Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Champion's League 11/21 Match Report

Seeing as how I did not much else yesterday other than sit on the couch and watch Champions League matches, I would be remiss in not passing along my impressions, predictions and tangents regarding the 4 matches that were televised for non-PPV in the US:

CSKA Moscow v. FC Porto
Arsenal v. Hamburger SV
Celtic FC v. Manchester United
Real Madrid v. Olympique Lyonnais

Three out of the four games started with an early goal with the interesting result of all three games turning out differently. In the early game, Porto scored a well-worked goal almost immediately after kick-off and immediately generated a hatful of other chances in a first half where they missed at least 4 excellent chances. The main reason why they were so dominant, even on the road against a team that hadn't given up a goal in the CL this year (although this is a bit of a red herring, since Arsenal really should have put at least 3 past them on the previous matchday) was down to their formation. The formation in question is a nominal 4-3-3 where the wingers are expected to track back, to the point where it often plays as a 4-5-1. This should seem familar to fans of the English game because it's pretty much how Chelsea have played under Jose Mourinho, which shouldn't be surprising because he did after move from Porto to take the West London position.

Rather than sitting back and attempting to absorb pressure, this formation has essentially two defensive fronts, the regular one and a secondary one running across the base of midfield. Both Chelsea and Porto play it extremely well, allowing the other team to advance the ball to the halfway line and then trying to snap it away, hitting hard and fast on the counter. And like Chelsea, Porto squeezed the life out of their opponents, taking CSKA and their fans completely out of the game, which quickly became an exercise in cold and drizzly frustration. Although CSKA had flashes of skill and long moments of possession, Porto always looked like the better team and were able to seal the victory in the second half, putting the pressure on

Arsenal, who were playing against the snake-bitten Hamburger SV at home; which should really be a recipe for a shellacking except that Arsenal have been somewhat snake-bitten themselves, especially at home, where they had recorded two consecutive ties in which they managed to miss some of the easiest chances to score that you'll see outside of a NYU-area bar on dollar beer night. In particular, their CL game against CK was almost unbearable to watch, with Fabregas and Rosicky somehow managing to fire wide and fire sideways into the keeper respectively when faced with completely open goals from 1 yard out. Because of that tie and the fact that Porto had won earlier in the day, Arsenal were in the sphincter-tightening position of needing to win when they were already experiencing performance anxiety.

Anxiety that was not lessened when Rafael Van Der Vaart juked two defenders at the top of the box and rocketed a shot off the underside of the crossbar with his weaker right foot just 4 minutes into the game. Hleb smacked a volley straight off the crossbar and you could feel the miasma of despair settling over the field and the stands, fans and players alike looking not quite shell-shocked, eyes wide and mouths flabby and gaping.

Even when Van Persie finally finished off a Fabregas through-ball in the 52nd minute, there was an air of desperation. Another draw at home for such a profoundly skilled team is really not much better than a loss when it puts the team in the difficult psychological position of needing a result in their final group stage game in Porto. Wenger defiantly put on both Walcott and Julio Baptista, throwing everyone forward in the now-traditionally end-of-game passion play at the Emirates.

Only this time Eboue somehow managed to slam a near-post shot through the Hamburg keeper, causing the Arsenal fans to celebrate more in amazement than in actual joy, joy that was forthcoming later when Walcott played a perfect far-post cross for Baptista to head up at the death of normal time. You get the sense that the enigmatic Walcott and The Beast (Baptista was even referred to as such when the goal was announced over the PA) will have to pay a greater role this season if Arsenal are to live up to the potential of their game.

The third game to involve an early goal was a rematch between two CL rivals, with Lyon having had the better of Real Madrid over the last two seasons. Lyon took the early lead, with John Carew providing a good finish in a game where he probably deserved more. For the entire game Carew was Lyon's pocket-battleship, operating at will in the Madrid defense and basically looking like they couldn't handle him with a stun gun and a board with a nail in it. If Juninho had lived up to his reputation as a dead-ball specialist for even a third of the free-kicks that Carew won Lyon, Madrid would have been smashed on the rocks.

As it was, they fought back after awful defending allowed Malouda to score a second to tie the game after excellent clean-ups by Diarra (head) and Van Nistlerooy (foot) and could have won the game had Van Nistlerooy's penalty been saved at the very end of the match. Since the game was mostly meaningless (both teams going through), the main thing to take away was that the result was somewhat flattering to Madrid, who have the possibility of being a very good team next year instead of the infuriating side they are now. Their problems are positional ones. Nobody knows where Raul should play. Nobody knows where Sergio Ramos will play. Nobody knows where Robinho or Reyes should play. They have exceptional players and a team-sheet that looks like a jigsaw puzzle put together with a hammer.

And finally to the only game that didn't start with a bang, Manchester United at Celtic, with a draw being acceptable to both teams even if they would prefer a win. The game certainly started out that way, with both teams content to sit back and try and figure out what the other team was doing. Once Manchester United figured out that Celtic's main strategy consisted of lumping the ball upfield in the hopes that their two plank-ish forward could bump it off their heads to someplace useful, they started to come forward and as they like to say, it was like they were playing downhill, at which point Celtic's midfield lineup of 3 central mid hard men and one slow guy became a self-fulfilling prophecy of nasty challenges and balls played to nobody.

Only they couldn't score. As much as Celtic played scared, blasting balls upfield straight to United players, the Red Devils couldn't find the final ball, instead preferring to take easily-blocked long-range shots or dribbling the ball to the end-line and then looking confused (ahem, Mr. C. Ronaldo). The most entertaining portion of the first-half was when Ronaldo went over the touch-line to take a throw-in and was mercilessly and repeatedly flicked the double-Vs by one of the wheelchair-bound folks just behind the advertising boards.

Full points to Gordon Strachan for figuring out what was going on and doing something about it in the form of taking off one of the hard men (Sno, who was the recipient of Tommy Smyth's (oh, purple horseshoes) required Horrible Pun of the Day) and one of the useless forwards (the Polish one) for another midfield hardman (albeit somewhat more attacking) and a speedy attacking mid. Although Man U still enjoyed the bulk of the possession, Celtic could actually hang onto the ball for more than 10 seconds and had a handful of decent attacks. It looked like the game was going to play out to a draw that would leave everybody satisfied and nobody happy until Man U gave up a kick about 30 yards out and the slow guy (Nakamura, who has what we like to call a sweet left foot) stroked an unbelievable shot into the exact corner of the goal, which was the cue for the Celtic fans to go nuts and the Celtic players to fight to see who could stand in front of their goal.

Cue Louis Saha botching a botched offside trap by not playing to the whistle and a late penalty for United for handball inside the area that was well-blocked by Artur Boruc (taken by Saha, because for some reason Ronaldo's well-proved track record for taking penalties isn't good enough for United) followed by a rousing rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the Celtic fans, flush with the joy of a classic footballing victory*.

Overall, it was a good day, much better than today, which was dominated by mostly-meaningless games and results that you could have safely predicted beforehand (Barcelona beating the Bulgarians, Chelsea letting Bremen win to put pressure on Barcelona).

* - Note for all you Man United fans: if you don't understand how getting played off the pitch and still winning on a stunning free-kick won from a dive isn't "a classic footballing victory", uh well, you probably live a comparatively happier life than many of us, you naive bastards.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

¡Take Me Out to El Partido de Beí­sbol!

Hey all you MFFer fans, Rosco reporting from down in Centroamerica - yes, still.

Always on the search for something sports, I took in a ballgame today - America's pastime. Apparently, that old saying doesn't mean the United States of America. Nicaragua loves its beísbol - even more than soccer - and it has a league that would compete with some of the minor league clubs back in the States.

So, I have been bumming around here in Granada, Nicaragua for the past couple weeks, and what do you know - baseball season has started (there's never an offseason for baseball fans, if you look hard enough).

We jumped on a bus and headed to Masaya (a market town fixed almost exactly between Granada and Managua) to watch a little hardball. I was root, root, rooting for the home team - Las Fieras del San Fernando ("The Wild Animals of San Fernando" - a local volcano). We got the "best seats in the house," otherwise known as "Home Plate" to the locals (which, pronounced in Spanish is oh-meh plah-teh). Six rows up from the field set us back C$50 a piece, which roughly calculated is about $2.60. Did I mention how they were the "best seats in the house?"

Las Fieras play in Estadio Roberto Clemente, an unattractive stadium from the outside, was comfortable and intimate inside, and I am pretty sure some of the Americans that play could have heard ol' gringo me - if I had decided to razz them about being cut from the Des Moines Ball Whiffers. The field itself is pleasant with well-manicured grass, that would otherwise be unspectacular without the relative conditions of so-called parks we've run across down here in El Centro. The building says to fit six grand - as only a tiny bit of the outfield sits bleachers. Our section was the most guarded, probably because of ALL the money the patrons sitting in it must rake in to afford such grandiose sums as a coupla bucks. We were also the most visited by vendors, which included - Sodas and beer, gum and toys (?), oranges, mysterious looking tortillas, and rum - the local favorite (and often called "greatest in the world") Flor de Caña. A kid, no older than seventeen, paced the aisles with his portable bar strapped to his shoulders, two types of Caña rested securely in place. He had some mixers to throw in, sitting behind the beautiful, showcase bottles - some coke and soda. Curiously, he was the only vendor not to yell out his wares.

Las Fieras are unique team to an already unique league. They are the only team in Nicaragua to be made up of ONLY Nicaraguans - not a single extranjero. I guess, in a sense, that really makes them Nicaragua's team (To note: I still don't count any "American teams" as such - stupid Cowboys).

The league is a bit strange as it only has four teams, as opposed to Major League Baseball's sixty-seven. Right? Isn't that what they are up to? Teams play one season and disappear the next. Last year's champions, third, and fourth place teams - Los Indígenas Matagalpa, Los Tiburones de Granada, and the Estelí No-Nicknames (respectively) - are nowhere to be found this season. Only Los Indios de Boér (Managua's home club) remain.

Much of this whole Liga Nicaragüense de Beísbol Profesional is lost in translation for me - I have no clue if they operate on a mini-soccer relegation/promotion dealie - or whether teams just like the time off. Four teams battle it out for fifty-four games before entering the playoffs, where (from what I can gather, although it's a bit convoluted) the top two teams qualify for the Serie Final (a seven-game series) to decide the Campeón de Nicaragua.

This seems to be the first year they are attempting the seven-game series. Last year, it seemed like all four teams qualified for the playoffs, and two rounds of games were played. The first round had two games (known as - no joke - the "nocauts"), where the matchups lasted for two games and the cumulitive score determines the outcome. The Serie Final was a one-game series.

Well, I guess Nicaraguans DO like soccer.

DATELINE: Masaya, Granada. Las Fieras surely take advantage of their San Fernando name (emphasis on the S and F), because they have completely co-opted the look of the San Francisco Giants (they play in some league in the U.S.). The logo - the merged SF - their colors - orange and black - and their uniforms - white with suspiciously similar fonts of black numbers, outlined in orange with no names - in fact, they more than co-opted the Giants, they flat ripped them off. Estadio Roberto Clemente seems to try the old "one-two, please don't sue" with their harmless "ode" to AT&T Park (aka SBC, Giant Stadium, Loserdome, etc.) with a bottle of Victoria Lite (a local "lite" beer) towering over the outfield, rather than coke bottle a la San Francisco.

The outfield is lined with "rah, rah" posters, such as the one that read: "Ah! Ah! Ah! Los Campeonatos son las Fieras." Emblazoned on this poster is what I suppose is their mascot - one of the titular "wild animals." It looked to me like a rabid sea otter.

Today, the Leones de León (yes, translated that means the Lion Lions) came to town. If Las Fieras channel the San Francisco Giants, well, then Los Leones channel the Oakland Athletics (I felt like I was back in the Bay Area...sigh). Their colors (surprise, surprise) are green and gold. Their uniforms (although they threw some gray in there to keep the copywright bastards at bay) are knitted with a cursive name across the chest - gold, no less, on a green jersey. The "L" that sits alone on their green caps looks non-too-incognito - almost like the typesetter for the Oakland A's was typing in haste and hit the "L" key rather than the "A."

Unlike San Fernando, León has a healthy roster of non-Nicaraguans - of them, a handful of Cubans, some Panamanians, and a few Gringos from baseball-central.

Going into the game, León and San Fernando were battling in the middle of the four-team pack, vying for second place. Although it's young in the season, this was a major game for both clubs. San Fernando had been slumping after a hot start (where they occupied first place) and León just broke its slump - trying to piece the season together.

This was the fifth game of the season and the first matinee game, played uncomfortably at eleven in the morning. Most games are played in the evening, probably to prevent players from heat stroke.

The players trotted out on the field, under the baking sun and started promptly, PROMPTLY, at eleven. Anyone ever hear of that happening in the majors?

The lineups and rosters for visiting León and home San Fernando (these are very approximate as they are hard to determine in many instances):

NOTE: The league in Nicaragua has adopted the designated hitter.

#11 - SS - Jimmy Álvarez (Domican Republic) S/R
#51 - 2B - Ronald Garth (Nicaragua) R/R
#29 - CF - Justo Rivas (Nicaragua) R/R
#26 - C - César Quintero (Panama) R/R
#20 - DH - Henry Roa (Nicaragua) R/R
#7 - 1B - Sandor Guido (Nicaragua) L/L
#10 - 3rd - Alexis Hernández (Cuba) R/R
#18 - LF - Esteban Ramírez (Nicaragua) R/R
#81 - RF - Lenín Aragón (Nicaragua) R/R
PITCHER: #25 - Edisbel Benítez (Cuba) R

SAN FERNANDO (all Nicaraguan)
#86 - SS - Renato Morales L/L
#2 - 1B - Juan Blandón R/R
#29 - RF - Danilo Sotelo R/R
#12 - 3B - Norman Cardoze R/R
#11 - DH - Ofilio Castro R/R
#61 - C - Sergio Mena R/R
#80 - CF - Domingo Álvarez R/R
#13 - LF - Eddy Talavera R/R
#8 - 2B - Mario Holmann S/R
PITCHER: #31 - Asdrudes Flores L


Not a second after eleven, Flores delivered the game's first pitch. I suppose it was his signature pitch - "fastish ball." He caught the batter sleeping, and the game had begun. Flores displayed his repertoire - Meat, Meat-Subsitute, and Quarter-Pounder. The first ball contact came from León's Álvarez, who as a leadoff hitter, did the obvious thing - he tried to bunt for a hit. It almost worked, but Cardoze got his sizable ass in gear and gunned him down. Flores got lucky on that one, but Mr. Garth followed that with a base knock, and readied himself for a little baserunning. Soon afterwards, Justo Rivas smacked an RBI-triple into the gap in center-right, and it looked like León would start pouring it on, but a fancy snag by Cardoze and his ass ended the inning on the next batter.

San Fernando easily showed their slump-like ways of late when their leadoff, Morales, whiffed on three consecutive pitches. With the heat, it was nice to have a fan to cool us down. Things started to look up, however, when Sotelo hit a single and Cardoze's ass reached on an error. As the ball rolled somewhere behind first base, Sotelo made his move towards third. Guido whipped the ball to third, and the ball reached there waaaaaay before Sotelo had his knee sliding in the dirt. Sotelo slid into the tag... SAFE! A botched call got the crowd in an uproar, of the "God is on our side" sort, and León's manager immediately hopped out of the dugout to argue (as much as he could with his portly Don Zimmer-like physique). This only riled up the crowd more, and play was suspended for a couple of minutes. When play resumed, so did Las Fieras impotence at the plate - inning over - San Fernando trailing 1-0.

Aside: As I tried to root FOR San Fernando, and I did - they were just a better team out there - you can't not love a guy named Sandor Guido - in fact, can the Angels sign him, just so I can get his jersey?

The next inning was pretty mediocre. Batters showed no confidence at the plate, and only one player reached base, and that was only because Flores decided to add a new pitch to his already impressive selection - the back tenderizer. In the bottom of the 2nd, Las Fieras showed that even when someone is on base, they like to get back to the shade of the dugout, and hit into double plays (Domingo Álvarez).

The third inning didn't show much promise either. León showed a little more strength at the plate. But how much that has to do with their batting competence or with Flores' pitching - I have no idea. They left three on base, and went into the bottom of the inning with nothing to show for their three hits. The only thing San Fernando could show for its third inning efforts was a miraculous at-the-plate appearance for pudgy Blandón who whiffed on his second pitch and sailed the bat through the air into the fence above his dugout. The bat hit the fence like a dart and lodged itself into the mesh. Blandón readjusted his grip and met the plate - the pitch, the swing - and poof, there went the bat AGAIN! It practically landed in the same place, nearly beheading the ball boy - who, it should be noted, seemed to display better reflexes than some of the professionals. Not strangely enough, San Fernando left that inning scoreless.

A few hits here and there with as many errors dictated play for the next couple innings. San Fernando showed that while batting was nearly impossible for them today, they could still baserun, if only just for show.

Aside: It was about the fifth inning when I noticed that every inning was strictly timed - each inning took almost exactly fifteen minutes, and by the end of the fifth inning, the time exactly was twelve-fifteen p.m.).

The sixth inning brought a little drama that was lacking in the actual play. A smack by a León batter cracked directly into Flores' knee. The ball bounced around the mound, and was picked up by Quintero, who threw the batter out at first. Flores left the game, helped by the medic, to applause - whether it was a show of sympathy or thankfulness that he was off the mound, who knows. Number 51 - Juan Pablo López (L) came in to save the day.

The injury rallied San Fernando in the bottom of the inning to hit into another double play.

In the seventh inning, López was showing his pitching chops. Or, I should say, the batters were chopping his pitches. Hernández with a base hit. Aragón with a single, Hernández to third. Then, little Álvarez with a down-the-line double, Hernández comes in for the run. León 2 - 0 San Fernando.

Las Fieras yank López and replace him with number 85 - Oswaldo Mairena (L) - who finishes off the inning with ease.

Likewise, Las Fieras were finished off in the bottom with ease. The starting pitcher for León, Benítez, looked masterful out there, putting pitches past players without problem.

The problems for San Fernando, however, mount in the eigth inning. Mairena plunks Sotelo and Sotelo steals second. Everybody's favorite - Sandor Guido - breaks the home crowd's collective heart, when he singles and drives Sotelo in for another run. León 3 - 0 San Fernando.

Need I tell you what San Fernando accomplished in the bottom of the eighth? Didn't think so, moving on...

Las Fieras put their hope on ANOTHER pitcher - number 16 - Lenín Gazo (R) - enters with little pressure on him - how much worse could he be? Well, he gives up a hit early, but puts away the rest of the side. In all, he may have been the best looking pitcher out there today for San Fernando, albeit only tossing less than 20 pitches.

León sent in their ace closer to finish this thing off - number 85 - Donald Calderón (R).

But, it was all set up for this, the home team, struggling all day, to heroically come back in the bottom of the ninth. But, in true cliché fashion, first they would have to have two outs against them, have three men on, and have the golden child of Fieras baseball step to the plate (with a broken leg, arm, and face). Then, with the last gasp of his spirit, he rockets a ball for a record length as fireworks explode in a veritable rainbow in the sky.

Or, you could do it the San Fernando way, one-two-three your way out of the inning and out of the game.

Grumbling, the crowd left, perhaps with a little less hope of their team's success this year. I will tell you what, if they play like that on a regular basis, they will win very few games. Of course, if it weren't for the triumphant pitching for Los Leones, León probably wouldn't either. Their field play was atrocious, even by little league standards, and their batting, while there were moments of success, was generally pretty bad.

But, they won, and now have position in second place behind everybody's team to love to hate - Boér of Managua.

While this was NO Major League game, by any stretch, it was a great experience. Fans in Nicaragua are comparable to the Majors' best, despite it not devolving into any sort of violent soccer-like fandom. These are knowledgable fans, and fans that respect the sport and each other. In other words, they wouldn't fit in at Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia. But, we'll let Matt K handle that one.

Till next time, when I should be stateside, keep the middle foam fingering as inappropriate as possible.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

An Open Letter to David Stern and the NBA

Dear Mr. Stern,

So, Davie, my Blazers are looking alright. In fact, right now, they have a better record than the two teams that met in the Finals a few months ago. It's great I, and other fans, can watch them on National TV.... oh wait...

We can't. You see, Portland is only featured in ONE nationally televised game. And even it is on NBA TV, and not everyone, Sternster, gets NBA TV.

Yep. That's it... Last year, I counted at least two games on ESPN/TNT, and that was the worst year in Blazer history. Even if the Blazers lose all the rest of their games this year, this will be a wholely more successful year than last year. But, really, you shouldn't want to show EVERY NBA teams' games on national TV, I mean, you have waaaay to many teams to do that... like 30 right? That's got to be tough to schedule.

And, it's not like the Blazers have one of the better storylines entering this season. The crazy trade happenings during the draft have all but completely overhauled this team into a collection of young, hungry players (although Zach has left the cheeseburgers in McDonald's this time around). And speaking of Zach, it's not like he's in the mention of MVP this season - he hasn't done ANYTHING so far this year to earn that accolade. He hasn't been mentioned by opposing coaches or opposing superstars (cough, KG) as unstoppable in the post.

And Brandon Roy - he doesn't have any makings of an award year. That and his last name is not coincidentally tied with an award he is on the inside track to win (should his ankle not keep him from competition).

And Ime Udoka, he doesn't have a touching story of his own. He hasn't done the ol' rags to riches tale this year in the face of family anguish. Nor has he been integral in leading Blazers in key moments to seal victories.

Travis Outlaw has not shown (at times) that he is the second coming of Stacey Augmon (in his prime).

Martell hasn't shown great stride in feeling the game and showing a basketball maturity.

Jarrett Jack, the man everyone seems to love to write off as a starting point guard, hasn't shown he can do all the right things leading this team at the point.

Nate hasn't shown he can instill his system in a bunch of young guys and have them play with heart. Especially with those UNREACHABLE players like Zach Randolph - the troublemaker he has been this year - oh boy!

Four and two is not a stand alone respect-maker, but you guys should take notice. The team you so desperately were going to ignore is trying to make you take notice. And right now, they are playing harder and with more heart than some of those teams trying to phone it in right now (eh, Mavericks).

Every year a team comes out of its own shadow to prove itself and everyone else wrong. I'm sure you didn't show many Clipper games last year - weren't bad were they? Maybe last season, you could have thrown in a few more Clipper games? Maybe a few more NOOCH games so that more people could see Chris Paul's amazing rookie year? You might have been able to fill them in for Minnesota's lost season.

What's the big deal with having a little flexibility with the TV schedules? Why are they made in August, or whenever it is waaaaay to early to determine diddly-squat about the upcoming season?

Maybe the NBA ought to pay attention to the Blazers, because can you imagine this lineup in the coming years:
PG - Jarrett Jack / Sergio Rodriguez
SG - Brandon Roy / Martell Webster
SF - Travis Outlaw / Ime Udoka
PF - Zach Randolph
C - LaMarcus Aldridge / Joel Przybilla

That is not going to be a fun team to play against - but they'll sure be fun to watch.