Sunday, January 23, 2011


This probably makes me an idiot, but I am so incredibly proud of what the Chicago Bears managed to do this afternoon.

After the first half, with the Bears getting smoked, my daughter woke up from her nap and found us downcast. Once Todd Collins was introduced into the game, I had resigned myself to suffering, in the most muted way I could, a full scale embarrassment in Chicago.

But I should have more faith. Once quarterbacking duties were handed to Caleb Hanie and Caleb hit Johnny Knox on a beautiful throw, the mood in our house -- and throughout Bears nation -- improved substantially.

Yes, the Bears lost to a rival I absolutely detest. Yes, the Bears fell short. But the lasting images I will take from the game will be the reckless abandon with which the Bears played themselves back into the game and my daughter's reaction: bouncing around the house, eventually grabbing her favorite teddy bear (dubbed "Willie") and crowning him with a Phillip Daniels mini helmet.

Let's be clear about what happened today, because while an acerbic media will focus on questions of whether or not Cutler showed enough heart with a torn mcl (by writers who can't work if they've got a bad cold) or whether Lovie, Martz, and Marinelli got outcoached (and they probably did), the facts are that Caleb Hanie walked into a football game and did more in one quarter than he had in two previous years (2009-2010 stats: 8 for 14, 66 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT; NFC Championship game: 13-20, 153 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs). The facts are that Matt Forte's 160 yards from scrimmage (70 on the ground and 90 receiving) was the most productive of any Bears' running back in the postseason since George Gulyanics put up 161 yards (94 rushing, 67 receiving) in the 1950 championship loss to the Rams.

With a torn muscle in his hip and having barely practiced throughout the week, Chris Harris went out and played a tremendous game. With all the hype about Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, the best cornerback on the field was Peanut Tillman. And with every reason and excuse to lay down, the bad memories of watching the Eagles smoke a 13-3 Bears team once Jimmy Miller left injured and Shane Matthews got behind center have been erased.

Again, it sucks that they lost, but watching that defense fly around the field in the fourth quarter, watching that offense rally around Hanie, turning the game around so that Packers' fans had to hold their breath as the impossible seemed to be coming to fruition -- all of that means no regrets.

This is a team that fully deserves the city's admiration.

This is a team that deserves to be part of the franchise's storied history.

Congratulations to Jerry Angelo, Lovie Smith, and everyone involved in the organization for turning things around and making us all believers.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Packing for Dallas

Let's say you've got a two-year old daughter. And said child has already been forced to suffer through lots of miserable Sunday afternoons -- including a trip to Baltimore two Decembers ago where she was eager to get out of the cold as the players we had come to cheer for -- because of a disease contracted by her parents at an early age that has not yet been shaken.

What would be a normal Saturday spent prior to the NFC Championship game? Thanks to YouTube, the answer, of course, is repeated viewings of Charles Martin's ode to what it means to be a Packer or Ken Stills defining Packer toughness or Keith Van Horne taking exception to the Packers ethos. And when the toddler asks why anyone would do anything so craven, the only answer, obviously, is: "that's what it means to be a Packer."

Michael Wilbon had a great piece for ESPN (Wilbon has been a great addition for the website) describing how Chicagoans are socialized to think about the Packers. Each of the incidents I showed my daughter today (repeatedly) shaped my thoughts about Green Bay. I hate the colors green and gold because of them -- when I see Plymouth Argyle's kit (the victims in the opening number of Chris Powell's return to The Valley earlier today), I react viscerally because the colors are close -- and the only Packers jersey I've ever been tempted to buy is a Mark Chmura replica.

I have enjoyed reading the commentary of sportswriters that know nothing about Chicago spouting off about how the Bears will come to regret not knocking the Packers out of the playoffs in Lambeau. No matter what happens tomorrow, things could not have turned out better.

Certainly, all Bears fans went into the last game of the season hoping that the Bears would knock the Packers out of the playoffs. Since I had little faith in the team's ability to do anything once the postseason started, a win might possibly have constituted the team's biggest achievement of the year. As the game stayed close, I kept thinking about the NFL Films clip from early in the season where, after a Packers win, a team official intercepts Coach McCarthy on his way off the field to tell him that the Vikings have lost. That moment let everyone know what the Packers mentality -- Minnesota was their only real threat in the division.

Four months later, Green Bay squeaked into the playoffs and it could not have worked out better for Chicago. By bouncing the Eagles in Philadelphia, Chicago drew the weakest team in the playoffs for their first game. By bouncing the Falcons in Atlanta, Chicago got to host the NFC Championship match. By Sunday afternoon, no Bears fan regretted the Packers advancing. This is the game everyone wants -- Green Bay vs. Chicago at Soldier Field -- and no matter the outcome, this has been a tremendous bounce back season for the Bears.

I would guess that there were more Chicagoans relieved about the outcome of Sunday night's game than were worried about meeting up with a hyped division rival. The prospect of advancing to the Super Bowl only to meet a much better opponent that could virtually erase the 46 to 10 score line that defined the ascendancy of the Monsters of the Midway and Walter Payton was unsettling. But one of Buddy Ryan's sons has made sure that Patriot redemption is not in the cards for this season.

The Packers are a good team. And they might blow out the Bears tomorrow -- I don't think they will, but they might. But the fact Chicago has a chance to both (1) deny Green Bay a trip to Dallas and (2) punch their ticket to play either Pittsburgh or New Jersey means that it no NFC Championship game involving the Bears will ever be bigger.

Whatever happens, I have a two year old that now knows the words to Bear Down and can't wait for gametime. Whatever happens, I am loving this time right now... I am loving the anticipation... the buildup. Tom Petty's wisdom doesn't apply universally; right now, the waiting ain't the hardest part.

Whatever happens, thanks to everyone in the Bears' organization for making this possible.

Now go out and turn some green and gold to black and blue. Do it for Charles Martin and Ken Stills. Do it and cement your place in the pantheon of Chicago sports deities. Beat the Packers.

Club Support

After two friendlies, Josh Wicks' return as a professional goalkeeper in a meaningful match with IFK Mariehamn got off to a good start on Tuesday, when Wicks, Mason Trafford, Joe Funicello and teammates shut out FC Haka 4 - 0 in the opening round of the Veikkausliiga Cup.

Less of a result in their second outing, as FC Honka beat IFK Mariehamn 3 to 1 earlier today. Josh Wicks, Mason Trafford and Joe Funicello again started for Mariehamn in the team's fourth match in nine games.

While on the topic of the club, a belated thank you to whomever suggested getting in touch with Nina Bostrom at IFK Mariehamn. The club was fantastic about working with me to get gear and I am now the proud owner of several IFK shirts and a scarf sent all the way out from Aland. I would imagine that there are many more pressing things facing those working for the team and I am most grateful for their efforts to accommodate me.

Another of our favorite clubs, the Raith Rovers, continued their hold on the sole promotion spot in Division One today with a disappointing draw at home against Greenock Morton earlier today. The big news with the club, however, is newly-promoted Inverness Caledonian Thistle's budding interest in bringing Gregory Tade to the Scottish Premier League a little in advance of his Rovers teammates.

We've sponsored Tade each of the last two seasons and have had occasion to interact with him once over that time period -- he was exceptionally kind and thoughtful and took action that belied my preconceived notions of a professional footballer. Tade is obviously charismatic; for as much stick as he takes for failing to convert some goal scoring opportunities, two of the three he's tallied in the league this season have been game winners (most recently against Dunfermline at the beginning of the month) and he has a knack for coming through when it most matters.

Our family wishes Greg the best in whatever he decides to do. While we would love to see him in the SPL with Raith, he's out of contract at year end, and who knows if the Rovers can maintain their lead or will bring Tade back should they find themselves in the top flight.

In addition to his FaceBook fan page ("The Legend, Gregory Tade"), testaments to Tade's appeal are found at his former clubs as well. Stranraer, where the Frenchman first left his mark on Scottish football, continues to hold fond memories of his short tenure there. We're thrilled to see that the club is at the top of the table of Division Three, even after a disappointing loss at Elgin earlier today.

Stranraer, like IFK Mariehamn, features fantastic people working with the club. Their supporters' willingness to entertain bizarre inquiries are a credit to the squad and make us proud to sponsor a player and, for myself, even prouder to now claim a fairly significant collection of Stranraer match worn gear.

I've very much enjoyed sponsoring players at various clubs, both because it heightens my interest in following teams in various competitions and because of the communication sponsorship facilitates with the clubs' supporters. Every football club in the world must, at some level, be backed up by people who have a pure passion for their team and it is a welcome treat to get a chance to share in all of the different permutations of those attachments, even when they are wholly unfamiliar to my own background and experience.

I hope that others interested in the game here in the States will take advantage of the opportunities to learn more about what it means elsewhere. Getting to know Stranraer or IFK Mariehamn is a great place to start. Along the same lines, I would further recommend the Blyth Spartans. Based largely on our great interactions with the club, our support of the team continues to grow. As I've learned more about the club and its illustrious history -- for example, I recently finished Harry Pearson's "The Far Corner" which contains a succinct description of the club's vaunted history as part of Pearson's musings on all important footballing matters in the northeast of England -- I recognize that I have no business traipsing around the club, but am grateful for their willingness to welcome interlopers.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Rose in Bloom

No Carlos Boozer. No Joakim Noah.

Doesn't matter.

Bulls 96 - Grizzlies 84.

Derrick Rose? 22 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover.

If Rose's triple double happened last year at this time, Chicago's sports media outlets would trip over themselves trying to add superlatives to describe what Rose is doing.

But this is not last year. This is, instead, the year that Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith have remade the Chicago Bears into a potent force in the NFL... one that will face-off against its most hated rival for a shot at the Super Bowl next Sunday.

So Derrick Rose and the Bulls are, at the moment, overshadowed. The chattering class can fret over whether Jay Cutler is the team's savior or simply another punky qb without Walter Payton and the Monsters of the Midway to bolster him. In the interim, Michael Wilbon continues to knock out great articles chronicling Rose's development (like his piece following the win over the Heat on Saturday night) and we all have time to get to know and further love the rest of the team (through, for example, Adam Fluck's neat slice of life piece on Joakim Noah today).

If the Bears can beat the Packers on Sunday, they become the story in the Chicago media for the next three weeks, maybe the next month. Between now and February 13th (a week after the Super Bowl), the Bulls will play 11 games -- 52 total for the season. By that point, I hope, the Bulls will have insulated themselves from any corrosive effects of a poisonous media and forged a cohesive identity as one of the strong contenders for the Eastern Conference title.

Tomorrow begins a six-game homestand, followed by five away games. If the Bulls can manage a 7 and 4 record over those 11 games -- which, at the moment, would seem to be selling the team short -- they will have largely wrapped up a spot in the postseason (with a 35 and 17 record) by the time the spotlight is focused directly on the team. Barring further injury, they should be at full strength for the last thirty games of the season and, well, then things get really interesting.

At the moment, the Bulls are 28 and 13. Which means at the half way point of the season, Bulls fans are being treated to something we haven't seen since Jordan and Pippen left town: a dominant team. Moreover, we're being treated to something else we haven't seen since that bygone era: routinely having the best player on the court be the one in a Bulls uniform.

Yet, bizarrely, the fact that both of these things gets (relatively) little attention is probably a blessing. No one expected the Bulls to be this good this fast and, as such, expectations for the team have not yet outstripped reality.

But it is hard to keep quiet about it. Derrick Rose is really, really good. In the post-Jordan/Pippen era, this is the best Bulls team to have taken the court. And they are a sight to behold.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Historic Feats

It goes without saying that this was a good weekend to be a Chicago sports fan. The Bulls' win over the Heat on Saturday evening was both a great result and a fabulous game. Derrick Rose provided multiple "did he just do that?" moments in the win -- the most memorable of which for me was Rose's block of an Eddie House three point attempt.

But as nice as that win was, the Bears showing today against the Seahawks was far more important. This was the Bears' 30th postseason game since 1940. When Jay Cutler took the field this afternoon, he joined the elite ranks of luminaries such as Steve Fuller, Johnny Lujack, Mike Phipps, Ed Brown, Billy Wade, and Mike Tomczak, becoming the 19th quarterback to play for the team in the postseason in over 70 years.

I tell anyone who will listen that Cutler is the best quarterback the Bears have ever had and, as a general matter, the response is usually disbelief. But a look at the statistics amassed by Bears quarterbacks demonstrates the point.

Including today's game, if you were to predict the performance of a Chicago quarterback based on past experience, you would expect to see an average statline of 14 for 27, 179 yards, 1 touchdown (0.9), 1 pick (1.3), 10 yards rushing and a one in three chance that a rushing touchdown might also be added (0.3). Cutler's output today significantly augmented the average: 15-28, 274 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 43 yards rushing, and two rushing touchdowns.

No Bears quarterback has ever thrown for 300 yards or more in a postseason game. Cutler managed a combined 317 yards in the air and on the ground; only one game by a quarterback -- Sid Luckman against the Redskins in 1943 -- accounted for more yards in a postseason match (349). And that is the only game in Bears postseason history that featured a better performance out of the quarterback position than what Cutler displayed today. In that same game, Luckman accounted for five touchdowns (all passing); Cutler's four touchdowns (2 rushing and 2 throwing) are second only to that total. Cutler's 43 yards rushing is second only to Luckman's 64 in that same Championship game. And Cutler's 274 yards passing is third to Luckman's 285 and Rex Grossman's 282 (also against the Seahawks back in 2007).

To get a sense of how pedestrian the performances of Bears' quarterbacks have been in the postseason, note that Cutler's two passing touchdowns today is second best in club history and tied him with Steve Fuller (1984 against the Redskins), Jim McMahon (1986 against the Giants), and Steve Walsh (1995 against the Vikings). Cutler's two rushing touchdowns are the most by a Bears' quarterback in a postseason game, tying him with two others: Billy Wade (1963 against the Giants) and Jim McMahon (1986 Super Bowl).

While the Bears have only had one postseason game where the quarterback has thrown for three or more touchdowns, Bears' quarterbacks have thrown three interceptions or more in five games. Cutler did not throw a pick today (although he made some valiant attempts at completing passes to the other team), making today's win only the 11th time (in 30 games), where a Bears' qb avoided being intercepted.

Setting to one side Cutler's remarkable in the NFL playoffs, I was most impressed by Tommie Harris today. Most writers covering the Bears have puzzled over what to make of Harris, who is obviously not at the same transcendent level he was several years ago, but still busts his rear to make a positive contribution. Today, he was explosive off the line, punished the Seahawks' interior linemen, and was rewarded with two well-deserved sacks. It is simply remarkable how much effort Harris expends to put himself in a position to get the call to start -- I cannot fathom the amount of disappointment he must feel at the setbacks that have sidetracked him -- and it was wonderful to see him impose himself on Seattle.

At the same time, the Bears' good fortune rolled on this weekend. Because the Packers' handily disposed of the Falcons on Saturday, Chicago will host the NFC Championship game against a team with which they are very familiar. The Packers are a very good team, but I feel much better about the Bears' prospects at home against a division rival than I would have felt about traveling to take on the Falcons in Atlanta.

And if the Bears can take care of business on Sunday, the Jets' upset of the Patriots today sets up a potential Super Bowl against an opponent (either New York or Pittsburgh) that they will match up well with.

But the Packers game -- and the anxiety that will come along with it -- are a week off. For now, I am going to enjoy the fresh memories of an unexpected romp.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Coming Home

It has been an interesting year for legends of teams I support and their transition into the coaching ranks.

D.C. United has tried to buy time and soothe supporters' frustration with the promotion of Ben Olsen to gaffer, one full season removed from his playing days. On the other side of the same coin, despite proving his mettle in every level of the minor leagues over multiple seasons, Ryne Sandberg was passed over for the position he most coveted in the Cubs organization for a man that would not be bigger than Jim Hendry and the front office staff.

Elsewhere, Lovie Smith's willingness to change has saved his job and two of the former Bears that might have been given serious consideration to replace him -- Leslie Frazier and Ron Rivera -- will now seek to put Smith back on the hot seat as head coaches of the Vikings and Panthers, respectively. And on the other side of that coin, the leader of the 80s era Bears defense, Mike Singletary, saw his coaching career come crashing to a halt accompanied by scathing reviews during a disastrous season in San Francisco.

Yesterday, Charlton announced that a legend had agreed to take the reins of a club in turmoil: Chris Powell. The enthusiasm of the majority of the club's supporters has been infectious and, in result, I renewed my subscription to CAFC player just to hear the new manager speak (I love the Player -- however darkly evil the commercialism of the venture might be, it is invaluable in facilitating following a third-division English side from across the Atlantic). Having watched his first fifteen minutes of interview as manager, I am sold.

This may well be a false dawn for the club. But it is light nevertheless.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Jerk

Beautiful work from Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald today in calling out Rick Reilly for a crass, mean-spirited hit job on Jay Cutler.

I wish that more reporters that cover sports would stand up and condemn columnists that set their sights on an athlete and pen moralizing, sanctimonious lectures.

The content of Reilly's piece is slightly south of ridiculous; the tone is idiotic.

Of course Chicago and Chicagoans want to embrace Cutler. He's the best quarterback most of us have ever seen in a Bears uniform. But the fact that he does not cultivate adulation does not detract from how grateful we are that he's with the team.

I will confess to not having much faith in Cutler's decision making -- I am entirely prepared for the Seahawks to embarrass the Bears on Sunday -- but while everyone else may accept as an article of faith that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, such a view does not gel with Bears fans' experience over the last four decades. The Bears win in spite of their quarterbacks, not because of them.

And I will also confess to wincing each time that Cutler volunteers to wear a microphone for a game, as he did multiple times this season (something that Reilly apparently does not know and did not mention). His churlish comments about Ryan Fitzpatrick during the Bills game undoubtedly caused many fans to recoil or, at least, shake their heads in resignation.

But I also don't care. Cutler is the quarterback of my favorite football team. He's not my buddy. I root for him because he plays a vital role in the Bears success. And nothing in Reilly's attack paints him as a bad person -- there is no history of repulsive criminal behavior. As such, while I may not like his personality, I have no reason to be embarrassed by the fact that he plays a seminal role on a team I love.

Reilly's piece comes off largely as a personal attack against someone who is not media friendly and who does not appear to understand how important people like Reilly are. If that is the case, then Reilly's managed to identify the first thing about Cutler's persona that I really like: he doesn't suck up to sportswriters.

LeGere's comments about Reilly are harsh. But, in his case, the tone is entirely appropriate. Reilly intended to tell his readers about a despicable frat-boy that they should cheer against on Sunday. Instead, he managed to underscore the arrogance and sense of entitlement that pervades amongst people that have opinions about sports and are paid to express them.

I have been a longtime subscriber to Sports Illustrated and there were occasional essays penned by Reilly that demonstrated that he was more than a hack. The Cutler piece, however, was the job of a hack.

Coincidentally, on Wednesday night I went to watch Georgetown play Pitt at the Verizon Center with a Dolphins fan and a Broncos fan. While the Hoyas were being pummeled by the Panthers, we chatted about football and, eventually, spent five minutes reminiscing about Brian Griese, a common thread running through each of our football fan legacies.

Unlikable? Immature? Unapproachable? Frat-guy arrogant? 27 years old and still not meeting media expectations? Couldn't measure up to the legacy of John Elway? That doesn't sound like a new song. In a 2002 profile about Griese in ESPN's magazine, Seth Wickersham made the same observations about another highly-touted Broncos quarterback, but also went further to present an interesting, nuanced view of a player who made some bizarre missteps in public relations.

When the theme was rattling around Reilly's head, he might have considered that the yarn he was spinning wasn't original; that something about it seemed vaguely familiar. Instead, we get observations devoid of recognition, cobbled together as if this vanity is something new under sun.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Notes on the Draft

I woke up this morning excited about the MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore.

After it was done? Not so much.

First off, congratulations to Zac MacMath, Billy Cortes, and Jason Herrick for being selected in the draft.

MacMath deserved to be the fifth pick in the draft and should find himself in a good situation in Philly, replacing former Terp Chris Seitz in goal. Philly added two other solid players in the draft, netting Tar Heel Michael Farfan in the second round and UMBC's Levi Houapeu in the third.

Compared to what United managed at the draft, the Union's Thursday is yet another reason to look longingly at our neighbors to the north. Already blessed with a gorgeous stadium, the Union have amassed an exciting young team built around Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerny up top.

With respect to United, I get it. I am supposed to be psyched that Perry Kitchen fell to United at the third pick. But as good as Kitchen may be, the consensus that he will be given a starting spot alongside Jakovic with Julius James pushed way down the depth chart (and Ethan White pushed even further down) doesn't sit well. Kitchen excelled as a holding midfielder at Akron and James was consistently the most committed player on a lethargic United side last season. But with Simms, Morsink, King, and Shanosky signed up to play ahead of the center halves, Kitchen's heralded ball winning skills are going to be restrained.

Still, Kitchen is extremely talented and the team is better with him on the roster. I'm not convinced that the same is true for Chris Korb and Joe Willis. This is not to say that either will fail as a professional soccer player, only that it's unclear how they will be able to ply their trades with this United squad. Having failed to protect Jordan Graye, using the 31st pick on Korb is singularly odd.

I sat near Ben Olsen several times last season at Ludwig. I know that Olsen's had a chance to see quite a bit of Jason Herrick and his development. And I know that the knock on Herrick is that he lacks the pace and size to project as a potent force in the MLS, but having done little to bolster an offense that managed a grand total of 21 goals in 30 games last season cannot be comforting for supporters. Even if Herrick was considered a risk and a project, he was less costly than a gamble on a 5'9", 33-year old veteran whose best days are clearly behind him.

Beyond my disappointment as a DC United season ticket holder, I'm gutted for Herrick who must feel slighted at falling to 45th in the draft. There were not 44 players better than him in the draft pool. Ultimately, a chance to return home to Chicago with something to prove and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Water Tower may further spur his development, but I doubt that it was easy to find any silver lining when other names continued to come off the board.

To secure Joe Willis, United traded the 57th and 70th pick to the Galaxy to move up seven slots and pick 50th -- the 70th pick being the same one they picked up from the Galaxy for Adam Cristman. Effectively, United parted with one of its few attacking players (presumably for contract reasons) to add a third goalie to complement Bill Hamid and the competent Steve Cronin.

The reviews I've seen of United's draft picks have been generally positive -- with most focusing on DC's need to shore up its defense. I cannot agree. United had already added the hugely talented Ethan White and had recently announced the signing of Rodrigo Braseco and Railhawk Daniel Woolard. On paper, United was going into the 2011 season with a stronger defense than the preceding season.

Adding three more defensive players in the SuperDraft would seem to be a grievously wasted opportunity. Moving up to pick a keeper and potentially losing the chance to snatch up players like Tulsa's Ashley McInnes, Sacramento State's Ernesto Carranza, and Dartmouth's Daniel Keat -- all of whom were still on the board when United (panicked and) pulled the trigger on the deal and remain undrafted now -- on Tuesday is not something I can get my head around.

Right now, United is a bad team, not terribly different in prospects from last year's squad. But worse than being a bad team, Olsen's army promises to be uninteresting. I would never have guessed that United could go backwards from last season, but I thought the same thing after Soehn left.

21 goals in 30 was not, apparently, good enough. 10 goals in 30 might be a more challenging target for next season.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Another year, another subscription to NBA League Pass. I usually lose focus and interest relatively early in the season, content to just follow box scores and the NBA's gamecast.

That probably will not happen this season.

Arriving home for the start of the third quarter, I, like all other Bulls fans watching, was treated to an absolutely jaw-dropping performance by Derrick Rose as the Bulls turned a 12-point halftime deficit against Greg Monroe and the Detroit Pistons into a convincing 13-point win.

For any Bulls fan outside of Chicago that is thinking about getting League Pass: you should. I tune into Bulls games now not overly concerned about the final result. Instead, I watch knowing two things: (1) this year's team does not cheat its fans on effort; and (2) Derrick Rose will do something that will lead me to call someone and tell them to put the game on.

Jeff Joniak's "Devin Hester, you are RIDICULOUS!" is one of my favorite radio call descriptions of a transcendent individual performance; Joniak's call runs through my head repeatedly while watching Rose play.

Tonight, I thought that Rose's best moment of the second half had occurred when he beat Rodney Stuckey off the dribble, split two collapsing defenders (former Terp Chris Wilcox and, I think, Tracy McGrady), was fouled hard by Ben Gordon going to the rim, still made the shot, and converted the free throw.


The breakaway feed to Ronnie Brewer, with Brewer returning the ball on a lob, and Rose slamming it one-handed through the basket with the top of his head nearly at rim-level ... well, that was magnificent ... that was breathtaking.

Because of Rose, Bulls games have become appointments for me.

You can get some sense of how good Rose is by catching highlights, but seeing Rose's play in the context of the game, seeing the impact he has on his teammates, and seeing how the game ebbs and flows under his influence is almost as important as his amazing physical feats.

The crowd at the United Center started chanting "M-V-P" in the third quarter. At least one television viewer in suburban Maryland joined the exhortation.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


TSG had an interesting analysis piece up on Saturday tying a thread through the surprising, spectacular failures of Roy Hodgson, Mark Hughes, and Gerald Houllier in the EPL this season. TSG contrasts Owen Coyle's ability to harness the most of the talent in Bolton's existing squad with the three H's poor showing with greater assets in Liverpool, Fulham, and Aston Villa, respectively, arguing that the the technical rigidness of the trio has handicapped the natural talents and skills of their players.

Its a useful point and, insofar as TSG focuses on the effective utilization of existing personnel, is something I've been thinking about in a number of contexts recently.

I've made much of the departure and return of Chris Harris to the Bears. The road to Lovie Smith's second NFC Championship Game (should his squad be able to overcome the now 8-9 Seattle Seahawks next Sunday) will be paved the same way it was to his first: with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs anchoring the defense behind a competent defensive line, with a secondary quarterbacked by Harris and dependent on Peanut Tillman. The decision to jettison Harris and replace him with Adam Archuleta is not the only reason the Bears' have missed the playoffs the previous three seasons, but his departure corresponded with the team's decline and his return, conveniently, corresponds with the team's rise to the upper echelon of the NFL.

Correspondence is not causality, but Harris stands as a useful symbol of how Coach Smith's willingness to address errors and change tracks when necessary has put his team in a position to go to another Super Bowl. Bringing back Harris was an admission of error by Lovie (and Jerry Angelo) -- not because Harris did not receive a huge payday from the Bears, but because he was never adequately replaced -- but for Smith, any such admission paled in comparison to giving up defensive play-calling duties and kicking Ron Turner to the curb. In the end, it was Smith's admission of fallibility and his willingness to subjugate his authority to reliance on the expertise of others (principally Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli) that has put the Bears where they are. It was, in other words, Lovie Smith's lack of rigidness -- in tactics, personnel, and control -- that has led to the Coach's second act.

The flip side of that same coin has played itself out in Charlton and will likely plague D.C. United in the same season.

By all accounts, Phil Parkinson is a good person. Despite being shouldered with the unfortunate legacy of the ruins of Alan Pardew, following relegation to League One, Parkinson was able to steady a sinking ship, but once righted, the vessel seemed never destined to reach its port of call under his captaincy. Those supporters that did not call for Parky's head reasoned that a skint club and weak assets afforded him no opportunity of success. And perhaps that view is a closer reflection of the objective reality than the opposing position: Parkinson was endowed with more talent than the vast majority of teams in England's third division and, yet, Charlton had minimal prospects of promotion.

Wherever the truth may lie, there is little question that Parkinson failed to get the best out of what he had. More specifically, Parkinson was unable to draw out the skills and creativity of the talent at his disposal. It has been many years since I've had the privilege of being in The Valley, but I have, nevertheless, watched the likes of Therry Racon, Jose Semedo, Kelly Youga, and Lloyd Sam play first hand and the fact that their technical skills have only occasionally flickered with Parkinson at the helm is a fairly damning indictment of his reign. Not as damning as the team's frequently listless performances, which galled even those who backed Phil.

Poor tactics were augmented by personnel choices, where Parkinson reversed the gambling on rough gems by Iain Dowie and Alan Pardew (borne mostly from outsized egos) by adding safe, honest players with minimal upside. The comfort afforded by the players Parkinson added reinforced the lack of tactical competence on the pitch and Charlton's approach frequently degenerated to punted balls, with blown assignments on set pieces evincing some fundamental flaw in training.

Parkinson has now paid for his transgressions -- real or imagined -- with his job under this new regime. Ultimately, Parkinson's rigidness, underscored by a strange, ill-conceived tactical change that preceded a spanking from Swindon Town, forced his departure. While a good opening 45 minutes at White Hart Lane this morning was welcome, without a gaffer or a clear plan for revitalization, the immediate future does not seem bright.

Charlton's prospects, however, are far better than D.C. United's. I am trying to reserve judgment on the team, but I am not heartened by the personnel decisions made thus far. Ben Olsen's black and red and white army will be industrious and tireless and honest and, in all likelihood, an absolute bear to watch. Gone are the skills of Jaime Moreno, Rodney Wallace and Jordan Graye. Gone too are the more mercurial contributions of Pablo Hernandez, Carlos Varela, and Danny Allsopp. In their place, United supporters get Dax McCarty, Josh Wolff, Joseph Ngwenya, Daniel Woolard, Conor Shanosky, Ethan White, and the return of Kurt Morsink.

Morsink's new contract gives away this iteration of the team's approach -- if you want lots of running around to little effect, D.C. United is the team for you. Morsink fills no need for the team and, with McCarty, Shanosky, Clyde Simms, Stephen King, and Branko Boskovic available to play in the middle of the field, Morsink effectively eats up a slot that could have been filled by an attacking wide player or striker with an unrealized ceiling. Instead, Olsen's United will spend significant (although certainly not massive) funds on a security blanket.

As soon as Dejan Jakovic and Julius James are ushered away from the team, the players who pose the biggest threat to a novitiate's leadership will have all been cashiered. Olsen will have amassed a team of "coachable" players that should minimize his headaches in the locker room.

There is little reason to believe that the team will offer anything magical on the field (should it involve any player not named Andy Najar). United will probably enjoy better results than last year -- last year's team was so bad, it would take more work to be worse than better -- but they should offer very little entertainment for those who buy tickets.

The personnel moves also portend a team that will not display different approaches next season. The return of Carlos Varela and Pablo Hernandez would have challenged Olsen by giving him obviously talented guys who had underperformed. Instead, with this roster, what fans see is probably what we will get.

I hope that I am wrong, but the term "rigid" will be, I fear, fully descriptive of the identity of D.C. United 2011.

Finally, while the front office of United declined to saddle Olsen with players that might pose a challenge in the locker room, the same cannot be said of Jim Hendry. Efforts to dampen fans' expectations for next year have been obliterated by the addition of Matt Garza as well as Carlos Pena.

I love watching Garza pitch and have enjoyed the efforts by some to find flaws in his game, ultimately leading to a critique focused on Garza's purported inability to be an ace on a competitive team's roster. Whatever. He's a very good pitcher, who I never believed would end up in a Cubs uniform. Indeed, if you told me two months ago that the Cubs could have one of Zack Greinke or Matt Garza, but only one, I would have bit your hand off for Garza and started to count down the days to spring training.

But the addition of Garza doesn't make Quade's job any easier. The Cubs' clubhouse now features Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva, and Matt Garza -- three very talented starting pitchers that can best be described (according to press reports) as interesting personalities. Getting the best out of these three this season will be as important as any other coaching responsibility to the team's success.

I doubt that Quade is looking for any sympathy. Fans want their teams coached by people who do not pause in absorbing players of incredible, if untapped, talent. They are flexible enough in both approach and practice to absorb a wide array of personalities and overcome a spectrum of various individual flaws. It is cliche, but the best coaches are malleable enough to be able to fashion diverse elements into a cohesive, focused whole.

I wish Ryne Sandberg was managing the Cubs in 2011. But while few may say it -- and instead ridiculously declare that some type of talent chasm lays between the Cubs, Astros, and Pirates on one side of the Central and the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers on the other -- north siders will be expecting a playoff contender come August. Therefore, there will not exactly be a high margin for error attendant to whoever leads the dugout for the Cubs. If rigid defines Quade's approach to coaching this season, it may be a Jim Essian-length run at the top.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Next Level

The MLS Combine starts tomorrow in Ft. Lauderdale. And, beginning tomorrow, around 70 young men will vie to be among the 54 selected in the MLS SuperDraft next Thursday in Baltimore or the 54 additional selections made by MLS teams in the supplemental draft to be held five days later.

Two Terps leaving school, Matt Kassel and Ethan White, have already found a home in the MLS via homegrown player contracts with Red Bull and DC United, respectively. Another, Zac MacMath, will miss the Combine while playing for the U-20 national team, but has virtually guaranteed that he will be an early selection by becoming part of this year's Generation Adidas class.

Two other Terps, Jason Herrick and Billy Cortes, will be at the Combine along with Loyola Maryland's Geordie Phil Bannister, UMBC's Levi Houapeu, and James Madison's C.J. Sapong.

Of the players representing local schools at the Combine, the most hype seems to surround midfielder Levi Houapeu. But the one I am most interested in is Jason Herrick.

Avi Creditor has penned a nice profile of Herrick in advance of the Combine. The quote Creditor includes from Coach Cirovski is of particular interest:

"He reminds me a bit of a downsized version of Brian McBride," Cirovski said. "He's very good in the air for a smaller guy, very courageous. He's extremely competitive, the kind of player that players like playing with. He's so honest in the way he approaches his game."

I would second all of Creditor's analysis and commentary regarding Herrick. Creditor's piece, although concise, provides a fairly comprehensive review of Herrick's attributes. Nevertheless, I'll add the following: Jason Herrick is very good and will go into the combine as one of the more underappreciated, overlooked elite players in college soccer.

I make this declaration with some stridency because I was not a believer. In 2008, I watched Herrick play alongside freshman sensation Casey Townsend at Ludwig and shrugged. In 2009, I listened to people who know far more about the sport than me talk up Townsend's ceiling and did not fully appreciate a solid year for the red shirt junior. Worse, I developed an irrational disdain for Herrick's on-field persona and performance. Herrick worked hard, Herrick hustled, Herrick was intense. Herrick was the personification of a "coachable," "honest," "industrious" player (read: American) that stands in contrast to the gifted, mercurial, occasionally transcendent (read: foreign) player that puts fans in the seats.

And, so, going into this season, I didn't think much about Herrick and focused my attention on the immediate impact of Patrick Mullins and Sunny Jane and the development of Matt Oduaran and John Stertzer.

I probably was not alone, but I'm pretty sure Herrick did not care. Herrick came into the season a man possessed, noticeably stronger and singularly focused. Herrick cemented a leadership position on the field and responded to opponents' efforts to physically intimidate him and other attacking players by punishing them mercilessly.

My conversion was complete after watching Herrick make an incredible move that showed insane skill and also underscored the culmination of all the time and energy Jason has put into becoming a top class professional soccer player.

Tonight, I watched Michael Lombardi on Inside the NFL explain a Patriots philosophy of focusing on recruiting players that, first and foremost, love the sport and want to be the best at what they do. Obviously, having the skills to be the best is a prerequisite that must be met before the question of a player's drive and ambition is even broached. Herrick has the physical makeup and skill set to be a good player (while Herrick reminds Coach Cirovski of a "downsized" version of Brian McBride, I think a fair comparison is Bolton's Kevin Davies). But more than that, Herrick has the drive to be a great player.

Now all he has to do is show that he is one. Best of luck.