Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whitecaps, Impact leave USL

CBC's John Molinaro has a very interesting story today confirming that both the USL-1 champion Montreal Impact and USL-1 finalist Vancouver Whitecaps are set to break away from the league. Whitecaps' president Bob Lenarduzzi told Molinaro that both teams are looking to join the other teams (the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, St. Louis Soccer United and Tampa Bay Rowdies) in the Team Owners' Association in a breakaway league for next season. This needs to be approved by the United States Soccer Federation, as it oversees club soccer in the U.S., where most of the teams are based (I'm pretty sure the Canadian Soccer Association will go along with whatever comes out of this).

"We're still pursuing the new league alternative, and by the end of the week, we should have our application into the USSF for them to grant us that status," Lenarduzzi said. "Our belief is that in order for soccer to grow in Canada and the United States, you need viable, professional leagues. The reason we're going the route we're going is because we think that with like-minded owners, we can achieve that, and that would be good for the sport in general."

Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer has confirmation from the USL side that negotiations with Vancouver and Montreal are over, so it does look like their time in USL-1 is finished. It's interesting that the USL hasn't been more willing to accomodate the breakaway teams, though, as they include many of its strongest markets both on and off the field. If all of the TOA teams leave, USL-1 is left with Portland (only for one year before they move to MLS), Puerto Rico, Charleston, Rochester, Austin and Cleveland as the only teams that competed in the top division this year. Many of those teams have attendance issues as well as less-than-great on the field lineups (particularly in Austin and Cleveland), and many of them are in fairly small markets.

If I'm, say, Fox Soccer Channel, I'd be much more interested in televising a league composed of teams in Atlanta, Carolina, Miami, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. There's a decent geographical spread there, and those are major sports markets; all of them have NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB teams (exceptions are Carolina, which doesn't have MLB, and St. Louis, which doesn't have the NBA). By contrast, the only remaining USL-1 cities to have any other major sports are Portland (NBA) and Cleveland (NFL, NBA and MLB). That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as there's less competition for sporting dollars in smaller markets, but the remaining USL-1 cities aren't great from a national television perspective (and they also may struggle at the gate). That gives the TOA league a pretty decent chance of success in my mind, and it doesn't bode well for USL-1.

The key question is what this means for the Whitecaps and Impact, though. If the TOA league gets off the ground and they accept both Canadian teams, it probably won't have a massive effect. Both teams will still be playing regular games against familiar opponents, and fans are drawn to the club name, not the league name. The TOA league has every reason to accept the Whitecaps and Impact; they've been heavily involved in the formation of the TOA, they have long and proud histories, solid financial bases, large markets and strong support in those markets. Their membership may be short-term, especially considering the recent announcement of the long-awaited B.C. Place roof deal, which appears to have removed the last obstacle in the Whitecaps' path to MLS. Montreal may be around for a few seasons, but they also seem to be destined for MLS. Still, their involvement in the TOA league would help it get off the ground and give it legitimacy, especially considering that both clubs just played in the USL-1 final. My bet is that the TOA would be happy to have them for as long as they're able to stay.

If the TOA league runs into launching difficulties, though, Vancouver and Montreal could be forced to scramble for whatever games they can. There are plenty of problems that can arise trying to get a league off the ground, which is why it's good that this split is happening now instead of just before the season starts. The involvement of the USSF may make things difficult, though, as I'm sure their focus is more on what's best for soccer in the U.S. in the long run rather than getting a new league off and running quickly. That may involve negotiations with MLS to become a feeder league or affiliated minor league, it may involve USSF-moderated discussions with USL-1, and it may take a considerable amount of time.

For the Whitecaps and Impact, though, urgency is key. Taking a season off to sort things out is not really a viable option, as you lose your supporters, your TV deals and your legitimacy (just look at the issues faced by the Arena Football League in its bid to relaunch after a year on hiatus). A lost year could prove especially disastrous for Vancouver, as they need a solid schedule next year to prepare for the transition to MLS. Various exhibitions and such are all right, but league experience is much better and much more valuable. Let's hope some solution can be found that solidifies professional soccer in North America for both the immediate future and the long term.

Update: Molinaro is now reporting that Lenarduzzi called him back to say the Whitecaps' door isn't officially closed to playing in the USL next year. That doesn't sound likely at the moment, though.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

B.C. Lions - Saskatchewan Roughriders live blog

It's a crucial battle for playoff positioning in the CFL West Division, as the 8-6-1 Saskatchewan Roughriders take on the 8-7 B.C. Lions. Game time is 5:30 p.m. Eastern/2:30 p.m. Pacific. Join me in the live blog below!

CIS football live blog

I'll be live-blogging the McMaster-Guelph game today, which is on The Score's University Rush program at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific. I'll also have some thoughts on other CIS football games around the league, including the Queen's - Laurier clash, which I'll be listening to on CFRC. Come join in then for any and all CIS football talk! If the CFL is more your thing, I'll also be live-blogging the B.C. - Saskatchewan clash at 5 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Pacific.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Apologies and a weekend schedule

Apologies for the lack of posts this week. I've been filling in as the sports reporter over at the Langley Times this past week, and that, combined with some computer issues, hasn't left me any time to write. That should be remedied soon, though; there are a lot of posts I'm planning to get to later today and over the weekend. I'll also be live-blogging the Guelph-McMaster University Rush game (1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific) and the B.C. Lions - Saskatchewan Roughriders game (5 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Pacific) tomorrow afternoon, so tune in for those. For now, I leave you with an excellent Warren Zevon song that could have been the theme of my Vegas trip last weekend:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

CFL live blog: B.C. Lions - Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Back in B.C. after my Vegas excursion, so we interrupt your regularly scheduled Blogs With Balls coverage for a spur-of-the-moment CFL live blog! The 7-7 B.C. Lions are on the road against the 6-8 Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a game that could have huge playoff implications. Come join in the action starting at 5 p.m. Eastern/2 p.m. Pacific.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fear, Loathing and Blogs in Las Vegas, Part III: Access Denied

As part of my ongoing effort to report on the Blogs With Balls convention I've been at for the past few days, I present coverage of the third panel, which dealt with access. This was one of the most interesting panels of the conference for me, as it dealt with a hot topic in the blogging world and one I'm particularly interested in as a journalist/blogger. It was moderated by Dan Levy of the excellent On The DL Podcast, and featured Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy, one of my favourite blogs, plus Mitch Germann, the vice-president of communications with the San Francisco Sacramento Kings*, John Karalis of the Celtics' blog Red's Army and Patrick Wixted of New Media Strategies (and a former Washington Redskins PR staffer). Here's a shaky cellphone picture of the panel.
*Yes, I know the Kings are in Sacramento. Odd things happen when you try to write posts while sleep-deprived, such as mixing up California cities!

[Left to right: Germann, Wixted, Karalis, Wyshynski, Levy]

There were a lot of interesting ideas expressed at this panel. One of the first ones was Germann's comments about why the Kings have decided to be proactive with blogger access for guys like Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty and Zach Harper of Talk Hoops and Cowbell Kingdom. "We're starting to see an evolution now where people want to hear from other fans," Germann said. "You want to let them in because bloggers are your brand evangelists."

Germann has a point here. There is a lot of value to promote having a discussion about a team. However, there are a couple of questionable assumptions that could be derived from this quote; first, that bloggers are there to promote the team, and second, that bloggers are fans, not professionals. I don't think Germann would necessarily agree with either of those conclusions, but they could be derived from that quote, and both are problematic. There are some bloggers who are fans of a team first and foremost, and there's nothing wrong with that. Others have a loyalty to the team they cover, but do try to be as objective as possible. There are also some who go with the full traditional complete objectivity the mainstream media regards as necessary; you can argue about if this exists, or if it's a good thing, but there are people who try for it, and I don't think that's necessarily bad either.

Furthermore, being a fan doesn't make you unprofessional, although this is often assumed by many. In my mind, what would be unprofessional is glossing over your team's mistakes, blaming everything on luck or officials and presuming that your guys can do no wrong. Few bloggers I know of act this way, although I'm sure they're are some. By and large, though, people demand a higher standard. Many of the successful bloggers out there admit that there are teams they would like to see win, but that doesn't make them less critical; in fact, sometimes it makes them even harder on their teams. The point is that admitting you'd like a certain team to win doesn't have to make your analysis or perspective any less valid.

Another good point Germann added is that bloggers aren't necessarily all that different from established media types. Sure, there are plenty of bloggers derided for being rumourmongers or guys just looking for odd quotes, but those types exist in the mainstream media too (see Bruce "Malkin To The Kings" Garrioch, who earned that outstanding nickname from Wyshynski himself.) As Germann said, "There's already guys that ask the goofy questions that the players don't like."

Wyshynski picked this up with an interesting segue. There's a widespread notion out there that giving bloggers access will cause them to be less critical, but he isn't sure that's true (and I'm not either). Many beat writers and columnists are often critical of the teams they cover, as are many credentialed bloggers. Now, there is a chance that giving bloggers access will change the nature of their criticism, and I think that can be a good thing. For example, it's easier to call a certain player a douchebag if you don't ever face them in the locker room. If you do face them in the locker room, you're more likely to say something milder, like "Player X was inconsistent tonight", or "Player Y struggled on offence." That kind of writing can be just as critical and insightful, though.

To me, it's much better to use those kind of terms in the first place, regardless of if you have access. Sports dialogue and opinion can get the same point across in a civilized manner that it can in an invective-laden rant, and in my mind at least, personal insults have no place in sports journalism. Going four for 13 from the field doesn't make Player X a douchebag; it does mean that he had a bad night.

One of the other points Wyshynski made was that access should be granted widely, not sparingly. "I think everyone who wants access should have access," he said. He also went away from the often-used and ill-conceived standard of pageviews, saying, "You have to be judged on the content of your content. I don't think traffic should be the standard." He added that it's unfair to judge bloggers by the lowest common denominator, as traditional media aren't judged that way. "That's like putting the Jay Mariotti standard on all bloggers," he said.

All of those are great points. In my mind, every blogger who wants access and can show that they won't abuse access should be granted it. If that helps move the discussion on their blogs into more civilized realms, that's a nice byproduct. Not every blog needs access, and there are plenty of great insightful bloggers who never go near a locker room. Access can be a great benefit for blogs, though, and it can enable bloggers to get a fuller understanding of what goes into certain tactical decisions and certain players' decisions on the field. It's easy to say that punting on fourth-and-two is a stupid move, but it's more effective to present that argument alongside the coach's rationale for doing so.

Traffic is also a horrible standard for if a blog should be allowed access. In my experience, many of the more interesting blogs on the Internet are the ones with lower page views; they often present more unconventional opinions and unusual analysis. Moreover, many of the higher-traffic blogs owe many of those hits to pictures they post of attractive women; there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that (although I choose not to do it here), but it doesn't really reflect on the state of your writing or your analysis, and it doesn't say anything about what you'd do with access. As Wyshynski also pointed out, you can't just judge all bloggers by their medium; no other journalists are judged that way. The New York Times isn't seen the same way as The New York Post, so why should that standard be applied across the blogosphere?

As previously mentioned, not every blog needs access, and that's a point Karalis reinforced throughout the panel. He also added that access can provide that pressure to be more favourable to the team you're covering, even if you don't necessarily bend to it. "It's a test of your character when you get that access," he said.

In the long run, I think access can be very beneficial for many blogs, and I'd love to see more leagues and teams offering it. That doesn't mean everyone has to have it, and a lot of the more humour-based blogs may actually be better off without access. Still, for those trying to offer a serious, analytical take on a team or a sport, access can be very valuable. Hopefully, more leagues and teams will see the benefits of granting expanded access to bloggers, and the blogosphere will continue to evolve in a positive direction.

Fear, Loathing and Blogs in Las Vegas, Part II: Back to the Future

In the first panel of the Blogs With Balls: Las Vegas conference, the focus was on athletes and their attempts to connect directly with fans. The second panel took up the rather broad topic of "The Future of Sports Media", but produced some really interesting discussions. It was moderated by Dan Shanoff of The Sporting Blog, Tim Teblog and The panelists were Nathaniel Friedman (better known as Bethlehem Shoals) of The Sporting Blog, The Baseline and Free Darko, Matt Ufford of Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather and Warming Glow, Kevin Blackistone of FanHouse, Around the Horn and the University of Maryland, and Amy K. Nelson of

It was a solid, diverse group. Friedman and Ufford both started off as small, independent bloggers (as did Shanoff to a degree, but he wound up with ESPN pretty quickly) who then made it big, while Blackistone's a former newspaper guy who's made the jump to the web, but is possibly most famous for his TV stints on Around the Horn and Nelson's familiar with the web side, but from the inside of a big sports conglomerate. Their different perspectives really facilitated the discussion, as this wouldn't have been anywhere as interesting with panelists from only one area of expertise.

Blackistone had some of the most interesting comments of the day. Early on, he stated that "I’ve been newspaper free now for three years, and I’m learning to live with it." Yet, it's clear that he still retains much of the big newspaper perspective; he sees his posts for FanHouse more as columns than blog posts (which is fine) and doesn't see the point in responding to feedback (which is more troubling). When Shanoff asked Blackistone if he connected with fans, he said, "I do not. I present my opinion and I allow other people to present their opinions." That's very much the old-school columnist mentality, and it isn't necessarily problematic; a writer of Blackistone's stature is still going to draw plenty of traffic regardless of if he answers e-mails and comments or not. However, it does suggest that he may be locked in to his view of the world. It's tough to consistently deliver well-written, nuanced pieces without ever listening to what others have to say.

I'm not one of the people who demands that columnists should be in touch with their audience and write what people want to read; to me, that's a bit of a cop-out. There's nothing wrong with taking a different tack and writing something you know will be controversial; in fact, that has produced some of the best journalism. It bothers me if you deliberately exaggerate your opinions to be more black-and-white and more provocative, the way Blackistone's FanHouse colleague Jay Mariotti often does, but you don't have to write what you think people want to read, or accept their suggestions on what they'd like to see from you. However, I do think it is valuable to at least look at those suggestions. It's obviously easier for someone like me who receives a few comments and e-mails than for someone in Blackistone's shoes, who certainly gets massive amounts of feedback, and I'm not arguing that he should take the time to respond to all criticisms. I do think it would benefit him to at least take a look at some of the comments and e-mails, though, and see what people are saying about his work; even if he doesn't agree with their comments or change anything in his writing style as a result, it might still be worthwhile for him to know how people see what he's doing.

In my mind, that interactivity is one of the biggest changes that's come with the web, and one that will be important to the future of the sports media. It doesn't mean that you have to deal with every request or complaint from all your readers, but it is important to at least get an idea of what they like and don't like about your work. Feedback is often a good thing. The other valuable point made during this panel was that if you actively respond to commenters/e-mailers, it tends to civilize the discussion and make it more valuable. Jason Whitlock was cited as an example here; he's a traditional media guy, but he purposefully includes his e-mail address at the bottom of his Fox Sports columns, responds to feedback and often jumps into the comments section. When he does, the comments become more respectful and more valuable. I don't agree with Whitlock on many things, but I applaud him for that stand.

Blackistone is far ahead of Mariotti in several areas, though. For one thing, his arguments tend to be more nuanced and subtle; he tries to persuade you instead of bludgeoning you over the head the way Mariotti does. Blackistone at least makes an attempt to see the shades of grey in sports, which as long-time readers will know, is pretty much the mission statement of this blog. He isn't as much of an absolutist, even if he is on Around The Horn, and just his willingness to speak at a blogging conference shows that he doesn't see himself as far above everyone else as Mariotti and his ilk do. One of his key quotes that showed this was his willingness to be identified as a blogger, something that seems anathema to Mariotti.* "You can call me a general columnist, you can call me a blogger and I’m not offended," he said. "I'm not like some of my colleagues who think that you are vermin." In fact, Blackistone argued that the generalist sports columnist is far from dead, but is merely transitioning from the printed page to the information superhighway, something I thoroughly agree with. "The generalist columnist can exist and write longer than ever before on the web," he said.

*Side note: Blackistone asked how many people read Mariotti regularly, and I didn't see a single hand go up. It's interesting (and a great sign!) that my distaste for him is far from unique among the sports bloggerati.

Ufford had an excellent point, too, arguing that length alone doesn't make a piece good or bad. "People gravitate towards columnists," he said. "You can have quality in 300 words, you can have quality in 5000." This was refreshing to hear. There are far too many bloggers who spend all their time ranting about the length of others' pieces. In my mind, posts should be judged on quality, not on length. You can create something great in a short post or a long post, and there's an audience out there for both.

Freidman reinforced this point with some powerful comments. "There are cases where people do like to read longer columns," he said. "As long as people have brains, they'll want to read things about sports longer than 150 words." I agree with him, as personally, I favour both reading and writing long posts. Short posts can be good, too, and I will do them occasionally, but if you have a short attention span, this probably isn't the site for you.

There was a good discussion on voice as well. Personally, I think it's important for blogs to have a distinctive style and voice. However, there are only a limited number of writing styles out there, though, so voice isn't always purely original and it isn't always purely unique. Nelson made an interesting point on that, suggesting that it may be more important for writers to interact with their audience and connect with other fans than worry about being unique. "I think it’s not more about establishing a voice than establishing that you’re part of a community," she said. In my mind, both are important.

Shanoff also made an interesting point about distribution, arguing that the web isn't a strict meritocracy. He said some writers have more success even if their work isn't as good, thanks to their connections and their ability to get pieces published at or linked to from large sites. He argued that the byline on an article isn't as important as what site it's published on. "You can put it in the firehose and generate a lot of traffic, regardless of if your name is Jason Whitlock or Matt Ufford," he said.

I agree here, to a degree. This follows Malcolm Gladwell's logic in Outliers, where he argues that success is more about circumstances than inherent talent. I wrote a post earlier this summer on how this applies to sportswriting, and tried to make a similar point to the one Shanoff put forward. However, the blogosphere does lower the access barrier to a point where it's much less pronounced; all you need to get your work published now is a computer and an internet connection, and you can do that from a library or Internet cafe if you don't own your own computer. That's much better than the old "start at the bottom" school of journalism, which only allowed a select few to even get that far. There's a great part in Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Papers (Part III: Songs of the Doomed: More Reflections on the Death of the American Dream) where he talks about a famous New York paper wanting to hire him to an entry-level job where he wouldn't even be writing at first, despite his well-established credentials. There still isn't a lot of money in blogging, even at the very top, and many bloggers are hired for effectively entry-level jobs despite stellar credentials, but the point is that you can get your work out there regardless of connections. Connections help in building an audience and getting it seen, but I'm a firm believer that good work will eventually rise to the top if you have enough perseverance. Maybe that makes me an incurable optimist, but it's more fun to be that way than to be continuously cynical.

One of the other really good points made during this panel was about competition from unconventional sources. Blackistone said local sites like ESPN Dallas have stepped into voids left by the collapse of some newspapers and increased competition in the process, pushing everyone to greater heights.

"Now with the advent of ESPN Dallas, there’s a talent war going on," he said.
"It actually has invigorated (the Dallas Morning News') SportsDay now to go to battle in a local market, which used to be the case when you had multiple newspapers in a market. ... You’re going to have more competition, more people fighting over stories."

I agree with this one, and I think that it can be true on the web as well. However, in my mind, it's important for bloggers to be collaborative as well as competitive. One of the other sites I run is a Vancouver Canucks blog, Canuck Puck, and I'm certainly challenged by other excellent sites like Nucks Misconduct and Canucks Hockey Blog. I don't really see myself as a competitor to them, though; I try and offer original analysis that complements their coverage, and link to the good work they're doing whenever possible. In my mind, there's plenty of space for everyone on the web.

The other thing that has changed since the advent of the web is the decrease in brand loyalty. It used to be that fans would get all their information on a team from the local newspaper they subscribed to; few could justify the expense of subscribing to multiple papers. However, fans these days can check out coverage from a myriad of sources, including newspapers and blogs. There aren't many people who exclusively get their information from a single source any more. Thus, in my mind, it behooves bloggers to work together whenever possible; we all have something different to bring to the table, and that's a good thing.

Whitecaps - Impact USL final live blog!

It's been a tumultous season for the Vancouver Whitecaps. They entered as defending USL-1 champions, but had substantial offseason turnover and decided to go with a youth movement to build towards their 2011 MLS entrance. Off the field, they've been dealing with issues surrounding both the construction of a retractable roof on B.C. Place and the transfer of USL-1 ownership to a new group. On the field, they struggled initially in the league, but made a great run in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and were set to claim its associated berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Of course, that was before Montreal rolled over and played dead in the final game, allowing Toronto FC to come away with a 6-1 victory on the road and the necessary goal differential to claim the trophy.

That loss thanks to factors out of their control seemed to inspire the team, though. The made a tremendous stretch run and snuck into the final USL-1 playoff spot. They then upset the first and second-ranked teams in the playoffs (Portland and Carolina) to clinch a revenge match against Montreal in the final. The stage seemed set for their second straight USL-1 championship and a glorious ending to a disappointing season.

Last week in the first leg, an unexpected twist showed up. Montreal came away with a 3-2 victory on the road, and the Whitecaps lost captain Martin Nash to a red card, making him unavailable for today's match. Now, their backs are against the wall. Fortunately for them, away goals have no particular importance in the USL, so Vancouver could force overtime with just a 1-0 win. That's still going to be tough, though.

Don't write the Whitecaps off yet, though. For one thing, they have perhaps the most lethal group of forwards in the league, including USL-1 goalscoring leader Charles Gbeke, the talented Marlon James, speed demon Randy Edwini-Bonsu and rookie sensation Marcus Haber. As Haber said after last week's game, being down a goal isn't as big of a concern with this side as it might be with other teams.

"We're confident in our group that we're going to score goals," he said.

For another, they've got plenty of motivation, and for another, they've always stepped up when faced with adversity. Head coach Teitur Thordarson said after the game last week he loved his team's play in the second half, despite being down a man.

"I was unhappy with the first half, but the second half was fantastic," he said. "The guys stepped up; they didn't quit."

Thordarson said that never-say-die attitude may pay dividends today.

"If we go to Montreal with that attitude, anything can happen," he said. "We have shown that we can win there. We've done it this year."

Thordarson said no one should write his team off yet.

"We're not out of this."

Join in the live blog below and find out how this breaks down!

Whitecaps. Impact. USL Final. Round Two.

The Blogs With Balls conference wrapped up yesterday, and it was amazing. I'll finish my Fear, Loathing and Blogs series breaking down each panel later this weekend. However, before then, we interrupt this program to bring you a live blog of the second leg of the USL-1 final. For those who don't know much about the USL, it's the second level of pro soccer in North America, just below the MLS. What makes this year's edition of the final even more interesting is that it's played over two legs for the first time, it features two Canadian teams with good reasons to dislike each other and it features two teams aiming for MLS in the near future and currently embroiled in a dispute with the league's new owners. This leg will be in Montreal at 2:30 p.m. Eastern/11:30 a.m. Pacific. The Montreal Impact come into the second leg fresh off a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps on the road last week; I was there in person for that one, but I'll be bringing you coverage of today's game direct from Las Vegas! Come join me here for it then. I'm also hoping to have a full game preview up in the morning.

[Note: I'm also planning to be part of The CIS Blog's live blog of the Western-Queen's CIS football showdown, which starts at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific. Feel free to come by there for that one too!)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fear, Loathing and Blogs in Las Vegas, Part I: Direct connections, athletes and hidden Gatorade bottles

(Full credit to the illustrious Hunter S. Thompson, whose Gonzo Papers I am currently reading, for title inspiration...)

I'm down in Las Vegas for the Blogs With Balls 2.0 sports blogging convention, and am thoroughly enjoying it thus far. Things kicked off this morning with a superb introductory video featuring Will Leitch,Matt Ufford and A.J. Daulerio. The video is presented below (from the Blogs With Balls site via HH Reynolds):

Blogs With Balls 2.0 Intro from HHR on Vimeo.

After the introduction, it was time for the first panel, which discussed athletes' abilities to directly connect to their fans through blogs, Twitter and other mediums. The panel featured former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton (now running JockBiz and All Pro Blogger], Yardbarker CEO Pete Vlastelica, ESPN VP of series production and development Ron Wechsler and Carrot Creative president Mike Germano, and was moderated by Matt Sebek of Joe Sports Fan.

(Shaky cellphone pictures for the win!)

Vlastelica, whose company features blogs by the likes of Donovan McNabb and Nick Collision, argued for the importance of authenticity from athletes.
"These guys have personal brands they’re building through this incredibly authentic medium," he said. "In order to use that to its full potential, all their stuff needs to be authentic."

As an example, Vlastelica brought up Kevin Durant's recent TwitPic of his new Nike shoes.

"That had more marketing value than all of the commercials," he said.

He mentioned that many athletes take up blogging and Tweeting to try and increase their marketability, so they'll have lucrative careers as spokesmen once their playing days are done.

"They want to build up this personal brand so afterwards, they can then push product," he said.

Vlastelica also discussed the ability of blogs to give athletes a place to get their full thoughts out on an issue the way McNabb did a while ago after he walked into a media firestorm with a few short quotes about black quarterbacks.

"He went to his blog and he published a really smart, accurate, well-considered piece, and the situation went away," Vlastelica said.

Vlastelica said not all athletes are cut out for blogging, though.

"Not every athlete’s a blogger, just like not every person’s a blogger," he said.

Germano offered an interesting perspective on that, agreeing that all athletes aren't great writers but arguing that you don't have to be a nationally well-known athlete to blog given the amount of local fans out there looking for more information on their teams. He cited Chris Jent, who only played two NBA seasons but was one of his heroes growing up. (See also Joe Posnanski's Duane Kuiper obsession).

"No one knows who Chris Jent is even in this room, but to me he was the greatest basketball player," Germano said.

He also cited the growing numbers of lacrosse players on Twitter as proof of this, as these guys are using tools like Twitter and blogs to promote themselves and their sport (and have been very successful so far). Germano said the key is that they're promoting fan interactivity.

"Now they feel like they have a relationship with these players, and it’s helping the sport tremendously," he said. "Tweets are like the new personal signature. If an athlete tweets me, oh my god, I feel like I have a relationship with that person."

Thornton said athletes have to keep in mind that their actions affect how they're perceived just as much as their Tweets and blog posts, though. Rejecting autograph seekers or acting like a jerk at a restaurant can be much more damaging in the era of Twitter, Facebook and Deadspin than it was back in the days of Babe Ruth.

"Your brand is more than what you say," he said.

Thornton said several athletes have already used social media tools to promote their charity efforts. He thinks other high-profile guys like Chad Ocho Cinco should do the same thing.

"It’s Chad’s job to use his 200,000 followers or however many he has and really make that important," Thornton said. "Don’t just be a face on Twitter."

Thornton said athletes need to be careful about what they tweet, though, especially if they're discussing their teams.

"You really have to think about what you're saying, especially when it comes to the game, because a lot of that is private," he said. "You can't put everything out there."

Wechsler chimed in on that theme, adding that Twitter's allowed journalists to get a deeper insight into the players they cover.

"Twitter is an open mike where everything is picked up," he said. "From a journalistic perspective, it just helps advance the narrative."

He added that players who clearly have something to say and are personable make better subjects for ESPN shows.

"The athletes we find the most interesting and the most compelling are the ones who are advancing a narrative," he said.

Wechsler and Vlastelica both agreed that athletes' tweets and blogs (and independent blogs) aren't going to replace the big players in the sports media world any time soon, but they are valuable because they add other angles to the coverage.

"Social media is adding great spice to the sports media pie, but ESPN is still the pie," Vlastelica said. "For now, we’re more spicing the whole equation than anything else."

It was an interesting discussion all around, but that focus on different media coverage being parts of a whole particularly struck me. There are too many people in the blog world who focus on trying to replace the mainstream media, and too many mainstream journalists who are worried about being replaced by blogs and Tweets. I have a foot in both camps, so that does make me biased, but I believe there is plenty of room for everyone on the Internet. Mainstream media don't have to crush their competitors, and bloggers don't have to continually slag the mainstream in hopes of taking them down. Both have their place and can play important roles, and I think more people on both sides of the divide are starting to realize that. That makes me optimistic for the future.

(More to follow later on the day's other panels)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Whitecaps. Impact. USL-1 Final. Live blog.

My 24th Minute colleague Andrew Bates already laid out what's at stake in tonight's first leg of the USL-1 final between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact, so I'll only touch on it briefly. Suffice it to say that you couldn't write a better script, though. The Whitecaps had low expectations going into this year, and they didn't perform all that well at the start, but they did look set for glory in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. However, in the final game of the three-team tournament, Montreal rolled over and played dead against Toronto FC, losing 6-1 to give TFC the championship and its associated berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. That seemed to motivate Vancouver, who finished the season on a hot streak, snuck into the last playoff spot and promptly defeated No.2 Carolina and No.1 Portland to make it into the USL-1 final. Now, as's Ryan Johnston wrote, they have a chance at revenge.

On the field, they should have a good chance at it, too. Up front, Vancouver has perhaps the most impressive strike force in the league with USL-1 lead scorer Charles Gbeke, newly-announced Rookie of the Year winner Marcus Haber, the always-dangerous Marlon James and the blazing speed of Randy Edwini-Bonsu. The midfield has plenty of options, even with injuries to Ansu Toure and Gordon Chin; Martin Nash, Kenold Versailles, Wes Knight and Nizar Khalfan are likely to start, with Mason Trafford, Chris Pozniak and Justin Moose available off the bench. On defence, Luca Bellisomo and Shaun Pejic have been very good in the centre, and Takashi Hirano is a solid wingback. The other wingback spot is a bit up for grabs if Knight moves up to the wing, but either Pozniak, Trafford or Marco Reda could earn a start on defence. In net, they have Jay Nolly, one of the best keepers in the league. They also have quite the tactical mastermind in coach Teitur Thordarson, who just received a contract extension.

Montreal has a good lineup of their own, though. Three of their key players are former Whitecaps, Joey Gjertsen (who was a guest on Jared Montz's podcast this week), Eduardo Sebrango and David Testo, so they'll all have extra motivation to beat their old team. Matt Jordan can be a great keeper, but he's sometimes streaky. When he's in form, though, he can be tough to beat. Roberto Brown and Leonardo DiLorenzo are always dangerous as well. It certainly won't be easy for the Whitecaps, especially with the key second leg in Montreal next week. Tune in tonight at 9:30 p.m. Eastern/6:30 p.m. Pacific for the live blog!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Schedule for today

Couple of things to let readers know about. I'll be appearing on Norman James' great show The Hook on London, Ontario's AM 980 later today around 6 p.m. Eastern/3 p.m. Pacific to discuss CIS football. Tune in via their listen live service if you're interested in catching the show! There are plenty of interesting matters to cover, especially the upcoming Western - Queen's game next weekend. Check out my Top 10 ballot from this past week for a general idea of my thoughts on where the various teams stand, and as always, look at The CIS Blog for all the recent CIS news and opinion pieces from Neate, the rest of the cast and myself.I'm also going to be live-blogging the first leg of the Vancouver Whitecaps - Montreal Impact USL-1 final live from Swangard Stadium later in the day. That will take place here and at The 24th Minute and Epic Footy. The game is at 9:30 p.m. Eastern/6:30 p.m. Pacific; it can be heard on The TEAM 1040 and seen on USL Live. I'm hoping to have a full preview of that match up here tomorrow afternoon. Feel free to turn in for either or both, whichever interests you!

Friday Night Football: Lions-Eskimos live blog!

I'll be live-blogging tonight's CFL clash between the B.C. Lions and the Edmonton Eskimos here and at Out of Left Field. It should be a good one with plenty of playoff implications, given the logjam in the West Division. Come join me below at 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific!

Andrew Tinnish and the CIS influence on the Blue Jays

One of the interesting aspects of the personnel shakeup new Blue Jays' general manager Alex Anthopolous conducted today is the role it gave to a CIS alumnus. Andrew Tinnish was named as the director of amateur scouting. He'd previously been in the pro scouting department. As reported over at fellow Sports Federation site Mop Up Duty, Tinnish was a rather legendary CIS baseball player and coach with the Brock Badgers.

Tinnish played with the team from 1995 to 1999. During that span, he was named team MVP three times, and also holds team records for single season batting average (.500), at bats (146), hits (73), doubles (22) and RBIs (65). He's also the team leader in career at-bats (633), hits (239), doubles (47), home runs (25) and RBIs (210). The more sabermetric stats are not presented on the Brock baseball website, but I'd imagine he'd be up there in those as well. That's a very impressive career. The Badgers probably wish he was still with them; they lost 9-2 to Western yesterday, finishing their season with a 9-9 record and missing the playoffs for the first time in school history.

CIS baseball probably isn't going to have many players make it to the majors any time soon, but it still isn't a bad sport or league. It's nice to see one of its most famous lights gain a more prominent role with the Blue Jays. Of course, he isn't the only Canadian university alumnus involved with the organization: new general manager Alex Anthopolous has an economics degree from McMaster (no word on if he ever worked with the baseball team, but he's said he wasn't much of an athlete) and new professional scout and former director of professional scouting Jon Lalonde graduated from Laurentian University with a Bachelor of Commerce specializing in Sports Administration. In an industry where the front office roles are often dominated by Americans from marquee schools, it's cool to see some CIS connections.

Update: As pointed out in the comments over at The CIS Blog, there technically isn't a CIS baseball league. Brock, McMaster and five other teams play in the OUA's baseball league. They are CIS members and the OUA is a CIS regional association, but it also has other sports like baseball that do not have national competition under the CIS banner. To complicate matters further, there's also the Canadian Intercollegiate Baseball Association, which does host national championships and features many CIS institutions such as Dalhousie, McGill, Queen's and Concordia. To my knowledge, it is not affiliated with CIS.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Could we see a roof after all?

After months of controversy surrounding the future of the B.C. Place retractable roof project, it sounds like progress is actually being made towards a solution that could turn out very well for the Vancouver Whitecaps and B.C. Lions. Matthew Sekeres of The Globe and Mail reported this morning that the project will be going ahead. That's according to "sources familiar with the situation", which aren't always the most reliable, but in a case like this, it's awfully tough to get anyone on the record. Here's the key quote from one of Sekeres' sources:

"But a source familiar with recent discussions about the provincially operated stadium said the teams have little to worry about, and that an announcement is expected later this month.

“They're hoping to get it resolved in the next 10 days,” the source said. “I think it's a positive resolution [for the sports franchises].”

That isn't overly emphatic, but it's far better than any news we've heard on the stadium front in a long time. Further buttressing the case is information that both B.C. Lions owner David Braley and Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini have expressed interest in partnering with the province on the project. The big issue with the B.C. provincial government these days is their unexpectedly large deficit and the drastic measures they've imposed to try and remedy it. Some of the issues I've covered at my day job recently perhaps touch on this, including changes in autism funding and cuts to domestic violence programs (which were later revoked after a public outcry).The larger context is that the government is strapped for cash, which makes finding $360 million for a stadium roof difficult regardless of how important it is to the city and the province. However, they do have significant other assets that could be traded to Braley or Aquilini in return for funding the construction, including a potential ownership or management stake in B.C. Place or the right to develop land around the stadium. The latter might particularly motivate Aquilini, as his Canucks play next door at General Motors Place, giving him plenty of opportunities to take advantage of land development in the area.

This could be quite a benefit for the Lions, even if they have to move to a temporary facility while the roof is under construction. B.C. Place is a decent stadium for their needs at the moment, but it's not a great one. Particularly in mid-summer, it often gets hot and stuffy in there; a retractable roof would be a perfect solution. The other benefit is this would allow for a centrally-hung scoreboard (according to the concept drawings that have been released) similar to the one in Cowboys Stadium (but not as large, and hopefully hung higher up); one of the issues at Lions' games is that there are several sections where it becomes very difficult to see the scoreboard and the video replays, often crucial to the fan experience in a sport like football where it's difficult if not impossible to follow everything at once. The current B.C. Place would probably suit the Lions for a few years, but a renovated stadium along these lines would be a great facility for them for at least a decade.

Getting this project done is even more crucial for the Whitecaps, though, thanks to their MLS hopes. With waterfront soccer-specific stadium talks still stalled, this is really their only option. Fortunately, it could be a pretty good one. Given the ongoing turmoil in USL-1, which seems likely to affect Vancouver, MLS is becoming more attractive and more important to their future. To get there, they need a larger stadium, and the only suitable one at the moment is B.C. Place.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Monday, October 05, 2009

CIS football: Top 10 ballot for Oct. 6

This weekend saw plenty of turmoil in CIS football, with No. 1 Laval, No. 2 Western, No.8 Laurier and co-No.10 Alberta all suffering losses, making the Top 10 perhaps more difficult to analyze than ever. With my natural sense of good timing, I figured it would be the perfect week to start revealing my ballot choices; they'll be easier to mock than ever!

I'm a firm believer that there isn't necessarily a right way to rank the Top 10. It's an opinion poll of people who know a lot about the game, which means that the overall rankings are very valuable in my mind. Each individual voter likely approaches their ballot differently, though, and that's a good thing; it would be an extremely boring universe if we all thought alike. Thus, there are probably plenty of good reasons for anyone to disagree with any individual ballot, but that doesn't diminish the validity of the ballot, the thought and effort that went into it or the importance of the overall rankings. I try to incorporate a best-of-all-worlds approach into my rankings, considering everything from record to previous ranking to strength of schedule to margin of victory to personnel. My Top 10 teams and the rationale for each choice follow below. Also check out Neate's ballot here and Jared's breakdown of the QUFL action here.

1. Queen's (5-0):
Yes, I did go to Queen's, but this isn't a homer pick (although you're welcome to ignore the following rationale and deride it as one if you like); I'm a reporter, not a fan, so I see it as my job to avoid both positive discrimination in favour of the Gaels and negative discrimination against them (being too hard on them in an attempt to prove impartiality). You can make a great argument for any of Laval, Calgary, Montreal or Queen's as the top team overall, but after looking at the Top 10 picture, I concluded that the Gaels fit the bill better than anyone else.

The rationale is simple. For one thing, they're undefeated, while all of those other contenders have at least one loss. A perfect record isn't everything, as St. Francis Xavier is also undefeated (4-0), but the X-Men have only beaten one team with a real case to be included in the Top 10 (No. 9 Saint Mary's, who they knocked off in the first week of the season). Their other wins are a 27-21 victory against Mount Allison (0-4), a narrow 19-17 squeaker over Concordia (1-4) and a 60-7 thumping of Acadia (1-3). By comparison, Queen's has put up a 52-49 win over No. 10 Guelph, a 8-7 victory over McMaster (3-2) where star quarterback Dan Brannagan exited in the second quarter after suffering a concussion and a 20-8 defeat of Ottawa (3-2) without Brannagan playing at all. They also put up blowout wins of 67-0 over York (0-5) and 42-13 over Windsor (2-3), but it's the three impressive victories over teams with legitimate top-10 cases that really convinced me to rank the Gaels here.

By comparison, Laval has two wins over Bishop's (1-4) and a win over Concordia (1-4). Their most impressive win is their 30-8 victory over a banged-up Montreal squad on Sept. 19, and that same team just gave them a 28-7 thumping. Montreal has yesterday's impressive win over Laval and a win over a decent McGill squad (3-2), but their other wins are over Acadia (1-3) and Concordia (1-4), and they have that 30-8 loss to Laval as well. Calgary's most impressive win was their 34-31 victory over Alberta, a team that has cracked the Top 10 but fell to 2-3 this week with a loss to Manitoba. Their other wins are over 2-3 SFU, 2-2 Regina and 1-4 UBC, and they have an overtime loss to Saskatchewan as well.

Out of all the candidates, it seems to me that Queen's has the best resume at the moment, especially considering McMaster's 42-35 win over Western and Ottawa's 27-25 defeat of Laurier. Running back Jimmy Therrien is looking like the second coming of Mike Giffin, and the Gaels also have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Brannagan and quite possibly the best special-teams threat in the CIS in cornerback/kick returner Jimmy Allin. The defence also hasn't declined appreciably from last year's heights despite the losses of Dee Sterling to the CFL and reigning CIS defensive player of the year Thaine Carter to injury (and Carter may even return down the road) [Mike Koreen, The Kingston Whig-Standard]; they've allowed an average of just 15.3 points per game so far this year against solid competition. If you remove that 52-49 shootout in Week One, which came against one of the most explosive offences in the country in Guelph and while the defence was still adjusting to its new faces, they've allowed just 28 points in their last four games (an average of seven points per game). They have a ways to go, still; they have what should be an easy win against Waterloo this coming week and then two difficult tests against Western and Laurier, but it seems that a second consecutive 8-0 season isn't out of the realm of possibility for the Gaels. Given the flaws in the other top teams, they may be in store for a great postseason as well.

2. Calgary

Apart from Queen's, I figure Calgary has the best case for the top spot based on their body of work.They've beaten good teams in Alberta and SFU and have won decisively against not-so-good teams like UBC and Regina. They have a great dual-threat quarterback in Erik Glavic and a superb running back in Matt Walter, and their defence has looked very solid as well, especially against the run [Lauren Balter, The Ubyssey].The main blemish on their resume is that overtime loss to Saskatchewan, a good team in their own right. I expect Calgary to continue their strong season and come out on top of the Canada West heap.

3. Laval

Some may quibble with ranking Laval above the Montreal Carabins, who just beat them, but these are the juggernaut Rouge et Or, after all. They've dominated CIS football for the last several years, and they lost on the road, without reigning Hec Creighton winner Benoit Groulx (although they did beat a banged-up Carabins squad without him at home earlier in the year). They've been tops on my ballot and in the overall rankings every week this season, and for good reason. It's still a bad loss for them, especially considering the margin of victory, but it's not enough for me to drop them any further than third. I think they're still likely to wind up as Quebec champions, so that's the biggest reason I have them ranked above Montreal.

4. Montreal

Sunday's win was a historic one for Montreal, and proved that Laval is no longer the unquestioned top dog in Quebec. However, the Carabins had a lot of breaks go their way in this one, including the absence of Groulx and home-field advantage. They can hang with Laval and even knock them off if things go their way, but I'm not sure they're likely to beat the Rouge et Or again in the playoffs. They do have a shot, though, which is why I have them at fourth.

5. Western

This is a significant drop for the Mustangs, but I still love the team they have. Michael Faulds is one of the top quarterbacks out there, and the two-pronged rushing attack of Da'Shawn Thomas and Nathan Riva is not to be trifled with. On defence, though, there are more questions after they gave up 42 points to McMaster in a Homecoming loss. The Marauders had hardly been dynamic on offence going into Saturday's game; they did have 49-8 and 52-21 victories against bottom-feeders York and Waterloo, but they only managed seven points against Queen's and 14 against Laurier. They had a field day against Western, though, and that raises questions about how good the Mustang defence is. Western did hold a good Laurier team to seven points earlier this year, but the Golden Hawks are stronger defensively than offensively. The Mustangs also conceded 39 points against Guelph and 17 against Ottawa before Saturday's loss. Don't write off Western yet, though. They face York next week, but the big game for them will be the Oct. 17 showdown with Queen's. At the start of the year, I predicted on Norman James' London radio show that the OUA final would be Queen's - Western, and I haven't seen anything yet to convince me otherwise. That clash could go either way, and the winner stands an excellent chance of making it to the Vanier Cup, so Western is still very much a national title contender in my mind.

6. St. Francis Xavier

Yes, the X-Men are 4-0, and they do have the one impressive win over St. Mary's. It is difficult to rank them in the bottom half of the top 10 when other teams above them have significant blemishes. However, as I mentioned earlier, their schedule hasn't been the most challenging to date. That's not their fault, but it does mean that I have questions about how well they'll do against the top teams, especially considering that they weren't even ranked in the first three Top 10 polls this year. They've been a good surprise so far, but it's a question of if they can keep it up into the AUS playoffs, and if they can match up with other conference champions.

7. Saskatchewan:

The Huskies also have an impressive record, particularly with their overtime win over Calgary. Their loss to a 2-3 Alberta team (but one better than that record might suggest) significantly hurts their standings here, though. They're still very much in the hunt for a Canada West title, but they'll have to take down Calgary to get there. Even if they do pull that off, I'm not sure they'll do as well as the Dinos might against other conference champions.

8. Saint Mary's:

Everyone was expecting the Huskies to come out of the AUS, and they made it as high as No.4 in the poll before their loss to the X-Men. That loss and the weakness of their schedule so far means I can't put them higher than this at the moment, but they're still contenders for the AUS title and they could make some noise in the playoffs.

9. Guelph:

I've been high on Guelph since the start of the season, and so far, they've justified my faith. They have one of the top offences in the CIS, led by quarterback Justin Dunk and running back Nick Fitzgibbon, and they're averaging an incredible 48.2 points per week. Those numbers haven't all been against creampuffs, either; they hung 49 points on Queen's in Week One and put up another 39 against Western on Sept. 26. They also pulled off a nice win over Waterloo this week despite the absence of Dunk for swearing into a TV camera (which my former Queen's Journal colleagues Amrit Ahluwalia and Jake Edmiston debated here) Their defence is cause for more concern, and so is a potential injury to Fitzgibbon [Mark Bryson, Kitchener-Waterloo Record, but Josh McCreight filled in nicely against Waterloo. They also have">a tough next few weeks against Ottawa, Laurier and McMaster, but they look like the best of that close pack at the moment.

10. McMaster:

The Marauders surprised pretty much everyone this week with their win over Western, but their resume actually isn't bad. Yes, their other wins came over York and Waterloo, but they only lost to Queen's by one and they were in the game against Laurier. Moreover, the biggest question mark around them was their offence, and they proved that there's plenty of talent there by hanging 42 points on the Mustangs. They have two relatively easy games against Toronto and Windsor coming up, which should leave them in good shape for the season finale against Guelph.

Also considered: Ottawa, Manitoba, Laurier, McGill

Questions? Comments? Just want to yell at me? Leave your thoughts below, or send them to me by Twitter, Facebook or e-mail.

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Whitecaps - Timbers live blog!

Join me below for the Vancouver - Portland USL semifinal live blog! Preview is here.

Setting up the Whitecaps - Timbers clash

[Second leg live blog is above]

The first leg of the USL-1 semifinal was a bit of a tricky win for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Yes, they won 2-1, but they conceded a penalty along the way after a ball bounced off Lyle Martin's hand. That tied the score after an early goal from Charles Gbeke, and Vancouver only won thanks to a late goal from Marcus Haber off a Gbeke cross.

Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson said he was impressed with the team's resilence.

"I think they responded very well to the goal," he said.

Thordarson wasn't happy with the penalty call, though.

"From my perspective, it's very harsh to give that penalty there," he said. "He just covered his face and the ball hit him. I've never seen that before."

Gbeke said he was confident the team would come back despite a 1-1 tie at halftime, and he figured Haber would notch one of his opportunities.

"In the locker room, I told Marcus he was going to score today," he said.

Gbeke, who led USL-1 with 12 goals this season, played one of his best games of the year. He was dominant all night, scoring the first goal and setting up the second. He's played in a variety of roles this year thanks to the Caps' depth up front, but he said he isn't concerned if he starts or not.

"It doesn't matter if Coach wants me to start or wants me to come in off the bench," he said.

Haber said the team didn't get frustrated when they fell behind.

"We knew we had to keep pressuring them," he said. "We knew we'd get our chances."

They did indeed get them, and Haber notched home the winner off a lovely cross from Gbeke. Still, Vancouver only has a one-goal lead going into this second leg at Portland, a place where they've struggled recently. The temptation might be to play defensively, but Thordarson said that won't be the case.

"We will try to go down there and play our game," he said. "I feel the team is very confident. It will be a totally different game down there; whether that will suit us beter than them is yet to be seen."

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps - Timbers live blog coming up

Just a quick note that I'll be live-blogging today's second leg of the Vancouver Whitecaps - Portland Timbers USL-1 semifinal here and at The 24th Minute and Epic Footy. Vancouver enters with a 2-1 lead on aggregate after their win at home Thursday, but they have struggled in Portland recently. Come by at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific today to see if they can change that! I'll have a full preview up before then as well. Hope to see you then!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday Night Football: Lions - Riders live blog!

It's a great CFL Friday night showdown. In one corner, we have the 7-5 Saskatchewan Roughriders, tied for first place in the West Division; in the other one, the 5-7 B.C. Lions, in the division cellar. The playoff race is so close at the moment that this could be a huge game. I'll be live-blogging it here and at Out of Left Field starting at 10:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Pacific. Come join me then!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Vancouver Whitecaps - Portland Timbers live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Vancouver Whitecaps - Portland Timbers match (preview here) here and at The 24th Minute and Epic Footy starting at 10:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Pacific. Come join me here then!

Setting up the USL-1 semifinals

The USL-1 semifinals kick off today, and both matchups are intriguing. Here's a brief breakdown of what we're likely to see. Both series involve home-and-home, total-goals clashes with no away-goals rule. If still tied after both legs, the teams will go to extra time and then a shootout. The winner of each series will advance to the USL-1 final.

(1) Portland versus (7) Vancouver:

On paper, the seeding system makes this one (which I'll be live-blogging) look like a bit of a mismatch. However, as I wrote before the Whitecaps' first-round matchup against the second-seeded Carolina RailHawks, their low ranking is a bit deceiving. The team has plenty of talent and a surprising amount of depth. They've struggled with consistency this year, partly due to personnel issues (especially in central defence), partly thanks to their emphasis on giving young players plenty of experience and perhaps even partly as a championship hangover, but they've been in fine form lately, putting up a 5-1-6 record in their last 12 USL-1 games. The defence in particular looked strong over two legs against the RailHawks; they allowed a few chances and even conceded a penalty (which was brilliantly parried by keeper Jay Nolly), but kept Carolina off the scoreboard and dealt with their dangerous scoring threats. As Nolly mentioned on Full Time Sunday, the team sees themselves as more of a fourth or a fifth seed than a true seventh seed. Shaun Pejic has also been a nice fit in central defence since joining the team partway through the year.

The Whitecaps' depth is especially evident up front where USL-1 goal-scoring leader and All-League First Team member Charles Gbeke started on the bench in Sunday's second leg against Carolina. Gbeke, Marcus Haber, Marlon James and Randy Edwini-Bonsu can all fill the net, and they'll all likely see playing time against Portland. Picking who to start will be a difficult decision for head coach Teitur Thordarson, but that's a nice problem to have.

Portland comes into this as a significant favourite, and for several months earlier this year, they were the most dominant team in the USL. They struggled a bit down the stretch, though, and their first-round bye means they haven't seen playoff action yet. Their key players are keeper Steve Cronin (19 goals against in 28 games, 10 shutouts), midfielder Ryan Pore (10 goals and two assists in just 21 starts) and forward Mandjou Keita, the team's top scorer with 11 goals and seven assists in 29 games.

There's a long history between these sides dating back to the NASL days. Portland beat Vancouver in a home-and-home series in 1978, but Vancouver got revenge in their next playoff clash, in USL-1 in 2002. Portland has the most recent victory, though, defeating the Whitecaps 3-1 on aggregate in the 2007 playoffs.

As Marc Weber of The Province wrote this week, the key to this one may be who does more with home-field advantage. Vancouver is 15-1-2 against Portland at home all-time and 31-21-7 overall, but just 16-20-5 on the road. That includes just one win in their last nine games at Portland's PGE Park. As this series is total-goals, it may come down to who can win by more goals at home. My prediction's for a Vancouver upset win, as they're really clicking into nice form at the moment.

I'll be live-blogging both legs of this one. The first leg is tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern/ 7:30 p.m. Pacific at Swangard Stadium. The second leg follows Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific.

(3) Puerto Rico vs. (5) Montreal:

This one should be quite interesting as well. The Impact are coming off an impressive 4-1 aggregate victory over the Charleston Battery, while the Islanders thumped the Rochester Rhinos 5-2. Both teams can fill the net, so the question here is whose defence will be better.

On paper, I'd give the defensive edge to the Islanders. They have a solid defensive line and one of the best keepers in the league in Bill Gaudette, while Montreal has the less impressive tandem of Matt Jordan and Srdjan Djekanovic. Puerto Rico's also received strong performances from defensively-minded players like Christian Arrieta and Noah Delgado

I like Puerto Rico's offence, too. Former Vancouver striker Nick Addlery has done quite well with the Islanders, and Fabrice Noel forms an excellent strike pairing with him. Montreal looked to upgrade their offence this past season by acquiring former Vancouver striker Eddy Sebrango, but he's had a disappointing season with only four USL-1 goals. Roberto Brown led the Impact with seven goals and three assists, but it took him 1568 minutes to do that.

The one mark against the Islanders is that they had to play a CONCACAF Champions League match Tuesday, so they'll be less rested than the Impact. They've had to travel a lot in the last week, too, which also doesn't help. However, head coach Colin Clarke elected to rest several of his key players in Tuesday's game (a 2-0 loss to Cruz Azul), sending them straight to Montreal. It's a bold gambit, and we'll see if it pays off. In the end, I'm picking Puerto Rico in this one; I like their depth and their defence. It could be a close one, though.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]