Sunday, November 27, 2011


I read Tracee Hamilton's most recent column as my three-year old napped prior to tip-off of the Maryland-Florida Gulf Coast game. We were taking our daughters to their first Maryland men's basketball game after a pleasant Tuesday evening visit to campus for my five-month old's first Maryland women's basketball game.

The view of Comcast that my girls had at both games was roughly the same, as the stadium was largely devoid of fans for Mark Turgeon's second home game of the year. The thousands of empty seats led the Baltimore Sun's Don Markus to observe:
One more thing. I have never seen the Comcast Center as empty as it is tonight. I know it's Thanksgiving break, but the marketing department should have done a better job getting tickets out to youth groups, etc. to try to fill the student section behind the basket.
Of course, if Markus ever wants to see Comcast more empty, he need only show up to a women's basketball game.

Hamilton's frivolous lament stuck with me during the game because it seemed to so perfectly reflect the ethos of what it means to be a Washington-area sports fan. It also encapsulates why midwesterners (among others) have such difficulty sympathizing with the fickle nature of the DC-area sports fan.

Washingtonians behave as if this is an anointed city of Champions. And not just run-of-the-mill "we're ridiculously, phenomenally blessed in these particular areas of sport" but Champions in things that will earn the attention of important people around the globe. What matters is the Redskins competing for the Super Bowl, the Wizards marching towards the Eastern Conference finals, the Nationals stirring towards a wild-card spot, the Capitals hoisting the Stanley Cup, and the Terps in play for a BCS bowl or yet another Final Four men's basketball tournament appearance.

The complaints about the dire status of Redskins and Terps football, Wizards and Terps men's basketball, and Washington sports generally comes at a time when my enjoyment of local sports -- particularly those at the University of Maryland -- is at an all-time high. And the incongruences between the way sports are covered in this region and what actually takes place become all the more remarkable.

The best example I can give is from two weekends ago beginning with Veterans Day.

The weekend began with a trip to Ludwig to watch the Maryland women open up their NCAA tournament games against a La Salle team that had given up seven goals all season. Led by a fantastic performance by sophomore transfer Hayley Brock, the Terps put five in the back of the net against the Explorers in one game. There were probably more La Salle students in the stands for the game than Maryland students, but those Maryland supporters that showed up were treated to a terrific showing by an extremely talented Terp team that had sputtered a bit through ACC play.

After the game, we walked down to Comcast to watch the women's basketball team open the regular season by blowing out Loyola. And, as usual, the student showing was even more sparse than at the soccer game. Even with few eyes on them, Coach Frese's team served notice that this year's squad is much stronger than last year's version.

Saturday night, we traveled over to FedEx Field to catch Maryland get whacked by Notre Dame. There were probably better ways to spend the evening and there's little doubt that the Terps are not a good football team, but, for us, we're not going to do a lot of traveling with the team and sitting down on the field engulfed by Notre Dame supporters afforded us a level of intense fan support that is unmatched at Byrd on gameday. Plus, despite being pounded on the scoreboard and pummeled in the stands, we got to watch solid linebacker play out of Demetrius Hartsfield and freshman Alex Twine.

And Sunday, I went to Comcast twice -- first for the Maryland women's prolific beat down of a very, very good Georgetown team (a team that embarrassed Georgia's women tonight in Las Vegas) and later for Coach Turgeon's inaugural win as head coach of the Maryland men against UNC Wilmington. For both games, the Center was largely empty. And the massive line from community supporters waiting to meet the Maryland women's players and coaching staff after the Georgetown upset was piteously juxtaposed with the short wait I endured to get into the men's game as students got their tickets scanned, then turned around and walked out of the stadium (something I've never previously seen first hand).

In between all of that, I also attended my first ever field hockey games, watching Maryland beat Iowa in their first round NCAA tournament game and then sitting through most of a thrilling, tense affair that concluded with the Terps upending Syracuse to advance to the Final Four.

Of all the Maryland events I went to that weekend, the Syracuse field hockey game was the single-best sporting event; although I had little idea of what was going on in terms of rules or playing strategy, the contest was so engrossing I forewent a large part of the Maryland-Georgetown game. And the timing could not have been better... the next weekend, for entirely bizarre and providential reasons, we toured the Field Hockey Hall of Fame housed in Collegeville, Pennsylvania on Saturday and then my three-year old and I watched, through a live feed, Maryland's stunning comeback win over the Tar Heels in the National Championship game on Sunday.

I may not have any ability to appreciate the subtlety of the sport, but even my three-year old could appreciate the drama of a two-goal comeback with four minutes in regulation and the exhilaration of Jill Witmer's determined run in overtime to give the Terps yet another National Championship.

But an NCAA field hockey championship is not a real championship and Kevin Anderson still deserves to be fired and Debbie Yow remains the worst person in the world. And *yawn* we've got another top ten women's basketball team in College Park. And *shrug* Maryland's men's soccer team absolutely obliterated West Virginia -- with a hat-trick from future professional Casey Townsend -- in their opening game of the NCAA tournament, roughly a week and a half after Maryland alum Omar Gonzalez was named MLS defender of the year and shortly before he and fellow Maryland alum A.J. DeLaGarza would start together and secure a clean sheet MLS Cup win.

Of course, all of the above relates only to Maryland.

After skipping the Georgetown men's home opener to watch field hockey, I went to Verizon that Monday to see the win over UNC Greensboro and was floored by how good Georgetown's young team was. I sat down behind Roy Hibbert, equally impressed by how accommodating Hibbert was with fans in the crowd and how impressive Georgetown's freshman class looks on the court. For those who were paying attention, the Hoyas remarkable run at the Maui Invitational wasn't wholly unexpected -- indeed, on the strength of the Greensboro game I stayed up to watch the Kansas opener live because I thought that Georgetown had a decent opportunity to pull the upset win. Although this year was written off as a down year for the program, the chances now are better than fair that the Hoyas will once again be among the nation's elite.

And none of the foregoing even begins to account for the insane level at which prep sports are played in this region: DeMatha's soccer team went undefeated and was generally considered the number one or two high school team in the entire country. The last ESPN ranking I looked at had Good Counsel's football team placed at sixth nationally.

Yet, even with these overflowing blessings, the accepted storyline is the paucity of compelling sports storylines this fall.

I don't get it.

On almost any weekend day over the last couple of months, anyone could easily have taken themselves over to watch world-class athletes compete in high-level sporting contests. Those of us in this region are privileged to have before us a bountiful cornucopia of excellence across fall sports -- football, basketball, soccer, and field hockey -- and yet the complaints about what we don't have register the loudest.

There are many, many more important things that I am thankful for. Nevertheless, the simple fact is, as a massive fan of sports, I am thankful for what D.C. offers. And, in my own selfish way, I'm thankful for all the empty seats around us that facilitate going to these matches with an infant and toddler in tow.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Puzzling Evidence

On Monday, the Columbus Crew, along with every other MLS team, released its list of players protected from the possibility of selecting by the Montreal Impact in the expansion draft. The ten players they chose to protect included a number of familiar names:
  • Balchan, Rich
  • Duka, Dilly
  • Gaven, Eddie
  • Hesmer, Will (GK)
  • James, Julius
  • Marshall, Chad
  • Miranda, Sebastian
  • Renteria, Emilio
  • Rogers, Robbie
  • Tchani, Tony
  • Anor, Bernardo
The inclusion of a former much-beloved DCU alum means that Columbus believed that Julius James and his $72k salary were important enough to the future of the Crew that the club risked losing an established contributor such as Andres Mendoza or Emmanuel Ekpo or an inexpensive prospect like Justin Meram or Korey Veeder. Again, we are less than one-year removed from the front office's determination that James did not merit a roster spot (replaced by Rodrigo Braseco) on D.C. United, dropping him into Columbus' lap at no cost to them.

For its part, D.C. United protected Dejan Jakovic.

Last season, Jakovic earned $201k to play 15 games, after managing 18 games in 2010 and 23 in 2009. In the 15 games Jakovic started, United gave up 24 goals -- a 1.4 goal against average per game that represented an improvement over the 1.5 GAA United had for the full season.

James started 31 of Columbus's 34 games and, in those matches, the Crew gave up 35 goals (the equivalent of a 1.1 GAA).

I like Jakovic and I enjoy watching him play. But the decision to protect Dejan and eliminate the possibility that Montreal would select a Canadian international that happens to be one of the highest wage-earners on the team seems about as puzzling as cutting Julius James.

Ethan White was automatically protected as a home grown player and protecting Brandon McDonald, who earned a paltry $45k last season, was an obvious move. With Perry Kitchen also protected, United has three good options at center back even before taking Dejan Jakovic into consideration.

And yet, there it is, United's front office will go into 2012 making the same gamble on Jakovic's health as has been made the last two seasons. And, at the same time, will go into the year with a complement of fullbacks that don't exactly strike fear into the heart of opponents.

It is unfair to kill the FO for dumping James without recognizing the shrewd acquisition of Brandon McDonald in season, but having benefited from Frank Yallop's erratic judgment already, people around the team have to have considered that Jakovic's salary would be better applied to trying to entice Bobby Convey back to RFK (perhaps this is not an option... I know nothing about Convey's previous tenure here).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Grave Expectations

With the Washington Post's drums of doom beating with greater urgency and foreboding, our little of family of four set out for a morning constitutional to Byrd -- including a short pit stop at the recently opened local branch of Bobby's Burger Palace -- to catch the last home game of the football season.

There were seven home games on the schedule this year, but yesterday was the first fixture the whole family was able to attend.

All kinds of negative things will be written about this season (although the Post's assault is likely to subside as each of its columnists takes turns expressing their deep moral outrage at Penn State's Athletics Department, presumably highlighting the terrible human failings resulting from a singular focus on the results of a football program to the detriment of its character, before once again pummeling Coach Edsall for failing to claim victories in ball games this year) and much of this will detract from what, with the notable exceptions of the Temple and Boston College debacles, was a very entertaining slate of football games played at Byrd.

The second half of the game against Virginia sucked for Maryland partisans. Effort from certain Terps, most obviously at the edges of the defense, dissipated, and the Cavaliers rolled. But the weather was perfect, the scenery from high atop the stadium stunning on a fall day, and the first half gave another tantalizing preview of what Maryland football might look like next season.

At four months, my youngest doesn't form opinions about such things, but my three-year old has perspective to spare and we had, in another venue for another athletic event, a thoroughly pleasant afternoon on Maryland's campus.

All kinds of people in the neighborhood and within the Terrapin community are supremely disappointed. I have not had success in convincing friends and neighbors otherwise, but outside of the Temple game, there has been a lot of entertaining football played at Byrd.

Start with the Monday-nighter against Miami: I've been equivocal about expressing support for the full Terrapins athletic program (largely, to be sure, because of the culture of Friedgen's and Williams' respective squads). Sitting in the upper deck, that all washed away as the rain poured down and Maryland attacked a weakened Hurricane squad. That night, I walked back home from the stadium in a downpour soaked to the bone but exhilarated by the event.

Two weeks later, I returned to watch the Terps get battered by the Mountaineers completely encased within drunken WVU students who periodically broke into "We're going to the SEC!!!" chants as West Virginia piled up points. As the alcohol wore off, Maryland made an insane run that fell one drive short. A single Danny O'Brien misread overshadowed a furious three touchdown onslaught that had the Mountaineers on their heels and their fans finally exhaling with a minute fifteen left in regulation.

We were out of town for the Temple game the next week and, as such, were spared the spectacle of a comprehensive drubbing in miserable weather. By coincidence, we were staying at the same hotel north of Philadelphia as Maryland's women tennis team -- when guests attempted to harangue the players about the upset, they shrugged it off. So did we.

The victory against Towson the week thereafter wasn't exactly comforting -- Maryland looked awful. Another comeback that fell short -- this time engineered by C.J. Brown -- against a far better team in Atlanta against Georgia Tech instilled a bit of hope.

Georgia Tech bled into a colossal home return against Clemson. And for every Terrapin booster complaining about the program, I'd like to hear how he felt after Matt Furstenburg crossed into the end zone. Actually, considering Nick Ferrara's kick to Sammy Watkins on the next play, perhaps it is tough to remember any elation from that game.

So, now, with bad losses to Florida State and Boston College, let's all remember that Maryland went 8 and 4 during the regular season last year -- and won a luxurious trip to RFK for the Military Bowl. Never mind the 2-10 season in 2009. And never mind these numbers: 51,263; 47,954; 44,452; and 39,168. That would be the average home attendance figures for Maryland football from 2007 through 2010.

This year? 42,355.

I had high hopes for Coach Edsall and the rest of the staff, but truth be told, the performances haven't been encouraging. Maryland's special teams play, in particular, has been horrific and has not appreciably improved as the season has progressed. But we'll be getting season tickets again next year and root for the Terps with a clear conscience.

Friedgen's three-year run from 2001 through 2003 was incredible. But his early success masked deficiencies that would become all too apparent as mediocre season followed mediocre season. Coach Edsall will not be afforded the same margin for error that allowed Friedgen to post a 41 and 41 record from 2004 through 2010.

The process is more important than the results and while it will make things more difficult in the near term, I want the college football program I support to be under close scrutiny. We went to our first Maryland football game in 2002. Even to a passive observer of the program, things have not been right. I'm more confident now about its relative integrity; maybe that's wrong and maybe I'll be disappointed, but I'm way more interested in watching Terps football now then I've been over the last decade.