Friday, June 29, 2012

Euro Cup '12 Final Prediction

I didn't think I was going to have to post another prediction since I've had Germany as my champion from the beginning, but Italy went and screwed everything up.  They've ruined a perfectly enjoyable tournament and interjected themselves onto the biggest stage when the world is tired of seeing them.  But then, this might not be true - the reality is that the tables have essentially reversed.  If anything, reigning champion Spain has received the criticisms of causing boredom (perhaps a case of familiarity breeding contempt), while Italy, with the explosive Balotelli, the brilliance of Pirlo, and a master tactician of a coach in Prandelli, have captured the footballing world's wonder.

I'm not going to be able to break new ground here about historical trends, game tactics or even player selections, so I'm simply going to list possible thoughts as to why each team is destined to win.  They are not based in rational logic, just my logic.  Then I'll give my prediction.  Again, this is about as reliable and reasonable as the Polish elephant picking melons/games.

Italy will win because:

- If Spain wins, they would be the first team to win 3 consecutive major championships.  Its never been done, and they would immediately be crowned the greatest team ever in history.  It would only be believable after its been accomplished.  By the way, regardless of how Sunday's match turns out, they will be a odds-on favorite to hoist the 2014 WC trophy in Brazil.

- Spain is relatively punchless.  They need a Messi.  For a team that maintains possession for so long, they are toothless when it comes time to score.  Also, it is as if they'd rather pass the ball behind the keeper.  Compare that with Balotelli's desire to pulverize the net every chance he gets.  (Of course, you can point to the 4 goals they put on the Irish or the 2 they knocked France out with, but that would sabotage my argument.)  Against good sides, Italy, Croatia, Portugal, they managed just 2 late goals.  Should Del Bosque continue to start Fabregas in, what surely is this tournament's favorite phrase, "a false-nine" role?  Will he risk it with Torres?  Can he get Spain to pass quicker before Italy's defense is set?  Will he add some width with Navas and/or Pedro to give Iniesta and Xavi some more room inside?  Conversely, Prandelli has been brilliant at deploying his formations, including a 3-5-2, and substitutes to his tactical advantage.  He is purposeful, while Del Bosque seems to be experimenting.  Did I really promise to not talk tactics?

- Italy has been exactly what Ronaldo and Portugal weren't - efficient on their opportunities on the counterattack.  Think Di Natale's goal vs Spain and Balotelli's lash vs Germany.  They are best when matched against offensively talented sides.  Against non-superior teams (Irish aside) they weren't great - with only Pirlo's perfect free kick vs Croatia and a donut vs England to show for it.  They won't get the lion's share of opportunities vs Spain, but they will be dangerous with the ones they get.  In the first matchup with Spain, Casillas had to make more lunging saves than Buffon.

- Pirlo.  Spain has a whole armada of midfielder maestros, but Italy might very well have the best one on the pitch.  His weighted passes and long balls seem to have homing capabilities.

- This is not Barcelona midfielders' year.   They lost La Liga.  They lost Champions League.  Maybe there's a reason.  Maybe they're unable to sustain this kind of excellence for so long.  Maybe the world is figuring this dominance out.

Spain will win because:

- Duh, they have more possession.  They literally try to choke out any chance opponents have of scoring.  This philosophy is so capably being carried out that neutral viewers are probably getting worked up that the other team isn't getting a chance to attack.  As Aaron Sorkin would say, this ain't soccer camp, we shouldn't care if everybody gets to play.

- The Spanish defense is near impenetrable.  They've allowed ONE GOAL in their 4 games so far.  Granted, it was against Italy back in their first match, but their back line has been absolutely solid.  Obviously, the opponents' lack of possession helps.

- Italy's upset over Germany could shake Spain out of their malaise, overconfidence, or whatever it is that's bothering them.  They won't be unprepared for Balotelli.

- What's the chances that a team plays Spain twice and avoids a L both times?  They might wish they kept that goal in their pocket for this one.  The draw with Italy was seen as a negative for Spain, so the onus is on Spain to respond.

- Italy's only got Friday and Saturday to rest this time.  Spain has an entire day more to recover.  (Then again, Spain played extra time...)

- Scoring.  What's the chances Spain goes 2 straight games without scoring in regulation?  Italy managed only 1 non-set piece goal before the Germany match.

- Italy has Spain's number in tournament matches, having never lost in regulation.  You might think that this belongs as a pro-Italy reason, but I think the odds are that its Spain's turn.  At the very least, it is motivation.  Listed here is the history of Italy-Spain in either a WC or Euro.  Remember, Italy never lost in the first 90 minutes.

1934 World Cup 1-1
1934 World Cup 1-0 (Hmm, the 2nd mtg in the same tournament.  First game ended 1-1 too...)
1980 Euro Cup 0-0
1988 Euro Cup 1-0
1994 World Cup 2-1
2008 Euro Cup 0-0 (Spain wins in PKs)
2012 Euro Cup 1-1

Euro Cup Final Prediction

I've picked against Spain in my two previous prediction posts already.  First I said the Netherlands would get revenge in the semis.  Then I advanced them to the final only to lose to the Germans.  Now, when every unreasonable bone in my body wants to say that Italy's timely and staunch backline will frustrate Spain's slow-building attack, while Balotelli/Cassano/Di Natale will be mashing the turbo button on every counter to thrash home Pirlo's gift-wrapped legacies, I'm taking the side that what will go down as the greatest team of all time.  Why wouldn't you?

Spain 1-0 (Iniesta in the 72nd minute)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Lebron's greatness finally rewarded

One of the reason I love sports is to see when athletic greatness plus hard work ultimately becomes rewarded with championship status.  Lebron is a player the likes of which I've never seen before.  I know there have been triple double monsters of the past, like Oscar Robertson, but Lebron is the most unique player of the modern age.  He can score like Jordan, but possesses the vision like Magic, and wields the interior strength of Barkley.

Since Jordan's reign (6 titles, 5 regular season MVPs - AP gave Karl Malone 2 of Jordan's MVPs because they felt sorry for him,6 Finals MVPs), there have only been a handful of great players who have emerged.  Greatness will be measured here as one who has won a regular season MVP and a Finals MVP (NBA title obviously).

Duncan has his 4 titles, 2 regular season MVPs, and 3 Finals MVPs and will be regarded as the best PF to ever play the game.  Shaq was easily the most physically dominant center of the last decade and a half, and really should be embarrassed that he only won 3 titles as the lead star.  He only won 1 regular season MVP - an indictment more than an honor but had 3 Finals MVPs.  Kobe worked hard to become the best Jordan clone but currently has only 2 titles as the lead star, just 1 regular season MVP and 2 Finals MVPs.  Nowitzki has 1 regular season MVP, although it was 4 seasons before he won his Finals MVP and title.  And now we have Lebron who finally has his title, a Finals MVP to go along with his 3 regular season MVPs.  Heck, just for kicks, I'm looking up the multiple MVP and Finals MVP winners.

Players in history with more than 1 regular season MVP (starting in '56) include:
Lew Alcindor (6)
Michael Jordan (5)
Bill Russell (5)
Wilt Chamberlain (4)
Larry Bird (3)
Lebron James (3)
Magic Johnson (3)
Moses Malone (3)
Tim Duncan (2)
Karl Malone (2)
Steve Nash (2)
Bob Pettit (2)

Alcindor ("Kareem", for you non-Bruin fans) won 6 MVPs, but only 3 as a Laker and only 1 Finals MVP as a Laker.  Amazingly, even though he helped bring 5 championships to LA, Jerry West (just 1 title) got his statue outside of Staples before Kareem has.

Players with more than 1 Finals MVP (which was not awarded until '69) include:
Michael Jordan (6)
Tim Duncan (3)
Magic Johnson (3)
Shaquille O'Neal (3)
Lew Alcindor (2)
Larry Bird (2)
Kobe Bryant (2)
Hakeem Olajuwon (2)
Willis Reed (2)

Seeing that there was a 14 year gap between the two awards, Bill Russell, having accumulated 11 titles and 5 regular season MVP awards, would certainly have won the lion's share of Finals MVP awards.  After him, Jordan is far and away the best player.  Shaq may have won his Finals MVPs back to back to back, but Jordan accomplished that feat, TWICE.

All that to say, Lebron has the potential and is in position to join the Russell, Chamberlain, Alcindor, Bird/Magic, and Jordan party.

Last season at this time, the world doubted if Lebron would ever even win championship.  He had taken what seemed to be the easier route and joined another superstar, who had already won a championship as the lead star.  After losing the '11 Finals, it seemed that he would psychologically crumble, literally passively pass on responsibility in crunchtime and maddeningly quit when everything was on the line.  I remembered the 2010 Cavs-Celtics series, when tied 2-2, Game 5 at home, and he turned in a shockingly listless 15 point performance.  In the most critical game of the year, it was as if he gave up and wanted out of town.  Those back-to-back failures, in addition to the foolish "Decision" and pyrotechnic South Beach intro, had the potential to define him as the biggest disappointment the NBA had ever seen.

Then in the past offseason, Lebron re-committed himself.  He added a post game to his repertoire, a facet that very well could make him unstoppable.  And, as he stated himself, he started again to play with joy (something that Kobe has never exuded), not with hate (which was still an understandable reaction to the vitriol he was receiving).  I appreciate that he repeatedly said that he had to learn humility after last season.

There were two critical points in this season's playoffs that would've defined Lebron one way or another.
1) After going down 2-1 to the Pacers and in Indiana for game 4, Lebron exploded for 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists to win.  40 points is nice, but EIGHTEEN boards is commitment.  They rolled off 2 straight W's to clinch.
2) The Heat were down 3-2 to the Celtics, facing elimination, in Boston, and Lebron went off for 45 points (19-26 shooting, 73%) and 15 boards.  He then played 47:32 minutes in the game 7 closeout to finally overcome his 2010 nemesis.

In the finals, he averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists, including a championship clinching game 5 triple double.  There is no doubt that the Heat are now his team.  He ain't Pippen, Wade is.  (Wade better recognize this and not sabotage what they have going here for the sake of his own ego.)  Lebron's also got selfless pieces around him like Battier, who contributed exactly what Heat role players are brought in for - brilliant defense and timely 3 pointers.

We are hopefully at the inception of NBA championship greatness.  I'm talking about more than just a couple championships (like Kobe).  The fact that he's labored for 9 seasons before finally tasting glory means that perhaps he has the maturity and hunger to win more.  I'm hoping we see a career that finishes with at least 4-5 championships/Finals MVPs and at least 5-6 regular season MVPs.  But for now, at least Lebron's beginning to live up to the greatness we glimpsed at in that monstrous 48 point playoff performance in the 2007 double OT game vs Detroit, where he scored the Cavs' last 25 points.  We've waited a long time for the next Jordan...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Countries Represented in 11 European Club Giants

So I was just wondering from which countries do the European club giants get their players?  Using ESPN's Money article from May of this year, it seems that these are the top 11 highest payrolls in football (- I was going to keep it at top 10, but traditional powerhouse Juventus was at #11 and hey, they just won their league).  I'll go through each club, and mark down which different international sides all first team (according to the team's official website and/or wikipedia) players played for this past season.  These 11 teams make sense - the big 5 English teams, the 3 Italian giants, the 2 Spanish powerhouses, and the 1 big spending German side.

1) Barcelona $217m
Spain 13
Argentina 2
Brazil 2
Chile 1
France 1
Mali 1
Netherlands 1 

2) Real Madrid $195m
Spain 8
Portugal 4
France 3
Argentina 2
Brazil 2
German 2
Turkey 2

3) Manchester City $185m
England 7
Argentina 3
France 2
Ivory Coast 2
Belgium 1
Bosnia 1
Chile 1
Italy 1
Montenegro 1
Netherlands 1
Serbia 1
Spain 1
Romania 1

4) Bayern Munich $170m
Germany 13
Brazil 3
Croatia 2
Austria 1
Belgium 1
France 1
Japan 1
Netherlands 1
Ukraine 1

5) Chelsea $170m
England 9
Brazil 3
Portugal 3
Spain 3
France 2
Belgium 1
Czech Republic 1
Ghana 1
Nigeria 1
Serbia 1

6) AC Milan $153m
Italy 11
Brazil 3
France 2
Ghana 2
Algeria 1
Colombia 1
Netherlands 1
Sierra Leone 1
Sweden 1

7) Inter Milan $143m
Italy 8
Argentina 7
Brazil 4
Colombia 2
Netherlands 2
Japan 1
Nigeria 1
Romania 1
Serbia 1
Uruguay 1

8) Manchester United $138m
England 9
Brazil 3
Bulgaria 1
Ecuador 1
France 1
Mexico 1
Northern Ireland 1
Portugal 1
Scotland 1
Serbia 1
South Korea 1
Spain 1
Wales 1

9) Arsenal $132m
France 5
England 4
Poland 2
Spain 2
Belgium 1
Brazil 1
Cameroon 1
Czech Republic 1
Finland 1
Germany 1
Ghana 1
Israel 1
Ivory Coast 1
Morocco 1
Netherlands 1
South Korea 1
Switzerland 1
Wales 1

10) Liverpool $131m
England 10
Brazil 2
Scotland 2
Spain 2
Uruguay 2
Argentina 1
Australia 1
Denmark 1
Slovakia 1
Wales 1

11) Juventus $117m
Italy 17
Austria 1
Chile 1
Montenegro 1
Netherlands 1
Paraguay 1
Serbia 1
Switzerland 1
Uruguay 1


39 English - every single one plays in England.  Perhaps none are good enough to play anywhere else?  Interesting that Arsenal has more French (5) than English (4).

37 Italians - 36 in the Big 3 of Serie A, 1 (Balotelli) in Man C.  Interestingly, Juve has 17 and only 8 non-Italians on their team.  However, Inter nearly has as many Argentinians (7) as Italians (8).

30 Spaniards - 21 at Bar/RM, the other 9 among the five English teams.  None in the big 3 Italians or at Bayern.

23 Brazilians - 9 in England (none on Man City surprisingly), 7 at the Serie A Three, 4 at Bar/RM, 3 at Bayern.

17 French - 10 in England (5 on Arsenal), 4 at Bar/RM, 2 at Italy Big 3, 1 at Bayern

15 Argentinians - 7 in Italy, 4 at Bar/RM, 4 in England

16 Germans - 13 play for Bayern.  2 in Madrid.  1 at Arsenal.

8 Portuguese - 4 at RM, 3 at Chelsea, 1 at Man U

8 Dutch - These 8 play for 7 different teams.  They just can't co-exist, can they?

5 - Serbia

4 - Belgium, Ghana, Uruguay

3 - Chile, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Scotland, Wales

2 - Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Japan, Montenegro, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey

1 - Algeria, Australia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Northern Ireland, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine

Random Observations

- 6 of the 8 teams left in Euro '12 are represented in the top 6 European countries in the totals above, except for the disappointing Dutch of course, who have been replaced by Czech Rep.  The upstart Greeks don't have a single player plying his trade in the Big 11 clubs.  Seriously, if we could replace Czech Rep and Greece with Brazil and Argentina, we'd have the greatest tourney of all time.

- If Yugoslavia still existed - the Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Montenegrins - would have combined for 10 players - a force to be reckoned with at a Euro Cup to be sure.

- 14 players from countries in Africa.  If they combined into the United States of Africa, they'd be a powerhouse.

- Arsenal are the most international with 18 countries represented.  How does Wenger communicate?  And how can they get away with having so few English players?

- Juventus is the most nationalistic, with 17 Italians.  Coming in 2nd, Barcelona has 13 Spaniards and Bayern has 13 Germans.

-Manchester City is the only squad that contains players from all the big 3 leagues - England, Spain, Italy.  But most interestingly, they have no Brazilians.

- So my question is, how the heck do teams like Romania and S. Korea each have 2 in the big 11 clubs, and the USA has ZERO?  Let's go Dempsey!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Euro Cup '12 Post Group Review & Predictions

Group A
Czech Rep
Well, I had Russia and the Czech Rep advancing, in that order, and until the last day I was completely on track.  All the Russians had to do was beat or draw the offensively-challenged Greeks, but an unlikely goal sent the clear group favorites home.  I was surprised to learn of the differing tiebreaker rules in this tourney, but I like that head-to-head results are the first criteria.  Of course, consistency in major tournaments would be nice.  The Czechs took a beating from Russia but rebounded through adversity to post 2 wins, including home team Poland.

Group B
Deutschland was the only team to win all 3 group games, so it is remarkable that with 20 min left in their last match (at the time tied vs Denmark), they were one allowed goal away from elimination.  Again, this head-to-head tiebreaker really spices things up, doesn't it?  As good as the Germans were, the Netherlands were bad.  They were just 1 of 2 teams (Ireland) to not secure a single point and their high-powered offense only managed 2 goals.  Though I had the Dutch in my final (oops), I think this ego-filled squad got what was coming to them.  Also, who could forget De Jong's karate kick to Alonso's chest (or his unnecessary leg break on Holden pre-WC'10)?  Ronaldo came through in the clutch and now looks to have a great chance at reaching the semis. 

Group C
Besides Spain's 4 goals that they hung on easily the worst team (Irish) in the tourney, they have been rather underwhelming in finishing chances, even though they continue to have the lion's share of possession.  Like Germany, they were also in a tenuous position of being sent packing had Croatia scored the last goal, instead of Espana's Navas.  I predicted Croatia as 2nd place finishers, but their inability to pull one back vs Spain, while Italy did, ultimately doomed them.  As for Italy, I must say that Pirlo is my favorite non-Spanish (non-American) midfielder to watch.  He's a maestro out there. 

Group D
This was the only group in which both my predicted teams advanced.  I even guessed correctly that England would finish first.  It was good to see Shevchenko score his brace on home soil, a game which put Sweden in an early hole that even Ibrahimovic's game-winning wonder strike vs France couldn't rectify.  Welbeck's back-heel winner vs Sweden then became the 2nd best goal of the tourney.  Based on England's defensive posture vs France, Ribery & company may have the most quality of the two but nevertheless are matched up against Spain next.  Hopefully Ukraine's disallowed goal will lead to the implementation of long-overdue goal-line technology.

Random Thoughts
This has been a great tourney so far.  There haven't been any drab 0-0 games and we haven't had the embarrassing controversies, referee mistakes (Ukraine goal aside) or lame penalty calls, etc.  All major contenders besides Holland are still in, including countries with the top leagues - England, Spain and Italy, then Germany and France.  Heck, if we could replace Greece and Czech Rep with Brazil and Argentina, it would be greatest tourney ever.

Knockout Stage Predictions

Germany over Greece - Greeks will need Thor and Achilles to have a chance.
Portugal over Czech Rep - Rosicky's injury hurts chances to overcome complete Portugal.
Spain over France - I actually considered taking the French.  Hey, it could happen...
England over Italy - Minor upset.  Sticking with my pre-tourney pick of England in the semis.

Germany over England - England's run comes to an end with German beatdown.
Spain over Portugal - Portugal doesn't have Madrid's discipline to overcome Barcelona/Spain.

Germany over Spain - If Spain wins 3 major championships in a row, they are the greatest team of all time.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Matt Cain throws PERFECT GAME!

Matt Cain threw the first perfect game in the Giants' 130 year franchise history on Wednesday vs the Astros.  Its just the 22nd perfect game in MLB history.  (There have been 227 no-hitters, for your comparison.)  Think about this: since 1876, widely considered MLB's first season, there have been 200,990 games played in history according to  Since both teams collectively pitches a full game, there have been 401,980 opportunities for a starting pitcher to throw a perfect game.  So, if there were only 21 before Cain took the mound last night, that means there was about a 0.0052% chance that he would accomplish the feat.  Astounding.

Cain's perfect game came in his 216th start, on 125 total pitches, 86 of which were strikes.  His 14 K's tie for the most strikeouts thrown in a perfect game, which means that he just turned in arguably the most dominant pitching performance in history.  Remember, a perfect game means he only faced 27 hitters.  With a World Series ring already on his finger, 2 All-star appearances and now this perfect game, you can say Cain is already starting to deliver on his enormous $127 million, 6 year contract (if fully vested), the largest ever given to a right-hander.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

US Soccer WCQ: A&B, Guatemala

Antigua & Barbuda
With the 5 goals we dropped on Scotland fresh in our minds, a 3-1 win is as underwhelming of a win we'll ever get.  I still remember the 8 goals we put on Barbados back in the first WC Qualifier I've attended in 2008.  Since A&B seems to be the dead horse in our group that everyone is going to beat up on, final group goal differential might come down to how Jamaica and Guatemala do vs A&B at home.  We only managed a 2 goal differential.  That said, its a WC qualifier and we've got 3 points.

Klinsmann knew the need for goals, as he slotted in Jose Torres, an offensive-minded midfielder, into our injury-riddled LB position.  In this game, the best defense is a possession-dominant, probing offense.  (So this is how Spain feels in every game they play.)  We managed 19 shots on goal, but only came away with 3 goals.  Given how their short, chunky goalkeeper was handling the ball, I wish we took even more shots even if it was from long range.  With the 90 min we had in this game, 19 shots is nowhere close to enough.  Bocanegra tied Balboa as the highest-scoring defender in US history (13 goals) with a characteristically scrappy set piece goal, Dempsey slotted home a Donovan-earned penalty, and Gomez' perpetual motor earned the US a much-needed 3rd goal to put the game away.

Of course, I have yet to mention the constant buckets of rain that poured down throughout the game.  I'm not sure it gave either team a real advantage, but it surely could not have been beneficial for overall scoring.  What's clear is that Gooch's horrible angle to the ball lead to A&B's lone goal.  I remember him being a force last summer, but injuries this season seem to have put him out of sorts.  I'm not sure Klinsmann can risk playing him vs Guatemala.

I refused to pay the $30 that the Guatemala federation wanted to see our game, so I managed to find an internet stream that did the job quite well (as long as you carefully navigate through closing the virus popups along the way).  It was a game that left US fans likely frustrated that we were mere 10 minutes away from a full 3 points, but the reality is that a draw was the fair result.  Though Dempsey's beautiful footwork led to a goal reminiscent of his goal-winner vs Italy earlier this year and put us ahead in the 40th min, the truth was that Guatemala was sharper in the attack in the 2nd half.  We suffered an egregious foul call that negated a Altidore goal in which the referee should have allowed a play-on, but earlier, Carlos Ruiz had blasted an easy near open goal rebound over the top.  It should have been 2-2, a draw nonetheless.

Our ball movement was much crisper in the 1st half and we clearly were the better looking team, but we didn't manage enough goal scoring opportunities.  Dempsey is clearly our best offensive threat, as even Donovan has admitted in recent weeks, but aside from Clint, we still lack creativity in the final third.  Also, in my opinion, Donovan needs to look to score more.  He would sometimes have space but frustratingly decide on a difficult pass instead of taking his shot.  I like the Donovan we saw vs Scotland much better.  Jozy also strikes me as someone who lingers on the ball a little too much.  I wish he'd watch Van Persie, who seems to take a lash anytime he's facing the goal in the box.  We were actually outshot by Guatemala last night, 13-11 and Howard had to make more saves than the opposing keeper (3-2).

It gave me much relief to see Fabian Johnson back.  Defensively solid, he offers something offensively that no other LB not named Chandler does, and it was he who made the final pass in for Dempsey's goal.  Ironically, it was also his foul on Ruiz that setup Guatemala's free-kick goal, which strangely froze Howard.  I thought if Tim dove, he might have put a hand on it.  He probably saw it too late.

Formation-wise, we had Dempsey-Gomez-Donovan up top, Jones and Bradley under them and Edu playing deepest in the midfield.  This 4-3-3 (or perhaps 4-1-2-2-1) seems to be Klinsmann's preferred lineup.  It is notable that Jozy came off the bench again proving that Gomez has clearly done enough in camp to grab hold of the starting spot.  Defensively, Goodson was Klinsmann's first choice to pair with Bocanegra and this time, Cameron came off the bench instead of Gooch as the first center-half backup.

However, we find ourselves atop the group with 4 points and with the best goal differential.  True, we're tied with Jamaica, but our next two qualifiers are both against them in September and we'll have a chance to create some separation head to head.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NBA Finals Prediction

Its the Finals we all wanted to see - the two best players on the planet going at it and it just happens that neither have won a title before.  Logic seems to lean in the Thunder's favor.  They've got home court advantage (except through the first 5 games, due to a ridiculous change of format from the first 3 playoff rounds - why go from 2-2-1-1-1 to 2-3-2 in just the last round?  If the NBA believes its the best format, then use it throughout.  Just absurd.  Now if the home team loses one of the first two games, they have to face 3 straight road games.  If a road team manages to win even 3 of the first 5, they still have to contend with 2 road closeout games.  2-2-1-1-1 is fair, balanced in closeout opportunities and lends itself ideally to momentum swings.  Its absolutely perfect.).

Anyway, back on point.  OKC have a way better home crowd (reminds me of Sactown a decade ago), a much better supporting cast for its scoring stars, and the last two closeout opportunities at home consecutively in games 6 and 7.  They are also young, energetic, and lack psychological scars from past failures.  On the other hand, Miami has an unproven and rather mediocre head coach, struggled against what should have been an easy Eastern Conference with Derrick Rose out, and have the demons of last season's failures hovering over them always.

And with all that, I'm picking..... the Heat in 7.  I don't have any real reason except to say that this Lebron's third Finals and with the way he's been playing this season and these playoffs, its hard to see him losing another.  He destroyed the Celtics in Boston in Game 6 to banish everyone's memories from his embarrassing lay-down in his last game as a Cavalier.  Now after a year of thinking about his 4th quarter performances vs Dallas, he's finally got a chance to do something about it.

I, along with the rest of America, want to see the Thunder take this thing.  However, its not for the hatred of the Heat that is so popular these days.  I don't care that Lebron, Wade and Bosh conspired to join forces here.  I don't have a problem with these 3 men, none of whom are criminal scourges of society, took pay cuts to play together.  Lebron and Bosh had toiled alone for years and help wasn't coming soon.  Obviously, Lebron could have done it in a classier fashion than "The Decision", and they could have avoided the pyrotechnic introductory conference, but the move itself was their right, and possibly even applaudable.  Do we, as sports fans who love to see greatness, wish Lebron could have done it in Cleveland like Jordan in Chicago, Magic in LA or Bird in Boston?  Sure.  But hating him for moving?  Nah, I'd rather hate Kobe, for just being his jerk-self here in LA.  In fact, after the Heat's shocking loss last year, I'm glad they at least had to have earned it, if they should finish the job.  Either way, here's hoping for an epic 7 game series.

But, the reasons I'm supporting the Thunder are simply:
1) Durant is the most likeable, anti-modern-day-ego, anti-Kobe, superstar we've had since Tim Duncan.
2) Oklahoma City represents the model small town franchise, anti-big city (LA Lakers) with all its inherent advantages.

and of paramount importance:
3) Russell Westbrook would be the first UCLA Alumnus NBA Allstar to win an NBA championship since Lew Alcindor.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

2012 Euro Cup Predictions

Group Stage (Winner listed first)

Group A
Czech Rep

Group B

Group C

Group D


Netherlands over Russia
Spain over France

Germany over Czech Rep
England over Croatia


Netherlands over Spain
Germany over England

Germany over Netherlands

The English are the major surprise, as nobody expects them to win their group and make the semifinals.  But the other semifinalists are obvious, as 3 of the top 4 ranked teams in the world meet expectations (#1 Spain, #3 Germany, #4 Netherlands).  Then I've got Netherlands pulling a major upset over Spain in a rematch of the '10 WC final.  Ultimately, Germany finally wins their first championship since the 1996 Euro Cup (they last won a WC in 1990).

US Soccer's 3 Friendlies

With WC 2014 qualifiers finally about to begin, I figured we'd have a review of our 3 most recent games.

In Landon's return to the US team since last September's Costa Rica loss, he scored his 3rd international hat trick and raised his US scoring record to 49 goals.  He also set another US record by starting his 125th international match, besting Jeff Agoos.  However, the goal of the night belonged to Michael Bradley.  His 11th minute golazo (along with his achievements in Serie A) should permanently shut his "nepotism-critics" up for good.  Not surprisingly, the US' 2 goals inside 11 minutes was quite an achievement as well since it has been since 2002, when McBride scored twice inside 11 minutes during a Gold Cup match.  Another achievement, besides the 5 goals, was that the US completed 84.6% of its passes against Scotland (466 out of 551).  

Gooch was particularly bad on the night.  He gave up a handball PK, then combined with Jermaine Jones to lose Silva on his cornerkick goal, was then partly culpable in leaving Marcelo alone on his goal and then kept Pato onside on his goal.  So he was partially at fault for all 4 of Brazil's goals.

Bradley and Fabian Johnson were noticeably the best players for the US and they even combined beautifully to setup Gomez' goal.  After a decade of insecurity, it appears we have found our LB of the future in Fabian.  The good news is that Chandler might not want to commit to us, but Fabian already has, having filed his one-time FIFA transfer paperwork.

In my opinion, the game very well could have ended 3-3.  Gooch's unintentional armball (since the ball struck his bicep/elbow) should have been a no call / play-on instead of a pathetically called PK.  The US had numerous missed opportunities to score including Boca's clean header which skied over the ball, Dempsey's near tap in which Silva popped over goal last millisecond, Bradley monstrous header which would have scored had it been anywhere other than right over the keeper, Gooch's header off the crossbar, Gomez/Boyd's back to back blasts which the keeper somehow saved.

No, we're nowhere as good as Brazil, but the game wasn't as one-sided as the score indicated.  Of course, Mexico went on to beat Brazil a few days later so nobody should be feeling too good about themselves.

In a game in which I thought we had to score at least 2-3 goals to restore our confidence and salvage our 3 game preparations, the US actually played its worst match.  Our offense, promising against Brazil, was anemic and inconsistent.  Klinsmann still needs to clearly delineate Dempsey and Donovan's roles.  Torres was invisible and I couldn't understand why Edu was playing further up the pitch than Bradley when Mo has a poor first touch and Bradley was one of our most important offensive players in the first 2 games.  The 0-0 snoozefest made me regret upgrading my programming package to get this game, haha.

One bright spot was that we learned that Clarence Goodson is clearly still the best CB to pair with Bocanegra.  He got his head on everything and didn't make any bad mistakes.  On the other hand, Castillo, who got the nod after Fabian was a late scratch, made all of us wonder why Lichaj isn't in camp and why Chandler thinks Germany wants him.  Had the ref not bailed Castillo out, we probably would have given up a goal, and maybe the game.  Since Canada's defensive strategy is probably what we will see more of in Concacaf qualifying, there is cause for concern.

Qualifiers Preview
On Friday, we will begin to find out if Klinsmann's 11 month building process was fruitful.  We haven't played a non-friendly since last June's Gold Cup final vs Mexico.  During that time, Klinsmann's biggest contributions have essentially been trying to install a new offensive mentality and possession style as well as revamping our left side - Fabian Johnson/Chandler at LB, Brek Shea / Torres at left wing.  However, with our Canadian performance freshest in our minds, we are surely lacking confidence.  Its nothing a 4 goal drubbing of Antigua & Barbuda can't fix though.

This first round of qualifying is very dangerous.  In a group with A&B, Guatemala and Jamaica, we will play home and away matches against all 3 sides.  The top two teams advance, bottom 2's WC dreams are crushed.  Winning all home games is an absolute must.

Probable Starting Lineup:

--------------- Jozy--------------------

Now that Klinsmann has finally gotten Beckerman out of his system, I don't have much complaint here.  As long as Bradley continues to commit to the attack, we will have at least 5 attack minded players on the pitch.  Ideally we would have had Shea galloping up and down the left side, but its nice to get Torres on the pitch especially when we have to unlock extremely defensive sides.  Behind our fullbacks, we are especially thin, so here's hoping Dolo and Johnson stay healthy.  Otherwise, I blame you again, Chandler.  Lets go US!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

LA Kings - Stanley Cup Game 3

It was a privilege to be at Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals.  It was definitely one of the most memorable sports experiences I've ever had.  And yes, I nearly lost my voice screaming for the Kings. 

I'm not a LA Kings fan.  I haven't been through the brutal years of losing, or the highs of Gretzky's 93 season.  I am also not a bandwagon fan.  I won't pretend to have always been a Kings fan and I won't start buying up gear to wear for the next month.  Do I want them to win more than I want any other NHL team to?  Sure.  Will I start watching their games next season?  No, probably not.  I've got too many other teams to follow and too little time.  So, I guess I could sum it up like this: in as much as I like hockey, I like the Kings.

All that said, I'd like to think I understood the gravity of the game.  Yes, I knew the Kings were the 8th seed in the West and had started every prior series 3-0, even though they were on the road for the first 2 games in each series.  I knew that the Kings have been in LA for 45 years without a title and that Gretzky's time here, including his '93 run to the Finals - the last and only time in Kings history - was a momentous triumph for hockey here in LA and in the greater western US.  Kings fans had waited a long time for this game.

Clearly there was going to be an explosion of emotion to greet the team.  I brought my Canadian hockey fan friend simply cause I knew he would appreciate the moment and the game more than anyone else.  We were probably the only two schmucks without Kings gear on.  My favorite moment, though the Kings eventually scored 4 great goals, was still the pregame buildup to the starting lineup.  The dark ambience, the countless glow sticks and the wondrous laser show, the solemn yet inspiring rock anthem, and of course, WAYNE GRETZKY.  The place seriously erupted at the sight of the Great One.  Kings fans put Laker fans to shame.

In my relative hockey ignorance, I won't spend many keystrokes talking about the game itself.  Near the end of a scoreless 1st period, New Jersey failed to capitalize (or even create good opportunities) on a 5-3 power play and LA's defensive effort set the tone for the rest of the night.  After two overtime 2-1 low-scoring victories in game 1 and 2, the Kings managed to drop 4 goals on the Devils.  An ugly opening goal came as the result of the Kings' trademark scrappiness (and a slow referee whistle).  Dustin Brown, whom I like to call Captain America, beautifully setup Kopitar for a 2 goal lead after 2 periods.  Staples was in a state of euphoria, alternating between the surprisingly bland "Go Kings Go" and taunting Brodeur with chants of "Mar-ty".  Jeff Carter's early 3rd period goal, the first of two power play goals, in my mind sealed the game and essentially won the Stanley Cup for the Kings.

No, I wasn't a true Kings fan, and I likely won't be one come October when the NFL and UCLA are in full swing.  But for this week, Go Kings Go.