Saturday, May 30, 2009

Live blog: a key night for Canadian soccer

Tonight's going to be very important for both Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. First, at 8:30, Toronto take on the Houston Dynamo at Robertson Park. Both teams will be eager to pick up full points, as they both sit in third place in their respective conferences. TFC have a 4-3-4 record and 16 points, five behind the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Fire, while Houston are 4-2-3 and have 15 points, nine behind Western Conference leaders Chivas USA.

The big story in this one is the return of former Dynamo players Dwayne De Rosario and Adrian Serioux. Both were key parts of Houston's 2006 MLS Cup title campaign. Serioux was selected by Toronto FC in the MLS expansion draft, but dealt to FC Dallas for Ronnie O'Brien, while De Rosario stayed in Houston until this season. They were expensive acquisitions for TFC, with Serioux traded for a first-round pick and allocation money and De Rosario picked up for Julius James and allocation money, but both have come through so far and been two of Toronto FC's top performers to date.

At 10 p.m. Eastern, the Vancouver Whitecaps take on the Portland Timbers down in Oregon. There's a lot on the line here as well, as both clubs are jockeying for position in the USL table. Portland are 3-1-3 through seven games for 12 points, good enough for fourth place at the moment, while the Whitecaps are in fifth with a 3-2-2 record for 11 points. Both have games in hand on the sides above them, so a win for either could put them in position to challenge for the league lead. The Cascadia Cup, traditionally given to the winner of the season series between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, is also at stake tonight [Simon Fudge,]; with Seattle moving up to MLS this season, the cup will be awarded to whoever takes the best-of-three regular-season series between
Portland and Vancouver. The Whitecaps are in good position to defend the trophy, as they claimed the first match 1-0 at home. With a win tonight, they'll be taking the Cascadia Cup back north to their trophy case.

However, the Whitecaps may be somewhat distracted by the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. After knocking off Montreal on Wednesday, they'll face Toronto FC at home on Tuesday in their final match of the competition. A victory there would put them in excellent shape to go through, as they already have an edge in goal differential and the Montreal Impact will be eager to avenge themselves on rivals Toronto FC in the final match of the competition. Thus, we may see head coach Teitur Thordarson rest some players tonight in anticipation of Tuesday's match [Ian Walker, The Vancouver Sun].

Portland's on-field play may also be overshadowed by distractions. They're having difficulties getting their soccer-specific stadium plan passed, and MLS commissioner Don Garber recently wrote a letter to city commissioner Dan Saltzman to inform him that a shared stadium for baseball and soccer will not pass muster [Jason Davis, Match Fit USA]. Moreover, Montreal and Joey Saputo are lurking around the edges of the league, just waiting for Portland to slip up [Ben Knight, Onward Soccer]. You wouldn't blame their fans and players if they had more on their mind than just tonight's match as well.

Both games should be great, and they'll both be covered in tonight's live blog. Join in after the jump!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Montreal Impact live blog

It's time for the crucial fourth game of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, featuring the Vancouver Whitecaps against the Montreal Impact. If Vancouver wins, they're in good position to challenge Toronto FC; any other result and TFC looks good to go through. Join in the live blog below!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Canada - USA women's soccer live blog

It's going to be an epic clash of countries at Toronto's BMO Field tonight as the Canadian women take on the top-ranked Americans in head coach Carolina Morace's home debut. It's the 44th match between the sides (the U.S. is 37-3-4 against Canada), but only the fifth match between them on Canadian soil. Canada has never beaten the American senior team at home, losing three times and pulling off one draw. We'll find out if that will change tonight. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Eastern, and the game will be televised live on all four regions of Rogers Sportsnet. Come join me here then for the live blog! You can also check out my full match preview here.

The theory of Uglyball

We can't all be serious all the time, as that would be no fun. The guys over at the excellent Style Points are rarely serious, but exceptionally funny. However, the humour value of their site may be about to go in the tank, as they asked me to write a guest post for them. After much deliberation, I figured their site would be the perfect place to present a long-held theory of mine: Uglyball, the key to winning at soccer.

As most people know, Manchester United continued their Premier League dominance this year, picking up yet another title. Many different reasons have been floated for their success, including Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial skills, their financial strength and their depth. However, detailed analysis by Oxbridge professor Louis Michael (no relation at all to Michael Lewis) has confirmed my suspicions that there's something else at play here. The real key to victory is finding the ugliest strikers possible and unleashing them, which Ferguson has proven remarkably successful at over the years.

It's just amazing that it's taken this long to figure out. Eric Cantona, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov? That's an incredible collection of ugly striking talent. For more insight into how Ferguson pulled this off, the true meanings of such stats as UORP, OPS, and OBP, and how this revolution has affected the lives of famous fans like Rick Hornsby (no relation to Nick Hornby) read the full piece over at Style Points!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Canada set to face American giants

Tomorrow's going to be a big day for Canadian women's soccer; it's new head coach Carolina Morace's first home match in charge of the team against the most feared side in the world, the top-ranked Americans. The U.S. is 37-3-4 against Canada all time, but recent results between the sides have been close, so it should be a good match. I have a full match preview posted over at Out of Left Field and will be live-blogging the match here and at The 24th Minute tomorrow night. The game is at BMO Field and will be broadcast live on Rogers Sportsnet. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Eastern time; come by for the live blog then!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Toronto FC - New England Revolution live blog

Toronto FC return to action today at BMO Field against the New England Revolution. The teams are only one spot apart in the Eastern Conference table; Toronto's fourth with 13 points, while New England sit in fifth with 10. The logjam at the top means TFC could take the conference lead with a win and some favourable results in other matches, though. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. The game will be televised on CBC and streamed at Come join in the live blog below!

Friday, May 22, 2009

The shot heard round the world

Our society is becoming more cynical and jaded all the time. Nothing is pure any more. You can't enjoy food without thinking about its calories and trans fats, you can't wholeheartedly support any political party when you're aware of their scandals and betrayals, and you can't even buy a coffee or a shirt without thinking about where it came from and who made it for you. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; after all, it tends to allow us to see the shades of grey I'm so big on and consider the consequences of our actions. Still, it makes it tough to feel sheer elation and exhilaration about anything.

This transition from a shining ideological paradise to the dirty and grubby world of realpolitik has also happened in sports. Perhaps the best example is baseball's steroid era and the resulting Mitchell Report, the final illusion-shattering document I wrote about here. It's why people were so incensed about steroid use in baseball but willing to tolerate it to a greater degree in leagues like the NFL; baseball always sold itself as something more, something pure, a nostalgic slice of the good old days before corruption and taint, even if that wasn't always true (see Sox, Black). Gary Smith's fantastic Sports Illustrated article is a great look at this view of the sport and how steroids altered it.

It's not just baseball, though. Scandals have rocked other sports with similar results. In The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, Joe McGinniss describes how an encounter with the seamy underbelly of Italian soccer (and the match-fixing that went hand-in-hand with said underworld) had a terrible effect on his view of the world. A similar malaise struck many basketball fans during the Tim Donaghy scandal. Beyond those scandals involving entire leagues, there have been plenty of exposés demonstrating that our athletic idols are not the heroes we had imagined, but perhaps more like the ancient Greek gods they're sometimes compared to; extremely powerful, but often greedy, capricious and self-centred. Other adventures with franchises and relocations such as the ongoing fight over the Phoenix Coyotes have dragged muddy aspects of the worlds of business, politics and nationalism into the once-shining realm of sport. With all this, it's rare to find a moment in sports that can be unashamedly embraced.

However, LeBron James' game-winning three-pointer against the Orlando Magic with no time left on the clock last night may be such a moment. Orlando had battled hard all game, rallying from a 23-point deficit in the second quarter to take the lead with only one second left in the game on a drive and jumper from Hedo Turkoglu. James made a great move on Turkoglu and broke out to the top of the key. With Turkoglu desperately lunging at him, he gets up a contested three-ball as the last seconds tick off the clock.

At this point, sensible minds had to think Cleveland was all but doomed. One second on the clock to inbound the ball and get up a contested shot? Maybe heroes or gods could pull that off, but in the mortal realms, the expected happens 99 per cent of the time. Moreover, James was the NBA's MVP this year, but he's renowned for his dominant inside game more than his shooting from long range or his clutch heroics. There's a good reason many NBA observers will still tell you that James may be the best player in the game, but they'd prefer having Kobe Bryant on the floor to launch a final buzzer-beater, especially if it's from downtown.

Letting James bomb away from three-point range with a hand in his face and without time to get properly set? That's a likely recipe for disaster, and a disaster that could have doomed Cleveland's title hopes. Going into Orlando down 2-0 against a Magic team that excelled on home court this year wouldn't have been at all promising. Thanks for coming, guys; hope you enjoyed your playoff run.

In millions of universes, perhaps that's how it ends. James' final effort bangs off the rim. Turkoglu and Dwight Howard jump in celebration; Stan Van Gundy celebrates on the bench. A disappointed and dejected crowd of Clevelanders that had pinned so many of their struggling city's hopes on this team, as excellently described by Joe Posnanski in this week's Sports Illustrated, file out of Quicken Loans Arena into the dark. Their hopes and expectations have been crushed yet again. Reality has set in, and so has the famous SI jinx that led Posnanski's friends to encourage him not to write the piece. The Cavaliers win the next game, but can't recover from a 2-0 deficit and fall to the Magic in six. The Magic go on to the Finals and fall to the Western Conference champions. The Cavaliers are torn by disappointment and infighting in the 2009-2010 season and fall in the conference semi-finals. James leaves for the bright lights of New York in the summer, and yet another of Cleveland's golden dreams has gone down in flames.

However, this universe is different. Maybe a few molecules of air are rearranged, or James releases his shot at a slightly different angle. The result is that James' incredible shot swishes its way through the basket, giving the Cavs a win that few could have expected only a second earlier and all the momentum in the series. James answers the critics in fine form and stuns us all, and in a way that no amount of cynicism or realism can taint. It was a pure sporting moment, untainted by business, politics or anything else. The NBA's commercials always promise us that the playoffs are "Where Amazing Happens"; last night, they were right.

The story isn't over yet. There's still a chance of the Magic bouncing back, of an implosion by the Cavs, of an upset in the Finals. If so, this will still be remembered as a great moment, but not a defining one. But if they go on to the title and if this shot proves to be the timing point, it will mark the coronation of King James in a more effective way than any sword-removal or dragon-slaying. Cleveland has its desperately-needed hero, and if he leads them to a glorious triumph, his deeds will be long remembered.

This moment goes beyond Cleveland, however. The NBA is a global game these days with fans all over the world. Regardless of which team they support, a feat of athleticism like the one James provided is an incredible display that can be appreciated by anyone. It transcends our highlight-saturated culture and our partisan divisions for just a brief moment, allowing us to go beyond the surface of sport and delve down to the pure core. For that moment, we can forget about court cases and relocation rumours. We can abandon griping about the refs, blasting players' off-court habits and complaining about high ticket prices. In that moment, we can see a reminder of what pure sport is.

That doesn't mean that idealism is back for good, though. There will certainly be plenty of ugly fouls, off-court drama and intrusions of business and politics over the rest of the playoffs. Bad calls will be made and endlessly debated. Cynicism and realism will return in force, and the sports world will revert to its normal shades of grey. But for one solitary moment with an exceptional feat, James brought an unsoiled flash of inspiration. He peeled back the curtain and allowed us to enjoy a pure sports moment in a way we rarely can any more.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Montreal Impact live blog

It's the third game of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, with the Montreal Impact hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. Both sides really need to go for the win here, as they each lost their first match against Toronto FC. English audio can be found here, and there's a French video webcast here. For match previews, check out this one from Duane and this one from Simon Fudge of Come join me in the live blog below!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Regarding newspapers, attribution and links

This is a bit of a continuation of my post on anonymity the other day, focusing on the mainstream media's relationship with the blogosphere. One of the big stories this week was about New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd apparently lifting a paragraph [Craig Silverman, Regret The Error] from Talking Points Memo writer Josh Marshall via a shady friend (Alex Rodriguez's cousin, perhaps?) and then apologizing for it afterwards. To Dowd's credit, she's been much more apologetic than certain other plagiarists, but her inclusion of a paragraph word-for-word from a friend without any mention that it wasn't her original work is still very troubling.

The Dowd situation is just one extreme example of a larger problem, though. One of the things that's troubled me for a long time is the indifference shown by many traditional media outlets towards proper citation of others' work. A particularly egregious recent example comes from that noted bastion of journalism, the New York Post, which lifted Tony Kornheiser quotes directly from the great Dan Levy and attributed them as "Kornheiser told a blog". To be fair, they did include a link (which is much better than most papers tend to do), but "told a blog" is an incredibly stupid citation. As Levy remarked on Facebook afterwards, "Thanks! Should I refer to the story as 'reported a dying rag?'"

The Post should have at least mentioned the blog title and hopefully the author as well. It's not like it's adding a ton of words to your story, and it certainly enhances the story as well. "Told a blog" tells the reader nothing; "told Dan Levy of On The DL" gives the reader exactly where this information is coming from and allows them to explore how reputable it is.

To their credit, though, at least the Post linked to the story. This is perhaps the biggest failure of traditional newspapers in adapting to the web; they're trying to make a living in a link-based economy, but are incredibly reluctant to give out links to other sites or publications. That in turn makes bloggers more reluctant to link to and properly attribute the newspapers' material, which hurts the newspapers' traffic. It's not the old days any more, guys; there aren't many people who will read one paper and one paper only on the Internet.

A another bad example of this is the reporting of Kevin Nesgoda's piece on the Indiana Pacers possibly moving to Vancouver, which I interviewed him about yesterday. Every outlet from The Province to CTV to the Indianapolis Business Journal to Newsday picked up on Nesgoda's work, but their citations of it ranged from bad to horrible, as shown below:

Unknown Author*, >Newsday: "But a recent rumor, which started (where else?) on the Internet and has been perpetuated up north, that said Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini had expressed interest in buying the financially-troubled Indiana Pacers turns out to be bogus."

*As an aside, I really hate it when papers don't put authors' names on their stories. This is often because they don't see them as too valuable or only based on material that's already out there, but it's counter-intuitive to suggest that reports just spring into existence. Adding the name of whichever reporter or layout editor collected the information would increase accountability as well by providing someone readers could contact if they had a question about the report.

Bill Benner, Indianapolis Business Journal: "As I drove to work May 12, I listened as local talk-show radio host, WXNT-AM 1430’s Abdul Hakim-Shabazz seized on a blog report that the owner of the National Hockey League Vancouver Canucks was considering a bid to purchase the Indiana Pacers and move them to the Canadian city."

Mike Killeen, CTV: "The internet is swirling with speculation that, for the first time since 2001, Vancouver could once again be home to an NBA basketball team. An American sports website has reported that Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini has expressed interest in buying the Indiana Pacers in order to bring the team home to British Columbia."

Unknown Author, The Province: "Vancouver has been without a National Basketball Association franchise for eight seasons since the Grizzlies packed up for Memphis prior to the 2001-02 season, but the rumour mill is suggesting the city might not be a graveyard for the world's finest professional hoops league forever. The latest talk on Tuesday had Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini reportedly interested in purchasing the Indiana Pacers and moving them to GM Place, the former home of the expansion Grizzlies from 1995-96 through 2000-01.
Aquilini could not be reached for comment, but insiders, like the Internet sports site The Bleacher Report, say he has expressed an interest in bringing a second major team into a building he also owns."

There are so many failures here it's tough to know where to start. "An American sports website", CTV? There's only a couple hundred thousand of those. Benner is careful to get the radio guy's identification, but can't be bothered to do a simple Google search to attribute his source any further than just "a blog", which is even more vague than CTV's useless attribution, but less stupid than Newsday citing the entire Internet. The Province at least mentions the site involved, but anyone in the world of sports knows that Bleacher Report is just a huge collective (somewhat like a sports-only version of Blogger); citing websites instead of websites and authors is problematic enough when it's a one-author site, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the credibility of a piece if you just mention that it's from some massive entity like Bleacher Report. Would it really have killed these guys to take two seconds, cite the report properly with its author and website and throw in a link (as I did in my initial piece)?*

*By the way, I find it very interesting that most of these sites were quick to mention this report and then instantly refute it based on a vague, "not at the present time" denial from Aquilini. Of course these kinds of sensitive negotiations are going to be tough to confirm, and those involved with them aren't going to be eager to talk about them in public. Many of the reports (especially the Newsday piece) basically accused Nesgoda of unfounded rumourmongering without ever looking into his story a bit more, so I figured I'd try and track him down. His contact information was easy enough to find through links to his own site on Bleacher Report and he promptly responded to an e-mail I sent. In my mind, his answers to my follow-up questions added a lot of credibility to the report and certainly brought up some interesting extra details. It's too bad that the traditional media types left the actual journalism to the bloggers in this case.

Anyway, attribution isn't only a problem with reports based on blog information; newspapers and other sports media outlets do it to themselves as well. One of the offenders is The Associated Press, which takes time from its quixotic crusades against bloggers [Jennifer Harper, The Washington Times] to damage its own media outlets with poor reporting. The AP will rarely, if ever, cite a non-traditional site in their stories, but they (and the outlets that run their stories) don't even help traditional sites.

For example, consider this piece (from The Globe and Mail's site) on Patrick Roy: "Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy denied being offered the Colorado Avalanche's coaching job, a position currently held by Tony Granato. The Denver Post reported Monday that Roy had received an offer and was mulling it over. The Avalanche declined comment on the report, which cited anonymous league sources."

This isn't bad, but it could be much better. The piece came from the Post's Adrian Dater, a well-known name in the world of hockey blogging. Adding Dater's name to the report would have increased its credibility and let fans know where this was coming from. Moreover, "anonymous league sources" isn't terribly convincing, and certainly not as impressive as Dater's citation of "multiple NHL sources who are close to Roy". Only citing the paper is generally standard practice, but should it really be in this day and age? Why not communicate as much information as possible instead of making the readers do the work?

Most importantly, though, sites that run this report should have linked to the initial piece. Most of the people who looked at this report would be quite interested in reading what it's based on. It's still possible to do that, but without a link, it requires a Google search and probably two to three clicks. Just citing a specific newspaper is fine for print editions, but online newspaper sites could be greatly improved by adding relevant links whenever possible. Demonstrating a willingness to link to others' content also makes it much more likely that they'll return the favour. It's not traditional newspaper style, but it's how the world of the Web works, and newspapers should realize that. Every newspaper is trying to embrace the Internet these days, but many of them are still trying to make the Web play by the traditional rules. That isn't going to be successful. They'd be much better off learning a few things about the Internet and then applying them effectively instead of trying to translate the old dead-tree style seamlessly to a new medium.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kevin Nesgoda on the Pacers, Vancouver and Seattle

Much has happened since my initial post last week about the rumours of the Indiana Pacers potentially moving to Vancouver. The story's spread everywhere from CTV to Newsday to the Indianapolis Business Journal, with many sites claiming there's nothing behind it. Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, the rumoured potential buyer of the team from current owners Herb and Mel Simon, gave a very interesting statement to CTV, though, saying he has "no immediate interest in purchasing an NBA basketball team."

That's a pretty weak denial, especially considering the "immediate" part. Prospective owners of sports franchises rarely make their interest known publicly well in advance, particularly when relocation is involved. Moreover, the initial report stated that any deal was at a very early stage, so Aquilini could be telling the complete truth here and still purchase an NBA franchise a month down the road (if he had immediate interest then). As I wrote the first time around as well, the Pacers are far from the only troubled NBA franchise as well, so even if this particular move comes to naught, Aquilini's comments suggest that he may look at the possibility of a new Vancouver team down the road.

In any case, I figured it was worth trying to get some more information on the Indiana circumstances, so I contacted Kevin Nesgoda, who wrote the original piece on the matter for Bleacher Report. In addition to his work at Bleacher Report, Kevin runs Biased Sports. He's also a big basketball fan and passionately supported the Seattle Sonics before they were abducted by one Clayton Bennett. He runs as well, a site devoted to criticizing Bennett and trying to bring basketball back to Seattle. My interview with Kevin on the Pacers, Vancouver and Seattle is below. Thanks to Kevin for taking the time to answer my questions!

Andrew Bucholtz: Can you provide any details on how and when you first heard about Aquilini's supposed interest in the Pacers (i.e. a Pacers source, someone on Aquilini's end, someone with the NBA or a politically-connected type?)? Obviously, I don't expect you to reveal your source but it would just be helpful to have an idea of which side this is coming from.

Kevin Nesgoda: I have a few people in the know about the situation and first heard about it from a friend who works for one of the Los Angeles teams. He’s always been right about everything he’s ever told me and an extremely credible source. He told me about Clay Bennett buying the Sonics two weeks before it even hit newspapers or news stations in Seattle or OKC.

A.B.: What made you decide to write about it?

K.N.: In hopes that Pacer fans can unite and do what they can to protect their team and keep it in Indy. It’s horrible when a team has to move. Especially if a team has been there for 30 plus years. It’s not fair to the fans.

A.B.: How serious do you think these rumours are? Is it just a negotiating ploy for leverage, or is there a chance the team will move?

K.N.: I think it’s very credible. From what I get the talks between Simon and Aquilini have been very quiet. If Simon can’t get a new deal worked out with the city of Indianapolis he will sell the team. Aquilini then will file the paper work for relocation and start the ball rolling on getting the team to VBC.

A.B.: How does this compare to the Sonics' situation, in your mind?

K.N.: It’s extremely similar: an out of town owner with a ready arena and deep pockets looking to buy a struggling franchise. Though I think Aquilini will be more upfront about what is going to happen. He won’t make false promises about keeping the team in Indy. He’ll buy it and get the team to Vancouver ASAP. It won’t hang in the air like it did for two years in Seattle.

A.B.: In your opinion, if the NBA had a completely free choice about what city to relocate a struggling team to, would they pick Vancouver, Seattle, or somewhere else? Why?

K.N.: I think Vancouver is definitely a bit more attractive than Seattle or Kansas City. It’s bigger than both cities, has a huge Asian market and could envelope the Seattle market on top of everything. Stern said he regretted what happened in [the NBA's] previous run in BC and following closely on how Stern works, I’m convinced he would like to make up for it. Giving Vancouver another team would make a lot of sense, since Vancouver’s economy is extremely strong right now.

A.B.: Have you heard anything more on the situation since your initial Bleacher Report post?

K.N.: Nothing substantial, but if Simon can’t get something worked out, look for him to move fast on the sale.

A.B.: On the Sonics, obviously, losing the team meant a lot to you from your Biased Sports post. Do you think the majority of Seattle residents feel similarly, or have they forgotten and moved on to other sports?

K.N.: There is a small contingent, mostly the diehard fans that are extremely broken up about it and are doing everything in our power to get a team back to Seattle. There are a lot of pissed off people around the area; most have said the NBA is dead to them until Stern is out as commissioner. A lot of people now focus on the Sounders. Sadly, Seattle is a huge bandwagon town and they’ll jump on whoever is winning at the time.

A.B.: Is there enough political will in Washington to get the necessary KeyArena renovations done without a firm promise of a franchise?

K.N.: No. We had a bill up in the Senate that didn’t create any new taxes and the money was mostly raised by people from out of town, but we couldn’t get it to a vote, which I don’t get because the money is raised in Seattle and spent in Seattle. It should never have to go to a state vote. Just expand the tax: then the money for the arena is raised by money spent at the arena and the city makes a profit after three years.

A.B.: Has the economic situation affected this at all? How so?

K.N.: It has a bit, but with the construction jobs created and having an arena that would create over 300 jobs and then stimulate the businesses around the arena it would have been a lot more beneficial to the city. But the idiots in charge in the city and state don’t see it that way.

A.B.: Are you optimistic that Seattle will ever get another NBA team? If so, how long do you think it will take?

K.N.: We’ll get one eventually. I am thinking it won’t be until the NBA lockout happens. There could be six teams that have to fold or relocate and since most new arenas actually lose money, KeyArena, even not renovated, will look like a palace.

A.B.: How would a team in Vancouver affect the chances of Seattle getting a team? Would it help Seattle's chances due to the rivalry between the cities or hurt them because of Vancouver's proximity?

K.N.: I think it would create a true northwest division. Seattle, Vancouver and Portland would be a great series of rivalries. It would be the I-5/Canadian 1 rivalry. If Vancouver actually got a team, I think Seattle would get it in gear on getting a team. I guess a free $30M from Clay Bennett this year or a free $225M from the city of Seattle and Steve Ballmer wasn’t enough.

Thanks again to Kevin for taking the time to answer my questions. Check out his Bleacher Report work here and his Biased Sports site here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Rochester Rhinos live blog

It's time for some USL action! Join me in the live blog below!

Toronto FC - Chicago Fire live blog

Come join me in the live blog below! Match preview is here; also remember that I'll be live-blogging the Vancouver - Rochester game tonight at 10 p.m. as well.

Toronto FC - Chicago Fire match preview and notes on Vancouver - Rochester live blog

It's going to be a battle at BMO Field this afternoon as Toronto FC take on the Chicago Fire at 4 p.m. Only one point separates the teams in the table; TFC are second in the Eastern Conference with a 3-2-4 record for 13 points, while the Fire are undefeated so far this year with a 2-0-6 record for 12 points and currently hold third place in the conference. Eastern leaders D.C. United are only one point ahead of Toronto and face the top team so far this season in Chivas USA on the road this evening, so either TFC or Chicago could conceivably vault their way into the top spot with a win.

One of the key battles to watch will be Chicago star Cuauhtemoc Blanco against Toronto's skillful holding midfielders. Toronto's been very successful at minimizing other teams' scoring opportunities lately, but they haven't faced an offensive threat of Blanco's calibre for quite some time. There's a great profile on him here from Jose Romero of the Seattle Times.

Another interesting note comes from the injury to Marvell Wynne midway through last game. Wynne's normally a starting wingback, but was playing as a striker when he was hurt. Nana Attakora, the young Canadian defender who's excelled so far this season, will likely move to the wingback slot and Marco Velez may return alongside Adrian Serioux in central defence.

It should certainly be a good match. I'll be live-blogging it both here and at The 24th Minute. I'll also have a live blog of tonight's Vancouver Whitecaps - Rochester Rhinos match, which starts at 10 p.m. Eastern. Come join in one or both live blogs with your thoughts and comments!

Friday, May 15, 2009

TSN2 deal is done

Well, Rogers Cable finally came to an agreement [] to carry TSN2 shortly before Jaypocalypse Now would have occured next week when the Jays faced the Red Sox in games only available on TSN2 [Neate Sager, Out of Left Field]. No specifics have been released yet, but it's a good bet that Rogers caved in the end; TSN had all the leverage in this one thanks to their agreements with every other cable/satellite provider (which demonstrated that their terms can't have been all that unreasonable). Someone at Rogers' baseball division ultimately sold the cable side for 30 pieces of silver with the decision to put Jays-Red Sox on TSN2, as the great Chris Zelkovich of the Toronto Star noted earlier this week on his blog:

"A deal has to be coming because, if it isn't, Rogers call-centre employees will have to show up for work that day with bulletproof vests and industrial-strength earplugs as they try to explain to angry Jays fans that they can watch the game only by switching to Bell TV or Star Choice."

Exactly. You can't have a company-owned asset only visible on a channel the company refuses to carry for what seem like highly spurious reasons (namely, not wanting more competition to hurt the ailing Rogers Sportsnet). TSN2 has proven to be a legitimate channel and carries a lot of good stuff, so this should have happened much earlier, but the Jays-Sox deal was the final straw that eliminated the cable division's remaining leverage. It's a shame for Rogers subscribers that it took the company so long to come to their senses, as they've already missed a lot of good stuff (notably Raptors games and NBA playoff games), but better late than never. In the end, this will allow Canadians to watch more sports if they want to shell out the extra cash for TSN2, and that's a good thing in my mind. However, it's still disappointing that Rogers felt they could walk all over their subscribers in a misguided battle to try and make Sportsnet more relevant. It's unfortunate that it took so long to work out a deal, but at last it's finished.

The pros and cons of anonymity

I'm a bit conflicted about the points Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star makes in this column about the anonymity of the blogosphere (found via this post from Deadspin's A.J. Daulerio). On the one hand, Kravitz is partly right about how anonymity can lead to a decline in the quality of dialogue; see many sports message boards or the comments on most newspaper pieces for great examples. He goes too far, though, and picks the wrong examples.

"My biggest objection is the proliferation of blogs and posts by anonymous weenies -- or pansies, if you will," Kravitz writes. "Everybody is big and brave behind a pseudonym, but confront them face to face, and next thing you know they're changing underwear."

The words Kravitz uses are interesting, but counterproductive. The world of sports is too full of ego and testosterone as it is, and it doesn't really accomplish a lot to blast the masculinity of all bloggers who use a pseudonym. Kravitz could have chosen to engage in a careful discussion of the advantages of standing behind your work, but instead decides to start throwing out offensive labels; to me, that isn't a constructive approach.

In my mind, the key is accountability. If you're accountable for what you write and demonstrate that by responding to comments and e-mails, I don't particularly care if you go by your real name or a clever alias. The world has changed, and so has the traditional definition of journalism. I'd prefer it if we could judge people by their work and by their accountability, not by their display name. Each blog should be considered by its quality, not by if it's by someone who writes under an alias.

With that said, though, there aren't a lot of great reasons to stay as an anonymous blogger in my mind. Yes, there's the occasional situation where something you write could cause you problems, but those aren't as common as you'd think. Consider that many of the most controversial writers on the Internet, such as Drew Magary of Kissing Suzy Kolber and the aforementioned Daulerio of Deadspin, use their real names; if they're able to do that, doesn't that suggest that most of the Internet's tamer writers could do the same thing?

There's some very good work done under pseudonyms, but there's also some incredibly poor stuff. Consider Eklund of Hockey Buzz, who's used anonymity to spread ridiculous rumours for years and made a celebrity of himself in the process (even appearing on Sportsnet's trade deadline show one year while wearing a mask). That sort of stuff drags down the reputation of the blogosphere as a whole and leads to the prejudices of people like Kravitz.

It also depends what you're going for. If you're writing a pure comedy site like the aforementioned KSK or the great Style Points, there might not be a big advantage to using your own name. The point of such sites is to be funny, not really to offer serious analysis. If you're writing a team blog or a league analysis site, though, there are plenty of reasons why going under your own name can help you. For one, it helps a lot in getting attention and building the profile of your site. There are plenty of us mainstream media types who are always looking for interviews, and we're much more likely to reach out to you if you demonstrate that you're willing to go by your real name and stand behind your work. It sounds much more professional to quote someone by the real name than by their Internet display name. It also helps in building relationships with the teams and leagues you cover and the other journalists who cover them.

For example, consider my work covering the Vancouver Whitecaps here and at The 24th Minute. I stand behind everything I write and am easy to reach; I've also made efforts to get to know people at the club and the other journalists who cover the team, such as Marc Weber of The Province and Bob Mackin of 24 Hours Vancouver. As a result, I've been able to get access to some games, have conducted interviews with players and coaches and have been linked by both the club and some of the journalists who cover it. That's helped my coverage a lot, and I doubt any of that would happen if I wrote under a pseudonym.

For me, it's not primarily about the access, though. The main reason I choose to write under my real name is to make it easy for people to identify my work and get in touch with me about it. You can always e-mail me (at andrew_bucholtz AT, follow me on Twitter or Facebook or comment on my posts. I'm trying to make my site just as credible as anything in the mainstream media, and the biggest part of that is standing behind what I write and clearly identifying my sources whenever possible, which is why I make a big deal of trying to include authors and sites with my links. I try and make it clear how I can be reached when I comment on other sites as well; I usually post comments under my own name, but make it clear who I am in the few profiles where I use a screenname.

That doesn't mean all bloggers or commenters have to use their real names or try to gain access for the sports they cover. It's a personal choice, and you can produce great content either way. There doesn't need to be a war between the sides either; Kravitz and his ilk shouldn't be labeling all anonymous writers as "pansies" and "weenies", and some anonymous bloggers and commenters should perhaps be a little easier on the mainstream media. Both sides should avoid trying to paint their opposition with broad strokes, as those generalizations only further stereotypes and don't accomplish much. To close with a blatant ripoff of William Shakespeare, "What's in a name? That which we call a sports blog written under a pseudonym can be just as insightful and funny."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Aquilini to bring Indiana Pacers to Vancouver?

The Canucks may be out of the playoffs, but it may be a busy offseason for owner Francesco Aquilini. Kevin Nesgoda of Bleacher Report writes that rumours are swirling in Indiana regarding Aquilini's potential interest in purchasing the NBA's Pacers and relocating them to Vancouver. Nesgoda's initial report has been cited by some politically connected sites in the area, including Capitol Watchblog and Howey Politics, and the B.C. media are starting to look into it as well; Don Taylor mentioned the idea on Sportsnet Connected's Pacific edition a few minutes ago.

At first, this seems like a somewhat implausible rumour, but upon further reflection, it makes a lot of sense. First off, the NBA was not entirely a failure in Vancouver the first time around. Attendance was bad, but much of that was due to poor on-court performance by the team and ineptitude on the part of the management. The team also wasn't really given much time; they were only in Vancouver for six years, and it's tough to build support from scratch for a new professional sport in that amount of time, especially when you're starting with a horrible expansion team. Look at how things looked for the Raptors back around 2001 compared to their outlook today.

Moreover, since the Grizzlies left in 2001, basketball's become much more prominent in the Lower Mainland. Part of that's due to demographic changes and increased grassroots support. A lot of it's due to Steve Nash becoming a two-time MVP and one of the game's top stars; Nash, now a co-owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps, frequently makes return visits to his home province to play charity games with other NBA stars (which are often packed), host training camps and clinics and build his Steve Nash Youth Basketball program, which has quickly become the most prominent program for young players throughout their school years and is endorsed by Basketball BC and Canada Basketball. Nash has got a lot of people out west interested in hoops, particularly those from younger demographics, and he's built a strong infrastructure of youth clubs that a professional team could reach out to. That's proven key in selling big-time soccer in the province, and it could be significant for selling pro basketball.

This also makes sense on a geographic level. Ever since the Seattle Supersonics left last summer, the NBA has been very unexposed in the Pacific Northwest. Their lone franchise in the area is Portland, which is helpful, but is significantly smaller than either Vancouver or Seattle and too far (a six-hour drive) to make for easy travel from Vancouver. Plenty of Canadian hoops fans used to head down to Seattle (a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive) for Sonics games and then drive back in the same night; you can't do that with Portland. Metro Vancouver has 2.1 million people and Metropolitan Seattle has 3.2 million people; that's a sizable population base to write off entirely, so you have to think that the NBA is considering returning to at least one city and possibly both.

Now, consider both cities. I would dearly love to see another team in Seattle, but it's looking very grim at the moment [Brian Robinson, Sonics Central - in a related note, I spoke with Steven Pyeatt last summer, who co-founded Save Our Sonics with Robinson]. The NBA is very unhappy with KeyArena, as I found out during my time covering the team's relocation trial last summer. They're not going back to Seattle without extensive renovations to that building or a new building. The latter has never seemed too likely. Renovations seemed possible, particularly under the Steve Ballmer group, but Robinson reports that the state legislature appears as unwilling as ever to consider funding part of the project even during this era of stimulus projects. As he writes, no one even appears interested in working with the Ballmer group:

"Nobody should accuse Ballmer of not doing his part. That ownership group made an absolute flurry of personal appeals throughout the state. Guess what? Nobody cares. I have never seen such a callous disregard for business leaders than we have in this state."

Throw in the general distaste about the way the team left Seattle, and that situation certainly doesn't appear particularly promising. Miracles can happen, but one might be needed to get a NBA franchise to return to Seattle in the near future.

Vancouver is a much more promising situation. For one, NBA commissioner David Stern told ESPN's Bill Simmons [via Henry Abbott of TrueHoop] that having the Grizzlies leave Vancouver was his biggest regret from his tenure so far [Noah Love, The National Post]. "I wish we hadn't had the Vancouver experience," he said. "Great city, and we disappointed them and we disappointed ourselves." Now, of course, Stern followed up by saying "I don't think we can go back," but take that with a grain of salt; I have a hard time believing that Stern would ever completely rule out returning to a city if the circumstances are right. In any case, that's certainly more positive than his recent comments about Seattle. As Neate Sager pointed out in the aftermath of the Simmons interview, there's every reason to believe Vancouver could have worked for the NBA, which explains perhaps why Stern was waxing nostalgic for the Grizzlies:

"The Grizzlies caught every bad break possible during their six-year run -- you know the whole litany with Bryant Reeves, Stevie Franchise Killer and a 63-cent Canadian dollar. However, looking at the fact the Raptors were recently valued at more than $400 million US by Forbes magazine, you can only wonder what could have been in Vancouver."

Another huge point in Vancouver's favour is the ownership. Aquilini is a very wealthy man and has done well with the Canucks so far. About the only tarnish on his reputation is the court fight [Ian Mulgrew, The Vancouver Sun] with Tom Gaglardi over how the Canucks deal went down, but he came out on top and with his good name largely intact. Aquilini isn't a Jim Balsillie-esque renegade or a blogging/feuding/tweeting maverick like Mark Cuban; he's a respected businessman who tends to play by the rules. I can't see Stern having a big problem with him wanting to join the club.

Something else that helps this idea is the facilities. Yes, General Motors Place isn't the newest facility in the world, but it's been extensively renovated since its 1995 construction and makes tons of money for the Canucks. It's owned and operated by the Canucks and Aquilini, so no burdensome lease would be required, and it's already chock-full of premium suites and has more on the way, including a swanky all-inclusive club [Nucks Misconduct]. Moreover, NHL teams and NBA teams tend to be very good fits together; the seasons are roughly the same length and take place over the same period, and the leagues have worked out scheduling to accommodate each other quite nicely. GM Place might need some minor alterations to host NBA basketball, but I doubt they'd be too severe. From that perspective, Vancouver's probably right up there with Kansas City in terms of ready-to-go facilities for a prospective NBA team.

Finally, consider the economic factors involved. The NBA has been hit hard by the downturn so far and cut 80 league jobs last year [Jon Saraceno, USA Today]. Plenty of franchises are suffering, including the Detroit Pistons, who merited a bad-news finance story on the league's own website, and the New Orleans Hornets, who traded Tyson Chandler for a few bags of money, hurting their own playoff chances in the process [Mark Fightmaster,]. It looks like Simmons' apocalyptic predictions of the No Benjamins Association may be coming home to roost.

Specifically, the Pacers appear to be in trouble. Pat Early, the team board's vice president, said the franchise could lose $30 million this year [AP via ESPN]. They're trying to renegotiate their lease and at the moment say they have no intention of leaving, so the Vancouver rumour could all be a clever leak for leverage or even less than that. However, keep in mind that we've heard that song before from a certain owner while he was in the middle of planning to hijack a team to a new city. This is only a vague and far-off rumour at the moment, but it does make a lot of sense. Expect Vancouver to get some consideration as a NBA market in the future. That may or may not be for a relocation of the Pacers, but there are plenty of other troubled franchises that could come knocking. The Grizzlies may roar again.

Toronto FC - Montreal Impact live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's match between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact here and at The 24th Minute. It's the second clash of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship; Toronto pulled off a 1-0 home win against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first match, so they'll be in very good shape if they win this one. Montreal enters the tournament as defending champions, but they're probably underdogs heading into this one given their USL struggles so far this year and the intimidating atmosphere of BMO Field won't make it any easier. You can check out Duane's preview here, and for any of the Impact fans looking for bulletin board material, you can't do much better than this piece he reposted from February. The game isn't on television thanks to Rogers Sportsnet deciding to place a baseball game on all four of their channels, but it will be streamed live at Toronto FC's website. Come join me at 8 for the live blog!

On Graham Harrell, "system quarterbacks" and the NFL

This past season in American college football, Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell broke the NCAA record for most touchdown passes thrown in a college career with 134. He completed 442 of 626 passing attempts for an outstanding 70.6 completion percentage, threw for 5,111 yards, completed 45 touchdown passes while only being picked off nine times and became the first NCAA quarterback to record multiple seasons with more than 5,000 yards passing. Despite all that, Harrell wasn't selected in the NFL draft. In the first five picks alone, the Detroit Lions and New York Jets opted to take Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez respectively, despite each accomplishing significantly less than Harrell at the college level. By comparison, Stafford completed only 235 passes on 383 attempts at Georgia last season for 3459 yards and a completion percentage of 61.4 per cent; he also threw 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Sanchez completed 241 of 366 attempts (65.8 per cent) at USC for 3207 yards with 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Moreover, both Sanchez and Stafford didn't have a great track record previously; Sanchez wasn't USC's top quarterback in the previous year and Stafford hadn't cracked 3000 yards in two seasons at Georgia. By comparison, Harrell put up 5705 yards in 2007 with 48 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a 71.8 per cent completion percentage. Yet, in the draft, NFL teams concluded that Stafford and Sanchez were the first- and fifth-most valuable players respectively, while Harrell didn't even crack the top 256. It didn't get much better afterwards; Harrell wound up attending the Cleveland Browns' training camp, but many observers of the team, including Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer see him as a long shot to even make the practice squad.

Why was Harrell so overlooked? The curse of the dreaded label; "system quarterback". It's a bizarre term, as by definition, all quarterbacks play in one system or another. Yet, "system quarterback" is a pejorative and derogatory term hurled at those college quarterbacks who put up great numbers in pass-oriented offences like Texas Tech's, many of which prominently feature the spread. System quarterbacks tend to be seen as a product of their environment, doomed to failure outside of college ball.

To be fair, there is some historical evidence supporting this idea many NFL teams seem to have. Andre Ware, Gino Torretta and Eric Crouch all won the Heisman Trophy in college but didn't make much of an impact in the NFL. Of course, some of that was due to a lack of opportunity; Crouch didn't even get much of a chance to play quarterback in the NFL due to his height. Still, there is precedent of great college quarterbacks failing to adjust to the NFL, and many of them came from pass-heavy offences.

However, who will make a good NFL quarterback is one of the most difficult things to predict, as the great Malcolm Gladwell relates in Outliers. Teams have tried everything from college stats to height requirements to arm strength to Wonderlic tests, but still haven't found a consistent way to pick who will be a good quarterback at the NFL level. Lately, the focus has been on tall, athletic players with good mobility and arm strength who have played in offences similar to the traditional ones used in the NFL, but even that hasn't always panned out; see JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Jason Campbell and Vince Young for examples.

So, if both groups of players frequently become busts, why are players with lesser stats but more "desirable" physical attributes still so favoured by NFL teams? For one thing, there's the lure of potential; you can always imagine a guy with a rocket arm learning to make good reads and precise throws under pressure, but it's hard to picture an intelligent, high-percentage quarterback with a weak arm suddenly becoming able to throw downfield bombs. That doesn't mean it's true, though. It's like the equivalent of baseball's plate discipline. As Michael Lewis detailed in Moneyball, Billy Beane was able to get unathletic guys who put up great on-base percentages in high school or college rather cheaply because most of the other teams were more concerned with players' swing mechanics and speed. They figured they'd win by taking great athletic specimens, and in many cases, it worked; however, everyone was going in the same direction, so those players became quite hard to find. Moreover, Lewis relates that many of those teams figured that players with low on-base percentages would improve them over time as they learned discipline; plenty of research has shown that players don't tend to change their hitting approach, though. It's a similar story to the NFL; it's easier to imagine someone gaining plate discipline or route-reading abilities than tremendous speed or a rocket arm, but that doesn't mean it's much more likely to happen. Some batters will always go up to the plate hacking away with tremendous swing mechanics, and some quarterbacks will always be gunslingers who have great arms but are often picked off.

Another aspect of this bias is because of highlights. Sports tend to be all about highlights these days, and much of the NFL scouting process is based on looking at film of players. It's always going to be more impressive to watch a quarterback successfully chuck a 40-yard bomb to a receiver in double coverage than a 8-yard quick out to an open receiver near the sidelines, even if the latter is a much better play nine times out of 10. The high-completion percentage, low-interception quarterbacks tend to excel via great route-reading skills, an ability to think on their feet and a knack for safely getting the ball to an open man, all of which take a tremendous amount of talent but don't easily translate into highlight packages. Meanwhile, the strong-armed daredevils make spectacular throws that could just as easily turn into interceptions as touchdowns, but look better on film. It's why the New York Jets dumped notoriously weak-armed Chad Pennington for aging gunslinger Brett Favre before last season; Pennington wound up with the Dolphins and put up great stats with them, while Favre self-destructed down the stretch with a ton of interceptions. Pennington finished the year with 19 touchdowns against seven interceptions, a 67.4 completion percentage, 3,653 passing yards and a 97.3 passer rating, while Favre finished with 22 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, a 65.7 percentage, 3,472 yards and a 81.0 rating. Pennington was superior in every category except touchdowns, but Favre wound up on the highlights more frequently thanks to his habit of forcing the ball into dangerous situations that either resulted in a spectacular catch or an interception.

The final element to consider is the NFL systems involved. If you ever catch NFL analysts talking about quarterbacks, something that invariably comes up is their ability to make "The NFL Throws". This has been one of the biggest knocks against quarterbacks like Harrell that aren't considered to have the arm strength to throw 30- to 40-yard bombs. However, this presumes that those throws are necessary for success in the NFL, when in reality, they're generally the least likely to succeed. That's not to say there's never an occasion where a Hail Mary is required, but rather to suggest that such occasions are few and far between and success on them perhaps isn't necessarily the best benchmark for NFL quarterback success.

Part of the problem is that there's a certain element of Orwellian groupthink involved in the NFL. NFL head coaches are frequently former players and almost always guys who have been around the league in assistant capacities for a long time. There isn't a lot of fresh blood or original thinking, and as a result, most teams' systems and offensive schemes tend to be somewhat similar. Sure, there's plenty of variations on the different themes involved, but the general plan of an NFL franchise's offence involves a big and strong quarterback who can throw bullet passes, a bruising running back who can crash up the middle for "three yards and a cloud of dust" each down, a couple of tall and lightning-fast wide receivers who can streak downfield and perhaps a pass-catching tight end or slot receiver for the occasional shorter throw.

The big flaw with this schematic is it puts substantial limitations on the types of players you can draft. There are only a certain number of quarterbacks who fit this mould, only a certain number of wide receivers with the speed you need and pass-catching skills to with them, and only a certain amount of running backs who will match your physical specifications. Like baseball in the old days as well, this is excarbated by every other team also looking for the same types of players. There's a large demand and a limited supply, which drives the price up. If you get lucky with draft position or free-agent signings, you might be able to get some of the players you need, but it won't be easy.

How do you get around this? It's not particularly simple. The reason these ideas and schemes have persisted for so long is because they do tend to work. The basic offence described above is reasonably well-balanced and ideally is full of athletic players who can execute their roles to perfection. Each player is generally strong in several areas, such as running backs with speed and size and receivers with speed and hands. As previously mentioned, this makes it difficult to build an entire roster of these types due to the demand and the resulting costs, but the basic idea isn't a bad one.

You can get a little creative, though. If you'll permit me a little geekery here, consider football as a roleplaying game (say, a Dungeons and Dragons-based one) for a moment. These games work by allowing you to pick a race and a class, each with their own unique abilities. You can then further customize your character with specific attributes, skills, feats and equipment. However, there is a cost involved; you only have a certain number of points or resources you can allot to each area, and your class and race helps in some areas but weakens others. Moreover, you can pick up some skills and such from other classes along the road, but they're more expensive to develop. Thus, the real path to success is by picking one or two areas that you're going to excel in and focusing on developing them. You can have a fighter who shines in close combat, a ranger who prefers to snipe from afar, a wizard with strong magical attacks or any variety of other types, but it's almost impossible to create a character that's skilled in all areas. If you attempt to be good at everything, you excel at nothing. Instead, it works much better to star in one area and count on the other characters in your party to take care of your weaknesses.

This can be applied to football quite successfully. It's very rare to find those players that are good at everything and have all the physical attributes you want at a position. When they do show up, they're so expensive that it's incredibly tough to land them. More frequently, you have to make tradeoffs, which explains why Detroit and New York chose Stafford and Sanchez in the draft; they had some of the athletic attributes they were looking for and they're hoping that they can develop the route-reading skills necessary for success. They may fit the traditional NFL system or they may not; we'll have to see.

However, Stafford and Sanchez did shine in many of the areas highly regarded by scouts and they have some skills in all areas, which of course made them rather in demand and thus expensive. Trying to build a franchise according to this model requires a succession of high draft picks or expensive free agency signings, and there isn't much room for error because of the cost of each area.

The alternative is to take a Moneyball-esque approach and target talented players who are undervalued, such as Harrell. Now, these players tend to be undervalued because they have significant flaws in the eyes of the typical NFL model. They usually aren't as versatile as you'd like and they won't be stars in a traditional NFL system. The advantage of this is they tend to make up for their flaws in other ways. To revert to the D&D example, it isn't a big problem for a wizard to not be the best hand-to-hand fighter thanks to their magical skills. The other benefit of these players is they tend to come at a considerably lower cost, making the price of failure much more acceptable.

What you then need to do is come up with a system that can utilize these players effectively. The classic example of this is legendary San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh's West Coast offence. Walsh started with a cast of players no one else was that excited about and made a key move when he drafted quarterback Joe Montana 82nd overall in 1979. Montana's resume to that point reads much like Harrell's; he had a great college career at Notre Dame, but was overlooked by most scouts thanks to his unexceptional arm strength. What he did have going for him was tremendous accuracy, which Walsh made great use of in a new offensive system that emphasized tons of quick and accurate short passes instead of the traditional strategy pounding the ground with bruising runs up the middle and then throwing bombs downfield. Under Montana and Steve Young, a quarterback in a very similar mould, the 49ers were one of the dominant teams of the 1980s and claimed five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1994.

That's not to say that the West Coast offence is the entire answer; in fact, it's been quite widely adopted since them and many NFL teams now use at least some elements of the strategy. The key is Walsh's overarching philosophy of finding players that were overlooked by other teams due to some weaknesses and then designing schemes to take advantage of their strengths. There's no divine commandment that mandates NFL teams to play a certain way, but most of them adopt similar strategies due to conservatism; you aren't often questioned if you follow the crowd.

It's largely the same in college ball, but some underdog teams and coaches are more willing to try unusual strategies. Mike Leach, Harrell's coach at Texas Tech, is one such unconventional thinker (and surprise, surprise, he's been profiled twice by Michael Lewis). Leach couldn't compete with the big schools like Texas and Oklahoma in recruiting in-demand, all-around athletes who fit the profiles everyone else was using, so he developed his own pass-wacky system using undervalued quarterbacks who were extremely accurate but didn't have much else going for them. Here's the money quote from Lewis' first profile of Leach:

"[Current Detroit Lions head coach Jim] Schwartz had an N.F.L. coach's perspective on talent, and from his point of view, the players Leach was using to rack up points and yards were no talent at all. None of them had been identified by N.F.L. scouts or even college recruiters as first-rate material. Coming out of high school, most of them had only one or two offers from midrange schools."

These aren't the all-around players used by most schools, but Leach found a way to mould them into a tremendously successful team. That suggests that there's more ways to win than traditionally thought by many football coaches and analysts. We're seeing this more in the NFL as well; look at the Dolphins' success with the Wildcat offence last year, which prompted them to draft Pat White this year. White's another quarterback who likely wouldn't have had much of a chance in the NFL in a traditional mould, but has a chance to shine in the Wildcat. Like White, Harrell isn't the perfect fit for the standard NFL offence, but that doesn't diminish his talent; all he needs is the right system to succeed. The NFL's too concerned with the arms race for all-around players at the moment and often overlooks those who don't quite meet its physical expectations. The question is if there's a Billy Beane or Mike Leach out there who can exploit that.

One final thought on Harrell; if he isn't able to catch on with an NFL team this year, might he come north of the border? CFL offences are already heavily pass-based, and some of the multiple receiver sets are pretty close to what Harrell was used to at Texas Tech. Plus, the CFL has a long and detailed history of innovation, so perhaps a Texas Tech-style offence is the next natural step. The CFL's also been an excellent proving ground for those overlooked by the NFL in the past, such as Doug Flutie and Warren Moon. Could Harrell be the next great quarterback to follow in their footsteps? We'll never know unless someone gives him a shot.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Puerto Rico Islanders live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's match between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Puerto Rico Islanders here and at The 24th Minute. Kickoff is at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific, and the game will be webcast on USL Live. It should be a good one; these are two of the top USL teams, and they met in the USL final last year, so there's a great rivalry there. The Islanders took the last meeting 2-1 at home, so Vancouver will also be out for revenge.

Both of these teams are coming off busy and somewhat disappointing weeks as well; Vancouver lost 1-0 to Toronto FC in the first match of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship on the road Wednesday, while the Islanders tied the Austin Aztex 1-1 in Texas on Friday. Neither side's had the start to the year they envisioned, either; Vancouver's 2-1-2 through five games and in fifth place, while Puerto Rico's 2-0-2 in four games and in fourth. There's lots of time left in the USL season, but tonight's match could mark a big turnaround in the fortunes of either side. Come join in the live blog tonight to see what happens!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Toronto FC - D.C. United live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Toronto FC match against D.C. United (7:30 p.m. Eastern/4:30 p.m. Pacific, Rogers Sportsnet) here and at The 24th Minute. It should be a good one; D.C. leads the East with 13 points from a 3-1-4 record, while TFC is in second with 12 points from a 3-2-3 record. Thus, the winner of this one will take over or hold on to first place. One question for Toronto is if defender Adrian Serioux will be fit to play; he suffered a neck injury against Columbus last week and missed the midweek clash against Vancouver. Sam Cronin also missed the Whitecaps game, but is expected to return to face D.C. tonight.

Another interesting element is what's going on off the pitch. Everyone knows about D.C. United's stadium struggles, and they've led to threats of relocation if they can't find a new stadium. The D.C. United supporters are going to be marching to the match [Jason Davis, MLS Daily] to show their passion for keeping the team in D.C.; Jason's also encouraging MLS fans from across the league to join the cause with banners and such today. It's a great idea in my mind. Yes, D.C. is facing difficulties, but they're one of the league's signature franchises; I remember watching them play Beckham and Real Madrid in Seattle in an exhibition game several years ago, and at that time (with Freddy Adu), that match made more sense than it would have with any other MLS team. To be taken seriously as a league, you have to have substantial franchise stability and you need a couple of flagship franchises that casual fans have heard of. D.C. United is one, and in my mind, their fans deserve all the support they can get.

Come join me for the live blog at 7:30!

Friday, May 08, 2009

On bloggers, sabermetricians and the history of rock

All right, so this is going to be an unusual post. A while ago, Bill Simmons dubbed Houston Rockets' GM Daryl Morey "Dork Elvis" for his following among MIT grad students and basketball fans of a statistical bent. It got me thinking about comparisons between the rise of sabermetrics and sports blogs and the rise of rock and roll, and led to a great Twitter conversation with MC Bias and Craig Barker, which in turn inspired me to turn the idea into a post. I've already psychoanalyzed the blogosphere, so now it's time to turn it into rock format. Now, obviously all blogs aren't sabermetric-based and not all sabermetricians work on blogs, but the common thread between the two is that they were both ideas traditionally overlooked by the mainstream media that rapidly became popular and (somewhat) adopted by the mainstream. Thus, I've tried to combine the two a bit. My comparisons are below. Of course they're not going to be perfect matches, but I thought it would be fun to try. They're intended as compliments (except for Mariotti), so hopefully no one's too offended by what I've come up with. Add your own in the comments!

Bill James as Big Joe Turner: James is obviously the key figure at the heart of inventing sabermetrics (and inventing the term). The problem is that early rock and roll had a huge number of key players who could easily fit this role, including Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters. I went with Turner as the James analogue primarily thanks to his 1939 recording of "Roll Em Pete," a very early track with a lot of rock elements, and his 1954 hit "Shake, Rattle and Roll," which became one of the key early songs and was famously covered by Bill Haley and the Comets. You could make arguments for any number of figures in this role, though.

Michael Lewis as Elvis Presley: In my mind, Lewis is far closer to Simmons' "Dork Elvis" label than anyone else. Presley was the first real rock and roll star to gain mainstream acceptance and did a huge amount to popularize the work of musicians such as Waters and Turner; Lewis brought sabermetrics to the mainstream with Moneyball, certainly one of the most influential sports books ever written. He isn't known for ties to the blogosphere, but many key blogs got their start thanks to Moneyball, seeking to bring that kind of approach to sports. Lewis then wrote The Blind Side, which offered a different take on football and brought Michael Oher to national prominence. Of course, he's also well-known for his financial books and pieces for Vanity Fair, and Elvis was the first rock star to make the crossover into films successfully, so they both have versatility in common as well.

Bill Simmons as The Beatles: Yes, Simmons is just one man and the Beatles were a group, but this comparision fits very well apart from that. The Beatles made rock into a widespread cultural phenomenon; Simmons provided a similar service for sports blogs, especially after his move to ESPN (similar to the Beatles' 1964 conquest of America). Both have been criticized for being too mainstream and derivative at times, but they've also both brought their own innovations to the world; the Beatles with such hits as "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album and Simmons with reader engagement, massive mailbags, the "Levels of Losing" column, the "Ewing Theory" and the "Mount Rushmore of Sports" among others. He's not really on the sabermetrics side, but his influence on blogging remains considerable. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

Will Leitch, A.J. Daulerio, Rick Chandler and the rest of the Deadspin cast as The Rolling Stones: This is one of the best fits in my mind. Leitch and the Deadspin crew made their impact after Simmons, but they've brought similar influence to the world of sports blogs from a very different direction. Like the Rolling Stones, they've generally brought a edgier take than the Beatles and Simmons but have found plenty of success in doing so. In another similar vein, they've at times clashed with Simmons but generally have a good relationship and appreciate each others' contributions.

The Kissing Suzy Kolber cast as The Who: Like The Who, KSK takes the rebellion of The Rolling Stones/Deadspin to a whole new level. For The Who, that resulted in smashing instruments on stage and destroying hotel rooms off it; with KSK, that results in posts about MayonnAIDS. The Who have settled down a bit with age, though, whereas KSK remains as outrageous as ever.

The Fire Joe Morgan cast as Jimi Hendrix: Much like Hendrix, FJM took a little while to take off but soon grew into one of the most important blogs around. Also like Hendrix, FJM brought plenty of new innovation to the old theme of criticizing announcers/media types and went out suddenly at the height of its popularity. They picked up the sabermetric legacy from James and Lewis and did a huge amount to popularize the movement.

The Baseball Prospectus cast as David Bowie: Bowie picked up the legacy of Elvis and the Beatles and ran in a very different direction with it than the majority of bands, producing material from a wide variety of genres in the process. Baseball Prospectus did the same thing in the blog world, going for the hardcore sabermetric approach but in a variety of styles. Both approaches only appeal to a certain segment of the populace, but have proven very influential and spawned tons of followers in the process.

SB Nation as Atlantic Records: Atlantic Records played a huge role in the rise of rock music, signing many of the top artists (such as Led Zeppelin, Cream, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and AC/DC) and giving them the marketing support to get to the top. They've become one of the biggest record labels in the world, but they started small, with only a few key artists such as John Coltrane and The Coasters. Similarly, SB Nation grew out of Athletics Nation, a key blog in terms of both sabermetrics and blogging innovation but with a limited focus. Now, they're one of the largest and most respected blogging collectives on the Internet and seem likely to continue that dominance for a while.

Joe Posnanski as Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan took rock to a new audience, followers of folk music, but he also brought folk influences to a rock audience in a way few others could match. Joe Posnanski is the perfect example of this cross-pollination; he brings a mix of mainstream media and blogging influences and appeals to both crowds in the process. He's also mixed sabermetrics and traditional analysis more effectively than almost anyone else and gained a huge following in the process. Moreover, Dylan had huge influence on future generations of songwriters, and Posnanski has tremendous influence on current aspiring writers. Both remain highly popular today, and deservingly so. I'm sure Posnanski would prefer to be Bruce Springsteen, but I think this one fits better.

J.E. Skeets as The Clash: There are a number of reasons for this one. First, innovation; both took elements of what had gone before but created something new in the particular way they melded them. Like Posnanski, Skeets melds some mainstream techniques with his blogging, but is far more on the edgy blogging side; similarly, The Clash took some mainstream elements from pop and rock but subverted them into a punk style. Both Skeets and The Clash have had incredible influence on those who have followed them, and both also enjoy a tremendous amount of mainstream acceptance.

Henry Abbott as The Beach Boys: Abbott reminds me of the Beach Boys because both found ways to innovate within previous forms. The Beach Boys were much closer to traditional pop in style than most of the other early rock groups, but still refined the genre and took it to unexpected places, gaining a legion of followers in the process. Similarly, Abbott's writing is closer to a traditional journalism form than most of the other blogs on this list, but he's still carrying out tons of innovation into what that can be and refining the medium in the process. The Beach Boys were hugely influential for both pop and rock acts; similarly, Abbott's work has inspired and informed the work of both mainstream journalists and bloggers.

Mike Florio as AC/DC: Both Florio and AC/DC do one thing and do it well. In Florio's case, that's consistent, detailed and opiniated coverage of the NFL. In AC/DC's case, that's churning out great riffs and a string of hard rock hits for years on end. Both have their detractors, but have found considerable success within their niche.

AOL FanHouse as Geffen Records: Both FanHouse and Geffen have collected tremendous amounts of talent over the years, Geffen with everyone from Aerosmith to Nirvana and FanHouse with everyone from Michael David Smith to Kevin Blackistone. Moreover, in both cases, some very talented artists/writers have gotten lost in the shuffle while the hype goes to the big names on their rosters. Both have additionally courted controversial talent, such as Guns N' Roses and The Game in the case of Geffen and Jay Mariotti in the case of FanHouse.

James Mirtle as Rush: There's more to this than just my considerable fandom for both. Rush took a specific area of music, progressive rock, and quickly made themselves into arguably the most successful band in that realm. Similarly, Mirtle took an underserved area of the blogosphere (hockey) and soon established himself as one of the foremost authorities on the subject, becoming SB Nation's chief hockey guru in the process. Much like Rush's style and genre doesn't appeal to everyone, Mirtle's chosen sport and often analytical style of writing also have their detractors. However, both have proven highly influential. Both also have longevity and consistency of output going for them; Rush have been together since 1974 and churning out material for most of that time, while Mirtle's been producing quality hockey coverage for years despite a demanding day job at The Globe and Mail. Both are also starting to gain mainstream recognition, but aren't quite at the top yet; Rush are huge internationally and are legendary in circles of musicians (particularly for drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, renowned amongst drummers around the world) but still haven't cracked the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whereas Mirtle's become a hockey authority internationally and has lately been given more prominent roles in the Globe's hockey coverage, but still gets lesser billing at the paper behind the likes of Eric Duhatschek and Allan Maki (both incredibly talented and respected writers in their own right, but far less well-known in the blogosphere and among American hockey fans). Also, Mirtle and Rush have lent their status to other sites, bands and shows; Mirtle as a co-founder of The CIS Blog (where I write) and the paper's CIS football guy, and Rush with Bob and Doug McKenzie, the Trailer Park Boys and The Big Dirty Band, among others. Finally, both are proudly Canadian and among the country's best in their field.

Duane Rollins as Guns N' Roses: Only parts of this one apply, as Duane hasn't hit many of the crazy points of Guns N' Roses so far. What made me think of this one was the meteoric rise to prominence; Duane's been well-known in Canadian soccer circles for a long time, but launched The 24th Minute (where I'm one of his co-writers) less than a year ago and it's quickly become one of the go-to sites for North American soccer fans. The feuds also come into it; just as there are tons of people out to get Guns N' Roses, there are plenty of those like Bill Archer who appear to bear considerable hatred for Duane. I think that's at least partly because Duane's a very opinionated type who isn't shy about saying what he thinks, much like Axl Rose (except without the crazy). Riots also happen around both, although I'd argue that those are Axl's fault and not Duane's. Finally, there's the brilliance. Even those who hate Guns N' Roses usually admit they've got plenty of talent (or at least did before Axl fired everyone); similarly, even Duane's detractors have to admire how he's turned himself into one of the most prominent soccer personalities in Canada (and in North America to an extent). Let's just hope he doesn't pull an Axl and fire me for this post!

Jay Mariotti as The Game: Yes, not rock and not really a blogger either, but both have become more notorious for their feuds than for their work, which makes this comparision fit in my mind. Plus, The Game's with Geffen and Mariotti's with FanHouse, so that matches my earlier analogue, and I'm not a fan of either.

Jason Davis as John Cougar Mellencamp: There's something quintessentially American about both of these guys. Mellencamp's songs such as "Jack and Diane", "Small Town" and "R.O.C.K. In The USA" really capture a certain side of the American experience, whereas Davis provides a great view of American soccer. Both are probably a little underrecognized for the successes they've had as well.

Neate Sager as The Tragically Hip: First and foremost, both have prominent Kingston ties. They also both have considerable national influence and have inspired and helped many younger Canadian artists and writers, including myself (in Neate's case). Their work isn't for everyone, but both bring considerable talent to the table and have received substantial acclaim for it.

The Rookies as Broken Social Scene: Both have huge rosters of talented artists and writers, many with their own side projects. Both have also been around for a relatively short time compared to many of the musicians and bloggers on this list, but have already accomplished a lot in that time frame. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for both.

Andy Hutchins as Kevin Drew: This obviously makes sense considering their key roles in the founding of The Rookies and Broken Social Scene respectively, but the comparison's deeper than that as well. Both have a rather ecletic, independent approach to their art, and have found a lot of success with it. Again, both styles don't appeal to everyone, but they're appreciated by many and have done a lot, and both will likely remain influential in the coming future.

Obviously, this is a very incomplete listing and just my thoughts. Add your own analogies and thoughts on mine in the comments below!