It’s been a great run

It was a great run with The Rally Cap, but it was time to move on.  Please visit my new, soccer-scentric, blog FC Blacklabel:  http://fcblacklabel.blogspot.com/.

Interview with Carli Lloyd

Carli Lloyd against Japan in the 2011 Women's World Cup final. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images Europe)

Funny things happen when you travel.  Sometimes you board the plane and sit on the tarmac for hours. Sometimes you see the plane you are supposed to be on taxiing away from the gate just as you land. Sometimes through sheer serendipity, you encounter Carli Lloyd in the Philadelphia International Airport.

On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon in the City of Brotherly Love, that’s just what happened.  Carli, on her way back to Atlanta to continue the WPS season with the Atlanta Beat, was kind enough to speak with me for several minutes and agreed to a follow-up interview for The Rally Cap.  Check out what the star of the United State’s Women’s National Team had to say:

The Rally Cap: Your favorite players are Xavi, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fàbregas; do you model your game after any of those players? Or is there another inspiration for the way you play?

Carli Lloyd: Over the years I have grown tremendously and I have started to become a true playmaker like Xavi.  Linking passes, short passes, long passes, being tricky, taking shots etc.

RC: Who’s your favorite athlete, other than a soccer player?

CL: Michael Jordan because he was the ultimate champion.

RC: Since establishing yourself as a starter in 2007, what has been your most memorable moment with the USWNT?

CL: The final game in the 2008 Olympics and earning my 100th cap against Italy on November 27, 2010

RC: Not since 1999, has women’s soccer had such a buzz.  What is it about this team, this group of women that captured the hearts and minds of the American public?

CL: Well to start with I think soccer had grown tremendously across the world and our dramatic game against Brazil captivated millions of people.  I think that was the start of people really following us and we gave people hope and inspired young kids.  We helped the nation believe in something, believe in a team and everyone was so proud of us.  Our team showed heart and dedication to never give up.

RC: The US-Japan game was the most watched soccer game on ESPN in their history. Do you think the interest in the USWNT will translate into domestic success for the WPS?

CL: Wow, that is crazy! I knew we broke a lot of records but when I read that it makes me smile. We are already seeing instant results on the WPS side.  Ticket sales have increased across the board.  Our game today (Note: Saturday July 23 against Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and magicjack) is sold out.  The game the other night had a record crowd of 15k so it’s helping.

RC: After the emotional rollercoaster that was the World Cup, how do you and the other members of the USWNT move forward?

CL: We have to move forward.  It’s been hard to swallow but at the end of the day we accomplished so much.  We reached the final.  We have Olympic qualifying soon and have to mentally shift our focus to that.

RC: The next big event is the 2012 Olympics. What team(s) do you think will present the biggest challenge to the US defending its title?  Any dark horses (teams that didn’t make the quarters of the World Cup)?

CL: First of all we have to qualify for the Olympics.  When we do that every team will propose a challenge.  It won’t be easy as everyone can see from the World Cup.  Germany will not be in the Olympics but there are so many other strong teams. (Note: Germany did not qualify because UEFA used the 2011 Women’s World Cup as its qualifier.  As a result, France and Sweden both qualified for the 12 team tournament)

RC: You’re from New Jersey, what is it about that state that produces great soccer players (Tony Meola, Michael Bradley, Claudio Reyna, Heather O’Reilly, Giuseppe Rossi, Christie Rampone)?

CL: I am not sure what it is about NJ being a power house with soccer players.  I think because we are tough and we are fighters.  It’s in our blood. It’s great to see.

RC: You grew up outside of Philadelphia, so being a fellow Philly-area native, I have to ask – who has the best cheesesteaks in Philly?

CL: Honestly a small place by my house has the best ones! BJ’s Deli.  The Philly cheesesteaks are too much for me!

RC: Growing up, what was the best piece of advice you received, whether soccer-related or not? And do you have any words of advice for aspiring soccer players?

CL: Work hard at everything you do. Never give up. Never quit. Many people have talents but without the hard work you won’t get anywhere.

You can follow Carli on twitter at: @CarliLloyd or check out her website: http://www.carlilloyd.com/

Women’s World Cup: French Fried

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before – The United States Women’s National Team jumps to an early lead in a World Cup match, their opponent equalizes early in the second half, Abby Wambach saves the day.  In a match that, through the 78th minute, eerily mirrored Sunday’s instant classic (minus the referee miscues), the USWNT was able to alter the script and book their place in the Women’s World Cup final (their first since 1999).

US fans cheer the USWNT on to victory. (Getty)

While most of America was at work, the US put in a workman like effort to defeat an up-and-coming French squad that for large parts of the match looked the better side.  The US once again jumped to an early lead thanks to a well placed cross, though this time the shot went into the net off an American.  Lauren Cheney deftly redirected a cross from Heather O’Reilly in the 9′ to give the Americans the lead.  Little did fans know that this would be the last shot for the US in the half.   Combining with a forward line of World Player of the Year nominee Louisa Necib, and prolific Marie-Laure Delie, the creative and composed midfield of Gaëtane Thiney, Camille Abily, and evergreen Sandrine Soubeyrand enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. Despite some near misses on both sides – a Carli Lloyd header in the  24′, a Sonia Bompastor blast off Hope Solo‘s crossbar in the 30′, and an Abby Wambach header in the 39′ – the game went into the half with the Americans in the lead.

As the second half began in Mönchengladbach it always looked like Les Bleues would find an equalizer.  Running on tired legs – the result of playing 123 minutes three days ago – the USWNT could not keep up with the creativity or pace of the French midfield.  The French were rewarded for their attacking style with the game-tying goal in the 55′.  The goal did not come from the foot of Nacib or Thiney, but from a Bompastor cross that fluttered over Hope Solo’s head to the far post.  Bompastor launched her cross into the box, and Solo was caught out – guarding against what appeared would be a header by Thiney.

To her credit, coach Pia Sundhage did not sit idly by and immediately replaced the ineffective Amy Rodriguez with phenom Alex Morgan.  A further substitution in the 65′ brought Sunday’s hero, Megan Rapinoe, on for Lloyd.  The effect was immediate, as the fresh legs of Morgan and Rapinoe took their toll on the tiring French.

Abby Wambach rises to score the game winner against France. Odd Andersen, AFP/Getty Images

Rapinoe and Morgan nearly combined for some magic in the 70′ when Rapinoe launched a free kick into the box that Morgan nearly slotted home.  Just 9 minutes later, the Americans’ dominance on set-pieces and in the air would prove the difference. Wambach, who has rediscovered her scoring touch, found the back of the net off a corner from Cheney.  Rising over her defender at the far post, Wambach contorted her body and shifted in mid-flight to power home a clinical header.  Wambach’s header was the type that coaches will use in years to come to train the future national team.   Wunderkind Alex Morgan (who in my opinion has earned a start in the final) put the exclamation point on the victory with a cheeky chip over the French keeper, Berangere Sapowicz.

The French deserve a lot of credit, and the scoreline is a bit deceiving.  They played a flowing, fun-to-watch brand of soccer, and were the revelation of the tournament.  If Les Bleues can improve on their defensive weakness, they will be contenders for years to come.  On the other side of the pitch, the US never-say-die attitude, which has been the subject of hundreds of articles since Sunday, has to be applauded.  Were it not for the confidence that a winner (or equalizer) will come from somebody, somehow, this team would not be playing for the World Cup.  While several teams have shown a technical superiority to the USWNT, the Americans are all about results.  Can they get one more?

Women’s World Cup: A Comeback for the Ages

Abby Wambach celebrates her game-tying goal in the 122'. Fabrizio Bensch/Landov

Highs and lows came at a gut-wrenching pace, but an emotional roller coaster doesn’t even begin to capture the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match between the Samba Queens of Brazil and United States Women’s National Team was no exception.  Fans of the USWNT were ecstatic when Daiane put the ball into her own net off a cross by Shannon Boxx, then livid when Rachel Buehler was sent off in the 65′ for a foul in the box on Marta. Emotions swung more quickly than a pendulum in the opposite direction as Hope Solo saved the resulting penalty, only to have her save of Cristiane’s penalty nullified by a questionable call by referee,  Jacqui Melksham.  Marta, the five-time defending player of the year, then slotted home the equalizer.

For the rest of the half, fans of the USWNT and the capacity crowd in Dresden hoped for an American winner.   The crowd, feeling the US team had been greatly aggrieved by Melksham, booed Marta with every touch of the ball.  The USWNT, down to 10 women on the field, was able to take the game to extra time, only to have Marta score what appeared to be the game winner just 2 minutes into extra time.  To add insult to injury, it seems that Melksham missed another call, as Maurine was in an offside position when she played the ball into the box for Marta’s second goal.  Fans around the US and in the Rudolf-Harbig Stadium were left incensed by the call.

With time running out and Brazil using some bush league tactics (the worst – Érika’s feigned injury which resulted in her being stretchered off the field, only to then pop off the stretcher and return to the game), the crowd began to chant, “USA! USA! USA!”  Karmic retribution seemed destined.  It was delivered in Hollywood fashion by the foot of second-half sub, Megan Rapinoe and the head of the fourth all-time leading scorer in international soccer history, Abby Wambach.  Check it out:

Improbable though it may have been, the equalizer was more than deserved. Overcoming the amateurish theatrics by Brazil and the equally sophomoric officiating, the USWNT were able to send the game to penalty kicks where few would bet against the Americans.  With the world’s best GK between the sticks and a new-found vigor, the USWNT had become the team of destiny.

Continuing the fairy tale script, Shannon Boxx was given a PK retake after Melksham rightfully penalized Andrea for coming off her line. Boxx coolly scored the retake.  Cristiane and Marta (who stepped to the spot to a chorus of boos) calmly scored from the spot , on either side of a Carly Lloyd make. Wambach followed Marta by smashing her PK into the side-netting to give the US a 3-2 lead.  Then, Daiane’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day continued as she stepped to the spot.  Solo, diving to her right, saved Daiane’s effort, meaning the US would advance if they made their final two PKs.  The platinum blonde, Rapinoe, stepped forward and buried her attempt, whooping as she walked away. The Hollywood ending was just minutes away.  Francielle, a second half sub for Rosana, scored to keep the Brazilians in it, but Ali Krieger with a shot into the lower right corner assured the Americans of an epic comeback.  To paraphrase Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

The win assures that the US will continue its streak of making it to the semifinals at the World Cup, and gives the USWNT some measure of revenge for the 4-0 loss to the Brazilians in the semifinals in 2007.  The win also means the US will play surprise semifinalist, France on Wednesday at 11am Eastern on ESPN and ESPN3.com.  With Germany and Brazil out of the tournament, the US has to be considered the favorites.

Beyond the immediate repercussions for the USWNT and the 2011 World Cup, this game could help women’s soccer on a global scale.  Wambach’s golazo with just 1 minute of injury time remaining made believers out of non-soccer fans (check out these tweets – 1, 2, and at one point in extra time USA/Brazil, Tobin Heath, Ian Darke, Julie Foudy were all trending in US.).  The resulting penalty kick shootout provided the high drama American fans love so much.  It will be interesting to see the ratings for this game, as I am sure they increased as the game progressed toward the climactic shootout.  Additionally, it will be interesting to see if the sudden surge in interest and the heroes (and villains – Marta plays for the Western New York Flash) created in this game can sustain the WPS.  Here’s hoping it can and GO USA!

Top 5: Pitching Rotations – Revisited

Inspired by a comment left on my preseason rankings, and a bit of revisionism over at good friend Black Label Tennis, I’ve decided to revisit and revise my MLB starting rotation rankings.  With the MLB season nearly halfway over, here’s my take on the top 5 starting rotations.

Even if the Four Aces have been reduced to three, the Phillies still have the best collection of starters in all of baseball.

1. Philadelphia Phillies – I had the Phillies in this spot to start the season, and at the halfway point, I don’t see a reason to change this ranking.  As of writing, the Phillies have the best ERA in the league (3.05), the most complete games (9), and the best ERA+ (126). The Phillies have had 7 pitchers start at least 5 games this season, with only Joe Blanton posting an ERA above 4.  Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have been Cy Young worthy.  Cliff Lee has had a few ups and downs, but has a 4 game winning streak during which he has given up just 1 earned run in 33 innings.  Sure Roy Oswalt hasn’t pitched as well as many expected, but even in relatively poor form (for him), he has posted a 3.79 ERA with a 101 ERA+.  Kyle Kendrick (4-4, 3.23 ERA, 119 ERA+) and Vance Worley (2-1, 2.83 ERA, 139 ERA+) have performed well filling in for Big Joe and Oswalt.  The Phillies have the best record in baseball and the largest division lead.  The only reason the Phillies don’t have more wins is due to an offense that is impotent at times.  For a great explanation of just how good the Phillies have been, check out this post over at Crashburn Alley.

2. San Francisco Giants – This was a tough call, as San Francisco and my #3 ranked team, the Atlanta Braves, have both pitched extremely well.  In the end, I decided to keep my preseason number 2 in place.  Each of the San Francisco starters, except Barry Zito, who has started just 3 games (there’s always a black sheep), has an ERA of under 4.  Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are studs, and pitching like it.  Journeyman, Ryan Vogelsong has been phenomenal in relief of Zito, posting a 1.86 ERA and a 200 ERA+ in 13 games (11 starts). Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sánchez have also pitched well. It will be interesting to see if Vogelsong can keep up his stellar performance.

Jair Jurrjens has leads a Braves pitching staff that is 2nd in MLB in ERA, behind only the Phillies.

3. Atlanta Braves – Though it pains me, as a Phillies fan, the Braves have earned this spot.  After finishing with an honorable mention in the preseason rankings, the Braves jump all the way to #3 based on the fact that they have a 3.1o ERA and a 123 ERA+.  Jair Jurrjens looks like the early Cy Young leader in the NL.  He leads the National League in ERA (2.07) and ERA+ (183) and has bounced back from a subpar 2010 in a big way.  Tommy Hanson has been nearly as good as Jurrjens, with a 2.48 ERA and 153 ERA+. Brandon Beachy has grabbed the 5th starting spot by posting a 3.22 ERA in 9 starts. Tim Hudson is having another good season, though not as good as last year.  Derek Lowe is the weakest link in the rotation.  Any team that can say that is in pretty good shape.

4. Oakland Athletics – The A’s keep their #4 spot and represent the first American League team to make the list.  The A’s staff has been as good as advertised and have gotten contributions from 9 different starters.  The worst of those 9, Graham Godfrey, has pitched 17 innings over three games with a 4.24 ERA.  The best, Gio Gonzalez (2.59 ERA, 159 ERA+), has been CY Young caliber.  Opening Day started, Trevor Cahill  has struggled as times, but is following up his stellar 2010 with a 2011 that is nearly as good.  Despite getting just three starts from Dallas Braden, he of the perfect game, the A’s have the lowest ERA in the AL.  Not bad for a patchwork starting rotation.

5. Seattle Mariners – The final spot was a tough call.  The San Diego Padres pushed hard for this spot. In the end, the Mariners (who weren’t even on my radar to begin the season) make it into the list because their rotation is the reason they sit just 1.5 games out of first place in the AL West.  Twenty-two year-old rookie, Michael Pineda has been a revelation for the Mariners.  One his way to a 2.45 ERA and 150 ERA+, Pineda has defeated the Phillies (6 innings, 1 ER) , pitched well against the Rangers and Yankees and given up more than 3 earned runs just twice in 15 starts.  Felix Hernandez has been good, though not as good as we have come to expect (3.18 ERA).  Erik Bedard seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in the Pacific Northwest, posting a 2.93 ERA in 14 starts.  The other two Mariners’ starters, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, both have sub-4 ERAs and 2 complete games a piece.

Dropped Out:  The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Red Sox and Dodgers both drop out of the list because due to lack of consistency from pitchers expected to perform.

Josh Beckett has looked rejuvenated this season and leads MLB in several statistical categories.

Boston Red Sox – John Lackey has been dreadful for the Sox.  Daisuke Matsuzaka is out for season and pitched poorly before undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are both pitching well, just not as well as last season. The lone bright spot for the Red Sox (at least in the starting rotation) is the return to form of Josh Beckett.  Beckett leads the majors in ERA (1.86), ERA+ (217) , is second in WHIP (.924) , and has thrown a complete game.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Who could blame them if they were distracted.  The team has been in turmoil since the offseason and just filed for bankruptcy.   Clayton Kershaw has grown into the #1 starter many expected – 2.93 ERA, 9.87 K/9, 1.029 WHIP.  He leads the league in strikeouts, and has posted back-to-back complete games in his last two starts.  Hiroki Kuroda has ably filled the role of Kershaw’s sidekick (3.10 ERA), but he looks headed out of Chavez Ravine.  The rest of the staff – Jon Garland, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley have all been disappointing.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Gold Cup 2011: The Final – Mexico vs. USMNT

This is the final that everyone expected, and virtually everyone wanted to see.  While the road to the Rose Bowl hasn’t been simple for either team (see the US loss to Panama in the group stage, or Mexico’s narrow extra-time victory over Honduras in the semifinal); was their really any doubt that the continent’s two juggernauts would be vying for the regional title?  Since the Gold Cup began in 1991, either the US (4 wins, 3 runner-up finishes) or Mexico (5 wins, 1 runner-up) has won all but one of the titles – Canada won in 2000.

With the region’s two premier teams playing for the title, the game has gotten a lot of attention in the national media.  This morning, ESPN had Alexi Lalas on SportsCenter discussing the match.  The Worldwide Leader couldn’t resist mentioning that the US has lost just once to Mexico on US soil since 2000, though that one loss was a 5-0 drilling in the 2009 Gold Cup final, though this blog post by Scott French of ESPN Los Angeles should make some USMNT fans feel better.  According to French, the US has outscored El Tri 21-8 in matches outside of Estadio Azteca since 2000.  Throw the 5-0 beating out, and the difference jumps to 21-3 in 12 matches!

Player/Position Comparison: 

Tim Howard gives the USMNT the edge in goal.

Goalkeeper - The easiest comparison of the bunch.  Tim Howard, as mentioned before is one of the best in the world.  He’s at the top of his game and a true difference maker.  Take a look at this save (about 2o seconds into the video) against Jamaica to see what I’m talking about.  Alfredo Talavera, however, has Guillermo Ochoa and his failed doping test to thank for his spot in the starting XI.  Advantage: USMNT

Defense – Bob Bradley seems to have found his starting back 4 with Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj all playing well in the past 3 games.  Lichaj and Cherundolo have been dangerous moving forward, though they will have to defend much more against Mexico than they have in previous matches.  The US back line has not conceded a goal since the loss to Panama but will certainly be tested against Mexico.  El Tri’s back 4 of Rafa Marquez, Héctor Moreno, Efrain Juarez and Carlos Salcido have conceded just 2 goals the entire tournament, though they have yet to be truly tested.  Advantage: Push

Midfield – Mexico plays with a classic four man midfield.  Two central midfielders (Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro) and two wingers (Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera.  Barrera has played well in the Gold Cup, scoring 1 goal and assisting on 3 others.  Guardado may not start due to an ankle injury. If Guardado can’t go, Giovani Dos Santos would likely slot into his spot.  Expect Bob Bradley to start a five man midfield, as this formation has worked in the last two games.  While Landon Donovan hasn’t started the last two games, he HAS to be on the field.  He’s a big game player for the US and has played well against Mexico in the past.  Michael BradleyJermaine Jones,  Clint Dempsey and Alejandro Bedoya should keep their spots in the lineup.  Dempsey has been extremely good, and Bedoya has transferred his fine form with Örebro to the USMNT.  Though the US has played well, Mexico is better from a technical standpoint.  (slight) Advantage: Mexico

Chicharito has been on fire this year. Will the USMNT be able to keep him of the scoresheet?

Forward – Though the goalkeeper comparison is one-sided, this is the area of the field where the difference between the two teams is most apparent.  Javier Hernandez has been a revelation this season.  Chicharito scored 20 goals for Manchester United in 45 appearances and has netted another 10 goals in 8 appearances for El Tri.  Seven of those goals have come in the Gold Cup.  With Jozy Altidore out with a hamstring injury, the US will likely start 18-year-old Juan Agudelo up top.  Agudelo has shown flashes, but he’s no match for Hernandez.  Advantage: Mexico

Prediction - While Mexico holds the advantage from an individual talent perspective, the US is greater than the sum of its parts.  In addition to the team mentality that permeates the USMNT camp, the US team believes it can beat Mexico.  No matter how partisan the crowd, and in Southern California it will likely be extremely pro-Mexico, the USMNT has proven time and again that it has the mentality necessary to defeat its southern rivals.  Score: USMNT 2 – Mexico 1. 

Gold Cup 2011: Jamaica-US Preview

Thanks to this absolute laser by Jozy Altidore, the US beat Guadeloupe to advance to the knockout round of the 2011 Gold Cup.  Despite this victory, the US finished second in their group and drew Jamaica in the quarterfinals.  On current form, this could be an extremely tough game for the Yanks.  The Reggae Boyz have been one of the most impressive sides in the tournament, while the Yanks have underperformed.

Despite the uninspired performance of the USMNT, ESPN’s Five Aside Blog had this to say about the upcoming match:

The United States failed to win its group for the first time in Gold Cup history. As Group C runner-up, the United States faces Group B winner Jamaica, the only team other than Mexico to win all of its group games. USA has reached the semis in nine of the 10 previous tournaments, while Jamaica hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1998. Despite tournament form, SPI rates USA an 83.9 percent favorite to advance and extend its unbeaten (9-0-8) record against the Reggae Boyz. Jamaica has lost all four of its Gold Cup elimination games.1

Clearly, the SPI algorithm thinks the US will be able to overcome its malaise and put in the kind of performance American fans expect.

Player/Position Comparison:

Goalkeeper -  Tim Howard has been stellar for years and cannot be blamed for the loss to Panama.  He is one of the best keepers in England and arguably the world.  The US is lucky to have him guarding their goal.  Donovan Ricketts has been a rock in goal during the tournament, leading a defense that has yet to concede.  He’s also posted 6 clean sheets for the L.A. Galaxy this season.  Despite this good form, this comparison is simple.  One of the best in the MLS vs. one of the best in the EPL.   Advantage: USMNT

Defense – The Jamaican defense has yet to concede a goal, though part of that is probably thanks to the impotent competition they faced in the group stage.  Jamaica’s defense should not be discounted as three of the four starters play in MLS and they have paired well together all tournament.  Shavar ThomasJermaine TaylorDicoy Williams and Eric Vernan have all played well.  The US has struggled to find the right combination to start along the back.  Tim Ream looked out of his depth playing against Panama and Oguchi Onyewu is still lacking in form and hasn’t made an appearance.  Not without their struggles against Guadeloupe, expect the back four of  Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj to be in the Starting XI on Sunday.  On paper it would seem the US, with defenders from the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Danish League, has a better defense, but Jamaica is hot and is playing well as a unit.  Advantage: Push

While Bob Bradley stubbornly continues to deploy Clint Dempsey in the midfield, he's the USMNT's best hope at forward.

Midfield – Jamaica’s midfield has been on fire during the tournament.  Demar Phillips, who plays his club soccer with Ålesund in Norway, has scored three goals in three games. Dane Richards has been a terror on the wing.  Jason Morrison and Rodolph Austin, both of the Norwegian Tippeligaen have also put in solid efforts. The US midfield should be its strength.  With Landon Donovan on the left and Michael Bradley in the center the Yanks have two midfielders who have proven they can play at the top club level.  Who lines up on the right and in the center next to Bradley is a different story.  Jermaine Jones has not played his best during the Gold Cup, though Bob Bradley seems to be enamored with the former German under-20 international.  Clint Dempsey has lined up on the right, but as stated in a previous post, his best position for the USMNT may be up top.  Alejandro Bedoya has provided a spark off the bench and Sascha Kljestan has reignited his international career with a good showing.  Again, the US has a better midfield on paper, but the Reggae Boyz have been on fire this tournament.  Advantage: USMNT

Forwards – Another area where the USMNT has better players on paper – if you include Clint Dempsey.  As with players across the rest of the pitch, the Jamaican forwards have had a great tournament.  Led by San Jose Earthquakes striker, Ryan Johnson, the Jamaican front line has both scored goals and set up Jamaica’s lethal wingers.  Providing support for Johnson are Keammar Daley who plies his trade in the Jamaican Premier League and Luton Shelton of Norwegian side Vålerenga IF. Both have scored and assisted in Jamaica’s group games.  On the opposite side of the pitch, Jozy Altidore has looked great this tournament.  While still prone to lapses in concentration, he has provided 2 of the US’s 4 goals and assisted on another.  His wonder strike against Guadeloupe should have him feeling confident.  The rest of the US forward contingent has been less than stellar.  Chris Wondolowski has been wasteful in front of goal (see  this video) and Juan Agudelo is still learning.  With Bob Bradley seemingly unable to imagine Clint Dempsey as a forward, the US could be in trouble. Advantage: Jamaica

Coaching Staff - Let’s not even go there…

On paper, the US has better players than Jamaica.  More US players play in the top leagues around the world than the current Jamaican squad.  On form, the Jamaican squad is playing better than the USMNT, though they were in the easiest of the three groups. Is Jamaica’s form entirely due to its easy group, or are they a team to be reckoned with?  The USMNT, its fans and the rest of CONCACAF will know the answer on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction – Jamaica will make it tough, but I expect the real US team to show up for this game.  USMNT 2 – Jamaica 1.

 

Gold Cup 2011: USMNT 1 – Panama 2 – The Fallout

Photo of soccer coach, Bob Bradley. Wilson Won...

While willing to give Bob Bradley the benefit of the doubt, the USMNT cannot continue to lose matches to inferior sides. (Image via Wikipedia)

I could start this post, as I am sure many have started (and will start) with a call to have Bob Bradley removed from his position at the helm of the United States Men’s National Team.  I’m not going to do that.  Every time the United States suffers a defeat, whether to a CONCACAF minnow or a European power, US soccer fans call for his dismissal.  Do I think Bradley has shortcomings as a coach? Yes.  Do I think the USSF should fire him immediately? No.  Do I think the US needs to re-evaluate its coaching staff after the Gold Cup? Yes.  As Brent Latham at The USA 10 Kit wrote:

Coach Bob Bradley, 3.5 – Did what he could with limited resources, but then again, it’s a hole he got himself into. Who on that bench was going to really help him? At some point, you really do have to ask if he’s capable of getting the best out of the resources at his disposal. That moment is now sooner rather than later.

While I am not calling for his ouster, it does seem curious that Bradley continually ignores the fact that his best forward is playing in the midfield.  Clint Dempsey has shown time and again, both with the USMNT and at Fulham, that he is best when he’s near the goal.  He has the strength, vision and creativity to pull off some shots that most of the forwards in the US pool would never dream about.  His record in front of goal the last several seasons and especially this season (12 goals, 3 assists) show that Deuce needs to play up top.  If Dempsey playing at forward would allow Bradley to keep Juan Agudelo on the bench where he could be used as a sub late in the game – something that has worked well for the US since Agudelo’s introduction to the senior team (obviously Chris Wondolowski is not the answer, if you don’t believe me, watch this video – virtually any professional soccer player should have buried that shot!).

For a more in-depth review of how the boys played last night, check the post from The USA 10 Kit, Goal.com, or the NY Times’ Goal blog.

Despite the loss to Panama, the US could still raise this trophy on June 25 in the Rose Bowl.

Beyond raising questions about the direction of the USMNT, what does this loss mean for the Yanks’ more immediate future in this tournament?  With the loss, the US sits in 2nd place in group C behind Panama, who has collected  6 points from their two matches.  The US plays Guadeloupe in their final group game.  Guadeloupe has shown in past Gold Cup editions that they have some quality (finishing 4th in 2007 and 6th in 2009), and gave both Panama and Canada scares this year.  Despite playing both Canada and Panama tough, this is a team the Yanks should beat.  Winning assures the US of a spot in the quarterfinal. Where they will finish in the group gets more complicated.

Possible Outcomes:

  •  If the US wins and Canada defeats Panama by fewer than 4 goals, the US would finish first
    • Quarterfinal opponent – One of the two third places teams to advance – Guatemala (as of this post)
  •  A US win and any other outcome from the Canada-Panama game would see the US finish 2nd in the group.
    • Quarterfinal opponent – The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras).
  • A draw with Guadeloupe would see the Yanks finish 2nd if Canada loses to/draws with Panama
    • Quarterfinal opponent – The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras)
  • The US could also finish 2nd despite a loss, as long as they lose to Guadeloupe by only 1 goal and Panama defeats Canada
    • Quarterfinal opponent – The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras)
  • The US would finish 3rd in group if they lose to Guadeloupe by 2 or 3 goals and Panama defeats Canada. This isn’t a death sentence, as they could still qualify for the quarters on points if either El Salvador – Cuba in Group A or Guatemala – Grenada in Group B end in a draw.
    • Quarterfinal opponent – As it stands now, Mexico.  This is the WORST possible scenario; thankfully, it is also the most unlikely.

The US plays Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City on Tuesday night at 9pm.  Those interested in watching the match can catch the action on Fox Soccer Channel, or should check out their local chapter of The American Outlaws.

First Serve at Blacklabel Tennis

Hello, as you may know I’ve been writing sporadically about tennis over the last year for my buddy here at The Rally Cap and felt like it might be time to make more of a commitment.  So, I’ve started a new blog, 100% devoted to tennis, you can find it at www.blacklabeltennis.com

For quick hits, follow me on Twitter @VBlacklabel.  Join our Facebook fan page and keep your eyes peeled.

We’ll do some opinion pieces, some sparring (in a good way), some prognosticating, share some photos and if the powers that be comply, maybe even some interviews. There’s a lot we want to accomplish with the blog, but it all starts here, today, with this post.

So if you’ve followed my tennis writing here, hopefully you’ll follow us to our new site, http://www.blacklabeltennis.com

That’s it for now, but get involved, tell me what you think.  Let’s talk some tennis.

Don’t You Forget About Me

London may be the home of the world’s best known monarchy, but in the tennis world, Paris has seen its share of coronations.  Every May for the past five years, tennis fans, the international press and frankly the players, have trudged through the narrow paved pathways of Roland Garros, past the smaller dusty, red plots of Earth known as the outer courts expecting to see the familiar coronation.  The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, wielding his Babolat sceptre in his left hand, was the man, until suddenly, he wasn’t.

Hey, winning the Australian Open and sweeping four of the year’s first five Masters events is a helluva way to siege the throne, no?  Walking into Paris holding seven titles this year, Novak Djokovic had suddenly relegated the King of Clay to second favorite, or bare minimum,1A.  Frankly, who couldn’t have forgiven the tennis world, even those who ought know better, for looking a bit past Nadal in their prognostications.

I, among others, have questioned Nadal’s motivation to stay at the top of the game and keep winning titles he’s already won so many times.  Monte Carlo, a seventh time?  Ho hum.  What did Nadal have to prove given his indomitable reputation on clay?  Then suddenly, a strange thing happened, he wasn’t winning them anymore.

What was supposed to be Rafa’s sixth trophy in Rome actually became Djokovic’s second title there.  That third win for Nadal on his home, if not beloved, court in Madrid was also snatched away by the streaking Serb.  Rafa won “only” two of the four clay court tournaments he entered coming in Paris.  The No. 1 ranking he’d earned with one of the greatest seasons of all time in 2010 was suddenly and dangerously on the line.

Then Rafa came to Paris, jumped on Court Phillippe Chatrier, center court of the de facto World Clay Championships, and went down two sets to one to big-serving American John Isner.  Isner, seemingly unaware that Americans are not supposed to win anything in France but wars, nor that no one was supposed to beat Nadal in Paris, put a major scare into the five time champ.  Nadal would win that contest and then even more inexplicably struggle against his unheralded countryman, Pablo Andujar (and by struggle I mean, Nadal didn’t utterly destruct him) in his straight sets victory.  Nadal himself said he wasn’t playing well enough to win the French Open and the masses agreed.  As Djokovic progressed through the draw with an air of inevitable invinciblility; Roger Federer looked as if he’d finally shaken the shanks.  Nadal was workmanlike, getting through, if rarely approaching his best level.

By the time Nadal faced Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, every commentator and fan had read the tea leaves left over from Bjorn Borg’s reign at Roland Garros.  Borg won six championships here, beaten in Paris only twice and by the same man, Italian Adriano Pannatta.  Nadal was out to write his own history.

 

Forgotten mid-tournament as a true contender, Nadal would sweep past Soderling, work his way past up-and-down Scot Andy Murray (himself a forgotten man coming into Paris) and rewrite history by toppling the arguable king of tennis kings, Federer, to win his sixth French Open crown.  Nadal’s throne may have looked wobbly, but when the dust settled he would, for the sixth time in seven years, be the last man standing.  We had learned new things about just how high Djokovic could go; we learned Federer wouldn’t fade quietly, but we subjects had forgotten our history.  At Roland Garros, Nadal is the King, end of story.  Vivez Le Roi!

Roger Federer used to rule all corners of the tennis world outside of the red clay fortress held by the Spanish strongman.   First, Nadal would pick off Federer on grass, then on hardcourts, suddenly Federer was a king in exile.  With Djokovic beating all comers this year, Nadal, suddenly a tenuous No. 1 and a healthy Del Potro back in the mix, it seemed Federer was about to be erased from the conversation.  Just before the scribes could finish their narrative, Federer changed the game.

Even in his relative “decline,” there weren’t a lot of “bad losses,” but there were questions as to whether or not he could win another major, especially after Djokovic stormed back to beat him at the US Open where Federer is a five time champion.  Federer eased through the draw, not dropping a set, but never inspiring anyone, but his most ardent fans, that he had could again be the absolute best.  Beating Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open was a statement win.  First, it was a measure of well-timed revenge after losing to Djokovic in four of their last five matches (US Open, Australian Open, Dubai, a virtual home game for Federer, and Indian Wells).  The win also abruptly halted the Djokovic assault on the record books, handing him his first loss since November.  Even bigger, it kept Djokovic from that extra measure of legitimacy, the World No. 1 ranking.  He and Nadal have owned the ATP rankings penthouse since February 2004.  To put it in perspective, the last time one of these men wasn’t No. 1 was the week Facebook was founded.

Federer didn’t win the title at Roland Garros, but he earned back a measure of respect.  In turning back Djokovic, the heir apparent, and pushing Nadal to the brink, Federer ensured he wouldn’t be the forgotten man of the trivalry come Wimbledon.  This run of form puts him right back in the mix.

One last point here, with Nadal maintaining his long term lease on the Bois de Boulogne and Federer back charging at the gates, we can’t count out Djokovic. You don’t go undefeated for six months by luck, not at this level.  It is all “coming together” for the Serb and the rest of his opponents are going to have to raise their levels to contend with him going forward.  Djokovic may be licking his wounds ahead of Wimbledon, where he’s yet to show his best tennis, but forget about him at your own peril.  If he can win 43 in a row indoors, outdoors on hard courts and on clay, he can win seven on grass.

I want to reserve my final thoughts though for some people we’ve forgotten about for at least a year now, the women.  This French Open had the air of a resurrection for the other singles draw.  If you’re not WTA CEO Stacey Allistair or maybe Kim Clijsters, I think you would agree that since the Williams Sisters went into injury induced semi-retirement, Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva went the whole hog into the sunset and Maria Sharapova ripped up her shoulder, the women’s game has been rudderless, scattershot and snooze-worthy.

 Maria Sharapova, Roland Garros 2011.

First of all, Maria Sharapova continues to impress me.  This woman is all guts and grit (OK, and beauty) and even though she was outsteadied by Na Li in the semifinals, by getting there she signalled that she is again ready to contend for major titles.  Once a consistent, top five ranked, Grand Slam final weekend presence, this was Sharapova’s first semifinal since 2008. Just when we were ready to finally write her off, her performances here and en route to the Rome title a couple of weeks ago, prove there’s life in the (not-so) old girl yet.

It was also a good tournament for longtime breakthrough threats Viktoria Azarenka and Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, but they’re still a day late and a dollar short in my book.

 

Na Li, on the other hand, is proving to be forged of stronger stuff.  She seems to be made to peak at the big moments, getting to the final of Australia and then basically getting lost in the Outback before resurfacing to win the big trophy in Paris.  Li’s historic title, like those of Serbia’s Djokovic and Ivanovic or Spain’s Sanchez-Vicario and Brugrera, has the potential to radically change the face of our sport.  As women physically mature younger than men, I don’t think the fruits of Li’s win in Paris will take long to be borne either.  Suddenly, one sixth of the world’s population and a tennis federation that once held Li out of Wimbledon to play in the Asian Games just saw what’s possible.  I will avoidthe temptation to overstate what the win could mean to women in China and Chinese sport as a whole, but I will say, it has given us all a reason to pay attention again to what in recent years, had become a forgotten part of the game.  I predict in the coming years, that the women will receive a strong infusion of fresh blood from Asia, which has been largely silent to this point on the global tennis stage.

Paris is a city that lives with its ghosts in plain sight, that remembers rather than renovates.  Is it any wonder that this French Open has given us so many prompts to jog our own memories?  Congratulations to the Champions, rest up, don’t forget, you’ll be at Wimbledon in two weeks.

TV Ratings for the NHL and NBA

This post is a bit of a momentous occasion for the Rally Cap – it’s the first post written in response to comments left on this blog and on our facebook page.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post detailing attendance figures for both the NHL and NBA.  This post prompted some feedback from readers mentioning that attendance only tells part of the story when it comes to a franchise’s business success.   Those readers were correct, most modern sports get a large portion of their revenue from HUGE television deals.  While I briefly covered television deals in a post about MLS back in March, the Rally Cap has yet to  explore television ratings.  Note: Since then, the NHL signed a new, massive (for them) television contract with Versus/NBC Sports.  The contract will average $200 million per year for 10 years.  While the NHL’s television contract does not come close to either of the other Big Four sports, this is a substantial step in the right direction for the league.

NBA local television ratings. Some of the statistics are pretty interesting. (Source: SportsBusiness Journal)

As with attendance figures, the SportsBusiness Journal is a great source for those interested in TV ratings (click for an explanation of what the ratings measures are) for teams around the NHL and NBA.  The April 18-24 issue of the SBJ has an article about television ratings in the NHL; the SBJ website posted a corresponding article on the NBA.   The numbers used are through April 11, which accounts for virtually the entire regular season (minus a game or two). The numbers presented in the SBJ article on NHL attendance are a bit incomplete.  While the NBA numbers are missing two teams (New Orleans and Toronto), the NHL numbers are missing the 6 Canadian teams (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa).

Now to the interesting part – the numbers.

Things we learned:

Teams without competition do well – Some of the top performers are teams that are in one team markets (those that have either an NHL or NBA team, but not both).  The San Antonio Spurs lead the NBA in local television ratings with an average 10.19 rating, which was almost double second place Utah (5.6). Pittsburgh led the NHL in local television ratings at 8.68, Buffalo was second with a 7.03, and the St. Louis Blues were a surprising fifth with a 3.07.  Clearly it helps being the only thing in town.

The Cavs fans don't miss LeBron. TV ratings and attendance were still strong despite James taking his talents to South Beach.

Cleveland doesn’t really miss LeBron – Despite the largest season-to-season drop in ratings (54%) in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers (another team from a one team market) were still 7th in the NBA in local ratings (3.93).  Combine the TV ratings with the attendance figures and it’s pretty clear that Cleveland loves their Cavs, King James or no King James.

New Jersey Hates its Teams – The Garden State just doesn’t support the Devils or the Nets, despite the fact that they are the only two teams that play in New Jersey that actually admit it.  The Nets played before the lowest average attendance in the NBA and had the lowest ratings in the NBA by a wide margin.  The Nets averaged a .29 rating, which is over three times lower than the Clippers (.99) who were next to last. The Devils just missed the bottom 5 in NHL TV ratings and attendance, posting a .47 rating and playing before under 15,000 fans per night.  The bright side for the Devils is that they posted better numbers than the Nets in both categories.

Atlanta Hates its Teams Too – The Hawks ranked 22nd in the NBA in attendance, drawing around 15,600 fans and are the only team in the playoffs to end up in the bottom 5 in average ratings at 1.17.  The Thrashers were second to last in local TV ratings in the NHL (.23) and played before an average of 13,400 fans.  Maybe a deep run in the playoffs, they already knocked off the Orlando Magic, will help the Hawks.  The only thing that will help the Trashers is moving somewhere cold.

Boston Loves its Teams – While New Jersey and Atlanta could care less about their NHL and NBA franchises, Boston is the only city to appear in the top 5 in local ratings for both the NBA and the NHL.  The Celtics averages a 4.73 ratings, while the Bruins pulled down a 3.12.  The cold New England winters have to help (what else are you going to do?), but most of the success comes from the fact that both teams were battling for the top spot in their conferences for most of the season.

Some Markets Like Hockey More than Basketball – One of the those markets is Washington, D.C.  Not exactly known for being a hotbed of hockey enthusiasm, the Capitals drew a 1.8 rating, while the Wizards drew a 1.15 (check out the article here).  As mentioned above, even though New Jersey hates its sports teams, the Devils outperformed the Nets.  Complete numbers for all teams were hard to come by, but based on previous years numbers Philadelpha loves the Flyers more than the Sixers and Minneapolis/St. Paul supports the Wild more than the Timberwolves.  I’m guessing the numbers might be different, but the outcome is still the same for both Philly and Minneapolis.

The NHL Needs to Give Up it Warm Weather Pipe Dream – As mentioned in my post on attendance, warm weather teams are not well supported.  Seven of the bottom ten teams in the NHL in attendance are located in the South or California.  Four of the bottom 5 NHL teams in the television ratings are in warm weather cities (the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers).  The only team in the bottom 5 of the NHL ratings not in a warm weather city are the Islanders.  It will be interesting to see if the NHL thinks about moving any of these teams now that they have their lucrative new TV contract.

The NBA Had a Good Year – Attendance was up for the NBA; television ratings too. According to the SportsBusiness Journal, “Overall, the local ratings story was a good one for the league. Fourteen of the 28 teams that SportsBusiness Journal obtained ratings on saw double-digit increases, including big market teams like the Los Angeles Clippers (up 130 percent on Prime Ticket), Chicago Bulls (up 91 percent on CSN Chicago) and New York Knicks (up 89 percent on MSG).”  ESPN reports that national numbers mirrored the increase in local numbers, “…[the NBA’s] three national TV partners all had their most viewers ever this season, topped by a 42 percent increase for TNT. ABC was up 38 percent and ESPN had a 28 percent jump, the league said Friday.”  Not bad for a league that might not have a season next year.

… And So Did the NHL - According the The Triangle Business Journal, citing information from the Sports Business Journal, the NHL on Versus saw a 19% increase in viewership and NBC saw a 3.9% increase.  Not earth shattering numbers, but moving in the right direction.

Next season the NHL could be presented with a unique opportunity – it could open the season (or play the entire season) without competition from the NBA.  If the NBA labor situation isn’t resolved, will the NHL benefit?

Disagree/agree/just have a something to say, leave a comment.

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Real Madrid – Barcelona

Yesterday, we previewed the Manchester United-Schalke match, if you missed it check it out. The second semifinal (April 27th at 2:45 Eastern) will be the 3rd edition of El Clásico in 11 days (the first match was a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu , the 2nd a 1-0 Real Madrid victory in the Copa Del Rey final).

  Much has been written about this matchup, which is widely regarded as the best rivalry in world soccer, and maybe even in sports – apologies to Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, and Duke-North Carolina.  Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals should be a treat.

The Champions League trophy has arrived in London ahead of the final. Hopefully, London mayor, Boris Johnson takes better care of this trophy than Sergio Ramos. (image from of UEFA.com)

Barcelona has been the best side in world soccer for the past several years and are looking for their 3rd title since 2006 (2006 and 2009).  Sure Inter won the Champions League last year, but Barcelona has been dominant in La Liga the past three seasons and won an unprecedented 6 trophies in the 2008-2009.  Currently, Barça sit 8 points clear of Real atop the La Liga table. Pep Guardiola‘s side, led by mighty-mite Lionel Messi, play some of the most attractive soccer in the world.  Messi has been brilliant this season, scoring 50 goals in all competitions.  It’s not out of the question that the diminutive Argentine could hit 60 this season.  While Messi gets all the praise, he isn’t alone.  Midfielders, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been superlative this season, and David Villa (21 goals in all competitions) has proved an excellent deputy to the reigning World Footballer of the Year.

It was originally thought that Iniesta might miss the first leg of the semifinals after deliberately provoking a yellow card in Barcelona’s first leg defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk. UEFA decided to forgo any further punishment.  This is a huge boost for Barça who would have certainly missed Iniesta’s creativeness in midfield.  While Iniesta will be available for the Catalan giants, Adriano will not.  The defender/midfielder is out for four weeks with a torn thigh muscle.

Update: In addition to Adriano, Maxwell has now been ruled out for the match.  Barcelona will be scrambling to patch together a back four.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carles Puyol play LB with either Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets play CB.  Busquets has played CB multiple times this season, and Mascherano turned in a fine performance in central defense in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Osasuna on Sunday.  Barcelona will need to find a defensive alignment that works in order to stop Real’s offense.

Real Madrid, who won their first Copa del Rey since 1993, against Barcelona earlier this week and looked excellent in their game against Valencia following their victory. Los Blancos are looking to make it to their first Champions League final since 2002 when they defeated Bayer Leverkusen. Real, who have played second fiddle to Barça for the past 3 or 4 seasons, attempted to address their short comings this summer with the signing of José Mourinho as manager.  While it appears the league will slip through the grasp of the Special One, the ultimate prize – the Champions League trophy – is still a possibility.

While Barça have Messi leading the way, Real have Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo leads Real with 42 goals and 12 assists in all competitions.  That output is bested only by Messi.  Gonzalo Higuaín (10 goals), Karim Benzema (21 goals) and Ángel Di María (9 goals, 13 assists) have provided extra spark for Mourinho’s side.  One player who will be missing from the side when they take the pitch in Madrid is German international Sami Khedira. Khedira, like Adriano, suffered a torn thigh muscle that could keep him off the pitch for the rest of the season.  At a minimum, he will miss the next several weeks.  The defensive midfielder will be missed, as he has featured in 8 of Madrid’s Champions League games.

Real Madrid and Barcelona face off for the 4th and 5th time this season for the right to play for the Champions League title.

Prediction: Despite Madrid having the momentum following their Copa del Rey victory, I expect Barcelona to advance to the final. The Special One will certainly have something up his sleeve when the two teams meet, keep in mind he led Inter to victory over the Catalans in last season’s semifinal, but Barcelona are just too good.  Expect home wins from both side, with Barça finding the extra goal needed to advance.  Also, as an American sports fan whose teams have befallen curses for their transgressions, I expect Real to pay the price for running over the Copa del Rey.

While the Champions League trophy has already arrived in London, we don’t know the teams that will walk out on the pitch at Wembley on May 28th.  The games on Tuesday and Wednesday should go a long way to providing us the answers.