Tag Archives: sports

Red October: Doc Throws Second No-Hitter in Playoff History

 


The final out of Halladay's second no-hitter of the season (photo from Jeff Sullivan at SB Nation)

October 6, 2010 – The day Roy Halladay threw the first no-hitter by an NL pitcher in the history of baseball.  According to @MLB_PR on Twitter, the game was the 1263rd playoff game in history, and just the 2nd no-hitter.  Let that sink in for a second.

October 6, 2010 – A date many Phillies‘ fans (and baseball fans in general) will not soon forget.  Fans of the Phillies may even remember where they were as Doc threw his second no-hitter of the season, becoming just the 5th man to do that in a season.

October 6, 2010 – The date this fan missed his favorite team’s ace throw a no-hitter because he was in French class!  Are you kidding me!  How did I allow this to happen?  I contemplated skipping class, but I had an exam, so that was out.  My only recourse to follow the game in real-time was to keep track of it on my Droid X using MLB At-Bat, and hope that I wouldn’t miss anything historic.    In retrospect, I should have set my Tivo.  I didn’t and I missed an historic event.  What an idiot!

Enough with my rant, time to talk about the game.  Much has been written, and rightfully so, about Roy Halladay’s brilliance and this post will add to those words.  Roy Halladay is simply the best pitcher in baseball.  He has been a beast throughout his career and his first season with the Phillies has been superlative. To quote Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley:

In his first year with the Phillies, Halladay has:

  • Pitched a perfect-game against the Florida Marlins
  • Made the NL All-Star team
  • Pitched a complete game shut-out to help his team clinch the division against the Washington Nationals
  • Led the NL in wins, complete games, shut-outs, innings pitched, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and lowest walk rate
  • [Will likely] win the NL Cy Young award
  • Put himself into legitimate NL MVP candidacy
  • Pitched a no-hitter in Game One of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, his first career post-season start

On the day the trade went down that brought Halladay to the Phillies, I knew that he would be awesome in Philly.  I said to my wife’s uncle, that Halladay would easily have an ERA in the low 2’s (he ended the season with a 2.44 ERA) and that he was my favorite to win the Cy Young award.  When I made that prediction, I didn’t know he would be this good.

How good Halladay was last night? According to the ever helpful Baseball-Reference.com, Halladay’s pitching performance had a game score of 94, which tied it with Don Larsen‘s famous perfect game for the 4th best game score in post season history!  Two of the three players who finished with better game scores pitched into extra innings, adding points to their totals.  Roger Clemens (the man with the best game score) struck out 15 batters in a one-hitter against Seattle.  Strike outs count for something in the computation of game scores, so the Rocket grabs the top spot.

To quote Eno Sarris at FanGraphs:

But of course it was his work on the mound that was so impressive. He showed legendary control in pitching his no-hitter, only producing 25 balls on 104 pitches. He induced weak groundball after weak groundball (12 of them, to 6 fly balls). He was efficient – using only 11.6 pitches per inning. He was dominant. He had the kind of game that will go down in history right next to Don Larsen’s perfect game. He produced a game of which everyone who watched felt unworthy. He was awe-some.

That type of dominance is the reason the Phillies brought Halladay to Broad and Pattison.  I can’t wait to see what Doc has in store for us as the postseason continues.

Of course, the night couldn’t simply be a celebration of Roy Hallday’s greatness, somebody had to cause some controversy.  In what sounds a lot like sour grapes, Orlando Cabrera decided to spout these words, “He and the umpire pitched a no-hitter. He gave him every pitch. Basically, we had no chance.”  In response to this comment, as Eno Sarris points out using data from BrooksBaseball.net, Cabrera had nothing to complain about.  See the chart:

As you can see, Halladay had little help from umpire John Hirschbeck.

Clearly, Cabrera should take some lessons from fellow Red, Jonny Gomes who had this to say about Halladay,

I think Doc actually took the umpire out of the game by just throwing strikes. I really didn’t have any questionable strikes on me. I’m not really worried about the umpire too much. I’m worried about the guy on the mound. He did a great job — all four corners down and in, up and in, down and out. He threw all four pitches in all four corners.

Props to Gomes for showing some respect for the achievement, for the pitcher and for being a class act.

Looking ahead to tomorrow’s game; can the Phillies other Roy (Oswalt) pitch the Phillies to a 2-0 series lead or will the Reds and their potent offense strike back?

Oh, and if you missed the game like I did, check out all 27 outs here.

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Who Saw This Coming?

In my haste to get the Champions League previews written and posted before the games started, I neglected to write something about how the Philadelphia Phillies have stormed from 7 games behind on July 21 to take a 3 game lead on the Braves heading into today’s games.

So, how did the Phillies get here, and did anyone really see this coming?

How did the Phillies get here? – The Phillies reached their nadir in late July following a four game losing streak that put their record at 48-46 for the season.  They were staring up at both the Mets and the Braves and even the Wild Card looked like a long shot.  How could a team that stormed out of the gate, posting a 7-1 record through their first 8 games fall so far behind so quickly? Following the torrid start, the Phillies finished April 12-10.  They followed that by going 16-12 in May, 13-13 in June, 15-13 in July. As I mentioned in a post just before the All-Star Break the Phillies have a history of success in the second half.  This has been the case once again this season, as the Phillies have posted a 40-15 (.727) record since July 21.

Roy Oswalt has been a beast since joining the Phillies. He has posted a 7-1 record with a 1.94 ERA since the trade.

Much of this success stems from the stellar pitching the team has received from the front half of the starting rotation.  Cole Hamels has been outstanding since the end of July (lowering his ERA from 3.63 to 3.01 in that time) with the Phillies going 7-4 in games he has started since July 21.  Roy Halladay has continued to pitch well, though he has seen his ERA rise of the past several games.  Since July 21, the Phillies are 9-2 when Doc takes the mound.  And then there is Roy Oswalt.  Oswalt has been a revelation since arriving in South Philly.  The Phillies are 9-1 in games Oswalt has started, while Oswalt has lowered his ERA from 3.53 to 2.90.  By having three starting pitchers that are pitching this well, the Phillies have been able to get over offensive slumps and still win games.

Who saw this coming? – Maybe my wife’s optimism is rubbing off on me, but even though I thought the Phillies were in a tough spot, I didn’t think they were out of it.  A couple of months ago, I asked in this very space if the Phillies chances of making the playoffs were toast? In that post, my answer at the time was that I thought the Phillies would make one of their patented 2nd half runs, but that they needed reinforcements (enter Roy Oswalt). I also stated my belief that the Braves would falter.  I went a step further in my post wrapping up the first half by stating, “My bold prediction is that the Phillies will storm back to win the division, as the Braves fade down the stretch and the Mets remember they’re the Mets and choke sometime in September.”  The latter part of that prediction has already come to pass.  The Braves have faltered in September, going just 8-9, while the Phillies have gone 14-3 this month.  As for the Mets, they choked earlier than expected and are 14 games behind the Phillies.  We shall see if the first part of that prediction comes true, with the Phillies holding a 3 game lead over the Braves with 13 games let to play (6 of which are against the Braves).

What the Phillies need to do? – The Phillies have 13 games remaining, 7 at home and 6 on the road.  All of the games are in the division, and as mentioned before 6 of those games are against the Braves (3 home, 3 away).  The other remaining games are against the Nationals (4 games – 1 at home, 3 away) and Mets (3 home games).  Their current home stand, which ends against the Mets next Sunday and includes 3 games against the Braves, could decide the division.  If the Phillies head to Washington with a lead in the division, the Braves will be hard pressed to catch them.  If the Phillies went 7-6 in their remaining games (and there is no reason to believe they can’t post that kind of record), the Braves would have to go 10-3 just to tie the Phillies.  With the way the Braves have been playing that just doesn’t seem likely.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Phillies currently have a 98.55% chance of making the playoffs (+23% over the last 7 days).  With a 3 games lead over Atlanta, and what amounts to a 5 game lead in the Wild Card (if necessary), the Phillies look headed for their 4th consecutive postseason.

Champions League Preview: Group H

Finally we have come to the last group in our Champions League preview.  I must thank the UEFA schedulers for placing the back half of the draw’s first matches on Wednesday, which bought me more time to complete all of the previews.  While half of the opening matches have already been played, don’t forget to take a look at all the other group previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F and Group G.

Group H continues the pattern established by many of the other groups.  One team that is the prohibitive favorite (Arsenal), and several teams (Shakhtar Donetsk, Partizan Belgrade, and Braga) that are likely competing for second place.

Despite rumors that Cesc Fàbregas was rumored to be leaving the Emirates, he is still with the Gunners and will lead them on their quest for silverware.

Arsenal F.C. – One of the most storied clubs in English football, Arsenal have seen a bit of a hardware drought over the last 5 seasons.  Their last major trophy was the FA Cup in 2005.  While the North London side remain perennial contenders, they have not been able to break the recent ChelseaManchester United duopoly at the top of the English Premier League.  In addition, there has been only moderate success in the Champions League (advancing to at least the quarterfinals every year since 2007, and almost always advancing from their group), with their best finish being runners-up in 2006.

This year’s squad resembles the United Nations, with players from 17 different countries.  Manager Arsène Wenger is highly respected and seems to be able to get the best out of players (look no further than former Gunner Thierry Henry).  Wenger dipped into the transfer market this summer to sign Moroccan forward Marouane Chamakh, and a pair of French defenders (Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci).  Chamakh address the lack of depth at the forward position that was exposed when Robin Van Persie missed significant time with injuries last season.  With the departure of Eduardo to Group H rivals Shakhtar, the Gunners couldn’t stand pat.  Squillaci and Koscielny fill the hole created by the departure of William Gallas, who never really fit in at the Emirates. The one weakness that Arsenal did not address was goalkeeper.  Manuel Almunia and his two Polish deputies are just not good enough to lead a team to the Champions League trophy.  If Arsenal are going to make a deep run they will need to complete the rumored signing of Mark Schwarzer or sign another keeper.

While no team can match the high-flying start Chelsea has put together, Arsenal has seen a great deal of success in the early EPL season.  With a 3-1-0 record, the Gunners sit 2nd in the table, 2 points adrift of the Blues.  This year’s squad has the look of contenders in the EPL, but it might be too tough to catch the buzz saw that is Chelsea.

Arsenal are the clear favorites in this group.  With a history of advancing deep into the tournament, a manager that is one of the world’s best, and a beautiful brand of attacking football, Arsenal should win Group H with little trouble.

Former Gunner Eduardo, now with Shakhtar Donetsk, will seek to oust his former teammates.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk – The 2009 UEFA Cup winners, Shakhtar have become a fixture in the Champions League over the last decade.  Consistently in the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League, Shakhtar are looking to advance from the group stage for the first time.  Thanks to the rise in competitiveness of the Ukrainian League, Shakhtar were able to qualify directly for the group stage of this year’s competition.  In year’s past it had taken at least one round of qualifying for Shakhtar to make the group stage.

Shahktar’s current squad is made primarily of Ukrainian and Brazilian players, with players from the former Soviet Union making up the bulk of the rest.  Perhaps the two biggest signings of the summer were the aforementioned capture of Eduardo from Arsenal, and the signing of young, Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barcelona.  The squad, captained by veteran, Croatian midfielder Darijo Srna certainly has the talent to make an impact in the Champions League.

On the domestic front, the Ukrainian league has completed 9 rounds, and Shakhtar sit atop the table.  With a 7-1-1 record, Shakhtar are 2 points ahead of rival Dynamo Kyiv.

Following their victory in the 2009 UEFA Cup, it is clear that Shakhtar need to be taken seriously.  In their last trip to the group stage, in 2008-2009, Shakhtar finished 3-0-3 and narrowly missed advancing.  This season, they might top that performance. Given this composition of this group, Shakhtar are in a good position to advance to the knockout round.

Braga are making their first Champions League appearance. Will they find beginner's luck?

S.C. Braga – A truly unfancied side from Portugal, Braga stormed out of the gates last season and found themselves atop the Portuguese Liga early in the 2009-2010 season.  Ultimately, Benfica finished atop the table, but Braga had secured their first trip to the Champions League.  After dispatching Celtic and Sevilla on the way to the group stage, it is clear Braga have come to play.

Braga was relatively quiet on the transfer front, and why not, the team had its most successful season last year.  The current squad consists almost entirely of Brazilian and Portuguese players, with one of my favorite names in soccer: George Lucas (wouldn’t the Imperial March from Star Wars be great intro music for him and his teammates?)

While Braga had been hanging around the top 4 or 5 for the better part of this decade, they were finally able the break into the top 2.  The Portuguese Liga is one of the most top-heavy leagues in European soccer, being dominated by just three teams: FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting CP.  The fact that the plucky side from the north of Portugal displaced one of the “Big Three” is refreshing. This season sees Braga sitting 4th in the table, at 2-1-1.  With the only  loss coming to table-topping Porto, Braga should be happy with their record heading into their first Champions League group stage match.

Braga certainly have the talent to compete in this group, but their lack of experience at this level could be a handicap.  In a group where the other three entrants have all played multiple seasons in the Champions League, you have to wonder if Braga will be able to put together the consistency necessary to make it to the knockout round.

Partizan have been extremely successful domestically, can they transfer their success to the Champions League?

FK Partizan – Easily one of the most storied clubs in Serbia, Partizan are making their third straight appearance in the Champions League, but their first group stage appearance since 2003-2004.  Interestingly, Partizan have the same number of runner-up finishes as Arsenal, despite being from a much smaller league, and being far less known.

The current rosters consists almost entirely of Serbian players, many of them new to the squad.  Partizan were busy during the transfer window, bringing in 19 new players and sending 13 players packing.  One has to wonder if that much change to a squad that is the three-time defending champions of the Serbian League is wise.  No names jump out as me as being major additions or subtractions, so perhaps Partizan will not lose chemistry and moment with such a high turnover.

If the results from the domestic league are any indication, the roster turnover has not hurt Partizan.  With 4 wins from 4 matches, Partizan sit atop the table with 12 points and a +8 goal differential.  If Partizan continues to play at such a high level, the Belgrade side just might win its 4th league title in a row.

Partizan are a bit of an unknown. While the team has the tradition, the current squad has not been together long enough.  Also, Partizan has been absent from the group stage for 7 seasons.  Will this lack of experience hurt Partizan?  Partizan’s last trip to the group stage was not a good one, as they finished last in their group with a 0-3-3 record.  I suspect the Serbian side will acquit themselves better this time around, though more than a Europa League spot might be a pipe dream.

Predictions: Arsenal outclass the rest of the group and win easily.  Shahktar finish second to become the first Ukrainian side to advance past the group stage.

Champions League Preview: Group F

The Champions League previews continue at a fast and furious pace due to my slacking. With Group E previewed Friday, we move on to Group F. If you haven’t already, check out the rest of my previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D.

Group F, with Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Žilina, has the chance to provide some interesting soccer matches.  While Chelsea are the clear favorites, especially when considering their form in the early part of the EPL season (4 wins, 17 goals), the rest of the group should prove competitive.

Didier Drogba has been on fire to start the EPL season, scoring 4 goals and dishing out 4 assits in just 4 games.

Chelsea F.C. – Chelsea, last season’s Premier League champions, have during this decade become perennial contenders for both the EPL and Champions League titles.  The runners-up (to Manchester United) in 2008, the Blues are looking to finally win the big one this season.  Always the stated goal of owner, Roman Abramovich, this could be the year that Chelsea break through and take home the move coveted trophy in club soccer.

Last season, Chelsea exited the Champions League at an early stage (by their high standards), losing to eventual champions Inter in the round of 16.  Each of the previous three seasons saw Chelsea make it to at least the semifinals.  In an effort to get themselves back to the semifinals, Chelsea undertook an extreme team makeover.  While their only major signings of the summer were Brazilian midfielder Ramires (from Benfica) and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun (from Liverpool), Chelsea allowed several older players to leave the team.  Gone are Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Juliano Belletti. Chelsea allowed these players to leave in an effort to get cheaper and younger.

In the EPL, Chelsea have been in top form from the beginning of the season.  With consecutive 6-0 victories to start the season (against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan), Chelsea’s offense is firing on all cylinders.  Prior to conceding against West Ham United in the 85 minute, Chelsea hadn’t given up a single goal.  While these stats are impressive, Chelsea has had a bit of a cupcake buffet to start the season.  The best team Chelsea has played thus far (Stoke City) finished 11th last season in the EPL.

Chelsea are clearly the favorites in this group.  The team has been in fine form to start the season.  While Marseille could trouble the Blues, especially in France, Chelsea should dominate this group.

André-Pierre Gignac, one of Marseille's biggest signings over the summer, should add fire power to an already potent offense.

Olympique de Marseille – Marseille, winners of Ligue 1 last season, have in each of the past three seasons made it to the group stage of the Champions League.  In each of those seasons, the French side has been unable to make it to the knockout rounds, finishing third all three times.  Marseille will look to improve upon that showing, in a group where they have a chance to finish second.

Marseille have enjoyed their recent resurgence and with the nearly unlimited funds from the estate of French billionaire Robert Louis-Dreyfus, they should be able to bring in talent to keep them at the top of Ligue 1.  In an effort to boost  what was one of the most prolific attacks in French soccer, Marseille imported French international André-Pierre Gignac (from Toulouse FC) and Loïc Rémy (from OGC Nice).  As if those additions weren’t enough, it has recently come to light that Marseille attempted to buy Didier Drogba from Chelsea.  The only major exit from the squad was tempestuous winger, Hatem Ben Arfa.  I feel that the subtraction of Ben Arfa, who has been a distraction virtually everywhere he has played, could actually help Marseille.

While Marseille enjoyed a lot of success domestically last season, this year’s campaign has gotten off to a rocky start.  Manager Didier Deschamps and sporting director José Anigo had a falling out over the transfer strategy, and the team has gotten off to a 1-1-2 start.  Marseille started the season with a 2-1 loss to SM Caen at Stade Vélodrome, followed by a 3-2 loss away to Valenciennes FC.  It seems that they have found a way to bounce back, defeating Lorient in Marseille and drawing with Bordeaux.  Marseille will have to find their form quickly, as they host Spartak on 9/15.

Marseille certainly have the firepower to compete with many teams in Europe, though to ask them to top Chelsea might be asking too much.  While pipping Chelsea to the top spot might be out of the question, a second place finish and a trip to the knockout rounds is certainly within Marseille’s grasp.

Aiden McGeady was Spartak's biggest summer signing. Expect the Irishman to star for the Russians.

Spartak Moscow – Spartak enter this season looking to win their first league title since 2001.  During the early years of the Russian Premier League, Spartak dominated, winning 9 championships in the first ten seasons.  Since then, their best finish was last season when they were runners-up to Rubin Kazan. Spartak are making their second recent appearance in the Champions League group stage.  Their prior appearance, during the 2006-2007 season, saw Spartak finish third in their group behind Inter and Bayern Munich. The Russians will be looking to improve upon that result this season.

As with fellow Russian entrants, Rubin, Spartak was extremely active in the transfer market.  With over a dozen players joining and at least that many leaving, Spartak has dramatically reshaped its team.  The biggest signing was the capture of Aiden McGeady from Celtic.  The Irish midfielder will add a steady, attacking presence to the Spartak midfield and should significantly upgrade the club.  With McGeady providing service for Brazilian forward Welliton, Spartak should see their offense improve.

The Russian Premier League has a different calendar than most of the rest of Europe, starting in early spring and ending in November.  Due to this schedule, Spartak have already played 19 games in the domestic league.  With an 8-5-6 record, Spartak sit 5th in the Russian Premier League and look likely to miss out on Champions League football for next season.  With this in mind, expect Spartak to make the most of this opportunity and provide some tough competition to Marseille for the second position.

While I do love the addition of McGeady, I ust don’t see Spartak having the fire power to finish in the top two.  Playing in the Luzhniki Stadium can be intimidating for visiting clubs, but Chelsea played Manchester United there in the 2008 title game.  Spartak will likely finish third in this group and ear their way into the Europa League.

MŠK Žilina are just the 2nd Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage.

MŠK Žilina – I have to admit no prior knowledge of Žilina before writing this post.  The most I knew about the Slovak Superliga was that Artmedia Bratislava made it to the Champions League group stages a few seasons ago. There always seems to be one team that comes out of nowhere to qualify for the group stage, and I think Žilina are that team this year.

Champions of the Slovak Superliga, Žilina are making their first appearance in the group stage of the Champions League.  Having previously qualified for the Champions League on 4 occasions, Žilina defeated Birkirkara F.C. (Maltese champions), Litex Lovech (Bulgarian champions), and AC Sparta Prague (Czech champions)  along the way.

Žilina’s team consists mostly of Slovak and Czech players, and doesn’t contain any international stars of note.  Žilina are the second Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage, following Artmedia Bratislava (who finished third in their group in the 2005-2006 season).  If Žilina are able to replicate Artmedia’s success, the Slovaks would have to be happy.

Prediction: Chelsea easily top this group.  The Blues are in fine form this season and open their campaign against Žilina in Slovakia.  Marseille finish second.

Champions League Preview: Group E

After a bit of a break from blogging and soccer, and after having covered the first half of the draw (check out the previews for Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D), we move on to Group E.

Group E, at first glance doesn’t look very difficult.  The group has one traditional power (FC Bayern Munich), a club on the rise from one of big 5 league (AS Roma), and two relative upstarts (FC Basel 1893 and CFR Cluj).  As with several of the other groups already previewed, there is one clear favorite in this group (Bayern Munich).  What makes this group different is the presence of a presumptive second place team (Roma).  Will there be surprises in the group?

If Arjen Robben can stay healthy, Bayern has a shot to make a run to Wembley Stadium.

FC Bayern Munich – Bayern Munich, last year’s losing finalists, have to be smiling when they look at this group.  The Bavarian side are clearly the class of the group.  With a history that includes 4 Champions League titles, the most recent in 2001, Bayern are contenders virtually every year.  Bayern have won 6 league titles this decade, and despite an early stumble in the Bundesliga, look poised to contend again this season.

Last season, Bayern won the Bundesliga title, finishing 5 points clear of Schalke.  Over the summer, Bayern made no major purchases to augment a successful 2010 squad.  With Breno and Toni Kroos returning from loan spells, the side has gotten better without spending a lot of money.  Just as Bayern did not bringing in players, no major players left the squad.

In what has become something of a trend among Champions League teams, Bayern has stumbled out of the gate in the Bundesliga.  Prior to the international break, Bayern split its first two games, winning 2-1 at home against VfL Wolfsburg and losing 2-0 away to Kaiserslautern. Louis Van Gaal will look to right ship when Bayern host Werder Bremen on Saturday.

As with last season, Bayern will go as far as, Dutch international, Arjen Robben can take them.  If the oft-injured Dutchman can stay healthy and pair with World Cup revelation, Thomas Müller, Bayern have the team to make a deep run.

Which Adriano will Roma get? The prolific scorer or party-going, locker room distraction.

A.S. Roma – Seemingly always the bridesmaid, and rarely the bride, Roma are looking to break that tradition this season.  Roma’s best showing in the Champions League came when they finished runners-up in 1984.  This year’s squad will look to repeat their stunning 2007-2008 group win (they pipped Chelsea to the top spot).  There are some similarities between this season and 2007-2008.  Roma were clearly the 2nd (or even 3rd) best team on paper in their group (this year they are 2nd).  Though they won the group, Roma couldn’t advance past the round of 16, losing on penalties to Arsenal.

Looking to build on their recent success, Roma was relatively active in the transfer market, adding firepower to their strike force, and reinforcing their defense.  Roma are the most recent team to take a chance on mercurial forward, Adriano, and added Marco Borriello. Adding this offensive talent to Francesco Totti, Mirko Vučinić, and Jeremy Menez should net Roma plenty of goals.  On the backline, Roma added the brothers Burdisso, Nicolás (from Inter) and Guillermo (from Rosario Central in Argentina).  With no major subtractions, Roma should be a better team this season.

Following a second place finish (just 2 points behind Inter) Roma will look to make a breakthrough on the domestic scene.  Currently, the Giallorossi have played just one game in Serie A (a 0-0 draw with Cesena) and could be facing a long layoff from domestic play as the Serie A players’ union have announced a potential strike to begin on September 25.

Roma are clearly the favorites to finish second in this group.  With a very talented squad, and the lack of additions by Bayern, Roma might be able to push the German champions for first in the group.

Alexander Frei, the all time leading scorer for the Swiss national team, is the danger man for FC Basel.

FC Basel 1893 – The Swiss champions, FC Basel, have been fixtures at the top of the league since 2002.    With 5 Swiss championships since 2002, Basel will look to advance from the group stage for the first time. Their best showing in the Champions League came in 2002-2003 when they made it to the second group stage (equivalent to the group stage in the current format).  Basel entered the competition in the 3rd qualifying round and defeated Hungarian champions, Debreceni VSC (group stage participants last season) and Moldovan champions, Sheriff Tiraspol on their way to the group stage. Domestically, Basel have played 7 games, posting a 4-2-1 record, good enough for second place behind FC Luzern.

Basel, because they are in one of the middling leagues in Europe, tend not to make a big splash in the transfer market.  All of Basel’s signings over the summer were from within the Swiss League (with the exception of Fwayo Tembo, who joined from ES Sahel of Tunisia) .  The only major loss was Portuguese winger, Carlitos, who signed with Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga.

Basel will look to have a better showing than last season’s Swiss entrant, FC Zürich, who finished 1-1-4 with a -9 goal difference.  While I believe Basel will play better, I don’t see them advancing.  They might be able to pull off one upset (perhaps against Roma) when playing at home.  Zürich was able to pull an upset of AC Milan at the San Siro last year, so anything is possible.  A best case scenario for the Swiss side is to finish 3rd in the group and qualify for the Europa League.

CFR Cluj are relative newcomers to the European stage. Will they be able to pull off an upset, as they did in 2007-2008 against Roma?

CFR Cluj – A team with relatively little history in the Romanian top flight, just 16 seasons since 1946, Cluj are an example of what a team can do if they suddenly acquire significant financial backing.  In the Romanian third division as recently as 2002, Cluj have risen through the Romanian soccer ranks to capture two of the last three Liga I titles. During their previous appearance in the Champions League group stage, Cluj defeated Roma 2-1 in Rome, and drew with Chelsea in Cluj-Napoca.

Cluj’s squad has surprisingly few Romanians, as the team has imported international players in an attempt to win the league and compete in Europe.  One of their best players, Ciprian Deac, left the club over the summer and signed with fellow Champions League side, Schalke.  Cluj did add some new, international talent over the summer, but nobody of note.

Along with Unirea Urziceni, Cluj have (over the last several seasons) displaced the Bucharest teams at the top of the domestic table.  This season, though, seems to be returning the Bucharest teams to power, as Cluj currently sit in 10th with a 2-2-3 record.  Will playing the Champions League hurt Cluj’s chances to win a 2nd straight Liga I title?  Time will tell.

Cluj need to manage expectations in this competition.  If Cluj can even duplicate the success of their last appearance, they would be lucky.  Given their poor domestic form, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cluj finish at the bottom of this group.

Predictions: Bayern Munich will top this group, though I do see a bit of a struggle for them against Roma.  Roma will finish second, taking advantage of matches against clearly weaker sides.

Check out the rest of the Champions League previews:
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group F

U.S. Open – Non-Stop Action

The U.S. Open - One of the most action packed sporting events I have ever attended.

This past Saturday,  I was fortunate enough to go see the U.S. Open for the first time.  I had been to a much smaller tennis event (at the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI), but never one of this magnitude.  For those of you who have never been to a major tennis tournament, the day was wall-to-wall action.

The matches started at 11am, we got the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens around 12:00pm.  With tickets for Arthur Ashe Stadium for both the day and night sessions, we were able to see matches across the grounds.

Robin Soderling of Sweden takes on Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands

Our day started by catching the end of the Robin SöderlingThiemo de Bakker match on Louis Armstrong Stadium.  As one might expect, Soderling won the match with ease.

Following this match, we went to the grandstand court to watch Gaël Monfils take on Janko Tipsarević, the Serbian that took down Andy Roddick.  One of the coolest things about the grandstand court is that you can watch the match from above, along the walkway between the grandstand and Louis Armstrong.


A bird's-eye view of Monfils vs. Tipsarević

We popped out onto the walkway and peered down on what would be one of the most compelling matches of the day.  Monfils, who has prodigious talent but hasn’t been able to stay healthy or put everything together, ran all over the court to make shots.  It seemed as though he there were more than one Monfils out there, sort of like in his commercial for K-Swiss.  Monfils eventually got the better of Tipsarević in 4 sets.

The non-stop tennis continued with a quick stop back in Louis Armstrong to see Caroline Wozniacki, the women’s number 1, absolutely destroy  Yung-Jan Chan of Taiwan (6-1, 6-0).  In the span of a couple of hours, I had taken in three tennis matches featuring three highly ranked tennis players.  I can’t think of anywhere else in sports where you can see this much action in such a small amount of time.

Maria Sharapova giving her post-match interview.

The fun didn’t stop there, as we finally made use of our tickets for Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch the end of Maria Sharapova‘s match against young, American Beatrice Capra.  Sharapova showed her class, double bageling Capra.  I could go on describing the rest of the day, where we saw Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Jürgen Melzer, and Juan Carlos Ferrero just to name a few.  We also took in a mixed doubles match that featured Daniel Nestor, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Capra (again).

Novak Djokovic serving during his 3rd round win over James Blake.

Following a short break in the action, the night session consisting of Novak Djokovic vs. James Blake and Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Maria Kirilenko began at Ashe Stadium.  Neither match was particularly competitive, as Djokovic and Kuznetsova won their matches in straight sets.  We had awesome seats for the night session, it was incredible to be that close to the court (only 6 rows away).

Despite swirling winds that made the last match of the evening rather unpleasant for everyone in Ashe Stadium, my experience was certainly one of the most interesting sporting experiences of my life.  I’ve never been to an event where you could see so much action over the course of an entire day.  The 12 or so hours spent in Flushing were action-packed and a sports fan’s dream. The ability to move around the grounds and take in all or parts of matches featuring the best tennis players in the world make the U.S. Open a unique experience.  This trip left me thoroughly enamored with the U.S. Open.  I sincerely hope that this will not be my last trip to the courts in Queens.

Check out my flikr page for pictures from my trip.

U.S. Open

Hello all. I will be tweeting from the U.S. Open today, where I will see matches including Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova. Those two former champions play during the day, at night I will be seeing world #3 Novak Djokavic.

Keep an eye on the twitter feed and the flikr account, as I will be unloading photos from my BlackBerry.

A full post will follow, probably after the weekend.

Champions League Preview: Group C

With Group A and Group B previews already in the books, we turn our attention to Group C.  Group C has the biggest collection of internationally known clubs out of the groups already previewed.  Three-time winners, Manchester United headline the group, which also contains Rangers F.C., Valencia CF, and Bursaspor.  Interestingly, none of the members of this group had to go through the qualifying rounds to make it to the group stage.  Manchester United qualified by finishing 2nd in the EPL.  Valencia earned their way into the group stage by finishing 3rd in La Liga.  Rangers were the Scottish champions, and Bursaspor won the Turkish League.

Alex Ferguson has Manchester United primed for another run in the Champions League.

Manchester United F.C. – Easily one of the most well-known clubs in the world, Manchester United have to feel they are the favorites in this group.  United are looking to rebound from, what was for them, a sub par showing in the Champions League last season.  The Red Devils were bounced from the competition in the quarterfinals by eventual runners-up Bayern Munich, their earliest exit since 2005-2006 (when they failed to make it out of the group stage).

Last campaign saw Manchester United relinquish the EPL title to Chelsea after three consecutive league championships.  In an effort to bring youth to the team and regain the title, United signed young defender Chris Smalling from Fulham, 20-year old forward Bebé from Vitória de Guimarães, and Mexican international forward Javier Hernández from Chivas.  Adding these three promising young players to a squad that already contained some of the best players in the world makes United even more dangerous this season.  With no major departures, United has the roster to compete and potentially win multiple competitions.

Unlike many of the teams already previewed, United has not stumbled out of the gate in their domestic league.  Through 3 weeks, the Red Devils are 2-1-0, with 3-0 wins over Newcastle United and West Ham wrapped around a 2-2 draw with Fulham.  I expect the group stage to go similarly well for United.  No team in Group C can hang with United.  With players like Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov (who is in fine form this season), Edwin Van Der Saar and Rio Ferdinand, United clearly have both the talent and star power to easily win this group.

Following the losses of David Villa and David Silva, Valencia will need Éver Banega to have a great season.

Valencia CF – Valencia are making their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 2007-2008.  That season, Valencia finished last in their group, behind Chelsea, Schalke and Norwegian club, Rosenborg.  If Valencia are going to have better luck this season, they will have to do so without the services of their two most influential players from last campaign.  Prolific striker, David Villa, has left for Barcelona, while Spanish international winger, David Silva couldn’t resist the lure of Manchester City’s spending spree.

The departure of two such important figures leaves Valencia with one massive question to answer: where will the goals come from?  In his time with Valencia, David Villa scored 129 goals in 212 total appearances. Looking at their rosters, I don’t see a player on the club who can even come close to matching the scoring prowess or sheer genius of David Villa.  They will also need to replace the pace, vision and (in 2009-2010) scoring of David Silva on the wing.  He scored 10 goals last season (in all competitions), good enough for 2nd on the team.  Valencia responded to the loss of Villa and Silva by signing Roberto Soldado, who scored 20 goals in all competitions for Getafe last season, and Aritz Aduriz, who led RCD Mallorca with 12 goals.  While both signings were shrewd maneuvers, neither will truly replace Villa.  Valencia are also going to need big seasons from Juan Mata and Éver Banega to help soften the blow of losing your top two scorers. Thus far, Valencia have played 1 game in La Liga, notching a 3-1 victory over Málaga.

Despite the departures of Villa and Silva, Valencia does have a talented team.  While they will clearly not push Manchester United, 2nd place isn’t out of the question.

Rangers are hoping James Beattie can add some firepower to the frontline.

Rangers F.C. – Another of the well-known teams in this group, though a team that is increasingly resting on its former international glory to carry its name.  The Scottish Premier League is one of the most top-heavy leagues in the world, with Rangers and Glasgow rivals Celtic F.C. accounting for every title since the SPL came into existence in 1998-1999.  As a result, the Scottish champions (an runners-up) do not play enough top-level soccer to truly compete, on a yearly basis, at the international level. Every year lately, it seems that the Scottish Premier League places one team in the group stage of the Champions League, only to see that team finish 3rd or last in their respective group.  Not since 2006-2007, when Celtic finished 2nd in their group, has a Scottish team advanced to the knockout rounds. Last season, Rangers were the Scottish champions and finished last in their group, with a 0-2-4 record and a -9 goal differential.

Rangers come into this season having won the last two SPL titles and looking to prove something following their rather meek performance in last season’s Champions League.  To that end, Rangers have imported attacking power from Austria and the EPL.  Joining the Gers are: James Beattie from Stoke City, Nikica Jelavić from Rapid Vienna, and Vladimír Weiss on loan from Manchester City.  As one would expect, Rangers are off to a flying start, having won each of their first 3 games.

Rangers are clearly the class of the SPL (along with Celtic) and will likely have a spot in the Champions League for as long as the current format remains in place.  Beyond gaining this place each season, it will take a major step up in competition, domestically, for Rangers to compete consistently.  Perhaps this team has enough attacking talent to make a push for 2nd, but Rangers will have to steal points from Valencia to do so.  A repeat of last season’s performance could be on tap.

Bursaspor represent, perhaps, the biggest unknown in this season's Champions League.

Bursaspor – Another team that I knew little about prior to my writing this preview.  As with Hapoel in Group B, Bursaspor hails from a league on the geographic fringes of Europe.  While the Turkish league has a history of placing competitive teams in the Champions League (usually in the form of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, or Galatasaray) this will be Bursaspor’s first appearance.  As a matter of fact, Bursaspor are the first team outside the “Big Four” (the aforementioned three teams from Istanbul, and Trabzonspor) to win the Turkish title.

Bursaspor’s team consists of mainly Turkish players, with several Argentinians, and a smattering of players from across Eastern Europe.  Bursaspor’s best known player (at least to Americans) might be Sercan Yıldırım, who made a 2nd half appearance in a friendly against the U.S. just before the World Cup.

The most successful season for a Turkish team in the Champions League was in 2007-2008 when Fenerbahçe made an unlikely run to the quarterfinals, eventually falling to Chelsea.  I don’t see Bursaspor making a similar run, though I believe they will surprise people (maybe even Valencia) and could secure a sport in the Europa League at Rangers’ expense.

Prediction: Manchester United win this group with ease, potentially nabbing all 18 points if they play their first choice squad throughout the group stage.  Valencia finish second, but not as easily as most might expect.

If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group B
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group B

Having already previewed Group A, we move on to Group B.  This group is, perhaps, the most intriguing in the tournament.  With Lyon, a semifinalist last season; Benfica, the Portuguese Liga champions; Schalke, perennial contenders in the Bundesliga; and Hapoel Tel Aviv, Israeli champions, this group is competitive from top to bottom, even if it lacks some of the star power of other groups.

Olympique Lyonnais – Lyon made a surprising run to the semifinals last season, their first appearance at that stage.  They made the jump to the semis after three straight appearances in the quarterfinals.  In order to make the semis, Lyon took out Real Madrid and Bordeaux along the way.  Domestically, Lyon finished 6 points behind Marseille, but earlier in the decade Les Gones won 7 straight Ligue 1 titles.

Lyon added French playmaker, Yoann Gourcuff in an effort to regain the Ligue 1 title and replicate their semifinal run from last year.

In Ligue 1 this season, Lyon currently sits at 1-1-1.  They started the season with a defeat of Stade Brestois, but then lost to SM Caen, and drew with AS Monaco.  Seemingly in response to this less than stellar beginning of the season, Lyon nabbed Yoann Gourcuff from Bordeaux for €22 million.  Gourcuff is widely regarded as the future of French soccer, and is often saddled with the “next Zidane” title.  Gourcuff was French Player of the year in 2009 and provides Lyon with the playmaker they have been lacking. Earlier in the summer, Lyon signed Jimmy Briand from Stade Rennes to bolster their attack.  Adding Briand and Gourcuff to a team that already included the stellar Hugo Lloris in goal, the dangerous Michel Bastos on the wing, and 2010 Ligue 1 player of the year Lisandro López, make Lyon a formidable team.

With no major subtractions from the team that made last years semis, Lyon is the favorite in this group. Last year, they made it out of a group containing Liverpool, Fiorentina and Debrecen (from Hungary).  This year’s group is easier. While the group is by no means a shoo-in for Lyon, they should take most of the points at home and steal a few on the road.

S.L. Benfica – Last season, Benfica lost only 2 games on their way to their 32nd league title, their first since 2005.  This season’s Champions League marks the first appearance in the Group Stage for Benfica since the 2007-2008 season. Benfica will look to replicate Porto‘s 2009-2010 form, when the Portuguese champions advanced to the round of 16.

Benfica will miss the talents of Ángel di María, who has signed with Real Madrid. Do they have enough talent remaining to make a run?

Of the teams that we have previewed thus far, Benfica have been the most active in the transfer market this summer, both bringing in players and seeing players leave the team.  Joining the team are: former Arsenal midfielder Alyaksandr Hleb (on loan from Barcelona) UPDATE: Turns out the news that Hleb signed for Benfica was still just rumor.  He has instead signed with Birmingham City; promising young forward Rodrigo (from Real Madrid); and young, Argentine defender Nicolás Gaitán.  While Benfica have added some talent, they have lost more than they gained. Winger Ángel di María and midfielder Ramires both have moved on to bigger clubs (Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively).  Replacing these players will not be easy, as di María’s attacking prowess and Ramires’s control in the midfield were vital to the Lisbon side last season.  Benfica have not brought in adequate replacements and have already seen a drop in form as a result.  They have sputtered to an 0-2-0 start, losing 2-1 to Académica in Lisbon and 2-1 to Nacional away.

Benfica need to figure things out and find replacements for di María and Ramires if they want to make it out of the group.  A Europa League spot may be in their future.

F.C. Schalke 04 – The Bundesliga runners-up last season, Schalke always seem to contend for the German title.  While they have not won the title in since 1958, they have finished second 3 times in the past six seasons and have not finished outside the top half since the 1999-2000 season.

Unlike several of the teams already previewed, Schalke actually imported talent from Real Madrid, adding defender Christoph Metzelder and forward Raúl.  In addition to the pair, Schalke also added forward Erik Jendrišek from Kaiserslautern.  Jendrišek scored 15 goals for Kaiserslautern last season in the 2. Bundelisga and will combine with Raúl to help replace the scoring lost when Kevin Kurányi departed for Dynamo Moscow.  Does Raúl still have some gas left in the tank? Schalke needs Raúl to recapture some of his former scoring touch if they hope to replace Kurányi, who has been in fine form for Dynamo, scoring 3 goals in 4 games.

Jermaine Jones is finally healthy and looks to help Schalke to the Bundesliga title and the Champions League round of 16.

Schalke has its first two games in the Bundesliga, by identical 2-1 scorelines.  With German international goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, captaining the side and U.S. international Jermaine Jones healthy once again, I expect Schalke to bounce back and compete for the Bundesliga title this season.  The battle for 2nd in Group B will likely come down to Benfica and Schalke, though both have the talent to pip Lyon to the top spot.  If Schalke can get production out of Raúl and recent signing Ciprian Deac (signed from CFR 1907 Cluj and unveiled on Friday) a spot in the round of 16 is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Hapoel Tel Aviv F.C. – I will admit that I didn’t know much about the Israeli champions prior to writing this preview.  Israeli soccer is on the fringes of Europe, both geographically and on the pitch.  However, in each of the last two seasons, the Israeli champion has advanced to the group stages, despite entering the competition during the 2nd qualifying round.  Along the way, Hapoel defeated Bosnian champions Željezničar, Kazakh champions Aktobe, and Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg.  Ironically, Red Bull Salzburg was also the last victim of Maccabi Haifa on their way to the group stage last year.

Goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, is the key to Hapoel's chances.

Due to Israeli FA restrictions, only 5 non-Israeli players are permitted on the roster at any given time.  This rule handicaps Israeli teams when they enter European competitions, where most teams are a mix of domestic and foreign talent.  Hapoel’s best known player outside of Israel is probably Nigerian international goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama.  Enyeama acquitted himself nicely during this summer’s World Cup, putting on an acrobatic display against Argentina.

Hapoel will look to avoid Maccabi’s fate, as Maccabi lost all 6 games last season and failed to score a goal.  Hapoel has a better shot of pulling a result or two, especially at home, as Maccabi was in a group with Juventus, Bordeaux and (eventual runners-up) Bayern Munich.  This group is certainly easier, but it might be too much to ask for the Red Demons to advance.  The Israelis would do well to qualify for the Europa League.

My predictionLyon will win this group, though not as easily as they should.  Schalke finishes second.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group A

With the Champions League group stage draw announced yesterday, The Rally  Cap is bringing you a series of previews (1 for each group) over the next several weeks (prior to the first matches on September 14/15).  Stay tuned and check back often for updates.

The logical place to start is with Group A made up of Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente .

F.C. Internatiozionale Milano – The current Champions League holders and 5-time reigning champions of Serie A, Inter Milan, are a team that face one huge question mark entering the season.  Can they replace manager José Mourinho? Who left for Spanish giants, Real Madrid.  Mourinho’s class was on display as he out managed the rest of Europe and led Inter to its first European title since 1965, and the first treble (league, domestic cup, and European cup) in Italian history.  His brand of soccer might not be the flashiest, but it produces results.  With Mourinho at the Bernabéu, defending their titles will be tough.

While Rafa Benetize be able to replace the Special One and lead Inter to glory?

To replace the Special One, Inter brought in Rafael Benítez. The oft-maligned former manager of Liverpool F.C. will still have plenty of top class players at his disposal in his effort to win his 2nd Champions League trophy (he won his first with Liverpool in 2005-2006).  The core of the team that won last year’s title remains, with no major additions and only the loss of Mario Balotelli (to Manchester City) and Ricardo Quaresma (to Beşiktaş J.K.) qualifying as even semi-important.  The subtraction of Balotelli might be an addition, as his moody attitude will not be missed in the locker room.

With Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and World Cup star Wesley Sneijder leading the attack, Inter should have a potent offense.  One thing that is troubling is the lack of forward depth behind Milito, Eto’o and Pandev.  If one of them goes down with an injury, Milan will have to rely on David Suazo or unproven Jonathan Biabiany. The defense and the midfield remain solid, with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso holding in the middle of the park just in front of some combination of Lúcio, Wálter Samuel, Maicon, Thiago Motta, Iván Córdoba, and Cristian ChivuJúlio César will once again be between the wood work.

Inter is certainly primed for a run in the Champions League, and certainly should advance from this group.  I don’t see any team in this group being able to trouble Inter.  Perhaps a team might steal some points when they play Inter at their respective home stadiums, but Inter should coast to the top spot in Group A.

SV Werder Bremen – Werder Bremen sneaked into the Champions League by finishing third in the Bundesliga last season.  They entered the competition at the play-off round and needed some late game heroics to make to the group stage.  If not for Markus Rosenberg’s goal in the 93rd minute (which sent the game into extra time) and Claudio Pizarro‘s goal in the 100th minute, we’d be talking about Sampdoria in the group stages instead.

If Werder hope to advance, they need to find somebody to replace Mesut Özil.

Like Inter, Werder lost one of its most influential figures to Real Madrid this summer.  World Cup breakout star, Mesut Özil, followed Mourinho to the Spanish capital and left a huge whole in the Werder midfield.  Werder Bremen made a move to fill the gap, signing Brazilian midfielder Wesley from Santos and  Felix Kroos from Hansa Rostock, but I just don’t think is enough.  With no other major additions how can Werder think Wesley (who has scored 13 goals in his entire career) and Kroos (who hasn’t scored any goals in the top flight) will replace Özil (11 goals last season)?  Beyond Özil’s goals, will Kroos or Wesley be able to replace his creativity in attack?

Werder does have veteran leadership in the form of midfielders Torsten Frings (USMNT fans love him!) and Tim Borowski and in defender Per Mertesacker.  If the veterans can lead the show the youth how to play in Europe, Werder has a shot of advancing from this group.  That said, they have already lost to TSG Hoffenheim 4-1 to start the Bundesliga season and need to right ship if they hope to advance.

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. – Spurs enter their first Champions League campaign with high hopes.  Spurs finally broken into the top four in the English Premier League, thanks to a late season 1-0 victory over Manchester City.  Spurs opened the EPL season with a 0-0 draw against Manchester City, a team that has spent has spent £325 million over the past two years to bring in new talent.  Following the draw, Spurs defeated Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium.

Gio Dos Santos hopes Spurs can make it out of the group stage the way Mexico did this summer at the World Cup.

The team has many names familiar names, including forward Peter Crouch (he of the robot goal dances), Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos, Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios, and forward Jermain Defoe.  Spurs also have a couple of my favorite players to watch: Aaron Lennon, who uses his amazing pace to make defenders look foolish, and Luka Modrić whose play making ability is world-class but gets little recognition for his stellar play (sort of like when a player like Hanley Ramirez puts up huge numbers in relative obscurity with the Marlins)

Tottenham’s only major addition over the summer has been William Gallas, meaning the team goes into this season with a measure of stability that is unusual in top flight English soccer.  I expect this familiarity to work to their advantage, and would not be surprised to see this ambitious team advance to the knockout round.  However, in order to do this, Spurs will need to play more like the team that beat Young Boys 4-0 at White Hart Lane (securing a spot in the group stage) than the team that lost 3-2 in Bern.

F.C. Twente – A recent fixture in the Champions League qualifying rounds, having made it the past three seasons, Twente finally broke through this season.  Twente will make their first appearance in the Group Stage, and hope to have better luck than last year’s Dutch entrant (AZ Alkmaar, who finished with 0 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses).  Twente have made a steady climb up the Eredivisie table over the past 5 or 6 years and finally won the title last season, pipping Ajax. Former English national team manager Steve McClaren led Twente during its resurgence, but has since left for the greener pastures of the Bundesliga, taking over at Wolfsburg.

Who will replace the scoring of Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz if he makes a move to Liverpool or Sevilla? Twente's chances may rest on the answer.

How well Twente will compete in this group is anybody’s guess.  They should certainly not be written off, but with McClaren gone, all-time leading scorer Blaise Nkufo now playing for Seattle Sounders FC, and last season’s leading scorer, Bryan Ruiz the target of clubs such as Liverpool and Sevilla there are many questions surrounding the team.  With Nkufo gone, if Ruiz leaves, who will score?  Can new manager Michel Preud’homme continue the run of success started under Fred Rutten and continued by McClaren?  Will keeper Sander Boschker stand up to international competition?

I expect Twente to be a tough game when they play in the Netherlands, but not trouble the bigger clubs when they play on the road.  Twente would do well to qualify for the Europa League out of this group and might be happy if they do.

My prediction:  Inter easily wins the group.  Tottenham finish 2nd, edging Werder.

Check out the previews for:
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

Missed Opportunities

The Liberty Bell at Citizens Bank Park hasn't rung much in the past 9 games. If the Phillies want to make the playoffs it needs to ring a lot more often.

What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday (8/17), I was in attendance for the game where the Phillies took the Wild Card lead from the San Francisco Giants.  Since that game, the Phillies are 3-6.  They have ceded the Wild Card lead to back to the Giants, and the offense has looked anemic.  This 9 game slump is reminiscent to the offensive struggles the team experienced during June and July.  Since the game I attended, the Phillies have scored 25 runs, an average of just 2.78 runs per game.  It’s amazing they have won three games!  Somehow they managed to score 8 runs against the Giants on the 18th and 6 against the Nationals on the 22nd (both wins).  The other win came in a 1-0 win over the Nationals, where Roy Halladay was his usual dominant self.  During this stretch, the Phillies have lost games where their starters have given up 1 (Joe Blanton on 8/23 against the Astros), 2 (Cole Hamels on 8/24, the 16 inning game), and 3 (Halladay on 8/25, the revenge of J.A. Happ).  These are games the Phillies should win.  The offense, which a year ago was so potent but this year has been streaky, should score more than 2.78 runs per game.

The craziest statistics I came across while researching for this post showed just how under supported Halladay and Hamels have been this season.  In Hamels’ 27 starts. the Phillies have scored fewer than three runs 14 times (follow the link and scroll to the bottom to see the breakdown).  Of those games, the Phillies have been shutout in 4 of them!  With Halladay it is even worse.  While the Phillies have been shutout just once with Doc on the mound, they have scored fewer than three runs 16 times.  Of those 16 games, they have scored one run in 6 of them.  When your two best pitchers have ERAs of 2.22 (Halladay) and 3.40 (Hamels, who has been excellent in the 2nd half with an ERA of 2.83) the team should win more games.  Period!

Thankfully for the Phillies, the Braves have lost three straight and are 5-5 in their last 10 games.  While the Braves have been swooning, the Phillies have missed opportunities to pick up games.  During the last 9 games, the Phillies have lost 5 games to teams they should have beaten (1 to the Nationals and 4 to the Astros).  Given that the Phillies won 2 out of 3 against the Nats, I can’t complain too much about that loss.  What is incomprehensible is the sweep by the Astros.  The team is 11 games under .500 and came into the series 15 games under .500.  While the Astros have played better over the last couple months – they are 26-21 (.553) during July and August – they aren’t a contender.  During that same period, the Phillies are 29-21 (.580).  Most of their starters, with the exception of Hunter Pence (and he might not), wouldn’t start for the Phillies. Their pitching staff consists of a bunch of former Phillies (Brett Myers, Nelson Figueroa, and the aforementioned Happ), Wandy Rodriguez and a guy best known for ESPN comparing him to Chuck Norris after his first start (Bud Norris).  Not exactly a staff that strikes fear into many teams, and one the Phillies certainly should have handled.

Given the Phillies previous dominance at home and the Astros weakness on the road, the sweep is even more difficult to understand.  Going into the series, the Phillies were 42-22 (.656) at Citizens Bank Park.  On the flip side, the Astros were only 22-36 ).379) on the road.  Combine these stats and most would have predicted a Phillies series win, if not a potential sweep for the Phils.

As with the Braves, the Phillies’ main contenders for the Wild Card have been playing poorly over the last 10 games.  The Cardinals are 3-7, while the Giants are 4-6.  The Phillies should give thanks that these teams decided to play poorly at the same time they were slumping.  Entering tonight’s games, the Phillies found themselves. 5 games behind Giants, and were even on losses. The Cards have 3 games in hand (but are playing tonight) and have 1 fewer loss.  Right now, all Phillies fans should cheer for the Nats who take on the Cards tonight.  It could be a tough game for the Nats, as Chris Carpenter is on the hill.

Looking forward, the Phillies need to find their offense and kick it into high gear.  Of the teams they are now battling with, the Phillies have the toughest schedule remaining.  With a West Coast trip – including stops in San Diego, LA and 1 game in Colorado coming up – the Phillies face tough competition over the next week and a half.  The Phillies play just one team the rest of the way who are currently under .500 (the Nationals, for 6 games).  According to the latest Hunt for October on ESPN, the Phillies remaining strength of schedule (SoS) is .505.  By comparison, the Braves have a SoS of .485, the Cards .467, and the Giants .485.

To make things even more difficult for the Phillies, they have 22 road games and just 13 home games remaining. This does not bode well for a team that is 28-31 (.475) on the road.  If the Phillies win 47.5% of those 22 games, that would give them 10 (maybe 11) wins.  If they win at home at their current pace, the would give the Phillies 8 (maybe 9) more wins.  I’m not sure that between 88-90 wins is enough for the Phillies to win the division, and it will be just as tough to win the Wild Card with that number of wins. What all Phillies fans have to hope for is one of their now patented September runs.  If all goes well, the season ending series against the Braves in Atlanta could decide the division and may decide which team is golfing come Columbus Day.

The Phillies clearly have the toughest road ahead and need to take advantage of any missteps the Braves, Cards or Giants make. They haven’t done that over the last few days and might look back at these past 9 games and wonder what might have been.

Robert Nutting and His Ownership Group = True Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates Fans have had to endure 18 straight losing seasons, while the team made $29 million in profits during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Like robber barons of old, Robert Nutting and his ownership group are pocketing large sums of money while the fans that support the Pittsburgh Pirates watch their team continue a streak of haplessness that has now extended into its 18th season.  According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the Pirates made $29.4 million in profits during the 2007 and 20o8 seasons while they won a combined 135 games.

I agree with the sentiments expressed by David Berri, president of the North American Association of Sports Economists:

“The numbers indicate why people are suspecting they’re taking money from baseball and keeping it — they don’t spend it on the players,” said Berri, the author of two books detailing the relationship between finances and winning. “Teams have a choice. They can seek to maximize winning, what the Yankees do, or you can be the Pirates and make as much money as you can in your market. The Pirates aren’t trying to win.”

The Pirates clearly weren’t interested in winning during this time period.  While they have made some strides in spending on the draft (signing Jameson Taillon for $6 million and Stetson Allie for $2 million) they have traded or allowed nearly every potential all-star or decent player leave the team.  As noted in the ESPN/AP article:

[T]he Pirates have shed former All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson in trades, along with nearly every other player who was arbitration eligible — or close to it — or free agency: Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Ronny Paulino and Sean Burnett.

They also dealt slugger Jose Bautista to Toronto for a backup catcher who has since left their system, and cut NL All-Star closer Matt Capps without getting anything in return because he sought a $500,000 raise.

The Pirates have seen gate receipts decline considerably since PNC Park opened, due in large part to the idiotic philosophy they have embraced.  Fans would come to games if they believed the team could win and if ownership was building a team that could compete.  While the Pirates seem to be changing the culture around the team lately, as evidenced by the willingness to spend money on the draft, it will take years for those draft picks to make an impact.  In the meantime, Pirates fans will watch their team stretch their streak of losing seasons to 20 or more.

The fact that the team appears uninterested in winning and takes the revenue sharing money, paid to MLB by teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox, to pad their accounts is unconscionable.  While the team is a business, I don’t begrudge them making profits, to make profits that large while the team flounders is crazy. Owning a sports franchise is different from owning a business of any other variety.  Sports franchises and their owners have a duty to the fans that support the team.  They need to reinvest revenue from the team in an attempt to build a winner.  A winning team will in turn beget more revenue. Like other businesses sports teams depend on sales to bring in revenue.  Unlike other businesses, sports teams represent communities; they give people a common cause to rally around.  They allow people to live vicariously through their on-field heroes; while many of us can only dream about playing baseball or any other sport at the highest level, cheering for those players that represent us is nearly as exciting.

As a baseball fan, I hope that this information leak will force Nutting and his ownership group to spend more money on returning a once proud franchise to glory.

More information (including the documents) from Deadspin and Biz of Baseball here.

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