Champions League Semifinal Preview: Manchester United – Schalke

For soccer fans, the end of April can be a melancholy time.  Domestic leagues around Europe are winding down, and the transfer window doesn’t open until July 1.  But, one thing that makes the end of April exciting is the culmination of the season long UEFA Champions League.

This year’s Champions League semifinals should offer some exciting soccer.  Three of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world are in the final 4, and there is a Cinderella team for all those fans who like cheering for the underdog.  What more could you ask for?  As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I could have asked for the Gunners to make it to the semis, but I’m just excited at the prospect of some good soccer.

Schalke, the surprise team of the season, look to continue their magical run against Manchester United.

The first match (April 26th at 2:45pm Eastern), will see this season’s surprise team, FC Schalke 04, take on one of the preeminent sides in Europe, Manchester United. While this match may not have the flash of the other semifinal, expect some good soccer.  It pits a side that has hit its scoring stride (Schalke outscored Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in their quarterfinal meeting) against a side that has conceded just three goals in 10 Champions league games!

Schalke have been a classic example of a Jekyll and Hyde side this season.  Prior to sacking Felix Magath in March, die Königsblauen (the Royal Blues) were struggling in the Bundesliga and still sit just 10th.  While their domestic form left something to be desired, Schalke was simultaneously turning in strong performances in both the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the Champions League.  Since Ralf Rangnick‘s appointment it seems the German side has found some joy on the pitch.  Under Rangnick, who spent a spell as manager with Schalke in 2004-2005, Schalke have parlayed their form in cup competitions into better form in the Bundesliga (2 wins and a draw away to Werder Bremen).

While the team, as a whole, has underperformed, Raúl seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in Gelsenkirchen.  The Spaniard, a legend for Real Madrid, has scored 18 goals and assisted on 6 more in all competitions for Schalke this season.  Playing sidekick to Raúl, the Royal Blues boast Peruvian playmaker, Jefferson Farfán and Dutch forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Farfán has been a creative force throughout the Champions League and has tallied 4 goals in the competition (10 goals, 8 assists overall).  Huntelaar, hampered by injuries of late, he hasn’t played since the end of February, but could be back for the clash with the Red Devils.  His presence on the field (10 goals in all competitions) would certainly boost the Germans’ hopes.

On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United again find themselves the last English team standing.  The Red Devils will be looking to make it to their 3rd final in the last four seasons (winning in 2008 against Chelsea, and losing in 2009 to Barcelona).  The beginning of the season saw many pundits writing of Manchester United’s demise – the team was too old, Wayne Rooney had lost his form, the big money teams of Chelsea and Manchester City had bought too much talent.  It turns out rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.  Man U has lost just 3 games in the Premier League this season, and hasn’t lost in the Champions League.

Like Raúl, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar seem to have found the Fountain of Youth in Northwest England.  Both evergreens are having excellent seasons.  Giggs has 3 goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances this season, while van der Sar has 13 clean sheets in league play and 7 in the Champions League.  The Red Devils aren’t just getting contributions from their veterans.  Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a revelation this season, scoring 11 times in the EPL and another 4 in the Champions League.  Nani has developed into one of the best wingers in the world (9 goals and 14 assists in the EPL this season), and Wayne Rooney has seem to have refound his form since his amazing bicycle kick goal.

This matchup would seem to favor Manchester United, but Man U does not have the best of luck with German teams in the Champions League.  Check out this post on the Red Devils’ history against Bundesliga teams. While past results are not indicative of future performance, you have to wonder if Schalke will find some magic.  With the first game taking place at Veltins-Arena, the Royal Blues will have every chance to take a lead heading into the 2nd leg.

Prediction: Manchester United advance, but don’t win as convincingly as most EPL fans might expect.  I see a draw or even a loss for the Red Devils in Germany, followed by a victory at Old Trafford.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m crazy?  Leave  a comment, and come back tomorrow for a preview of the second Champions League match – Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.


Blood Red Clay

Somewhere in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic is licking his chops.

The world No. 2  may not have played this year’s iteration of the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters, but he won it anyway.  The ATP computer won’t show it, but the week in the Principality ended with a clear message, there’s blood in the water, or on the dirt, if you will.  The only question left: Is Djokovic ready to feed?

The spring hardcourt season ended with a refrain to which we’ve grown quite accustomed: “We will see what’s going on when we get to the clay, no?”  For the last six years, what’s gone on is an unprecedented streak of brilliance from World No. 1 Rafael Nadal that’s led to five triumphs at Roland Garros, his only loss in that span being a four set revolt in 2009 when he lost to his own tendonitis-plagued knees.

Monte Carlo, though no longer mandatory according to the ATP, has proven a harbinger of the dominance to come on the terre battue.  Six consecutive years, Nadal has come and seen off all challengers, thrice turning back the arguable “Greatest of All-Time” Federer at the final stage and last year all but humiliating his compatriot Fernando Verdasco 6-0, 6-1.

This year the story is a bit different.  Federer is now 3rd in the rankings and losing ground.  Instead of the preordained final tilt with Nadal, Federer fell meekly to Jurgen Melzer, a player whose lunch Federer used to eat with nary a thought.  It was Federer’s first career loss to Melzer, a solid Austrian who shook off the journeyman tag with a career defining run to the top 10 over the past year or so.

How does a player stay at the top of the rankings?  Very simply, they beat the players they’re supposed to beat.  Frankly, it’s Andy Roddick’s specialty.  Melzer falls directly into this category.  These are the matches Federer needs to win to stay in shouting distance of the top two.  In short, he’s not winning them anymore.  Federer’s 285 weeks at No. 1 ended on last year’s clay court swing.  His time of contending for the post may have ended at the beginning of this year’s.

Federer has often spoke of his love of the game keeping him on tour even once Nadal had dethroned him at the top.  Now though, it’s not just the polite young man who had served as the Mighty Fed’s apprentice  encroaching on his territory, it’s the rank and file of the second tier.

Winning as many matches over a protracted period as Federer has builds deep reserves of confidence, but one suspects given his recent form that they are beginning to run dry.  Confidence’s brother-in-arms is pride, and pride is far harder to lose.  When you spend literally half of your career as the consensus favorite in virtually every match you play, how long can you keep your chin up suffering the indignity of having the weekends free for shopping?

That said, Nadal isn’t exactly exalting in Federer’s decline.  The Spaniard at his best plays a brutal game of chess disguised as tennis.  Although the knees aren’t taped that doesn’t mean the way Nadal plays isn’t taking its toll.  For as much as has been written about the Spaniard’s physicality, his greatest strength has always been mental.  Like Sharapova with a better forehand, but the same pre-serve hair tuck ritual, Nadal is icily cool, calculating, precise with his Babolat in hand.

Not so this year.

The inability to capture the Australian Open, the Rafa Slam and a measure of one upsmanship over his career rival and buddy Federer seems to have exacted a toll.  Much like with Federer though it’s primarily mental and driven by the same question.  What are they playing for?

When you’ve won it all, the only thing left is to lose.

Despite being at different points in their careers from an age perspective, Federer and Nadal’s resumes are equally gilded; their trophy cases gleam with all of the most spectacular hardware on offer; their bank accounts provide them a fair measure of financial security.  What’s there left to hunger after?  Both men need to ask themselves that question, especially the Spaniard.

Nadal played compatriot David Ferrer in the Monte Carlo final, a physical specimen himself and a dogged competitor.  Ferrer is not a man who gives away matches.  He may be beaten, but he rarely beats himself.  Nadal put on a tentative display, defending from behind the baseline, waiting for errors on rally balls and trying to take the legs of a man built like the shortest California redwood in history.  The explosive precision to which we’re accustomed was largely left inside his racquet bag today and frankly all week.  Nadal played not to lose, which is not often enough against a man, like Djokovic, who will go all out out to win.

Novak Djokovic sat out this week, but he appeared in the principality to practice, ostensibly to ensure he was abiding by the residency rules of the tax haven and as a specter of things yet to come.

Ultimately, Nadal inherited the King of Clay honorific from Borg and Vilas, not his more immediate dirt dog predecessors like Ferrero or Kuerten and as such it will not be surrendered over the course of an event or a season.  The throne however has begun to wobble.

Oh yes, Nadal won the match 6-4, 7-5 over Ferrer, he won his 7th Monte Carlo title, 19th Masters title and 44th ATP crown overall today, but you can’t help feeling it was a turning point.  Watching this match, you have to assume Novak Djokovic is smelling blood.  Whether Nadal and/or Federer can fend off the coming attack is the question.  By the time we leave Paris, we will have our answer.

Attendance in the NBA and NHL

While Cavs fans might feel betrayed by LeBron James, they have shown their support for the team despite a 19-63 record. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

Beyond my interest in sports as fan, my interest in the business of sports has grown over the past several years.  One of the aspects of sports business that I find the most interesting are attendance figures for teams in the various leagues. I’m interested in the raw numbers, but also in what cause fluctuations from year to year or within seasons.  A helpful tool for my odd obsession with attendance figures is the SportsBusiness Journal’s Turnstile Tracker.  The SBJ, in its April 4-10 issue, published the latest Turnstile Tracker for the NBA and the NHL and some of the statistics were surprising.  Let’s take a look at the NBA first.

NBA – A couple of things jumped out at me as I was perusing the figures.  These numbers are through March 29, which accounts for between 35-38 of an NBA team’s 41 home games.

1. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 2nd in the NBA in overall attendance at 763,636 fans through 38 games (the Chicago Bulls are first by a wide margin – 803,874 fans through 37 games).  While the average (20,096) isn’t 100% of capacity (which is 20,562 for the Quicken Loans Arena), it’s still pretty impressive.  Cleveland wasn’t competitive this season, finishing just 19-63, and lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat in the offseason. It’s almost like the fans in Cleveland came out to support the team as a way to stick it to LeBron.  Impressively, 24 home games counted at the time of publication, were played before an arena holding 98% or more of capacity.  The only other teams – the Boston Celtics, Chicago, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Utah Jazz,  to match that are in the playoffs or in Utah’s case are the only thing in town (no offense to Real Salt Lake who don’t play for most of the NBA season). Several playoff teams – the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Atlanta Hawks – couldn’t match Cleveland’s support.

2. The Philadelphia 76ers played the most games (25 out of 35) in front of crowds that were less than 75% of capacity.  This surprises me.  The 76ers got off to a rough start, but were competitive throughout the season and made the playoffs.  On average only 70.8% of the seats in the arena were filled on any given night.  It’s pretty clear that the Sixers have slipped to #4, and maybe even #5 behind the Philadelphia Union, in the pecking order of Philadelphia sports.

3. Only two teams (the New Jersey Nets and the Indiana Pacers) played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans.  New Jersey played a game before just 8,866 fans, and Indiana played before 9,466.  An interesting fact about the Nets – despite playing before the lowest crowd in the NBA this season, the team has enjoyed an 8.6% increase in attendance from last year.

4. Overall, the NBA has seen a 1% increase in attendance vs. last season and is playing before arenas filled to 90.1% of capacity.

It seems like a lot of fans will be missing the NBA if the current labor situation does not get resolved before the start of next season.  The current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30 and the possibility of a lockout looks more and more likely. That said, there are clearly a couple of markets that probably wouldn’t miss the hardwood too much if the 2011-2012 season if the NBA shortens or cancels its season.

NHL – The NHL, more than the NBA, relies on putting fans in the seats to pay the bills, and is having a pretty good year overall.  The numbers cited below account for between 37-40 of the NHL’s 41 home games. Some interesting numbers:

1. The NHL is averaging only a couple hundred fewer fans per game than the NBA – 17,071 for the NHL to the NBA’s 17,262.  Not bad for a sport that is a distant 4th in the pantheon of American sports.

2. While it might have seemed sad that the Nets and Pacers played before fewer than 10,000 fans, they have nothing on the NHL.  The New York Islanders played a game at Nassau Coliseum in front of just 3,136 fans.  It is worth mentioning that this game was played during the post-Christmas blizzard that blanketed much of the Northeast in over a foot of snow, but other teams were still able to but fans in the seats.  There were 4 other teams that played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans – the Atlanta Thrashers (8,461), the Columbus Blue Jackets (9,128), the New Jersey Devils (5,329) and the Phoenix Coyotes (6,706).

3. Of the teams with the 10 lowest average attendance figures (click here to see the list from ESPN – this list doesn’t match the SBJ list exactly, but it is illustrative), 6 are located in the South and 1 is in California.  It’s pretty clear that the NHL’s strategy to expand into the South isn’t working and some of those teams need to be relocate to areas that will support the teams.

4. Chicago loves it NBA and NHL teams.  The Blackhawks and Bulls are the leaders in average attendance for both leagues.  While part of this can be attributed to the United Center’s ability to hold nearly 20,00o seated fans for hockey and nearly 21,000 for basketball, both teams are playing to capacities of over 100%, meaning fans are flocking to see the Blackhawks and Bulls play and are willing to stand to do it.  Impressive.

Philadelphia fans have been turning out in bunches to see the Flyers, but have abandoned the Sixers.

5.  While Philly has seemingly abandoned the playoff bound Sixers, the Flyers have seen an uptick in attendance compared to last season.  The Flyers are 3rd in the NHL in average attendance and have played before 100.9% of capacity over the course of the season.

It will be interesting to see if the NHL capitalizes on the potential NBA labor strife.  If there is a shortened or canceled NBA season, will that mean more fans going to see hockey?  Time will tell.

Champions League – Quarterfinals Review

The quarterfinals looked like they would serve up some good matches, but all drama is gone as 3 of the 4 are already decided.

Typically, I like to write a post about the upcoming Champions League round before it actually happens.  Clearly, that’s not the case this time.  For those that are interested, I went 5-3 with my predictions from the round of sixteen.  Certainly better than I did in my NCAA bracket.  I picked Shakhtar DonetskAC MilanValenciaBayern MunichReal Madrid, BarcelonaManchester United and Chelsea. My incorrect picks – Tottenham beat AC Milan, Schalke beat Valencia, and Inter Milan beat Bayern.

Since my slacker tendencies prevented me from getting this post up before the first leg of the quarterfinals, I’ve had to tweak what I was going to write.  At this point, there is no reason to predict who is going to make it through to the semifinals, as three of the quarterfinals are well and truly over.

Here's a screen shot from the video of Dejan Stankovic's golazo against Schalke. Check out the video, it's worth watching.

In what has to be considered a shock, Schalke destroyed Inter in Milan 5-2.  Inter certainly were not helped by defender Cristian Chivu drawing a red card in the 62nd minute, but by that point the Nerazzurri were already down 4-2 to the Germans.  The one highlight for the Italians was Dejan Stankovic’s wonder goal that started the scoring.  Check it out.

Barcelona similarly dismantled Shakhtar, 5-1, at Camp Nou.  Five different players scored goals for Barça – Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Seydou Keita and Xavi.  Barça are truly an incredible team to watch.  They play some amazing soccer.  With a 5-1 lead heading to the Ukraine, Barça have booked their spot in the semis.

The other Spanish team, Real Madrid, similarly dismantled their competition, winning 4-0 over Spurs. Things looked bad from the outset when Emmanuel Adebayor scored off a corner just 4 minutes into the game.  Things went from bad to worse when Peter Crouch was sent off for his 2nd yellow card inside of 15 minutes.  Spurs could never gain or hold possession and Real just kept putting more balls in the back of the net. Based on the way they played, Spurs would have lost even if Crouch has stayed on the field.

Rooney's suspension will not affect his eligibility for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal. Good thing for Manchester United, as he scored the only goal in the first leg.

The only match that still has some drama going into the second leg is Manchester United vs. Chelsea.  Man U secured a vital away goal at Stamford Bridge, beating the Blues 1-0. Chelsea enjoyed more of the possession and outshot Man U 21(7 on goal) – 8(2), but the were unable to find the leveler.  Chelsea will be hard pressed to advance when they play the Red Devils at Old Trafford, especially since Man U have that away goal in their pocket.

With the second leg of the quarterfinals being played on Tuesday and Wednesday, look for a semifinal preview in the next week or two.  Hopefully, the matches will be more competitive this time around.  Happy soccer watching!

Sweet Sixteen – Will the Upsets Continue?

Is your bracket as busted as mine?

If there is one thing that is true about the NCAA tournament, it is that things rarely go as people anticipate.  Just take a look at my bracket, there is a lot of red ink on that page (and mine isn’t even among the worst in my office’s competition).  Every year March Madness proves that on any given day a team like Louisville or Purdue can be beaten by teams like Morehead State or VCU.

This year there are more “Cinderellas” still alive than in recent years.  Though I’m a bit reluctant to call Florida State/Marquette (power conference teams with double-digit seeds) or Butler (they were in the national final last year) Cinderellas.  There are really only two teams that fit that bill still playing – VCU and Richmond.  Oddly, as ESPN pointed out, both hail from Richmond, Virginia – not exactly a hotbed of college hoops.  The biggest question is can either of these Cinderellas continue their journey, or will the clock strike midnight?

Let’s break down the Sweet Sixteen.

East Region

Ohio State vs. Kentucky – No upsets here.  This is a matchup that many predicted, including me and President Obama.  Ohio State, ranked #1 in the country, comes into the game playing extremely well, easily defeating both University of Texas-San Antonio and George Mason.  The Buckeyes are led by Final Four vet David Lighty and talented freshman Jared Sullinger, but are much deeper, with a cast of talented players that know how to play as a cohesive unit.

Kentucky, like Ohio State, comes into this game on a roll.  While the Wildcats had trouble with Princeton in the first round, they haven’t lost since a 77-76 OT defeat by Arkansas in Fayetteville back on February 23.  The Cats are led by two dynamic freshmen, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones.

Either team has the talent to make a run to the national title game, but I believe that Ohio State’s experience will win out.  Kentucky is a young, raw team while Ohio State has several savvy veterans leading the way. As much as I would like to see the Buckeyes go down, I don’t see it happening.

North Carolina vs. Marquette – While many saw the first matchup in this region coming, this game comes as at bit of surprise.  Marquette entered the tournament with a 20-14 record overall and a 9-9 record in the Big East.  The Gold Eagles were inconsistent throughout the year, defeating West Virginia and Syracuse twice, Notre Dame by 22 points but losing to Seton Hall by 13.  Perhaps the Golden Eagles have found some consistency, as they needed wins over Xavier and Syracuse (two teams ranked in the top 20) to get to the Sweet Sixteen.

North Carolina, the regular season ACC champions, were lucky to escape their 3rd round game with Washington.  Other than this close call, and a thorough defeat by Duke in the ACC title game, the Tar Heels have played some good basketball.  Led by impact freshman Harrison Barnes, and junior Tyler Zeller, the Heels have a high-flying offensive attack, averaging 77 points per game.

While Marquette is physical and plays some good D, I think their inconsistency will come back to haunt them in this one.  Expect to see the Heels marching on to play the Buckeyes.

WEST REGION

Duke vs. Arizona – Another matchup of college hoops heavy weights. The West Region saw no major upsets (only Arizona beating 4 seed Texas – if you can call that an upset), and has served up some intriguing games.  The Blue Devils have lost just 4 games all season, but struggled to hold their lead against Michigan in the 3rd round.  Duke’s own star freshman, Kyrie Irving, has played in both games after being out since early December.  Irving’s return has altered the way the Blue Devils play, especially Nolan Smith’s role, and it will be interesting to see how this affects the Blue Devils against Arizona.

Arizona, like Duke, is a traditional power and is making their return to the Sweet Sixteen after failing to qualify for the tournament last season.  The Wildcats, Pac-10 regular season champions, have won their games to get to this point by a combined 3 points.  The Cats are led by 6’8” sophomore forward, Derrick Williams who led the team in points and rebounds.

This game should be a good one, with the Wildcats taking the Blue Devils down to the wire.  That said, I think Duke’s size (when was the last time anyone could say that about the Blue Devils?) will ultimately be the deciding factor.  The Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly give the Blue Devils the advantage.

UCONN vs. San Diego State – A match of the nouveau riche against old money.  San Diego State, needed two overtime periods to defeat Temple in the 2nd round, but you can’t argue with the team’s success over the season.  Led by sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard (who has one of the best names in the field of 68)  the Aztecs have been ranked inside the top ten in the polls since the 6th week of the season.   Steve Fisher has San Diego State in the tournament for the 4th time during his tenure, with this season being the Aztecs deepest run into March.  The Aztecs also posted a school-record 34 wins this season.

UCONN is a bit of an enigma.  Which team will show up against the Aztecs? The team that ran through the Big East tournament? Or the team that finished just 9-9 during the Big East regular season?  If Kemba Walker keeps playing at his highest level, the Huskies are a very dangerous team.  As Joe Lunardi points out in this article from ESPN, “… SDSU’s only two losses came at the hands of a single great scorer (Fredette) and Walker is probably the only other player left in the tournament with that kind of potential.” If Walker dominates, the Huskies could be headed to the Elite Eight.

Also like Lunardi mentioned, “This is a classic encounter of “team” versus “individual,” and I’m going with the better team (especially in Anaheim).”

SouthEaST REGION

Butler vs. Wisconsin – This is a battle of two teams that are tournament tested.  When Butler lost their star Gordon Hayward to the NBA following their loss to Duke in last season’s final, many predicted the Bulldogs would struggle this season.  They were right, as the Bulldogs struggled out of the gate; however, since February 5, Butler has won 11 games in a row.  While the Bulldogs have won their two tournament games by a combined 3 points, they are deep and experienced.

Wisconsin is a team that plays great defense and tries to win by wearing their opponents down.  For example, the Badgers, led by Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, lost to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament 36-33 (one of the lowest scoring games since the shot clock was implemented).  The Badgers aren’t flashy, but they are smart.  They play within their system and they do it well.

It will be interesting to see how two veteran teams match up against each other with an Elite 8 bid on the line.  Both have to think that if they can win this game a Final Four trip is a realistic possibility.  Given Butler’s experience and hot streak, I’m picking the Bulldogs.

BYU vs. Florida – A rematch of a first round game from last season (BYU beat Florida 99-92 in 2OT, and the world met Jimmer Fredette) this should be a fun game to watch.  BYU is 8th in the country in scoring at nearly 82 points per game and Jimmer Fredette (the country’s leading scorer) is a one man wrecking crew.  The Cougars have responded well to Brandon Davies‘ suspension, beating Wofford and Gonzaga, but have yet to play a team of Florida’s caliber in the tournament.

The Gators get a chance for revenge against the Cougars.  The SEC East champions have been on roll with just two losses (both toe Kentucky) since February 1. Florida won their second round game comfortably, but UCLA hung with the Gators in the 3rd round.  If Florida is to win this game, somebody needs to stop Jimmer Fredette.

I’m picking the Cougars here.  I think Jimmer will throw BYU on his back and take down the Gators just like last season.

SOUTHWEST REGION

Kansas vs. Richmond – Finally we’ve come to the Southwest Region.  The Region of upsets.  This is the first time that 3 double-digit seeds have reached the Sweet Sixteen in one region since the tournament expanded to its current format in 1985.  While there have been upsets galore in this region, don’t expect the run to continue with this game.  The Jayhawks are, in my opinion, the best team in college basketball.  With just two loses (1 to Kansas State, the other to Texas), the Jayhawks are one of the most powerful offensive teams in college hoops.  Led my the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus), Kansas will be looking to prove last year’s loss to Northern Iowa in the 2nd round was a fluke.  The Jayhawks are deep, talented and on a mission

Richmond, despite what their coach might say, is just happy to be in the Sweet Sixteen.  Making it this far is a triumph for the Spiders, the Atlantic 10 champions.  The Spiders’ signature win this season is an 11 point victory over Purdue back in November.  Of the double-digit seeds, the Spiders had the easiest road to the Sweet sixteen.  They defeated an overrated Vanderbilt team in the 2nd round, and knocked off fellow Cinderella, Morehead State in round 3.  While the Spiders have’t gotten much press, they do have some talented players, particularly Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson. If Harper and Anderson can get hot, the Spiders could scare the Jayhawks.

That said, I expect the Jayhawks to continue their march to the Final Four.

Florida State vs. VCU – There is one thing we know about this game – a double-digit seed will make the Elite Eight.  Which one will it be?

VCU finished the season 23-11 and many complained about their inclusion in the field of 68 (this blogger is included).  The Rams easily defeated an undeserving USC team to make it into the second round and hasn’t looked back.  With back-to-back, convincing victories over Georgetown and Purdue, the Rams are for real.  They have won both by playing good defense (against G’town) and by attacking (against Purdue).  Jamie Skeen, who leads the Rams in both scoring and rebounding, is the man to watch for VCU.  He has been quiet in the tournament, but he is capable of big things.  Others to watch are Bradford Burgess and Joey Rodriguez, who killed my beloved BU Terriers last season in the College Basketball Invitational semifinals.

Florida State, under Leonard Hamilton, have become a thorn in the side of North Carolina and Duke in the ACC.  The Seminoles are a dogged defensive team, probably the best in the tournament.  They allowed just 61.7 points per game this season, but have trouble scoring.  Chris Singleton, the ‘Noles’, best player has played very little since breaking his right foot in early February, but has played in both of FSU’s games in the tournament.  How large a role will he play against VCU?  If he plays, I think the Seminoles will find an answer for their scoring woes.  If he doesn’t it may not matter that the ‘Noles only give up 61 points, they might not be able to score that many.

I am going to go out on a bit of a limb here and pick VCU to win this game.  They seem to have a swagger about them.

March has been mad this season, with upsets aplenty.  And I see a few more coming this week.  Here’s, a quick recap of my picks:

Ohio State
UNC
Duke
San Diego State
Butler
BYU
Kansas
VCU

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…

 It’s that time of year again;  the most wonderful time of the year for college sports fans.  The NCAA Men’s basketball tournament field was just revealed and people around the country are preparing excuses for why they suddenly developed illnesses on Thursday and Friday.

Selection Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year.  I love watching the conference tournaments leading up to the selection special, and I love to watch as they reveal the teams.  Today was no different.  My alma mater, Boston University, won the America East in dramatic fashion yesterday and awaited their fate.  Barely 20 minutes into the program, Terrier Nation found out where and who our team would be playing.  The Terriers drew a 16 seed and the unpleasant task of facing the University of Kansas.  While a 16 seed has never defeated a 1 seed in since the tournament took on its current format in 1985, an alum can hope.

The Selection Committee, as usual, has given pundits, bloggers and fans alike plenty to talk about.  Did Pitt and Duke deserve #1 seeds? How did USC, Clemson and Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) make it into the field of 68, while St. Mary’s, Colorado, and Virginia Tech are on the outside?  Is Florida really a #2 seed? Why is Utah State only a #12 despite a 30-3 record? Check out my quick reaction to each region.

Who runs your office pool? It is estimated that March Madness costs employers between $1.4 billion and $3.8 billion in lost productivity per year.

East Region – Ohio State, as much as I hate to say it, deserved the top seed in the tournament.  The Buckeyes lost just two games all season, both on the road against highly ranked teams (Wisconsin and Purdue).  They easily won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and have played well all season.Georgia is lucky to be in the tournament and lucky to be a 10 seed. Many people thought the Bulldogs were squarely on the bubble.  ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had them as one of the first 4 teams to miss the tournament. By handing Georgia a 10 seed, the Committee tells everyone that Georgia made the tournament easily. Georgia deserved being in the tournament (they have an RPI of 46 and a strength of schedule of 43) but a 10 seed was generous.

I am surprised that University of Alabama-Birmingham and Clemson both made the tournament. Both teams were on the bubble.  Joe Lunardi had UAB as one of the first four out, and Clemson as one of the last 4 in, I think it should have been the other way around.  UAB had a very good season, going 22-8 and winning the Conference USA regular season title. The Blazers enter the tournament with an RPI of 31. Clemson finished 21-11 and had an RPI of 55.  Either or both could have easily missed the tournament.

The East is top-heavy.  The top 4 seeds (Ohio State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky) are all capable of winning this region and the tournament. The 5 seed – Xavier, could make a run.  My potential sleeper in the region is the 9 seed, Villanova.  Nova is just two seasons removed from a Final Four appearance and started this season 17-1.  While the Wildcats have disappeared in the second half of the season, they have the talent and the coaching to make some noise in the tournament.  They could just as easily lose to George Mason in the first round.

West RegionDuke deserved a number 1 seed, but being shipped to the West Region is hardly a reward for the Blue Devils.  As pointed out on the CBS selection special, Duke may have preferred a 2 seed in the East and potential games in Newark.  I think the Blue Devils earned their seed with their win over North Carolina in the ACC Tournament championship game.

Can Duke defend its national title? San Diego State, UCONN and Texas stand in their way in the West Region.

San Diego State gets the 2 seed in the West, which is a reward for the Mountain West champions.  If they make it to the Sweet Sixteen, the Aztecs will get to play in front of a virtual home crowd in Anaheim. I am happy that the Committee didn’t seed SDSU lower simply because they aren’t from one of the “Power” conferences.

There are some tough teams in the West, UCONN just won 5 games in 5 days to win the Big East. Texas was #1 earlier this season. Arizona has tons of talent and won the Pac-10, and Tennessee is more talented than their record indicates. Temple is seeded too low at 7. Michigan, Tennessee and Penn State are  seeded too highly.

Lots of pundits are picking Oakland to upset Texas but I just don’t see that happening.  I think Missouri has the best chance of the double-digit seeds to make the Sweet Sixteen.

Southwest Region – The Southwest is tough. Kansas could have easily been the #1 overall seed. Many predicted Notre Dame would be a 1 seed. Purdue finished 2nd in the Big Ten, Louisville made a run to the Big East title game.  Beyond the top 4, Georgetown has more talent than its 21-10 record indicates and Texas A&M could make a run.

Illinois got a gift with a 9 seed.  The Illini are 19-13 and finished 9-9 in the Big Ten.  How did they get a higher seed than Florida State who finished 21-10 and 11-5 in the ACC?

USC is extremely lucky to be in the tournament. USC has an RPI of 69, plays in a weak Pac-10 and finished the season 19-14. Their opponents in the First Four, VCU (23-11, RPI: 51) lost the Colonial Athletic Association title game to Old Dominion, which is probably what got them their bid. How did USC make it over Colorado or Virginia Tech? Colorado had a better record (20-13), better RPI (66) and wins over Kansas State (3 times) and  Missouri. Virginia Tech also had a better record (21-11), RPI (60) and wins over Duke and Florida State (2 times). USC being in the tournament is a surprise.

GO BU!

The 16 seed in the West are the Boston University Terriers.  Get ready to be surprised America. The first 16 over 1 upset in tournament history is about to happen.  Mark it down!

Southeast Region – The Southeast Region is the easiest region of the four. Pittsburgh has a clear path to the Final Four. The 2 seed, Florida, is overrated. Charles Barkley says it is so, and I agree. BYU earned a 2 seed but the Selection Committee snubbed the Cougars.  Many of the other teams in the Southeast are also overrated – Wisconsin at 4, Kansas State as 5 and St. John’s at 6.

While I believe Kansas State and St. John’s are overrated, both have the talent to make some noise in the tournament.  Perhaps this potential is what the Selection Committee used when assigning K State and St. John’s their seeds. Kansas State was a preseason top 5 pick, and seem to have found themselves late in the season following a midseason swoon.  St. John’s has wins over Notre Dame, Duke, UCONN and Pitt, so the Johnnies certainly have the ability to win the big game. On the flip side, St. John’s has also lost games to Fordham and St. Bonaventure.  The Red Storm are unpredictable. They could make a run to the Sweet 16 or they could lose to Gonzaga in their first game.

Gonzaga (11) and Utah State (12) are seeded lower than expected. Joe Lunardi had the Zags and the Aggies as 9 seeds.  Utah State finished the season 30-3 with an RPI of 18 yet is a 13 seed! Come on Selection Committee!

Belmont is getting a lot of press as a potential giant killer.  I could see that upset happening as Wisconsin is a weak 4 seed, and Belmont played both Tennessee and Vanderbilt close during the season. The Bruins lost to Tennessee by just 1 point back in December.

St. Mary's will be playing in the NIT, but should b in the field of 68.

Biggest snub: St. Mary’s – The Gaels finished the season ranked 48 in the RPI with a 25-8 record.  They tied Gonzaga for first place in the West Coast Conference and have a win of St. John’s and Gonzaga, as well as a 1 point loss to BYU. St. Mary’s has shown that it is capable of playing with the big boys and certainly deserved to make the field of 68 more than USC or VCU.

Mr. Holland’s Opus: BU’s Going Dancing!

Boston University will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002!

 

So this is what it feels like. This is what it feels like to watch a meaningful basketball game in early March. This is what it feels like to stand in a crowded arena jumping up and down as your team makes a furious comeback to secure a win at the last second.  This is what it feels like to see the crowd spill from the stands onto the court to celebrate the school’s first NCAA tournament birth since 2002.

Boston University fans storm the court following BU's 56-54 win over Stony Brook.

I am a huge college basketball fan, and have been for most of my life.  I became enamored of the Duke Blue Devils when I was a kid and have cheered for them through the good times and the bad (though the times have been mostly good). Today, however, was unlike anything I have experienced in my 29 years of college fandom.  I was lucky enough to see my alma mater, Boston University, secure a bid to the NCAA tournament earlier today. To be in the arena when your alma mater is playing for an NCAA tournament bid is something special. The atmosphere was electric (even in a less than full Agganis Arena), the tension was high. While I always feel anxious when Duke is playing in a big game, my anxiety was at a new level cheering for the Terriers.  Duke makes the tournament almost every year, but to make the tournament is something special for Boston University.  The Terriers have made the tournament just 7 times in their history!

The game was not particularly well played.  Neither team shot well (31.5% for Stony Brook, 31.3% for BU). There were a total of 41 fouls (24 for Stony Brook, 17 for BU) and the final score was 56-54. Despite its obvious flaws, that game was exciting. BU stormed back from 15 point deficit (41-26) with 16:48 left in the 2nd half to tie the game at 54 with 1:03 left, and take the lead with just 2.3 seconds left.  The story of the game wasn’t that BU stormed back, it was that John Holland took the team on his back and willed the Terriers into the NCAA tournament.  After being largely anonymous in the first half, the America East player of the year exploded for 23 points in the 2nd half. As a friend put it, “John Holland decided the Terriers were going to the NCAAs. And it was so.” Holland, in the 2nd half, showed why he was the conference player of the year, and proved that he was the best player on the floor.  After the Terriers went down by 15 it was like he flipped a switch and kicked his game into a higher gear. Holland saved his best for his last game on Commonwealth Avenue and ensured that he would play at least one more game in his superlative career.

BU fans love Coach Chambers, with good reason! Coach Chambers is taking the Terriers to the NCAA Tournament in his 2nd season.

I tweeted after the game, that this was the beginning of something big, and I believe that.  Patrick Chambers has injected a new energy into the program, and has taken the Terriers into the postseason in each of his first two seasons.  Last season, the Terriers played in the College Basketball Invitational, making the semifinals and defeating Oregon State along the way.  This year, the Terriers get to go to the big dance.  With a young team (Holland is the only senior), and several new recruits coming, Boston University could be on its way to a run of postseason births.

If you’re interested, check out some pictures taken at the game in my Flikr stream.

MLS Celebrates Sweet 16

First, Happy 16th Season MLS!

I am a voracious reader. For several years, I commuted to Boston on the train every day.  During that time I would go through a book a week (sometimes two depending on how quick a read the books were).  I know that this might not seem to be linked to MLS starting its 16th season, just hear me out.  Due to my love of reading and immense amounts of reading time, I’ve read countless books on one of my favorite topics – soccer.

The books ranged from the encyclopedic (The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt) to the quirky (Bloody Confused by Chuck Culpepper).  The most recent book to catch my attention was Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin. In the book, Wangerin charts the convoluted and often dispiriting path of fútbol in the United States.  From the little documented early days under the auspices of the United States of America Foot Ball Association (now the United States Soccer Federation) and the American Soccer League to the 2006 World Cup, Wangerin provides a great background for anybody interested in soccer in the United States. In addition to filling in some historical blanks, Soccer in a Football World got me thinking about how MLS fits into the American sporting landscape.

As MLS enters its 16th season, which kicks off on March 15 in Seattle (Sounders v. Galaxy; should be a good one), there are reasons to believe that the league and the sport are finally gaining some true traction in America.

Positives Signs –

Philadelphia Union are one of MLS's recent expansion successes, and my favorite club.

Successful Expansion – MLS has added 5 teams since 2007 and will add the Montreal Impact in 2012.  Montreal’s introduction will bring the count to 19, with MLS looking to expand to 20.  Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia were all extremely successful at the gate in their first seasons.  Toronto has averaged more than 20,000 fans per game in each of its first 4 seasons. Seattle draws crowds that many European soccer teams would envy (36,000+ last season), and Philadelphia continued the trend of successful expansion by averaging over 19,000 fans in their inaugural season. Portland and Vancouver both look primed to continue the trend, with Portland selling more than 12,000 season tickets and Vancouver more than 15,500.

Could the revived Cosmos be the 20th MLS team in 2012 or beyond?

As mentioned before, MLS is looking to expand to twenty teams, and Don Garber has made it known that he would love a second team in the New York City area.  To wit, perhaps the most famous name in US soccer, the New York Cosmos, has been revived in an attempt to become that 20th team.  With Eric Cantona as the Director of Soccer, Pelé as Honorary President, and Giorgio Chinaglia as International Ambassador the club has some heavy hitters promoting its interests (both Pelé and Chinaglia played for the previous incarnation of the Cosmos).

Attendance – Thanks in large part to the success of the recent expansion teams, 2010 saw MLS attendance rise to 16,675 fans per game.  Only two prior MLS seasons top that number (2007 and 1996).  While the NFL and MLB both average far more fans than MLS, the NHL and NBA average only slightly more.  While these numbers might be slightly outdated, MLS ranks 13th in average attendance among world soccer leagues.  Not bad for a country that supposedly doesn’t like soccer.  Attendance has been on the rise and should continue that upward trend, on the strength of a new soccer specific stadium in Kansas City and the addition of the Timbers and Whitecaps.  As Geoffrey Arnold of The Oregonian writes (citing an article from the Wall Street Journal), there are several cities where MLS outdraws NBA teams.  Of the cities listed, only The Galaxy outdrawing the Lakers doesn’t present the full picture (the Lakers would certainly sell more tickets if the Staples Center could accommodate more fans).  The general upward trend in attendance over the past several years is certainly a positive sign for MLS; however, the attendance situation isn’t entirely rosy, there are some disconcerting signs for several clubs. More on the negatives to come.

Performance of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) – As important as domestic soccer is around the world most (if not all) domestic leagues are set up to help the national team perform on a higher level.  While soccer fans enjoy watching the Champions League, the World Cup is what matters most. The creation and continued growth of MLS has given US soccer talent a place to develop and the performance of the USMNT has benefited from its existence.

MLS is the first domestic soccer league in the US to make developing American talent a priority.  The ASL and the NASL both relied heavily on imports (MLS is starting to trend this way as well) while neglecting native talent.  Since the creation of MLS, the US has qualified for all 4 World Cups, advanced from the Group Stage on two occasions, beaten the World #1 and been ranked as high as 4th in the FIFA World Rankings (I still can’t believe this, but it’s true).

While MLS hasn’t turned the USMNT into a legitimate threat to win the World Cup (yet), the investment in soccer (the USSF’s Project 2010, which didn’t work quite according to plan) along with the growing competitiveness in  domestic soccer has transformed the US from laughing-stock to CONCACAF power and occasional giant slayer.

Interesting side note: The US is one of only 7 teams to qualify for every World Cup since 1990.  The others: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea.

Bad Signs

Profitibility – MLS continues to expand and more fans (on average) are attending games; however, these positive signs haven’t translated into profitability.  According to most reports, which are difficult to find as financial transparency is not an MLS strong point, very few teams turn a profit.  Thanks to some awesome work by Dave Clark at Sounder at Heart we can draw a few conclusions.  Using data from a 2007 Forbes study in conjunction with a study conducted on behalf of the Portland Timbers, Clark came to the conclusion that 2 clubs (Seattle and Toronto) were profitable in 2009. The long-term stability of the game and the league will require teams to move toward profitability.  Teams can only stay afloat while incurring losses for so long. See the NASL for proof of that.

TV Ratings/Contract – If MLS ever wants to make a collective turn toward profitability, the league needs to establish itself on television.  No professional sport can survive in today’s market without a TV deal.  MLS just agreed to an extension of its previous TV contract with Fox Soccer Channel that will pay the league $6.25 million this season (MLS has a contract with ESPN that pays the league $8 million per year through 2014, and includes rights to USMNT games). For the sake of comparison, the NFL earns $3 billion per year, MLB earns nearly $500 million, the NBA earns $930 million, and the NHL earns at least $75 million. While comparing MLS to the NFL, NBA and MLB is certainly unfair, comparing the league to the NHL isn’t entirely ridiculous.  While TV ratings remain poor (an average of 249,000 viewers for games broadcast on ESPN2), those numbers actually are comparable to the numbers the NHL records on Versus (297,000 per broadcast in 2009-2010, scroll to the bottom to see a table of the ratings numbers).  So the question that needs to be asked is: why the NHL can get $75 million per year from Versus and MLS can only bring in a fraction of that amount? If MLS wants to remain a viable league and grow its brand, it will need to secure a better television contract.

Attendance – As mentioned above, MLS attendance has been on the rise over the past several years, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. While there are successes, several clubs have woeful attendance numbers. Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes all hovered around the 10,000 mark. Several other teams saw drops in attendance from 2009. There is some hope for Kansas City, as they are set to open their new soccer-specific stadium this season. For a league that doesn’t derive much revenue from a television deal, it is vitally important to put fans in the seats.

An extremely interesting story will be if MLS can capitalize on the labor strife in the NFL and a potential NBA work stoppage to grow its brand. While soccer will never replace football or baseball in the hearts and minds of American sports fans and likely will never challenge the NBA, why couldn’t the beautiful game could supplant the NHL in the American sports pecking order.

Top 5: Pitching Rotations

These are heady days for baseball fans.  Every team is undefeated, and hope springs eternal.  With the first games of Spring Training set for Friday, it seemed like it was time to start blogging about baseball again.

A question that seems to be on every baseball fan’s mind is  – who has the best starting pitching staff in baseball?  Below is my humble attempt at answering that question.  Let me know if you agree/disagree.

The Phillies boast a rotation that would make any team jealous. (photo from the4aces.net)

1. Philadelphia Phillies – While this might seem like a homer call, the Phillies have to be considered the best collection of starting pitching in the league.  After pulling off one of the major surprises of the off-season by signing Cliff Lee, the Phillies have four legit #1 starters.  The Phillies (on paper) have the best pitching rotation since the Braves of the early 1990s (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Steve Avery).  This is my initial reaction to the pitching staff – taken from my post Merry Cliffmas and Happy Halladays!:

Think about this, Lee, who won the Cy Young in the AL in 2008 joins a staff that includes: reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay; 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels; and 3-time All-Star Roy Oswalt. What other team can match that pitching depth?  The answer – NONE!

Just look at their numbers from last season:

I know that Lee, Hamels and Oswalt did not have great records, look at the other stats! Ridiculous. Also keep in mind that when Oswalt was with the Phillies he was 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The Phillies now have the best pitching staff in the league.

It doesn’t matter who takes the fifth starter spot (though I think it will be Joe Blanton), the Phillies have the most formidable starting rotation in baseball.

Tim Lincecum anchors the rotation for the defending World Series champions.

2. San Francisco Giants – As seen in last year’s NLCS, the Giants’ pitching staff can hang with the Phillies.  Tim Lincecum, who struggled at times last season, found his form in the playoffs. Matt Cain made the Phillies’ offense look pedestrian. Jonathan Sanchez looks like he is ready to take the next step toward becoming an elite lefty. Madison Bumgarner developed over the course of the season and looks set for a big year.  The only question mark is Barry Zito as the fifth starter, but if he even has an average year (10-14, 4.45 ERA in his time with the Giants) he will be a pretty decent 5th starter.

If Beckett and Lackey can bounce back, the Sox will be tough. (Image from CBS local/Credit: Dan Roche/CBS)

3. Boston Red Sox – Some might question the Red Sox being ranked this highly, especially after the poor performance last season of Josh Beckett, John Lackey and the enigma that is Daisuke Matsuzaka, but I believe that at least one of the aforementioned pitchers will rebound this year.  If more than one can return to the form all have previously exhibited, the Red Sox will have a formidable rotation.  Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA), two guys I thought deserved more Cy Young consideration last season, anchor the rotation.  Even if Beckett and Lackey turn in career average years – 15-10, 3.96 ERA for Becket & 15-10, 3.89 ERA for Lackey – the rotation should be good enough to win the AL East.  Any positive contribution Dice-K can give will be an added bonus.

Trevor Cahill and the Athletics could unseat the Rangers in the AL West. The A's certainly have the pitching.

4. Oakland Athletics – This selection might surprise some, as the Athletics toil in obscurity in Oakland, but the A’s have a legit rotation.  I think this excerpt from a post on pitching rotations sums up the A’s:

Check out these stats and compare them with any pitching staff in MLB: Brett Anderson 7-6 2.80 ERA  75 K’s, Trevor Cahill 18-8  2.97 ERA  118 K’s, Gio Gonzalez 15-9 3.23 ERA  171 K’s, Dallas Braden 11-14  3.50 ERA 113 K’s and a perfect game. Average age…25!!  Oakland led the AL with a 3.56 era, 17 shutouts and held opponents to a .245 batting average.  Question mark is 5th starter but they have many young guys to choose from in the minors and they also signed Rich Harden. If they can get any hitting they could be a team no one would like to play come October.

Clayton Kershaw is my early dark horse for the NL Cy Young. This kid is for real.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers – Four of the Dodgers’ starters finished last season with ERAs under 3.60.  Not too shabby.  Clayton Kershaw led the way with a 13-10 record and an ERA of 2.91 and will be just 23 at the start of the season.  Forming the rest of the rotation behind Kershaw are Hiroki Kuroda (11-13, 3.39 ERA), Chad Billingsley (12-11, 3.57 ERA), Ted Lilly (7-4, 3.52 ERA w/ the Dodgers), and Jon Garland (14-12, 3.47 ERA w/ the San Diego Padres).

In making this list, several teams just missed the number 5 spot (I feel like the top 4 are pretty set).  The St. Louis Cardinals would likely have made the top 5, but with concerns about the health of Adam Wainwright‘s elbow, the rotation is weakened.  Some have been touting the Milwaukee Brewers with Zack Greinke joining Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo at Miller Park.  I think the Brewers have the beginnings of a very good rotation, but it remains to be seen how Greinke will adjust to the NL and whether Marcum is for real.  A third team that many have in their top 5 are the Padres.  Mat Latos and Clayton Richard are two studs at the top of the rotation but after the top 2 there are more questions than answers.  Also, could Latos be in for a sophomore slump? Lastly, the Atlanta Braves are in the discussion as well, especially if Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens can rebound from subpar 2010 seasons.  Looks like I could have found one more team and written a top 10.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Top Ten – English Transfer Window Signings

 

Fernando Torres looks to help the Blues push for the Premier League title.

The dust has settled on what was a crazy January transfer window.  One of the biggest names in world football switched teams, and several up-and-coming players will be plying their trade in new locales.  Obviously, much attention has been focused on the move of Fernando Torres to Chelsea, but there was a lot more action.  What were the ten best signings in the English Premier League during the transfer window?

1o. Curtis Davies – Davies moves across the city from Aston Villa to Birmingham City.  He brings the Blues a strong replacement for the injured Scott Dann, who had become a rock in central defense.  Davies, who missed time last season due to a shoulder injury, fell out of favor with Gérard Houllier and couldn’t crack the 4-deep center back rotation at Villa.  I don’t really understand why Davies wasn’t given the opportunity given Villa’s poor performance early in the season.  Villa’s loss, both in terms of the player and the nearly £8 million difference between investment and sale, is City’s gain.

9. Andy Carroll – Newcastle born and raised, the young forward left his hometown club to move to Liverpool.  While it seems clear that Carroll didn’t want to leave St. James Park, Newcastle United had no choice but to take the ludicrous £35 million offer the Reds threw their way.  Carroll would be higher on this list if he had more Premier League experience and if he weren’t out with a thigh injury.  While Carroll has shown a lot of promise, he has only played in 33 EPL games, though he has scored 14 goals.  It seems to me that Liverpool pair a premium for Carroll simply because he is English.  How else do you explain the fact that Carrol cost £12 million more than Luis Suárez (who will make an appearance further up this list). If Carroll continues to develop he could be an even better signing, but I find the price Liverpool paid a bit tough to justify.

8. Jean Makoun/Michael Bradley – I know that this is a bit of a cop-out, combining two players as one signing, but Aston Villa did a lot to strengthen the center of their midfield with the £6 million capture of the Cameroonian midfielder from Olympique Lyonnais and the loan of the American midfielder from Borussia Monchengladbach. Makoun brings composure on the ball, good visions, and the knack for scoring timely goals.

Watch this video of his goal against Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League.

Like Makoun, Bradley is an energetic box-to-box midfielder.  Bradley was a goal scoring machine in his time with SC Heerenveen, and has shown a touch for scoring with ‘Gladbach. He was one of the stars of the U.S. team at the 2010 World Cup and should provide Villa with an excellent partner to Makoun.

7. Sully Muntari/Stéphane Sessègnon – Another combination, but Sunderland strengthened their attack and strength in midfield with these two signings.  Muntari, moving on loan from Inter Milan, will bring steel to the midfield.  He will provide both good vision (as shown by his ball over the top to fellow Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan against Stoke City)  and energy in the center of the park.

Sessègnon, who had fallen out of favor at Paris Saint-Germain, with provide the Black Cats with some creativity out of the midfield or in a withdrawn forward position.  The Benin international played well against Stoke and should help Gyan keep the attack going while Danny Wellbeck and Fraizer Campbell recover from injury.

6. David Bentley – The supremely talented, though somewhat enigmatic winger moves on loan from Tottenham to Birmingham in a bid to find regular playing time.  Bentley, who started his career with Arsenal, but made his biggest impact with Blackburn, has loads of talent but can’t seem to find the pitch on a regular basis. In his first match, he won man-of-the-match for his work against Aston Villa. He scored his first goal for the Blues against Coventry City in the FA Cup. If Bentley can keep up this form, he will certainly help the Blues keep their place in the EPL.

5. Edin Džeko – On talent alone, the Bosnian striker would be higher on this list, but questions remain on how he will fit into the squad on the pitch.  He has been one of the most sought after players in world soccer over the last several years.  He was the engine that drove the attack for VfL Wolfsburg in his time in Germany.  The reason he lands at #5 is due to questions on how he will fit into the mercenary side at Manchester City.  With Carlos Tévez an ever-present in the lineup, and  Manchester City and Roberto Mancini preferring a 4-3-3 formation where does Džeko fit? Tévez prefers playing in the center of the park, and Džeko does as well.  Neither seems a natural fit on the wing.  Will City change their lineup? They could shift to a 4-4-1-1 with David Silva sliding back to a left-sided midfield spot, with Tévez in a withdrawn forward role and Džeko up top.  If City find a way to truly incorporate Džeko he would have to move up this list. Plus, not to knock Andy Carroll, he was nearly £8 million cheaper.

4. Fernando Torres – El Niño lands at #4 due to similar concerns expressed in my critique of the Edin Džeko move.  Torres is undoubtedly talented, and brings an amazing goal scoring record in the Premier League to Stamford Bridge (65 goals in 102 games).  However, where does the Spaniard fit into a Chelsea side with so much (volatile) attacking talent?  Nicolas Anelka will not stand for being dropped from the first XI, nor will Didier Drogba. While Ankelka has slotted in well on the wing, neither Drogba nor Torres are a natural fit on the wing.  Perhaps a 4-3-1-2 formation with one of the forward occupying a withdrawn role would work the best, but it remains to be seen if Carlo Ancelotti will alter his system.

3. David Luiz – The Blues make a second appearance on the list, this time for signing the dynamic Brazilian defender for up to £26.5 million from Benfica.  With Chelsea clearly in need of defensive help, Luiz was an excellent signing.  He was a huge part of a rock-solid defense as Benfica conceded just 20 goals on their way to the Portuguese title last season.  He is versatile (he can play left back or center back) and is strong in the air.  At just 23, Luiz has time to grow into an even better player and will a rock in Chelsea’s defense for years. Plus, how could you not like this guy, he has some of the best hair in English soccer!

2. Luis Suárez – Suárez is probably best known in America for his handball against Ghana during the 2010 World Cup.  The handball, which looked stupid at the time, saved La Celeste from defeat at the hands of the Black Stars.  However, people would be remiss if they aren’t aware of the young strikers immense talent.  The Uruguay international has a history of scoring goals (111 goals in 159 appearances for Ajax), something Liverpool will need after the departure of Torres.  He made a positive debut for the Reds, getting credit for what was certainly an own goal for Andy Wilkinson of Stoke.  Costing less than Andy Carroll and with a much stronger track record, Suárez is the best signing of the transfer window for Liverpool.

1. Darren Bent – Darren Bent is a goal scorer.  Plain and simple.  Aston Villa needed a player up top who could put the ball in the back of the net, and they got that when they signed Bent from Sunderland for £18 million.  Bent, who scored 24 Premier League goals just two season ago, provides Villa with proven finisher.  Many thought Villa paid too much for Bent, but Bent proved his worth scoring the game winner against Manchester City (his debut for Villa).  When you consider the cost of the other forwards on this list, Bent certainly looks like he could be a bargain.  Villa is fighting to move into the top half of the table, and stay away from the relegation zone,  and Bent and their midfield signings will help Villa realize that goal.

Other signings that merit mention are Robbie Keane‘s move to West Ham, a team that sorely needs a goal scorer, and Blackpool‘s signings of Andy Reid and James Beattie – two players who should help the Seasiders keep their place in the Premier League.

Agree with my selections, disagree, leave a comment.

Australian, Closed (Men’s Wrap-Up)

Rod Laver Arena

For the first time in my life, I was privileged enough to attend the Australian Open this year.  There was talk of a tourney preview between the Rally Cap’s headmaster and I that never materialized since I was finally able to sleep on a plane like a big boy.

Two weeks of blistering tennis, sightseeing across eastern Australia  and laughing at my snowbound friends now past, we take a look back to see what the last two weeks really mean for the big players in the tennis world.

The last six years have been so thoroughly dominated by the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal narrative, that it feels equally appropriate and necessary to start there.  Obviously, neither man made (positive) history in Melbourne.  Federer didn’t bag his 17th major, nor did Nadal wrap up a quasi grand slam by winning his 4th in a row.  After spoiling fans with the consistency of their greatness, this Australian Open marked the 8th consecutive major the two titans have not met in a decider.

Only the staunchest fan could deny that Federer hasn’t grown increasingly inconsistent against top tier opponents.  The shanks dogged him throughout 2010 and this 2011 Australian Open would be no different.  Berdych, Soderling and Djokovic (twice) have taken Don Federer out on the sport’s biggest stages. To the objective observer, this decline in Federer’s game is no news.  In 2008, Rafael Nadal reached a level of consistency and excellence where he could beat Federer even on his favorite court, Wimbledon’s Centre.  Rafa’s run of form would continue until the 2009 French when the Spaniard found himself injured.  With Nadal sidelined and hobbled through the rest of 2009, Federer seemed to some, once again in the ascendancy.  But frankly, nothing changed for the Swiss legend until late 2009.  Until then, it was still just one man who could beat Federer regularly, and that one man was injured.  The loss to Del Potro at the ’09 US open signaled a true, though gradual, changing of the guard.  Federer will continue to win, as he did in Melbourne in 2010; but he’s coming back to the pack.  It isn’t just Nadal anymore.  Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray, Soderling and Berdych had all joined Rafa in being able to topple King Federer in key moments. The locker room aura of invincibility has been shattered. Players aren’t walking onto the court down a break in their own minds anymore. That makes those close matches even tougher to win.

With this Australian in the rear view mirror, the end of 2010 looks more a smokescreen than ever.  Federer went 26-2 after the US Open, winning matches across the Asian and Euro-indoor fall circuits and in Doha just before the Australian.  These far flung, off-the-radar events were once the province of the Nalbandians and Davydenkos of the world. Last year though, Federer used them to stockpile confidence and (to a cynic like myself) ranking points against lesser competition so that an “early” loss in Australia, would not touch the ranking, further denting the aura.  Winning Stockholm, Basel and the World Tour Finals is 2,000 points, the same as winning the Australian (he also made the semis of the Shanghai Masters which he skipped in 2009).  Given the current gap of less than 100 points, it’s only winning the if Stockholm Open that has kept Federer as World No. 2.  

As long as he remains No. 2 behind Rafa, Federer can justify his results.  He can still say, there’s just that one guy, El Rafa!  Were he to have slipped to 3, 4 or 5 after Melbourne, there is question as to how Fed would’ve handled it.  Why?  Simply because we’ve never seen another player with such uninterrupted dominance as to have a case study.

Yes, Sampras won 14 majors, but half were at Wimbledon and he would flip flop rankings with Courier, Agassi, Rafter and others during his six year run as year end No. 1.  Federer won nearly everything in sight for 4 years and had an uninterrupted run at No. 1 for 237 weeks.  Sampras ruled an ATP democracy, if you will; others were heard, seized some power, revolted, but he remained presidential.  Federer was untouchably kinglike in his reign, guarding the ramparts and repelling lightweight attacks on his throne with a flick of the backhand.  Federer floated above the hoi polloi with only Nadal able to truly mount a serious challenge to his dominance.  Federer has 16 majors, but he’ll no longer be able to beat the other top contenders with his B game, and he’ll no longer have his A game every week.  Federer will always be a favorite, but he’s no longer alone.

Nadal

Rafael Nadal at the 2010 Australian Open

With Nadal, we are seeing a familiar narrative re-emerge.  He is simply not able to play at the highest level for a full season, his body will not allow it.  Nadal’s biggest threat on the court is his own body.  The last 4 majors he didn’t win he either didn’t play or was felled with injury during them.

Nadal is at a crossroads.  He will never match Federer’s level of day-in/day-out dominance, his body is too fragile.  This means he needs to focus on winning when and where it matters.  It means that any amount of overplaying, whether for a sentimental home crowd in Barcelona, for some far flung cash grabs in Bangkok or whistlestop charity tours, must be met with a firm “no.” No?

Nadal’s bodily boom and bust provides a potential chink in the noted competitor’s armor: motivation.  I know, it sounds laughable to question Nadal of all people in the motivation department, but hear me out.  Nadal has one of the most decorated records in the sport’s history, he’s won each of the majors, attained the No. 1 year end ranking twice, won Olympic Gold and Davis Cup for Spain.  Some will note he hasn’t won the tour championships, fair point, but that’s not even the most important tournament in England.   As much as Nadal relishes playing, competing, as any athlete will tell you rehab is a grind.

A player who gets injured as much as Nadal spends as much time on the trainer’s table as on the court.  That’s not competition, it’s not the physical and mental chess game that Nadal seems to have such a lust for, it’s a means to an end.  The emerging question is, what is the end.  What more does Nadal have or want to accomplish in his career?  Chase down Federer’s 16 majors, maybe.  Get that tour championships win, maybe.  Become the 3rd man to win the calendar slam?  All worthy goals, but are they Rafa’s?  Grabbing the US Open ended the last absolutely necessary test of Rafa’s greatness.  Will Rafa grow tired of the boom/bust, the injury and rehab cycle that has defined his career or does he still thirst for more? I ask because when Rafa grows tired of the putting in the hard yards off the court, his results will fall off. This is a question the supremely healthy Federer has never had to answer. You can’t make 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis if you can’t make the starting line. Again, the yin and yang of the two beloved champions.

The losing finalist Andy Murray did almost everything he wanted to this fortnight.  He played well enough to emerge from Rafa’s half of the draw, defended his points from last year and managed to shrug off the weight of expectation.  Because after his meek, passive display about Djokovic, I don’t think I, for one, will ever pick him to win a major again.

Sports Illustrated‘s esteemed Jon Wertheim pointed out that in the Open era, only three men lost their first three major finals: Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Lendl, all fine company.  Frankly, the Scot would cut a virtually tragic figure if he never won one given his resume to date.

The thing is, Murray doesn’t seize the moment, he waits for his opponents to trip up.  You almost expect him to drop his racquet, stomp and start shouting “It’s not fair, it’s my turn, MY TURN!!!”

If Murray’s facing a top player with experience in pressure matches, the collapse he’s waiting for is just not going to happen.  The most telling statistic to me is that Murray’s played 9 sets in major finals, he is 0-9.  Now, he did play those matches against Federer and Djokovic, but if you’re capable of making the final Sunday, you should be able to win a set–in three tries. 

Sure, If the draw breaks right, he can have his Ivanisevic moment, maybe even at Wimbledon.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.  Ever.

Djokovic vs. Murray

The Final Two In Australia

So what then of the champion, Serbian national hero, Novak Djokovic.  To say he’s on a roll would be an understatement, US Open final, Davis Cup champion, Australian Open champion.  That’s a pretty nice run. Hell, that would be a nice career even for a lot of players in the Top 10. It’s the last four months for the consensus hottest player on tour at the moment.  With the ATP sticking to hardcourts for the next couple of months, I would not be surprised to see his run continue.

That he’s finished World No. 3 four consecutive years tells you a lot about his consistency and high level of play, but also about the nearly static world order of men’s tennis as of late.  In most eras, a player of Djokovic’s calibre would’ve already bagged a few weeks at No. 1 and might be a major or two ahead of his current pace.  He just happens to have born into the era of two of the greatest players in history, and he still already has borderline Hall of Fame credentials.

The biggest change for Djokovic in the last few months seems to be his attitude, self-belief, not searching for the rip cord.  He no longer fears Federer, he knows he can play with Nadal.  He made a fine account of himself in last year’s US Open final and I give him an incomplete for his illness-marred results on the dirt last year based on how well he acquitted himself on clay in prior seasons.  He’s a legitimate threat to win at 3 of the 4 majors and his Wimbledon results haven’t exactly disappointed either.  The question for Djokovic is where’s the needle on his emotional gas tank?  Djokovic is a player whose own psyche can boost or destruct him.  He’s way too good to be considered a headcase, mind you.  But managing his emotions are a major part of him playing his best ball.

Logic dictates that Federer/Nadal era was bound to come to an end, but when? Will either of the two still be at the top of the game when we end 2011?  I’ll say both will finish in the Top 5, but Djokovic is looking dangerously close to crashing the six year strangehold on the Top 2.  Andy Murray, on the other hand, well, I want him to prove me wrong.

Time to Move On

What is there to say about yesterday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers?  The Eagles cost me $5!  Any time the Eagles play the Packers or 49ers (she lives outside of San Francisco), my wife’s grandmother calls to set up a bet.  The Packers were my wife’s grandfather’s favorite team.  He grew up in Wisconsin and was a life long Packers fan.  He and I used to bet on the games, and now my wife’s grandmother has continued the tradition.

Beyond the Eagles costing me 5 dollars, this paragraph should suffice. The Birds played poorly in every facet of the game.  It’s easy to blame David Akers for the loss, his two missed field goals are the most glaring mistakes; however, this is just not accurate.  The defense was porous, giving up points at the most inopportune times.  Sean McDermott’s squad gifted the Packers points (see the offside penalty that extended Green Bay’s fist scoring drive), and the tackling was atrocious.  The other side of the ball wasn’t much better.  Michael Vick and company were unable to mount sustained drives when the team needed them most.

With that brief discussion of my thoughts on yesterday’s game out of the way, I am moving on.  While I clearly support the Eagles and Phillies the most vocally, I am a fan of both the Sixers and the Flyers.  Some might not know it, but there are other sports going on in Philly.  The Flyers sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 26-10-5 record and have played well all season.  They are fun to watch and I suggest Philly sports fans going through withdrawal should check them out. The Sixers sit 8th in the Eastern Conference, despite a 15-22 record.  Not to shabby.

With over a month until pitchers and catchers report, I will be focusing most of the blogging on the Flyers and Sixers.  I will also be looking to blog more about soccer and college basketball (Duke has started the season 15-0, and BU look like they will compete for the America East title).