Thoughts From the Opening Matches of the Knockout

By Aaron Hampton  

The knockout rounds of the World Cup began this weekend and saw Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands all go through to the quarterfinals.  So while you’re still catching your breath from the two penalty shootouts or possibly still gasping in amazement at James Rodriguez’s wonder goal, here’s my takeaways from each fixture.

Brazil Survive and Advance

The Selecao’s performance against Chile was at times frustrating, always dramatic, and in the end just enough to see Brazil through to the quarterfinals.  And while they are moving on to the next round of the World Cup, it seems as though this win left more answers than questions; mainly about the creativity of this Brazilian squad. Neymar is the unquestioned star of this team, and it’s clear that as he goes so will Brazil, however you can’t help but be struck by just how ordinary this team looks when Neymar isn’t allowed to weave his magic. 

Coming into the match with four goals, if Chile had any chance at winning the match they were going to have to limit Neymar and overall they did a good job in containing him, often putting him in situations with three or four defenders surrounding him.  With that type of focus squarely on stopping the Barcelona forward, it was on the other members of the team to provide Brazil with another outlet of attack.

 Hulk had his best game for Brazil in recent memory, consistently finding success getting up and down the flanks and putting pressure on the back line of Chile, but even his failed clearance led to Alexis Sanchez equalizing for Chile in the first half.  Beyond him,  you really struggle to find anyone else who had an impact on the game.  Fred continued his struggles in this tournament, and was subbed off for the equally ineffective Jo.  Oscar, consistently a source of creativity and attacking inspiration for Chelsea, also struggled to make his mark on the game and was virtually nonexistent on the pitch.

 And while at this stage of the tournament advancing to the next match is really all that matters, clearly if the host nation is going to live up to the high expectations set on them, they will have to do more to supplement the attacking prowess of Neymar.  There will be games, games of which we’ve already seen during this World Cup, where he will put the team on his back and drag Brazil across the finish line.  But as we get into the later rounds, Brazil can’t count on that every match.  Eventually goals are going to have to come from somewhere else.  Where is anybody’s guess, but moving onto the next round Brazil will have a few days to think it over.

Rodriguez Shines For Columbia

In all honesty their was only one clear distinction between Columbia and Uruguay in their knockout round matchup, one team had James Rodriguez and the other did not.  That’s where we’re at at this point in the World Cup, where James Rodriguez is making himself a household name with each passing match producing another otherworldly performance. Coming into the World Cup minus the talents of world-class striker Radamel Falcao, many were wondering how Columbia would be able to progress deep into the tournament without their number one striker.  Not to say that Falcao has become an afterthought, but that’s just how easy it is to get caught in the amazement of what James Rodriguez is doing in this tournament. 

With five goals and two assists, he has been the unquestioned player of the World Cup.  But what’s even more impressive is that he seems to grow in confidence and get better as Columbia gets deeper in the World Cup.  His eye for goal and finding teammates in dangerous positions has been second to none to anybody in this year’s World Cup.

 His wonder strike in the first half of Columbia’s win was a microcosm of everything Rodriguez has meant to Columbia and fans watching the World Cup.  It was creative, confident, and clinical, the perfect balance between flair and finishing. 

Columbia now goes through to a quarterfinal matchup against Brazil, firmly on the back of their 22 year-old prodigy.  How far they make rest squarely on the left foot of James Rodriguez, who continues to announce himself to the world each and every time he sets foot on the pitch.

Heartbreak for Mexico

Five minutes from stoppage time and it seemed as though Mexico was on their way to qualifying for the quarterfinals of the World Cup for only third time in there history.  It was then when set piece defending, the achilles heel of this Mexican team, reared it’s ugly head.  With the Netherlands taking their tenth corner of the game, Wesley Sneijder was allowed to pounce on a deflection and  bury a wide open shot into the back of the net to knot the game up at one goal a piece.

From there the nightmare would continue as Arjen Robben, who unquestionably was the Netherlands most threatening player all afternoon, was taken down in the box in stoppage time, which led to Klass-Jan Huntelaar cooly slotting home the game winning goal from the spot.

What makes the defeat even more hard to stomach if you’re a Mexico supporter, is that prior to the two goals in eight minutes by the Netherlands, El Tri were clearly the better side of the two all afternoon  They were able to dictate the pace at which the game was played, not allowing the Netherlands to get out on the break and stifling both Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben whenever they picked up the ball.  Beyond that they were fearless in getting forward and taking their chances at goal, which was rewarded by Giovanni Dos Santos first goal for the national team in over two years. 

And while Mexico may have been the better team for 80 minutes of the contest, all that’ll be talked about and dissected from the match is the meltdown in the dying moments of the game.  Which is a shame because in just a short time since World Cup qualifying this team has grown under the leadership of Miguel Herrera.  It was evident in their gusty performance in earning a draw against Brazil during the group stage, and it was solidified in outplaying the Netherlands for large portions of their match.

The Magical Run Continues for Costa Rica

In a World Cup filled with many shocks and surprises possibly none is bigger than the continued success Costa Rica is experiencing in this year’s tournament.  They were never expected to challenge in a group that included England, Italy, and Uruguay and yet they finished first in that group and continue to make waves in the tournament after dispatching Greece by way of penalties.

While it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing performance tactically from Costa Rica, their heart and resolve were on display for all the world to see as they had to finish almost the entire second half and 30 minutes of extra time down to only 10 men. As Greece dominated possession and tried to kill the game off, keeper Keylor Navas made a number of great saves at close range to keep his team in the game and inspire to withstand Greece’s offensive advances.

It’s only fitting that he have the defining moment of the game in the penalty shootout.  With each team taking turns cooly slotting home penalty shots, Navas made an impressive diving, left handed save that put Costa Rica in the drivers seat, and gave defender Michael Umana the platform to kill off the game with his final penalty shot, and send Costa Rica on to a matchup with the Netherlands.

Once again Costa Rica will come into that game with the Netherlands as the overachieving underdog, but as the games go by and the wins pile up that title is ill-fitting.  This is a squad that belongs and one that will take the fight right to the Netherlands.  And while their run up until this point has been magical, something tells me they still my have one or two tricks up there sleeve.

 

True Grit

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By Aaron Hampton

It wasn’t easy or pretty, but there was something so American about the way the United States qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup.  Michael Bradley talked in the lead up to the World Cup about wanting to be the that can suffer the most, and that in itself sums up the war of attrition the United States overcame in making it out of the group.

Take the loss of Jozy Altidore for example.  Losing your number one striker would be a major blow for any team, but more so for the United States and Klinsmann’s preference for running a 4-2-3-1 formation.  Now you can make what you want of Altidore’s form heading into the World Cup, but the fact remains no one on the roster can fill his shoes as the lone man upfront for the United States in that formation, with neither Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, nor Aron Johanasson as adept at playing with their backs to goal.  Yet, without their target man upfront the United States were still able to brave a lethal attacking threat in Ghana just long enough for John Brooks to etch his name into folklore with his brilliant header in the dying embers of that opening game.

Even more important than the three points taken from the win against Ghana was how the United States responded to dominating large portions of their match against Portugal, only to see Portugal salvage a draw behind a momentary defensive lapse and a picture-perfect cross from Cristiano Ronaldo.  A win in that game would have sent the United States through to the knockout round with a game in hand against Germany, however it wasn’t meant to be and the United States faced Germany with their berth in the knockout round far from secure.

And while the United States came away on the short end of there match against Germany, there performance was gritty, determined, and everything needed in order to make it through to the next round.

That’s not to say there is no work that needs to be done to the squad by the time the knockout round begins.  Michael Bradley will definitely need to improve his form heading into the next round.  While the United States clawed its way out of the group stage without the best performances from Bradley, eventually during this tournament they will run into a point where they will need the steel reserve of Bradley to push them through.  His touch and decision making haven’t been what we are accustomed to seeing from Bradley, but with the group stage behind and essentially a new tournament starting with the knockout stage, it’s now or never for Bradley.

The health of Jozy Altidore will determine whether the United States’reverts back to a 4-2-3-1 or if Klinsmann continues to tinker away at the formation to find the perfect mix without the Sunderland striker.  The United States went to a 4-5-1 against Germany with Clint Dempsey upfront, and the results were mixed at best.  While Dempsey is serviceable at that role upfront, it’s clear he’s more effective linking play and making runs at goal in contrast to playing with his back to goal.

The back line of the United States has been a lingering question mark for the team since World Cup qualifying, and that’ll also be an interesting area to keep an eye on as the team moves forward.  While I believe both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have both right and left back cemented respectively, the center back position still poses a question for the United States.  Omar Gonzalez looked impressive against Germany, neutralizing a few German attacks with monster clearances, and it will be interesting to see if he slots in next to Matt Besler in the middle of that back four.

To say the United States has come a long way since their 2-1 loss to Honduras during World Cup qualifying would be an understatement.  That loss, arguably the lowest point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, brought with it questions about his leadership style, tactics, and overall suitability for the job handed to him after the firing of Bob Bradley.  Fast forward to the present with the United States advancing out of the “Group of Death”and to a knockout round showdown with either Belgium or Algeria, and it’s clear to see that not only was that loss an aberration, but that there’s a grit to this team we didn’t see before.  A decidedly American grit that will see them through to the knockout round.

2014 NBA Draft Recap

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By Stefan Anderson

The NBA Draft is where dreams come true for the young kid who slept with his ball at, woke up and put up shots first thing in the morning, studied their favorite players and made every move to make their dream a reality. This year’s draft was one for the ages as we seen some teams make their best move to build a championship team through draft picks a la San Antonio Spurs , some building for their future and other just to make a great roster to attract potential free agents.

Most teams maximized their efforts for each while other did not have a chance to do anything. I have come up with a few awards to highlight those who made great decisions for the future, the present along with those who missed out on opportunity.

The Jefferson Awards, if you remember the theme song “Moving on up ….” , is given to those who want to make their teams better to compete to that next tier of NBA teams and not just sleepers anymore.

  • Charlotte Hornets: After gaining the former name back, they are going back to the franchise past ways.  Establishing young talent and watching the pieces grow together and ultimately making their own way basketball rather than playing at the leagues pace. The Hornets added big man Noah Vonleh along with P.J. Hariston to holster their bench and continue to add depth to their young, hungry roster. Vonleh alongside Jefferson and Zeller give great depth and has a lot to learn from legend Patrick Ewing. Hariston, despite his issues at UNC and spending the year in the D-League, can flat out score and shoot the ball and gives a great spark off the bench and can spread the offense if chosen to start.
  • Phoenix Suns: The Suns appeared to become America’s underdog once again after a season that looked promising was cut short during the last weeks where their playoffs hope were taken away from the Grizzlies and Mavericks. The Suns have a great future ahead and have even more depth by adding T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis. Warren adds great scoring ability that has shown at NC State during the past seasons and give Jeff Hornaceck another piece to put in to his puzzle. Tyler Ennis is true point guard coming out of Syracuse and can help take the load of Gorgan Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.

The Mario Chalmers award. As you know Mario Chalmers failed to show up in this years finals is the reason why these teams were chosen for the award, they failed to show up during the draft.

  • Indiana Pacers: A team that looked as if they could potentially win the title this year, failed to even draft this year. After trading their only pick at 57, they failed to address that void at the point guard spot. George Hill is good player but cannot be a starting point guard on this current which needs a floor general.
  • Golden State Warriors: After not making the trade to try to acquire Kevin Love as reported earlier, the Warriors did not try take advantage of the draft either. Failing to address a big need in a big man that can stay healthy and remain a back as Jermaine O’Neal and Andrew Bogut are plagued by injuries.

The Underdog award. These players will play with a chip on their shoulders as they were overlooked by many different teams for what reasons, they want to know but are make those guys look crazy ultimately.

  • Julius Randle: After coming as top 5 prospect in his freshman year of college, Randle was poised to be a traditional post player with a NBA ready body. Randle help lead his Wildcats to the National Championship game and was overshadowed by many teams but has been put the right spot to be paired up the Black Mamba.
  • Shabazz Napier:  Lebron tweets “My favorite player in the draft! #Napier” then he is traded the Miami Heat, way to go Charlotte. Napier led his Huskies to the National Championship this past season and gives the Heat what they need at the PG. He is beyond hungry and if Lebron goes back to Miami will be interesting combination.

Apple award. Steve Jobs had planned to innovate the future and these teams are planning to make a big splash in the league maybe not this year but in years in the future.

  • Orlando Magic: They draft Gordon at #4 who looks to be the second coming of Blake Griffin then following up with a trade up Elfrid Payton at 10. Gordon, Oladipo and Payton can be a great trio that bring Orlando back to prominence in the near future.
  • Philadephia 76ers: The Sixers added Joel Embiid to pair alongside Nerlens Noel which could be a freighting front line for the future years to come. With MCW and their lottery pick for this upcoming season, the Sixers are going to force in the upcoming seasons.

The 2014 NBA Draft gave us a great deal of talent that we will be watching for the upcoming seasons and surely give the NBA a great promising future to add along to a star studded league. Should be interesting to see how all the talents pans out for their respective teams.

Dreams and Nightmares

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By Stefan Anderson

At a young age, my mother asked me “What do you want to be when you grow up”, I replied in my most innocent voice by replying “Ma, I want to be in the NBA”. She then replied with the most harsh reality a young child can get similar to finding out there is no Santa Claus, “Son, you’re never going to make it to the NBA “. I was crushed, but she was just preparing for the realistic approach of playing professional basketball was a hard task.

But what if you grew to become to a 7-foot tall, played in the McDonalds All American Game, became a star player at Big 12 school. You are on the brink reaching your childhood dream of becoming a NBA dream and then your dream is sold short. What do you do?

Isiah Austin is dealing with the worst defeat of his young life. Austin during his draft workouts for this years upcoming draft, he was diagnosed with Marfan’s syndrome. The genetic disorder puts Austin at risk to have his heart rupture if he continues his basketball career which ultimately puts his career to a end. Projected to be a 2nd round pick in this year’s draft, Austin was heading to pursue his lifetime dream now has to watch it on hold. Already suffering from being blind out of one eye, Isiah Austin has dealt with his fair share of adversity already.  But this might be all that one can handle and it has to be rough on the young athlete’s end.

With Austin and Joel Embiid now suffering injuries prior to the draft and harming the draft stock or ending their career respectively puts them in a category with Yao Ming, Greg Oden and Sam Bowie , just to name a few.  In today’s modern day NBA, it is starting to become rare to see 7 footers that can sustain the currents pace and have their bodies hold up for a long career. To see the once trend to go big in NBA , now go away and become extinct is amazing, but change it inevitable

Austin can still receive some compensation because of an insurance policy worth at least $1 million, which he took out prior to declaring for this year’s draft. The NBA also provided Austin with the bittersweet opportunity to sit in the green room in Thursday’s draft, but Austin will still sit in despair as he cannot hear his name being called by Commissioner Adam Silver.

It’s About That Time

draft and free agent

 

By Stefan Anderson

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, Carmelo Anthony had already let it be known to the public that he would be opting out at season end and testing the free agent market.  And Sunday, that became evident once again those who second guess that action. To test the waters is the right thing to do right?

Anthony is walking away from the opportunity to make an astounding $129 million over five years to sign back with the Knicks, if he decides to sign elsewhere. But sources are showing that Melo after bullying his way into New York is bound to leave the franchise in a frenzy that has been over the last 10-15 years.

But Anthony is not the only player with an early termination option (ETO), this upcoming off season. The Big 3, the model franchise of building a team through free agency, equaling out to 2 championships in 4 years to the finals. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, all have of the option of parting ways with each other or returning to make another run at more championships.  They are all leaving approximately 20 million on table to either take less to build a better supporting cast or go and make the money they were bound to make initially before teaming up.

Then there is the NBA Draft coming up on Thursday, with the arguably best draft class since 2003. Joel Embiid, the frontrunner for the number 1 overall draft pick has undergone surgery to repair a foot injury and now the question marks are surrounding him and whether his draft stock goes down or remains steady. Cleveland owns that #1 pick and has their eyes set to establishing winning ways with cap room and possibility of adding Kevin Love and/or the homecoming of LeBron James.

Speaking of Love, many teams are lining up and packaging up deals to bring in the double-double machine. Love has expressed his interest on being traded before his free agency year begins. Love is in the final year of his contract and wants to leave Minnesota to compete for a NBA championship.

With so many twists and turns, What will happen in the upcoming weeks?

My Prediction:

Carmelo leaves New York for Chicago and Chicago only because they offer the best opportunity to become a legend if he can lead the Bulls into glory land once again. If it doesn’t work out in Chicago, I do see Melo returning to New York to envision Phil Jackson master plan.

The Big 3 all opt and explore what options they can have, Wade ultimately retires after this final contract, Bosh earns a big contract and showcase his ability to become the all-star that he once was, and Lebron returns back to Cleveland under a new international system with Coach David Blatt, Kyrie Irving and possibly Kevin Love or the number 1 draft pick.

Cleveland tries to package up the ultimate deal for Love or drafts Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins because of their for a young athletic wing player that can take the scoring load off of Kyrie Irving.

Love either gets traded the 1 pick and sent to Cleveland or sent to Golden State that offers up the best packaged deal offering Thompson, Barnes and David Lee to bring in the superstar big man to pair him alongside Stephen Curry and new head coach Steve Kerr.

Hail To The Red……

By Stefan Anderson

I attended college at Virginia State University located in Petersburg, Virginia, just miles away from the state’s capital Richmond. While attending VSU, I had noticed something you probably would see if you never been to the DMV Area (D.C, Maryland and Virginia not Department of Motor Vehicles), a fan base like no other.

You have your major fan bases like Cowboys and Steelers for example where fans will root for that team regardless of the outcome. Well after residing in Virginia for 4 years, I would add the Washington Redskins on to that list. Virginia has no major sports franchise in the entire state and being that the Redskins are the closest team they are Virginia’s team, as well as Maryland and Washington D.C. Redskin logos can be seen anywhere from scratch off tickets, supermarket promotions and even painted on most fans vehicles.

The term Redskin or the R-word is a considered a vulgar term because of the effects and usage in particular with Native Americans. The irony that we would have a term used in that context used to represent the team that plays in nation capital, but the arguments and debates whether the name should be changed have been fought over for many years and will until action is finally taken.

But some action has been taken in regards to the social issue that haunts Native Americans to this date. In a 177 page report, a federal board has canceled the team’s trademark registration because it is “disparaging to Native Americans. The ruling was given by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was celebrated by Native Americans, who have fought to remove the team’s offensive name.

This battle is only at its beginning steps as it goes further than trademark being cancelled for the name change to begin. With Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder is on record for not changing his franchise’s name at all. Snyder has been on record for stating “The real issues are real-life issues, real-life needs, and I think it’s time that people focus on reality.”

But Snyder , Roger Goodell and other executives in the NFL , must come together to make this change sooner than later ultimately if he does not want to lose one of the most loyal fan bases that exist in the NFL. With the NFL proposing a new rule implementing a penalty for anytime a player uses the N-word, an equally derogatory term used daily by African Americans, it would be only right for the NFL to change one of its franchises name to accomplish such things.

The National Football League has grown into one of the most popular sports in the country and can grow even larger if it takes charge and attacks its social issues that stand in front of them currently. With its first homosexual player being drafted, it shown how far and how much growth the game has and if changing a name that causes harm to a particular group that supports and builds your product to what it is today why not change the Redskins name to something that really symbolizes our nation’s capital. Or does our country really represent bullying and exploiting others for what makes us happy?

Domino Effect

melo and bron

 

By Stefan Anderson

Cause and Effect, refers to the concept of Causality (also referred to as causation) is the relation between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first.  Not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, “I’m taking my talents to south beach” allegiance that would engineer one team the opportunity to have three Free Agent All-Star players combine on one roster. But wait, that would only come shortly after one storied franchise did similar years before but instead of building through free agency or draft they traded all assets to acquire the trio. Most things happen due to cause and effect and the newest trends of the NBA are a testament to that.

After Miami’s formed the big three, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement had just ended and players and owners were forced to make decision that help benefit each other, as they say, but instead forced players and fans to suffer with another lockout. During the lockout Owners wanted to have a higher BRI (Basketball Related Income) and players disagreed. Derek Fisher (the irony right) stood along the NBPA to bring back basketball. The sides came to an agreement but something’s changed including the salary cap, to help benefit smaller market teams from losing their superstars, and also changing max contracts to 5 years, so change is evident to come about.

We just came off an offseason where seen the most superstars in my recent becoming free agent including the league’s biggest star LeBron James.

James, remained loyal to his fans in Cleveland, his hometown team that he helped propel the franchise to yearly competitors, including a trip the 2007 Finals, but Cleveland could not give the King a good supporting cast. James was given the opportunity to give himself the right opportunity to and make the best career decision. How often the does the best player gets the opportunity to do that for himself? Not often, most would argue that Magic, Jordan, Bird and etc., would never do the same but how many of them were surrounded with the same incompetent cast throughout their career? Exactly so if Owners and other in the front office cannot get the job, why not take matter into your own hands.

Not all superstars that are in small markets want to explore different options in a huge market (i.e. Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan). But for the most part they want to leave because of lack of basketball moves by the front office and having the opportunity to compete for a NBA Championship.

Recently Carmelo Anthony has been in reports to joining LeBron James and the Miami Heat, when he opts out of contract this summer. Anthony is in a similar situation in New York to James in Cleveland. When your career begins to dwindle down, how many more opportunities do you get to win a NBA Championship? Anthony is willing to walk away from 23 million dollars for this upcoming season to chase his championship aspirations. After experiencing nearly any success in Denver, he was traded to New York where he is suffering the same fate. Does it say a lot about Carmelo’s attitude and perseverance, or was he not in the best of situations. He came from a small market team in Denver that could not put the right pieces around him to now in New York with a money hungry owner that traded away the franchise’s future to receive the superstar.

The idea that players can now choose their own fate comes on the heels over Owners’ and other front office personnel that do not make the correct moves to keep teams and build long term situations is shown greatly. I am not opposed to the idea at all, and shows a new era of the NBA and could give the league an extremely great look or totally bad perception as well. I am afraid of the “If we can’t beat them then join them” effect happening in the NBA and take away from the various amounts of talent spread across and making one all-star team that wants to win a championship. As long as the talent is distributed evenly throughout the league, then I will be a happy customer but I believe that it will become oversaturated if these situations keep coming about.