Category Archives: CONTRIBUTORS

January Madness???!! Taking the College Football Playoff System Further

Let’s go back to September 1st, 2007, to the great state of Michigan (Whoo!). The fifth ranked Divsion (1-A) Michigan Wolverines are pitted against Division (1-AA) Appalachian State Mountaineers. The Wolverines are heavily favored by 27 points. After a hard fought game, the Mountaineers stunned the Wolverines 34-32, capping off what many deem to be the biggest upset in college football history. Never had a Division 1-AA school ever beaten an AP ranked team since the NCAA split itself into two divisions in 1978. To this day, even mentioning Appalachian State to a Wolverine fan brings up feelings of hatred and regret (being a Michigan State Spartan, I do it every chance I get!). Now imagine if this had been a championship game instead of the first game of the season. Imagine if this was the crowning achievement of a Mountaineer team that had fought with all it’s might all the way to the top and was finally crowned National Champions. Cinderella is in the building. The new four team playoff system that is being implemented in college football got me asking myself: Why can’t we just bring “March Madness” to college football?

The details that are coming through about the playoff system that is to be implemented in 2014 got me wondering what was to become of my beloved college football now that things are changing. The BCS is bullshit, it always was. The results of the polling and computer analysis always pissed off more people that it made happy. It wasn’t like the NFL, where the reason a team made the playoffs was obvious and easy to follow. In the BCS, teams were chosen based on a multitude of different reasons and factors which led to a large amount of confused fans, players and coaches. It was never as simple as a win-loss record.

The NCAA has finally heard everyone’s cry and has officially adopted a playoff. While I’m all for this, the playoff they intend to adopt falls short of the mark. A four team playoff is not enough to help ensure that a team from every conference has a fighting chance to make it to the National Title game. Essentially, conferences with historically less competitive schools still have no chance of making it to the Title game due to the perceived lack of competitiveness of their conferences. There are six automatically qualifying conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, Big East, PAC-12) that get BCS bowl games bids because these are considered BCS conferences. The  remaining conferences (Conference USA, Mountain West Sun Belt West Atlantic Conference) are not considered BCS conferences, and basically have to go undefeated for a shot—just a shot—at a BCS bowl. Even an 8 or 12 team playoff would still leave a large field of teams that played really well, but were deemed not good enough to compete for the national championship. An easy way to remedy this would be to simply adopt the NCAA basketball playoff system, or the “March Madness” system. Seeds would be taken from every conference and an ensuing playoff structure would emerge and whittle down the field until a champion is crowned.

The system in which teams are selected would be essentially a clone of the current college basketball system. Separate schools into regions and mix and match teams based on quality, which would help equalize the skill level of each region. Then develop a 64 team bracket (68 if you include the first four) with 31 of those teams being chosen automatically by winning their conference championships (there are 32 separate conferences in college basketball. The football teams of each school can organize using the same conferences, with the extra one conference being used for the independent schools such as Notre Dame. The easiest table of all the conferences can be found on Wikipedia. The remaining 37 teams would be chosen by a selection committee. The selection committee would be fair because every team had the opportunity to win their conference and be guaranteed a position in the tournament. Any concern about biased and unfair treatment would be history. Of course, there’d be snubs like there is every year in college basketball, but compared to the outrage that the BCS causes every year, no tears would be shed.

The number of games played would increase drastically. This would greatly increase the amount of money flowing into college football programs. It’s estimated that with the four team playoff there would be an increase of roughly $500 million profit each year on television rights alone. Going by the 12-year contract, that could be $6 billion dollars in profit. Now imagine if we used the 64 team tournament which would end up being 64 more playoff games instead of just four (64 teams playing 32 games and on down the line until the national championship game=64.)

The NCAA has a contract with CBS worth $10.8 billion over 14 years for the March Madness television rights. That contract makes up 95% of the NCAA’s revenue. The BCS games averaged a 8.9 television rating last year, while March Madness averaged a 5.3. College football, and football in general, is much more popular than basketball. It’s unfathomable how much a network would pay for the rights to broadcast a “January Madness” for college football, but it’s a safe bet that it would be over the $10.8 billion CBS deal.

Overall, this four team playoff is a giant leap in the right direction. Unfortunately, the four team playoff will never stand. It will have to be expanded. Any change to the BCS is good, but after a few years teams and conferences will begin to question the fairness just as they did with the BCS system that is currently in place. Eventually it will need to be expanded to accommodate all the teams and give everyone that has the ability to earn a spot a fighting chance.

Some will argue that the tournament would add too many postseason games and make the season drag on too late, but in actuality, most teams wouldn’t play more than they already do as half the teams wouldn’t even make it into the tournament. College football currently has 35 bowl games following the regular season and they begin in the first week of December. By forgoing the break in between the end of the season and the first week of december, you’ll have ample amount of time to complete a complete tournament bracket in roughly the same amount of time it currently takes the entire football season to end. If you play a 64-team tournament and play one round each week starting the first week of December, you’d be down to 32 teams by the second week, 16 teams by the third week and eight by the fourth week. The following week would be the quarterfinals, followed by the semifinals and then the national title game, so the season would wrap up by the second or third week of January. Problem solved.

This system would ensure that every team has a fair shot and making a run at the National Championship. The Championship would become more fluid and exciting like March Madness is, and it would be done in a completely fair manner. College football needs a dramatic make over if we as fans are legitimately concerned about the fairness of the game. Coaches polls and computers shouldn’t decide who get to compete—wins should determine who get to play for the Championship. This system would ensure that the team who wins when they must get the recognition they deserve. Couple the added fairness and competitive nature of the tournament with the astronomical level of financial benefit and it would be foolish not to implement this new playoff system.

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelPakkala

Juicing Your Way to the Hall of Fame

The baseball Hall of Fame defines itself. It’s a museum that’s dedicated to the famous people that helped build the sport into what it is today, and to celebrate the amazing achievements that have taken place since baseball became professional in 1869. The all-time greats live on there, smiling down on as we walk through time. Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame is about to go through the next 10 to 20 draft classes with a significant road block concerning who gets inducted. That road block is named steroids.

The recent baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony made me think about the the next few years, which will essentially mark the beginning of the “steroid era” of the Hall of Fame. Players that put up amazing numbers and broke record upon record during the 80s, 90s and 2000s will be eligible. The elephant in the room will be the clear bottle of liquid and syringe that parked itself over the heads of these players during the last 10 years of steroid investigation. These players put up gaudy numbers, but the authenticity of their stats has been called into question when they were then then accused and/or found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. Should they be allowed to enter the hallowed ground of Hall of Fame glory? Do these players still deserve it?

No, these players do not deserve it, nor should these players be allowed in the hall of fame. It’s not a new idea by far, but it’s a conversation that needs to be had before it’s too late and the Hall of Fame is tainted with people who decided to chemically enhance their bodies to gain an edge. Let’s put it more bluntly: they cheated. Plain and simple.

Let’s take an example: If I go into an exam for class with an iPhone and use the internet to help falsify my test and appear to have more knowledge than I do, I am cheating. If I get caught, I fail the class and face expulsion from the school. There are no other outcomes. I cheated, I got caught, I suffer the consequences. Now in baseball, if you use “performance enhancing drugs” and get caught, there are a whole slew of ways to wriggle your way out of punishment. “The trainers didn’t tell me what the substance was that they shot into me” (because who would ask right?), “I was told it was something different.” “It was an accident.” For the majority of cases, this has somehow worked! Investigations have came up with a lack of evidence to find the players guilty, or a technicality let these players off the hook. Hell, Mark McGwire refused to answer any questions and absolutely nothing happened to him! In no other forum can that be a legitimate answer in an investigation. Ryan Braun was crowned MVP last season, immediately accused of steroid use, and got off on a technicality. I wonder when he’ll be eligible?

The truly sad part about all these players juicing throughout the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s is that they absolutely dominated. They dominated so much that they obliterated records left and right, truly great records from truly legendary baseball players. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both broke Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs in a single season. For nearly 40 years that record stood and then two people happened to break the record in one year, with McGwire finishing with 70 home runs that year. Gone was the Roger Maris legacy, replaced with a record built on syringes and lies. Don’t worry though, McGwire’s record only lasted for three seasons, when an aging Barry Bonds jacked 73 home runs in a single season. I mean, that’s what happens when you’ve been in the league for 13 years, you decide that’s when you going to hit 73 dingers, which was 24 more home runs then he had ever hit in a single season and 27 more home runs then he would ever in a single season until he retired! I guess that season someone ate their Wheaties.

Barry Bonds, in my opinion, is the epitome of everything I hate about the steroid era (the fact that I even have to label and era in baseball as the “steroid era” makes me sick) and why people that use steroids shouldn’t be elected to the Hall. You take a player that dominated parts of the sport for years, putting up great AND reasonable numbers year in and year out for a decade. As he begins to decline, as all players should do, instead of aging gracefully into the makings of a surefire first ballot Hall of Fame career, he decides to give his career a boost back into superstardom. Now I know that nothing has ever been officially been recorded concerning Bonds’s steroid use, but you have to read between the lines. It’s highly unlikely that a 37 year old baseball player is going to have an explosion of offensive production that late in his career and at that magnitude without help. It is completely illogical to think that Barry Bonds did that by himself. The thing that hurt the most though was when Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record in the 2007 season. Though Bonds technically hit 7 more home runs than Aaron, he did it with the help of steroids. Aaron hit all those home runs with two things, his bat and his love for the game. He didn’t have anything else. He didn’t need anything else. Barry Bonds showed us the disrespect of breaking that record solely for his own selfish ego. He didn’t earn that, he wanted it and he took it through his use of steroids. It’s a sports tragedy that Aaron had to congratulate that cheater on breaking his record that stood for 33 years. What I was proud of was that Aaron did it with a smile on his face. That’s integrity.

Leading the draft class next season is going to be Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, all of whom have had admitted or been accused of steroid use. My solution? Don’t give any of them a single vote. You make have been a great baseball player, but the Hall of Fame has it’s integrity to uphold. I’m not saying these players were bad baseball players. All four, even without steroids, had at least a fighting chance to get into the Hall of Fame. In fact, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds essentially had their bags packed and their tickets bought. Their use of steroids was purely based on selfish motives and/or money. They were afraid of losing a step. I hope they realized they lost more then a step in the eyes of the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire hasn’t received over 25% of the vote to get into the Hall of Fame, 50% short of the designated 75% it takes to be inducted. Rafael Palmeiro hasn’t gotten over 15% since he was eligible. I hope that the Baseball Writers Association of America electorate continue their crusade with trying to keep the halls of Cooperstown clean and safe from contamination. It’s just a shame that Barry Bonds, someone who is within range of several significant hitting milestones: he needs just 65 hits to reach 3,000, 4 runs batted in to reach 2,000, and 38 home runs to reach 800, needs 69 more runs scored to move past Rickey Henderson as the all-time runs champion and 37 extra base hits to move past Hank Aaron as the all-time extra base hits champion, shouldn’t make it into the Hall of Fame. Granted we could never determine what those numbers would be without steroid use, but damn, those numbers are great.

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelPakkala

Time For Tiger To Get Back On The Prowl

Here’s our first article from our newest contributing writer, Michael Pakkala. Micahel is an English/History major at Michigan State University. Be sure to follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelPakkala

As the Open Championship commenced yesterday, the whispers of Tiger Woods chasing his 15th championship emerged. The sporting world is eager to see if this is finally the major where Tiger gets his (golf) mojo back. More importantly, the way people have discussed Tiger has changed. Leading up to the tournament, he was talked about in a positive, golf-only light, something that hasn’t been done in literally years. It’s an interesting shift in dialogue about Woods that seemed almost out of place. But for Tiger Woods, golf hasn’t been the main topic of conversation the past two years.

Ever since that “devastating November” when his world came crashing down and his life changed forever, we didn’t talk about Tiger the same way. From then on, 90% of the time when an article about Tiger was written, towards the end of the article, it would mention that Tiger went through a extramarital affair, and hasn’t been the same on the golf course since. But what do his actions off the course have to do with his actions on the course? It’s almost as if people seem to think that his infidelities had anything to do with his abilities as a golfer. Sure, his mind has been in other places, and his laser focus has waned because of the scandal, but what does that have to do with his pure golfing abilities? The man took a year off from professional golf so he could deal with his personal issues. When he returned, he had to redevelop his game. End of story.

Anyone who has played golf knows that the first couple rounds you play after an extended absence from the game are dedicated to reviving your swing. (In my case, reviving what little game I have and trying to get comfortable again.) So when people yet again bring up his personal issues, it makes me wonder: Are we giving Tiger excuses to fail? He hadn’t played golf in a year, so why are his personal issues continuously brought into the analysis of why he isn’t performing up to par? Save LeBron James, no other athlete has had so much pressure been put on to keep playing at an extraordinary level year in and year out for so long, all while dealing with personal scrutiny. Simply put, he hadn’t played in a year and within that year he probably didn’t focus to much on his golf career. Let’s make the conversation about the problems with his game, and not his personal life. It’s going to take a hard fought battle to get back to being the best in the world. He has to play at the highest level round to round to win tournaments.

From his first tournament back in April 2010 to his first win since his return in December of 2011, he dealt with a multitude of normal problems that every golfer, including Tiger himself, have dealt with in their careers. He changed his swing again (which can just go along with trying to get his swing back), changed his caddies, and had an injury plagued year in 2011. All these things happened in only year and a half and the only thing that was referred to over and over was his infidelity issues off the course. Of course, he also dealt with problems that only Tiger Woods could have: his ex-caddy started a war of words with him through the media (ESPN turned into TMZ for that one), had he had that awful apology ad that Nike made him do (featuring his dead father no less).

If we could peer into the personal lives of all the athlete’s we love, we could find hundreds if not thousands of replica Tiger stories. That’s what makes Tiger’s case so confusing. Why is it so wrong and deplorable what Tiger did when hundreds if not thousands of other athletes did the same thing? Brett Favre texting other women, Wilt Chamberlain sleeping with thousands of women over years and years, Tony Parker cheating on Eva Longoria—athlete infidelity is nothing new. Yet Tiger Woods is the first to have his sporting career turned upside down because of it.

But Tiger is different than Wilt, Favre or Parker. Wilt hung his dick hat on his sex life. Favre was a drug addict in the late 90s. Parker’s French. Until November 2011, Tiger was the perfect sports superstar. He was legendary on the course and he was legendary off the course. The perfect athlete and role model. He was the reason people of my generation even watched golf, and to see him fall in that manner that hard really hurt us, so he was held especially accountable. Personally, while I don’t condone his actions, I didn’t see how it was really the public’s business to meddle into his personal life. Yes, he’s a superstar athlete that millions look up to, but does that mean that he is completely responsible for his imperfections? Human’s make mistakes, and he made quite a few. The athlete without any weaknesses had finally shown a weakness and in the worse possible way. It wasn’t his game slowly deteriorating after years and years of abuse. He chose to leave due to his poor management of his personal life. That’s what hurt us. Now we’re ready to forgive him for is transgressions.

Sports is the greatest reality TV show on television. But with actual reality television, we love to talk about its characters outside of the show itself. We discuss and recap what happens on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but the peripheral events outside of the show are what’s discussed even more. That’s why KimYe is a thing, and why Ray J reminding us of how Kim got famous in the first place matters. ESPN doesn’t just cover the games anymore—they cover the people playing those games. Everything outside of the game itself is now news. Human interest stories surrounding sports are getting more headlines than the actual sport. Anytime an athlete has a chance to be turned into a celebrity worthy enough of the gossip columns, it’s pounced on. We pounced on Tiger.

Returning to the course, in all honesty, I’m unsure how anyone can say that he’s not back on top. He’s won three of his last seven events. Has anyone else matched those numbers in that time? No. Maybe that’s just our expectation of Tiger from the years and years of extraordinary numbers and wins. If Tiger isn’t dominating every category, then there’s something wrong. Things are also changing on the media front for Tiger. People are remembering why they loved the guy in the first place. Gene Wojciechowski is writing good pieces about the guy again. So all must be well. Fresh off a swing change and a year off, he’s finally playing the way “our” Tiger should. Going into the second round on Friday, Tiger is at 3 under par and 3 behind the leader. Right where he should be. He’s reminding us why we loved him so much before November 2010. I don’t care what you say, in some way or another you want Tiger to win. We want him to surpass the Golden Bear and take the All-Time majors lead because he deserves it. He’s been the overall best in the world since 1997 and since I was 9 years old. Hell, ESPN still has “Tiger Tracker” on their website, even through the scandal. So you can’t tell me that the world doesn’t still love Tiger. They just hated to see him fall.

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelPakkala

Why the John Terry Racism Episode is FAr from over…

Over the weekend, Chelsea Defender John Terry walked out of Westminster magistrates court a free man after chief magistrate Howard Riddle found him not guilty of a “racially aggravated public order offence.” In other words, the judge said that he could not conclusively prove that when JT said the words “fucking black cunt” to Queens Park Rangers Defender Anton Ferdinand, that he was not repeating them back to him sarcastically in response to Anton thinking he heard the words.

In the aftermath of the verdict yesterday, I watched Sky Sports News for quite a while. After the first hour, the way they reported the story made it seem as though the case was over and that John Terry was an innocent man. People on my Twitter timeline, the majority of which are Liverpool fans, thought that the case was over and that John Terry, despite the video evidence, was gonna get away with yet another heinous act.

I’m writing this piece to tell you this: Contrary to popular belief, the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand racism case is not over. The fat lady isn’t singing yet. Quite frankly, she hasn’t even started warming up.

I wasn’t bothered by the not guilty verdict. Having followed the trial, I fully expected him to be found not guilty, because there was no sufficient proof beyond a reasonable doubt that John Terry wasn’t telling the truth as far as his testimony was concerned. Besides, if he was found guilty, the punishment would’ve been in the area of a £2.5k fine—peanuts for a man making £150,000-a-week in wages. Regardless of the verdict, one thing was certain in my mind: John Terry would be charged by The FA after the criminal trial ended. There, he would have to fight against the dreaded legal burden known as “balance of probabilities,” (a burden of proof that’s much, much, much less than a “reasonable doubt,” as Luis Suarez can attest to) and face much greater punishments in the region of a six-match ban and a five-figure fine.

In the first hour of their coverage of the verdict, Sky Sports News interviewed a former FA executive and Anton Ferdinand’s lawyer. Both of them said that the matter was far from over and that the FA now would launch their own investigation to try to figure out what had happened, much like they did in the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra case. The FA even released a statement on their website, where they stated that their own investigation was now underway. For some reason, SSN didn’t show those two interviews again for the rest of the day, nor did they mention the FA statement. Instead, it was back to singing the praises of Brave John Terry, the wrongly defamed former England Captain who can do no wrong.

The former FA Executive and Anton Ferdinand’s lawyer are correct: this matter is far from over. The FA will launch an investigation and, should they simply look at the court evidence, or even the televised footage of the game, will find that there is enough substance to Anton Ferdinand’s statement to charge John Terry with misconduct, having violated Rule E3.

Rule E3, under the sub-heading “General Behavior”, holds the following language in its first point:

“A participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

As you could see in the TV coverage, John Terry did indeed say “fucking black cunt” to Anton Ferdinand. He used those indecent words. Regardless of whether or not he meant what he said, he did say them. That alone merits an FA Charge for the former England Captain.

The sub-heading’s next point specifically covers the use of racial abuse:

In the event of any breach of Rule E 3(1) including a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability (an “aggravating factor”), a Regulatory Commission shall consider the imposition of an increased sanction, taking into account the following entry points:

For a first offence, a sanction that is double that which the Regulatory Commission would have applied had the aggravating factor not been present.

For a second offence, a sanction that is treble that which the Regulatory Commission would have applied had the aggravating factor not been present.

Any further such offence(s) shall give rise to consideration of a permanent suspension.

As mentioned above, John Terry did indeed say to Anton Ferdinand “fucking black cunt”. That is a reference to Anton Ferdinand’s race. Regardless of whether not there was intent, John Terry’s actions violated rule E3. He has admitted to saying those words in court. As a result, he should be expecting an FA charge.

In spite of this, however, I’ve received quite a few replies from people on Twitter saying that if the FA charged John Terry, they would be undermining the English Judicial System. I don’t believe this to be true, because of the lowered burden of proof The FA would require for a conviction to be handed out, they would be able to charge Terry and prosecute him under their own jurisdiction in a court independent of the English Justice System.

If you don’t understand that, I’ll give you an example: OJ Simpson, Hall of Fame half-back for the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, was infamously charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. In the criminal trial, OJ Simpson was found not guilty of the murder, thus escaping criminal punishment. OJ, however, was found to be liable for damages in the civil trial. The jury in the civil trial only needed to determine that there was a preponderance of evidence on either side to reach a verdict. That civil trial did not undermine the American Justice system because it took place in a separate court and required a much lower burden of proof to find OJ guilty.

If charged by The FA, the burden of proof John Terry would have to fight against is “balance of probabilities,” a ridiculously low standard which makes it so that if one side is found to be more credible than the other, even by a marginal amount, the court will find in their favor. That was the burden of proof that Suarez had to face when Evra accused him. He was found guilty under “balance of probabilities,” forever branded a racist, in spite of the fact that The FA and Patrice Evra have said that they don’t believe Suarez to be a racist.

I personally believe that the burden of proof in that sort of case is far too low, because it can irreparably harm the reputation of someone with what would be considered a lack of evidence in a criminal court. That being said, Suarez did admit to referring to the color of Patrice Evra’s skin. It is because he admitted to referring to the color of Evra’s skin that he was found guilty of misconduct, thus violating rule E3. The FA acted within their guidelines and ruled as they saw fit. By those guidelines, they got it right.

I no longer argue the Suarez ruling. I’ve accepted it and, while I still have problems with how it was handled, I’ve have moved past it. The one thing I would like, however, is consistency from The FA in the application of their rules. Now is the time to hold John Terry to the same standards and charge him with misconduct, as he has clearly violated the same rules as Suarez. They would not be undermining the English Justice system because they would be holding him to a lower burden of proof than the criminal court.

To top it all off, if they do not charge John Terry for directing the words “fucking black cunt” at a player on the field at one of their own top-flight matches, an act which was caught on camera and broadcast live around the world, they can no longer act as the moral compass of the football world when it comes to racism and bigotry, something which they have taken great pride in over the last decade. Remember the BBC Panorama special about racism and antisemitism at Polish and Ukrainian football matches occurring regularly? If Terry doesn’t get charged, the country would have no right to show that and act as though they’re on a higher moral pedestal than the rest of the world.

If Terry isn’t charged, it allows Liverpool fans such as myself and Justin to scream of a double standard as Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan international with a black grandfather, has been found guilty of violating rule E3; yet John Terry, an England international who has slept with his teammate’s girlfriend, verbally abused Americans at a pub in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and been stripped of the England Captaincy TWICE, has been allowed to walk free. What does that say to the rest of the world, as well as black players in the game today? It certainly doesn’t come as positive that’s for sure.

To quote Will Smith, “I ain’t heard no fat lady!” I hope you haven’t heard one either.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

The League Cup and The Europa League: “A Pot Worth Winning” or Self-Inflicted Curses?

The Europa League began this week, so Greg hashed out the blessings and curses of the competition and England’s League Cup.

As a Liverpool FC fan, I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching the 2011-2012 Carling Cup (which will properly be referred to as “The League Cup” for the rest of this article because of the impending name change). Needless to say that us winning the competition played a huge part in my enjoyment, but even if we had lost in the Semi-Final or Final of the competition, I could honestly say that I enjoyed every single minute of it. From pummeling Exeter City handily in the second round to winning a phenomenal Final on penalties against Cardiff City, the entire cup run was, far and away, one of my favorite parts of the season.

However, The League Cup isn’t universally considered to be a major trophy by a significant amount of English Football. This is partially because of the competition’s relatively low Prize Fund; losing semi-finalists receive £25,000 apiece, the runner-up £50,000, and the winner £100,000. To put that in perspective, the FA Cup Prize Fund rewards £900,000 to the runner-up & £1.8m to the winners. In other words, Liverpool made nine times more losing to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final than they did for defeating Cardiff City in the League Cup Final.

Because of the competition being seen as a “Mickey Mouse Cup” by fans, managers, and clubs as a whole, some managers use it as an excuse to play a weakened side or give young players a chance to get first team experience. One Premier League manager who preferred for many years to play weakened sides in the League Cup is Arsenal Manager Arsène Wenger, who described it as a “non-trophy” in early 2010. His preference to play young players in the League Cup has been mirrored by other top-flight managers.

Another big issue with the League Cup is a relatively new perception by many that focusing on the competition has had a tendency to negatively affect results at the end of the season. This has been exemplified of late by Liverpool’s fall from grace after winning the Cup this season, in addition to Birmingham City getting relegated after winning it in 2011 coinciding with Finalists Arsenal going from title contenders to fourth place in the aftermath.

This belief that success in the League Cup has a negative effect on league form is very similar to another theory: that being in the Europa League has an adverse effect on clubs while in the competition.

The Europa League, known as the UEFA Cup until the 2009/10 season, is Europe’s second-tier cup competition. Founded in 1971, the format for this competition has changed constantly & drastically over the years, as UEFA has merged the “Cup Winners’ Cup” & Intertoto Cup into the competition, expanded the number of teams that qualify, the number of rounds, etc. for a number of different reasons. The Europa League’s current format consists of four qualifying rounds, a 48-team “Group Stage” (from which the top two teams in each group advance), and is closed out by four two-legged knockout rounds, the first of which contains the 24 teams that advanced from its Group Stage in addition to the eight third-place finishers in the Champions League. The last two teams remaining play in a 90-minute Final held at a pre-arranged “neutral” venue. The winner of the tournament automatically qualifies for the group stage of the tournament the following season.

Since being rebranded and re-formatted in 2009, the Europa League has, for the most part, been an entertaining competition. Teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Fulham, and S.C. Braga have made entertaining runs and reached the Final of the competition, defeating the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, and Liverpool on their cinderella runs. It’s a competition that produces entertaining football and gives the fans some enjoyable moments along the way.

However, the Europa League, much like the League Cup, has its problems. While most of Europe enjoys the competition and treats it seriously, clubs, pundits, fans, and managers in the UK view it in a very negative light, and consider the competition to be more of a burden than anything else. Playing on Thursday nights, half the time with kickoff being at 6 PM, isn’t exactly the most entertaining thought for clubs that consider themselves to be a part of the most competitive league in the world. The competition is shown on Channel 5, the UK’s least appealing basic network, a fact which was subject of a chant from United fans as a way of ridiculing LFC for the better part of the two seasons they were in the Europa League (“Thursday night, Channel Five!” repeated at nauseum). For the most part, the competition isn’t even shown on live television outside of Europe, with most hardcore foreign fans watching via internet streams on very sketchy websites, making the appeal even bleaker.

Playing on Thursday nights means having to play the majority of your league matches on Sunday, giving your side just Friday and Saturday to rest prior to a match against a league opponent. When you consider the fact that you might have to fly back from Lichtenstein for a Europa League game on a Thursday night prior to playing at Old Trafford in a league match on Sunday afternoon, it’s understandable why teams might not take the competition as seriously as UEFA would like.

The big problem with playing in the Europa League is the adverse affect it supposedly has on a team’s League form. By only having two days’ rest and enduring some long travels prior to returning home, teams supposedly suffer as a result of being in the Europa League. This is especially bad for clubs that are aspiring to get into the Champions League (such as Liverpool and Tottenham), as Champions League qualification in England is based almost solely on finishing in the Top Four. If you’re stuck in the Europa League and have a faltering League form, you’re stuck in this zone of mediocrity. It’s a ridiculous catch-22 in some people’s minds: By losing in the Europa League, you feel ashamed about getting eliminated from Europe’s second-tier competition, which could have an adverse effect on morale and an already mixed League form. But if you win, you have to keep playing in this second-tier European competition and risk fixture congestion and continuously faltering league form at the sake of winning a European competition which has a winners payout that’s equivalent of a Champions League Quarterfinalist that had to play 5 less matches to earn the same amount of money.

That’s the big problem with the Europa League today: the supposed “big clubs” have no incentive to go out and win it. The luster of the competition is not what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t pay as much as the Champions League does, and if you win, you seal a spot in next year’s competition, which is where you’ll probably play because your league form wasn’t good enough to qualify for the Champions League. With that, your cycle of mediocrity continues, and goes on and on and on until either you get lucky and somehow get back into the Champions League or fall out completely, which is even more humiliating and degrading than being in the Europa League.

So, all of the above in mind, the question must be asked: are the League Cup and Europa League competitions worth focusing on at the sake of sacrificing a club’s League form? Is either competition, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “A pot worth winning”?

The first answer to this, at least in my opinion, is that it’s relative to each club. If you are a club that has an ambition of getting into the Champions League, you play your reserves in those competitions and focus on winning in your domestic league. If you advance, then great, it’s a bonus. If you get eliminated, who gives a fuck? That’s the beauty of the League Cup in some ways: if you lose, some fans really don’t care, and if you win, at least you can say that you won one more trophy than the majority of teams that season (yes, Arsenal, I’m looking at you.).

In spite of the relevence of a competition to a club’s goals for the season being a major factor in determining whether or not a trophy is “a pot worth winning,” there is another spectrum to the argument that I can’t ignore, and that’s playing a weakened side just because you don’t give a fuck. Why in God’s name would any club play a weakened side and then have the nerve to charge fans for the right to come in and see the reserves play in a competition that you don’t care about? It’s horrifying. Obviously, exceptions to this rule do exist (e.g. Man United not charging season ticket holders for Europa League tickets as a part of their auto-cup scheme), but numerous clubs have made this such a regular practice in the Europa League and League Cup that bigger headlines are made when a club doesn’t charge for a match than when they jack ’em up, a fact which, as a sports fan, sickens me to my core.

Another factor that hurts is the lack of pride that a club portrays in playing a weakened side. It literally says to the opposition and the fans: “We’re sorry, we don’t care about this match, so we’re gonna send out the reserves to play this game, and if you don’t like it, then screw off. Also, if you’d like to buy a ticket for a match we actually give a fuck about, please go down to the box office after the game.” On top of that, if you get eliminated, it’s even more humiliating and degrading, because not only did you lose to a lower league side, but you didn’t even bother to send out a half-decent side. You didn’t even go for it.

That’s what hurt most for me when LFC lost to Northampton Town in the League Cup in 2010. Gerrard and Torres were both on the bench, and youngster Nathan Eccleston was handed his 2nd club cap (He has yet to appear in a League match and hasn’t been seen in the LFC first team since). Roy Hodgson put out such a poor side that he was essentially saying to the fans in attendance “We’re not even gonna bother advancing in this tournament. Thanks for your money, but we’re not sorry for being piss poor today against a League Two side at home.” What pride is there in that? That’s right: There’s none.

Look, I’d love to see Liverpool make it back into the Champions League next season, but I’m of the belief that every match, regardless of the competition, is one worthy of a full-strength side. We should be going into this season with the intention of winning every competition we’re in. Playing a few reserves in a match isn’t a bad idea every once in a while, and sometimes it’s necessary with injuries, suspensions, and matters that are out of a Manager’s control. But if I was told before last season started that I’d get to choose between seeing Liverpool finish Top Four or have a shot at a Cup Double, with no gray area in between, I would’ve honestly chosen the Cup Double. Because that means that the fans would get the chance to go to Wembley three times and have some fun along the way. It also would’ve meant two shots at winning our first trophy in six years compared to a single year in the Champions League.

The last season, while incredibly frustrating, was a lot of fun and gave me some memories I’ll never forget. A cup run, regardless of what competition it is, can be just as exciting, if not more exciting than finishing fourth. From Bellamy’s goal against Man City to Kuyt’s winner against Man United to Carroll’s winner against Everton, all three were cup moments from this season that put me and other Liverpool fans on Cloud Nine. We celebrated each goal like it was a goal that had won us the Premier League. Each moment made the fans happy. That’s why any trophy is “a pot worth winning” in my book, because at the end of the day, professional football would not exist without the fans themselves. When you win a competition, you win it for those people in the stands, not owners or sponsors or anybody else. I know that’s a minority opinion, and it’s old fashioned, but I stand by it 100%.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

The Breakdown: Spain vs. Italy Euro 2012 Final Preview

Here’s the first article from contributor Greg Visone.

Historically speaking, this is probably the best Euro Final matchup we could’ve asked for. This is only the fourth time that the Final of the European Championship is a rematch between teams that met earlier in the competition (the other three: Soviet Union v The Netherlands in Euro 88, Czech Republic v Germany in Euro 96 & Portugal v Greece in Euro 2004). There is, however, a lot more history to Spain-Italy than the 1-1 draw we saw earlier this month in Group C action.

Spain and Italy have played each other thirty times, with Italy having a marginally better overall record, boasting a 10-12-8 record (win-draw-loss) against La Roja. The record, however, does not show the whole story. These two countries have played each other five times in major competitions. At the 1934 World Cup, hosts Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their quarterfinal replay en route to winning their first ever World Cup.

The two teams would not play each other in a major tournament for nearly fifty years, until they were drawn together in Group B at Euro 1980, another tournament hosted by the Italians. They drew 0-0 in their first group stage match, with Italy finishing second in the group and Spain last. Italy went on to finish fourth in the competition.

At Euro 88, Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their Group A match. Much like Euro 1980, Italy would advance from the group stage at the expense of Spain. Italy also went on to defeat Spain 2-1 in their 1994 World Cup quarterfinal match, with Italy’s Roberto Baggio winning it in the 88th minute for the Italians at Foxboro. Italy would go on to lose the World Cup Final on penalties against Brazil, with star man Roberto Baggio missing the ultimate penalty at the Rose Bowl.

Spain would finally get a leg-up in this rivalry with a win over the Italians at Euro 2008, when they won their quarterfinal matchup on penalties. Spain would go on to win the tournament, hoisting their first major trophy since they won Euro 1964 on home soil.

Now that we have the history of this matchup out of the way, we can finally focus on how the two teams might focus tactically against each other in the Final.

Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque isn’t going to change his tactics or lineup just because it’s the Final. The thing about this Spain side that I love is that they will not deviate from their style of play for any opponent. They will go into this match with their thought process being “We are Spain, we’re gonna pass you to death, and eventually pass it right into the net. You know what we’re gonna do, now try and stop it.” That is the mindset of a side that’s won the last two major tournaments they’ve competed in (as much as I’d love to count the Confederations Cup, I won’t do it because it’d be wrong).

For the most part, Spain’s lineup will be a formality: Casillas in goal, with Pique, Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa, and Alba at the back four; Busquets, Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta, David Silva are going to play straight across the midfield. What will be interesting to see is whether or not Spain will have a striker in the starting XI—the first time Spain and Italy faced each other, Spain had midfield maestro Cesc Fábregas line up alongside the other five midfielders, leaving high-quality strikers Fernando “Judas” Torres, Fernando Llorente, and Álvaro Negredo on the bench. This “False 9” formation is what AC Roma invented with Francesco Totti in Fabregas’s role. More recently, Barcelona has employed with a False 9 with Messi up front.

Naturally, Spain dominated possession and passed Italy to death, with their goal coming from a wonderful build-up, as Xavi found Iniesta, who found Silva right outside the box, who in turn put in a perfect through-ball for Fabregas, who passed it right into the back of the net past Gigi Buffon to equalize.

The big problem with their no striker formation was their lack of possession in the final third. They gave the ball away very easily, mostly because each of the six midfielders looked for someone else to finish off the chances. In short: Fabregas is no Totti and certainly no Messi. When striker Fernando Torres came on, his presence enabled them to keep possession more in the final third and made them look more likely to score. He created channels between the center-backs—his movement always had to be marked 1v1, allowing Spain to more effectively overload the final third. Torres’s finishing was poor, however, with him snatching at chances in a very similar fashion to what we’ve seen from him at Chelsea the last year and a half. Despite Torres’s toothless finishing, Spain has won their two games with him starting by a combined score of 5-0. Without him? 3-1 on aggregate.

Del Bosque hasn’t started Torres in the knockout stage, so don’t expect any changes. Either Negredo or Fabregas will occupy that False 9 role. Spain have enough quality midfielders to be able to play the way they’d like to in this Final. Yes, they’ll have to bring on a striker eventually, but they’re going play very cautious and try to put themselves in a position to win the last half-hour of the match. They’re going to focus on keeping possession the way that they have the last half-decade. It’s what got them to this date with history. They’re looking to become the first country to win three consecutive major tournaments, and they’re one win away from doing just that. Now is no time to deviate from their strategy.

While Italy has yet to go behind at any stage, they’ve not been very convincing overall. They’ve done just enough at every stage to get through, which, at the end of the day, is all that really matters. They started off the tournament with two draws against Spain and Croatia, which had them needing to defeat Ireland and have Spain defeat Croatia for them to go through, in addition to a bunch of whacky scenarios because of the Euro 2012 Group Stage tiebreakers being very self-contradictory (As a side note, I’d like to make the following request to UEFA: for Euro 2016 in France, please just use goal difference to decide tie-breakers. As much as I loved the chaos you caused, it was just too confusing. I mean, for once, FIFA actually has done something better than you. Think about that). They took the lead early against Ireland, went on to win 2-0, and, thanks to some great goalkeeping by Iker Casillas, got the 1-0 Spain win they needed to advance to the knockout stages.

Italy would not be here if it wasn’t for Spain defeating Croatia. Imagine how Spain would feel if they lost tomorrow. It would have them wishing they’d come to that rumored “gentleman’s agreement” with Croatia to draw 2-2 and assure each side went through and knocked Italy out.

As far as performances have been concerned, Andrea Pirlo, star midfield maestro for Serie A Champions Juventus, has led the Italians from day one. His through-ball to super-sub Antonio Di Natale gave Italy the lead against Spain the first time they met in this tournament (which I’ve referenced far too often in so far in this piece). He then scored a stunning free kick against Croatia to give them lead five minutes before the halftime whistle. His free kick against Ireland in the 35th minute gave Italy the lead against Ireland, as it found the head of AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano. Pirlo sealed the win for Italy in the dying moments as his corner found Mario Balotelli, Italy’s leading scorer in this tournament, as he finished it off in stunning fashion. His cheeky penalty against England is yet another highlight of his tournament performance so far, as he chipped it past and already committed Joe Hart in a show of his pure footballing class. He also made a save on the goal-line off a corner against Germany in the first five minutes, which, if it had gone in, might’ve changed the course of the match from there on out. Barring a calamitous performance against Spain in the Final, he is all-but assured to be declared the best player of the tournament by UEFA when the full-time whistle is blown.

Mario Balotelli’s two goals against Germany saw them through to the Final in Kyiv, but like his first goal of the tournament against Ireland, both goals were the product of beautiful passes, with Cassano evading two defenders before putting in the beautiful cross (which he headed in brilliantly) and the beautiful through-ball by Montolivo to set up the second, which saw Balotelli through on goal behind the chasing German defense, something very uncharacteristic of the pre-tournament favorites.

Italy lined up in a standard 3-5-2 against Spain in the Group C encounter, with Giaccherini and Maggio on the wings of the five-man midfield. The primary means of attack for Italy in this formation was through-balls to Balotelli and Cassano, while trying to disrupt the incredibly talented midfield of Spain. Di Natale went on for an already booked Balotelli in the 56th minute before scoring on the aforementioned through-ball from Pirlo slightly after the hour mark. They also lined up in a 3-5-2 against Croatia, but Pirlo played more of a defensive midfield role.

Since the Ireland match, Italy have lined up in a 4-1-3-2, with Pirlo as a defensive midfielder, playing directly behind Thiago Motta or Montolivo, with Marchiso and De Rossi on the wings. Abate would then come in as a right back, moving Chiellini to left back from his center back role in the 3-5-2, with Barzagli and Bonucci being the center back pairing. I would expect Italy to line up in this formation for the final against Spain. However, because of the success of the 3-5-2 in the opening match, I would not be surprised if Prandelli reverted back to that for the rematch.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

As much as I’d love to see Italy win the Final for the sake of my bet, something tells me that this Spanish team has come too far to lose now. They’re on the brink of becoming the greatest national team side ever by winning three consecutive major international tournaments. To lose now would be as brutal as it gets. That being said, I expect both sides to play cautiously. I’m gonna bet $5 on a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes, which is currently going off at 5/1. I think Spain will either win 1-0 in extra time or seal the win on penalties.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Hack-A-LeBron: A New Strategy For A New LeBron

Here’s the first article from contributor Russell Simon.

The full circle of LeBron James’s basketball life was completed last week. By finally reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—a rainbow littered with the corpses of close but not close enough seasons in Cleveland and Miami, James was able to deliver ridiculously dominant performance after ridiculously dominant performance en route to the Larry O’Brien trophy.

He was able to dominant the way he did because he changed his offensive game. Look at chart to the right, created by Kirk Goldsberry and Matt Adams for Court Vision Analytics. LeBron has become an absolute monster near the basket—even more so than in the past. According to Goldsberry and Adams, 88% of LeBron’s shots in the
regular season were either from close or midrange. During the 2011-2012 season, LeBron averaged .4 more points per game then he did in the 2010-2011 season and raised his three point shooting, field goal, and rebounds per game percentages. LeBron took one less 3 pointer a game this season compared to last, but took about the same amount of shots, showing that he wasn’t going to settle for 3s as much. That helped him raise his true shooting percentage (what shooting percentage would be if 3 pointers and three throws were calculated into a regular shooting percentage) one whole point from 59.4 to 60.5%. This may be small, but it was a career high for him. 

LeBron also made the left block his go to spot on offense. He was at his most consistent offensively by getting the ball close to the basket either passing to an open man or taking a high percentage shot. The Celtics series was a perfect example of how the new LeBron carried the Heat to victory (Game 6 not withstanding. That was a barrage of jumpers that we’ve never seen from him before). The Heat were down 3-2 in that series, and LeBron wasn’t getting into his sets offensively. Far too often, he was catching the ball near the 3 point line—too far away from the basket for his liking. This resulted in only an average of 7 free throw attempts a game for LeBron during those losses. But during the 4 wins in that series, LeBron caught the ball at the left block over, and over, and over again, getting to the line on average 14 times a game.

This transformation puts opposing teams in a serious quandary. Teams now have to make the impossible choice whether to guard LeBron heavily up on the block, or give LeBron tons of space in the areas in which he is least effective. Both of these choices are doomed to failure. It is impossible to guard LeBron heavily down low. We saw this in the Finals, when James Harden tried to impede him when LeBron was trying to get into the lane without the ball. This either ended with LeBron getting the ball on the block and taking right to Harden, or a foul being called on Harden. Given the propensity of NBA officials to call ticky tack fouls on players, guarding LeBron with this strategy is a double whammy—teams are put into foul trouble, all while Lebron is barely even touched. The other strategy is potentially even worse, because giving LeBron space means he just gets a ten foot head start on his way to a full on assault on the basket. It can lead to posterization, humiliation, devastation, and perhaps someday decapitation.

I’m here with another way. I’m here with a strategy that can potentially give teams a fighting chance (no pun intended as you will soon discover) at stopping LeBron. It’s been used in the past. Throughout the 1990s, this strategy helped strong teams assert their will.

It was a strategy built on protecting the paint at all costs. It worked for the 1993 New York Knicks—a team built on grit and toughness, with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Smith, and Anthony Mason as the centerpieces. That team went 60-22, and they did so by playing tough, aggressive basketball. According to a New York Times article published just before the start of the NBA playoffs in 1993, the Knicks had 12 flagrant fouls during that season, while the league average was only 3.8. Charles Oakley himself committed six, including an incredible stretch where he averaged a flagrant a week.

Fast forward back to 2012. In the Finals, LeBron destroyed the Thunder near the basket. He got to the line eight to nine times a game while rarely being knocked down. The Thunder lost in 5. Who knows what would have happened if someone on the Thunder had fouled him hard nearly every time he went to the basket.

This strategy—let’s call it Hack-A-Lebron—can work better then what the Thunder did. If teams actually made a concerted effort to not give LeBron any easy buckets by adopting a defensive strategy based on intimidation and toughness, it would force LeBron to earn his buckets from the free throw line. LeBron is better at hitting lay-ups and dunking then he is at hitting free throws. In the series against Indiana, he was 72.5% from the charity stripe. In the Conference Finals he was even worse, going 65% from the line. There’s also the added psychological affect of knowing contact is coming, something that could potentially play with LeBron mentally and affect his game. (Just maybe?)

LeBron has said over and over again that he plays his best basketball when he is happy and carefree, giving the world the mental image of a once in a generation athletic beast frolicking through a dandelion field while reading the Hunger Games. He once told Rachel Nichols, “I play the game fun, joyful, and I let my game do all of the talking.” Is it possible that LeBron could eventually become annoyed, and mad, by receiving constant contact from defenders? Not likely. He’s too cool on the court. Remember the game in the regular season where Russell Westbrook got the ball stolen by Wade on a crossover, Wade passed it to LeBron on the break, and Westbrook just took him out from behind when he went up for an easy two?

LeBron just walked away after it happened. He didn’t react and he didn’t noticeably up his game. He didn’t try and punish the Thunder for the foul. There were no revenge shots. Not to take anything away from what became a virtuoso 34-point performance, but he reacted in a far different way than Metta World Peace or Rasheed Wallace would’ve. LeBron isn’t a player to get angry over fouls.

Westbrook only received a flagrant 1 for that foul, but at some point repeatedly egregious fouls will result in ejections and suspensions. Teams will have to adapt their Hack-A-LeBron strategy away from over the top flagrants, and more towards fouls that simply prevent him from getting a shot off. LeBron had a plethora of and-one opportunities in the playoffs simply because when players fouled him, LeBron was still able to have a good look at the basket. Preventing him from getting a shot off is no easy task though, as all of his and-ones prove. He’s just too big and too fast.

Hack-A-LeBron can work for teams with great depth, especially at the forward position. That 1993 Knicks team I mentioned earlier had eleven guys who could play: Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason, Doc Rivers, Rolando Blackman, Charles Oakley, Greg Anthony, Tony Campbell, Hubert Davis, and Herb Williams. Any team in 2012 that goes 11-deep has an insurance policy for hack a LeBron. A team like the Dallas team that won in 2011 immediately jumps out as a modern era example of a team with that kind of depth. That team was absolutely stacked, with J.J. Barea, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry, Deshawn Stephenson, and even Brian Cardinal getting minutes in the Finals. That team didn’t need to play Hack-A-LeBron, but they could if they wanted to, because they had guys off the bench that could step up.

Teams may want to try putting a power forward on LeBron more often. The Heat don’t have strong bigs, so teams could sacrifice a player in the paint to matchup with LeBron. Power forwards, while not having LeBron’s speed, can get into the paint to Hack-A-LeBron. Inside-outside forwards like Serge Ibaka proved to be an effective defensive weapon against LeBron in the Finals. Although Ibaka lacks the lateral speed to keep up with LeBron, hit shot-blocking ability made up for it. Unfortunately, Ibaka didn’t guard LeBron often enough. Not every team is blessed with a shot-blocker like Ibaka, but as more and more freakishly athlete power forwards come into the league (Anthony Davis, Perry Jones III), they’ll prove to be a challenge for LeBron. They’re big enough to prevent shots on the perimeter, fast and lanky enough to block shots, and strong enough to commit hard fouls.

I must admit, I kind of feel as though I should be wearing a Saints hat and a Motorola coaches headset a la Greg Williams. But while Hack-A-LeBron certainly is not a totally ethical policy, the course of basketball history has included many teams that played this rough, aggressive style. The Chuck Daly’s Piston’s of the 80’s, the Knicks of the 90’s, and the teams that put Shaq on the line constantly in the early 2000’s all played with a style similar to the one I am advocating. We are in a new era in the NBA—LeBron’s era. It’s an era that’s gone soft by way of the official’s whistle, but NBA teams can fight this by using a strategy of good old Hack-A-LeBron.