Thursday, July 24, 2014

And Off We Go To Oxnard....Yet Again




The blogging season begins again in earnest from 32,000 feet on the flight from DFW to LAX as my 17th Dallas Cowboys training camp has begun with the "state of the team" address without me on Wednesday Night.  But, by the time you read this, I will be in my radio tent beside the practice fields and the latest version of the Cowboys will be on the field preparing for yet another season of Cowboys football.

With all due respect to the 2013 blog entry that was similarly named and written, here we go (again):

The 2014 NFL season represents the 19th year since Super Bowl 30 for the Dallas Cowboys. To this point, 18 seasons have been played since they won their 5th Super Bowl, and 297 games have been played during that stretch (regular and post season).

There have been some good times and some good teams, but given the unreasonably high bar that Cowboys' teams and eras of the past have set, the final results of each of those 18 seasons have left their vast fan-base with feelings of disappointment. They had become accustomed to better. It is not a matter of deserving anything, because that is not how sports work. But, if you would have told the millions of Cowboys fans on that glorious night in Tempe, Arizona, when Jerry Jones held a Lombardi Trophy that did not require Jimmy Johnson's (direct and immediate) assistance, that the next 18 years would include nothing but "break-even" football, it would likely not be believed.

But, here they are. Starting season 19 since their last Super Bowl and with those 297 games behind them, we look at the results to check that win total:

148-149.

To be fair, if you deduct the playoff games (2-7), the record shifts to 146-142 through 18 seasons. That, of course, comes out to an average record of 8.1 wins and 7.9 losses per season year after year.

Since 2006, the year Tony Romo became their "QB1", they have a 73-59 mark (72-56 regular season) which equates to a average record of 9 and 7, and does account for one of those 2 playoff wins since Super Bowl 30 (the other being the wildcard round win against the Vikings in 1996 or year #1 post Super Bowl 30).

Jason Garrett took over as coach of the Cowboys at midseason of 2010. Since that time, he has coached the Cowboys in 56 games, compiling a record of 29-27. He has not been to the playoffs to this point in his coaching tenure, which stands as a large impediment to any progress he has made in solidifying a roster and building a program that might be heading in the right direction.

Results matter and the results for Jerry Jones, Tony Romo, and Jason Garrett have all been right around 8-8.

And so, with 2011, 2012, and 2013 all being 8-8 seasons, the Cowboys start another training camp with optimism in their words and a fresh start in their minds. They will talk about winning football and ideas on how this particular season will be different from the others. They will, Jerry, especially, even mention the Super Bowl as the final destination and goal and talk about a window being open and trying to keep it from closing and how they are closer than you think.

These are the things we do as we go to training camp with the Cowboys year after year. And in 2014, where optimism has been beaten down by the teams that have come before them, you actually can sense a fan base that has morphed into numb and at times, hopeless about the present condition evolving into that of a perennial contender.

* Author's note: The preceding 10 paragraphs of the 12 you see above are identical (save for updated statistics and wording) to the 2013 column to start training camp.  I am not one to "mail in" a column unless there is a point to all of this.  And the point, if you haven't already surmised is simple - nearly every last detail from 1 year ago today is right where we left it.  As I considered how I felt about things involving this team that I attempt to follow as close as a team can be followed, it occurred to me that I already wrote those feelings down on July 19, 2013.  Hilarious, if it wasn't so defeating.

There are some notable differences to the makeup of the 2014 Cowboys compared to its previous editions, which are difficult to fully sell as upgrades since the top several are about a historically bad defense losing 3 key components that would likely all be listed in some order as the 3 players who lead the entire unit in quality.  DeMarcus Ware is a living Cowboys legend and will battle for the historical title of best Cowboys player of this generation.  Jason Hatcher was a 8-year contributor who played his best football in 2013 and now plays in Washington.  And, of course, the player that would be a strong candidate to lead any revival of the defense and perhaps be the very best player on the entire roster, Sean Lee, has been lost for 2014 to another dreaded knee injury from OTAs back in May.  

The Cowboys hope to mitigate the loss of Hatcher with the signing of Henry Melton on the defensive line and this is a move of quality that should excite any fan of the team.  He is younger, he is cheaper, and if his knee is right, he is a better player than Hatcher.  I think Melton is capable of some significant things moving forward (all predicated on his health), and that addition of a proper 3-technique on the defensive line gives you a fighting chance.  

The loss of Ware, as we have discussed, falls to finding more depth along the defensive line that starts with the pass rusher that they believe was worth plenty of trouble in the draft, Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State.  He has quickness around the corner that should help quite a bit, but the comparisons that have already begun (nobody puts more public pressure on a rookie like Jerry Jones) that have identified him as the right defensive end or weak side defensive end does not seem to account for realistic views of a player trying to figure out the NFL for the first time.  Surely, much will be written about his daily practice stats versus Tyron Smith which will either kill his confidence (given Tyron is now very difficult to beat for anyone in this league) or triple the DeMarcus v Demarcus comparisons between now and Labor Day.  

Either way, the depth on the defensive line should help the Cowboys deal with the rotation better and eventual injuries.  And Ware wasn't exactly Ware anymore (at least not his prime) so you can make the case that they might be ok up front - which simply means a Top 20 DL.  Stay out of 32nd!  

The issues with the defense are 3-fold, all of which we will elaborate on as camp carries on:

1) - What can be done to replace Sean Lee's ability since his injury happened after the draft and free agency finished and therefore all available replacements were gone and most available money was spent.

2) - What can be done to fix the Cowboys 2 young and most highly-leveraged defenders - Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter - who both appear to be on the path of Mike Jenkins or Felix Jones.  That is a bad path, by the way.  That means that they go from highly-touted building blocks or foundation stones to guys you don't even offer contracts to when their rookie deals expire.  For Carter that deal expires this season and for Claiborne it will be 2015.  But, if you had the make the call right now on whether you want to back up the truck and spend $20m (Carter) to $40m (Claiborne) to lock up their primes, you would likely pass on both.  And that cannot happen for this team to continue to move forward,  Those 2 must be fixed and by the holidays, our tune on both needs to have dramatically changed.

3) - What happens if the Cowboys cannot produce the same bounty of takeaways that they did in 2013?  Somehow, the defense generated 28 takeaways and a fantastic +10 in the turnover differential in 2013.  The previous 5 years, the NFL had averaged 28 for playoff teams, while the Cowboys had averaged under 23.  This margin is huge, and if the Cowboys give back 6 or 7 takeaways in an effort to concede fewer 500 and 600 yardage disasters, you can see that they might be running in circles.

As I said, there will be time to give each of those topics their proper time and attention over the next 46 days until September 7th, when the Cowboys host San Francisco in the regular season opener.  

Additionally, we will discuss the offense and the modifications there which have been far less disconcerting save for the issues regarding Tony Romo's back (Note: I will not be among those who think this is an over-stated and exaggerated issue.  In fact, if you would like to get a feel for where I stand on this particular topic, you may review my thoughts from January by clicking here).  Beyond that, offensively, we will look at the relative merits of power running and play-calling and Scott Linehan's effects.  As well as discussing the replacements for Miles Austin, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and the expiration of DeMarco Murray's contract and what that means to the need for a RB for the future. I know Dez Bryant's contract is also expiring, but I figure by the last week in August that deal will be announced and the ensuing news frenzy will be loud and impressive.  Rightfully so.

But, as I hammer out my first training camp blog from 2014, I am led back to my overall view of the story that will not be discussed by most I am guessing.  While the mainstream media may talk about the energy level of Rod Marinelli relative to Monte Kiffin and how Gavin Escobar is the "breakout" candidate of the week, I would like to circle back to where I started last season.

On my way to camp in 2013, I was pretty sure that head coach Jason Garrett was under extreme pressure to produce a winning season of great substance or face the gallows.  His life cycle had been nearing the point where either you show us that you are the next great architect of the Cowboys or you are replaced.  He then oversaw a season that finished with the exact frustrating conclusion (lose 3 of 4 in December with a disappointing final death blow at the hands of a division rival) as 2011 and 2012 featured.  Not only did this not result in his dismissal, but it almost seemed to fortify his position here.  I was amazed.

There is no question that a reasonable search of this blog's archives would reveal that I have been a Jason Garrett supporter for much of his tenure.  I think he is a very smart man who has plenty of ability and is certainly hamstrung with limitations his organization provides that are not his fault, nor does he have the ability to repair.  And yet, a student of the NFL knows that the margins in this league are non-existent and to consider a 2013 season where games that were lost that simply should not have been lost again cost this team its prize seems to be a very problematic issue.

Over the last few weeks, I have reviewed 2013 and come to terms with the details and results.  However, there are 2 games in that schedule that remain games that were "fireable offenses" as it pertains to a coach in his 4th season without a playoff berth.  They were, at Detroit and home to Green Bay.  I plan on reviewing the 2013 season in great detail as July and August carry on, but in short, the Detroit and Green Bay games are both won if the Head Coach simply plays the percentages and conventional thinking.

Taking a knee on 3rd Down in Detroit takes the clock to almost nothing.  Instead, the Cowboys ran the ball, took a penalty, and stopped the clock - allowing for the Lions to have another chance against the horrendous secondary that the Cowboys had on the field that day against Calvin Johnson.  

Meanwhile, the ability to lose a game in which you were ahead 26-3 at home against a Green Bay team that had seemed to quit and did not have Aaron Rodgers on the field would have been the end of many coaches with the dreaded phone call from the owner the next morning.  

Win either of those games and your season changes.  Win them both and the Philadelphia game would not have mattered as they would not have been able to catch Dallas.  Instead, they lost them both and in my estimation, despite logical shared blame, the decisions made by the head coach too closely resembled the decisions that cost this team valuable games in 2011 and 2012.  In short, it seemed that the Cowboys had a rookie coach making rookie coaching mistakes.  The experience at the helm was not showing in the team's results.

And if he cannot be fired after that season, I honestly wonder how hot the temperature on his seat might be in 2014.   Maybe not hot at all.  Perhaps, he is simply blessed by having an owner that is determined for this relationship to work and will not alter his path at this stage of the game.  I would have fired Garrett after the Washington loss in 2012, but perhaps Jerry will not fire Garrett even after a 2014 that disappoints.  It seems to be my mistake to misread the urgency of the owner as badly as I clearly did.  

Garrett is the 10th longest tenured coach in the NFL now, and nobody else in the Top 15 in coaching tenure lacks playoff wins or at least a division title.  Garrett doesn't even have a playoff berth, let alone a win or a divisional title.  

Is Garrett the man for this job or are the Cowboys spinning their wheels for another season of similar results?  Are the issues deeper and not fixable by a coach, or are those deeper issues the reason that you must have a coach who is part of the solution and not part of the problem?

If this was my team, I would likely be introducing Mike Zimmer or someone else as my new head coach in 2014.  But, I am clearly not in that position of authority.  

Garrett is still the coach here, and he sits to the right of Jerry Jones as they meet the media on the tennis court in Oxnard.  

We are back and so is he.  For his sake and the sake of all Cowboys' fans, let's hope that experience will start to pay off.  


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Picking Your Very Own Soccer Team



If there has been one thing I have been consistently asked over and over again to write during my summer "Cowboys Blogging Hiatus" (which ends in about 2 weeks already!), it has been to please write a helpful column for people who are looking to join in the year-round addiction that is sweeping the globe, and finally assist those who are trying to pick a team.

They have given the World Cup a chance and have enjoyed it.  Now, they need to know how to join the EPL game, too.

I am happy to do this, but I will tell you it is complicated.  And I will tell you that since you asked me, you are going to get my views and not the next guy's (or the guy in the next cubicle over).  I am jaded and biased.  So, let's go.

First, some over-riding thoughts on such an endeavor:

REMEMBER THESE 3 THINGS:

#1 - Having a team/club is absolutely the way to fully enjoy the experience.  I am not saying you have to do so, but if you are planning to understand English or Spanish soccer on any level below "background noise", then it is vital you look beyond the game and learn the characters and the villains in the show.  Because that is what sports is.  We sometimes forget that when we follow any sport, we are following basically what amounts to soap operas for men.  Oh, sure, we like the competition and the highlight goals, but if you follow the Cowboys, imagine if you didn't know why Jerry Jones and Tony Romo are not just extras in the movie.  Imagine if you didn't feel strongly about playing the Giants or watching the Redskins suffer.  The point is that because you know all of the likes and dislikes and heroes and villains and story lines and subplots, you can get caught up in the drama that is the NFL or the NBA.  You aren't just watching football, you are watching Dallas Cowboys Football and all that this implies - which is decades and decades of stories and history and so forth.   If you didn't have that, it would be like randomly turning on Oregon State versus Arizona late one night and not knowing any players, coaches, or history.  It would be just a game.

#2 - FC Dallas is your home team, but don't consider it the same thing.  I started following the Dallas Burn right when I got to town in 1998.  I have attended their games ever since and I believe that aside from the all-soccer media, I like my chances with winning any MLS-Dallas quiz amongst my all-sports media colleagues around here.  I follow them pretty closely.  Colin Clarke, Steve Morrow, Mike Jeffries, and Dave Dir all have places in my heart.  However, much like you consider your favorite HS football team, favorite college team, and favorite NFL team to be non conflicting as you follow football on 3 different levels, I would do the same thing in soccer.  MLS is a growing enterprise and will only continue to grow, but the simple truth to any biased observer is that the coverage of the MLS compared to the English Premiership would be like comparing the press coverage of North Texas to the Cowboys.  Yes, there are people that try very hard to present the sport in a big-time manner, but the trappings and the obsession is still at its early stages.  Will there be a day when Major League Soccer is the biggest show in town?  I have my doubts.  But, over there, there is no NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL.  It is pretty much all coverage of the sport they are obsessed with.  And therefore, you can wake up any morning and read dozens of stories about your club and the lineup changes, and the transfer rumors, and the game previews, and so on.  You won't believe how many people across the world are obsessing about that one club.  Unfortunately, that likely will never be the case with our domestic league.  That is ok, by the way, because nobody worldwide obsesses about Coppell High School football and still, it is fun to follow that, too.  But, to gain an experience that will resemble the World Cup experience that has you interested in doing this, I believe you will need a team from one of the big leagues in Europe.

#3 - You should not choose your team.  Your team should choose you.  You have to trust me on this.  In my 14 seasons of following the English game, I have seen so many friends and colleagues try to get on board.  There is great excitement early and then some are hooked for life and some go do something else.  I am convinced through this experience that the only people that really fall in love are those that end up falling in love with their club.  For this reason, you should not rush in.  You shouldn't pick a club because they have a cool name (90% of these people end up with Arsenal or Chelsea). or a cool logo (99% of these people end up with Arsenal), or they are the rival of your buddies favorite team, or you know the Beatles are from there (Liverpool or Everton) or that you know Oasis like them (Manchester City).

You have to have your own reasons.  You have to feel it.  If you don't, then within a few months, you will want to go to this other team that has caught your eye and divorce your first team.  Then your friends will have a laugh.  Don't do that.  Consider it like it is dating.  You don't propose on your first date with the first girl you meet.  You carefully consider that this is a big decision and you want to make the right one.  You want to know that you will still love that club when they lose 3-0 - because they will - as you do when they win 5-0.  You want to commit through thick and thin, through sickness and health.

For that reason, don't be afraid to tell everyone to slow down.  You want to do this right.  You want to think it over and make the decision that you will be happy with.  So, honestly, I think you should wait and watch, read, and feel a little bit before you go pledging your allegiance to any team.  I know you want this to get done before the games start, but this is your first season.  Relax and plan to enjoy over the long haul.  There is no reason you should be as sick as I am this quickly.  Like it says on the headline of this point, you don't choose your team.  It will choose you.  And you will know when it does, because it will be love (or hate, which in sports is a form of love).

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WHAT COUNTRY/LEAGUE?

Ok, with those 3 simple premises established, let's dive a little deeper.  You want to follow soccer on the highest level and you do want a club.  You want to find enjoyment in it, which on the surface means you want a team that is going to be winning constantly.  We all have that built inside of us, because most of the teams we follow us already are able to bum us out on their own merits.  They don't need help from a losing soccer club overseas.

I think you should also strongly consider someone from England.  The reasons are endless.

1) you likely speak English and read English for 99% of your life (if not higher).  If you follow a German or Spanish or Italian (or even Mexican) team, you better be pretty fluent in other languages if you want to consume the media coverage - which I think is vital.  Therefore, as enjoyable as following Bayern Munich or Barcelona likely are, I am not able to consider either club on a regular basis simply because the broadcasts and the newspapers are not always available in English.  Big problem.

2) At least for now, every match from England is on TV and free TV, too.  NBC Sports has made a strong commitment to the EPL (in HD!) that the other leagues don't have.  I pay for Bein Sport and Fox Sports 2 because I am sick.  But, for newbies, you don't want to pay hundreds of dollars a year to see your team play when you can do it for free.  England does this now, but at the present, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain do not.

3) I would argue that the English league has the best competitive balance of the big leagues in Europe.  Yes, the same teams generally finish in the some places, but I don't believe it is near as exaggerated as it is in other countries.  For instance, in La Liga (Spain), in the last decade, only Real Madrid and Barcelona have finished 1st or 2nd in every single year but once.  Last year, Atletico Madrid finished 1st - which was one of the greatest upsets ever, and in 2008 Villareal finished 2nd.  That's it.  Otherwise, 1st place has always been Real or Barca, with the other finishing 2nd.  EVERY YEAR.  The Bundesliga isn't as pronounced, but it still has the same few teams at the same position.  But, in England, the race for the Top 4 in 2014-15 is going to be insane.  The incumbents, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool still believe they will maintain, but here comes Manchester United back up with Tottenham and Everton thinking they can break through.  It is insanely competitive at the top, and the bottom is no slouch.  We all assume that Chelsea and City will finish in the Top 3, but beyond that, it is very wide open.

4) If you enjoy the communal experience, know that in America, most of your fellow soccer men will be following the EPL every week and the Champions League.  You can go off on your own, but it won't be as enjoyable I believe.

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What team?

Ok. There are a few ways we can do this.  And from here on out I think I need to disclose my leanings.   This is Bob's Blog, therefore everything from here on out is undeniably how I see the world.

I love Liverpool.  In fact, I think I am as obsessed about them as any team in my life below the Packers.  I read about Liverpool and every rumor and every news item 365 days a year.  It has really taken over my remaining hard drive space.  I can still see straight as I am wired to not be a cheerleader, but I do think that you should know how I feel.  I really want Liverpool to do well.  And my relationship with them found great confusion years back when Tom Hicks bought them (only to torture me) and attempt to bleed every dollar out of them in one of his "Flip This House" routines and without remorse drove them down from 3rd or 4th each year to 7th. Now, the rebuild is going well, and Hicks is long been replaced by John Henry (who may not be a great owner, but he is certainly better than Hicks).  I could try to sell you on joining my club, but since they haven't won the title since 1990, you may find more joy elsewhere.  However, I do believe the current leadership are serious about winning and they have many, many young and talented players who make us believe they are in for good times ahead.

Beyond that, I have always admired Arsenal.  In fact, I have seen Arsenal play in person more times than any other club.  My favorite player of all time is likely Thierry Henry as he introduced me to how special a special player can truly be.  He blew my mind from 2000-2005 at Highbury, and I think he will always hold that rank as the best.  Their fan base is easily the most proactive here in DFW and sensitive, but that doesn't mean that I don't always enjoy watching them play under Wenger.  I have no issues with the Arsenal and think that they represent an attractive case for any prospective fan.

Chelsea is a team that I have mixed feelings about.  Partially because most new fans of the Premiership (08 and later) invariably were brought in by the Jose-Roman tractor beam of winning.  I don't blame you, of course, but I have had a few experiences with Chelsea fans (the most notable one being stuck on a train that was stalled in 2010 for about an hour with hundreds of drunk Chelsea fans who were looking for trouble) that has permanently scarred my ability to want to see Chelsea fans happy.  Since this is my blog, I hope you don't mind me actually being honest with you.  But, when it comes to some of my favorite strikers ever, Jimmy Floyd and Didier are both geniuses in their own way.  Also, they sold Liverpool Daniel Sturridge after paying 50 million for Fernando Torres' corpse, so that will always be appreciated.  They are an awesome club and have more money than almost anyone, so as insufferable their fan base truly is, that wouldn't be the worst pick either.

Manchester United is without question Liverpool's greatest enemy.  I have nothing good to say about them - aside from admiring some of their best footballers - as their management has always vowed to vanquish Liverpool and their fans and Liverpool's fans have a disgusting no-holds barred barrage of insults that never cease and that would make you sick (from both directions).  I wish them the worst and hope they lose every match.  In any match where they are playing, I will root for the other team without fail - and usually walk away disappointed.  They just endured the worst season they have had in ages, but don't think that means anything in the big picture except that they hired who Sir Alex wanted and that turned into an absurd disaster.  That has been cleaned up and they will go right back into the mix.  Since I have followed the EPL, they have finished 1, 1, 3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 7.  So, trust me, if you want everyone to lose respect for your pick because you like the Yankees and Heat, here you go.

Manchester City is a club that has been purchased by the richest men in the world and they win quite a bit since that happened.  They have finished 1, 2, 1 since they have invested every dollar in the world in their side, but have a remarkably anonymous past before this windfall of middle eastern oil money.  Honestly, you almost never meet a Manchester City fan (imagine if the Timberwolves were bought by the richest man in the world and started dominating the NBA) and even now, nobody hates them because nobody knows what to make of them.  They are a club that is filled with players even their fans don't really know (because they have all been there about 15 minutes) and their stadium often has marginal crowds despite this incredible performance.  It is actually quite odd.

The other 3 you should consider are Newcastle, Tottenham, and Everton.  They all have a lot of people from here following them and all have fantastic stadiums, competitive clubs, and fervent fan bases you will enjoy.  However, I would be lying to you if I argued they have any real threats to dethrone the powers at the very top (for now, it seems), but also are not going to stop fielding entertaining teams.  Everton in the last decade is always no higher than 5th and no lower than 10th.  And, Tottenham is pretty much a mirror image.  Newcastle used to be up there, but times have been tough recently even with a relegation.  They are often ridiculed for only wishing to finish higher than their next-door neighbors, Everton with Liverpool 500 yards away and Tottenham has Arsenal right up the street, but that is an insult.  I always think they are proper clubs that have their charm.  If you loathe front-running and want to build for that one miracle year, perhaps these are your choices.

The rest of the field in England is a crapshoot of teams that all have something to offer, but also flirt with relegation from time to time.  If you don't know what that is, you will soon enough.  But, trust me, if your club is relegated, all I said about access and media coverage may dissipate quite a bit.  There are several smaller clubs that I admire, but since they don't always have funds for players, it can be frustrating to give your heart to them.  If you do, here are my favorites.  Queenspark Rangers, Crystal Palace, Portsmouth (not currently in the top level), and West Ham are all on my list, partly because I have been to matches at all of their places and actually enjoyed those experiences more than the big clubs.  However, I will tell you that most fans of those clubs start the year hoping they stay up in the Premiership and usually have their hands full to do so.

Other than the clubs mentioned above, you are on your own.  If you want to go off the page and cheer for Aston Villa or Bolton, have fun.  They all have stories to tell.  I just wouldn't advise it any more than I would advise someone new to the USA to take up Jacksonville Jaguar football.

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In closing, I hope this helps.  I know it will just lead to more questions or offended fans of Liverpool rivals who have their feelings all hurt that I don't love their club as much as they do.  That is usually followed by a Luis Suarez joke and reminding me that my club sucks and they have a great one.

In many ways, it is just another way to follow sports and be insufferable to your friends.

Have fun, but don't rush in to pledging allegiance to a club you have just now discovered.  Because nothing is worse than meeting a guy who is a "die hard" Portsmouth fan who then became a "die hard" Chelsea fan because he moved too quickly and realized he liked winning too much to like Pompey.

Don't be that guy.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

It Happens Every Summer


The older we get in life, the more we learn, it seems.  For me, it is always a case where I wish
"older me" could have a talk with "younger me" and explain a few vital things.

I wasn't really taught too much about diet and exercise as a kid.  I sort of figured to simply do what seems right and see where that takes me.  And, I like to cut corners in life.  I like to invest in myself, but the bare minimum to get by.  And then, once I cut a corner, I rinse and repeat - feeling like I beat the system.

I listed these life views above, because when it comes to taking care of myself and my body, it is very easy for me to look for the shortest possible route to the results I want.  Then, when I get to where I am going, I like to celebrate by stopping all of the good habits I have instilled in my life and just go back to doing whatever I want, which in this case includes eating whatever occurs to me at the time and working out whenever I feel like it.

Well, that doesn't cut it for a guy who has just turned 42.  If only 34-year old me would have listened.

So, let me tell you where I am right now on my quest for fitness and wellness and just overall feeling great and liking what I see in the mirror.

Many years ago, my friend George DiGianni approached me about getting serious about accomplishing these goals.  At the time, the idea of a 21-day Body Makeover seemed pretty revolutionary to me and it appealed to my sensibilities of getting results fast and then allowing me to go on with my life.

Well, George wants you to not treat it as a cheating mechanism in your life, but rather a new way to live all of the time to continue the results.  But, as they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink.  George led me to the right plan, and honestly, for years it has never clicked for me after the 21-days.  I will explain more about that in a minute.

But, his plan, which I have believed in and participated in for years is as good as advertised.  I have done it many times and so has my wife and many of our friends who have signed up and found their results from George's strategies and supplements.  It honestly, for me, is now a part of my annual calendar.  You know, we will take a vacation here, we will do taxes here, we will clean the garage and change the oil here, and then I will get my body right here.

The 21 days only requires you to buy-in mentally.  If you do, everything in the plan is simple.  The eating is great - provided you follow the recipes and have committed to it.  I actually look forward to the eating program because it is clean foods and clean eating.  I have seen a few who were not committed and they just won't get the results if they are looking to cheat here and there or make too many exceptions.  I challenge anyone to really sell out to make this work.  If you do, the results will be there.

Basically, follow the road map for 21 days with food, your tasty morning shake, your tablets, and your exercise.

Exercise?  Yes.  You simply must make your body work to get results, but you already know that by looking in the mirror, right?

For me, I have always been a jogger, but George has certainly shared with me the truth that pushing your body for results does not happen by jogging.  Yes, there are some good effects to running 5 miles in 40 minutes, but not the same as burst training or a full body workout over a much shorter time but with much greater intensity.  Include your whole body in workouts that follow George's helpful videos and you will spend half the time getting twice the results.

This time, in the 21 days, I dropped down 15 pounds and could really tell the midsection transformation where, honestly, age has taken its toll.

I was sleeping better again and having more energy.  I am telling you, it works every time.

Now, I know what you are saying.  Bob, if it works so well, why do you allow yourself to ride the roller coaster where you need to keep doing it?

Well, 2 things.  #1 - I think doing this program annually is not a bad plan for many other reasons besides weight loss.  I think the supplements do in many ways reset your body to optimal conditions, just like going to the dentist for an annual cleaning helps keep your teeth healthy.  I think the results say to do it for many reasons beyond weight loss and I will continue to do so indefinitely.

But, #2 - you are right.  Why do I ride this roller coaster of weight?  And, to be honest, the hills and valleys keep getting gradually higher.  In the past, when dropping 15 pounds, I would be back near my early college weight.  Now, my finishing weight after the program was what my starting weight before the program would be years back.  That isn't good.

That is why I am really challenging myself to continue most of this eating protocol beyond 21 days.  But, that is where personal commitment has to happen.

I live a busy schedule and the ability to prepare and eat clean foods is not always readily available.  George will remind me to be prepared for these situations and if you are prepared, you will never have to compromise your commitment.  He is right, but that is not always something I can do.

However, I finished the program on June 27.  Here we are on July 9th, and I have not gone back to my old eating habits.  Sure, I will enjoy a nice meal (last night had some pizza with the family) and have a few nights where I allow myself to order what I want, but the rest of the time I am eating exactly what I was eating on the program (which is not difficult).  My breakfast, lunch, and snacks between are still right on point so my body is not taking in more than it is using.

Eating clean is a decision you have to make and I am finally there.  But, without the 21-day body makeover from George, I just don't think that I would ever have the motivation to fix my diet and continue to feel that I am living far healthier in my 40s than I ever did in my 20s or 30s.

It is also interesting how my kids notice this difference in my eating and exercise and how they suddenly begin to make alterations in their habits, as well.  If my wife and I can affect my kids sensibilities as they grow up, perhaps, they don't need to get to 40 to figure out that we are what we eat and to look and feel great requires a little strategy and education about how the body functions.

I only believe in this process because I have done it.  I have seen the program continue to develop and what George is doing now is better than ever.

If you want to give it a shot, George wanted me to let you know about a P1 deal right now where if you order the program here and enter the promo code: P1, you will receive $30 off your price.  That is a little price break for you, so perhaps it is time for you to give this a shot.  I have done it several times and am always happy I have done it.

This time, I am going beyond 21 days.  I would like to believe this commitment will lead me back to my college weight and have me feeling even better.  We shall see, but perhaps now is the time for you to get going on this as well.

Good luck!  If you are committed, you will get the results.  And if you are still reading this, something tells me you are already committed.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bag of Pucks: Summer Free Agency Edition

I have to admit that reading glowing reviews on the direction of an organization without equal time to cynicism is quite a change around here (at least for this particular writer).  I am sure it won't continue indefinitely, but with regards to the Dallas Stars and their 14 month run with the organizational makeover, the news continues to be better than good.  In the last several days, the Stars have again upgraded their mix with Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Patrick Eaves, and Anders Lindback.  2 Top 6 forwards in 1 day, and 2 depth additions as well.  Then, on top of that was the unexpected signing of Vern Fiddler, after most expected that he would elect to take more money and ice time elsewhere.

Frankly, the reviews are fantastic with respect to the talent acquisition department, and the continued influx of players who are now ready to add to the troops that took this franchise back to the playoffs this past spring.

Jim Nill and his staff is receiving the accolades for these acquisitions again, like the "summer of Seguin" in 2013, and there is no debate that if you were to rank the transactions in the last 14 months, the #1 move should remain the hiring of a General Manager who is regarded across the league as one of the best in the business.  The feelings, going back to last spring, were that whoever could convince Nill to take over the helm of their organization would reap the benefits for years and years.  That much has delivered to be true so far, with the future seemingly plenty bright.

However, I don't want to forget to recognize the ownership that has made this possible.  As I have said before, Joe Nieuwendyk had his stamp on the farm system full of talented kids, but was sabotaged by bankruptcy and indifferent ownership for much of his tenure.  Tom Gaglardi wanted his own guy to run things when he was ready to invest heavily in the side, and Nieuwendyk did not represent a fresh start.  Gaglardi had Nill identified by Jim Lites and company, and then got the deal done to hire his guy.  From there, it would only work with aggressive moves, cash investment, and faith in the process.

And for that, I want to make sure Gaglardi is recognized as vital and imperative to this process.  When I was younger, I counted owners of franchises as unimportant figureheads who were just the suits they would show in the crowd and pretty much interchangeable.  And maybe, in the 1980s when I had that impression, that was closer to the truth.  But, in the present day sports-landscape, either a team has an owner that has ambition to push his team to achievement or you wish you did.  An owner's motivation could be to fill his arena (to maximize profits) or to get the Cup, or both.  The Stars' last owner was driven to get a Cup and was a fan's dream.  But, when he over expanded his sports empire, he was bitten by spending more than he had and he suddenly became a fan's nightmare - An owner who could not be bothered with a team's fortunes because his financial empire was collapsing.

For that reason, we should be slow in our judgements of this owner in the long-term.  Only the actions over many, many years will reveal his full body of work.  However, based on what we do know, I am tickled that Gaglardi appears to be everything I hoped - a guy who wanted badly to put a great team together and is willing to trust brilliant people to help him do that (the one flaw in Jerry Jones' game).  So, enter Nill and then, Lindy Ruff.

But, if you wanted to know if they were satisfied with all of the good signs from 2013-14, then the first week in July 2014 should help you see.  No, they are not.

There were several things about the 2013-14 Stars that were very impressive.  However, the power play was never completely sorted out, the face-off wins were barely more than the face-off losses, and it could easily be argued that the Stars 2nd line was actually one of the best 3rd lines in the sport.

Enter Jason Spezza.

Below is a complete list of the 9 centers in hockey who were both both above 200 points in the last 4 seasons (at least 50 points a year - including the lockout year) and in the Top 50 face-off men in hockey:

Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Pavel Datsyuk, Jason Spezza, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux and Anze Kopitar.

That is the entire list.  Now, please examine that list for players who were available on the open market.

Maybe Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza.  Spezza, by the way, missed nearly the entire season in 2012-2013, otherwise, he might be well up that chart even higher.

I won't lie, I might have preferred Thornton because of my better familiarity with his complete game, his size, and his 3 years under contract, and his mastery of the power play; but it doesn't appear he will be moved by the Sharks.  Of course, he is also 4 years older than Spezza and therefore if the Stars can make sure this isn't a 1-year rental, then there are tons of things to like here.

They did give up some fine young players, Alex Chiasson the one most are familiar with.  For me, I hoped all along to flip Chiasson this summer as the center piece for a number of reasons, including my personal feelings that he was overachieving with his production early in his career (Sell high!) and that the Stars are loaded at wing in their system.  He made the most sense to be valuable to others and to be able to center a big deal, and it worked perfectly.

Spezza is not without a few concerns, as trusted voices from around the league have argued he is a bit "too perimeter" these days, but I am more than interested in seeing how a change of scenery suits him.  He seems to be exactly what they need as they have lacked a perfect #2 center compliment to Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and now they seem to have it.  Add to that Ales Hemsky on a reasonable 3 year deal on a proven winger who turns 31 in August, and the Stars have a 2nd line just like that.  Valeri Nichushkin goes to one line and the other wing can go to either Erik Cole, Colton Sceviour, or my pick, young Brett Ritchie by Thanksgiving.

That fixes your depth issue as Eakin/Roussel/Garbutt are a fine #3 line that jumps on the opposition #1s, your face-off issue - with Spezza, Fiddler, Benn, and Eakin (who is by far the worst, but partly because he is taking draws against that list of centers above), your power play issue as Spezza can really add something there, and you really haven't lost anything of note off your playoff team.

Wow.

Now, many of you are asking how this fixes the blue-line, and I did not forget I have been pounding that table for years and years.  But, the idea that they could grow and develop their defense group without losing any of them in their pursuit of Spezza and Seguin is fantastic work.  Now, we expect the full arrivals of Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and John Klingberg in the next 12 months, with Trevor Daley/Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn/Brenden Dillon providing strong play on the way into the playoffs last year.  It isn't Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but it is homegrown (mostly), reasonably priced, and young with younger pushing them from behind.

The bottom line there is that the best defense is to keep the puck.  And the Stars weren't Los Angeles or Chicago in puck possession or Corsi last year, but they were in the Top 10 with the truly strong teams in the NHL.  Now, they are adding a formidable 2nd line and the ability to win draws at a very high rate (so they start plays with the puck).  This means you are not dropping back and playing defense in your own end all day, and that keeps your defensemen from having to defend.

It looks good on paper, and it looked good on the ice last year.  This seems to make too much sense not to try for the prices they paid.

Now, back to Gaglardi - I have received a number of questions about how many players are on the roster and how close the Stars are to the cap ceiling.  That's right - the cap CEILING!  This tells us that they are looking to make more moves, I would think to gain back some cap room that will allow them to make a move at the deadline to give them that final boost over the finish line next season.  Yes, kids, we are back to the days of considering the cap ceiling, not signing Eric Nystrom off waivers to get into compliance with the salary cap floor like the Stars did 2011.

There is great competition to overcome and higher hills to climb than merely the #8 seed, but if this doesn't get you fired up for Opening Night, I don't know what to tell you.

This thing is being built right before your very eyes.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Morning After: Belgium 2, USA 1 - USA Eliminated



In the end, 31 teams go home from the World Cup with a sense of disappointment and sadness.

Tuesday was our turn.

After an excruciatingly tense evening in Brazil that saw the United States once again on the defending side of a contest with a world power, the levee finally broke in extra time as Romelu Lukaku came on and with a combination of great speed and power was able to drive past tired US defenders and help create 2 goals.

The Americans pulled one back on the first World Cup touch of the ball for young Julian Green, but with 14 minutes to find an equalizer, the run finally ended as the 2014 World Cup collapsed under the relentless siege of the Belgians.

The hero for the USA on Tuesday is consistent with a career where he has generally been considered one of the best in the world, goalkeeper Tim Howard.  Howard, whether it is for his club teams in England over the years or his national team in the stars and stripes, is always ready for that big moment and once again demonstrated his quality on the world's largest stage.

Save after heroic save was made by Howard as he urged on his team with encouragement and chastisement as the afternoon went along after he would deflect another speeding missile away from the net.  He was magnificent, and in making an absurd 16 saves (the most since the 1962 World Cup), kept the USA in a match that they really had little business being in.

But, there they were.  92 minutes into the match, remaining level at 0-0.  It was still there to be won if a miracle goal could be scored to support the insane effort of Howard.  The ball was lobbed into the area and there, Jermaine Jones fought to flick the ball on with his head into the path of a charging Chris Wondolowski.  Wondo is the people's champ, and someone it seemed most soccer people were rooting to get a chance to contribute to the World Cup roster back when choices were being made on who gets the tickets to Brazil.

So, the moment happened.  Wondo had the ball fall to his feet with nobody between him and the goal, but the Belgium keeper, Thibaut Courtois.  Courtois knows he is at the mercy of Wondo, so he lunges at the ball to hopefully break the concentration of the striker who has him dead.  If Wondo can just simply side foot the ball on the ground, the USA is in the Quarterfinals.

Instead, things happened fast and the ball hits Wondolowski's foot and goes over the goal.  The broadcast seemed to indicate as it happened that it was called offside.  But, it wasn't.  Ian Darke clarified that the call was simply the flag for a goal-kick, and if Wondo had finished the play, the goal was a good one.  But, the moment happened and the USA missed it.  In a match they had no business winning, they actually could have pulled the ultimate robbery at the final whistle.

The moment passed.




Meanwhile, in the space between regulation and extra time, Belguim smartly substituted one young world class striker, Origi, for another in Lukaku, who was their first choice when the tournament started.  Both troubled the US all day long, and to have fresh legs available and a striker who had something to prove in the extra 30 minutes was a luxury that the Americans could simply not deal with.

Kevin De Bruyne scored the first goal of the match 3 minutes into the extra 30 on a play that Lukaku generated down the right flank, and the De Bruyne - who had been excellent all day - came back against the grain before beating Howard at the far post in a very precise finish.  Then, Lukaku barreled in for a 2nd with a fantastic finish that Howard could only wave at in vain as it threatened to puncture the back of the net.

As mentioned before, Julian Green was then brought on by Jurgen Klinsmann at the break in the 30, but personally, the belief here is that this substitute needed to happen after the first goal.  It seemed clear that in the late stages of another exhausting match, energy at the top of the attack was called for, and once it was clear that Jozy Altidore had no ability to assist, then Green was the only option.  The team needed a boost of energy and to wait until it was 2-0 seemed to lose the plot.

Nevertheless, when Green came on, he was able to cut the lead in half with one touch and perfect finish.

But, even as the goal was scored, most wondered if there would be even a sniff for an equalizer.

And then, amazingly, they earned a free kick from a considerable distance.  What happened next is shown below (Courtesy of Gooooal on Vine) and has to be a candidate for one of the best executed set pieces in this World Cup.  It was orchestrated beautifully and no doubt practiced endlessly for such an occasion.

Michael Bradley would take the kick from 30 yards away, but would side foot it to a cutting Wondolowski who had come around the fence and back towards Bradley.  Then, from the opposite side, Clint Dempsey would time his run from the wall of Belgians towards the goal and Wondolowski would have a chance to angle a one-timer pass right into his path.



It happened just as they hoped and as you can see above, if Dempsey can settle the pass just a bit better, they again have a chance to at least force penalty kicks to advance.  Instead, the ball gets away from Dempsey, Courtois again comes off his line to trouble the shooter, and the chance gets away from the United States.

Those two moments above are the moments that will be talked about for years for those of us who enjoy the USMNT this much.  The World Cup is a passionate event for the simple reasons that you only get a shot history once every 4 years.  When it sails by with close-calls and regrets, you have a story to tell.

But, in fairness to reality, it seems important to note that the United States had a chance to win that match, but were clearly not a team that deserved to win.  Of course, we have been reminded that "deserve" has nothing to do with the outcome of these matches, nevertheless, the US has to be concerned with some realities about their 4 match stay at the World Cup.

Most notably, according to research done by Steve Fenn, the USA was a -53 in shot differential in the 4 matches in the tournament.  That is a stunning average of over 13 per match.  We can debate the relative difficulty level of shots and whether it is a tell-all stat or simply one that should be acknowledged, but conceding 13 more shots than you attempt every match is simply not a recipe for long-term success.

And that comes back to some of the more over-reaching story lines about the state of affairs for the United States National Team in general.  The resolve is awesome.  The battle is fantastic.  The talent pool is expanding.  The youth is improving (although, compare teenagers or players on the roster under 20 or 22 or 24 with Belgium and see how we measure up (hint: It isn't good)).

But, overall, for the USA to continue its upward trajectory toward the real world powers in this sport, the improvement will have to continue to come through the technical skills that are required to possess the ball more.  And not simple possession numbers that might mislead, but the ability to boss a match in the opposing half with skill and precision that puts the opponent on its heels.

If we were to be fair, we would say that the USA never owned the ball in the 4 matches, aside from small slivers of attacks.  Overall, Ghana had the ball for most of the match, Portugal was the closest to even, and then Germany and Belgium were both able to make the US chase.  This depletes energy for late stages of the match when you need reserves available.

The USA doesn't choose to play this way.  In fact, when Klinsmann was hired, the talk was about more attacks and possession based game plans.  However, you can plan all you want.  Until you have the players in the midfield who can carry out this plan, you are always going to be stuck playing the only style you can survive with - which appears to be to play with 10 behind the ball and a lone striker who will attempt to set up counter attacks (a tactic hurt badly without Jozy available for the entire WC run).

This, of course, in the international game is not something that you fix in free agency.  This requires patience as a new generation attempt to replace the old between now and 2018 or 2022.  Right now, hopefully, there are American 14 year olds who will be able to play 50/50 ball with the 14 year olds in Belgium or Germany.  As most people know, that is a lot to expect, but the USA has made tremendous strides.  Now, it is up to the next generation to hopefully carry on for what Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Michael Bradley have done.  Bradley should still be available in 2018, but the rest are likely done being the best players in the USMNT mix.

Now, it is time to take this major progress of qualifying for the World Cup and routinely advancing out of Group Play to the next level.  But, that is for Green and DeAndre Yedlin and others to accomplish.

It was a great run and proof that Klinsmann is the man for the job.  This team was noticed around the world for its brave defending and resolve.  But, to keep this from being its identity, they are going to need more special players who can take over a match with their skill.

It will be interesting to see what this all looks like for 2018.

Until then, it is great to know that what has been accomplished.  The team did so much and the scenes from around the country might be the most enduring images.  The pictures of thousands living and dying with the fortunes on the field are images that most of our sports ventures do not offer.  We all have our own teams and segments of society that get us to stand up for a moment.

But, the national team?  That brings everyone to the same agenda and cause.  And in 2014, that is something that seems a bit rare in society.  Who knew it was a soccer team that would get us to find out the joys of all being on the same page?

Anyway, for our boys, the trip to Brazil was both successful and disappointing.  Great moments and gutting, as well.

But, they can return with their heads up high.  They squeezed everything they could out of what they had.

Now, we just need to find more.



Friday, June 27, 2014

The Morning After: Germany 1, USA 0 - Both Teams Advance



It is a great day.

But, to understand why, you must broaden your horizons and grasp that this is not about 90 minutes against one of the favorites to leave with the World Cup trophy in 16 days time, but rather this is about nearly 300 minutes against favored opponents and surviving enough of the gauntlet to proudly advance to the knockout phase.

That, granted, is certainly outside of the normal structure of one game, one result, but this group play is a bit of an odd duck across the sporting universe.  4 teams are randomly drawn into a group, and then you spend 2 weeks at the World Cup playing each other to decide who the Top 2 teams will be to advance.

Therefore your first match against Ghana - with the victory taken from John Brooks' cameo that started this fire - was enough to basically do all of the heavy lifting that put the USA through and Ghana behind the 8-ball.  Meanwhile, in that same first match, Portugal lost its mind and then the match in a very one-sided demolition from Germany which also basically advanced the Germans and set the Portuguese on a very rough journey that has since ended in tears.

If Portugal had been able to beat the USA in Match-day 2, they would have overcome that issue and then beaten Ghana and advanced.  But, they didn't.  They played most of the match against the USA as the 2nd best, with the American controlling big parts of the contest and basically had the victory before an amazing smash and grab job by Ronaldo late to snatch a draw and the slightest ray of hope for Thursday.  They would need the Americans to fold up against the Germans as badly as they did to have any chance, and the USA did not let that happen.

So, despite the news anchor snark and the twitter jokes that are out there, yes, the USA advanced on a day they lost.  But, it was the degrees of the loss that were essentially the tie-breaker between the US and Portugal from their contests against the Germans.  And, when the USA loses, 1-0, but Portugal loses to the same team, 4-0, the answer is clear.  The USA had a massive 3 goal difference on the first tie-breaker of goal differential.

Therefore, as I said yesterday on Twitter, "USA will not be issuing apologies for advancing out of possibly the toughest group in the toughest competition. So don’t wait up for one."

The match itself was not one that was worth remembering, except for the idea that it was a magical 2-screen experience where people wanting the USA to advance knew that only 1 screen needed to produce the preferred result for the happy ending in Group G.  Either the United States gets a result against Germany or Portugal-Ghana would have to cooperate in the form of anything but a Ghana win, basically.

That put people like me in the odd position of hoping Cristiano Ronaldo could do magical things, and to his credit, he was on point all day long in a game he and his team-mates were playing for pride.  They knew they had almost no chance of everything falling right, but did want to leave the tournament that Messi and Neymar are dominating with his head held high and I would have to say from watching him buzzing the Ghana goal all day that he did just that.  And when he scored his goal late in the match to put the Portuguese out front in the 80th minute, the USA may not have found out instantly, but they basically were then playing a match that lacked importance.

And that was lucky for them (luck that they created by beating Ghana and nearly beating Portugal in the days before, mind you) because most of the match against the mighty Germans was not the Americans finest work.  They defended almost all day and even their counters lacked a whole lot of promise.  On their best day, I would love to see the US mount a better surge against a mighty side like Germany, but that would require Jozy Altidore, an on-form Michael Bradley, and not being on short rest after playing in Manaus with just 3 days in between.

It was overall disappointing to see the boys on their heels so much, but that is where Tim Howard is very handy.  He is nails under siege and while he is not perfect, he is about as perfect a player at that position as we could have.  His composure and ability to traffic cop a situation is mighty handy.  Also, Dallas' Omar Gonzalez entered the fray and while moments were tense, I think everyone would have to be pretty pleased with his debut on this stage.  In fact, yesterday was a lineup that featured 7 players from Major League Soccer in the 11, and another in DeAndre Yedlin coming on as a substitute who adds great dynamic speed to the right flank and suddenly we see that the top shelf of MLS is a bit more capable than some are willing to admit.

There were close calls and weathering storms, for sure.  There were big saves and too few counter attacks with bite.  In stoppage time late, the US sniffed around an equalizer, but never quite found that moment.  But, since Ronaldo found his, you are not certain the USA was throwing everything at the Germans that they could.

It didn't matter.  They did their work earlier.  They did not lose their way to the next group.  They had already accomplished more than Ghana or Portugal could make up.  Good for them.  Don't penalize their hard work accomplished early because you cannot grasp the concept of group play (I apologize for acknowledging the snark, but come on!).

So that means that for the 3rd time in 4 World Cups, the USA is advancing out of Group Play.  It is becoming routine for our little guys.  We used to never make World Cups, but now we make them every time.  Then, the next hurdle was to advance regularly.  We might be there.  According to Peter Welpton, here is the entire list of 8 countries who have advanced in 3 of last 4 World Cups to the Round 16:  Brazil, Germany, Argentina, The Netherlands, England, Mexico, Spain, and the United States of America.

We now belong on that list with those world powers - and our 2 natural rivals (England and Mexico) even though I am sure they still won't admit we are in their class.  Delicious.  Nobody from Asia, Africa, or Central America.  Just the powers of Europe and South America.

They are still miles ahead, but I am telling you, the progress is remarkable.

Now, valuable rest which might even bring Jozy back into the mix.  Belgium is next.  They will be favored, but it seems like a match where the USA can make noise.

But, make no mistake, this is now the gravy phase.  If they can work their way past Belgium, no doubt Argentina and Messi will be waiting.  The stars on the other side of the field will eventually bring this run to a close, but with great pride they should line up on Tuesday and go for it.  This is a great time to have a National team this easy to love.

Keep it going.

Let's Do This.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Morning After: USA 2, Portugal 2




"In this sport, "Deserve" has nothing to do with it." - Sir Ian Darke, ESPN

Odds are that if you are reading this, you don't need to be sold on the emotional roller coaster that soccer can provide and how that is amplified to its maximum on the World Cup's stage.  Odds are that you already know that this is a game that is fought for nearly 2 hours and that the ball is touched thousands of times, but only one touch here and one touch there of the thousands will decide the outcome.  So, I will spare you the long list of history teaching this again and again.

But, on Sunday, with Ghana-Germany playing to its preferred result on Saturday, the United States actually had a chance to be the first team to clinch admission into the knockout stages from Group G, and also a chance to win the whole doggone group (and still can) with a total of 4 points in the final 2 matches.  

They were facing a Portugal side that was a wounded animal and one that lacked self-confidence after just being dismantled by that same German side that would have to be counted amongst the favorites to hold up the trophy in 20 days time.  Portugal had 2 key players (Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almedia) missing with injuries, their center back Pepe out with a red card, and possibly the world's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, not at his full strength.  This was the time to show them to the door.

Unfortunately, it isn't that easy.  Not for a bunch in the USMNT that never takes the easy route.  And the fires started early as a harmless ball into the area in the 5th minute ended up as one of the truly disastrous touches that this national team has endured in years.  Geoff Cameron, he who played so perfectly against Ghana, almost whiffed on a clearance, but it would have been better if he did.  In his partial connection with the ball, he lofted the ball over his mates and right to the shocked, but waiting Nani near the right post.  Nani, who has just a part of what he once did, can still finish from that close as Howard anticipated a low shot and Nani roofed it without remorse, 1-0, Portugal.

And that quickly, the balances switched from Portugal being emotional damaged to the confident side in just 5 minutes.  They then bossed the next 10 minutes as well as again, like against Ghana, you were concerned about the ability of the USA to possess and create.

But, eventually, composure was gained and the US did just that with a flurry of opportunities for the balance of the 1st half, in which they put many shots at goal, albeit many from long distance.  Still, they were pushing back and easing into the match in a way that indicated they were not outclassed over overmatched against the heavily favored Portuguese.  

Then, right before the half, Nani almost put Portugal into open waters with a shot from distance that caught the post after squeezing through Howard's mitts.  The ball could have easily found the back of the net, but instead caught the post flush and bounced right back into the path of Eder who had his own shot saved by an amazing job of recovery and balance from Howard who was able to get his left hand on the ball and direct it over the post.  That would keep the US close at the half and with plenty of belief moving forward.

In the 2nd half, there were moments of nerves early, again, but for the most part, the US was alive in attack.  Michael Bradley was on the ball and again not at his top form, wasting a few surges with poor decisions or execution.  Fabian Johnson with his diving runs from that right back spot were useful, and after he was sprung loose by Graham Zusi in the 55th minute, he was able to pull the ball back inside before the Portugal keeper, Beto, could reach him.  He centered it back to a sprinting Bradley who touched the ball at the top of the 6 yard box, and Beto was down and out.  This left Bradley with a massive net to shoot for and only one Portugal defender - Ricardo Costa - in the center of the goal mouth.  Bradley tries to get velocity on the shot, but has no accuracy as he basically shoots the ball in the one place you could not - right at Costa.  It should have been a goal, but instead a wasted opportunity that might haunt them.

The attacks kept coming from the US, many off counters as Portugal was trying to feed Ronaldo with varying results.  But, the goal that leveled the match in the 64th was off what appeared to be a rather harmless corner from Zusi that caught two Portugal heads on the way out of the area, but right to the feet of Jermaine Jones, a player who has absolutely impressed in these first 2 matches, and he moved around Nani back to the center of the field and let go a screamer that bent back inside the far post and settled in the back corner before Beto could even move.  Amazing goal from distance and an equalizer to remember, 1-1.

Now, would the USA play for the draw?  After all, that was a very reasonable mission for the day and would honestly be an outcome that would put fate very much in their hands. 

Jurgen Klinsmann used one of his substitutes, in the back as he brought on another of his curious additions to the team, Seattle's 20-year old DeAndre Yedlin for Alejandro Bedoya and then pushed him into more of a midfield spot in front of Fabian Johnson to run up and down the flank and cause issues.  What a spot to put the kid into, but it was yet another move that Klinsmann got perfect as in the 81st minute - 9 minutes after Yedlin joined the match - he crossed a pass he received from Jones back into the middle for Dempsey.  The pass was deflected back to Bradley, who had his untidy shot deflected to Zusi again.  Zusi, sent a left foot back into the 6 and into the path of Dempsey who scored off his stomach in the 81st minute and somehow the Americans were in front, 2-1.

The ambition really was something notable about the growth of this USMNT, and the idea that they were not going to park the bus at 1-1, but rather go try to find the winner.  And it appeared that they did.

What happened next was a series of small events that ended up possibly conspiring to disappoint the day.  As the 80th minute became the 90th, the effects of the day in the Amazon were seen to all.  The very unconventional idea of a water break in the 1st half, perhaps should have been considered again in the 2nd.  Players on both sides looked positively exhausted, as the temperatures and the energy expended required a vicious toll.  DeMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, and Matt Besler all had time on the ground with either cramps or exhaustion, or both.  

Portugal kept pushing players forward and had a series of offside calls go against Ronaldo and his level of energy seemed to be near its bottom, as well.

The USA had been 0-16-4 all time in the World Cup when conceding the first goal, but now were moments from that first win.  4 minutes of stoppage time became 5, because of another American substitution (Omar Gonzalez for Zusi), but the defense was sound throughout.  You could tell that most of the 22 on the field had slowed considerably, but desperation on both sides were allowing for small surges through the extra minutes.

Yedlin and Chris Wondolowski had both come on to help run out the clock, and in the 95th minute, it all appeared done and dusted.  Portugal sent a ball up in the air to midfield, which was headed back into the center of the Portuguese half where Michael Bradley tried to settle it.  As he did, he was converged upon by 4 in dark jerseys and Eder took the ball away.  From there, the ball went to Nani at midfield and out wide right to Ronaldo.  He had space and a bit of time, and curled a cross perfectly into the path of the oncoming Valera who had lost his marks and pounded the ball off his head and past Howard.

Photo from @TaylorTwellman showing how well the defense is set up before the goal.

On the final touch of the game, the draw was achieved for Portugal, and the win was ripped from the clutches of the Americans.  

Bradley has been blamed for not retaining possession, but with most of his mates withdrawn in their own half, he was outnumbered.  But, the good news about withdrawn troops is that they are in the right spot for such an occasion.  And, they were.  

So, then what could have been done?  Should Beasley have simply taken Ronaldo down on a foul?  Well, that is easy to say now, but if you would have given Portugal a set piece from the corner of the area with Ronaldo on the ball, he would have been roasted.  I imagine he made the right decision.

What about Tim Howard?  Should he have come off his line and challenged the cross?  Well, from where I sat, it looked like the perfect curling cross that was right out of Howard's reach even if he did go for it.  I think staying home was his right decision, too.

Then who?  Well, for me, two exhausted players in Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron looked like they did not have the wheels to chase Valera who had only been on for 25 minutes, and it is possible Cameron didn't even know he was there until it was too late.  Johnson will likely see this play in his sleep for years to come if Thursday doesn't go right.  I imagine he either has to run with Valera or make sure Cameron does.  He lets him go and it had the worst possible result.

But, if you look at that play 100 times, you will see that the USA was set up tactically in almost perfect form.  They had 5 guys back against 1 Portuguese sortie running to the far post and Ronaldo found him with a magical ball that you almost have to just accept as brilliant.  In a situation where the margins are non-existent, they gave just an inch and were made to pay.

And yet, they got the point against Portugal that they needed when they woke up.  They had to avoid a loss and they did.  It was a gutting way to go and the effects of playing in those conditions and then turning around to play Germany on Thursday at lunch is asking a lot.  

However, they have set themselves up where most scenarios play in their favor.  Depending on what you look at, the computers give them between a 65 and 85% chance of advancement on Thursday with all of the possible outcomes of the two matches that will be played concurrently.  

They accomplished a lot, and yet, they all feel that they deserved so much more.  Well, as Ian Darke said during the match, "Deserve has nothing to do with it."

If they want to play past Thursday, it appears their work is not done.  But, once again on Sunday, they showed that they have a quality, resolve, and spirit that is very likely the best we have ever seen on the World Cup stage.

Our boys belong.  Now rest up.

The Germans are next.




Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Morning After: United States 2, Ghana 1



You know, it is a weird thing following the World Cup.  We spend so much time in sports telling ourselves and each other to simmer down and calm yourself because there is a lot left to accomplish and plenty of work to be done.

That is true in the World Cup and it is true in the American League West.

However, as we continue to progress as a soccer nation, we should not lose sight of where we have been on the way to where we might be going in the next 20 years.  So let's quickly review before ever mentioning the name John Brooks.

Here are eight dates I would like you to consider:

July 13, 1930
July 17, 1930
June 29, 1950
June 22, 1994
June 5, 2002
June 17, 2002
June 23, 2010
June 16, 2014

The last date on that list was yesterday, made historic by a late and dramatic finish in Natal, Brazil, where the Americans conceded in the final stretch, only to recover and to throw a dagger into their nemesis from Africa before the clock expired.  But, those dates above are the 8 times in the history of our sport and our nation where the United States had won a single match in the World Cup.

To you new to the team (and I certainly am new enough that I only know about and witnessed the last 5 on that list), understand that yes, the World Cup is just starting and that the United States have accomplished almost nothing relative to the tournament itself.  But, that list above should be enough to demonstrate to you and anyone you speak to today that yesterday was a very significant accomplishment.  To win a match in the World Cup is a big deal for about 200 of the 208 countries that play this sport on an international level.  I realize we aspire to be one of the world powers soon that can act unimpressed with the accomplishment, but for now, we must savor and celebrate when it is entirely appropriate.  And to put a match into the win column in Brazil this summer in such stunning fashion, well, let's just say I won't have any problem with you wearing your USA gear again today.

In other words, you can save your discussions of style points for someone else.  When a win is secured in World Cup play in a tournament where only the best are present, you take your win and you embrace it with your whole body.  I received your emails and your concerns about the Ghana match and we will discuss them at length below, but my overall feeling will be that on a day that they win the coveted 3 points and survive a very difficult matchup, I won't be involved in losing sight of what exactly that means both in the short term (advancing from the group that some consider to be the most difficult in the World Cup) and the long term (we are averaging about 1 win a decade in this tournament).

The match was odd, but in the way you dream of.  When Clint Dempsey crashed in from the left with 3 magical touches that resulted in the fastest goal in US history in the World Cup, it set the game on its ear before it even started.  Jermaine Jones had a perfect touch on the pass that sprung Dempsey, and then the cut back against the grain was the skill we are told our nation doesn't have for this stage, followed by Dempsey doing what he has done everywhere he has ever gone in this sport - find the back of the net.  Or in this case, the inside of the far post, and in doing so put the United States in the most uncomfortable of positions in this tournament, and frankly one that most of us don't really know how to deal with; ahead.

The United States almost never is ahead in the World Cup, and honestly when you install tactics to attack for 6 months, you almost don't bother figuring out how to deal with your attack being successful - because it is the World Cup, silly.  If you have watched this sport for any length of time, you know that in a matchup of rather equal abilities, sometimes a first minute goal can cause the team with the lead to change on the fly and attempt to improvise into protecting for the next 90 minutes.  It is easy for us to encourage them to go find their 2nd and 3rd goals, too, but when the margins are so small, teams are not going to risk their good fortunes lightly.

So, the U.S. clearly backed off the gas and allowed the amazing talents and speed of Ghana to control the ball for most of the next 80 minutes.  At times, it was rather harmless possession, but after the intermission, Ghana's intentions were far more focused on affecting the scoreboard with their attacks.

Meanwhile, the health concerns for the Americans were stacking up, with the very key blow being in the 21st minute when Jozy Altidore had a step on a long ball, only to pull up in agony as his hamstring gave out.  If his reactions are the slightest indication, he is surely lost for the tournament, leaving a fantastic void up front for Jurgen Klinsmann of a striker who can hold up the ball and allow team-mates to join him in pressure-relieveing possession.

Without him, the U.S. even packed it in more behind the ball and Ghana was allowed to dictate terms for more than an hour straight, without repercussions.  Jozy has had his issues and faults, but he remains vital to this roster because there is nobody else who does what he does.  Aron Johannsson came on, but they are players with very different skill sets and the Icelandic goal-scorer really did not assist too much in his debut.

Hurting the cause more, though, was uncharacteristically bad play by the key member of the USMNT, Michael Bradley.  He is the engine that drives the entire vehicle, and on a day where he looked all out of sorts, the result is even more important.  His passing, normally one of his best traits, was wildly off mark and he just wasn't near his normal quality.  In fact, Dempsey had a tough game making his mark after the goal - the broken nose certainly seemed to cause issues - and DeMarcus Beasley did not have a day to write home about.  And that is why so many players making their World Cup debuts had to play well.

And you know, for all of the gnashing of teeth about the inclusions of Kyle Beckerman in the 11, or putting John Brooks in the 23, or any and all Landon Donovan-related roster issues that have been put on Klinsmann, we should acknowledge that he has decided to do things his way and not to reward past performances with spots.  He has started from scratch in many regards.  And while he does so in a rather abrasive way, we should look at all of the rookies on this stage last night in Natal and notice that most of those who played the best had nothing to do with the 2010 World Cup side.

Jermaine Jones was great, Beckerman was strong in defending, and even Alejandro Bedoya had his moments.  The back was anchored by Geoff Cameron who looked natural playing center back, and Matt Besler who now has the States holding its breath about his fitness level moving forward, as his hamstring put John Brooks onto center stage in the final few moments.

In the 2nd half, aided by the attacks featuring the dangerous Asamoah Gyan, Atsu, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin-Prince Boetang, Ghana tightened the screws.  They tested the defense and Tim Howard again and again.  Howard's superb rebound control held off the Black Stars until the 81st minute, when finally some beautiful touch passing including a precise back heel from Gyan freed up Andre Ayew for near post, outside-of-the-foot finish that Howard never had a chance at.  The idea to try to defend for 89 minutes proved to be the wrong choice as they conceded in the late stages.  Heads hung and shoulders slumped.  Now, could they just hold on for the draw?

After the game was tied, it was clear that the Americans were able to hold the ball more.  As if their attitude changed, suddenly they were no longer pinned in their own half of the field, and Fabian Johnson won a very rare corner kick by battling for the ball over the end line.  This led to the moment to scream at.

John Brooks is without a doubt the player on the USMNT that I know least about.  We have hardly ever seen him play and certainly he did not impress when we did.  So, when he was brought on for Besler, each unsteady touch was noticed.  So, for him to get on the end of that Graham Zusi corner kick just demonstrated again what we don't know.  We don't know how someone will react at that moment of truth, and whether they will take that chance and make it there own historical landmark.  Brooks had to get around Ghana's center back John Boye to get there, and he did, heading the ball to the ground and into the net.  It was magical.  For proof, check out this camera phone version of the moment.

2-1.

From there, the Americans had to dig in and kill off nearly another 10 minutes, but this time their composure was on point and aside from another bruise to Dempsey, all was decided.  For the 8th time in history, the United States had won a match at the World Cup.

Then, thanks to Portugal doing things they often do on this stage, the door is now open for the USA to advance out of group play - something that most thought they were unlikely to do.

Klinsmann has made his mark and John Brooks is now famous.  It was not easy and it certainly would not gain style points for the 80 minutes of rope-a-dope bus parking in between the ambitious attacks, but 3 points is secured.

And for that, while we await injury reports, rest happily on doing what had to be done to a foe that was owed a thing or two from the United States.

Plenty of work to be done, but the work accomplished can be savored this week.





Thursday, June 12, 2014

Musings and Observations from the Original Cramp-Gate

The following is from P1 Jordan Newsom who can be found on Twitter here.  The rest is self explanatory.  Enjoy.  

Over the last week, I have become obsessed fascinated with the lesser-known Game 4 of the 1997 NBA Finals. The precursor to the famous (erroneously named) “Flu Game”, where Michael Jordan hung 38 on the Utah Jazz while battling a severe bought of food poisoning. At the time, it was believed to be the flu, but it became known later on that bad pizza was the culprit.

Why have I become fascinated with this game? Because of LeBron James, of course. The NBA world revolves around LeBron, so when a faulty air conditioner in San Antonio forced his body to shut down in the form of a full body cramp, the haters took to Twitter to call him out, claiming that the G.O.A.T. (MJ, not LeBron) would never tap out because of cramps. As the equal and opposite reaction law played out, the LeBron apologists also jumped onto Twitter to try to prove that yes, MJ was human too.

Fast forward to Bob Sturm’s Twitter feed that included a Grantland writer, an author of a book about Michael Jordan, and Keith Olbermann, all of whom contested that MJ did get cramps in Game 4 of the ’97 Finals and even asked out of the game during crunch time.



Bob has posted the full video of Game 4, here, in order to prove that this was not the case. I have since watched the game twice in full and become fascinated with many aspects of the game, the series, and the players involved. Given that I was 15 at the time of this game and my basketball consciousness didn’t really start until the Dirk era began, I didn’t really know anything about this game or series other than what happened in Game 5, and who won the series. Below are one hundred observations about that Game 4, backed by 17 years of hindsight. Feel free to watch along while you read to enhance the weirdness of the experience.

Pre-Game:
1.     Marv Albert is a tiny, tiny man, who has yet to be introduced to a tailor.
2.     Prior to player introductions, the Utah Jazz bear mascot comes scaling down a rope from the rafters with a set of sparklers shooting from the top of his head. Apparently this was an attempt to get into the head of the Bulls players as the menacing bear rained fire down onto the heads of players and coaches. Mark that down as one many things you could do back in the 90’s that you would never be able to get away with now.
3.      Unfortunately, the bear made it out unharmed.

1st Quarter:
4.     John Stockton: 6’1, 170 lbs. Jeff Hornacek 6’3, 190 lbs. Not a misprint. AND they were a very good defensive team!
5.     Karl Malone is an uncontrollable beast. Yes, I know he was the MVP that year and one of the greatest scorers of all time, but you forget what it looked like to watch him do it. He’s basically a slightly smaller LeBron. He can shoot from anywhere, post up, pass, rebound, and defend almost any position.
6.     The Utah Jazz pick-and-roll offense looks an awful lot like what San Antonio has been running the last couple of years. It’s beautiful to watch when run by super-efficient teammates like Stockton and Malone or Parker and Duncan. Of course, it helps to be stacked with perimeter shooters as well.
7.     I know Jordan has checked into the game, but only because I double checked the box score. So far, M.I.A. with 4:30 left in the first quarter.
8.     And…. As soon as I type that, he has a beautiful turnaround J over Bryon Russell.
9.     Still, the entire Bulls offense looks disinterested. Scottie Pippen has yet to take a shot.
10.  The same Scottie that drained 7 three pointers in Game 3.
11.  Greg Ostertag grabs an offensive rebound out of the hands of Malone, turns back toward him and looks off both Malone and a wide open Hornacek on the three point line and decided to go up with it with both Rodman and Jordan on him. How do you think that turned out?
12.  That’s the kind of move where Greg Popovich will sit you for the rest of the game.
13.  I’m talking to you, Tiago Splitter.
14.  I’d love to tell you what the score is, but they only post it during timeouts for a total of two seconds.
15.  Can’t wait to go see the new Travolta-Cage movie, Face Off.
16.  Michael Jordan’s confidant, Ahmad Rashad, says that MJ was trying to pace himself in Game 3 so that he wouldn’t be worn out in the fourth, but that he’s clearly going all out in this game. I think Ahmad and I have different definitions of what ‘going all out’ looks like.
17.  Ahmad does tell us that Dennis Rodman has gone to the locker room with about two minutes left in the first quarter with an upset stomach….more on that later.
18.  Bison Dele sighting. Repeat, Bison Dele sighting.
19.  Speaking of Dele, the Bulls have a strange roster. Their starting SF Pippen (6’8) was taller than their starting PF Rodman (6’7), and the other SF Kukoc (6’10) was taller than the backup C Dele (6’9). Still, that overall length and versatility has proven to be a huge asset over the smaller Jazz lineups.
20.  Karl Malone’s passing is killing Chicago, however at the end of one, the score is only Chicago 16, Utah 21.
2nd Quarter:
21.  I’ve got to get me a Velo from Philips Magnavox. It’s like the power of a computer, in the palm of your hand. Or like the first generation of the Nintendo DS, I’m not sure.
22.  Hornacek and Malone have all but five of the team’s 21 points so far.
23.  Bill Walton was clearly at the top of his game in this era. Very critical, but still keeps a very analytical perspective and gives real insight into what the player he’s laying into should be doing differently.
24.  The Jazz were basically running the NBA version of the Chip Kelly offense. Every possession is an opportunity to pass, and every pass has a minimum of three options for where to go with the ball. 
25.  Scottie just hit his first field goal with 8:24 left in the 2nd Q.
26.  So. Many. White. Guys.
27.  This looks like a hell of a rec league pickup game with all the white guys with knee braces, overly hairy legs and business haircuts.
28.  Then there’s the most country guy of them all, Karl Malone.
29.  Warning: this next comment will be about how things were better back in the day:
30.  Things were better back in the day. The refs let the teams play. You’re not seeing ticky-tack calls. You’re not seeing super star calls. They’re just calling what’s there and if a player doesn’t like it, the refs don’t care. They don’t put up with any talking. Just go back and play.
31.  Conversely, it is odd to not see anyone throwing their palms up like Tim Duncan, or throwing their head back to draw a call when they were never touched like Dwayne Wade.
32.  There’s a Molson beer commercial with Rick Moranis and he says to his buddy that you can’t drink the beer on TV because it’s illegal. Is that for real?
33.  Jim Gray reports that Jazz had to call a timeout because Greg Ostertag came into the game and didn’t know who he was supposed to guard. Turns out it was Tony Kukoc, who just drained two wide open three pointers. Oops.
34.  I don’t know how people could watch games without knowing what the score is and how much time is on the clock. I know that it’s within 1:30 left in the game and that Chicago is winning, by a few points, but that’s really all I know at this point.
35.  They finally post the clock for the remaining :45, but still no score listed. Are they worried about it covering part of the action? Or just didn’t have the knowledge that this was something the consumers wanted?
36.  I’ll be damned if Bryon Russell didn’t almost rim in a shot at the buzzer from ¾ down the court. That could have been huge for Utah’s momentum.
37.  At the half, MJ is 5/11 from the field with 10 points, 1 rebound and 3 assists.
38.  Malone cooled off and started deferring too much even when teammates weren’t hitting their shots. Currently sitting at 3/8 shooting, 9 points, 3 boards, 3 assists.

3rd Quarter:
39.  I wonder how much money it would take to convince LeBron to get the Karl Malone toilet bowl haircut and grow a goatee. He would seriously look like Malone’s clone at that point.
40.  And then he could grow the fro out and look like a Hulk-sized Ron Washington.
41.  Luke Longley is just a tick above being as useless as Shawn Bradley. He puts in more effort, but not much more.
42.  Give me Luke Walton over Luke Longley.
43.  Just kidding.
44.  Rodman’s reputation precedes him as Malone knocks him down, scores, then jumps over Rodman and grazes his head with his foot, yet it’s Rodman that gets the technical because he put his hand out and tried to keep Malone from country-stomping his rainbow colored head into the court.
45.  Doesn’t help that Rodman has zero points and only three rebounds midway thru the third.
46.  Utah takes a four point lead, and it’s almost too hard to listen to the audio because the roar of the crowd is so loud.
47.  Ostertag throws Scottie Pippen to the floor, Scottie chest bumps him, and somehow it’s a double technical on both.
48.  Per Jim Gray, Jerry Sloan just told him during the break that it wasn’t even a hard foul, according to his standards.
49.  Dick Bavetta goes Dick Bavetta…. On a fan. He just kicked a fan out for an oversized Dennis Rodman sign that he had.
50.  Magic number of the third quarter is 6: Utah has 6 turnovers and 6 points off 9 Chicago TOs. Utah’s bench has 6 points. Chicago has 6 free throw attempts.
51.  Can’t wait til after the game so I can watch Men Behaving Badly and Wings.
52.  Steve Kerr can play some pretty damn good one-on-one defense.
53.  End of the third quarter: MJ still has 10 points. Malone now has 15.
4th Quarter:
54.  Injury update: Jeff Hornacek comes back from the locker room with a busted lip. No word of any Gatorade/Gatorlode mix up, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
55.  Unrelated: MJ is having a terrible game. Now 5 of 16 from the field. Been stripped multiple times with his back turned.
56.  I have heard of Robert Parrish, but couldn’t tell you anything about him. I feel an odd bit of shame for that, but again, I don’t know why because I don’t know who he is.
57.  John Stockton is putting on a show so far in the fourth with some amazing passes and very good defense.
58.  Seven plus minutes left in the game: Money Time for Jordan.
59.  Utah all the sudden just went really flat. Stockton throws the ball under the basket with no Jazz player within literally 10 feet, then on next possession puts up a fade away at the end of the shot clock and gets it blocked by MJ. Bulls up by 2.
60.  I’m now convinced that LeBron is a Karl Malone clone. If LeBron were born in 1963 instead of 1984, he would have been told that he’s a power forward. He’s faster than Malone, but other than that, what can he do different or better for that matter?
61.  I’m not sure that the 2014 Heat would be able to win one game against the Jazz. Maybe one against Chicago, but it would just be a nightmare matchup against Utah. Everything Utah does well, Miami is bad at.
62.  Plus the depth of either Utah or Chicago would suffocate Miami. These teams go a legit 10 deep, and Miami goes 3.5 deep at best.
63.  San Antonio would be an interesting matchup against these two teams. They have the depth. They have strengths in positions that they would need to be strong at to contend. Spurs vs Jazz could be very similar to the Mavs/Suns battles in the mid 00’s.
64.  Why does Bryon Russell keep getting the ball? And why does he keep shooting? Jazz fans currently booing him as he heads to the bench.
65.  Stockton wants this bad. Just nailed a three from at least 4 feet off the three point line.
66.  With 1:45 remaining and Chicago up by four, Stockton strips Jordan and goes the distance. Jordan grabs the ball off the glass, but Stockton draws the foul instead. Competition at its greatest.
67.  Stockton an amazing 92.9% free throw shooter in the 4th quarter of the ’97 playoffs, however he just missed a big one there.
68.  Jordan decides an 18 footer while being double teamed is a good idea, then Stockton pulls the rebound down and launches a pin point full court pass to Malone for a layup over Jordan. Jazz up by 1.
69.  You gotta have some big balls to be willing to throw a full court pass with less than a minute in the game that you are losing. Jordan never thought that pass was coming his way in a million years.
70.  Jordan in the 4th: 6/11 for 12 points. No assists.
71.  Stockton in the 4th: 1/3 for 6 points. 5 assists.
72.  Chicago has blown all of their timeouts. Utah up by one with 44 sec remaining.
73.  Jordan defers to Kerr after being hounded by Russell. Kerr misses a three and Utah gets the rebound.
74.  It’s pretty amazing how LeBron gets laid into for not being like Mike enough, yet Michael is doing the exact same stuff that LeBron gets killed for.
75.  If Kerr hits that shot, MJ showed amazing trust in his teammate. Misses it, and he was being too passive and should want the ball in his hands in these moments.
76.  Somehow Chicago lets nearly ten seconds run off the clock before fouling, but who’s going to question Phil Jackson, right?
77.  So Utah’s owner, Larry Miller, just showed up to Game 4 of the Finals with :20 left because he doesn’t believe in working on the Sabbath. Got it. So, why show up at all? Would he have shown up if his team wasn’t about to win? Besides, it’s not exactly working when you are sitting in a leather recliner watching your team in person rather than watching at home.
78.  Now Larry Miller is in the building, but watching the game on a monitor in the hallway instead of walking an extra thirty yards to watch from courtside.
79.  Malone with two clutch free throws to put the Jazz up by two.
80.  MJ’s three to tie rims out. Utah runs down and gets a wide open layup. That’s game.
Postgame:
81.  Crack reporter, Ahmad Rashad, asks Stockton if this win gives the team confidence heading into Game 5.
82.  Stockton’s response: “Um, maybe. It’s better than losing?”
83.  Felicia Rashad still holds up, by the way.
84.  Larry Miller looks like a kid trying to waive down his favorite athletes for an autograph. They have no idea who he is.
85.  After watching this game, it’s clear that Roland Lazenby (author of the 2014 book, Michael Jordan: The Life) never watched this game. Otherwise, he never would have quoted Bulls trainer Chip Schaeffer as stating that the team was accidentally given Gatorlode, a post-game carb loading drink, instead of Gatorade.
86.  Do some of the research, like I have, and you will find quotes from others (like MJ’s friend and body guard) stating that the Gatorlode mistake did happen, but it happened in Game 5. Compounding the pain that Jordan was going thru from already having the flu… or food poisoning…. Or whatever.
87.  Yes, Rodman reportedly left in the first quarter with an upset stomach. Something he had done three other times that postseason as his way of showing his displeasure with being told to stop shooting and just go rebound and play defense.
88.  In fact, I found this article from the day before Game 5 calling for Chicago to outright cut Rodman during the Finals!
89.   Let’s say someone did give Michael the Gatorlode in Game 4, which supposedly is like eating a baked potato. That’s not going to give you full body cramps, like LeBron had. Might it give you gas? Okay. That’s about it.
90.  Let me know when you find a quote from another player after Game 4 complaining about stomach pains or cramps or Gatorlode.
91.  There’s no chance LeBron catches Karl Malone for career points scored. Durant might have a chance though.

92.  92 Thru 100. Bottom line: Game 4 of the ’97 Finals was a great game in one of the great series in NBA history. Was it an example of when MJ got cramps and tapped out of a game? Absolutely not.