Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bob Bradley fired, and other personnel news

Bob Bradley was officially fired today by Sunil Gulati as USMNT's head coach.  I've defended him before, one year ago in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup (read here: post from June 2010), but since that loss to Ghana in the Round of 16 a year ago, we have not played well at all.

Though he finished with a 43(wins)-25(losses)-12(draws) overall record, our record in the year post WC has only been 5-5-4.  Our only wins have come against pushovers in South Africa, Canada, Guadeloupe, Jamaica and Panama.  During the past year, we were outscored 17-14 as well.

It is obvious that had we beat Mexico in the Gold Cup Final, Bob Bradley would never have been fired.  It is really his first major misstep - the first time in 5 years that he absolutely had to win and didn't.  Again, before losing our regional championship last month, he had met every single benchmark.  He had won that Gold Cup over Mexico in 2007 (and beat them again in home qualifying in Columbus), memorably upset #1 ranked Spain to reach the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009, qualified first overall in Concacaf for WC 2010 and won a WC group (which included England) for the first time in US history.

However, taking a closer look, there are many reasons for the increasing vocal discontentment of his reign.  In the 2009 Confederations Cup group stage, we had been utterly embarrassed vs Italy and Brazil by a combined score of 6-1.  It looked like we were completely unprepared and his decision to stick with a badly out-of-form player, DeMarcus Beasley, was clearly a bad one.  Then even after beating Spain, losing a 2-0 lead vs Brazil in the championship was frustrating, though understandable.  Also, needing an improbable Bornstein header in the last seconds of stoppage time of the last group to qualify 1st for WC 2010 was dramatic, but hardly confidence-building.

In the WC, relying on not one, but two come-from-behind games vs teams we should be better than, Slovenia and Algeria, showed our mettle, but not improvement in overall team play.  Though we (barely) won our group, all momentum and national interest was dashed when Bradley again started a subpar Ricardo Clark, to the dismay of all knowledgeable US fans everywhere, and eventually lost the playoff match vs Ghana.  It was especially disappointing because we had the easiest draw to the Finals that we'll probably ever see in our lifetime.

The last straw of course was one year later in the GC Final when Bradley inexplicably subbed in a completely out-of-form Bornstein (the US fan's collective groan around the stadium seemed audible), who's poor play subsequently allowed Mexico to defeat a first team US side outside of Azteca for the first time since 1999.  Even worse, they gave up another 2-0 lead in a 2nd consecutive championship game.

So to sum it up, Bradley essentially made an obviously bad player move in 3 straight international tournaments, 2 of which led directly to defeat.  It again doesn't help that he is fairly conservative in his tactics, consistently using 2 seemingly defensive central midfielders (although they may insist that they are not instructed to sit back).  Even with that mindset, we have in recent years started games looking uninspired or not ready to play and we've given up early goals (or at least the first goal).  Perhaps our players are thinking too much?

Also, with McBride's retirement from the US team after WC 2006, we are still unable to find a reliable goal-scorer, much less two strikers, to take his place.  Left back continues to be the other problem spot for over half a decade now.  We can argue that Bob has done the best job possible with the horses he's been given.  And its not his fault that the fact remains that we still do not have a bonafide world class star on our team.  Recently, our defense has gotten older and younger replacements are clearly not up to the task yet.

However, because a 2nd WC campaign does not ever seem to go as well as the first (see Bruce Arena) in addition to our team's current poor level of play, and the fact that a new coach will have 11 months before WC qualifying begins, Gulati's move to fire Bradley does make sense.  My guess is that since he's waited over a month since the Gold Cup probably means that he already has someone else lined up.  Klinsmann?  who knows.

I was there for Bradley's first game - Jan 2007 vs Denmark - as well as his last game vs Mexico.  In between those two matches, Bradley had accomplished as much as any US Soccer coach had.  Arena may have led the US to two WCs, but Bradley would have certainly done so had he been allowed to stay through 2014.  More than that, I appreciated the no-nonsense approach Bradley had which was devoid of ego or self-promotion.  He was always humble, hard-working, prepared and respected in the way he went about leading the team.  We as US fans should be thankful and proud that he did it the American way.

Top 5 moments of Bradley's US coaching career.

1) Algeria comeback to win World Cup group - Beating Algeria may not be that big of a deal but this happened on the biggest stage in the most dramatic way.  US won their WC group for the first time in modern WC.

2) Spain upset in '09 Confederations Cup - European champs, Spain was #1, and on their way to WC victory.  The US' triumph sent shockwaves around the world.

3) Gold Cup Final over Mexico - Benny's 2nd half golazo won Concacaf's championship and spot in the '09 Confed Cup.

4) Bornstein header to win 1st in Qualifying - though qualification was in hand, his stoppage time header to preserve draw and win Concacaf just days after Davies' accident was unforgettable.

5) Up 2 goals on Brazil - Beautiful goals by Donovan and Dempsey gave US fans hope that a world title was in reach.

Worst 5 moments:

1) '11 Gold Cup Loss - Our first team losing to bitter rival on US soil for the first time in over 10 years.  In championship game no less.  After 2 goal lead.
2) '10 Ghana Loss - the road was paved for WC glory but cloaked in failure.
3) '09 Confed Final Loss to Brazil - 2 goals up in a world title, but let in 3 goals in 2nd half.
4) '09 Gold Cup Loss - Even if it was our third team, we still got destroyed 5-0 by Mexico.
5) '09 Azteca Loss - ahead for the first time ever at Azteca but Landon was poisoned with swine flu.

SF Giants

Giants traded for OF Carlos Beltran.  wow.  We gave up a major pitching prospect in Wheeler for the best bat on the market, so I hope that Beltran isn't merely a one year rental.  But if he can help us overcome the Phillies and other contenders in the playoffs this year, it will all be worth it.  Losing Posey and Sanchez won't sting nearly as much now.  Anyway, it is clear that Sabean is trying to strike while the iron was hot, and I don't blame him.

UCLA Basketball

Senior PG Jerime Anderson was arrested for stealing a laptop yesterday.  The Fab Five recruiting class really has turned out to be a complete and utter failure hasn't it?  Though he was possibly slated to be a starter at off-guard for us, I hope Howland comes down hard on him.  We shouldn't tolerate this kind of character on our team.  We are not u$c or Auburn.

Our 2012 class seems to have gotten to a great start as we've nabbed two 4 star recruits in PG Dominic Artis and SF Jordan Adams.  While neither seem to be a obvious future NBA allstars, maybe that means they will stick around school for awhile.

SF 49ers

Alex Smith will again be our starting quarterback after signing a 1 year deal for $5 mil.  This will be his 6th year with the team and his last chance to prove that he's not a bust.  While he has only finished with a .500 record as a starter only once, I am ready to give him one more shot.  His leadership and work ethic this summer has been impressive at the very least.

Frank Gore is holding out, looking for one last big contract before he turns 30.  I'm betting the niners are more inclined to let him sit, since Harbaugh may not want to start his tenure by giving in to a holdout.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NFL is back!, and other labor thoughts

I don't really like spending too much time thinking about or reading about strikes, lockouts, labor negotiations, etc - basically the business side of sports, simply because its mostly just boring.  I honestly don't understand why fans always complain about greed and ego during this time, as if they never knew it dominates the world in the first place.  If they became an owner or a player tomorrow, they would be engaged in the same fight over money themselves.

The fact simply is that the enormous amounts of money at stake are precisely what makes this sport great.  Our greatest players work hard to make as much money as they can negotiate.  The franchises exist to maximize profit.  The push to make money is what has created the NFL and everything about it that we all love.  Ultimately, winning = more money.  True, "the love of money is the root of all evil" (notice it says "love of money", not just "money"), but it is still possible to handle large amounts of money fairly and equitably, knowing the advantages it brings to all.

So, only the fans are invested in the NFL for reasons other than money - mainly for entertainment or for self-identity.  But it must be understood that putting up with labor negotiations are part of our cost of enjoying sports.  It isn't until they miss regular season games that we should really care.  This time, the NFL has successfully resolved its issues nearly 7 weeks before the first game.  Would you say this summer has really been worse the past few summers of endless Favre talk?  Anything is better than that.

As far as my opinion on whose side I agreed with more between the owners and players this time, I think I leaned more toward the players.  The owners locked out the players on an existing agreement - it wasn't a strike.  And it is incredulous to me that any NFL owner can claim that they are losing money.  They were also unwilling to open their financial books to the players or the courts and even planned a failed insurance maneuver in case of lockout hoping to outflank and therefore outlast the players.  Lastly, Carolina's owner, Richardson's blatant disrespect of dignified and accomplished player reps like Manning and Brees during negotiations is just off-putting.  If I was a player, I would never choose to play there.

Also, while the NFL is obviously hugely successful, by comparison the NFL players get a smaller cut of the pie seemingly than NBA or MLB players do.  In contrast, I'm more likely to side with NBA owners than players in their current dispute.  I absolutely believe that many NBA owners are struggling and that many players are grossly overpaid.  I wouldn't mind if the lockout extended until February, since its completely boring before then anyway.  And if the entire season was missed, that's just one less chance for Kobe to win another ring before his body betrays him.  But I digress.

Overall, the NFL system is far superior to the other two and I think the only real issue that has bothered me about the NFL has been resolved.  I'll first go over my biggest issues with the NBA and MLB.

The NBA's guaranteed contracts essentially handcuff teams into making stupid franchise killing moves such as making Rashard Lewis the 2nd highest paid player this past year at $22 million.  Guaranteeing a player something like $100 million dollars over 6 or 7 years is essentially a recipe for disaster.  Why do they need to work hard anymore after that contract?  What if they weren't the player they were projected to be years from now?  If it were up to me, I'd essentially eliminate guaranteed contracts, like the NFL model.  If any players need guaranteed contracts, its NFL players, don't you think?  I would also disallow the rising salary model.  Why would a 34 year old be making more now than when he was still in his athletic prime producing as an allstar at 29?  Eliminating guaranteed contracts would help all teams have the opportunity to stay more competitive year after year, therefore creating a better league.

MLB has a plethora of problems, much of which I have railed on previously, but for today in comparison with the NFL, (in addition to the ridiculous guaranteed contracts - Barry Zito makes $18.5 million and he didn't even make the Giants' postseason roster)  I will only bring up the lack of a salary cap.  The Yankees payroll this year is $202.7 million.  The Kansas City Royals?  $36.1 million.  You realize that NY 3rd baseman, Alex Rodriguez, himself makes $32 mil this year.  Utterly ridiculous.  The only reason why MLB standings don't always correlate to the payroll is simply because teams with loads of money get locked into the aforementioned horrible guaranteed contracts.  So basically its a stupid system with two stupid policies helping to offset each other and making the whole stupid thing palatable for stupid fans.  I just see a whole lot of stupid.

I recently had a Yankees fan try to tell me that salary caps are socialist in nature and that this is America.  Yes, I believe in America's exceptionalism, and I hate socialism (- I fear that our very own President holds the exact opposite view on both, but that's for another blog, which I have no intention of ever writing).  But the problem in the Yankees' fan explanation is that if the world were MLB, USA would be the Yankees.  On the world stage, of course we should dominate and we should strive to be the most powerful and the most successful.  But this isn't the world and obviously not every American is a Yankees fan.  In this country, it should be equitable for all.  It should be equal opportunity by the rules.  Life might not be fair, but our games should be.  I realize that cities like NY and LA will have a natural advantage in a multitude of ways (bigger fanbase means more TV money; a more attractive destination for free agents; etc) but that's just more reason why a hard salary cap would help to balance the playing field.  Even the NBA soft cap, which the Lakers abuse to no end since they can afford the "penalties", isn't enough.

Winning teams in all sports should have to do it through skillful scouting, superior technical development of young talent, astute moves by the front office, great coaching and solid franchise to fan relationships.  Not simply by opening a wallet.

Back to the NFL.  The only real issue that I had with the NFL system was the exorbitant rookie contracts.  One of the highest paid player on the team should not be a 22 year old rookie QB who has never taken a snap.  Last summer, Sam Bradford got a 6 year, $78 million dollar contract, $50 million of which was guaranteed up front.  Starting from this year, the 1st pick, Cam Newton, will only get half of that.  I know the Panthers are very happy about that, after seeing what JaMarcus Russell did the the Raiders.

Other things I like about this deal.  It is probably one that will last 10 years.  We can get back to Brett Favre watch next summer.  I also like that the new deal allows injured players to receive up to $1 million the year after their injury and $500k the 2nd year after their injury.  In such a brutal sport without guaranteed contracts, this is the right thing to do.  I like the option for health care for life for current players.  And I like the $620 million being set aside in the 10 years for the pre-1993 retirees pensions.  But mostly, I just like that they're gonna play starting Sep 8th.

Extra Point

By the way, one of the most interesting football articles I read this summer was actually not about the lockout, but instead about Virginia Tech's research on football helmet models and concussions.  It is astounding that the NFL has not formally come out with a stance on which models are better for preventing concussions.  I think its obvious that the NFL is guarding itself against liability issues, but its about time for them to put a lot of effort - meaning money and research - into trying to prevent concussions.  And it starts with helmets.  Hopefully high schools and colleges everywhere take Va Tech's study seriously.  At the very least, helmet makers will now know they will be held accountable by someone.