Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tracy McGrady Gives Orlando Magic Fans One Final Show

AP Photo/John Raoux

Picture Tracy McGrady, in Orlando, scoring and putting up big numbers.

It’s easy to think that Monday’s game could’ve been played in any year from 2000 to 2004, the time of McGrady’s four-season tenure with the Magic.

On Monday, though, McGrady was a member of the Detroit Pistons. His career arc is on the downward side, some say extremely close to the end, but he mustered enough to give fans in Orlando one more show, scoring 20 points in his team’s 103-96 victory.

McGrady has been a shell of his former self in Detroit. He’s appeared in every single game Detroit has played, which in recent years is something T-Mac has been unable to do. However, he is averaging only seven points per game, well below his career average of 20.8, which also went down a bit since he left Orlando (in four seasons with the Magic he averaged 28.1 points per game).

His 20-point performance Tuesday was only his third 20-point game of the season and it was only the 13th time he’s scored at least 10 points (he has almost as many games where he’s scored zero points, which he’s done seven times).

In Orlando, he was a star. He rose to the ranks as one of the best players in the NBA at the time. He could score at will, either with a long jump shot—sometimes fading back off of one leg—or driving to the basket and unleashing a dunk that would get the fans out of their seats.

With age, especially with a player who played as many minutes as McGrady did, players tend to lose some of the bounce in their step. But the aging of McGrady’s career was also hampered by a myriad of back and knee injuries.

He may have been robbed of some of his prime, but there is a long list of athletes that can say the same. What McGrady did do was go through all the grueling rehab, hear the criticisms come in bunches and just continue to play basketball.

He isn’t an All-Star anymore, but he still brings some value to the team he’s on, both on the court and off it. He’s rewarded the Pistons this month for taking a chance on him. His minutes have increased, as has his points per game average, rebounds per game and assists per game totals.

And he saves his best for his former teams. One of his other 20-point games came when he dropped 22 against Toronto January 14.

He’s played better recently, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be an MVP-candidate anytime soon. Still, it was enjoyable to see McGrady playing in Orlando, showing one last glimmer of the player he used to be.

Even if it was for the other team this time.

Highlight video of Tracy McGrady with the Orlando Magic. Video from YouTube.

Monday, January 24, 2011

New York Red Bulls Have Two of America's Brightest Young Stars

The New York Red Bulls have had success developing superb talents that become big contributors for the United States Men’s National Team. USMNT first-team regulars Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore all spent the entirety of their MLS careers with the franchise before moving on to bigger things in Europe.

The team may have two more names to add to that list.

After Saturday night’s friendly against Chile, current Red Bulls Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo continued their sharp form and further established themselves on the international stage.

Both players earned their second cap for the USMNT and impressed many.

Ream, who started and played every single minute for the Red Bulls in his rookie season, went the full-90 for the Americans. His composure and communication skills, for the most part, were good.

What was best though, and what drew a lot of attention during the MLS season, was his passing ability from the back. Ream does a good job seeing the field and getting the ball out cleanly. The good attack in the run of play that led to the penalty kick started with a Ream pass up the field.

There is a strong group of center backs ahead of Ream on the depth chart, but his performances in MLS and the last two friendlies with the USA have been good. He’s not far off the pace and those ahead of him are older, making Ream a real possibility for the 2014 World Cup. One thing he has done recently is move ahead of Omar Gonzalez as the better center back prospect, although the two do make a good combination that hopefully can grow together.

The player that drew the penalty kick to set up the equalizer against Chile was teen-sensation forward Juan Agudelo. He stole the spotlight in the friendly against South Africa in November, scoring in the 85th minute.

Against Chile, he came on as a substitute in the 60th minute and, along with fellow youngster Teal Bunbury, really provided a spark to a stalling US attack. Like Ream and Gonzalez, Agudelo and Bunbury are developing a good chemistry together (some are comparing their rise to the recent pairing of Altidore and Charlie Davies).

Agudelo is strong when dribbling at someone and can either play up top or out wide on the wing. The Red Bulls—where Agudelo was a rookie/home-grown player this past season—attempted to bring him on slowly, but when they started him in the final two games of the regular season and both playoff games, those plans quickly changed.

Each time he has stepped onto the pitch, be it for club or country, the excitement level of the fan base grows. The difficulty for the Red Bulls, as well as Bob Bradley (more so with Agudelo than Ream) will be tempering expectations with his development. There is still a lot of room to grow and it is important that his development not get stunted with lofty expectations and ill-advised transfers.

For the Red Bulls, Agudelo should join Ream in the starting lineup in 2011. On the field they will provide lots of energy and creative talent going forward.

Off the field, as their status with the USMNT improves, their marketability will do the same. Add them to main attractions Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez and the Red Bulls should be able to pack the stadium.

There are a couple of concerns, however. Firstly, the question often asked is how much longer the Red Bulls will be lucky enough to deploy these two talented players. Young and skilled, transfer rumors will swirl and, eventually, the two will follow in the footsteps of players like Howard, Altidore and Bradley and take their games to the next level.

From what Red Bull ownership is saying, that time is still a couple of years away though, and until that day comes the team should just focus on doing the best they can while they have these talents.

Also, as they secure their spots on the national team they will frequently be unavailable to the club during the season. For example, the CONCACAF Gold Cup will be played this summer, overlapping with the MLS regular season. Both have an outside shot of making the squad and if they do they will leave the team for the duration of the tournament.

The Red Bulls—as is the whole league—are no stranger to losing players to international duty, however, so they do know how to handle the situation.

What is most important is that the team currently holds two of the brightest young soccer stars in America and they will be strong contributors to the club trying to win its first championship in the history of the franchise.

Photo Credits.
Juan Agudelo: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Tim Ream: AP Photo/Rich Schultz

Saturday, January 22, 2011

New York Cosmos Have a Brand, But Will They Get a Team To Match The Hype?

AP Photo/Ira Schwarz

The news came out Wednesday that Manchester United legend Eric Cantona was returning to the game of soccer as Director of Soccer for the New York Cosmos.

The only problem is the Cosmos have no team for him to put together.

The Cosmos, once the talk of the town in New York as well as soccer in the U.S., have not had a senior team since the NASL folded in 1985. Their youth academies have kept going though, and in 2009 the brand was bought by a group headed by Paul Kemsley and the goal has been to get the Cosmos into Major league Soccer.

There is no senior Cosmos team but there is the Cosmos brand and it’s a strong one at that. It brings a sense of nostalgia for the pop culture breakthrough that was chronicled in the 2006 documentary and book “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.”

It’s a brand that was strong enough to lure Cobi Jones away from the Los Angeles Galaxy, a franchise he’s been a part of as a player or coach since the team’s inception in 1996, in order to take on the role as Associate Director of Soccer.

With former NASL brands of the San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps joining MLS through expansion certainly the Cosmos brand is appealing.

After the Montreal Impact join the league next year as the 19th club, the well-known desire is to have a second franchise in New York round MLS out to an even 20 teams and create a natural rivalry with Red Bull New York.

“We would like to see the 20th team in the league be a second team in the New York metropolitan area,” Mark Abbott, MLS president, has said. The league has been in discussions with the Cosmos ownership group.

The Cosmos know how to market themselves. Whether being the leading team in the 1970’s or putting out massive billboard displays in Times Square in this millennium, the organization makes sure the team name is out there. They’ve had some high-profile hirings and they’ve attracted a lot of media attention—again, without a team to talk about.

Surely many understand, but for those that don’t, they should not expect the Cosmos to have the same identity as they once had, despite the same name.

The NASL Cosmos brought in the best players in the world: Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and, of course, Pele. The MLS version won’t be able to do that.

MLS has strict salary cap rules, partly to create parity in the league, but also so teams don’t outspend their revenues and fold, attempting to avoid the fate of the old NASL. And it’s worked so far. So yes, they’ll have their three Designated Players, just like every other club, but unless players come over for extremely lower salaries in order to play for the Cosmos brand, the team won’t be what made them so special, what made them pop culture icons.

The organization has created a lot of publicity for themselves, something that surely is attracting the eye of the higher-ups in MLS. If they can drum up enough fan support, as well as enough financial support, (neither should be a problem) then they certainly have the upper-hand to finally gain entrance into the league.

From there, Cantona and Jones will finally have a job to do, and if maybe, with the help of the attractive tradition the Cosmos once created, they can bring in the right players—both free agents and youth academy products—they can capture some of the imagination of American fans.

The old Cosmos way of building a team in America is extinct, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still an intriguing organization. With all of the buzz they have generated recently the organization has shown people are still willing to see the Cosmos logo on the pitch once again.

The question is, when will they actually have a team for fans to come out and see and root for?

The beginning of the documentary "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos". Video from YouTube.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Freddy Adu: A Move Back to MLS is Best Option

AP Photo/Nick Wass

To succeed on the international stage a player has to be getting consistent minutes with his club team. The guys that are playing regularly are sharper and more in form, both mentally and physically. They also stay on the radar of Bob Bradley.

Freddy Adu is running out of clubs in Europe willing to give him a chance, which is why this January transfer window he should make his way back to MLS.

Since leaving Real Salt Lake in 2007 Adu has been on the roster for four clubs: Benifica, AS Monaco, Belenenses and Aris. Technically, Benifica owns his rights and he is on loan to Aris, but both clubs are dead-ends.

Adu has a year left on his deal with Benifica but ownership has said that they are willing to loan him out again or allow him to leave on a free transfer. Aris management has deemed him a “surplus” and wishes to cancel the rest of his loan deal with the club.

Since his ousting at Aris he has trained with Swiss side FC Sion, Danish club Randers FC, and is now on trial with German second-division team Ingolstadt. His latest European venture seems to be just as fruitless as the others, with team coach Benno Mohlmann not a fan of his chances with the club that has scored only one goal in its past 14 games.

“Basically, Freddy is certainly an interesting player, but one who couldn’t really help us in the current situation. If a contract does come about, it will depend on his consultants. Freddy would have to accept a path through our second team,” he said to a German newspaper.

Playing for a reserve team on a floundering club in a second division in Germany will not get Adu playing for the United States’ Men’s National Team any time soon. He needs to come back to MLS, where it all began, to regularly play first-team football.

Anyone that would say Adu is a bust would be foolish. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, especially with the youth national sides. He also played well in the previous Gold Cup, even scoring a goal in the tournament.

He’s also still only 21 so there is still plenty of time and room for improvement. He just needs to play. Coming back to America won’t make him a failure either.

Landon Donovan started out with a German club and unhappy with his role there he was loaned to the MLS at the age of 18. He returned to the Bundesliga four years later. He played in only seven games which led him to state his desire to return to the MLS. Bayern Leverkusen granted his wish and since then Donovan has become arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced.

He hasn’t made a permanent move back to Europe, but he has been on the verge of a move. More importantly, he got his playing time, developed, and is now the main guy for USA.

There’s no reason to think that Adu can’t make a similar progression. But he has to come back.

There are teams that would take him and play him, and those teams—and the league—are better than some of the sides and leagues he’s been training with.

The biggest hurdle will potentially be the salary. MLS is notorious for relatively low salaries comparative to the contracts European teams can offer. It’s also hard to imagine that any team would use a Designated Player spot to acquire him.

But no one else really wants him, so the ones that do aren’t going to offer him a heck of a lot of money anyway.

Adu has to accept his fate. What he’s doing now is not getting the job done.

It’s time for Adu to get back on the field, and he will be able to do that in America. His only other option is to continue his trial tour across Europe, which has yet to yield him a job.

If he doesn’t find a spot soon, the once promising young star could fade out into obscurity.

Freddy Adu highlights, mostly from his time in MLS. Video from YouTube.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New England Patriots: Story Lines to Watch in the New Year

AP Photo/Don Heupel

The New Year has come and gone. Every year is different, and the team faces new challenges every season.

In the immediate future the New England Patriots will prepare for their playoff matchup against the New York Jets on Sunday. The winner moves on to the AFC Championship.

However, with the New Year so fresh, what does the entire year of 2011 hold for the Pats?

Here are the biggest story lines and questions for the Patriots in the upcoming year.

Will the Patriots Win the Super Bowl?

The Patriots have not been to the Super Bowl since the New York Giants ruined their perfect season in Super Bowl XLII in the 2007 season. They haven’t won it all since the 2004 season.

Many feel, however, that this year’s team has a fantastic chance at bringing another trophy home to Foxborough.

The Pats finished the season with a 14-2 record and earned the top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

They ended the season on an eight-game winning streak and did so in impressive fashion, scoring at least 31 points in each game. Over the course of the season they’ve beaten six teams that qualified for the playoffs (Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Packers and Bears), and in consecutive weeks they outscored the Jets and Bears a combined 81-10.

They’re spreading the ball around on offense, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the first Patriots player in six years to rush for 1,000 yards, also the last time the team won the Super Bowl. The defense features a lot of young players, but they have learned on the fly and improved. In the past five games they have only given up more than seven points once.

They’re confident and playing their best football. Their chances are as good as, if not better than, anybody’s.

Will Anyone Unseat the Patriots in the AFC East?

Many consider the AFC East to be one of the more competitive divisions in football. More times than not, however, the Patriots are the class of the division.

The team has finished as AFC East champions in eight of the past 10 seasons, finishing second the other two. Will anyone be able to stop their reign?

The top contender is obviously the New York Jets. They have a talented roster fueled by a coach that believes his guys are the absolute best. They’ve finished second the past two seasons and have made the playoffs. Last year they went to the AFC Championship Game.

The rest of the division may not be as flashy, but they usually put up a fight. The Bills have been non-factors for years but were competitive at least this season and never quit. The Dolphins have lots of talent on their roster but severely underachieved this year.

New England has come out on top time and time again, but they do have a rather large target on their backs. Will someone be able to unseat them as division champs?

Who Will the Patriots Draft?

New England holds six picks in the first three rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft. Over the past couple seasons the team has worked hard to infuse young talent into the roster, especially on the defensive side.

With so many top picks, the team has a chance to really bolster its lineup. The biggest areas of concern are getting younger on the offensive line and getting better pass rushers. Luckily for New England, the draft is loaded with these two types of players.

Who will they target? Will Bill Belichick trade down again like he notoriously does? Will they go after a different position? With so many picks, anything can happen.

What Will Happen to Patriots Free Agents?

Matt Light, Logan Mankins, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kyle Arrington will be free agents. All have played important roles on this Patriots team, and big paydays will also be in order.

Along with Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor will also all be free agents, destroying the depth at that position—not to mention Faulk is such a fan favorite.

Mankins held out the majority of the season and was displeased with how the team handled his contract situation. Is all of that a precursor of what is to come?

The Patriots' free agency philosophy tends to be to take care of the in-house guys, and then once they’re in the fold, the team can bring in some additional, complementary pieces. There are a lot of valuable pieces the Patriots will need to make happy.

Who will they bring back? What direction will the team go in? How will negotiations go?

Will There Be a 2011 Season?

The Collective Bargaining Agreement is expired, so a new one needs to be in place before the start of next season. However, there is a labor dispute between the players union and the owners.

Things like an 18-game regular season schedule and a rookie wage scale are disagreed on, and a lockout is looming.

Until the two sides reach an agreement, no football will be played, so all the previous questions will be moot.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Week 17 NFL picks

Last week of the season. Some teams fighting for playoff positioning, some not. All players are looking to be evaluated for next season. The infamous question for teams already in is how much, if at all, should the starters play? Rest or gain momentum?

Home team listed in all caps, winner listed first.

Who do you think will win?

KANSAS CITY over Oakland

NEW ENGLAND over Miami

INDIANAPOLIS over Tennessee

HOUSTON over Jacksonville

Pittsburgh over CLEVELAND

BALTIMORE over Cincinnati

Minnesota over DETROIT

WASHINGTON over New York Giants

GREEN BAY over Chicago


NEW YORK JETS over Buffalo

ATLANTA over Carolina

NEW ORLEANS over Tampa Bay

SEATTLE over St. Louis

SAN FRANCISCO over Arizona

DENVER over San Diego