Thursday, October 30, 2008

Forthcoming live blog of Queen's - Ottawa football

A quick note that I'll be live-blogging Saturday's CIS football game between Queen's and the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees right here: Queen's Athletics has told me that I should be able to get the power hookup I need, so barring technical difficulties, we should be good to go. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m., but I'll try to have the first post up by 12:45 p.m. or so. You can also check out CFRC for streaming radio coverage. Neate already has a good preview up at Out of Left Field and my Journal preview's been filed: it should hit the web later this morning. Clint Walper and Mike Koreen from the Kingston Whig-Standard will probably have pregame pieces up today as well, and I'll have more pregame posts here throughout the day. This should be one hell of a game, so it can use all the coverage it can get.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

World Series Point/Counterpoint: Myself on the Rays.

Apologies for the lateness of this piece, the counterpoint to Mike’s argument in favour of the Phillies. I got caught up in Journal work this week, as most of our sports contributors contracted severe cases of midtermitis, leaving me to carry even more of the load then normal (I wrote a personal-record five game stories, one column, one profile and one brief for Friday’s issue). Thus, there wasn’t a lot of time to do much of anything on the blogging front. In any case, though, with the Rays and Phillies splitting the first two games of the World Series, it’s still very much up for grabs, so I figured it would still be worth writing this piece: just consider it a preview of the best-of-five series that remains.

In my far-from-expert opinion, the Rays are going to take this series. It’s going to be close, as the Phillies are a very talented ball club, but the Rays win this matchup on depth. That depth is a triple-barreled advantage; it’s present in pitching, offence and defence, and it’s why Philadelphia’s championship drought will continue for at least another year.

First, consider the pitching. As Game 1 demonstrated, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the two staff aces, Cole Hamels of the Phillies and Scott Kazmir of the Rays (Hamels has an edge, but it isn’t a ridiculous one). The matchups start to favour Tampa Bay after this, though. Philly’s only other starting pitchers with an ERA+ above 100 (better than average) are Jamie Moyer (3.71 ERA, 120 ERA+) and Joe Blanton (4.20, 106). Brett Myers is slightly below league average (4.55 ERA, 98 ERA+). Moyer is 45 and threw just under 200 innings in the regular-season: he’s still got talent, but I’m not sure if I’d want him as a key starter at this point in his career. Blanton only appeared in 13 games this season and threw 70 innings: he appears to have some talent, but I wouldn’t pin my hopes on him either.

By contrast, Tampa has five solid starters. Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza are all hovering around 120 in ERA+, while Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson are at 100 and 99 respectively. These guys are all very impressive. Philadelphia has a bit of an edge in bullpen depth, but Tampa has some strong options too in Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and David Price. If Tampa’s starters can eat enough innings, bullpen depth may not be an issue.

On offence, it’s a similar story. Looking through the Game 1 starters, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the batting lineups using regular-season statistical comparisons (a larger sample size than the postseason). Tampa has a slight edge in batting average (.270 to .263) and on-base percentage (.346 to .344), but Philly leads in slugging percentage (.455 to .432) and OPS (.799 to .778). Interestingly enough, though, Tampa has the edge in OPS+ (110 to 106), which seems odd when you look at the raw OPS numbers, but is probably due to the league and park factors OPS+ takes into consideration.

The offensive edge comes from the depth, though. Philadelphia has a couple of black holes in the batting order in Carlos Ruiz (.219/.320/.300, 63 OPS+) and Pedro Feliz (.249/.302/.402, 81). Those two players are worse offensively than anyone in Tampa’s starting lineup. Chris Coste, who’s DHing in the games in Tampa, isn’t much better (.263/.325/.423, 93): his OPS+ only beats Tampa shortstop Jason Bartlett (who, as the brilliant Joe Posnanski pointed out, was a bizarre choice for Tampa’s MVP: probably picked for his defence and his .286 batting average, but he doesn’t get on base too frequently and he doesn’t have a great deal of power) and outfielder Carl Crawford, whose speed increases his value. The Rays also have terrific depth off the bench, with the likes of Rocco Baldelli, Cliff Floyd and Gabe Gross available. It’s the depth throughout the lineup that makes the Rays an appealing pick. I say they take it in six.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Becks to Milan?

Don't have enough time to go into detail, but this is certainly interesting. The AP reports (via the Globe) that AC Milan is trying to sign David Beckham on loan for the winter months when MLS isn't in season. Makes sense for Becks from both a soccer perspective (keep in shape) and a marketing one. Works for Milan too: Beckham is still a great player if used properly. Ben Knight has some great analysis on the marketing point here.

World Series Point/Counterpoint: Mike Woods on the Phillies

Last year, former Journal sports editor (and current features editor) Mike Woods and I had a great tradition of writing point/counterpoint pieces around the major professional sporting events and issues of the year. He beat me in the World Series predictions (though to be fair, I was more making a case that the Rockies could win rather than they would), but I got my revenge in the Super Bowl. Anyway, we weren't able to fit a point/counterpoint on this year's series in the paper, but Mike and I figured we'd each write one for this site to keep the tradition alive. Here's his piece on why the Phillies will win. My case for the Rays will come later tonight.
- Andrew

Phanatical about the Phillies
(Andrew's title)
By Mike Woods

No last-place team in any professional sport has won its league’s championship the following year. Admittedly, the Tampa Bay Rays have shockingly passed one test after another this season. It looked like their best days were behind them when they lost seven games in a row before the All-Star break, and many had their downfall marked for September.

Despite their miraculous run, the Rays remain young and fragile—and bravado can only take you so far. It looked like the Boston Red Sox were going to exploit that lesson after that stunning 8-run comeback in game five of the ALCS, but Boston doesn’t have the hitting depth they used to, they were tired from winning last year, and Josh Beckett had an off-series. As a result, Tampa still hasn’t been taught a lesson about the big time. The Rays are a bit late getting to school, through no fault of their own, but the Phillies should make for some fine teachers.

The Rays beat the Red Sox on the strength of their big bats. While the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley get the bulk of opponents’ attention—and rightfully so—the Phillies cleaned the field with the Dodgers with 2 RBI from Howard and Rollins hitting .143. It’s the second-tier hitters like Pat Burrell and Shane Victorino that propelled the Phillies to where they are. The Phillies had seven players with at least 58 RBI this season. B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria can’t hit home runs every at-bat. The Phillies’ bench has been strong this postseason with guys like Greg Dobbs, Geoff Jenkins and Matt Stairs (O Canada!) contributing offensively. Ryan Howard seemed to remember how to hit at the close of the NLCS, which Scott Kazmir probably had nightmares about last night. And now the Phillies get a DH, too!

Pitching depth also favours the Phillies. The Rays might have a slight edge in the rotation, but the Phillies never lost a game this year with a lead through eight innings, and Brad Lidge hasn’t blown a save in 46 tries. As much as David Price has been tough as nails, he’s still a rookie. The Phillies also have a unique influx of lefties like J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre to take on Carl Crawford and the other Rays’ righties. Let’s not forget, Ryan Madson might be the best set-up man in baseball this year.

Coming off a seven-game series surely won’t help the Rays sort out their rotation. Fatigue might be a factor later on in the series for Tampa’s starting pitchers. Philadelphia’s had plenty of time to line up who they want to start which game. Tonight they’ll start Cole Hamels, who’s been baseball’s best pitcher these playoffs.
People seem to be making a big deal of the Phillies not having played on turf all year, the surface at Tropicana Field. It may give the Phillies some trouble in the first couple of innings tonight, but consider the Rays were 38-35 on grass this year. Meanwhile, the Phillies had the NL’s best road record this season. Oh, and it’s COLD in Philly. The last time the Rays played in the cold, they gave up a seven-run lead.

None of Philadelphia’s four teams has won a championship since Dr. J and the 1983 Sixers did it. This series should be incredibly evenly-matched—even though it’s a TV ratings nightmare for baseball—and entertaining. But the Phillies have an edge in the two areas that will decide the series in my mind: the bullpen and hitting depth. The Rays are a fast, aggressive and confident team. If the Phills’ defense keeps them in check on the basepaths and these other areas play out as they should, Philadelphia’s professional sporting agony can finally end. Maybe their fans can finally stop booing—that’s something we could all cheer for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Giffin update: to knee or not to knee

According to Kingston Whig-Standard sports editor Mike Koreen, Queen's football head coach Pat Sheahan has said that star running back Mike Giffin's aforementioned knee injury is just a bad bruise. Here's the important parts:

"The Gaels (8-0) took a sigh of relief yesterday when testing showed Giffin suffered only a badly bruised right knee Saturday in the first quarter of a season-ending 38-22 win over the Waterloo Warriors.
'He would be doubtful [if the Gaels had a game] this week,' Gaels coach Pat Sheahan said. 'But with a week to recuperate, there is a reasonable chance he'll be able to play. I'm optimistic. We've got two weeks and we're just hoping there are no major setbacks. It's not season-ending or career-ending or anything like that.'
Because they finished first in the 10-team league, the Gaels will be spectators for the OUA quarter-final round this weekend. They will play host to the lowest-ranked quarter-final survivor in a semi-final on Nov. 1.
Sheahan expects to keep Giffin off the practice field for the majority of the week.
'All the ligaments are intact,' Sheahan said. 'Give him another week and he'll feel a lot better.'"

I'd be wary of taking this as a sign that all's well though. It must be a pretty bad bruise, considering how Giffin hobbled off the field last week and would be "doubtful" if the playoff game was this week. Even with the bye, Sheahan's only saying there's a "reasonable chance" he'll play. I'd interpret a reasonable chance as in the range of 40 to 80 per cent, which isn't overwhelmingly confidence-inspiring. As mentioned before, this team largely draws its strength from its offensive balance and its defence, so losing Giffin would not be the end of the world. It would be a significant blow, however; backups Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien are very capable, but they aren't as much of a threat as Giffin. With Giffin, teams have to pick their poison: either they crowd the box to shut down the run and let Danny Brannagan pick them apart through the air, or they play a coverage-focused defence and Giffin rumbles for 100+ yards. Gordon and Therrien are also more finesse runners than power backs, so you don't need as many guys to stop them. It often takes two to three tacklers to bring Giffin down.

Even if Giffin is back, his knee may not be at 100 per cent. We all know from Bobby Orr (and his Mastercard commercial [Sean Leahy, Going Five Hole]) just how dangerous knee damage can be. Yes, sports medicine has come a long way since then, but knee injuries are still a big concern. A knee injury to Giffin is especially concerning given that many of his biggest gains come from his ability to quickly react to a defense and make rapid cuts. If his knee isn't at full health, it's doubtful that he'll be that effective. We'll see what happens.

A new NHL team for Toronto?

David Shoalts has a very interesting piece in today's Globe and Mail that certainly opens with a bang. As he writes:

"NHL governors are talking informally about placing a second hockey team in Toronto alongside the Maple Leafs, The Globe and Mail has learned.
'Why shouldn't we put another team in the best and biggest market in the world?' one of several NHL governors who spoke with The Globe anonymously said of the Greater Toronto Area.
According to this governor, one idea floated is for prospective owner Jim Balsillie to be rewarded with an expansion team in Toronto after helping to restore financial ballast to the Nashville Predators.
'I've heard this exact scenario,' a second governor said."

This is a very interesting idea, and one that certainly hasn't been floated very much relative to the idea of putting another team in either Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo. Toronto could sustain two teams in my mind, given the hockey-mad population, the size of the city and the massive suburbs surrounding it.

However, I'm not sure the Leafs would be overly eager to go along with this plan. Here's the part of Shoalts' piece that deals with their reaction:

"Richard Peddie, president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, said the organization would not automatically reject the idea of a second team in Toronto.
'When and if the league brings expansion to the table, we'll listen and decide what is best [for hockey],' he said."

This isn't as positive as it sounds. First, Peddie is absolutely non-committal there, which makes sense: this is pretty speculative at the moment, so you don't want to irrevocably commit your organization to a certain course in the media just based on what's come out so far. All he said is they wouldn't reject a proposal before looking at it, which seems reasonable.

I'd also be rather interested to find what Peddie said that Shoalts (or his editors) replaced with the [for hockey], as that seems like a curious comment. It isn't Peddie's primary job to make decisions that are best "for hockey" or even best for the NHL: his job is to run the Leafs and MLSE's other franchises and venues. Thus, anything he and the franchise owners decide upon will be best for their franchise first and the league second. This is logical: these franchises are commercial enterprises with shareholders, so it's up to their management to do what's best for those shareholders. At times, league interests come into it: a healthy league means higher TV revenues and lower revenue-sharing, so it's in the Leafs' interests to go along with the NHL when doing so will undoubtedly and dramatically improve the league. Keep in mind that their motivation and mindset is likely always to help their franchise first and the league second, though: the same is true of almost every professional sports franchise.

A further illuminating passage of the article discusses the economic ramifications.
"As to the potential economic impact on the Maple Leafs, the first governor dismissively waved his hand. 'The Maple Leafs would not be hurt one bit. In fact, it would help them. They could make all kinds of money renting the Air Canada Centre to the other team.'"

Now, I'm not so sure if this governor is thinking straight. First, if the Leafs allow another team into their city, they lose market share. This may not be huge at first given their market dominance and history, but they're no longer the only game in town. They'll likely still sell out every game, but the supply of NHL tickets has just doubled and it's hard to imagine the demand rising at a similar rate. Therefore, the premiums they can charge for their tickets will drop. Of further importance is the impact on merchandising, advertising and television revenues. Yes, there will still be a huge demand for the rights to Leafs' games, but television networks now have another viable alternative source for hockey if MLSE demands too much money: thus, the Leafs will earn less from their television contracts.

Yes, people will still buy Leafs' gear, but some will choose to buy merchandise from the new team instead. The same holds true for corporate sponsors, who gain leverage from the doubling of the supply of boxes and advertising opportunities. If the teams both play at the ACC, they could package their corporate and advertising sales together. That would have to involve some sort of discount for a bulk rate, as no one will pay double the current fees for the Leafs and a new team. You can bet that the new team would take a large share of any profits as well. If they don't package them, all of a sudden that supply of corporate boxes and advertising opportunities doubles, reducing the value of those items if the demand doesn't double as well.

Also, keep in mind that any ACC rental deal wouldn't just be filling "blank slate" days. The facility currently offers big-ticket concerts on most days when the Leafs are out of town. A new team would mean that the amount of concert dates would be drastically reduced, further reducing MLSE's revenue streams from their facility.

A better situation would involve a new arena, but that doesn't seem too likely. Public funding would likely be almost out of the question, given the current state of both the Toronto and Ontario economies. Plus, both governments (and the federal government) just finished building an expensive stadium in Toronto, for MLSE no less. Think they want to get involved with another one in the middle of a recession? With the current high costs of both land and construction, it's tough to see a 100-per-cent private solution working in Toronto either.

None of that is to say that this couldn't work. Most of the concerns mentioned above that MLSE would likely express could be solved by Balsillie (or whoever the new owner is) paying a very hefty fee for entering their territory, similar to the New Jersey Devils. The question is if a second franchise in Toronto is worth that kind of expenditure.

The Ottawa and Buffalo franchises might have concerns with this plan as well. The Senators are finally starting to make some progress at positioning themselves as Ontario's alternative to the Leafs. If this goes down, it affects their market share as well, especially in the area of television rights but also in advertising, corporate support and merchandising. Ticket sales might come into it too: those of us around the midway point between the two cities might opt to travel into Toronto and see the new team instead of going to Ottawa for a Sens game.

For Buffalo, the tickets are probably the biggest concern, as Shoalts points out further on in the article. They have a massive Canadian fan base, particularly in Southern Ontario. Shoalts' sources argue that one of the main reasons the league won't let Balsillie put a team in Hamilton (and by extension, probably not Kitchener-Waterloo either) for fear that those fans might decide to avoid the border and stay in Canada to watch hockey, hurting the Sabres' revenue streams.

As he writes, "Mr. Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research in Motion Ltd., angered league executives by attempting to buy the Nashville Predators with the intent of moving the franchise to Hamilton.
The league will never allow Mr. Balsillie to put a team in Hamilton for two reasons, according to one governor. One is that the city would be a tough sell for U.S.-based teams, and the other, more significant reason, is the belief it would ruin the Buffalo Sabres.
'It's a minor-league town,' the governor said of Hamilton. 'How could we sell a team from Hamilton? Do you think the New York Rangers want to put the Hamilton Steelers on their marquee at Madison Square Garden? Do you think anyone in Manhattan would buy tickets to see them?'
He also said a team in Hamilton would mean thousands of fans in the Niagara Peninsula who attend Sabres games would simply drive to Hamilton to avoid border lineups.
'We do not want to kill the Sabres,” the governor said. “But if there was a second team in Toronto, that would not hurt Buffalo.'"

Both points are valid, and the second one is particularly interesting. However, contrary to this governor's opinion, there's a good chance that the migrating fan base would also be a concern with a second Toronto franchise. Hamilton to Toronto is not a long trip. One of the main reasons for the support for the Sabres in Southern Ontario is the accessibility of tickets, not the driving distances involved, which are often similar to the distances these fans would face if they went to a Leafs' game. A new franchise means many more tickets, and given the hassles involved with crossing the border these days, it probably would be an easy decision to stay at home if tickets are available. That may be the case regardless of if the team is based in Toronto or Hamilton.

Again, this isn't to shoot the idea down out of hand. The league could desperately use another team in Southern Ontario, especially given how much of a subsidy they get from the current one. Relocation of a struggling team would make more sense than a straight expansion, but that's also a far more complicated process. In either case, the NHL could also benefit from letting Balsillie in before they face an antitrust case, and he'd be very good for the league. If he's willing to pay large amounts to compensate the Leafs, Sabres and Senators for moving into their territory and if an arena solution is found (renting the ACC or building a new rink), this could work. One governor suggests $700 million as an expansion fee, which seems outrageous given that ranked the Leafs as the top NHL team last season with a valuation of $413 million. It's hard to think an expansion team would be worth twice as much as that.

In any case, though, the sum would likely be astronomical. The question is how deep Balsillie's pockets are, and if he's willing to pay that much of a premium to bring another hockey team into Southern Ontario.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Examining Pat Sheahan...

James Mirtle of the tremendous eponymous hockey blog (and a former CIS Blog colleague) has a terrific feature in Monday's Globe and Mail on Queen's football head coach Pat Sheahan. Anyone interested in Queen's football should give it a read: highly recommended.

The GBU: Queen's football versus Waterloo

Yes, more happened in sports yesterday than just the continued resurrection of the Boston Red Sox [Marcel Mutoni, Deadspin]. For example, there's the Gaels' football win [Neate Sager, Out of Left Field] over the Waterloo Warriors [this blog], which gave them a perfect regular-season record of 8-0...

The score: Queen's 38, Waterloo 22 (CIS box score is here)

How I saw heard it: On the CFRC radio broadcast.

The Good:

-Danny Brannagan: Our Queen's Journal Athlete of the Week from last week turned in another solid performance, completing 23 of his 39 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns without being picked off. The early injury to Mike Giffin (see below, also here) meant that the Gaels had to take to the air more frequently than normal. As Neate noted, that's a season-high in pass attempts for Brannagan. He was up to the challenge, though. The zero picks is particularly impressive given his number of attempts (although it sounded like he threw a couple of almost-interceptions early on): that's good game management from Brannagan (although it might not help him on DJ Gallo's Gunslinger Index. Brannagan continued his march into the record books, tying Tommy Denison's mark of 24 touchdown passes in one year (set in 2003, but no one else has ever come close to it: Denison's 22-TD 2002 season is the next closest mark, and the third-best until now was Brannagan's 15-TD 2007 campaign). Brannagan overtook Denison's school-record career yardage numbers (7,592 passing yards) last week, but further extended his lead to 8, 133 yards. However, he also has 931 career attempts to Denison's 823. Brannagan finishes second among CIS quarterbacks this season with 2407 passing yards (well short of Denison's record of 3,001, but behind only Western's Michael Faulds this year). He averaged an excellent 9.44 yards per attempt (16.7 yards per completion) over the season as well. Brannagan distributed the ball well Saturday: five different receivers had at least three catches, and only Scott Valberg had over four. That segues nicely into our next item...

-Scott Valberg: Valberg had yet another tremendous game, reeling in 9 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. His longest gain was only 22 yards, so most of those were for 15 yards or more. Valberg finishes1 the year with 1,013 receiving yards, the third-highest mark in Queen's history (behind only Jock Climie's 1,091 in 1988 and James Maclean's 1,031 in 2001: he passed Maclean's 993 from 1999 and Craig Spear's 1,000 from 2003 in this game). However, Valberg's average of 22.5 yards per catch, while not good enough to crack Queen's top-ten all-time, is miles better than the averages Climie and Maclean put up in those years: Maclean had 52 catches in 2001 for an average of 19.8 yards per catch, while Climie had 58 catches in that 1998 season, giving him a still-amazing average of 18.8 yards per catch). Valberg only caught 45 passes this year, showing the depth of Queen's receiving corps. He finishes as the CIS leader in receiving yards (almost 150 ahead of the second-place finisher, Joshua Svec of Waterloo, who only picked up 37 yards Saturday), average receiving yards per game (126.63, ten ahead of McGill's Charles-Antoine Sinotte, and receiving touchdowns (11, five ahead of the three receivers tied for second).

-Osie Ukwuoma: Ukwuoma had another outstanding game at defensive end for Queen's, finishing with two sacks, four solo tackles and one assisted tackle. He finishes as the CIS leader in sacks with 9.5: teammate Dee Sterling is tied for second with 7.5. A hell of a season for both of them.

-Marty Gordon: Just two days after I interviewed him, Gordon stepped up for the Gaels in a big way, rushing 10 times for 103 yards. His most impressive carry was a 51-yard touchdown run. That, combined with Jimmy Therrien's 74 yards on six carries, showed that the Gaels didn't miss Giffin too much in this one. It's good to see some depth at running back.

-Jimmy Therrien: In addition to his rushing prowess, Therrien had a great day on special teams, returning two kickoffs for 117 yards and seven punts for another 68 yards.

-The offence: With the 38 points they put up Saturday, Queen's offence finshed with the most points in one season in school history [Mike Grobe, Queen's Athletics] with 374 points, eclipsing the previous record of 361 set in 2003. The Gaels averaged 47 points per game.

The Bad:
-The penalties: Queen's committed nine penalties for a loss of 100 yards, while the Warriors only took seven penalties for a loss of 70 yards. It didn't make a difference here, but discipline may be more important in the playoffs.

-The slow start: Waterloo scored first, which has been extremely rare for the Gaels this season. They seemed to have trouble adapting to the loss of Giffin at first, and the first few drives ended in failure. Eventually, they solved the problem, but it took a little while to get going.

The Ugly:
-Giffin's injury: Yes, his removal was apparently precautionary, but having your star get hurt on the game's first play from scrimmage is never a good thing, and reports of him limping around and wearing ice packs don't make it sound any better. He's supposed to be checked out by team doctors this week, so we'll see how that goes. Fortunately, the Gaels have a bye this coming week, so that will give him a while to recover.

The Implications and Predictions:
Queen's locked up the OUA first seed last week, but this week saw the rest of the playoff picture get filled in. Next week will see games between #3 Laurier and #6 McMaster, as well as #4 Ottawa and #5 Guelph. That should be a pair of interesting contests. Neate has some more on the second match in his nine-story weekend breakdown at The CIS Blog. The predictions in this corner are for Laurier and Guelph victories: Laurier's been coming on strong for the last while, while Ottawa's just imploding at the moment. Queen's gets the lowest-remaining seed, so that would see a Queen's-Guelph rematch at Richardson Stadium in two weeks.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Campus Corner: Football moves to 8-0

It wasn't in spectacular style, but the Gaels got it done Saturday afternoon, winning 38-22 over the Waterloo Warriors to complete their perfect regular season. Questions remain, though, especially around the absence of star running back Mike Giffin, who was removed from the game after the first play. According to the CFRC radio broadcast, Queen's Athletics has announced that Giffin's removal was merely precautionary and not a sign of a serious injury: he did seem to be in some pretty severe discomfort though from the radio call, and he was being worked on by the training staff and had an ice pack on. It sounds like he'll be back for the playoff match in two weeks, but you can bet what most of the talk in those weeks is going to centre around.

As before, Queen's proved that they can succeed without Giffin. It's a very pass-happy offence without him in the backfield, though, and it may be more of a struggle to pull that off against a better team than the 2-6 Warriors. A large part of the Gaels' success this year has come from the balance they've struck between the run and the pass. As I've mentioned before, Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien are quite capable as replacements, but they aren't Giffin and teams aren't going to focus on defending the run as much if he's not the featured back. I'm sure there are masses of Gaels fans hoping the Giffinator is back at 100 per cent form in two weeks.

The box score isn't posted yet, so I can't make too many detailed observations, but from the radio broadcast, it certainly sounded like Devan Sheahan was continuing his recent tradition of strong play. As I remarked after the Toronto game, Sheahan's always shown a tremendous amount of promise with his route-running abilities and solid speed. Recently, he's started making more catches, which is terrific to see. This year's receiving corps isn't perhaps as star-studded as the days of Brad Smith and Rob Bagg (although Scott Valberg isn't far behind those two), but it has more depth than ever thanks to guys like Sheahan and Blaise Morrison. Almost every receiver's had a 100-yard game, and many of them have reached that lofty plateau on more than one occasion. That makes it tough for defences to focus on who to cover, and it opens up plenty of passing opportunities for Brannagan, which will be even more important if the run game isn't going.

This game was one of Queen's slower starts this year, though, which is at least partly due to Giffin's absence. A couple of early turnovers might have spelled trouble against a better team. The Gaels eventually adjusted and figured out how to move the ball without Giffin's running, but it took a while. They'll need to get off to a better start when they come up against stronger teams: give Western or Laurier that kind of foothold, and they'll take full advantage.

In a strange way, this might actually be good for Queen's to face some adversity in the final game. Most of their games so far this year haven't been too close, with the notable exception of the Western game until midway through the third quarter (and that one turned into a 46-13 blowout). No one expected Waterloo to put up a fight, and they did, at least for the first part of the game. That should give the Gaels a bit of a reality check heading into the playoffs, and perhaps keep them hungry and grounded. They're not invincible: perhaps this game will remind them of that.

I'll have a GBU post later once the stats are put up.

A disturbance in the force...

Well, the Gaels are winning their final regular-season game at Waterloo, but it may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. According to CFRC's excellent radio broadcast of the game, star running back Mike Giffin went down with what appears to be a right leg injury on the opening play of the contest. As Ben Kenobi might say, "I felt a disturbance in the force, as if thousands of Gaels' fans from coast to coast cried out in pain." No word yet on how serious this is, but Giffin hasn't returned to the field. That could be precautionary, as there's no point in risking further injury in a meaningless game like this, but it also could mean that this is serious. Fortunately for Queen's, the bye next week means that Giffin will have two full weeks to recover. We'll see if that is enough. Backups Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien are certainly capable, but they don't pose the same magnitude of running threat that forces defences to stack the box against Queen's, opening passing lanes for quarterback Dan Brannagan and his talented receiving corps. As this game's shown so far, the Gaels can get it done without Giffin, but they're nowhere near as impressive, and that could spell trouble in the playoffs. This is a talented team and they're bigger than just Giffin, as they've shown by winning games against Western and Ottawa where he was held under 100 yards, but his loss would still be huge. We'll see if he's back in two weeks. I'll post updates if I get more information.

Update: 3:41 p.m. CFRC has just announced that Giffin's continued absence is apparently only a precautionary measure: as they mention though, the ice pack and limping suggest something more. Sounds like he'll be back in two weeks, though.

Power outage

Apologies for the lack of blogging around these parts lately. It's been a pretty crazy week and a bit. As usual, Thanksgiving completely screws with the Journal's schedule: we had to put together our usual Friday paper on Thursday the same as always the week before, but we didn't actually print it until Tuesday on the rationale that next to no students would be around Friday to read it. As you can imagine, that makes things particularly difficult for a sports section: you can't preview any of the upcoming weekend games because they'll already have happened by the time the paper hits the street, but you can't write game recaps for them because they haven't yet happened by your deadline. It's like one of those time-traveling paradoxes. We got around it by covering a soccer game from that Wednesday and some other sports that we didn't have space for in the previous Tuesday's issue, plus running a less time-dependent piece on various coaches' and players' reactions to the controversial proposed arena move.*

*I'll have my own post on this shortly, but for now, here's some links to the details. First, the initial Journal story that broke the news on October 7, by my colleague Clare Clancy. Clare then had a good follow-up piece on the 14th with the financial details involved to accompany my previously-linked-to reaction piece and our editorial on the matter (mostly on the project as a whole, but there's a bit on how this shouldn't be considered without talking to the students). Tyler also has a good post on the matter.

Anyway, the aforementioned time lag of Tuesday's issue made things considerably busy last week, and I had to catch a bus to the Toronto airport Thursday night just hours after we finished the paper, so there wasn't a great deal of time for blogging. I then spent the weekend in Orlando with my uncle at Disney World's Food and Wine Festival, and all the free time I had there went into coordinating our web coverage of the weekend games (we decided that we'd post short recaps of what happened so people could read them Tuesday and then replace them with full stories in yesterday's paper). I didn't get back from there until Monday, and then this week was crazy with trying to catch up on all the sports we missed from last weekend for Friday's issue. In any case, things should be back to a slightly more regular schedule now, and I'm hoping to put up several posts over the next few days to make up for the time I missed. Again, apologies for the lack of new material here: hope to make it up to the two or three of you still reading in the near future!

Monday, October 13, 2008

White is the colour

It was tremendous to hear that the Vancouver Whitecaps claimed the United Soccer League Division I championship [Marc Weber, The Vancouver Province] Sunday with a 2-1 win over the Puerto Rico Islanders [Jim Morris, The Canadian Press via The Globe and Mail]*. It's the Whitecaps' second championship in three years (their last one came in 2006), and their first championship clinched at home since they won the 1991 Canadian Soccer League title. That's some great news for Vancouver soccer fans. Yes, the Lions are still doing well and the Canucks are off to a 2-0 start, but for at least a little while, the Caps claimed top spot in the Vancouver spotlight.

*Morris has some great tidbits in the notes at the bottom of his story, including that this is the first time the USL men's final has ever been between two teams from outside the U.S. and that the Vancouver-Puerto Rico trip is the second-longest in any world soccer league (bested only by Vladivostok and Kaliningrad in Russia).

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to watch this one thanks to being in Florida for the weekend (in fact, I'm writing this in the airport), but it sounds like a terrific game from all accounts. It's fantastic to hear about the Caps players jumping into the stands to celebrate with the fans afterwards [in Morris' piece]: that shows the level of interest in their community this team has. Toronto FC is legendary for their support of their fans and their player-fan interaction, but they aren't the only ones. Vancouverites love their team as well, which was reflected in the over-capacity attendance of 5,288 [Weber].

It was also nice to see Charles Gbeke get both goals for the 'Caps. Gbeke was born in the Ivory Coast, but grew up in Montreal and played for the Impact. He was also on the 2006 Rochester Rhinos squad that lost the USL final to the Whitecaps. He's a great Canadian story and a talented player, and it's terrific to see him playing for Vancouver instead of their rivals: I expect much more from him in the years to come.

This victory couldn't come at a better time. With the race for MLS heating up, this is a terrific opportunity to play up soccer in Vancouver and get the community even further behind the team than they are already. As Duane wrote over at Out of Left Field, "It's moments like this that it becomes clear that the Whitecaps deserve to be awarded a MLS franchise (deserve and "are gonna get" are two very different things). The team, which has survived the folding of two leagues, is as close as you can get to a football institution in this country. An argument can be made that the Whitecaps are the only club left that can trace itself directly back to the NASL -- that's something to be proud of. Who knows whether the 'Caps will get the MLS nod for 2011. But, if they don't it won't be Vancouver that is losing out."

This is also a ray of hope for Canadian soccer fans, given the dismal failure [Ben Knight, On Soccer] of the national team to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Yes, that exit begs question, and the whole structure of Canadian soccer needs to be looked at and considered: I'll have more on that shortly. For now, though, as Duane pointed out [Out of Left Field, there's plenty for Canadian soccer fans to be excited about at the club level, with Vancouver's championship, Montreal's success in the CONCACAF Champions League and the strength of the MLS bids in both cities (and Ottawa as well). TFC is also moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Our clubs seem to be getting things right both on and off the field, with their play, their marketing, their fan support and their youth development systems. Let's take some comfort in that during the struggles of our national teams: things may not always be this bad.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Campus Corner: A big win for Queen's

Today's 38-16 win over Ottawa [Mike Grobe,] was very impressive (go here for Neate's excellent live-blog of the action). The score doesn't really reflect how absolutely dominant the Gaels were: they led 31-0 at halftime, and didn't seem to be trying particularly hard to pad their stats in the second half. That's a great result against an talented Ottawa team. Sure, the Gee-Gees have struggled on the gridiron this year (today's loss drops them to 3-4), but their talent is immense. All five entrants in our CIS Blog prediction pool had Ottawa finishing first in Ontario before the season began, and three out of the four sets of playoff predictions had them winning the Yates Cup as well. Yes, the Gee-Gees haven't lived up to their potential, but this was still a squad that could have posed a lot of problems for Queen's (as partially demonstrated by their third-quarter resurgence). It's not just the win that's important: the way it happened, with the game all-but-decided shortly after the opening kickoff, speaks volumes for the quality of this Gaels' side.

Another impressive element of this match was how the Gaels won without a huge contribution from Mike Giffin. Giffin ran for a respectable-but-not-dominant 72 yards on 21 carries [OUA box score], but the real offence came through the air. Quarterback Dan Brannagan completed 21 of his 33 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns, and moved past Tom Dennison for the most passing yards in school history in the process. Brannagan was picked twice as well, but according to Neate, it looks like one of those interceptions may have come from Giffin bobbling a pass. He spread the ball around as well, as both Scott Valberg and Devan Sheahan finished with over 100 yards receiving (131 and 114 yards on six and five catches respectively). It was great to see Sheahan make some big plays: as I've mentioned earlier this year, he's been doing everything right but reeling the ball in, so it's good to see him put up the numbers. All in all, a very impressive day for the passing offence.

The defence was also tremendous, holding Ottawa to 273 total yards on the day (and just 71 in the first half). A lot of the media coverage of Queen's so far has focused on the offence, which can be easy to do: the stats are more readily available, easier to interpret and easier to explain to an audience. Still, in my mind at least, it's really the defence that's been the biggest factor to this point. Queen's has a tremendous offence, but the field position they gain from defensive stops and special-teams returns has given the Gaels a sizeable edge when they have the ball, and that's partly the cause of the increased offensive production we've seen this year.

Another nice thing to see was the quick start. Last year, Queen's would often play poorly in the first couple of quarters and win games with come-from-behind, last-minute drives. This year, they have been scoring early and often, which bodes well for the playoffs. Points are just as valuable whenever you score them, but there's a decided momentum advantage from a big halftime lead: you force the opponent into gambling for big plays, which is a high-risk, high-reward strategy.

One remaining concern is the third quarter, which was pretty similar to what happened against Western earlier this year. In both cases, Queen's went into halftime with a huge lead, but came out flat after the break and the opponent took advantage. This was less frightening than the Western game, given the larger lead Queen's had in the first place, but it might still be a problem that could hurt the Gaels down the road. Thus far, they've done a great job of coming out of the gate with focus and refusing to underestimate or overestimate their opponent. They need to work on maintaining that momentum and focus after halftime, though, and that's something that could be crucial in the playoffs. Strange things happen in football, particularly at the CIS level, and these leads may not be safe in the future if the Gaels choose to take the third quarter off.

It's tough to tell what to take from this one. Yes, it's a very impressive win over a highly-touted Gee-Gees team, and it's probably the most competitive game the Gaels have played other than the match against Western (which was a bit wider in score, but was much closer than this one in reality). Still, Ottawa's in a bit of a tailspin: they've now lost three in a row, and may not even crack the playoffs. If they get in, there will be plenty of OUA teams that won't want to run against them, but a win over them in Week Seven doesn't mean as much as it would have in Week One, given their recent performance.

The Gaels will really have to keep that focus and intensity over the next couple of weeks. They're still ranked second in the country, which could go to their heads. Moreover, they have what's almost a walkover game against Waterloo next week and then a first-round playoff bye. They'll be huge favorites in the second round, but they'll have to be careful: I've got a sneaking suspicion that teams like Laurier and McMaster are better than the way they played against Queen's, and the "Nobody believes in us" factor (trademark of Bill Simmons) may give them an extra edge. Optimism and credit are both deserved from the Gaels' performance thus far, but there's still a long way to go before Queen's can claim the Yates Cup, and no one should even consider the Vanier until that milestone is reached.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

CIS: York scandal raises questions about Djekanovic and others

I found this [CIS press release] a couple days ago, but it's taken a little while to sort through the maze of regulations involved. Basically, the York Lions men's soccer team, which was top-ranked in the country as of the last coaches poll, forfeited four games through self-disclosure of an ineligible player. The ineligible player is one Andrea Lombardo of Toronto FC fame, which raises questions of why he was allowed to play in the first place. In any case, York had to forfeit four games and

York's men's head coach is Carmine Isacco, who has previously been the Toronto FC goalkeeping coach (his York bio page says he still is, but the Toronto FC roster page has Eddie Kehoe listed as goalkeeping coach). Just about every recreational TFC fan knows about Lombardo, so you'd expect that most CIS soccer coaches (who would be likely to follow Canadian soccer, at least generally) would also have caught on. It seems logical that Isacco, who was a TFC staff member last year, would be even more aware of Lombardo's experience on the TFC senior squad than the general public. It's possible he wasn't entirely aware of the CIS eligibility regulations, but they aren't all that complicated in this matter.

The CIS eligibility rules are readily available online via the CIS website [link leads to a PDF: go here for the .doc version]. There are two relevant sections. First, the overall section on professional participation ( Participation as a Professional Any professional athlete may participate in CIS competition one year from the date that the athlete last participated in a professional game or event in that sport. An athlete who participated in a professional league game, playoff game, or event in a recognized sport of CIS, in the same academic year in which the athlete has participated in post-secondary competition in a recognized sport of CIS, shall only be charged with one year of eligibility. The recognized sports of CIS include football, field hockey, soccer, rugby, volleyball, basketball, ice hockey, cross-country running, track & field, swimming, and wrestling. One year of eligibility shall be charged to a professional athlete for each year that the athlete participated in a recognized sport of CIS as a professional, specifically:

A bunch of examples are listed off after this, but the only section relevant to our purposes here is the one on soccer,, which reads:

"An athlete shall be considered a professional for that year in which the athlete played soccer in a semi-professional or professional league, unless the athlete played under the classification of amateur and possessed an amateur card as provided by a National Soccer Association. Specific to Major League Soccer (MLS), players who participate exclusively under a Developmental or Developmental International Contract are classified as amateurs."

Now, the developmental contract part makes sense, as MLS sides have distinct development rosters. Lombardo was an integral part of the full team, though, so it would be hard to consider him as on the developmental side. The first part of that rule is more ambiguous, though: who knows who has an amateur card and who doesn't?

I've actually been looking at this situation for some time, because Lombardo is not the first player to come up under it: he's just the first one where I've seen wrongdoing proven. A key example is Srdjan Djekanovic, who played at four pro clubs in Serbia from 2001-2004 [Wikipedia] before leading UBC to a national title in 2005. Now, he may have had an amateur card for some or all of those years in Serbia. If he didn't, though, would seem to indicate that he should have been charged for four years of eligibility for his Serbian play (providing he appeared in at least one pro game every year). In my understanding of the rules, that would allow him to use his fifth year of eligibility to lead UBC to the 2005 title, providing that his last pro game was at least a full year before. I don't know when it was, though, and it could be difficult to find out. Note: those four pro clubs in Serbia and the dates involved are not just a Wikipedia rumour, as they're named in this year's Whitecaps press release announcing the re-signing of Djekanovic.

The Djekanovic case doesn't end here, though: it only gets more interesting. According to that same Wikipedia page, he was on the 2006 Vancouver Whitecaps USL championship team. Now, I followed that team reasonably closely, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't the No.1 keeper, but if he played in even one game, the rules would seem to indicate that he should have been charged with another year of eligibility. You only get five in CIS sports, so that would seem to indicate that his CIS eligibility was gone for good (unless some of those Serbian years were on an amateur card). However, that same Wikipedia article says he was playing for UBC during the 2006 season as well.

Let's go to UBC for some clarity. Fortunately, they have a nice collection of all their press releases from 2006 conveniently available in a PDF file. There, we find that Djekanovic was the UBC keeper in an April exhibition game against the Whitecaps and played again in a pre-season game on Aug. 29. He records a shutout in their first regular-season game, a 4-0 win over the University College of the Fraser Valley (just UFV these days) Cascades and puts up another shutout two days later against the Trinity Western Spartans.

On Saturday, Sept. 16, we get this line about a game against the University of Victoria: "[T]he Vikes (1-1-1) placed two of their five strikes on UBC ‘keeper Elliot Usher, who recorded a shutout in his CIS debut. Usher was filling in for Serge Djekanovic, who was whisked away to Miami by the Vancouver Whitecaps on Friday after their backup went down in practice."

Now, Djekanovic played several games for Vancouver that year, but they seem to have all been exhibition matches. He also appears to have been the backup goalkeeper for their September playoff games, but he returns to UBC on Oct. 1. This is skating perhaps a bit close to the Lombardo line, but he appears not to have played in a regular-season game for the Caps (according to the excellent archived USL team stats), and CIS makes it clear that pre-season and exhibition matches are okay in hockey (, so you'd expect a similar rationale to apply in soccer. It's not spelled out anywhere in the soccer policies that exhibition games are okay, though, so this might be a technical violation of the rules. In any case, Djekanovic plays the rest of UBC's games, and they lose in the Canada West playoffs. For those counting, this is now his sixth year of eligibility if you include the four pro years in Serbia.

The really interesting stuff comes next, though. Djekanovic is invited to a national team camp in January, which is promoted in a CIS press release. Interestingly, the release includes the line, "Djekanovic is a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps." It's hard to argue that UBC and CIS officials weren't aware of his professional play if they're putting it in press releases, but as mentioned above, he might still be fine at this point with regards to the Whitecaps (if the hockey exhibition rules apply to soccer). It would be interesting to see if he was paid any money for serving as the backup goalkeeper. Payment itself doesn't appear to be necessary, as the CIS rule for basketball reads, "shall include, irrespective of direct or indirect payment, any athlete who has Professionally Participated with a Professional Team, or in a Professional League." Things may be different for soccer, but still, the real issue so far is the application of the Serbian years, and as also mentioned above, those could be legal if he had an amateur card at the time.

Things get dicey from here on in, though. Djekanovic is traded to Toronto FC in April [Toronto MLS FC], and makes eight appearances for their full squad [Wikipedia], including seven starts [Toronto FC]. Those include regular-season games, such as this 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire [USA Today] on July 7, 2007.

Now, you'd get the impression that Djekanovic would have had to wait a year to play CIS soccer again and would be charged with more eligibility in the process, at least according to the statement in the Lombardo situation. You'd also be wrong: he returned to UBC that fall just in time for the playoffs and promptly led the team to another national championship [].

After this, Djekanovic begins 2008 with the Whitecaps, this time as their starting keeper. He eventually lost the job to Jay Nolly and got cut early in August [Soccer Scene USA]. Guess where he wound up? Right back with those UBC Thunderbirds, where he put up a shutout yesterday [UBC Athletics] against UVic. If you count those Serbian pro years, he's now on his eighth year of eligibility.

I'm not saying UBC or Djekanovic have necessarily done anything wrong. It looks like there's a good chance Djekanovic did possess the amateur card required (suggested in this May interview with Marc Weber of the Vancouver Province, who's also a former UBC sports information director). That leaves questions about why his pro years in Serbia weren't counted against his eligibility, but it might mean that he is allowed to play for TFC, the Whitecaps and UBC, all in the same year or two. It's up for debate if that's the right move, but it may not be technically illegal.

What this shows, though, is that the language used in the CIS release (actually, it's one picked up from OUA) about Lombardo is absolutely inconsistent with what's laid out in the CIS eligibility bylaws. I presume OUA follows those, as the first line of their eligibility site says "(For complete information on CIS Eligibility policies, visit:". Anyway, here's some quotes from the release:

HAMILTON, Ont. - Ontario University Athletics (OUA) announced today that the York Lions men's soccer team has disclosed they unknowingly used an ineligible player for four games.
The player's participation was in violation of Rule 2.3.10 of the OUA Unit III Eligibility By-Laws, which states that "student-athletes must have an 'amateur status' in order to be eligible for participation in OUA sports."
Andrea Lombardo was a Senior Roster member of Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS) in both 2007 and 2008, with his last game played being April 19, 2008. OUA and Canadian Interuniversity Sports* (CIS) regulations permit participation within MLS as a member of the Developmental Roster without impact on CIS eligibility, however, as Mr. Lombardo was a member of the Senior Roster, he is subject to professional participation regulations. This prohibits Mr. Lombardo from participating in CIS competition within one year of his last professional game.
Mr. Lombardo participated in four regular season games between Sept. 6 and Sept. 14 of this year; a 5-0 win over Guelph on Sept. 6; a 3-0 win over Waterloo on Sept. 7; a 3-1 victory over McMaster on Sept. 13; and a 1-0 win over Brock on Sept. 14. The results of these regular season games have been changed to a 1-0 York loss. All statistics from these games will remain valid, except for those of the ineligible player.

*Aside: Isn't it funny when a press release spells its own organization's name wrong? It's Canadian Interuniversity Sport, guys, not Sports.

If simply appearing in a professional game precludes you from playing in CIS competition for a year, and is grounds enough to cause York to forfeit games, wouldn't that suggest that UBC should forfeit their 2007 championship (and their games so far this year)? The more likely solution is that Djekanovic is allowed to do so because of some paperwork and an eligibility card, while Lombardo must have misfiled something and his school gets punished for it. That doesn't explain the curious case of the missing Serbian years, but maybe there's some loophole that prevents those from being professional. Still, if the problem is not playing professionally in the same year, but playing professionally without an amateur card, that should have been clarified in the release.

If what we're seeing here is a new interpretation of the rule, though, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. If playing for a professional team's full squad is enough to prevent you from playing CIS soccer in the same year, we might see a raft of disqualifications.

Consider one Nana Attakora-Gyan, who I first covered back when he was with the Canadian U-20 team [Queen's Journal, June 2007]. He also played for York last year, as well as TFC's development squad. According to both the bylaws and the release, that isn't a problem.

This year, however, he's already played 183 minutes for TFC [Toronto FC], which under the Lombardo release, should prevent him from playing in CIS soccer for a year. Well, he's listed on the York roster for this year at both the OUA site and their own site. I'm not sure if he actually played a regular-season game for them this year, but he definitely shouldn't be on that roster if the rules as outlined in the Lombardo release are correct. If it's the bylaws that are right, though, he might be fine if he has one of those amateur cards. Funny how a little piece of paper can make so much of a difference.

Another prominent example is Stefan Leslie of Trinity Western and the Whitecaps (first team for both sides in 2006, when TWU won the Canada West title and came second at nationals ). He doesn't seem to be on this year's Spartans roster, but that certainly looks similar to the Lombardo situation to me.

Similar situations undoubtedly occur in women's soccer. Off the top of my head, there's Nikki Wright, who I profiled this summer in the Langley Times. She's spent a good amount of time with the Whitecaps' women's squad, mostly at the academy/development level, but she told me about getting called up to play for the full women's team this summer. According to the language in the Lombardo release, that would suggest that she's a professional. She's also a very impressive rookie [Gary Ahuja, Langley Times, Sept. 16] with the Trinity Western Spartans' women's squad this year. Oh, and she just happened to pick up the CIS female athlete of the week award [Gary Ahuja, Langley Times, Sept. 18] last month.

Moreover, there's one Eilish McConville, who I had the pleasure of covering for the Journal in her last year when she led the Gaels to a silver medal at the national championships. It wasn't the first time I'd seen her, though: she was on the Ottawa Fury squad that played the women's Whitecaps in the W-League championship final earlier that summer, which I covered for the Langley Times. I don't think she played in that game, but she was definitely on the roster and I believe she played in regular-season games earlier that summer. According to the Lombardo release rules as I understand them, Queen's would have to give back those silver medals due to her participation. That would be a shame, as that run remains one of the best Gaels' performances in any sport in my time here.

I don't claim to be an expert on CIS soccer eligibility, and I'm not trying to accuse UBC, Djekanovic, York, Trinity Western, Attakora-Gyan, Leslie, Wright, Queen's, McConville or anyone else mentioned above of any impropriety. There's a good chance there's something I'm not seeing, as all I'm going with here is my experience covering the sport, the bylaws available to the public on the CIS website and the press release I saw earlier this week. Still, those sources certainly seem inconsistent: my own experience and web sleuthing has shown me that CIS has trumpeted its pros in the past and then allowed them to return and play college soccer in the same year.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this doesn't appear to be a unique situation or an isolated incident, at least with the information that's come out so far. It's hard to tell why Lombardo deserves punishment while Leslie and Djekanovic don't. Thus, I feel Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze is being a bit idealistic with this blog post.

"York University was ranked No. 1 in the country as of this morning in men’s soccer–undefeated in their first eight games and really enjoying life–until a giant bomb fell from the sky and ruined their season. It appears you can’t use former pro soccer players and get away with it. The fact that they managed to play four games with this illegal player (former Toronto FC forward Andrea Lombardo) is just mind blowing. The fact that they didn’t know it was illegal is somewhat hilarious."

From my investigations, this doesn't seem all that mind-blowing or hilarious. Watch CIS soccer for a while, and you'll see plenty of familiar names from their pro connections. The guys mentioned above are just the most blatant examples I could find, but for each of them, there are plenty more players who have spent time with professional clubs (in many cases on the reserve squads, which seems to be legal) floating around CIS. That's not entirely a bad thing: in fact, I argued back in April that it shows the quality of the league [The CIS Blog].

If it's the amateur card that's the issue, please just say so right off the bat. That way, I wouldn't have had to do all this bloody digging in search of a story that may not be anything more than my imagination.

The point is that the distinction between amateur and professional is becoming increasingly blurred in the sports world, and thus it's not particularly mind-blowing that York played Lombardo in four games and probably thought it wouldn't be a problem. What's far more mind-blowing is that the CIS issued such a strongly-worded statement and such severe sanctions against "professionalism" in soccer, but only singled out one team and player. If we want to get rid of everyone with professional connections, I can live with that, but I wouldn't advocate it: it would hurt the quality of the sport and of Canadian soccer development overall, as players would be forced to choose between an education and a soccer career that might not pan out at all. What doesn't appeal to me is creating this kafuffle over "professionals" while only addressing one of them.

In any case, hopefully this will serve as a bit of a discussion-starter around CIS eligibility. I welcome any and all feedback either here or at andrew_bucholtz (at) I'm happy to hear where I'm wrong or right with this one, and I'd love to hear some more examples of other CIS players who might be considered "professional". If anything of interest comes up on this situation, I'll update this post or add a later one as well.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Tale of Three Cities...

Three of the football teams I follow all recorded important victories over the past weekend, but those victories couldn't have been more dissimilar. However, there were still common threads and themes between the three games.

First, there was Queen's 43-16 win over Western [myself, Queen's Journal] Saturday. This was particularly interesting, especially when you consider that Western was favoured by many going in. However, the score was rather deceiving.

Queen's offence was missing in action for most of the day, and only created 295 net yards and 18 first downs against Western's 510 net yards and 33 first downs. The lopsided victory was mostly due to the excellent field position Queen's offence was given by Western's 12 turnovers and inability to convert in the red zone. The strong efforts from Queen's defence and special teams also came in handy in terms of field position.

The game was also made more of a blowout by Western head coach Greg Marshall's decision to keep gambling on third downs in an attempt to come back. Five of those 12 turnovers came off turnovers on downs (another three were on lost fumbles and the final four were interceptions). Marshall said after the game [myself, this blog] that he'd rather try risky offensive strategies in an attempt to come back instead of playing it safe to try and keep the score close.

"I don't care if we lose by 100 points. I never do," he said. "We're not going to win the game by punting the football away."

I thoroughly approve: as ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook wrote in his excellent Tuesday Morning Quarterback column a few weeks back, too many coaches are more concerned with keeping the score close in a defeat than trying to win the game. As such, they opt for the safe punts late in the game, even though those do absolutely nothing for their chances of winning. Marshall doesn't subscribe to that theory, and his team lost big as a result, but they could have easily pulled off a comeback win thanks to his bold strategy if a few plays in the third quarter had turned out differently. It's good to see a coach willing to take some risks, and it's important to keep in mind that those gambles led to the one-sided nature of the final score, perhaps making this appear a more decisive victory than it really was. It was a deserved win for the Gaels and an important one, but not the rout the scoreboard seemingly indicated.

The weekend's second blowout victory was less illusory, even though the score was closer. The B.C. Lions destroyed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail] 40-10 Saturday night, and this one was decided almost right after the kickoff. As Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province wrote after the game, "Two minutes and 14 seconds into the contest at B.C. Place Stadium, the affair lost all pretense of suspense and took on the dreary predictability of a Russian novel, which, come to think of it, is the way most games involving the Ticats have played out over the last seven years."

From a B.C. fan's standpoint, this kind of win was probably good to see, especially considering that it completed the Lions' perfect record in September. It also improved their overall record to 8-5, moving them into a tie for second in the powerful West with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, only one win behind the 9-4 Calgary Stampeders. Still, it came over the 2-11 Tiger-Cats, so it should be taken with a large seasoning of salt. As Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail wrote early in September, right after the Tiger-Cats fired Charlie Taaffe and immediately after their last horrible loss to B.C., "The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are terrible, again; they have hit the panic button, again; they are playing out the string, again; and their abused fan base is having its faith severely tested, again." This franchise has been so horrible for so long that it's hard to take them seriously. Thus, the euphoria needs to be kept in check.

The third crucial game of the weekend saw the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens [Alan Robinson, The Associated Press via The Globe and Mail] 23-20 on Monday Night Football, thanks to an overtime field goal by Jeff Reed. This was the least decisive victory of the three, especially considering that the Steelers were heavily favoured going in and they only managed to win thanks to a tremendous second-half comeback. In essence, they pulled off what the Mustangs could only come close to against Queen's.

This game really showcased how fast everything can change in football. For the entire first half, all the commentary centred on how overrated the Steelers were, how good Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was and how effective the Ravens' defence was proving against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offensive line. In the second half, Flacco began to make bad decisions, the Steelers' offensive line started to bear up under the pressure, and Roethlisberger picked apart the Ravens' defence, nullifying most of the storylines of the game.

Michael Wilbon, an ESPN commentator who's also a tremendous columnist for the Washington Post, made a great point here about how all the writers at the game were starting to scrap their columns after the half, something I've always found very interesting. With the instant nature of deadlines these days, reporters and columnists frequently have to have their pieces almost completely written before the final whistle. I've done this myself on many occasions, and it's no problem in the case of a blowout (such as Queen's 58-14 win over U of T [myself, Out of Left Field], where I had to file right at the end of the game in order to catch the bus back], but it's much more difficult in a close contest. The brilliant Joe Posnanski described this much better than I ever could in this post. Here's the highlights, about the Yankees' stunning comeback in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series:

"Now at this point I should mention that experienced sportswriter — that is, sportswriters smarter than me — have a little trick they use when on a pushbutton deadline. They write what I like to call the adjustable column. That is they write a column that leans one way but, in case of emergency, glass can be broken, verbs can be reversed, adjectives can be turned and so on. I did none of these things, of course. The ultra-rich Yankees finally going down — and to a team in only its fourth year of existence — deserved something more than an adjustable column. It deserved the works. And so I wrote it, the Yankees is dead, it’s been a nice run, the Diamondbacks had too much pitching, hell, I don’t remember it all but I know it was confident and unwavering and Kim got Jeter out on a bunt, he struck out Bernie, man on, two outs in the ninth and I was about to send the thing …

And you know what happened. Tino hit the home run. Yankee Stadium went nuts, I guess, though I don’t remember that. Here’s what I remember: Staring at my screen at all these little words I had written, words that now might as well be in Pig Latin, words that now looked like the code in the Matrix, words that could not possibly be more worthless. I remember that feeling … like my head was about to explode. I remember looking to see if I had left any adjustable sentences in the column (“The Yankees are NOT dead?”). I remember going into a few seconds of sheer panic. I had no column. Nothing. If the Yankees won the game (and of course they would win now) I had absolutely nothing to send to the paper.*

*I’ve had nightmares like this … seriously. A lot of sportswriter friends have had nightmares like this — deadline hits, and you have a blank screen and no idea what to write and no clue what to do. I think this is the sportswriter version of the go to work in your underwear dream.

So … what to do? Well, of course I started a new file and just began typing madly, something, anything, whatever thought came to mind, not unlike this blog I suppose. It was sheer stream of consciousness, nothing but typing, and when Derek Jeter hit his home run with two outs in the bottom of the 10th (off poor Kim, who must have done something to really tick off Bob Brenly), I had some sort of mishmash of words. My phone was ringing — SEND THAT COLUMN — so I sent it without even reading it."

As Posnanski points out, you almost have to have two entirely different stories or columns ready in a close game, and then just choose whichever's appropriate for the final score. The problem with this is that you can't usually write anything too nuanced: you have to usually pick an angle for each and run with it, and that means that the other side will be diminished out of necessity, even if it's just as legitimate.

For example, in this case, you could have written a great game story focusing on the play of rookie quarterback Flacco, and it would have been absolutely appropriate if the Steelers had missed that OT field goal and the Ravens had gone on to win. You also could have written a story about Roethlisberger's experience getting the better of Flacco and the Ravens, which would not have been appropriate at all for the first half of the game but made sense in the end.

The problem is that the truth is really somewhere in the middle: both quarterbacks were good and bad at various times during the game, so it's tough to argue that a long field goal curving just inside the upright instead of bouncing off dramatically changes Roethlisberger into a hero and Flacco into a villain. Their performances really weren't all that different if you look at the whole night.

Unfortunately, it's awfully hard to write those middle-of-the road nuanced stories well, as you can't focus on an angle and you often come off as wishy-washy. I'm not saying we should get rid of angles: on the whole, they're a tremendous boon for sports journalism and they make articles much more interesting. My point is just that it's important to keep in mind how small the difference between victory and defeat can be, even if that isn't always reflected in the post-game coverage.

Overall, Queen's fans should probably be the happiest with their team's performance this past weekend. The Gaels knocked off the No. 2 team in the country by a considerable amount, and also proved they can win without a dominating performance from their offensive stars. Their fans should bear in mind that the score was somewhat deceiving, but Queen's has a nice easy match-up this weekend against the 0-5 York Lions.

Lions' fans can also take several positives from last weekend's game. Their team is now running like a well-oiled machine instead of the sputtering clunker we saw at the start of the campaign. Also, they appeared far more dominant on the gridiron than either the Gaels or the Steelers and controlled the entire game. Still, the quality of the opposition has to be considered and the utter incompetence of the Tiger-Cats has to dilute the thrill of victory somewhat. It will be interesting to see how they do tonight against a slightly better team, the Toronto Argonauts.

For Steelers' fans, things aren't nearly as rosy. Yes, they proved that they can come from behind, but they were not overly impressive for most of the game against a less-than-dominant Ravens' team. They also lost key running back Rashard Mendenhall to a season-ending injury [The Associated Press] Monday, and wound up having to go to Mewelde Moore, who started the season as the fourth-string back. Given how important the run game is to Steeler football, that doesn't bode well for the season. They also face the toughest test of any of these teams this week, as they'll have to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday. That game should tell us a lot about this Steelers team and their prospects this year.