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Saturday, February 9, 2008

US vs. Mexico Recap

It's taken me a few days to get this up, mainly because it's taken me a few days to actually watch the game. Too many other things going on this week in Phoenix (seee: Shaq to the Suns). The US came away with a 2-2 draw against Mexico, in what some Mexican players are referring to as a 'moral victory'. I guess if Mexico sees a tie against the US as a moral victory, it points to the dominance the Americans have displayed in the rivalry as of late.

The game itself was a pretty typical US-Mexico clash, heavy on intensity and chock full of hard fouls, with a total of 6 yellow cards handed out, including one to Michael "It's becoming my American duty to get a yellow card everytime i pull on the US jersey" Bradley. Or maybe we should call him Michael "Yellow card" Bradley. Or Michael "Hard Foul" Bradley. One of those...

The American's didn't look all that good to me, especially the outside on both sides in back and midfield. While i'm still not completely sold on Gooch in the back, he and Bocanegra make a fairly decent pairing with Bocanegra able to clean up most mistakes. The outside back positions are one of great concern to me however. Corrales did basically zero that i remember him for, which isn't exactly what i'm looking for.

On the other side, right back Drew Moor had several memorable moments, unfortunately most of them were negative. He showed a complete lack of an ability to mark his man on set pieces, which is how Mexico scored both of their goals. And while he did have the assist on Jozy's goal, his play otherwise vacilated between less than stellar and horrible. He had two marking mistakes that led to Mexico's set piece scoring chances, then failed to properly mark his man on both of those set pieces. Not good. The defense in general was unorganized, and gave up way too many shots, especially in the second half.

In the middle, Bradley was his typical tireless self, moving all over the field and constantly working. Unfortunately that didn't translate to a lot of possession and holding, as the Americans in general did a poor job of controlling the ball. Rico Clark, like Corrales, was virtually unnoticeable to me. I would have liked to see Feilhaber and Bradley together, instead of Feilhaber subbing for Bradley. Bobby Convey on the left played ok, though not spectacularly. He again had trouble putting in good crosses, and realistically is not the answer on the outside. And then we have LanDo...

I said in my preview that i would like to see LanDo in midfield, but i want no part of him on the wing in midfield. LanDo needs the ball to be effective, and is best when he is getting the ball and making thigns happen. He's not a traditional striker, though he can score goals in bunches. I still believe his absolute best position is as an attacking center midfielder, though apparently no one on the US coaching staff agrees with me...

Up top i thought Dempsey and Altidore played pretty well. Altidore obviously had the great goal, but played fairly well the rest of the match. He came out a bit timid and unsure of himself the first 15-20 minutes, but settled down and had some nice touches. Dempsey is still the most creative and entertaining US player, and showed off his skills a few times, including his great goal that was ultimately ruled offsides. I think Dempsey and Jozy up top could be a formidable line once they figure out how to work with each other and what their tendencies are.

I mentioned him earlier, but i thought Feilhaber did a good job once he came in. Not sure if it was because of him, or the US settled down, or what, but the Americans seemed to do a better job possessing the ball in the middle third once he came on. He also was very active, getting making many tackles and stealing the ball. As for the other subs, i didn't see a whole lot from Maurice Edu or Eddie Lewis. Just not enough playing time and/or not enough touches for either of them to really show anything. Freddy Adu also didn't get a ton of touches, but looked pretty good the times he did get the ball.

Tim Howard in the back was awesome once again, despite giving up two goals. Neither of them were his fault, and he made some very good saves throughout the match that could have given El Tri the win. He will be the American keeper for the foreseeable future, no question.

Some final thoughts on the game:

Mexico is getting good. They put a ton of pressure on the Americans, and are very quick, something the US struggled to handle. The battles between these two countries should only get better and more heated in the coming years.

American coach Bob Bradley still refuses to put what i think would be the best and most dangerous lineup on the field at the same time, which is both frustrating and encouraging. It is good to mix thigns around, change things, and try different combinations, but i would like to see a somewhat steady lineup. My ideal lineup would be: Howard as keeper, Bocanegra and Gooch in the back in the middle, and i have no clue who to put on the outside in the back....

In midfield, i'd like to see Beasley on the left when he returns, Bradley and Feilhaber in the middle, and probablt Dempsey on the right. Put LanDo and Jozy up top, and let LanDo roam and come back to the middle as necessary. Of course, they doesn't leave a spot for Adu, who i think needs to be in there. We apparently have too many midfielders and forwards and not enough defenders...

All in all not a bad result, and a pretty entertaining game. It's a good way to jumpstart what ultimately will be a very important year for the American side, with World Cup 2010 Qualifying starting this summer.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

US vs. Mexico

With all the talk about the Big Diesel coming to Phoenix (here and here), let me take a quick timeout to remind you of an important, albeit ultimately meaningless, soccer game going on tonight.

That's right kids, it's time for the annual early-year US vs. Mexico friendly. And once again, inexplicably, it's on American soil, this time in Reliant Stadium in Houston. While this game is considered a friendly, there is nothing friendly going on when these two teams meet, and the US has dominated this series on home soil as of late. They are 8-0-1 against El Tri since 2000 in America, allowing only a single goal along the way.

The American squad, as well as the Mexican one, look to be at almost full-strength tonight, with a lean towards showcasing the young up-and-comers likely to be big factors in World Cup Qualifying and beyond. Let's take a look, courtesy of Soccernet:

Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Chivas USA), Tim Howard (Everton, England)

Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham, England), Ramiro Corrales (Brann, Norway), Drew Moor (Dallas), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege, Belgium), Michael Parkhurst (New England), Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock, Germany), Eddie Robinson (Houston)

Midfielders: Freddy Adu (Benfica, Portugal), Michael Bradley (Heerenveen, Netherlands), Ricardo Clark (Houston), Bobby Convey (Reading, England), Brad Davis (Houston), Maurice Edu (Toronto), Benny Feilhaber (Derby, England), Stuart Holden (Houston), Eddie Lewis (Derby, England)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (New York), Clint Dempsey (Fulham, England), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles), Pat Noonan (Aalesund, Norway)

There are a couple of things you should notice here: One, the Keepers. Howard has long been the next great American Keeper, and it looks like the job may finally be his for good. Also, Guzan is getting major play from European teams, so look for him to make the move soon.

In back, Bocanegra and Gooch i'm sure will start in the middle. Gooch needs to start showing the form and skill he showed off in the World Cup a few years back, since he has shown none of it since and it's getting frustrating.

In the midfield, the only name i miss is Mastroeni (Beasley obviously is out with an injury). I would expect Bradley and Feilhaber to get the start in the middle, as that will most likely be the central of the US squad for many years to come. Also note that Bradley has BLOWN UP for his Dutch Club team, Heerenven, scoring goals at a ridiculous pace. We need goal production from the midfield, so this is a good sign. Also, i would like to see either Adu or Edu get the start to see what they can do, but i doubt they will. More likely would be Convey and Lewis, though reports are that Lewis is hurt as well.

And up top is where i'm excited. Note to coach Bob Bradley: Please, please, PLEASE start Jozy Altidore. I'm begging you! Put him up top with LanDo or Dempsey! In fact, put him up top with either of those two, then drop the other one back into midfield. Dempsey plays well on the right, and i like LanDo as an attacking central Mid anyway. Do it! This kid is gonna be a star!

Overall i like the line-ups, and am excited to see the youngsters play. I think Adu and Jozy have developed pretty good chemistry on the younger National Teams, and would love to see them play together against the Mexicans. It will also be young Bradley's first shot against Mexico, as he sat out the Gold Cup Final with accumulated yellow cards. Feilhaber, on the other hand, seemed to fare quite well against El Tri in the Gold Cup Final...

One more note before returning to our regularly scheduled Shaq coverage: Watch out for the youngsters on Mexico as well. Giovani Dos Santos is only 18 years old, but already is playing for Barcelona, one of the best club teams in the world. And he's playing well. He and fellow 18-year old Carlos Vela make a formidable scoring punch, with Dos Santos' Barcelona teammate Rafael Marquez the ever-steady man in back for Mexico.

In the end the game doesn't mean anything, which is precisely why i would love to see the kids get some major minutes. The game will have the feel of a clash of heavyweights, but won't ultimately affect any standings. Let's get the kids some experience, and hopefully continue the American dominance in this rivalry this decade...

Shaq Is A Sun

Welcome to the Valley Shaq.

Now get healthy, get motivated, and start playing some defense.

Everything i wrote last night about this trade? Crumple it up, throw it out, and forget about it. Pending a physical this afternoon, Shaq is going to a Phoenix Sun. Better get ready for the show.

I still have major, major concerns about whether or not this trade will work out for the Suns, but at this point it doesn't look like it's going to matter. So instead of focusing on the negative (as i did here), let's look at ways in which Shaq might be able to help this team.

First, no one will dispute the fact that he's still one of the largest bodies in the NBA. That fact alone will create some semblance of resistance in the Suns low-post defense. While Shaq has never been a great defender in the true sense of the word, his sheer size alters shots and creates problems for opposing teams' offense scoring in the paint.

There is no denying that Shaq will be able to hold some of the great centers/power forwards in the Western Conference in check more than anyone else we've had on this team in a long while, maybe ever. Say what you will about his defense, but Shaq has historically played Tim Duncan and Yao Ming well, not to mention KG and Ben Wallace over in the Eastern Conference. Oh, and i'd be willing to bet that Andrew Bynum, if and when he does come back, has not seen anyone like Shaq before.

It has been true Shaq's scoring and rebounding is done this year and last, but who's to say that couldn't go up here? Shaq is shooting a ridiculous 58% on the year, good for 6th highest in the League. He is shooting that because he gets a ton of dunks, and if there's one thing that's been proven over the years, it's that Steve Nash has the ability to get people easy looks and dunks.

Another thing to consider is that Shaq traditionally has been a pretty good passer from the low-post, averaging almost three assists a game over his career. Imagine the dynamic on this team if their opponent is forced to double-team Shaq on the block? That opens the three-point line, from which the Suns are third in the League in shooting percentage and second in the League in three-pointers made each game. Not to mention the fact that the man coming to double-team Shaq would, you assume, be the man guarding Amare part of the time. That leaves Amare unguarded coming down either the baseline or the lane. Amare is pretty good in those situations.

It has already been reported that the Suns plan on using Shaq only about 25 minutes a game, which hopefully would cut down on his penchant for picking up fouls. It also would help keep him fresh and rested for the playoffs, when Phoenix will really need him. After all, why else did the Suns pick him up if not for the playoffs? They certainly don't need him in the regular season, as they have the best record in the Western Conference.

Naturally, this trade hinges on Shaq's ability to pass a physical this afternoon here in Phoenix. And while he is still injured, something tells me there aren't too many doctors out there who would fail him. Shaq is going to be a Sun, and all of better get used to it. And while i'm still not sure it's the best trade for the Suns, you better believe i'll be rooting for him when he puts on the Purple and Orange.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shaq To The Suns?

According to a Miami Herald Report: The Miami Heat are in serious discussions to trade Shaquille O'Neal, and have informed him he should be prepared for that fact. According to the article, one of the destinations is rumored to be Phoenix, with Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks heading to the Heat for Shaq.

(Sigh) First reaction? NO! Not in a million years. Not ever.

After a half hour of thinking about? Still no, though not quite as emphatic. I suppose if i look at it objectively, i can see a few reasons as to why the Suns might be at least curious about the trade. Still, i don't think it's a good trade for the Suns for many reasons, not the least of which involve Shaq's age, health, contract, and ability to fit our system...

Shaq is 35, and has two more years remaining on a $20 million/year contract. While the money for the Suns would not be any different the rest of this year or next, the trade would put an extra $20 million on the books for the '09-'10 season (not that i think he would still be around then). His contract is ridiculous for a center of his age, when centers have a long history of breaking down right around 34-35. Shaq has proven to be no different, playing in only 40 games (of 82) last year, and missing 14 of the Heat's last 18 games.

In addition to his health issues, or perhaps because of his health issues, Shaq's production has seen a severe drop-off the last two season. Despite averaging 25.6 points and 11.5 rebounds a game for his career, last year it dropped to 17.3 and 7.4, and this year has been even worse, plummeting to 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. Ok, well maybe his rebounds are up slightly, but they're still way under his career average. Oh and by the way, his hip is injured and he hasn't even been cleared to RUN, let alone play basketball.

All that aside, let's just assume for a minute that Shaq was in good health and the Suns were willing to take on his contract despite his age. There is still a major problem to be addressed as to how he would fit into the Suns' system. The Sun's have absolutely killed the Heat the last few years, mainly due to the fact thay they run Shaq out of the building and he becomes virtually useless to the Heat. He can't run up and down the court like he used, and I'm not sure he could ever run the way the Sun's run. So how does that fit with Phoenix?

The prevailing opinion, or speculation actually, is that the Suns are looking at this trade for one of two reasons: One, as a reaction to the Laker's getting Pau Gasol (which, on a side note, was an absolute STEAL. What a ridiculous trade...). The second reason would be an acknowledgement that the Suns need an inside presence in order to beat the Spurs. While this may be true, even though i'm not convinced, i'm not sure this is answer.

If this trade went through, i believe it would be for the second reason. Since becoming GM, Steve Kerr has not shown a confidence in the coach D'Antoni's run and gun system, and in fact there have been rumblings of a rift between the two. Remember also that Kerr played in San Antonio with Duncan, in a slow it down, grind it out offense. He won titles with that offense, and has to have some feeling that's the way to win a Championship. I can agree with the need for an inside presence, but to me bringing in Shaq would be for the series against the Spurs only. He would be completely worthless against the Warriors, probably worthless against the Jazz and Hornets, and not much good against the Mavs. I just don't see the value in him for one possible series.

Shaq does not fit our system, not one bit. He can't run with us, and much prefers a slow, half-court game. The Suns didn't become the Suns by playing a half-court game. They got there by running and gunning, and everybody knows it. So the question becomes, do you believe the Suns can win with their system, or don't you?

Personally, i think they can. Admittedly i've only lived in the Valley for a couple of years, but have watched the Suns closely since then because their brand of basketball has been incredible. They revolutionized the game, and the League has become one of copycats, many attempting the run and gun style Mike D'Antoni installed here. As such, i think it has actually become harder to win with the style, since more teams use it and more teams get used to it and how to defend it.

That said, if executed well, which the Suns can do, i still think it can win a championship and, quite honestly, can win one easily. The Sun's have had a great chance the last couple of years, but injuries and bad breaks have prevented it. Given a chance to make one last run, i think the Suns can pull it off with a couple of breaks.

What does that all mean? It means i'm still at the point i was when i first heard the trade rumors of Shaq for Marion and Banks: Don't do it. The Sun's have a great nucleus, and have the talent to win a Championship. And while a trade may be in the works and may even make this team better, this is not that trade.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Super Bowl Pick

How depressing is this? The last game of football for the next 8 months. I'm not gonna lie, that sucks ass. Major ass. What the hell am i going to spend my saturday and sundays doing now?

Anyway, over the conference championships i went 0-2, per usual in the playoffs. I am now 4-6 since the regular season ended, not exactly knocking it out of the park...

New England vs. New York Giants (Pick at the end of column)
I've been waffling on this pick for the last two weeks, trying to decide exactly how this game is going to go. Ideally, it's a close, tight, back and forth game the entire way, with one team scoring late to win the game. Then again, it is the Super Bowl, and they haven't been particularly entertaining as of late.

New England has been scary good at times this season, but has shown some kinks in the armor in recent weeks, and haven't covered the spread in a month. Some people blame that fact on the weather and the fact New England has gome to more of a power running game, getting away from the wide open spread passing attack they opened the season in. While i agree they have been running more, i'm not convinced it's because of the weather. Either way, inside University of Phoenix stadium will be no weather conditions, so if the Patriots choose to throw down the field, they won't have problems from that.

The Giants, however, have been an enigma most of the season. Playing spectacularly bad at times, including a 41-17 drubbing at the hands of the Vikings at home. They also have played solidly well at other times, especially late this year into the playoffs. The change, as everyone loves to point out, has been Eli Manning and his play. Eli has always been a bit inconsistent, but the last four games has been very good, limiting his mistakes and making some great throws.

As many people do, i believe this game comes down to the play of Eli. As he goes, so go the Giants. The key is how much pressure he receives. When he has time to sit back in the pocket and scan the field, he has the ability to pick apart the defense. When he is under constant pressure, he gets happy feet and has a tendency to force things and make mistakes. Witness the above-mentioned Vikings game, who pressured Eli early and often, forcing him into three INT's, two of which were returned for TD's. The Vikings had a gameplan to go all out after Eli, and it worked to near perfection.

Bill Belichick is a master at preparing for teams, esepcially given two weeks to do it. While his penchant this season has been to play mostly straight up defense for three quarters, then bring pressure and blitzes in the 4th has worked all season, i expect him to mix it up in this game. He has seen how well Eli has been playing, and he has no doubt seen what getting to him early does to him.

I expect the Patriots to come out throwing as well, trying to get an early lead to force Eli and the Giants to play catch-up. While i think they will stick to their gameplan and power run it even down one score, if the Giants get down a couple of scores they may be forced to air it out. If that happens, Eli will have to play a near-perfect game in order to just keep it close. He did that the last time these two teams met, in the final regular-season game of the season. I'm sure Belichick has also studied that game and will try some new things on defense.

As i said, i expect the Patriots to come out looking to score early and often, which i also believe they will be able to do. That, combined with the pressure i expect them to bring on Eli as much as possible, should force the Giants into making some mistakes and getting behind big early. Once that happens, it will be all over for New York. That's why my pick is:

New England -12 over New York Giants.