Month: July 2014

Bad Signs for USMNT Approaching FIBA World Cup

In the last few weeks, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love have withdrawn from consideration for the USMNT.  Both players are healthy and entering their primes.  Griffin cited his desire to help the Clippers win a title next June, and Love the uncertainty of his playing status given his desire to leave Minnesota and play for the Cavs or some other contending team.  If these are their excuses, they are betraying the rebuilt USMNT program.

The USMNT program was restored to glory by securing the commitment of the best American players to compete for their country.   It was partly Kobe casting himself as a defensive stopper, the comprehensive brilliance of Lebron James, and the timely scoring of Carmel Anthony, but more significantly restoration came in the pride and brotherhood that emerged from that  combined commitment.  A place on the USMNT became not only an honor but a duty.

I can excuse injury and age, even in some extenuating circumstance exhaustion, but Griffin’s Clippers were eliminated in the second round, and in six seasons as a professional Love hasn’t played in a playoff game.  Their shirking of duty makes it easier for others to do so now and in the future.  It erodes the core of accomplishment, diminishes the stature of the USMNT and ultimately any attempt to develop a meaningful World Cup of basketball.

Dunga and the Not So Beautiful Game

Brazil has brought back Dunga as head coach of the National Team.  This is about as exciting as bringing back rotary dial telephones or possibly horse-drawn carriages.  It is, ultimately,  a confession that the Brazilian coaching ranks are bankrupt of buzz and more importantly innovation.

As a player Dunga was a hard-nosed defensive midfielder that could have easily been an Englishman.  As a coach, he served his country without distinction from 2006-2010, but who else was Brazil to hire, particularly if the the search was exclusively homegrown.

Brazilian football culture has been fantasy-centric, always seeking the next on field Magician to demonstrate the beautiful game.  These prodigy’s emerge more than the develop from an unstable domestic game and are promptly exported. The best Brazilian stars reach Europe and tour the Champion’s League teams, while the players beneath that level meander about at the top of Europe’s secondary leagues all as hired guns. 

The rank and file of players from which most coaches emerge languish domestically sans the necessary structure and resources to develop which has contributed to a stagnation of tactical and team development.  Simply put, Brazil has fallen behind, and must redefine itself in the world of contemporary football.

The hiring of Dunga is a denial of the reality.  The clock will tick while the chasm widens.

Thoughts on the Last Few Days…

Much has transpired in the last few days, and 45 minutes on the elyptical put things in perspective.

HOMECOMING OR BASEBALL?

Lebron James is coming home….to Cleveland.  This is the story line that has and will dominate the current news cycle.  I left home in Connecticut at 18, and have not for a fleeting moment considered going back.  It is, like Cleveland, old and cold, and I have built my adult life without regret in Orlando.  My life experience does not allow me to identify with Lebron James homecoming, and my initial reaction to his decision was disappointment.  I read the SI letter, and gained some perspective, but again no identification.  I read Bill Simmons masterful tribute to James’ genius, and gained some appreciation, but it wasn’t until minute 14 on the elyptical that I connected.

Four finals appearances and two titles in Miami created a win or die situation for James.  Every season in Miami would be measured successful only with the Larry O’Brien Trophy held aloft under a hail of confetti.  The supporting cast in Miami eroded this season, and free agency provided no apparent relief.  James options were to remain in Miami amidst title or failure expectations with a withering core of players, unite super friends in a new locale and carry with him the same expectations, or re-write the narrative by going “home” to Cleveland.

Cleveland was the only option that would provide any immediate relief from the title or failure expectations.  He becomes a returning hero to an otherwise depressed fan base, and inherits a roster that has talent, but is not title-ready.  James SI letter points this out.  He does not promise a title, and raises the significant accomplishment of winning even one title as a Cavalier.  This is masterful control of the narrative as it buys him a window of time for a young roster to come together and to personally renew himself as the Greatest of All Time once did riding buses in Birmingham, Alabama.

BARCELONA IS JUST A CLUB

Barcelona purchased serial-biter and goal scorer Luis Suarez this week from Liverpool.  Suarez is suspended for another three and half months so it will be some time before we see him on the pitch, but his signing is the death of Barcelona’s mantra “more than a club”.  As far as mantra’s go it was high on pomposity and idealogy, but as the club won every trophy available with a core of players raised in the club culture, it was largely unassailable.  The last year and half have seen things turn against the club as core players have aged, and their tiki taka model of play has been the focal point against which recent tactical developments are measured.  This is inevitable.

In Suarez, though, the club has become the antithesis of it’s mantra.  They are a club seeking a return to dominance and lack the internal resources to get there so they are willing to buy whoever it takes to reach their goals.  Gone is the idealogy.  Suarez is as good a striker as there exists in the world.  His ability to score goals is the rarest of commodities.  He has also bitten three players in competition, and made racist comments without apology.  It is not a matter of if, but rather when he will transgress at Barcelona, and in signing him Barcelona accepts this and the consequent diminishment of it’s standard….to common club.

ANDREW WIGGINS: NATURE V. NURTURE

Top pick Andrew Wiggins is, for the moment, a Cleveland Cavalier.  Now that Lebron James is a Cleveland Cavalier as well, Wiggins is uniquely positioned to maximize his basketball career.  James is, by all accounts, the best player in the world and an excellent teammate.  He will push, pull or carry the Cavaliers into title contention in relatively short order, and playing alongside him offers Wiggins the opportunity to study and learn from the best, and just as importantly, be forced to perform in meaningful playoff and potentially finals games.  If he measures up to the challenge, he becomes James, Scottie Pippen, and the chosen one to carry the franchise into the post-James era.

There is another scenario afoot that would involve trading Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love.  This would completely alter the environment in which Wiggins would develop as a professional.  Wiggins would carry significant expectations to lift the fortunes of the moribund franchise without the benefit of a professional mentor.  The team plays in the loaded western conference, and Wiggins would likely play through his rookie contract without making a playoff appearance let alone winning a play off series or making a title run.  His credentials as a winner would be cast in doubt, much as Kevin Love’s have, and at the end of his rookie deal, he would likely be an incomplete, unsatisfied player in search of a new team that would afford him the opportunity Cleveland does.  

Sadly, which scenario becomes his is beyond the control of Andrew Wiggins.  It is illustrative in the way that luck or fortune shapes the careers of potential stars.

SCREW WHAT FANS DESERVE

The notion that Cleveland fans are luckless, long-suffering and somehow deserving of a title is putrid bullshit.  It is the second most offensive storyline in the Lebron James narrative.  Cleveland fans have in pure terms of luck enjoyed unprecedented success.  First, the greatest player of his generation grows up in Ohio and the team wins the lottery to draft him.  They enjoy the first seven years of his career which included a finals appearance and annual title contention.  Upon his departure, they win the draft lotter three times in four years.  Then they are blessed with the absurd good fortune that the greatest player of his generation is uniquely wired, and/or fortuitoulsy finds it in his best interest to return to the team to develop a title contending team with three fellow first picks in the NBA draft.  This level of luck would not pass as a Disney movie.  So with all sincerity Cleveland go fuck yourself.

DAN GILBERT, WORDS, FORGIVENESS AND NOTHINGNESS

The most offensive storyline in the Lebron James narrative is Dan Gilbert, and more specifically his letter which remained on the Cavs team website until this week.  I have had this discussion with other people and concede that maybe I don’t see the world as others do.  I have been told when people are angry, upset or emotional, they say things they don’t mean.  They say these things to hurt or guilt the other party, or simply to purge their emotions as a precurser to moving on.  I have never seen it that way.  I think most human interactions in nuetral times are studies in restraint and politeness, and in times of high emotion or conflict the pretense drops away and the truth, cold, hard and unvarnished, spues forth for all to hear.  We reveal ourselves in these moments, and the man to man explainations and apologies that follow are not a return to truth, but rather restraint and politeness.  In otherwords…bullshit.

Let us avoid seeing Gilbert and James’ discussion in Miami last Sunday as something more than it was or ever could be.  It was James getting something from Cleveland and Gilbert getting something for his team.  Nothing more, nothing less…..nothingness.

The Strange Emotions of Watching Brazil Get Crushed

Brazil is unique.  There is the team on the field and there is the mystical team that is a blend of past glory and imagined beauty.  The mystical team will always exceed the team on the field because it is a fantasy unburdened by the reality of form, fitness and fortune.  I know this, but it doesn’t stop me from measuring each Brazilian team against the mystical team, and the measurement is not statistical or even tangible.  It is a feeling I have when I watch them play. 

The current rendition of Brazil left me empty from the first 20 minutes of the Croatia game.  They were tabbed favorites,  but played with utter mediocrity.  I was genuinely outraged that the game turned in their favor on a fraudulent penalty, and that emotion never left me as they prodded through group play.

I cheered for Chile for the ideal they represent, and Colombia for inspiring more mystical wonder in their own right than the hosts.  The Brazilian foulathon against Colombia and the marvelous James Rodriguez was a disgrace.  If you are the karmic sort,  Neymar’s injury was the cost of such a cynical performance.  More offensive to me was the blatant, selfish stupidity of captain Thiago Silva, who rightly earned a second yellow card and disqualification from the semi-final with a beyond meaningless obstruction of Colombia’s keeper.

Without Neymar and Silva, Brazil were destroyed by Germany 7-1.  They offered nothing, but tears and pity after the first five minutes.   They were disorganized and undisciplined,  and when the game went against them almost wholly without resilience.  As from the first day of this tournament, they stirred nothing in me……not even pity.

The Semi’s Are Set

I went 3-1 in quarterfinal predictions raising my elimination round record to an outlandish 10-2.  This has as much to do with the inevitability of football super powers as it does my potential as a Shakespearian sooth sayer.  Any jackass could have contrived a final four of Brazil, Germany, Holland and Argentina.  That said, most of these games have been incredibly close with none of these football totals making a convincing claim to the throne.

Germany found an early goal against France that held up in large part to an apparent disinterest that swept over Les Blues as surely as Nazi tanks did in the early days of World War ll. 

Brazil netted an early goal against Colombia in a wild first half, but the second half morphed into an insufferable foulathon that granted a goal to each side.

Argentina led early and the Belgians could not muster a response over the remaining 80 minutes that were marked by fouls and time-wasting by Argentina and disjointed quasi-urgency by Belgium.

The only thrilling quarterfinal was the Netherlands beating Costa Rica in a cathartic shootout.  Thrilling is relative as the game itself did not produce a goal and featured heavily imbalanced possession in favor of the Oranje.

Now we are left with two games and deprived to two compelling players.  Brazil will play Germany without Neymar (fractured vertebrae) and Thiago Silva (stupidity), and Argentina faces the Netherlands sans Angel DiMaria (leg muscle).  The entertainment value of both games is significantly compromised.

Brazil v. Germany

It is difficult to see Brazil scoring or even enjoying much possession without Neymar, who has been so central to any good play they have mustered.  Nonetheless

, they present as the dangerous wounded animal carrying the hopes, dreams and very existence of the host country on their backs.  Can emotion overcome limitation for 90 or 120 minutes?

Germany has carried a favorite’s mantel but have looked decidedly mediocre over five games now.  This has been spun as a victory of pragmatism over style.  With the injury to Neymar and suspension of Silva, the Germans are a pragmatic favorite and Brazil is an emotional underdog.

I see a bland game that will be memorable only for the inescapable fact of it’s result.   Germany 1-0.

Argentina v. Netherlands

Argentina’s hopes rest almost entirely and exclusively on Messi.  This is a bit of a downer until you consider the odds of the World’s greatest player producing a single moment of decisive brilliance over the course of 90 minutes against a goalkeeper that does not and never will play for Chelsea.   The odds are not bad, not bad at all.

The Dutch, on the other hand, have a superior coach in Van Gaal,  a fading hero in Van Persie and Robben.  And what might be the odds of Robben going another 90 or more minutes without creating a match-turning penalty.  I wouldn’t take that bet. 

1-1 through extra time, and the Dutch win on penalties.  They seemed to have figured it out exquisitely burying all of your pk’s into the side-netting and bringing in a gangly, trash-talking back up keeper to close things out.