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The run for riches begins

For 24 English football teams, the road to the golden ticket begins today.

The Championship. the second tier of English football, starts at 2000 British Summer Time (1400 Central Daylight Time), with Reading hosting Derby County in a battle of teams which were once in the Premier League, the richest football league on the planet.

The teams which finish first and second in the Championship over a grueling season of 46 fixtures earn automatic promotion to the Premier League, which means a windfall of anywhere from 150 to 200 million pounds, thanks to the rich television contract the Prem enjoys with broadcasters around the world, including NBC in the United States and Canada (TSN simulcasts the NBC feed in Canada).

The desperation will be especially intense for the five teams which have been relegated from the Premier League to the Championship over the last two seasons: Hull City and Middlesbrough, who were relegated in May 2017 after earning promotion from the Championship the previous season; and Stoke City, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion, all of whom were relegated three months ago.

When a team is relegated from the Premier League, it receives two years’ worth of parachute payments, anywhere from 70 to 80 million pounds, to help ease the financial drain of relegation.

The bottom three teams in the Premier League are relegated to the Championship each season. The system of promotion and relegation is used in every major football league around the world EXCEPT Major League Soccer, which uses the traditional North American model of fixed franchises. This is a main reason why I do not like MLS.

Notice I listed only five teams in the Championship receiving parachute payments.

The sixth member of that group, Sunderland, was relegated again after finishing dead last in the Championship in 2017-18. The Black Cats are now in League One, the third tier of English football. Sunderland’s Stadium of Light seats almost 49,000, while six stadia seat less than 10,000, and four others have less capacity than Bournemouth’s Dean Court, the smallest Premier League venue.

This has to be embarrassing in the north east of England, especially after Tyneside Derby rival Newcastle finished strong last year in the Premier League under Rafa Benitez and is pegged as a dark horse to grab a spot in European football for 2019-210.

Wolverhampton and Cardiff City earned the golden tickets from last year’s Championship thanks to finishing in the top two. The next four teams were in a playoff for the final spot in this year’s Premier League. Fulham, which plays in London and is owned by Shahid Khan, the same man who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, defeated former Premier League side Aston Villa in the final.

Villa has more resources than almost all other Championship sides. I’ll pick the Birmingham club to move back to the Premier League for 2019-20 by winning the league. Stoke City will also be back in the Prem come next August, with the Potters taking second. Middlesbrough, which made the Championship playoff but lost in the semis to Villa, will join Newcastle United to give fans in north east England two Premier League sides, further adding to Sunderland’s woe.

Bolton, which barely survived relegation to League One in 2017-18, won’t be so fortunate this time. Goodbye. Joining them on the down escalator will be Hull City and newly promoted Rotterham.

Next week, I will reveal my Premier League predicted table. Right now, I’m not seeing the Prem in Wales come next August…

Another jinx vanquished

There will be no World Cup matches today, fitting since today is the 242nd anniversary of the independence of a nation which cannot fight its way out of a wet paper bag in association football, at least when it counts the most.

It’s even more fitting the World Cup is off today, because  the country celebrating the 242nd anniversary of its independence gained said independence from the country which birthed “the beautiful game”.

One of the constituent countries of the nation where association football (soccer for those snooty Americans) is still alive in the World Cup, thanks to ending a curse which had long haunted it.

England advanced by winning a shootout (kicks from the penalty mark) yesterday over Colombia.

Repeating: England advanced by winning a shootout.

Let that sink in for a few seconds.

It’s the first time The Three Lions have won a shootout in the World Cup since it was introduced to team sports’ greatest spectacle in 1978 (but not put into practice until 1982).

Previously, England had been eliminated in 1990 (semifinals vs. West Germany), 1998 (round of 16 vs. Argentina in a match which saw David Beckham draw a straight red card two minutes into the second half; that England was able to hold Argentina scoreless for 73-plus minutes was amazing) and 2006 (vs. Portugal, with Cristiano Ronaldo burying the winner).

England appeared as if it would win in normal time 1-0, with Harry Kane burying a penalty kick in the 57th mniute after he was taken down in the box rather aggressively.

Colombia played borderline dirty all match, with the manager giving an English player a hard shoulder as they exited the pitch at halftime, and another Colombian player getting away with a headbutt as they jostled in the box on a free kick.

However, Colombia’s Yerry Mina scored the equalizer only seconds from full time, and the match continued. The half-hour of extra time was scoreless, and the groans went up from Newcastle and Sunderland in the North East to Bournemouth and Southampton on the south coast, and all points in between.

The tension had to be most palpable in Sunderland and Liverpool.

English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is a native of the North East of England. He played for Sunderland before leaving the Black Cats in the summer of 2017 after they were relegated out of the Premier League.

Everton, located in Liverpool and the archrival of the world-famous Liverpool Football Club, won the bidding war for Pickford. However, the Toffees were unable to fully take advantage of having Pickford and Wayne Rooney, finishing well behind Burnley for the final European qualifying spot, and obviously behind the Big Six of the Premier League: Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal.

FYI, the four most famous residents of Liverpool, two of whom are sadly no longer with us (one at the hands of a bloody murderer) did not care about the Merseyside Derby, the name given to the Liverpool-Everton rivalry. It was reported The Fab Four did not care much for football, at least the kind played with a round ball (Paul McCartney performed during the Super Bowl XXXVI pregame show and Super Bowl XXXIX halftime show).

In fact, when England won the 1966 World Cup at the old Wembley Stadium, Paul, John, George and Ringo were on the last leg of their last concert tour in the United States. And if you think few Americans care about soccer in 2018, the number of soccer die-hards in 1966 may have numbered less than the number of members of United States House (435).

Back to 2018, Pickford and his mates.

The announcers on Fox stated throughout extra time that Colombia was a lead-pipe cinch to advance to a quarterfinal meeting with Sweden. They felt Colombia had enough momentum from the late equalizer to score in extra time, then kept harping on England’s failure in shootouts in the past when it looked like the third shootout of the round of 16 would be a reality.

Surprisingly, English manager Gareth Southgate chose Kane to go first. Many managers save their best kicker for the fourth or fifth round, which is what the United States women did in shootouts in the World Cup finals of 1999 and 2011. In 1999, Mia Hamm, arguably the greatest female association football player to date, went fourth, leaving the heroics to Brandi Chastain and her famous sports brassiere. In 2011, Abby Wambach went fourth, but because the three before her–Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all missed, it didn’t matter, and Japan won. More of the blame lies on the shoulders of Hope(less) Solo (now Stevens).

Kane and Marcus Rashford scored for England after Radamel Falcao and Juan Cudrado did the same for Colombia. Luis Muriel scored the third kick for Colombia, but Jordan Henderson’s attempt was turned aside by David Ospina, shifting the edge to Colombia.

The pressure was now on Pickford. If he could not stop Mateus Uribe, the South American side would have a huge edge, knowing it would at the very least go into sudden death.

Pickford got a piece of Uribe’s arching shot. It hit the crossbar anyway, and England’s condition was upgraded from critical to satisfactory. It became completely healed when Kieran Trippler scored to knot it up again.

Carlos Bacca stepped to the mark for Colombia. He went right, and Pickford was spot on, easily stoning the Colombian substitute forward.

Southgate sent Eric Dier onto the pitch in the 81st minute to spell Dele Alli, the Tottenham striker. Dier now was called upon to take the last kick of the regulation round. If he missed, the kicks would go into sudden death. If Dier scored, England would play again Saturday.

Dier went hard and low to his left. Ospina guessed wrong. England was jolly indeed.

England now plays Sweden, a 1-0 victor over Switzerland. The winner of that match plays the winner of Croatia-Russia, which is also Saturday.

Friday’s matches are France-Uruguay and Brazil-Belgium. I picked Croatia, England and Brazil as semifinalists before the knockout round, and I’ll stick with that. I had France playing Portugal, with Les Bleus losing. I’ll pick France to win, though, against Uruguay.

Maybe it was time for England to end its curse. The Red Sox ended the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. The Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship, ending Cleveland’s sports curse which spanned 51 1/2 years. The Cubs ended the Curse of the BIlly Goat by winning the 2016 World Series, their first in 108 years. The Astros broke through last year, their 56th season, to win their first World Championship. The Eagles won Super Bowl LII earlier this year, Philadelphia’s first NFL title since 1960. The Capitals won their first Stanley Cup last month, ending a long run of playoff futility.

See? Most bad things will end. The bad news? All good things WILL end sooner or later.

Meanwhile, the Rays and Marlins played 16 innings last night. How depressing. Paid attendance: 6,259. I’d like to know how many people actually went to the game in Miami, and how many were left when it ended at 0040 Eastern.

The Royals and Orioles seem to be racing to the bottom. Both have lost 60 games, and both are so far out of the playoff race they need the Hubble telescope to find the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Mariners and Indians. Both are on pace to lose 114 games. Neither will probably lose that many, but both will likely fall short of 60 wins.

The Royals host the Red Sox this weekend. There are only nine more big-revenue home games left on the schedule at Kauffman Stadium: the three this weekend, plus three-game sets with the Cardinals and Cubs.

In case you’re curious, the Royals and Orioles play three in Kansas City Labor Day weekend. I’m sure the ticket office at The K is burning up over ticket sales for that one.

What’s wrong with a draw? NOTHING!

Following the Seattle-Arizona tie, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson suggested if overtime ends still tied, that a field goal be attempted. If the kicker for his team makes it, they win. If he misses, the other team wins.

STUPID. REALLY STUPID.

That would be the equivalent of a free throw contest in basketball or a home run derby in baseball to break a tie. It’s already stupid enough in hockey and association football (soccer in America) with the penalty shootout.

Personally, I do not see the problem with a draw. I believe the American obsession with winning and having to have a winner and loser in every single facet of society, whether it be sports or something else, is the reason why people disdain ties so much.

The most popular sports league on earth, the English Premier League, has witnessed 24 of 90 league matches to date end in draws. That’s almost two out of every seven matches. Nobody in Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Southampton, Bournemouth, London or any other Premier League outpost is griping about it. Neither are German fans of the Bundesliga. Or La Liga in Spain. Or Serie A in Italy.

Even though Major League Soccer is seriously flawed, thanks to having conferences instead of a single table and playoffs to determine its champion instead of using only the regular season, at least it ditched the shootout in 2000.

The shootout in MLS used from 1996-99 was beyond asinine. A player had to start 35 yards from the goal, dribble ahead, and shoot from the penalty area. He had to do it all within five seconds. Matches which ended level did not even feature extra time; it was straight to the stupid shootout.

My God. That’s not association football. That’s stupidity. That’s a video game.

If a draw was so toxic, the Premier League and other association football leagues would not award a point for a draw. It would disregard a draw, as the NFL did through 1971.

What is the outcome of many chess matches? A DRAW. STALEMATE. INSUFFICIENT MATERIAL. Has the good possibility of a draw stopped boys and girls from across the globe from learning the game? HECK NO.

Wars have been stalemates, so why are Americans so obsessed with determining the winner of a sporting event? If America would have accepted a stalemate in Vietnam, it would have looked a heck of a lot better than fighting on and accepting disadvantageous peace terms as Nixon and Kissinger did.

Before 1982, there was no provision whatsoever for a penalty shootout in the FIFA World Cup, the most watched sporting event on the planet. If a knockout round game ended drawn prior to ’82, it was replayed in its entirety. Many competitions continue to use the replay rather than a shootout if a match remains level after 120 minutes (90 regulation, 30 extra time).

The NHL got rid of overtime in the regular season in 1943. It didn’t return until 1983. In 1982-83, the last season before overtime returned to the regular season, 127 of 840 games (15.1 percent) ended drawn. That’s slightly more than one in six. What’s the big deal? So what if one of every six ends in a draw?

Hockey is a brutal enough game for 60 minutes of regulation. If a game is even after 60 minutes, that’s enough, at least for the regular season. I understand the need for having a winner in a playoff game. But playoff overtime is real hockey: 5-on-5, 20-minute periods, not this crazy 3-on-3, 5-minute crap for overtime, then the stupid shootout.

The NHL should award a team three points for a regulation win. NO OVERTIME. Draws earn each team one point. That’s it.

The same applies to American football.

Players expend far, far, far too much energy over 60 minutes, more than the average human can only dream of expending. Why make them go any farther during the regular season? If it’s even, the game should end right then and there. In the playoffs, yes, there needs to be overtime. And none of this crap about both teams need to possess the ball. Straight sudden death. If your defense is not good enough to prevent the other team from driving to score a field goal, you don’t deserve to advance.

Don’t get me started on how ridiculous college and high school overtime is. College is bad enough starting from the 25-yard line. High school is much, much worse, going from the 10. If an offense can’t gain 2 1/2 yards per play for four plays, then that team needs to give up the game.

The Kansas State High School Activities Association has done some really dumb things. The tiebreaker its former Executive Director, Brice Durbin, came up with in 1971 is totally ludicrous. It’s not real football. You’re asking a defense to hold a finger in the dike having to keep the offense out of the end zone from 10 yards out, and that team is already within range of a field goal.

The college and high school football format is not football. It takes the kickoff and the punt out of the game. Special teams have made the difference in thousands of football games over time. Why take part of it out of the game? Also, where is the strategy for a high school defensive coordinator, when you’re defending 10 yards every time?

High school and college football games in the regular season should end drawn if the score is level after 60 minutes (48 in high school). Overtime should be sudden death in the playoffs. If high school associations want to return to the old method of using first downs and penetrations inside the 20-yard line to break a deadlock, then go right ahead.

Baseball isn’t nearly as physically taxing as American football or hockey, but there are limits, too.

In Japan, regular season games are declared a draw if the score is still even after 12 innings (three extra). That’s not a bad idea for the United States. Once a game gets to 15, 16, 17 innings, teams are out of pitching, and it affects them for days after.

Major League Baseball would balk at any idea to declare a game drawn, but many managers would breathe a sigh of relief when they didn’t have to throw four relievers three innings each. The vast majority of games are resolved in nine innings, or those which do go extra can be resolved in 10, 11 or 12, so why worry about a draw? Not going to happen very much.

Basketball? Everyone has overtime, so I don’t see too much of a problem. Non-varsity high school games should be considered draws after regulation, simply to keep things moving. .

Some states use the “international tiebreaker” for softball. In that situation, the last batter of the previous inning starts the new frame on second base, and then the batting order proceeds as normal.

Hate it. HATE IT. Play real softball.

There are many, many more pressing issues than if a sporting events ends in a draw. America, as it is on many issues (using red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, not using the metric system, using paper money instead of coins or plastic), is DEAD WRONG.