Friday, April 27, 2012

NBA Champs Preferences

Given the playoff choices, these are my preferences (not my prediction) for this season's champs:

1) Knicks (with Jeremy)
2) Thunder - UCLA's Westbrook cements place among PG greats.  Small town team prevails.
3) Spurs - Duncan wins his 5th to equal Kobe.
4) Heat - I ain't the hater ya'll are.  Lebron will earn a deserved title.
5) Clippers - Chris Paul and LAC will rule the city.
6) Boston - Enemy of my enemy is my friend.
7) Collison's or Afflalo's team - 2 of my favorite Bruins.

14) Knicks (without Jeremy) - not a Melo fan.  Don't want to see success without Lin.
15) playoffs cancelled
16) Bulls - Noah, ugh.  trojans Gibson/Scalabrine, ugh.
17) lakers - Jerks: Artest, Bynum - and the unlikeable Lakers franchise deserve each other.

Prediction: Heat have been sleepwalking through the regular season.  But now they won't be denied.

I'd love to see a Heat-Thunder Finals.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Real Madrid beats Barcelona for La Liga

Having bottled up Messi and unleashed a perfect counterattacking goal to win at Camp Nou, Real Madrid in essence won the La Liga title for the first time since 2008.  Mesut Ozil's absolutely perfect left-footed lead pass into space for Ronaldo, who curved it home at an impressively tight angle, will be the moment I remember.  Ronaldo's goal came mere minutes after Barca's tying goal and he celebrated by motioning, "Everyone calm down, I've got this".  Though there are still 4 games to go, all they need now is 6 points to clinch.  It was possible that Real would have won the league even if they lost this rivalry match, but actually overcoming their crown-holding arch-nemesis at their house is infinitely more satisfying and should quiet any critics about the legitimacy of their title.  It was also the first time since 2007 that Madrid has won at Camp Nou.

Other interesting facts:

- Mourinho finally got his first win at Camp Nou in 10 attempts (with 3 teams).  With last year's Copa del Rey championship win over Barca and now this enormous league win, Mourinho is beginning to fulfill the massive expectations for which he was hired.

- Ronaldo's breathtaking 73rd minute game-winner was his 42nd league goal, temporarily breaking the tie with Messi for the all-time La Liga single season record.  Ronaldo currently has 54 goals in all competitions on the season.

- Ronaldo has also scored 4 goals in the last 5 Clasico matches.  Conversely, Messi has been goal-less in the last 4 Clasicos.  For all the deserved talk about Messi's greatness, Ronaldo has taken over as the better Clasico-performer right now.

- Sami Khedira's 17th minute goal set the all-time La Liga team record at 108.  (Real Madrid also set the previous 107 goal mark back in 1989-90).  There are still 4 games left.

- If Real wins all 4 matches left, they will end up with 100 league points, another La Liga record.

Should Real and Barca both overcome their 1 goal deficit going into the 2nd leg of their Champions League semi this week (both their games at their respective homes), we will have the grand Clasico finale that futbol fans around the world would be waiting for.  Real would have a chance at an unbelievable 10th title.  As a Real fan though, I think I'd rather see Chelsea, haha.

My friends are always wondering why I always support Real over Barca.  I must concede that:

- Barcelona plays a much more attractive style than Real.  Offensive football at the finest - their tika-taka passing is beautiful and dominant.  Many have called this Barcelona team the best of all time.  I loved it when Spain won using this philosophy.  Real, perhaps out of necessity, employs a much more destructive and physical style to counter Barca.

- Barca's offensive engine was homegrown - Xavi, Iniesta, Busquests, Messi, etc - not hired mercenaries.  The philosophy of the upper management is in question here.

- Mourinho is not the most likable of coaches.  His arrogance is 2nd to none (as is his managing brilliance perhaps).

- Real's greatest star, Ronaldo, is much more unlikeable than Messi.  Fame-chasing, suave and arrogant, Ronaldo would be grouped with players like Kobe, A-Rod, and Tom Brady, while Messi is more like Kevin Durant, Josh Hamilton or Peyton Manning.

- Real is similar to the Lakers or Yankees, 2 teams I am bred to dislike - historically successful, financially dominant, organizationally arrogant, perpetually and inherently benefited by the inequitable system in place, drawing bandwagon fans all over the world.

So why am I a Real guy?  2 reasons:

1) Zidane is the greatest of our time.  I've been a Real follower since he signed in 2001.

2) Rafa Marquez is my most hated player of all time.

Hala Madrid.

Monday, April 16, 2012

McBride scores as US beats Mexico 2-0 in Legends Classic

Formally announced only 9 days before the game, the US-Mexico Legends Classic was played Sunday night at the Home Depot Center and indeed featured an important and historical swath of all the retired legends of US Soccer.  The non-televised match was clearly marketed toward the Mexican fan base since the name of the event was actually "Clasico de Leyenda", had a Spanish language-only band pregame, prominently featured a large Mexican Soccer Federation crest (literally the expanse of the entire section of seats) behind one of the goals and benefited a Hispanic academic charity.

It makes sense since there is no other way to pull in a respectable attendance in such a short time.  I would estimate that there were about 10k people there, give or take 2k.  The sidelines were about 75% full while the endzones (and lone sideline upper deck) was blocked off.  And of those 10k, I'd bet there were less than 200 US fans.  From where I sat - 8th row, 35 yard line - I literally did not see another US fan anywhere around me.  I'm a little surprised that there weren't more but even didn't have the requisite mindless threads that you'd expect - there just wasn't any US interest, not even for a $15 general attendance ticket.  It must be noted that the US players should be commended for even agreeing to this event likely for the sake of the charity, knowing the hostile environment they would be subjected to.

I can't speak for the pedigree or historical importance of the Mexican players, but the US lineup was extremely impressive and historically significant for any US Soccer fan.  Let's see:
Eric Wynalda - veteran of 3 WCs, 2nd leading scorer (34) in US history.
Cobi Jones - veteran of 3 WCs, most caps (164) in US history.
Alexi Lalas - 96 caps, possibly the most well-known personality (and hair) in US soccer history.
Paul Caligiuri - His '89 "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" ended US' 40 year WC drought.
Clint Mathis - scored against S Korea (in Korea) in the '02 WC.
Thomas Dooley - veteran of 2 WCs, '98 captain.
John O'Brien - veteran of 2 WCs, scored first goal vs Portugal in '02 WC upset.
And lastly, my favorite US player of all time, Brian McBride - veteran of 3 WCs, 3rd leading scorer (30) in US history, first player to score in 2 WCs.

In fact, of the non-active US legends, the only ones that I would have loved to see out there as well were Marcelo Balboa, Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Earnie Stewart and Kasey Keller.  Other players to round out the US team included Jovan Kirovski, Roy Lassiter, Cle Kooiman, Ted Eck, Greg Vanney, Chris Klein and Ian Feuer.

The Mexican players that I recognized included Francisco Palencia, Jared Borghetti, Ramon Ramirez and of course, Jorge Campos.  The entire event was fairly cordial, with McBride non-surprisingly being especially friendly and obviously respected by many of the Mexican players.  At halftime, Campos even feigned to be a goalkeeper for Wynalda's toddler son in a nice moment.  That of course didn't keep a few idiot fans from brawling sometime in the 2nd half in one of the end zones.  This would have been a great game to bring my 3 year old to, but based on the potential though improbable dangers of the event and the fact that he's a little sick, I decided against it.  At least he wasn't there to hear our national anthem be disrespected, so there's that.  Since I had been to the Rose Bowl for the Gold Cup last June, I knew this night wouldn't faze me and I'm happy to report nothing negative was experienced, outside of some overly excited and unclever El Tri fans behind us.

The two teams came out in fairly generic jerseys, with the main sponsor, Bud Light, predictably emblazoned on the chest.  The US wore white tops with royal blue shorts and striped socks while the Mexican side were in traditional green tops, white shorts and red socks.  Apparently the US had Nike swooshes and Mexico had the Adidas emblem, but there were no official federation crests in the usual place.  From a distance, the US really appeared to be wearing cheap white T-shirts, which I thought was a solid idea so that those who were carrying a little more weight these days would have more room.

As for the game itself, I was curious about who would have the advantage.  US traditionally holds the edge in strength, speed, fitness and organization while Mexico ought to be more technical.  I figured age would likely rob the US of their speed and fitness more than Mexico of their technique and skill.  Wouldn't you know it, the US ultimately prevailed in part because of their organization.  Also, I wondered how long of a match the sides would actually play.  If it were a full 90, I figured the last 20 minutes would be dreadful to watch.  Brilliantly, the game was played in two 35 minute halves (which therefore cut out the last 20 min), with nearly a 30 min halftime break for recuperation.

As for the general formation, I observed the US lining up in something like this:

-----------Mathis - McBride--------
Wynalda - Dooley - Kirovski - Jones
Caligiuri - Vanney - Lalas - Klein

The US were smarter in their substitutions, as coach Curt Onalfo used them even in the 1st 10 minutes and constantly revolved some of the less fit players in and out of the match.  Cobi Jones, Clint Mathis, Paul Caligiuri and Eric Wynalda were among those who were, how do I put this nicely, noticeably thicker in the torso and therefore required more rest.  Onalfo also made in-game tactical adjustments better than his counterpart.  Again, the US' advantage in organization and formation was a huge reason they won. 

The US were the stronger side to start off the game, as their passing was initially superior.  They were able to send in a few mishit crosses in McBride's direction before Mexico really even mustered an attack.  However, Chris Klein at RB was caught out of position a few times and Mexico quickly realized that the US weakness was up the left flank.  As they got settled in, they began to possess the ball more and I figured we would now see a classic Mexico-US match where the US would have to chase the ball and weather a constant attack all game.  We even joked about moving to the other side for the 2nd half so we could see all the action.

However, Onalfo had a wildcard up his sleeve by the name of John O'Brien.  The game was turned on its head when JOB was subbed into central midfield midway through the 1st half.  He essentially dominated the flow of play, connecting all the correct passes, making the necessary strong runs and easily maintaining possession in traffic.  It was a reminder of his much talked about Ajax training and why Bruce Arena loved him so much.  But injuries robbed O'Brien of a mercurial international career (32 caps only) and robbed US fans of seeing the extent of his (and our) greatness.

The 1st half ended scoreless and we feared an even slower 2nd half.  To my surprise after intermission, the game was became wide open.  In the 50th minute, John O'Brien patiently timed a perfect through-ball toward his left to a streaking Roy Lassiter, who slotted it home.  Apparently Lassiter coaches youth soccer and one of his students along with family in front of me sprung up to celebrate, even though they were probably casual Mexico fans.  My friend and I stood up reflexively as well and admittedly wondered if it was the right decision.  No beer cups headed our way.  Incidentally, the mother of that kid had previously asked me whether or not Roy was good.  I knew of Roy as a good MLS player but wasn't too sure of his international credentials.  Not wanting to disappoint, all I said was, "Well, he's a legend".

Mexico obviously went on the attack after that and Lalas, Vanney and other US defenders all made timely and physical tackles.  The US keeper, Ian Feuer, also had a spectacular game as the 6'7, spry 40 year old made many great saves to preserve the shutout.  According to Wikipedia, Feuer had just 1 cap in a 20 minute substitute showing in 1992.  I guess when there's only been 4 keepers in 22 years (Meola, Keller, Friedel, Howard) and two are still starting in the EPL, finding a US GK legend just might be difficult to do.  It would have been nice to see Keller though.

But the main attraction for me was to see Brian McBride again.   You may be wondering why I've spent so many words on a exhibition non-televised old-timers game.  This is why I'm excited.  Easily my favorite US player ever, McBride didn't score in the 3 games at the Deutschland 2006 WC when I saw him play in person.  If he wasn't on the official roster released a couple days before the game, there would be chance that I would have skipped the event.  So when he received Wynalda's pass to him just outside the top of the box in the 62nd minute and blasted it into the top left corner, I was literally in shock.  I think I may have slumped back, put my hands on my head,  mumbling, "What did I just see?".

McBride looked to be the fittest and fastest player on the field.  He was sprinting after lofted passes well into the 70th minute.  There's no question in my mind that he could've played in the 2010 WC if we had asked.  The McBride moments I will really remember are:

- Palencia waiting for McBride to come out at halftime and the long friendly conversation they had.
- His strong header that was somehow parried away by the diving Mexican keeper.
- He leaped high into the air to powerfully redirect a goal kick into space for Cobi on the right.
- He and Cobi were the last to leave the field and he spent a lot of time signing autographs, including my hat.  I realized at that moment that I had forgotten to wear my '06 McBride US jersey.  Idiot.

In the end, seeing him score that goal was the best I could have hoped for and for the final score to be 2-0 is simply perfect.  Dos a cero.

McBride is a true class act, a consummate professional, respected by teammates and opponents alike, and sacrifices time for the fans.  He probably saves kittens stuck in trees in his spare time.  By the way, the first time McBride scored against Mexico was in 2000 in the US Cup and of course scored against them in the 2002 World Cup.  10 years later, he does it again in the all-important Legends Classic, haha.  As silly as it sounds, this was one of the most memorable US Soccer experiences ever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Shabazz Muhammad commits to UCLA

Not since Jrue Holiday in 2008 and Kevin Love in 2007 has UCLA been able to sign the consensus best player at their position, if not the best overall player in the country.  This year, with the live ESPNU announcement that Shabazz Muhammad has decided for the Bruins, UCLA once again has a spectacular recruiting class for the first time in 4 years.  Shabazz is clearly the top perimeter scorer in the country, pouring in just under 30 points a game this season.  At 6-5, he can play either SG or SF for us.  Kyle Anderson, an early commit and a persuasive recruiter in his own right, is possibly the best PG in the country, although he is actually rated the best SF by (who has SM has a SG).  All I know, is that the #5 PG Dominic Artis in the country immediately de-committed from UCLA when Kyle announced.

Now we know that bad behavior from much of the highly touted recruiting class of '08 (Gordon, Morgan, Anderson) and one of the best players from '09 (Nelson) essentially torpedoed our program, but I'm not worried about those kind of antics from this year's class.  Based on Muhammad's reputation for having a professional approach and single-minded focus on his basketball career as well as the fact that Kyle flourished under tough coaching from St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley, I'd expect a hard-working and focused mindset from our freshmen stars next season.

From what I've seen in the McDonald's All-American game, Shabazz doesn't have the elite athleticism like a Lebron or Westbrook.  However, he is a definitely an above-average athlete (good enough to win the HS slam dunk title though I thought UK's Goodwin deserved it instead) and clearly has an arsenal of offensive skill that we obviously lack.  There is no question he ought to start and will probably lineup at SF for us.

If you asked me even a year ago about how I felt about one-and-done's like Shabazz, you would have gotten a lukewarm reaction out of me.  But with the success of Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday in the L, the lack of our success the last few years in comparison with Calipari's 1-and-done's, and the fact that we needed a boost after the lows of this season, I've changed my mind.  Getting Shabazz was a monumental moment for us.  It was a highly anticipated ESPN live broadcast event and UCLA was the main story to lead it off.  If Shabazz had his pick of any of the heavyweights including UK, UNC, Duke and KU, and he picked UCLA, so can any big-time recruit in the future.

I know that Shabazz is leaving after one year and I'm expecting it.  I think its different than Kevin Love or Jrue Holiday's early departure simply because I thought both made the wrong decision to leave early.  Clearly I was incredibly wrong about Love since I thought his glory days could only be in college.  Holiday would easily have made the lottery had he stayed but with the shenanigans going on in the program at the time, I can't blame him too much.  With Shabazz however, he comes across as an admitted mercenary who will undoubtedly give it his all during his single season here.  At least he better.  Kyle Anderson, on the other hand, looks like he should stay at least an additional season or two.

He lacks the explosive athleticism of NBA athletes (they don't call him Slo Mo for nothing) but makes up for it with his 6-8 length, incredible ball-handling skill and court vision.  It will be most interesting to see how Howland deploys him.  With both our current PGs graduating, it will be between Anderson and UNC transfer Drew for the starting job.

Any chance for our other highly-rated recruit, Jordan Adams, to start is probably gone now with Muhammad in the fold.  However, his scoring ability will undoubtedly be an asset off the bench.

The only other recruit that we are rumored to still be in the running for is 6-8 PF/C Tony Parker from Georgia.  I must admit that I am not too high on him.  He looks overweight, unpolished offensively and indecisive off the court (his list of schools are growing?!?).  I hope he doesn't have a highly inflated opinion of himself if he comes here, because I don't think there's anyway that he starts over Josh or the Wear twins, who have been in Howland's system for 2 years already.  Not to say that I don't want Parker, but he better be willing to be patient and work.  Maybe I'm just dreading a clone of the unmotivated version of Josh Smith.  If he comes with the right attitude, we will have the type of recruiting class that we should always get. 

Starting Lineup:

PG: Kyle Anderson
SG: Tyler Lamb
SF: Shabazz Muhammad
PF: David Wear
F/C: Travis Wear

Bench: C Josh Smith, PG Larry Drew, SG Norman Powell, G/F Jordan Adams, C Anthony Stover

2 deep at every position, not bad at all.  I suppose Larry Drew, who is basically a 5th year athlete, has the experience to start as well.  If he does, I'd expect Shabazz to slide over to SG and Kyle to start at SF.  That would be mind-blowing, if we have 3 new perimeter starters.  But after last season, maybe change is good.

The fact remains that we had a bad season last year because we were the anti-Kentucky - we had no obvious NBA talent on our roster.  Howland went out and fixed that problem in Shabazz.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Michael Bradley's 1st Serie A goal (& Dempsey scores 3)

Michael Bradley scored his first goal for Chievo Verona in the Serie A on Saturday in a 3-2 win over Catania with a 6th minute right-footer just inside the right post.  Though it is just his first goal this year, he has been an instrumental part of lifting the team to 9th place in the top-flight Italian league.  He's played in 29 games this campaign, starting 28 (all but his first match).  Fans of Verona have taken to calling Bradley, "The General", for his hard-nosed and hard-working (and very American) style of play.  It probably helps that he's fully immersed himself into learning the language, even conducting interviews in Italian.

If you only think of Bradley's 2010 WC performances, perhaps his play this season is as expected.  However, you have to remember the circumstances around his transfer last offseason.  Moving to Chievo Verona, a team just happy to avoid relegation in Italy's Serie A, was definitely a risky move.  Though previously extremely successful in Holland and then Germany, he was coming off a year of being benched at EPL's Aston Villa.  The questions around his true soccer ability in the great European leagues were left unanswered.  His father has just been sacked as US coach in favor of Klinsmann and it wasn't even clear if Bradley would continue to be an auto-starter for the US.  Then there was the "Americans in Italy" factor, or lack thereof.  The last US player to try his hand in Italy, Onyewu, never saw a minute of Serie A playing time in 2 injury-riddled seasons.  Before that, you have to go all the way back to 94-96, when Alexi Lalas capitalized on his WC 94 popularity by signing for 2 years with Padova to become just the first American in Serie A.  (Rossi does not have the honor of being considered a US player).

So Bradley's stated goal coming in was simply to crack the starting lineup.  The fact that he's started 28 of Chievo's 32 Serie A matches (sat out first 2 after Aug transfer, subbed off the bench the next game, then only missed a Feb match due to card accumulation) this season is quite something.  In 2 years, Lalas managed to play 44 games and scored 2 goals.  Considering there are still 7 games left in Bradley's first season, he will likely end up being the greatest American in Serie A history.  Okay, okay, we're only talking about two people.  But the fact remains, he is the lone American pioneer in a world class league.  And The General is finding success by doing it his way.  While he is not the scorer that Dempsey is, his role as an successful US player in a top-flight European league is massively important for US Soccer.


Clint Dempsey notably scored 3 goals this weekend in the Premier League.  He had a brace vs Bolton on Sat, including one off a marvelous free-kick.  Then today, he scored a game-tying 82nd minute header vs Chelsea to obtain a hard-fought result.  On the season, he's scored 22 total goals for Fulham, 16 of which were scored in Premier League matches.  He trails only Van Persie, Rooney and Aguero in EPL goals.  This weekend's outburst also breaks Louis Saha's previous Fulham record of 13 goals in the EPL.  What more can Dempsey do at Fulham?  This coming offseason may perhaps be his greatest chance to move to a Champions League-level squad.