Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Whole 110 Yards: Saskatchewan ridden down

July 24, 2010 - Calgary, Alberta, Canada - 24 July 2010: Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Leron Mitchell (25) attempts to block Calgary Stampeders receiver Deon Murphy.

Photo: Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Leron Mitchell (Western) tries unsuccessfully to block Calgary Stampeders receiver Deon Murphy (Kansas State) last Saturday. Calgary won 40-20. [Zuma Press]

Welcome to another edition of The Whole 110 Yards! Here's the breakdown on all of Week 4's CFL action. Sorry this is later than usual; it's been a hectic week around here. I'll try to get the Week 5 edition up early this coming week.

Game of the week: Calgary 40, Saskatchewan 20

This was a pretty remarkable result, if not a remarkable game. Calgary had looked very vulnerable the week before, falling 27-24 to Toronto in last week's Game Of The Week, while the defending West Division champion Roughriders rolled into Calgary's McMahon Stadium with a 3-0 record.

Stampeders' quarterback Henry Burris (Temple) finally displayed some of his usual form, though, completing 21 of 31 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns. He was picked off twice, but he also got some much-needed help on the ground from running back Joffrey Reynolds (Houston), who recovered from a subpar outing the previous week to rush 15 times for 93 yards and a touchdown, and Reynolds' backfield mate Jon Cornish (Kansas), who picked up 77 yards on five carries. Receivers Romby Bryant (Tulsa), Nik Lewis (Southern Arkansas) and P.K. Sam (Florida State) all had a touchdown catch, and Bryant picked up 117 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. Weston Dressler (North Dakota) had a good game for Saskatchewan (9 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown), but Darian Durant (North Carolina) was mediocre; despite throwing for an impressive 354 yards and one touchdown, he only completed 22 of 37 passes and was picked off three times.

In the long run, I'm not sure this result will mean all that much. Saskatchewan still seems like the class of the West to me, despite a very rough outing here. This was a great performance from Calgary, but they haven't been the most consistent team yet, and they'll have to find that consistency if they want to challenge the Riders' dominance in the long term. This might be the first step down that road, though.

Other games:

Toronto 24, B.C. 20:

Last week's Friday Night Football offering was quite the contest. B.C. came out of the gate strong with a solid performance from quarterback Travis Lulay (Montana State), who was making his first CFL start in relief of Casey Printers (TCU). Jamal Robertson (Ohio Northern) saw a few more carries than he had the previous week and rushed for two touchdowns, although he only picked up 54 yards on 12 carries on the day. By contrast, Argos' quarterback Cleo Lemon (Arkansas State) started very slowly and they only remained in the game through the superlative performance of running back Cory Boyd (South Carolina), who showed off his ESS EEE CEE speed against the Lions, rushing 19 times for 148 yards. Towards the end, though, Lulay and the Lions faltered and Lemon and the Argos improved. Both quarterbacks finished with not-overly-impressive stat lines (Lulay was 26 for 40 for 330 yards with two picks, while Lemon was 19 for 28 for 222 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions), but Lulay doomed his team with a pick-six to Byron Parker (Tulane) in the final moments, while Lemon recovered from his early struggles to lead a Toronto comeback. Really, though, the Argos were 3-1 after this and the Lions were 1-3, but there's been very little separating the two teams' play so far. The Argos have found a way to win and the Lions haven't, and that tells you a lot about the roles of luck and late-game mistakes in this league.

Montreal 37, Hamilton 14: This could have been a battle of the two teams expected to contend for the East Division crown this year, but it was really more of the traditional massacre. Anthony Calvillo (Utah State) was his usual self, completing 28 of 38 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns. AC didn't get a lot of help in the run game, as Avon Cobourne (West Virginia) only carried eight times for 55 yards, but Calvillo remained cool under pressure regardless and spread the ball around, rewarding four different receivers with at least five catches. Kevin Glenn (Illinois State) struggled under centre for Hamilton, completing only 16 of 32 passes before giving way to Quinton Porter (Boston College), and the Ticats couldn't run the ball either; former Michigan State Spartan DeAndra Cobb only picked up 25 yards on eight carries while fumbling once. Hamilton's got a ways to go before they catch up to Montreal.

Winnipeg 47, Edmonton 21: Not much to say about this one. Edmonton continued their winless season with a horrid performance, while Winnipeg's offence looked pretty potent under backup QB Steven Jyles (UL Monroe), who completed 14 of 22 for 267 yards and a touchdown. He was picked off twice, but Edmonton couldn't do anything offensively and the outcome was never really in question.

Former College Star Of The Week: Jon Cornish, Kansas

Cornish had a tremendous performance this week for Calgary. He only saw limited backfield duty, spelling Joffrey Reynolds, but he made the most of his opportunities, rushing five times for 77 yards. He's an interesting story, as he's a Canadian who grew up in New Westminster, B.C. and played basketball, track and football at Burnaby's famed St. Thomas More Collegiate high school. He opted for the NCAA route and didn't see too much time in his first couple of seasons at Kansas, but ran for 780 yards as a junior, was selected in the second round of the CFL draft by Calgary and then set the Jayhawks' all-time single-season rushing record as a senior, running for 1,457 yards and leading the Big 12 in rushing yards. He put up 201 yards and two touchdowns against Kansas State in 2006. He's part of an ever-emerging corps of Canadian running backs in the CFL, and if he keeps this up, he looks likely to be a CFL star in the coming years.

Off-field Story Of The Week: The Braley Bowl! [Mark Masters, National Post]. Last week's Lions-Argos game saw the first clash in CFL history where both teams were owned by the same man, Senator David Braley. I don't think that's ever happened in the NFL, but it did in the XFL (thanks to Vince McMahon owning everything), it still does in MLS and it used to in hockey. Frankly, as I wrote back in 2009 when it came out that Braley had loaned money to the Argos (before he bought them outright), there are far more troubling ownership situations in other sports. This could cause problems if it was someone else, but Braley tends to be a relatively hands-off guy on the football side, so the biggest problem it might create is his decision on who to cheer for. Last Friday, he took the diplomatic route, wearing a Hamilton Tiger-Cats shirt (the team he used to own) instead of either Lions or Argos apparel.

Matchup of the week: Hamilton at Saskatchewan (6:30 p.m. Eastern/3:30 p.m. Pacific Saturday, on TSN in Canada and NFL Network in the States).

This could be an interesting one. Both teams are coming off humiliating losses, and they'll be eager to avenge them. I think the Riders will take it, though; they have home-field advantage, so they'll be backed by hordes of green-clad, watermelon-headed fans, and they're just a stronger team.

Pick: Saskatchewan

Other games:

Winnipeg at Calgary (9:30 p.m. Eastern/6:30 p.m. Pacific tonight, TSN)

Pick: Calgary

Montreal 41, Toronto 10 (Thursday)

Pick: Montreal (on Twitter)

Edmonton 28, B.C. 25 (Friday)

Pick: B.C. (on Twitter)

Last week: 1-3

Season: 6-7

Monday, July 26, 2010

Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport: The World Is A Ball by John Doyle

The Scribblings of the Scribes of Sport book review series is back! Leave your own thoughts on the book in the comments below, or get in touch with me at andrew_bucholtz@hotmail.com if you have suggestions for other books for me to review!




The World Cup is over, but soccer rolls on. North American soccer is in full swing, and things are looking good for Canadian teams at the moment, with Toronto FC finding success in MLS and Vancouver and Montreal both having solid USSF Division II campaigns. There have been plenty of interesting international friendlies, including the Kansas City Wizards' surprising win over Manchester United [The Telegraph] yesterday, and the English Premier League's set to kick off in just a few short weeks.

With soccer, and particularly with major international competitions, it's important to remember that it's about much more than just the results. Sure, we'll remember Spain's victory down the road, but we'll also remember individual moments such as Bastian Schweinsteiger's run through the Argentina team, Luis Suarez's memorable handball against Ghana, Robert Green's "Hand Of Clod" moment in England's opener against the U.S., the French team's mutiny falling out with Raymond Domenech. and Maicon's incredible goal from an impossible angle against North Korea:



Soccer's story goes beyond the field of play as well, though, and that's much of the focus of John Doyle's superlative book, The World Is A Ball. Doyle is an arts columnist for The Globe and Mail, focusing on television, but he's also written about soccer for them for much of the last decade. The book is primarily a chronicle of Doyle's adventures covering the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the 2004 and 2008 European Championships, but it's a particularly good read because Doyle doesn't limit himself to the on-pitch action. He discusses the atmosphere in each host country, the various fans he encountered and the struggles he ran into with hotels and transportation. The differences between countries and how they embrace the tournament are particularly notable, especially in Doyle's account of the jointly-hosted 2002
World Cup, where the South Koreans got wrapped up in the tournament's excitement while the Japanese quietly waited for it to go away. Dutch, English, Italian and Brazilian fans all are featured prominently, and Doyle's writing gives us a great sense of how the beautiful game is seen so differently by each culture.

Doyle's tales of the various games also remain highly interesting even years after the fact, and I'd imagine part of that is because of scarcity. The scarcity of goals in soccer as compared to other sports tends to make many of the goals memorable, even those that lack aesthetic quality on their own. For me at least, it's far easier
to remember the notable moment of a 1-0 soccer game years after the fact than the crucial goal in a 5-4 hockey game, the most important play in a 28-21 football game or the key shot in a 102-100 basketball game. Those sports have their transcendent and memorable moments too, but not as many.

Scarcity also comes into play on the tournament level. Doyle's book covers almost a decade of soccer, but only four major tournaments (and the leadup to a fifth, this year's World Cup). With big tournaments only rolling around every two years, and the largest in the World Cup only coming every four years, each tournament becomes a massive experience in and of itself. Reading Doyle's book, I vividly remembered where I was for each tournament and for most of the individual games and goals as well. That's not the case for the NHL, MLB, NBA or NFL playoffs; each interest me while they're on, but only a few specific plays, games and even championships really stand out looking back. I think FIFA's been wise to keep their big tournaments so staggered; the qualification process is always intense and thorough, and there's always club soccer, so it's not like the sport stagnates in between big events, but around major tournaments, the interest rises to a fever pitch no other sport can match. That's a large part of what makes this book so compelling; it's not just a bland retelling of what happened, but rather a grand narrative looking at momentous events through prisms of culture, fandom and nationality.

Two sections of the book really stood out for me. The first is right near the beginning, where Doyle gets into the Mick McCarthy - Roy Keane feud that was such a big story at the 2002 World Cup. Doyle's Irish heritage and his journalistic background gives him a unique perspective on the issue, as he approaches it both from the standpoint of an Irish fan and from the position of a journalist who can see both sides. The second comes close to the end, where Doyle goes to Argentina to watch the team attempt to qualify under Diego Maradona. The stories he tells there are fascinating, and provide a lot of insight into Maradona's actions at this year's World Cup.

One minor quibble I have with Doyle's book is his tendency to complain about England. He's quite right that they're often overrated by many fans, commentators and pundits, but I think he goes too far the other way and passes them off as just another run-of-the-mill side. England had some tremendous players this decade, and they made the quarterfinals in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and Euro 2004.That's not great considering their talent, but it's certainly not bad either.

Apart from that, though, The World Is A Ball is a fascinating read. Reliving the tournaments and games is a lot of fun, but what really makes the book stand out is its accounts of visiting fans and the differing local cultures in each country. Doyle goes beyond the typical stereotypes to present detailed pictures such as the non-hooligan English supporters, the distinctions between former West German and East German cities, and how Switzerland and Austria handled Euro 2008 very differently. It's these vignettes that give the book its power and help it truly describe how a round world revolves around a simple game.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Whitecaps earn draw with Minnesota

In a twist from three days earlier, the Vancouver Whitecaps came hard out of the gate against the NSC Minnesota Stars—and initially, they wound up worse off for their troubles. In the end, their efforts were rewarded, but not to the degree they would have hoped for as they finished with a 1-1 draw.

"It was two points lost," head coach Teitur Thordarson said. "I think we played well, especially in the first half. ... I think we still played well in the second half, but there wasn't the energy and there wasn't the intensity."

Unlike Thursday’s game against Portland where they started slow but came on late in the half and collected the match’s first goal, Vancouver controlled the play early on and created plenty of great chances. Marc Weber of The Province tweeted that it looked like a 3-0 Vancouver victory, and I concurred.

The game changed dramatically in the 28th minute on a counterattack when Johnny Meyongar sent Simone Bracalello through with a perfect long ball and Bracalello beat Jay Nolly with a tremendous strike from about 25 yards out. Energized by the goal, Minnesota began playing better defence and taking away some of Vancouver’s possession. The Whitecaps seemed somewhat stunned by the change in their fortunes and limped into the half.

The first half didn't produce the results for the Whitecaps it did against Portland, but it was a much better effort from Vancouver. Thordarson said he didn't change the pre-game approach, but his team came out a lot stronger.

"We were still focusing on having a go at them," Thordarson said. "We managed better today to keep posesssion in the open field. ... I thought we played extremely well in the first half."

The second half featured less stellar play, but it produced better results for Vancouver. Chances went back and forth, with Martin Nash narrowly missing in the 49th minute and Nolly diving to get one hand on a Bracalello long-range blast. The Whitecaps finally got on the scoreboard in the 67th minute when Marlon James, making his first appearance since May thanks to injury, set up Cornelius Stewart. Stewart fed Nash near the top of the six yard box, and Nash deked a defender, pulled it onto his left foot and beat keeper Matthew VanOekel.

Vancouver poured on the pressure after that, but the Minnesota defence held. Residency products Alex Elliott and Alex Semenets, the latter of whom was making his first-team competitive debut, gave good accounts of themselves as substitutes, but they couldn’t find the net. James narrowly missed in the 80th minute and Takashi Hirano sent a 25-yard free kick just high in the 86th minute. In addition to dominating the possession, the Whitecaps outshot Minnesota 16-7 and had nine corners to the Stars' two, but all the offence came to naught and they finished with only a single point.

Thordarson said he was impressed with his young players' performances.

"These are guys with great talents," he said.

According to Thordarson, the recent moves to trade Ricardo Sanchez and Jonny Steele and release Justin Moose were partly due to a desire to see what he had in his young players.

"Quite a bit, but it's more about trying to get together a roster we think is right to move forward with," he said.

Nash said the roster turnover has been a bit difficult to adjust to personally.

"It's tough," he said. "I've made friends with these guys over the past years."

Nash said he thinks the team has made the adjustment well on the pitch, though, despite the recent lack of results. He chalked part of that up to familiarity with many of the young players through their time in the Residency system and their occasional first-team appearances.

"They're all players who have been around us," he said.

Nash said he was comfortable working with Ethan Gage in central midfield thanks to the youngster's presence with the first team on and off over the past few years.

"Ethan's been kind of in and out for a while, but we know he can do it," Nash said.

The team may have adjusted to their new lineup, but they haven't produced the desired results yet. After a 1-1-2 record on this homestand, they head out on a five-game road trip and won't be back home until August 29. Nash said the recent results may be concerning, but the team's play isn't.

"I thought we had a great start to the game and we had a great first half," he said. "Tonight, we deserved more than a draw. We're playing well, we just have to find a way to win."

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps - Minnesota live blog

The weekend of Whitecaps coverage continues here and at The 24th Minute. I'll be live-blogging tonight's clash against the NSC Minnesota Stars. Kickoff is at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific. Here are match previews from Simon Fudge of WhitecapsFC.com and Marc Weber of The Province. Check them out, then join me at 7 for the live blog!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Whitecaps women off to Final Four

The Vancouver Whitecaps will be heading to the W-League Final Four for the first time since they hosted the tournament and claimed the championship in 2006. They sealed a berth today with a 2-1 victory in the Western Conference final against the rival Pali Blues in front of 1,712 fans at Swangard Stadium, but it wasn’t an easy one.

Keeper Siobhan Chamberlain turned in a tremendous performance for Vancouver, turning away four shots, including one that went off her and then off the post. She said it was a thrilling experience despite the pressure.

"I enjoyed this one, although it was hard work," she said. "You need a bit of luck sometimes and we got it today."

Pali began with a lot of pressure, but the scoring chances they generated were repelled by the Vancouver defence. Emily Zurrer and Martina Franko stood strong in the middle, while Robyn Gayle and Chelsea Stewart were solid on the wing and Chamberlain made some key stops. Still, Pali easily could have pocketed a couple of goals in the early going if luck had been on their side.

Vancouver broke the game open in the 35th minute when Desiree Scott crossed it across the field to Gayle, who delivered a lovely ball in to Melissa Tancredi. Tancredi made no mistake, heading it home past Pali keeper Chante Sandiford from short range to give Vancouver a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Gayle sent in a great free kick for Tancredi, who crossed it to the wide-open Amy Vermeulen. Vermeulen made no mistake, burying the shot from six yards out to put the Whitecaps up 2-0. It looked like they were well on their way to victory.

The momentum shifted after halftime, though. The Blues put on pressure and created several good chances, but they still couldn’t beat Chamberlain. That changed in the 61st minute when Julie Bukh delivered a perfect free kick from 30 yards out to defender Sara Gama, who finished off a superb run with a terrific header that beat Chamberlain and pulled Pali within one.

Both sides continued to go for goal, and they each had their chances. Tancredi delivered a tremendous strike from 25 yards out that Sandiford punched off the bar. The rebound fell for Melanie Booth, who volleyed it wide. Christen Press and Janice Cayman each had chances for Pali, but they couldn’t convert and the match finished 2-1.

Head coach Hubert Busby Jr. said the close game followed a pattern the team's seen all season.

"We always try to make it interesting for the fans," he said with a laugh.

Busby said Pali's three-defender formation caught the Whitecaps by surprise at first, and they weren't prepared for the waves of attackers heading at their goal.

"We tried to make adjustments during the game," he said.

He was particularly impressed with Chamberlain's performance in goal.

"She made some key saves at key moments."

Defender Martina Franko concurred with that assessment.

"She had the game of her season," Franko said. "She just showed leadership and made saves when needed."

It was Tancredi who won the game for Vancouver, though, scoring one goal and setting up the other. Busby said her performance didn't surprise him.

"She's been our MVP," he said. "She's a very experienced player, she knows how to get the goals."

Tancredi said it was a terrific feeling to see off a long-time rival.

"I feel great," she said. "This is a great win against Pali, again. I'm kind of sick of playing them, but it was great."

She said she was worried when they conceded a goal in the second half, though.

"I was kind of afraid because we have kind of a tendency to let teams back in games," she said.

Tancredi attributed Vancouver's eventual success to the decision to keep attacking rather than sitting back and defending.

"We kept pressure, kept going, and it worked for us."

The Final Four starts next week in California. The semifinals will take place Thursday, with the final set for Saturday. The Whitecaps men are back in action tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Pacific against Minnesota; I'll be live-blogging that one so come back then!

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps women - Pali Blues live blog

It's time for a bit of different blogging coverage today, as I'll be heading to Swangard Stadium to live blog the Whitecaps' women's team in their W-League Western Conference playoff clash against the Pali Blues. Alan Douglas has a preview of the game and who to watch over at whitecapsfc.com. The game's at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific, so come swing by then for the live blog!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Whitecaps fall to Timbers, lose Cascadia Cup

Last night's 2-1 Portland Timbers victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps was an odd game for a variety of reasons. For one thing, Portland had won only one of their last 17 matches at Swangard Stadium and hadn't won there in six years [Prost Amerika]. The victory also allowed Portland to retain the Cascadia Cup [Simon Fudge, WhitecapsFC.com]. Furthermore, the result was probably pretty fair given the overall flow of the game, but it came in a highly unexpected way.

The Timbers dominated the first half of play, but didn't come away with much to show for it. Vancouver had a few early chances as well, but they looked disorganized at the back at times and not terribly dangerous in attack. George Josten really should have opened the scoring for Portland; he had a tremendous chance in the 26th minute that was nullified by an offensive foul, and had another chance in the 29th minute, but drilled a rebound wide from five yards out.

The second half was a different story. The Whitecaps were fired up coming out of the break, and they took the lead six minutes in when Phillipe Davies ran down the right flank and picked out Nizar Khalfan in front, who blasted a tight-angle shot home from close range. It was Davies' first-ever point for the Whitecaps [Marc Weber, The Province] and Khalfan's second goal of the year.

The weirdness continued from there, though. For a while, it looked like Vancouver would take over the game, but momentum abruptly shifted when the ever-dangerous Ryan Pore broke away from the pack. Greg Janicki went after him and brought him down from behind, receiving a red card for his efforts and conceding a penalty. Pore stepped up and clinically drilled it into the bottom-left corner to tie the match; Vancouver keeper Jay Nolly guessed right, but couldn't quite get a hand on it. The call changed the landscape of the game, and it stirred up some controversy.

Whitecaps' captain Martin Nash said after the game he understands the foul being called, but he didn't think it should have been a penalty or an ejection.

"You're going to get that call pretty much all the time, but, for me, I think he was outside the box when it happened," Nash said.

Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson said he also didn't agree with the decision to award a penalty.

"I don't think so," he said. "It happened outside the box from where I was standing."

Thordarson said the call knocked the Whitecaps off balance.

"After the penalty, we were a little irritated and lost focus a little bit," he said.

That lost focus proved critical. Only six minutes later, Portland sent a free kick in towards the top of the box. There appeared to be a communication mixup on the defence, causing Nolly to come a long way out for it. He couldn't collect, and the loose ball eventually fell to Timbers' defender Mamadou Danso, who put the winner home.

Nolly took the blame afterwards, saying a goal like that was a tough way to lose.

"I took a bad run at it, I think two or three of us missed it and it was just a scrum ball," he said. "It's just tough to lose like that."

Nolly was particularly disappointed to lose the last second-division Cascadia Cup competition. Vancouver, Portland and Seattle will all compete for the trophy again in MLS next season, but that didn't take the sting out of this one for him.

"We lost the Cascadia Cup at home and it's frustrating," he said. "As a player, you want to win every cup that's out there."

What frustrated Thordarson more than the loss of the cup was a late Bright Dike tackle on Takashi Hirano that only earned a yellow card, although it capped off an evening of tough tackles and rough play.

"I usually do not criticize referees, but there were a lot of things that weren't called," Thordarson said. "That last challenge on Taka was a straight red."

There were positive signs for the Whitecaps, though. Only a few days after shipping out a pair of highly-regarded veteran midfielders in Jonny Steele and Ricardo Sanchez, they didn't appear too much worse for the trade. Nash and Luca Bellisomo continued their strong play in central midfield, with Blake Wagner and Phillipe Davies threatening on the wings. Alex Elliott, Ethan Gage and Justin Moose also appeared impressive in relief. The trade means the Whitecaps' reliance on young players has gone even further, but Thordarson said he isn't too worried about a lack of experience on the bench.

"Those guys who were on the 18-man roster today, we feel that they are good enough," he said. "We could have had a bit more experience out there, but young and fresh is always good."

A pair of young players who have been particularly impressive lately are striker Cornelius Stewart (who left thanks to injury in the 79th minute) and midfielder-turned-striker Nizar Khalfan. Thordarson said he likes the strike-force pairing the two have formed.

"They have been very good together, and very important to our team," Thordarson said. "They help each other out all the time, and hopefully they'll just keep getting better."

The Whitecaps will need them and their other young players to keep getting better quickly, though. Vancouver is still in first place in the NASL Conference, but losses like Thursday night's will be significant setbacks. They don't have a lot of turnaround time, either, as they host Minnesota Sunday night at 7 p.m. Pacific (10 p.m. Eastern). I'll be live-blogging that one here and at The 24th Minute; come join me then!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Whole 110 Yards: Stampeding over Calgary

Toronto Argonauts cornerback Evan McCollough intercepts a pass intended for Calgary Stampeders slotback P.K. Sam (front) during the first half of their CFL football game in Toronto July 14, 2010.  REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Photo: Toronto Argonauts cornerback Evan McCollough intercepts a pass intended for Calgary Stampeders slotback P.K. Sam in their clash Wednesday, July 14. Toronto won 27-24 to improve to 2-1 on the year. [Mark Blinch, Reuters]

Welcome to another issue of The Whole 110 Yards, your weekly update on the CFL complete with game recaps, off-field stories, former college football stars and predictions for this weekend's games! Also, I'll again be running the CFL.ca Friday Night Football Live Chat tomorrow with Brian Wawryshyn of BC Lions Den and Tyler Bieber of CFL Daily. This week's featured matchup is the B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts, and we'll kick off the chat at 4:15 p.m. Pacific (7:15 p.m. Eastern) tomorrow evening; make sure to come join us then!

Game of the Week: Toronto 27, Calgary 24

In recent years, the Toronto Argonauts have tended to receive more national coverage than any other CFL team. That's understandable, considering that they're based in the largest city in Canada and one that's also the home to most national media outlets. However, their last few seasons have been horrible, which has made the abundance of coverage of the team tough to deal with at times. That's far from the case this year, though; the franchise is playing very well under new head coach Jim Barker, and they're a lot of fun to watch in most games at the moment.

Last Wednesday's game was such an example, with action starting slowly but building to an exciting climax after a series of lead changes. The Argos trailed 24-13 after the third quarter, which would have enabled you to write them off in most years. They made plenty of mistakes early on and looked rather like the Argonauts of old, whose leaky boat would have sunk long before they got near the golden fleece. However, the defence stepped up, picking off Calgary quarterback Henry Burris (Temple) four times and holding star running back Joffrey Reynolds (Houston) to 44 yards on nine carries. Linebacker Kevin Eiben (Bucknell) was particularly impressive, recording two interceptions and two tackles.

For Toronto, it wasn't quarterback Cleo Lemon (Arkansas State) who really got it done on offence. Lemon only completed 18 of 36 passes on the day for 187 yards, and he fumbled once and was picked off once. Running back Cory Boyd (South Carolina) carried the day, though, rushing 20 times for 142 yards, and rookie kicker Grant Shaw (Saskatchewan) converted four of six field goal attempts and added a single for 13 points on the day. It wasn't a dominant performance from Toronto, but they beat a talented Calgary team and persevered despite adversity. If they can keep this up, it could be a very good season for the Double Blue.

Other games:

Saskatchewan 24, Edmonton 20:

The Roughriders improved to 3-0 on the season despite trailing 14-10 at halftime and 20-13 after the third quarter. Saskatchewan lost the passing battle, allowing Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray (Sacramento State) to complete 22 of 31 passes for 319 yards while their quarterback Darian Durant (North Carolina) only completed 15 of 28 attempts for 238 yards. Durant did throw a touchdown pass, but he was also picked off once. However, the Roughriders got it done on the ground, bringing back the Wes Cates Offence (California University of Pennsylvania, credit to Perry Lefko for the term) like it was 2007. Cates only received 12 carries, but he ran for 112 yards for an outstanding 9.3 yards per carry average. Saskatchewan also forced and recovered fumbles from Eskimo receiver Fred Stamps (Louisiana - Lafayette) and running back Calvin McCarty (Western Washington), which proved crucial to their success.

Montreal 16, B.C. 12

The reigning Grey Cup champions got their first win in British Columbia in a decade, but they didn't do so in overwhelmingly impressive fashion. B.C. quarterback Casey Printers (TCU, Florida A&M) looked quite average, completing 20 of 40 passes for 253 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Much of that was probably due to the knee injury that will keep him out this week against Toronto [Lowell Ullrich, The Province], but Montreal let B.C. hang around despite the Lions' poor play. The passing game clearly wasn't working, so if the Lions had given the ball to running back Jamal Robertson
(Ohio Northern) a bit more (six carries for four yards) or his backfield mate Jamal Lee (Bishop's), who didn't receive a single carry, it could perhaps have been a different story. Still, Montreal got it done with solid-if-unspectacular performances from quarterback Anthony Calvillo (Utah State), who completed 30 of 47 passes for 297 yards, and running back Avon Cobourne (West Virginia), who ran 13 times for 79 yards. The Alouettes haven't hit their stride yet, but they're getting results and they still have a tremendously skilled team. They should be a force to reckon with this year.

Hamilton 28, Winnipeg 7:

There isn't much to say about a blowout like this one, although Jann Shreve and I tried for three hours. Tiger-Cats quarterback Kevin Glenn (Illinois State) had a tremendous day, completing 29 of 36 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns. He picked up the CFL's offensive player of the week award [CP, via The Globe and Mail] for his efforts. His counterpart, Winnipeg QB Buck Pierce (New Mexico State) won the award the week before, but his performance Friday was more deserving of a Razzie. Pierce only completed 10 of 19 passes for 117 yards and was picked off once. He suffered an injury midway through the game and was replaced by backup Steven Jyles (Louisiana - Monroe). Jyles did a bit better, completing 9 of 13 passes for 86 yards, but it was too little, too late for the Bombers.

Former College Star of the Week: Dave Stala

Stala, a former CIS star receiver with the Saint Mary's Huskies, had an incredible game for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Friday night. In a receiving corps full of big names from bigger-name colleges, including Arland Bruce (Minnesota) and Maurice Mann (Nevada), it was Stala who really stood out. Glenn targeted him on just about every critical play, and he's second in the league in TSN's "clutch catches" statistic. He's made a tremendous impact in Hamilton and should be a key part of their high-octane offence this year.

Off-field Story of the Week: Montreal's stadium renovation [Herb Zurkowsky, Montreal Gazette via The National Post]:

Today, Montreal has their first home game since winning the Grey Cup last season, and they've done a pretty impressive job of spicing up their home at McGill University's Molson Stadium with a $29.4 million retrofit. The expansion added 5,000 seats in a new upper deck, bringing capacity up to 25,012. That's still the smallest in the CFL, but it's nice to see the Alouettes keep their intimate setting instead of trying to build a massive new building or go back to The Big Owe. Demand's still as high as ever in football-mad Montreal, and this should allow more fans to see the games, which is always good.

Matchup of the Week: B.C. at Toronto (Friday, 4:30 p.m. Pacific/7:30 p.m. Eastern)

This should be an interesting one. Toronto's performed above most expectations so far, while B.C. has by-and-large underwhelmed. As Peter James points out, a key question is how B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay (Montana State) will perform in the absence of regular starter Casey Printers. Another question is if B.C. will finally elect to run the ball a bit; they've had great success at times with the ground game, but almost completely abandoned it early on last week. Meanwhile, the Argonauts have put up some great results, particularly thanks to RB Cory Boyd [Mark Masters, National Post], but quarterback Cleo Lemon's mediocre play so far has been covered up by strong running and defence. I'm not sure that will remain the case this week, though.

Pick: B.C.

Other games:

Hamilton at Montreal: (tonight, 4:30 p.m. Pacific/7:30 p.m. Eastern)

This should be a good one. Hamilton's coming on strong, while Montreal hasn't really impressed so far. Still, I like the Alouettes at home.

Pick: Montreal

Saskatchewan at Calgary: (Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Pacific/9:30 p.m. Eastern)

The Roughriders haven't dominated the stat sheet, but they've piled up the wins. They're the only undefeated CFL team thus far, and I think they'll extend that streak this week against a Stampeders' squad that disappointed last week.

Pick: Saskatchewan

Edmonton at Winnipeg: (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Pacific/6:30 p.m. Eastern)

Both of these teams have really struggled lately, but the Eskimos have at least been strong statistically. If they can reduce their turnovers, they should take this.

Pick: Edmonton

Last week: 2-1

Season: 4-3

Thanks for reading The Whole 110 Yards! Tune in again for more next week!

Whitecaps - Timbers live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Vancouver Whitecaps - Portland Timbers clash tonight at 7:30 p.m. Pacific (10:30 p.m. Eastern), both here and over at [The 24th Minute]. The rivalry games between these sides, both set to join MLS next year, are always interesting on their own, but this one comes with some extra importance. It's only two days since Vancouver made an interesting trade [Marc Weber, The Province], sending FC Tampa Bay a pair of fine midfielders in former USL-1 MVP Jonny Steele and all-star Ricardo Sanchez in return for future considerations.

It's a curious move from a pure talent perspective, as both Sanchez and Steele had been tremendously successful at the USL-1 level and had played well with the Whitecaps when called upon. However, when you consider other factors, this makes more sense. Vancouver has quite a bit of midfield depth, and the starting central tandem of Martin Nash and Luca Bellisomo has played quite well. Sanchez and Steele were valuable as substitutes or for depth purposes, but neither was probably all that happy with that role. Moreover, moving them out allows the Whitecaps to find more playing time for younger players like Nizar Khalfan, Ethan Gage and Alex Elliott. Perhaps most importantly, the move frees up two of Vancouver's allowed eight international slots, which may let them bring in some other players.

For the moment, though, the Whitecaps have less proven midfield options. Tonight will be an interesting chance to see who takes the place of Steele and Sanchez. Join me at 7:30 for the live blog!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Happy birthday, Doctor Thompson

Today (Sunday) marked what would have been the 73rd birthday of one of my heroes, Hunter. S. Thompson. Thompson was one of the pioneers of gonzo journalism, and he's always been an inspiration of mine. I wrote a piece earlier this year on the fifth anniversary of his death, and I thought it was worth linking to again. The man produced some tremendous writing, and in a lot of ways, he pioneered many of the styles and techniques some of us bloggers use today. To celebrate his career, here's a link to one of his classic columns, and a song I have no doubt he'd approve of:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The power and the glory



The power and the glory. It's an odd phrase, but one that's popped up everywhere over time, from a doxology added to the Lord's Prayer by the Byzantines to a 1933 Spencer Tracy film that may have been the inspiration for Citizen Kane, from the title of Graham Greene's famous novel to a line in Dire Straits' Walk of Life (above). The phrase tells us a lot about life, and about sports as well.

Power and glory, at their heart, are rather different concepts. Power at its core is the ability to do things; in physics, it represents the rate at which work is done. Glory is more about recognition of a great acheivement. The two can be combined, with power providing the means to accomplish something great and glory following once the task is completed. Yet, power also often carries a negative connotation, as in the Orwellian theme that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus, certain usages of power can reduce the glory associated with a goal.

I was thinking about this this week in the wake of George Steinbrenner's passing. Joe Posnanski wrote a great piece on Steinbrenner's mixed legacy, and I think it encapsulates what I'm trying to get at here. Steinbrenner found great results, as the Yankees claimed seven World Series titles and 11 American League pennants under his reign, but the glory he might have acheived from such an accomplishment was at least partially diminished by the nefarious forms of power he utilized over the years, from a conviction for making illegal donations to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign to paying a shady gambler to dig up information on one of his own stars, Dave Winfield. For much of Steinbrenner's reign, the Yankees also took extreme advantage of their market and their brand, buying the best stars and keeping higher payrolls than everyone else. None of these things reduce the numbers of titles the Yankees won, but as Scott Stinson writes, they need to go into the final evaluation of Steinbrenner's tenure. He wasn't all good and he wasn't all bad, but the glory he might otherwise have achieved was reduced by the power he used to get it.

The same perhaps rings true for LeBron James and his decision to go to Miami to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Bruce Arthur had a good piece on that today, about how both the decision and the clumsy way James made it may reduce the glory of whatever he accomplishes in Miami. I'm not fully on board with taking him out of the greatest-player-ever discussion just yet, as he still has a lot of basketball to play, but the point that it's much easier to win with the likes of Wade and Bosh is well-taken. By joining up with them, James has perhaps increased his championship power but decreased his potential glory.

It's much harder to come at it the opposite way, but it has been done over the years. Some of the most memorable moments in sports have featured teams without a lot of power that have gone on to achieve great glory. Posnanski related the tale of one of the most notable the other day, about the 1942 Ukranian soccer team that took on the occupying Nazis and refused to lose despite the consequences.

That's probably the most significant example, considering the political power imbalance involved, but there have been plenty of others in the beautiful game, including the Americans' 1950 win over England, Uruguay's triumph over Brazil in the final that year, the 1954 Miracle of Bern, Senegal's victory over France in 2002 and Greece claiming the European chamionship in 2004. In other sports, there's the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the Jets' victory in Super Bowl III, the Giants over the Patriots, Appalachian State over Michigan, and many more. All these upsets have stood out more over time than the years where the dominant team won, and to me, that shows how important acheiving glory without much power can be. Power often brings results, but perhaps the best results and the deepest glories come without the exercise of a lot of power.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Whole 110 Yards: Argos make Lemonade

The Whole 110 Yards is back! Here's analysis of Week 2 in the CFL, and previews of the three games still to come in Week 3. Also, I'll be running the Friday Night Football live chat for tonight's game between Winnipeg and Hamilton game over at CFL.ca, with Jann Shreve of BCLionsDen.ca.

Game of the Week:

Toronto 36, Winnipeg 34

Last week's Friday night game showcased the high-scoring action we've come to expect from the CFL, but that was perhaps surprising given the teams involved. Both the Toronto Argonauts and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been known for inept offences in the past few years, but they put on an impressive show Friday. The Buck Pierce Era appears in full swing in Winnipeg, as the former New Mexico State and B.C. Lions quarterback has settled in nicely under centre for the Bombers. He completed 25 of 35 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns despite being picked off once. Perhaps more impressive were his seven scrambles for 103 yards and a touchdown; Pierce never had much of a reputation as a rushing QB in B.C., but that may have been thanks to the offensive scheme and his frequent concussions. He was running well and running smart on Friday though, often sliding to avoid big hits, and was named the league's offensive player of the week as a result.

Oddly enough, Pierce's performance wasn't good enough to beat the Argonauts. Toronto's offensive ineptitude has meant that hanging 34 points on them is usually a guaranteed win, but it wasn't this time around. Quarterback Cleo Lemon, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers and Arkansas State Red Wolves, turned in an acceptable performance, completing 15 of 23 passes for 162 yards without an interception. The real offensive star for the Argos was running back Cory Boyd, though, a former South Carolina Gamecock who's also played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Denver Broncos, continued his campaign to become the most popular "CB" athlete in Toronto Friday, rushing for 109 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. If he keeps that up, maybe it won't be long before Toronto forgets all about CB4's exit [Eric Koreen, National Post].

Other games:
Calgary 23, Hamilton 22

It certainly wasn't the prettiest game, but Calgary got it done against the Tiger-Cats. Their offensive woes continued, though, with quarterback Henry Burris (Temple) only completing 24 of his 37 passes for 257 yards. He threw two touchdowns, but fumbled once, was picked off once and could have been intercepted several other times. Kevin Glenn (Illinois State) was much better for Hamilton, completing 26 of 34 passes for 356 yards and a touchdown, but the difference in this one was the kickers. Sandro DeAngelis (Nebraska), the former Stampeders' star Hamilton signed in the off-season, struggled against his old team, only making two of four field-goal attempts. His replacement in Calgary, rookie kicker Rob Maver (Guelph), continued his impressive start to the year with a three-for-three performance on field goals, including the crucial game-winning kick.

Saskatchewan 37, B.C. 18

B.C. opened their new stadium to almost uniformly positive reviews Saturday night. There were some issues, including transportation and lineups, but those were largely overshadowed by the beautiful setting and the novelty of outdoor football in B.C. Unfortunately, those great things couldn't overshadow the home team's lacklustre on-field performance. The Lions were in the game for most of the first half, and were trailing 13-10 near the end of the first half when quarterback Casey Printers (Texas Christian) left with a thigh bruise. The team fell apart without him; backup Travis Lulay, formerly of the Montana State Bobcats and the Berlin Thunder, completed nine of 15 passes for 197 yards and a TD, but most of that came on a long TD pass late in the game. It was the defence that really let B.C. down, though: Darian Durant (North Carolina) picked it apart with short passes to the tune of 252 yards and a touchdown. Saskatchewan's looking very good early on, and the rest of the West appears to be struggling to catch up.

Montreal 33, Edmonton 23

Montreal struggled a bit early on in this one, and even trailed going into the fourth quarter, but in typical Alouette fashion, they took care of business. Quarterback Anthony Calvillo (Utah State) looked more human than usual, and even threw a pick, but he got it done in the end, throwing for 237 yards and two touchdowns. Ricky Ray (Sacramento State) threw for 340 yards and a touchdown for the Eskimos, but he was intercepted twice. Edmonton also couldn't get it done in the red zone and had to settle for field goals, which hurt them in the end.

Off-field story of the week:

The Winnipeg beer snake!



This inventive way for Winnipeg fans to display that they were getting bombed was pretty impressive. It got media coverage all over the place. Unfortunately, Winnipeg shortly reverted to No Fun Allowed mode and subsequently banned the snakes, citing safety concerns.

Upcoming games:

Matchup to watch: Montreal at B.C., 10 p.m. Eastern Friday

Both of these teams haven't performed up to expectations so far. Hopefully, that will change for one team tonight. Montreal hasn't won in B.C. since 2000, but they've looked much better recently than the Lions, and they don't have to contend with the crowd noise of B.C. Place any more. Can they snap the slump?

Other games:

Winnipeg at Hamilton (on now)

Saskatchewan at Edmonton (Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern)

Past games: Toronto 27, Calgary 24

Predictions: BC over MTL, HAM over WPG, SSK over EDM

Last week: 2-2

Thanks for reading! Tune in again next week for more of The Whole 110 Yards!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A star is reborn

For a long while, Blake Wagner seemed like another cautionary tale of giving athletes too much hype too early. He was identified by the U.S. national team through their Olympic Development Program back when he was 13, was highly publicized and went on to play for the U.S. at the U-14, U-15 and U-17 levels. He then joined Generation adidas and was drafted 18th overall by FC Dallas in the 2006 MLS Superdraft. Dallas did bring him along slowly, only using him once as a substitute in a friendly that season and not starting him in MLS until 2007. He made 12 appearances with the team that year, then started 23 of 24 matches for them as a defender in 2008. He only saw limited time with them in 2009 though, and they opted not to bring him back. It looked like he had fallen off the map, but he then signed with Vancouver earlier this year, and his star appears to be back in the ascendancy.

Although this was only Wagner’s fourth match with Vancouver, he has already surpassed his career goals total with FC Dallas. He didn’t score in 40 appearances for the MLS side, and that trend held true in his first three matches with the Whitecaps, although he only played 213 minutes. He did show some promise in midfield last match, though. Tonight, the floodgates broke open and Wagner notched a hat trick to lead the Whitecaps to a 3-1 victory over FC Miami.
Those floodgates opened on a club level as well as an individual one. The Whitecaps’ struggles to score this season have been well-documented; they went 276 minutes in league play and 296 minutes in all competitions without a goal earlier this year.

Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson said afterwards he was impressed with Wagner's play, but he would have been happy to see that offensive output regardless of source.

"It's just a relief to have someone score three goals," he said. "We haven't had that in a long time, so we're very excited."

Wagner’s hat trick was the first by a Whitecaps’ player since Marlon James recorded one against Minnesota last year, and the first by a Vancouver midfielder since Alfredo Valente accomplished the feat in 2000.

Tonight's match was much more open than last week's 1-1 draw against AC St. Louis, but Thordarson said that wasn't thanks to differing styles.

"They weren't that much more open in the beginning, but we opened them up," he said. "We haven't really played badly, we have been creating chances, but we're getting better."

Vancouver opened the scoring in the 18th minute when Wagner played a lovely ball in for Nizar Khalfan, then followed his pass and raced towards the net. Khalfan smartly overlooked Cornelius Stewart, who was covered in front, and dropped it back for Wagner who was completely unmarked. Wagner showed a lack of finish during his time with FC Dallas in MLS, recording no goals in 40 appearances, but he was clinical tonight and made no mistake from eight yards out.
After the half, Wagner added a second goal in the 56th minute on an almost identical play, receiving a drop-back pass on the other side from Stewart this time. Funnily enough, that tied him for the team scoring lead in regular-season play, which tells you something about Vancouver’s offence.

Miami pulled one back one minute later, when Brian Shriver played a nice give-and-go with Euzebio Neto and finished from close range. Both teams went for it after that, odd considering that neither has been overly aggressive or proficient up front this year, but it produced some entertaining soccer. Vancouver still had the better opportunities, but Miami certainly had chances to tie the match, and it took the Whitecaps quite a while to seal the deal. They did so in style, however.

In stoppage time, Wagner completed his incredible night by finishing the hat trick, driving home a Randy Edwini-Bonsu cross from close range. Vancouver product Alex Elliott, making his Whitecaps debut, made a nice play to pick out Edwini-Bonsu, and Wagner completed the play with a terrific finish.

Wagner said scoring three goals was a thrill.

"It felt really good," he said. "Today was just one of these days. I'll take them more often."

His goals were set up by strong team play, but the hat trick was hardly a fluke. Wagner was responsible for six of Vancouver's 11 shots, and all of his shots were good chances. By contrast, Miami only recorded seven shots all game, and many of them were weak.

Wagner made one particularly interesting comment afterwards when I asked him if he had noticed a substantial difference between the quality of play in USSF-II and MLS.

"So far, it's been really good," he said. "I'm not going to lie, these guys on the team we have, they're quality players. I could see half of them on the FC Dallas team."

FC Dallas is in third place in the Western Conferenceat the moment, so that's a higher compliment than it often has been. It says a fair bit about the talent the Whitecaps have put together that I'd tend to agree with Wagner; obviously, USSF-2 isn't MLS, but there are a lot of guys on this roster who either could play at an MLS level now or have the potential to play at one in the future. For them, as well as Wagner, the future looks bright.

As is often with the future, though, there may be unexpected stops along the way. I'm sure Wagner never imagined playing Division II soccer in Vancouver back when he was an American prodigy, but if he can continue to put up performances like he did tonight, it might just be a great move for him. Wagner's hat trick seemed to have taken even him by surprise, though. When quizzed afterwards, he couldn’t even remember the last time he scored a hat trick at any level.

“Maybe in my dreams,” he said with a laugh. “High school, maybe middle school?”

It will likely be sweet dreams for Wagner tonight, but we'll have to wait and see if this dream will last for him.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps - Miami FC live blog

I'll be live-blogging tonight's Vancouver Whitecaps - Miami FC USSF Division II match from the Swangard Stadium press box tonight. Come swing by! Game time is 10:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Pacific.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Earning the (re) cap: Spain - the Netherlands

Spain - the Netherlands
Score: 1-0, ESP
My prediction: 2-1, NED

From a strictly on-the-pitch perspective, the World Cup Final was rather a disappointment in my view. Different tactics appeal to different people, so it might have proved entertaining to some, but Spain and the Netherlands both opted for defence over attack, and the result was a game without a lot of the offensive play or scoring chances I tend to enjoy. Midfield play predominated, the yellow cards piled up and the game didn't really get anywhere during the 90 minutes of regulation time. The Netherlands probably had the best chances, but they came on the counterattack against the run of play and were thwarted relatively easily by Spanish keeper Iker Casillas.

Extra time saw much of the same old song and dance, but the game took a different turn when referee Howard Webb gave Dutch defender John Heitinga a second yellow card in the 109th minute. Spain picked up the pace with the man advantage, and they finally pulled ahead through Andres Iniesta's 116th minute goal. The Netherlands tried some last-ditch attacks, but they fell short and the Spanish came away with a 1-0 victory. It was probably deserved, as they controlled 57 per cent of the possession and had a 18-13 advantage in shots. Still, it would have been more convincing if they'd managed to pull off the win before the Dutch went down a man. In the end, though, it was a perfect win in terms of reflecting what the Spanish did all tournament; control the possession, prevent opposing chances and goals and take advantage of opposing mistakes.

Despite the lack of on-pitch excitement, the match remained suspenseful throughout thanks to its significance. As a soccer clash, it paled in comparison before the previous day's thrilling match between Uruguay and Germany, but this had much more on the line, which raised it to a similar or higher level. It also remained close throughout, which added to the tension. For me, it was far from the most interesting World Cup Final and also far from the best matches of this tournament, but the significance will make it memorable. In fact, it may be the perfect symbol of a tournament where parity was a key watchword and efficiency won out over entertainment.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

WC Preview: Netherlands - Spain

I've been doing previews of every World Cup game in the last few rounds. Here's the conclusion of the series, on today's final between Spain and the Netherlands, which will be televised today at 11:30 a.m. Pacific (2:30 p.m. Eastern) on CBC.

Spain:

Record:(W-L-D) 5-1-0

GF: 7

GA: 2

Top scorer: David Villa, five goals

The Netherlands:

Record: 6-0-0

GF: 12

GA: 5

Top scorer: Wesley Sneijder, five goals

Try your luck at sports betting!

This final should be interesting. It features two teams that haven't been overly dominant during this tournament, but they're the only ones still standing. The Netherlands have been purely efficient, winning all six of their matches, but they've had some close calls. Perhaps the closest came against Uruguay in the semifinals, where the South Americans came within one on a late goal and then had several chances to tie the match. However, the Dutch also only beat Brazil and Slovakia by one. They've played well and deserve to be here, but any of a number of different bounces could have ended their tournament.

One man is largely responsible for the Oranje's appearance on this most spectacular of stages, and his name is midfield virtuoso Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder is having a fantastic year, having already led Inter Milan to the UEFA Champions League title, and he could cap it off with a solid performance in this match. Sneijder has scored five out of the 12 Oranje goals himself and has set up countless others. Beyond him, though, the Dutch have struggled to find consistent scoring from their supporting cast; Arjen Robben has two goals, and no one else has more than one. If cries of "Hup Holland" are to be heard, Sneijder will likely have to come through with a big game for the Dutch.

Spain have also put up a string of one-goal victories, but many of theirs have perhaps been more dominant. Most impressive was their semifinal victory over Germany, where they controlled most of the possession and put up 13 shots while holding Die Mannschaft to just five. Of course, they were aided and abetted by Germany's decision to play conservatively, but they still deserved to come away with that victory. David Villa has had an extraordinary tournament for the Spaniards, racking up five of their seven goals. If he keeps this up, he might just be the new king of Spain.



Spain's real secret to victory has been the dominance of their midfield and defence, though. Iker Casillas has been rock-solid in goal, and Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Joan Capdevilla and Sergio Ramos have done an excellent job in front of him. Their work has been greatly aided by the superlative play of the Spanish five-man midfield, including Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who have helped to control the ball for long stretches at a time. The Spanish have only allowed two goals in the entire tournament, which is incredibly impressive.

This match should be a bit of a clash of styles. The Netherlands haven't been as flamboyant as in previous tournaments, opting instead for a greater focus on efficiency and defending, but they still play a strong offensive game. I wouldn't imagine that they'd sit back and let the Spanish take the play to them. Spain's possession-based style has its admirers, including Brian Phillips of The Run Of Play, and there are good reasons to appreciate it. They move the ball around in midfield superbly well, and thus far, they've been able to capitalize on their limited offensive opportunitities. It's not one I particularly enjoy, though, so I'll be rooting for the Dutch. How this match plays out may depend on who scores first; if the Spanish get the first goal, they should be able to lock things down, but if the Dutch can score first, they could force Spain into a more open game. I think they might just be able to do it. Hopefully, this will be a great one to watch.

Prediction: The Netherlands 2, Spain 1

Earning the (re) cap: Germany - Uruguay

Germany - Uruguay
Score: 3-2, GER
My prediction: 3-2, GER

This one turned out to be just as spectacular as many imagined [The Globe and Mail. Both offences put on a show and produced one of the most entertaining matches of this World Cup [Glen Levy, TIME]. Thomas Mueller made a spectacular return from suspension, putting Die Mannschaft ahead 1-0 in the 19th minute. Uruguay again refused to give in after falling behind, though, and Edinson Cavani equalized in the 28th minute. The South Americans then took the lead six minutes after the half when Diego Forlan continued his brilliant World Cup, receiving a cross from EgĂ­dio Arevalo Rios and smashing a thunderous volley from 20 yards out into the corner of the net for one of the most unbelievable goals of the tournament.



It would have been all too easy for the Germans to get discouraged and fold after that spectacle. They're still a young team, and they had already acheived more at this World Cup than many had predicted. They refused to give in, though, and they obtained an equalizer just five minutes later from Marcell Jansen. Jansen made a superb run and headed a Jerome Boateng cross past Fernando Muslera. That seemed to inspire the Germans, and they poured the pressure on, but Uruguay's defence held firm until the 82nd minute when Sami Khedira put Germany ahead with another header. Uruguay had a spectacular chance at the death to tie it, but Forlan's superbly-taken free kick rang off the crossbar.

All in all, it was a brilliant game and one featuring two exciting sides. Both will be interesting to watch in the future. Germany's team is still very young, and they should be in great shape for Euro 2010 and the 2012 World Cup. Uruguay's players are a bit older, but their run in this tournament was truly inspiring, and they might just be able to shock the world again some day. Let's hope today's final lives up to the quality of yesterday's game.

Friday, July 09, 2010

WC Preview: Uruguay - Germany

I'm going to be doing previews of every World Cup game from here on in. Next up, the third-place match. Here's Uruguay - Germany, which will be televised at 11:30 a.m. Pacific (2:30 a.m. Eastern) on CBC tomorrow.

Uruguay:

Record:(W-L-D, regulation time) 3-1-2

GF: 9

GA: 5

Top scorer: Diego Forlan, four goals

Germany

Record: 4-2-0

GF: 13

GA: 3

Top scorers: Thomas Mueller and Miroslav Klose, four goals each

Try your luck at sports betting!

Normally, the third-place game in a major soccer tournament is more of a distraction than anything else. Many teams knocked out in the semifinals no longer care and turn in a mediocre effort in the consolation game. I don't think that's going to be the case tomorrow, though. First off, Germany and Uruguay both weren't expected to get this far by many, so it's not like they're horribly crushed by coming up short in the semis. They also both favour attacking football, more so than either the Dutch or the Spanish, so it's quite possible that tomorrow's game could provide a more offensively-minded matchup than Sunday's final.

Additionally, third place means something to both of these sides. For Uruguay, it would represent additional recognition of their amazing run at this tournament. For Germany, it's another notch in their successful decade, and it's a great starting point for their young team. There are personal triumphs at stake, too; Diego Forlan, Miroslav Klose and Thomas Mueller are all in contention for the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer. All have four goals, one behind Spain's David Villa and the Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder. Mueller and Luis Suarez are both returning off suspension, so they'll be eager to put in a good showing. Moreover, Klose has 14 World Cup goals for his career, one goal back of Ronaldo's mark of 15. This may be his last World Cup hurrah, and it represents a great chance for him to make history.

Even beyond all those factors, though, you get the sense that these are two sides that play for the thrill of the game. They've put on some great shows so far in this tournament, and I'm expecting another one tomorrow. It should be a pretty even match as well, as both sides are loaded with attacking options. The German defence is a bit stronger, and I think that will be enough to give them the victory in the end, but it should be a tremendous match.

Prediction: Germany 3, Uruguay 2

The Whole 110 Yards: An opening week to remember

I'm planning plenty of CFL coverage this year, including bringing back the weekly The Whole 110 Yards column that I used to write at The Rookies. Here's the initial installment, breaking down last week's games and previewing this week's clashes. I'm also live-blogging tonight's Friday Night Football game over at CFL.ca with Brian Wawryshyn and Tyler Bieber; make sure to swing by there!
Game of the Week: Saskatchewan 54, Montreal 51 [CP, via Yahoo!]

This rematch of the 2009 Grey Cup was almost as spectacular. The Riders trailed 33-12 early on in the second half, but scored four second-half touchdowns to send the game to overtime and then added another two to seal the third-highest scoring game in CFL history in the extra frame. Darian Durant (North Carolina) started the game poorly, but turned in a tremendous second half and finished with 29 completions on 44 attempts for 581 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions. The Riders' Canadian receivers had a great day, too, with Andy Fantuz (Western) hauling in eight passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns and Rob Bagg (Queen's) catching four passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.

Interestingly enough, Saskatchewan was almost doomed again by a too-many-men call the way they were in the Grey Cup. They scored first in extra time and converted the two-point conversion the new overtime rules forced them to make [Mark Masters, National Post]. They then played strong defence, and actually forced Montreal to fail on a third-down conversion attempt, but somehow yet again had too many guys on the field. That gave the Alouettes another chance. Avon Cobourne (West Virginia) ran the ball down to the two-yard line, and then Anthony Calvillo (Utah State) found S.J. Green (South Florida) for both the touchdown and the two-point conversion to send the game to a second round of overtime.

Montreal got the ball first in the second round, but they could only manage a field goal. That allowed Saskatchewan to recover from their earlier mistake, and they only needed two plays to do so. Durant hit Weston Dressler (North Dakota) for 33 yards and then found him again on a three-yard pass into the end zone, giving the Roughriders the win and momentarily banishing memories of the too-many-men call. This game demonstrated the offensive skill and flair the CFL can often offer, and it also showed that both of last year's Grey Cup finalists remain teams not to be trifled with.

Other games:

Calgary 30, Toronto 16:

The second half of the Canada Day doubleheader didn't live up to the first game for sheer excitement, but it still offered some compelling football [CFL.ca]. One of the big stories was Stampeders' rookie kicker Rob Maver (Guelph), who they drafted fifth overall this year to replace Sandro DeAngelis (Nebraska). Maver hit five of six field goals, but missed one from 42 yards. Still, it was a very impressive debut for him. Quarterback Henry Burris (Temple) was okay, completing 27 of 40 passes for 324 yards, but he wasn't able to throw a touchdown pass. Running back Joffrey Reynolds (Houston) had a solid game for Calgary, rushing 17 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. The new-look Argos, under former Calgary head coach and GM Jim Barker, looked more like the old woeful Argos, but quarterback Cleo Lemon (Arkansas State) did show some promise. Overall, this game suggested that both of these teams will still need some work.

Winnipeg 49, Hamilton 29:

This game saw the triumphant return [Winnipeg Free Press] of quarterback Buck Pierce (New Mexico State). Pierce had some stellar moments in previous years with B.C., but always seemed to get hurt just before he really broke through. He put in a great showing in this one, though, completing 17 of 25 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns and rushing six times for 89 yards and another touchdown. Fred Reid (Mississippi State) added some more cowbell, rushing for 97 yards on 13 carries. Hamilton was very underwhelming, though; many expected them to do well this year, but they really struggled in this game. They'll have to improve quite a bit if they want to contend for the East Division title this year.

B.C. 25, Edmonton 10:

This was the most defensively-oriented of any of the Week One games. Edmonton was able to move the ball, with quarterback Ricky Ray (Sacramento State) completing 27 of 40 passes for 229 yards and running back Arkee Whitlock (Southern Illinois) rushing 16 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. They couldn't put many points on the board, though, largely thanks to two Ray fumbles. B.C. struggled to move the chains, especially through the air, but running back Jamal Robertson (Ohio Northern) got it done, rushing 10 times for 168 yards and a touchdown. Kicker Paul McCallum (Surrey Rams), the oldest player in the CFL, sealed the victory, going six-for-six on field goals and adding a conversion for 19 points. The field may have played a factor, as it seemed pretty slippery, but both offenses will definitely need to do some more work.

Off-Field Story Of The Week: "Head coach Ken Miller warns of someone impersonating a Rider in Regina"

As the Kurtenblog guys pointed out, only in Regina would anyone try to impersonate a CFL player.

Match to watch: Saskatchewan at B.C., 7 p.m. Pacific/10 p.m. Eastern Saturday.

This should be a tremendous one. Saskatchewan's fresh off beating the Grey Cup champions, and they'll look to maintain their place at the top of the West Division. B.C.'s also coming off a win, and they'll be opening their new outdoor stadium at Empire Field. Sounds like guaranteed excitement to me.

Other upcoming games:

Toronto at Winnipeg: 5 p.m. Pacific/8 p.m. Eastern Friday.

Calgary at Hamilton: 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern Saturday.

Montreal at Edmonton: 4 p.m. Pacific/7 p.m. Eastern Sunday.

Predictions:

WPG over TOR, CAL over HAM, BC over SSK, MON over EDM

Tune in next week for the next installment of The Whole 110 Yards!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Whitecaps release Orgill

[More discussion of this in the live blog below shortly]

The Whitecaps just announced that forward Dever Orgill has been released by the club. As Marc Weber of The Province reported, Orgill was suspended by the team earlier this week after an unnecessarily harsh tackle on Zurab Tsiskaridze in training. That suspension wasn't his first disciplinary incident, and it has now turned into a full-blown release.

The release is not inconsistent with the club's previous approach (see last year's Wesley Charles incident), but it is interesting considering that the team isn't particularly deep at striker and has had trouble scoring goals. Orgill was also a highly-touted prospect who worked his way up through the academy system. He only notched two goals and one assist with the senior side in 426 minutes over 16 matches, but much was expected of him down the road. He may still have a great future in soccer, but it doesn't look like it will be in Vancouver.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

Whitecaps - AC St. Louis live blog

The Vancouver Whitecaps are playing their first home game in almost a month tonight against AC St. Louis, and I'll be there at Swangard Stadium to live blog it. The Whitecaps are in good shape coming into this one; they're 6-2-7 on the season, and went 2-0-3 on their recent five-game road trip from hell where they criss-crossed North America from Puerto Rico to Montreal. They're in first place in the NASL Conference and are the only USSF Division II team to have conceded less than 10 goals on the season [Simon Fudge, WhitecapsFC.com]. They've only allowed eight goals against in league play. Still, as Marc Weber points out in his preview, they're still looking for consistent goal-scoring, and this week's club-imposed suspension of Dever Orgill over a training incident might result in some further new looks up front. The match will start at 7:30 p.m. Pacific (10:30 p.m. Eastern); come join me for the live blog then!

Earning the (re)cap: WC semifinals

I'm bringing back the Earning the (re)cap series for the remainder of the World Cup. Here are quick breakdowns of the semifinal games. I'll do another breakdown of the third-place match Saturday evening and then recap the final on Monday. Each match will also be previewed the day before.

The Netherlands - Uruguay:
Score: 3-2, NED
My prediction: 2-1, NED

This match appeared like a possible blowout to some thanks to the talented Dutch and the absence of four Uruguayan starters, but it turned out to be an excellent clash. Uruguay was outgunned, but they played with plenty of heart and were right in the match throughout. The Netherlands took the lead early through a spectacular 18th-minute effort from Giovanni Van Bronkhorst [Stephen Brunt, The Globe and Mail], but the Uruguayans fought back and Diego Forlan continued his sensational play at this World Cup, scoring a brilliant equalizer just before halftime. If not for a disastrous five-minute stretch [George Johnson, Canwest News Service] where the Dutch notched two goals, the South Americans could have come away with this one.

Uruguay had chances even after that, but made some curious decisions; despite being down by two with 12 minutes left, Uruguay seemed hesitant to throw everyone into attack. In fact, they even took Forlan off in the 84th minute [Fifa.com]. Jack Kogod mentioned yesterday that this was likely due to injury, but the injury didn't sound too serious, and I'd rather keep my best player on the pitch at 80 per cent than replace him with a player like Sebastian Fernandez who has never scored an international goal. If I was the manager and wanted to bring Fernandez on, I'd have done so for a defender to throw more bodies into the attack. Still, Uruguay turned up the heat at the last minute and collected a stoppage time goal from Maximiliano Pereira. They kept the pressure on and had several chances to equalize at the death, but couldn't quite bury it. On the whole, it was a deserved win for the Dutch, who turned in a stellar performance, but the closeness of the match made me wonder what could have been. It was a tragic end to the magical run of the Uruguayans, who really didn't deserve all the guff they've been getting [Dave Warner, Dave's Football Blog] over Luis Suarez's handball against Ghana.

Germany - Spain:
Score: 1-0, ESP
My prediction: 3-1, GER

While we're talking about what could have been, let's examine Exhibit A. This match was brutally disappointing to me, and not just because I'm half-German, but even more because it saw the superbly exciting and offensively-minded Deutschlanders (13 goals in five matches) give in to the plodding style of play of the Iberians (six goals through five matches). What was hyped as a matchup worthy of a final turned into a rather dull affair, much as the Brazil-Portugal clash in the group stage did. This was still interesting to watch, but it was far from what it could have been.

The problem was that Germany tried to use the counterattacking strategy that paid off superbly against Argentina, but they did so too cautiously. They pulled too many men back, conceding too much possession and breaking too slowly on the counter. The Germans still defended effectively for much of the game, but they didn't often control the ball or create many chances, and you could sense that a Spanish goal was coming. Carlos Puyol finally notched one with a great header in the 73rd minute [Geoffrey York, The Globe and Mail], and even that failed to completely light a fire under the Germans. They put on some pressure towards the end, but were unable to equalize. The Spanish victory was deserved, but it wasn't particularly pretty.

Style isn't everything, of course, and CS Steiber wrote an excellent post on how both effectiveness and elegance have their own merits. I've got no issue with people who favour either argument, and in many cases, either philosophy can make sense. Unlike Brian Phillips, though, I'll be rooting for the Netherlands on Sunday. Their tactics are a considerable ways from the joy they have typically been to watch, but to me, they still represent a much more exciting side than the Spanish. What I really hope, though, is that both sides decide to go for it offensively and give us a World Cup Final to remember.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

WC Preview: Spain - Germany

I'm going to be doing previews of every World Cup game from here on in. Here's one on the Spain-Germany semifinal, which will be televised today at 11:30 a.m. Pacific (2:30 p.m. Eastern) on CBC.

Spain:

Record:(W-L-D) 4-1-0

GF: 6

GA: 2

Top scorer: David Villa, five goals

Germany

Record: 4-1-0

GF: 13

GA: 2

Top scorer: Thomas Mueller and Miroslav Klose, four goals each

Try your luck at sports betting!

This hotly-anticipated semifinal clash, a rematch of the Euro 2008 final, should be a great one. Spain entered the tournament as co-favourites with Brazil, but they got off to a slow start with a loss to Switzerland. They haven't been particularly impressive since then either, but they've gotten it done, winning their group at the last second and then beating Portugal and Paraguay to make it to the semifinals. They've turned in a solid team effort defensively, only conceding two goals in the entire tournament to date, and that's been a large part of their success. It's been mostly a one-man show offensively, though; David Villa has five of the Spaniards' six goals, while Andres Iniesta has the sixth.

The Germans have displayed a much more balanced offensive output thus far, and they're going to need that to continue to have success today. Thomas Mueller, their co-scoring leader with four goals, will miss today's match thanks to an accumulation of yellow cards. Miroslav Klose has also been superb for the Germans, though, collecting four goals in this year's tournament and 14 World Cup goals overall. He's now tied with West German legend Gerd Muller for second all-time on the World Cup goal-scoring list, behind only Ronaldo. The Germans have tons of offensive options beyond Klose as well, including Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Oezil. The revamping of their entire system Jurgen Klinsmann began has continued under Joachim Loew, and as Klinsmann writes, an offensive focus has been a huge part of that. The German side has been more impressive than Spain to date, particularly in their 4-0 quarterfinal destruction of Argentina. If the Germans can maintain that focus despite the loss of Mueller and continue to attack in numbers, this could be a great day for them.

Prediction: Germany 3, Spain 1