Sunday, March 18, 2012

Duke Blue Devils Lacked Leadership Needed to Advance in NCAA Tournament

Mike Krzyzewski is considered not only one of the greatest basketball coaches in the history of the game but also as one of the best leaders. He’s even written five books about how to build and lead a team.

His 2011-2012 Duke basketball team, however, was lacking of anyone that shared that characteristic and that ultimately was the team’s downfall as they lost to No. 15-seeded Lehigh and failed to advance in the NCAA tournament.

There are a number of pure basketball reasons why the team struggled this season—poor free throw shooting, reliance on three-point shots and bad defense—but not one players stepped up to be the man, to be courageous and clutch during crunch time, to inspire his teammates and to push the rest of the team to give maximum effort.

In most cases, leadership is developed throughout the years and displayed by the upperclassmen. Throughout Coach K’s tenure at Duke he’s had the luxury of most of his players staying all four years of their eligibility rather than go to the NBA.

Prior to this season, Duke had advanced past the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in all but one of the past 15 seasons (2006-2007). Looking back at that roster, which was a 22-win team by the way, there was only one senior and one junior. Six of the 14 players on the roster were freshmen.

There was a considerable lack of experience on the team and it ended its season losing its final four games (its second four-game losing streak of the season).

It’s similar to how this year’s team lost three of its final four games.

In 2011-12, there was a bit more experience, but there was only one senior, Miles Plumlee. On most night’s he was the team’s most intense player, but he was featured as a substitute more times than not and did not get the rest of his teammates to match his effort.

Think of some of the best Duke teams of the decade and you will remember them having some fantastic college seniors: Shane Battier, Chris Duhon, J.J. Redick, Sheldon Williams, Jon Scheyer, Greg Paulus, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. This type of talented leader was absent from the team this year.

There also was the lack of a true point guard. Gone were Jay Williams, Duhon, Scheyer, Paulus, Smith and Kyrie Irving. The team relied on Seth Curry and Austin Rivers to run the offense, but neither was up to task.

Curry is a shooter. Handling the ball is not one of his strengths. He spent his playing-time off the ball last year but was shifted to the point position before the season started.

“It's different. I'm used to just worrying about myself,” he told CBS Sports at the beginning of the season. “Now I've got to get everyone involved in the offense. I can't just worry about myself.

Most point guards are judged by their assist-to-turnover ratio. Curry’s was not good: he averaged one turnover for every 1.2 assists he dished out. He was unable to control the tempo of the game and couldn’t hold onto the ball during big moments.

Rivers didn’t fare much better.

The freshman showed some fearlessness and stepped up to the occasion here and there, most notably in the first match-up against North Carolina when he hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning three pointer. He was a bit overconfident though and that affected his play.

Rivers handled the ball a lot but his biggest failure was in getting his teammates involved. More times than not, when Rivers got the ball at the top of the key he either held the ball and threw up an ill-advised jumper or put his head down and drove down the lane. He was the team’s leading scorer but he made the offense stagnant and predictable.

He also averaged more turnovers (2.3) than assists (2.1).

It seemed as if on some nights, this Duke team was waiting for the great players in the past to come into the game and take over. Aside from Rivers in the first UNC game, no one stepped up to hit big shots. It seemed like the team was just unsure about itself.

With one more season maybe Curry gets a better handle on the position. And if Rivers comes back for another season maybe his confidence is harnessed and the extra experience makes him a better team player. But this season neither stepped up as a point guard or a leader.

The talent on the team needs to improve, as does the effort put forth by every player. A team lacking leadership and heart is always susceptible to an upset from a team with nothing to lose.

That’s what happened when Duke went up against Lehigh.

Not all hope is lost however. Three freshman on that ’06-’07 team were Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas.

All three played pivotal roles and were leaders three seasons later on the 2009-2010 NCAA championship team.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Chuck Burton

Sunday, March 11, 2012

New York Red Bulls Lose Opener, Are a Work in Progress

The New York Red Bulls have spent a lot of money on their current roster, pushing as close to the salary cap as possible. The team has two designated players and 12 players who have made appearances for their respective senior national teams.

With the amount of talent on the team and the money invested on it, it seems surprising that they are a work in progress. But after New York’s 2-1 loss to FC Dallas Sunday improvement is a necessity.

There were so many things that the Red Bulls did in the first game of the season that showed the team was not ready for the match or prepared for its opponent.
The first and most obvious issue the team had was defending.

Things were always going to be interesting without Tim Ream (transfer to England), without Rafa Marquez (suspended) and with a new rookie goalkeeper starting. While Ryan Meara showed some moments of fearlessness and made a couple of nice saves, the defending in front of him was subpar.

Communication was lacking, allowing guys to roam free. They were pulled too far up and into the attack, both on the wings and in the middle of the field, and were beaten often in transition. The clearing was also bad, exhibited on FC Dallas’ first goal.

The Red Bulls whiffed twice on clearing a cross out of the box before Zach Loyd was able to pounce on the ball and put it in the back of the net to take the early lead.

Newcomer Markus Holgersson was one of the two defenders to muff the clearance and he struggled throughout the game with the ball on his feet.

It wasn’t just the clearances that accounted for bad ball movement though. The passing wasn’t sharp at all. The Red Bulls are fond of moving the ball on the ground, but in the opening game of the season it looked like the team was rusty. Many of the passes were short of their target and turnovers were abundant.

The second Dallas goal came from an intercepted back pass—a rather poor decision—from fullback Roy Miller, which lead to a two-on-one breakaway and a chip over a diving Meara.

Coupled with bad passing was a bad touch on the ball, either on a first touch or when making a push forward. They may have held onto the ball longer but their possession was sloppy.

Mehdi Ballouchy came on as a sub with four minutes remaining and managed to turn the ball over at least three times.

All these things were made worse by poor spacing. New York players looked to bunch together often, both on and off the ball. Many times players would dribble into spaces occupied by other players, with the teammate failing to clear out. Other times players would make off-ball runs right into each other.

The spaces were congested with players and made it easy for one defender to cover two Red Bulls, and for two defenders to absolutely smother the offense.
Another failure from the team was a lack of midfield presence, specifically in the middle. While passing was poor, there was no conduit from the defense to the offense. Thierry Henry and Juan Agudelo failed to get many touches early on.

For Henry to get involved in the game he had to come back deep into the midfield, almost out of the same spot where defensive midfielder Teemu Tainio was at, in order to get the ball. He had to navigate himself out of a crowded midfield, was never truly in a dangerous position on the field to make a positive play and when he sprung the ball forward the team never was able to get on a fast-break because there was only one person forward. Often, it was only one or two Red Bulls against about four defenders.

Give credit to FC Dallas, which defended as a unit and capitalized on turnovers and opportunities.

New York, however, looked like they thought they were still playing in a preseason game.

Maybe it was first-game jitters, especially for the new players. Maybe the team needs more time to gel.

Whatever the case the team was not prepared for this game and things need to be improved otherwise it could be another disappointing season.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Who Will Lead the New York Red Bulls in Goals in 2012?

After another early exit in the playoffs, the New York Red Bulls underwent sweeping changes to its roster.

The defense is a mystery. Will the endless revolving door at goalie ever be settled? With Rafa Marquez moving to the midfield and Tim Ream moving to England who will step up in the center of the defense?

But something the Red Bulls did in abundance last year—although not always opportunistically—was score goals. The team was tied for second in the league in goals scored (50) with Sporting Kansas City and behind only the Seattle Sounders (56).

The team’s biggest acquisition in the offseason was another forward. It now has four forwards that would start on any club. The depth is necessary though due to the constant questionable status of the players’ availabilities.

The logjam on offense combined with the uncertainty of who will actually be around to play makes for one good question the Red Bulls should be excited to answer: who will score the most goals on the team in 2012?

Right away, with so much depth up top, it’s fair to say that forwards Corey Hertzog, Jose Angulo and Jhonny Artega won’t get much playing time and won’t be in the running.

Last year six players—Thierry Henry, Luke Rodgers, Dane Richards, Joel Lindpere and Juan Agudelo—accounted for 43 of the team’s goals, or 86-percent. Add in Kenny Cooper to that group and there should be a large outpouring of offense.

Henry was the team’s leading goal scorer last year with 14 goals. He is the favorite to lead the attack again this year. With so much big game experience and talent at his feet, the French Designated Player is in the elite class of MLS players.

He’s fresh off a loan with Arsenal in the offseason, where he proved some critics wrong and showed that he still is a top-level player. In seven appearances with the club he scored three goals, including two game-winners. He returns to the Red Bulls in shape, in form and healthy.

That health question is the big one for Henry though. He played in only 26 games last season and his injuries seemed to flare up when the team went on the road and was going to play on artificial turf. Players coming over from Europe don’t like playing on that surface, but Henry is obviously an important player to the team and will have to play more games to really help the Red Bulls get over the hump.

Cooper, with Portland last season, scored eight goals. With greater individual talent surrounding him he should be able to continue his success. His ability to use his size and play as a target forward should not only help the possession-obsessed Red Bulls, but allow Henry to make runs off of him and create great combination play.

Cooper has a lot working in his favor as far as playing time goes: He stays healthy and the other top options at forward could miss a lot of action this year.

Luke Rodgers was a revelation last year for New York. He scored nine goals (second on the team) and gave the team a toughness and attitude that has been missing for quite some time. He works well with Henry and brings a lot of energy to the pitch.

The problem is that his attitude in the past has gotten him into trouble in his past. Those issues have come to head now as they have held up Rodgers’ work visa approval and return to the country.

A verdict was supposed to be reached Thursday but no concrete outcome came of it. He will miss at least the season opener. No one is sure how long this process will take, reducing the number of games he could play in. This issue comes on top of Rodgers inability to stay healthy; he played only 23 games last year due to various injuries.

Rodgers can’t score if he can’t get on the field, and right now his outcome is not looking too good.

Juan Agudelo scored six goals last season but he fell out of favor with the coaching staff fast. The emergence of Rodgers kept Agudelo on the bench. But even when Rodgers was injured the coaching staff preferred to go with Richards as a forward and use Mehdi Ballouchy in the midfield then start Agudelo.

There is some speculation that coach Hans Backe is not a fan of young American players, which certainly does not bode well for Agudelo. The forward will also miss time this season to be with the US U-23 team in Olympic qualifying and possibly the Olympics.

It will be tough for the coaching staff to feel comfortable playing Agudelo knowing he will be leaving them for a lengthy period of time and have to fill his spot. The more time Agudelo spends on the bench the more frustrated he gets and there have been some whispers that he will soon make a move to Europe.

The situation with Agudelo and the club could get ugly.

On the wings Lindpere (seven goals) and Richards (7) provide a lot of offense. Lindpere is the team’s most valuable player; he started every game, played all but 12 minutes the entire season, provides great service to the forwards (he was also tied for the team lead with seven assists) and knows when to go forward himself. His effort and durability keep him in the game and always makes him a threat.

Richards uses his great speed to get behind the defense or blowing past them with the ball. He’s very attack minded but often makes poor decisions on the ball. He also is not as talented individually as some of the other players and relies on other teams focusing on them as well as their vision and passing skills to create more opportunities for himself.

So who stands out for the Red Bulls on offense? Henry seems to be the favorite with Cooper and Lindpere giving him a run for his money.

But with a defense as questionable and untested as the Red Bulls have, the New York offense will have to once again be a strong unit and score often to keep the team on the right track as they fight for their first ever MLS Cup.

Photo Credits.
Thierry Henry: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Kenny Cooper: AP Photo/Don Ryan

Thursday, March 1, 2012

United States Win Over Italy Marks Progress On Many Different Levels

For the past ten years American soccer has gotten better due to many players getting the chance to play with good teams in respected European leagues.

In the United States Men’s National Team’s 1-0 victory against Italy –its first win against the Azzuris ever—it looked like all the time developing has finally shown true progress as a soccer nation.

The win was a team effort but in a lineup that featured 10 of the 11 starters playing in Europe some names stood out: Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers) and Tim Howard (Everton).

Some may say that they are the team’s best players and they should stand out, but they all put in notable performances against one of the world’s elite teams. How they played and how they handled the pressure of the game said a lot about how they have improved over the years.

Tim Howard is the team’s most consistent player and didn’t have to make any miraculous saves tonight. But as the United States started to lose its interest in attacking once it had the lead Italy dominated possession and was a constant threat.

Howard and Bocanegra remained calm under pressure and time and time again turned away the Italian offense. Howard made some key saves and Bocanegra covered for mistakes from other defenders and kept another clean sheet—the 23rd of Howard’s international career.

Dempsey has been one of the hottest players in the English Premier League this season. Player of the Year for the club last year, Dempsey has scored 16 goals in 34 games in all competitions for the Cottagers this season. His confidence is soaring—a must for any goal scorer—and he isn’t afraid to let a shot fly.

His creativity and talent have always been there but his confidence and maturity were honed in England. He still celebrates in style and trash talks his opponents but in the game against Italy commentator Taylor Twellman commented on Dempsey’s newfound business-like approach to the game that he's noticed in recent interviews and how it shows that he is maturing as a player.

The central midfield tandem of Bradley and Edu was extremely efficient tonight. It’s been a challenging year for Bradley: his father was sacked as national team coach, he stopped receiving playing time with his club team—Borussia Monchengladbach—and even lost his starting spot in the midfield for the USMNT for the beginning of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.

A move to Chievo Verona though put him back on the pitch and right at the center of the action. He is the team’s main central midfielder and has played very well. Against Italy he was all over the field breaking up plays. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and his ball movement was clean and crisp.

Edu, who hasn’t fared well with the USMNT since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, has continued to plug away at Rangers. A valuable member of that club, the team is scrambling to keep him before his contract expires. Against Italy he stepped in and played his best game for the team in the past year. He made good decisions both defensively and offensively and played a clean game. The fans watching the game didn’t hear his name much, but as a holding midfielder that’s a good thing, meaning he wasn’t out of position or making costly errors.

Klinsmann wants to make the team more possession-oriented. A key to holding onto the ball for longer and more efficient periods is play from the midfielders, specifically the central midfielders. Bradley and Edu are defensive-first-minded players but they can play both ways and against Italy they showed they hold the keys to the team’s progress. Both displayed fine footwork and an ability to move the ball out of trouble as well as link the defense to the offense.

Altidore is also another player that will play an important role in the team’s new mentality. He didn’t score and he will likely be criticized for that. But the things he was able to do speak volumes of his improvement.

The 22-year-old is having an incredible season with his club team, scoring 13 goals in 34 games across all competitions. He is gaining confidence week-to-week, developing good work habits and he is also finally learning how to use his size to his advantage.

At 6-feet-1-inch Altidore is a big, strong forward. The best plays he makes are when he shields the ball from his opponents and turns his defender. He has an advantage over guys and should use it. When he was younger, however, he would try to dribble and take guys on, usually trying to do too much and turning the ball over. Against Italy though he looked like a target forward. He got into space, played with his back to the goal, collected the ball and because he was properly shielding it he was able to pass it off—like he did on the assist of Dempsey’s goal—or turn and free himself from the defense.

Being able to hold the ball, as noted before, will be critical and if the team continues to play with only one forward Altidore will, at times, need to be able to collect the pass, shield and wait for help. He has been doing it more and more and the Italy game showed how much he has improved.

There is still so much for the team and these individuals to do to improve. In the second half, when protecting the lead, the team reverted to a more defensive-shell, something that they will need to un-learn.

But the first-ever victory over Italy, in Italy, against a top-tier country, in a pressure-packed environment and scoring against the run of play showed progress.

Progress was displayed not only by the team as whole but also by individuals. As more individuals like Altidore, Bradley and Edu take their games to top-level teams the whole team will continue to make successful leaps in terms of ability.

Photo Credits.
All phots: AP Photo/Luca Bruno