In case you were murdered on the steps of some forum or another Friday, here's what you missed in sports this weekend:
The NCAA tournament field is set with Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, and Gonzaga your four top seeds for March Madness. Expect upsets this year, as Louisville, despite being named the top overall seed, was drawn into the presumptive "group of death," featuring such dangerous teams as Duke, St. Louis, and Michigan State. Also, Gonzaga faces a potentially tough early round game against Pittsburgh oh, god, I'm talking myself into it who, based on advanced statistics, could actually be a slight favorite over the Zags DON'T DO IT; DON'T PICK PITTSBURGH making Pittsburgh my upset special of the tournament NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Surprisingly omitted from the top line of the NCAA Tournament were the Miami Heat, who won their 22nd consecutive game Sunday, beating the Toronto Raptors, 108-91. "Who needs this NCAA crap," Miami forward LeBron James said after the game, before teammate Shane Battier handed him an economic study on the long-term earning effects of college educations that he had co-authored during the offseason with Duke economics professor Arnaud Maurel.
Last week’s news that Robbie Rogers had come out, while also “stepping away” from soccer, was both encouraging and discouraging for the context and reaction it received. Encouraging, in that Rogers’s announcement was met with overwhelming support, and that this was a young athlete in the prime of his career making the decision to come out. The discouraging aspect was that the coming-out was allied to the “stepping away” — with many of those supportive of Rogers’s decision sad that he didn’t see a way forward playing the game.
For his part Rogers doesn’t owe anyone anything, and as a young man who’d made his way in the modest financial climate of MLS, he’s hardly alone in having to think about life beyond the game sooner than other professional athletes. So it’s possibly a little more complex than a homophobic culture forcing him out of the game despite its lucrative lure — though god knows, when thinking about comparably paid careers in the wake of announcing one’s sexuality, it’s understandable to choose one where that decision was not considered fair game for on-field and off-field trash-talking.
“It was tough out there on the wing — that side of the field is really hard. I think they use it for cricket ... ”
I’m talking to a young hopeful at the MLS Combine, the selection trials for the SuperDraft, after he has dragged himself off the field to talk to the few reporters gathered here at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium. I look out in the general area of where he is pointing, and see that there is indeed a dry, hard square of dirt at the far side of the field, large enough to accommodate a particularly unforgiving wicket, if not being quite so accommodating to a sprinting soccer player’s cleats. The player looks irritated — the state of the field out there has compounded his frustration at being played on the wing instead of his normal forward position, and he feels he hasn’t done himself justice on the biggest stage of his footballing life so far. As he slopes off to the locker room, he gives another last grimace at the dusty patch of ground. It’s doubtful that he’ll be consoled when he returns for his next game two days later to find the dirt has been painted green. Welcome to the lowest rung of MLS.
The Seattle Sounders boast Major League Soccer's strongest fan base, with an average of more than 43,000 packing into CenturyLink Field for the team's home games. Soon, they might have one of the strongest analytical units as well.
Over the past few years, data and statistics have played an increasingly prominent role in soccer. During the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, Adidas debuted the miCoach system, data trackers embedded in uniforms that allowed coaches (and fans) to track players in real time. GPS monitors, heat maps, and other location-based data-collection devices are available to clubs. The league partnered with Opta, a company that collects and displays additional facts about performance, ranging from miles run to sprints completed.
Since joining the Sounders in 2009, head fitness coach Dave Tenney has slowly been building up a sports science unit, attempting to make sense of it all.
Last Thursday, in the waning moments of the Seattle Sounders' playoff victory over Real Salt Lake, left back Marc Burch was caught on camera calling an opposing Real player a "f----t." (Fair warning: Links to YouTube clips in this piece might not be suitable for your workplace.) The follow-up from Burch was immediate: a seemingly heartfelt letter of apology. The response from MLS commissioner Don Garber was just as swift: an undisclosed fine, an order that Burch attend sensitivity training, and a three-game suspension that effectively ended his season.
When a league fines or suspends a player for saying something it considers inappropriate, it's not just levying a penalty, it's also making a wager. A bet that a certain dollar amount or number of games will convince its fans and other interested parties that it takes the slur seriously.
By that logic, all four of America's largest leagues — the NFL, the NBA, MLB, and the NHL — have long gambled on the idea that their fans aren't overly concerned about players using homophobic language. The only professional league that seems to take seriously the risk that gay slurs will alienate its biggest supporters is also the country's youngest: Major League Soccer.
Owing to a stupid clause inserted into the Designated Player’s MLS contract while I was busy browsing real estate listings — mainly for penthouses without views of the shacks my Grantland teammates are kept in — I apparently have to “participate in the playoffs.” This, in general, is not what I came to America for. Even worse, on further investigation it turns out that “participation” involves more than delivering the odd platitude about the standard of play in MLS, while being photographed somewhere in a darkened VIP room that also includes Tony Parker, Kelly Ripa, Russell Brand, and a minor Jonas — I actually have to play.
Knowing that this may involve contact with the former academy players who keep circulating colds among themselves, I immediately got my new agent on the phone with my list of demands — that is, if MLS wants to see the legendary “DP bounce” in attendance figures this year (I also got him to trademark DP Bounce™).
At first league management were pretty tense about the whole thing — probably remembering the play-for-chocolate-covered-jets clause I’d encouraged the mortal members of my team to ask for during the last CBA negotiations. But when I explained that I just wanted a wholesale format change for the playoffs inserted by Wednesday, they relaxed and were actually pretty cool about it all, making me wish I’d pushed for the “DP goals count double” rule I’d been toying with asking for.
So I’m delighted to present, with my full and meaningful participation, the Designated Playoffs™ ...
Eddie Johnson's first goal for the United States Men's National Team came in the forward's first start on October 10, 2004. Johnson, then 20 years old, netted three more three days later against Panama and finished 2006 World Cup qualifying with seven goals in six games. The Florida-born Johnson was strong, fast, and talented, exactly what the future of U.S. soccer was supposed to look like.
Then, perhaps inevitably, he began to struggle. A combination of injuries, believing the hype, and bad luck plagued Johnson, who played for five clubs between 2006 and 2011. There were occasional highs — a goal for the U.S. against Barbados in 2008, a strong if brief run with Cardiff City in 2009 — but mostly lows. He continued to make money to play soccer, which is not a bad life, but that incredible promise was slipping away. When a deal to play for Puebla in the Mexican League fell apart last winter because Johnson was out of shape, the subsequent conversation didn't revolve around when we would see the forward in the Stars and Stripes again, it focused on whether he would continue to play professionally at all.