Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Virginia Men's Lacrosse Team Shows Resiliency, Wins NCAA Championship

AP Photo/Gail Burton

Call it perseverance. Or possibly stubbornness. But even through so much roster turmoil the Virginia men’s lacrosse team would not go away. They stuck together and despite the doubts and constant changing won the NCAA Division 1 championship.

Last season the Cavaliers made it to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Duke. But the craziness began before then when defender George Huguely was charged with the murder of Virginia women’s lacrosse player and ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love. This weekend as his teammates celebrated, Huguely sat in a jail cell waiting for his trial, set for February 6.

The turnover continued this season. Star defender Matt Lovejoy underwent season ending shoulder surgery after playing in 10 games this season.

A pair of All-American midfielders—twins Shamel and Rhmael Bratton, considered the best players on the team—were suspended multiple times this season. Rhamel was suspended before the regular season finale and was ruled inactive for every game following.

Shamel was suspended three times total this season, his third the same team as Rhamel’s and leading to his dismissal from the team. Shamel finished the season fourth on the team in points (despite playing in only 11 games) and Rhamel finished sixth.

Before Virginia beat the University of Pennsylvania in a NCAA tournament tune-up, the team had lost four of its final five games, including getting bounced out of the ACC Tournament in the first round.

Even in the playoffs, things did not get any better. They needed overtime to come-from-behind and beat first round opponent Bucknell. The offense took another hit when third-leading scorer Colin Briggs was also suspended for the team’s NCAA semifinal game.

Somehow, though, the team made it work.

Having a young defense without Lovejoy, Virginia changed schemes. Notorious for having a pressure-packed man-to-man defense, the Cavaliers converted, mid-season, to playing mostly zone defense. In the NCAA Tournament Virginia surrendered double-digits in goals only once (the Bucknell game).

With the Brattons, the majority of the team’s offense relied on its midfield production. When both were gone from the team, the offense morphed and changed to get more production from its attack and work the ball from behind the net. Much like how the defense was successful, the offense scored double-digits in all its tournament games except for the championship round, when they scored nine goals.

And who was the hero of the championship game? None other than the previously suspended Briggs. The senior midfielder scored a career-high five goals.

“I definitely disappointed myself and let down the team on Saturday. I wanted to come back today and give everything I had,’’ Briggs told the media after the big win. “I got some open looks and was able to finish some shots.’’

It was very unlikely, all things considered, that Virginia would be hoisting the championship trophy at the end of the season. They were the lowest-seeded team (No. 7) to win the title and the first to do so with five losses (Virginia finished the season 13-5).

None of that matters though, because they are, in fact, champions. And they did so by overcoming adversity through teamwork. Instead of whining, the team banded together, adapted to every new situation, bought in to what head coach Dom Starsia taught them and executed.

What Virginia did was a true lesson in taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes and fixing them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Stop Calling for a Soccer Savior in the United States


I recently read an article that asked if Juan Agudelo was the savior of U.S. soccer. The thought behind the piece began, as it always does, listing the names of players who have not lived up to expectations but that maybe this time we had found the one.

Agudelo is an impressive player, and hopefully he continues to play well. But this style of writing needs to end. It’s lazy writing and accomplishes nothing. It is in fact the type of writing that makes the audience resent the media: building a character up in order to tear him down even harder.

The article linked to above isn’t the only one that deploys this technique, it is just the most recent I’ve seen. The names of “failures” are the typical ones mentioned: Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson and, of course, Freddy Adu. This isn’t to say they haven’t been disappointing, or that we shouldn’t expect more from them. But why must every young, talented American soccer player be a savior? The writers make knee-jerk reactions to good and are just as quick to criticize and devalue through times that are not as fortunate.

The first problem with the “soccer savior” story is how it originates. Far too often a potential savior is pulled from an extremely small sample size.

The majority of Juan Agudelo’s mainstream hype has come from an entire three games with the U.S National Team; his third appearance against Argentina in March was, at the time, one more game than he had played in with the New York Red Bulls total. Jozy Altidore made 43 total appearances with the Red Bulls, his first professional club team. That’s just over one full MLS season. Eddie Johnson’s most impressive run with the National Team was for his seven goals in six World Cup qualifiers. And Freddy Adu, he never played in a professional match in his life when the media firestorm anointed him the chosen one.

How can greatness be judged in a handful of games? You can learn some things about a player, but his eventual career path has so many active variables that you just can never tell that soon. The media justifies these responses by saying things like, “The American public is hungry for its own soccer superstar.” Really, it is sports writers hungry for a quick easy story. One that is framed around little information and could very well turn out wrong, but even then it would create another story.

There is a good reason the sample size is so small—the age of the players. Adu and Altidore are 21-years-old, Davies is 24 and Agudelo is only 18. Johnson is the oldest of the aforementioned players, at 27, but even so the tipping point of his success came roughly seven years ago (making Johnson a mere 20-years-old).

The point is all these players burst onto the scene at a very young age—they couldn’t even legally buy a beer. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney became superstars at equally young ages and have become the biggest name in the sport. But that doesn’t mean that if these American players haven’t reached their peak at the same age then they are failures.

For starters the youth development programs in the country are notoriously not as strong as those overseas. Places like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and MLS academies are helping to close the gap, but it’s not there yet. Therefore it takes more time for players to properly develop.

Bob Bradley, the head coach of the USMNT, has brought players like Altidore, Adu and Agudelo in for developmental purposes. In order to make the team more successful (and in doing so helping the sport become more popular in the country) Bradley’s philosophy was to make the available player pool deeper. That has meant expanding the pool to bring in younger players and bring them along at the senior level. Some, like Agudelo, flourish in the early stages. It is a process, however.

By no means is Agudelo a complete player because of his good showings in three international matches. And Adu not making a World Cup team thus far does not mean he never will. There is still a lot of time for both of these players to hit their primes and until then they will be learning the game, improving their skills and becoming good soccer players, regardless of the superstardom they achieve.

One thing that halts these players is the moves they make in the transfer seasons. With a little help from the media hype that surrounds them, the players’ profiles grow attracting them to big name teams. They move but are not ready to see the field and get buried on the bench.

Bought by Fulham in 2008, Johnson has only made 20 total appearances for the English Premier League club. He’s been loaned out three separate times. Altidore, after signing with Spanish giant Villareal, is on his third loan and Adu is on his fourth loan from parent club Benfica in Portugal.

The problem is that the players aren’t allowed to develop at the proper rates. Even the teams they are loaned to are in top flight leagues around the world and are looking to win games, not develop other team’s talents.

While these young players are training at high levels and learning what it means to be a professional, at the end of the day they have to crack the lineup and see the field. Otherwise they are no longer fit for games, their confidence gets shaken and they get rusty, dulling their once dazzling talents.

Then the media swoon over them like vultures, declaring their careers all but over.

The media is not at fault for player’s choosing the wrong team to transfer to. But for some reason the lack of proper time to develop gets lost in the coverage.

There is nothing wrong with being excited for a young player’s success. And if that player will help lead soccer to a higher status on and off the pitch then that’s great. But expectations need to be kept in

The soccer savior theme needs to be put to an end. It’s beyond hyperbole now, it’s a cliché. Anytime a young player has a good run of form, even for only a handful of games, he becomes the new flavor of the week. And then when the hot streak cools and the player must work through adversity—an essential part of a player’s development—the media turns their back on him, labeling him a failure.

It’s a tired form of writing and accomplishes nothing other than squeezing as many headlines out of a buzz worthy player as possible. It makes it look like writers are not out to cover the beautiful game but rather essentially create and manipulate their own stories.

Besides, with the USMNT improving its quality of play on the pitch, MLS becoming a financially stable establishment and pure interest in the global game on the rise (i.e. sales for the FIFA video game, TV ratings for the World Cup and English Premier League matches) is a savior really needed?

Photo Credits.
Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Freddy Adu: AP Photo/Nick Wass

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Teemu Tainio Will Be Missed When New York Red Bulls Face the Los Angeles Galaxy

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

When the New York Red Bulls square off against the Los Angeles Galaxy offense will be at a premium.

Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Juan Agudelo, Juan Pablo Angel and Luke Rodgers are all names that should see action and they all bring it in the attacking third.

Good offenses are fueled by teams that are capable of playing good defense, transitioning to offense, and possessing the ball. So New York not having Teemu Tainio is a huge loss and could have a great effect on the outcome of the match. He did not travel with the club to Los Angeles because of a groin injury.

The Finnish International was signed by the Red Bulls before the season started in March and has a long history of playing soccer at the highest level. He’s played in the UEFA Champions League with Auxerre, a club he spent eight years with making 150 appearances with the team. Then he moved onto the English Premier League with Tottenham for three years. He rounded out his European career with Sunderland and Birmingham City in England and Ajax, the famous club from Amsterdam.

The signing with New York was a quiet one, and he had to go on trial with them before the club would commit to him. But he may be the best signing in the entire league.

Tainio has started and played every league match at defensive midfield for the Red Bulls so far this season. He played every minute of every match until he was subbed out at halftime of last week’s game against Sporting Kansas City with a groin injury.

He’s a hard worker who plays strong, tenacious defense. He’s also been the link from the defense from the offense. His passing has been crisp and he had been the key to the Red Bulls being one of the cleanest passing teams in the league. They’ve been a very good possession team, something head coach Hans Backe has been very proud of.

Tainio only has one assist this season and more times than not if the announcer is not saying his name, he’s having a good night. But the impact he has on the field was felt when he was removed from the Kansas City game.

“He’s a very important piece of the team,” Rafael Márquez said to the press. “He is the one that balances the entire squad on the field so when he is not around, we always miss him.”

Carl Robinson, Tainio’s replacement, did not hold his own. The team’s time of possession was way down in the second half and as a result, Kansas City’s attack was more potent and dangerous.

It’s unfair to say it was all Robinson’s fault, or that he won’t be able to get the job done adequately, it’s just that you can tell the kind of difference Tainio makes on the field.

His replacement as well as the entire team have their work cut out for them against the Galaxy.

Red Bulls Insider: Meet Teemu Tainio. Video from YouTube.

Friday, May 6, 2011

NFL Draft 2011: New England Patriots' Plan All About Flexibility

AP Photo/Winslow Townson

When the New England Patriots entered the 2011 NFL Draft the team held six picks in the first three rounds. The fans and the media expected the team to really cash in.

The most publicized need for New England was a pass rush. Lucky for them, with so many top picks, this year was a deep class of defensive ends and outside linebackers. Names like Ryan Kerrigan, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cameron Heyward and Cameron Jordan filled the Big Board.

When all was said and done the Patriots didn’t draft any of those names. In fact, they didn’t select someone that plays in the front seven until they selected OLB Markell Carter out of Central Arkansas in the sixth round.

It’s not to say the players they drafted won’t be any good or that they don’t fill needs or depth. But why ignore a supposed glaring hole? It’s become the theme of the draft, possibly the theme of the Patriots, was not, in fact, address need but rather flexibility.

Flexibility and the mantra of the New England Patriots explain what happened during the draft. The Patriots are notorious for “putting the team first” and not overpaying for talent are ways the ownership manages the team, and has also helped make them as successful as they have been in this century. Randy Moss, Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Willie McGinest all experienced it. It’s the business.

So the first round selection of OT Nate Solder puts Matt Light on notice. Light has started at the left tackle position when he was drafted in 2001 and is looking for a new contract. But history and the draft tell us that if Light wants to be a Patriot he should temper his demands.

Solder may not be ready in Year 1, but he’s a promising prospect. Give Light one more year, develop Solder, and if Light’s contract demands are too steep to merit giving to the 32-year-old, let him walk and you have a capable player ready to step in.

Depth along the offensive line was something that needed to be addressed and Solder gives them flexibility at this position currently and moving forward.

Skip down to when the Patriots select running backs with their second pick in the second round and their first in the third round. Again, current starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis is coming upon free agency. Maybe his productive 2010 priced him out of the Patriots range.

People speculated the Pats would take one running back at some point because they like having a lot of depth at that position. But two back to back? Green-Ellis may be on his way out of Foxborough.

So if they were planning on going running back, why trade down in the first round and let the Saints select former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram?

While it’s no certainty he’ll be a successful player, he does have a higher profile. As a first-round pick his salary would be much higher than backs drafted in later rounds. So why pay him more for backs that, while they may not have the hardware Ingram does, could be successful in the system?

With the trade, the Patriots also picked up an extra first-rounder next year. Will they trade down like in most of the drafts in recent years? Possibly. But having two picks gives New England flexibility in making decisions. They can package the two to move up, or trade down again, gaining more picks and more future flexibility in potential trades.

As for the pass rush? The front office must be confident that last year’s draft picks Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes will continue to develop and free agent signings Eric Moore and Gerard Warren will step up. As we’ve seen before, the Patriots aren’t afraid to take a chance on an older free agent.

So while many fans were left scratching their heads, there is a plan in place. And flexibility is a vital part to it.