Friday, January 15, 2010

Looking Ahead to 2010 - Part Two

Loyal readers, welcome back for part two of my 2010 sports prospectus. Take a deep breath, pour yourself a strong cup of coffee, a stiff cocktail, or whatever you need in order to muscle your way through another longwinded appraisal of what in the world of sports deserves your precious attention in the New Year.


Order Restored

Before I divulge, I must offer the following caveat: I am a Red Sox fan. A die-hard Red Sox fan. My love for this team runs deep. They have provided me with some of the most deliriously joyful moments of my young life as well as some of the most soul-crushing. I will never forget the incredulous feeling in the pit of my stomach when Aaron Boone turned on that Tim Wakefield knuckleball and -- to my abject horror -- the ball sailed unabated into the jubilant Yankee Stadium bleachers. Pure, utter devastation. Conversely, I will never forget the pure, salvation-inducing liberation that raced through my body as Keith Foulke cautiously underhanded Edgar Renteria's harmless ground ball to Doug Mientkiewicz (any true Sox fan can spell that name -- and Yastrzemski), returning the title of World Series Champions to Boston for the first time in 86 years. Sheer, unbridled jubilation.

Ok, so that said, I am excited for the upcoming MLB season because (gasp) the Yankees are the defending champs. No, seriously. Thanks to the Bronx Bombers re-establishing themselves as a dominant, championship caliber team, it feels as though order has been restored throughout the league. As much as it pains me to to say, it didn't feel right for the Yanks to have such an extended (relatively speaking) title drought. Now, before I am labeled as a heretic, know that there is a method to the madness of this devout and loyal Bostonian -- so put down your pitchforks and torches and hear me out. As soon as the final out of the 2009 World Series was recorded, the league-wide consensus -- among fans -- was that the Yankees "bought" the championship through reckless spending and subsequent monopolization of the free agent market. Although the Yankees do possess a decided monetary advantage over smaller market teams such as Kansas City and Tampa Bay, claiming that they "bought" the title is an act of folly (as evidenced by this Wall Street Journal article), and it is naive to suggest otherwise. But the simple fact that such a paradigm exists marks the return of the Yanks as baseball's "Evil Empire." Every story needs a compelling antagonist, and Major League Baseball is no different. As a Sox fan, I feel much more comfortable playing the role of the underdog than the perennial favorite that must bear the burden of high expectations year in and year out. Let that pressure rest on New York's high-priced shoulders. Let them take every team's best shot on a nightly basis. As for the Sox? The inescapable shroud of "1918", "86 years", and the media-driven "Curse of the Bambino" are long behind them, so who cares if the Yankees claimed another World Series? They were supposed to. It was expected of them. And they will be expected to this season as well. All the while, my beloved Red Sox will be waiting quietly in the wings, free from the cumbersome pressure of expectations (again, relatively speaking). The Red Sox have once again become the David to the Yankees' Goliath, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Order has been restored.

Additionally, I am giddy with anticipation to see the epic levels of havoc that Roy Halladay -- the marquee free agent signing of the offseason -- will wreak pitching for the Phillies in the National league, or as I like to call it, quintuple-A. He has compiled jaw-dropping stats and won the 2003 AL Cy Young while pitching in the AL East, against the likes of mighty New York and Boston. He is a battle tested, inning-eating warrior who will absolutely own the NL East this year. There is only one team in the entire National League that boasts a deep, American League-esque batting order, and that happens to be the one lineup that Halladay will never have to face: the Phillies. Combine those watered down NL lineups with the rejuvenation factor of finally playing for a contender -- the landslide favorite in the National League, no less -- and Halladay could be on the verge of a season for the ages, despite having to pitch in the veritable bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park. If he went 23-5 with a sub-2.0 ERA, I wouldn't be remotely surprised. He is going to dominate. Mark my words. Well, assuming he isn't too overcome with grief after having to leave behind those dynamite Friday night powder blue Toronto throwbacks (above), although those undeniably handsome Philadelphia throwbacks will surely ease his transition. Beware, National League.


Season #1: Clash of the Titans

The casual sports fan traditionally does not follow the NBA regular season too vigorously. This can be for any number of reasons: lack of do-or-die intensity on a nightly basis (unlike their collegiate counterparts), the insignificance of individual games due to a monotonous 82 game regular season schedule, and the general consensus that all of the contenders merely drift through the regular season, all the while waiting to the real season to begin. In light of these legitimate concerns, I will abstain from inundating you with tales of regular season NBA tedium. Instead, I will merely provide you with a taste of why you should be counting down the days until the 2010 playoffs.  To do so, I will address the current league-wide balance of power by breaking the current NBA landscape down into three distinct divisions:

(1) Royalty: Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland, Orlando

These four teams are the undisputed class of the league -- the current Mount Rushmore of NBA contenders. The 2010 NBA Finals Champion will be one of these four teams. Mark it down. Ostensibly, that makes the season entirely less exciting, right? Wrong. This is great for the NBA. Parity is vastly overrated in professional sports, especially the NBA. The Super Bowl or a high profile bowl game can survive the presence of a marked underdog, because anything can happen in a one game, do-or-die scenario (see: Boise St vs Oklahoma). But in a seven-game series, the cream inexorably rises to the top...quickly (see: 2007 Finals - San Antonio vs Cleveland).  The best theater that the NBA can provide is two heavyweights with talented, star-laden rosters trading blows over the course of a hard fought NBA Finals, showcasing the game's brightest stars on its biggest stage. In that regard, we are in luck, because that is exactly what a clash between any of these NBA titans would provide. Wrap your minds around the looming intrigue of any of the three possible Finals match-ups involving the Royalty division. (one of which will happen).

Los Angeles vs Cleveland: LeBron vs Kobe. Shaq vs Kobe. I can see it now -- a constant, palpable tension in the air between Kobe and Shaq. A potential passing of the Best Player Alive Torch from the aging (yet still ruthlessly effective) Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, while Kobe and Shaq each strive for their respective fifth rings, and Shaq continues his unceasing quest to become the largest human being ever. This would be tremendous theater. And then there are the growing concerns about LeBron's legacy. Michael Jordan won his first title in his seventh season. This is year seven of the LeBron era, and potentially his final season adorning the colors of his home-state Cavaliers before he enters free agency this summer. Will he provide them with a title before he moves on to seemingly bigger and better things (I don't feel bad for that comment. Ohio sucks)? Could he really walk away from the Cavs after winning a title (In short, yes. Ohio sucks)? Will this season go down as the advent of a LeBron dynasty? This Finals match-up is overflowing with implications of great historical significance. Are you excited yet?

Los Angeles vs Orlando: A rematch of last year's NBA Finals, highlighted by Kobe vying for his fifth ring and Dwight Howard's quest to make the leap from "dominating, physically gifted big man" to "leader and catalyst of a championship team".  And then there is Vince Carter.  Orlando's prized offseason acquisition, the aging Carter is one of the most talented NBA players of the last 25 years, but he squandered his prime by simply not caring enough to accomplish anything significant (i.e. a championship) -- other than highlight reel material -- with his lavish physical gifts. Can he be the final piece to Orlando's championship puzzle, and manage to salvage his legacy in the process? Or will Kobe capture title number five, and climb one step closer to that magic number of MJ's six?

Los Angeles vs Boston: Deja vu all over again. I can't shake the nagging suspicion that these teams have met up in the finals before.

Oh, that's right. I 'd say there's some history there, eh? I guess I could dig deep and muster up some excitement for a Boston/LA Finals.

(2) Usurpers of the Throne: Dallas, Denver, San Antonio, Atlanta

These four teams (sorry, Phoenix, play some damn defense) are the only clubs that stand a remote chance of dethroning the four teams of the Royalty echelon. But don't count on it I also call this the Blog Credibility Insurance Division.

(3) Peons: The Rest

 Everyone else resides in this inconsequential division. The NBA: Where Mediocrity Happens. But worry not, as even the most plebeian of these wayward NBA franchises have the opportunity for radical change and improvement, thanks for the upcoming free agent bonanza this summer. Speaking of which...

Season #2: Same Face, Different Place / NBA Upheaval '10

As this NBA season wears on, you will hear incessant chatter about the upcoming free agent extravaganza in the summer of 2010. It will dominate the headlines, blogs, SportsCenter, and the ESPN bottom line for the entire summer. For that reason, I will keep this brief. Here is all you need to know about the upcoming NBA offseason: the following is a list of NBA players who can become unrestricted free agents this summer (and therefore have the right to sign with any team they wish).

14). Yao Ming
13). Ray Allen
12). Michael Redd
11). Paul Pierce
10). Tracy McGrady
9). Richard Jefferson
8). Manu Ginobli
7). Joe Johnson
6). Carlos Boozer
5). Amare Stoudamire
4). Dirk Nowitski
3). Chris Bosh
2). Dwyane Wade
1). LeBron James

I think it's safe to say that the league-wide balance of power will radically shift during the upcoming offseason. Teams have been cutting costs and shrewdly acquiring expiring contracts for the past several seasons in order to create as much salary cap space as possible for the summer of 2010. Every (and I mean every) sports media outlet will be on constant LeBron Watch, and you will all grow very tired of hearing about it. But regardless, LeBron's impending decision to stay in Cleveland or test the waters elsewhere may end up being the defining moment of the post-Jordan era. Despite how tiresome and beaten to death this topic will become by the time it actually takes place, I'm still wildly excited to see how it all plays out. And so should you. For better or for worse, the NBA will look very different when the 2010 season tips off, and it's going to be a hell of a ride.

The FIFA World Cup

The single greatest sporting event the world has to offer is taking place this summer, in South Africa. Whether or not you are cognizant of the magnitude of this event -- or even of the event itself -- I can assure you that the rest of the world is. But therein lies the tragedy. Far too many sports fans are unaware of the grandiose, cultural barrier-shattering, beautiful event that is the FIFA World Cup. In my College Football Extravaganza retro-diaries, I spoke of the immense passion that pervades and defines college football. It is one of the many reasons I love the sport so deeply and devote such an inordinate, social-life-crippling amount of time to following its past, present, and future. But the marvelous pageantry of college football pales in comparison to what will be on full display this summer in Capetown, Johannesburg, and throughout the rest of South Africa (and the rest of the world, for that matter).  Picture the atmosphere of the most intensely passionate college town, but spread throughout an entire country, with everyone supporting the same team.  Entire nations will unite and ride the emotional wave carved out by their respective teams with the fervor of the most ravenous stateside college football fans. Well, with the exception of this kid, who has hereby claimed the title of Most Intense Fan Ever until a worthy contendor expropriates his throne.  Uga VII would be proud, may he rest in peace.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to properly articulate the granduer and far-reaching significance of this event.  In this regard, words simply fail me.  It must be seen to be believed.

Everything that I just said is nothing new to any soccer fan. But for the rest of you, I hope that I managed to paint a crude, rudimentary picture of what the World Cup is all about. But merely being cognizant of the grandeur and beauty of the event itself does not ensure that you will enjoy watching the games. It is difficult to fully invest yourself into a sporting event if you aren't familiar with the teams and players. A casual NBA fan wouldn't tune in to watch a Pacers vs 76ers (two teams with rosters full of undeveloped youngsters and little known journeymen) showdown, so why would a fringe soccer fan take in a World Cup match? Well, being the generous, thoughtful blogger that I am, I have decided to lend a helping hand in this matter. Below, I have provided you with synopses of some of the most relevant teams in the 2010 World Cup field.  I have done so by comparing said squads to teams and players in more mainstream sports (basketball, football, baseball, hockey, etc.) so that you can properly grasp the balance of power among these nations by associating them with more familiar faces. Enjoy!

NOTE: This is merely a preview.  I will provide far more extensive coverage of the World Cup, including (but not limited to) similar team comparisons of the rest of the World Cup field, as the event draws ever nearer. So if input regarding a particular team of player is currently lacking, fear not. It will come.

Spain - FIFA World Ranking: 1

Team That You Know: The Pittsburgh Penguins

Before the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins had developed the label of a team with incredible talent and unlimited potential, but without championship pedigree. Having not one but two legitimate superstars (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) on their roster, questions began to drift through NHL circles of whether or not this team had the makeup of a champion, or  if they were destined to become yet another "great team never to win a championship". Crosby and Co. put those questions to rest and quelled any other doubts about their team by rallying from a three games to two deficit in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, ultimately defeating the defending champion Detroit Red Wings (who they had lost to in the previous Stanley Cup Finals) in seven games. Having finally cleared their championship hurdle, these young Penguins (Malkin is 23, Crosby is 22) are now the class of the league, and could continue their reign of dominance for quite some time, much to the chagrin of the rest of the NHL.

The Spaniards have established a similar legacy of disappointing results despite consistently fielding incredibly talented teams. In Penguins-like fashion, they silenced their critics by winning the 2008 European Championship, putting those years of unfulfilled potential behind them.  But the parallels between these teams do not end there. The components of each team are very similar as well.  Both teams have a devastating one-two punch of a dynamic playmaker and a cold-blooded scorer.  For the Pens, those stalwarts are the aforementioned Crosby and Malkin. Crosby utilizes his creativity, hockey IQ, and unmatched skating prowess to set up the Penguins' vaunted attack with unprecedented efficiency.  Malkin possesses a similar affinity to setting up his teammates, but the heart of his game is that of a cold blooded goal scorer. Cesc Fabregas is Spain's Crosby -- a midfielder who has developed from a ballyhooed prodigy into the ultimate field general, exhibiting a similar creativity and uncanny feel for the game when he takes to the pitch. And finally, Spanish striker Fernando Torres is their Malkin.  Torres -- nicknamed "El Niño" -- is without question one of the most feared goal scorers in the entire world.  He has taken the English Premier League by storm ever since joining Liverpool in 2007, and he was the catalyst for Spain's success in Euro '08.  The Penguins could be a dynasty in the making.  If this young Spanish side (Febregas is 22, Torres is 25) makes a deep run in the upcoming World Cup, we could be on the verge of a Spanish Football dinastía as well.

Brazil - FIFA World Ranking: 2

Team That You Know: The 2009 New York Yankees

Brazil is the unquestioned juggernaut of the international soccer landscape. They are the standard to which all teams are judged, and they are the gatekeepers to all would-be champions. If you seek a championship, you have to go through them. Don't be fooled by their place behind Spain in the FIFA world rankings, this team can beat anyone, anytime, anywhere. Having claimed five World Cup titles -- the most of any nation -- they are perennial favorites, and believe that the championship is theirs until someone takes it away from them.  Such is again the case this year, but the Brazilians will be playing with an additional chip on their collective shoulder after their disappointing outing in the 2006 World Cup.

The 2009 Yankees assembled a terrifying roster that struck fear in the hearts of their opponents, as they aimed to put recent years of disappointment (based on their lofty, often unrealistic standard of excellence) behind them, and re-establish themselves as the dominant force in their sport. Such is the case for this Brazilian side as well. Having been ousted by a surprisingly frisky French squad by the score of 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup (despite being favorites to win it all), the Brazilians want nothing more than to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs.  Frighteningly, they have the starpower and raw talent to back up such a heady claim. Most teams wish to possess one star to build around. The 2009 Yankees had three. They rode blue-chippers Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and CC Sabbathia all the way to World Series glory, with aging legends and highly talented role-players making key contributions as well. The Brazilians boast a similarly impressive triumvirate of talent in Kaká (one of the three best players in the world), Luis Fabiano, and Ronaldinho (a former best player in the world, although far from the player he used to be), along with other dynamic playmakers that wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Additionally, the Yankees went through a coaching change before the 2008 season, swittching from the old-school, player oriented Joe Torre to the new-school, statistics-loving Joe Girardi. Similarly, this will be the first World Cup for the Brazilians under the tutelage of new coach and former player, Dunga. Dunga replaced former coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and the free-flowing, attacking style that soccer fans had grown accustomed to from this Brazilian side with a team-first, defensive oriented philosophy. Under Girardi's management, the 2009 Yankees concluded their season with an emphatic World Series Championship, and a terrifying message to the rest of the league that order had been restored.  As for the new-look 2010 Brazilian national team? We'll just have to wait and see.

Netherlands - FIFA World Ranking: 3

Team That You Know: The Phoenix Suns

No team in any sport typifies the Dutch national side better than the Phoenix Suns. Ever since former coach Mike D'Antoni (currently among the many players in the upcoming LeBron sweepstakes) brought his pioneering :07 seconds or less philosophy to Phoenix, the Suns have been the most entertaining watch in the NBA. With the uniquely talented and perfectly suited Steve Nash running the point, the run-and-gun Suns built a high-octane offense around fast breaks, three pointers, and Nash's trademark creativity, resulting in and endless array of highlight reel material (but unfortunately, not championships). Even with Alvin Gentry now at the helm -- and D'Antoni wasting away on the Knicks' desolate sideline -- the Suns have retained their scintilating offense and immense watchability (I think I've been watching too many Bud Light commercials), althought it is slightly toned down.

That, my friends, is Dutch football. They utilize a free-flowing approach (in which wingers and attackers constantly change positions to confuse the opposition) that results in captivating and aesthetically pleasing soccer. Moreover, their most effective strategy is their ruthless counterattack, reminiscent of a Phoenix fast break. Instead of a quick outlet pass to Nash after a rebound leading to a transition basket, it's a quick series of passes among their talented ball-handlers leading to an all-out assault on the opposing goal. Unfortunately, after Marco Van Basten took over coaching duties for the Dutch national team after Euro '04, this style has been slightly toned down. But continuing the parallels between the Dutch and the Suns, the sizzle and panache of the old style still exists, and consistently provides droves of excitement (just like the Alvin Gentry-coached Suns). You will not regret any time spent watching this collection of Dutch footballers this summer.

England - FIFA World Ranking: 9

Team That You Know: The Pre-2004 Boston Red Sox

The parallels between these two teams are uncanny. First of all, both teams can hearken back to the glory and lore of yesteryear. Unfortunately though, both teams are significantly removed from such auspicious times. The Red Sox won the first modern World Series in 1903 (defeating the favored Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three in a nine game series), and then went on to win four more (1912, 1915, 1916, 1918) before the infamous sale of Babe Ruth on December 26, 1919. From that point on, the Red Sox became the epitome of "star-crossed," as they famously endured an inglorious 86 year title drought, highlighted by such heartbreaks as Bucky Effing Dent's home run the Sox/Yanks one game playoff in 1978, the Buckner game (wasn't his fault, by the way) in 1986, and the Boone homer in 2003.

The English national team won its one and only World Cup in 1966. It was a glorious triumph, as England was the host nation for that particular tournament, so the victory took place in front of their countrymen in London's own Wembley Stadium. But since then, despite consistently having one of the most talented rosters in the world and being home to the world's preeminent club soccer circuit (the English Premier League), they have failed to re-attain such illustrious triumph. Just like those pre-2004 Sox (especially in the few years leading up to 2004), the English continue to have talent-laden squads, but can't shed the haunting stigma of the "lovable losers," as heartbreak has seemingly become ingrained within the culture of the team. Their most recent devastation came in the form of falling to the Portuguese by way of penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup and failing even to qualify for Euro '08. But despite all that, they still have a Manny/Ortiz-esque one-two punch in the form of heralded midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and the unwavering support of a furiously passionate -- albeit long suffering -- fan base that is literally aching for a taste of glory. Sound familiar, Sox fans? It should. Perhaps all the Brits need is one Dave Roberts-like moment to give them a reason to believe. That's all the Red Sox needed, after all.

USA - FIFA World Ranking: 14

Team That You Know: Gonzaga Men's Basketball

In the 1999 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Gonzaga became America's darling.  The quintessential "Cinderella" team, little known 10th seed Gonzaga advanced all the way to the Elite 8 before losing to eventual champion UConn. This unheralded and charismatic underdog  -- forever enshrined in college basketball lore by this Gus Johnson call ("The slipper stiiiiiiiiiiiillll fits!") -- captured America's heart and officially put Spokane, Wash., on the college basketball map. They then followed that memorable run with two consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances in the next two NCAA Tournaments (2000, 2001), despite the notable handicap of being seeded 10th and 12th, respectively. Fueled by the doubt of their naysayers and the rampant enthusiasm of their supporters, they continued to defy conventional wisdom and silence contrarians everywhere. But after this sustained run of success, they entered the 2002 NCAA Tournament carrying a very unfamiliar burden -- expectations.  Their recent success and postseason cachet earned them a 6th seed in the tournament bracket, and for the first time, they were expected to win. Instead, they lost to 11th seeded Wyoming in the opening round.  While no one was picking the Zags to cut down the nets in '02, an opening round loss to the Cowboys of Laramie was something that no one saw coming.

In the 2003 tournament -- once again returned to the familiar, comfortable role of the underdog -- the 9th seeded Bulldogs advanced to the second round, where they gave top seeded Arizona all they could handle before finally losing in the second overtime of one of the most memorable college basketball games of recent memory. This captivating affair featured such college stars as Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye, Luke Walton, Jason Gardner, Blake Stepp and Ronny Turiaf, and proved once more that Gonzaga could compete with anyone in the nation.  Unfortunately, this once again placed the burden of expectations upon the Bulldogs' shoulders, and next few seasons failed to live up to the lofty billing.  In the next five NCAA tournaments (2004-2008), Gonzaga managed to make it past the second round just once (2008) and made first round exits twice (2007, 2008).

The tale of the US Men's National Soccer Team follows a similar arc.  Our story begins in the 1990 World Cup, in which the US team lost all three of its games in group play, obviously failing to advance beyond the opening round. We were the laughing stock of the international soccer world.  In 1989, in a seemingly cruel twist of fate, the United States had been selected to be the host nation of the 1994 World Cup. No host nation had ever failed to advance beyond the opening group stage of the tournament. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us if we wanted to avoid claiming a most notoriously inglorious distinction.  Miraculously, we did. Thanks to a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome (in the first World Cup game ever played indoors) and a 2-1 victory over then-4th ranked Columbia in the Rose Bowl, the United States team managed to escape the clutches of the group stage, simultaneously capturing the hearts and minds of the nation. If only for a short time during the summer of 1994, soccer mattered in the United States. Although the team then lost to the eventual champion, Brazil, in the second round, US soccer was no longer a laughing stock -- we were officially on the map. Even more remarkably, we were able to achieve such success despite these crimes against fashion the players and fans alike were subjected to over the course of that memorable run. Somewhere, Don Cherry smiles.

A disturbing, Gonzaga-like pattern then developed for the US national side.  We entered the 1998 World Cup with the expectation of recreating such success, and then lost all our games, finishing 32nd in a field of 32 teams. Bummer. We then entered the 2002 World Cup without a modicum of hype, and astonishingly captured lightning in a bottle, advancing to the quarterfinals (surviving the group stage and defeating archival Mexico 2-0 in the second round) before losing to eventual runner-up Germany by the score of 1-0. I think you can guess what happened next. We entered the 2006 World Cup with encumbrance of expected success, and thanks to the cruel twist of fate of being being placed in the so-called "Group of Death," failed to make it out of the group stage, or even win a game (0-3 loss to Czech Republic, 1-1 draw with Italy, 1-2 loss to Ghana). Ouch, my patriotism hurts just thinking about it. Along with the debacle in France in '98, that was undoubtedly the nadir of the modern era of US soccer.

Which brings us to the present. I am exceedingly nervous about the 2010 team, ironically because of their recent success. After performing very well in World Cup Qualifying and remarkably well in the 2009 Confederations Cup (in which they defeated world number one Spain in the semifinals and lost to mighty Brazil in the finals, 3-2), they once again are expected to exhibit a hint of World Cup success. But perhaps this is the year. Perhaps the pre-tournament expectations will actually be justified by actual on-field performance. Only time will tell. God I love the World Cup.


Phew. That should just about do it for my 2010 sports prospectus. I hope I managed to instill a hint or intrigue and anticipation throughout my loyal readership. But by no means is the intrigue of the New Year limited to the topics detailed over above. This is but merely a conduit to promote excitement for what is shaping up to be a memorable year in sports. 2010, bring it on.

More to come from A-Rondo the Horn shortly.

As always, stay tuned and stay classy.

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