Tuesday, September 30, 2008

State of the Game

Greg Lalas has a great piece up on Sports Illustrated now about the state of American futbol.

Lalas's thoughts about the relationship between the MLS and the USL is of particular moment, as I have opened up the $1,200 bill that DC United is asking me to put down for my seats next season. I am still bitter about being held up for $240 for this pathetic run in the CONCACAF Champions League, even more so because I am happily giving up my tickets for the impending Cruz Azul debacle on Wednesday in good conscience as the Cubs NLDS series begins at about the same time. Season passes to The Valley would be cheaper and, worse, of late I had a better chance of watching decent soccer at UMBC with CP USA on the pitch than what United has presented at RFK. There are many good players toiling in the USL, both at the USL1 and USL2 level as evidenced by the immediate impact that Boyzzzz Khumalo has had on United. And yet, with injuries to DC's premiere players, the players coming off the bench to fill in are generally inferior to what USL supporters are treated to on a regular basis. If a structural problem is forcing players that are good enough to play in the MLS (and better than what currently resides in our "top" league) into lower divisions, that problem must be directly addressed. The performance of the MLS teams in the Champions League is a travesty and should be a wake-up call to the league that there is something very wrong with how the cap is structured and salaries are allocated.

Also, Craig Stouffer has a good article covering the Wake Forest - Maryland match up on his blog. Looking forward to Binghamton's visit tomorrow night.

Monday, September 29, 2008


1910 -- World Series -- Athletics win 4-1

1918 -- World Series -- Red Sox win 4-2

1929 -- World Series -- Athletics win 4-1

1932 -- World Series -- Yankees win 4-0

1935 -- World Series -- Tigers win 4-2

1938 -- World Series -- Yankees win 4-0

1945 -- World Series -- Tigers win 4-3

1984 -- NLCS -- Padres win 3-2

1989 -- NLCS -- Giants win 4-1

1998 -- NLDS -- Braves win 3-0

2003 -- NLCS -- Marlins win 4-3 (NLDS -- Cubs win over Braves 3-2)

2007 -- NLDS -- Diamondbacks win 3-0

2008 -- ?? -- ??????????

In my lifetime, the Cubs have been to the postseason five times, the sixth will begin on Wednesday at 6:30 est. I have only been in Chicago for one of those seasons -- the heartbreaking collapse against the Padres in 1984, that was also the unfortunate harbinger of a move to San Diego shortly thereafter.

In 2003, we were at Turner Field for the Cubs' first playoff win since 1908 in what was the single greatest sporting event I have ever attended to date.

Without question, however, this is the single best Cubs team that has represented Chicago in the postseason in my lifetime.

The 1984 team had a better offense -- six players with more than 80 rbis (Ron Cey; Leon Durham; Jody Davis; Ryne Sandberg; Gary Matthews; and Keith Moreland) although none had more than 100 and Cey put up the best power numbers with a meager 25 home runs (Durham was the only other Cub with more than 20). The pitching, however, was Rick Sutcliffe and well... not a lot else. Lee Smith and Tim Stoddard were great out of the pen. Steve Trout was decent, Eck had a decent season, and Scott Sanderson was my favorite pitcher on the staff, but when you look at the strikeout numbers for the starting staff, it is shocking. Steve Trout walked 59 batters and struck out 81 in 190 innings.

In 1989, Sutcliffe and Sanderson were joined by Greg Maddux and Mike Bielecki to make up an amazing starting rotation. Wild Thing closed games out from the pen, and the bridge to Mitch was the quality middle relief work of Paul Assenmacher and Les Lancaster. But the offense was remarkably impotent -- no one batted in more than 80 runs, Sandberg hit 30 home runs, and Dawson added 21, but no one else even approached 15 home runs. Mark Grace was the story, but Vance Law, the third baseman, was a better representation of the offense -- .235, 7 home runs, 42 rbis, and 38 runs scored in 408 at bats.

In 1998, the offense came from the triumvirate of Sammy Sosa (.308, 66 home runs, 158 rbis, and 134 runs scored), Mark Grace (.309, 17 hrs, 89 rbis, and 92 rs), and Henry Rodriguez (.251, 31 hrs, 85 rbis, and 56 rs). Kerry Wood struck out 233 batters, Rod Beck successfully closed out 51 games, Kevin Tapani won 19 games, and Terry Mulholland had an amazing win. But Mark Clark and Steve Trachsel (despite winning 15 games) did not offer a lot on the back end of the rotation and North Siders were subjected to their first year of Felix Heredia in the pen.

In 2003, the rotation was tremendous but young: Matt Clement, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano -- all with more than 13 wins. The bullpen had Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Remlinger, and a surprisingly effective Joe Borowski in the pen. But the offense was carried again by three players: Sosa (.279, 40 hrs, 103 rbis); Aramis Ramirez (.272, 27 hrs, 106 rbis); and Moises Alou (.280, 22 hrs, 91 rbis). And the rest of the team did not add much.

Last year, the offense was four guys: Derrek Lee (.317, 22 hrs, 82 rbis), Aramis Ramirez (.310, 26 hrs, 101 rbis), Mark DeRosa (.293, 10 hrs, 72 rbis), and Alfonso Soriano (.299, 33 hrs, 70 rbis). Zambrano was joined by Ted Lilly and Rich Hill in a good rotation and Carlos Marmol exploded into Cubs' lore. Dempster only managed 28 saves, but the bullpen was rounded out by Bob Howry (who had a good year), Michael Wuertz, and Kerry Wood.

This season? The only real question is the bullpen. Dempster has been tremendous as a starter this season (17-6, 2.96 era, 187 ks in 206 2/3 ip), Ted Lilly set a career high with 17 wins (4.09 era, 184 ks), Zambrano was erratic, but impressive overall (14-6, 3.91 era, 130 ks), and Rich Harden has been an amazing addition (5-1, 1.77 era, 89 ks in 71 ip). The offense was remarkably balanced: six guys hit 20 or more home runs (Ramirez, Lee, Soriano, Geovany Soto, DeRosa, and Jim Edmonds) and five players had more than 75 rbis. Aramis set the pace with a .289, 27 hrs, 111 rbis, 97 rs line. Ryan Theriot hit .307 at shortstop, with 22 stolen bases, and 85 runs scored. From 1 through 8 in the lineup, there is no real weak link in the chain. Carlos Marmol anchors the pen with video game like numbers (and a video game like slider), but Wood has blown six saves while converting 34. Bobby Howry has been horrid, Neal Cotts is awful, Chad Gaudin has fallen apart, leaving a lot of pressure on Jeff Samardzija to shoulder an incredible burden in his rookie season.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Political Consciousness

Despite the disappointing result at Ludwig Field on Friday night, I do not regret in the least standing in a downpour for two hours watching a clinical Wake Forest team prove that they deserve to be called the best program in college soccer. I would quibble with the University's contention that there were 6,500 in attendance at the match -- there were substantially fewer people at the Wake Forest match than at the Duke game a week previous -- but the atmosphere was fantastic, more akin to a college football game than what would generally be expected at a soccer match on a university campus. The game was broadcast nationally on the Fox Soccer Channel and that certainly contributed to the frenetic energy surrounding the game.

FSC's broadcast also led to the attendance of Ethan Zohn, the winner of Survivor: Africa (which, frankly, means nothing to me, but he was instantly recognized by the people I was with). Mr. Zohn attended the match to promote Grassroot Soccer United, part of a non-profit organization (Grassroot Soccer) that he founded after the Survivor success. Grassroot Soccer has the ambitious goal of using futbol as a tool to provide an education to kids in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa (and nine other African countries through implementing partnerships) about HIV/AIDs.

A ten minute conversation with Mr. Zohn should be sufficient to sell anyone on Grassroot Soccer. Ethan played professional soccer as a keeper, including for Highlanders FC, a club team in Zimbabwe that has employed a number of American players (including Melrose Place's Andrew Shue; who, by the way, will join Kuno Becker, David Beckham, Stevie Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, and Sven-Goran Eriksson in Goal III, which I will go out on a limb now and state that it will be another step down from Goal II and Goal). He is, in result, extremely knowledgeable and passionately articulate about his cause and refreshingly self-deprecating about himself and his role in the effort. Meeting Ethan was an absolute pleasure for all of us and we look forward to supporting Grassroot Soccer's endeavors.

Changing gears and sports, the family spent yesterday afternoon at The Historical Society of Washington D.C. I do not have any burning desire to go the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton or the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown -- although when Ron Santo is finally enshrined, we will make the trip to New York. But I would like to travel to Kansas City to see the Negro League Baseball Museum. One of my proudest possessions is a signed baseball from Buck O'Neil that I bought at a charity event several years back. His short book, I Was Right on Time, adorns my bookshelf and is a must-read for every diehard Cubs fan (it is an important reminder of the sins of the franchise and, ultimately, the redemption of the North Siders). In Mr. O'Neil's honor, we will provide some small support to the development of his hall of education at the NLBM.

The story of Negro League baseball is, to me, one of the most important historical narratives of the United States and, in turn, one of the central reasons why I have adopted unwavering faith and optimism in this country. It also justifies the disproportionate attention I pay to what is, at best, recreational activity. Although my legal education has attempted to convince me that the equality of races in the United States was established in the courts through the heroism of the NAACP, the truth, I think, is that equality -- and acceptance of this bedrock principle of the American experiment with respect to race -- was established through myriad means and none less important than the exceptional achievements of athletes on various playing fields. It was, therefore, a singular pleasure to spend a few hours at the "Separate but Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia" exhibit yesterday, with homage paid to the greats of the Homestead Grays, particularly Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson.

This Saturday, the Historical Society will host a talk on the journalist Sam Lacy by his son, Tim Lacy, and the founder of the Negro Legends Hall of Fame, Dwayne Sims, which should be fascinating for anyone interested in the history of sports or race relations in the United States.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Number 3

6,083. That is, apparently, the number of people that were at Ludwig Field (including the four of us) Friday night to watch Sasho Cirovski become the most victorious gaffer in the college program's history.

6,083 -- 22 less than the total attendance at RFK for United's CONCACAF match against Saprissa.

Although United is in a tailspin (the 5-2 drubbing at the Home Depot Center can be attributed in equal halves to inexcusable giveaways on poor touches and horrific refereeing), this has been a banner six months of soccer fandom for me. I have gone from watching the likes of Mbuta, Robson, Healy, Brooks, Teixeira, and Harada perform well for CP Baltimore to following Wallace, Hall, Gonzalez, Delagarza, Kassel, Yates, Zusi, and Swaim ("Will's got skills") at the University of Maryland.

Much of the attendance can be attributed to a promotion that got soccer-playing kids from the surrounding are out to the match, but Friday night's matchup against current #1 and reigning NCAA champs Wake Forest should be able to draw big numbers all on its own.

The Terps are fielding a very talented, very entertaining team this season and demand attention from area soccer fans. A Tuesday night game against American at home precedes the Wake Forest match.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Val Away

Cheers to Val Teixeira as news from Chesterfield is that he has signed on with the team for a four month deal pending international clearances. Going from the third division in the U.S. to the fourth division in the UK is nothing to be ashamed of. Val was a big part of the reason why we hauled our infant daughter up to UMBC, Annapolis, and Baltimore to watch CP USA play.

Congratulations Val, best of luck.

For any curious Spireites out there, Val played principally on the wing for his U.S. club and occasionally filled in adequately at fullback when he needed a breather. Teixeira can deliver good crosses and can create space with his creative control of the ball.

Hopefully, Val will have the opportunity to develop his goal celebrations a bit more out in the UK:

Pura Vida

On Tuesday night, the group stage of the inaugural CONCACAF Champions League started at RFK. Not a shining night in the history of D.C. United: ridiculously few supporters showed up and United was simply outclassed on the pitch by a superior Saprissa side. On the latter point, the situation has become so dire that even United's players (Stouffer has a remarkable quote from Santino on his blog) freely acknowledge that the Costa Rican team was the superior side. On the former point, it would be difficult to blame United's supporters for the low turnout. After all, this is what RFK looked like during the U.S. Open Cup final against USL1's Charleston:

But since that title -- which ensures that United will have an opportunity to play in next year's CONCACAF Champions League -- United's play has been exceedingly poor, largely the consequence of injuries that have devastated the side throughout the season. There could not have been many people who follow the team who expected much out of United facing Saprissa. But neither this expectation, nor the fact that it was guaranteed that Dyachenko would see serious time on the field, would justify the pathetic attendance. However, the front office's absurd decision to hold out for more money for the Champions League games, when the team has played horrible football for sometime, doomed the enterprise from the start. Blind and stupid loyalty led me to drop $240 for the three CONCACAF games for my two season tickets and I completely regret doing so. There were, in total, 8 (I repeat, eight) United supporters in our section and the two sections immediately adjacent. None of the other season ticket holders bothered to show up, likely because they balked at the $40 per seat ticket price for each game. Throughout the match, I could not shake the dread derived from the thought of having to attend the Cruz Azul match under similar circumstances, completely surrounded by hostile fans while forced to root for a team that conceded the match from the opening kickoff. I believe that United is a well run franchise and very much appreciate their efforts to reach out to fans, but the Champions League will prove a disaster for both the club and its management.

Nevertheless, despite all of the foregoing, I do not regret going to the match. First, the Saprissa fans were tremendous and their full throat support for their side was justifiably rewarded by the Saprissa players at the end of the game, when many made time to personally thank their supporters. And although United was outmatched and Thompson, Quaranta and Cordeiro failed to impress in a makeshift midfield and frontline (Ryan was put up front), the game vastly improved when Fred relieved Emilio at the start of the second 45. Despite being down to ten men after McTavish's straight red, Fred's possession skills changed the entire dynamic of United's attack as, finally, the team had a player on the pitch who could turn and move forward rather than slot balls backwards every time a touch was possible. Namoff, again, was quality at the backline and Martinez played well. But the most impressive United player, for the second game in a row, was this man:

Khumalo has stepped right into DC's starting XI and provided the team with a dangerous second option at striker (something that neither Doe nor Rod have yet been able to provide). And if there is one reason to be optimistic about the league fixtures and Champions League matches yet to be played, watching to see if Boyzzz is as good as he has shown in his first games with United. I have another, ulterior motive for cheering for Boyzzz's success as I was convinced throughout CP Baltimore's season that the players in USL2 merited a chance at the MLS. Khumalo, the former Riverhound, has such a chance and I doubt he will waste it.

The days of these guys

has passed. And United will certainly not be able to realize (this year at least) the lofty expectations created by the club's own history. But, I think, it also means that United supporters should be able to some extent write this year off as the product of a remarkable string of injuries that have robbed the team of its depth and skill.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

CP Baltimore's Players Out and About

Crystal Palace Baltimore's Mathew Mbuta is now, officially, part of the NY Red Bulls, a fair reward for a heck of a performance against the team on a high school pitch in Annapolis.

Not similar outcomes, I think, for CP Baltimore's Pat Healey and Shintaro Harada, who were not able to convert their loan spells with the Chicago Fire into a longer term run with the MLS team. Healey, the runner up for USL2's rookie of the year (and a player who can also lay claim to a great family cheering section at CP Baltimore's home matches) was not able to win himself a roster spot after playing on DC United's reserve team at the end of August. Not great news for either, but at least they got a look based off of what they managed to do with the third division team.

As did Val Teixeira, who managed to win a trial with the parent club in London but did not manage to impress Warnock enough to merit a deal. As the linked article notes, Teixeira has not left the UK and participated in a reserve match for fourth division Chesterfield FC, where he managed a hat-trick as a first impression against Wolverhampton's reserves. His performance was not, however, sufficiently impressive to lead the club's official web-site to actually learn his name (designated as "unnamed trialist"). (Wolverhampton, on the other hand, gave credit where it was due). Nevertheless, it was a heck of a first impression:

Palace's loss is Chesterfield's gain as Teixeira has made an immediate impression after netting a hat-trick in their 4-0 reserve win over Wolves on Tuesday.

Spireites boss Lee Richardson is likely to have been impressed with the striker's display, although he has refused to state whether a contract will be in the offing.

"I was impressed with the lad and it was our best performance of the season. We could have had seven goals," Richardson told the Derbyshire Times.

So all that is left is for Teixeira (and it is spelled "Teixeira" not "Tiexeira"), is for Val to prove that he is capable of "coping with the physical demands of League 2 football" as the Spireites seem terribly concerned about hiring out a fragile player regardless of his skill.

Val was a highly entertaining footballer to watch stateside and should Chesterfield decide to extend him a contract, their supporters will find much to enjoy from the flair with which he plays the game.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Measure of a Man

The plans are set for our annual trek to Soldier Field for the Bears-Titans game a couple of months from now. And yet, I have no real rooting interest in the Bears this season. Even the amazing performance against the Colts on Sunday night in Indianapolis was not enough to change the feeling of dread I have about this year. So, the victory that slipped through the Bears fingers in Charlotte on Sunday afternoon was not a surprise, it was simply confirmation of something that Bears fans are going to have to live with: Ron Turner is the offensive coordinator and Ron Turner's ego is the biggest thing on the team.

As David Haugh noted in his story for the Chicago Tribune yesterday, Turner's quip about Orton's poor decision to change a pivotal third and one call from a run to a short pass to Marty Booker was "I could have given him a better call and not given him that option." Now, certainly, taken at face value, Turner's comment takes responsibility for something that otherwise would reflect poorly on his young quarterback. But after multiple years of following Turner's teams (both with the Illini and the Bears), Turner's comment is part of his ignoble, unbroken tradition of decimating the confidence of his players with asinine, priggish comments to the press. The ridiculous fall out from Griese's post-game comments after the win over Philadelphia last season (when Brian was taken to task for claiming credit for the play-calling on the game winning drive) should have marked the end of Turner's tenure, but, instead, the insistence that coaches, and not players, win games continues to pervade on the lakeshore. And that insistence has hamstrung Chicago even where the talent that Angelo has managed to bring to the field is top shelf.

Two things tell you what anyone needs to know about Ron Turner. First, for the second week in a row, after Matt Forte exceeded expectations with his performance and work ethic, Turner called McKie's number on the goal line for a gimmie touchdown. Second, with the game on the line, and the need to get one yard to put themselves in a position to win, Turner again called McKie's number and used Forte as a decoy. The message from both: the game is about executing Turner's game plan and not about any player, regardless of how tremendous his achievements.

So now the team is one and one. Greg Olsen is the goat for the first loss and there is very little chance that anything will happen in the locker room that will boost the first-round draft pick back up to where he can be a vital contributor to the team. And Chicago's fans will continue to be split on whether the first round picks of Grossman, Benson, Olsen, and, in the seasons to follow, Chris Williams were mistakes by the front office or whether Turner has failed to develop the talent entrusted to him. I know where I stand on the argument and I think banging away on Turner's play-calling misses the point. How is a fullback dive any more important than the fact that Ron has stewardship over Devin Hester, Matt Forte, and Greg Olsen? Ron Turner is the Bears offense, not any of those guys.

The sensitivity to the ego of the coaching staff trumping the players on the pitch has grown with the start of the NFL's season. And, so, when at RFK on Saturday night and Soehn insists on putting Rod Dyachenko (who has, admittedly, played much better of late) in for an injured Ivan Guerrero over Ryan Cordeiro -- even after impressing as a substitute in San Jose (and making the trip to College Park the night before to promote DC United along with Terp alum Dominic Mediate) -- it is difficult to take as a fan. It is even more difficult to take after the tinkering that doomed Charlton in the second half of last season began again from Pardew with Cranie supplanting a dynamic Moo2Kill at right back in their collapse against Wolverhampton. Whatever.

On the other hand, it makes watching the Cubs all the more enjoyable. The Cubs are not about Lou Pinella. The Northsiders are about the players on the field and Lou's comment after Zambrano's historic outing -- the first Cubs no-hitter in my lifetime -- was perfect. If people want to criticize him for leaving Z in, well, they are welcome to go and try and remove Carlos from that game. Lou clearly has a massive doghouse, but he does seem to reward performance as evidenced by the way he has managed to juggle the roster.