Thursday, November 3, 2011

Musical Chairs: The Stamford Bridge Strikeforce

Andre Villas-Boas inherited an enigma of attacking players when he took over the Blues' hotseat. What should he do with each of them?

Fernando Torres (#9): When you pay 50 million for a player with a proven pedigree in the Premier League and (theoretically) six good years left in his career, you build your team around him. While you can’t ever bank on who the manager will be, you can guarantee Torres will be the first name on the team sheet for the next few years.
What should happen: Torres is finally recovering some form. He should stay, be pampered and have players brought in who play his way.
What will happen: Probably exactly that, barring a major injury or another scoring drought.

Didier Drogba (#11): With not a bang but a whimper, Drogba’s Chelsea career is ending. He’s started four games in the league this season, and all of them have been when Torres was suspended or injured. Three more substitutes appearances, but only one goal in total. He looks slow and old, and sentimentality aside, it’s time.
What should happen: Cash in this January! If Drogba continues to play this poorly—and this infrequently—the lucrative offers will dry up. See if Marseille can finally pay way too much for their old savior.
What will happen: He’ll stay and rot on the bench ‘til he’s 36 (3 years), playing only in Carling Cup matches. See Fereira, Paolo.

Romelu Lukaku (#18): The kid has talent. Chelsea probably overpaid for the Anderlecht wunderkind, but how could they not? They were buying the story, too; including the priceless Youtube video of Lukaku crying on a Bridge visit.
What should happen: The ‘ultimate Chelsea fan’ should stay for his whole career, score bags of goals and take a spot on the touchline.
What will happen: It’s hard to say, but I fear the money and stardom will get to him and he’ll sell out for La Liga once he’s fully developed.

Salomon Kalou (#21): After enough time, potential is crystallized and becomes ability. Kalou’s not that young anymore, and he still hasn’t developed into anything near a complete player.
What should happen: Like Drogba, he should be sold in January to any willing bidder. A team like Stoke or Sunderland would be a great fit for Kalou.
What will happen: He’ll stay through the season and ship out to France or Italy.

Daniel Sturridge (#23): One of my favorite things about AVB’s reign is that he has finally kept Daniel Sturridge on the payroll. Sturridge—who just received his first England call up—is among the most talented players in the league. He is a bit rash in his decision making, but that makes him even harder to defend.
What should happen: He’s excelled out on the wing, cutting inside—keep him there! He and Lukaku are the future.
What will happen: It depends on the manager. AVB loves him, but a manager who prefers more traditional wingers would probably use him as a deputy for Torres, which would result in a move.

Nicolas Anelka (#39): It’s bittersweet, because Anelka has finally found a home for his restless heart in West London. He’s been a solid player for Chelsea since signing from Bolton, discounting some big errors in crucial moments. Still, 33 years old is too old for a role player—it’d be better to keep someone with more upside.
What should happen: Keep him ‘til the summer.
What will happen: Probably that. Drogba is declining faster, and Anelka has some dynamism off the bench. The new style of play also suits him more than Didier. He’ll cash in with a big money move Stateside, or to Qatar.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tebow, Suh, and Your Mailman

On Sunday morning, the article previewing the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions game highlighted a buzz-worthy second year player on either side. From the Lions, it was bruising defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. On the Broncos side was Tim Tebow, the earnest athlete-cum-quarterback. The headline: “Good vs. Evil.”

It was certainly a leap, but the roots were basically in place. The reputation of being a ‘dirty’ player has been thrust upon Suh, an unapologetic guy in a position that demands brute force. Conversely, there is Tim Tebow: a player with less physical ability and technique than most in the league, but a sparkling public image.

The Lions dominated the game, winning 45-10 and shutting down Tebow. After the game, Suh responded to the article with a shrug.

"The league did do that for whatever reason. Evil prevails," he said. "Hopefully we're going to continue to keep it that way if that's the way they want to perceive us as. For me personally, it means nothing to me. I'm going to continue to be me, I know who I am, I'm not an evil person. I may not be a good person in some people's eyes. [But] I'm going to continue to play hard."

On the surface, it seems a markedly poised and innocuous reaction from a player cast as a villain by his own league. In actuality, though, it fits with Suh’s off-field demeanor; maybe he’s no Tebow, but he’s not exactly Voldemort, either.

Suh is the latest unlucky recipient of hasty branding in a media-frenzied arena. In the 24-hour news (and sports) cycle, the character of players is regular fodder for talk radio. The conclusions are snap judgments; incomplete and hard to shake, they are widely accepted as truth by a public that doesn’t have the time or the resources to evaluate a player’s off-field decisions on their own. As a result, it’s safe to say a lot more kids will be hanging up Tim Tebow posters than Ndamukong Suh ones.

But is it fair to judge a player’s character at all? More importantly, is it a good idea for kids to view professional athletes as role models--no matter what their media image is? The answer is--or should be--no to both.

Professional athletes should be evaluated solely on their in-game performance. All of these external attributes we’ve assigned to them are unfair and slanted by reporters’ and writers’ biases. But most significantly, they’re irrelevant.

Players sign up for a certain level or transparency and scrutiny when they enter the profession. It comes with the territory of being in the public arena. But as long as their off-the-field choices don’t impact their on-field results, we shouldn’t be digging deeper.

What if we judged our mailman the same way? As long as he delivers your new Netflix movie on time, you don’t care what sort of weird or sinister things he may do behind dark curtains at home. That’s his prerogative. As long as he doesn’t say anything too inflammatory during your weekly 15-second conversation, you’ll never think about his character. Even if he did make some dark, bigoted remark under his breath, you’d probably take your mail and brush it off--oh, that’s just old racist Harry.

But regardless of that blatant double-standard, it’s important to draw a line between immoral acts and regrettable immaturity. Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring: immoral. Dez Bryant’s pants? Juvenile, but essentially harmless.

There needs to be some sort of Character Gradient for people in the public arena. Politicians, for example, must be judged on their values and their strength of character. This is independent of their political affiliation--it is quite simply part of their job. After all, they are elected. Movie stars would be in the middle, because their integrity has an occasionally negligible influence on their work. Athletes would be on the other end.

With that in mind, parents should dissuade their children from idolizing sports stars. Admittedly, it won’t work. But we should try. Kids should be encouraged to support teams instead of individuals. When that fails, parents should push for the separation of Game and State. And when that also fails, parents must desperately champion the perceived Good Guys--earnest, good-looking success stories who start charities with names based on puns about the position they play. Players who always say the right thing in press conferences by saying nothing of substance. Players who show us it’s okay to cry--but only when you win a championship or tear your ACL.

Okay, jibes aside, and back to the point: kids are going to emulate athletes. So, for our kids and for ourselves, we must separate the malicious from the ignorant. We must not jump to conclusions based on incomplete news stories or paparazzi output or blinkered headlines. Or else we’ve got to start asking our mailman what he tips at restaurants.

Friday, October 28, 2011


The Premier League returns this weekend with a slate of mouth-watering fixtures. Let's outline what to watch for and what to expect.

Chelsea v. Arsenal

Prediction: RVP scores, but Arsenal loses. Van Persie has been just about the only thing that has gone Arsene Wenger's way this season. His goal-scoring form will continue at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon, but Andre Villas-Boas will emerge victorious.

What to watch for: Fernando Torres returns from a three-match domestic ban for this game. He had been in his best form in years prior to the suspension, so watch for him to light it up.

Everton v. Man United

Prediction: United get back to winning ways. The Reds certainly look vulnerable, and Everton are one of the hardest teams in the league to face away from home, so maybe this is more of a bold prediction than it seems. Ferguson will accept nothing less than three points, though.

What to watch for: Vidic inexplicably missed last weekend's derby with Man City--and the final score showed how vital he can be. Does he return? And does Ferguson ever explain his absence?

Man City v. Wolves

Prediction: City scores another handful. I want so badly to call for a draw here, but I can't. I do think last week's result was generous for City, even though they were the better side. They are not the best team in the league yet--but Wolves are so woeful that anything less than a three goal defeat is naive.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Alone in a Crowd

On Fan Appreciation night, the team from Boston hobbled across the finish line, slumping to another humiliating defeat at home. It was a fitting end to an infamous season--hobbled by injury and underperformance, a stacked team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outside of the stadium, nobody noticed.

Boston is generally revered as the current epicenter of sports success. Across the four ‘major’ sports in the United States, the city (and surrounding area) has claimed seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001. Last month, ESPN the magazine’s cover hailed it as ‘America’s Most Dominant Sports City.’

The New England Revolution are the outlier. In a town where titles talk, the Revolution have never won the league. Two years in a row, they haven’t even made the playoffs.

While the Red Sox hold the record for most consecutive sell-outs in MLB, the Revs struggle to seat 14,000 in a 82,000 seat stadium. Their home games are remarkable in their unremarkable characteristics--how fast you can get in and out of the parking lot, the availability of tickets, and the ease with which you can make out the chatter on the field.

After watching the dejected 2011 team hang their heads as they left the field to near-silence, the thought pervaded--why doesn’t Boston care about the Revolution?

Some will try to cite the facile--soccer hasn’t taken off in America. This vague argument of the turn of the millennium is now plainly untrue: median and average attendance figures in the MLS are at an all-time high. Teams like the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC consistently sell out their matches. Seattle averages more than 37,000 fans per game--more than triple the Revolution. Sporting Kansas City registered 70% growth in ticket sales this season. MLS attendance averages have now leapfrogged both the NBA and the NHL--only trailing MLB and the NFL.

It’s not a case of building a fan base, either. The Revolution is one of only ten “charter” teams in MLS. Most of the teams that break the attendance records are actually the newer teams, like Seattle and Portland. Exposure to the locality is also in the Revs favor. Get this: the Revolution is the only MLS team in the league’s history to have every single home match televised.

Let’s take a look at the team, then. The head coach, Steve Nicol, has some commonalities with recently ousted Red Sox manager Terry Francona--both presided over their respective team’s most successful periods before eventually sliding into the mire. Francona led the Red Sox to two World Series titles; Nicol took the Revs to the finals four times.

Nicol is one of the original faces of the MLS. Since taking over full-time in 2002, the team only finished outside third place in the regular season three times--in this golden period, the Revs made at least the Conference semi-finals eight years in a row.

Nicol’s reputation preceded him--he’s a Liverpool legend, voted 39th in a fan poll of favorite LFC players. A likable guy with a big reputation, he earned the honor of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year in 1989, bestowed upon the experts’ pick for best player in the English Premier League. Does any of this matter for the Revolution? In a word: yes.

In any sport, but particularly a fledgling league with enormous potential for growth, the public perception of a head coach is vital. The league is trying to attract top young talent; once lured, the players often decide based on the coach.

Nicol has cemented this idea, even through the unsuccessful past two seasons. This year specifically, Nicol attracted one of the premier American talents: Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber could be likened to Steve Nash--he’s a relatively small, graceful player with a remarkable gift for playmaking. At times he’s been touted as the “future” of American soccer, but after injury problems, he was looking to rebuild in the MLS. He chose Nicol’s Revolution, despite the fact that the team was floundering.

Feilhaber doesn’t have the prestige of David Beckham, but a marquee signing usually means public attention. For Benny and the Revs, it didn’t. Further on in the season, they were given a new opportunity to try and capture the local eye; Nicol gave 16-year old Leominster High School student Diego Fagundez his debut. And he scored.

The marketability of the moment was absurd, and the Revs tried to capitalize. Diego-centric promotions abounded, but there was only a small ripple of attention.

In this state, the season ended, with the Revs registering their worst season in history. Reports of their troubles went unnoticed, buried under inexorable dissections of beer in the Red Sox clubhouse and petulant sniping in the NBA labor negotiations. Come March, Nicol and the boys will be back, and they’ll toil away in a stadium that feels as rented as the support.

Friday, October 21, 2011


This weekend marks the ninth round of the Premier League calendar. All eyes will be on Manchester on Sunday, as first-place United hosts second-place City. Which players have been most significant thus far--and which have been most disappointing?

Sergio Aguero:
Aguero has been in blistering form since his transfer to Man City, scoring eight goals in only seven games for the Citizens. This City side has not lacked dynamic strikers, but the caustic presence and precipitous decline of Carlos Tevez means that Aguero is already a fan favorite, and one to watch in any match.

Juan Mata:
Chelsea's number 10 has been everything that Andre Villas-Boas could have hoped for when he poached Mata from underneath Arsenal's nose this August. One goal and three assists through six games isn't staggering statistically, but the stark change of Chelsea's speed of play is clear to anyone who watches the Spain international at Stamford Bridge.

Cheik Tioté:
Again, his numbers won't warrant any head-turning, but--if you can't tell--I don't put much stock in most football statistics, particularly for midfielders. Tioté has been the best holding midfielder in the division thus far, anchoring a surprisingly stout Newcastle midfield. His link-up play between the defense and the attack is more than sound, but his ball-winning evokes Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane in its tenacity. He's been a big factor in the Magpies ascent to fourth place.

Carlos Tevez:
Where to start? City's ex-talisman has only featured in three matches so far, and has no goals or assists through those games. Worse, though, has been his off-the-field contributions--publicly demanding a transfer in August and then creating widespread strife after no club could meet his valuation. The latest debacle was on the bench at Bayern, where Tevez refused to come on as a substitute, prompting City manager Roberto Mancini to say that Tevez "will never play for the club again."

Gareth Bale:
The Welsh winger hasn't been terrible, but he's been given an increasingly pivotal role in a talented Spurs midfield and simply hasn't been up to snuff. He's battled some minor injuries but at the moment the ability and turn of pace that saw Bale torching Maicon at the San Siro has gone missing.

Andy Carroll:
As Fernando Torres will tell you, breaking transfer records and not scoring as a striker is a recipe for some grief. Carroll broke the record for a British player with his 35 million pound move to 'Pool, but he's looked--as many predicted--like the player he largely was at Newcastle: a talented, strong center forward with some potential. Potential can only cut it for so long.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pivotal Pats

The Patriots entered their bye week at five and one, looking like one of the strongest teams in the league and probably the best in the AFC. Brady, as you'd expect, has been instrumental to their success, but which other players will be most important going forward?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Patriots are trying to balance their attack, which means more touches for the Law Firm. He's responded well thus far--he rushed for a career high 136 yards against the Jets' stout run defense. Most importantly: he knows how to hold on to the ball. Turnovers have cost the Patriots dearly, creating the defeat against Buffalo and nearly another against Dallas.

Albert Haynesworth. I'm with you, Pats fans--he looks slow and out of shape, like he's been gobbling up Burger King instead of opposing linemen. But against the Cowboys, when he was reported to finally be healthy, he looked sharper, and even put Romo under some pressure when the Belichick dialed up the blitz. Two tackles--his current total for the season--is embarrassing, but if Haynesworth can return to anywhere close to his old ability, he will certainly be an asset.

Chad Ochocinco. I had to do these two back to back. Listen, I'm not making the case that Ochocinco will finish the season as a top receiver, nor am I suggesting that the Patriots can't win without him. But if Ocho does emerge, then the receiving corps becomes considerably more flexible--so far, Welker and Hernandez have been our most dangerous deep threats.

Jerod Mayo. He's an obvious selection. The Patriots have missed their defensive leader, and fill-in Gary Guyton has been mediocre. Mayo should be healthy enough to return from injury after the bye, and that could be the final piece of the puzzle for a defensive that is growing in confidence.

Rob Gronkowski. Another no-brainer, maybe, but bear with me: since Hernandez has returned from injury, Gronkowski's role has shifted towards run blocking. It's yet another thing he does exceptionally well, and he's still getting looks from Brady in important moments. But the Patriots have been at their most dangerous--and most versatile--with both tight ends running routes.

(HONORABLE MENTION: Scott O'Brien. I couldn't technically include him in this list, because he's not a player, but the Patriots' special teams coach needs to make some changes. They have looked extremely vulnerable on kick and punt returns--the coverage must be examined.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tom Brady and the Irrelevant Receiver

This year has been a curious one for Tom Brady. His perennial rival Peyton Manning hasn’t taken a snap, and consequently, the Colts are winless through six games. Brady’s been throwing picks—eight through six games, double what he threw in all of last season. Stranger still, Brady and the Patriots lost to the Bills. The Bills are four-and-two.

As strange as it’s been, on Sunday evening you could have found Brady in the usual place: leading the Patriots offense down the field for a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Brady’s made such a habit of it that his teammates—along with everyone in New England—sort of felt like it was coming.

“I’m not saying you get used to it,” Brady’s backup, Brian Hoyer said afterwards. “But you almost expect it.”

The touchdown pass Brady threw with 22 seconds left on the clock was his 33rd game winning drive. Despite the fact that the Patriots hadn’t scored a point in the second half, when Brady got the ball with 2:31 to play, the outcome seemed inevitable. The real question: who would Brady look to with the game on the line?

Brady reportedly took his receiving corps aside and told them to stay sharp and avoid stupid mistakes. On the critical play, Brady read the coverage and altered the routes, looking to Aaron Hernandez. The same Aaron Hernandez who flubbed an easy catch in the endzone against the Jets, resulting in an interception. Hernandez, who earlier in the game had surrendered the Patriots’ first offensive fumble of the season.

The fact that Brady didn’t look to Wes Welker illustrates an interesting fact of this era of the New England offense: with the ball in Brady’s hands, it almost doesn’t matter which players line up at wide receiver.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that Zoltan Mesko could do Welker’s job, nor am I suggesting that the Patriots receivers, past and present, are not selected based on talents and specific attributes. Chad Ochocinco’s brief Patriots career shows that not anyone can play in this offense.

In nine full seasons as the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady has thrown for at least 3500 yards and 23 touchdowns every season. He’s broken many of the most prestigious passing records in the league and he’s won three rings. And in those nine seasons, six different receivers have finished a season leading the team in receiving yards.

You won’t find freaks of nature like Megatron or Andre Johnson in those ranks. You’ll see players like Deion Branch—five-foot-nine and 195 pounds. Then there’s Wes Welker, Brady’s leading receiver for this season and the previous two years; he’s five-nine, he weighs 185, and he wasn’t drafted or even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Sure, Randy Moss was a killer athlete, but he was the epitome of wasted talent until he linked up with Brady.

In 2010, Bill Belichick traded away Moss, who had 13 receiving touchdowns the season prior (2nd place: Welker with four). In those days, the Patriots offense was Brady to Moss—it was their connection that yielded the record-obliterating 16-0 regular season in 2008. So what would Brady do without his feature target? He adapted, finished the season with 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and won the MVP award.

Conversely, what did Moss do? He went to Minnesota, where in four weeks he lauded the Patriots, insulted the head coach, and chewed out the owner of a local restaurant. He was waived by the Vikings and picked up by Tennessee, who used him primarily as a decoy. In eight games with the Titans, he had six receptions and no touchdowns.

This season, Brady is on pace to throw for 42 touchdowns, while also shattering the single-season yardage record—he’s on pace for 5768 yards. He has done so without a marquee wideout (Welker has developed into one of the best in the game, but before this season he played almost solely as a slot receiver). The Patriots have shifted their passing game in accordance with the weapons they have, namely, their talented tight ends and Welker’s versatility.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in cringing every time that Welker lines up for a punt return, unpleasantly reliving his MCL/ACL injury from a couple years ago. But if he goes down again, the Patriots will survive. Tom Brady will excel no matter who lines up beside him.