Friday, August 27, 2010

Five Biggest Games for the New England Patriots in 2010

The Patriots head into the 2010 season as the reigning AFC East champions.

As they look to repeat as division winners and work deeper into the playoffs to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2007 season (Super Bowl played February 3, 2008) when they lost the chance at a perfect season when they were defeated by the New York Giants.

The Patriots face a tough schedule, as their opponents’ 2009 combined record stands at 114-94, a .548 winning percentage. Seven of the team’s 10 non-divisional games are against teams with winning records in 2009, six of which went to the playoffs, and two that made the NFL’s final four.

However, of those seven games, only two of them are away contests. If the Patriots are as dominant at home as they were last year (8-0, tied for best record in the NFL) then they could be in good shape.

Here are the five most-important games of the Patriots season.

Week 6 vs. Baltimore

The Patriots will come into this game fresh off a bye week and having finished the first quarter of their season. This contest pits them against the team that absolutely trounced them in the playoffs, not only ending their season but also inspiring talk that they ended the Patriots’ dynasty.

Raven running back Ray Rice rolled over the Patriot defense in Baltimore’s 33-14 Wild Card weekend win over New England. Rice ran for 159 yards and two touchdowns.

The game was also played at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots had won eight regular season games without losing.

This year, Baltimore got a boost when it added Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth to its receiving corps, as quarterback Joe Flacco continues to develop into a star. These additions make Baltimore’s offense much more balanced and allow them to make plays and hurt opposing defenses in a number of different ways.

In the Patriot’s favor is that New England has won the game after their bye seven straight years, and has won eight of the last 10.

Look for Tom Brady to test a suspect Ravens’ secondary as he looks to not only avenge the playoff loss but to also show Mr. Flacco that he is not quite yet up to Brady’s level as a passer and winner.

Week 7 at San Diego

There is no rest for the weary.

Week 6 is sure to be a slugfest and the Pats will not get a break the following week as they travel cross-country to visit the defending AFC West champions.

The Patriots have won two of their last three matchups with the Chargers, but the loss came the last time the teams met in 2008.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has become one of the top statistical players in the entire league. Last season he threw for a career-high 4,254 yards to go along with 28 touchdowns, a 104.4 QB rating, 65.2 completion percentage, and only nine interceptions, his lowest total since 2006.

The Patriots’ secondary was questionable last season, but New England hopes that Leigh Bodden, a more-experienced Darius Butler, and first-round draft pick Devin McCourty will be able to form a much improved unit.

Pitting an inconsistent secondary against a top-ranked passer, after a cross-country trip away from the friendly confines of Gillette, one week after the defense is tested against one of the NFL’s most improved offenses means that the Patriots will have their hands full.

This game will show how the Patriots handle adversity, especially on the road, and who emerges as team leaders, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

Week 11 vs. Colts

Throughout the new millennium, the Patriots and Colts have established a strong rivalry.

Last year’s clash was another memorable game, or on the Patriots’ end, extremely forgettable.

There was the infamous call by Bill Belichick to go for it on fourth down with two minutes left, even though his team was winning by six points. The Patriots—on a play that even if connected wouldn’t have recorded a first down—failed to convert, handing the ball to Peyton Manning needing only 28 yards to win the game, which he did.

Whether he admits it or not, Belichick has this game circled on his calendar. Up until that moment Belichick was widely considered one of, if not the best coach in the game. Yet that one play caused a lot of people to reconsider that opinion. He now has control of the offense and defensive play-calling duties and he’ll be on a mission to outsmart Indianapolis. The only question is will he outsmart himself?

Another interesting wrinkle to this matchup is that both Manning and Brady are playing for new contracts. Considered the two best quarterbacks in the NFL their ownerships will be looking to see how the other player’s contract situation shapes up.

Between Manning and Brady, this game has the makings of an old fashioned western-style duel.

Week 13 vs. Jets

Hated division-rival New York Jets have stolen a lot of the media attention away from the Patriots this off-season, and with big-name acquisitions and their Hard Knocks show, the Jets have high expectations and a big target on their back.

The Week 2 matchup at the New Meadowlands will be big. However, neither team will be playing their best football at that point and a lot can change in 11 weeks.

That’s why the Week 13 matchup will be huge. The game could go a long way in determining who comes out on top of the AFC East. It will also have a huge spotlight as it is currently slated to be that week’s Monday night game.

One interesting aspect of this matchup involves one of the Jets’ new acquisitions, Jason Taylor.

Formerly of the Miami Dolphins, another division rival, Taylor has a history of coming out against the Patriots and really pressuring Brady. The Jets have a lot of talented individual defenders that will take a lot of attention, so the older Taylor may get free, which would be disastrous for Brady and the Patriots passing game.

If Matt Light isn’t healthy and/or Steven Vollmer does not continue to develop properly, then the New York pass rush could really expose a weakness in the Patriots’ offensive line.

Week 15 vs. Green Bay

If the Patriots were to make the Super Bowl, a rematch of the 1996 Super Bowl with Green Bay could be in order.

The Packers are one of the top contenders in the NFC and are a big matchup problem for New England.

The Patriots strength on offense is their passing game. In 2009, the Packers were, statistically, a top-five defense against the pass. They also were first in interceptions (30) and tied for eleventh in sacks (37). They have what it takes to stand toe-to-toe with the vaunted New England aerial game.

So the Patriots could need the running game to step up. However, the running game is the most inconsistent part of the Patriots’ team. Shaky performances, injuries, and a revolving door of starters makes the position one of weakness for the Patriots.
Now take the likes of Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and put them up against Green Bay’s top-ranked run-defense, who also boasted the best takeaway total (40), and it could be a rough day on offense for the Patriots.

Meanwhile, the New England secondary, another position of concern for the team, will have to go up against Aaron Rodgers, who has developed into one of the top passers in the league. Rodgers threw for an astonishing 4,434 yards, 30 touchdowns, a 64.7 completion percentage, a 103.2 QB rating, and only seven interceptions.

The cliché is that a group is only as strong as its weakest link. Against the Packers the two weakest positions on the team will be put to the test.

Photo Credits.
Tom Brady: AP Photo/Dave Martin
Ray Rice: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Philip Rivers: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Peyton Manning: AP Photo/Mike Groll
Jason Taylor: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Aaron Rodgers: AP Photo/Jim Prisching

Saturday, August 21, 2010

For New York Red Bulls, Patience is a Virtue

AP Photo/David Banks

Designated Players can bring a lot of short-term things to the franchises that sign them.

There are the headlines, the extra revenue generated from an increase in tickets and merchandise, and the experience from years of playing the sport in the world’s top league with the top teams and teammates.

The New York Red Bulls are learning that what they won’t necessarily bring, right away at least, is wins.

Since July 15, the Red Bulls have signed former Barcelona stars Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez to go along with their first Designated Player, Juan Pablo Angel.

In the four league games Henry has played in, the team has gone 1-1-2 and has been shut out twice, scoring a total of only three goals—two against the Houston Dynamo in a game that they blew a 2-1 lead in the final minutes of the match.

In the two games Marquez has played, the team has not scored or won.

It’s not an encouraging sign for a team that many are jumping on the bandwagon as serious MLS Cup contenders.

However, it is not time yet for the long-suffering New York fans to go into a panic.

Henry and Marquez are just beginning to get their feet wet in MLS. They are transitioning to a new team, a new league, and a new city to live in. For the two stars it is simply an adjustment period.

Will the Red Bulls win the MLS Cup?
Submit Vote vote to see results Henry has already showed what he is capable of. He assisted on all three goals the team has scored in his four matches. He is linking up with Angel extremely well, and he himself is attacking the goal strong but is just unlucky in the finishing department.

Marquez, a defensive-minded player, has been a major part in why the Red Bulls have only given up one goal in his two games. He helped anchor the defense hold the Chicago Fire, with Designated Players Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, scoreless, and surrendered only one goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the league’s top team and second-highest scoring team.

While the Red Bulls cannot afford to let up, they are in a good position with the tiniest bit of leeway, enough to win some points and let their superstars get comfortable.

What the fans need is patience.

Had this been last year, who knows what former coach Juan Carlos Osorio would have done. The never-happy constant-tinkering could have delayed the progress of the team gelling and the players getting comfortable.

But Hans Backe is different. He generally keeps the lineup and formation consistent, and he rides the hot hand. Backe knows the stars the team has acquired and fully understands there is necessary adjustment time. And he will give them that time.

A franchise long infamous for bad luck and silly decisions finally has some hope. There is the second place standing after last season’s debacle, the new stadium, and the commitment to winning bringing in an additional two Designated Players. There is plenty for Red Bull fans to be optimistic about.

Rough patches happen. Some fans may be thinking, “Same old Red Bulls.” But there is plenty of reason to keep hope.

Henry and Marquez will get it together sooner rather than later, and the team will certainly be a dominant force when it does happen.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

MLS Loses Icon as Clint Mathis Retires

Clint Mathis, one of the memorable and beloved soccer players of his generation retired after starting Saturday’s Los Angeles Galaxy-Real Madrid exhibition match.

A career that spanned 13 professional seasons, Mathis was successful at the college, club, country, and international club levels. He had a nose for goal and carried along an iconic personality.

Mathis was a star for four years at the University of South Carolina. He scored 53 goals and added 15 assists in 58 total games, was a two-time All-American, set the school record as a sophomore with 25 goals in one season, and led the team to the NCAA tournament all four years.

His goal scoring prowess really progressed in Mathis’ time with Major League Soccer.

After being a first round draft pick of the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1998, Mathis finished his rookie season with five goals and 10 assists, establishing himself as a rising talent.

In 2000 he was traded to MetroStars where he quickly solidified his presence as one of the best playmakers America had produced.

The MetroStars had a dismal 1999 season but were instantly uplifted with Mathis’ arrival. He scored 13 goals and 13 assists in 21 games with the team that season, including an MLS-record five goals in one game against the Dallas Burn, en route to leading the team to the MLS Cup semi-finals.

The following season he won the MLS Goal of the Year (which would later be nominated for Goal of the Decade) for his incredible 60-yard run through defenders and bottom corner finish.

While Mathis was a member of the team through 2003, because of injury, national team duties, and transfers overseas and within MLS, Mathis would not make a significant return to the MetroStars, now renamed the Red Bulls, until 2007. His last goal with the club came in a thrilling 5-4 win over the David Beckham-led Galaxy in front of 80,000 fans at Giants Stadium. It also happened to break the franchise-record for goals scored in all competitions, at 45 (Juan Pablo Angel later broke Mathis’ record).

Mathis would finally win an MLS Cup championship with Real Salt Lake in 2009. His role was heavily reduced with the team, appearing as a substitute, but would play a key role in winning the championship match. With the score tied 1-1 after overtime, Mathis was selected to take the first penalty kick in the shootout and converted.

In 11 MLS seasons Mathis scored 67 total MLS-competition goals with the Galaxy, Red Bulls/MetroStars, Real Salt Lake, and Colorado Rapids.

He also made an impact overseas, acting as a goal scoring threat with Hanover 96 in the German Bundesliga and for Ergotolis in Greece. Mathis scored in his debut for both clubs and he scored four goals in his first five games with Hanover.

Mathis’ biggest goal of his career came in the 2002 World Cup. Representing the U.S., Mathis started the second game of the group stage against host-nation South Korea and scored after collecting a ball from the air and slotting it into the bottom corner, to give the United States a 1-0 lead and eventually a 1-1 draw.

Mathis’ goal scoring abilities absolutely captured the attention and imagination of soccer fans in the States, but it wasn’t the only thing about him. Mathis had quite a bit of personality to him that really made him remarkable.

In fact, it was a second personality that endeared him to fans.

Mathis adopted an on-field personality known as Cletus. Cletus was brash, was honest, and had flair. He would help Clint celebrate his success, but also would cause him to make some poor decisions. But all in all, they made Clint recognizable.

He was the cover story for Sports Illustrated's 2002 World Cup preview issue.

After Mathis scored his first goal with the MetroStars, he lifted his jersey to reveal an “I Love New York” t-shirt, expressing his dissatisfaction that the Galaxy got rid of him as well as making New York his new home and earning credit with the home fans.

Not only did Clint score in the 2002 World Cup, but he also sported a Mohawk that scored him instant recognition.

As for Cletus’ bad influence, he reared his ugly head while Clint was with Hanover.

In his second season with the German club, there was a coaching change and the new manager kept Mathis on the bench. One game, Mathis was used as a substitute in the last few minutes of the game yet almost immediately scored the game-winning goal. As for his celebration, Mathis ran to the sidelines in front of his bench and tapped his wrist, referring to a watch, how late Mathis entered the game, and what he could have done with more time.

Mathis started the next game, but never played for the team again afterwards.

All things considered, Clint or Cletus, goals or benchings, Mathis was a special individual. He had talent galore and was an entertaining character.

MLS and American soccer in general will miss a man that made such an impact on the game and an impression on its loyal fans.

Photo Credits.
Top: AP Photo/Yonhap, Jin Sung-chul
Left: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Right: AP Photo/Christof Stache

New England Patriots Training Camp Questions

With the start of training camp comes the start of a new NFL season. It’s a bit cliché, but every team starts 0-0 and with optimism that they could pull everything together and win the Super Bowl.

Some teams can be more optimistic than others. The New England Patriots are one of them. The Patriots have the talent and organization to be set up to win now.

That said, they are far from a perfect squad. The team is undergoing a youth movement on the defensive side of the ball, have some early injury concerns, and still have some off-field business matters to take care of.

Here are some of the Patriots’ biggest questions that need to be answered for the team to have a successful season.

Who will start at cornerback opposite Leigh Bodden?

Leigh Bodden’s five interception season earned him a new contract with the Patriots, but who will the team partner with him?

The two leading candidates are second-year corner Darius Butler and first-round draft pick Devin McCourty.

Butler played in 14 games last season, registering 33 tackles and three interceptions, including returning one for a touchdown.

McCourty is extremely versatile and could play a big role on special teams as well as on defense.

Early expectations had the team bringing on McCourty slowly, but he has been taking a lot of reps with the first-team defense alongside Bodden, before Bodden was taken out because of injury.

With Bodden temporarily sidelined, McCourty and Butler will both start in the team’s first exhibition game, and will battle each other the entire preseason for the right to start.

One would think because of the way the Patriots handle their players that Butler has the edge because of his experience in the team’s system, but McCourty looks to be on the fast-track to playing time.

Both prospects have bright futures, and the competition will make them that much better. But right now, only one will get the nod to start.

Vince Wilfork got his money. Will he live up to his new contract?

Players in the last year of their contract typically play strongly, working to ensure a big payday in the offseason. The problem is that once they do get that new contract they aren’t as motivated and see a sharp decline in stats.

The perfect example is the previous big-name defensive tackle free agent before Wilfork: Albert Haynesworth.

In 2008, Haynesworth put up career-highs in games started (14), total tackles (41), sacks (8.5), and forced fumbles (3). He signed a contract with the Washington Redskins worth $100 million with $41 million guaranteed.

He then proceeded to go down in all those categories, starting only 12 games, registering 29 total tackles, eight sacks, and forcing zero fumbles.

This year he has had trouble even passing a conditioning test.

Wilfork did not have a career year in 2009. Still he was too important to the Patriots team and defense to let go, and he got his new contract. It wasn’t Haynesworth money, but it was certainly not table scraps.

The Patriots organization and coaching staff has done a good job bringing in quality players, both with football talent and locker room character, and Wilfork has been a vital part with strong winning teams, so it’s unlikely that he become complacent now that he has his money.

How will extra responsibility affect Bill Belichick?

The Patriots will enter the season without an offensive and defensive coordinator. Belichick will be the primary play-caller for both sides of the ball.

Belichick was already heavily involved with the defense, as that was his specialty coming into the league, but now he assumes more responsibility.

Belichick’s play calling on offense was heavily scrutinized when instead of punting on fourth down on their own 28-yard line with a six point lead and two minutes remaining against the Colts, they went for it. They failed to convert and gave the ball back to Indianapolis and Peyton Manning with plenty of time and little field left to win the game.

Considered one of, if not the best coach in the league, is Belichick taking on too much? Is his control of the team reaching too far?

When will Wes Welker be ready to play?

Welker tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the regular season finale against Houston and was expected to miss at least the first half of the season. He was placed on the physically unable to perform list, but showed up at camp.

Then he was removed from the PUP, and once removed a player cannot be put back on the list. This lead to speculation that Welker could be ready sooner than expected.

Welker has said he even hopes to be ready for Week 1 against the Bengals. He has not missed a day of camp and participated in full-contact drills.

Still, for a player that relies heavily on his route running and cutting, one has to wonder how affective Welker will be and when he will be at full strength, physically and mentally.

What does the future hold for Tom Brady?

Tom Brady’s contract situation has been the biggest story of the Patriots’ offseason.

The franchise quarterback is in the final year of his contract and the future isn’t so clear.

While he is the face of the team, the two sides have not been able to agree on an extension. Currently he is scheduled to make $6.5 million this season, well-below the price-tag of other elite quarterbacks. The biggest factor in extending Brady’s deal is the uncertainty of labor negotiations for next season and what contract stipulations and changes could come from a new collective bargaining agreement.

Another factor, although not nearly as pressing as the labor issues, is that Peyton Manning and Drew Brees’ deals are also set to expire and the New England brass could be waiting to see what the market price for the top-three quarterbacks in the league will be.

Still, Brady, most likely, isn’t going anywhere.

Owner Robert Kraft has said, “He’s going to be here.”

Brady himself has expressed that he wants to continue playing for a long time and that it’s every player’s desire to retire with the team that drafted the individual.

And if no extension is agreed on?

Brady is too much of a professional to allow it to become a distraction. He has yet to voice his displeasure. Also, players are known to have career years at the end of their deals, attempting to cash in on a strong campaign.

Photo Credits.
Tom Brady: AP Photo/Steven Senne
Devin McCourty: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Vince Wilfork: AP Photo/Stew Milne
Bill Belichick: AP Photo/Steven Senne
Wes Welker: AP Photo/Stew Milne

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Public Enemy Number One Heads to New York

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Recently on its website, Sports Illustrated published a list of the most hated teams in sports history.

It was all the teams you loved to hate. Whether it be lots of money, dirty play, or just lots of attitude, the team was despised.

One more thing that especially got most of the teams vilified was that they won championships.

To American soccer fans, Rafael Marquez is a villain. To the New York Red Bulls, he may just be the bad guy that gives them a winning edge.

Think back to the NBA in the late 1980s and throughout the '90s. Dennis Rodman was mean. He was pierced all over, had tattoos all over, and dyed his hair crazy colors. He wore wedding dresses. He kicked cameramen.

He also, however, led the league in rebounding seven consecutive seasons and was named defensive player of the year twice.

Most importantly, he played a key role in three championship teams with the Chicago Bulls and two with the Detroit Pistons (a team infamous for its "Bad Boys" moniker).

Marquez has an awful reputation with soccer fans in the United States.

He is the captain of the Mexican National Team, the United States' arch rival. In the two teams' match up in the 2002 World Cup he was red carded for purposely head butting Cobi Jones. There was also the World Cup qualifier in 2009 where he kicked goalkeeper (and fan favorite) Tim Howard.

It’s all enough to earn him status as public enemy number one in the states.

However, he has captained three Mexican World Cup teams, all of which made it to at least the knockout round. He was a French Ligue 1 Best Defender and named Best North American player in 2005.

He's won the Ligue 1 championship once with Monaco, La Liga four times and the UEFA Champions League twice with Barcelona, and the FIFA Confederations Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup with Mexico.

He's tough, he's skilled, and he's a winner.

Marquez will play central midfield for the Red Bulls. His possession and passing ability will link the defense to the offense, creating more scoring chances.

He will be the enforcer if anyone tries to rough up high-priced forward Thierry Henry.

He will bring some of the 79,156 fans that crammed New Meadowlands Stadium to watch Mexico face Ecuador to Red Bull Arena.

He could also get a few red cards and encourage some animosity from outsiders to himself and the organization.

But no one in New York will care as long as this villain helps to finally deliver a championship.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shore Conference Represented in the Big Leagues

AP Photo/Winslow Townson

It was “Shore Conference Baseball Night” at the Boston Red Sox’ home game against the Detroit Tigers Saturday afternoon.

Maybe no one at Fenway knew, but those in Monmouth and Ocean Counties watching the nationally televised game did. Two of the area’s former high school standouts were recently promoted to the big leagues and made a big splash.

Jeff Frazier, from Toms River South, playing for Detroit and Ryan Kalish, from Red Bank Catholic, playing for Boston both got their first big-league hits and surprisingly played big roles in the game.

Frazier, 27, was called up before Friday’s matchup and started both games as the team’s designated hitter. He was promoted from Triple-A Toledo where he was hitting .273 with 23 home runs, 68 RBI, and 68 runs scored in 104 games.

After going 0-3 with a walk and a run scored in his Major League debut, Frazier—batting seventh in the lineup—went 2-4 with a double and two runs scored.

“He's made significant progress as far as making himself a big-league hitter. He was a high draft choice in the past, and he's continued to improve in the last couple years, so we think he's a guy that can come up and give us a little bit of help offensively,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said on the team's website.

Kalish, 22, was called up earlier in the day and got to the park only shortly before the game started. Playing with both Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, Kalish had a .294 batting average, 13 home runs, 47 RBI, and 25 stolen bases.

Manager Terry Francona slotted Kalish in the eighth spot in the batting order and played him in front of the famous Green Monster in left field.

Down 4-0, Kalish jump started the Red Sox rally singling in Adrian Beltre in the seventh inning. Kalish also finished the day 2-4, adding a run and an RBI.

The Red Sox are usually active at the trade deadline but were quiet this year, partly because of Kalish.

“We decided rather than putting someone like a Ryan Kalish in a deal that we would regret some day, with the way his development is going, he's ready for a trial here at the Major League level,” Epstein told reporters. “He brings a lot of energy, brings an advanced approach to the plate, brings a solid all-around game. Those are things that we could use right now.”

He hit well, but playing in Boston Kalish must need to learn how to play balls hit off the Green Monster. Frazier laced a ball off the wall to lead off the fourth inning that Kalish misplayed and allowed Frazier to slide into second without much of a challenge. Kalish said he intends to get to work to learn the position immediately.

For how long either stays in the big leagues for now is unsure, especially Kalish in Boston, where players like Jacoby Ellsbury will be coming off the disabled list.

What is for sure is that both players are highly regarded in their organizations and made their case that they belong at the highest level of the game.