Welcome Back EPL: 2016-17 Preview

Jose and Ibra

Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic set out to conquer England for Manchester United  (Associated Press).

You’re probably reading this article still flummoxed over the USWNT loss to Sweden in the Olympics. You’re probably really to watch another football match, after having seen the USMNT reach the Copa America semi-finals, and rooting for tiny Iceland in the Euros. Now you’re upset that there’s no more soccer this summer. Don’t be upset. Be happy. For this is remarkable timing! Tomorrow, just off the shore of the River Humber in Hull, England, the most competitive soccer league begins again. Last year’s defending champions, Leicester City will take on newly promoted Hull City to start the season.

So much has happened in international football over the summer. Portugal won the Euros behind an incredible display of managing by Cristiano Ronaldo; Lionel Messi missed a PK in the Copa America Final, declared his retirement from the Argentinian National Team, and then… dyed his hair bleach blonde? England completely England-ed the Euros, as they were always destined to do! Man, this was a great summer of soccer!

But things have been happening with domestic clubs too. The Special One, Jose Mourinho, rejoins the Premier League as Manchester United’s manager, and he’s bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba along for the ride. Everton ditched Roberto Martinez and hired Southampton’s Roger Koeman to help restore order to the defense of the Liverpudlian club. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez stayed with Leicester City, but hard-working and disciplined midfielder N’Golo Kante joined Chelsea, who is now under the command of Antonio Conte. Southampton sold off critical members of their team, as did Swansea. Manchester City brought in one of the most successful managers in the world, Pep Guardiola. Arsenal did… hmmm… well, rest assured, they’re still in the league.

Three new teams join the Premier League, although two are quite familiar. Burnley, who last appeared in 2014-15 is back, along with Sean Dyche, their fiery, ginger-haired manager. Burnley always put in a hard effort during their last top-flight campaign, but suffered from a lack of goal-scoring. Hull City, also having last played in the Premier League two years ago, returns, but veteran manager Steve Bruce does not. And finally, Middlesbrough replaces Newcastle United as the local rival to Sunderland in the northeast of England. They are in the Premier League for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

So who will win it all? Can Leicester City defend their title? Will Mourinho restore Manchester United to glory? Can Jurgen Klopp improve on a positive first season with Liverpool? Let’s take a look.

Relegation

Sunderland, Middlesbrough, and Hull City are the three weakest teams. Sunderland has performed miracle escapes in each of the past three season, but they’ve had some help from managers who were able to come in to extinguish the flames on dumpster fires of season. Sam Allardyce, probably the best manager Sunderland has had in that time, left during this past summer to manage England (good luck with that, Sam, surely there’s no pressure). Replacing him is David Moyes, last seen in England as running away from that angry mob that chased him out of Old Trafford in 2014. Jermaine Defoe is always a threat to score, but Sunderland is relatively unchanged from last season. This week, they picked up Adnan Januzaj on loan from Man United, and while the Belgian midfielder should help a team that was rather, shall we say, sloppy last season, it won’t be enough to help Sunderland avoid the drop this year.

Hull City’s best piece was Steve Bruce, who left the team over the summer. Hull had an injury-ravaged 2014-15 season and ultimately was relegated because of it, but Bruce kept them fighting to the last day. There’s still plenty of hardworking players, but caretaker manager Mike Phelan will have his work cut out for him.

Middlesbrough brought in seven new players during the transfer window, including American goalkeeper Brad Guzan. However, most of the squad is unfamiliar with the Premier League, and it will be critical for them to adapt quickly. The goals are going to have to come from former Manchester City member, Alvaro Negredo, who scored nine goals for City in 32 matches with them. The Premier League is brutal on teams that aren’t used to the English style of football and the relentlessness of the season. That is what will kill Middlesbrough come May.

Hold Your Breath

Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth, Watford and Swansea are all in big trouble. Burnley, winners of the Football League Championship, still lack that offensive punch from two years ago. But they have experience in the league, which is why they will survive. Crystal Palace had an outside shot at European play at Christmastime last, but a terrible, injury-riddled end to their campaign snatched away all of those good feelings. If Palace gets off to a bad start, don’t be surprised if Alan Pardew is the first manager to receive the sack. West Brom is plain.

Bournemouth improved a little bit over last season, and it will help them greatly if Callum Wilson can stay healthy (he was brilliant for them before he tore his knee in September of 2015). They added Jordan Ibe, as well. Come to think of it, this team might not be half bad. Might.

Watford lost their manager Quique Sanchez Flores over the summer, and the Italian Walter Mazzarri replaces him. Watford looked quite ordinary in the second half of the season, right about the time that opposing clubs learned how to shutdown Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. Goals must come from somewhere. Heurelho Gomes is a good keeper, but not great.

Swansea are the club most in danger of relegation. Not only did they lose Andre Ayew, their top striker from last season, transfer out, but the club recently sold captain, and defensive anchor Ashley Williams to Everton. Their midfield is their strongest piece, with Ki Sung-yueng and Gylfi Siguðsson returning. But the question is can they sustain a loss as big as Williams and can they be more clinical up near the goal than they were last season. Francesco Guidolin has his work cut out for him.

Southampton is another team in dire straits. Ronald Koeman, the manager who helped lead the revitalization of Southampton the past two seasons, is now managing at Everon. In addition to that loss, they lost two strikers; Sadio Mane transferred out to Liverpool, and Graziano Pelle took his talents to the burgeoning Chinese Super League. Midfielder Victor Wanyama also left and will play for Tottenham. Southampton still has most of its defense in tact, and we’ll see if having an entire pre-season with the club will help Charlie Austin return to the goal-scoring machine in the Premier League that he was with QPR two years ago. It’s going to be a rough year for the Saints, but they’ll get to 40 points and stay safe.

Europe or Bust

Everton, West Ham, Stoke, Leicester City, Arsenal and Chelsea will all be gunning for at least a spot in the Europa League. Chelsea has the best chance to get that; they have no European distractions, a brilliant new manager, and a team that remembered how to play football once Jose Mourinho was out the door. Everton made some sharp moves this off-season. Their defense, which was atrocious last season, should improve with help from Ronald Koeman’s instructions. Ashley Williams will also help, and they no longer have to deal with the distraction of John Stones’ future. Yannick Bolasie is reported to be set to transfer to Everton next week, and he was a strong force at Palace when healthy.

I’m still waiting for Arsenal to do something. I’ll keep waiting. But seriously, you can never count out Arsene Wenger. Despite the ultra conservative spending, his squad from last season remains largely the same from last season. You know, the same team that finished runners up? Granted, many teams have gotten better, and Arsenal has stayed the same. But again, never count out Arsene Wenger. He’ll get Arsenal battling for a Champions League spot.

Stoke City didn’t have the best end to last season, but Mark Hughes and his team have made adjustments for this season. Joe Allen comes in from Liverpool to help a midfield that was out of sorts last season. Whether or not Xherdan Shaqiri can improve on a ho-hum debut season in the Premier League will determine whether or not Stoke can challenge for a Europe spot. Marko Arnautovic can’t do everything.

I really want to pick West Ham for a top four finish. They’ve come so close the past two seasons. Now playing in the Olympic Stadium, the Hammers return Dimitri Payet, Michail Antonio, Mark Noble (probably still seething over not being included in the England team at the Euros), and Andy Carrolls giant bloody head. Slaven Bilic performed admirably in his first season as manager, and they can only improve from here. If you want a dark horse team to pick to win the league, this is it. If you want a team who plays a fun, sleek style of football, this is it.

And finally we have last year’s darlings, Leicester City. It would be impossible for them to repeat; surely lightning doesn’t strike in the same place at the same time. Relax, it won’t happen. For one, Leicester will have to deal with Champions League commitments, which if the ICC was any indication, will punish them. They’re a team that plays too often without the ball, meaning they have to spend more energy on defense. If they draw a pool of death in the Champions League, they’re going to be drained. Still, Mahrez, Vardy, Drinkwater, and many others from last year return. They’re still good, but the season will grind them down. Still, anything less than finishing top-half of the table will be a disappointment.

Top Four (in order)

4. Tottenham made a brilliant move picking up Victor Wanyama to play defensive midfield this summer. And they haven’t lost anyone from their young core of players. Harry Kane remains the most consistent striker in the EPL. Dele Alli returns as the creator. Most importantly this young team (and young manager, Mauricio Pochettino) now has the experience of a true title race. They lacked the nerve to take it all last season, now they know the level of concentration needed to win a league title. They have a really good shot of doing it.

3. Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are going to be a great fit. John Stones is a breath of fresh air and should be able do defend much better than Martin Demichelis did last season (come to think of it, that really isn’t saying much). The question with City is about health. Can Sergio Aguero, who would shatter scoring records in the league if he ever were healthy enough to play a full season, remain fit? Can Kevin De Bryune remain fit? The difference in how City plays with them and without them is like night and day. If those two can remain fit, City absolutely have a chance to win the league. If not, they could be scrambling to pick up a Champions League spot.

2. Liverpool is in an interesting situation because they have no European commitments. The Reds spent £34 million to buy Sadio Mane from Southampton. He should provide depth at the striker position in case Daniel Sturridge continues to have fitness issues. Jurgen Klopp, entering his first full season as manager, sold off many pieces of the team he inherited, including Joe Allen, Jordon Ibe, and Martin Skrtel. Liverpool gunned for the Europa League Title last season, hoping to salvage Champions League funds from what was a wreckage of a season in the Premier League. It nearly paid off, as Liverpool fell to Sevilla in the Final. Klopp knows what he wants from this team, and if they remain healthy (which they did not do last season), they should have at least a Champions League spot secured,.

That means…

Manchester United is winning the league. (Author’s note: I can’t believe I’m #%@!ing typing that).

How can you not? They got a legendary player (Zlatan) on a free transfer. They signed Pogba. They brought in Eric Bailly from Villareal to help improve pace in their backline. And, whether you love or hate him, the best manager in the sport. Time will tell if Jose Mourinho can break the “three year jinx” but right now, no one cares about three years from now. Add in all the new pieces to promising young players from last year’s squad, such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, plus veterans in the dressing room and on the pitch like Wayne Rooney and David de Gea, and you have a team that is poised to win a championship.

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Au Revoir, A-Rod

A-Rod

(Associated Press)

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

When Alex Rodriguez steps off the field for presumably the final time on Friday night, we will bid farewell to one of the most complex baseball careers of this generation.

This all feels weird.

By the stats alone, A-Rod’s swan song should elicit the same type emotional response that the final act of Derek Jeter’s did. It won’t. By the numbers alone, A-Rod’s career is a no-doubt ticket to the Hall of Fame. It won’t be, if historical voting for players similar to Rodriguez’s own history with PED use is used as a litmus test. Even the timing of it feels odd. This exit is not taking place with the chill of the early Autumn air, as is customary for baseball legends; it’s a hazy, stifling hot August in New York.

How can you define Rodriguez’s career? It’s a question I’ve asked myself for years. On one hand, the most dominant shortstop in the game for a decade. A man who blasted 40 home runs as easily as he hit well above .300, who also could run, was the best defensive shortstop in the game, and had an intelligence for the sport that was at the top of the class. On the other hand, there’s the awkward man who slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove; the man who cried “HA!” to distract an infielder from catching a lazy pop up; the man with purple lipstick who lied to Katie Couric about having ever taken PEDs on national television. For all the broad strokes of brilliance he’s painted, there is an imperfection about Rodriguez that is hard to shake.

Perhaps we, the media and the public, overreact to these imperfections. “I’m not paid to be a role model,” echoes Charles Barkley’s voice inside of my head. After all, Rodriguez’s reputation among his teammates, barring a notable exception with Derek Jeter, has always been sparkling. That reputation is so good that it merited the Yankees – the same team that once looked for any and every excuse to part ways with him – to offer him a role as a special assistant to their minor league players. Rodriguez has always had a grammar-school boy type romance for the game. Like so many schoolboys, Rodriguez has always found it difficult to express that love in a positive way.

For example, look no further than Rodriguez’s PED use. In 2009, when Selena Roberts first broke the news that Rodriguez had committed the modern day mortal baseball sin, there was shock, anger, and disappointment all across baseball. Up until then, for all of his perceived character flaws Rodriguez was still destined to be the man who broke the all-time home run record without the use of performance-enhancers. Rodriguez admitted his guilt while swearing that he had never taken PEDs while with the Yankees. With a now supposedly “clean” A-Rod, the Yankees went out and won the 2009 World Series. Even more impressively, Rodriguez, whom so often was the scapegoat for Yankees’ postseason failures from 2004-2007, was the catalyst for the Yankees offense during their run to the championship.

He tied a game in the 9th inning of the ALDS with a bomb against one of the best closers in the game (Joe Nathan). He hit the go-ahead home run in the 7th inning of that series’ clinching game. He smacked another three home runs and hit .429 against the Angels in the ALCS. In Game 3 of the World Series, he hit a three-run homer (off of the previous year’s World Series MVP, Cole Hamels) that helped turn the tide of the game and series in the Yankees favor. If baseball handed out a Conn Smythe Award, Rodriguez would have won it that year. Hell, they dedicate plaques in Monument Park for the type of October that Rodriguez had.

All was forgiven with New York’s rabid fans. Perhaps not forgotten, but certainly forgiven. Even when the Yankees lost in the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, Rodriguez was excused. For the most part, Rodriguez was treated in the same way fellow PED users Andy Pettitte and David Ortiz were. Pettitte, who was implicated in the infamous Mitchell Report, offered an explanation for his use (to recover from injury), apologized, and the issue never surfaced again. Ortiz’s name was leaked as having failed a drug test on a what was supposed to have been an anonymous drug test in 2003 to survey how rampant steroid use had become in baseball. Since then, Ortiz has never failed an official MLB drug test, nor have there been any reports of him using steroids since, and as such he remains a beloved figure in Boston and throughout baseball.

But it was not to be that way for Rodriguez. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” And that’s why when Rodriguez was investigated in 2013 for purchasing and using PEDs, the public opinion on Rodriguez swayed back against him. Opposing fans booed him; Yankees fans gave him a mixed reception. Pitchers, such as Ryan Dempster, threw at him. Former Commissioner Bud Selig attempted to suspend him for a year and a half, which upon appeal was shortened to a full season. Even when he returned, the Yankees, unhappy with having to pay his gargantuan contract plus the career total home run bonuses (which were agreed to upon the assumption that Rodriguez would chase the home run record with a clean PED record) looked to legally void his contract. They couldn’t, but the two sides eventually came to an agreement that the Yankees would pay Rodriguez his home run incentive bonuses, so long as the money went to charity.

The detente worked, as A-Rod had an oddly productive 2015 season after having not played for an entire year. He batted .250 while hitting 33 home runs. He also replaced Jeter as the team’s de facto leader. While attending a game with my father, and his co-worker and son, my dad’s office mate commented “he’s doing so well that I almost don’t hate him.” When young Slade Heathcott hit a go-ahead, ninth inning home run against Tampa in September of last season, I remember seeing Rodriguez go wild in the dugout, enjoying the game as if he had never won anything in his life. His childlike love for the game was encapsulated in that moment.

Time will tell how Rodriguez will be remembered. Will he be like Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds; legends who erred and have been punished for it by being denied entrance to Cooperstown? Probably not; Rodriguez has never been as hostile to his guilt as either of those two. However, he certainly will not be as beloved as Ortiz, Ken Griffey Jr., or Mike Piazza, the latter two already inducted into the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez is the typical post-modern athlete. We know his flaws and we know his accolades. He has shown contrition while at the same time still leaving a shadow of doubt in our minds regarding how much sincerity there is behind his words; as brilliant to watch in one moment as it was painful to listen to in the next. Like Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose before him,  Alex Rodriguez is our generation’s enigmatic figure.

 

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At The Half: MLB Winners and Losers

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

Just like that, we’ve reached the Mid-Summer Classic. A day after Giancarlo Stanton’s impressive display in the Home Run Derby, the biggest stars in the game (well, most of them) will all be on the field at PETCO Park in San Diego, CA later today. Sure, the substitutions can be confusing, and fan voting has its own flaws, but in my opinion the MLB All-Star Game has always been the best all-star game (although that might change if the NHL continues its 3v3 format).

The first half of the season saw the early dominance of the Cubs, the beginning of the Big Papi Farewell Tour, the continued dominance of Clayton Kershaw, and some surprising division leaders.

The Good

Even with a dismal 5-15 spell heading into the All-Star Break, it’s difficult to call the Chicago Cubs anything other than outstanding. Led by the best rotation in baseball (3.09 ERA) Joe Maddon’s team still holds a seven game lead in the NL Central. Even more impressive, none of their starters has a WHIP above 1.15. Their fourth and fifth starters (John Lackey and Jason Hammel) have given up roughly half of all the home runs their rotation has allowed. Offensively, Kris Bryant has crushed 25 home runs and is making a case to be the MVP, along with Anthony Rizzo, who has 21 home runs while batting just below .300. Ben Zobrist, re-united with his old manager from Tampa Bay, has fit in nicely with an OBP of .388 and the ability to play a multitude of positions. Their mediocre bullpen needs improvement. But with the ability to acquire bullpen help via shipping off prospects, and with the Yankees possibly wanting to move either Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, it’s a flaw that could easily be fixed. Despite the bad end to the first half, there’s little reason to panic in Chicago.

The Cleveland Indians are probably the surprise team of the season. 2015 saw the Indians rebuilding for the future, which manager Terry Francona oversaw brilliantly. Francisco Lindor (age 22) was given more than a half of a season of pressure-free baseball at the major league level, and it has helped him develop into the All-Star shortstop he is in 2016. Alongside Jose Ramirez (age 23), who is batting .295 with 21 doubles, and the Indians have a bright future on the left side of the infield. Throw that in with familiar faces Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and the much-welcomed veteran bat of Mike Napoli, and the Indians have an offense good enough to contend. But what’s really made the Indians so dominant has been their pitching. With the second-best ERA in the American League, the Indians have risen to the top of a very competitive AL Central; the Tigers, White Sox, and reigning champion Royals are all above .500. Danny Salazar is 10-3 with an ERA of 2.75, Corey Kluber has eaten up innings (122 IP, 6th best in baseball), and Josh Tomlin is 9-3 and could be tons better if he figured out how to keep the damn baseball from leaving the ballpark (21 home runs allowed in 100 innings is not recommended). Cody Allen has done a decent job closing out games and Dan Otero and Jeff Manship have become a formidable partnership to set up their closer. They might need another bat or another arm, but they have the right manager for a pennant race. If they keep it up, LeBron might not be the only hero in Cleveland.

It’s an even-numbered year, so that means the San Francisco Giants are good. Really, seriously, good. At 57-33, they have the best record in baseball. With the fifth-best ERA in the game and Madison Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94 ERA) treating the regular season as if it were the 2014 playoffs, the Giants have quietly overtaken the Cubs as baseball’s hottest team. There’s more to the Giants than “Mad Bum”. Johnny Cueto (13-1, 2.47 ERA) has proven to be the best pitching signing of the off-season. They might lack rotation depth, but they make up for it with a very good line-up. Brandon Belt (10 home runs, .302 AVG) is an All-Star and Brandon Crawford (9 home runs, .281 AVG) is perhaps the most glaring snub in the National League. Plus, Buster Posey continues to be one of the best catchers in the league. The Dodgers will give them a considerable test in the NL West race, especially once Clayton Kershaw comes back from injury, but they have numerous question marks of their own. If the Giants make the playoffs, we all know what Bumgarner can do in October. That’s scary enough. If Cueto can be anywhere close a dominant, the Giants might keep their pattern going.

The Bad

No team tried as hard to take the next step as much as the Arizona Diamonbacks did. And no other team has failed as spectacularly as they have. The D’backs finished only a few games under .500 last year and sought to improve their pitching by signing ace Zack Greinke and Tyler Clippard for their bullpen. Neither have been great. Yes, Greinke is 10-3, but with an ERA of 3.62. That’s more than twice of what it was during his 2015 campaign. Some of that is due to the ballpark, but by many advanced metrics, Greinke hasn’t been the same pitcher as he was with the Dodgers (he has the lowest swinging strike rate of his career since 2012). Clippard hasn’t done badly, but his numbers are slightly above his career average. Granted, the team did get very unlucky when A.J. Pollock was lost for the season with injury before it even began, but offense has hardly been their problem. Arizona has one of the best offenses in the game, but that doesn’t mean a lot when you’re going to see pitchers like Bumgarner, Kershaw, and Cueto at least three times a year a piece. Until they are able to develop good, young pitching, Arizona is stuck in neutral.

The Minnesota Twins are another surprise from 2015 that has not had a good 2016 season. After finishing just three games out of the second Wild Card spot last year, Minnesota now holds the second-worst record in the league. It’s mostly their pitching, whose team ERA has inflated nearly a run higher than it was last season. Kyle Gibson, who finished with a respectable 3.85 ERA last season, now has one over five. Tyler Duffey, a 3.10 ERA in ten starts as a rookie last year now has an ERA of 5.20 in 14 starts this season. That’s not enough when you’re in arguably the best division in baseball. The good news for the Twins is that they’re still in rebuilding mode, and have the seventh best farm system in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus. And unlike the Diamondbacks, they didn’t offer any insane contracts out of desperation. Perhaps there was always going to be a step backward for the Twins in 2016. I just didn’t see it being this far of one.

When you have arguably the best player in the game, and arguably the best manager in the game, you’re expected to be a decent club. That has not been the case for the Angels in 2016. At 37-52, the Angels have been so bad that it warranted discussion (although probably not serious discussion) about trading Mike Trout in return for prospects to help give a lifeline to the worst farm system in the league (again, according to Baseball Prospectus). It was a year ago last week that manager Mike Scioscia won the power struggle against Los Angeles’ former GM, Jerry Dipoto. In stepped Billy Eppler in October. Since then, the Angels have done made some very curious moves, including sending their two best prospects to the Braves for defensive extraordinaire, Andrelton Simmons and a probably-inconsequential minor league catcher. The Angels neither hit, nor pitch well, but what has been very glaring has been their mental lapses. When I watched them play against the Yankees last month, Yunel Escobar’s lack of hustle or memory for the correct number of outs cost the Angels from turning a double play that would have ended the inning; it ended up costing them a run in a relatively close game. Then on Sunday, Escobar was ejected for drawing a diagram of home plate on the infield dirt in protest of umpire Tim Timmons’ strike zone. These mistakes shouldn’t happen with Scioscia as the manager. The Angels are in real trouble.

 

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Welp, That Sucked

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

USA vs Argentina

The United States Men’s Soccer Team had a mostly successful campaign in the Copa America. That was until Lionel Messi and the 2014 World Cup runners-up Argentina played them and left no doubt about which side was better. Argentina scored in the fourth minute and never looked back on their way to a 4-0 route of the US at NRG Stadium in Houston on Tuesday night. Messi, who continues to be the most impressive player at the tournament (if not in all the world at the moment), assisted on two goals and scored from a free kick that he could not have hand-placed in a better spot.

 

It was undoubtedly the biggest soccer match that the United States had hosted since their defeat to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup knockout stage. It will be one that leaves the team and its fans with a bitter taste.

Soccer, much like in American football, is a game where the scoreline often does not reflect the performance. You can play like crap for 90 minutes, but because “football is football” you can squeak away with a victory or a draw. You can also play as well as Argentina did last night, and find yourself coming away with nothing. But not when you play as badly as the USA did and as well as Argentina, the more technically talented side, did.

The scoreline was bad enough; the performance was heartbreaking.

There were many issues last night with the United States side. It started when keeper Brad Guzan got caught in no-man’s land to allow Argentina to score first. The Aston Villa goalie came off his line to try to play a lobbed pass for Ezequiel Lavezzi, but pulled up and left the striker with far too much space. Lavezzi headed it past Guzan, who would have been in good position to make the stop had he stayed on his line, for the opening goal.

The US did try to respond, but their midfielders were not capable of holding onto the ball. In a game where the US was out-possessed 68%-32% the US were going to need Argentina to make a mistake in order to score. That didn’t happen and it was because the US treated with Argentina with too much respect. The US did not attempt to press Argentina’s back line, which is odd considering that is a strength of Chris Wondolowski (starting in place of suspended Bobby Wood). After 20 minutes, it was clear that if the US was going to score, they were going to have to force Argentina into a mistake.

Defensively, it’s hard to be too critical especially considering that the US had to chase the game once they went 2-0 down. One of the most outstanding players in the tournament had been American defender John Brooks. Overall, the back line for the US had been solid in the Copa America, with their physical play being too much for attacking players to deal with. Last night, Argentina’s technical ability on the ball and their ability to pick out the right pass in the blink of an eye shredded that defense.

What does this game say about the USMNT? That it still has a long way to go. Currently, they’re in sports purgatory – they are an average team. They are good enough to no longer be a laughing stock. You don’t advance to a Cup semi-final in any tournament without having good qualities. In this tournament they showed that when they play up to their levels, they are the best team in CONCACAF. They smoked Costa Rica 4-0, a team that advanced to the World Cup Quarterfinals in 2014. They killed off Paraguay after being reduced to 10 men in the second half. They managed to beat a decent Ecuador side last week. Yes, they got ripped apart by the best team in the world, but Mexico got ripped apart 7-0 by Chile, a side nowhere near the level that Argentina is at.

The problem facing Jurgen Klinsmann (who with this tournament run has surely quieted any thoughts about him getting the sack) now is can the younger players produce. 17 year-old Borussia Dortmund mid-fielder Christian Pulisic subbed on at the beginning of the second half but made no impact on the game. Darlington Nagbe subbed on later in the second half to the same effect. DeAndre Yedlin and Brooks, the former for his pace and the latter for his impressive display as a centerback, were two bright spots for a back line that had come into the tournament playing rather badly.

Bobby Wood showed exceptional promise on the wing, and it would have been interesting to see how he would have fared against Argentina, although it probably would have been akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The United States will play the loser of Colombia vs. Chile on Saturday afternoon in the third-place game. It’s another good test against a very good team, no matter who they play. Colombia, as you remember, defeated the US 2-0 to commence the tournament. After that, the United States has two more matches in the current World Cup 2018 qualifying round against St. Vincent and the Grenadines (which is not a gospel choir group, but a small nation a few hundred miles north from the shores of Venezuela) and Trinidad and Tobago. The US should have no trouble against St. Vincent, but they drew against Trinidad and Tobago down in the Caribbean in November. Still, the US sits in second place in their group, and barring a calamity will advance to the final stage of qualifying.

Still, the one regret about this tournament was the lack of seeing Pulisic and Nagbe. Pulisic plays in one of the most competitive leagues in Europe, and has impressed everyone at Dortmund. Nagbe is one of the best players in the MLS, for however much that is worth. And then there’s this point from Alexi Lalas, which couldn’t be more true.

If the United States wants to become a real powerhouse in global football, then we need to build up the quality in our own domestic leagues (yes, the MLS but also the NASL and USL), begin to move to making the MLS a promotion/relegation league like every other serious soccer country, and convince our best young athletes that being the next Clint Dempsey can be as amazing as being the next Mike Trout. The 4-0 loss will sting for a while, but there’s still reasons to be excited.

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The King

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

LeBron better

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Everyone in disagreement can go away. Just leave, because you’re probably wrong. Please do humanity a favor and book yourself a permanent stay on Mars, the moon, or wherever it is that you’re most likely to not spread stupidity. The days of disrespecting LeBron James are over.

With the Cavaliers victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, James managed to snap a 52 year championship-less streak for Cleveland. He did it against the Golden State Warriors, who would have cemented arguably the greatest NBA season of all-time, had they followed up their 73-win campaign by capturing their second Championship in a row. And while it may be hip to post memes about how “The Warriors choked” or Photoshoping Crying Jordan onto pictures of Stephen Curry, just remember that a week ago, the Cavs had been left for dead.

And then LeBron James played the role of hero. He was the hero on a team where there was no Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, or Ray Allen to rescue him if he stumbled. The 2015-16 Cavaliers are a team that was fortunate enough to play in the miserable Eastern Conference (the Cavs went 12-2 in the three rounds leading up to the Finals), had Kevin Love frequently get lost and forget that he was playing a basketball game, virtually no bench in the first few games of the series, and a point guard in Kyrie Irving that didn’t show up to the Finals until Game 5.

No, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t a championship caliber team at all. Take away one player, their best player, and they’re a lottery team. But it just happens to be a damn fact that their one best player can do anything he wants to on the basketball court.

LeBron James isn’t Michael Jordan, and I mean that with no disrespect to either one of them. James can’t score the way Jordan could. But Jordan couldn’t pass the way LeBron can; couldn’t rebound the way LeBron can; couldn’t defend any position on the court the way LeBron can. They’re two different types of players and to compare one to the other is an obsolete method of thinking.

There’s a phrase used in soccer for whenever a player falls asleep on the field. “Switching off.” Each player in the Finals the past two seasons has done it at one point or another, with the exception of James.

With the Warriors on the brink of sending LeBron back to Akron without a ring for the second straight season, James had arguably the greatest night of his career, with 41 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists, while shooting over 50% from the field. That coupled with Kyrie Irving’s own 41 point performance, gave the Cavs hope. In Game 6, James once again put up 41 points as Cleveland ambushed the Warriors from the moment the ball was tipped off and never looked back.

And then on Father’s Day evening, in Game 7 in the stadium which has become a fortress for the Warriors over the past three seasons, LeBron James only collected a triple-double (27 points-11 rebounds-11 assists). Oh, and he had the most important defensive play of the game, blocking Andre Iguodala on a fast-break layup attempt with under two minutes left in a tie-game. Oh, and he finished the series as the statistical leader in every damned meaningful category.

We all know that LeBron James hasn’t been the easiest player to like. “The Decision” is still one of the most asinine ideas that an athlete has ever thought up. Yes, I do think his scheming cost (former coach) David Blatt his job. As a player, he wields far too much power when it comes to off-the-court decisions. LeBron is the de facto general manager of the Cavaliers. Some of his comments to the media are, at best, simply a case of an over inflated ego, or at worst, expose fundamental personality flaws. Let’s not forget the time when, after losing in the Finals in his first year with the Miami Heat, he told a reporter “the people rooting for me to fail… they’re going to wake up to the same life they had today, the same personal problems that they had today.”

But without LeBron’s personal selection for coach (Tyronn Lue) at the helm, the Cavs might have ended up losing to the Warriors. Lue’s game plan of on-ball screens got the Warriors to keep switching their defensive assignments to Cleveland’s benefit. There was no more obvious situation of that strategy than when Irving drilled the game-winning basket over Steph Curry after the Cavs had set a screen in order to get Klay Thompson off of Irving.

These types of plays happened in Games 5-7 and the Warriors had no way of stopping it. Tyronn Lue out-coached Steve Kerr in this series, and that if you had told me that would have happened two weeks ago, I would have slapped you.

That was made possible by LeBron. His meddling paid off. Yes, it’s childish that a player could want a coach fired in spite of overwhelming success, but it ended up being a brilliant move.

The point of this piece isn’t to convince you that LeBron James is Ghandi. The point is that LeBron James has won his third NBA Finals. Every year he’s won a championship, he’s been the MVP of the Finals, and let’s face it, he should have won the bloody award last year, too. He belongs in the conversation with the best players to have ever played basketball. It’s ridiculous to pick “the best ever” because there are so many for a player to impact a game, especially as the game continues to evolve over each passing year. It’s been a pleasure to watch, and this is coming from someone who has rooted against him every year he has gone to the Finals!

I love Steph Curry, I love Kevin Durant, I love Tim Duncan. Those are my three favorite basketball players. But I’ll be damned if LeBron James isn’t more fun to watch than all of them.

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What Feeling the Bern Means

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

I honestly had no idea where to post this. I thought about making this a really long status for my personal Facebook page, but I don’t think it would have as much impact. I certainly don’t want to get too political on what is primarily a sports blog, but this seems to be the best platform I have.

With the conclusion of the final major state primaries on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton all but clinched the Democratic nomination for the 2016 general election. It is an amazing feat; the United States is a step closer to removing itself from an ignoble list of countries which have never been led by a female. It would be more special for me, personally, were she the candidate I supported from the beginning. Alas, she is not.

That candidate is Bernie Sanders, who despite vowing to take his campaign all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia during the last week of July. Barring a miraculous change of heart from super-delegates, or a disastrous but unlikely indictment of  Mme. Clinton for her use of an unauthorized private e-mail account while serving as Secretary of State, Sanders’ campaign is over. The closer is on the mound; the fat lady is warming up her pipes.

But Sen. Sanders’ aim has never been completely about the presidency. Anyone who has watched just one clip of his speeches knows that his campaign has been about a “political revolution.” This sounds like a far-fetched, idealistic cry. Perhaps it is, but it has become quite popular despite his impending defeat. It’s a rallying cry that I have personally become attached since I began supporting Sen. Sanders last year.

Feeling the Bern means that no matter what happens in this election, you keep trying to improve your country. A political revolution has no place for those who are apathetic for what happens in the general election. It means voting, including in local elections, and doing research on candidates so that you can make an educated guess on who will best be able to perform that office’s duties.

It means being aware that both racial and financial privilege exists. Based on circumstances that I had no control over, I have been given more opportunities to succeed than many have. And instead of using that privilege only for my benefit, it should be used to improve the lives of as many people as I can.

Feeling the Bern means taking a stand against discrimination of all forms. My black friends should not have to live in a country where they are the victims of hate crimes, or be let down by a criminal justice system that has, too often, failed them. My Latino friends should not have to live in a country where a mad man disguised as a presidential candidate calls their ilk rapists and criminals. My Muslim friends should not have to live in a country where they are threatened with deportation because of radicals half a world away. My homosexual and transgender friends should not have to live in a country where still, in too many places, being LGBT is regarded as heinous of an act as murder.

Feeling the Bern means that everyone deserves the right to education and healthcare, both of which are guaranteed by many other developed nations. It means sacrificing some money that would go into the pockets of billionaire CEOs and the already bloated budget for the military for the greater good of all citizens. It means people shouldn’t have to work 50 hours a week in order to merely scrape by. It means new mothers should be guaranteed maternity leave; that women should have control of their reproductive rights.

It means government keeping business from becoming too big to fail, so that millions of families don’t have their fortunes incinerated in a financial meltdown; that instead of CEOs pocketing tens of millions of dollars in bonuses that they pass that money down to the footsoldiers of the company.

Idealistic? Of course it is. But so was the very concept of America in 1776.

The point is that even if your ideal candidate no longer has a shot to win it, to return to political apathy is an insult for everything he stand for.

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The Penguins Might Have Just Penguins-ed Themselves

Penguins goalies

The Pittsburgh Penguins finally answered the question that everyone had stored in the backs of their minds when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began: Will Marc-Andre Fleury start a game in the playoffs?

The answer is yes. Head coach Mike Sullivan announced on Sunday morning that rookie Matt Murray (9-4, 9.23 SV%, 2.33 GAA in 13 postseason games) will be on the bench for Sunday night’s pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Fleury’s ascension back to the top of the depth chart comes a game after he replaced Murray in the third period of Game 4’s 4-3 loss. Murray started the game and allowed all four goals on 30 shots in just two periods of action. At the time Murray was replaced, the Penguins trailed 4-0.

Looking back at the game, it’s hard to fault Murray for the game’s first two goals. Ryan Callahan’s opening goal was a deflection on a shot from the point, and Andej Sustr was left unmarked as he streaked in to score on a nice pass from Nikita Kucherov. However, the last two goals exposed Murray’s weakness in dealing with pucks that move cross-ice.

Jonathan Drouin scored on what was essentially an empty net after Murray lost where the puck was. Drouin’s centering pass for Ondrej Palat ricocheted back out to Drouin, but Murray had already committed to defending Palat and left the Lightning winger with an open target. The fourth goal was the ugliest of them; Murray was beaten by a pass that went through the crease and off the leg of Tyler Johnson before it floated into the net past Murray’s outstretched glove.

It was a bad night for Murray, but it probably would have been a bad night for most goalies who have seen 30 shots in just two periods. The Penguins hadn’t even conceded 30 shots in a game since their Second Round clincher against Washington, when Murray faced 39 shots in a game that went into overtime.

And now for the first time since suffering a concussion in the waning days of the regular season, Marc-Andre Fleury will be called upon to start for the Penguins. The same Marc-Andre Fluery who melted down against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. The same one who nearly cost his team a playoff series against Columbus in 2014, and then followed up that performance with a soft goaltending performance as the Penguins lost to the Rangers in the second round . To put it succinctly, the playoffs have not been kind to Fleury in recent meetings.

This move doesn’t come early in the series. It comes at the crossroad of the series. The best-of-seven set has been reduced to a best-of-three. A loss tonight for the Penguins means that elimination is in play for Game 6. If Fleury goes out and makes saves, and does enough to win the game, then this will all blow over even if Pittsburgh were to lose the series.

But if the Marc-Andre Fleury shows up tonight is the one that Penguins fans are used to seeing in defeat instead of the version of the goaltender that helped win them a Cup seven years ago, there will be questions for both the goalie and Mike Sullivan.

 

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