Premier League XI

We’re eleven rounds into what’s been a fantastic premier league season. Here are the top performers in the first third of the year.

GK
Joe Hart, Manchester City
England’s number one has been brilliant between the sticks for City. Ten goals conceded in eleven games.

RB
Micah Richards, Manchester City
Richards really deserved an England call during the international break–he’s unlucky to play a position that has such a glut of talent for the Three Lions.

CB
Fab Coloccini, Newcastle
The Argentine has been much maligned by the Magpie faithful in the past, but this season he’s combined defensive solidity and goalscoring and made himself a fan favorite.

CB
Phil Jones, Man Utd
The former Blackburn man (boy) has played a slew of positions this season, but in my mind he’s at his best as a ball-playing center half.

LB
Jose Enrique, Liverpool
Liverpool show signs of brilliance, but inconsistent play and injuries continue to drag them down. Enrique has been one of their only steady players, and he looks a bargain for King Kenny.

MID
Joann Cabaye, Newcastle
Cabaye is pure class. It’s that simple. He can do it all in the midfield, and I would not be surprised if he didn’t get snapped up by a club like United in the summer.

MID
Juan Mata, Chelsea
Chelsea, like Liverpool, have been startlingly inconsistent, but all of their best play has come through Mata.

MID
David Silva, Man City
The most talented player in the league, in my opinion.

FWD
Robin Van Persie, Arsenal
RVP is ‘slow’ and ‘weak’. Other than that, he’s scored 31 goals in his last 29 games and looks like Thierry Henry reincarnated.

FWD
Sergio Aguero, Man City
Kün looks every bit as good as advertised. Tevez may be in exile by City seem to have a knack for mercurial Argentine strikers.

FWD
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa
This appears to finally be the year that Gabby puts it all together. His new manager has given him license to roam in a Wayne Rooney-esque role, and his play is going through the roof.

MANAGER
Alan Pardew, Newcastle
Who knew? Pardew made a few key signings and implemented some serious defensive discipline and now United are cracking the top four.

Advertisements

Media Matters

The Red Sox have had plenty of backseat drivers on their road to a new manager. The media frenzy begs the question–is a media-friendly manager a necessity in today’s 24-hour sports cycle?

The answer, according to precedent, isn’t quite black and white. Take these comparisons, for example:

Terry Francona
What better place to start then the last Sox manager? Francona was a media darling for nearly the entirety of his Red Sox career. It certainly didn’t hurt when the team was successful, and it gave him a little slack during slumps–but all of that was forgotten when the media turned on him at the end of the 2011 season. It was an ugly scene, and the takeaway may be that you can’t (or shouldn’t) bank on media support, because it’s as conditional as anything else.

vs.

Ozzie Guillen
On the other side of the MLB manager’s spectrum you will find Ozzie Guillen, new manager of the Florida Marlins. Guillen is a proven winner, and he’s also a polarizing figure–to put it lightly. He once called Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a homophobic slur. Afterward, he apologized to the homosexual community, but not Mariotti. So yeah–I guess you could say he didn’t get along with the media.

Switching sports:

Rex Ryan
The New York Jets head coach isn’t a ‘little’ anything: he’s a big guy with big opinions and an even bigger mouth. He gets along great with the media, though, because he’s quick to provide a soundbyte and he’ll never shy away from a question.

Bill Belichick
The Patriots coach is maybe the best in sports at stymeing the media. In most of his press conferences, he somehow manages to say nothing at all of significance. Consider the game earlier this season, when Belichick called a timeout at a curious moment. After the game (which the Patriots lost), the media grilled Belichick about the timeout, to which he replied: “We took it. We called the timeout.”

So what’s the conclusion? It seems that media support isn’t necessary for success, although it can buy some time when the chips are down. The Sox would be wise to keep it far down the priority list, though.

France v. USA: International Friendly Grades

Juergen Klinsmann’s USA team travelled to Paris to take on the French national team Friday afternoon. Here’s how they fared, on a one-to-ten scale:

TIM HOWARD: 9.5. The Everton goalkeeper has been the savior for the USA team for many, many years, and he kept his sterling reputation intact in this one. Couldn’t be faulted for the goal, made all the saves he needed to and a few beauties. His only mistakes were a few weak passes out during open play.

STEVE CHERUNDOLO: 7. The right back played well, containing Menez and Ribery effectively and linking up with the attack when possible. Solid if unspectacular.

CARLOS BOCANEGRA: 5.5. The stalwart center back was organized and strong, but ultimately struggled when France came forward with space.

CLARENCE GOODSON: 5.5. Similar to Bocanegra: Goodson played very well for the most part. He was more assured in possession and positioned himself better than his more experienced partner, too. With that said, he was too weak against Remy for the goal.

TIMMY CHANDLER: 4. Possibly the most disappointing player for the USA on the night. Chandler has been hailed as the solution for the left back problem; he’s got blistering pace, crosses well and is strong defensively. But he was wasteful and awkward on the ball in this one.

KYLE BECKERMAN: 8. A quality performance from the RSL midfielder. He’s a brick wall defensively, and he made a few Xavi-esque passes, too. If Klinsmann wants to play with two sitting midfielders, he needs a better partner for Beckerman.

MAURICE EDU: 4. Another big disappointment. It may be a bit harsh, but I really don’t feel that Edu is a good enough player to be in this team. Obviously he can play or he wouldn’t be on the Rangers team sheet, but he’s never turned in a good performance for the USA. I think Bradley should play in this position instead.

CLINT DEMPSEY: 6.5. Don’t get me wrong–Dempsey, barring Donovan, is the most talented USA player. It’s obvious when he’s got the ball at his feet: his poise in possession and his innovative movement are often big parts of the USA attack. With that said, he went down too easily in this game and didn’t really provide too much for Altidore. Sure, he could have used more help, but he could have done more, too.

BREK SHEA: 6. Shea is an enigma. Even for FC Dallas, he doesn’t always light a fire on the pitch, but sometimes he looks like he could play for Barcelona. Tonight was one of his quieter nights.

DANNY WILLIAMS: 4.5. A relative unknown coming into this match, the Bundesliga player didn’t take the world by storm. He has a good turn of pace and I think he could be a good player on the flank, but he was much like Chandler on the other side in that he gave the ball away without any real pressure.

JOZY ALTIDORE: 8. This was a strong performance from the AZ striker. I think some minutes in the Eredivisie have really benefited the big striker. His holdup play was confident and smart, and he even presented a sumptuous flick for Clint Dempsey that would have come off in any league in the world.

MLS Playoffs: Bringing the World’s Game Home

Leander Schaerlaeckens (took me about three cross-references to make sure I spelled it right) wrote an excellent piece for ESPN.com today about ‘fixing the MLS playoffs.’ As he points out, the MLS–since its inception–has had to wrestle with a major identity crisis: it’s the world’s game, Americanized. Or at least that’s what the MLS is hoping it will someday become.

The higher-ups at Major League Soccer must balance the well-mapped template of world football with the things that American sports fans want and expect. It’s been tricky. In the nearly two decades of MLS, they’ve achieved some things for both sides through widespread–and often weird–experimentation. To spin off Schaerlaeckens’ piece, here are three simple ways to balance the tradition of soccer and the restrictions of American sport.

1) Erase the conferences. Plain and simple: to succeed as an American sport you must have a playoff system. But the conference system adds nothing to the league, and now that there are even teams, it simply introduces weird variables (for example, because of the sloppy Wild Card system, a team can be a Conference Champion of a conference they aren’t a part of). Do away with the conferences, and you get one, clean league table like the rest of world football, that still leads directly to American postseason play.

2) Shrink the playoffs, in both size and duration. We’ll start with size: this year, 10 of the 16 teams in MLS make the playoffs. That’s more than 60 percent of the teams! This is unacceptable. The playoffs are supposed to be the best teams, playing the best football against each other to win the cup. Teams in the lower half of the table should not be in the mix. In terms of duration, the postseason doesn’t necessarily need to be clipped, but it should be carefully watched and shaped better around the November international break (as Schaerlaeckens points out). Among the biggest flaws of the NBA and NHL are the eye-gouging length of their playoff systems–the MLS is competing with these leagues for viewership now. Don’t make their mistakes.

3) Stick with two-leg ties. It took them a while to arrive at it, but MLS officials are finally on the money with the home-and-home series. This should be the system for all stages except the final. More than any other improvements, this idea straddles the American elimination bloodlust and the European tradition. You get a series of sorts, both teams get a chance at home field–but you don’t have the awkwardness of three or seven game series in soccer. At the end of the day, we have to be true to the game’s roots.

 

Fantasy Forecast

This football season, it’s been apparent that fantasy football is a bit more polarizing than I realized. Some–like myself–have been bitten by the bug. Others–typically sports purists–harbor some bitterness about the game. No matter where you align yourself, one thing is clear: fantasy football can no longer be written off as a trend. It’s here to stay.

If you’re a player, your team is now entering the second half of the season–the business end. It’s time to dig in. Here are three starters and three sitters for this weekend’s matchups.

START ‘EM

Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears: Forte has been superb this season–a contract year, incidentally–and shows no signs of slowing down, certainly not against a porous Philadelphia Eagles run defense.

Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys: Yes, Romo has thrown a few stinkers in recent weeks, but this matchup against the Seahawks at home will get him back on track. Seattle’s run defense has been surprisingly strong, but that just means big D will need Romo to throw even more.

Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Much like Romo, Hot Roddy has been relatively disappointing for his fantasy owners thus far. But the return of Julio Jones means White will finally get some space in the secondary. Expect him to light it up.

SIT ‘EM

Redskins RB: Whether you have Ryan Torain, Roy Helu, Tashard Choice, or somebody else that Mike Shanahan found on the streets of Washington and suited up this week, don’t do it. It’s impossible to predict who’ll get the carries, and even if you can, the offensive line is terrible.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys’ fill-in running back has been pretty stellar in his time deputizing for the injured Felix Jones, but this is not the week. The Seahawks are great against the run, so the ‘Boys will throw.

Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos: Just say no.

Moving forwards

Andre Villas-Boas inherited an enigma of attacking players when he took over the Blues’ hotseat. What should he do with each of them?

Fernando Torres (#9): When you pay 50 million for a player with a proven pedigree in the Premier League and (theoretically) six good years left in his career, you build your team around him. While you can’t ever bank on who the manager will be, you can guarantee Torres will be the first name on the team sheet for the next few years.
What should happen: Torres is finally recovering some form. He should stay, be pampered and have players brought in who play his way.
What will happen: Probably exactly that, barring a major injury or another scoring drought.

Didier Drogba (#11): With not a bang but a whimper, Drogba’s Chelsea career is ending. He’s started four games in the league this season, and all of them have been when Torres was suspended or injured. Three more substitutes appearances, but only one goal in total. He looks slow and old, and sentimentality aside, it’s time.
What should happen: Cash in this January! If Drogba continues to play this poorly—and this infrequently—the lucrative offers will dry up. See if Marseille can finally pay way too much for their old savior.
What will happen: He’ll stay and rot on the bench ‘til he’s 36 (3 years), playing only in Carling Cup matches. See Fereira, Paolo.

Romelu Lukaku (#18): The kid has talent. Chelsea probably overpaid for the Anderlecht wunderkind, but how could they not? They were buying the story, too; including the priceless Youtube video of Lukaku crying on a Bridge visit.
What should happen: The ‘ultimate Chelsea fan’ should stay for his whole career, score bags of goals and take a spot on the touchline.
What will happen: It’s hard to say, but I fear the money and stardom will get to him and he’ll sell out for La Liga once he’s fully developed.

Salomon Kalou (#21): After enough time, potential is crystallized and becomes ability. Kalou’s not that young anymore, and he still hasn’t developed into anything near a complete player.
What should happen: Like Drogba, he should be sold in January to any willing bidder. A team like Stoke or Sunderland would be a great fit for Kalou.
What will happen: He’ll stay through the season and ship out to France or Italy.

Daniel Sturridge (#23): One of my favorite things about AVB’s reign is that he has finally kept Daniel Sturridge on the payroll. Sturridge—who just received his first England call up—is among the most talented players in the league. He is a bit rash in his decision making, but that makes him even harder to defend.
What should happen: He’s excelled out on the wing, cutting inside—keep him there! He and Lukaku are the future.
What will happen: It depends on the manager. AVB loves him, but a manager who prefers more traditional wingers would probably use him as a deputy for Torres, which would result in a move.

Nicolas Anelka (#39): It’s bittersweet, because Anelka has finally found a home for his restless heart in West London. He’s been a solid player for Chelsea since signing from Bolton, discounting some big errors in crucial moments. Still, 33 years old is too old for a role player—it’d be better to keep someone with more upside.
What should happen: Keep him ‘til the summer.
What will happen: Probably that. Drogba is declining faster, and Anelka has some dynamism off the bench. The new style of play also suits him more than Didier. He’ll cash in with a big money move Stateside, or to Qatar.

Alone in a crowd

On Fan Appreciation night, the team from Boston hobbled across the finish line, slumping to another humiliating defeat at home. It was a fitting end to an infamous season–hobbled by injury and underperformance, a stacked team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outside of the stadium, nobody noticed.

Boston is generally revered as the current epicenter of sports success. Across the four ‘major’ sports in the United States, the city (and surrounding area) has claimed seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001. Last month, ESPN the magazine’s cover hailed it as ‘America’s Most Dominant Sports City.’

The New England Revolution are the outlier. In a town where titles talk, the Revolution have never won the league. Two years in a row, they haven’t even made the playoffs.

While the Red Sox hold the record for most consecutive sell-outs in MLB, the Revs struggle to seat 14,000 in a 82,000 seat stadium. Their home games are remarkable in their unremarkable characteristics–how fast you can get in and out of the parking lot, the availability of tickets, and the ease with which you can make out the chatter on the field.

After watching the dejected 2011 team hang their heads as they left the field to near-silence, the thought pervaded–why doesn’t Boston care about the Revolution?

Some will try to cite the facile–soccer hasn’t taken off in America. This vague argument of the turn of the millennium is now plainly untrue: median and average attendance figures in the MLS are at an all-time high. Teams like the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC consistently sell out their matches. Seattle averages more than 37,000 fans per game–more than triple the Revolution. Sporting Kansas City registered 70% growth in ticket sales this season. MLS attendance averages have now leapfrogged both the NBA and the NHL–only trailing MLB and the NFL.

It’s not a case of building a fan base, either. The Revolution is one of only ten “charter” teams in MLS. Most of the teams that break the attendance records are actually the newer teams, like Seattle and Portland. Exposure to the locality is also in the Revs favor. Get this: the Revolution is the only MLS team in the league’s history to have every single home match televised.

Let’s take a look at the team, then. The head coach, Steve Nicol, has some commonalities with recently ousted Red Sox manager Terry Francona–both presided over their respective team’s most successful periods before eventually sliding into the mire. Francona led the Red Sox to two World Series titles; Nicol took the Revs to the finals four times.

Nicol is one of the original faces of the MLS. Since taking over full-time in 2002, the team only finished outside third place in the regular season three times–in this golden period, the Revs made at least the Conference semi-finals eight years in a row.

Nicol’s reputation preceded him–he’s a Liverpool legend, voted 39th in a fan poll of favorite LFC players. A likable guy with a big reputation, he earned the honor of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year in 1989, bestowed upon the experts’ pick for best player in the English Premier League. Does any of this matter for the Revolution? In a word: yes.

In any sport, but particularly a fledgling league with enormous potential for growth, the public perception of a head coach is vital. The league is trying to attract top young talent; once lured, the players often decide based on the coach.

Nicol has cemented this idea, even through the unsuccessful past two seasons. This year specifically, Nicol attracted one of the premier American talents: Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber could be likened to Steve Nash–he’s a relatively small, graceful player with a remarkable gift for playmaking. At times he’s been touted as the “future” of American soccer, but after injury problems, he was looking to rebuild in the MLS. He chose Nicol’s Revolution, despite the fact that the team was floundering.

Feilhaber doesn’t have the prestige of David Beckham, but a marquee signing usually means public attention. For Benny and the Revs, it didn’t. Further on in the season, they were given a new opportunity to try and capture the local eye; Nicol gave 16-year old Leominster High School student Diego Fagundez his debut. And he scored.

The marketability of the moment was absurd, and the Revs tried to capitalize. Diego-centric promotions abounded, but there was only a small ripple of attention.

In this state, the season ended, with the Revs registering their worst season in history. Reports of their troubles went unnoticed, buried under inexorable dissections of beer in the Red Sox clubhouse and petulant sniping in the NBA labor negotiations. Come March, Nicol and the boys will be back, and they’ll toil away in a stadium that feels as rented as the support.