Posted by: mdegeorge | July 23, 2012

2012 Tour Diagnosis: 20 points for 20 stages

Cycling is no stranger to hype. Bradley Wiggins was almost one of the most noteworthy victims of it.

For years, the sport’s biggest stage has played host to the sport’s largest artificial creations — the expectations that a laundry list of stars would emerge in the Tour de France for only a tenth of the promise to come good.

Wiggins’ expectations explosion came in 2009 when the former track sprinter began his metamorphosis, shedding a couple dozen kilograms and suddenly finding climbing legs no one imagined he had by finishing fourth in the Tour, tying Robert Millar for the highest ever finish for a Briton.

It started, though, to look like those few grand days were a flash in the pan. The inaugural Sky team he jumped to after spending 2009 with Garmin faltered in the mountains, leading to a 24th-place finish in 2010. A year later, he was among the many riders caught up in the early-stage carnage and withdrew.

It appeared as though Wiggins might never put things together. Three weeks later, it’s hard to believe that was ever the thought.

Wiggins dominated the Tour, physically and logistically, en route to winning the race’s 99th edition today in Paris, a result that left little question.

With 20 races and over 200 riders, it’s hardly the only highlight. So as has become tradition (can you call it tradition in year three?) here are my 21 points for 21 stages.

Wiggo the magnificent. It was Bradley Wiggins’ race from start to finish. Billed as a time trialist’s Tour for the two lengthy races against the clock, Wiggins came through, winning both with ease, including the domination in the penultimate stage Saturday that provided the exclamation point. He wore the Yellow Jersey since Day 8, taking over from Fabian Cancellara, to whom Wiggins finished second in the prologue by seven seconds. It’s the first time since Jaan Kirsipuu and Lance Armstrong in 1999 that the Yellow Jersey had only two wearers. But more impressive was the way in which Wiggins carried himself up the mountains. His Sky team controlled the peloton in a manner we haven’t seen since Armstrong’s Discovery Channel and USPS teams. When there were attacks, the champion of Paris-Nice, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de Romandie always seemed able to respond and never gave the impression he was about to crack. He finished three minutes ahead of teammate Chris Froome and over six minutes before third-place Vincenzo Nibali, absolutely massive time gaps. It was Wiggins who made sure that during Stage 14’s tack attack the group waited for Cadel Evans after repeated punctures. He also provided enough sound bites, from the clean “boring” Tour to the thank you for the media, to cut an entertaining figure. To say it was Wiggins’ Tour is no exaggeration. To say that Wiggins’ accomplishment is the greatest ever by a British athlete, well that’s for others to decide. Read More…

Posted by: mdegeorge | May 27, 2012

Starting XI Points: USA-Scotland friendly

U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann emphasized the five-game gamut his team has just embarked be approached like a mini tournament. If that’s the case, you can consider Saturday’s performance by the red, white and blue having put the rest of the fictitious group on notice.

The 5-1 annihilation of Scotland may be just what the doctor (not this one) ordered to start off a junket of three friendlies and two World Cup qualifiers in the next 18 days. But before we get ahead of ourselves, which so many U.S. soccer fans may be tempted to do, let’s consider just what happened in Jacksonville beyond the final scoreline. Sounds like time for Starting XI points …

Lando’s back. There have been plenty of people doubting the motivation Landon Donovan has been bringing to the pitch lately. Suffice it to say his hat trick in rampant fashion answered most of those critics Saturday. He was absolutely superb, a constant threat, and could’ve had a fourth goal if not for a bad bounce off the post. There’s been a lot of talk as Clint Dempsey emerging as the U.S’s new star attraction, the free-to-roam midfield upon whom defenses heap attention and the public pours expectations, to relieve the pressure on an aging Donovan (a term I use lightly given that he’s only recently turned 30). But he proved Saturday as he crept to one goal shy of the half-century mark that his day for the U.S. is hardly over. Read More…

Posted by: mdegeorge | May 16, 2012

English Premier League Team of the Year

It was going to take a lot to shake me out of my blogging drought, to chase me from my relaxed perch of just working “40” hours a week. I figured it would take a sizeable groundswell of emotion and desire to write about those sports I spend an absurd amount of hours each week watching to move me back to the keyboard again.

If Sunday didn’t do it, I’d need my pulse checked. The morning started with as emotional of a meaningless game in the standings could ever be with the farewell party at the San Siro. For someone who quite literally grew up as a soccer fan on the decade of excellence grown at Milan, seeing Pippo Inzaghi ends his red-and-black career with a quintessential poacher’s goal was outstanding. (Perhaps more on that later.)

Then there was the hysteria of the Premier League’s final day, one where the drama of the title fight was enough to overshadow exciting battles for Europe and survival. It was exhibit A of how exciting a sport can be (cheap plug alert!)  without a playoff to crown a true champion. From Sergio Aguero’s bare-chested sprint around the Etihad to Sir Alex’s sullen countenance, there was so much to cover that sitting on the sidelines just seemed silly.

With that Mancunian motivation in mind, I take to typing. And while I’ve maintained radio, er, blog, silence, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching. So what better way to get back into the swing of things than by putting together a team of the season for the Barclays Premier League. Let’s hope it contains a fraction of the excitement of the season it’s chronicling.

From left, Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero all have a place in the EPL’s Team of the Year. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Goalkeeper: Joe Hart, Manchester City. The increased cohesiveness of the Citizens’ backline meant Hart wasn’t tested quite as much this year as last. But he was just as outstanding. His save total of 97 is one of the lower totals for an EPL full-timer, but the Citizens’ 29 goals allowed is the lowest in the league. His confidence showed through Sunday in the most subtle of ways: He was an important distributor, having the confidence to play near the halfway line to facilitate attack against Queens Park Rangers.

Honorable Mention: David De Gea, Manchester United (29 goals allowed in 29 starts have the Spaniard’s No. 1 job solidified; better things are to come); Simon Mignolet, Sunderland (Working around an injury, the 24-year-old showed enough promise to vault once-struggling Sunderland into the top-half conversation); Tim Krul, Newcastle (the Magpies keeper was a constant stalwart for a team improbably Europe-bound), Michel Vorm, Swansea (without the sought-after Dutchmen’s 136 saves, especially some early standouts performances, the Swans would be facing Championship football next year).

Defender: Vincent Kompany, Manchester City. The captain of the champions was stout all year. His partnership with Kolo Toure was short-circuited by the Ivorian’s drug suspension, and the Belgian had to often cover for the dodgy Joleon Lescott (see the error against QPR Sunday) or the ever-mercurial Micah Richards. His hands are as deserving as any to be the first on the league trophy. Read More…

Posted by: mdegeorge | December 7, 2011

Starting XI Points: Champions League Group Stages

Wednesday delivered one of those legendary European nights that instantly earned its place in soccer lore and that few are soon to forget. There was last-minute intrigue, controversy throughout, underdog stories and, what could be better, the fall of a giant.

Here are the 11 most important takeaways from two (yes, we’ll lump in a largely underwhelming Tuesday slate too) nights to close out the Champions League group stages.

Manchester United's performance against FC Basel Wednesday didn't give manager Sir Alex Ferguson much to applaud. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

England (doesn’t) Prevail

The two main protagonists in the heated battle for Premier League supremacy this season, well, they’ve got more time to focus on that. Manchester United and Manchester City both crashed out of the group stage Wednesday, turning both the blue and red halves of Manchester black for the time being in the first instance of two English teams being eliminated in the group stages in the history of the competition.

The Red Devils’ descent is more spectacular. The finalists last season and participant in three of the last four seasons frankly weren’t good enough to advance. Their only wins in the competition came against Romania basement-dweller Otelul Galati. They were drawn at home by both of the team’s progressing, Benfica and FC Basel, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men couldn’t come through in the clutch with the win-or-go-to-the-Europa-League proposition Wednesday in Basel. Coupled with their struggles in the league, Ferguson’s men have some serious questions to answer. Goalie David De Gea was culpable on the opener, as was a defense that could be without stalwart Nemanja Vidic for a while and a midfield that has needed Phil Jones to deputize just isn’t working.

Then there’s Manchester City, the Premier League leaders who bowed out in favor of Napoli despite beating group winners Bayern Munich, 2-0, thanks to the Italian side’s 2-0 win over Villarreal. The Citizens lost out by virtue of their inability to best Napoli at home in the group’s first fixture, a 1-1 draw, and fell, 2-1, at a raucous Sao Paolo Stadium two weeks ago. Man City’s group was among the toughest from the outset, to the relegation to the Europa League isn’t all the fault of Roberto Mancini’s men. Unlike their Mancunian counterparts, the refocusing on the domestic league may actually pay dividends down the road.

But there’s a bright side… Read More…

Posted by: mdegeorge | November 16, 2011

Glimmer of hope emerges from fog of Ljubljana

The exclamation “eureka” is said to have been coined by Archimedes centuries ago. You have to wonder if, being so close to the Greek peninsula Tuesday, United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann uttered those three enlightened syllables at some point in the first half of his USA team’s 3-2 triumph over Slovenia.

It remains to be seen if Klinsmann can boast the ancient Greek renaissance man’s claim to move the world if given a suitable place to stand. But after some badly needed signs of offensive life that resulted from formation tweaks Tuesday, the German coach has to at least feel a bit better about his ability to move his team toward a World Cup.

It wasn't on the order of the World Cup triumph over Algeria, but Jozy Altidore and the US attack got a much needed reason celebrate Tuesday against Slovenia. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The numbers were not pretty in the Klinsmann era: 1-4-1 with a mere two goals in six matches in charge. And while the result against the Green Dragons is little more than window dressing to cap one of the national team’s worst years in over a decade, it’s much needed relief even for a coach insistent that he’s not yet at the point at which results matter

“It looked much better,” Klinsmann said after the game. “It’s a process, and that process, besides results, is going really well.”

For one of the first times in his stint, the results and the process both bore fruits. Switching to a 4-4-2 formation, by far the most logical arrangement for this team, the Red, White and Blue produced a veritable offensive bonanza in the first half. Each member of the strike pairing found the scoresheet – Edson Buddle in the 9th minute and Jozy Altidore on a penalty in the 43rd – while Clint Dempsey, also in an advanced role as the head of the midfield diamond, got on the board in the 41st minute.

It should be painfully evident to Klinsmann at this point in his tenure and with a lengthy break to stew over his options that the formation the deployed against Slovenia is the one best suited for his team’s needs. The five-man midfield crutch upon which he, and Bob Bradley at the end of his reign, has been leaning upon makes selection easier given the glut of midfield options and relative paucity of choices for strikers. Read More…

Posted by: mdegeorge | October 19, 2011

Tony La Russa, always telling the truth (VIDEO)

There’s a lot of hype surrounding the opening of the World Series. But the attention should be old hat for Tony La Russa after three decades as a big league manager .. and with his other TV experience, namely an appearance on the game show “To Tell The Truth”.

The appearance dates from the early 1980s when La Russa was the youngest manager in baseball with the Chicago White Sox. Robin Ward, who hosts La Russa’s appearance, was in charge of “To Tell The Truth” in 1980 and 1981, while the cast includes such well known names as Rita Moreno, Nipsey Russell and Dick Van Patten.

Amazingly, La Russa, who boasts about his law degree as a nice fallback plan for a managerial career that doesn’t have a lot of security, stumps the panel of stars with all four choosing the impostors over him. Makes pitching machinations seems easy, huh?

Posted by: mdegeorge | October 17, 2011

Criticism of La Russa’s pitching changes a lot of bull

Tony La Russa may not have invented situational matchups in the late innings of major league games. But the one derisively monikered “The Genius” for his many late-inning machinations has done enough to elevate it to an (albeit frustrating) art form.

So it may have come as a surprise to many Sunday as the Cardinals clinched the NLCS with a 12-6 win over the Brewers that the man who’s worn a path from the dugout to the pitching mound at Miller Park the last week left reliever Marc Rzepczynski in the game for 2.1 innings.

Like him or hate him, Tony La Russa pulled the right strings to secure a pennant for his Cardinals. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The situational lefty who specializes in one-batter-and-done (16 of his 81 appearances this year were for only one hitter) was stretched uncharacteristically because, well, he was the only one quieting the bats. His win was the cherry on top of an outstanding series for the Cardinals’ pen:

– They set a postseason record for most relief appearances in a seven-game series with 28, better the previous mark of 27.

– They worked 28.2 innings compared to 24.1 from the starters. The bullpen’s ERA was 1.88 in the series; the starters 7.66.

– They posted with a 3-0 record in the series.

– The Cards became the first team in history to win a postseason series without a starter reaching the sixth inning.

It’s a situation that exacerbates the already uncomfortable transition from regular season to postseason in baseball. The leeway given to a starter, the reticence to overwork a bullpen, the minor factors that can sway the decision to bunt or pinch hit are miles different from the regular season to the postseason, part of the reason so many (read: Phillies and Yankees fans) bemoan October baseball as an inaccurate way to pinpoint the sport’s best team. Read More…

Posted by: mdegeorge | September 29, 2011

Reliving every minute of baseball’s glorious night

It’s safe to say that Wednesday provided perhaps the most exciting conclusion to a baseball regular season we’ve seen in a great many years, perhaps ever. The night began with the threat of two one-game playoffs looming with four teams in the hunt for their respective league’s Wild Card berths. It ended with a troika of classics beyond anything that could have been scripted by even Hollywood’s best.

Take a look at the timeline of events, perhaps the craziest two hours and change you’ll ever see…

Evan Longoria, the hero of heroes on Major League Baseball's closing night. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

9:35 p.m.: The tarp is coming out on the field at Camden Yards. The Red Sox are up 3-2, Jon Lester is tiring and about to come out after the Red Sox squander an opportunity for insurance runs with two on and two out. Lester looks ready to come out anyway.

9:45: A cheer goes through the 59.4-percent-full Minute Maid Park, most of them clad in Cardinals’ red, as the news matriculates that Chase Utley’s sacrifice fly off Craig Kimbrel ties things in Atlanta, 3-3. Kimbrel walks Hunter Pence, but Kris Medlen comes in to extinguish the Phillies’ threat and get Michael Martinez to meekly foul out to third.

10:20: It’s taken eight (count ’em, eight) Yankees pitchers of varying degrees of anonymity, but once pitchers with a glimmer of postseason hope enter, the Rays’ bats get going. Boone Logan loads the bases before Luis Ayala allows a walk, hit by pitch, sacrifice fly and a three-run home run to Evan Longoria in the bottom of the eighth. Suddenly, we have a game in South Florida; something tells me Longoria’s evening is far from over.

10:25: The Cardinals, who apparently didn’t get the drama memo, do their bit in the Wild Card chase by coasting to an 8-0 win. Chris Carpenter goes the distance, striking out 11 Astros and allowing a mere two hits while requiring an economic 106 pitches. An early assault in which the first five batters to face Brett Myers (that’s former Phillie Brett Myers) score ensures there’s no doubt in Houston. Despite starting an hour later than their Wild Card rival Braves, the Cards have to wait it out and figure out if they’re bound for St. Louis for a one-game playoff or Philadelphia for the divisional round. Read More…

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