A Bearded Nation

Tonight, twenty five men with facial hair, of varying lengths and styles, will take the field in Detroit. They will be playing for something familiar, yet novel. It will be the 171st time these men have taken the field together this year, and if things go according to plan, it might just be the 103rd time they walk away victorious. The Boston Red Sox were, a decade ago, a band of “Idiots” who – despite a massive payroll, passionate fan base, and legitimate super-star power – had not won a championship in 85 years. That year would be just as unlucky for the Sox as they watched their last hope sail over the wall as Aaron Boone sprinted around the bases and into the mob waiting for him at home plate. Boston, and the rest of Red Sox Nation, sadly took off their hats, looked at each other with a familiar sheepish gaze, and muttered the words they had been saying for the better part of a century, “there’s always next year.”

And then suddenly it really WAS “next year” as 2004 marked the most improbable comeback in baseball postseason history. The Red Sox fought off elimination for four consecutive nights and then kept running all the way to a World Series title. Suddenly, Red Sox fans were left in a state of shock. Suddenly “there’s always next year” sounded a lot worse than it ever had before. And suddenly the bandwagon carrying Red Sox fans was overflowing as people tried their best to find more room. Red Sox Nation continued to expand, and three years later the city of Boston celebrated again. But this time the aura about the victory was less of magic and more of malice. The wonderful fans in Boston suddenly had to explain themselves. “Oh yeah I’m a Red Sox fan but I was a Sox fan before they won the series too.” I’ve had to say that phrase more times than I care to admit. It’s a bit humiliating, to tell you the truth, that I can’t simply be a fan of the team I grew up loving and rooting for. I now have to justify my fan-dom to random strangers. The dirty water was becoming poisoned, too, and the Sox weren’t quite so lovable.

Fast forward to 2011. Terry Francona continues to manage the Red Sox, and they begin the final month of the season more than 10 games ahead of the next-closest competitor. Perhaps the newer Sox fans didn’t remember, but September has not, historically, been the best time for Boston baseball. I watched in horror as the noose closed tighter and tighter until, during game 162 of the regular season, the Red Sox completed an epic collapse and failed to make the playoffs. That marked the end of the Terry Francona era in Boston, and began the most baffling season in recent Red Sox history.

Bobby Valentine? Really? The same guy who was just managing teams in Japan? That Bobby Valentine? The former Mets manager who never really got anywhere and was known more for his personality than his effectiveness? Coming off of the bitter disappointment of 2011 I think Red Sox Nation was willing to at least see what would happen. But no one was expecting a disaster on the scale of what eventually occurred. At the end of the 2012 season, the Sox found themselves at 69-93, and in last place of the American League East division. The fans watched their brand new manager drive away one of the most beloved players in Kevin Youkilis. Then watched as the management decided to increase salary space by trading away 4 players for a bag of peanuts and cracker jacks. Beckett, Gonzalez, Crawford, and Punto whose contracts totaled more than $270 million were moved across the country and everyone in Boston immediately saw the signs. This was going to take a lot of rebuilding.

But I doubt anyone outside of the Red Sox front office was prepared for what was about to happen. Not only did the Red Sox get rid of those huge contracts, they didn’t use all that money one one guy. The used that money to build a TEAM. Yes, a team. Not a collection of players who get paid lots of money to do individual things really well. That method has worked for one team, but that team plays in New York. The Red Sox broke the curse with a collection of guys who were not necessarily the biggest names in the free-agent pool. Sure Ortiz and Manny and Schilling and Beckett were high-dollar all-star guys, but the spirit of the team was in the Millars and Muellers and Damons of the group. The outrageous facial hair, the charismatic way they interacted, and camaraderie that was visible. Those guys would do anything for each other. They would play with only one foot if they had do (which they did, as you might recall). In fact, during that season one of the name-recognition-former-all-star-type players was dealt away for a player who fit that team better. They even had a Pokey.

And now the Red Sox realized that was exactly where they went wrong. They had brought in a Manager that was more well-known than some of the players. They had talented guys who couldn’t really get along and the clubhouse was in utter turmoil. When Ben Cherington finally said “enough” and traded away millions of dollars worth of talent, there was new life.

That new life translated to 102 wins. So far. But it’s less about the number and much more about the method. In years past the Red Sox would mash home runs, strike you out 20 times, and win by sheer force of talent. The wins this year have been about sheer force of will. It never matters how they win, only if they win. And the team in Boston has realized that they can win any game, at any time. Down by 6 in the 9th inning? No problem. Can’t get a hit through 6 innings? They still have 3 more. Ace starting pitcher is going to miss 3 months? Sounds like a challenge. Sure they may smash telephones, but this team always plays for one another, not with one another. Heck, Shane Victorino has been fighting injuries nearly all season, but never let it sideline him for any extended time. Mike Napoli has a chronic hip injury and lost a longer-term contract because of it. Instead of bitterness, he let it fuel his fire and has delivered time and time again. Most recently last night when he air-mailed the only run either team would score to help Boston to a 2-1 lead in the ALCS. Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Jake Peavy all have brought passion, fire, and drive to a team that was lacking much of anything in those departments last year. And let us not forget about John Farrell, the manager who has brought everyone together with the idea that they can win regardless of what is thrown their way.

Tonight, the Boston Red Sox will take on the Detroit Tigers in game 4 of the ALCS. No matter who you have chosen to play villain and hero in this story, you cannot deny its excitement. If the Red Sox down the Tigers and make their way to the World Series, it will not be because the Tigers were blown away. The first 3 games have all been decided by 1 run, and the Red Sox did not begin an inning with the lead until the 8th inning of game 3. But the players have refused to let each other down. Winning with improbable comebacks and grinding out close games. This is not 2004 all over again, that is perfectly clear, but this team has been born out of disappointment, and thrived on mutual success, just as that team did. Red Sox players might no longer be the “lovable losers” or “Idiots” of the MLB, but now they have become the “bearded bandits.” And losses are coming less frequently than razor deliveries these days.

From the West Coast Office

brokeNCAA

 Something is wrong. Something is broken and nobody knows how to fix it. College football has turned into something it never was before: a corporation. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s total revenue from 2012 was a cool $871 million. To put that number in perspective, the entire education budget for 2012 by the federal government was about $180 million or approximately 21% of what the NCAA made last year. And yet, the NCAA has a rule expressly forbidding financial gains for players, beyond athletic scholarships. They could finance the education system for the entire country for 5 years, simply from last year’s take, but they want to avoid favoritism toward individual schools, and so simply keep the money for themselves. In fact, they are so rigid regarding this system separating student-athletes from money that they went so far as to erase an entire football program. The result? A successful crippling of an entire athletic program and ruining the competitive atmosphere and the university camaraderie for two decades. Now – there are more and more violations littering the news feed every year, but the latest to hit the front page might be the most troubling of all. To really try and grasp the seriousness of the recently revealed scandal at Oklahoma State University, it is important to look at how the omnipotent NCAA has dealt with past transgressions.

It started because they became too good, too fast. The Southern Methodist University Mustangs were a middling team in a powerhouse conference. They routinely played some of the finest college football programs in the country, and while they could hold their own, no one at SMU was satisfied with mediocrity. They determined that really good players were worth financial investment in order to better their football program. To be fair, many other schools were also, allegedly, doing the same thing. The problem was that SMU was better at it. The result was a recruiting class that would make Nick Saban’s Alabama machine look like division II. (Nick Saban may also be talking to some officials soon, but we’ll discuss that later.) Southern Methodist boosters, coaches, and officials essentially drafted the best high school football players they could find, and promised them payments for attending their university. Two years later they were one of the best teams in the country, and the NCAA was asking questions. When proof of rules violations surfaced, they were placed on probation. Once they were on probation, they continued to pay players and so, in their infinite wisdom, the NCAA held a conference and created a new rule for repeat offenders. The new punishment called for an elimination of the football program entirely.

It was quickly given the very apt moniker of a “death penalty.” And when it was used to sanction SMU, people didn’t really know how to react. This was an atom bomb being dropped without ever testing it. As soon as the program was eliminated, nearly all of the highly recruited players left, most of the coaches left, and even once the program was reinstated the team was in shambles. They had one winning season in 20 years, and are only just starting to get a competitive program back. It has been an agonizing period for a very proud university, but unfortunately SMU played the whipping boy as the NCAA tried to show the rest of the country that they were a force with which to be reckoned.

If this tactic had worked, and the violations stopped, it would have been hard to argue against its effectiveness; only it didn’t work. College football is ruled by dollars, even more so now than in SMU’s brief heyday. In recent years, the University of Southern California was found to have also been in violation of the NCAA’s rulebook. This time, several players had received benefits (in the form of houses for relatives and cars for the players) that were in direct violation of the rules. No one is allowed to get stuff. Except of course the NCAA president who made nearly $2 million in 2011. That’s pretty much the rule. If you’re a student, you’re a student and you count yourself lucky that you can have a wonderful “free” education. No extra money for hanging out, no borrowed cars if their family can’t afford it on their own, no trying to provide for your family in the best way you know how. USC was stripped of a national title, banned from playing in postseason bowl games, and required to give up a number of future scholarships, limiting the number of players they could recruit.

It is crucial to note that when these punishments were handed down to the schools, the people who had violated the rules – the people who were actually guilty – were gone. Either at different schools, or moved on to NFL coaching positions, or as players on professional teams. No one was left but students and players who were sad their friends, coaches, and teammates had left. And unfortunately the sanctions really only end hurting the less-recruited athletes who can’t just transfer to another school, and the fans of the university teams who have to watch their program become crippled and fight back to relevance.

Looking at other examples, there are clear similarities in the recent cases of Ohio State and Texas A&M. Both happened within the last 4 years, both involved players being compensated for appearances or memorabilia, and both were prime examples of how ridiculous the NCAA rules are. The main players in question, Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, did not actually receive any compensation for their performance on the field. The violations occurred outside of school grounds and outside of the administration’s purview. Pryor and a few other Ohio State players were caught receiving free and discounted tattoos for jerseys and autographs, while Manziel was allegedly paid for an appearance signing autographs, though no evidence was ever brought forth. The takeaway from this is that the players cannot earn money for playing football, nor can they earn money because they are good at football and people recognize them. It is completely ludicrous to tell an artist in college he cannot make money off of his artwork because it’s “not fair” to the other artists. If someone wants to pay you to be somewhere simply because you’re you, why is that illegal? What possible purpose does that serve, other than inflating the NCAA’s collective ego?

These restrictions on players might appear to be reasonable, at least on the surface, if the NCAA even feigned to show some level of consistency with their sanctions; but that is of course not the case. If players and schools were given a stock punishment for first offenses it would be much more difficult to argue that the NCAA isn’t doing their job correctly. But instead of consistent punishments, the NCAA bases their sanctions on how severe they deem the infractions to be. Handing out the death penalty to SMU was meant as a message to all programs not to get caught twice in quick succession. But that rule, while excessive, was laid out plainly in the NCAA rulebook. The sanctions for first-time violators, however, have varied greatly.

For example, Oregon was found to be in violation of the NCAA’s bylaws for distributing monetary incentives to players. Apparently you can’t pay your players but you are still allowed to take $68 million from Nike to build a brand new, state-of-the-art practice facility. These incentives were not, in the grand scheme of things, any more or less worse than what was going on at USC. But instead of losing a title, and being suspended from bowl games for 3 years, and losing a large percentage of athletic scholarships, Oregon essentially received a slap on the wrist. A couple scholarships lost, and not much else. No suspensions from bowl games, no losses of Rose Bowl, Pac-12, or national title appearances. Oregon has lost almost none of its momentum as a college football powerhouse, while USC is still reeling from the blow the NCAA struck almost 5 years ago.

All of this has led to the recent allegations swirling around Oklahoma State University. The NCAA wanted to prevent the larger, more financially successful programs from recruiting players using bribes that were financial in nature. So instead of bribing players to attend their school with cash, they turned to the one thing they assumed every high school male would find appealing: no-hassle sex with a pretty girl. The “Orange Pride” program was a group of good-looking women who were selected as hostesses for potential recruits. The evidence does not show that coaches or assistants forced the girls to copulate with recruits, but many former players have said that the coaches were aware that recruits were having sex with these women. And there is some suggestion that coaches who heard the recruits did not have sex during their visit would express disappointment in the players and hostesses who were put in charge of showing these high-schoolers around. In some cases, this disappointment would result in the player who “failed” during their time as host being blacklisted and not allowed to host again.

The most unsettling thing about these allegations, at least personally, is the complete lack of surprise. Every program wants a leg-up on the competition. Everyone wants to get the players that they covet, regardless of the cost. Which means that whatever a coach can do, or thinks he can get away with, he’ll allow to happen. Whether or not he is privy to the information and details, if the program is thriving he would have no incentive to investigate, as long as that pesky conscience can be put aside.

In addition to the prostitu- excuse me, the “Orange Pride” program, Oklahoma State has also been accused of paying players cash bonuses following every game. These bonuses would be distributed by various team personnel and boosters in unmarked envelopes while players were still in the locker room. Players assumed this was fine, since everyone seemed to be getting something. Offense, defense, special teams, it made no difference. If you had a big play, your envelope was fatter. If you had a bad game, maybe your envelope was a little light that day.

Obviously the NCAA can’t simply fold and allow teams to pay their student-athletes, but something has to be done. Some action must be taken before (and I suspect it may already be too late) another school is found to have a “Blue Passion” or “Yellow Fan” program distributing the same erm… benefits… to the recruits of other schools. What’s worse, the schools that hadn’t thought of it before might already be scratching their heads trying to come up with some “foolproof” plan to begin a similar program that won’t get caught. There must be a clear message sent out. But that message should not make the schools themselves suffer. Metaphorically speaking, they can’t just keep cutting down trees if the entire ecosystem is polluted.

As was mentioned earlier, most of the sanctions handed out in the past decade have been punishments directly to the schools and football programs that were found guilty. But the actual guilty parties – the coaches, and players, and boosters – are generally free to simply leave the now crippled program and begin anew somewhere else. This leaves the football program, and all of the fans and, most importantly, the students of that university, to watch in agony as their team is left gutted and broken in front of them. What is fair about that? How, exactly, can the NCAA call that justice? Sure, Johnny Maziel was suspended for half a game, and Terrelle Pryor had to leave college a year early and declare for the draft (thus earning millions of dollars for himself, though admittedly less than he could have made sans allegations), but how is that justified when the entire population at SMU had to stand by and watch a once proud football program torn to shreds? (It’s bullshit is the answer I was looking for.)

So the NCAA can’t ignore the problem, but they also can’t simply penalize the football programs without addressing the actual guilty parties. And technically there is nothing unlawful, according to the constitution or any state’s laws, which prohibits the schools and players from doing what they want, so getting the law involved to reprimand the offending individuals is off the table. If nothing else, the farcical hunt for steroids in baseball involving Congress should be reason enough to show that a legislative avenue is probably a poor choice. With its nearly unending power over our institutions of higher learning, there has to be a way for the NCAA to come up with a real and logical solution. They might be able to work with the NFL to come up with some kind of suspension/fine program for past transgressions, as long as they occurred within a certain time frame. Or they could prohibit the guilty players from declaring early for the draft. And yet not even that would be realistic as many players and coaches leave before the sanctions are ever investigated. They know they are guilty so they simply disappear before the shit hits the fan, leaving the spray from that proverbial shit to cover the university they’ve left behind.

This is to say nothing of the allegations that have been revealed simply during the writing of this article. DJ Fluker, currently of the San Diego Chargers, admitted to taking money while he was enrolled at Alabama. Arian Foster, running back for the Houston Texans, has admitted he took money while playing for Tennessee. All of which says nothing about the academic violations that have taken place where players have had schoolwork completed for them and grades changed so that those players could remain eligible. The whole system is broken, and the powers-that-be ruling higher education have been content to stack their money and slap wrists whenever someone tries to reach a little too far. Something has got to give, and soon, because it shouldn’t take the “death” of another school’s athletic program to prove to the fans that what the NCAA is doing is, for lack of a better term, idiotic.

 

Brought to you by The West Coast Office

Edited by The East Coast Office

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USMNT Qualifies for World Cup but Questions Remain

The USMNT soundly defeated archrival Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday evening, ensuring its place in Brazil next year.  The Americans’ depth was tested with stalwarts Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore out due to injury and suspension, respectively.  Replacements Kyle Beckerman, often a target of derision in fan circles for his play in a national team shirt, and Eddie Johnson performed admirably, with Johnson scoring the game-winning goal early in the second half.  This round of qualifiers resoundingly answered any questions about the team’s depth, but also posed potentially worrying questions about Klinsmann’s tactical decisions, at least in Costa Rica.   With that said, nothing should detract from the team’s (emphasis added) seventh consecutive qualification for next year’s Finals (with two matches left to play, no less).

Friday night’s match in Costa Rica was always going to be difficult, and that was before midfield star Michael Bradley twisted his ankle during the pre-match warm-up.  As discussed here last week, the Costa Rican’s were anxious to “repay” the Americans for, what was in their view, an unfair result in Colorado back in March.  The finest examples of Costa Rican hospitality are demonstrated here.  Losing Bradley, a cemented starter at AS Roma and widely considered the team’s most important player, was going to make getting a result away from home a very difficult task.  Jurgen Klinsmann made achieving this goal no easier, however, when he opted to replace Bradley by moving presumed right back Geoff Cameron forward into a defensive midfield position, with center-back substitute Michael Orozco debuting at the right back position.  Moreover, deploying Clint Dempsey as a lone forward in his 4-2-3-1 formation made even less sense.

Solidity at the back has been an important attribute of the UMSNT for a long time.  Much of this strong play can be explained by American defenders’ physical superiority relative to that of the rest of CONCACAF’s forwards.  The American backline has had imposing presences ranging from Alexi Lalas and Eddie Pope to Oguchi Onyewu (look no further than his infamous stare down of Jared Borgetti) and now Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler.  That defensive solidity also relies upon consistent appearances and familiarity.  One can reasonably suspect that, with Brad Evans out injured, Geoff Cameron spent most of last week in training deployed at right back, where he plays for his club, Stoke City.  It is equally unlikely that Michael Orozco, who has only played at center back for the USMNT (although he does play at right back at club level, like Cameron), spent much time there in the build-up to Friday’s match.  Cameron may be a Swiss-Army Knife-type player for the USMNT, but his best position Friday night was where had trained, and where common knowledge assumed he would be deployed: right back.   Moving him forward into the midfield, and calling on Orozco on short notice, created a defensive line that lacked the requisite familiarity for such a difficult match.  It showed, as the first 20 minutes of the match saw Costa Rica repeatedly bomb down the American right flank, leaving Orozco exposed.  (Orozco did make one exceptional goal-saving play in the first half.  Unfortunately, it was his one redeeming moment.)  If the USMNT has depth in one area, it is the center of midfield.  Why not bring in Kyle Beckerman, who acquitted himself well against Mexico?  More importantly, why not call in reserve Michael Parkhurst at the outset, rather than waiting?  Although Bradley’s injury left the team in an incredibly difficult position on short notice, one would hope (and honestly expect) Klinsmann to better prepare his roster both initially and, more importantly, going forward.

Klinsmann’s lineup issues were not limited to the backline Friday evening.  Rather than deploying Eddie Johnson as a lone forward in his preferred 4-2-3-1, Klinsmann opted to play Clint Dempsey in that position, with recently-recalled Landon Donovan below him.  Without belaboring the obvious, Dempsey is many things to the USMNT, but a lone-striker is not one of them.  Dempsey struggled to sustain possession against Costa Rica’s three center backs, and ultimately Donovan and Dempsey switched positions, with Dempsey dropping into his more natural role in behind the striker.  Again, why didn’t Klinsmann play Eddie Johnson there from kick-off?  As Tuesday night showed, Johnson is capable of holding possession with his back to goal (or at least more capable of doing so than Dempsey or Donovan).  Additionally, Johnson is crafty enough to operate in the channels of the offensive third when the situation calls for it.  Perhaps an ideal “front four” in Costa Rica would have been Donovan, Dempsey, and one of Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya, with Eddie Johnson operating above them.  For some reason, it took until midway through the second half for Johnson to appear.  No news of a niggling injury, like Jozy Altidore, appeared to prevent Johnson from playing 90 minutes in Costa Rica.  If anything, his start against Mexico Tuesday night serves to disprove that theory.  Klinsmann not only miscalculated his defensive line against Costa Rica, he made the exact same mistake offensively, forcing Dempsey to play out of position and rendering him largely anonymous (his goal on a penalty kick proved an exception).

There may be a temptation to excuse Klinsmann’s poor lineup choices Friday night with the abrupt nature of Michael Bradley’s absence.  That temptation is understandable, but ultimately unacceptable for this team.  The USMNT has plenty of depth at nearly every position at this stage of the World Cup Qualification process (left-back is notably absent from that discussion) and Klinsmann should have been more willing to give his reserves a chance to prove themselves rather than trying to force seemingly-established players into new positions.  Certainly, the win against Mexico Tuesday night augments the existence of the team’s depth.  But that begs the question: why didn’t Klinsmann use these players, particularly Eddie Johnson, earlier against Costa Rica?  Although the team has cemented its place in Brazil next year, these questions will inevitably reappear between now and then.  Let’s hope Klinsmann provides better answers, because there may not be a rebound game the next time around.

From the Flyover Consultant

Preview of Upcoming U.S. World Cup Qualifiers

The United States Men’s National Team (or USMNT in blogger parlance) comes into this round of World Cup Qualifiers with the opportunity to cement its place in Brazil next year.  Standing in its way are familiar CONCACAF foes Costa Rica and Mexico.  The team will first travel to Costa Rica on Friday September 6th, and then return to Columbus, Ohio to face Mexico on Tuesday September 10th.  Although the temptation for many fans will be to look to Tuesday’s matchup in Columbus with our South-of-the-Border archrivals and focus on Landon Donovan’s return to the fold after an extended exile, Friday’s test in Costa Rica provides potential storylines with even more intrigue.

Nearly six months ago, a resilient USMNT faced off against Costa Rica in Denver, with the field covered in snow shortly after kickoff.  Early in the second half, the referee blew his whistle and indicated that he was halting the match (with the US leading 1-0 on the back of a first-half Clint Dempsey strike).  After several minutes of protests, particularly from US Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the match resumed and the US ultimately prevailed.  Costa Rica subsequently lodged a formal complaint with FIFA over the referee’s decision the next day.  FIFA declined to grant a replay of the match, ensuring that the US grabbed three vital points and galvanizing the team before their trip to Mexico (where the US played to 0-0 draw).  In response, Costa Rica attempted to move Friday’s match from its newly-built National Stadium in San Juan to the old (and similarly named) National Stadium.  The old stadium, first constructed in 1924, was renowned in CONCACAF for being a cauldron of Costa Rican fervor, and a place the US often struggled to play.  The artificial turf surface and sweltering heat did opponents no favors, either.  Fortunately, this rather blatant attempt to exact payback on the USMNT for its victory in Denver was unable to go through, and the Americans will instead kickoff at the new stadium.

Unfortunately, it appears that the game’s location at the new National Stadium may be the only break going in the USMNT’s favor.  Principally, striker Jozy Altidore was kept out of Sunderland’s weekend match against Crystal Palace with a hamstring strain.  Although he will join his teammates stateside, there is no word yet on his availability.  Altidore has been on fire for the National Team in recent months, demonstrated not only by his hat-trick against Bosnia-Herzegovina three weeks ago, but his torrid form during the June World Cup Qualifiers.  He also opened his account at new club Sunderland in mid-week in the English League Cup.  If Altidore misses either (or even worse, both) of the matches in the next week, the team will struggle to replace him.  As goalkeeper Tim Howard emphasized recently, “Jozy’s our money-maker.”

However, even lacking the physical presence that he adds, Altidore’s potential absence poses questions that may still be answered satisfactorily.  His former teammate at AZ Alkmaar (Holland) Aron Johannsson, recently of Iceland, has been called up by Klinsmann.  Appearing in either of the upcoming matches in a US shirt would “cap-tie” (i.e. lock-in) Johannsson as an American player for the rest of his career.  Johannsson only decided to make himself available for the USMNT in early August.  His decision generated significant controversy in Iceland, where he was raised and played as a youth.  (Note: Johannsson was born in Alabama to Icelandic graduate students studying stateside.  Given his “dual” nationality, FIFA rules allow such a player to choose between national teams, and additionally permit a one-time switch between the youth level and the senior level.  Although Johannsson played for Iceland’s youth national teams, he remains eligible to appear for the US in these upcoming games.)

In addition to Johannsson, Altidore’s potential absence could allow Seattle Sounders forward Eddie Johnson to move to his more natural position up top, rather than as a winger where he has often plied his trade since being recalled to the USMNT by Klinsmann.  Johnson has made headlines both for his career resurrection since moving back to MLS with the Seattle Sounders eighteen months ago and his “Pay Me” celebration after scoring against Columbus on Saturday.  It is worth noting that, after Seattle’s acquisition of Clint Dempsey, the Sounders have reached their limit of three “Designated Players”, with Obafemi Martins and Mauro Rosales occupying the other two slots.  In short, Johnson’s not-so-subtle demand would be augmented significantly if he continues to score both in MLS and for USMNT.  Coupled with the questions surrounding Altidore’s availability, these two fierce tests provide the absolute best opportunity for Johnson to showcase his skills and offer a compelling argument for his demands.

With two important rivalry matches in the way of a guaranteed place in Brazil next year, the USMNT enters this round of qualifiers with lingering question marks over injuries and returning players.  Fortunately, the ever-increasing depth of the “player pool” has provided Klinsmann with an ability to adjust to the inevitable absences that come with international-level players playing so many games in short succession.  Ideally, Jozy Altidore will be available for both matches this week.  If he is not though, there are hungry and more-than-capable players hoping to impress and seize their chance at a roster spot in next year’s World Cup in Brazil.

From the Flyover Consultant

On RG3 and Shutting Up

Let me preface this by first saying that Robert Griffin III is the greatest thing to happen to my Redskins fandom since I began to take it seriously approximately a decade ago.  It is fair to say that the previous decade has mostly lacked for inspiring players and memories.  Before Griffin, my most visceral Redskins moment was Sean Taylor’s murder, which was an incredibly tragic situation that only highlighted how dismal my beloved franchise had been since the early 90’s heyday.

I had never been bombarded with commercials and coverage of my favorite team from national sources until Griffin’s arrival (the national attention fixed on Ovechkin and Strasburg paled in comparison).  That it all began before a snap of football had been played seems to be a significant portent.  He is much more than a football player, he is a brand.  But at the end of the day, he is still just the most important and recognizable cog of a large and intricate machine.  The Redskins will still exist long after Griffin retires.  Or…maybe not, but that is a topic for another day.

Griffin’s attempts to force head coach Mike Shanahan into playing him during the preseason are both tiresome and worrying.  As a fan (first and foremost), I certainly appreciate his desire to get back on the field with his teammates and work off the rust of a surgically-repaired knee.  And I also understand that as an energetic young man who immediately assumed the mantle of leadership and then took some criticism for the team’s playoff loss, he feels a burden to prove himself yet again.

What dismays me is that Griffin refuses to allow Shanahan to draw the criticism while Griffin remains working diligently toward his comeback in the shadows.  All it would take is a simple, “I’m going to do whatever the coaches tell me so that, together, we can put this team in the best possible position for the long season ahead,” and the media would quit with the questions.  We all know Shanahan can handle whatever heat the media gives him.  But Griffin feels the need to express himself and his frustration at not playing, without regard to his or the team’s best interests.

A player seeming not to trust his coach is particularly tiresome when that coach’s fate is so clearly tied to the success of the player.  Has Griffin forgotten about the incredible price paid to move up and select him?  (Please note that I would make that trade again in half a heartbeat.)  It confounds me that Griffin (and apparently his father) does not seem to think his coaches are doing everything possible to engineer a long and victorious career for him.

In my mind, they have already proven their loyalty to Griffin beyond a doubt.  Leaving a clearly hobbled Griffin in the playoff loss to Seattle, even when every single patron of the bar I was in could see his limited effectiveness, illustrates that Shanahan believed Griffin had earned the right to play in that moment, come hell, high water or a nearly amputated lower leg.  I have no desire to argue that Kirk Cousins could have won that game, but Griffin was not the same player who had brought the team that far and yet Shanahan remained loyal to him in that crucial moment.

Certainly, the Adidas ad campaign featuring Griffin, with the slogan “All in for Week One”, is another iteration of the same issue.  Griffin has allowed, at least during these recent moments, his desire to be front and center at all times to surpass his regard for the best interests of the team.  When veteran leaders like Santana Moss express that maybe Griffin should keep his lips sealed a little tighter, it is indicative of the feelings across the locker room.  Griffin himself becomes the story, as opposed to the team, which in turn creates a situation that is only tenable as long as Griffin continues to win in electrifying fashion and even then may sow seeds of discontent.

Yes, Kirk Cousins is a viable back-up quarterback.  But no one questions, even in the incredibly slow sports-news months of summer when any potential controversy is blown out of proportion, that the starting spot remains Griffin’s so long as he is healthy.  His health is critical to the team’s success and understandably, Shanahan is going to do everything in his power to ensure that his star-player remains upright and in the game.  One component of that strategy is not allowing Griffin to place himself in harm’s way unnecessarily, which is precisely what playing in the preseason would amount to.  If Griffin wants to be a true leader, that means making decisions based not on personal interest but on those of the team, and thus far this offseason Griffin has disappointed in this arena.

Sure, if Griffin plays poorly in the Monday Night opener against Philadelphia, plenty of talking heads will second guess Shanahan and say that Griffin would have done better after working out the kinks in the preseason.  But that sort of ex post facto analysis ignores the cost benefit realities of a star player risking himself in meaningless games less than nine months following a major knee surgery.

It is far too early to write off Griffin as another egomaniacal athlete though.  One hopes that this will be a learning experience for him, because Shanahan is clearly not going to play him in the preseason, despite whatever protests he may mount.  There are reports about Griffin’s supposed discontentment with his coaches but I believe that has far more to do with Griffin always being in “win-now” mode, even in his rehabilitation, than a real lack of trust.

His importance to his team, the city, and the NFL serves perhaps to blow some of his comments out of proportion, but knowing how tight-lipped Shanahan is with the media, we can be sure that Griffin is receiving instruction from coaches and teammates about the proper attitude to convey.  We can only hope he takes these lessons to heart, and then puts the team on his back, as Washington continues to ride this dynamic young quarterback back to relevance.

From the East Coast Office

Coast-To-Coast Conversations: Biogenesis

The East Coast and West Coast offices ask each other 5 questions about a certain topic. The answers to those questions are placed here, for your immediate enjoyment. These are the coast-to-coast conversations. Our topic this week: Biogenesis and baseball. Looking at everything from Gio Gonzalez’s vindication to Ryan Braun hiding in the shadow of another former MVP.

THE EAST COAST OFFICE

(questions from The West Coast Office)

  1. Even though Gio Gonzalez was cleared, do you think that he will be under the microscope more as a result of his name simply being mentioned?

I don’t think so. Given that Gio was already an All-Star before his name was ever dropped in the Biogenesis mud, I think people will continue to believe that his accomplishments down the line are the result of hard work and natural talent, and not cheating. In a general sense, I think perception is now a problem for every ballplayer given the massive scope of this scandal, and not just this guy.

  1. Do you think it’s fair that Rodriguez be allowed to continue playing while his appeal is carried out, considering it may take the entire season (and possibly postseason) for a verdict to be reached?

Yes I think so. I would feel differently if there was a failed drug test that the MLB could produce to the public and definitively label A-Rod as a cheater, but thus far all we have heard is speculation. The fact that the MLB may have strong-armed Biogenesis owner Tony Bosch into providing the answers they wanted to hear makes a causal fan like me even more wary of effectively ending A-Rod’s career without a chance at a fair hearing. This is a strange situation where it seems that we all know he’s guilty, the only question is to what degree. Based on that, it seems fair that if he is healthy enough to play, he should be able to until the appeals process has concluded, as if he were any other ballplayer suspected of PED use.

  1. Is 50 games enough of a punishment for the players who have accepted their suspensions?

I have no reason to disagree with baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement which outlines the punishments for PED infractions as 50 games for a first violation, 100 for a second, and a third violation resulting in a lifetime ban. Missing just under a third of season seems appropriate to me; especially considering the equivalent standard in the NFL is a 4 game suspension equaling only 25% of the season.

  1. Are you concerned that some of the punishments in this case do not follow the collectively bargained rules between the MLB and MLBPA?

Absolutely. Braun and Rodriguez are interesting precedents; neither player has ever officially failed a drug test or otherwise been caught red-handed with PEDs and yet both will serve a sentence longer than the typical 50 games. If the MLB can suspend A-Rod for 200 games without a positive test, what is there to stop future commissioners from targeting specific players based only on the perception of their cheating?

  1. Do you think this is the last we’ll hear of PED use in baseball? (at least for the foreseeable future)

I certainly hope so. Obviously the MLB planned its attack to garner longer suspensions for the two biggest fish worth frying. Whether this was by design or a reality of their infractions, we may never know. But the hope is that this mass-suspension draws the attention not only of fans (in the form of relief that the MLB is finally confronting this issue) but also of the current and future players who realize that the risks outweigh the benefits. While MLB may not have taken the most ethical road, that is certainly a destination worth rooting for.

THE WEST COAST OFFICE 

(questions from The East Coast Office)

  1. Which would-be contender has been hurt the most by these suspensions (purely in terms of on-the-field results)?

It’s hard to say “would be contender” when talking about the suspensions, as many of the players are from teams that aren’t really vying for a post-season berth. Of the teams losing players, the Yankees, Padres, Phillies, Mets, Brewers, Astros, and Mariners are all at least 10 games back in their respective divisions. So between the Tigers, who lose Jhonny Peralta, and the Rangers, losing Nelson Cruz, I’d say the Rangers lose more. The Tigers just traded for Jose Iglesias, a very capable young shortstop who is brilliant defensively, and it’s not like the Tigers ever hurt for offense with the cybernetic Miguel Cabrera and power-swinging Prince Fielder. The Rangers already lost Hamilton from their outfield in the offseason and now lose a solid two-way player in Cruz. Plus the AL West is dominated by a very capable Oakland team, putting more pressure on Texas to win games.

  1. Has Bud Selig helped or hurt his own personal legacy by doggedly going after suspected cheaters and ensuring that steroids remain a relevant topic within the sport?

This is hard to really answer for sure. I’ve never been a big fan of Selig to begin with, but have to admit he has been given a pretty tough hand when it comes to being Commissioner of the MLB. He did give us the wild card, which has done wonders for the excitement in October, but he also pretty much ignored the steroid issue until it blew up in his face. I think his actions here are probably going to look better on paper in 20 years, but right now it’s awfully hard for me to see this as anything more than an old man trying to show the world he has changed. Do I agree with him? Certainly, but I also am of the opinion that this whole mess might have been avoided had the hammer been brought down sooner.

  1. Without knowing the evidence which MLB has on Alex Rodriguez, is there any chance he could eventually make the Hall of Fame?

Do I think he’ll make it there eventually? Yes, but like Barry Bonds, it’s probably going to take a while. A-Roid was one of the most exciting players on one of the most exciting teams in baseball history. The Seattle Mariners of the early-to-mid 90’s were a thing of beauty with Griffey Jr. and Rodriguez as brilliant young stars and Randy Johnson was knocking out his own teeth from pitching too hard. There is no denying that he had all the potential in the world to be a hall-of-famer. Hell, he probably would be in there on the first ballot if he had never taken PEDs. But he did, and the voters will take a long time to forget that.

  1. Why hasn’t there been more public backlash against Braun, who fraudulently won the MVP award just two years ago and in the course of protesting his (false) innocence, got both the tester and arbitrator fired?

Short answer: because baseball can’t afford that right now. It took a long time for the MLB to start building up its credibility again after the home run race and ensuing witch hunt. All of those players are gone now, and the page was just starting to turn until these new charges came up. It’s much more acceptable for the average viewer to see A-Rod, a previous offender who is already extremely disliked by the majority of fans, as the poster boy for the scandal. If fans were looking only at Braun’s face, they’d start to question all of the young stars. In my opinion, it’s all about saving face.

  1. What’s the best thing about the A-Rod suspension as a Red Sox fan?

I have been going back and forth trying to figure out which I’d prefer: The Yankees having to pay Cheat-Rod $75 million, or watching his sad face for an entire season. I would have to go with the sad face though, because if the Yankees are freed from the burden of A-Roid’s ludicrous contract, they will have money to rebuild. And when they rebuild, they get good again. And if they’re good again, the Red Sox – Yankees rivalry becomes much more fun. Watching one team or the other simply stop playing well makes things much less exciting. As much as the small-market teams hate to admit it, it’s good for baseball when both of these teams do well. And I’m all for more people watching baseball.

 

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Perception vs. Reality – On Pepe Reina Leaving Liverpool

To the consternation of much of the red-half of Merseyside, Liverpool FC goalkeeper Pepe Reina announced that he would be taking his talents to Napoli on season-long loan.  (Okay, that’s not quite how he phrased it.)  News of Reina’s imminent move away from Anfield came abruptly while the club was in the middle of a pre-season tour in Asia.  With what seemed like little warning, one of Liverpool’s most loved players in recent history was consigned to depart without the opportunity for a proper send-off from the Anfield faithful.  Reina’s departing letter to fans indicated that he left with a bitter taste in his mouth and was frustrated at the treatment he received by the club’s management.  Certainly, Pepe Reina merited more than an abrupt announcement regarding his imminent departure on loan; but this move, whether dictated by manager Brendan Rodgers or other segments of the club’s leadership, is in keeping with the new Liverpool “project” championed by the owners in Fenway Sports Group and Rodgers himself.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, Reina’s departure echoes the circumstances surrounding his arrival.  Liverpool had just won the Champions League title in Istanbul behind Jerzy Dudek’s penalty shootout heroics when Reina arrived from Villareal in the summer of 2005 as part of manager Rafael Benitez’s “Spanish Armada” recruitment plan.  When Dudek fell out of form, Reina snatched his opportunity with the first team and never relinquished it.  He would remain first choice from Liverpool’s similarly miraculous FA Cup win in 2006 through this past season.  Those eight years on Merseyside were among the club’s most successful in the last twenty years, though Liverpool continues to search for the Premier League crown, a title that has eluded them since 1990.

With Reina ever-present in goal, Liverpool won not only the 2006 FA Cup and 2012 Carling Cup, but reached the 2007 Champions League Final, the 2008 semi-finals, the 2011 FA Cup Final.  Not since the glory days of the 1980s were Liverpool such a consistent fixture in the latter stages of Europe’s top club competition, and Reina’s form in goal was a significant part of those accomplishments, especially given the frequency with which Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres found themselves out of the lineup and on the training table.  He holds the record of fastest to reach 100 clean sheets (or shut-outs – 198 games) and his position as third-choice captain behind Liverpool legends Gerrard and Jamie Carragher speak volumes about Reina’s stature as a member of Liverpool FC.

Although Reina has accomplished much in his eight seasons at Liverpool, there is little argument that his star has fallen over the last couple of campaigns; howlers on opening day against Arsenal in 2011 and later against Newcastle immediately come to mind.  This is not to disparage a rightly beloved figure who is quite rightly universally admired by teammates and fans, but simply to point out that it is understandable that Liverpool (and Fenway Sports Group) would be looking into reinforcements for the goalkeeping position, particularly given Reina’s wage packet which is reportedly in excess of 100,000 pounds per week.  With a total absence of European football this season, there is (presumably) little need for goalkeeper rotation, barring loss-of-form or injury.

Simon Mignolet’s arrival from Sunderland no doubt indicated that Reina’s status at Liverpool was unsettled.  Initially, Brendan Rodgers stated that he envisioned both Reina and Mignolet sharing time between the sticks.  Apparently, many fans believed Rodgers when he said this, because that would explain the surprise and frustration with which the news of Reina’s ultimate departure was met.  Though Rodgers can fairly be accused of talking out of both sides of his mouth at present, it almost defies credulity to think that Liverpool, newly-accepting of their decreasing financial and recruiting clout throughout Europe, could or would dedicate not only Reina’s wages but also the 9 million pound transfer fee paid to Sunderland and Mignolet’s weekly wages to the starting goalkeeper position this season.  Moreover, with the World Cup next summer, and Mignolet clearly Belgium’s number one and Reina an ever present backup in Spanish squads behind Iker Casillas, is it really reasonable to think either one would happily consent to rotating in light of next summer’s tournament?  (I don’t have a way to make rhetorical questions obvious in print medium, so there’s your clue.)  That Reina was ultimately shuttled to Naples to rekindle his relationship with former manager Rafael Benitez should have come as no surprise.

In short, without European football (and no, the Europa League does not count even when LFC are in it) and with the adjustments inherent to the development of FSG’s and Rodger’s “project,” news of Mignolet’s arrival from Sunderland foretold Pepe Reina’s imminent departure from Anfield.  Although the club would have been well-served to exercise more transparency in their public announcements on the subject, the inner machinations of the club always dictated that Reina would be a target of wage-bill reduction as long as European nights continue to elude Liverpool.  Frankly, although he deserved more in departing the club, Reina’s loan to Napoli is demonstrative of the implementation of Rodgers’s “project” at Anfield.  Hopefully, neither Rodgers nor the Liverpool faithful have regrets come next May.

From the Flyover Consultant

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