Saturday, July 4, 2015

A Rematch Four Years In the Making

After 50 games between 24 teams over a month, the 2015 Women's World Cup is going to end the same way as the 2011 edition did.  With the United States meeting Japan for the title.  It's a rematch four years in the making, and it's the only matchup the U.S. would've wanted.  In order to win the World Cup for the first time in 16 years, they'll have to knock off the team that beat them in the final last time.  It really couldn't have ended any other way.

First, a thought on the bronze medal game.  I had said all along that the USA-Germany loser would win the third place game.  After the events of the semifinals, I'm absolutely sticking to that prediction.  The Germans obviously have no interest in this game, but they're still the better team.  I don't think that's the reason they're going to win, though.  It's more because of the way England lost.  That own goal in literally the waning seconds was one of the cruelest ways to lose a World Cup semifinal I've ever seen.  Worse yet, it's completely deflating.  I don't see how England recovers from that loss two days later against the best team in the world.

Speaking of the best team in the world, that semifinal game against Germany was hands-down the best American performance of the tournament.  It's not even close.  They were aggressive and the offense was much more dynamic.  The defense, meanwhile, was just as lockdown as its been the entire World Cup.  Germany got some shots off, which you expected them to, so Hope Solo actually had to do some work for the first time since the Sweden game.  It's a good thing she's the best goalie in the world.  And it was her stalling tactics that led to Sasic missing that penalty kick.

Japan has been arguably the best team throughout the entire tournament.  But they're coming off their worst performance of the World Cup against England.  They were lucky to survive that game, and I think they know it.  Japan's road to the final has been much easier.  Their first four games were against teams making their World Cup debuts, and England was their highest-ranked opponent.  All credit to them.  They've played the teams that they were scheduled to play, and the still haven't lost a World Cup game since their last group game in 2011.  But Japan has been less and less impressive as the tournament has worn on.

The U.S., meanwhile, has gotten better as the tournament progressed.  All those concerns about the offense in the beginning have been calmed, and the defense has been just as fantastic as it's been the entire time.  It's no wonder Julie Johnston is one of the finalists for the Golden Ball.  The five consecutive shutouts are as much credit to that back line as they are to Hope Solo, who didn't really have to do much between the Australia and Germany games.

During the Americans' press conference yesterday, captain Christie Rampone (who's played in all of one game this World Cup) talked about a series of meetings Head Coach Jill Ellis had with some of the veteran players at the midway point of the tournament.  That was right before the China game.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the U.S. has played its two best games of the tournament since those meetings.

I obviously don't know what was said between Ellis and Rampone (or Carli Lloyd or any of the other players she met with), but it's probably safe to say that the meetings were a turning point.  And it might just be the turning point that wins the U.S. the World Cup.  Was it the players' suggestion that they go from that boring 4-4-2 style with Carli Lloyd as a holding midfielder to the wide open 4-3-3 approach they've used since?  Maybe, maybe not.  That change might've been necessitated by the fact Rapinoe and Holiday were suspended for the China game.  But the lineup changes and substitution patterns over the last couple games have all made sense and all worked.  From starting Kelley O'Hara against China to making Abby Wambach a bench player, keeping her legs fresh at the end of games.  Alex Morgan is completely healthy now, too, and her ability to go 90 minutes has been an important change from the beginning of the tournament, as well.

And it's because of that wide-open attack that I think the '15ers will become as legendary to a generation of American girls as the '99ers.  We already knew that the defense was good enough to win the World Cup, and Hope Solo's the best goalie in the world.  The offense has now caught up.

Neither team has trailed the entire tournament (it's tough to trail when you don't give up any goals), so the first goal in the final is going to be extremely important.  It'll be interesting to see how whichever team finally falls behind reacts in that situation.  Japan has played all one-goal games, but hasn't come close to losing.  But they've played some tight ones, and even they'll admit they could've (and maybe should've) lost to England.

There's one other factor that needs to be considered, and it's a big one.  The game's in Vancouver, which is only a half-hour from the border.  Just like each of the first six games, this will be a U.S. home game.  The crowd is going to be loud, rabid and extremely pro-American.  If Japan wants proof, they can ask the Germans about that one.  In a way, they got lucky that Canada lost and they didn't have to play their semifinal in a hostile environment.  But that also could've been good for Japan, since that's the way it'll be at BC Place on Sunday night.

If you'd told me when the knockout round started that it would be a USA-Japan rematch, I probably would've said Japan would win.  But now that we're here, that's not how I see the final playing out at all.  The U.S. just played its best game of the tournament in beating the best team in the world.  They've got confidence, they've got the crowd on their side, and they're out for revenge.  Yes, the USA beat Japan for the 2012 Olympic gold medal, but they want that World Cup.

Four years ago, they missed that chance.  They blew a late lead twice, and Japan won the World Cup on penalty kicks.  As Abby Wambach said, they've thought about that loss everyday since then.  For Wambach and Rampone and probably a few others, this is their last chance.  They're not going to let it slip through their fingers again.  USA 1, Japan 0.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

CC, Warren and Eovaldi

I warned you I might do a blog about this topic, and here it is.  Earlier this week, the Yankees made their less-than-unexpected announcement that Adam Warren would be moved to the bullpen.  Even though this was something everybody saw coming, that didn't stop the idiots from coming out of the woodwork and posting their comments saying that it "made no sense" or that CC Sabathia or Nathan Eovaldi should've been sent to the bullpen instead of Warren.  I call those people "idiots" for a reason.

During Spring Training, Warren was battling Chris Capuano for the fifth spot in the Yankees' rotation, a competition he ended up winning.  But Warren and Capuano entered that competition knowing that, barring injury, the team would only need a fifth starter for three months until Ivan Nova came back from Tommy John surgery...and that's exactly what happened.

When Nova came back, the Yankees were anticipating their rotation being Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova.  That's finally what their rotation is.  These are the five they were planning on having.  Adam Warren's place in the rotation was always meant to be temporary.  He and Capuano were both starting for a little while while Tanaka was on the DL, but, when it came time to make a choice, Warren stayed in the rotation and Capuano became the long man.  This situation was completely different.  Adam Warren did an excellent job as a starter.  He was arguably the Yankees' best starter in the month of June.  But there wasn't ever going to be any other way for six to be reduced to five.

CC Sabathia has struggled this year.  He'll be the first to admit that.  And, obviously, the amount of money he's making makes each loss he takes harder to swallow.  But there was never any chance CC was going to be removed from the rotation.  For one, you're not paying him all that money to pitch in relief.  In fact, that's probably the main reason.  But CC's record needs to be examined further.  This season, he's really been a victim of the big inning.  During his last start, YES put up a graphic that if you removed the big innings (four-plus runs), his ERA is slightly under 4.00, which is fine.

Obviously the big innings are a problem.  There's been way too many of them.  He's also been susceptible to the home run ball, which is usually what leads to those big innings.  But on the other side of that, how many times has CC pitched well and they didn't score any runs for him?  Remember that game in Detroit in April?  An eight-inning complete game, five strikeouts, two runs (which both came in the seventh), a 2-1 loss.  Or even in his last start on Tuesday night, when they scored a total of one run for him?!  If your team doesn't score any runs for you, you have to be damn near perfect in order to win.

What's more, CC's going to stay out there and take his lumps.  There have been some games where he was just too bad to keep him in there and still have a chance, but for the most part, Sabathia's going to give you at least six innings every time out.  With the overuse the bullpen has already endured, that's not a small thing.  And it would be a waste to take his six innings every five days and turn it into an inning every other day or, even worse, a few every once in a while as a long man.

As for Eovaldi, I never quite understood why some people wanted him in the bullpen.  The guy's 8-2!  He had one bad game in Miami.  That's it.  And my guess is that's what they're using to compare him with Warren.  But it's asinine to suggest a starter should be demoted because of one bad start.  Eovaldi's problem is that he throws a lot of pitches, which means he doesn't go deep into games, but, as his record suggests, he always puts the Yankees in a position to win.  Even more than that, though, the Yankees traded for Eovaldi during the offseason specifically to be a starter.  If that's why you got him, why would you change that?

Which leaves us with Adam Warren.  There are a few reasons why Warren was sent to the bullpen instead of the other two guys, and they're all as logical as they are obvious.  The first is innings.  Warren came up through the Minors as a starter, but has been used primarily as a reliever since being called up in 2013.  He threw 77 innings as a rookie and 78.2 last season.  This year, he's already at 85.1, putting him on pace for as many in one season as he'd had in his entire career.  Twice as many innings from one year to the next isn't good on the arm, and they're conscious of that, not wanting to see another young pitcher go under the knife.

Then there's the sheer fact that Warren has been in the bullpen before.  He was a lights-out setup guy during his first two Big League seasons, and you'll figure he'll step right back into that role.  For a bullpen that's been struggling and needed a right-hander, Warren is just the answer.  Like I said, he's done it before.  Successfully.  Last season, he made 69 appearances, all in relief, primarily in the seventh inning, and had a 2.97 ERA.  By shifting Warren to the bullpen, the Yankees filled a need while still having Warren fill a valuable role on the pitching staff.  Warren stabilizes the bullpen, where he's already proven himself, so they're more comfortable putting him in that situation than they might've been with somebody else.

The fact that Warren's had success as a reliever played into the decision, too.  With him in the bullpen, they know what they're getting.  CC Sabathia has never been a reliever before.  Neither has Nathan Eovaldi.  So why put them in a situation where they're not familiar and you don't know whether they'll be comfortable?  Starting and relieving are two completely different things, and they require completely different mindsets.  It's not easy to go from one to the other.  Especially when it's viewed as a demotion.

Make no mistake.  Adam Warren was not "demoted" to the bullpen.  He was simply the odd-man out in a six-man rotation.  Somebody needed to go to the bullpen, and he happened to be the guy.  Not because of performance.  Because they knew he could do it.  And because that's what puts the Yankees in the best position to win.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

1 vs. 2 In the Semis

Well kids, we've reached the penultimate stage of the Women's World Cup.  Three of the four nations that have won the tournament (who are ranked 1st, 2nd and 4th in the world) are left, along with an English team that spoiled Canadian hopes.

Of course, Shania Twain decides to go back on tour and play Madison Square Garden the same night as the World Cup semifinal between the United States and Germany.  I guess that's why DVRs were invented.  It is kind of funny, though, that I've been so into this tournament, yet I won't be able to watch the most important game so far live (and with the Yankees on the West Coast, I'll be lucky if I watch it before the Japan-England game).

Anyway, when the groups were announced, this was the semifinal matchup everyone was hoping to see.  The top two teams in the world, the only two to have won the World Cup twice, with the winner earning a shot to (likely) avenge its loss to Japan in 2011.  And I think whoever comes out of this game WILL win the World Cup, while the loser will still be on the podium with the bronze.

So who wins?  Well, Germany has been arguably the best offensive team in the tournament, while the U.S. has been the best defensive team by far.  Hope Solo's had four consecutive shutouts, and when's the last time a team even had a decent scoring chance against the U.S.?  That's why people's flipping out over the "lack of offense" has been driving me so nuts!  If they don't give up any, does it make a difference if they only get one?  They've still gotten to the semifinals, just as expected, so clearly something they've been doing has been working.

With that being said, the Americans will have to play their best game of the tournament in this one.  You can't expect the shutout streak to continue for 90 (or 120) minutes against such a potent offense, and you know that you obviously don't want to go to penalty kicks against the Germans, either.  So, yes, that means the offense will have to step up and find a way to get two by Angerer, which I think is possible.

The U.S. played its best game of the tournament against China, and they did it without Lauren Holiday, Megan Rapione or Abby Wambach (I'm not counting Wambach's token appearance with five minutes left in the game).  That has to give everybody else a huge boost of confidence heading into the semifinals, especially with the two starting midfielders returning after their yellow card suspensions.

Meanwhile, Germany was lucky to survive against France, getting that late penalty kick to tie it before winning in penalties.  (That was the game of the tournament for a day until England-Canada.)  They showed incredible fight in that game, proving why they're the best team in the world.  It also benefits the Germans that their quarterfinal game was in Montreal.  The U.S. is only coming from Ottawa, which is 90 minutes away, but Germany didn't have to travel and has already played in the cavernous 65,000-seat stadium.  They handled the hostile environment when Olympic Stadium was filled with French fans, so a bunch of flag-waving, red, white and blue-wearing Americans won't faze them either.

Germany will be the team that finally gets a goal against Hope Solo.  They're just too strong offensively.  But, all those German goals have to be viewed with a grain of salt.  They really all came in three games, against Ivory Coast, Thailand and Sweden.  Norway and France, the two best teams they've faced, each played them to a 1-1 draw.  The Americans, obviously, are more in the Norway-France league than the Ivory Coast-Thailand league.  And the opposition the U.S. has faced has been much stronger overall.

This is the fourth time that the United States and Germany are meeting in the Women's World Cup.  The Americans have won two of the previous three meetings, but Germany won the last one, in this round in 2003 when the U.S. was defending its title.  That loss was on home soil in Portland.  This American team traveled North of the Border for one reason.  They're finding their groove at just the right time, and they know that they have to bring their A-games to Montreal for Germany.  Playing Germany in the World Cup semifinals will be enough.  Playing on the 4th of July is the last thing they want to do.  They want to get even with Japan for last time.  But they've got to get through Germany first, which I think they will.  Goals from Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe give the U.S. a 2-1 victory.

In the other semi, we've got Japan taking on England.  England spoiled the home crowd's planned Canada Day party by knocking off Canada in that highly entertaining quarterfinal game.  They're the only team left in the tournament that has a loss (to France in the opening game), but the English believe they can win the World Cup, even with three of the top four teams in the world taking the other semifinal spots.  They've been very impressive in their knockout-round wins over Norway and Canada, but Japan will be a much different task.

Japan is the only one of the four that has won each of its games in Canada.  In my opinion, they've been the best team in the tournament, but as the announcers correctly pointed out during their quarterfinal win over Australia, each of Japan's wins has been by one goal.  There's two ways to interpret that.  The easiest way is to give them credit for finding a way to win all those close games (they held a 1-0 lead for a long time against Ecuador and didn't score until late against Australia).  But it could also mean that you're exploiting one Japanese mistake away from beating them.

England was the last team to beat Japan in the Women's World Cup, during group play four years ago.  I don't see history repeating itself, though.  The Japanese will get a chance to defend their title.  As for the score.  I smell another one-goal victory.  I'm thinking 2-1, setting up a rematch of the 2011 final against the United States.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Going for the Serena Slam

As we enter Wimbledon, which this year for the first time is starting three weeks after the French Open instead of two, there's one overriding story line.  With that gutsy performance in Paris, Serena Williams won her third straight Grand Slam title.  So, should she win Wimbledon, she'll be the reigning champion at all four, completing the second "Serena Slam" of her career.

Right after the French Open, the talk almost immediately turned to Serena and whether or not a Wimbledon victory would constitute a Grand Slam.  A lot of people have argued "No," insisting that it can only be a Grand Slam if it's achieved in a calendar year.  I say why should that make a difference?  Winning all four in a row is a Grand Slam, no matter what order you do it in.  Is it any less of an accomplishment to start with the U.S. Open and end with Wimbledon?

I understand that when the term "Grand Slam" was coined, it was because Don Budge won all four in the same year in 1938, and you're only technically considered to do it if it's in the same year.  When Serena did it the first time, she started at Wimbledon in 2002 and ended at the 2003 French Open.  Since it was two in one year and two in the next, it was dubbed the "Serena Slam" instead, which is also what we'll call it this time.  Meanwhile, Serena's friend Martina Navratilova never won the "Grand Slam" either, despite winning SIX consecutive Grand Slam titles in 1983-84 (three each year when the Australian Open was played in December instead of January, although she cost herself a chance at a calendar year Grand Slam when her 70-match winning streak was snapped in the 1984 Australian Open semifinals).

My point is that it doesn't really matter what we call it.  It'll be a pretty damn impressive feat if Serena Williams wins her fourth straight Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, where she'll be the heavy favorite.  And if she does, it really won't matter.  Because if she wins Wimbledon, she's winning the U.S. Open.  There's no doubt in my mind.

Her 2014-15 Serena Slam and 2015 Grand Slam are most at risk here.  Serena's last Grand Slam loss, after all, was here a year ago, when she was upset by Alize Cornet in the third round, and she lost in round of 16 to Sabine Lisicki in 2013.  In fact, you have to go back to the 2012 Olympic gold medal match to find Serena's last championship moment on Centre Court.

The biggest contender for the ladies' title who doesn't have the last name Williams has got to be defending champion Petra Kvitova, who's seeded second.  If any other woman is going to win this championship, Kvitova would be my choice.  I see her in the finals against Serena, but not standing in the way of history.

Others to watch out for include Venus Williams, who could end up meeting Little Sister in a must-see round of 16 match.  Maria Sharapova, of course, is a former Wimbledon champion, while Lucie Safarova beat her at the French en route to the finals.  I actually like Vika Azarenka to make a deep run too, although she'll run into Serena in the quarters.  Caroline Wozniacki is in a pretty tough section of the draw.  Third-seeded Simona Halep was a semifinalist last year, but I really like the two Germans in that part of the draw, Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki.  Another fun little side note is that their could be a rematch of last year's final between Kvitova and Genie Bouchard in the quarters.

We were also expecting Novak Djokovic to be halfway to a Grand Slam right now, too, but, after doing the World a favor and knocking Rafael Nadal out of the French Open, he was upset in the finals by Stan Wawrinka.  This is Wawrinka's weakest Slam, though, so I don't expect him to be a challenger.  But that doesn't mean a Swiss guy won't be among the favorites.  At this point in his career, I think we can all agree that this is Roger's best (perhaps only) to lift another Grand Slam trophy.

Roger's Grand Slam foil, Tomas Berdych, is hanging around in his quarter, though, and the winner of that one gets the survivor of Murray-Nadal.  After letting somebody else win the French Open for a change, Nadal's ranking is the lowest it's been in years, and he's seeded 10th here.  However, he caught a break with the draw, staying away from the other three until the quarters (a round of 16 meeting was possible).  David Ferrer was the highest seed in Nadal's section of the draw, but he withdrew today, so 10th-seeded Nadal has become the high seed in that section.

Nadal has two Wimbledon titles, but he's also become notorious for losing early here.  With the draw he has, I don't see it happening this year.  Murray, meanwhile, has to play Tsonga before the potential Nadal matchup, and I think that can go either way.  I do have Murray winning, though, and beating Nadal to get back to the semis.  I'd just automatically pencil Roger opposite him if he wasn't playing Berdych, who has his number in Grand Slams.  In the Murray-Berdych semi, I've got the hometown hero advancing to the final Sunday one more time.

Fun fact: Andy Murray has only ever played Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic in Grand Slam finals (kinda like how Andy Roddick only won one Grand Slam title because he always played Federer in the finals).  Since he can't play Roger, I guess that means defending champion Djokovic, who beat Roger in that classic final last year, will meet Murray in the finals.  I don't see any issues for Djokovic early in the tournament.  He gets the chance to avenge his U.S. Open loss to Kei Nishikori (provided he wins the rematch of the U.S. Open final with Marin Cilic) in the quarters, then could meet Grigor Dimitrov or Milos Raonic, both of whom have a game that translates well to grass, in the semis.  Either way, Djokovic's half of the draw is much easier.  I expect him to cruise to the finals, where he beats Murray to defend his title.

Before we go, this year's Wimbledon is a special anniversary.  It's been five years since the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut epic.  Isner is seeded 17th here and is always a threat because of his serve, but has underwhelmed at Wimbledon since those historic three days.  Even still, he could easily be a Djokovic quarterfinal opponent.  Mahut, meanwhile, needed a wild card for entry (I'm not sure if he was given one because of the match or the deal between the British and French Tennis Federations).  He should win his first round match against Filip Krajinovic before a possible showdown with Berdych.

We waited an extra week for the start of this year's Wimbledon, which I think was a good thing.  With that extra week to rest and make the adjustment from clay to grass, the players will be in much better shape for the tournament, and the result should be a much more competitive event.  But, that extended break was the same for everybody, including Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic.  The favorites will come out on top, and for Serena, that means she'll be three-quarters of the way to history.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Quarterfinal Time In Canada

Before we embark upon the quarterfinal round of the Women's World Cup, a few observations about the tournament so far.  In my opinion, Japan has clearly been the best team in the tournament to this point.  The defending champs are the only team to have won each of its games.  France got a wake-up call from Colombia and is definitely peaking at the right time.  Germany and the U.S. haven't played anywhere near their best soccer yet, but they've both gotten to the quarters as expected.  Canada will continue to benefit from being the hosts, but I don't think they're good enough to win the World Cup.

As for the U.S., I'm really getting tired of hearing everyone complaining about the fact they aren't scoring.  So what!  Have they lost a game yet?  And it's been how long since they've allowed a goal?  I'm pretty sure if you don't give up any goals, you only need to score one.  So what exactly is the problem?  They'll be the first ones to admit that they can play better.  They know they have to step up their game.

But it really is kind of insulting to them to compare them to previous U.S. World Cup teams.  Maybe the games are closer because the rest of the world has gotten better.  Has anyone ever thought of that?  And if we're comparing them to the 1999 team next Sunday night, why does it matter how they got there?  By the way, that defense is good enough to win the World Cup.

There was something else in the USA-Colombia game that really bugged me, though.  This isn't a complaint about the U.S., but it's really about soccer in general.  The Americans had two penalty kicks in the game.  The first came after the Colombian goalie got the red card for taking out Alex Morgan's legs on the breakaway.  The second was about 10 minutes later when Megan Rapinoe was fouled in the box.  Yet Abby Wambach took the first PK and air mailed it (must've been that damn turf), while Carli Lloyd took and made the second one.

I've always thought that the person who earns the penalty kick should be the one to take it, and I'm kind of confused as to why that's NOT the rule.  It makes little sense to me.  That would be like a basketball team choosing its best free throw shooter to shoot for the guy who got fouled all the time.  The person who earns the penalty kick deserves the opportunity to finish what they started.  I'm sure there's a reason why the current rule is in place, and if somebody understands why it's like that, please enlighten me, but I don't see my opinion changing on that.  It also leads to some inflated scoring totals.  How do you think Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo score so many goals with their club teams?  It's because they take every freakin' penalty kick, no matter who draws the foul.  And as we all know, a goalie's only real chance of stopping a PK is getting lucky.

And with that, time for my quarterfinal predictions.  The quarters start in Montreal with the best matchup of the four--No. 3 France vs. No. 1 Germany.  Both of these teams have clinched berths in the Olympics, and whoever wins is going to be quite a handful for the U.S. in the semis.  Germany had a dominant round of 16 game against an uninspired and underwhelming Swedish team, while the French have looked better and better since their loss to Colombia.  This will probably be the game of the tournament so far.  Germany is the better team and has an extra day of rest, but that's negated by the fact France has already played in Montreal and didn't have to travel.  France has won its last two games by a combined score of 8-0, while Germany has outscored its last two opponents 8-1.  This one will be decided by the defense, though, and I think the Germans have a slight edge in that department.  It might go to PKs, but I'll say 2-1 Germany.

Quarterfinal number two pits the USA against China for the first World Cup meeting between the two since that memorable afternoon at the Rose Bowl 16 years ago.  The big story surrounding the Americans, of course, is that Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe will both have to sit out with yellow card suspensions (and Abby Wambach just sounded like an idiot when she said the referee singled them out because they already had yellows, especially since she gave a red to the GOALIE from Colombia in the game, too).  As a result, there will be some lineup changes in the midfield and that vaunted American depth will be tested.

Personally, I'd go from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 for this game.  When it was just Holiday out, I had Carli Lloyd as the only center mid, but since she's the only player who can come close to replacing Rapinone's athleticism and playmaking, I'd move her out to the wing instead.  Christen Press goes back into the lineup because she's the best player who didn't start against Colombia, and she's technically a forward, but they can play her on the wing, as well.  Morgan Brian goes back in at center mid because they need someone to play there and Shannon Boxx can't give you 90 minutes, so she's better coming off the bench.  Unless you want to tighten up that defense even more and go with Christie Rampone as a fifth defender (which would move Ali Krieger up into more of a midfield position).

Will the U.S. miss Holiday and Rapinoe?  Absolutely.  They've been two of their best players in the World Cup.  But it's better to have them this game rather than the semi against Germany or France.  I'm not saying China's an easy matchup.  They know not to overlook the Chinese.  But they're good enough to beat China even without two of their most important starters.  I smell another 1-0 victory, then Holiday and Rapinoe are back for the semis.

The big upset of the round of 16, obviously, was Australia over Brazil.  I'm not sure what the Brazilian coach's problem was in his postgame press conference (he was obviously frustrated, which is probably where most of it was coming from), but it was yet another World Cup disappointment for a squad that will now have even more pressure on it at the Olympics.  The Aussie victory was great for Japan.  A Japan-Brazil matchup would've been a must-see.  Japan-Australia is nowhere near as compelling.  Which is good news for Japan.  Australia's had a great World Cup, but they're no match for the defending champions.  They did Japan a tremendous favor, which will be repaid with a 3-0 Japanese victory.

Then we have Canada and England.  I thought England was outplayed for much of the game against Norway, but they scored twice in the second half, including that golden strike by Lucy Bronze.  Canada played yet another 1-0 game against a Swiss team that had so many chances that they just couldn't convert.  The winner here will be the underdogs against Japan.  But you've got the home team playing a real home game.  The Canadians train in Vancouver and didn't have to travel after their last game.  I think they keep riding that home field advantage into a Canada Day semifinal meeting with the defending champions.  Canada 1, England 0.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Analyzing the ESPY Nominees

A lot of stuff has been happening in the sports world recently.  A lot worth blogging about.  That made it difficult to pick just one topic.  I could've done one of those bullet-pointed ones where I tackle several topics and put in my two cents on each.  But I decided not to do that because I had a feeling if I tried, I'd end up missing something.  So I'm sticking with one, but which one?

Well, it's a couple weeks until ESPN's convergence of sports and entertainment.  We all know that the ESPYs are incredibly stupid and the show is terrible.  It's two and a half hours of ESPN congratulating itself for being so great and the winners acting like the award is actually important.  Yet we still all sit there and watch a glorified three-hour "This Is SportsCenter" commercial.

This year's ESPYs have already created more preshow buzz than we usually see, due mainly to the fact that they announced a few weeks ago that Caitlyn Jenner will be receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.  While I agree that Lauryn Hill would've been a great selection, and I thought it was a foregone conclusion the award would go to Hill, I didn't join in the public outrage in the selection of Jenner.  And, as many people noted on social media, a lot of the "outrage" came from people who didn't even know the ESPYs were a thing.  As one of my friends put it, "Now we can all go back to not caring about the ESPYs."

I don't care that the Arthur Ashe Award is going to Caitlyn Jenner either, but for different reasons.  I can see where the powers that be were coming from with the selection.  And so what if they did it just because transgenderism is the hot topic in the news right now or they wanted to cash in on the Jenner/Kardashian celebrity?  It didn't make Lauryn Hill's story any less courageous or inspirational.  (I have a feeling they'll find some way to honor Hill anyway.)  Frankly, it makes no difference whether or not that was strictly a headline grab.  On ESPY night, I'm sure Caitlyn's going to kill it just like Jimmy V himself at the first-ever ESPYs just weeks before his death or Stuart Scott did last year a few months before his.

The one thing about the ESPYs that is cool, though, is that it brings together all the best players in every sport.  Sure, a lot don't show up, and they include a lot of niche sports that aren't familiar to a majority of the audience (I think the only reason they have the "Action Sports Athlete of the Year" category is because ESPN owns the X Games).

Today the nominees came out and they exposed a lot of the things that make the ESPYs so stupid.  First of all, you can tell which sports ESPN likes the best.  The four finalists for Best Male Athlete, for example, are two NFL players and two NBA players.  They also eliminated the Best Team category, which I don't really agree with.  Worst of all, though, is that the winners are chosen strictly by fan voting.  So, after ESPN whittles down the candidates to only the four sports it cares about, the people who are fans of said sport end up giving every award to the same handful of players/teams, even if there are clearly more-deserving candidates.  The vote should really be a mix of the fans and people who actually know what they're talking about.  (Seriously, is anybody who casts a vote really qualified to choose the "Bowler of the Year?")

Despite all of this criticism I've levied against ESPN and the ESPYs here, it's still worth taking a look at the nominees in some of the major categories.  For "Best Male Athlete," it's Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt.  I'm sure they included LeBron just so he shows up at the ceremony.  Because he doesn't deserve to be a finalist over Madison Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw.  Or Carey Price.  Or even Novak Djokovic.  It's a stretch to include Watt in there, too.  So really, this is a showdown between Curry and Rodgers.  I voted for Rodgers, but since the NBA tends to dominate the voting in these things, Curry will probably win, which I'd be fine with.

Female Athlete of the Year is always tougher because there are far fewer high-profile female athletes.  And it was made tougher this year because there wasn't an Olympics/World Cup to include.  I think this should be a runaway Serena Williams win.  She's won the last three Grand Slams in dominating fashion.  But I have a feeling it's going to be Ronda Rousey simply because she's one of their newest obsessions.  Breanna Stewart is a worthy finalist, while Lindsey Vonn's chances on taking home an ESPY lie in the "Best Comeback Athlete" category.

Going against Vonn for "Best Comeback Athlete" are Rob Gronkowski, A-Rod and Derrick Rose.  We all know who's going to win here.  ESPN considers Rob Gronkowski to be the Second Coming.  (It's probably because he plays for the Patriots, but I just can't embrace the guy.  I really don't see the appeal.)  Whether or not he actually wins, they'll probably rig the results to say he did, just so they can have him go up on stage and act like a frat boy.

"Best Championship Performance" is probably the hardest category to pick.  For some reason, they also included LeBron here, even though his team lost the NBA Finals (not sure how you can have a championship performance if you don't win the championship).  Florida softball pitcher Lauren Haeger is also nominated, but this is between Madison Bumgarner for single-handedly winning the World Series and American Pharoah for obvious reasons.  It's really a toss-up, and neither choice would be wrong.  But American Pharoah is fresh in everyone's minds and it's something a majority of us have never seen, so I'm figuring the Triple Crown winner (or at least the people associated) will also win the ESPY.

ESPN's bias is shown very clearly in the "Best Coach/Manager" finalists.  Where's Bruce Bochy, who won his third World Series in five years with the team that had the fifth-best record in the National League!  He's not even nominated!  Yet Steve Kerr (NBA), Urban Meyer (college football) and Bill Belichick (NFL) all are, along with Coach K and Geno Auriemma.  I really wouldn't pick any of these five over Bochy, so it really makes no difference to me who wins.

For "Best Breakthrough Performance," it's Odell Beckham, Mo'ne Davis, some guy from the Ohio State football team and Jordan Spieth.  Beckham is also the No. 1 seed in the "Best Play" bracket, and I don't see how he doesn't win there.  I also voted for him here, but that's much less of a guarantee.  ESPN loves Mo'ne Davis and you know they'll be all over the fact that she's there and she's nominated.  Spieth, meanwhile, is another name that's hot right now after his Masters and U.S. Open wins.  His 2015 so far certainly qualifies as a great "breakthrough performance."

It's not even worth getting into "Best Record-Breaking Performance" because it's so obvious Peyton Manning is going to win for his 509th career touchdown pass.  And he should.

Two last categories I want to look at are the closely-related "Best Upset" and "Best Game."  The "Best Upset" nominees are Georgia State over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, the Ole Miss football team's win over Alabama and the Royals' run to the AL pennant.  Be careful ESPN.  You've seen what can happen when you give Kansas City Royals fans the chance to vote for something.  (Although I did vote for the Royals here.)

In "Best Game," I also voted for the Royals and the game that got it all started, that extra-inning classic against the A's in the AL Wild Card Game.  The other two nominees are pretty good, too.  Game 7 of the Spurs-Clippers playoff series, which, by all accounts from what I've heard, was a classic series, not just a classic game.  They also nominated the Super Bowl, which I didn't think was overly exciting.  Sure it was close and it was a good game, but I remember the Seahawks blowing it at the end and Katy Perry.  That's really about it.

So there you have it.  This is probably the most time anyone has ever spent breaking down the ESPY nominees.  And I know I say I won't every year, but I always end up watching them.  That's why they hold the ceremony on the day after the All*Star Game.  There's nothing else going on, so people end up watching the ESPYs by default.  And, with Caitlyn Jenner and the move from ESPN to ABC, I'm sure the viewing public will watch the ESPYs more than ever before this year.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The 2024 Race Heats Up

As the IOC session where the host of the Winter Games no one wants draws closer, more and more candidates for 2024 are emerging.  We already knew about a few of them (Boston, Hamburg, Rome), but Paris is on the verge of announcing its bid, with a couple others following closely behind.  If nobody wants to host the 2022 Winter Games, the 2024 Summer Games are starting to look like just the opposite.  This race could be just as competitive as the 2005 vote that saw London emerge victorious for the 2012 Games (London ended up being a big winner in more ways than one).

Hamburg's bid is still a little up in the air.  The Germans are going to put it up to a public referendum.  The polls currently show 64 percent for the bid, and IOC President Thomas Bach, of course, is German, so he'd obviously like to see a Hamburg bid move forward.  I think it's highly likely that the referendum will pass and Hamburg will definitely stick around.

Rome isn't going anywhere, either.  They were the first city to announce their intention to bid, and would probably have to be considered the favorite right now.  That is, until Paris enters the race.

Paris hasn't had luck with Olympic bids recently.  It finished second to Barcelona for 1992, which was the last year both the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in the same year.  The winter vote was held first, so as soon as Albertville was awarded the Winter Games, Paris knew it was doomed.  They bid again for 2008, but ran into the Beijing buzz saw that was all but guaranteed of victory before the other bids were even submitted.  Then in that loaded 2012 race, Paris was viewed as the favorite the entire time, only to see London emerge victorious 54-50 in the final round.  As a result, Paris sat out the bidding for 2016 and 2020.

This time it's different, though.  They learned a lot by not participating in two bidding cycles (2016 was never going to be in Europe anyway, so that would've just been a waste of money), and they'll come back with an improved vision for the Olympics.  The IOC's Agenda 2020, which is designed to make the bid process more sustainable, will be very good for Paris, a very compact city to begin with.  But the use of temporary and existing venues that's now being encouraged is the big thing.  And who doesn't want to see beach volleyball at the foot of the Eiffel Tower?  They need to pick Paris for that alone.

France is hosting UEFA Euro 2016 and the 2019 Women's World Cup, so they're not shying away from the big events, which is usually viewed as preparation for an Olympic run.  Paris is going to put forth a very strong bid, and there's some sense that the IOC owes them one.  And to put it in a historical context, Paris would become the second city to host the Olympics three times (joining London), and 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the last time Paris hosted the Games.  Needless to say, it's been a long time.

We're also likely to see some cities that have little to no chance enter the ring.  Baku, Azerbaijan is currently hosting the inaugural European Games, which is seen as a precursor to another Olympic bid (they previously bid for 2020).  Doha, of course, still thinks it can buy an Olympics.  It worked with the World Cup, but the IOC isn't anywhere near as corrupt as FIFA.  Besides, they're not going to have four Olympics in a row in Asia.  (Moving the Games from the summer to whenever Doha would want to hold them wouldn't work for a lot of influential First World nations, either.)

Istanbul has a "bid until we win" approach that's eventually going to be successful.  They haven't said if they're going to bid this time, but it wouldn't surprise anybody if they did.  Istanbul almost won for 2020 and would be a serious contender for 2024.  Budapest, meanwhile, wants to enter the race with no expectation of winning.  They just want to get the experience they can build on for future Olympic bids.  No confirmed bids from Africa, but Durban, South Africa (which I think is their most likely bid city) will have a very realistic shot of winning when it decides to bid for the Olympics.  There's never been an Olympics in Africa and the IOC wants to change that.  It probably won't be in 2024, though.

And that brings me to the elephant in the room.  Boston.  Everybody knew the U.S. would bid.  But you have to question whether the USOC actually wants to host or not.  The selection of Boston as the bid city was questionable to begin with, and that choice is looking worse and worse by the day.  In an obvious attempt to appease the people of Massachusetts, where support isn't good and is waning, they've completely changed their plan and spread venues all around the state instead of centered in Boston.  None of this is making the USOC look good.

Whether or not Boston stays in the race is irrelevant.  There's no chance that the 2024 Olympics will be in Boston, so it would be almost better off pulling the plug.  Some people want the USOC to switch the bid to Los Angeles, which finished second in the domestic competition, and would be much more appealing internationally.  LA would have a shot at winning.  Boston doesn't.

The question, though, is which would make the USOC look worse.  Remember, the USOC intentionally hasn't bid since the embarrassment of Chicago 2016.  Next year will be 20 years since Atlanta, and that streak of consecutive years without a U.S. Olympics will reach at least 28 years.  So do you move forward with a Boston bid that has absolutely no public support and has little to no chance of winning?  Or do you move on to your second choice, which has already hosted the Olympics twice and is plenty capable of doing it again?  Or do you pull the plug on Boston, not submit LA as a backup and move on to 2026 (when a World Cup bid also seems likely)?  Frankly, none of those options is really ideal.