Thursday, June 30, 2016

In Defense of the Olympic Trials

The track & field Olympic Trials begin this weekend.  Jenn Suhr, the 2012 gold medalist in the women's pole vault, needs to finish in the top three if she'll have any chance of defending her title in Rio.  Her husband & coach Rick thinks that's ridiculous.  Rick doesn't think there should be Olympic Trials at all.  Based on those comments, though, Rick Suhr just makes himself look like an idiot.

First, a breakdown of Rick Suhr's comments, which really just come off as whining.  "We have to be in the top three that day, that day only, or we don't go," he said.  "We're stuck with it and we'll make the most of it...but I'm an advocate for change."  

He also doesn't like the five-week gap between Trials and the Olympics: "In our American system, you have to peak twice, a month before the Games and again at the Games.  That's very difficult.  We lobbied for the two to be farther apart.  Well, for some reason, the governing body decided to move the dates even closer, which doesn't make any sense.  Basically if you pop a gasket in the Trials, you're done."

Suhr is wrong on both counts, but I'll deal with his second point first.  One month in between actually sets everyone up for optimal performance at the Olympics.  You don't need to peak twice.  You need to peak once and hold it for about five weeks.  And some of the best (Jenn Suhr included) are good enough to make the team without peaking at Trials, so I really don't get his argument there.

Besides, we saw last year how detrimental too long of a gap can be.  U.S. Nationals (the Olympic Trials serve as U.S. Nationals in Olympic years) are always right around the same time at the end of June/beginning of July.  Last year's World Championships weren't until the end of August.  And Team USA was awful in Beijing, with many people blaming the nine-week gap between Nationals and Worlds as one of the reasons why.

There's another practical reason why the Olympic Trials are so close to the start of the Olympics.  They're at the absolute end of the qualifying period.  In addition to finishing in the top three at Trials, you need to have the Olympic qualifying standard to compete in Rio.  For World Championships, USA Track & Field will let you "chase" the standard if you don't already have it.  For the Olympics, they don't do that.  You must have the standard before Trials or get it at Trials in order to go.  No "chasing."  Why?  Because, USA Track & Field and the USOC announce the Olympic team as soon as Trials end.  It's only fair.  You know at the end of your event at Trials whether you're an Olympian or not.  If you finish fourth and have the standard, you don't have to sit there for a month and wait to see whether the third-place finisher gets the standard or not.  Everyone knows the Olympic team right away.

Achieving the Olympic qualifying standard generally isn't a problem for the Americans.  Which is precisely why you can't base it off the performance lists.  For example, the women's 100 meter hurdles.  This is going to be one of the most hotly-contested events at Trials.  The final at Trials could be better than the final in Rio, and there are potential Olympic medalists that will be watching the Games from home.  

Why is that?  Because 11 of the top 15 women in the world this year are American!  Now, you try telling Sharika Nelvis, who has the fourth-best time in the world, that since the three people above her on the world list are also American, she has no chance of going to Rio.  Same thing in the men's 100 meters, where five men are under 10 seconds, but only three can go.

Each country has their own method for building their Olympic team.  Many either go strictly off performance lists or use some combination of performance lists and a selection meet.  That seems to be the method Rick Suhr would prefer.  However, it's worth noting here that a lot of these countries may only have one or two athletes that have the Olympic standard in a particular event, and definitely not in all of them.  But the United States is so strong in every event, that you might see dozens of Americans that have the standard.  That's why the American track & field squad, which generally has around 125 members, is usually the largest single team at an Olympics.

And that's precisely why there's absolutely nothing wrong with the U.S. Olympic Trials.  It's the fairest way of determining who should be on the team.  Everyone has an equal shot of making it, and you have to earn your spot.  It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done in the past, you need to be in the top three.  Likewise, you can come out of nowhere to finish in the top three at Trials and make the team.  It's always been that way, and it's not going to change anytime soon.

In fact, a lot of athletes from other countries would prefer our method.  There's nothing arbitrary about it.  It's straightforward.  Either you make the team or you don't.  Is that cruel?  Maybe.  But it's also what ensures the best team possible represents the United States in Rio.  If you belong on the Olympic team, prove it.  If you don't, you don't have anyone else to blame.  It's time to put up or shut up (although, if you're Rick Suhr, maybe it's just time to shut up).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Taking Her Sport to the Summitt

It's been a rough couple of weeks in the sports world.  Muhammad Ali.  Then Gordie Howe.  Now Pat Summitt.  Three legends who completely changed their sport.  Yet to say Pat Summitt changed the sport of women's basketball doesn't seem to do her justice.  For 30 years, she was the game.  Women's basketball as we know it today was a direct result of Pat Summitt, who was, without a doubt, the most influential person in the sport's history.

Her numbers speak for themselves.  She's the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history, and the only one with more than 1,000 wins.  She was a seven-time National Coach of the Year.  Tennessee won eight National Championships, including a threepeat with those great Chamique Holdsclaw-led teams in the late-90s, and two in a row a decade later with Candace Parker.

Tennessee has been to every NCAA Tournament (which started in 1982), and reached the Sweet 16 every year but one.  The Lady Vols played in 18 Final Fours, not counting the four in the AIAW, the precursor of the NCAA.  Every Tennessee player from 1978-2008 got the opportunity to play in at least one Final Four, perhaps the most remarkable of her records.  Oh yeah, and every single Tennessee player under Summitt graduated.

But those incredible stats only tell part of the story.  Did you know she won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics, the first to feature women's basketball?  As a player.  When she was already the head coach at Tennessee.  Eight years later, she was the head coach as the USA won gold.

Of all the tributes to Summitt that came out today, one of the best came from Peyton Manning.  Manning played four years at Tennessee before becoming an NFL legend.  When he was debating whether or not to return for his senior season, he sought out Summitt's advice about what he should do.  He, of course, decided to come back, then was drafted No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1998.  He was proud to call her a friend.  The biggest compliment he gave her, though, was when he said that he considered her one of his coaches.

A lot of people said that Pat Summitt was such a good coach that she probably would've been able to coach men.  Manning took it one step further.  He said that she could've coached any team in any sport.  He's probably not the only one who thinks so.  She commanded that much respect.

Whether or not she could've coached men will forever remain a matter of debate.  (Tennessee asked her to coach the men's team twice.)  And it's really an irrelevant argument.  Because her impact on the game of women's basketball will never be forgotten.  When she started at Tennessee (as a 22-year-old recent college graduate), women's athletics were an afterthought.  There was no budget, and they weren't even sanctioned by the NCAA.  When she retired 30 years later, she was making seven figures and her team was regularly appearing on ESPN, as part of its multimillion dollar deal for exclusive broadcast rights to the women's NCAA Tournament.

Everyone knows that none of that would've been possible without Pat Summitt.  She made women's basketball relevant.  She made people take notice of her team, and lifted her sport in the process.  Tennessee hasn't been to the Final Four since Summitt retired (in fact, they haven't been there since the 2008 title).  That's not because Tennessee has "struggled" under her successor, Holly Warlick.  Rather, it's a testament to how much better women's college basketball has become.

She brought out the best in everyone, from her players to her opponents to her rivals.  The Tennessee-UConn rivalry was legendary.  Her battles with Geno Auriemma were legendary.  And the feud between the two of them that led to the discontinuation of the series was well-documented.  They eventually mended their relationship, and Auriemma penned one of the most touching tributes to Summitt on Tuesday.

I can't even imagine what life was like for her in her final years.  She was a shell of her former self.  Dementia deprived her of everything.  When her family announced on Sunday that she was in bad shape, we unfortunately all knew what that meant.  Her suffering is now over, and that we're thankful for.

Pat Summitt.  A coach.  A teacher.  A mother.  An innovator.  A Hall of Famer.  She was to the women's game what John Wooden was to the men's game.  She will never be forgotten.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ready For Wimbledon

The Wimbledon men's and women's singles champions will receive 3 million pounds.  On Thursday, that was $3.3 million.  On Friday, it was down to $2.7 million.  And it could drop even lower by Monday morning.  Still think that British decision to withdraw from the European Union won't have an impact?  Fortunately for the players, Wimbledon starts on Monday, so they'll be receiving those checks soon.

Roger Federer's decision to sit out the French Open must've been a tough one, but it was also probably the right one.  He knows that Wimbledon is his best chance to win another Slam, so why spend two weeks grinding it out on clay then turn around and play Wimbledon less than a month later?  Especially if he was injured.  Instead he rehabbed and is as healthy as he's going to be for his best tournament.

In each of the last two years, Roger has lost the Wimbledon final to Novak Djokovic.  That can't happen this year.  Why?  Because they were drawn into the same side of the draw.  But...if anyone's capable of preventing Djokovic from making a seventh straight Grand Slam final, Roger Federer's probably the guy.  Especially at Wimbledon.  Even if it doesn't seem likely.

Men's tennis right now is Novak Djokovic and everybody else.  He didn't just get the French Open monkey off his back in Paris, he did something that even Roger and Rafa have never done.  In fact, he's the first guy to do it since 1969.  He completed the "Djoker Slam," which started here last year (it's six out of eight overall, during which time Federer and Nadal have won a combined zero).

Heading into Wimbledon last year, we were all focused on the "Serena Slam" and wondering if she could win all four in the same calendar year.  I think there's a real possibility we'll go into the US Open wondering the same thing about Djokovic.  Because he's just on a completely different level from everybody else.

On paper, Federer would seem to be the most likely person to upset Djokovic.  And if he wins that semi, I can easily see him lifting the trophy on the final Sunday.  With the way Djokovic is playing, though, I just can't see that happening.  Which means it's up to Andy Murray.

Murray is probably hoping Federer wins that semi.  Because I think he's sick of losing Grand Slam finals to Novak Djokovic.  Both this year and five overall (although, he has beaten him twice).  Although, Murray's also 0-3 against Federer in Grand Slam finals, so he might be hoping they both get upset (he's been in 10 Grand Slam finals, but only played those two).

And don't forget that whole pressure of being the British guy thing.  Murray's win here in 2013 will obviously always remain the highlight of his career, and it certainly has made things easier for him at Wimbledon.  But he still feels it every year.  Add in the fact that he hasn't reached the final here since he won, and the two final losses to Djokovic already this year, and you know Andy Murray will be feeling the heat during the fortnight.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams hasn't won a Grand Slam title since she completed the "Serena Slam" here last year.  We all remember that shocking upset in the US Open semis, and this year she's lost the first two finals to Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, who both claimed their first Grand Slam titles.  As a result, Muguruza is up to No. 2 in the world and Kerber is No. 4.

Fortunately for Serena, they're both on the other side of the draw.  Of course, she has Roberta Vinci, the same woman her at the US Open as her potential quarterfinal opponent, though.  At Wimbledon, it should be a different story.  On grass, really the only person who can beat Serena is Serena.  And when her back's up against the wall, she has a tendency to turn up her game.

Remember when she dominated the US Open after going 0-for-3 in Slams to start the year?  Or last year, when she was going for the Serena Slam?  Well, I think she's feeling that pressure once again.  Most people expected her to be challenging Margaret Court's record of 24 Slam wins by now, if not already past it.  But she's been stuck on 22 since last year's Wimbledon!  It's not really through any fault of her own that she's in this situation.  Vinci, Kerber and Muguruza each had the match of her life in their win over Serena.  But her aura of invincibility is definitely gone.

There are plenty of women who could give Serena problems.  Petra Kvitova's a two-time champ, and she's in Serena's half of the draw.  So is former finalist Aga Radwanska.  And don't forget Venus.  She's won Wimbledon four times and is seeded eighth, where she could face Muguruza in the quarters.  Muguruza lost to Serena in the final here last year, so it wouldn't come as a shock to see her make it two in a row.  She absolutely has the look of a multiple Grand Slam winner.

For my picks, though, I've got to go with the chalk.  The Novak Djokovic we're seeing right now might be better than Roger Federer was in his prime.  And in his prime, you went against Roger at a Grand Slam at your own peril.  And while I do think Serena is susceptible to an upset, I can't pinpoint the exact player I think will pull it.  As a result, I've gotta think she makes it back-to-back Wimbledon titles for the third time.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Keep the Americas Separate

As we wrap up the incredibly successful Copa America Centenario this weekend, there's been plenty of talk about making the combined Copa America an annual event.  Or even taking it a step further and combining the Americas into a single region.  I can see where that enthusiasm is coming from, although you'd have to imagine Mexico and the United States aren't completely on board with that idea, so FIFA going from two Americas to one doesn't seem that likely.

The CONMEBOL teams are better than the CONCACAF teams.  I don't think anyone doubted that heading into the Copa America, and the South American teams have done nothing but reaffirm that belief during the tournament.  Which is why I think the idea of them playing each other more frequently isn't necessarily a bad thing.

CONMEBOL has only 10 teams.  They have to be pretty sick of playing each other all the time.  The South American nations play a home-and-home with everyone else during World Cup qualifying, then they go into Copa America and play everybody again before the cycle repeats.  Sure, Mexico and another invited team also take part in Copa America, but, for the most part, South American nations generally play the same nine opponents over and over again.

At least in CONCACAF, there's a little variety.  Sure, the better teams (the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica) face each other regularly, but there are also plenty of games against the Central American and Caribbean nations in the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying (case in point, the United States will travel to St. Vincent & the Grenadines next month).  However, there's a small problem with that.  These small nations aren't highly ranked, so there's really very little benefit to playing them.

This, of course, isn't the USA and Mexico's fault.  These islands are part of CONCACAF, too, so playing them is part of the deal.  But that doesn't mean the top teams in CONCACAF wouldn't benefit from better competition.  Sure, wins wouldn't be as easy to come by, but I think that's a tradeoff they'd be willing to take.  Because it would be better preparation for the global tournaments that the likes of Antigua & Barbuda and Belize are nowhere near good enough to qualify for.

And which confederation would be the easiest one to draw those better opponents from?  How about the one directly to the south that has only 10 teams?  (In fact, CONCACAF members Guyana and Suriname, which are geographically part of South America.)  I bet the CONMEBOL teams would enjoy that opportunity as much as the CONCACAF teams would.  It's not a radical idea, either.  In fact, many other sports, most notably basketball, do combine North and South America.

But that doesn't mean the Americas should become one region.  If FIFA needs to combine any regions, it's not the Americas.  It's Asia and Oceania.  (Seriously, there are 11 teams in Oceania, how hard would it be to absorb them into the Asian confederation and actually give New Zealand a fair chance at qualifying for the World Cup?)

There are many more reasons to unite Oceania with Asia than there would be to merge the Americas.  For starters, CONCACAF is a much stronger federation than Oceania.  That's one of the reasons Australia left to join Asia in the first place, and it does New Zealand no good to only face those small islands.  CONCACAF, meanwhile, has enough quality teams to make the region worthwhile, and they've proven themselves to be capable of holding their own in global tournaments.

Whereas I don't really see anything other than the mutual benefit of combining Asia and Oceania, it would be counter-intuitive to eliminate CONCACAF as a region.  Some of the teams in CONCACAF would undoubtedly get stronger, but it wouldn't be the best move for all.  And if that's not the case, what would be the point in doing it?

Combining the Americas would involve plenty of logistical issues, too.  For example, how would you figure out things like World Cup berths?  While the games against the Caribbean islands may feel predetermined and somewhat unnecessary, you can be the USA and Mexico don't mind their virtually guaranteed trips to the World Cup and would not be happy about having to go through the likes of Colombia and Peru instead of Guatemala and Canada.

I think the idea of a semi-regular combined Copa America isn't a terrible one, though.  I'm not saying that you get rid of the regular Copa America or the Gold Cup.  Rather, you use them as some sort of qualifying events for the combined tournament.  Maybe the eight quarterfinalists from Copa America and the eight quarterfinalists from the Gold Cup qualify, and you hold it every four years in the same year as the Euro (so the next one would be in 2020).  That doesn't disrupt the two continental championships, but makes this combined tournament more than just a one-off event.

Whether this is a one-off event remains to be seen, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn't think the Copa America Centenario wasn't a great idea.  Or a resounding success.  Hopefully it's the start of something that becomes a regular occurrence.  Because the fans want it and deserve it.  But that doesn't mean the Americas should suddenly go from two to one, either.  That's NOT something the fans want.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Definitely Worth the Gamble

It's official.  The NHL is coming to Las Vegas.  One of the four major sports was going to establish a franchise in Vegas eventually, and it's the NHL that got there first.  The move was brilliant.  And the gamble is well worth it (c'mon, you know there had to be a Vegas pun in there somewhere).  Vegas finally has a team of its own, and it's a hockey team.  Don't underestimate the importance of that down the road.

The NHL did its due diligence, and they wouldn't be going all in if they hadn't.  There was a concern over whether there would be a market for a pro sports team in a market already saturated with nighttime entertainment options out the wazoo.  Well, the 14,000 season ticket deposits emphatically answered that question.  And the brand new T-Mobile Arena, which is located just off the world-famous Strip, is absolutely gorgeous.  It was built with the NHL in mind, so unlike the Barclays Center, it's going to be a great place to watch a hockey game.

That enthusiasm doesn't surprise me.  Las Vegas is the largest city in the country that doesn't have a team of its own.  Yes, tourism is a huge industry in Las Vegas.  But there are also 2.1 million locals.  They've never had a team of their own (the Triple-A 51s don't count).  Now they do.  That's huge.

Those 41 hockey games aren't exactly going to hurt Las Vegas' biggest industry, either.  You think fans of other teams aren't going to jump at the chance to go to their team's road game in Vegas?  Where would you rather spend a couple days in the middle of January?  Las Vegas or Winnipeg?  Not a hard decision.  And these visiting fans will need somewhere to stay.  They'll obviously spend plenty of time in the casinos, too.

You can see why the NHL was eager to jump on the Las Vegas market.  It's been so ripe for a pro team for so long, but the leagues have stayed away because of the gambling connections.  While those fears are legitimate, they'll figure out a way around them.  Maybe it'll mean you can't bet on NHL games.  Whatever it is, it'll be a small concession.  They wanted hockey as much as the NHL wanted them, so it's a small price to pay to get it done.

For its part, the NHL is going to do everything it can to make sure the Las Vegas team succeeds.  Immediately.  It's important that they do.  Because the NHL's southern experiment has only drawn mixed results.  Tampa Bay and Anaheim have worked out, but Arizona went bankrupt and Atlanta moved.  Las Vegas is definitely a risk.  And they need it to pay off.  That's why they're giving Vegas one player from every team in the expansion draft.  That's why they're only adding one team instead of two.

Of course, 31 teams isn't going to be sustainable for long and the NHL is eventually going to add a 32nd team.  But they're being cautious with it.  They want to get Vegas off the ground and running before bringing Quebec into the fold.  Well, that and there are still some logistics with Quebec that need to be worked out.

All of the reasons for tabling Quebec's expansion application make sense.  The Canadian dollar is weak in comparison right now.  For Quebec's return to make financial sense, they have to do it in the right economic situation.  That's one of the reasons why the original Nordiques moved to Denver in the first place.

They also don't think it's fair to take two players off of every other team's roster.  From a competitive standpoint, that is the absolute right thing to do.  There are a number of restrictions on who can and can't be protected, but with each team only allowed to protect eight players, the Las Vegas roster isn't going to look like your typical expansion roster.  They're going to be at least competitive.  But if Quebec was joining the league, too, each team would be losing two pretty good players.  Depending on which two players those are, that could be a big difference.

Mostly, the NHL didn't want to add a 17th Eastern team.  They slightly addressed their imbalance by putting Las Vegas in the Pacific Division, but with Quebec still the most likely place to get the other team, the 17-15 split will still be a problem.  Of course, this is a problem of the NHL's own making, and it's one that has an easy solution.  Tell the Red Wings to suck it up and go back to the Central Division.  Frankly, they never should've been moved to the East in the first place.

Quebec's bid was tabled, not rejected.  No one knows what kind of a time frame they'll be on now, but, unless Seattle comes out of the blue with an expansion bid (which they won't, since their priority is getting the Sonics back), Quebec City remains the most likely candidate for the NHL's 32nd franchise.  The NHL all but said that when they praised the bid and arena.  That's why they haven't closed the door on a return to Quebec City.  Even the NHL acknowledges that this is the most likely scenario.

For Quebec to work, though, they'll need to be with the Canadiens in the Atlantic Division.  And the only way to achieve that would be moving the Red Wings to the Central Division, which is now the only seven-team division.

But that's a discussion for another day.  Today is about Las Vegas.  Their owner went to West Point and evidently wants to name them the "Black Knights," but I bet Chicago will object to the "Black" part for obvious reasons, so my money's on the compromise name "Knights."  Whatever they end up naming the team, this is a new day.  Las Vegas is finally a Major League town.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Who's Stuck With a Worse Contract?

David Wright had surgery for a herniated disk last week and is out for the year.  Meanwhile, Mark Teixeira is trying to work his way back from a knee injury that very well may end up costing him the season, as well.  With Wright and Teixeira both spending more time on the DL than the field, it makes you wonder which oft-injured star is more of a financial burden on his team.

Let's start in Queens, where David Wright has been the face of the Mets for the better part of a decade.  He's definitely earned that status.  But for as much as Wright has earned his place in Mets history, his last few seasons have been defined by injuries.  In 2011, he spent two months on the DL with a stress fracture in his back.  Then in 2013, he missed six weeks after straining his hamstring.  Wright did play 134 games in 2014, but his production was limited due to a shoulder injury.

Last year was actually an example of why David Wright is such a great leader.  He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in April.  After missing four months, Wright hit a home run in his first at-bat of his first game back in August.  Most importantly, he was able to play in the postseason, as the Mets reached the World Series for the first time in 15 years.  Because of the spinal stenosis, Wright had to go through an extensive pregame routine this season and everything seemed to be working out...until hurting his neck.  Wright played in just 38 games last season.  This year, it was 37.

That means, in the last two seasons, he'll have played in a total of 75 out of a possible 324 regular season games.  At the end of this season, Wright will have played in less than half of the Mets' games (321 of 648) since he signed an eight-year extension that pays him roughly $20 million annually until 2020.  The Mets have taken out insurance on his contract, but David Wright will still be a part of the New York Mets for another four seasons.  (Although, I think they'll finally be done paying Bobby Bonilla by then.)

Whether or not David Wright will ever be able to play again is a completely different question.  Knowing him, he'll do everything he can to get on the field.  But you know that even if he is able to make it back from his second major injury in two years, it's unlikely he'll ever be the same player again.  Do you want to pay him $20 million a year for the next four years just for his leadership?

Moving uptown to the Bronx, we have Mark Teixeira, who's also been bitten by the injury bug a lot in recent seasons.  When the entire Yankees team was injured in 2013, Teixeira managed to play in 15 games before being shut down for the season on July 1.  He was still working his way back from his wrist surgery in 2014, when he had a couple stints on the DL, but did manage to play 123 games.

The Teixeira of old returned last season, and he actually made the All-Star team.  Then he fouled a ball off his leg in August and missed two weeks with what everyone thought was a bone bruise.  Turns out, it was a fractured shin that ended his season.  And this year, after getting off to a slow start, Teixeira revealed he was having neck spasms and needed a cortisone shot.  That was before they found torn cartilage in his knee.  A lot of people thought this would end Teixeira's season.  It still might.  But he's going to try and come back.  We'll see how that works out.

There's one big difference between Teixeira and Wright, though.  Wright's got four years left on his contract.  Teixeira is a free agent after this year.  He's making $23 million this season, and it's highly unlikely the Yankees will re-sign him for 2017.  They'll be freed of that very expensive burden very soon.  Meanwhile, the Mets will still be on the hook for Wright's salary until 2020.

It's because of the remaining years that I think the Yankees are in a slightly better position than the Mets when it comes to these two contract situations.  David Wright IS the New York Mets.  But that's quite a commitment for someone you aren't sure can even play.  Especially since you'll need to have  another third baseman on the roster just in case (or need to give up a lot in a midseason trade to get that replacement).

Teixeira's absences have been felt each time he's been out of the Yankees lineup over the past few seasons.  Especially this year, when they've had to trot another first baseman out there seemingly daily (for the record, it's six total not including the two catchers, four that have been on the DL, three that are out for the year).

But they'll soon be able to move on from Teixeira and his contract.  Unless he takes it upon himself and retires before his deal is over, the Mets won't have that luxury with David Wright.  For their sake, and his, I hope I'm wrong.  But right now, it looks like that contract is going to be a burden for far longer than Teixiera's will be for the Yankees.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Weekend of Futbol and Volleyball

It was pretty good weekend for sports in New York City.  On Friday, Copa America came to Met Life Stadium, and it was an absolute mad house for the quarterfinal game between Colombia and Peru.  It was an experience and a half.  Then on Saturday, I made my way to the beach.  Well, not exactly the beach.  Hudson River Park for the AVP New York City Open.

First, let's talk about the soccer game.  I knew when we had to wait for the train because it was too crowded that it would be totally packed.  What I didn't know was that of the 80,000 people in the stadium, about 70,000 of them would be wearing Colombia jerseys.  But that just added that much more to the atmosphere.  I've always heard about what a game between South American or European national teams is like, and now I know exactly what people mean when they say how crazy they are.  I can only imagine how much crazier it would've been if the U.S. was playing in the game (which I was expecting when I bought the tickets).

Anyway, it was intense.  As intense as you would expect when two teams that know each other so well get together (sidebar: do these South American countries ever get tired of playing the same countries so many times?).  Colombia almost scored a couple times, including one that hit the post.  But it ended up 0-0 and, just when I thought we were headed to extra time, I found out that Copa America doesn't do extra time except for the final.  So, it was off to the penalty kick shootout.

James, Colombia's star started off the shootout with a goal, and it was 3-2 when the Colombian goalie made a great save.  After Colombia scored again, Peru needed a goal to keep the game going.  But, Peru's fourth shooter channeled his inner Roberto Baggio and completely shanked it, shooting about five feet over the crossbar to send Colombia into the semis.

Then on Saturday, it was off to the beach.  Well, sort of.  Beach volleyball is another one of those sports that you just have to experience.  I got a sampling of what it's like last year at the Pan Am Games, but a pro event is a completely different animal.  They had three different courts going, so there were literally matches going on all day.

Oh, and it's probably worth mentioning the view.  They set up the main court on Pier 25 and the three side courts on Pier 26.  They actually kept a tally of "water balls," balls that managed to get around the net and land in the Hudson River.  On a couple, there were races to retrieve the ball between the kayakers in the water.  The coolest part, though, is that the Freedom Tower is only a couple blocks away from the pier, and it was in full view from the court.  Same thing with the Statue of Liberty, which is a little bit more off in the distance.

Back to the volleyball.  As I said before, there were matches all day.  But the big one wasn't until later in the afternoon, when NBC showed up to televise the Kerri Walsh Jennings & April Ross match live.  General admission tickets were free, and you can bet the seats were filled up and the standing room crowd went about 10 rows back for that one.

Kerri & April haven't played that many AVP events this year because they had to play in so many international events to qualify for Rio.  This was actually their first event since officially being named Olympians.  Before they took the court, it was their Olympic teammates, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in action.  Like Kerri & April, they were playing for the first time since officially being named to the Olympic team.  Both of the top pairs took pair of business (and ended up winning the tournament) and, sure enough, after Kerri & April finished off their win, most of the crowd cleared out.

Obviously, this wasn't your typical New York sports weekend.  But this is why New York is such a great sports town.  Both events were packed.  There's just as much of an appetite for Copa America and the AVP as there is for the Yankees and Rangers and Giants.  And, if the current StubHub prices are any indication, Met Life Stadium will be just as packed for the final next weekend.  Regardless of who wins the USA-Argentina game.