The Sports Squadcast Episode 4 NHL Conference Finals

Good afternoon! Allow me to introduce a very special edition of The Sports Squadcast. With the Conference Finals starting tonight, there seemed like no other time to do an NHL show other than now. Today, I’m joined by two of my colleagues from Suffolk County Community College and Oswego State University, Matt Jackson and Larry Bergin.

Matt and I met when we were paired up as broadcasting partners commentating on games for the Suffolk Juniors, a local travel hockey team on Long Island, back in 2010. That year, Matt started college at SCCC where he would meet Larry Bergin, and the two of them became invaluable members of the college’s radio and television production program.

When it came time to get their four-year degree, Larry and Matt both chose Oswego State, whose pedigree of producing skilled radio and television production talent is second to none. In my final semester at school, Matt, Larry, and I spent our free time playing NHL 12 with the Nashville Predators, watching the Rangers and Islanders make a run to the playoffs in the (lockout shortened) 2013 season, and enjoying a relaxing beer along the way.

When we weren’t in class, our secondary “job” was as production team members of the student run TV station, WTOP-10. Larry and Matt would go on to commentate, direct, and produce numerous live sports broadcasts during their senior year.

Currently, Matt is a director for the CBS affiliate in Albany, while Larry is an sports video editor for NeuLion. Today, in a rare occurrence of all three of us being available at the same time, the two of them joined me over Google Hangout to talk about hockey.

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The Sports Squadcast Episode 3 – The Bartolo Colon Saga

After a 10 day absence, The Sports Squadcast makes its return! We discuss the Bartolo Colon home run, the Mets season, and the Yankees struggles.

Joining me for this episode are two voices you have heard before, Ryan King and Matt Gochan. Early into the podcast, you’ll hear a new voice as John Kubisa picks up his first cap on the show. John has followed New York sports for as long as I have known him (which dates back to elementary school!) with particular love for hockey and golf.

Two new segments have been added. “Put a A Dollar On It” where we discuss what unlikely events we would have placed our bets on. Not surprisingly, all of us would have put money on one of the three unlikely sports events to happen rather than one of our friends hooking up with a female.

And finally, we have SquadStar, which is our version of player of the week.

So give it a listen! And we should be back with another Squadcast during the weekend!

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The Yankees Are Still Bad

One day after scoring seven runs in a shutout victory against the Baltimore Orioles, the New York Yankees offense returned to their lowly form in a 1-0, tenth inning loss to their division rivals. The Yankees managed only four hits against Orioles starter Kevin Gausman and two relievers, and failed to get a hit with runners in scoring position (0-for-4) in the scarce chances they had. The loss wastes a wonderfully pitched eight innings of shutout baseball that Masahiro Tanaka threw.

This is nothing new for the team that finds themselves at the foot of the American League East division, and third from the bottom in the entire MLB. The Yankees have scored the second fewest runs in the league, own the fourth lowest team batting average and the second lowest slugging percentage. Their offensive woes are exacerbated by a starting rotation that, outside of Tanaka (and occasionally CC Sabathia) have struggled. Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino, have combined for an ERA of 6.14.

The only positive attribute that the Yankees currently possess is the back end of their bullpen, where Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have been strong. That bullpen will only grow stronger when Aroldis Chapman’s  30 game suspension comes to an end early next week. But Chapman is not the answer, nor is there currently an answer for the Yankees offensive woes. This is a matter that is going to have to resolve itself internally.

It might. Mark Teixeira is a notorious slow starter. The Yankees first baseman is batting .247 this season, which is slightly above his career average for March/April, .235. Continuing a trend as a slow starter would not be very worrisome were Teixeira in the prime of his career. However, at 36 years old and coming off a season-ending injury (and Teixeira has been injury prone for the past five seasons), the slow start raises more eyebrows than usual.

Aaron Hicks, who the Yankees brought in to hit left-handed pitchers, has had his own bout with injuries, and has only one hit in 19 at-bats against left-handed pitchers. By contrast, Hicks’ slash numbers against southpaws last year were .307/.375/.495. Alex Rodriguez, who despite hitting .195 had hit a team-high 5 home runs, was placed on the 15-day DL earlier this week. Carlos Beltran’s .250 average may look not bad on the surface, but he is 1-for-23 with runners in scoring position. As a team, with a runner on third and less than two outs, the Yankees have scored only 19 runs, second fewest in baseball.

Starlin Castro, Brian McCann have been the two most consistent hitters in the lineup, and even Jacoby Ellsbury has managed decent numbers (though probably not what his contract warrants). The problem is the lack of consistency throughout the lineup, the ability to create rallies and runs. Chase Headley, in the words of his own general manager (Brian Cashman), is “not impacting the baseball whatsoever.”

And there is no simple way to fix that, especially in today’s game where hitting is hard to come by across the entire league.

Changes are starting to come. Before Thursdays game, the Yankees called up outfielder Ben Gamel, who hit .300 in a 500 at bats in AAA last season and continued that performance with a .286 start in 2016. If he can’t resolve the issue, then Nick Swisher, whom the Yankees signed to a minor league deal shortly after the season opened, is hitting .299 with 3 home runs for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Prized prospect Aaron Judge has also gotten off to a solid start to the season, but perhaps has still not developed enough to hit major league pitching.

While there might be options in the outfield, the only option over Chase Headley at third base is Ronald Torreyes, who is 9-for-26 (.346) in a spot-start role. Even the most ardent of optimists can’t expect Torreyes to come close to replicating those offensive numbers as an everyday starter, and his scouting report suggest that his defense on the left side of the infield should be saved for “an emergency “. Rob Refsnyder, a utility infielder who saw some success in the majors last season, has hit only .265 in AAA this season, and he too carries defensive question marks. If the Yankees are really desperate, they could turn to 28 year-old Donovan Solano, who is hitting .298 for SWB (but again, 2 errors in only 28 chances at third base).

There may be no way for the Yankees to save themselves from a dismal season unless they turn it around themselves. If Brian Cashman refusing to sacrifice young talent to improve his team in the middle of a pennant race at the 2015 trading deadline is any indication of where he wants to take the team, then perhaps 2016 is the year that the Yankees burn it all down in hopes of the Phoenix rising from its ashes. With so many large contracts for old players set to come off the books in the next few season and with big name free agents like Bryce Harper looming in the near future, this might be the time for the Yankees, as an organization, to just let their players play the games and let whatever happens, happen. It might not be the option that the fans or even ownership wants, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong one.

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Legendary Leicester Season is Why We Love Sports

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

There’s a line in one of my favorite movies, “Moneyball”, which captures the joy and drama of sports. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s portrayed by Brad Pitt, after watching his underdog team win 20 consecutive games says “it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball”.

 

If you know me personally, or have clicked around enough on this site, you know by now that I work at NBC Sports and play a very small part in their coverage of the Premier League. I transcribe interviews, I watch games, I type out key events as they happen, I organize some videos. It’s a blast, especially when the games are exciting and your co-workers are just as passionate as I am (both instances are true). I try my best to not let my support of Liverpool, or let my dislike of the Manchesters, Arsenal and Chelsea get in the way of doing my job.

But nothing, not even Liverpool’s near triumph in the Premier League two years ago, has made my job as fun and thrilling as Leicester City has. After witnessing their improbable, 5000-1 odds journey of winning the Premier League, I’d say that it’s pretty damn difficult to not be romantic about soccer. If moments like Landon Donovan’s goal to save America in the 2010 World Cup, or Abby Wambach’s header in the Women’s World Cup to do the same thing a year later, or Carli Lloyd’s hat-trick in the World Cup Final last July hasn’t done it for you, then Leicester City should.

The Premier League is, both literally and figuratively, a foreign concept here in the states. The sport is not American, there’s no playoffs, teams come from places that we might think are places in fairy tales, accents are strange. But if there’s one thing we can understand, it is the feeling of watching a hopeless sports team suddenly go on a magical run. We cherish the 1980 men’s hockey team. We cherish every Cinderella every March in the NCAA Tournament. We cherish moments like when we watch the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl. We do it when we rally behind a team like the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs; recently they were laughing stocks, and now they are champions.

Leicester City is the sum of all of those underdogs. Again, there are no playoffs in their league. There’s no “sneaking into” the playoffs and suddenly getting hot at the right time. You either get points in a game, or you do not. You play everyone twice; there’s no “strength of schedule” argument. You must play your best at all times. For 38 matches.

I don’t think I seriously considered Leicester to have a chance of making anything out of their season until Christmas. Even after they had a stellar first half of the season, which saw themselves in the auspicious position of being top of the table on Christmas Day. No, surely there was going to be a sharp and cruel regression to the mean. And then they held a rich and skilled Manchester City team to a 0-0 draw a few days after Christmas. I believed this would be a good season, but not one that would end up like this.

Consider that this team last year needed an outstanding stretch run of games to simply remain in the Premier League.

Consider that their manager, Claudio Ranieri, was widely considered the wrong fit to replace the fiery Nigel Pearson. Ranieri was fired from his most recent stint as manager, which was for the Greek national team. They lost a game in European Championship qualifications to the Faroe Islands. I can hand you a map and give you ten guesses to point the location out to me, and you still couldn’t tell me where they were located. That team beat Claudio Ranieri’s side in 2014, months after the team had made it to the knockout stage of the World Cup!

Esteban Cambiasso, one of the team’s most consistent players in their 2014-15 campaign, transferred out of the club over the summer.

Their striker is Jamie Vardy, who has spent most of his career playing semi-professional football. Their main threat in midfield is Riyad Mahrez, a French-Algerian wonder that was buried at Ligue 2 club Le Havre in France before he arrived at Leicester in 2014. At the time, Leicester were playing in the Football Championship, England’s second tier of professional soccer. N’Golo Kanté, whose relentless energy and tackling ability in midfield has been one of the keys to their championship run, was also playing in France’s second division two years ago.

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel’s father knows all about winning championships; father Peter won the Premier League five times. Defender Robert Huth had a small role in Chelsea’s back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006. They are the exceptions to the rule: most of this team could never dream of being champions.

In soccer, particularly in the Premier League, money rules all.Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in “Soccernomics” that player wages and league position correspond with each other over 90% of the time. The more you pay players (like Manchester United and Chelsea tend to do) the more likely you are to win games. The less you spend, the more likely you are to find yourself at the bottom of the table. This year’s champions wages are a quarter of what Chelsea payed their players en route to the 2014-15 title, according to the New York Times. Consider Leicester a part of that ten percent that redefines the very laws of our natural universe.

Their championship run became real in February, when they defeated ultra-rich clubs Liverpool and Manchester City by a combined score of 5-1 in the span of a week. When the Foxes went up 3-0 in the second half at City, BT Sport commentator Peter Drury famously said “They’re not just beating the richest team in the land; they’re ripping them up on their own patch“.

Their style of play is unconventional for a championship team. Leicester excels at playing balls over the top to Vardy, who uses his lightning-like pace to tear through defenses. When they are in possession, Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, and Shinji Okazaki make composed decisions with the ball, never one too risky to leave them open to counterattack. The defense, led by Huth and his partners Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson, and Jeff Schlupp. They have been nearly flawless in front of Schmeichel, who has come up with a big save nearly every time he has been asked to.

These are players that no team wanted. Most of them toiled in teams that drift in and out of, or sit towards the bottom of the Premier League. We all sat in amazement when the Oakland A’s dominated the regular season of baseball in 2002. Leicester’s story is what Moneyball would have been if Oakland had won the last game of the season.

On multiple occasions, Claudio Ranieri has been moved to tears when his team have pulled out a victory or a point in a big match. After finishing as runner-up multiple times in his career, including being the unfortunate team to finish second behind the “Invincible” Arsenal team in 2003-04, Ranieri is finally champion of a top-tier league.

This interview, which was conducted before this past weekend’s set of games, gives you a small idea of what their manager is like.

As someone who has listened to, and in the course of my job, documented many of his interviews and key moments over the course of this season, he has remained incredibly humble. Other managers speak openly about their tactics, or why their plan was the right plan, or about their reputation; not Ranieri. Always the focus was on the team, the work rate, and the effort. And after nearly 30 years of waiting to celebrate, he finally can.

Thank you, Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City Football Club, for making the world romantic about soccer.

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Eden Hazard, Not A Fan of Tottenham Hotspur, Wins the Title for Leicester City

eden-hazard

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The journey is over. The journey that many thought would never even get started. Leicester City, for the first time in their 132 year history, are champions of England’s top-flight division. The impossible was made reality when Eden Hazard, last season’s Premier League Player of the Year spun in an absolute diamond of a goal into the top corner of the net to bring Chelsea level with Tottenham at 2-2 in the 83rd minute. Tottenham could not find a winner in the final seven minutes (plus an additional six minutes of stoppage time!) and the London Derby ended in a draw.

Hazard’s form in the 2015-16 has been, well, terrible. After gaining personal and club glory in 2015, the Belgian slowed down tremendously this season. As Chelsea’s season spun out of control last autumn, so too did Hazard’s play. It took up until last week, the 35th game for Chelsea, for Hazard to net his season’s first league goal, when he netted two against a mediocre Bournemouth side. He hadn’t scored across all competitions until late January.

The Hazard that seemed to be suffocating under former manager Jose Mourinho’s system in the first half of the season, and then confused under the system of new manager Guus Hiddink was nowhere to be found on the pitch today. Hazard started today’s derby on the bench, but entered the game at the start of the second half. Immediately, Chelsea looked to be both a better side, and one that was invested in the outcome of the game. No doubt, the team was taking the cue from their talented midfielder.

“We don’t want Tottenham to win the Premier League, the fans, the club, the players,” Hazard said following last week’s win. Those comments were echoed by Willian, Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder. In an inner-city rivalry game, no one ever wants to lose, particularly when title fortunes are on the line.

But it sure looked as if Chelsea were going to lose in the first half. Harry Kane opened the scoring by netting his 25th league goal, and then Tottenham capitalized on a bad loss of possession by Cesc Fabregas in midfield by feeding Hueng-Min Son a lovely ball into the box where he finished to put Spurs up 2-0. It was still the first half, but Tottenham looked certain of making sure that Leicester would have to fight for the title for at least another week.

And then Tottenham switched off. Toby Alderweireld, a selection to the PFA Team of the Year for his stalwart defending, simply lost track of Gary Cahill on a corner kick to give Chelsea their first goal.

“Hold on!” Arlo White warned American viewers as the Blues celebrated at the corner flag.

Tottenham dropped back defensively. They stopped pressing up near the top of of pitch and allowed Chelsea to have the ball. In American football terms, they went away from their blitz package which had allowed them to play so well all season. Chelsea kept making runs and creating half-chances. They needed only a moment of brilliance from one of their players. Diego Costa treated this game as if it were a Cup Final, and the way he always threatened to get in on goal while simultaneously being a chippy with Tottenham’s back four was ever-present in this rivalry atmosphere. In the end, Hazard was the hero.

The night started off chippy when Jan Vertonghen was shown a yellow card for a dust up with Diego Costa over a half-hour in, and physicality was prevalent through the night. Moussa Dembele was lucky for not being carded for putting his fingers up around Costa’s eyes shortly before halftime (it will surely merit a review from the FA).  The game descended into chaos after the equalizer. Four Tottenham players were shown a yellow card in the game’s final 13 minutes, all decisions no doubt being the correct one. Eric Lamela stepped on Fabregas’ hand. Harry Kane flew in with a wild slide challenge. Kyle Walker was lucky to have not been sent off, but there were so many fouls in quick succession that it appeared as if referee Mark Clattenberg lost track of how many poor tackles there were.

To his credit, Clattenberg did try to keep such a critical game in the hands of the players on the pitch. It would have been terrible if this game were decided because of a red card. Even after he blew the final whistle, tensions were high while both teams walked down the tunnel to their respective dressing rooms. Michele Vorm, Tottenham’s back-up keeper, was physically involved with multiple Chelsea players. In the end, nine Tottenham players received yellow cards.

Chelsea’s legendary defender John Terry assured everyone that it was just a natural derby atmosphere.

“The emotion tonight was the London Derby. They haven’t won here in 26 years. It was always going to boil over,” Terry told Sky Sports following the game.

The extra-curricular activities cast a somewhat of a shadow over Leicester’s triumph.  But on one dismal night in West London, the attention is on the North London team which coughed up a 2-0 lead, a week after they let lowly West Brom squeak away with a 1-1 draw. Everyone will always remember the Leicester City story.

Tonight, let us relish in this gripping sub-plot.

A note from the editor: A full story on Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title will appear on this site on Tuesday evening.

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Leicester City Is Going To Win The Whole Bloody League!

Ranieri

On Monday night, Leicester City can become only the sixth team to win the Premier League if Tottenham Hotspur does anything except defeat Chelsea. If that does happen, don’t expect their manager Claudio Ranieri to be the first one popping the champagne.

“Tomorrow night I’m on a flight… and I come back at the same time of the match,” the 64 year-old manager said in his postmatch press conference following his team’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon. Despite being on the verge of winning his first trophy as champions of a top-flight league, the Italian will be in his native land on Monday.

“My mother is 96 years old and I want to have a lunch with her,” he explained.

If Ranieri isn’t able to celebrate tomorrow, no matter what result that Tottenham manages to end up with at Stamford Bridge, he will most certainly be able to celebrate at some point in the next two weeks. Leicester can only lose the title by earning only one point or fewer over their final two games.

Even if they do not, Tottenham must win against Southampton and away at Newcastle (who could very well be fighting for their Premier League status) after their match against Chelsea. It’s not the easiest stretch of games for a Spurs side that finds themselves eight points behind the league leaders.

Leicester could have wrapped up the title this morning, which would have made them the first away club since Arsenal to clinch the Premier League at Old Trafford. Instead, the side that entered the season as 5000-1 odds of winning the league fell behind early on an Anthony Martial goal. Before anyone could think if this could be the beginning of the end for the Foxes, captain Wes Morgan (brilliantly dubbed “Captain Morgan” on Arlo White’s call of the goal) headed in a free kick from Danny Drinkwater to equalize the score at one.

Despite good chances from Leicester to grab the title-clinching goal at the start of the first half, and Drinkwater’s late dismissal from the match for receiving two yellow cards, the scoreline did not change after Morgan’s header. Drinkwater will be forced to miss the next match for Leicester, in what could be a magisterial day at  King Power Stadium in Leicester.

While Leicester loses Drinkwater, they regain their offensive catalyst, Jamie Vardy. The striker who has netted 22 goals was sent off in Leicester’s thrilling 2-2 draw against West Ham United two weeks ago. Vardy was given the same punishment for two yellow cards that Drinkwater will receive, and was also given a ban for an additional match because of improper conduct towards referee Jon Moss in his reaction to the sending off.

A week before Christmas, Leicester defeated Everton at Goodison Park in Liverpool to assure that they would be on top of the table on Christmas morning. When Leicester hosts the struggling Merseyside club, it is for the assurance that they will finish the league on top. And if Tottenham can’t find a way to defeat last year’s champions on Monday night, a title will be guaranteed no matter what happens.

Just make sure that you tell that to Claudio Ranieri, should you end up knowing the result before he does.

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The Sports Squadcast Ep. 2 NFL Draft

A few days ago, a couple of my friends sat down and orated our first podcast. Tonight while the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft were going on, Matt Gochan joined me to talk about one of the biggest non-game sporting events in America.

Matt is a New York Giants fan, which made discussing the NFC East all the more fun. A huge enthusiast of Skip Bayless and “First Take”, I told him to channel his inner Skip. He did, and the result is glorious. Without further ado, I am proud to present the second episode of The Sports Squadcast.

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