Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Don't Mind Just A Little Pain

Eventful, although not necessarily good, week for the teams I support.

Training camp began for the Chicago Bears and on Wednesday Devin Hester let it be known that he would not be reporting until something was done to improve upon the $445,000 he was scheduled to make this season. With some progress apparently made, Hester showed up on Friday but did not practice. While the Bears making a run at Favre would be, without question, the biggest story of the preseason for Chicago, it is unlikely that the team's management would want to invite the attention and potential criticism that would accompany an effort to entice the Packers to send the face of their modern franchise to their most hated, bitter rivals. So with Favre likely off the table, the story is both the uncertainty surrounding the offense (and the Bears did quite a bit to provide a stabilizing force by signing Detroit Lions' castoff Kevin Jones) and trying to keep the players they have under contract happy. On this point, there really is no question that the Bears have to take care of Hester. Watching nearly every Bears game over the last two years and sitting twice in Soldier Field watching him first hand, Devin is unquestionably the most dangerous player on the field everytime he is standing between the sidelines. In every game, the stadium is electric when Hester is back to receive a punt or kickoff and the remarkable thing is that Hester doesn't try to shy away from the attention -- before kicks, Hester generally turns and tries to pump up the crowd in anticipation of what he is about to do. Hester is a once in a generation player -- for fans that are used to thinking of players like Dennis Gentry and Johnny Bailey as difference makers, what Hester has done for the franchise so far is ridiculous. And on every one of these returns -- returns that have mitigated the offensive incompetence manifested under Turner's tutelage -- Hester is risking his career. Given the high wire act and the insane contributions, the Windy City flyer deserves to get paid.

For their part, the Cubs have Soriano back and have acquired what appears to be a healthy and dominant Rich Harden from the Oakland A's. Nevertheless, the team does not inspire a great deal of confidence at the moment and has continued the slide in form that began prior to the All-Star break. Two back to back three to two losses to a weak Marlins team further highlight questions regarding the potency of the offense (which with Soriano, Lee, Ramirez, Fukudome, and Soto should not be struggling as much as it is at the moment) and the competence of the bullpen. It is slightly troubling that there are so many struggling or ineffective veteran pitchers populating the pen (Jon Lieber, Scott Eyre, Neal Cotts, Chad Gaudin, Bob Howry) that are not helping to stabilize the dazzling young talent (Carlos Marmol, Rich Hill, and, now, Jeff Samardzija). The Cubs last victory, the series opener versus the Marlins in Wrigley on Thursday, was a perfect microcosm of the problems Pinella faces when going to his relievers: Gaudin and Cotts load the bases with no one out in the 8th in a 6-2 game; Howry and Marmol combined to allow just one run and get out of the inning; Marmol loads the bases again in the ninth, and with a three-two count and two out the entire stadium (including the bench) has absolutely no idea as to whether Marmol is going to manage to get a slider over the plate or if he is going to miss by two feet. The exuberant celebration over strike three was great for the moment, but did not instill a great deal of confidence in future prospects.

The consensus view from across the pond appears to be that Charlton does not have the resources to bring in new blood and that Madjid Bougherra and Zheng Zhi may still be sold on in the summer transfer window. I am not excited about a Charlton squad without either Magic or ZZ and its too bad that Mr. Grant believes that Sodje is unlikely to join, nevertheless, my impatience for the season to begin has not waned. It will be a pleasure to see what Moo2Kill, Fleetwood, Varney, Shelvey, Wagstaff, Racon, Youga, Sam, Sinclair, Dickson, and, hopefully, McLeod can do with the opportunities they might be granted. Dickson spelled Varney in the second-half of today's friendly against Brighton & Hove Albion and slotted the winner. The results against Dover and Brighton & Hove Albion were not terribly impressive but, still, they don't necessarily bode ill either.

The only live sporting event I took in this week was an unfortunate trip to RFK for the Dynamo-United match Wednesday night. We stayed for the first 53 minutes of the game, hung out for an hour into the delay and then headed back home. The hour of delay on RFK's concourse was the highlight of the trip as Barra Brava did everything possible to keep spirits high. The game itself was an embarrassment both for the fans and the team. Soehn pulled Pat Carroll from right back in the 25th minute and brought in Rod Dyachenko (pushing McTavish to the back line, Fred from CAM to left wing, and Thompson from left to right). Not Francis Doe. Not Quavas Kirk. Rod Dyachenko. To be fair, Dyachenko began with some nifty touches that promised perhaps a rejuvenated attack, but after about five minutes he was back to being a turnover machine. Dyachenko capped his performance by losing a ball at the top left hand of the goal box, failing to get back into position on the counter, and then simply pulling down a Dynamo player in Dynamo's defensive half in full view of the referee and everyone in the stadium to net yet another yellow card. With Rod organizing the offense, DC managed a grand total of four shots on goal. 4. One of those came before Dyachenko entered the match (Emilio) and two came after Doe replaced Thompson in the 64th minute (Simms; Doe). I've perused the comments of other DC United-focused blogs and criticism seems to be bandied about to a number of players for the pathetic performance: Zach Wells was once again ridiculed (although some recognized that Wells had a very good game overall and frequently compensated for bad defending in front of him); Gonzalo Martinez was ripped; as was Fred; even Simms was questioned; and there were many, many questions about the center half pairing of Burch and Namoff. For the most part, most of the critiques seem unfair. Martinez moved to left back to provide an attacking threat on that side of the pitch. Fred played with heart and spent most of the match trying to chase down Dynamo players who benefited from numerous unforced errors in United's midfield. Simms was frequently left on an island by himself and Namoff and Burch, frankly, did everything they could. It is probably grossly unfair to lay the blame for that horrid performance on any one player, but at this point, I have become so sensitive to Dyachenko's poor play that it is difficult to imagine that his absence would not have substantially improved the rest of the team. With Dyachenko behind him, it is not clear what Moreno can do. United looked most dangerous when Thompson or Fred attacked from the wings, but neither Emilio or Moreno could fully commit in the box because any counter would fly right by Rod. Again, I have no doubt that Dyachenko is doing everything he can to help the team and he certainly has talents that could be harnessed, but he continues to be placed in situations where he is a net negative for United. Unless he was hurt, Kirk had done enough in Saturday's final SuperLiga match against the Dynamo to merit a chance as the first sub in on the wing (or, if necessary, at right back).

Much is said about the difficulties Soehn is facing without Olsen, Gallardo, Peralta, and Mediate. Three of those four would certainly be in the starting XI if healthy. Nevertheless, D.C. United does have, at least on paper, some depth and none of that appears to shine through in the matches that Soehn has skippered. Instead, Soehn has used Dyachenko the way that Dusty Baker used to utilize Jose Macias... a serviceable player is subjected to the hatred of a team's fans because the gaffer insists on putting them in situations where they are not equipped to succeed.

Oh well, Palace USA will try and recover from a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of the Charlotte Eagles tonight with a home fixture against hapless Real Maryland this Thursday. Perhaps that will be slightly less eventful.

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