Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dwight Howard Needs to Grow Up For Orlando to Win it All

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The Orlando Magic is the first team in the NBA Playoffs to advance to the second round and was the only team to sweep.

However, if Dwight Howard continues to go down the same path he has been the Orlando Magic may be eliminated sooner than the team expected to be.

It isn’t his skills that could let the team down. He recently won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive season. He led the league in both blocks and rebounds, the only player in the history of the NBA to lead in both categories in two different years.

His offensive game is also improving as Dwight works on his post moves, footwork, and shooting touch to complement his thunderous dunks.

What needs to change is his fouling problems and his attitude and maturity. The two go hand-in-hand really.

This season Howard set a career-high in personal fouls, amassing 287 over the 82-game season as well as a career-high in fouls per game with 3.5. In a much related stat, Howard also registered the lowest minutes per game average, 34.7, since his rookie year.

In the playoff series against Charlotte Howard was whistled for five fouls the first two games and fouled out the final two. He failed to play 30 minutes in any of the four games and his scoring average was, for him, an awful 9.8 points per game, well below his season average (18.3).

Orlando is a deep team this year and Howard’s teammates were able to step up and finish off the Bobcats with ease, but this will not and cannot be the case as the playoffs continue. The Magic need Dwight Howard on the floor to win the championship.

The Magic’s backup post players are Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, and Ryan Anderson. All do some nice things: Gortat is a good rebounder, Bass is a physical banger with a good mid-range jumper, and Anderson is a good shooter.

None of them make the same impact Howard does, especially on defense.

Howard has proven to be a master shot-blocker. If he isn’t actually deflecting shots he’s altering them with his long arms and strong presence in the paint. He has the ability to also force players to think twice about even attempting to come down the middle of the lane while he is patrolling it.

He’s also a weapon on offense for the Magic to use.

He’s very difficult to guard for opposing post players. He’s either too big and strong for the smaller guys he gets matched up against or he’s too agile for the big brutes. The alley-oop has become a staple play for him and point guard Jameer Nelson, allowing for quick and easy points. Not to mention his thunderous dunks not only give the Magic points but it energizes the entire stadium and gets the fans into it.

However, when Howard is not on the floor his replacements do even worse offensively. They do not pose the same matchup problems that Howard does. They aren’t athletic enough to pull off the alley-oop like he does. They also rarely give the crowd that same reason to stand and cheer that Howard is able to.

Also without Howard the Magic are forced to become more one-dimensional. They rely heavily on the three pointer. If the team has a streaky night they could be in trouble without Howard on the floor. Howard provides another option, a player they can get the ball to in order to get points. Also, without him on the floor, the team doesn’t have the league’s best rebounder to corral the loose ball.

Further adding to Howard’s problems are attitude and maturity issues, more specifically to the game officials.

Howard feels that he isn’t being treated fairly. “There's a lot of things I feel don't go my way or our team's way,” he said after game four.

Howard now does a lot of complaining about the calls officials are making, which in turn is getting him into trouble. He was called for a career-high 17 technical fouls.

Howard gets frustrated. Sure, sometimes the calls are bad, but it’s part of the game. Howard cannot let it get to him. He allows the fouls and calls to get in his head, throwing him off his game. The more he gets frustrated, the more prone he is to doing something stupid, like throwing an elbow at Samuel Dalembert in the playoffs last season that got him a one-game suspension.

Howard needs to stop being immature. He needs to keep a level-head rather than letting his emotions get the best of him and he loses his cool.

If Orlando were to face Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals you can guarantee Shaquille O’Neal will play physical with him and will do whatever he can to get into Howard’s head and render him ineffective.

If Howard can harness all that energy and put it into blocking more shots and throwing down more tremendous slam dunks, then Orlando will be just fine.

But they need him to be on the floor. Otherwise the magic will run out.

Seattle Sounders Need a Win Against Columbus Crew

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The Sounders are only six games into a 30-game schedule but they have come to an absolutely critical situation this season.

After opening the 2010 campaign with a 2-0 home victory over the expansion Philadelphia Union, the Sounders—MLS’ darlings of 2009—have made things difficult for themselves. They won only once in the next five games, coming out with a record of 2-2-2 to date. They sit five points behind undefeated Los Angeles Galaxy for first place in the Western Conference with one extra game played.

Seattle was given a chance to pick up some ground the previous weekend with two games against winless FC Dallas and the defensively deficient Toronto FC. Instead of taking advantage of supposedly weaker opponents Seattle drew Dallas and was then subsequently shutout in a loss against Toronto.

Now the Sounders will return home for a crucial match against undefeated Columbus Crew, with a game against the Galaxy looming next weekend.

The Sounders surprisingly are experiencing weaknesses all over the field. The usually strong defensive unit has allowed two goals in three of the past four games, giving the team a 1-1-2 record in that stretch.

The defense cannot afford to give up that many goals because the offense has had an incredible difficulty in scoring goals. The team has been shut out twice, including in the Toronto game against the team that has allowed the second most goals in this young season.

They are attacking and putting pressure on opposing defenses but finishing has been poor, especially on set pieces without striker Nate Jaqua who is out because of an abdominal injury. Teams are playing physical with top targets Freddy Montero and Freddie Ljungberg and not allowing them any space for easy goals.

Seattle’s situation looks gloomy, but there is reason to be optimistic this weekend. They return to Qwest Field, where they are 2-1-0 and have outscored opponents 3-1. Columbus also has only played three times this season, experiencing two bye weeks in the first four weeks. This makes for a team still figuring itself out.

However, the Crew has won the past two Supporters Shields and was MLS Champions two seasons ago. This is a team that knows how to win. Despite the uneven schedule they are undefeated. The Sounders look like the team still trying to work out the early season kinks, not Columbus.

Also, last week it seemed as if the Sounders had the upper hand, yet they still managed to come out with only one point in two games against weaker opponents.

If the team takes care of business against subpar competition then it puts them in a better position to compete with the other top tier teams. However, not getting points from those matches puts a lot more pressure on the team.

Now the team is falling behind in the standings, dropping to third in the Western Conference. They need to come out with a win against Columbus for a number of reasons: they can’t stand to lose any more points in the standings, they need to reenergize the team and fan base, and they need to be able to go into following game against the surging Galaxy with some confidence.

It’s an extremely important game entirely too early in the season for Seattle.

If they can’t come out with a win, they may be putting themselves in a hole that is very difficult to escape later on in the season.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Seattle Sounders Lacking a Scoring Punch

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Pegged by some to win the 2010 MLS Cup in only its second season of existence, the Seattle Sounders currently sit in a three-way tie for second place in the Western Conference in the early goings of the season with a 2-1-1 record.

Their defense has stood strong, allowing only three goals in four games.

However their offense has been just that—offensive—scoring only five goals in the four games.

Finishing was a problem last year, dooming them in the playoffs as they failed to score a goal in the first round against Houston, and it has continued into this season. Standing out is the shutout in the team’s second game when they were held scoreless by the New York Red Bulls—the worst team in the league last year—and narrowly escaping with three points in their latest match against Kansas City, not scoring until the 92nd minute of the contest.

Against the Red Bulls, the Sounders set a club record with 12 corner kicks and outshot New York 17-10. They put the pressure on New York’s defense and made goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul make saves, but when it was all said and done zero balls found the back of the net.

It can’t help the team’s morale knowing that Sebastian Le Toux, who the team left exposed in the expansion draft and was selected by the Philadelphia Union, scored three goals in Philadelphia’s first ever franchise win.

Their defense is good enough that on some nights the team can get away with scoring only one goal. However that is a lot of pressure to force on a unit, to stay perfect every game in order for the team to have a chance at collecting points.

Opposing defenses know that playmakers Freddy Montero and Freddie Ljungberg are the biggest threats, and have played very physical with them, not letting them get free and get many good scoring chances.

Last year’s starting striker Nate Jaqua, who scored a career-high nine goals and at six-feet-four-inches was the target on set pieces, underwent abdominal surgery earlier in April and will miss at least another month.

Reinforcements are on the way, though.

After Seattle’s first game of the season the team signed MLS veteran Pat Noonan, a technical player with a good finishing touch who has scored 45 goals in 172 regular season appearances.

There is also the upcoming summer arrival of Blaise Nkufo. The Swiss International and FC Twente scoring leader will join the Sounders at the conclusion of Switzerland’s run in the World Cup.

The team is getting down the field and applying pressure. They have creative players that can create opportunities for themselves and others. They also have quick players, namely Steve Zakuani, who can get behind defenses and run at them.

They just cannot put the finishing touch on their plays, and that could prove costly down the line as it did in the playoffs last year.

Seattle gets two chances to work on improving their scoring panache this weekend when they face FC Dallas’ defense-in-work on Thursday night and Toronto’s porous defense Sunday.

Defense may win championships, but you can’t win games if you don’t score.

Monday, April 19, 2010

High-Profile Friendlies are Great for MLS

AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Major League Soccer has revised the Designated Player rule, allowing teams to sign up to three players for more than the maximum salary in hopes to bring in more of the game’s most popular/talented players.

However, teams are doing other things to bring more of the world’s best stateside.

MLS franchises will host a number of European clubs this summer in friendly matches. D.C. United announced they will square off against Italian giants AC Milan May 26. The Chicago Fire will take on Paris Saint-Germain and either Legia Warsaw or Red Star Belgrade in a friendly tournament. The Philadelphia Union has an agreement to play Spainish La Liga’s Valencia. United is also rumored to be pushing for a match with Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic.

The idea of these international club friendlies isn’t new. The Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls have both previously hosted Barcelona and the Los Angeles Galaxy have taken on AC Milan before, not to mention the MLS All-Star team facing Fulham, Chelsea, Celtic, West Ham, and Everton in its annual competition.

Still, the continuation of these friendlies, and with big-name clubs, is fantastic for the league.

Having these games means packed houses for the MLS club, making the league a lot of money. People of all different soccer backgrounds—from avid MLS fan, to the international club fan who never goes to an MLS game, to a casual sports fan who has heard about the wonders of the visiting club—fill the stadium to witness a team that plays soccer at the game’s highest level.

Last August, when Barcelona visited the Seattle Sounders, Qwest Stadium was filled with a stadium and Washington record of 66,848. A month earlier the Sounders hosted Chelsea in front of an attendance of 65,289.

The impact isn’t just a single game either. Out of these fans, a number of the non-regulars will be captivated by what they see from the home squad. Many will return to at least one other game that season. The more times a team can bring fans to the stadium, the better off the entire league will be.

These friendlies also generate respect from foreign clubs and players. International teams schedule these friendlies for two reasons: they want to either get regulars in form during the preseason or get bench players some action against quality competition and they also want to tap into the soccer market in the area.

If they feel there is no long-term economic benefit, or that the team will not provide a good challenge and game experience then they simply will choose someone else.

The players also often come away impressed with the level that MLS is at. Sometimes, playing in the United States can plant the seed in the players head to someday play in the league.

After Barcelona’s game against Seattle, Thierry Henry said about the Seattle fans, “It really reminded me of a crowd in Europe. They were all cheering the Sounders, and rightly so. It was tremendous and a great atmosphere. They made it really difficult for us in the first half.” Henry has long been rumored to play in the league.

Proving to be an exciting place to play encourages international stars to play in the league, raising the quality of play and bringing in more fans to fill the seats. Being respected by the players as well as the entire organization is also very important to MLS, as it tries to integrate into the world soccer landscape and create lasting partnerships and generate international interest from fan bases.

A by-product from these friendlies is the European giants scouting new talent and taking away the league’s best players.

Many people believe that for the league to be bigger it needs to keep the best American players in country, much like many of the best Italian players play in Serie A, or like college sports try to keep the best in-state players.

However MLS cannot compete with neither the monetary contracts European clubs can offer nor the prestige of the competition of the leagues. Therefore, clubs can swoop in and make an offer to a young American prospect (see Holden, Stuart and Altidore, Jozy).

But MLS was not designed to compete with the bigger European leagues. MLS was designed for something very specific and it’s actually done its job.

Before the league was created it was difficult for Americans to latch on with top-tier clubs and get good playing time. Without proper experience and development the national team suffered. So part of the stipulation of hosting the World Cup in 1994 was that a top-level American league needed to be created, thus MLS was born.

The objective of MLS was to give opportunities and experience to young American players in an effort to develop them to create a more competitive national team.

Take a look at last summer’s Confederations Cup roster, the team that beat top-ranked Spain in the semi-finals. Fifteen players from the 23-man roster got their start playing in MLS, including arguably America’s two best players Landon Donovan and Tim Howard.

With current MLS teams still striving to make a profit spending on player salaries needs to be regulated and monitored or else the league faces the same demise that the NASL experienced.

So MLS teams develop these American players who grow into good national team members and get recognized by some of the biggest European clubs in the world. The player moves to the club and continues to get even better making an even greater impact for the United States.

While it doesn’t always work this way –it’s tough to say the Greek League, where Freddy Adu and Eddie Johnson ply their trade, is better competition-wise than MLS—generally the league has made a big impact on the American soccer scene, for both players and the National team.

So what happens when Stu Holden, after a few good years in MLS, gets bought by the English Premier League’s Bolton Wanderers?

Houston inserts Geoff Cameron into his slot as he works to become the next player to get a national team call-up and transfer to a big Euro club. One player’s exit is another player’s opportunity.

So while it would be nice to have all of America’s best playing in MLS, it isn’t feasible, nor is it necessary. Not every league is Italy’s Serie A, England’s Premier League, or Spain’s La Liga.

So let’s embrace these friendlies. It’s just another way to improve MLS’ reputation around the globe and to increase soccer’s presence in America.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

NCAA Championship: Brian Zoubek was Duke's Most Important Player

AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

The Duke Blue Devils have a ton of talented players. In the championship game victory over Butler the “big three”—Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, and Nolan Smith—combined to score 47 of the team’s 61 points.

No individual was more important in Duke’s run to the title game than center Brian Zoubek.

Looking back on the past three years, he was also the least likely candidate to be the missing piece that would push a talented Duke squad over the top.

In his first three years with Duke Zoubek’s struggles were obvious.

The seven-foot-one-inch, 260 pound center was a big presence in the paint that could alter shots, yet he was more of a liability on the floor.

He seemed to always be stumbling over his own feet, he couldn’t hold onto the basketball, and instead of going strong to the hoop he always looked uncomfortable with the ball, opting to pass back outside.

He had trouble getting up-and-down the court, made even worse by multiple surgeries to fix a broken foot. Because of his awkwardness and size, he would continually get into foul trouble as well.

It seemed more trouble to put him on the floor than he was worth.

Zoubek stuck it out though, and it paid off.

Duke has been in desperate need for a strong inside presence since Sheldon Williams graduated in 2006. Since Williams left, the Blue Devils have been severely lacking in rebounding, interior defense, and toughness. So just because of his sheer size Zoubek would always remain a thought, even if it was a thought buried deep in the back of Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s head.

The lack of an inside game could very well explain Duke’s lack of success in the NCAA Tournament recently.

The last time the Blue Devils won the championship was in 2001. Since then, the school had been a number one seed four times but failed to reach the championship game. Zoubek’s class have seen the team get bounced in the first round, second round, and Sweet 16—certainly not up to the standards and expectations set at Duke.

The team has lived and died by the three-pointer. It would seem that in the biggest games more times than not they died by it. There was never any post presence that would corral in those misses or provide a solid steady presence on offense when the team needed to stop shooting.

Quietly Zoubek increased his minutes played per game, points per game average, rebounds per game average, blocked shots per game average, and his turnovers per game went down. They were never by large increments, but just enough for people to not give up hope on the big man, even if productivity seemed light years away at times.

This season, his final collegiate year, Zoubek came in healthy and in shape.

He set career highs in games played, minutes played per game, points per game, and assist per game. He grabbed an astonishing four more rebounds per game and shot a career-high 63.5% from the field.

Even more important is that he did the most of his damage down the stretch.

From the start of the season, November 13, through February 10—a stretch of24 games—Zoubek had played twenty minutes or more only three times. However he was given the opportunity to start against Maryland in the team’s next game and he seized the moment, scoring a season-high 16 points and grabbing a season-high 17 rebounds in a 77-56 Duke victory, and has started every game since.

Since that game, Zoubek has averaged 6.6 points (more than two points higher than his career average of 4.1) and 10.1 rebounds per game (just under six more boards than his 4.3 career average). He grabbed double-digits in rebounds nine games out of 16 and recorded three double-doubles.

As the season went on, Zoubek gained more and more confidence. The Blue Devils also became a tougher team because of their new-found post presence.

While Singler, Scheyer, and Smith carried the brunt of the scoring load, Zoubek did all the dirty work; grabbing rebounds, setting screens to open up the shooters, altering and blocking shots on defense, and trapping the ball as well.

Without his increased production, without Zoubek stepping up to the challenge, Duke does not make it to the championship game.

Despite being in foul trouble for the majority of the game, they also wouldn’t have won it without him.

Six of Zoubek’s 10 rebounds in the title game were offensive, giving Duke second chances for points when their shooters failed to connect.

On Butler’s last offensive possession Zoubek covered the inbounder, and did a good job sliding out and getting in Gordon Hayword’s face as he attempting a runner, altering the shot just enough so that it went long and hit the back part of the rim.

Zoubek then grabbed the rebound and didn’t lose the ball, sending him to the free throw line, where he would sink the first shot calmly (he missed the second intentionally to force Butler to make a long-last ditch heave rather than allow for them to send in a long inbounds pass, creating an easier shot).

It was a long journey for Zoubek, but in his senior season he finally produced at the level he knew he was capable of playing at.

He also gave the University the strong, tough post presence it needed.

When they stood on the podium after the game, Zoubek held onto the trophy like he was never going to let it slip away from his grasp, just like he improved his ability to hold onto the basketball.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Kansas City Wizards 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Rick Schultz

In 2009 the Kansas City Wizards went from a playoff team to a bottom three team in MLS. The team was plagued by a poor attack, scoring the second-least number of goals (33). The team spent the 2010 offseason making major changes to the roster in hopes of rectifying their offensive woes and getting back into the playoffs.

Head Coach Curt Onalfo was axed and in Peter Vermes was brought in to replace him.

While Vermes and the front office indulged in quite a bit of player movement, there are three returning MLS veterans the team will lean on heavily: forward Josh Wolff, midfielder-forward Davy Arnaud, and defender Jimmy Conrad.

Wolff was one of the top goal scorers last season (11) and is one of the active leaders in career goals (73). His 11 goals from last year were a career high in his 11 years in MLS. The Wizards will need him to continue to stay hot and put the ball in the back of the net to be successful.

He’s also made 52 appearances for the United States National Team and was a member of two World Cup squads. His experience will be invaluable to the team as everyone tries to gel.

Arnaud has been with the team his entire professional career, amassing 191 regular season appearances. He didn’t break into the starting lineup until his second season, but he made an immediate impact scoring in the eleventh minute of the match against the then-named Metrostars, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Conrad, another Wizards mainstay, has been with Kansas City since 2003 and played in 178 games for the team, including the 2005 season when he was named MLS Defender of the Year. He was a teammate of Wolff’s in the 2006 World Cup. His experience will also help stabilize not only the team, but as the center-back he will be counted to keep the defense organized.

Those three will be instrumental in keeping the team together as a number of players from last year are now no longer with the team.

Gone are second leading scorer and points leader Claudio Lopez and forward Herculez Gomez (In 34 appearances with Kansas City Gomes scored only one goal; in 12 appearances with Mexican side Puebla Gomex has tallied an impressive seven goals).

Surprisingly, goalkeeper and MLS all-time saves, shutouts, and victories leader Kevin Hartman was also traded.

The Wiz replaced Hartman with Danish keeper Jimmy Nielsen, who made 342 appearances with Danish Superliga team Aab Fodbold.

In front of him, Kansas City added Colombian defender Pablo Escobar. The team hopes he continues the trend of Colombians being successful in the league, following in the footsteps of players like Juan Pablo Angel and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.

On offense, the Wizards will hope a full-season from Kei Kamara will help them.

Kamara came over in a late-season trade with Houston in 2009 and only appeared in six games for Kansas City. He has great speed and could be quite dangerous.

They also added English midfielder-forward Ryan Smith. Once a member of storied English Premier League club Arsenal, the Wizards hope he has already made an impact in Kansas City, scoring in the team’s season opening win over DC United.

Another player to watch out for is rookie Teal Bunbury. The clinical finisher from the University of Akron was Soccer America’s player of the year and a first team All-American. His father, Alex, is a former Wizards player, and he should get a fair share of chances to play this season.

Many thought it would take a considerable amount of time for so many new faces to gel, but the Wizards came out of the gates of the 2010 season with a bang, thumping D.C. United (and Onalfo) 4-0.

It’s still early, and D.C. has a number of new players trying to fit together as well, but it was an impressive performance and it will be interesting to see how the Wizards play together this season.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Real Salt Lake 2010 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/George Frey

Last year many people scorned Real Salt Lake. The club finished the regular season with a losing record of 11-12-7, yet still made the playoffs and went on to win the MLS Cup.

Many outsiders felt that this was an aberration and an embarrassment to professional sports. They chastised the MLS playoff format for allowing too many teams in.

Head Coach Jason Kreis believed in his team the whole way and got the job done, regardless of how they finished the regular season. In 2010 Salt Lake returns the majority off their championship-winning core and will be out to prove that they are a talented team, not a fluke.

Real Salt Lake is a balanced team, efficient on both offense and defense.

The defense is led by goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

Rimando enjoyed what was arguably his best season in his 10-year MLS career. He posted a 1.14 goals against average, his lowest total since 2005. Rimando shined in the playoffs being the star in the team’s two penalty shootout wins, including in the MLS Cup championship which earned him MVP honors.

His entire starting defense—Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave, and Robbie Russell—returns and the groups chemistry should be a huge advantage.

The midfield will be stabilized by US International Kyle Beckerman. He is an aggressive and tenacious defender and will continue to be a great leader for the team.

Javier Morales will handle the attacking portion of the midfield. After a 2008 season where he scored six goals and registered 15 assists, the Argentine had a down year in terms of production, putting forth totals of only one goal and five assists.

However, he played a part in all three of the team’s goals in the playoffs, scoring one and assisting two. The 2009 All-Star will look to improve upon his statistics and has started off the 2010 campaign with a bang scoring two goals and assisting one in the team’s 3-0 in the first game against San Jose.

Up top, Robbie Findley is one of the top forwards in the league.

He was tied for third last season in goals, 12, and added four assists. He has good speed and does a good job of getting behind the defense and getting in position to take high quality scoring chances. He also is still a candidate to make the US National Team roster that will take part in this summer’s World Cup.

He loses strike partner Yura Movsisyan, who left for Europe, but the team found a very talented replacement in Costa Rican International Alvaro Saborio.

A member of Costa Rica’s 2006 World Cup squad, Saborio has made 55 appearances with the Ticos and scored 22 goals, including one 79 seconds into a 2009 World Cup Qualifying match against the United States.

Salt Lake also brought in two talented rookies.

The team acquired heralded 17-year-old prospect Luis Gil, who has dazzled in youth international tournaments at midfield. The team may be slow to bring him on, but he is an exciting prospect for their future.

Collen Warner is the other rookie, drafted in the first round by the team. He was a top scorer and playmaker for four years at the University of Portland and could play a big role as a substitute for Salt Lake.

What the team needs to improve on is winning away matches. The team was almost unstoppable at home, going 9-1-5 with a goal differential of +23. In matches outside of Rio Tinto Stadium, however, the team was 2-11-2 with a -15 goal differential.

Somehow they were able to survive on the road during the playoffs, but they cannot expect to be taken serious as contenders without performing better on the road.

Real Salt Lake started off their defense of the MLS Cup strongly, drubbing San Jose 3-0 in the season opener, but the target is on their back and challenges await them.

Even after winning it all in 2009 the club is still not a conventional pick to repeat. However, they are a very talented and balanced squad with good leadership and chemistry, and if they can learn how to be more consistent than they will be right in the thick of things come playoff-time.