Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fans Can't Get This One Wrong

AP Photo/ Jeff Roberson

All-Star games are meant to showcase a league’s elite players.

Often, players having career years are rewarded. However, there is always a debate on who really deserved to make it and who didn’t.

Take the previous NBA All-Star game. Many pondered how Allen Iverson was voted to start for the Eastern Conference and how Carmelo Anthony was left off the West’s squad.

Part of the reason roster spots go to candidates that aren’t as deserving is because of the fan vote. Allowing fans to pick who they want to see is a double-edged sword.

The league is getting the fans to feel like they are involved and they get to select the players they want to see play, hopefully providing optimum ratings.

However, the voting can be a popularity contest, and guys with big names who may not be producing like they have in the past, or are injured, can slide into one of the top spots.

Still, the fan vote isn’t a bad thing and in no league is it more important than in Major League Soccer.

MLS doesn’t have the fellowship that the other leagues in America have. While the Pro Bowl can go unnoticed by NFL fans because of how big the regular season and postseason is, MLS needs its All-Star game to showcase its top players on a national stage.

Having people vote for the players they want to see allows the league to put out the most appealing team in hopes of drawing in viewers.

While I love to see unheralded players get recognition for amazing seasons, it’s OK for MLS to have its biggest names front and center to show what the league has to offer.

Take a guy like Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan. This has definitely not been his best year in the league.In eight games, he has only managed to register one assist. Kljestan was even benched in one game. But there’s no denying he’s one of the league’s biggest stars.

Kljestan has performed at a high level in both past MLS seasons and the U.S. men’s national team. He is going to be an integral part of the national team for years to come, and is becoming a very recognizable name to American soccer fans.

If Klejstan hasn’t transferred to a club overseas by the time this year’s All-Star game rolls around, and he is voted in regardless of his stats, is it a bad thing?

No, because fans want to see him. Maybe fans of possible transfer targets will want to watch him, to see what he has. Whatever the reason, he will draw in viewers, something MLS desperately needs.

Currently, eight of the top 11 spots in the All-Star voting are held by members of Seattle Sounders FC. Some—Kasey Keller—are certainly deserving. Others—Sebastian LeToux—aren’t as deserving. But the Sounders’ fans are making their voices heard. This is who they want to see. They sure will be watching the game.

While the fan vote is only a quarter of the criteria for making the team, it still sends a message to the league of who the fans like.

Don’t agree? Vote for yourself. Vote for who you want to see play.

The most important thing for MLS is to get its most liked and most marketable players on the pitch in order to further promote the league. Even if that means playing guys who aren’t having the best season.

Like the popular phrase in the business world goes, the customer is always right.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

They Aren't Saying Boo, They're Saying Raul

Photo Credits. AP Photo/ Tom Mihalek

When the Phillies signed outfielder Raul Ibanez in December, Phillies fans questioned the decision.

Ibanez never received much publicity playing for a bad Seattle Mariners team on the West Coast, so to the common fan he was an unfamiliar face and name. He was 36, turning 37 in June. He was a left-handed hitter, even though the Phillies already had lefties Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the middle of their lineup. An even bigger reason the Philly faithful were skeptical of the signing was because it meant the team wouldn’t be resigning fan favorite Pat Burrell.

Sure, Burrell received his share of boos during his slumps, but he was a lifelong Phillie. He was drafted by the Phillies and actually signed with them, unlike J.D. Drew. When times were rough, he didn’t run himself out of town like Scott Rolen did. He provided some huge hits for Philadelphia, especially against the rival New York Mets. After the Phillies won the 2008 World Series, Burrell and his dog led the parade. Even when he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, Burrell took out a full page ad in Philadelphia newspapers thanking the fans for a great time as a Phillie and saying that he hoped to see everyone again in October for the World Series.

Throughout the off-season Phillies fans peppered the front office with questions like “Why didn’t we bring back Pat Burrell?” and “Who is Raul Ibanez?”

To answer the latter question, Ibanez was a 13-year MLB veteran. A lifetime .286 hitter with nearly 800 RBI, Ibanez is only one of five outfielders to have 100 RBI in each of the past three seasons, along with Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez, and Bobby Abreu.

Now, Ibanez is making Phillies fans ask “Pat who?”

Ibanez is off to a blistering start. He is a much more consistent hitter than Burrell, currently hitting .368—good enough for sixth-best in the major leagues. He has just as much power as Burrell, hitting 13 home runs and 35 RBI so far this season, and he leads the majors with a .735 slugging percentage.

His had his most impressive offensive display thus far this season yesterday against the Washington Nationals. In the first game of a double header, Ibanez went three for five with two home runs and drove in four runs. He followed that up in the second game with two hits in three at-bats, another home run, and three more RBI.

He’s also been clutch, hitting a two-run single Friday night to give the Phillies
the lead in the 12th inning.

Ibanez is a more competent defensive player than Burrell, who was routinely subbed out late in games for a defensive replacement.

Ibanez is proving to be one of the best off-season signings. At a rate of $30 million over three years, Ibanez is also one of the biggest bargains, compared to the high price players such as C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Manny Ramirez, who haven’t quite lived up to their hefty contracts.

While Burrell was a homegrown product who was a part of the franchise’s first World Series in 28 years, Ibanez is proving to be a fantastic addition.

Fans are no longer questioning the transaction. And those aren’t boos you’re hearing in the stadium. They are chants of “Raul!”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Golden Ticket

Photo credits. AP Photo/ Jack Dempsey

The Denver Nuggets are the hottest team in the NBA playoffs right now. They aren’t the flavor of the month though; this squad has everything it takes to be a legitimate championship contender.

Denver is a great all-around team and it all starts with head coach George Karl.

A former NBA player himself, Karl is the 12th-winningest coach in NBA history. In 21 seasons, only three times has he not been in the playoffs (he was fired before the season’s completion twice in the 1980’s). Prior to this year’s playoff success, he took the Milwaukee Bucks to an Eastern Conference Finals, and took the Seattle SuperSonics to the Western Conference Finals twice, once advancing to the NBA Finals. Karl is a proven winner who gets the most out of his players.

A huge reason for the Nuggets’ recent success was the acquisition of Chauncey Billups. His impact on the Nuggets has been like Kevin Garnett’s on the Boston Celtics last year, absolutely changing the franchise for the better. Denver had lost in the first round of the playoffs the past five seasons and hadn’t reached the second round since the 1993-1994 season.

Conversely, Billups has been to the conference finals with the Detroit Pistons the past six consecutive seasons (now seven with Denver’s series win over Dallas), been to the NBA Finals twice, won the championship once, and was named the 2004 NBA Finals MVP.

Nicknamed Mr. Big Shot, Billups is one of the best clutch players in the NBA, and his veteran leadership has turned around the atmosphere in Denver.

In order to get Billups, the Nuggets had to trade the extremely talented, but controversial and malcontent superstar Allen Iverson. Iverson’s departure combined with what Billups has brought to the table has made the team chemistry skyrocket and players are finally realizing their potential.

Carmelo Anthony is one who has benefitted from the trade. He is one of the top offensive players in the NBA, but this season he’s finally developed into a team leader. His experience with the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team coupled with Billups’ arrival has matured Anthony.

One huge advantage, literally and figuratively, is how good the Nuggets frontcourt rotation is. Denver has three very good bigs, who all have a rare combination of being aggressive and physical as well as athletic.

Nene and Kenyon Martin are both extremely physical players, on offense and defense, that wear down the opposing post players. Martin has had a resurgence in his career as of late, realizing how effective he is as a role player whose strengths are defense and rebounding.

Chris Anderson is the third part of Denver’s frontcourt triumvirate. Another player who has seemed to mature as the season has gone on, “Birdman” is an incredible leaper with extremely long arms. He uses both to get up on offense and make exciting dunks, as well as alter shots on defense.

Continuing with the theme of maturity, sixth man J.R. Smith has put aside his selfish play and poor attitude (that has also led to him being suspended twice) to become instant offense off the bench and a regular and consistent contributor to the surging Nuggets.

While Denver’s offense can keep pace with the best of them, what makes them a complete team is their effort on the defensive end of the court.

While Nene, Martin, and Anderson are all good post defenders Denver also has good perimeter defenders as well. Dahntay Jones, once considered another Duke alum that could not be a contributor on the professional level, has become a starter for the Nuggets because of his exceptional perimeter defense. And although he is seldom used, Renaldo Balkman is an energetic defender who can come off the bench to help Jones. Backup point guard Anthony Carter has also been effective off the bench.

The Nuggets have everything a championship team needs: a good coach, a star offensive player, a player that thrives in clutch situations, a versatile and deep frontcourt, good defenders, and excellent contributions from the bench, not to mention they are playing their best basketball at the most important time of the year.

Denver is the perfect storm right now, and they have a real shot at winning their first championship in franchise history.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Swimming with the 'Phins

AP Photo/ J. Pat Carter

Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland have pulled off another coup, and this time, it isn’t with an undiscovered player. It’s with a potential, and former, face of the franchise.

The Miami Dolphins came to terms on a one-year contract with one-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Dolphin fan favorite Jason Taylor. At a cost of $1.1 million plus incentives, there is no risk here for Miami, only possible reward.

The once-proud franchise went through a rough stretch the past few years, culminating in the awful 1-15 season in 2007. They were able to turn everything around last season though, making the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and beating out rival Jets and Patriots to win the AFC East division championship.

Even though they had a poor showing against the Ravens in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the 10-game turnaround brought the fans back to what is now called LandShark Stadium.

There was excitement. Fans were proud of their team.

Bringing in the most popular Dolphin since Dan Marino retired gives the fans even more reason to be excited, to cheer for their team, and to trust what the front office is doing with the team.

Even more important is what Jason Taylor can do on the field for the Dolphins. Yes, he struggled last year with the Washington Redskins, but he still has plenty left in the tank. Taylor is a six-time Pro-Bowler, three-time first team All-Pro, and, as stated before, 2006 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Taylor uses his athleticism and speed to wreck havoc on opposing offenses and quarterbacks.

Miami's all-time leader in sacks was hampered by a calf-injury last season in Washington and never adjusted to his new defensive scheme, but returning to familiar territory should benefit him.

Also aiding Taylor in his second tenure with the Dolphins is that he is not the only defender teams have to worry about. Joey Porter recorded 17.5 sacks last season, Channing Crowder and Akin Ayodele were second and third respectively in tackles on the team, and newcomer Cameron Wake was the equivalent of Jason Taylor in the CFL, utilizing his speed and athleticism to lead the league in sacks.

Taylor still has talent, and Miami needs it. Aside from Porter, last year’s pass rush was not very good. After Porter, the highest sack total was five by Matt Roth. The team signed Wake hoping to bolster its attack, but Wake’s only experience in the NFL is training camp with the New York Giants before getting released. Taylor can show Wake the ropes while performing on the field.

The other teams in the AFC East improved on offense. The Bills signed Terrell Owens and the Patriots signed Joey Galloway and Fred Taylor, not to mention the return of Tom Brady. Taylor adds depth to an improved Dolphin defense. Also, Taylor is extremely successful against the Patriots and Brady. From 2001-2007, Taylor has 10.5 sacks in 14 games against New England.

Taylor is also a good character guy. He was named Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2007. His leadership and character make him a good role model for the younger players on the team, and they make him a good team representative to the community.

Most importantly, Taylor wants to be a Dolphin. In a statement included in an piece, Taylor said, “My heart has always been in Miami and so I'm truly excited to call myself a Dolphin once again.”

The story goes on to include a quote from Taylor’s agent, saying that Taylor said to allow the Dolphins to sign him to whatever contract fit in the team’s budget. Taylor took a significant pay cut in order to be a Dolphin again. A player doesn’t give up millions unless he is 100% sure he wants to be there.

For the Dolphins, it’s a win-win situation. If he returns to form, Taylor immediately improves the team’s defense. If he struggles, he counts for very little against the cap and the Dolphins can elect not to bring him back next season. Even if he does struggle, the Dolphins still get a good leader, a guy that can help groom the younger players, garner fan appreciation, and is a positive agent in the community.

Miami will hope Taylor goes back to his old form, but the signing is already a great thing for the Dolphins, regardless of how he plays.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Time for Take Off

No Yao. No T-Mac. Rafer Alston was traded long ago. And as good as Ron Artest has been with the Rockets, he’s been ejected from two of the three games in the Rocket’s series with the Lakers, both Houston losses. So who would have thought that the Rockets, in a game minus Yao, McGrady, Alston, and where Artest scored 8 points on 4-19 shooting, would beat the Lakers by double digits, 99-87, a margin that was nowhere near indicative of the dominance Houston displayed.

Three unsung heroes to the Rockets’ season, three role players, made a huge difference in today’s game. Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier, and Luis Scola usually fly under the radar set by all those mentioned above, but without them, they showed how valuable they are.

Brooks performed well enough in the regular season that Houston’s front office felt comfortable enough trading Alston, handing Brooks the starting point guard position, and still being a title contender. Battier, drafted five spots behind Kwame Brown in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft, developed into one of the top perimeter defenders in the game, has a high basketball IQ, and is one of the hardest workers in the league. Scola, an Argentinian import, has been a great compliment to Yao Ming in the post. These three shined today, showcasing their abilities without their more famous teammates.

Battier got the Rockets off to a fast start, scoring 12 points in the first quarter, including three 3-pointers. He finished with 23 points, nearly 16 points above his season average and 13 above his career average. Battier’s NBA All-Defensive second team skills were on display as he was part of a tandem that held Kobe Bryant to 15 points on 7-17 shooting.

Scola manned the paint efficiently even without the 7’6” Ming. He pulled down 14 rebounds—12 defensive—five more than his season average. Scola completed the double-double, also putting in 12 points. Even though forward Chuck Hayes played good, hard defense against Lakers center Pau Gasol, Gasol got to the hoop much easier in the fourth quarter when Scola sat. The Rockets tough defense, spearheaded by Battier on the perimeter and Scola’s presence in the paint, forced the Lakers into earning every shot they took and kept them out of the key for easy layups and dunks.

Brooks was the star of the show. He used his impressive speed on offense to keep the Lakers’ defense off balance, and even snuck behind a sleeping defense to tip in an alley-oop to end the third quarter. Brooks put up a career-high 34 points, well above his 8.8 career total and 11.2 season total. Equally amazing as Brooks’ tip-in was his range, dropping a number of 3-pointers from well beyond the arc. The way he was playing, it seemed like he couldn't miss.

The performances from these three role players keyed a complete team effort. The defense worked the Lakers into taking difficult shots and keeping them away from the basket. On offense, Houston had impeccable ball movement, rotating the point of attack instead of forcing it through one person, and continually made the extra pass, finding the open man behind a lagging Lakers defense. Along with great ball movement was great off-ball movement, with players making great cuts and moving into open space for easy shots. The Rockets also hustled more, beating the Lakers to the floor for every loose ball.

The Rockets performance was impressive, especially considering who they were missing. While it is just one game, and they still need to win two more to win the series, this win was huge. The momentum shifted in the Rockets’ favor. They kept themselves in the series, rather than losing and going back to Los Angeles down 3-1. With a great team effort, and key role players stepping up to fill the shoes of their teammates, the Rockets look to be in good shape, at least to continue to compete at a high level.

It is said that the playoffs are where stars are born. It’s the league’s biggest stage, and performing well can make you a household name (how many people knew who Chauncey Billups was before 2004?). Scola, Battier, and Brooks have had their breakout game. If they continue to play like they did today, expect them to create their own legacies.

Photo credits:
Aaron Brooks: AP Photo/ Don Ryan
Shane Battier: AP Photo/ Chris Carlson
Luis Scola: AP Photo/ Eric Gay

Game highlights. Video from YouTube.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

When is enough, enough?

AP Photo/ Scott Audette


Enough already Brett. This act is getting old.

When does it stop? It seems like every offseason for the past five years has been about you and whether you’re done playing football or not. One minute you’re returning as a Packer, the next you’re retired but quickly change your mind and become a Jet, retire again, ask for a release, and now you want to play for the Vikings? It’s getting ridiculous. I respected you as a Packer. Now? I just want you to go away.

It isn’t my job to tell you when to retire. Only you know when the time is right. But at least make up your mind. Your indecisiveness has lost you a lot of credibility.

I understand that elite athletes hate to be without the game. Lance Armstrong is making a comeback, but he is doing so to support a cause. Michael Jordan came out of retirement twice, too. But there are a couple of differences between Jordan’s comebacks and yours. Jordan actually went away from the game for some time before returning. He missed almost two full seasons before his first comeback (he played in 17 games in the 1994-95 campaign), and sat out another two season before playing for the Wizards (not to mention also giving his entire Wizards’ salary to relief efforts for the attacks from September 11, 2001). His absence gave us a chance to miss him; to realize how good we had it as fans with him on the court, and how much the game was different without him. You, Brett, are just stringing us along. You’re taking advantage of our appreciation for your talents.

And when Jordan came back he was still the best player on the floor. You can’t say the same about your first comeback. When you retired you said you “didn’t want to” play anymore. Then you conveniently (purposely?) didn’t become a Jet until after team minicamps and training camps, and the lack of preparation showed. Your 22 interceptions and horrendous play down the stretch overshadowed your solid start to the year.

You retired again and told us “It’s time to leave.” We were skeptical, but you stayed out of the news for quite some time. That is, until Friday, April 29, when you (asked for?) were released by the Jets. You reassured us you were “retired and have no intention of returning to football.” Alas, now you are talking to the Vikings about possibly making another return? Really?

What is fueling this? Do you legitimately think you can win another Super Bowl if you join the Vikings (I mean, if Jeff George thinks he can take Minnesota to the promised land, certainly Favre can)? Do you still want revenge on the Packers (For what, I’m still confused about—once you retired they had every right to move on; just because you changed your mind doesn’t mean they have to change the direction they had taken their football team in)?

You know what though, Brett? I, for one, don’t care anymore. I’m tired of the rumors, the speculation. Be a man of your word. If you retire and say you don’t want to play anymore, don’t go back on your word and give us a half-hearted return. It’s disrespectful to the game, your teammates, the fans, and yourself.

No one wants to see you kill your own image, but you’re leaving us no choice. Please, save face. Let us remember you as the gun-slinging leader of a Super Bowl Packers team, not a liar and over-the-hill clubhouse killer of a Jets, or even worse, Vikings team.

Don’t let the great memories fade into oblivion. Keep dragging out the end of your career, making the glory days seem ages ago, and we may never remember how great you once were.

Remember this? Video from YouTube via NFL Network.

Friday, May 1, 2009

What Would Ted Gillen Do?

Photo from Asbury Park Press. Staff photo: Doug Hood.

Walk through the hallways of Toms River High School East in Toms River, NJ and you’ll get a good sense of how popular Ted Gillen is at his old school. Student Council fliers feature a picture of him with the caption “What would Ted Gillen do?” His MetroStars jersey is signed and hung near the gym. He was elected to the Toms River Schools Athletic Hall of Fame.

Gillen, a special education teacher and head coach of the boys’ soccer team at East, takes his cult icon status in stride.

“To think I was once just a punk walking these hallways to now having my picture hung up,” he said. “Luck has a lot to do with it and it’s pretty humbling.”

Gillen’s storied career began at the age of four in the soccer hotbed of Kearney, NJ, when he saw his older brother play. Two years later they moved to Toms River, where Ted began to make a name for himself.

“Ted was a hard worker and a natural leader. He wasn’t big or strong, but he worked very hard, especially on his own time, to be a great player,” said his high school coach John Crowley. “Everything he accomplished was a result of his dedication.”

The defender was captain his senior season when East won the New Jersey Group IV championship, the only time in school history. He was named first-team All-State.

“It was my crowning achievement up to that point,” Gillen said. “It proved to be a launching pad for me. I rode a wave of confidence and success from that.”

Gillen chose to play at Penn State University. In June of 1988, at 19, Gillen was given the opportunity to join the national team. He started three games, alongside future American stars Tony Meola and Jeff Agoos.

“It was incredible to represent my country. It’s something I’ll never forget. They’re playing the national anthem and it’s for you,” he said. “My dreams became bigger. It elevated my status. It also was a fair amount of responsibility. How to act became very important.”

Back at PSU, Gillen became a team captain and was selected to the Mid-Atlantic Region All-American second team his junior year and first-team as a senior. After college though, he became a soccer nomad. Gillen played for four semi-pro teams between 1990 and 1993. He also became an assistant coach, joining the James Madison University staff while he completed his master’s degree in business, and then returning to Penn State. Gillen would still find his way into practicing with the teams.

“Coaching was an excuse to keep playing,” he said. “I was still hoping to get another national team call-up.”

Originally told he would be selected to the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, the competition became a U-23 tournament and Gillen was too old.

In 1995 Gillen began to hear whispers about a new professional league, Major League Soccer. Whispers came to fruition and Gillen felt the opportunity was a chance to “prolong the inevitable”.

“There was an open invitation to tryouts in the Star-Ledger. There were over 600 guys there,” he said. “I was still extremely fit and they voted me the number one guy at the try-out.”

Gillen was selected by the New York/ New Jersey MetroStars in the sixth round of the inaugural MLS draft. His season was a roller-coaster ride.

“I blew out my hamstring early in the year, played well in the middle of the year, but by the end of the year I fizzled and was in the dog house,” Gillen said. “I kind of lost a little fire. I wasn’t making any money and felt no more national team call-ups were in my future. I decided it was time to get a job.”

While the season hadn’t gone as he’d hoped, Gillen was viewed as a local hero for youth soccer players.

“There was excitement throughout all the clubs in the area. Kids could identify with a local player in MLS,” said Crowley. “We took a bus trip to see him play against the L.A. Galaxy. 60,000 people were there at the game and Ted was starting at left back. I think anyone involved in Shore area soccer was really proud that day.”

Gillen took a job with Merrill Lynch and traveled, but never was as happy as when he was on the field.

“The more time I was away from home, the more I missed it,” he said. “The two best places for me were Penn State and the Jersey Shore. I don’t know if I’d find happiness anywhere else.”

Gillen got his special education certification and returned home. His first high school coaching job was with the girl’s team at Toms River North. He would soon find himself replacing his former coach at East. Between 2001 and 2003, the boys’ team had stalled, going 20-29-4, and Crowley retired after the 2003 season.

“It was a big challenge,” Gillen said. “The program had been down. I was focused on resurrecting it.”

The turnaround was quick. In his tenure, East has gone 62-25-14, won two Shore Conference Class A-South division championships, been Shore Conference Tournament semi-finalists twice—once advancing to the championship—and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV finalists twice. The team has adapted Gillen’s defensive mindset, allowing only 47 goals in 63 contests over the past three years.

“Coach Gillen was the best coach I have ever had,” said former goalkeeper Brad Stockton, who now plays at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, NJ. “In my career with Teddy we beat many teams that were way more talented than we were but in no way were they better coached or closer of a team then we were, and that is all due to Teddy Gillen.”

The Jersey Shore youth have followed Gillen throughout his career and he has returned to his roots to help them achieve even more than he has. They don’t have to go far to find out exactly what Ted Gillen would do.