We talk Wild trade deadline and make some Twins predictions in this week’s podcast. Plus: Stu runs through his top Little-Known Former Science Museum Exhibits, which is good times for all.
Game of the Week: Twins vs. Boston, 12:05pm today (FSN)
That’s right: today, you can sit around in your underpants and watch baseball. I give you permission to delude yourself and pretend that this is a sign of spring; in reality, we know that spring won’t be here until mid-May this year, and that the first televised baseball game of the year holds no special significance, even on the first day of March.
Still, though: try. You can go back to accecpting the icy realities and/or watching hockey later tonight. For now, watch some baseball, and enjoy yourself.
What else to watch
11:25am today: Liverpool at Southampton (NBCSN). Liverpool tries to keep the momentum going against the Saints, who nobody wants to play right now. This game is doubly perfect if you’re waiting for baseball to start, because you can get into it, then start flipping back to it between innings.
5pm today: Gopher hoops at Michigan (BTN) The Wolverines lead the conference; the Gophers may be just one win away from an NCAA tournament berth. Which Minnesota team will show up? The fun-and-gun team that beat Iowa… or the unmitigated disaster that lost to Illinois?
7pm today: Penguins at Blackhawks (NBC). I think the NBC’s expanded slate of outdoor games is one of the dumbest things the league has ever done. (The message: “Hey, remember that thing you thought was special? It’s not! Quit enjoying stuff, rube!”) Nevertheless, this game is at Soldier Field; it could be kind of fun to watch. Give it a chance.
3pm Sunday: Senators at Canucks (NBCSN). I’m not sure what’s more notable about this game: that it’s being played at BC Place, or that it’s televised in the United States despite not involving New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, or Washington.
We talked about everything we could think of on the podcast this week. It started with the Wolves, touched on the Wild, and at one point veered off to ranting about the Big Ten Network and discussing which championship we most wanted to see before we die. Have a listen, I hope.
The North American Soccer League is switching up its playoff format yet again. Last season, the league introduced a split season, with the spring and fall champions meeting in the league title game. While this added some excitement to the first half of the season, it also killed the end of the second half, when the New York Cosmos clinched the fall title early.
This year, the league keeps the split-season champions, but will add two more teams, based on the standings for the entire season. If the same team wins both halves, then the three teams with the best full-season records will also make the playoffs.
The spring and fall champions will host the semi-final matchups and be given the top two seeds, based on their full-season records; the other teams will be seeded #3 and #4. The highest-seeded semi-final winner will host the league championship, which retains the moniker “Soccer Bowl.”
The playoff change does not address the scheduling imbalance between the two seasons; the spring championship will still be a nine-game sprint, with the fall championship an 18-game relative marathon.
Most of the confusion with the new playoff scenarios will likely take place in the fall, when there will effectively be two sets of standings – the fall-season-only standings, and the full-season standings.
United team president Nick Rogers supported the move. “I think it’s a great move for the league,” he said in a press release. “It protects the integrity of the competition and will keep teams in the hunt further into the season while at the same time ensuring that every match continues to matter.”
Had the system been in place last year, United would still have missed the playoffs. Carolina and Tampa Bay, which finished as the two teams with the best full-season records last year, would have joined Atlanta (third-best full-season record) and New York (fifth over the full season) in the playoffs; Minnesota would have been left out in fourth, four points behind Tampa Bay.
Cold will be a factor, should Minnesota reach the playoffs this season and host. The games will take place deep into the potential snow season, with the semifinals November 8 and 9 and the league championship on the following weekend.
NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.
NOTE: This appeared first at RandBall, your home for ROAD TRIP!
Game of the Week: The Olympics, NBC Family of Networks
Until Thursday, I was enjoying the Olympics immensely. Even the struggles of the USA curling teams didn’t bother me, because hey, curling is on TV again! The same was true of skiing, and sliding, and all of the other enjoyable sports that hardly ever make it on the TV except during the Olympics.
Then came hockey, on Thursday and Friday, and I was reminded of the most terrible thing about the Olympics, the thing that’s true of it and the World Cup and any other quadrennial event: if your team loses, you have to wait four whole years for redemption. And the truly awful thing is that, if you had already been waiting four years for redemption, like both USA hockey teams against Canada, and it doesn’t come – then your four-year wait becomes eight, and can become twelve, sixteen, a lifetime, all quite easily.
I abhor the idea of the NHL pulling its players out of the 2018 Olympics; there’s just nothing better than Olympic hockey, and whatever NHL-run World Cup of Hockey event would replace it just would not, could not, be the same. However, the only good thing I can think of is this: I’ll bet the Bettman-led money-grubbers would probably have it every other year or so, and then I wouldn’t have to wait whole huge chunks of my life for the USA to get another shot at beating Canada.
Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of stuff today and tomorrow, including the closing ceremonies tomorrow night if that’s your sort of thing. All that’s left for me, though, is this: I sure hope Canada loses at hockey.
What else to watch this weekend
5pm today: Gophers at Ohio State, BTN. Speaking of disappointing teams who lose at the worst possible time… Anyway, I suggest pairing this struggling local basketball team with another this evening:
8pm today: Wolves at Utah, FSN. It’ll be a whole nice evening of basketball. And if both teams lose, don’t worry: they don’t have to wait four more years for another game. (This hockey thing may be bugging me an awful lot.)
9am Sunday: Daytona 500, FOX. Sure, you might be one of the multitudes who are far too cool to ever watch something so absurd as NASCAR. That said, though, this is NASCAR’s biggest spectacle, in a sport that is America’s leading purveyor of spectacles, and so I recommend flipping it on.
1pm Sunday: Accenture Match Play, CBS. There are people playing golf right now, even as I type this and you read it. They are playing golf, and their cars are not covered in a two-inch layer of icy snow, and they can drive on the interstate without their cars going sideways with little provocation. Imagine that you might be one of them. Lying to yourself might be the only way to get through this week.
What to read this weekend
Still stuck inside? I recommend checking an examination of US women’s professional soccer, and why so many players are heading overseas for an entirely different – and more stable – experience.
I need to feel better about the USA losing twice to Canada at hockey. In order to do so, here’s an update of the Canada-USA Tale of the Tape, from a few years back.
Data source: The CIA World Factbook
|Military||Scary||Gord L. and Milt J.
(Milt off Wed.)
|Fought for own independence?||Yes||Wussed out||USA|
|Was actually a country during War of 1812||Yes||Despite what they want
you to believe, no
|World status||Last superpower||“We’re real nice, eh”||USA|
|Adjective to describe flag?||Symbolic||Floral||USA|
|Currency?||Supports world markets||Has funny pictures||USA|
|French-fry based awesomeness||Chili cheese fries||Poutine||USA|
I do not feel better.
Thursday, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber gave his most detailed statement yet on the possibility of bringing an expansion franchise to Minnesota.
The league announced yesterday that it was buying the struggling Chivas USA franchise and making plans to sell it to another Los Angeles group. Speaking with reporters on a conference call, the comissioner also gave some more details on the league’s expansion plans – the much-talked-about “four franchises by 2020″ plan.
Regarding Minneapolis, he noted that the league has had talks with a potential ownership group, and said, “That opportunity is one that we’re excited about as we believe we need more teams in the Midwest. I think if Minneapolis as a market that can continue to show the support that they’ve had for the NASL club [Minnesota United FC] and if they continue to make progress on a number of different stadium opportunities, there’s a real opportunity there.”
Two franchises – Orlando City, which will join the league in 2015, and Miami, which is still in need of a stadium plan – are already spoken for. Garber’s comments, in which he gave the most details about Atlanta and Minneapolis, indicate again that the Twin Cities are near the top of the league’s list for expansion destinations.
It’s also worth noting that the commissioner mentioned both multiple stadium opportunities, and Minnesota United. Many local soccer fans have wondered if the Vikings’ ownership has the inside track on an MLS franchise, given that they’ve already succeeded in wheedling a stadium out of the state, but Garber’s statement makes clear that the potential local ownership group is also up in the air.
The stadium issue, as in Miami, may yet be the biggest hurdle to clear in the path towards MLS in Minnesota. It would seem, however, that local fans will also need to demonstrate a committment to supporting the area’s already-existing pro soccer team – perhaps the fastest way for fans to encourage the league to send a franchise the Twin Cities’ way.
NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.
Minnesota United is bringing back a familiar face. Midfielder Jamie Watson, who played for the club in late 2012, will be returning to Minnesota for the 2014 season.
Watson, who was on loan from Orlando City for his eight-game stretch in Minnesota, has long been a figure of fun to Minnesota’s die-hard fans. The Dark Clouds have for years taunted any opposing player deemed a bit too unsteady on his feat with the song, “You dive like Jamie Watson!”, a reference to several of Watson’s previous wobbly experiences against Minnesota.
The Dark Clouds always hang up flags at the back of the stands, one for the nationality of each non-American player on the roster; when Watson signed, they got hold of the nautical flag for “diving” and hung it up among the rest. To his credit, Watson took the ribbing in the fun spirit it was intended; when he scored his only goal in Minnesota, he ran over to the fans, and celebrated by pretending to swan-dive into the turf.
“Their heads are going to explode when they have me and Pablo Campos in the same team,” said Watson. “They’re going to have to rewrite a bunch of chants and cheers.”
The midfielder was excited to get back in front of Minnesota’s fans – “They treated me so great after hating me for so many years,” he said – and with the players that were still around in Minnesota from his last stint. “I got a couple of text messages when the week started [from players], and I kind of had to be a little coy about it because I didn’t want to count my chickens before they hatched,” he said. “It was really cool that people reached out to tell me how excited they would be if it all worked out.”
Watson scored ten goals in 20 appearances with Orlando City in USL Pro last year, and tallied 23 over his three seasons with the team, a span in which the team twice won the third-division championship.
Said the 27-year-old, “It was very special to me in Orlando, the connection that I had with the fans. I think Minnesota is one of the only places, because of the experience I had last time, that I would have been tempted to leave Orlando for.”
According to Watson, the deal came together very quickly, and he was impressed with how respectful both sides were during the process. “It’s just kind of come about in the last week,” he said. “A bit unexpected, to be honest. Everything just kind of fell into place after talking to Manny [Lagos] and Nick Rogers, and working with my agent Eddie Rock, who’s from Minnesota. I talked to people in Orlando and they kind of told me where their plans were headed. I realized that Minnesota was really going out of their way to make it happen.”
Said Watson, “I’m sad to be leaving Orlando because I did enjoy my time here. At the same time, coming to Minnesota, I’m very very excited about it. I’ve played there before and I know how special it is, and it’s only gotten stronger with the new ownership that’s come in.”
In his last stint with Minnesota, Watson played mostly on the left-hand side of midfield, trying to create more by making runs into areas and less by crossing the ball. It remains to be seen whether the team will deploy him in a similar wide role, or will perhaps move him more centrally, perhaps as an attacking central midfielder or even as a second striker.
He also gave some of the best interview answers I’ve heard, including one explanation of the team’s attacking strategy against Puerto Rico that I recall went on for a good three and a half minutes, and ended with him saying, “So, uh, yeah. Transcribe that, I guess.”
We talked a lot about the Winter Olympics on this week’s podcast, for which our friend Brian Stensaas joined us, live from the Star Tribune newsroom.
I admit that much of the reason I brought this up was so that I could yell about Brian Rafalski.
Minnesotans may have snow and the Sochi Olympics on our minds, but the signs of spring are starting to show – even on the soccer field. Minnesota United begins full preseason training tomorrow, after a week of fitness work, and leaves later this week for the first of their spring training trips.
Team president Nick Rogers promised that the team, while happy with the players under contract, was still in the hunt for new players. “I think if we didn’t add anyone else at all, we’ve already got the pieces to be quite competitive,” he said, “but for me personally, I’d be a little disappointed if we didn’t add something else here.”
Since my conversation with him at the end of January, in which Rogers promised new signings to stave off the growing panic among United fans, the team has brought in two new players – both Brazilians, as it happens. Defender Tiago Calvano and midfielder Juliano Vicentini are both veterans, with experience in leagues around the world, and while neither got fans particularly excited, Rogers argues that they’re a bigger deal than they’ve been given credit for.
“Frankly, they’re two of the biggest signings in Minnesota professional soccer history,” said Rogers. “These are two guys who both have high-level European club competition experience, and I don’t know how many other teams in the NASL can say they have players like that. The Cosmos have [Marcos] Senna, and I think there’s a center back who has some good experience. These are real players, these are guys who are proven in Italian and Brazilian leagues. Tiago played in Switzerland and Germany and Spain and Australia. These guys are proven veterans who I think will add some maturity and stability to some important positions.”
“We’re certainly not done, but I think fans should be pretty excited about these two signings.”
That said, Rogers also admitted some frustration in a few deals that didn’t come to fruition, potentially to bring some even bigger-name players to the team. “I think at this point it’s not about filling in the squad; we’re looking to potentially add some bigger pieces,” he said. “There may be a couple of guys like that [to fill in the squad]; they can’t all be huge signings. We will probably add a couple of younger guys that we think have some potential for the future, but there’s a possibility that we’re going to sign at least one sort of significant player.”
Despite training beginning in earnest tomorrow, Rogers still plans to be on the lookout for other opportunities to bring players in. “In a perfect world you’d start with everybody there on day one,” he said. “A uniform experience is probably the ideal, but I don’t think it’s always a realistic expectation. I would like to have most of the roster basically set by the time we go to England [the trip is from March 8-18]. That will really be, in addition to a great experience for those guys, it will be a great bonding opportunity – on the road, in a foreign country, a chance for these guys to get to know one another. I think we’d like to be pretty close to done building the roster by the time we go to England, but I’m not ruling out anything. We’re going to stay flexible, and if we have needs, we’re going to respond to those.”
Rogers deferred to head coach Manny Lagos about positions that the team might be interested in filling; however, it’s no secret that the team’s greatest need is for attacking players, either from central midfield or as a complementary striker. It would be surprising if any new signings did not fill those needs.
Ultimately, Rogers stressed that he’s happy with the team, but not ready to stop looking for new players. “There are a few people definitely on our radar,” he said, “but nothing I want to tip my hand about.”
NOTE: This appeared first at SoccerCentric.