So after a frantic week, the playoffs are nearly done. From 10 hopeful teams we’re suddenly down to four, and among the teams out of the running, there are a whole heap of autopsies already under way — especially in New York, L.A., and Seattle.
After a frenetic burst of games seemingly every other night, we’re halfway through the conference finals, but now face a two-week wait before the second legs.
The four weary teams remaining are now trundling slowly across the plateau toward the final on December 9, and this seems as good a time as any to catch our breath and ask, “What just happened?” In particular, I want to look at the teams that just left us, because we never really had a chance to say good-bye.
The first time I watched the Barnicle brothers' documentary Tifo, I found it hard to believe it had been shot in America. The scenes of choreographed fandom and collective passion border on delirium. After savoring them, most soccer fans will immediately add Portland's Jeld-Wen Field to their lists of "lifetime must-visit" footballing experiences, alongside Juventus Stadium and Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park.
It was a rather crazy set of results this past weekend in MLS. Only one team out of a possible four that could have clinched a playoff spot did so. It was yet another reminder that the one consistent winner in MLS this season has been forced parity, though it was also a reminder that teams have consistently shot themselves in the foot after getting into positions to pull away from their rivals. It makes one wonder this: Does anybody want to win the Supporters' Shield?
The bare facts first: It’s taken 30 weeks, but as of Friday night, Seattle are top of the MLS Supporters Shield standings. The Sounders beat reigning leaders Real Salt Lake 2-0 in front of 55,000 people and leapfrogged into first place, just as the regular season winds up.
As far as the crowd went, it wasn’t quite the 67,000-plus that saw Clint Dempsey’s home debut against Portland, but I wouldn't fret too much about falling attendances. Seattle, basically, have a lot of fans. And when more than 50,000 of those fans show up, Seattle win — at least the eight or so times it has happened so far. Whether that means that the money spent on Dempsey might have been better spent employing 10,000 film extras for Sounders home games, just to be on the safe side, I can’t say. But 55,000 people showed up on Friday night and the Sounders were easy victors, going ahead after three minutes and never looking back in the most important game of the year.
In case you were busy spending your weekend working for the weekend, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
It took a three-hitter from Jake Peavy to finish the job, but the Los Angeles Dodgers finally dropped a series for the first time since June after losing the rubber match of their interleague tilt with the Boston Red Sox, 8-1. "Now seeing Jake Peavy here at Chavez Ravine as a member of our league is one thing," said irritated Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda. "We let him in here all the time when he was down in San Diego. But this? This is an affront to nature. Peavy traipsing into our home, as a member of the miserable American League family? Why I never."
After a pitching duel between Ivan Nova and Alex Cobb left matters unresolved, an 11th-inning sacrifice fly from Curtis Granderson proved to be the difference-maker in a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays as the Yankees avoided a three-game sweep. "But the guy won't make the ultimate sacrifice," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said as he looked over his "thought wall," which contained a number of news stories about the Yankees, large numbers, and cutouts of indecipherable symbols, connected with different colored string. "Look, it all adds up; Curtis Granderson is 32 years old and is set to be a free agent next year. Free-agent outfielders are historically overpaid on the open market. I don't want to pay Curtis Granderson a lot of money, but I need him to play baseball for the Yankees because otherwise all we'll have is the rotting corpse of Vernon Wells." Cashman then pointed at a number of New York Post headlines referring to Wells thus, before continuing. "It all adds up! If Curtis Granderson pays the New York Yankees $63 million and seven of these hypercubes you can see here for the privilege of continuing to wear pinstripes next year, I can guarantee we'll be under the luxury tax and also in the World Series." Cashman then grabbed the lapels of his assistant and said, "He'll do it right? Right? Right? Tell me he'll do it. Please, I need this. Won't you look old Dollar Man in the eyes and tell me it'll all work out?"
It’s been a busy week or so in MLS, and there’s no doubt what the headline story has been: Clint Dempsey’s signing for Seattle Sounders even had its own Twitter comet trail marking his path across the skies toward Cascadia. Sounders fans scrambled to Sea-Tac following sightings of the player going for a connecting flight in San Francisco, only for the player to be smuggled from the tarmac out of the airport by his prospective club — ensuring that the far more entertaining business of Internet speculation held sway over prosaic confirmation for at least a few more hours of #DempseyWatch.
In case you were busy going another year without winning a major, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Despite Mariano Rivera's third consecutive blown save, the Yankees, powered by Alex Rodriguez's first home run of the season and Brett Gardner's walk-off, were able to beat the Tigers, 5-4, and salvage a series win. "I'm glad the team bailed me out. I just — I have no idea what's wrong with me," Rivera said as he stared into his locker, in which he had hung the parting gift he received earlier from Detroit, a case containing two airtight vials with dirt from the pitcher's mounds at Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park. Rivera then coughed deeply: "I feel weak, like I've been breathing wrong. Like somehow over these past few days poisonous vapors have leaked into my system, like another team wants me to be sick right now. I don't know, I'm probably just being crazy."
Jason Dufner won the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, outpacing veteran Jim Furyk and finishing 10-under for the tournament. "Some people argue the PGA Championship is the Jason Dufner of majors," Dufner said as he held the Wanamaker Trophy limply in front of him with a dead expression on his face. "To them I say, 'Yeah, you're kind of right, I guess.'"
Last year around this time it was a foregone conclusion that American attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey would join five-time European champion Liverpool FC, pairing with Luis Suarez in a revamped attack, as the American-owned Reds would attempt to regain their traditional hold on one of England's places in the UEFA Champions League. That move fell through, with Liverpool's owners unwilling to meet Fulham's valuation for Dempsey, who moved instead to Tottenham Hotspur.
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.