Sunday, July 13, 2014

The All-American World Cup Side

My starting eleven would look a good bit different
If you have listened to your fellow countrymen discuss the World Cup you've undoubtedly heard this argument: "if America actually used its top athletes for soccer, we could win the World Cup. Easy."

This is a sore loser's attitude towards not being as successful in the tournament as many fans would have like to be, even if the U.S. did perform better in 2014 than most experts prospected before the tournament. Instead of accepting where we are as a nation, ranked solidly in the top 16 teams in the world, many Americans use this excuse as a band-aid to the real dilemma.

It will take time and money to build the infrastructure necessary to compete with the elite squads. Soccer is growing in this country, and the time may come where we are listed among the favorites to win soccer's highest prize. For now it's a dream we entertain every four years. And to be honest, we may never be at the same level as some of the teams such as Germany, Brazil and Spain.

Some of that is the lack of interest from American youth (though interest is growing with each passing generation), but most of that is cultural. Until the passion of soccer is ingrained into our beings as it is across other countries, we will remain standing like wallflowers while the cool kid favorites dance every four years.

In the mean time, what if we did put everything we had into the game? What if our top athletes did play the beautiful game? It's not guaranteed that our guys would have the skill set to play at the top level, but that's the fun in writing: I can be a dreamer. To be a professional athlete, you have to have a certain baseline amount of athleticism.

Here is the squad I would have taken to Brazil, assuming the top American-born athletes chose soccer instead of their respective sports.

Goalkeeper- There is arguably no better person on the planet to have in goal than the man who was the stronghold for this year's team. Tim Howard became a legend in the last month and for his performance against the Belgians should never have to buy a drink in an American bar again. But for his backup... I have long said Kevin Garnett is the perfect goalie because lanky people are good at sports. Also up for contention are Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis. Imagine any of these three's length and trying to put a ball in the upper 90 past them.

Defensemen- Typically on the outside of 4-4-3 lineup the leftback and rightback are a bit faster and smaller than their centerback counterparts. Give me two of the elite safeties in the NFL who already demonstrate defensive prowess: Richard Sherman and Eric Berry. Both run a sub-4.5 40-yard dash and posses quick hips required for turns to keep up with teams looking to make crosses from the wings.

The first centerback is one of the following tight ends from the NFL: Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski. Jimmy Graham gets the nod because he has avoided injuries in his career. The second starting centerback is LeBron James, though coach Reaves would urge him to press forward as much as the game would allow.

With the Jimmy and James tandem, the two in the middle will force oppoents to get past over 13 feet and 500 pounds of defense if they were able to get the cross off or during set pieces (which would probably be more frequent with my squad. Increased size/strength = increased believablity in opponent's flopping.)

Kobe with the strong left foot
Midfielders- Players here must have the ability to play defense as well as be the driving influence to setting up offensive plays.

On the right side of the pitch is Cam Newton. Again his combination of height and speed, along with his growing vision is seeing the entire field while passing make him a sensible choice. Chris Paul's court vision, though smaller and a little slower, make him a viable backup option.

Kobe Bryant starts on the left side for my team. Born in Italy, he grew up around the game and has long been a supporter of the beautiful game. Because of his background of playing he makes an easier transition to setting up crosses and passes with his left foot than many other Americans. He also is the sort of leader you want on both ends of play.

In the middle is Andrew Luck, who has proven to be a natural athlete and leader in the NFL during his first two years, providing another big body to have in the middle during set pieces as well.

Forwards- Here is where our athleticism frustrates opponents to no end. Our front line not only is tall - good for finishing crosses with headers but also an envious collection of speed for all other countries.

The three starters: Falcons receiver Julio Jones (6-3, 4.39 40-yard-dash), Arizona Cardinal cornerback Patrick Peterson (6-1, 4.34) and Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson (6-5, 4.35). And off the bench you have a choice of Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook and for short bursts of speed New York Jets running back Chris Johnson, who boasts the fastest 40-yard dash ever at the NFL combine (4.24 seconds).

As impressive as this team is, there are still spots up for grabs on the 23 man roster for the World Cup, but we just rub it into the rest of the world's faces by winning with only 16 players.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Johnny Manziel Gets Headlines; The Monster, Jeremy Hill, Plays On

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has grabbed headlines for every step he has taken since winning the Heisman trophy eight months ago. From going to the NBA Finals, to becoming friends with the Drake, LeBron James, from being excused from the Manning Passing camp, to attending a fraternity party in Austin at the Aggies rival Texas, Manziel has had his fair share of air time over what seems like the longest college football offseason ever.

While none of these activities were against any NCAA rules, the most recent allegations to come against the redshirt sophomore have him in a real heap of  just for the agricultural school — cow patties.

Johnny Manziel
ESPN is reporting that Johnny Football took a $7,500 exchange for some autographed pictures. If this is true it does not bode well for A&M's title hopes, and due to the NCAA's amateurism rules, you have most likely seen Manziel play his last down of college football if the reports are true.

This story, because of the high-profiles involved  a team on the verge of a run at at a national championship and the current Heisman winner  is easy to sell to the masses, get ratings and viewership, but 366 miles away someone else was given another chance to play this season, after a crime, not some comparatively tenuous NCAA violation.

The news came in a blip across the bottom of your television screen, via a few tweets in your timeline, or perhaps you missed it. LSU's Jeremy Hill was reinstated for the season.

For the second time in his 22-year existence, the sophomore running back was arrested. The first coming in high school where Hill and a buddy committed despicable acts to a girl four years his junior.

Afterwards, LSU head coach Les Miles rewarded the four-star recruit with a scholarship.

This time the 6-foot-2, 235-pound monster attacked a defenseless man outside of a Baton Rouge bar as you can see in the video here. As wild as it may seem, his defense attorney  an LSU alum  convinced the judge  also an LSU alum  that Hill, who pleaded guilty to the charges, deserved probation, not time in prison.

Being what the Louisiana court system is, Hill found his way out of a prison sentence. Instead, he was sentenced to two years probation (of course traveling for LSU away games and playing in night games does not break probation), 50 hours of community service, pay $375 for the victims medical bills and write a letter of apology.
Les Miles

This time Miles awarded Hill with a welcome back to the football team.

Hill's football career, which made him a star in the state of Louisiana, will remain as it was. He was allowed back on the football team he rushed 755 yards and 12 touchdowns for. Why?  Most of all because he will help win football games.

Miles told the press on Monday if it was up to him, Hill would not be allowed but on the team, but Miles allowed the team to vote on it. And big surprise here, Hill's 18-22 year-old buddies let him come back on the team.

Johnny Football wanted some extra cash. For what, who knows? Was it worth the consequences that may arise from his actions? No, but if his allegations are true, Johnny Football's college career will presumably be over. I can't say how, as a 20-year-old, I would handle the limelight. I can't definitively say I would not fall into the same traps. I've never been offered more than about $10 bucks an hour for any skill I possess.

However, I do know what Hill did to a defenseless man outside a Baton Rouge bar in early July is deplorable. I do know that Miles dropped a couple of notches on my scale, a scale he was already low on for the way he has handled situations like this in the past.

Based on his previous handlings of simple battery situations, I should have known better. I should have known that winning football games and keeping the LSU fanbase  including the alums in a defunct court system  is more paramount than developing character, and that the Johnny Football drama is more signigicant to the media than allowing a monster back on campus where other potential victims may be living their lives.

Monday, April 15, 2013

When I Went to the Final Four...

For a longtime college basketball fan, a dream came true. I can remember watching the Final Four with my family when Arkansas was good, way, way back when. Last weekend I was afforded the opportunity to spend Saturday soaking in the sights and sounds of the Final Four in Atlanta.

After riding MARTA into town -- quite an experience when Atlanta hosts major events -- a couple friends and I walked around the Centennial Park where there was a stage featuring Zac Brown Band, Ludacris and others throughout the weekend. It did not take long to grow wary of the general public, who was there for the free concerts. I've seen concerts but never had I been to a Final Four. There was different end goal on my mind, and I was ready to get into the Georgia Dome as quickly as possible.
The most reasonably priced souvenir,
a mile away from the Georgia Dome 

We hung around the CNN Center before I got a call and left my group to meet up with my ticket holders, family friend Chris Peacock and his son. I walked up and down one of the 17 different Peachtree Streets of Atlanta before finding my way onto the roof of Max's Lager House. There I met a couple of different people who made the confusion of navigating Atlanta well worth the adventure.

First was Kevin Blackistone, former sports columnist at the Dallas Morning Star, journalism professor at the University of Maryland and panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption. He's a star in the sports journalism world so I was immediately at a loss for words. Without hesitation and being that sports is his job, he asked me, "What are you doing down here? Who do you pull for?" (the sports' world pleasantry equivalent of "Hi. How are you?)

Answering with "I am a fan of basketball like everyone here, and my team is the Arkansas Razorbacks." He quickly responded with more knowledge of the 1994 National Championship run and 1995 National Championship game than I ever knew. Granted, it was his job to cover these teams back in the day, but how he could know so much about those squads to this day was astonishing. And to know that he could have that conversation with fans of other teams with ease is shocking. I know this because I saw him talk Elon basketball with guys one table over who recognized Blackistone from his ESPN appearances.

Also at the table was David Jackson, who writes for USA Today and has a blog, The Oval, where he follows President Barrack Obama and the happenings at the White House. He has covered the last five presidential elections and could out duel you in a game of "Name Dropping." I promise. Jackson, also a Northwestern graduate, went to the game with us .While there, I was able to have some lengthy discussions about writing and the journalism business with a veteran high up in the industry.

None of this even involved what I was anticipating most, the basketball games.

The benefit of going on Saturday of the Final Four is that you get to see both semifinal games. Of course I spent a fair amount of the games using binoculars looking for different sports writers, columnists, broadcasters and analysts. Nerd alert.

We got lucky. Both games came down to the final minutes, and on Monday as I watched the game I could claim to have seen both teams live (one of those things only I care about). This is where I could transition into how annoying Syracuse fans are, but I will stay away from that topic until the masses call for it. There's also a good story about my run-in with the Georgia Dome's Director of Concessions about a cup if you ever need a good laugh.

We could get into the details of the game but a quarter of the country watched them, and there were no broken legs. Instead, I will take a second to post some pictures and send out an enormous thank you to Chris and his son for letting me tag along. I got to see meet some people (coaches, writers, analysts)  and see some things I had only dreamed about since I can remember watching basketball.

Inside the CNN Center
CBS Sports setup outside at Centennial Park
Chris and his son
Postgame -- I had a hard time leaving.
I watched the championship game  with my official cup,
which might have come at the expense of someone's job. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Florida Gulf Coast is Officially Dunk City, USA

America's newest Cinderella is at it again, reminding our short memories what they do best.

This is Florida Gulf Coast's Brett Comer feeding Eric McKnight a pass to put the Eagles up by two over San Diego State for a potential trip to the Sweet 16. They defeated the No. 2-seeded Georgetown on Friday, and the 15th-seeded Eagles have showcased more of their arsenal of high-flying tricks.

Seriously. Watch it again, and try to explain how anyone can cock the ball back that far and still dunk it. Best college basketball play I've ever seen? I can't think of any better

This was even more impressive than Friday's alley-oop (below), which was assisted by Comer as well.

Not to be forgotten in this little gem is that it meant more because of the time during the game it happened and who it happened against. Both are absurd for a mid-major program to be pulling off in the biggest game of the programs' six-year career. Yeah... FGCU was founded in 1991. Every player on the team is older than the school.

If the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul needs a back-up point guard to throw passes in Lob City, I know the name of a guard in Florida who might can fill the void.

(h/t Run the Floor)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Welcome Mr. Jackson. I Am For Reeeeaaaall.

The Falcon's Thomas Dimitroff did what great general managers for great teams do. He patiently waited for a difference-maker's asking price to go down to a more reasonable number, and Dimitroff, who learned from some of the best while in New England's front office, got a talented, bruising running back (see picture below) in Steven Jackson, thus improving an already stacked offense.

Jackson voided the final year of his six-year contract with the St. Louis Rams. He was scheduled to make $7 million dollars this season and cost the Rams $11 million against the hard salary cap. Since being drafte No. 24 over all in 2004, the three-time Pro Bowler was looking to go to a team in contention for a Super Bowl, something he hasn't experienced since arriving in St. Louis. In the teams' best seasons with Jackson they went 8-8. And while they did make the playoffs, they were no where near a threat to win the whole thing. Much like the new proposed Atlanta stadium deal, it was a win-win for both parties, or depending on how you look at it all threeSt. Louis, Jackson and Atlantaare winners.

The most worrisome aspect of Jackson joining the Falcons around Atlanta was taking on his salary. Could Dimitroff not pay too much for the veteren while being certain to shore up a sometimes porous defense a year ago and saving enough space for franchise quarterback Matt Ryan? In a word, yes. Dimitroff was able to get Jackson to agree to a three-year deal with only $4 million guaranteed ($7 million less than he would have received in St. Louis.
Jackson (left) does not lack toughness.
And to all of the Jackson detractors, the free agency period is not over and, there is still the draft where Dimitroff is sure to take a few defensive ends and linemen for both sides of the line.

Speaking of that defense, Jackson willthrough his offenseaid the Falcons weakest link out, too.  The Rams' all-time leading rushermore than Eric Dickerson no lessalso provides the sort of short-yardage situation specialist former Falcon Michael Turner couldn't the last two seasons.

Being able to help Atlanta's offense sustain drives with conversions on third, fourth-and-short will give the defense a chance to rest on the sideline. It also helps the defense by helping the Falcons put away games. Time and time again last season the Falcons would surrender two-possession leads in the second half because they did not have a power running back to help put games away. Give me Jackson three chances at two yards, and I'll take my chances. He trails only the Vikings Adrian Peterson in yards after contact over the past four seasons, at over 2,100.

The Falcons now boast two Oregon State alums in the backfield with the more versatile and quicker Jaquizz Rogers and Jackson, a 1,000 yard rusher for eight consecutive seasons, even though opposing defenses would put eight or nine men in the box to stop the two-time All-Pro back as a Ram.

Hall of Famers Emmit Smith (11), Curtis Martin (10) and Barry Sanders (10) are the only running backs with longer streaks. More than likely he won't get 1,000 yards this season, but he will bring a professionalism and work horse attitude that every locker room can't get enough of.

Jackson left the franchise once known as "Greatest Show on Turf," and Dimitroff acquired a beast of a man in the hopes of making the 2013 Falcons' offense something similar.
For those of you who do not understand the title (like my mother), it's a spin-off from Outkast'sboth Atlanta nativespopular single from 2009.