EPL Final – “I Testify…”

The following was also sent to the “Men in Blazers” Podcast on the Grantland Network.  Tune in to see if it gets chosen!  (It won’t)

As a lifelong soccer player, I have always held a vague interest in the EPL but never enough to follow it religiously…until this season.  After years spent casually flirting with being a fan, I felt it was finally time to choose a team to call my own.  Spurred on by my Tottenham supporting best friend and my growing love for the Pod, I set up a March Madness Style elimination bracket and dove deep to find the perfect squad for me.

From the outset I thought it would go down just like the wild NCAA Tournament…never dreaming the process of selecting a Premiership Team had much more in common with The Bachelor.  I figured I would fall for Man U or City, as each seemed like a perfect fit for me – or they did, until Chelsea stole my heart.

Maybe it was watching Fernando Torres exquisite agony over not scoring compounding week after week, or the underachieving midfield that just gave up at various points of the season, or the casual eff-you-ness of John Terry.  The more I fought it, the less chance I had.  Chelsea just kept getting a rose.  By April it was clear they were my squad.

What is it about a group of over the hill and overpaid vets that truly drew me in?  Amidst one of their most disappointing seasons I was able to truly glimpse the heart and soul of the club.  Even if it is bleak and foreboding, I love them all the same.

I am a Chelsea fan.

John Terry may take a little more time to warm up to, but I am getting there.

 

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NBA Playoff Preview

Many experts have been going through all the questions surrounding the NBA Playoffs in a lot of detail.  They have examined each and every factor which could (and will?) play a part in one of the most free wheeling playoffs in the history of the sport.  There are five to six teams that could come out on top.

Astounding – but a pretty accurate reflection of lockout ball.  In my opinion however, it all comes down to one simple question:

Can LeBron James win his first NBA Title?

The answer to this question will determine the entire postseason.  Miami is a terrible team when LeBron, Wade and Bosh are not on the floor (see their losses to Washington and Boston’s bench) and they come into the playoffs against a hot Knicks team, led by the even hotter Carmelo Anthony.  This is a borderline nightmare scenario for the Heat…but it gets much better when you realize the following: they will not see Boston or Chicago until the Eastern Conference Finals.  The two defensive juggernauts will pound the hell out of each other while Miami gets to play Indiana (a team they own for the most part) in the second round.

Yet it all comes down to this: How badly does LeBron want the ring?

In the history of the game a handful of players (Bird / Magic / Walton / Jordan / Shaq / Kobe / Duncan / LeBron / Wilt / Russell) have ever impacted the title race as much as LeBron has, they and their play pretty much dictated what happened (win or lose).  Last year we saw what LeBron could do in two series against the Celts and Bulls.  He destroyed them.  At points he single-handedly won games.  Against Dallas?  We all know what happened there.  He can win or lose the playoffs for his team.  If he is on, the Heat are Champions.  Will OKC or Memphis or the Lakers be a formidable opponent?  Of course they will, but LeBron will make or break the season with his D and clutch play.

I think it will go down thusly: Bron and boys get to the Eastern Conference Finals while Rose outduels Rondo.  The Heat beat the Bulls in a six game series.  The other side is a virtual crapshoot – Memphis, OKC or either LA team could take it.  I am discounting the Spurs because it is essentially an older version of last year’s one seed that was humiliated by Memphis.  If the Lakers get through the finals becomes like the ’91 contest where MJ played against an over the hill Magic.  If OKC gets through we might have the most entertaining Finals in recent memory.  Memphis just might be deep enough and strong enough inside to make it.  Barring some kind of head case breakdown.

I think LeBron wants it.  I think he wants it badly enough that he will do whatever it takes this year.  LBJ and the Heat will win the NBA Title this year.

Welcome to the Club Boston

After having to watch my Vancouver Canucks get kicked out of the Playoffs by the LA Kings on Sunday, it was quite an unexpected pleasure to witness Boston lose in OT to the Washington Capitals.

During this game the following occured:

– My beautiful and amazing girlfriend sort of half cheered for Boston to lose, frequently reminding herself of how much we Vancouverites hate them.  Midway through the third, as the teams traded furious rallies and scoring chances she said “I think I dislike Washington more than Boston.  How can that be?”  One word: Ovechkin.  Firstly, he is Russian.  Secondly, he has never lived up to his potential.  This could have been a statement game for him, in which he proved once and for all he is one of the best players in the game by carrying his team to round two.  Instead he was fighting for ice time.  Thirdly, he is Russian.

My dad and I (and everyone else in Vancouver) had been hoping Boston would lose on Sunday before the Canucks so we would at least have that (and not the Cup they conspired with Roberto Luongo to steal from us).  It did not happen.  However, there is nothing more painful than an OT game seven loss.  Except of course losing a game seven in your own rink and then watching your city burned down by hoodlums.  At least Boston lost on home ice…though they did not seem too broken up about it.  The city just cruises from contender to contender (the Pats were just in the Super Bowl) and has seen championships in all four major sports in the last ten years.

– Not enough images of crying people in the stands after the game.  Vancouverites want to see these things.

– At least Boston does not repeat.  That + first round exit = too much pain.

– Miami had better win the title this year.

Night? Day here…

Canucks fans (and those from the Pens!) have some serious pondering to do about their team.  After disappointing first round exits, the two squads seem to have some major questions to answer.  Yet, both teams can take heart in their mini-comebacks for the last couple of games of the series.  Daniel Sedin made a massive difference for the Canucks, and the Pens played under control in games 4 and 5 which helped them play into game six.

However…

Both of the presumptive Stanley Cup faves are out in the first round and now one of these four Western Conference teams will eventually play for the Cup – Nashville, LA, St. Louis or Phoenix.  What are Canadian fans to do?

On Sunday I was hoping that if (god forbid) the Canucks went out, at least Boston could do us the courtesy of being eliminated by Washington first.  They did not but I remain hopeful that they will lose their series in a horribly embarrassing way.  Vancouverites can now content themselves with endless Schneider v. Luongo debates and fake trades that other teams will never do (Luongo for LeCavilier? Anyone for Mason Raymond???).  Great.  Just great.

At least Chicago got eliminated last night.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – April 17, 2012

Dear LeBron,

Thank you, dude, for reminding us why you are the best player in the NBA right now.  For a little while we had all forgotten what it was like to see you actually perform in crunch time.  Some of us were scared you would never be able to bring it with the game on the line again.  Then after a season of being completely paralyzed in the last few minutes of each and every game (including the all-star game) for whatever reason you brought it last night.

I could not have been happier – or more relieved to see this kind of performance out of you LBJ.  All season long we have doubted that something like this (scoring the final 17 points of the game to lead the Heat to victory) was still in you.  For much of your time in Miami it has seemed like you were fully contented to coast to several championships by performing only in the first 45 minutes and then leaving any late game heroics to DWade.  You won the game for your team but even if you had come up short last night LeBron I would have been happy.  Just to see you willing to take the shots and score the points in the end of a close game fills my heart with joy.  For many kids growing up today please remember that you are probably the best basketball player any of them will ever see.  They absolutely need to see you play like you did the postseason against Boston and Chicago on a regular basis.

Last night’s game has brought us to a harsh truth LBJ.

The Miami Heat are the NBA’s best team – when DWade is not in the lineup. 

I know, I know, trust me when I say I know.  Wade is the NBA’s Godfather, a man who has pulled the strings of the league and put together one of the best teams ever (on paper) that is ironically much better when he is not fighting in the halfcourt with LeBron for shots.  No player in the NBA has the ability to shape a game like you LeBron.  Whether you decide to dominate from the outset, or take a backseat role, your impact is enormous.  Take the NBA Championship last year – with a semi good game from you at any point in the series, you have a ring.  Instead?  You spent most of the season afraid to do what you have always done in crunch time.  Your ability to maniplulate the game is something unseen since Jordan.  Whenever you step back, so do the Heat.  Whenever you step up?  The Heat rise.  When Wade is on the court, the “my turn” routine sucks the life out of the team and is killing your chance at raising the banner in Miami.

So LeBron, here is the truth: you alone can shape the NBA Playoffs.  Last night was a good preview (I am feverishly crossing my fingers and knocking on the walls) of what you are capable of doing.  With the game, the season and the title on the line you have to be willing to step up and take the shot.  If that fails?  So be it.

Otherwise maybe a trade somewhere in the West would be a good idea?  Your ability to lift subpar teammates would allow you to carry virtually any franchise to title contention.  All along we have doubted that you have “it”.  You frequently tantalize us and then pull back but we know it is in you.  You may have thought running to Miami would make winning easy but here you need to step up even more.  Unless you fully seize the reins from Wade and take over the team, you will forever be a bridesmaid.

And never a bride.

 

 

Hey Pens Fans, Want to Commiserate?

For the first time in his tenure as the Captain of my home town Vancouver Canucks, I am proud of Henrik Sedin’s leadership abilities.  For most of his career the passing oriented twin has been maligned as disappearing in crunch time (his brother has faced similar scrutiny) and after he took an absolute bone-rattling hit last night I thought the Canucks were finished.

How could we possibly get anything going with our two best players (and Sedins)concussed?

And then it happened.  Hank walked back down the tunnel and took his spot on the bench.  At first I was nervous that he was actually really hurt and was going to try and play through the pain due to the fact that the Nucks were down 2-0 in the series and desperately needed a spark.  This was his chance to have a “(Insert star here) returns to the court / ice / field and inspires his teammates to playoff glory” moment.

Yet the Canucks fell short, but Henrik did everything short of getting the team the win.  Shortly after returning from what looked like a sure concussion, Sedin played a two and a half minute shift in which he was out hustling everyone to the puck right up until the bitter end.  It was probably the best non-scoring shift I have ever seen in my life – and I might still be selling it short.  In the third period he was literally on every single line and dominating on the puck.  He just could not score.  The Canucks as a team looked lifeless for 95% of the game.  Sedin, did not.  He did not disappear as he could have (and we all expected him to) but rather stepped up and I have never been prouder.  I have often stated that I think the Canucks would be better off with a Captain who is fully consumed by winning (like Ryan Kesler) but Hank really showed me something last night.

Sort of like the Captain of the other favorite who is the last man on a rapidly sinking ship, Sidney Crosby.  After an ugly game Crosby told reporters he had been out of control on the ice because he “did not like a single guy on the their team”.  In some ways I want my leader to be like that, and it shows Crosby as a guy who harkens back to the old days of bitter rivalries before the players texted and twittered each other.

Hold your heads high, Crosby and Sedin, because win or lose you have proven to be the leaders who drive your teams forward, even into the inevitable defeat that must surely come.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – April 15, 2012

The picture at right sums up how I feel about the Miami Heat at this very moment – incredibly confused.

The team can play exceptional basketball, and at others times seems to be ready to take a quick first round exit in the playoffs.  Their recent game against Boston, which they lost, was a great example.  Miami played well enough to beat almost anyone in the league.  Boston simply played out of their minds for the entire second half and shot 70% from the field.  How many times is this type of performance likely to happen over the course of a seven game series?

Then there was the Chicago game where LeBron had a chance to ice it after a horrible performance by Derrick Rose.  He could not.  Miami lost in OT to a hungry Bulls team with a chip on their shoulder the size of the Eastern United States.

Today, Miami played the Knicks in what might be a first round playoff matchup.  It is worth mentioning that in the past few weeks Carmelo has made us forget all about Linsanity and remember that he is one of the elite players in the league.  Against Miami he spent too much time trying to show how good he is, and too little helping his team win (why Melo will never get a trophy) and was beaten by 57 combined points from Wade and LeBron.  The most impressive thing for me though?

LeBron actually scored in the last minute!  Amazing and necessary.  Miami has to have production from him at the end of the game.  In the next couple of weeks he needs to be the guy taking the last shot, hit or miss, just to build up some kind of confidence going into the postseason.

If Miami is going to be champs, LeBron will have to carry them there.  Maybe he and Wade are simply waiting for the playoffs to kick off before they start to play like teammates.  There is more coordination in their pre-game handshake than during the game.  My anxiety about the team is rapidly approaching crisis levels, can they pull it together in time?

Or is it already too late?

EPL XII – The Dirty Dozen

For the past week or so I have known the time is rapidly approaching for me to make my final selection of a Premier League team.  For inexplicable reasons this absolutely terrifies me and I have repeatedly put it off.

Then I finished the book I was reading and now it seems to be no problem.

What tome could have easily taken the title as the scariest book I have ever read (Hint: Not Stephen King)?  A classic piece of football fandom – and no, not Fever Pitch even though I may now hate Arsenal?!? – Bill Buford’s utterly horrifying Among the Thugs has ridden a crest of senseless violence to take the throne.

This book is a must read for all football fans, even if it does give you frequent moments of pause and self-reflection in which you repeatedly tell yourself that you will never be like this under any circumstances.  The reviews from a few years ago had it right: this is the best book on terrorism ever written.  These fans are not mindless drones with nothing but football, but rather organized militia’s whose only objective is to sow destruction, chaos and death.  While reading the brutality that English fans inflict (and ultimately about the deadly riots that took place internationally and led to the banning of English Fans from competitions) I learned what to avoid in my burgeoning fandom: Mayhem in all forms for the most part.

Again, I kept telling myself that I will never be like that.  Fans become obsessed with their favorite teams and sports to frightening degrees but Buford’s definitive work (and unfortunately still timely book) illustrates perfectly the lengths many will go to “support” squads. 

I will never be like that I told myself as I turned on the Saturday morning Premier League matchup to discover Everton vs. QPR.  Not really wanting to watch either of the teams I debated whether or not I should turn off the television.  There was a three minute pause while I sat with the remote in my hand.  At this point, I figured I was already watching…and then I enjoyed it.  We tend to consume as much as we possibly can of any newfound obsession and soccer is certainly mine.  Will I watch some of a weekday replay of Liverpool and Sunderland?  At this point you had better believe it.

Was it fortuitous then that I picked up Buford’s book?  I think so, because now I can content myself with the fact that I do indeed have a long way to go before I become a genuine hooligan.  Also, to be honest, I generally do not enjoy the taste of blood in my mouth.

I will never be like that.

My Premier League Team will be equally loved among all my teams (with the exception of the Canucks who are without a doubt my favorite child – any surprise I started a sports book called Unfinished Business by Jack McCallum right before the 2012 Playoffs?) and I shall support them passionately but without the riotous behavior.

NHL Playoff Preview 2012

This Wednesday my beloved Vancouver Canucks kick off their 2012 Playoff run with the first game of their opening round series against the LA Kings.

Like everyone else in Vancouver, I am conflicted.

Last season’s run to the Stanley Cup – the second of my lifetime – was amazing, tense and in the end, soul crushingly heartbreaking.  Then we had to deal with the riot and the fact that people from Surrey came to Vancouver to riot.  (Editor’s Note: Surrey Sucks!  If you don’t believe me, look at how many people from Surrey have been charged with rioting versus people who actually live in Vancouver.   In conclusion, again, Surrey sucks!)

The Canucks got a lot of breaks last season in their run to the Cup and the City was absolutely pumped the entire time.  They seemed like a team of destiny, on our fortieth anniversary, who would raise our first Cup.  There would be champagne and celebrating and it would be just like the Olympics.  It was not.  We gave our trust over the fans and people from Surrey took it away.

Now another postseason looms and again the Canucks appear to be in the driver’s seat as they raised another President’s Trophy last weekend.  We are a deep team with has experience, grit and talent.  The West however, appears much, much deeper than last year.  Chicago still lurks menacingly in the background; San Jose has no pressure this year and could get hot; whoever survives Nashville and Detroit could win it all; LA will not be an easy out with Quick between the pipes…

In the East it boils down to the fact that Philly, Boston, New York and Pittsburgh are going to kill each other.  I still feel that a healthy Crosby swings the balance completely, especially when paired with this year’s presumptive MVP Evgeni Malkin.  The Pens will be hard to beat but the East could be an absolute war.

Which brings me back to the Canucks.  Last year felt different.  Last year was our year.  I suspect many in Vancouver feel the same way, and agree this year just feels different.  I am not sure if we have it.  I remain haunted to this day by Game Six of the Stanley Cup in Boston.  For the rest of my life I will believe that had we started Cory Schneider in place of Roberto Luongo (he could not play in Boston and wanted no part of it) we would have raised Lord Stanley.  This year?  My cousin’s husband Chris summed it up perfectly at Easter dinner on Saturday, “Last year I had a good feeling about the team; this year I don’t.”

People in Vancouver desperately want and deserve a Cup – we are the most tortured Sports franchise this side of the Chicago Cubs (I am not counting the Toronto Maple Leaf’s because they should technically be the in the NHL D-League and thus cannot be considered a “franchise” at this time – or any other.  They are the Surrey of the NHL) – and yet many of us, in our heart of hearts, do not feel this is our year for it.  Many of us may still feel guilt or shame at how our city reacted to losing.  If you cannot lose with dignity, how can you hope to win?

My heart will always be that of a Canuck, and I desperately hope we can make another run this season.

My Stanley Cup Pick however, is the Penguins for the simple reason that Crosby can carry a franchise to the top whenever he is healthy and at the moment that is exactly what he is.

Free Kicks – April 9, 2012

Thoughts on the Premier League Weekend that was

Man United has all but sewn up the title – For awhile there the title was City’s to lose, but in recent weeks it has been United who have been unstoppable.  This weekend it was the ageless Paul Scholes again saving the day against the 10 man QPR squad with a fantastic strike that found the corner.  City meanwhile, continued to completely self destruct and has become an out of control and altogether unruly club.  Mario Balotelli may have played his last game for the Citizens as his foolish and undisciplined play has led to what will surely be another long expulsion.  The team lost their composure with the championship on the line and despite being the best team that money can buy, could not gut check themselves at the right time.  United, on the other hand, has shown what they are made of: the complete opposite.

Time to fire Harry? – Tottenham, originally within striking distance of the top of the table, is now in a battle for its life for the 3, 4, 5, 6 spot.  Newcastle, Arsenal, and Chelsea have all come on strong these past few weeks and in order to hold on to the Champions League spot, the Spurs must play better.  Their perplexing play has one architect and he should pay dearly for all he has cost the team in the second half of the season.  I speak of course of Harry Redknapp who may have been better off taking the England job instead of wavering back and forth and allowing his squad to fall apart at the seams.  Tottenham is too talented to fall off like they have and need a strong manager to pull them back from the brink.  Harry is evidently not the man for the job.  Few managers (with the exception of AVB) have appeared more puzzled or been more ineffective this season.  “Sir” Harry’s dreams of grandeur hid the fact that he quite simply has no idea how to manage this club right now.  In the words of my Tottenham fan buddy, @madadub: he should be fired.  Period.

Chelsea had a gift, and blew it -After getting a dubious call and having a chance to tie the Spurs, Chelsea gave up a late goal that exposed all of their defensive flaws in one fell swoop.  As Fulham took a corner, John Terry let Clint Dempsey push off him and smack a header off a stunned Gary Cahill who spent most of the game getting in Terry’s way.  Chelsea needs to settle their issues on the back line before they can even begin to tackle their aging and oft ineffective mid-field and strikers.