Saturday, October 31, 2009

Checking in with Arsenal: With Thanks to Nick Hornby and ESPN

All hail ESPN for airing live soccer matches from England and Spain this year! Rather than having to settle for lesser North American leagues, the average American viewer can now watch the world's best every weekend. My team, Arsenal, faced off against its long-standing North London rival Tottenham today. The Gunners (good guys) handled the Spurs easily, 3-0.

Naturally, this begs the question of how I come to have a favo(u)rite English soccer (football) team (club/side). I shall apologize in advance for using American English in my posts about a sport that is far more important in other countries and for which they use a different word. I am what I am.

I grew up playing soccer and basketball, though I don't claim to have been particularly good at either. Due to those experiences they are, at least on a certain level, the sports I know best. I know how difficult it is to be good at them and have seen gifted players up close and personal - usually running over me. The US is, of course, the cradle of basketball so there's no lack of high-quality games to watch on TV or even live. While I lived in New York, I need only have walked a few blocks to the public courts to see some of the best pick-up players in the world. Soccer is another matter. While I can wallow in the World Cup every four years, top-flight club matches are harder to find.

When we first moved to Vermont, our cable package included Fox Sports World (now called Fox Soccer Channel). Live English Premiership games were on every Saturday morning. While I have only spent about four days total in London, the English have played an important role in my life. Some of my best friends are English. And I don't mean that in the apologetic sense in which one might say "some of my best friends are Yankees fans." More to the point, I don't often see some of the people I love most in the world because they live in England. Add to that the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and I suppose one could say I'm a genuine Anglophile.

An added bonus with soccer is the fact that my wife likes it, too. She has a bit of a fetish for bald French players so Fabien Barthez and Thierry Henry were favorites of hers at the time. We started watching without much of a rooting interest at all, though we agreed that Manchester United qualified as the evil empire. We also both read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch that year, a memoir in which the novelist recounts his personal history as an Arsenal fan. In sports and in life, I love a good story above almost all other things. The triumph of the king's nemesis makes for a terrific narrative. I couldn't help but jump on the bandwagon as Arsenal grabbed the title away from mighty Man U in 2004. I've been hooked ever since.

When we moved into a house, we switched to satellite with a package that didn't include Fox Soccer. While ESPN has carried Champions League matches, they are on in the middle of the week, usually just finishing up when I get home from work. No more Saturday morning games until ESPN came to the rescue this year. Now, all is right with the universe.

Arsenal's looking well so far this year. They've slid a bit in the past few years but seem eager to threaten the top of the table this time around. They're at the top of their group in the Champions League as well. The diagnosis to this point is strong in the front, questionable in the back. Today's result should be encouraging. Can't wait until the next game. Thanks again, ESPN!

Monday, October 26, 2009

All Part of My Fantasy: Fear the Turtle

Score for the week: Squid 72.38, Special Dinner 53.82
My MVP: Vernon Davis (TE, San Francisco) with 7 receptions for 93 yards and 3 touchdowns
Melodrama: Eight of my nine starters played in the 1 p.m. games and just one in the 4:15. SD had three in the Sunday night game. So, despite the fact that I built up a big lead in those early games, I still had to wait to see if he'd catch up. Stranger things have happened. Fortunately for me, not this week.

I had a lot of friends on the swim team in college and I knew Special Dinner through that crowd. He and a group of friends, including Roppongi Moose, had a fantastic food column in the campus newspaper. They reviewed dining hall meals as well as local restaurant fare. He also was lead singer in a punk band. A colorful guy!

Davis has been an aggravating player for me. Up to this point in the season, he has had his best games when I had him on the bench. But today's was a career-best performance for the former Maryland Terrapin. I also had big weeks from Philip Rivers (QB, San Diego), Ryan Grant (RB, Green Bay) and the Colts' defense. I am now 2-5 and gradually clawing my way up the standings.

So, the I-5 World Series didn't work out. We get the I-95 Series instead. My rooting interest is the kiss of death this year so my apologies to Phillies fans but I'm not sure I could ever pull for the Bronx Bombers. The problem with always pulling for the underdog is that they usually lose. If at the beginning of the season, you'd asked me for the last World Series matchup I'd want to see, it would have been this: defending champions vs. all-time championships leader. Boring!

That said, I'm sure the series on the field will be great.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Checking in with the Capitals: Canada Is the Answer

Caught a bit of the Caps/Thrashers game tonight. I have discovered the secret to Capitals glory: they inevitably score when I leave the room. I missed three goals in the first period tonight, though one was disallowed. Caps won 5-4 without any goals from their first line. I'd say that's a good sign going forward.

So, what will be DirecTV's next move once the free trial of Center Ice ends after Saturday? I sure hope they sort things out with Versus in time for the playoffs. In the meantime, perhaps they'll do a free trial of their sports package, too.

What they really need to do, and I can't imagine it wouldn't be loads cheaper, is to cut a deal to get the Canadian Broadcast Company. No one would miss Versus if they could have Hockey Night in Canada instead. And if they get the French channel, too, my daughter can grow up watching soccer in Spanish and hockey in French. Who wouldn't want that? Canada's got plenty of great shows. Is This Hour Has 22 Minutes still on the air?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

All Part of My Fantasy: Don't Over-Think

Score for the week: The Kicker 83.78, Squid 44.40
My MVP: Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore) with 7 receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown
Melodrama: Going with Hasselbeck over Rivers at quarterback. Huge mistake.

So, The Kicker got his sweet revenge and then some. The lesson for me this week is don't trust what you read. Everything I read going into the week said that Hasselbeck was a great play as he was going against the weak Cardinals. Rivers, on the other hand, was facing the as yet undefeated Broncos. Hasselbeck was coming off a huge game last Sunday but was absolutely abysmal this time: 10 completions, 110 yards passing, 2 yards rushing, 1 interception, 5 sacks and a lost fumble. Rivers hardly had the game of his life but was still good for 20 completions, 274 yards, 1 touchdown, 5 sacks and a lost fumble. 7.28 fantasy points as opposed to 0.09. I still wouldn't have survived the "Biggest Fantasy Blowout" of the week but it still would have been the better play.

I am a novice at this game and I'm sure I will gain a better understanding of the ins and outs with time but it's easy to see the dangers of over-thinking. This week in particular, conventional wisdom wasn't worth much.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Checking in with the Capitals: Fifth Graders Think They Know Everything

Caps beat the Nashville Predators tonight in a shootout win. Ovechkin was the Washington offense this evening, scoring both regulation goals plus the only shootout goal. Varlamov, standing in for the the injured Theodore, saved all three shootout shots by the Preds. That guy is tough as nails.

For those who don't already know, I'm an elementary school music teacher by day. I teach in a small town in Vermont - what I thought would have been serious hockey country before we moved here. It has been my experience, however, that baseball reigns supreme in this part of the world. Little League? Huge. Red Sox? Revered as gods. But there certainly is a hockey element. Plenty of my students play, though NHL allegiances are all over the map. There's a trio of hockey players in one of my fifth grade classes. One is a Montreal fan. Another likes Pittsburgh. The third ran off a laundry list of the teams he likes. I noted a glaring absence:

"I didn't hear the Caps in that list. I think we may have problems here."

"We don't like Ovechkin," they all agreed.

"What's not to like?"

"He's a show off!"

"Oh, and Crosby isn't?"

"He's not as bad."

The legendary Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote that he's never known more about sports than he did in the seventh grade. Maybe they know better than I do. Is Ovechkin the player whom fans of other teams love to hate?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All Part of My Fantasy: Victory at Last

Score for the week: Squid 44.43, The Kicker 39.86
My MVP: Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Seattle) with 18 completions for 241 yards, 4 touchdowns, 23 yards rushing and 1 sack in his first week back from injury
Melodrama: Watching the minutes tick away in tonight's game. For once, I actually got what I needed on Monday night. The Kicker had the Miami defense and Dustin Keller, one of the Jets' tight ends. I needed a poor game for both and that's exactly what happened. I just needed the clock to run out to win.

Through some mysterious quirk of Yahoo! Sports's scheduling system, I am forced to go up against The Kicker two weeks in a row. We're not even in the same division so I'm not sure how it happened. I would consider The Kicker to have been one of my closer friends in college. We met early. We lived in neighboring dorms freshman year. We were on intramural basketball teams together and would also sit through varsity games together. The Kicker is a world-class, though never vulgar, heckler. He was, in fact, the one who encouraged me to go after the PA announcer job. He and I kind of look alike (poor guy). Our own wives think so. I've even had to look at some photos twice to be sure which one of us it was.

I haven't seen The Kicker for quite a few years now. I think the last time was our wedding eight years ago. Between us, we've fathered four daughters since then. There is talk of getting together sometime this winter. It's definitely time.

It does feel good to finally win.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Checking in with the Capitals: Green Opens His Account

Caps lost again tonight, this time in a shootout, 3-2 to the Devils. So, at least they get a point out of the game.

Defenseman Mike Green scored his first goal of the season tonight. Green may be the key to the Caps' season. Today's also his 24th birthday. At a very young age, Green is already one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He was an all-star last year but was a bust in the playoffs. A better performance from him could mean a deeper run this year. Maybe the Olympics can provide some inspiration. Green is also likely to be a key player for Team Canada.

Rockies are out of the playoffs so I need a new pony. Go, Angels! In fact, I'm pulling for an I-5 World Series now so go, Dodgers, too!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Checking in with the Capitals: Franchise Envy

Watched the first period of the Caps/Red Wings game tonight and a few other blips here and there. Caps lost the game 3-2.

Last year, while watching the Western Conference finals between Detroit and Chicago, I was pondering what the Blackhawks would need to do to beat the Red Wings. I suddenly realized that I was asking the wrong question. The more appropriate query is what Chicago, or any other team for that matter, needs to do to become the Red Wings.

I would go so far as to say that the Red Wings are the model franchise in North American sports. And I say this as someone who nearly always roots against them. It's about more than just winning, although there has been plenty of that. Over the past 15 years, they have won four Stanley Cups and six President's Trophies. Far more important is how they have managed to do it. If you are a hockey player who cares about winning championships more than you do about money or fame, playing in Detroit is at the top of your wish list. Hall of Fame-caliber players Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom have happily spent their entire NHL careers there. Others such as Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek have delayed retirement in order to be a part of the franchise. Top players within the league engineer trades to get themselves there. Players on the team accept restructured contracts to free up money for other good players. All of this while playing for a city that absolutely adores them.

There are other teams who have managed to make it work. In the NFL, the Patriots fit the bill these days. What would be the baseball equivalent? The Angels, perhaps? (A generation ago, it was the Orioles. Sigh...) But I still place the Wings a cut above.

The Caps have an awfully good starting point to build on at the moment (for that matter, so do the Blackhawks). The young talent within the organization is an embarrassment of riches. Long-term, sustained success is a reasonable goal. The Caps have plenty of devoted fans and their numbers will increase if they keep winning as they have been. Can they become the NHL's Shangri-la? That depends on the people writing the checks and decisions made far from the ice. The model exists. Tonight, the Caps got a firsthand look.

My Annual Ritual: Final Four Predictions in October

College basketball season begins for me with the purchase of a magazine. Every year since my sophomore year of college (17 years ago for those keeping score), I have bought the same preview magazine in October and made my Final Four prediction. Here is this year's:

Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia

Kansas over Kentucky in the final

I have picked the champion two out of the past three years. Now, neither North Carolina last year nor Florida three years ago was a particularly daring pick. But there have been plenty of "sure things" over the years that didn't pan out. Admittedly, I didn't pick Syracuse to win when they did but neither did anyone else.

The magazine used to be called Street & Smith's College Basketball Preview. The S&S line existed entirely for sports annuals but it was bought out a couple of years ago by The Sporting News, who now publish essentially the same magazine under their own name. I'm not entirely sure why I picked that one in particular off of the rack but I've always been able to find it - even for two years in Japan. It has served my purposes quite well.

I have other basketball rituals. I watch Hoosiers once a year. My parents, certainly not fans themselves but well aware of my quirks, sent me a VHS copy while I was abroad so I wouldn't miss out. I cannot claim to be unloved!

Before men's tennis took up residence at the forefront of my sports interests, I'd have considered myself a college basketball fan. Even now, I would say that basketball is the most spectator-friendly sport in the world: big people, big ball, relatively small playing area with play generally concentrated on a small portion of it, fast pace, high scores and breath-taking athletic feats. The electricity which envelops a crowd during a close game is without compare in my experience. The greatest job I've ever had in my life was public address announcer for men's and women's basketball games in college. I had the best seat in the house with a microphone on the table in front of me. I'd have done the job for nothing and yet they paid me.

I have no interest in the NBA (Not Basketball, Actually) and will not write about it in this space unless I absolutely must. But anything at the college level or lower is wonderful. Games tip off next month. Can't wait.

In case you were wondering (and I know you were), Andy Roddick is my pick to win the Shanghai title next week.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Checking in with the Cornhuskers: My Father's Guilty Pleasure

I went to bed last night with Nebraska down 9-0 in their game with Missouri. It was a sloppy game in bad weather and there was no reason to expect any significant change before the end. Who would have thought the Huskers would score 27 points in the fourth quarter, including 20 in a three-minute span? Final score: 27-12, good guys win.

Why does a kid from Maryland care in the slightest about Nebraska football?

It's a perfectly reasonable question. It's all about family, you see. My father is from Nebraska. The University of Nebraska's Cornhusker football team has what is best described as a religious following within the state. I have relatives who are absolutely bonkers for the Huskers. My grandfather was a season ticket holder.

As explained in a previous post, my father is not much of a sports fan. He and I share many interests: music, Asia and politics among many others. But while many kids grow up watching sports with their dads, my interest developed despite my father's apathy. He might sit and watch for a few minutes with me while passing through the room but for the most part, he really doesn't care. There is one exception: Nebraska football.

Now, he'll claim to not be so interested in the Huskers, either. But I have visions from childhood of my father jumping off the couch with excitement I've rarely seen in other contexts. I think of Nebraska football and I have Proustian memories of my dad's fresh, stove-top popcorn on a late Saturday afternoon in November.

There weren't a lot of Nebraska games carried on the east coast in those days but the annual showdown with Oklahoma was a given. It was, in fact, expected for the two teams to meet late in the season, both undefeated with a conference title and a trip to the Orange Bowl on the line. Their games were just about the best sports theater around.

For decades, Nebraska played a wonderfully entertaining version of option football. Quarterback magicians like Turner Gill, Steve Taylor and Tommie Frazier drove opposing defenses crazy just trying to keep track of the ball. In the mid-90s, they were the dominant team in the country with three national titles in four years. Unfortunately, the team's legendary coach Tom Osborne retired after the last of the three and the team has never been quite the same since. There was a national title run in '01 but Nebraska was stomped hard by Miami in the championship game.

Then, in 2004, a horrible mistake was made. Bill Callahan, the recently fired head coach of the Oakland Raiders, was hired to lead the Huskers. Callahan brought with him the West Coast Offense: a more conventional, NFL style passing offense. The option game was history. The subsequent downturn might have happened anyway but the change in offense led to the Huskers' first losing season in 40 years. Things didn't get much better after that and Callahan was fired in 2007.

Bo Pelini is the current head coach, hired rather than esteemed alum and accomplished coach Turner Gill supposedly because of a greater need on the defensive side of the ball. I must say, the Huskers' defense looked formidable last night, while the offense looked uncertain - quite the opposite of the way things used to be. If it means more wins, I suppose that's a good thing.

I don't watch a lot of college football anymore. I used to be a huge fan but my interest has waned. In large part, it is because my wife truly hates the sport above all others and can barely stand to have it on. While she was the one who encouraged me to join the fantasy league this year and has tolerated the NFL on Sundays, I don't want to push my luck with college games on Saturdays. However, I figure anything that's on after she goes to bed is fair game so last night's game was ideal.

Checking in with the Capitals: Score One for DirecTV

Caught a bit of the Captials' game with the Rangers last night, courtesy of DirecTV's free, month-long trial of NHL Center Ice. Caps ultimately lost 4-3. Hats off to DirecTV for playing this card in their ongoing dispute with Comcast! For those who don't know, Comcast owns Versus which is the primary cable/satellite provider for the NHL. Because DirecTV has refused to agree to terms, Comcast has insisted that they take Versus off of their lineup entirely. Fearing the wrath of angry hockey fans, DirecTV is now providing more games than viewers ever would have gotten with Versus. It is a master stroke and we fans are the beneficiaries.

By far the best professional team in Washington these days is its ice hockey team. The Capitals have enjoyed intermittent periods of great success over the years. After a rocky start in the '70s, the Caps were among the stronger teams in the league by the mid-'80s. Unfortunately, their pattern was a great regular season followed by a first- or second round playoff exit. They did finally make it to the Stanley Cup Finals in '98 only to be steamrolled by the mighty Red Wings, the juggernaut of the era. Throughout, my following of the sport has been sporadic. I had a friend in high school who often had tickets to share and we'd watch together on TV, too. I would generally agree with those who feel the sport is great to watch live but loses something on the small screen. I find it's a sport best watched when there is a sense of urgency in the air. Thus, Olympic hockey and the NHL playoffs are my favorites. Regular season games are still fun but not quite as captivating.

After the Cup run, there was a downturn. Then, a few years ago, Alexander Ovechkin came to town. The Russian forward quickly turned the Caps into the league's most exciting team. I got caught up in last year's playoffs big time. Sadly, the team had yet another early exit but hope for the future is strong. Ovechkin is only the most glorified cast member. This is a young and very talented team. What's more, there is depth in the lower ranks. Both of the Capitals' farm teams won their league titles last year. If they can hang on to everyone and keep them healthy, it is not unreasonable to expect the Cup to finally make its way to DC before too long.

The Caps' first forward line is downright scary. Center Nicklas Backstrom plus wingers Ovechkin and Alexander Semin average 23 years of age and heading into last night's game, they were the top 3 in the league for points. That's not much to go on 3 games into the season but it does reflect a potency that few teams can match. I was disappointed to see Jose Theodore in goal rather than Simeon Varlamov, last year's playoff hero. But it's a long season and having two high quality netminders is a great luxury. Last year's team, for all of its talent, was criticized for a lack of grit in the playoffs. Maybe the disappointment of failing to advance further will fuel the competitive fires this time around.

Again, thank you, DirecTV. I intend to enjoy October while it lasts. Now, about losing all of our DVR stuff with today's installation...

Monday, October 5, 2009

All Part of My Fantasy: A Diplobrat Throwdown

Out of all my league-mates, I met my Week 4 opponent first. We met the first night of freshman orientation. We ate together in the dining hall that night because, oddly enough, our parents knew each other in the diplomatic service. We were both born diplobrats. My folks moved to the DC area permanently when I was 3 but his stayed in the foreign service much longer. Their paths had crossed in Japan once upon a time.

Score for the week: Roppongi Moose 81.53, Squid 66.77
My MVP: Philip Rivers (QB, San Diego) with 21 completions, 254 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 yard rushing, 3 sacks and 1 lost fumble
Melodrama: Plenty of it this week. I'll pick watching Derrick Mason (WR, Baltimore) take a couple of hard hits during his otherwise outstanding game. One was on his touchdown catch. He didn't get up for a little while and I had visions of McNabb's broken ribs from Week 1. After another hit later in the game, he got up limping. I've had ridiculous injury problems to this point. I'm thinking of changing my team name to The Walking Wounded. Luckily, Mason lived to fight another day.

This one was a tough loss to take. My point total was the third highest in the league for the week and I still lost. I suppose the good news is that my team is really pretty good and should win one of these days. The bad news is that I'm 0-4, the only team in the league without a win.

Fantasy football throws my rooting interests completely out of whack. It was informative to watch the Patriots/Ravens game on Sunday. The Pats are my AFC team so, ideally, I wanted them to win. But I wanted the Ravens to score lots of passing touchdowns as I have both of their starting receivers on my team. For once, I actually got what I wanted. Pats won 27-21 and my guys had pretty good games. I have to admit, though, I was more disappointed that my receivers didn't do better than I was relieved that the Patriots won. It appears I am more emotionally attached to my fantasy team than I am to an actual NFL team which I generally favor. I have yet to see if fantasy football could lead me to root against the Redskins, the team I grew up watching. That would be the true test.