Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Three Thoughts about Three Wins in a Row

Things have sure changed of late for the Seattle Sounders. They went from looking moribund and inept to knocking on the door of the playoffs. They only had 20 points in the first 20 matches and now they have had 10 in the last 4. If they can beat The seasons apparent turn around deserves comment. So, here are three thoughts on the current team, one for each goal they scored against the Portland Timbers at Century Link Field in Seattle on 8/21/16.

1. Nico Lodeiro is amazing.
Seriously, this guys is really good at soccer. His skill is apparent to anyone watching the game, regardless of their soccer knowledge or fandom. He is constantly involved in the game, making passes and taking shots that are legitimate scoring threats. The teams resurgence has coincided exactly with Lodeiro's arrival and it is not a coincidence. The other teams have to respect skill and mark him or else he will make them pay. By drawing the attention of the others teams defense he is also creating better chances for his Sounders teammates. Dempsey recent surge in goals can be attributed to having such a talented play maker setting him up. Lodeiro's passes and runs allow Dempsey room to work. It is so great to see a transfer window signing make such a big and obviously good splash in Seattle.

2. Jordan Morris can't finish.If you just look at his stats sheet, the rookie, Jordan Morris, is having a great year. He has already scored eight goals, and is tied with Clint Dempsey for the team lead. For a 22 year old in his first professional season this is pretty good, but having watched Morris play this year it is frustrating that he doesn't have more goals. The young forward has failed to connect on plenty of golden scoring opportunities. He is doing great and getting himself into the position and situation to score goals but struggling to finish them off in the net. He should probably have 12 or 13 goals at this point. The good news is Morris is a young player who should continue to improve as he gets more and more playing time. If he can take the next step in his development he could be scary good for the Sounders next season.

3. Christian Roldan is on the rise.Sounders midfielder Christian Roldan was not as highly a touted prospect as forward Jordan Morris, but he was still considered an important and talent signing last year. During his rookie season, 2015, Roldan failed to produce on the stat sheet. He had some good games on the pitch defensively and avoided mistakes on offense, but he never really stood out. Roldan began the 2016 season has a starter and started out similarly, solid defense and general adequate offense. Though as this year's season has progressed Roldan has continued to improve and add to the team. Instead of being just another guy out there Roldan is now a contributor. He has tallied his first three professional goals. He has ripped quality shots and drawn big penalties. Christian Roldan is definitely a player on an upward trajectory.

4. Bonus thought!!!Brad Evans is still bad at center back. The Sounders need to stop playing him there, the sooner the better.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The USMNT's Reliance on Foreign Players

The Copa America Centenario was a blast to watch. I loved rooting for the USA to beat the other countries and prove to the world that the Yanks belong with the elite of the world's soccer teams.  Rooting for a national team is a generally harmless form of patriotism that fans all over the world can enjoy. Additionally, pulling for the Red, White, and Blue to bring home athletic glory is great fun. I was glad to see that the US Men's National (Soccer) Team (USMNT) focused more on supporting he development of young native players like Christian Pulisic.  I think the coaches should continue with this focus on native American talent when deciding who it recruits and allows to play for the team.

(I know it sounds like I am some sort of a nationalist or a xenophobe, but I don’t intend it to be that way. I use the term native American to mean citizens who live and/or work in the United States. I do not mean native born or white. Seeing players that have never lived in the States suit up for the USMNT frustrates me, but it is hard to make an argument about it without seeming like some sort of nativist, nationalist bigot.)

The FIFA rules require a player to have nationality of the country they represent. However, they do not define nationality and let the countries define it. The US requires citizenship, which is fairly rigorous by international standards. They also let the players decide on which country they want to represent, assuming they have eligibility. This has led to many very talented athletes playing for countries that they barely represent in the eyes of the fans. Players who were born in one country but moved shortly after birth often play for the birth country when they aren't good enough to qualify for the home countries team. Players whose grandparents are from another country than their home are join up with their ancestral squads. Usually this is because they aren't good enough to play for their "real" team and want a chance to play internationally.

Obviously some players should and do have legitimate claims to dual nationality. A player born and raised in Canada until age 11, who then moves to Uruguay for his formative years of junior high and high school, should be able to pick whichever country he/she most identifies with. They are clearly someone that could be considered either nationality and the current rules allow for this.

My complaint isn't with these dual national players or even the current FIFA set of rules for defining nationality. They seem fine and well thought out. A players should be able to play for whatever team they want to and have eligibility to play for. In fact I would argue the rules on changing teams should be loosened so that a player like Messi can switch team to Spain from Argentina, if he wants to.

My gripe is the way the current USMNT coaching staff has about searching for international players with American citizenship to add to the roster, instead of focusing on home grown talent. Head coach Jurgen Klinsman has made it a priority to search out foreign players with ties to the US, usually threw the military, and recruit them to the US side. Rather than give spots to US born and raised players he focuses on dual citizens.

Three of the USMNT best and most visible players were born and raised in Germany. Jermaine Jones was raised in Frankfurt to a German mother. Fabian Johnson grew up and lived in Munich. Defender David Brooks is a Berliner through and through. All three players are very talented and they have helped the US win games. I don’t begrudge foreign players for playing for the US. I just wish the head coach hadn't focusing so much on recruiting players like this instead of players with stronger ties to the United States.

I don't have statistical proof to show that the coaches should be focusing on native Americans. Instead I have more philosophical arguments. A primarily foreign/German team suppresses interest in the team and hurts development of the game in the United States. These two things feed on each other.

First let's talk about the development of American players from the United States. Playing for a national team is a huge honor, but it is also a great way to get better as a player. On a nation team a young player is surrounded by the best coaches and staff. This gives them world class instruction. They also get to play with and hang out other amazing world class athletes. They will be able to glean tips and tricks from some of the best. The experience is invaluable.

Bringing young native Americans, such as DeAndre Yedlin, to play for the team helps them grow as a player. It will keep the talent pipeline growing and prepare the team better in the future. It will also add incentive for native American players in the high school and college ranks to continue to fight for a spot on the USMNT roster. Rewarding foreign players with a coveted and rare roster spot sends a message to the native players that they aren't valued or needed. It will hurt the development ranks. I will also push native Americans with dual country eligibility onto the rosters of other countries that offer, which is bad because in international soccer you can't easily switch national teams. Once you  pick a team you are essentially stuck there.

A great way to get native players with multiple national eligibility to pick the USMNT is to build up a fan base and passion for the team. Players will want to play for the team they root for. They will want to play for the team their friends root for. They will want to play for the team featured on TV. To make the team that players want to play for the USMNT it is important to build interest in the team.

Sports fans gravitate towards local heroes and players in their community. Having a national team full of foreigners with no or very loose ties to the States eliminates that personal connection and potential rooting interest. People that aren't soccer fans are more likely to tune in if their neighbor or friend is on the team. Kids are more likely to decide to try soccer over other sports if they have a hero to emulate. A local hero is an even stronger connection. Having a team of mostly native Americans will help interest in the USMNT grow. It will help the native American pool of talent grow, which will improve the team's performance on the pitch.

The current USMNT coaching staff has a history of focusing on foreign players with eligibility to play for the US. While I don’t have proof of the correlation between native and foreign Americans on the roster, I argued that a few foreign players may help the team win in the short term, an overreliance of foreigners to fill the USMNT roster will hurt the team in the long run. American fans will lose out on the connection created by having a local player make good at the international level. Those kids that do decide to play soccer will be prevented from growing their skills from being exposed to the international game. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Disappointing Nelson Valdez

Nelson Valdez is a Paraguayan International soccer player and a regular contributor to their Men's National Team. He was pitched to the Seattle Sounders FC supporters as a talented goal soccer who would add to their already dangerous attack. Despite being over 30 he supposedly still had some in the tank. The front office believed in him so much that they made him the second highest paid player on the team. Having seen plenty of older international players arrive in MLS and have success on what was kinda like a retirement tour. Hearing all this the Rave Green fans bought what they were sold. Success was expected. Instead Nelson Valdez has been a complete and total disappointment.

Valdez has yet to record a goal or an assist for the Sounders in an MLS match during the 2016 season. During the 2015 he also disappointed with only 2 goals and no assists in 12 MLS matches. These are even more depressing because Valdez plays forward. Despite it being obvious I will say it anyways, that is really bad for an offensive player. His most consistent skill is being a step or two late to the spot. He has shown his shots are poorly aimed and rarely dangerous. He does seem to have a lot of heart, constantly hustling and tryng to make an impact. He just isn't able to convert effort into quality play.

The other thing that has stood out about Valdez is his inability to stay healthy and on the playing field. He is constantly hurt. He has only played 12 of the 20 MLS games possible. He is averaging 49.8 minutes per game. It is hard to find success at soccer when you are never playing. You can't get in a grove or develop chemistry with your teammates. It is also hard to earn playing time when you aren't producing.

During his time in Seattle Nelson Valdez has been a disaster of a signing. He has provided zero benefit for the team while costing more than anyone but Clint Dempsey. His poor health (or fitness if you want to speak soccer nerd) and poor play has kept him off the field. With the recent coaching change and new transfer window signing the team is in a period of transition. It is a perfect time for the the Sounders dump Valdez by trading him for a bag of balls.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Men's Gymnastics has Gotten a Tough Shake

One of the showcase Olympic sports is gymnastics. Both the men and the women draw in viewers with a combination of athletic prowess, artistic beauty, and dramatic twists. You never want to look away during a routine of a contender because any single trick can wow and a single slip or fall can sink a competitors shot at a medal. The women's side of the sport is the pinnacle of a large and widely participated in amateur world. Girls start participating in gymnastics at a young age and the sport stays popular through high school. Yet for some reason on the men's side gymnastics can't match this. It doesn't managed to hold a place in American culture outside Olympic years. There isn't a large pool of participants practicing the sport. The male athletes aren't celebrated. This is a shame.

In Washington, my home state, there are few, if any, high school men's gymnastics teams. For a young man to compete in the sport he would have to seek out a club team, private coaching, or something similar. Most school based coaching drops off after elementary school and young boys are channeled into team sports, wrestling, or track and field. This makes it hard for young athletes to participate in the sport. It also prevents young men from becoming fans of the sport. None of their friends or brothers are gymnasts and probably their only exposure is a sisters practice. The lack of school sponsored men's teams and the prominence of the girls gymnastics teams, has led to a common belief that gymnastics is a girls sport and feminine. Male gymnasts get grouped with male cheerleaders as wimpy or soft. That is a wrong belief.

Male gymnasts should be sports heroes. The men have some of the most chiseled physiques in the sports world. The guys are ripped from head to toe. They perform athletic feats that very few of us could even dream of doing. The best of them should be plastered over Sports Center, SI, and anywhere fans watch or read about sports. Even if you don’t like gymnastics or understand it you should recognize the top competitors as some of the best athletes in the world like you would a tennis champion or great golfer. Male gymnastics has gotten a tough shake.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The 2016 NBA Draft Shows that Lorenzo Romar's Failure to Adapt

Two more Huskies were just drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. Forward Marquese Chriss went eighth to the Sacramento Kings. He is a freak athlete with a huge upside. However, after watching him play for a year at the University of Washington (UW) I can say from first hand observation that he is prone to unforced mistakes. It will probably be a few years before he can be a regular contributor to an NBA team. Developing in the D-League probably makes sense. The second Husky drafted was guard Dejounte Murray, who went twenty ninth to the San Antonio Spurs. This son of Seattle has a great ability to cut and get to the basket, but he really needs to work on finishing. He will also need to bulks up so he can bang with the big boys of the NBA. These two talented young players speak to the continued ability of the University of Washington to recruit top rated players and put them into the NBA. However, their stories also speak to the sad fact that head coach Lorenzo Romar is unable to turn rosters with young high potential high school players into winning college teams.

Despite having two first round draft picks on their team the 2015-16 UW Men's Basketball team failed to reach the NCAA tournament. The team started out with a hot record of 11-4 only to crash and burn in finishing the season 18-14. The team didn’t lack talent, but did lack experience.  Most of the roster was first year NCAA Division 1 players. Their lack of experience was obvious as they choked away leads and made mental mistakes that cost them games. This kind of team needs strong coaching to help it flourish. The players just don’t have it in them to win on their own. The failure of the team to improve over the course of the season or at the very least stay consistent falls squarely on the UW coaching staff and specifically Lorenzo Romar.

This isn't a new problem for Romar. In fact this is the second time Romar has had two young talented players get draft in the first round. The first time was in 2012 when sophomore Terrance Ross and Freshman Tony Wroten bounced to the NBA after their Husky team failed to make the NCAA tournament. As a coach Romar has failed to adapted to the changing NCAA Men's Basketball landscape. The best players rarely stay more than two years anymore. Coaches have less time to develop and mold their recruits. To succeed they need to be able to squeeze out talent quickly. In this new world of college basketball Romar's teams haven't made the tourney since 2011.

All of Romar's best teams have featured talented upper classmen that stayed multiple years. His 2005 and 2006 teams had Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Jamaal Williams, Bobby Jones, and Will Conroy. The 2009 team had Quincy Pondexter, and Justin Dentmon. The 2010 team had Justin Holliday, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, and Venoy Overton. Romar was able to work with these players for multiple years and develop them into talented and reliable starters. He no longer has that luxury to play the long game and build teams with an eye for future NCAA tournament runs. The players just don’t stay around long enough.

The problem appears to be Romar's ability to coach these players and turn them and their teammates into a successful and winning college basketball team in the short time alloted. The problems isn't a lack of talented players, he keeps attracting those guys to Washington. Highly regarded players arrive, they play, the team loses, and they bolt for the NBA. However, while these players are at UW I don’t see any progression or improvement to their games. Romar hasn't been able to adapt his style to the constraints placed on college basketball. The evidence keeps mounting that Lorenzo Romar is lacking the skills necessary for a head coach of a major division one program in the current era.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Great Teams that Couldn't Get the Job Done

The result of last night's NBA Finals game was a shocker. Like I posted previously I was expecting a Golden State blow out win. They were at home and the holders of the NBA's greatest regular season record ever, at 73-9. The Cavs are a good team, but they aren't a historically good team, or at least they didn't appear that way on paper. But things didn't work out like I expected. Instead of a blowout the game was the closest of the entire series, being decided by only four points, and the victor was the away team. Yes, the Cleveland Lebron Jameses defeated the greatest regular season team ever and won the first major professional sports championship for Cleveland since Lady Bird Johnson was in the White House.

Major congratulations are owed to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the teams fans. I visited the city last year and it was surprisingly fine. The three locals I know are all great people, so I have to assume everyone is like that. The city deserves to enjoy the excitement and joy that comes with a championship. They have had to wait long enough.

On the other side the Golden State Warriors now join an infamous club of regular season powerhouses that were unable to get the job done in the playoffs.  The NFL, MLB, MLS, and now the NBA have now all had their regular season best record holders fail to win the championship, which is pretty weird when you think about it. Of the major professional leagues only the NHL's 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens managed to win the championship during their record breaking regular season. Though, even the NHL has had regular season greatness fail to achieve post season success. The 1995-96 Detroit Redwings have the records for the most regular season wins ever, at 62, but they failed to win the cup.

To help Golden State Warriors fans deal with the emotional pain of coming so close only to lose, here is a rundown of the other three teams that failed to seal the deal.
  • The 2001 Seattle Mariners were the most depressing for me personally. The Mariners team feature the league MVP and Rookie of the Year in Japanese import Ichiro Suzuki. They almost had Bret Boone, John Olerud, and Mike Cameron. They were so fun to watch. The team was nver out of any game. You just knew they were going to put something together and get the win. Than they lost in the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees. While the rest of the country was rooting for the Yankees because of 9/11 I was having my baseball heart broken. Watching a team this talented lose was rough. The team hasn't made the playoffs since.
  • The 2007 New England Patriots were the most fun team to watch blow it. Their team was full of smug and arrogant players and their coach, Bill Belechick, is one of the biggest assholes in pro sports. The team was easy to hate. To add to the fun, the Super Bowl had one of the most memorable moments ever when quarterback Eli Manning broke a tackle to avoid a sack and then threw a pass to wide receiver David Tyree who caught the ball on the side of his helmet to keep the Giants alive in the game. Watching the Patriots lose is always fun, but watching them lose on the biggest stage in dramatic fashion is the best.
  • I have no firsthand knowledge of the 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy. It was well before I, or for that matter the rest of the country, had discovered my love of soccer. The team recorded 24 wins in a 32 games season, good for 68 points. Which when you convert to the imperial measurement system equates to really good. However, even with this sterling record, LA didn't even make it to the MLS cup. They lost in the conference championship to Chicago.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The 2016 NBA Finals: Not What I Expected

The 2016 NBA Finals have been surprising. Heading into the series it was a widely held belief that this could be one of the greatest and most memorable series ever. Both teams are the number one seed, have rosters loaded with stars, and have plenty of supporting evidence for their stellar regular season records.

The two teams had faced off the year before in the 2015 NBA Finals. The 2016 versions of both teams are super talented and play exciting styles of basketball. The Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors set the all-time regular season win record by recording 73 victories. Their star player, Stephen Curry, is a near unstoppable offensive weapon, who beat his own regular season made three pointer record. The Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers feature Lebron James, the best basketball player since Michael Jordan. The Cavs surrounded King James with his best supporting cast in years. Like I said the teams are loaded.

Coming into the series neither team lacked motivation. Both had plenty of reasons to put forth maximum effort and were pushed by motivators greater than just the regular glory that comes with a championship. Cleveland wants to make up for their loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and gain respect for their team, which is often written off for playing in the Eastern conference. On a personal level Lebron James wants to bring the first professional sports championship to Cleveland since the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. He also wants to erase some of the stain that "The Decision" has left on his career. The other team, the Golden State Warriors, want to validate their historic regular season with an NBA title. Setting a regular season win record is nice, but it means a whole lot less if you don’t finish the deal by bringing home the trophy (you can ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners or 2007 New England Patriots about that dubious achievement).

Even with the highly talented and motivated team the Finals have been a series of blow outs followed by more blow outs, instead of an epic series filled with tightly contested games that leave fans aching for more basketball. The closest score differential has been 14. Most of the games have been essentially decided by halftime. Rather than nail bitters these have been snoozers for anyone without a strong rooting interest.

I don’t know why the games have been so lopsided, but it has sure been weird. It seems like both teams are just giving up once they get down by even a little. They appear to just shut down and worry about trying to win the next one. Hopefully, game seven will be a good one, but I am not going to hold my breath for it.

The Warriors will be playing at home in front of their fans where they went 39-2 during the regular season. The Cavaliers will , obviously, be playing on the road where they only went 24-17 during the regular season. According to Vegas Insider, NBA home teams win 81% of playoff game sevens. On paper it looks to be another blowout. Cleveland will have to overcome a lot to win this game. I bet we don't get a single close game in this Finals. Despite the hype and appearance of an all-time classic NBA Championship series we have ended up with a forgettable snoozer.