SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Monday, September 01, 2014

Arsenal: Were Robbie Earl and Robbie Mustoe Right?

Sadly, I think that they are.

Yesterday, on NBC's coverage, they both offered that what distinguished Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger was decisiveness in addressing and filling needs.  Last season, after having spent buckets of money, Chelsea struggled both at midfield and upfront, owing their third-place finish in large part to a stingy defense.  So what did Mourinho do?  He went out and got a creative midfielder in Cesc Fabregas and striker Diego Costa.  The result?  Chelsea have been scoring goals the way Liverpool and Manchester City were last season.

In contrast, coming into the season Arsenal knew that it abounded in wingers, defenders and offensive-minded midfielders, but not defensive midfielders or strikers.  So what did Wenger do?  He went out and paid more for a winger (Alexis Sanchez) than Mourinho did for Costa, but with several hours to go on transfer deadline day -- and with key injuries at defensive midfield and striker -- he still has not acquired one of either.  Atop that, Arsenal also needs an additional defender after the departure of Thomas Vermaelen to Bacelona.  And despite prolific rumors on the internet, Wenger hasn't acquired Marco Reus, Edinson Cavani or Radamel Falcao, nor William Carvalho nor Sokraitis.  Which means hi team remain small in size, desperately thin at striker and without anything new at defensive midfield.  What looked like a season where the Gunners could finish in the top three now looks like they'll battle United for fourth, coming in behind Chelsea, City and perhaps Liverpool.

Last season, Wenger tortured the faithful until inking center mid Mesult Ozil on transfer deadline day, so there remains hope that he can improve his striker situation significantly.  For, if he does not, it is hard to see the Gunners advancing meaningfully in the Champions League or winning key match ups in the Premiership.  The Gunners have talent, that is true, but will they have enough offensive versatility to make opponents fear them and enable them to pour on the goal scoring.  After seeing Yaya Sanogo struggle at Leicester on Sunday, it seems clear that the Gunners need help up front.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On the Premiership's Opening Day

We gathered in our Arsenal gear yesterday to watch much of the Premiership's opening day.  It's hard to conclude much from one game's worth of play, but here are a few thoughts:

1.  Manchester United Needs a Midfield and Experience in the Back.  First home opener loss in 42 years?  Yikes.  Was it that hard for ManU to sign players because they are not playing Champions League football this season?  Or was the turmoil too much?  It's hard to reason that United are a top-4 team this season.

2.  Arsenal.  Predictably, it was Palace who scored first, this after their manager quit the day before.  That's the guy who rallied them from a woeful start to an 11th place finish and became manager of the year.  It stands to reason that Tony Pulis will be among the top candidates to step in for a Premier League squad when a team or two sacks its manager mid-season.  But the Gunners rallied, first with a good header from Laurent Koscielny in stoppage time right before the end of the first half and then from a relative tap-in from usually in the right place at the right time Aaron Ramsey, who, when healthy, is one of the world's best midfielders.  That said, Arsenal looked a bit tentative out there, in contrast to the pace that they had set int he Community Shield game against City.  Jack Wilshere disappointed, and it's hard to see them winning the league with either Olivier Giroud or Yaya Sanogo being the two main options at striker.  Of course, the squad was without defensive stalwart Per Mertesacker and playmaker Mesut Ozil, so it's hard to read too much into one game.

While it would be great for the Gunners to add three more players before the transfer window shuts, it's doubtful that a) they have the money to do so or b) they could mesh all of those players with the team now.  But it seems that they might need another option at center back, a central defensive midfielder who can push people around (Patrick Viera, where are you when we need you) and a striker.  The names Manolas, Carvalho, Cavani and Reus keep popping up, and it would appear that Liverpool might try to outdo whatever Arsenal does.  That said, if you were in your mid-twenties with lots of cash, would you prefer to live in Liverpool or London?

3.  Tottenham.  Will they play much better this year because they had so many roster changes last season that it was difficult for two managers to get them to mesh?  While they might not draw pre-season raves or predictions that put them in the top four, they are formidable and not to be overlooked.  Then again, when you play in the league with Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool and United, among others, it's easy to get overlooked when the pundits pick the top group.  Spurs' late goal once again demonstrated that any fan who forgets them does so at his peril.

4.  Liverpool.  I was surprised that they also didn't go for Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin while they were signing Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana away from Southampton and how they could have let Luke Shaw get to United from the Saints.  One thing is for certain, though, and that is when you read articles and posts from veteran writers and observers about talent pipelines, Liverpool is at the top of the heap.  They will miss Luis Suarez greatly -- how could a team not miss him -- but in Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, they have a lot of firepower up front.

5.  A Potentially Humorous Interlude.  I have been thinking that certain Premiership players fit the bill of the "All Prison Gang" looking team. Right now, among the nominees are Martin Skrtel (who could be the skipper), his out-of-favor backfield mate Daniel Agger, Jonjo Shelvey, Raul Meireles, among others.  Do you have any nominees?  That's a tough-looking crew, and nominees are welcome.  Shaved heads, stark hair, lots of tattoos are prerequisites for membership on this not-so-elite club.

6.  Chelsea and City.  Sure, I should have written about them first because they are the favorites.  One of the principal differences seems to be that the ownership of the former is much less patient than the ownership of the latter.  The pressure is on Chelsea to win the league for the first time since, well, Cesc Fabregas left North London for Barcelona, and should Jose Mourinho for all his talk fail to deliver, he could get sacked too.  Lots of good players at Stamford Bridge, but with the mixing and matching of newcomers with veterans, the squad might take a little while to gel.  That said, they open with Burnley, a promoted team that already is among many pundits' list to get relegated this season.  As for City, they have to be relaxing, because much of the off-season talk has focused on Chelsea and then on Liverpool's and Arsenal's quests to add players and win the league.  City stayed with the leaders last year and then pounced after Liverpool met a tragic ending to its season by playing their way out of the title.  Can they repeat?  It's hard to argue that they will not.

7.  Everyone Else.  It will be interesting to see how Southampton fares after losing so many good players, how Palace does after their wonderful season, if Everton can provide an encore to stunning year last year (and whether Romelu Lukaku emerges even further and makes Chelsea's front office look really bad), whether Hull can recover from its collapse in the FA Cup final, whether Stoke will make some noise and whether West Ham have improved significantly.  I do wonder what it must be like to be a Stoke, a Hull, a Burnley, Leicester, Newcastle, Sunderland and any team not named Chelsea, City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham.  Is everyone else just playing for as high a place as 6th?  Financial Fair Play rules can help level the spending a bit, but at the end of the day can any of the other 14 teams in any given year make a significant run for the title and take it?

All good fun.  As for my Gunners, I hope that they can win the league, but realistically they need at least one if not two more pieces to make a serious run for the top spot.  It was good for them to win a trophy last season and get that pressure off them.  Now it's time to see if Arsene Wenger can add one more star to his roster and move the team forward even further.

Philadelphia and the Taney Dragons

The Taney Dragons play another game in the Little League World Series today.  Mayor Michael Nutter is hosting an event in Center City to celebrate and cheer on the team.  While the gathering might draw the crowds that the World Cup did, I would suspect that over 1,000 people will show up to support this wonderful team and participate in a great story.

A girl pitcher.  A city team.  An integrated team.  A girl pitcher who is a great athlete, bright, a media star and who wants the media to talk with her teammates.  They might not win it all, but this team and the people behind it are a celebration.

A celebration of humble, earnest parents coming together to give their kids a good experience.  A Phil Jackson-like zen master of a manager who puts the kids and their experiences first.  By doing that and emphasizing the importance of the process, the rituals and, yes, the journey, this team wins.  It's not about lunatic dads roaming the sidelines, intimidating umpires and other coaches and bullying children because they themselves are frustrated with their lives and their jobs.  Clearly, there's something more than that, and that's why the team is where it is.

The Taney Dragons might not win the whole thing, but they have won a lot so far and taught people from all over a great deal of good things.  Sadly, bad news travels faster and grabs the headlines.  And it's summertime to boot, which means that at times people's attention wanders away from the news to vacations and other things.  But this is a compelling story worthy of telling and re-telling and sharing and teaching.  Amidst much turmoil and disappointment (which the immediacy of news and the overall availability of it constantly helps reinforce), there is a gem from the City of Brotherly Love that bears magnification and warrants celebration.

The Taney Dragons.

You go, girl. . . and boys!  You've taken so many so far already.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Arsenal Reunion at Red Bulls Stadium Yesterday

When you try to live in the moment -- and just enjoy something and not worry about everything else that is going on in the world that you don't control and even in the one over which you might have some influence  -- it's just a lot of fun.  And when you reflect back on that moment -- as I am doing now -- you realize why that moment was so special -- precisely because while you will have good moments in the future, moments like that one might not recur, if only because of the passage of time.

My son is fourteen, at an age where he can tend to grunt answers and not be overly communicative.  I joke with him that at times when I'd like to have a conversation I would appreciate answers in words of more than one syllable and sentences of more than one word.  Which of course has led to some pretty amusing poly-syllabic two-word sentences.  With a smile, because he gets it (or as much as any fourteen year-old can, and I hope he thinks I get it as much as a dad of a fourteen year-old can).

We're big Arsenal fans, having caught the magical bug that is the love of the Premiership about five years ago when we went to Arsenal's home opener in North London, got the scarves that they gave out to fans and watched the Gunners demolish Portsmouth 4-1 (Abu Diaby scored two goals; Aaron Ramsey and Thomas Vermaelen one apiece).  We took the London Underground to the stadium (along with about 59,998 others, as no one drives there),  sat in a sea of red, sampled the amazing Arsenal store (about the size of eight CVS drug stores), and watched some very precise ball movement and counter-attacking.  We had played EA Sports FIFA for a while (I confessed to my son recently that when he was about five I would move my defenders out of the way so he could score), but that trip took our being soccer fans to a whole different level. 

Over the years, we've followed the team more over the internet than watching it on television.  That said, the coverage on NBC SportsChannel, both on television and streaming video, enabled us to watch almost every game last season.  Last summer we got back to London to watch the Emirates Cup, a pre-season round robin that featured Arsenal, Porto, Galatasary and Napoli -- at a much better price point, too, than the home opener.  We enjoyed great soccer and great weather and further galvanized our attachment to the Arsenal club.

We were particularly excited when we saw that the Gunners would be making their first appearance in a while in the U.S., in an exhibition at Red Bulls Stadium in Harrison, New Jersey, right outside New York City.  Tickets on StubHub averaged about $250, but we were fortunate that we were able to obtain ticket at face value (about $46 apiece) through a friend.  The thought of not having to travel all that far and expensively to see Arsenal -- even with back-ups playing a half -- and Thierry Henry -- was just too good to pass up.  (A college-age kid told us that he had paid $170 apiece for he and his girlfriend on StubHub -- not sure it was worth that much money, especially given the cost of New Jersey Transit and PATH tickets atop that -- $53 for two people).

The day started in the early afternoon with a drive to Princeton Junction and a one-hour train ride to Newark's Penn Station, where we bought PATH train tickets to take a two-minute train ride to Harrison.  For those traveling to crowded events, always remember to purchase round trip tickets for your journey (it avoids standing in a long line on your return trip and the potential to miss your train).  From there, it was about a ten-minute walk to Red Bulls Stadium, where we ran a gauntlet of outdoor Red Bulls-oriented activities.  The FA Cup, which Arsenal won last year, also was on display for those who wanted to take a photograph with it.  The Red Bulls Shop, which is small, featured some Arsenal gear, and I do think that the Red Bulls missed out on a huge opportunity to align with Arsenal and open up a sizable tent store in the parking lot full of a broader and deeper variety of Arsenal gear (they would have sold, in my estimation, between $250,000 and $500,000 of merchandise -- including the new kit shirts -- had they done so).

What transpired once inside was a packed house and a fun day.  We say Bergkamp, Nasri, Ozil, Mertesacker, Henry, Bendtner, van Persie, Fabregas, Vermaelen, Cazorla, Arteta, Giroud and many other jerseys -- home and away, new and old.  The really current fans had the new kit jerseys, which looked very nice.  My son and I had last year's -- he Chamberlain, me Ramsey, and the dry-fit shirts felt very good on a not too hot and not to humid day (but remember, if you sit in the upper deck of the stadium, because it's closed in, which is great to ward off rain, the air doesn't circulate as well as it does downstairs, and heat rises).

It was an exhibition in the purest sense, with fans rooting for good soccer as much as their own teams.  Arsenal fans cheered Henry, and Red Bulls fans cheered Arsenal players.  While the Red Bulls won 1-0, both sides had plenty of chances, and, among others, Henry and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal put on some amazing dribbling skills.  Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger wore a red shirt and blue pants, not his trademark blue suit with a white shirt and a red tie and, of course, not his famous black puffy coat.  He also was roundly cheered.

My son and I talked about the intricate passes, the saves of both goalies, the potential of Arsenal younger Gideon Zelalem (and whether he'll play internationally for the United States), the speed that Henry still has (while people talk of him as an elder, he's only in his mid-thirties and makes the most out of his long stride), the fact that Arsenal great Ian Wright's son is a star for the Red Bulls and scored the only goal yesterday and which players the Gunners might sign in transfer season.  It was just the two of us, in the upper deck, sharing a game, talking soccer.

On the way home, my son thanked me for getting the tickets and thanked me for taking him.  He's nothing if not polite, nothing if not appreciative for opportunities that my guess is some kids take for granted.  I'm most grateful for these opportunities, too, opportunities to share experiences, opportunities to grow together.  More than he, I think, I know that these won't be as frequent five years from now as they are today.  By then he'll be off at college and be more along into building his own life, emphasizing this own interests that lead to a career and perhaps a location that is not all that close to where his parents live.  But I'm not sad about that or even wistful, because good relationships endure and thrive through all sorts of factors.  And that's far off, too.  No, I choose to celebrate the moment, to create opportunities, to make good memories.

And yesterday, at an exhibition game that required a drive and two trains to get to, we made yet another memory.  Of a favorite team making a rare appearance in the United States, of nice weather, of a fun game.  While I enjoy being a part of Arsenal nation, I cherish the platform that it provides to bond further with my son.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Not 1, Not 2. . . Certainly Not 7 -- What LeBron James Also Implied

The decision -- rather, the announcement of it -- was ill-advised.  A hard-working, earnest guy did the wrong thing, alienated an area he loved and went off to a glamorous place for glory that he helped create.  No one really argued with the substance of the decision -- competitive people want to go to places where they can succeed.  So, it wasn't the what, it was the how.

This time around, the how was great -- a humble article about how the self-described (see his Twitter handle) King James was returning to his hometown, a place with real meaning for him, and a place where most people his age move away from in order to find opportunity instead of moving back there.  The reasoning was sound -- he wants to give back to his area, he wants to raise his kids in that area, and he wants to bring a championship back to an area starved for good news.  He preached patience, but after 11 seasons of wear-and-tear on his body, it's hard to know how much of his elite tread remains before people might start talking about him the way they are talking about Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant now, that they used to be among the greatest but now they cannot strap a team to their backs anymore.

James's seemingly magnanimous decision -- and to a degree it is -- also is a concession that in continuing to build his brand he cannot out-Michael Jordan Michael Jordan and eclipse The Greater Player Ever's six titles in the modern era.  He alluded to the possibility of seven titles during a longer Miami tenure than actually will have taken place, but by moving back to Cleveland he's finessed the comparison.  Because if he delivers on a single championship in Cleveland, he'll both have played on elite stage elsewhere and won a few titles but also will have brought a title back to an area that hasn't won one in a very long time.  That Michael could not do.

But it's also a concession that he won't win seven titles, won't come close, won't come close not only to Bill Russell (who is in a category of his own) but also Jordan and perhaps even Tim Duncan of the Spurs, whose outstanding career gets eclipsed because he's been, well, the best team player since number 6 laced them up for the Celtics decades before the internet and instance media and instant messaging took root.  No, that's not the story, it's about good, old American values juxtaposed next to a max contract (note to fans, Duncan's contract for 2014-2015 calls for $10 million in salary, leaving plenty of money left over for teammates whose talents warrant good contracts).  It's about King James, but not an autocratic king but a benevolent one, letting his loyal subjects warm to him once more and get closer to the aura of his greatness because after years conquering far away lands he's bringing it all home.

LeBron is one of the greatest players ever.  I'm not sure he is the greatest, but when you are that good and in the top of the pantheon what does it really matter?  By coming home to Cleveland he's coming full circle, righting a wrong that was more because of how he delivered a message than what he said, by setting an example that you can win at home and help revitalize people's thinking about an area that you hold dear.  It's a great public relations story, and it's a "feel good" story as well.  LeBron, after all, seems to be a pretty good guy.

But it's also a branding and business decision, one that the LeBron acolytes in the sports media -- who depend on him for access and stories -- aren't necessarily covering because they love being in the aura and they love the "Disney Sports Movie" aspect to this, so much ask that they might be a little weepy.  The other story is "LeBron Conceded He is No Michael Jordan."

And that might not be such a bad thing.  Michael is perhaps the most competitive person on the planet, and perhaps ever.  There are good and bad sides to that.  So while James is saying that he's giving up on competing with Michael, he also might be saying that you don't always build your brand by winning all the time.  That's something that Michael Jordan would never do or admit.  By implying this through his actions, LeBron James is saying that his brand is more than just about basketball and winning.  It's about both those things and a community greater than the NBA and the basketball world.  It's not clear whether he'll pull that off, but right now, that's his message.

And it's working.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Whither Wimbledon?

The tennis is good.

The setting is historic.

The commentators seem good.

But how many people are watching?

It's amazing how television coverage and sports coverage has progressed almost to the point that you can catch almost any game you want to at any time.  That phenomenon seemingly has had two results -- one to dilute the viewership for all but the most compelling events (e.g., the World Cup) and to reduce the appeal of the tennis majors because my so-called scarcity factor has evaporated.  As for the latter, when there were seven television channels (and the dreaded UHF channels had trouble staying in focus on perhaps carried only your local baseball team), we watched Wimbledon in part because there wasn't much else covered on TV at the time.  True, there were compelling figures, but the network that covered tennis made them all the more compelling because there wasn't nearly as much to watch on TV.  Today, with much more choice -- including sports that appeal to bigger groups of people -- tennis has become almost an afterthought.

Is it because there isn't a good crop of Americans outside the Williams' sisters, who are near or at the end of their run?  Is it because with the advances in technology there isn't as much drama in the "smash and volley" tennis that there was when the points were longer?  Is it because so many players cycle through that it's hard to develop a following for any one particular player?  Or is it because the game is as good as it ever was, but other sports have surpassed it?  My guess is that it's a combination of the two.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Key for USA Soccer: Believe That You Can Play the Full 90 Plus Stoppage Time. . . and You Can Win

I've frequently thought that any team in the same league or tournament can stay with another team for about 75-80 minutes.  Between the pressure, the advance talk, the weather, injuries, who's fit, who's in form and the like, underdogs can hang with the favorites for a long time.  But what the Round of 16 has demonstrated thus far in the World Cup has been that it's what happens after that that distinguishes who advances from who goes home.  And in all instances, it's been the favorite that has advanced.

The U.S. should take note of this fact as it enters its game against favored Belgium, which won its group, tomorrow.  The U.S. almost tasted disaster in its game against Portugal by failing to play intensely for the entire game -- the Americans outplayed Portugal for almost the whole game, only to suffer a defensive lapse within thirty seconds of the game's end that caused a game in which they had all but earned a victory and the precious three points that came with it into a tie and some serious doubt about whether they would advance at all.  If that game didn't bring home the message to the U.S. that they have to sprint through the finish line, many games in the Round of 16 have.

The Dutch were on the verge of going home going into the late minutes in their game against Mexico.  Perhaps the favored Orange had swelled heads.  After all, they were overlooked in the Group Stage, only to emerge as the most likely of any Round of 16 grouping of four to advance (thanks to Spain's surprise exit).  The Mexicans had a good tournament, but in the 88th minute the Dutch scored to tie it, and then they scored the game-winner in stoppage time (okay that was controversial, but it was what it was).  I am sure that many members of the Mexican team wish they had the last two minutes or so of that game to play again.

Fast forward to today, when the heavily favored Germans continued to fail convert excellent changes against Algeria.  The game went to Extra Time, and finally the Germans scored and then scored again.  Valiant play by the Algerian goalkeeper kept the game close, but the Algerians failed to create many chances.  Perhaps it was a case of the better team wearing the underdog down, but the Algerians failed to get it done.  That's probably not as good an example as is the Netherlands-Mexico contest, but outside the French, the favorites all had tough games.

I remain convinced that the U.S. should attack the Belgians early and hard.  True, the Belgians are playing a confounding (for fans) conservative style that has proved to be the best defense against striker Romelu Lukaku that the promising young striker has seen all  year -- his own team's strategy has taken him out of the game.  It would be easy for the U.S. to play into this strategy, play possum, and only take what the Belgians give, but that would be a mistake.  That would mean that the U.S. would agree to keep the ball stuck at midfield and not attack.  If that's the case, count on the Red Devils to awaken in the middle of the second half, push the throttle on their idling engine, and push ahead hard and score a decisive goal.  The Belgians have won all three of their games in this fashion

The problem with a "hang with the Belgians" strategy is that the favorites typically have more at the end to win -- better penalty takers, players who are more creative, players with more stamina, and they figure out a way to win.  Instead, the U.S. should consider hitting a relatively tentative and uncoordinated Belgian team with an aggressive strategy early.  True, they might risk a few long balls over the top of defensive lines that are moved up, but they also might create more chances and bloody the nose of the Red Devils.  Score early, and the U.S. will throw a wrench into the Belgian engine from which Belgium might not be able to recover.  

All that said, the U.S. needs to ensure that it plays in top form in the last ten minutes of the game, especially if they are ahead or the game is tied.  Take the extra run, challenge the extra pass, make the extra play -- each of those things could make a crucial difference in the game's outcome.  That's what seemingly is distinguishing the teams that are advancing -- they have more left in the tank at the end, and they can close out the game and win.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Something Major League Baseball Should Worry About

My rising 9th grader is an active kid, has lots of friends, plays sports, is knowledgeable about them.  When he was little, he played baseball for a while, but also played flag football, football, basketball and lacrosse before settling on rec league soccer,  basketball and lacrosse.  Baseball had become too slow and too rife with fathers acting like Major League managers and playing their sons at key positions.   Even going to Phillies games because a bit much -- it stopped being a lot of fun when you were watching an aging, less motivated team of overpaid stars in blistering heat for three and a half hours.  There was too little action, and the play stopped being as good as it once was.  I also suppose that as kids grow, they make their own choices.  It's part of growing up, figuring out your own interests and realizing that it's okay not to have the same ones as your father.  Quite the opposite, many kids find out that parents will help them develop their new interests and take them to games and events that are outside their comfort zone.  Perhaps the adults might even enjoy it.

We had a conversation the other day about what the kids talk about in gym, at lunch, before class starts and in the hallways.  In the fall, they talk about soccer and football, in the winter about basketball and soccer and in the spring about basketball and soccer and the NFL draft.  And then the NBA draft.  March Madness can loom largely too.  Absent, though, from the discussions, is baseball.

The national pastime, baseball.  The sport whose games can take three hours and fifteen minutes with the ball in play only 15 minutes of every game.  The sport where players do things most of us cannot do -- throw a ball over ninety miles and hour and hit a ball that is coming at you at that speed.  The sport that takes a lot of kids to play if you ever were able to play pick-up games.  The sport that your grandfather and father might have played, and where your father tells stories about different games he went to with his father.

Before video games.  Before the internet.  Before access to an endless amount of games on television.  Before the players thickened and look like tight ends or middle linebackers.  Before steroids.  Before the blind eye was turned toward steroids.  Before scandals about whether steroid era players should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Major League Baseball should be very worried about this.  Seeds that might finally grow into mighty oaks are being planted in this country for soccer to take off.  The game moves.  Great athletes of all nations play it, making it a truly international game.  You know if you watch a game it will be over about two hours after you turn on the television or go to the stadium.   The English Premiership had a great debut on NBC Sports Channel.  ESPN"s coverage of the World Cup is extraordinarily good.  Ian Darke is an ace in the booth for the U.S. games.  The U.S. team has advanced to the knockout round for the second World Cup in a row and has a reasonable chance to defeat a young Belgian team.  The bar lounge discussions at the end of a day were excellent -- Roberto Martinez has been great, as have Michael Ballack, Ruud van Nistelroy, Julie Foudy, Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas.  The latter might irk some people, but he's knowledgeable and he doesn't pull his punches.  All in all, a huge celebration of soccer.

And there's also the influence of the internet and video games.  As to the latter, EA Sports FIFA game is among the world's most popular, far outselling any MLB game.  Kids learn who the players are by playing all sorts of matches on FIFA, and they buttress that information with what they read on the internet.  FIFA is perhaps the most fun sports video game to play, and its sales the first five days after its release were through the roof.  Even in the US., where you see more and more kids wearing soccer jerseys.

Forty years ago, the five most popular sports in the US were baseball, football, basketball, boxing and horse racing (the latter because it was the only place you could place a legal bet outside Las Vegas).  Horse racing has fallen off, as has boxing.  Tennis surged when you had raw, real characters like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and before cable TV gave you access to so many games at the same time.  But then tennis faded as the individualists left the game and as the equipment has improved to the point that you can smash a hard-to-return serve and volley a weak return into a winner.  American football is now the most popular game in the U.S., and basketball remains strong, with March Madness drawing big ratings.  Baseball remains popular, but it doesn't draw great on television (witness the ratings for many of the most recent World Series) and it moves slowly.  I'm not arguing that it's headed for our popular culture's version of the tar pits, where people will go to Cooperstown in 50 years and say, "How could this game have been so popular, only the Ivy League still plays it?"  But what I am saying is that sometimes organizations make decisions when they're riding high that can help render them obsolete.

American football has surpassed baseball (and it, too, has some significant issues about its future given the damage that players suffer from playing the game and how that damage can shorten their lives or dramatically affect the quality of life after football), and soccer is threatening it.  The NBA just celebrated a great season, his likable stars, and college basketball remains strong.  Baseball still holds out there, benefitting from good weather, nice parks and a place where generations have gone to watch their teams.  But soccer will pinch it if it hasn't already, and if it hasn't already, it's a growing wave that will threaten the marginal dollars that people use to spend on sports.  There are many good things about baseball, to be sure, but as with all industries and economies, there are phenomena out there that can surge fast and threaten its prosperity if not its existence.

The Lords of Baseball should look at the rise of soccer very seriously.  American football already has eclipsed it in popularity, and soccer might soon too.