Scotland Still Alive

April 1, 2009

scotlandScotland held off Iceland for the second time today at Hampden Park for a 2-1 victory and renewed hope that continued strong play could earn them a spot in the playoff to reach the 2010 World Cup. Ross McCormack opened the scoring in the 39th minute, finally giving the Scots a goal at Hampden. But Indridi Sigurdsson’s 54th minute equalizer stunned the Tartan Army and put Scotland’s hopes on hold. Just ten minutes later though, Steven Fletcher tallied Scotland’s second goal and gave the home side the lead for good.

No one in Group Nine will be catching the Dutch as they cruised to their fifth win in as many matches in qualifying play. But second place is now Scotland’s. The hope would be that this important victory will carry over through the summer and serve as an inspiration in the match in Norway in August. Perhaps by then the myriad injuries can be overcome for a complete squad.

Also today, England scraped by Ukraine with a rather lucky 2-1 victory. Peter Crouch scored early for England, who held that lead for most of the match. But in his return to England, Andriy Shevchenko tallied an important goal as a substitute to draw the Ukrainians even in the 74th minute. John Terry earned the home victory for the English though with his 85th minute goal from close-in.

England did not need the victory as they were already in first place in Group Six, but taking five wins from five matches is a nice run for the side who did not even qualify for Euro 2008.

2009 Baseball Preview

April 1, 2009


Ok friends, here is my completely uninformed and somewhat uninterested preview of the 2009 Major League Baseball season. I have spent exactly zero time researching this. As a comparison, here are my disastrous picks from last season. There is nothing particularly bold about these picks, though I think maybe the NL Cy Young award isn’t on everyone’s radar:

American League:
East – Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles
Central – Indians, White Sox, Royals, Twins, Tigers
West – A’s, Angels, Rangers, Mariners

MVP – Mark Teixeira
Cy Young – Dice-K

National League:
East – Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Braves, Nationals
Central – Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, Astros
West – Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Giants, Padres

MVP – David Wright
Cy Young – Edinson Volquez

Divisional Round:
Red Sox v. A’s – Boston
Yankees v. Indians – New York
Phillies v. Cubs – Chicago
Mets v. Dodgers – New York

League Championship Series:
Red Sox v. Yankees – New York
Cubs v. Mets – Chicago

World Series:
New York v. Chicago – Yankees

Big Day in World Cup Qualifying

April 1, 2009

Both England and Scotland will take part in World Cup qualifying matches today as the Scots host Iceland and the English host Ukraine. Scotland’s woes and slight chances in Group Nine have been chronicled here over recent days. England are right out in front of Group Six with a chance to almost assure qualification with a victory over Ukraine.

Ukraine are in second place (on differential) in Group Six and can do themselves a world of good with a win at Wembley today. They are tied on seven points with Croatia who play Andorra today, which is all but a guaranteed win. So the Ukrainians need a result of some kind to keep pace and hope for a second place finish. The English press are of course acting like today’s match is do-or-die for their side. But really it is a somewhat insignificant match, though it is always nice to do well at home. There is plenty of wiggle room though with a five-point lead atop the group.

Scotland on the other hand are in a desperate position. Iceland and Scotland are tied on four points (with Iceland ahead on differential) as the lowest scoring second-place teams in all of Europe. If that remains the case, whoever finished second would not even make the qualifying playoff for second places teams (only the top eight go on). Additionally, Scotland have not fared well at home in the George Burley era. For whatever reason, the Scots have not been able to score goals at Hampden Park, traditionally a location of huge advantage. But after Saturday’s crushing defeat in Holland, perhaps fan support will be more skeptical in this match.

The Scots did defeat Iceland in Reykjavík last fall but continue to face huge injury problems and now the suspension of Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor after a rowdy ‘drinking session’ at Loch Lomond after the Holland defeat on Saturday. It may all be coming undone for Burley and the Scots so I really don’t expect to see much of a quality result today.


Scotland 1Iceland 1
England 2
Ukraine 1

Champions League Moving to FOX

March 31, 2009

fscAfter this season is completed, the Champions League will be moving to the FOX Soccer Channel for the foreseeable future.

It’s not that ESPN has done a bad job. In fact I’ve been happy that ESPN has started covering more than one Champions League match per week (one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday) and always shows the final. For five years now I’ve watched as many of the matches as are available here in the States. And I even really enjoy the back-and-forth with Derek Rae and Tommy Smythe from the ESPN studios where the remotely call the games. That will be missed. And ESPN has in a way pioneered soccer on tv here in the States having held the rights to the Champions League (and its earlier equivalent) since the 1994-95 season.

But I’m happy any time ESPN loses out on even a tiny piece of the monopoly they’re trying to build across all sports. With Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, NBA, Monday Night Football and damn near every major conference’s college sporting events, not to mention the World Cup, early round Masters and myriad other events, ESPN has more than enough to get by. The FOX Soccer Channel does an excellent job of covering many different international leagues, including the English Premier League. Their matches are well-covered, the analysis is nice and unlike ESPN, available. FOX has pre-game, half-time and post-game shows where fans, especially casual ones, can learn a lot about the teams playing and the league in which the play. ESPN does none of that in this country.

One downside to this move is the availability of FSC is nowhere near that of ESPN or ESPN2. FSC appearing in around 35 million homes while ESPN reaches about 100 million (again, just in the US). But pure numbers of households does not automatically translate to viewership. In the 27 Champions League matches during last season, ESPN averaged about 255,000 households (I’m assuming that includes bars). The final in Moscow between Chelsea and Manchester United drew in about 800,000 households (and just over a million individual viewers). Of course any final between two English teams is going to be more highly viewed in this country. I’d love to see the numbers for the 2004 final between Porto and Monaco.

If FOX can get even 1% of its total households in the US to view Champions League matches each week, it will average almost 100,000 more viewers than ESPN ever had. The truth is that millions of people get ESPN but almost none care about soccer. That is evident in the numbers. 0.0026% of ESPN receivers actually tune in for the average Champions League match (which almost always includes at least one English club). People who get FSC are much more likely to watch it because there is no chance of seeing anything other than soccer on the network. In other words, you can’t be flipping through the channels and stumble on the FOX Soccer Channel and expect anything less.

I’ll be interested to see how the new coverage comes out. I’m happy that ESPN has carried the torch thus far. Let’s all hope that FOX can do an even better job of bringing us the world’s game.

Worst Performance by a Supposedly Good Team

March 30, 2009

ulThat distinction goes to Louisville, who in the second half of their Midwest Regional Final against Michigan State looked like the worst team to ever play basketball. Let me go ahead and give MSU their due now so I don’t have to mention it again because I really don’t think they had much to do with it.

Ok, so what the hell was Louisville doing? This was supposed to be the team that was super-aggressive on defense, hard-working, good shooting, tough, character-driven and talented. In the second half yesterday they were none of those. Time after time, UL left Michigan State guards wide-open for three-pointers. When those guards occasionally missed, Louisville couldn’t bother to box-out and State had tip-ins on multiple misses. There was no pressure defense at all, not in the full court, 3/4 court and really not even in the half-court sets.

On offense, Louisville looked like they were in a pick-up game with a bunch of dudes they’d never met. None of the players seemed to know how to play in an offense together and as a result, there wasn’t much of an offense to speak of. A few times Earl Clark was able to knock down shots but mostly UL just dribbled around a bunch until there were less than ten seconds on the shot clock and then fired up either a guarded three-pointer or an impossible fade-away jumper. Granted, Michigan State obviously knew what they were doing defensively, but this was a Louisville team that had scored over 100 points just two days earlier.

Ultimately I think what happened to UL was that they just didn’t play anyone good at all until they ran into MSU. Look at their schedule: Morehead State, Siena, Arizona. People will probably start crying about how good Siena was but seriously, they’re not that great. The killer for Louisville appears to have in fact been that Arizona game. They were flexing their muscles, showing off, smiling for the cameras and generally toying with Arizona (who was so completely overrated, by the way). They weren’t challenged in that game at all and it showed when they played Michigan State. MSU had to battle for every point and probably deserved to lose to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. But they prevailed, and spurred by the tough play needed to oust a really good KU team, plowed on through against Louisville.

But maybe most confusing about the complete collapse of Louisville yesterday was how they were pretty good in the first half. Only down by three points at half (30-27), Louisville tied the game up at 32 early in the second. And then the wheels fell off. What happened? Rick Pitino teams are always in the very best of shape, so it couldn’t have been that they just got tired. Something happened mentally against Michigan State and they just completely fell apart.

Scotland on the Ropes

March 30, 2009


After a 3-0 defeat at the Amsterdam ArenA on Saturday against Holland, Scotland find themselves in deep trouble if they want to even finish second in Group Nine of the UEFA qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Now sitting in third behind Iceland, Scotland need desperately to start earning points. With nine groups, the eight-best second-place finishers have a play-in for additional World Cup spots. At the moment, even if Scotland were in second in Group Nine, they’d still be out as the worst of the second-placers.

But to the match for a moment: the score shows a very comprehensive victory on the part of the Dutch. From all accounts the score was basically indicative of the disparity in the match. It did not help Scotland to have ten regulars missing due to injury (as explained here last week) but still, 3-0 is a blowout. But it did not have to end that way. In the 74th minute, trailing 2-0, Gary Caldwell headed in a Ross McCormack corner to pull one back for the Scots. Yet inexplicably, the French referee disallowed the goal. Video replays and even Dutch scorer Robin Van Persie (“The goal Scotland scored was good – I didn’t see anything unusual when I watched the replay on television”) indicate absolutely nothing wrong on the exchange. So instead of a possibly momentum-earning goal, and at the very least help in the goal-differential column, the Scots remained two goals down, eventually yielding a third late in the match.

I am not going to argue that Caldwell’s goal would’ve sent Scotland on to a victory, or even a draw, but it’s just that kind of occurrence that is all too familiar for fans of Scotland football. If it’s not injuries or screw-ups, the referee interferes with a legal play. I feel worst for the 10,000-strong Tartan Army that descended upon Amsterdam, only to meekly retreat after the 3-0 thrashing.

On Wednesday, Scotland will host Iceland in the most important match of the qualifying so far. Having already defeated Iceland in the fall, the Scots at least have evidence that they’re capable of beating someone in this group. But the injuries will not be magically better in just a four-day span, so expect to see a struggle on the part of Scotland. Iceland are certainly beatable but with the way things are going, it would not be surprising to see Scotland’s chances at the 2010 World Cup ended on Wednesday night at Hampden Park. Even a draw is bad as the Scots would remain behind Iceland on differential. But if three points are in fact earned, Scotland are right back in the mix and have plenty of time for their better players to recover and return with their next match not taking place until mid-August.

England’s New (Old) Look

March 28, 2009


In today’s friendly with Slovakia at Wembley Stadium, England broke out their much-anticipated new kits. Moving away, this time, from the pointless, weird, accented, ugly and ridiculous that have marred England’s kits over the past twenty years. Instead they went with a very clean and classic, almost Wimbledon look. I can’t say I really like the names across the back or the numbers font, but compared to what they could be, they’re not so bad. All in all, it appears rather pristine. At least until a huge grass stain is earned.

New Kits for 2009/2010 in the Premiership

March 27, 2009

I certainly can’t claim credit for these but I thought it was interesting to see the continued evolution of some of England’s top clubs in terms of their kits.

Here’s Arsenal’s away look for next year. I actually really like it. I wonder if they’ll rock the same socks they did with a similar look in 1982? Compared with this season’s away look, it’s a huge improvement, at least in my opinion. Though the ones they wore in 2007/2008 were simply fantastic.

Next is Chelsea and their curiously-similar-to-Bayern-Munich home design. I guess this look isn’t all that bad, though the zipper on front is really kind of lame. Compared to this season’s look, it’s a much more machine-like design and loses the collar.

What about Liverpool? Well this is an away kit for the ‘Reds.’ I hate when clubs wear black when it’s not part of their regular scheme, and this is a perfect example. BUT, it is so so so much better than what they’re wearing this year.

Finally, the weirdest of the bunch are the Manchester United attempts at recreating some sort of a throwback/tribute kit for both home and away. Here is the home idea. Minimalist in design but will have the new sponsor of Saudi Telecom on the chest. Obviously AIG isn’t really a viable option anymore. The away look is more specifically based on the 1909 FA Cup champions and again with the Saudi Telecom sponsorship. I have no idea if United will actually wear these kits all season or if they’ll just be for a game or two like their Munich memorial kits from last season.

If you know of any other new designs for next season, let me know.

NCAA’s Day Five

March 27, 2009

Just a few thoughts after watching the four Regional Semi-finals yesterday:

1. Domes suck. There’s nothing worse than watching a game that’s taking place in an enormous stadium with tens of thousands of empty seats. I know the NCAA is about nothing more than trying to turn a profit, so it won’t change. But why have a game in the ‘cavernous‘ Arizona Cardinals’ football stadium (as aptly described by one of the guys on tv) when you could play at the Phoenix Suns’ stadium that’s nearby? I realize you can get more people into the football stadium, even if it looks empty, but the sight lines for players are probably terrible and it just looks ridiculous. They’re also never loud because the sound just drifts away into the vast nothingness of the massive stadium.

2. I’m convinced that Levance Fields is actually just Khalid el-Amin. It’s been ten years since the pudgy point guard helped lead UCONN to their first national title so I guess it’s about time that someone came along that mimicked that style, and size, of play. Fields is probably actually better than el-Amin ever was, but the lumbering, chubby point guard is just not a normal sighting. It is absolutely no contest when it comes to personality though, Fields is a dud and el-Amin was fantastic to watch.

3. Duke lost in exactly the way I said they would. I mean, exactly. Duke had an off night shooting (to say the least), they had no answer for a capable inside player (Dante Cunningham) and they were way too soft to play with Villanova. Gerald Henderson was the worst player on the court the entire game, not making a shot until a three-pointer with less than four minutes left and Duke already behind by more than fifteen points. Jon Scheyer got pushed around like the skinny white guy that he is and really only Kyle Singler did anything productive at all. And even he shot just 5-13 and scored 15 points. It was clear going in that Henderson, Scheyer and Singler were going to have to be great every game for Duke to keep going. None of them were good last night. And they just had no answer on the defensive end. They have no tough players, no big strong guys, no one to completely shut down another team.

4. Missouri is really good. They’re the only team in the tournament who plays a legitimately up-and-down style (now that Oklahoma State and Tennessee are both gone). Even Memphis, a theoretically wild and running team, looked slow and methodical in comparison. I don’t know if Mizzou has what it takes to beat UCONN but they’re absolutely going to give them a game. It should be a much more fun game to watch than any of the Huskies’ games to this point. Yet, despite Mizzou playing so well, they really had no answer for Tyreke Evans, who may have just earned himself a top-5 draft spot if he decides to leave early.

Scotland Up Against It

March 26, 2009


If you’ll remember back to the bad old days of 2008, Scotland finished the fall campaign of 2010 World Cup qualifying with a nil-nil home draw to Norway at Hampden Park in Glasgow. The Scots had previously beaten Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavík and earlier lost to Macedonia in Skopje. The next set of qualifying matches begin this weekend and will be vitally important in determining who is in good position in UEFA Group Nine leading up to the conclusion of qualifying in the summer.

Here is Scotland’s schedule for the rest of the qualifying campaign:

March 28 – Scotland @ Holland (Amsterdam ArenA )
April 1 – Iceland @ Scotland (Hampden Park)
August 12 – Scotland @ Norway (Ullevaal Stadium)
September 5 – Macedonia @ Scotland (Hampden Park)
September 9 – Holland @ Scotland (Hampden Park)

The good news for Scotland is that they’ve already played away more often than at home so they’ll have a much higher chance for a final push with two matches in September in Glasgow. But Saturday’s tie with Holland is an extremely important one for the currently second-place Scots. If they can salvage a draw, let alone an away win, it would go very far in returning confidence after the scoreless debacle at home to Norway last fall. The Dutch are undefeated thus far in Group Nine and with a five-point cushion at the top, might not play their full complement of stars. At least that’s something Scotland can hope for.

If they do not earn at least one point in Amsterdam on the weekend, Scotland must win against Iceland at Hampden next Wednesday. Firstly, Iceland are on four points with Scotland but behind on goal differential, so breaking free of the closest competition would be important. Second, they have already defeated Iceland once so surely they can do it again at home. Third, if they do not win, they will be in serious trouble. And fourth, only the top eight second-place finishers make the playoff for World Cup spots, so Scotland will need as good a goal differential as possible if they remain in second place behind the Dutch.

The biggest obstacle for Scotland this week might be injury though. Ten first team players are out including: Paul Hartley (former Hearts star), Kirk Broadfoot and Barry Robson who scored the two goals against Iceland, and Lee Miller, one of the better players at the moment domestically with Aberdeen. If Scotland can pull off the upset in Amsterdam, it will be an historic victory indeed. But more realistically the Scots need to hope to earn a draw and if they lose, at least pull one or two back so their goal differential does not suffer to badly.

I’ll have a report on Saturday after the match with Holland.

This is South Carolina

March 25, 2009

While my time in South Carolina is drawing short, there are a few comments I’d like to make about how ridiculous this state remains. I first moved to South Carolina in the fall of 2001 to go to college in Greenville. I graduated in 2005 and then moved back to the state, to Columbia, in the summer of 2007. So for most of the past decade I’ve been living in the state. Not much has changed while I’ve been here, except one thing. The state is no longer allowed to host NCAA tournament games of any kind in any sport.

My first year at Furman, the BI-LO Center in Greenville hosted first and second round NCAA tournament basketball. While I didn’t actually go, the city was buzzing with people for a week. This was the spring of 2002. Since that weekend seven years ago, South Carolina has been barred from hosting games because of the Confederate flag that flies on the state house grounds, now just five blocks from where I live. With protests from the NAACP (among many other groups) the flag was removed from flying atop the state house (where it had been since 1962) and placed next to the monument to Confederate soldiers at the intersection of Main Street and Gervais Street in downtown in 2000. As long as that flag flies there (or anywhere) the entire state of South Carolina is barred.

In a purely objective sense, it doesn’t really bother me that the flag is flying. For as many people as there are in this state who detest the flag as a symbol of racism and hatred, there are equal legions of folks who see it as a symbol of cultural heritage and state pride. I am not going to judge either side for their arguments. But there is a very different argument that is especially pertinent this year.

The economy in this country is in shambles. Of the fifty states in this country, only a few are worse off than South Carolina. With unemployment soaring past 10% (and rising), one of the worst public education systems around and a Governor who is trying his best to refuse federal stimulus money (and run for President in 2012), it is just not a good time to have a multi-million dollar influx disappear. Or really, never even be a possibility.

Columbia built the Colonial Life Arena for the University of South Carolina and specifically to host NCAA tournament games in 2002. The 18,000-seat gym is a beautiful structure and a great place to watch a game. It’s in a relatively large city that is easy to reach by interstate (I-26, I-20 and I-77 all meet here) or by plane. The gym is less than a five minute walk to the most interesting and happening part of Columbia, the Vista. But because of the ban, not a single tournament game has ever been played here.

Now think about this: Boise, Dayton, Albuquerque, Greensboro. What do those places have in common with Columbia? They’re all either state capitals or middle-sized cities without professional sports. What doesn’t Columbia have in common with them? Columbia is never, ever mentioned 200 times per day for the first four days of the NCAA tournament. In a state with 10% unemployment, wouldn’t a vast need for at least part-time work for parking attendants, hotel workers, waiters and bar tenders, concession stand workers, ushers, arena cleaning and myriad other opportunities for work be exactly what could help people in this area? Those aren’t glamor jobs but the need for work around here is palpable.

The point of all this is just to say that this state is wasting an easy opportunity to bring millions of dollars into the economy on a near-yearly basis just to fly a small, square flag that happens to have stars and bars. There isn’t much that can be done about Mark Sanford at this point except to wait out his term, but in a state whose largest source of financial strength is in tourism (golf mostly, and Charleston/Myrtle Beach/Hilton Head), why not add to that pot? It’s a shame to have such a great arena sitting empty each and every March in a city that really could use the business.

AD nauseum – NCAA’s First Two Rounds

March 23, 2009


This week’s podcast (or at least the first one of this week) deals with what happened in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament over the weekend and my thoughts and projections about what could happen in the games this coming weekend. I hope you’ll check it out and as always, leave whatever feedback you might have. This one is a lot shorter too, just 22 minutes, so it should actually be digestible.

Week 30 Round Up

March 23, 2009

Looks like I take another one from our man on the scene, Philip. Though just barely this week. Neither of us were particularly on our game, though in fairness, the results this week were largely unexpected. I’m not sure anyone would’ve picked Fulham or Tottenham to win or to have Stoke and Pompey earn three points either. Here’s the breakdown of our respective efforts:

mao – Arsenal, Draw (West Ham-Blackburn), Stoke, Man City, Liverpool
Philip – Arsenal, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Man City

mao – Everton, Chelsea, Man United, Bolton, Hull City
Philip – Blackburn, Man United, Draw (Stoke-Boro), Draw (Spurs-Chelsea), West Brom, Draw (Wigan-Hull)

The way I score myself is that I take three points for a correct pick, one point if a match ended in a draw and zero for a completely incorrect pick. In that scale the score this week was:

mao – 16
Philip – 14

In a straight up and down scoring:

mao – 15
Philip – 12

Arizona is not a Cinderella

March 23, 2009


There are a few phrases that I hate this time of year. The chief among them is ‘Cinderella story.’ I understand the connotation and yes, there are a few cases where teams do actually fulfill the requirements for the title. A few examples are: George Mason (2006), Princeton (1996), Gonzaga (1999). Teams that do not fit this bill include: Arizona (2009).

The Webster’s definition of a Cinderella is: one suddenly lifted from obscurity to honor or significance. I understand that in the cases above. Most people were shocked when George Mason made it into the tournament field over Hofstra, let alone reaching the Final Four. Princeton used a bunch of smart, white guys to knock of the defending national champions in UCLA and Gonzaga was a tiny Jesuit college in eastern Washington that stunningly won three games against schools from the Big 10, Pac 10 and SEC. So why doesn’t Arizona fit into that mold?

Arizona has reached the NCAA tournament 25 years in a row which is the second-longest streak ever (27 by UNC from 1975-2001). They won the national championship in 1997, were finalists in 2001 and were in the Final Four in 1994 and 1988. Just because folks were surprised when they made the tournament does not mean they are a wonderful, shocking story. Arizona defeated Utah and Cleveland State to reach the sweet sixteen, hardly a who’s who of college basketball powers.

The main reason Arizona is anointed to this position of supposed Cinderella is that this year’s tournament is proving to be even more bland than last year. In each region the top three seeds advanced with the rest being a 4-seed, 5-seed and Arizona’s 12. Had there been true ‘Cinderella’ teams (Utah State, Cleveland State) no one would be talking about Arizona at all. But the folks in sports media need something to talk about and some reason to convince their readers/viewers that this is as interesting as any other year.

So let’s cool it with the talk of how ‘special’ this Arizona team is. They appear to be pretty good but until they beat Louisville, I’m not ready to refer to them as even an interesting or surprising team.

What’s With All the Fro-Hawks?

March 22, 2009

I’d love to talk more about basketball but I can’t help but wonder if anyone thinks this fro-hawk idea has gone a little too far. You’ve got Antonio Anderson of Memphis (far left) this guy for Maryland (I’m pretty sure it’s Adrian Bowie who used to look like this) and Byron Eaton of Oklahoma State. Are they all really big fans of or injured Greg Oden?

I know teams have long done weird things with their hair when it comes to playoffs or team unity. Some teams go all-bald and in hockey they all go all-beard. But this is a totally different phenomenon. There are far more players than I’ve pictured, those are just the ones I specifically remembered from the first four days of the tournament. Seriously, does anyone know why this is a fad this year?