put up a strong fight against a talented team, but lost the Finals on their home ice as a last-ditch shot went just wide as the buzzer sounded.

Hossa's team was the Pittsburgh Penguins. That offseason, Pittsburgh offered Hossa a long-term contract that would allow him to be on the receiving end of Sidney Crosby's passes for years to come. Hossa turned that contract down to sign a one-year deal with the team that beat Pittsburgh in the finals, the Detroit Red Wings.

In 2009, the Detroit Red Wings made the Finals again, seemingly validating Hossa's decision. From there, the story went a little haywire.

Their opponents: the Pittsburgh Penguins. Detroit jumped out to 2-0 and 3-2 series leads, but lost all 3 games in Pittsburgh, setting up Friday night's game 7.

Hossa has now joined the entire city of Detroit in its living nightmare, as Pittsburgh scored 2 goals in the second period, then saw goalie Marc-Andre Fleury make a sprawling save on Niklas Lidstrom as time expired to give Pittsburgh the Cup on Detroit's home ice.

In case that wasn't enough, Hossa, who led the Red Wings with 40 goals during the regular season, scored the same amount of goals in the 7-game Finals as I did.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Phil Jackson

How good of a coach is he?

On the one hand, he has 9 titles. Only Red Auerbach can match that. He also got Michael Jordan to make himself part of the team. The main part of the team, sure (after all, this is the guy who, when told there's no 'I' in team, replied, "Yeah, but there is one in 'win'"), but part of the team. The 1993 finals? Won on a shot by John Paxson. The 1997 finals? Won on a shot by Steve Kerr. He also took a Bulls team without Jordan to within 1 game of the conference finals. He was able to coax 3 titles out of the massive egos of Shaq and Kobe. The triangle offense owes its place in NBA lore to Jackson, at least indirectly.

On the other hand, Jackson's 9 titles have all come with either the best player in the game (Jordan), or the best duo in the game (Shaq and Kobe). You can argue that Jackson should have 2 more titles, as he had the best 2 players on the floor against Detroit in 2004 and the best player in the 2008 Celtics series. You can count the number of times he's taken the lesser team in the matchup to an upset win on one hand (maybe even 1 thumb).

Why ask this now?

These finals are being looked at as a referendum on not just Kobe Bryant, but Phil Jackson as well. The Lakers should win this series, and they most likely will. Failure to do so, however, puts a dent in both of their legacies, as it would mark the 3rd time they've fallen in the finals with the best player on the floor.

And there's this, an interview Alonzo Mourning gave in which he said:

"To tell you the truth, Phil doesn't have to do anything but call time outs," said Mourning, the former NBA star who helped lead the Miami Heat to the 2006 championship and twice was the league's defensive player of the year.

"Kobe is the facilitator. He is the one driving the mission of this particular team right now," Mourning said. "The communication level he has with his teammates out there, you can just see it."

"I think Phil is just showing up, to tell you the truth, and Kobe is doing all the work to make this team successful."

Is he right? Who knows. But Jackson has spent these finals looking oddly detached from it all. Seeing Jackson spend 30 seconds working up the energy to put a scowl on his face after a call that goes against one of his players has been very strange to watch. Seeing him almosy chuckling when Kobe sat down near him on the bench absolutely fuming after his game-winning attempt was blocked from behind in game 2 of these finals was hilarious. And listening to Jackson's "motivational sayings" during timeouts has put me to sleep.

Jackson wrote a book blasting Bryant after the 2004 season when Bryant won his power struggle with Shaq and left coaching, only to be drawn back 2 seasons last to the tune of $10 million a year. He has hip and knee problems, and probably isn't much more enamored with his star player than he was when he wrote the book. Maybe he's just going through the motions for a paycheck...

...But he dearly wants the 10th finals win, would love to surpass Auerbach's total, at least partly because it would make Red spin in his grave. He's still playing mind games with the officials between games (saying his team should have lost game 2 on a goaltending call to psych out the Magic and concentrate the referee's gaze a little harder on Dwight Howard, for example). And for that reason, Jackson, like Bryant, needs to rise up to protect his legacy. Needs to silence the Mournings wondering how he got outcoached by Doc Rivers last year. Needs to pass Red so he can enjoy retirement without leaving unfinished business in the league.

Jackson isn't the best coach in the league's history, but he's great at what he does. He can take a talented team and make them reach their potential in ways that many coaches cannot. He won't build something from the ground up, but he will take an established foundation and raise it all the way to the top. He needs this finals, otherwise his second tour of duyt with the Lakers risks being compared to MJ's Wizards tenure: A guy who came back one too many times, and just didn't have the magic anymore.

Monday, June 8, 2009

And oh by the way,

Roger Federer isn't done, big congrats to Federer for finally getting over his French Open demons, and tying Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slams while achieving the career Grand Slam.

For those of you who would put an asterisk next to this title because he didn't beat Nadal, you're crazy. While it may be true that Roger can't beat Nadal on clay, Sampras couldn't beat the ball machine on clay. So if you'd argue against Federer's worthiness, the fact that Sampras is tied for most majors ever must keep you up at night.

Now that Roger has won the French, I would expect him to pass Sampras in short order, as much of the pressure is off his shoulders. With Nadal possibly out (or functioning at significantly less than 100%) due to knee issues, I'd expect #15 to come at Wimbolden.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

CONCACAF musings

A few thoughts after the US fell 3-1 in Costa Rica and came back to win 2-1 over Honduras in Chicago:

If US Soccer wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, there's about 4,907 things they need to do. But one of those many things is to assert control over a relatively weak region. The US has done one half of this work, dominating their opponents on their home soil, but it's time to make progress on the other half, winning on their opponent's home soil. I'm not talking about opponents such as Panama, Honduras, or Trinidad and Tobago, but the other stalwarts in the region: Mexico and Costa Rica. The US is now 0-7-1 in qualifying matches in Costa Rica, and its 0-12-1 in Mexico. It's not realistic to expect 0 losses over a stretch of 4-5 qualifying efforts, but the US needs to start winning in these hostile environments.

All reports indicate the game against Honduras featured a crowd that was about 80% (conservative estimate) Honduras supporters. This would be fine, except the game was played in Chicago. It's one thing to be ambivalent about the MLS, it's one thing to be ambivalent about friendlies, but these games determine whether the US makes the World Cup or not, US fans need to put in some effort before the World Cup tournament itself, that Honduras fans could so completely take over a qualifier in Chicago is an embarassment.

Bob Bradley has done a good job as the head of US Soccer since the 2006 disappointment. He has injected fresh blood into the team, which has broadened the pool of talent he has to draw from. However, he absolutely must figure out how to get the US to come out strong from the opening whistle. The US has given up goals in the 1st minute and the 5th minute in their last 2 games. The fact that they were able to recover and win against Honduras doesn't mean they'll be able to do it against Mexico, or Italy, or Argentina.

Speaking of Mexico...this stalwart of the CONCACAF region is in mild danger of not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The current standings look like this:

Costa Rica 5 4 0 1 9 5 4 12
United States 5 3 1 1 10 6 4 10
El Salvador 4 1 2 1 6 6 0 5
Honduras 4 1 1 2 5 6 -1 4
Mexico 4 1 0 3 4 7 -3 3
Trinidad & Tobago 4 0 2 2 5 9 -4 2

Now, the top 3 teams after 10 games played get automatic berths, and Mexico is only 3 points out of third place, so with 6 games to go, this isn't the right time to panic. The Mexican soccer federation would be wise to realize this, as the team is already on its 4th coach since the 2006 World Cup. I think Mexico's superior talent will win out and they will snag that 3rd spot, but if they don't make their move (and get some wins) soon (next up is 2 home games against T&T and the US), they'll find themselves running out of time.

I have finally given in

I am still pretty sure that Twitter is one of the most ridiculous things ever (and Brett Favre's destiny), but the Testaverde Touchdown is up and tweeting. I'm not exactly sure how I will intregrate the tweeting with the blog posting, but for those of you that are twittering (and reading this blog), you can see a sampling of my latest tweets on the right sidebar, or follow TestaverdeTD on twitter.