timbersfan's WunderBlog

TOP 40 PLAYERS OF EURO 2012 29-40

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on May 31, 2012

#29: Samir Nasri, FRA

© Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images



Comments 0


One of the most talented midfielders in Europe on his day, Nasri hasn’t enjoyed the best of times since joining Manchester City last summer. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the 24-year-old, who has shown throughout his career that he can perform at the top of the game, even if consistency is not always a strong point.


Having been discarded under former French coach Raymond Domenech, Nasri has come back strong under Laurent Blanc to become an important member of this new iteration of Les Bleus. The question, as always, is where and how to play him to get the best out of his abilities. It is an issue that has never fully been answered at club level and one that is currently hindering the Frenchman's progression.


At his best, Nasri is a match-winner, and the agony of Arsenal fans at his departure last season is testament to that fact. Graceful across the ground and with a fantastic ability to pick the right pass, he has terrified top sides when on form, while the former Marseille man is more than adept at breaking into the area late to get onto the score sheet. Euro 2012 presents a big chance for Nasri to deliver a message to his doubters.



Expert's take: Nasri has blown hot and cold in a difficult first season at Manchester City, but playing in the central role that suits him best, Nasri looks ready to lead France's stab at rehabilitating its reputation in major tournaments. --Andy Brassell

Stats That Matter:


• Scored tying goal in final Euro 2012 qualifying match to clinch first place in Group D


• All three of his international goals have been scored in France


• Second on Manchester City with 40 chances created in 2011-12 Premier League play


• All five of his 2011-12 Premier League goals have been scored in the second half


• Second on Manchester City with nine assists in 2011-12


May 26
09:35
AM GMT
#30: Andrea Pirlo, ITA

© Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images



Comments 2


Any biography of Pirlo, perhaps the greatest playmaker of the 2000s, is bound to have more words dedicated to the things he’s won -- everything but the Euro -- than to his personality and what makes him tick. Pirlo is an inconspicuous man in all arenas of life but the field. There, he is nicknamed l’architecto and il metronomo for his capacity to orchestrate the offense and set the pace of a game.


Sitting very deep in the midfield, where he can collect the ball from his defenders, Pirlo’s long balls and set pieces are without equal. In Poland and Ukraine, as ever, Italy’s forwards will only be as strong as the service Pirlo provides them, which propelled the team to the 2006 World Cup, for starters.



Expert's take: Pirlo has rediscovered his ability to single-handedly change games at Juventus. Still a defensive liability, but there’s no one with his passing range in Europe. -- Shaka Hislop

Stats That Matter:


• Led Serie A with 13 assists this season


• Finished as the top Italian in 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year voting


• Won the Bronze Ball and led all players in the 2006 World Cup with three Man of the Match awards, including the final


• Finished as the top scorer and Golden Player as he captained Italy to win the 2000 UEFA U-21 European Championship


• For club and country he has won 10 trophies in seven competitions: Serie A, Italian Cup, Italian Super Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and FIFA World Cup


May 25
10:18
AM GMT
#31: Mario Gotze, GER




Comments


The young Borussia Dortmund playmaker has enjoyed a dizzying ascent through German football since joining his club’s academy at age 8 and making his first-team debut for the Bundesliga winners in 2009. Quick and equally comfortable with the ball on either foot, Gotze is a once-in-a-generation talent -- as German icon Franz Beckenbauer said of Gotze, “he is an instinctive footballer, just like Messi” -- whose best is clearly yet to come.


Winning league titles with Dortmund in back-to-back seasons, Gotze also won the 2011 Golden Boy award -- given to the top football player in Europe under 21 years old -- following in the footsteps of other Euro 2012 stars Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas and Mario Balotelli in addition to being present for Germany’s successful UEFA U-17 side in 2009. But what sets him apart is his vision and awareness in the attacking third, as reflected in his haul of 12 goals and 16 assists in 49 league appearances the past two seasons.


With Die Mannschaft, Gotze has managed 12 outings since 2010 and, with striker Andre Schurrle, was the first German player born after the reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall to represent the national team. Furthermore, Gotze’s goal in a 2-0 friendly win over Brazil earned him the honor of being the joint-youngest goal scorer for the German national team in the post-World War II era, all hinting at his preternatural abilities as an attacking midfielder or wing threat.


Slowed by a hip injury that caused him to miss more than three months of the 2011-12 season, Gotze will be hoping to make an impression as an impact substitute for a German side hotly tipped to topple Spain for the glory of being named European champion.



Expert's take: A young German footballer who seems to play with a smile on his face. In this regard, there are similarities to Lionel Messi. Gotze has received a thorough grounding at the Borussia Dortmund youth academy. A true entertainer, he has the ability to change a game with one kick of the ball or one swerve of his body. He’ll turn 20 the week before the Euros begin. Gotze's potential is almost frightening. -- Derek Rae

Stats That Matter:


• Created 33 scoring chances in just 17 games for Borussia Dortmund this season, which placed him in the top 10 percent of all players in the Bundesliga


• Scored six goals in 2010-11 title-winning season for Dortmund


• Made his national team debut against Sweden in November 2010 at age 18, becoming the second-youngest senior national team player ever for Germany


• Two goals in 12 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2010 (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Gotze in the lineup is 7-1-4 (through May 18)


May 25
10:10
AM GMT
#32: Gianluigi Buffon, ITA

© Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images



Comments


One of football's goalkeeping greats returns for another major tournament this summer as World Cup winner Gianluigi Buffon is set to appear for Italy in his fourth European Championship. Injury-riddled the past few seasons, Buffon, 34, has enjoyed a marvelous 2011-12 campaign for Juventus and will hope to bring his imperious form to Poland and the Ukraine.


Buffon's reflexes remain among the sharpest around, and he has turned in performances this season that show he is still capable of performing at the level that people have come to expect from the eight-time Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year. As with all great stoppers, parts of Buffon's game also have improved with age, and the Juventus man now exudes an aura of dominance when the ball enters his area.


Apart from his World Cup win in 2006, Buffon's experiences at international tournaments have been far from outstanding, with both his Euro 2000 and World Cup 2010 cut short by injury before, or during, the opening game. With a quarterfinal his best finish in a European Championship, Buffon will look to improve his record in 2012.



Expert's take: No matter the season or situation, Buffon keeps getting better and better. A dominant part of Juve's unbeaten league campaign and sure to stonewall several scorers at this summer's Euros. -- James Tyler

Stats That Matter:


• Played 35 of 38 games for a Juventus side that won 2011-12 Serie A as the first undefeated team in 20 years


• Juventus led Serie A this season by conceding only 20 goals, the best by any team since Serie A expanded to 20 teams in 2004-05


• Named Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year a record eight times


• Named Goalkeeper of the Decade and Goalkeeper of the 21st Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics


• Kept five clean sheets, had a 453-minute scoreless streak and won the Yashin Award as the best goalkeeper at the 2006 World Cup


May 25
10:05
AM GMT
#33: Juan Mata, SPA

© Shaun Botterill/Getty Images



Comments


Another product of Spain’s little revolution of dribbling dervishes, Juan Mata, who was discarded by Real Madrid when he was 19, has become a hybrid of ideologically opposite soccer cultures. Getting his education in Spain’s technique-obsessed youth ranks, Mata has had to learn to combine the wondrous things his feet can do -- pass, dribble and shoot with devastating efficiency and creativity -- with getting his mere 5-foot-7 stature to function in the rough-and-tumble English Premier League for Chelsea to become the model modern footballer.


Toiling behind Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and David Silva, however, Mata more than likely will play a role off the bench during Euro 2012, re-energizing games with his peerless runs as opponents start to flag under Spain’s pressure.



Expert's take: It is curious that the word "promising" is still being used for a 24-year-old footballer with 274 games played and 72 goals scored at the time of writing. But the Chelsea midfielder, despite having confirmed his class in such a difficult tournament as the Premier League, still has lot of potential, so the best is yet to come from Mata. -- Vito De Palma

Stats That Matter:


• Five goals in 16 appearances for Spain


• Led Chelsea and was ninth in Premier League with 573 passes completed into final third in 2011-12


• Second in Premier League with 66 chances created in 2011-12 (Van Persie had 72)


• Led Chelsea and was sixth in Premier League with 61 successful crosses in 2011-12


• Third on Chelsea with 30 successful one-on-one take-ons in Premier League play in 2011-12


May 25
10:03
AM GMT
#34: Xabi Alonso, SPA

© Denis Doyle/Getty Images



Comments


This 30-year-old Mark Wahlberg look-alike displays all the versatility of a gifted actor on the field. As a central midfielder he can play the tough guy or the hero, shielding his defenders or spraying around pinpoint passes, including some of the best balls over the top out there.


Coy but eclectic off the field -- he became a fan of Gaelic football after going on a school exchange to Ireland -- Alonso seems to be one of those rare players who seldom has a bad game on it. And it is his coverage of extensive real estate and positional diligence that allow attacking string pullers Xavi and Andres Iniesta to stalk forward without having to worry very much about the space they’re vacating.



Expert's take: It can be argued that Alonso provides that base with the qualities it lacks: a calm, responsible head who fortifies a back four that can often look fragile, a cannon of a long-range shot for when the space in front is congested and, most of all, a bit of extra bite and aggression after his time under Jose Mourinho. -- Miguel Delaney

Stats That Matter:


• 11 goals in 93 appearances for Spain


• Leads Real Madrid and is second in La Liga with 2,558 passes completed


• Second on Real Madrid and fifth in La Liga with 756 passes completed into the final third in 2011-12


• Has three goals in his past eight international games (against Venezuela, Italy and Czech Republic)


• Has won eight titles as a player. four with Liverpool, two with Real Madrid and two with Spain


May 25
10:00
AM GMT
#35: Giorgio Chiellini, ITA

© Claudio Villa/Getty Images



Comments


The Italian national side has enjoyed a long succession of genuinely world-class center backs, and following on from the likes of Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta is Juventus star Giorgio Chiellini. The 27-year-old, alongside club colleague Andrea Barzagli, forms a fearsome partnership that will be the foundation of any Italian challenge this summer.


Uncompromising and rugged, Chiellini uses every inch of his frame to make life difficult for opposition attackers, while his impressive reading of the game means that he often deals with potential danger without having to get physical with an opponent. The advantages of having a familiar center-back partnership are numerous, and given Juventus' form this season, few would bet against Italy proving rock-solid in defense at Euro 2012.


In his first international tournament at Euro 2008, Chiellini impressed after he received an opportunity midway through the group stage, putting in his best performance against Spain in the quarterfinals. However, the Confederations Cup and the World Cup have been a disappointment for Italy in the years since, and the defender and his colleagues will hope to right some wrongs in Poland and Ukraine.



Expert's take: If Italy is famous for producing world-class defenders, Chiellini is perhaps the only one of the current crop who truly belongs in that pantheon. Italy manager Cesare Prandelli will rely on the rugged and versatile defender to organize and inspire. -- Andy Brassell

Stats That Matter:


• Played 34 of 38 games in defense for Juventus side that won 2011-12 Serie A, and allowed only 20 goals, best by any team since Serie A expanded in 2004-05.


• Named Serie A Defender of the Year three consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2010.


• Finished as Italy’s joint top scorer and was named in the Team of the Tournament at the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championship.


• After Juventus was relegated to Serie B for 2006-2007, he scored a brace against Arezzo in May to secure promotion back to Serie A.


• Won bronze medal at 2004 Olympic Games with Italy.


May 24
07:42
PM GMT
#36: Ashley Cole, ENG

© Richard Heathcote/Getty Images



Comments


Another player coming into the tournament off the back of a below-par league campaign, Ashley Cole will want to impress this summer. For a long time, the 31-year-old has been considered the prototype of the modern fullback, but he must now prove that his powers are not waning.


Cole always has been a fine outlet on the left flank. His overlapping runs and link-up play with those in midfield positions mean that opposition sides often find themselves outnumbered down the wings, opening up space for those around him. Defensively, Cole always has been solid for someone of such attacking intent, but with his pace fading, the defender must stand up to increased scrutiny on that side of his game.


For England, Cole has been reliable, and the country’s left-back position has been almost his personal possession; however, this summer could well be his final fling at international level. The Chelsea man will be crucial to anything England plans to achieve this summer, and in a time of such insecurity for the underachieving Three Lions, at least they know they can bank on one consistent performer.



Expert's take: "Time goes by but the left back is, year after year, a vital part of Chelsea and the England national team both on and off the field." -- Federico Manfredo

Stats That Matter:


• 93 career caps, sixth-most in England history and most among all outside backs.


• Only player to win six FA Cup titles, three with Arsenal and three with Chelsea.


• Won two Premier League titles with Arsenal and one with Chelsea. One of six players to win PL titles with two different clubs.


• Second on Chelsea with 1,480 completed passes and 58 successful tackles in league games in 2011-12.


• Second on Chelsea with 146 passes completed into final third in Champions League in 2011-12.


May 24
07:41
PM GMT
#37: Sami Khedira, GER

© Boris Streubel/Getty Images



Comments


Alongside Germany teammate Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira was one of the revelations of the 2010 World Cup, and unsurprisingly, Real Madrid came knocking for the pair shortly after the tournament. Khedira, now 25, has enjoyed an up-and-down first two seasons at the Bernabeu but remains an important player in Jose Mourinho's plans for Los Merengues.


A combative force in midfield, Khedira has developed into more of a box-to-box player in his second term in Madrid after being granted a predominantly defensive role on arrival. Given his height and strength, he is always an aerial threat in attack and similarly proves useful in dealing with set pieces in defensive areas.


Khedira's international career has been nothing short of exceptional so far, with an impressive World Cup followed by a qualification campaign that saw Germany stroll to 10 consecutive wins. An often unsung hero, the midfielder will be integral to any success that Germany achieves this summer, even if the attention falls on some of the side's more attacking players.



Expert's take: "A calm and reassuring presence in Germany's midfield, Sami Khedira has benefited immensely from his education under Jose Mourinho." -- Andrew Orsatti

Stats That Matter:


• Started all seven matches for Germany at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as the replacement for injured captain Michael Ballack


• Scored the winning goal in the third-place match in 2010, a 3-2 win against Uruguay


• Won Bundesliga title in his first full professional season with Stuttgart, securing the championship with a goal on the season’s last day


• One goal in 25 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2009 (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Khedira in the lineup is 18-4-3 (through May 18)


May 24
07:40
PM GMT
#38: Sergio Ramos, SPA

© AP Photo



Comments


It would be easy to conclude that Ramos’ accidental dropping of the 2010-11 Copa del Rey from atop an open double-decker bus, only for it to be run over by said bus, is the perfect metaphor for the long-maned man -- a boorish act by a brutish player. But that would overlook the skill hiding beneath the brawn of the hard-as-nails central defender (for Real Madrid) and right back (for Spain).


Consider that for no other Spanish teenager, of all the wonderful prospects the Iberian nation has produced, was such a large transfer sum paid -- some $35 million -- as Real did for Ramos, a defender, no less, seven years ago.


Ramos, 26, is most of all a precise tackler, a one-man aerial defense system, a shrewd man-marker and, when given the chance, quite a handful in the opponent’s half, too. Require more evidence of his understated brilliance? Of all the players to appear at the 2010 World Cup, Ramos, who lifted the trophy with Spain, was deemed the most valuable by the Castrol Performance Index.



Expert's take: "He may not be the most reliable at defending, but Ramos makes up for it with his versatility and ability to score goals, especially with his head." -- Ravi Ubha

Stats That Matter:


• 84 caps with the Spanish national team since debuting at age 18


• Second on Real Madrid with 72 successful tackles in league play in 2011-12


• Led Real Madrid and was second in La Liga with 114 successful clearances in 2011-12


• Second on Real Madrid with 1,791 passes completed in La Liga in 2011-12


• Has scored six goals with the national team, most by a defender



#39: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, NED

© Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images



Comments 1


The hard-nosed forward has had to work hard to fit in the Oranje system; despite his prolific scoring clip for club (29 goals and eight assists in 32 games for Schalke in 2011-12) and country (31 in 50 appearances), Huntelaar is frequently sparring with the brilliant Robin van Persie for the right to lead the Dutch attack.


Yet the battle is a good one for the Netherlands, as Huntelaar’s physicality and aggression around goal make for the perfect foil for RVP’s lithe, stylish artistry. Huntelaar’s relentless chases for the ball in attacking areas don’t always pay off -- Huntelaar’s two concussions in 2012 might blunt his push for this summer’s Euros -- but there’s little doubting his value in Bert van Marwijk’s system when healthy.


Overall, Huntelaar is coming into peak form at age 28, leading the hypercompetitive Bundesliga in scoring and showing the form that saw him noticed at the under-21 level, where he won individual honors at the 2006 U-21 championships and is still the Netherlands’ leading scorer for the “Yong Oranje.”



Expert's Take: "What he might lack in technical brilliance he makes up for in his football intelligence and an instinct in knowing the best place to position himself in order to score goals. One of the most prolific scorers in Europe this season." -- Robbie Mustoe

Stats That Matter:


• Led Schalke with 29 goals this season, becoming the first Dutch player to top the Bundesliga scoring charts


• Scored 14 goals in 1,103 minutes in the UEFA Europa League in 2011-12 (averages to a goal every 79 minutes)


• Only player to score double-digit goals (12) during UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying


• One of three players with more than 20 shots on goal during Euro 2012 qualifying, along with Cristiano Ronaldo and David Villa


• PSV sold him to Heerenveen for 900,000 euros in July 2004; eighteen months later Heerenveen sold him to Ajax for 9 million euros, a tenfold increase in transfer value


May 24
07:38
PM GMT
#40: Yann M’Vila, FRA

© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images



Comments 0


Let his current club coach, Rennes manager Frederic Antonetti, have the first word on the highly rated, heavily scouted defensive midfielder: "M'Vila reads the game like Claude Makelele, has the presence of Patrick Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Toure."


Although these lofty comparisons might seem premature for the 21-year-old from Amiens, his progress over the past two seasons has shown that he might soon embody that hallowed trio. Consider that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been trying to lure M'Vila from Ligue 1 for what seems like an eternity, seeing him as the perfect midfield foil for Alex Song and Jack Wilshere.


M'Vila's strengths revolve around his decision-making and reading of the game. Although he sits deep in midfield, his passing range and upfield vision mean he often serves as an attacking catalyst for club and country (since making his Les Bleus debut in August 2010). That’s something Laurent Blanc has been keen to integrate since taking over as Les Bleus' manager.



To complement his imaginative play from withdrawn positions -- M'Vila led Ligue 1 in passes attempted (2,341) and completed (1,989) in 2010-11, a testament to his tempo-setting role -- is his sense of discipline in the tackle. Despite playing a demanding position in front of defense, M'Vila has just 18 yellow cards and two reds in more than 130 professional appearances, proving that he can control games without losing control of himself. That should prove useful in a demanding Euro 2012 group.




Expert's take: "The type of player that every major club covets, M'Vila's athleticism and positional sense allows his midfield colleagues the freedom to create." -- John Brewin


Stats That Matter:


• Earned first cap in Laurent Blanc's debut as national team coach


• Led France in successful passes (643), tackles (12) and interceptions (24) during qualifying


• Leads Rennes in minutes played in league in 2011-12 with 3,309 (ninth overall in league)


• Named to Ligue 1 team of the year in 2010-11. Lost PFA Young Player of the Year award to Mamadou Sakho


• Scored first professional goal in a 7-0 Coupe de France win over Cannes in January 2011

Permalink

TOP 40 PLAYERS OF EURO 2012 28-19

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on May 31, 2012

#19: Daniele De Rossi, ITA

© Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images



Comments 4


Perhaps best remembered for getting sent off for elbowing the U.S. striker Brian McBride in the face during the 2006 World Cup group stage, De Rossi, 28, has since developed into one of the best central midfielders in the game for AS Roma and Italy.


Well-rounded in the Italian tradition, he is hard-nosed, hard-working and armed with a hard shot from long distance which is among the best in the game. Technically sound, De Rossi can do just about anything on the field, including planting a well-aimed elbow in an opponent’s face every now and then. He’s equally capable of quietly pushing a rejuvenated Italy far into an international tournament as one of the last holdovers of the 2006 World Cup-winning team.



Expert's take: In his prime, tactically sound, positioning and a solid passing game make him an important leader in Italy's midfield. Has the ability to shoot from distance and pop up in key situations. -- Andrew Orsatti

Stats That Matter:


• Signed a new five-year deal with Roma in 2012, making him the highest paid Italian player in Serie A


• Led Italy in successful passes completed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup


• Collected at least 10 cards in all competitions for six consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2010, finishing as Roma’s most disciplined player four times


• Italian Footballer of the Year in 2009


• Scored Italy’s third shootout goal in the 2006 World Cup Final, following a four-match ban for a straight red card against the United States in the group stage


May 28
08:00
AM GMT
#20: Gerard Pique, SPA

© Michael Regan/Getty Images



Comments 6


Another of Spain's strong Barcelona contingent, Pique perhaps has the most to prove this summer after a disappointing domestic season by his standards. The 25-year-old has already been a regular starter for club and country for some time but, after a rocky patch of form, has found that status questioned.


Still, the rise of Pique at Barcelona has been astronomic. Within a year of his arrival from being a reserve at Manchester United, the defender was playing an instrumental role in a historic treble for Barcelona that eventually saw the side end the year with an unprecedented six trophies. A year later, a first World Cup was claimed and Pique's status at the top of the world game was assured.


At his best, it is easy to see why Pique has made such an impact. Tall, strong and powerful, he has led the way for an entire generation of ball-playing center backs now emerging. Barcelona may have started to try midfielders like Javier Mascherano in central defense but from early on, Pique played with the touch and composure of a more advanced player. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to the attention now that the spotlight is starting to focus on some of his weak points this season.



Expert's take: Together with Carles Puyol, is the heart and soul of the rearguard for Barcelona, the most offensive team in the world. Hence, his defensive skills are put to the test regularly, and he gets excellent marks due to speed, intelligence, strong aerial play and good feet. The last two qualities make him one of the best in one-on-one situations and also allow him to become a threat when he ventures into the opposing box. -- Damian Didonato

Stats That Matter:


• Has 38 caps with the senior national team (also represented Spain in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup)


• Has scored four goals with the national team, but none since Oct. 14, 2009


• Third on Barcelona with 40 aerial challenges in 2011-12


• Has won 16 trophies at the club level: three with Manchester United and 13 with Barcelona


• One of three players to have represented two different clubs that have won the Champions League in successive years. The others are Marcel Desailly (Marseille and AC Milan) and Paulo Sousa (Juventus and Borussia Dortmund)


May 27
09:12
AM GMT
#21: Mario Balotelli, ITA




Comments


There are powder kegs that have started fewer fires than Balotelli has. The eccentric 21-year-old Manchester City striker has been as likely to score a brilliant goal as he has to incur a red card or set alight his bathroom with fireworks.


After being turned down by Barcelona, Balotelli made his professional debut at age 15. Ever since, managers have had to reconcile their ire at his endless antics and their reliance at his improbable combination of size, skill and imagination. So it is, too, for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, who has taken to leaving Balotelli, who has a mere seven caps, off his roster for his antics in Manchester but will rely on him heavily during Euro 2012, short as he is on young, healthy, quality strikers.



Expert's take: As Manchester City has discovered, a team can live by the Balo or die by the Balo. Few players in football are so physically gifted yet mentally challenged. Can Italy rely upon him? It all depends how badly Super Mario wants the world to see what message he has printed on his undershirt during goal celebrations. --Roger Bennett

Stats That Matter:


• Scored 13 goals in 23 Premier League games this season, the first time in his career he has tallied double-digit league goals


• Named Man of the Match in the 2011 FA Cup final as Manchester City collected its first trophy in 35 years


• Named 2010 recipient of the Golden Boy Award as the top U-21 footballer in Europe, joining previous winners such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi


• Part of Inter Milan team that won three consecutive Serie A championships, including the European Treble in 2010


• Inter Milan never lost in 24 games when Balotelli scored a goal


May 27
09:10
AM GMT
#22: Nani, POR

© Paul Gilham/Getty Images



Comments


Nani is both a source of huge frustration and of joy to many of his supporters, with his outstanding goals and assists records offset by the regularity with which the Portuguese winger fails to play the easy ball or convert a relatively simple opportunity. Thus, the winger continues to divide opinion amongst even his own club's supporters.


At his best, Nani is a match-winner and has proved unplayable on occasions, with his trickery, pace and ability to shoot with either foot a potent combination. The problem, though, and the reason that he is still often overlooked for bigger games at club level, is that these occasions do not arrive with the regularity that his talent deserves. Talent, though, is one thing that the Portuguese have never traditionally been short of.


At international level, Nani is a key part of the Portugal setup and boasts a more than reasonable goal return in the colors of the Selecção. Five goals during qualification as part of an attacking trio with Cristiano Ronaldo and Helder Postiga bode well ahead of this summer's tournament, but Portugal fans will be hoping that it is this productive version of the Manchester United star that shows up.



Expert's take: Joined Manchester United in 2007 and almost immediately became a starter under Alex Ferguson. Skillful but lacking discipline, he quickly became one of the best modern wingers in the world. Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha is fast, has a great kick and, probably his most important quality, is one of the last "dribblers" left in the Old Continent. --Damian Didonato

Stats That Matter:


• Tallied five goals and four assists in Euro 2012 qualifying


• Created 115 chances over the past two seasons, most on Manchester United and eighth in the Premier League


• Nani has four goals in five career appearances against Denmark, which is in Group B with Portugal


• 70.8 pass completion percentage in Premier League play this season, lowest among all Manchester United outfield players with at least 1,000 attempted passes (League average: 76.7 percent)


• Nani had 13 Premier League assists in the 2011 calendar year, more than any other player in the league, and his 18 assists led the Premier League in 2010-11


May 27
09:07
AM GMT
#23: Joe Hart, ENG

© Paul Gilham/Getty Images



Comments


Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart has been firmly established as England's No. 1 ever since England returned from the 2010 World Cup. Hart's return from a loan spell at Birmingham, which had shot him into international contention, also saw the young stopper propelled into the first team at title-chasing Manchester City, and the 24-year-old has not looked back since.


Physically, Hart is a giant between the sticks, and his massive frame means that he is amongst the best one-on-one stoppers in the European game. But it is his utter command of the penalty area and security from crosses that truly belie his age that, in international goalkeeping terms, is still remarkably young.


With just 11 goals conceded in his first 17 international games, Hart has adapted to the biggest stage with relative ease, while his first taste of the Champions League at club level should mean that he is fully prepared for the pressure of his first major tournament as England's first choice keeper. He will just be hopeful he can avoid the issues that some of his predecessors have faced in the jersey.



Expert's take: Hart's emergence from lower-league shot-stopper to leader of Man City's title-winning side and marshal of the England defense is no accident. His athleticism is world class while his reflexes and reactions never fail to make up for any perceived weakness. --James Tyler

Stats That Matter:


• England has lost one of his 17 international appearances, a 3-2 defeat to Netherlands on Feb. 29


• One of two English players to appear in all eight Euro 2012 qualifiers (the other: Ashley Cole)


• Only Manchester City player to start every Premier League game in 2011-12


• Led Premier League with 17 clean sheets in 2011-12


• Set Manchester City record with 18 Premier League shutouts and 29 total shutouts in 2010-11


May 27
09:05
AM GMT
#24: Sergio Busquets, SPA

© Alex Livesey/Getty Images



Comments


Few players in football’s upper echelons generate quite so much contention as Busquets, holding midfielder and do-all workhorse in the Barcelona midfield. Oft criticized for his occasional foul play and tendency to dive or simulate, those darker elements of his career are footnotes to his functional, composed play for club and country.


Breaking into the Barca squad in 2008, Busquets’ purpose in midfield is unsavory to some but essential for his team. Acting as both shield for his defenders and catalyst for any forward moves, it is Busquets’ aggressive, tenacious presence that frees up creators such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi to bomb forward in search of goals.


With Spain, Busquets is impressive in a similar role; alongside the more expansive Xabi Alonso in the heart of midfield, he was instrumental in his nation’s first winning World Cup campaign, playing all but 30 minutes. But the highest praise for Busquets comes not from Catalans, teammates or his former Barca coach Pep Guardiola, but from Spain’s national team boss, Vicente Del Bosque: “If I was a footballer, I would like to be like Busquets.” High praise from the man trusting the 23-year-old Catalonian to anchor La Furia Roja’s search for a third consecutive international title dating back to the 2008 Euros.



Expert's take: A much-improved defensive midfield player. Developed by Guardiola, Busquets is extremely important for Spain. He might not be the fastest player in the world but he reads the game well. --Robbie Mustoe

Stats That Matter:


• Yet to score in his 37 caps with Spain


• Debuted for Spain against Turkey in a 2010 World Cup qualifier on April 1, 2009


• Started every match for Spain in the 2010 World Cup


• Broke through into top-flight football in 2008-09 with Barcelona and has won 13 titles since


• Fifth in La Liga with 2,055 passes completed in 2011-12


May 27
09:00
AM GMT
#25: Manuel Neuer, GER

© Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images



Comments


Having seized an opportunity (an injury to Rene Adler) to enter the 2010 World Cup as Germany's first-choice goalkeeper, Neuer never looked back and used a magnificent showing at the tournament as a springboard to further success. The 26-year-old caught the eye of many during the event in South Africa and has retained the German No. 1 spot ever since.


In 2011, Neuer made the leap from Schalke 04 to rival Bayern Munich, leading to a hostile reception from his new supporters upon arrival. But a new record set for the longest unbeaten run in the club's history soon saw fans getting behind their new stopper, who is undoubtedly Germany's best keeper since Oliver Kahn.


Neuer is an imposing figure and commands his area brilliantly to deal with balls crossed in from the flanks. Despite his broad frame, he is a remarkably agile shot-stopper and has over the past couple seasons produced memorable saves to deny opponents on a regular basis. Now, for the first time in his career, the Bayern keeper will have the opportunity to display his talents at a European Championship, with his Germany side amongst the pre-tournament favorites for the title.



Expert's take: Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. Now at Bayern, he has gained experience and confidence, culminating in a valiant (though losing) effort in the Champions League final. He is still relatively young for a keeper. With time on his side, he will only get better. -- Steve McManaman

Stats That Matter:


• Started all 10 of Germany’s Euro 2012 qualifiers and finished with three shutouts


• Set a Bayern Munich record of 1,147 minutes without conceding a goal between early August and mid-October of 2011


• League-leading 17 shutouts in 33 Bundesliga matches for Bayern Munich this season


• Led Germany's Under-21 side to European title in 2009 as he started all five matches and conceded one goal


• 25 appearances for Germany since debuting in 2009, with a record of 21-2-2 with 10 shutouts (through May 18)


May 26
09:45
AM GMT
#26: Steven Gerrard, ENG

© Paul Gilham/Getty Images



Comments


Often told he was too small to make it as a professional when he was young, Gerrard nevertheless grew into a giant among footballers -- not to mention 6-foot tall. Never forsaking his beloved Liverpool from the age of 9 onward-- except for a few trials elsewhere when the Reds dawdled on signing him to his apprentice papers at 14 -- he will be remembered as one of the Merseyside icons who enrich club lore.


At 31, Gerrard still very much has a part to play for England. Even if the blueprint for successfully deploying him alongside Frank Lampard in the England midfield was never properly developed, his attacking verve, technique and engine remain cherished weapons in the English arsenal. There perhaps never has been an English player as readily able to will his team to win games as Gerrard, and having been named as the Three Lions' captain by Roy Hodgson, this summer provides him perhaps one final chance to do so.



Expert's take: Arguably the most complete English player of his generation. Gerrard has natural drive in his game and knows where the goal is, too. At 32 when the Euros begin, less will be expected from Gerrard than in previous tournaments. -- Derek Rae

Stats That Matter:


• Needs one goal to become ninth player to score 150 goals for Liverpool


• 584 appearances for Liverpool, 10th-most in club history


• At 24 years and 360 days, he became the second-youngest European Cup-winning captain when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005. Only Marseille’s Didier Deschamps was younger


• Named UEFA Footballer of the Year in 2005, the only English player to win in 14 years of the award


• Won every possible major trophy with Liverpool except Premier League title


May 26
09:42
AM GMT
#27: Christian Eriksen, DEN

© Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images



Comments


Although Christian Eriksen played two games at the 2010 World Cup, this will be the Dane's first major tournament at international level since becoming a first-team regular for club and country. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has been turning heads over the past couple seasons, and the stage is now set for him to show that he is ready to take the next step in his career.


The talented midfield playmaker has come of age at Ajax in the past two seasons as the latest wunderkind to roll off the Dutch side's renowned production line. Signed from OB Odense in 2008, Eriksen’s rise has been long-awaited, but worth every second. Under Frank de Boer, Ajax has developed a system that is based upon the club's traditions of possession and passing football, with the young Dane serving as the side's creative linchpin in midfield.


Voted the Danish Player of the Year in 2011, Eriksen has started to make an impact on the international scene, including opening his goal-scoring account during the side's qualification campaign. The youngster has shown he is not afraid of the big stage; now he must prove that he has the quality to consistently perform against high-class opposition.



Expert's take: You think the Eden Hazard transfer rumors are boring? Wait until it becomes clear that this latest Ajax prodigy is ready to hit the open market. Gifted on the ball and in the dribble, Eriksen's vision and pace will make him irresistible for -- and vital to -- big clubs around Europe. -- James Tyler

Stats That Matter:


• Seven goals in 33 league games for Ajax in 2011-12


• Won 2010-11 Dutch Eredivisie with Ajax, the club’s first title in seven years


• Youngest Danish player ever to score in Euro qualification with a goal versus Iceland at age 19 in June 2011


• 2011 Dutch Football Talent of the Year and Danish Football Player of the Year


• An attacking midfielder, Eriksen has the longest shot on Ajax with an average shot distance of 24 yards


May 26
09:40
AM GMT
#28: Mario Gomez, GER

© Joern Pollex/Getty Images



Comments


Since a disappointing Euro 2008, Gomez has emerged as Germany’s next great target forward in the mold of Oliver Bierhoff and Miroslav Klose. Tall at 6-foot-3, strong and lethal in the air, the 26-year-old Bayern Munich striker is rounding into the peak of his career.


His goal-scoring record has followed suit. Gomez has scored a shade under 20 league goals per season in the hard-hitting Bundesliga over the past six years, tallied against each of Germany’s Euro qualifying opponents and already has 21 international goals -- more than Klose, who will probably become Die Mannschaft’s all-time leading scorer, had at his age.


Disclaimer: Gomez has never been a full-time starter or scored a goal at a major international tournament.



Expert's take: A classic hefty target with quick feet. When confident he is capable of scoring in bunches. Deadly from within 6 yards, Gomez has demonstrated a peerless ability to bundle the ball home with literally any part of his body. -- Roger Bennett

Stats That Matter:


• Has scored 80 goals in all competitions for Bayern Munich the past two seasons


• Scored the fastest goal in the Bundesliga in the 2011-12 season when he struck just 24 seconds into a match on April 7


• Scored four goals in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match in a record-tying 23 minutes


• Scored 21 goals in 51 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2007 (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Gomez in the lineup is 32-10-9 (through May 18)

Permalink

TOP 40 PLAYERS OF EURO 2012 9-18

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on May 31, 2012

#9: Bastian Schweinsteiger, GER




Comments 0


The latest incarnation in a long and highly decorated line of fire-breathing Bayern Munich and Germany midfielders, Schweinsteiger, 27, is a far more regal player than his family name would suggest. After first winning his place in the Bayern squad at just 18, Schweinsteiger drifted widely through the team sheet. Mostly he was a winger. But it was when he was converted to a full-time central midfielder three summers ago that he found his calling.


A hard-nosed and physical player with a remarkable lust for work, Schweinsteiger combines his laborious ways with an underappreciated finesse on the ball. Frequently drifting out wide or sitting deep, many of Germany’s more promising attacks originate from one of his feet, if only you bother to trace them back to their start. You won’t catch Schweinsteiger pulling out intricate step-overs or other flashy moves. But if you look closely, you’ll discover a player with some of the finest set pieces, dribbles, long shots and passes in the game, underpinned by a remarkable vision.


Positioned deep in Germany’s midfield, likely beside Sami Khedira and behind Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, Schweinsteiger is the engine room and command center of the best young midfield in international soccer.



Expert's take: Every team needs a ferocious midfield presence, and Schweinsteiger is that terrier for club and country. Yet there's an artful elegance to his game that transcends his defensive duties in front of the back four. A box-to-box player with the skill and ability to do whatever's required. -- James Tyler

Stats That Matter:


• He has scored 23 goals in 90 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2004 (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Schweinsteiger in the lineup is 59-16-15 (through May 18)


• Helped Germany to third-place finishes at both the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups


• Scored two goals in the 2006 third-place victory against Portugal


• Won the domestic double with Bayern Munich five times (2002-03, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2007-08, 2009-10)


May 30
08:45
AM GMT
#10: Arjen Robben, NED

© Getty Images



Comments 2


Unfortunately, due to long spells on the sidelines, Arjen Robben has at times been one of the most underrated players in European football. Having been extremely influential in Chelsea's early success before succeeding (in the beginning) at Real Madrid, Robben was seemingly the forgotten man by the time he arrived at the Allianz Arena in 2009. However, since guiding both FC Bayern and Netherlands to major finals in 2010, he is now earning the plaudits he deserves on a regular basis.


Robben has been so good that the 28-year-old has made himself a template for the role of the inverted winger. Starting from the right flank for both club and country, Robben is granted freedom to venture inside and use his magical left foot to devastating effect, or continue on the outside to provide a cross for one of the strikers lingering in the middle. During his three years at FC Bayern, Robben has developed this role to suit his game and made himself a fearsome goal threat from the flanks.


It is not simply the act of cutting inside and shooting that makes him such a difficult proposition for opposition defenders, it is the fact Robben can turn on either side and make the decision at pace. The wide man has his fair share of tricks at his disposal, but it is often the sheer speed with which he attacks the opposition that creates the opening.


Of course, creating shooting chances alone is not enough if they are not converted, and finishing prowess is another area in which Robben separates himself from the competition. On countless occasions in the past few seasons the Dutchman has proved himself to be a lethal finisher with his left foot from anywhere in and around the area. A golden opportunity wasted in the World Cup 2010 final will linger in the memory of Netherlands fans, but there is no doubt he will be looking to silence those critics this summer.


Unfortunately for his country, since his golden performances at the World Cup, Robben has only pulled on the Oranje jersey a handful of times and this is the problem he presents to his coaches and managers. When fit, he is outstanding and transforms a good side into a great side. Yet, fitness is never assured for a player who last managed 30 league games during the 2002-03 season at Ajax.



Expert's take: Supremely gifted wide operator but a player with the capacity to annoy as much as enthrall. For all his gifts, he has always been injury prone. -- Derek Rae

Stats That Matter:


• Scored game-winning goal against Uruguay in semifinals of 2010 FIFA World Cup.


• After his contributions with Bayern Munich in 2010, he was named Footballer of the Year In Germany, the only Dutch player to ever win the award.


• Won league title in four different European top-flight competitions (Eredivisie, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga) over a span of eight years.


• His teams have won 7 of 9 domestic cup finals across 6 different competitions.


• Has been sold to four clubs for a total of 82.3 million Euros.


May 29
09:16
AM GMT
#11: Luka Modric, CRO




Comments


Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric will once again be one of Europe's most sought-after talents this summer after another fine season at White Hart Lane. On arrival in the Premier League four years ago, the 26-year-old quickly brushed off doubts about his size and physical strength to become widely acknowledged as one of the best midfielders in English football.


When on form, Modric is a delight to watch. Having arrived as an attacking midfielder, the Croat quickly dropped into a deep-lying playmaker position for Spurs, where he can use his ball-retention abilities to the greatest possible effect. The change in position has also allowed Modric's work rate and combative nature to shine through, skills that have undoubtedly developed during his time in the Premier League.


Modric is central to Croatia's plans at international level. Required to be the side's creative inspiration, a lot of pressure and expectation will fall upon his shoulders this summer and how he reacts to this mantle will be key to the side's chances of progression. Although, given his central role to the rise of Tottenham over recent years, it would be no surprised to see the diminutive playmaker guide his side to an unexpected result.




Expert's take: The Croatian was one of the pleasant surprises of the past Euro and has kept his level ever since. He generates play both for Tottenham and his national teams due to his vision and accurate passing, but he is also a great finisher. Will be key to the chances of success of his team in Poland/Ukraine. -- Damian Didonato

Stats That Matter:


• 8 goals in 54 appearances for Croatia since his debut in 2006


• His fourth-minute penalty against Austria at Euro 2008 was the fastest penalty ever awarded at the European Championship


• Named to UEFA Team of the Tournament at Euro 2008, becoming the second Croatian to achieve the honor


• Named Prva NHL (top eague in Croatia) Player of the Year in 2007 for Dinamo Zagreb


• Named One Hotspur Player of the Year for Tottenham in 2010-11


May 29
09:12
AM GMT
#12: Franck Ribery, FRA

© Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images



Comments


Announced as the successor to Zinedine Zidane after the latter retired in 2006, it took Ribery, 28, some time to find his way, partly because he isn’t a playmaker like the man he was tabbed to replace. But a meandering club career and a slow start for France finally rolled to a full boil in recent years as Ribery has emerged as one of the world’s foremost attacking players.


Featuring as an inverted winger on the left for Bayern Munich, Ribery is a scourge to defenses with his unstoppable dribbles. He often plays more centrally for France and orchestrates from the heart of the field, combining with teammates. As with Zidane, most of France’s attacks now originate from Ribery, provided that he doesn’t help start another revolt -- like he did at the 2010 World Cup -- and gets himself suspended from the team.



Expert's take: Despite a stellar season for Bayern, Ribery has plenty of convincing the French public to do, as he so frequently disappoints in the blue jersey. The realization that his place is under threat from the likes of Jeremy Ménez may, at last, coax his best international form from him. -- Andy Brassell

Stats That Matter:


• Signed by Bayern Munich for club-record $33 million in 2007


• 7 goals in 57 appearances for France, though his last goal was in April 2009


• Two-time French Player of the Year (2007, 2008)


• 2008 German Footballer of the Year


• Second most UEFA Euros appearances on French squad, with 18 including qualifying


May 29
09:10
AM GMT
#13: Iker Casillas, SPA

© Clive Rose/Getty Images



Comments


If goalkeepers are supposed to be crazy, how is that the best among them is the antithesis of that? San Iker , as his nickname suggests, is a saint for his otherworldly saves and consistency and his unassuming, even-keeled demeanor.


Casillas joined Real Madrid when he was 9, made his senior team debut at 16 and became its starter when he was 18, in 1999, and in 13 invariably tumultuous seasons since, he has only tightened his grip on the job, save for a brief blip in 2002. He made his Spain debut in 2000, became its No. 1 in 2002 and captained it to EURO 2008 and World Cup 2010 titles.


At just 30, he is already the most-capped Spaniard ever with 128 appearances. What makes that even more impressive is that he’s done it while holding off Liverpool and Barcelona’s excellent goalies Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes, who have had no choice but to watch Casillas go years on end without committing a major mistake.



Expert's take: Quite simply the best that there is. Spain's most capped international is also its insurance policy, with his temperament and wide range of reflexes ready to save the day on the rare occasions when his side cedes possession. -- Andy Brassell

Stats That Matter:


• Spain’s all-time leader with 128 caps


• Spain’s all-time leader with 72 clean sheets, tied with Edwin van der Sar for most in international soccer history


• Captained Spain’s winning sides at Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup. Also won Under-20 World Cup with Spain in 1999


• Has won 93 matches with Spain, one away from tying Lilian Thuram’s record with France for most wins in international soccer history


• Became the youngest goalkeeper to start a Champions League Final (age 19) in 2000


May 29
09:08
AM GMT
#14: Wesley Sneijder, NED

© Stuart Franklin/Getty Images



Comments


He may be a small by Dutch standards at 5-foot-7 but Sneijder is a giant among playmakers. One of a dying breed, a traditional “10” playing in the shadow of the strikers, Sneijder dictates the tempo of a game and can switch the point of attack in the blink of an eye.


His through balls, long balls and set pieces are uncannily precise and for a midfielder he scores a huge amount of goals -- he was joint top scorer at World Cup 2010 with five. That said, he goes through extended phases of being either very good or ineffectual -- like his 2011-12 season for Inter Milan -- and recedes markedly in a system that isn’t designed specifically for him. He’s also been known to be trouble behind the scenes, reportedly almost costing him his spot on the Dutch team that reached the final in South Africa.



Expert's take: If it weren't for his inconsistency this season, the Dutch playmaker would undoubtedly be one of the top five players in the world. He won a treble with Inter Milan (Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League), later on adding the World Club Championship to his collection of titles. His creativity and vision make him a game winner, but more than that, when on form he can decide championships, so influential is his play in midfield. -- Federico Manfredo

Stats That Matter:


• Second most right-footed chances created (62) in the 2010-11 Champions League


• 6 assists were tied for the third most in Euro 2012 qualifying


• Scored two goals in Netherlands’ comeback win over Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup


• Won league title in three different European top-flight competitions (Eredivisie, La Liga, Serie A)


• Won all three Italian trophies with Inter Milan in 2010-11 (Serie A, Coppa Italia, Italian Super Cup)


May 29
09:04
AM GMT
#15: Cesc Fabregas, SPA

© Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images



Comments


The boy with 'Barca DNA' made a triumphant homecoming last summer, after eight years away from the Camp Nou with Arsenal. The 24-year-old has so far returned to his childhood club in fine style, quickly reaching double figures for both goals and assists in the colors of the Blaugrana.


As with Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Fabregas is likely to be restricted to a substitute role this summer, although there is still a chance that he will be utilized in the much-discussed 'false-nine' position, if Vicente Del Bosque so chooses. The problem for Fabregas is that club colleagues Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are also in direct competition for midfield places. But every time Fabregas has been called upon from the bench he has made an impact -- most notably to supply the assist for Iniesta's World Cup-winning effort in 2010.


Playing regular first-team football since the age of 16, Fabregas' vision and talent were clear for all to see from an early age. Injury dampened the end of his Arsenal career, but the Spaniard developed at the Emirates into one of Europe's elite midfielders under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger. Now back at Barcelona, alongside his idols Xavi and Iniesta, he is showing signs of moving up a level once more and looks set to eventually displace his older colleagues both for Barcelona and Spain.



Expert's take: "Complete" is the word that best suits Cesc, who can defend, attack, score and assist with the same efficiency and class. It is difficult to dub him midfielder, playmaker or forward, since all tags fall short with him, a perfect interpreter of total football. -- Vito De Palma

Stats That Matter:


• Became youngest player to appear for Spain at the World Cup when he faced Ukraine in 2006, aged 19 years and 41 days


• Has scored 8 goals for the national team, including one against Russia at Euro 2008


• Was youngest ever to play and score for Arsenal when he debuted, though both marks have since been broken by Jack Wilshere


• Second on Barcelona with 15 goals and third with 11 assists in 2011-12


• Ninth in passes completed in the 2011-12 Champions League with 519


May 28
09:00
AM GMT
#16: Philipp Lahm, GER




Comments


Since making his Germany debut in 2004, Philipp Lahm has consistently been one of the top performers for his country in either full back position. It is this versatility that separates Lahm from many of his contemporaries, with the right-footed defender perfectly capable of producing top-class performances on either side of the defense.


The 28-year-old captain of both FC Bayern and Germany will be attending his fifth major international tournament this summer and has performed to a high standard on every occasion he has been tested at this level. A relative veteran, Lahm will be expected to guide a youthful, but prodigiously talented, Germany side to success in Poland and Ukraine. Under his captaincy since the 2010 World Cup, the side has performed at a level that suggests it will be a serious contender for international honors for several years to come.


Germany coach Joachim Low has only recently revealed that his captain will play left back for this year's tournament, giving Lahm the chance to cut infield to devastating effect. While some younger stars may have question marks next to their names on the big occasion, Lahm's temperament is one thing that has never come into question and he is firmly established as one of football's best in his position.



Expert's take: A remarkably consistent full back, Lahm has the added dimension of being able to play either at right back or left back. A natural leader and hence captain for club and country, you won't find Lahm screaming maniacally at teammates. Rather, Lahm leads by example and lets his performances speak for themselves. Don't be surprised if Lahm is the man lifting the trophy on July 1. -- Derek Rae

Stats That Matter:


• Captain of the national team since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when he became the youngest captain in Germany’s World Cup history


• Completed more passes overall (2,358) than any player in the Bundesliga this season


• Named to the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team for both the 2006 and 2010 tournaments and was the only Germany player to appear for the maximum 690 minutes in 2006


• 85 appearances for since his debut in 2004 and has scored four goals (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Lahm in the lineup is 61-12-12 (through May 18)


May 28
08:49
AM GMT
#17: Karim Benzema, FRA

© Jacques DeMarthon/AFP/Getty Images



Comments


If France is to be successful at Euro 2012, the goalscoring of Karim Benzema will be crucial. Top scorer for the French in qualifying, the 24-year-old does face some threat for his place from the in-form Olivier Giroud, but his form at Real Madrid should ensure that he remains first choice.


Benzema is a predator who combines strength, power and finishing prowess to devastating effect. The attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain has smashed all records this season with its goal-scoring returns and although Benzema is not always guaranteed a start, he has generally performed when given the opportunity. His performances have once more attracted interest from around Europe, but for the moment the French star appears happy in Spain.


At international level, Benzema's return has not been spectacular, but neither has France over the same span. However, fans who witnessed the Real Madrid star’s all-action performance for Les Bleus at Wembley last season will be in no doubt as to what he can do when given the right support from midfield.



Expert's take: After a relatively underwhelming first two years at Real Madrid, Karim Benzema has been transformed by Jose Mourinho. Not only has he provided up to four key, game-changing goals in the Spanish league -- one of the highest such returns in the division -- but he has done so while performing a selfless role akin to Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez at Manchester United in the 2007-08 season. Very often, it’s Benzema’s industry and willingness that creates the space for Cristiano Ronaldo to wreak havoc. And, after a very trying past few years for the French national team, that attitude is exactly what Laurent Blanc needs to restore prestige. -- Miguel Delaney

Stats That Matter:


• 2011 French Player of the Year


• Currently France’s leading active scorer with 13 goals


• Scored in international debut in a 2007 friendly versus Austria


• Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2008 after leading league with 20 goals


• Tied for first in UEFA Champions League with 5 assists in 2011-12 season


May 28
08:41
AM GMT
#18: Thomas Muller, GER

© Boris Streubel/Getty Images



Comments


The 22-year-old attacker introduced himself to many at the 2010 World Cup, winning the Best Young Player and Golden Boot awards, though soccer experts saw his five goals and three assists in South Africa as his natural next step.


Blessed with the speed and instinct of many great German strikers, what sets Muller apart is his versatility: used all over the attacking third as false nine, second striker or wide midfielder, he featured in all of Bayern Munich's 54 games in 2010, scoring 18 and setting up 15 more in an incredible season.


Another element: his unfailing humility. His career to date? "I just enjoyed all the big moments," he said. His success in the 2010 World Cup? "I basically got lucky," he said. Muller's cool, down-to-earth approach to the game betrays his predatory nature on the field: three goals and seven assists in Euro 2012 qualification augur what should be a great summer for Muller and Die Mannschaft.



Expert's take: The best young German footballer today was recognized as such in World Cup 2010. The Bayern Munich forward is a very complete player, who has deadly finishing but also deft footwork and is able to play outside of the box and also on the wing. His tactical intelligence also makes him very dangerous. -- Federico Manfredo

Stats That Matter:


• Named “Best Young Player” at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and also won the Golden Boot (overall leading scorer) with five goals and three assists


• Three goals and five assists during Euro 2012 qualifying


• He has scored 10 goals in 26 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2010. (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Müller in the lineup is 19-4-3. (through May 18)


• Scored his first two Bundesliga goals in a 5-1 win at Borussia Dortmund in September 2009

Permalink

Special NBA Draft Lottery Shootaround

By: timbersfan, 12:07 AM GMT on May 31, 2012

It's Lottery Day! Since this is a particularly special day on the NBA calendar, we thought we'd do a special Lottery Shootaround, looking at all the story lines going into tonight's Anthony Davis Sweepstakes. Also, for even more Lottery talk, be sure to check out Bill Simmons's podcast with Chad Ford.

The Conspiracy Scale

On today’s B.S. Report, Chad Ford and I tried to figure out which 2012 NBA lottery winner would cause the biggest conspiracy ruckus. I spent the next few hours tinkering with our initial list, moving teams around and asking myself questions like “What team would definitely cause ‘THAT WAS FIXED’ to trend on Twitter?,” “Which team is either opening a new stadium or trying to open a new stadium?,” “Which team just got mysteriously sold to a local NFL owner who had repeatedly turned down chances to buy that NBA team for a solid year?” and “If David Stern was still alive, which team would get Anthony Davis?”

Here are the top five suspects, ranked on the Conspiracy Scale from “Definitely a little conspiracy buzz” to “This would cause an Internet riot.”

Cleveland (35 out of 100 on the Conspiracy Scale)
It’s almost too blatant — atoning for “The Decision” (and Dan Gilbert’s whining after “The Decision”) by giving Cleveland the no. 1 overall pick two years in a row? Even Vince McMahon wouldn't do this.

Sacramento (72 out of 100)
Chad argued that Davis would make it easier for the Maloofs to get more financing for a new arena in Sacramento. Possibly. But remember when the Sonics were itching to leave Seattle and miraculously won the second pick in the Oden/Durant lottery, allowing them to launch their Oklahoma City tenure one year later with a potential superstar? That’s right … double conspiracy!!!!


Oh my god. What does it mean??? Oh my god. It’s so bright. It’s so bright and vivid. Ohhhhhh! Ohhhhhhhhhh!

Houston (72 out of 100 on the Conspiracy Scale)
A few months after the NBA ruined Houston's offseason plans by squashing its Pau Gasol trade, the league awarded Houston the 2013 All-Star Game. Sorry you didn't get one of the league's best big men … would you like to host some parties instead? Oh, gee, thanks. Wouldn’t a can't-miss stud like Davis be a better peace offering?

New Orleans (83 out of 100)
We might as well start here: For two more months, THE LEAGUE OWNS THE FREAKING TEAM!!!!! Saints owner Tom Benson doesn’t assume control until July. It's true. So why doesn’t this rate 100 out of 100? Many connected people believe Benson bought the Hornets because of Bountygate — as a way to divert everyone’s attention in New Orleans from one of the most damaging scandals in NFL history. How else can you explain Benson lowballing the NBA for the past year, then suddenly blinking and agreeing to Stern’s price? You know, unless they promised him Anthony Davis as part of the deal.

(Wait a second … )

New Orleans (93 out of 100)
That's better.

Brooklyn (98 out of 100)
Door A: You already lost out on Dwight Howard. You might lose your no. 1 pick because your GM thought it would be a good idea to trade a top-three protected no. 1 pick for Gerald Wallace (who can opt out of his contract next month, by the way). You're probably losing Deron Williams unless you can miraculously find him a killer teammate. Which means that, in October, you're opening your fancy new building in Brooklyn with Jordan Farmar, Brook Lopez and MarShon Brooks.

Door B: You can win the lottery, keep your free agents, then open your fancy new building in Brooklyn with Davis, Williams, Wallace, Lopez and enough leftover cap space for Marquee Free Agent Scorer X.

Oh, and you’re owned by a mysterious Russian oligarch.

(Come on … is there any doubt Brooklyn is winning this thing?)
— Bill Simmons

A Fate Worse Than Death (for Anthony Davis)

Each team in tonight's draft lottery might have its own, individual odds of winning the first pick and the right to select Anthony Davis, but regardless of whose Ping-Pong ball pops up first, the odds are very good that the talented Mr. Davis will find his way into another NBA-related franchise: Grantland's A Fate Worse Than Death series.

Is it possible that a can't-miss, transcendent talent like Davis could end up playing unwatchable basketball for some bottom-feeder team next season? Oh, you bet it is. John Wall may have been just as highly regarded when he left Kentucky to enter the NBA two years ago, and his Washington Wizards spent the first half of this season as the poster children of so-bad-it's-good NBA basketball. Their ignominy was surpassed, of course, by the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats, who took their season-long tanking expedition so seriously that they formed a roster that arguably doesn't contain a single NBA rotation player (apologies to the world's last remaining Corey Maggette fan; his name is William Avery). That was a good way to give themselves a better chance at landing Davis than any other team, but if that 1-in-4 prayer comes through and basketball's most famous unibrow indeed heads to Charlotte next year, then they have to figure out how to build a team with one keeper and 14 pieces of driftwood. Is that too harsh? Am I giving up on Biyombo too soon? It depends on whether you think having played a lot of organized basketball is a useful prerequisite for playing professional basketball. And Bismack would be Davis's most promising teammate in Charlotte. But fear not, Bobcat fan(s), I believe in Anthony Davis's talent, and I could easily imagine him tripling the team's winning percentage. In an 82-game season, that comes out to 20 wins. I can already smell the smoke of victory cigars wafting over from MJ's office.
— Rafe Bartholomew

The Worst Possible Representatives for Each Lottery Team

1. Charlotte: Bismack Biyombo wearing a bacon-necked Michael Jordan "big head" T-shirt.
2. Washington: Marion Barry, wearing a bacon-necked Michael Jordan big head T-shirt.
3. Cleveland: Maverick Carter and Jim Gray.
4. New Orleans: David Simon.
5. Sacramento: Any of the Maloof brothers.
6. Brooklyn: Memphis Bleek.
7. Golden State: Jeremy Giambi.
8. Toronto: Vince Carter.
9. Detroit: Charlie Villanueva.
10. Minnesota: Brad Childress.
11. Portland: Greg Oden's knee specialist.
12. Milwaukee: Andrew Bogut's elbow specialist.
13. Phoenix: Steve Nash's real estate agent.
14. Houston: Chandler Parsons wearing Rudy Tomjanovich's old face mask.
— Chris Ryan

Two Iconic Bridges, Destined for Each Other

Call it destiny, call it intelligent design, or call it David Stern injecting Ping-Pong balls with helium, the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery will unite two of the greatest bridges in the history of mankind: the Brooklyn Bridge and Anthony Davis’s unibrow. The twin-peaked, majestic contour of both are identical. Think about it, have you ever seen the Brooklyn Bridge and Anthony Davis’s unibrow in the same room at the same time? When Jay-Z throws the ROC diamond in the sky, is it a coincidence that his fingers mimic the peaks of a unibrow? When Mikhail Prokhorov jet-ski flips over supermodel mermaids, is it a coincidence that his wake mimics the shape of a unibrow? It’s not. It was meant to be. It’s destiny. The Brooklyn Nets will win the first pick in the 2012 NBA draft and select Anthony Davis.

Just as the Brooklyn Bridge provides passage between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Anthony Davis’s unibrow is destined to provide passage between the New Jersey– and Brooklyn-era Nets. Can’t you see the billboard now? The Brooklyn Bridge superimposed over Davis’s face, the shape of his brow tracing the shape of the bridge, and his determined gaze staring back at you under the copy, “Streets Is Watching”? What was that? His unibrow also looks exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge? Hmmmm, never considered that. I guess the Warriors aren’t a bad fit, either.
— David Jacoby

The Golden State Jinx



This was the banner that greeted Warriors fans on the team’s website Tuesday. The major announcement was that the 2017 Warriors would be playing their games on the waterfront in San Francisco, confirming weeks of rumors that the team would move from their home in Oakland. The timing of the announcement — one week before the lottery — might have just been coincidence, but it also could have been a hedge against what now feels inevitable to all but the most ardent, crazed Warriors fans: The jinx gods, who rule all sports without pity, will rob the Warriors of their lottery pick this year.

Back in 2008, the Warriors traded a protected first-round pick to New Jersey for Marcus Williams. That pick was sent to Utah in the Deron Williams trade, which set up the following scenario: If the Warriors didn’t finish among the worst seven teams in the league, their pick would most likely be sent to the Jazz. After the mid-season trade that sent Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh to the Bucks for an injured Andrew Bogut and what ended up being more of Richard Jefferson than anyone would ever want, the Warriors went into full-tank mode to get their pick back. An unexpected late-season win against Minnesota almost ruined the Warriors' chances, but the team got back into it in the last two games of the season. In a must-lose game on Fan Night at Oracle, the Warriors started five rookies against the Spurs' second unit. In the fourth quarter, Mark Jackson played four forwards and refused to foul or call timeouts at the end of the game. For all their herculean efforts to lose games, the Warriors got a coin-flip with Toronto for the seventh slot in the lottery. The Warriors won the flip and will keep their pick as long as the Raptors, Pistons, Hornets, Blazers, Bucks, Suns, or Rockets don’t jump into the top 3.

If we lived in a world without jinxes, the Warriors would actually have a good chance at keeping their pick. But since trading Monta, the team has violated pretty much every jinx rule in the book. Here’s the short list.

Trading Monta to Milwaukee: You can’t trade the team’s most popular player to one of the teams that could possibly jump you in the lottery.
Predicting the team would make the playoffs and then tanking more spectacularly than any other team in recent history: Explains itself.
The Revenge of Oakland: I understand why the team wants to move to San Francisco, with its hordes of tech-rich basketball nerds, but Oakland will have its revenge tonight in the lottery. More than any other jinx, the Oakland jinx is the strongest. You just shouldn’t announce that you’re moving cities with a banner that reads “2017 Warriors.” You especially shouldn’t do this the week before the lottery because the jinx gods will ensure that the “2017 Warriors” won’t have a single player from the 2012 NBA Draft Lottery.
The Four Noble Truths: Everyone knows that the more you covet something, the more you will repel it away from your grasp. This is basic Neil Strauss/Bhagavad Gita shit. The Warriors, by so shamelessly pining for this pick, built up a bulkhead of bad karma. The karma was so bad, in fact, that the universe didn’t even have the mercy to let the team lose the coin flip. Instead, the universe decided to wait until the last possible moment to dash all their hopes.
Acknowledging the Jinx: Up until Tuesday, when talks ended, the team's brass was furiously trying to make an arrangement with Utah that would ensure the Warriors keep the no. 7 pick. Seems like they might know that they jinxed themselves? Guys, if you're going to piss all over superstition and make a mockery of the fragile balance of the jinx universe, at least do it proudly. You can't acknowledge the jinx gods AND make no sacrifices to them.
— Jay Caspian Kang

The Worst Place for the Black Falcon to Nest

When I was asked to do a blurb about the three worst possible destinations for Harrison Barnes, a.k.a. "The Black Falcon," a.k.a. "The Most Overrated College Basketball Player in History," my initial thought was, "a room without mirrors, a humility convention, and the induction ceremony at the top-secret Two Coreys Club for failed child stars." But this is a lottery post, so I'm guessing he meant the three worst teams. Fair enough, because I have the perfect answer. But before that, I have to revisit the (somewhat biased) highlights of Barnes's two years at North Carolina.

1. Announced his college decision over Skype, ushering in an era of inflated self-importance and cringe-inducing announcements among high school recruits, already a self-important and cringe-inducing bunch. Somehow, Barnes's ceremony remains the most repellent. (Also, he burned Duke bad.)

2. Became the first ever freshman preseason All-American. Really digest that one. Consider everyone who has ever played college basketball, and consider that of that group, only Barnes earned this recognition. That's why I'm completely comfortable calling him the most overrated player in history.

3. Disappointed everyone, did not earn even third-team All-American status.

4. Was named a preseason All-American for his sophomore year. (Say what you will, whoever runs the hype machine is a major Barnes loyalist.)

5. Disappointed everyone, did not earn even third-team All-American status. Was, in fact, the fourth-best player on his own team.

6. Obsessed about his "brand," and even designed a Black Falcon logo. FOR HIMSELF, presumably. (Middle left.)

7. Left school with a 2-3 record against Duke. (I had to.)

You see the pattern? Barnes masters the hype machine, suckers everyone in, and then can't live up to it. So, what's the worst possible scenario for Barnes? Or the best, if you want to see him fail?

Easy. Of the 1,000 lottery Ping-Pong balls, one of Charlotte's 998 is plucked first. The 'Cats get the coveted pick, but instead of making the obvious choice with Anthony Davis, Michael Jordan comes out publicly and says that Harrison Barnes is the next … well, him. They nab Barnes, who remains in North Carolina among the hordes of Charlotte-based UNC fans he's already been burned twice. The hype escalates, and then Barnes does what Barnes does best — mediocrity in the face of promised greatness. Charlotte wins two games next year, both forfeits by Brooklyn when Prokhorov goes to jail for racketeering and the team can't pay the travel budget.

Second-worst? Cleveland, because those fans don't deserve to have someone harsh their Irving love, and they won't take kindly to a rookie putting on airs. Third-worst, Washington, because he'll be resentful of Obama's stature.
— Shane Ryan

Cleveland's Karma Is a Bitch

I woke up this morning with the conclusion that for as much as I would like to see Nick Gilbert become the most successful NBA draft lottery rep in history, winning back-to-back no. 1 picks, and for as much as I would like to see Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis turn Cleveland into a rust-colored Lob City on the Cuyahoga, there is no possible way this is going to happen.

Why? You know why! The most expensive use of Comic Sans in modern American history. When, in the wake of LeBron James's decision, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert fired off his playfully fonted treatise declaring that Cleveland would win a NBA title before the "self-titled former 'King' wins one," he sealed the deal.

Because that's the thing. If Cleveland were to land the no. 1 overall pick and draft Anthony Davis, it would likely vault into the top half of the Eastern Conference overnight. The Cavs would be going into the 2012-13 season with two blue-chip players; two pieces that every single GM in the league prays to the heavens for: a point guard and a paint-protecting big. They could actually, conceivably be contenders.

Take it a step further: what if, this offseason, Dwyane Wade has a catastrophic knee-draining accident? Then the Heat are basically LeBron James dragging Mario Chalmers and a guy who wears peach-colored pants up the mountain. And who would be passing him on the way to the top? Dan Gilbert and his pair of loyal no. 1 picks!

Yeah … probably not. First of all, I don't think even a catastrophic knee-draining accident would keep Wade away. And second of all, I, like LeBron, believe in karma. Never use Comic Sans unless you're ready to go all the way.
— Chris Ryan

Hasheem Thabeet Andre Drummond

So we’re doing this again, huh? In a draft with a clear no. 1 and an obvious no. 2, NBA GMs are going to get sucked into conversations about the upside of a young, raw UConn big guy? We remember where we last saw Hasheem Thabeet, right? And everyone saw that James Harden was the best player on the court Tuesday night for a team playing in the Conference Finals?

I only ask because to someone who’s not suffering the symptoms of a major head injury, this makes no fucking sense. It does make sense that Andre Drummond would be an attractive prospect somewhere in the lottery. There’s no overlooking his combination of size and athleticism. With the type of feet and length he has, the hope is that he can be more than a shot-blocker and have the type of pick-and-roll-stopping impact that Tyson Chandler brought to the Knicks. The question is when production is going to matter.

Even Thabeet was a force throughout the NCAA tournament. Drummond’s team got bounced by Iowa State. He averaged 10 points per game for the season, and worse, grabbed a pedestrian six defensive rebounds per 40 minutes. He shot less than 30 percent from the free throw line. Maybe most frightening, he’s 18 and has already been tagged with the dreaded big-man question of, Does he even like basketball?. One thing seems pretty certain — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist does. So we’re running this one back? OK, cool. I just wanted to make sure.
— Robert Mays

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The Spurs-Zombies Retro Diary

By: timbersfan, 12:05 AM GMT on May 31, 2012

Memo to my editors on Tuesday afternoon: "I'm waking up at 5:00 a.m., making coffee and banging out a retro diary of San Antonio–Oklahoma City, Game 2. However this plays out, it's going to work. If the Spurs win, that's 20 in a row. Twenty in a row!!!! WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING???? And if OKC wins, we suddenly have a monster series and that's fun, too. It's a no-lose. This can only get screwed up if my alarm doesn't go off. Be ready."

My alarm went off. Let's start at the beginning of the second half, with the Spurs leading by 11 in one of those "even though they shot 58 percent, it still feels like they left something on the table and could go two levels higher" halves. That's the thing about the Spurs — when you're consistently getting layups, wide-open 3s and easy 10-footers, at some point your offensive ceiling has a retractable roof. Could they have a 75-point half in which they shoot 70 percent from the field? Could they score 30 points in a row? And why aren't more people excited about this? Anyway …

12:00 remaining (third quarter) — TNT shows a clip of Gregg Popovich yelling at his players in the first half, "Put a body on them! A little physicality! It's a big-boy game!" He's giving DJ Steve Porter enough material in this series for an Auto-Tune song that's going to be longer than "Stairway to Heaven."

12:00 — The obligatory "here's Tony Parker (17 points, five assists) ripping apart the Zombies on the same high screen over and over again" montage. At this point, there are five people left in America who haven't realized that this is the wrong series for Kendrick Perkins — Perkins, Scotty Brooks, Kevin Garnett, Vinny Del Negro, and the showrunner for The Killing (who loves sticking with plots that stopped working a long time ago). Let's see how OKC adjusts in the second half.

11:03 — After a Thabo Sefolosha layup, Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard answers by draining an open 3. Here's what I wrote as Leonard was falling in the draft last June: "Leonard is officially our 'how the hell did he slide to the middle of the draft' guy, which doesn't happen every year, but when it happens (Danny Granger, Ty Lawson, Roy Hibbert), you know as it's happening. He should have been a lottery pick. That guy is a natural NBA small forward."

Naturally, 14 teams passed on him, and naturally, the Spurs scooped him up (via trade), and naturally, they fixed the one questionable part of his game (3-point shooting) because they're the Spurs and they can do anything short of fixing NBC's prime-time lineup. Last year at San Diego State, Leonard made 29 percent of his 3s. In December/January for the Spurs, Leonard made 25 percent of them. In February/March, that jumped to 45 percent. In 10 playoff games, he's taken 31 3s and made 14 of them (45 percent). Does any of this make sense? NO!!!!!!! Of course not. But that's why they're the Spurs.

10:07 — Following a Westbrook jumper, Parker uses a Duncan screen to sink an open 14-footer. Kendrick Perkins might as well be a stationary Kendrick Perkins hologram at this point. The Spurs are single-handedly making Danny Ainge feel like he won the Perkins trade even though the player the Celtics got for him missed every 2012 game because of major heart surgery. In Perkins's defense, they acquired him thinking that he'd be their Andrew Bynum stopper, never imagining that they'd have to deal with a revived Duncan (or an entire revived Spurs team). This just isn't the series for him. At some point, someone will have to break the news to Scotty Brooks.

9:40 — Sefolosha blows a layup, then the Spurs have one of those Spursy possessions — five passes in their half-court offense (including two "that guy could have shot there, but he made the extra pass" passes) that eventually yields a 3 from Danny Green. They're like the old guys schooling the young kids in the YMCA, if the old guys were in phenomenal shape and popping that drug that Bradley Cooper took in Limitless. Spurs by 15. Suddenly.

9:00 — Two quality OKC possessions (two Durant free throws, then a Westbrook layup) are rendered moot because the rejuvenated Boris Diaw scored five straight. Remember back in December when an astonishingly heavy Boris was wasting his career away on a historically putrid Charlotte team, and Grantland's Rafe Bartholomew made the joke that "Boris and his boobs are the next Big Three"? The Spurs somehow saved his career, too — he's turned into a heavier version of the 2006 Phoenix Boris, a skilled big man who can pass, shoot 3s and help San Antonio fulfill their "Greatest Incarnation of the European Team That We Always Worry Will Kick Our Ass in the Olympics" destiny. No wonder Steve Nash was so pissed off when the Suns didn't sign him two months ago.

8:11 — Mini-run by OKC: a Perkins free throw, an Ibaka block, then a Durant 3, followed by Durant doing the backpedaling "come on, fellas, we can win this" clapping thing. Skipping ahead a little: I watched this entire game thinking, Durant can score anytime he wants. Durant ended up with 31 points on 17 shots; Westbrook ended up with 27 points on 24 shots. If you can tell me how this makes sense, I'll give you $200.

6:03 — The Spurs are doing that "Screw it, we're going to another level" thing. First, Parker nearly does a figure eight around a Duncan screen (using it twice, basically), and by the time it's over, Westbrook is watching Parker shoot an uncontested 15-footer (swish) as the Perkins Hologram hovers near both of them. Next possession: Parker comes off a staggered Diaw screen for another open 15-footer. Next possession: Parker rips down the middle for a seemingly wide-open layup (drawing a gasp from Marv Albert), draws two guys, then dishes out to Leonard for another 3 … swish. Spurs by 17.

"Marv, you're a basketball purist, you're loving this right now," Reggie Miller gushes. "Because this is old-school basketball. Everyone's touching it, everyone's on a screen, everyone feels involved. This is how basketball should be played."

(Cut to me nodding with tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. Wait, did I just agree with Reggie Miller on something? I forgot to take my pills!)

5:12 — Marv blesses the 2012 Spurs by comparing them to "the Knicks of the early '70s and some of the Boston Celtics teams." Other than Bob Ryan, he's the closest thing we have right now to an NBA Media Yoda, so I'm going to call that a meaningful moment even if he should have mentioned the '77 Blazers.

On cue, the Spurs submit their coolest play of the game: Parker dishing to Ginobili on the right wing on a pseudo-fast break; Ginobili passing up a semi-open 3 that just about any other NBA player would have taken, putting the ball on the ground and pretending to drive to the middle; Parker and Manu connecting on that "we've played together for a decade" ESP level, with Parker sliding toward the right corner and Manu hitting him with a behind-the-back pass; then Parker draining a wide-open 3 as THREE bummed-out OKC guys stood under the basket watching him. I think Parker and Ginobili just leapfrogged Isiah and Dumars on the "All-Time Greatest Backcourts" list on that play.

(Spurs by 20. They've scored 78 points, made 31 field goals … and notched 20 assists. Yowza.)

4:47 — Duncan to Diaw for a goaltended layup. Spurs by 22. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr is doing everything short of walking over to OKC's huddle and screaming at Scotty Brooks, "YOU NEED TO TAKE PERKINS OUT! OK? THIS IS NOT THE SERIES FOR HIM! YOU'RE STARTING TO SEEM LIKE SCOTTY DEL NEBROOKS! TAKE PERKINS OUT! TAKE HIM OUT! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TAKE HIM OUT!!!!"

3:52 — OKC scores six straight, followed by a furious Popovich calling timeout and ripping Tony Parker for mangling the last possession. Here's the difference between that moment and Spoelstra/Wade from the Indiana series — as Pop was yelling and Parker was (mostly) taking it, two teammates weren't instinctively jumping between them with frightened "Uh-oh, it's happening again" looks. Let's hope Pop keeps that anger going for the Craig Sager interview in a few minutes.

3:52 — Subtle ways to know when you're watching a well-coached team: During timeout huddles, everyone is locked in (even the bench guys); the players spend a ton of time talking with their arms wrapped around each other; they call a timeout right when you're thinking, "Uh-oh, the momentum feels like it's starting to shift here" (instead of two plays after that moment); and they always get a killer shot coming out of a timeout. That last one just happened … except Leonard missed a wide-open 3, leading to Durant getting a Gervin-like finger roll on the fast break. OKC keeps hanging around. I don't think I've ever been more impressed by a team that's been practically getting killed. They don't go away.

3:52 — James Harden just came in, which reminds me … more than once this season, including this game, I've gotten my 4-year-old son to watch Oklahoma City for extended stretches by convincing him that Harden was a werewolf. You do whatever it takes to get your kids to like sports. You just do.

2:46 — Durant is playing a terrific all-around game — he just got into the paint, drew three guys and found Fisher for a wide-open 3. Clank. Three years ago, I would have made the "It's too bad it wasn't three years ago; that would have gone in" joke. Fisher is like the square root of washed-up. And yes, that was my biggest question mark about OKC all season — they're most dangerous when they play smallball with Ibaka and Durant as their "bigs" (along with Harden and Westbrook), but no matter who's playing as the fifth guy, it's always a weak link.

Quick tangent: There's no bigger Sam Presti fan than me, but man, he's needed that specific player for two solid years (one more reliable shooter who could make open 3s) and just never found him. Steve Novak (47 percent on 3s this season), Brandon Rush (45 percent), Jordan Farmar (44 percent), J.J. Redick (43 percent), Courtney Lee (40 percent), Boobie Gibson (40 percent), Mike Dunleavy (40 percent), Randy Foye (39 percent) … I mean, those guys are out there every year, right? Here's where you say, "What about Sefolosha? Didn't he shoot 43 percent on 3s this season?" True … but in 17 playoff games last spring, he went 4-for-26. And also, he's never been one of those guys who makes you say, "Uh-oh, Sefolosha is heating up!!!" Really, Redick would have been the perfect fifth wheel for this OKC team — someone that made you say, "This is ridiculous, I don't know how you stop these guys when they spread the floor." Fisher doesn't give me that unstoppable feeling … you know, unless he's ruining the Players Association. Either way, it's almost impossible to believe that he's prominently involved in the 2012 playoffs. He's single-handedly making me feel better about my team's reliance on Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus in Miami on Wednesday. Anyway …

1:38 — Scotty Brooks pulls a page out of Pop's book and orders the hideous Hack-A-Shaq on Tiago Splitter, who makes five of 10 free throws over the next minute before Pop pulls him out. Did it work? Yes and no. OKC only made up one point in that minute, but it knocked San Antonio out of their deadly offensive rhythm (just a little) and uglied up a game that had developed a decisively pro-Spur flow. Then again …

1. Nobody in the history of mankind has ever said the words, "Remember that awesome playoff game when one team kept intentionally fouling the other team?"

2. Just a few minutes earlier, the Spurs played so beautifully that Marv Albert nearly had an orgasm on live TV. Now he's calling free throw after free throw. I'm gonna say we're worse off as basketball fans here.

3. There's a very easy fix — just tweak the rule so it's like the defensive three-second rule. If officials determine that a player who's not involved in the play was intentionally fouled for the specific reason to put him on the line, it's a technical foul and the player's team keeps possession. We'd never have to watch Hack-A-Shaq again.

4. Here's a good rule in general for all professional sports: If something sucks, you need to make the appropriate rule change so it doesn't suck anymore. This isn't rocket science. Back to the game.

1:15 — Durant (27 points) makes two freebies, Duncan makes one of two (Spurs by 14), then Westbrook air-balls a horrific 3 with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. For the record: I like Westbrook. He's young, he's a good teammate, he's fun to watch, he gives a crap, and he's absolutely breathtaking in person. He also gets dissected on the Internet like no NBA star other than LeBron, something that undeniably affected him last summer and led Presti to tell me a few weeks ago that he's never seen an athlete face more scrutiny at a younger age than Westbrook faced during last year's playoffs. That's just the nature of the beast now — basketball has become a 24/7/365 sport, and once we're down to one playoff game a night, every flaw and every bad decision gets exacerbated. A lot of times, unfairly.

(Hold on, there's a massive "Having said that …" coming up.)

Having said that, when Westbrook (a 32 percent 3-point shooter) launches an off-balance pull-up 3 with 20 seconds left on the shot clock in the midst of a possible momentum swing of a must-win playoff game — as his buddy Durant is residing somewhere between "hot" and "scorching hot" and doing whatever he wants offensively — I mean, at what point does the light bulb start flickering on here? Westbrook needs to find that sweet spot between "aggressive" and "reckless," and actually, I don't doubt that he will. Just know that his last 3 was reckless. And it's hard to win the title when you're reckless.

Let's just fast-forward to the end of the quarter because I can't wait for Sager vs. Popovich any longer. Our score after three: San Antonio 92, OKC 76. And yes, the Spurs just rolled off a 37-point quarter and made 65 percent of their shots. That's why they're the favorites.

12:00 remaining (fourth quarter) — Pop through gritted teeth after answering his 200th What's working so well for you guys out there?–type question of the past month: "Usually when you get a lead, it's a combination of getting stops at one end and keeping the pace at the other."

Translation: WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME DO THIS? WHY DO I HAVE TO TALK TO THIS MORON WHO'S WEARING A PEACH SUIT? I'M TRYING TO WIN A PLAYOFF GAME! I'M IN CHARGE OF A TEAM THAT HAS A CHANCE TO BE ONE OF THE BETTER TEAMS EVER! LEAVE ME ALONE! GET THIS PEACH IMBECILE AWAY FROM ME! NEXT TIME I WILL STAB PEACH IMBECILE IN THE JUGULAR WITH A PENCIL!!!!

11:15 — Westbrook goes coast-to-coast and makes an impossible lefty layup in traffic. Spurs by 14. By the way, kudos to Brooks for earning this e-mail from my buddy House: "Congrats to Scott Brooks — he starts the 4th quarter with the game *almost* out of reach with his best lineup. 3 guards + Durant + Ibaka." Only took Brooks eight quarters.

(On the other hand, you have to love the Scotty Brooks Era, if only because there's an adult film star named Scottie Brooks who's suckered in a bunch of accidental Google searches from people who misspelled "Scotty" as "Scottie," landed on the @scottiebrooks Twitter page (NFSW) and ended up screaming, "AHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHHHH!" Shouldn't Scottie Brooks play up the whole Scotty Brooks thing and change his Twitter avatar to a clipboard-holding basketball coach who's wearing a suit jacket, dress shirt, tie and no pants?)

10:40 — The Zombies (flying around now) cut San Antonio's lead to 12, then Gary Neal stops their momentum by draining a 3. At this specific point of the game, Durant, Westbrook and Harden have made 23 of 40 shots combined … and their team is losing by 15. Wow.

9:37 — OKC keeps coming and coming. They just got a driving Harden banker, a Parker miss (good defense), then a pretty Harden layup ("and the foul!!!") in which Harden picked up his dribble at the top of the key before taking three giant steps to get to the basket. Even LeBron James thought that was a travel. Does anyone hate high-definition slow-motion more than NBA referees?

9:37 — Even if these John Malkovich iPhone ads aren't as fun as the potential of Sam Jackson screaming at Siri, "WHAT DOES MARCELLUS WALLACE LOOK LIKE????," I'm still hoping for a Con Air exchange like …

Malkovich: "Stewardess? Oh, stewardess? What's the in-flight movie today?"

Siri: "Well, I think you'll like it, Cyrus. It's called I'll Never Make Love to a Woman on the Beach Again, and it's preceded by the award-winning short, No More Steak for Me Ever."

8:20 —The Zombies just got consecutive stops for the first time in eons, leading to Durant's two free throws cutting San Antonio's lead to eight. At the very least, let's agree that Scotty Brooks should be replaced with Scottie Brooks if Ibaka-Durant-Harden-Westbrook-Sefolosha isn't their most consistently used lineup for the rest of this series.

8:20 — What were the odds in March that Steve Kerr would have said during a Conference Finals game, "Five fouls on Diaw, that's a huge factor here." 15 to 1? 20 to 1? 30 to 1?

8:06 — "We're Fine With Letting Danny Green Beat Us," by Oklahoma City. He just missed an open 3. If San Antonio is going to seriously consider running the table in the playoffs, they'll need Green, Neal and/or Leonard to sink a couple of monster shots along the way. There's just no other way. You wouldn't call it their Achilles' heel, just the reality of the situation. And by the way? I think they can go 12-0 heading into the Finals. I really do. They're that good.

6:59 — Fisher misses a HUGE 3 that would have cut it to five. Wide-open, too. Store that moment away in the "lost momentum swing" and "um, why is Derek Fisher playing right now?" files. If you're a Lakers fan right now, you have four silver linings: You might turn Bynum into Dwight Howard, you might get someone to overpay for Pau Gasol, you get to snicker to yourself every time Fisher misses a big shot in this Spurs-OKC series, and at least you're not rooting for the local team that inexplicably just rehired Vinny Del Negro.

6:40 — Remarkable lefty runner by Manu. Spurs by eight. I gotta be honest … I don't understand how anyone could say the Spurs are boring when they have two guards who (a) play beautifully together, (b) get better when it matters, and (c) consistently make some of the most incredibly unique baskets in the league. Three times per Spurs game, either Manu or Parker invents a shot or a drive that makes you say, "Wait, have I ever seen that before?" That's boring?

5:49 — San Antonio's lead just quietly dwindled to six thanks to a free throw binge (OKC has already taken 13 this quarter), some inspired smallball defense (which did a better job of clamping down those high screens) and the Perkins Hologram (hovering over the OKC bench, where it should be). And you know what? Watching this live, I never thought the Spurs were in trouble. It's like I wrote last week: When you're great and you know you're great, you trust the system and the process and sweat out the momentum swings. Here, watch.

5:24 — Pick-and-roll, Manu and Duncan … two Duncan free throws. Spurs by eight.

5:11 — After Miller and Kerr spend the last few seconds debating whether Oklahoma City should be playing Fisher or Sefolosha down the stretch, Fisher settles the debate with a ghastly running banker. (The lesson as always: Oklahoma City can't win the title if they keep ignoring Kevin Durant down the stretch of massively big playoff games.) That's immediately followed by Green bricking another 3 and me muttering to myself, "T-minus Pop pulling Green in 3 … 2 … 1," then the sight of Pop ordering Diaw off San Antonio's bench even as Durant is missing a 3 on their end. (The lesson as always: Gregg Popovich doesn't mess around.) You can't say OKC didn't have their chances in Game 2.

4:33 — Big sequence of the game for OKC: After a pretty drive by Parker draws an Ibaka goaltending violation, Westbrook answers with a 3 and Green misses ANOTHER open 3 (his fourth of the quarter) even as Diaw eyeballed him from the scorer's table like a cheese croissant … but Duncan slides in for the big offensive rebound (how many times in his career has he done that???), with Manu eventually drawing a foul and making two freebies. After that, Westbrook blows a mildly difficult layup and Parker nails an off-balance jumper. We're officially in "Can the Spurs win AND cover the spread?" territory. Can we top Harden's seemingly meaningless (but meaningful) 3 to cover a 5.5-point spread in Game 1? What, you didn't notice that one? What, you think I have a gambling problem? Let's just move on.

3:39 — Spurs by 11. The next two minutes: Harden scores (driving layup); Manu makes a free throw but misses the second one (and, of course, Duncan keeps the play alive and gets the ball back); Ginobili scores (off-balance jumper); two Fisher free throws; Leonard gets a layup off a pretty Duncan pass (classic Spurs possession); Fisher makes a 3 (he finished 2-for-11); Durant layup (off a Manu turnover); dagger 3 from Manu (game over).

Here's the thing: When you can get quality shots pretty much whenever you want, nothing else really matters. The Spurs, as presently constructed and in their present state of health, are unbeatable. In 10 playoff games, they're averaging 104.1 points, making 49.4 percent of their shots, hitting 41 percent of their 3s and getting assists on 65 percent of their made baskets. They can survive a lousy offensive game from Parker (happened in Game 1), Ginobili or Duncan (happened in Game 2) without being affected in any way, as long as two of them aren't struggling at once. They can play smallball; they can handle bigger teams; they can play fast or slow. They can handle absolutely anything.

They've won their 10 playoff games by an average of 12.5 points, a potentially historic pace; of the best teams ever, only the 1971 Bucks (+14.5) and 2011 Lakers (+12.8) topped that number, with famous juggernauts like the '86 Celts (+10.6), '96 Bulls (+10.6), '87 Lakers (+11.4), '83 Sixers (+5.9), '91 Bulls (+11.7) and '72 Lakers (+3.3) falling short of that mark. They've also won an astonishing 20 straight games dating back to the regular season; only three other teams have EVER won more than that (all regular-season streaks, too), and if they sweep Oklahoma City, that 22-game streak will tie the '08 Rockets for the second-longest streak ever (even if the NBA won't officially recognize it). Oh, and they're only six wins away from being the first NBA team to sweep the NBA playoffs. Let's be honest: This is insane.

And that's before you get to the historical ramifications here. There's never been a quote-unquote great Spurs team, just a series of extremely good ones. We poured dirt on them last spring after the Memphis upset, only to watch them resurrect themselves with their finest group yet. Parker and Manu have never looked better; one more title cements them as Hall of Famers and one of the best backcourt duos ever. Duncan hasn't looked this good in five years; one more title vaults him ahead of Wilt Chamberlain and leapfrogs him back ahead of Kobe as the sixth best player of all time (at least in my opinion), as well as "The Greatest Lottery Prize Ever, Hands Down" instead of just "The Greatest Lottery Prize Ever". Popovich would have to be mentioned in the first few words of any "Greatest Coaches Ever" discussion, period, end of story. And this particular Duncan/Popovich run (potentially, five titles in 13 years with the same coach and franchise player) would only have to answer to Russell's Celtics, Jordan's Bulls, Magic's Lakers and (god, I hate admitting this) Kobe's Lakers on the "Most Successful Runs Ever" rankings.

Even better, the Spurs pushed themselves to such heights that they're magically Botoxing away every glaring footnote and asterisk from this lockout-shortened, injury-riddled season. They've transcended it simply by being as potent as any basketball team we've ever watched, the first NBA franchise to fully perfect a European offensive style (slash-and-kicks, high screens, open 3s, back-door cuts and everything else) while maintaining their defensive dignity. Shit, they even managed to pull off something that never seemed possible: They turned a team featuring LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in their primes into an underdog for an NBA Finals. If you can't get excited for that matchup, then you don't have a pulse. Thank you and please drive through.

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U.S. looks to keep up impressive run of form with Brazil up next

By: timbersfan, 10:49 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

Three thoughts on my mind heading into the U.S.'s friendly with Brazil in the Washington, D.C., area on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Telefutura):
• Can the U.S. keep up its impressive run? After a slow start in charge, manager Jurgen Klinsmann has lately been getting what he wants from this U.S. team. A historic 1-0 friendly win at Italy in February showed these Yanks weren't afraid of a world champion and knew how to pick their spots in the attack. And Saturday's 5-1 mauling of Scotland was a blast of the dynamic attacking energy Klinsmann wants to see against midlevel foes. Now comes Brazil, another world champion, and while this isn't Brazil's best possible squad, it does have plenty of big names, including Neymar (Santos), Thiago Silva (Milan), Alexandre Pato (Milan), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Hulk (Porto), David Luiz (Chelsea), Sandro (Tottenham), Rafael (Manchester United) and Lucas Moura (São Paulo). Many of them played on Saturday in Brazil's 3-1 friendly defeat of Denmark in Hamburg, but I'm hoping coach Mano Menezes decides not to rest too many of them on Wednesday. After all, Brazil will have nearly a week off before its next game against Mexico on June 3 near Dallas.
• Will the U.S. go toe to toe with the five-time World Cup champs? Klinsmann has acknowledged that the U.S. can't play as freewheeling against global powerhouses as it does against Scotland or CONCACAF sides, but don't look for the Yanks to be overly defensive, either. The big question is whether U.S. star Clint Dempsey will return to the lineup after missing the Scotland game with a groin strain. Dempsey trained on Sunday and is aiming to be back for Wednesday's marquee matchup. If Dempsey does play, how will that change the U.S.'s formation and player selection? If Klinsmann wants to go for it, he'd keep José Torres on the field, drop on of his three central mids from Scotland (perhaps Maurice Edu), and change from a 4-3-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1 like this:
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley; Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, José Torres; Hérculez Gómez.
If Klinsmann wants to include Dempsey but be a bit more conservative, he could stick with the 4-3-2-1, keep the three central mids (Edu, Jones, Bradley) and drop Torres. I do think we'll see Oguchi Onyewu back in the central defense now that he has been back in camp for a few days, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Gómez get a start up top. Jozy Altidore just joined the U.S. camp on Monday, owing to his club AZ Alkmaar's refusal to release him before the FIFA international window, and it seems unlikely he'd start so soon thereafter. Perhaps youngster Terrence Boyd could get the nod instead, but Gómez was prolific enough for Mexican champ Santos last season that Klinsmann may give him the chance here.
• Playing Brazil so often is a great thing for the United States. Think about how often the U.S. has the chance to compete against the world's most successful national team. Wednesday's game will be the fifth matchup between the U.S. and Brazil going back to 2007, a slate of games that includes the U.S.'s epic 3-2 loss to Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. (Donovan and Dempsey both scored memorable goals in that game to build a 2-0 lead before Brazil's stunning comeback.) While the U.S. has no fear factor with Brazil anymore, it's clear that if you aspire to improve on a global level you have to take on the best teams as often as possible. My colleague Thiago Dias of Globo Esporte online tells me he expects this will be Brazil's starting lineup:
Jefferson; Danilo, Thiago Silva, Juan, Marcelo; Sandro, Rômulo, Oscar, Lucas Moura; Neymar, Hulk.
It may just be a friendly, but as friendlies go it doesn't get much bigger than this.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/28/usa.brazil/index.html#ixzz1wIm7gdLG

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Three thoughts on U.S.-Scotland

By: timbersfan, 10:48 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

Three thoughts after the U.S.'s 5-1 victory against Scotland on Saturday in Jacksonville:
• Hat-trick hero Landon Donovan still has it. Days after the U.S.'s all-time leading scorer spoke of losing his hunger and love for the game, Donovan showed the kind of fire that we saw from him at the 2010 World Cup. Now 30, Donovan played like a 22-year-old trying to earn his spot on the team, using his speed, smarts and technical ability to burn holes in the Scottish defense. Playing on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation, Donovan benefited from sterling combination play by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who regularly found Donovan in dangerous spots. And once he was in front of the goal, Donovan knew what to do. His first goal, shot into the roof of the net, was a reminiscent of his strike against Slovenia in the World Cup, and his second was a clinical first-time blast. Motivation has sometimes been a tricky thing for Donovan. Whatever he was doing this week certainly worked.
• The U.S.' central midfield was excellent. Jones and Bradley were a force all night, covering loads of space and making a difference by getting forward in the attack and linking up with the front line. Bradley's long-range strike from Jones' pass ranks up with the best goals scored by the U.S. in recent years along with Benny Feilhaber's 2007 Gold Cup winner and Donovan's goal in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. Fullbacks Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson provided useful width, and José Torres also had a positive performance pinching in from the left wing. When it came to tempo, pressing and speed of thought, this U.S. performance was exactly what Klinsmann wanted.
• A few other thoughts. Brazil on Wednesday will provide a tougher test. David Luiz, Paulo Henrique Ganso and Dani Alves may be late scratches, but Neymar will be there, and Brazil could pick from 850 players and still have a good team ... Liked the red stripes on the new U.S. jerseys. Didn't like the hard-to-see gray numbers on a white background ... Terrence Boyd is raw, but he has some real potential that he showed flashes of in his first U.S. senior start ... You could tell that the U.S. players have been working on their fitness -- and that Scotland hasn't ... Imagine how this U.S. team might have played on Saturday if Clint Dempsey (out with a groin injury) had been on the field ... I expected Johnson to start at left back after hearing Klinsmann talk about him this week, and he showed he was ready for it. Suddenly after so many years of few choices at left back for the U.S., Johnson could be the answer for a long time to come.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/26/3thoughts.us.scotland/index.html#ixzz 1wIluhR1Q

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U.S. national team likely to experiment vs. Scotland

By: timbersfan, 10:47 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

My three thoughts heading into Saturday's U.S.-Scotland friendly in Jacksonville, Fla. (8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, Galavisión):
• The U.S.'s full-strength lineup may not see the field until Wednesday's Brazil friendly. Some U.S. players won't be available, whether it's Clint Dempsey (groin strain) or Jozy Altidore (joins team on Monday), nor is it likely that we'll see starters who just arrived in camp the last couple days (Clarence Goodson, Michael Parkhurst, Hérculez Gómez, Oguchi Onyewu). But that's OK -- a home friendly against a midlevel European team like Scotland should give some useful international experience to potential Saturday starters like Geoff Cameron, Chris Wondolowski and Terrence Boyd. It's almost impossible to know with any certainty who will be in the U.S.' starting lineup, but here's my best guess (4-1-3-2): Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Jermaine Jones; Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, José Torres; Chris Wondolowski, Terrence Boyd.
• Let's see what Landon Donovan offers. The U.S.'s all-time leading scorer hasn't played for the national team in almost nine months and spoke this week of trying to find his hunger for the sport again. Can Donovan get back the mojo he had during the 2010 World Cup and his loan spell at Everton earlier this year? Remarkably, Donovan and Dempsey have yet to play together during any of Jurgen Klinsmann's 10 games as coach, and that streak will extend to 11 here with Dempsey's minor injury. (He's hoping to play against Brazil on Wednesday.) Donovan's creativity may well be useful in unlocking a largely defensive-minded Scotland team, which should test the U.S.'s ability to build attacks from the back. This would be a good time for Donovan to show he can still be an indispensable player for the Stars & Stripes.
• Which reserve forwards can make a case for inclusion? If they were available, Dempsey and Altidore would likely be the top front pairing after their excellent European club seasons. But in this game we may get a sense of whether Wondolowski, who has lit up MLS this season, can replicate that form at the international level. And though Boyd has yet to play for the first team at Borussia Dortmund, his success with the Dortmund's U-23 team and the U.S. Olympic qualifying team has put him ahead of Juan Agudelo on the U.S. depth chart for now. Klinsmann likes Boyd's potential, and this would be an ideal game to give him some sizable playing time.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/25/us.scotland.preview/index.html#ixzz1w IliqFWK

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Dempsey eyes next challenge after historic season with Fulham

By: timbersfan, 10:46 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Clint Dempsey leans forward in his seat and tells a story. Back in his hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas, during his days in the second grade, an old, crusty gym teacher named Coach Long staged a kickball game one afternoon between the boys and the girls. Dempsey played hard, just like he always does, but then came an unexpected twist.
"Coach Long cheated and let the girls win," Dempsey says, "and I jumped up and tried to punch him."
There were consequences, of course: Dempsey said he "got pops" at both the principal's office and at home that night, and he missed an ice cream party. (Coach Long, who presumably wore those tight-fitting BIKE coaches' shorts, also retired after that school year. "Hopefully it wasn't because of me," Dempsey says.) But the point is clear: Deuce does not like to lose. Never has.
The same thing applies today. No matter how much Dempsey has achieved, no matter how much he has exceeded the expectations once put on him, he always sees the next challenge. Take his just-completed season with Fulham, the greatest ever by an American in Europe.
"It's a gift and a curse," Dempsey said. "I'm looking at players that are way above me. You look at [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the totals they have, and you compare yourself with them to drive and push you even further. Yeah, it's good what I've done. I tied for fourth [in Premier League goals] with [Emmanuel] Adebayor [with 17], but then you look at [Wayne] Rooney, [Robin] Van Persie and [Sergio] Agüero and how well they did, and you want to be among them. You're able to be happy about what you're doing, but you're like, 'Damn, I've still gotta go further.' Hopefully I can keep going and maybe get to that level."
Dempsey's unquenchable appetite for competition, for rising to the next level, is something that impresses even his teammates.
"He still has that crazy hunger to succeed, more so than most," an admiring Landon Donovan said Wednesday, indicating he found it hard to maintain that drive himself.
I mention Donovan's comments to Dempsey, ask him how he does it. Does he have any advice for Donovan?
"The thing is, Landon's played more games than me," Dempsey said. "He started playing at a higher level younger than what I did. I didn't turn pro until I was 20, and before my first MLS season started I turned 21. So it's almost been like a race against time for me, to make the most I can of the time I have left. I'm still hungrier than ever."
Dempsey isn't likely to play in the U.S. friendly with Scotland in Jacksonville on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, Galavisión). A strained groin kept him out of Fulham's Premier League finale, and he hadn't done anything more than a bit of running and ball work in training through Thursday.
"I don't know about the Scotland game," he said. "We're just trying to be smart. I've been out for 14 days. You've gotta work on fitness because you lose it really quick. It doesn't make sense to play in a game if you're not able to be close to 100 percent."
Taking the field against Brazil on Wednesday is a more likely scenario. You want to challenge yourself against the best, and the five-time World Cup champions will bring some big talent to the high-profile friendly.
Wanting to play against the best may well guide Dempsey's club future, too. He hasn't said so explicitly, but it seems increasingly unlikely that Dempsey will sign the new contract being offered him by Fulham. One season remains on his contract, and he could well be a transfer target this summer for a Champions League team.
"They've offered a contract, and I just wanted to focus on my football and finish off the season strongly," Dempsey said. "I've always said I'm grateful for everything Fulham has done for me. Some of the best memories I have in soccer have been there. But the fact remains that I want to play in Champions League. I want to play at the highest level possible.
"I want to do as much as I can in my career and look back and say I made the most of all the opportunities I've had. I'm always going to want to play in Champions League. It's something I've never done. I'd like to test myself at that level. That way I can look back and say, 'Hey, I gave it a go. Either I was good enough or I wasn't good enough.'
"If I wanted to be comfortable, no offense to MLS, but I would've stayed in MLS, 'cause I would have been closer to my family and friends, and I would have been used to the way of life. I'm a risk-taker. I want to throw myself in the deep end and see if I can swim."
Whenever Dempsey has tried it so far, the answer has been a resounding yes. There's only one deeper end of the pool to go to from here.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/24/us.scotland.preview/index.html#ixzz1w IlW93kw

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Euro 2012 Tactics - Germany

By: timbersfan, 10:28 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Coach - Joachim Low

In his six years in charge, Low has not only proved immensely successful, leading Germany to the runners-up spot at Euro 2008 and a highly-worthy third-place at the last World Cup, but he had also done what no one thought possible - bringing about nothing less than a revolution in the playing style of the Nationalmannschaft.

Whereas the Germans used to be synonymous with power, endurance and discipline, Low has taken a completely new tack, insisting on a spectacular mix of technical mastery, good possession, creativity, risk-taking and movement. The Germany of 2012 are as spectacular as they are flexible, equally at home playing on the counter - as they did to great effect in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa - and relishing the chance to grasp the initiative and dictate terms.

The Captain - Philipp Lahm

Don't be fooled by his choirboy features and diminutive stature as while the Bayern Munich full-back certainly is no blood-and-thunder type of skipper, the 28-year-old does far more than wear the armband and attempt to win the coin-toss.

Calm, authoritative and hugely experienced (an international since 2004), Lahm very much leads by example and is an extremely strong character, someone who will not hesitate to criticise or flag up problems if he feels the need. In the last two or three years, he has become much more assertive, notably insisting in 2010 that the captaincy was his for keeps, that he did not see himself as a temporary stop-gap for the injured Michael Ballack.

The Formation

Although Low experimented with a 3-4-1-2 system in a friendly with Ukraine last autumn, the likelihood is he will stick to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation this summer, a set-up with an impressive capacity for mutation.

It can quickly become a 4-3-3 when wide attacking midfielders Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski push on, or even a 4-2-4, with chief playmaker Mesut Ozil weaving his magic close to the lone striker (either Mario Gomez or golden oldie Miroslav Klose).

Should Germany find themselves behind and chasing a game, Low's first step will be to sacrifice one of the two holding midfielders, incorporating an extra striker or chance-maker. Brilliant young attacking guns Mario Gotze and Marco Reus could well turn out to be the jokers in times of trouble.

The Weak Spot

There can be little doubt that Germany's Achilles heel is in defence and not merely because they are so attack-conscious and can leave the back door ajar.

Despite a perfect qualifying campaign - ten wins out of ten - Low was constantly chopping and changing his rearguard and this lack of stability could cost them dear. Individually there are more questions than answers in this sector. Are young centre-backs Mats Hummels of Dortmund and Bayern's Holger Badstuber a little raw at this level? Does long-serving stopper Per Mertesacker still have something to offer internationally after a season marked by poor form and injury at new club Arsenal?

There are also question marks over the right-back position, with central defenders (Schalke's Benedikt Howedes or Jerome Boateng of Bayern) likely to be handed the challenge of plugging that hole.

Finally, there is keeper Manuel Neuer. For all his world-class ability as a reflex shot stopper and one-on-one specialist, Bayern Munich's Champions League hero of the season just gone is somewhat less than convincing under high balls. That said, it is hard to find too much fault in a keeper oozing class and if it comes to a penalty shoot-out - which it tends to do for Germany in big tournaments - they have a great man on their side in Neuer, give or take events in the Champions League final.

Injury Nightmare

The reality is that Germany simply cannot do without deep-lying central midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, as he sets the tempo of the team's attacking play, does an excellent job of tackling and covering and relishes the role of being the side's emotional leader.

Busy, tactically-aware and superb in his distribution, the 27-year-old is a focal point for both club and country and the former certainly missed him badly when sidelined for much of the second half of this season with shoulder and ankle injuries. His recent return to fitness would have sparked sighs of relief all over Deutschland. If he was not available, Low probably would hope to fill the void with fellow Bayern star Toni Kroos, who while much-improved and outstanding on the ball, does not come close to matching Schweinsteiger's reading of the game, physical intensity and force of personality.

The Young Gun - Thomas Muller

Having come within seconds of scoring a career-defining match winner in the Champions League Final against Chelsea, the Bayern Munich starlet will be desperate to banish his agony with glory in Euro 2012.

His form at the 2010 World Cup finals saw him score goals aplenty and shoot to worldwide fame in an instant and at the age of 22, he is now firmly established as a key man in Joachim Low's line-up. Three goals in ten Euro 2012 qualifying appearances confirmed he is a potent force on the international stage, with his role supporting the leading striker reaping rewards.

"How do I feel heading into Euro 2012?" asked Muller. "I feel like I have something to make up for. We were so close to the Champions League, a matter of minutes away and my goal could have won the trophy. If Germany can win this summer, it would be the perfect consolation."

What they Say

“Jogi Low has proved time and time again what a clever tactician he is. Add his flair for a good game plan to his great motivational work and faith in young talent and you have a German team which is both good to watch and used to winning.”
Rainer Bonhof, former German midfielder
The Verdict

The majority of German football fans think another title is imminent for their team. The freshness, ambition, game-changing ability and leadership of the Nationalmannschaft point in the same direction. If Spain stumble and Holland fluff their lines in the big event once again, Germany will be at close quarters at Euro 2012.

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Euro 2012 Tactics - Spain

By: timbersfan, 10:27 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Manager: Vicente del Bosque

As winning major championships every two years is all that counts as success for Spain, the challenge facing Del Bosque could not be more exacting.

The statistic that no international side has won three major championships in succession suggests the odds will be stacked against this former Real Madrid and Besiktas coach at Euro 2012, yet he is convinced his magical team are capable of re-writing the history books once more.

"Winning for a third time may be the toughest task yet, but it is one this team will relish," believes Del Bosque. "While the experience of succeeding in big tournaments is likely to be more important for us, we know that teams are now looking for ways to disrupt and challenge what we do.

"This is a generation of brilliance in Spain. As a coach, my job is to try and maximize potential of great players and for the last two tournaments, this team have been perfect. Our challenge is to repeat at Euro 2012. Clearly we are a favourite in the eyes of many, but others will believe their time has come. For me, Holland look to be the main threat to us this summer."

The Captain: Iker Casillas

They say goalkeepers cannot be successful team leaders, but Casillas has gone a long way to disproving that theory with club and country in the last few years.

The Real Madrid stopper has been in fine form once again this season and he always commands the respect of his team-mates and opponents. He recently became his nation's most capped international and has rarely had a bad game in a Spain career spanning 12 years.

Having lifted the European Championships and World Cup trophy as Spain skipper, Casillas's place in his nation's sporting folklore is secure. All he can do now is add to his legend.

The Formation

Spain only have one way to play and that involves passing their opponents into submission. It worked a treat at Euro 2008 and the last World Cup, but are the opposition starting to find a way to nullify Del Bosque's masters.

Defeats in friendly games ahead of Euro 2012 has raised the suspicion that defensive-minded teams, intent on halting the Spanish attacking armada, can frustrate and eventually overcome the reigning champions. Tragically, dour football has been proved to be a successful antidote to a more majestic form of the game, but winning is more important than grace at the highest level.

Del Bosque's 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation is designed to win games long before the opposition have got to grips with Spain's spellbinding passing skills. It will be fascinating to see if his team of 'Invincibles' can continue to dominate for a third straight tournament.

The Weak Spot

Fatigue may be an issue for several Euro 2012 coaches, with their star names struggling to extract a final ounce out of energy from their weary bodies after long seasons with their clubs, yet this issue may affect Spain more than most.

With most of Del Bosque's players involved in high profile domestic and European campaigns that continue until the final stages of competitions, the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, David Silva, Xavi and Xabi Alonso are heading into the finals looking tired. There are also doubts over their defence, with Barca duo Gerard Pique not always a first pick at club level and the absent Carles Puyol a desperate loss.

Injury Nightmare

In many ways, Spain have already lived through an injury nightmare in the last six months as leading marksman David Villa has been ruled out after breaking his leg in December, while natural replacement Fernando Torres has been in woeful form for much of the last 18 months at Chelsea.

It remains to be seen whether in-form Athletic Bilbao marksman Fernando Llorente or Valencia's Roberto Soldado could fill the void up front, but coach Del Bosque has certainly had plenty of time to weigh up this problem and can have no excuses if he has not found an answer for Euro 2012.

Meanwhile, absentee Carles Puyol will be replaced by Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos or Raul Albiol. Both have long been natural replacements for Puyol and the transition should happen smoothly.

The Young Gun - Juan Mata

The Spain squad is not flushed with youthful talent and that may be good news for Chelsea's Champions League-winning hero Mata, as his chance to shine on the international stage may not be far away. Barcelona's magnificent contingent have made it tough for the creative maestro to force his way into Del Bosque's starting line-up, yet he has shown his class as both a maker and taker of chances when opportunities have arrived. Two goals in three Euro 2012 qualifiers was a decent effort.

Still only 24, he has the experience and ability to be part of the Spanish national team set-up long after some of his World Cup-winning colleagues hang up their boots. Maybe Euro 2012 will give him a chance to show a glimpse into the future of the Spanish national team.

What they Say

“Spain are still the big favourites for Euro 2012. I like what I see from Germany and they are a team emerging as the biggest threat, but there is too much quality for Spain to fail. They look like a team who want to win more titles.”
Fabio Cannavaro (Italy's 2006 World Cup winning captain)
The Verdict

Spain's individual brilliance will take them into the latter stages of Euro 2012, but a lack of freshness in some of their key men may mean a third straight title triumph is out of reach.

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Euro 2012 Tactics - Portugal

By: timbersfan, 10:26 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Manager - Paulo Bento

Portugal's 42-year-old head coach will not want to be reminded of the last time he was involved in the finals of the European Championships.

A defensive midfielder for the 'Seleccao' at the 2000 edition in the Low Countries, Bento was one of a number of Portuguese players who violently raged at officials after France were awarded a late winning penalty in a closely-fought semi-final. He was later handed a five-month international ban for his pains.

On hanging up his boots four years later, Bento turned to coaching and following a reasonably successful four-year stint at the helm of Sporting Lisbon, was appointed to succeed the ill-fated Carlos Queiroz as national team coach in the autumn of 2010.

With just one point from their opening two qualifiers, Portugal were in a shambolic state and though Bento was not exactly greeted with open arms by the local media - who believed he was just as dull and negative as Queiroz - the new man turned out to be much better than anyone imagined, not only leading Portugal to Euro 2012 qualification via the play-offs but getting them to play with enterprise and style.

A confirmed disciplinarian, Bento rules with an iron fist and it was no surprise at all that he spectacularly fell out with established national team defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa, vowing the pair would never play for him again. Some say the Portugal coach cannot think outside the box, but at least he does not stand idly by when all is not going to plan.

The Captain - Cristiano Ronaldo

As one of the most talented and highest profile players in the world, Real Madrid superstar Ronaldo was always a shoe-in to be made national team skipper, yet status alone does not an influential field general make and it's often been argued that he is totally unsuited to the job, sidetracked by his full-on individualism and huge ego.

He may have the absolute respect of his team-mates, is proud of the armband and takes its responsibilities seriously, but by no stretch of the imagination could Cristiano be described as a true grit leader, someone to rally around when a new strategy is required.

Up to now, he has rarely translated his brilliant work at club level to the international stage and in the opinion of many, the captaincy is one the reasons why, perhaps encouraging him to try too hard.

The Formation

Although Paulo Bento religiously stuck to an orthodox 4-4-2 during his time at Sporting Lisbon, he has never used that system with Portugal, wisely concluding that he simply does not have the players to make it function. Instead he has, for the most part, kept faith with Quieroz's 4-3-3 and bearing in mind Portugal's lack of top-grade strikers and abundance of class on the wing and in midfield, the respect for continuity makes perfect sense.

Not that Bento only has one string to his bow. Whereas he normally is happy to have a midfield with no genuine holder, he did employ a 4-1-2-3 (with Miguel Veloso in the enforcer role) in the first-leg of the play-offs against Bosnia (0-0) and went with a 4-2-1-3 in a qualifying win in Iceland, a formation featuring Joao Moutinho as the playmaker and Carlos Martins and Raul Meireles on sentry duty in front of the back-line.

Other variations involve Cristiano Ronaldo, either switching from out wide to the point of attack or deploying him in the ‘hole' in a 4-3-1-2.

The Weak Spot

Portugal have suffered with the same chronic ailment for years - a dearth of high quality strikers and none of the current batch (Helder Postiga, Hugo Almeida or the raw Benfica youngster Nelson Oliveira) are remotely good enough. That there was talk of a recall for 35-year-old Braga front-man Nuno Gomes speaks volumes. As it is, Gomes will not be in Ukraine.

At the back the 'Seleccao' have a number of problems, notably the sub-standard defending of Real Madrid left-back Fabio Coentrao and the tendency for centre-backs Pepe and Bruno Alves to lose their composure and make reckless challenges. Red cards and suspensions are no stranger to this pair.

Equally worrying is the lack of variety in the middle of the field, a sector full of neatness and box-to-box energy but lacking in real playmaking magic. Unfortunately for Bento, the days of Deco or Rui Costa are long gone.

Injury Nightmare

While by no means guaranteed to turn on the style for the national team, wing wizards extraordinaire Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani still represent Portugal's best chance of making any sort of impact at euro 2012.

Their pace and guile on the flanks can be devastating and what's more both have the ability to drift menacingly into the centre in support of the lone striker. Neutralising one is hard enough; two is a journey straight to hell. Second-stringers such as Ricardo Quaresma, Vierinha and Silvestre Varela all have much to offer, but clearly Portugal would not carry nearly as much as threat.

The Young Gun - Nelson Oliveira

Paulo Bento has been bold in his final 23-man Euro 2012 squad, including a glut of attacking talent, though the critics will argue that is because he is struggling to find a player equipped to carry out the striking role effectively.

At the age of 20, Benfica striker Oliveira is very much a novice on the international stage and only made his senior debut back in February, but as an impact player of the bench, he offers an effervescence that could make him a threat this summer.

"There will be pressure on me to perform at Euro 2012, but I look forward to that," said Oliveira. "We have many strikers in this squad, but I feel ready to make an impact. This is a moment I have worked so hard for."

What they Say

“I'm confident Portugal will get out of this really difficult group for two reasons. The good sense and decision-making of Paulo Bento as coach and the idea that suddenly we're outsiders behind Germany and Holland. We can approach this tournament with less pressure and that is just what Cristiano Ronaldo needs right now.”
Ex-Portugal and FC Porto manager Artur Jorge
The Verdict

Portugal's midfield craft and explosive wing-play may not be enough. They are defensively vulnerable and coach Bento's taskmaster ways may result in rebellion.

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Euro 2012 Tactics - Netherlands

By: timbersfan, 10:25 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Coach - Bert van Marwijk

The 60-year-old's pragmatism and cautious approach, his emphasis on teamwork, efficiency and total concentration has not always been to the liking of Dutch journalists and fans who have been raised on a diet of free-flowing attacking swagger from entertainers in bright orange shirts.

However, the Van Marwijk's methods have proved to be successful throughout his coaching career. From his transformation of provincial no-hopers Fortuna Sittard into a domestic force to Feyenoord's UEFA Cup triumph in 2002 and Holland's silver medal at the last World Cup, this opinion-divider has confounded an army of critics.

Those doubters include Dutch icons Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit, who often describe his approach as 'anti-football', yet results are what matters to Van Marwijk and he certainly has not failed in this regard. Affable and relaxed, he nonetheless cuts an authoritative figure and has a done a sterling job holding in check all the egos in the Dutch squad.

Also to his credit is his lack of fear when faced with tough calls, a single-mindedness exemplified by his axing of long-time national team striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and decision to switch Wesley Sneijder from the left-side of midfield to a central string-pulling role.

A coach who does not rely on excessive substitutions, he prefers to keep faith with his starting eleven for as long as possible and more often than not, they have delivered for him when push and shove have collided.

The Captain - Mark van Bommel

Despite the penchant of the Milan defensive midfielder for spiteful fouls and gamesmanship, he offers much to the Dutch side; never-say-die leadership qualities, an ability to read a game and simple but effective distribution.

Cynics who claim Van Bommel owes his place in the side to the fact that he is Van Marwijk's son-in-law conveniently ignore his infectious will-to-win, the respect he commands within the squad and his outstanding work shielding the back four.

When Gio van Bronckhorst gave up the captain's armband at the end of the 2010 World Cup, Van Bommel was the natural successor as he has rarely turned in a below par performance for the national side since he made his debut nearly 12 years ago.

The Formation

Like his predecessor Marco van Basten, Van Marwijk normally uses a 4-2-3-1 system, but with considerably less flair and attractiveness.

For a long time, a key facet of the current coach's modus operandi was the deployment of two hard-hitting midfield enforcers in Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, but in the past 18 months an alternative engine room set-up has begun to evolve, one with De Jong sacrificed for a deep-lying creator such as Tottenham's Rafael van der Vaart or PSV Eindhoven starlet Kevin Strootman.

One case Van Marwijk has yet to definitively judge is to who play up front. Does he select the Schalke marksman Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Holland's top scorer in the qualifiers with 12 goals, or Robin van Persie, who has been in the form of his life after a stunning season with Arsenal? A Dutch tactical Plan B would be a 4-4-1-1 featuring Sneijder on the shoulder of the lone front man.

The Weak Spot

Even though they only conceded eight goals in qualification, legitimate doubts persist as to the quality of Holland's centre-back pairing. Joris Mathijsen or John Heitinga are not the quickest and for that very reason, they have a tendency to drop too deep, thus inviting pressure.

The overall impression is that Holland are a team sliced in two - a ponderous retreating back-line and a brilliant attacking third. In central midfield, the likes of Van Bommel and De Jong are somewhat short of both movement and tempo, while strength in depth is an obvious problem. Replacements such as defender Jeffrey Bruma and Khalid Boulahrouz and winger Ryan Babel are all decent club professionals, but hardly the type of show-stoppers likely to set the pulse racing at Euro 2012.

Injury Nightmare

A multi-talented bundle of skill, vision, effervescence and grit, Wesley Sneijder's world-class ability in the 'hole' gives the men in orange an extra-terrestrial dimension which few other Euro 2012 participants can match.

Perfectly two-footed, gifted enough to wriggle out of the tightest of spots, amazingly inventive and a superb finisher when presented with a scoring chance, the Inter Milan superstar can pick any defensive lock and after a low-key Serie A and Champions League campaign in 2011-12 campaign at club level, Sneijder will be looking to bounce back at Euro 2012.

Even though Van Marwijk has another brilliant ex-Ajax playmaker in Tottenham's Rafael van der Vaart waiting in the wings if Sneijder fails to spark or falls victim to injury, he will be hoping his main man delivers for his country once more.

The Young Gun - Kevin Strootman

A 22-year-old player on the up, after making a big impression with PSV Eindhoven in recent months, score and creating goals aplenty and emerging as one for the future.

His Euro 2012 role is likely to be a watching brief given the superstar talent blocking his route to the starting line-up, but coach Van Marwijk may be tempted to throw him into the action if his side are not passing the ball as he would like. Strootman is a fine distributor of the ball, with his range of passing, and intelligence in his delivery, impressing seasoned observers.

What they Say

“One the one hand, we're in the hardest group of them all and I would like us to play with a little less hesitancy. On the other, the guys do have the mentality of winners. The belief is there for all to see. The Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder generation is coming to maturity. That has to be a positive for Holland at Euro 2012.”
Arie Haan, former Dutch international midfielder
The Verdict

Their defence may not be strong enough to win Euro 2012, but Holland's firepower should propel them into the semi-finals at the very least.

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Euro 2012 Tactics - Sweden

By: timbersfan, 10:25 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Coach – Erik Hamren

Success in Danish and Norwegian club football gave this Swede a chance to coach his national team and like Jose Mourinho and Andre Villa-Boas, he is one of the modern breed of coaches who have found their way to the touchline despite an lack of success as a player.

Like many boasting a similar background, Hamren likes to focus on the technical side of the game and he has a reputation for his attention to detail and the diet of his players, while his desire to promote 'positive energy' in his squad is a theme of many of his press briefings.

Hamren made quite an impact during the Euro 2012 qualifiers, as he encouraged his team to express themselves and go for goals, with the end result being a final total of 31 goals in their 10 games. It was a thoroughly impressive tally that was only trumped by Spain on the road to these finals.

In comparison with the stodgy, cautious approach promoted by his successor, the defensive-first Lars Lagerback, forward-thinking Hamren appeared to have changed Sweden's approach for good, but it seems he may be thinking about reining in his ambition now with tournament action looming large.

The Captain – Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Coach Hamren played to the strengths of his leading striker in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, with the attack-minded approach ensuring the one Sweden player opponents will worry about saw plenty of the ball.

That level of involvement meant the striker who has polarised opinions throughout his career was content with his role in the side, but the odds are he will be asked to perform a slightly less glamorous role at Euro 2012 if coach Hamren is true to his word. A more reserved approach could be in the offing this summer.

The AC Milan striker is not at his best when things are not going his way and his critics would argue that he tends to sulk when he does not get the sort of attention he craves. Yet if Sweden get the best out of their enigma, he represents their best chance of success at Euro 2012.

At least the main man in Sweden is back in the fold now after coming out of international retirement after some persuasive words from Hamren. Here's hoping he doesn't throw his toys out of the pram again if things don't go his way again this summer. "A motivated Zlatan is worth his weight in gold for the Swedish national team," says Hamren. "In my opinion, he is one of the best players in the world."

The Formation

Sweden didn't bother looking for the handbrake during the Euro 2012 qualifiers, but all the indicators suggest they will be playing with their foot firmly on the back foot this summer.

"The qualifying performances showed what we can do as an attacking team, but it might not be so easy to play this way against the very best teams in Europe," states Hamren. "We will play with as much attacking intent as possible, but we also need to be sensible."

Hamren's ambition was clearly affected by his side's heavy 4-1 defeat against Holland early in the Euro 2012 qualifying push, as he suggests his side need to show a little more respect to top quality opponents. That means he will look for a stable balance in his team this summer, ensuring his full-backs are not exposed as they were against the Dutch.

His 4-2-3-1 formation should offer that stability and attacking threat in tandem. Their impressive display as they beat Croatia 3-1 away from home earlier this year was an example of the kind of performance they will look for at Euro 2012. He has also experimented with 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1 formations in recent months.

Ibrahimovic is likely to play just behind lead striker Johan Elmander or youngster John Guidetti, ensuring the skipper gets to see plenty of the ball. Sunderland's Seb Larsson and AK Alkmaar's highly rated Rasmus Elm are also crucial to their attacking game plan.

The Weak Spot

The left-back slot has been a problem position for Sweden, with Oscar Wendt and Behrang Safari both tired and failed options and Martin Olsson now favourite to land the role. However, the Blackburn youngster could be a target for opposition wingers to attack.

The injury to key defender Daniel Majstorovic has been another blow for Hamren. Jonas Olsson is probably going to be the option at the heart of the defence alongside the ever reliable Olof Mellberg, but this is a defensive line yet to prove itself as a unit.

Injury Nightmare

Can't live with him can't live without him. That may be the truth about Ibrahimovic, who will again be the focus of attention as Sweden look to upset the odds in a major championship. If he gets injured, the loss of his presence may be even more significant than his contribution on the field.

Galatasaray striker Elmander is struggling to be fit after injuring his foot in the run-up to Euro 2012, while in-form Sunderland midfielder Seb Larsson is another vital man after his impressive efforts in the qualifying campaign. He has been battling back from a hernia operation in April.

Finally, with more than a few question marks defensively, Sweden dare not consider life without their 34-year-old central defensive rock Mellberg. He is simply irreplaceable.

Young Gun – Martin Olsson

The rumours suggest Olsson will be looking to secure a move this summer after his Blackburn side were relegated from the Premier League, yet his focus for the next few weeks has to be on Euro 2012 and what is set to be his first major tournament in the Swedish first XI.

He cemented a spot in Hamren’s plans with four goals in his first six senior internationals and while he may be something of an untested performer against top quality opposition on the international stage, this 24-year-old full-back who has been linked with a move to European champions Chelsea is confident he has what it takes to shine against the best.

"You have something to prove every time you step onto a football pitch, but I feel ready to play in a major international tournament,” says the defender whose sister Jessica is the partner of NBA star Dirk Nowitzki.

What they Say

“The leap in quality between most of the teams we played in the qualifiers and the Euro 2012 finals will be big, but I feel we have a good blend in this squad. There is youth and experience and a good mentality instilled by our coach. We can cause some surprises.”
Olof Mellberg, Sweden
The Verdict

It will be fascinating to see how Sweden adapt to the Euro 2012 challenge, with coach Hamren promising a less adventurous approach. A favourable group stage draw gives them a chance to progress.

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Euro 2012 Tactics - Italy

By: timbersfan, 10:24 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Manager – Cesare Prandelli

Italy's national team has long been a blend of defensive solidity, with the occasional flashes of brilliance in the attacking third fuelling success, but Prandelli has done his bit to shift the mindset of his Azzurri line-up.

Italy have become a little more offensive minded under Prandelli and can be expected to promote a neat passing style designed to create a team that can win matches and catch the eye in tandem at Euro 2012. However, that may need to be tempered a little as they look to hold off Spain in their opening game of the tournament, with the coach accepting his troops need a few strings to their bow this summer.

"The feeling was that we needed to evolve our style, to try and play a little more on the front foot," says Prandelli. "The strength we have with the midfield players means we had to look to make the best use of them. We have to try and find the perfect balance at Euro 2012."

The Captain – Gianluigi Buffon

Many question whether a goalkeeper can be a successful captain, but when your name is Gianluigi Buffon, the answer has got to be in the affirmative. This talismanic figure is the natural pick to lead any team thanks to his powerful presence and immaculate standards on and off the pitch.

A hero of Italy's 2006 World Cup triumph, Buffon skippered Italy at Euro 2008 when Fabio Cannavaro was ruled out due to injury and Prandelli handed him the captain's armband permanently for the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

Now 34, Buffon will back up an experienced defence that may need to produce a few miracles to keep Italy afloat at Euro 2012. Their formidable five-man unit conceded just two goals in qualifying for this tournament and they are more than capable of defying the odds and turning Italy into contenders to go deep into the competition this summer.

The Formation

It was interesting to note that Italy finished second place in the possession count during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, with only Group C rivals Spain holding on to the ball longer than the Azzurri. That statistic was a tribute to the gameplan laid out by the progressive Prandelli.

The story goes that Italy changed their philosophy after Prandelli canvassed the opinion of his players, with the success enjoyed by Spain's pass masters in recent years pointing the way forward for a new era in international football. Spain have done their bit to follow that ethos, but now comes the biggest test of their remodelled mindset as they try their luck in a major tournament setting.

Prandelli's 4-3-1-2 line-up gives license to Brazilian-born midfielder Thiago Motta, and Juventus's Claudio Marchisio, the evergreen Andrea Pirlo and Roma's Danielle Di Rossi, safe in the knowledge that Buffon and his defensive troops should have enough quality to keep out the goals at the other end.

The identity of his strikers has been the subject of so much debate in the run-up to this tournament, with the chaos Manchester City's Mario Balotelli guarantees leading many Italian observers to suggest the moments of magic he can inject into a game come with too high a risk tarrif.

The Weak Spot

Pretty passing is all well and good so long as there is an end product, but Italy have been accused of lacking that vital commodity during Prandelli's time in charge.

After scoring 20 times in their ten Euro 2012 qualifiers (albeit three of those being awarded by UEFA following the abandoned game in Serbia), it seemed as if the new-look Azzurri were finding a neat balance between their attacking intent and their cutting edge, but indifferent displays in recent friendlies has raised some concerns.

The absence of Villarreal striker Giuseppe Rossi is a blow and the fitness concerns surrounding Antonio Cassano did not help Prandelli's pre-tournament planning. It means they head into Euro 2012 with plenty of question marks hanging over their attacking line. As Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini will confirm, relying on Balotelli to keep his head and score goals at the right time is a gamble that could easily back-fire.

Injury Nightmare

Andrea Pirlo has been pulling strings in the Italy midfield for as long as anyone can remember and after a sparkling season in Juventus colours ended with another Italian title for this majestic 32-year-old, he heads into Euro 2012 ready to sparkle all over again.

As ever, the floppy-haired star will be employed in the heart of the Italian midfield, with their steady passing style dictated by the vision and ability of this maestro to hold onto the ball when put under pressure. In many ways, the free-flowing approach now being used by Italy was readymade for Pirlo, so he should shine this summer.

Buffon is another stalwart Italy cannot do without, proving that for all the new ideas Prandelli has brought to the table, their old guard remain as important as ever to their hopes.

Young Gun – Mario Balotelli

Why always him? Well, because this 21-year-old striker is simply impossible to ignore.

'Super Mario' is capable of banishing his bad boy image and emerging as Italy's star man at Euro 2012, but he is liable to explode at a moment's notice on or off the pitch. Despite his unreliable temperament, Azzurri coach Prandelli apparently has as much faith in him as his club boss Roberto Mancini and it's easy to see why managers are seduced by this mysterious character.

"I never considered going into this tournament without Mario," insists Prandelli, even though he left the maverick out of his side on disciplinary grounds for the game against USA back in February. Time will tell whether his faith in an unpredictable magician will be rewarded.

What they Say

“Prandelli was my player and I am proud to see him leading the Italy team. I like what he has brought to the team, something new. He has looked at fresh ideas, different players. This is what Italy needed to do and he deserves credit.”
Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni
The Verdict

Find a cutting edge to their pretty passing and Italy should navigate a route to the latter stages of Euro 2012. However, if they draw blanks early on, their fate may be less appealing.

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Euro 2012 Tactics - England

By: timbersfan, 10:23 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

The Coach - Roy Hodgson

After months of speculation, Harry Redknapp did not receive his anticipated coronation from the Football Association, with the panel picking the next England head coach naming Hodgson as successor to Fabio Capello a little over a month before the start of Euro 2012. He is more than qualified to try his luck in the position, as Hodgson has worked on the international stage with Switzerland, UAE and Finland, taken charge of Inter Milan on two occasions and boasts a reputation as one of the most astute coaches in the game. However, the 'Harry for England' campaigners have expressed some frustration that their man did not get the job and have been quick to suggest Hodgson's disappointing spell in charge at Liverpool last year is evidence that he will not handle this job.

Meanwhile, the tabloid media in England wasted little time running crude front page headlines making fun of this 64-year-old's speech impediment. Thus is the gauntlet you are expected to run when accepting this unforgiving positing. Many a big name have tried and failed to crack the highly paid England position recent years, yet at least Hodgson heads into his first major tournament in the role with expectations surrounding his team at an all-time low.

The Captain - Steven Gerrard

Hodgson wasted little time in confirming Gerrard as his leader, though there he may be seeking another man for the post after this tournament as the Liverpool talisman has hinted that he may not continue his international career beyond Euro 2012. Injuries have become an increasingly persistent feature of the Gerrard story in recent years and it is little wonder, as he has just finished his 14th season as a Liverpool first-team stalwart, with the workload he has taken on in his career taking its toll. Liverpool's remarkable 2005 Champions League triumph will be the defining memory of his career, yet many an expert have suggested he deserves to be remembered as the club's greatest player of all-time. "I'd have it as Gerrard as No.1 and Kenny Dalglish as a close second in the list of Liverpool legends," claims Anfield great John Aldridge. Gerrard's international career has been a mix of the ordinary and the desperately disappointing and while he is one of the few players who have shone in England colours in the last decade, he has not come close to success in a major tournament. If this is to be his final crack at glory, he will want to go out with a bang.

The Formation

Hodgson tends to lean heavily on two wide men to give him side some attacking impetus, with a 4-3-3 formation likely to be good news for Manchester United's Ashley Young, Liverpool's Stewart Downing and Arsenal duo Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Taking four wingers in the squad certainly suggested he was intending to use width in his team. The absence of the suspended Wayne Rooney for the opening two games of Euro 2012 appears to have opened the door to Andy Carroll to claim a starting spot after his end-of-season return to form with Liverpool, with Manchester United's Danny Welbeck his chief rival for the role. Hodgson will need to decide whether he can start with the tried and failed pairing of Gerrard and Chelsea hero Frank Lampard in the heart of his midfield. With Tottenham's Scott Parker certain to start, Gareth Barry or James Milner may be preferred alongside him, though Lampard proved he could do a decent job as a deep-lying midfielder in this season's Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. At the back, Hodgson has already made his big call by picking controversial Chelsea skipper John Terry ahead of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand (causing his first media storm in the process), with his club colleague Gary Cahill a likely centre-back partner.

The Weak Spot

While every other Euro 2012 nation has spent the last two years preparing meticulously for this tournament, England's plans under new boss Hodgson kicked into top gear less than a month before the competition got underway. Fabio Capello's messy departure in February ensured chaos has reigned for this national team in the months since and it leaves all concerned in a state of flux. Hodgson's 'safe pair of hands' reputation may help to smooth over some of the cracks in the England make-up, but their ludicrous decision to retain their Polish base when their group matches are being played in Ukraine is a hangover of the Capello regime that looks certain to disrupt their plans. No other team face such lengthy plane journeys to play their group matches and it adds up to an organisational mess.

Injury Nightmare

If Carroll and Welbeck were to pick up a knock or suffer suspension in the opening two games of the Euro 2012, the back-up options are bare. Tottenham's Jermain Defoe is not up to leading the line alone, so it would leave Hodgson employing Young, Gerrard or Walcott in attacking positions before Rooney can return to save the day. There is a gulf in class between first and second choice keepers, with Manchester City's Joe Hart impossible to replace. West Ham's Robert Green fluffed his lines at the 2010 World Cup finals and England will not want to rely on him once again.

The Young Gun - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

The inclusion of the 18-year-old after just 16 Premier League game in Arsenal red was proof that Hodgson sees him as wildcard who can make an impact at Euro 2012 on current form, he may be a better bet to make a splash this summer than persistently inconsistent club team-mate Walcott. The former Southampton graduate boasts an effervescence that has quickly won him a place in the hearts of Gunners fans and his carefree approach to the game may be just what England require. Tottenham's Aaron Lennon would have been a more experienced pick for coach Hodgson, so he sees the son of former England international Mark Chamberlain as one for the present as well as the future.

What They Say

“I don't remember a tournament where our hopes have been downplayed this much and there is good reason for that as Spain, Germany and Holland look to be a lot stronger than England. However, we still have some top players and they could surprise a few people.”
Alan Shearer (England 1992-2000)

The Verdict - There is too much uncertainty surrounding England to predict their fate, so anything beyond the quarter-finals should be hailed as a major triumph for Hodgson.

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Paying the penalty

By: timbersfan, 10:22 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

At the very least, Bastian Schweinsteiger wasn’t alone, and we don’t just mean that Ivica Olic also missed in the Champions League final shootout or that Philipp Lahm ran over to comfort him. The apparently unprecedented sight of a German desolately lamenting a high-profile penalty miss is actually not that new.

Just a few weeks ago, in the Under-17 European Championship final, Schweinsteiger’s young compatriots also lost a shootout. Worse, they were defeated by Netherlands -- a country with one of the worst spot-kick records in international football history. These recent aberrations only followed Lukas Podolski’s miss against Serbia in their 2010 World Cup group match.

If anything, the aura is starting to evaporate. Might it be the best bet of Euro 2012? Could Germany lose a first shootout in 36 years?

Of course, throughout that time, such a prospect has been unthinkable, but then so has the idea of a Germany international missing any penalty at all.

Since Uli Stielike saw his kick saved by Jean-Luc Ettori in the 1982 World Cup semifinal against France, the Germans have scored every single penalty they’ve taken in an international tournament.

It seems a remarkable record but, in truth, simple physics should have rendered it a routine record because, unless a six-foot-plus goalkeeper is standing right beside the post, the top corners of any goal are unreachable. At best, even someone leaping around his line (like Petr Cech) can reach only 72 percent of the area he’s trying to protect.

As such, there are clear targets players should be trying to hit to eliminate the variable of the goalkeeper altogether. And, with proper, rigorous practice -- while also actually observing and perfecting technique -- there is no reason that they can’t mechanically train themselves to hit these corners repeatedly. After all, the very dimensions are much more forgiving than free throws in basketball or putting in golf. Gary Player’s maxim -- “The more I practice, the luckier I get” -- stands even truer.

Similarly, in a wide-ranging study of penalty kicks, psychologist Olaf Binsch found that shooters who were focusing on a target, rather than just trying to beat a goalkeeper, had a much higher success rate since they were less distracted. Here, the older maxim of “picking your spot and staying with it” also stands true.

The wonder, of course, is why all teams don’t follow this approach, but is it really that surprising? Football is a notoriously anti-academic game.

It says a lot that, as Fernando Torres suffered the worst confidence crisis of his career over the past year, neither Chelsea nor the striker’s agent reportedly even considered the idea of consulting a proper sports psychologist.

In football, untested truisms seem to become outright fact a little too easily: most infamously, that “you can’t practice penalties;" that “you can never recreate the pressure." But let’s flip that concept on its head. In a pressure situation, who is the likelier to succeed: the player who is maybe taking his first proper penalty in two months, or the player who has been mechanically honing his technique?

There have been suggestions that the Germans at least leant toward the latter over the last few decades. Sources suggest they did approach penalties along these lines, and you only have to look at the quality of their kicks in shootouts during the 1990s in particular: all placed, all powerful. The efforts against England in Euro ‘96 were especially exceptional.

Famously, though, the German youth infrastructure was completely revamped in 2000. Almost all of the changes were for the good.

Is it possible, however, that they forgot to incorporate one of the true positives of the past? Are we finally seeing a generation of German players who have not been inculcated into the old approach to shootouts? Recent events would suggest so.

Even when you look at their last shootout -- the 2006 quarterfinal against Argentina -- all of the kickers were brought up through the old system. And, if we have seen a change, then, in Euro 2012, shootouts may not necessarily be a lottery, but rather much more susceptible to issues like fatigue, fitness and, of course, mentality because, as it is, almost no country prepares properly.

The stories about ad hoc competitions after every training session are essentially irrelevant if no-one is thoroughly surveying the quality and technique of the approach. Simply kicking at goal and seeing if you scored or missed isn’t enough. There are too many variables.

In that context, too, aiming for the top corners as we’ve discussed here is of no benefit. Most players will not have practised it enough to make it truly worthwhile and to minimise chance as much as possible.

As such, the ‘best’ penalty in the current circumstances is probably the “poker bluff” - trying to outfox the keeper or make him move before striking. Against West Germany in the Euro ‘76 final, Antonin Panenka gave the best example of this. At the turn of the millennium, Gaizka Mendieta seemed to master it. More recently, Mario Balotelli has been emulating it. But even that’s not perfect, as we saw with Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2008 Champions League final and Schweinsteiger in this year’s.


Panenka’s penalty has gone down in history© Getty Images
The ultimate question, though, is whether the Euro 2012 teams will emulate their own historical records this summer. Can the Dutch or the English improve their record? Will Portugal lose one?

Perhaps most interestingly of all, Czech Republic and Germany may well meet in the knock-out rounds. Even if you include the 14 from 14 of Panenka’s old Czechoslovakia, a Czech has never missed a penalty in such situations. In this case, Schweinsteiger may be hoping for another, different, break with history.

But, essentially, while approaches to shootouts remain so unprofessional, most will remain open to a degree of chance. They will never, however, be a lottery. Otherwise, all of these teams would have almost identical records.

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The man who revolutionized football

By: timbersfan, 10:21 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

Modern football as we know it owes a lot to Euro 2012 co-host Ukraine.

Take today’s Barcelona. While it’s true a lot of Barca’s game has its origins in the Netherlands and can be traced back from Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels to the Ajax of the early 1970s, many of the style-defining concepts they were using -- such as aggressive zonal-marking and pressing -- were first pioneered by Viktor Maslov in the mid to late 1960s at Dynamo Kiev.

Once put into practice, these theories would eventually change the game forever from a slow and ponderous affair in which each player appeared to have an eternity on the ball to a much faster spectacle in which opponents were given little time to think and less space to work in.

Maslov conceived it all. Standing on the sidelines, flicking at a cigarette lighter and bracing himself against the cold, this Muscovite with his receding line of salt-and-pepper hair ignited a football revolution. His ideas spread like wildfire, as tapes were cut and articles wrote about the famous Dynamo side of his that won the Soviet League three times in a row in the mid-1960s.

But Maslov was eventually eclipsed by one of his former players -- not as an out-of-favor winger as he once had been, but as the club’s coach. Valeriy Lobanovskyi would very soon become more widely recognized than his old boss as one of football’s most influential thinkers.

Sold after a fallout with Maslov in 1964, Lobanovskyi returned to the club a decade later and laid out a vision of a game that, to him, was more about science than art. During what might be considered his apprenticeship as a coach at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Lobanovskyi came into contact with professor Anatoly Zelentsov, a dean of the local Institute of Physical Science. Together, they established one of football’s most innovative partnerships, and Lobanovskyi would use this approach at Dynamo Kiev.

Dynamo’s Cup Winners’ Cup winning sides in 1975 and 1986 were a synthesis of brain and brawn, of mind and matter. Each of them featured a player -- Oleh Blokhin, then Ihor Belanov -- voted by their contemporaries worthy of the prestigious Ballon d’Or , but make no mistake, they were a triumph of the collective, not the individual.

Behind this success was the drilling of Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov. Long before performance analysis departments were even conceived among Europe’s elite clubs, Dynamo collected rafts of statistics on their players and subjected them to intensive physical and mental testing. There were computer games designed specifically to gauge reaction times, endurance and a player’s ability to remember where teammates and opponents played on the pitch.

Plays were meticulously choreographed and repeated over and over on the training ground until they became second nature. What this meant was that Dynamo practically did everything up to and including players’ ability to memorize – and in the unlikely event they forgot anything, Zelentsov’s tests ensured they were at the least very quick thinking.

At the heart of their efforts to create intelligent athletes was the ideal of universality whereby it was encouraged that everyone play anywhere on the pitch. Defenders had to know how to attack. Attackers had to know how to defend. The switching of roles and interchanging of positions was “Total” and done without a second thought.

These were among the core principles of Lobanovskyi and Zelentsov’s book "The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models." Able to transfer their model into international football during three spells in charge of what was then the USSR national team by calling up and relying upon a vast swathe of Dynamo players, they very nearly came close to replicating their success at club level.

Take, for instance, their friendly with Poland on the eve of the 1988 European Championship in West Germany. When the team sheet reached the press box, many of the journalists present were left scratching their heads. Lobanovskyi had named only two nominal defenders and six midfielders. Sounds relatively familiar with what we came to expect from Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, doesn’t it? The USSR pressed the Poles in their own half, recovered the ball dangerously high up the pitch and, all things considered, should have won by a greater margin than 2-1.

Following that, the USSR went on to reach the final of the Euros that year. The tournament almost ended in glory, but the USSR lost to the Netherlands, coached by Michels. Lobanovskyi’s side, which beat the Netherlands in the group stage, succumbed to one of the greatest goals of all time scored by Marco van Basten as well as a bullet header powered in by his clubmate at AC Milan, Ruud Gullit.

It was a disappointment for Lobanovskyi. But his legacy lives on.


Andriy Shevchenko, who should suit up for Euro 2012, is one of the players developed by Lobanovskyi. © Joern Pollex/Getty Images
When the Ukraine starts its Euro 2012 campaign against Sweden in Kiev on June 11, it will be coached by Oley Blokhin and likely captained by Andriy Shevchenko. Another player developed by Lobanovskyi, Shevchenko helped Dynamo reach the Champions League semifinals in 1999 before joining AC Milan, where he’d win the Ballon d’Or in 2004.

‘Loba’ lives on through them. He remains the greatest figure in Ukrainian football, but his ideas about the game aren’t limited to its borders. They stretch far beyond. In the best spirit of Lobanovskyi, they are universal.

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Challenges facing Spain, Netherlands, Germany

By: timbersfan, 10:20 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

Although South America had a brief moment in the spotlight when all five European sides progressed from the group phase, the 2010 World Cup confirmed Europe’s dominance of world football. It wasn’t quite the whitewash we saw in 2006, when Italy, France, Germany and Portugal made up an all-European final four. Still, Spain beating Netherlands in the final, with Germany winning the third-place playoff against Uruguay, meant the top three sides in the world were all European.

Look beyond that, however, and the continental dominance wasn’t so strong. Spain, Netherlands and Germany were actually the only European nations to make the final eight – along with Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Ghana. There was a large gap between the big three and the rest of the UEFA contingent.

That gap remains: the FIFA Rankings list Spain, Netherlands and Germany as the top three, the same three that had the most impressive records in qualifying – Spain and Germany winning 100 percent of their matches, Netherlands nine from 10. It’s debatable how many sides are “outsiders” at Euro 2012, and arguable how many are in the ‘chasing pack,” but the favorites are clearly in a group of three.

For each of the trio, relatively little has changed since South Africa. None of Spain’s heroes announced their international retirement after the World Cup final, and for Netherlands and Germany there was no talk of a failed last chance for a generation of talent. Their dominance was particularly striking because it didn’t seem like a one-off; it felt more like a statement of intent for the next few years.

A casual observer of football might not have watched any of these sides since the last World Cup, yet won’t have missed much. Head coaches Vicente del Bosque, Bert van Marwijk and Jogi Low are all still in their positions, and barring the odd player retiring (Giovanni van Bronckhorst), falling out of contention (Joan Capdevila) or suffering an injury on the eve of the tournament (Carles Puyol), each coach will name a similar core of players for Euro 2012. No change of manager means no radical departure in ideology, while a consistent playing squad means familiar tactics.

What’s Spain’s plan B?

Yet each side must evolve to prevent becoming predictable. For Spain, despite finding the winning formula two years ago, that is particularly true. The foundation of its success was obviously tiki-taka, but this relentless close-ball control tired and frustrated opponents rather than consistently hurt them. Spain recorded four 1-0 wins in the knockout stage, and on each occasion the goal came after halftime when the opposition was exhausted.

For the breakthrough, Spain always needed something different, something outside the neat, consistent passing offered by the majority of their players. There were three types of alternative, which all featured at some point in the tournament. The first was Cesc Fabregas’ driving runs from midfield, which proved crucial in the final. The second was width, either from Jesus Navas of Sevilla or Barcelona’s Pedro Rodriguez, who eventually forced his way into the line-up for the final. The third was a direct aerial option, which Fernando Llorente provided to great effect against Portugal in the second round.

It is that concept of “something different” which del Bosque must not lose sight of. David Silva and Juan Mata deserve a place in the side based upon their Premier League performances in 2011-12. Navas and Pedro offer more drive from the flanks, but neither enjoyed a good 2011-12. Fabregas is no closer to starting, as del Bosque wants to continue with a triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez.

So Spain might have to look upfront for its evolution. Llorente has enjoyed a good season with Athletic Bilbao. Spain is unlikely to provide him with many crosses, but his ability to hold up play will encourage more runs beyond the defense – something Spain lack from its midfield.

Netherlands’ midfield conundrum

Netherlands need progression from deeper in the side. The physicality it showed in the World Cup final goes hand-in-hand with van Marwijk’s desire to play both Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel deep in midfield – two ugly, functional players.

“The problem with two holding midfielders is quite simple, but somehow many coaches don’t see it,” complained Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. “The build-up happens too slow; holding midfielders always need that extra touch, always need to have a look when they have the ball already … plus, having two holding midfielders means there is one less creative playmaker.” That is Netherlands’ one problem – it isn’t good enough at breaking down compact defenses. Its sole playmaker in South Africa was Wesley Sneijder, and for all the praise he received after that tournament, he spent his time scoring goals rather than creating them.

Therefore, there is a need for a more creative player alongside van Bommel in the center of midfield. That could be Rafael van der Vaart, who has been used in a deep position in qualification, but his anarchic style of play means this is unlikely against strong opponents. A more intriguing option is Kevin Strootman, the young PSV midfielder who offers guile and vision from a deep position. Netherlands often play the ball too slowly from back to front, allowing the opposition time to form their defensive barrier. Strootman would play quicker forward passes, and make Holland a more fearsome attacking side.

Germany’s style of play is an issue

For Germany, the problem is less about individuals and more about style of play. Its superb football in South Africa was based around counter-attacking – it went into early leads against England and Argentina, which then had to get back into the game, leaving spaces at the back. Faced with a Spain side that kept hold of the ball and didn’t need to open up, Germany looked impotent.

Therefore, expect Germany to move toward the Spanish style of play – longer periods of possession to calm the game (and rest) then more obvious pressing to win the ball higher up the pitch once it is dispossessed.

That shouldn’t necessitate any changes in personnel as the front players are disciplined and hard-working, and Mesut Ozil positions himself well between the ball and the opposition holding midfielder to prevent the opposition from building an attack. Low has a group of superb players in technical terms, but also in terms of intelligence – and they should be able to evolve tactically to finally get revenge over Spain, having lost to them in the previous two tournaments.

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Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 9: 'Blackwater'

By: timbersfan, 10:14 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

There’s a fair amount of preening and posturing in the upper classes of Westeros, from Theon’s impatient egoism in the North to Joffrey’s bloodthirsty bitchiness in the South. But it’s been clear for awhile now that the only people who really understand what’s at stake in the titular Game of Thrones are those who don’t need to pretend to be something they’re not. The most successful players are all terribly, visibly scarred: Bronn and his oft-broken nose, Tyrion and his equally shattered heart, Varys and his missing bow and arrows. In “Blackwater” — the noisiest, wildest episode of the series to date, a bravura battle royale of action, emotional savagery, and unanesthetized trepanning — the biggest turn was reserved for the most marked man of all.

Sandor Clegane wears his brutal past on his face like a mask, a terrible Tyson tattoo of violence and regret. The Hound began the hour playing the part of the dutiful soldier, a doubt-free killing machine, less interested in defending the honor of his fraudulent king or the walls of his fetid city than in doling out the ferocious punishment that is his stock-in-trade. As Stannis — himself a bad actor, pursuing the crown out of childish spite and witchy infatuation — storms the walls, Clegane’s giant sword splits Baratheon bannermen like so much kindling before a long winter. Yet it’s the Hound himself who breaks. “Look at me,” he fumes to Sansa through wine-stained lips after retreating from the battlefield. “Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world was built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.”

Of all the impressive feats accomplished by this remarkable episode, this may have been the greatest of them all, revealing the palpable sadness at the root of the Hound’s sadism. Despite his burned and battered visage, he’s no monster, merely a man sickened by all the hypocritical, monstrous things he’s seen other, supposedly better men do to one another. There are no great heroes in Westeros, only murderers and survivors. So what good are Bronn’s “beautiful women and brown ale”? There are plenty of beautiful women in the ground and the brown ale is only temporary relief — soon it will be flowing into Tyrion’s beloved cisterns or choked up into a floating bucket of sick. With the water on fire and his life on the line, Sandor Clegane used his one good eye to take a clear-eyed look at the real cost of other people’s games and did the most reasonable thing of all: He walked away.

The rest of the poor bastards caught up in the siege of King’s Landing weren’t so lucky.
Cursed by low circumstance or high birth, the ragtag group of men and half-men that defended and stormed the gates were caught up in a vicious cycle far beyond their control, their lives no more or less valuable than the heavy rocks dropped from the parapets onto the soft skulls below. This legion of CGI-spattered extras wasn’t blessed with the same “What’s it all about, Alfie” perspective as Clegane, but, thankfully, those of us in the audience were.

Until now, Game of Thrones has told its stories through smaller gestures: a clumsy beheading, a direwolf pounce, a brotherly grope. There were glimpses and hints of unchecked violence lurking just beyond the frame — most memorably when the starving mob dismembered a member of the royal party in “The Old Gods and the New.” But the horrors of the Seven Kingdoms finally went widescreen in “Blackwater.” This was war in the way we’ve never witnessed it before on this show or any other: explicit, confusing, all-consuming. Finally we saw the source of Robert’s alcoholic sloth, Ned’s suicidal dignity, and Tywin’s emotionless glare, not to mention the reason for the careful, season-long hoarding of HBO’s budgetary gold (this was money well spent, even if the network’s subscriber fees alone could make you the richest man in midtown, let alone Qarth). The brinksmanship and backstabbing that for 18 episodes seemed to define Game of Thrones, all the big-timing and Littlefingering, suddenly felt as weightless as a baby made of black smoke, a indulgent trifle encouraged only in the years between ringing of the bells. There was nothing noble about the battle of King’s Landing. It may have been cool to watch Bronn dancing through the carnage with a smile on his face, but my mood hovered closer to the Hound’s. Stannis’s goals and Tyrion’s words may have been lofty, but their actions were down-and-dirty. This is what these people are, this is the show we’ve been watching; like Sansa, we were finally forced to confront it.

Until Tyrion starts pouring Honey Nut Cheerios in his icemilk, no one should spend much time comparing Game of Thrones to The Wire. Both were sprawling, multi-character epics, yes, with a lovingly rendered sense of place undercut with a nasty streak of nihilism. But it’s hard to tell what, exactly, Game of Thrones has to teach us about our own lives that we don’t already know. (Trust warlocks as much as you’d trust your mother? Pitching a tent means different things on different sides of the wall?) Where the two overlap is structure: Each season of The Wire came to a head in the penultimate episode, usually written by novelist George Pelecanos with his typical flair for unsentimental shock. This year, Thrones has done the same, entrusting the biggest hour of the season to author George R.R. Martin. But the challenges of “Blackwater” were much greater than those in his previous scripting credit, 2011’s “The Pointy End”; that episode offered a lesson in swordsmanship, this demanded a post-graduate lecture.

The bulk of “Blackwater” played like Downton Abbey tipped onto its side; instead of upstairs vs. downstairs, we had outside vs. in. No matter where he stood, Tyrion was an unlikely hero, bravely manning the walls his punk nephew was quick to flee. The revelation of the imp’s secret plan — ghost-riding a single, wildfire-laden ship to meet the Baratheon fleet — was legitimately thrilling, topped only by its roaring success. (I haven’t seen a green bomb that size since last summer.) While Joffrey shriveled, Tyrion rose to the occasion, inspiring the dubious, outnumbered troops and ordering fusillade after fusillade of burning arrows (which resulted in the highest concentration of flaming Baratheons since the dearly departed Renly). Whether he was swapping macho banter with Bronn or sneak-attacking his enemies’ knees like an opportunistic Denver Bronco, the little man’s stature has never been higher, no matter if he ended the hour cut back down to size. (Dinklage’s performance was outstanding as usual, but I couldn’t help but think the deadness in his eyes as he lay bleeding in his squire’s arms was less a precursor of Tyrion’s demise and more of an actor’s sad realization that from here on out he’ll have to report to the makeup chair three hours early for scar continuity.)

While the boys bashed each other's brains in, Cersei maintained a long, punishing siege on her own liver. Despite the grim circumstance, it was a delight watching the Queen Truman Capote her way through the battle, keeping her spirits up with multiple glasses of spirits and a steady barrage of quips at Sansa’s expense. I think even Eve Ensler would have drawn the line at the third or fourth reference to the young Lady Stark’s “red flower,” but it was hard to blame Cersei for her relentless assault on Sansa’s faux-piety. Despite the wine, the Queen could see right through her would-be daughter-in-law’s double game, singing hymns while praying for Joffrey’s death, all under the watchful, twitchy eye of Ser Mike from House Pollos Hermanos, a would-be protector actually there to slaughter them all if need be. By the time she was perched precariously on the Iron Throne, muttering about lion cubs in the King’s Wood and prepared to poison her own son/nephew, Cersei was as fried as the Hound, ready to drop the mic (and a few f-bombs) on the hypocritical hell that is life in the Seven Kingdoms. Tywin may have saved the city and the day, but the triumph of “Blackwater” was that even such an unlikely victory could feel as hollow and empty as a loss.

By behaving like a nervous teenager and climaxing an hour early, The Wire was able to reserve its season finales for the tying up of loose ends and the unfurling of overly long music montages. It’s hard to imagine next week managing anything quite so tidy. Not only are entire story lines still dangling in varying stages of crisis from Winterfell to Qarth, the consequences of Tywin’s surprise success have yet to be determined.

What will be done with the defeated Stannis — and what trick could Melisandre possibly have up her, um, sleeve that could save him? Has the Onion Knight been well-and-truly caramelized? And most of all, what will become of the Hound? As the season marches inexorably to a close and the various remaining heirs and claimants continue their slow, sad slog toward a meaningless prize, it fell to a ruined man to see the folly at the root of it all. Clegane isn’t even a knight, yet he wields the most powerful weapon in all of Westeros: the ability to say enough. At the close of Game of Thrones’ best hour, he’s suddenly a surprise contender for the show’s greatest creation.

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The Many Faces of James Harden

By: timbersfan, 10:12 PM GMT on May 29, 2012

To understand and appreciate James Harden, maybe we should begin with the time he was scared to shoot. That would set up a narrative of Harden the Selfless, a team-first, me-last embodiment of on-court benevolence. One problem: You only need a quick YouTube search to blow that image of Harden right up, replacing it with Harden the swaggering and smack-talking alpha dog, come to assert his place among the game's elite.

So perhaps it's best to start with a quote: maybe his GM describing Harden's future as a painter or his college coach likening him to a martial artist. Or maybe Harden can be understood through description (all tricks and angles and grown-man strength) or pop psychology (Harden the self-aware introvert) or by latching onto the first thing nearly everyone notices about him — the beard.

But Harden's too enigmatic to be summed up so neatly. "You can't put him in a box like that," one of his former coaches told me. And after weeks of watching and studying and interviewing, I still can't quite figure out James Harden. He is shy but a natural showman; deferential some games but dominant in others; poised to evolve into a souped-up Manu Ginobili, a left-handed Joe Johnson, or (more likely) a player who defies all natural comparisons. So there is no easy way, no tidy anecdote or string of insights to perfectly encapsulate the NBA's quickest-rising star.

Here is what I do know about the Oklahoma City Thunder's sixth man: His handshake is kind and strong, his words measured and unrevealing. He lacks Kevin Durant's grace and Russell Westbrook's tendency to detonate, but his basketball instincts surpass each of theirs. He is a meticulous self-curator: often quiet but given to self-expression through both his game and his appearance. Despite quotes to the contrary, he does not lack personal ambitions, but he is, by all accounts, a consummate team player.

And here's what else seems clear: For the Thunder to beat the San Antonio Spurs and make the Finals, Harden must improve his play. And if this group of post-adolescent NBA darlings is someday going to reach its dynastic potential, it will be partly because Harden has perfected his role.

Now that we know what to expect — no all-explanatory revelations, just an honest attempt to understand James Harden — let's get to that scared-to-shoot story. It was December 2005, and Artesia High School had just lost its first game of the season, a tournament final against Ohio's Withrow University High School and future Cincinnati Bearcat Yancy Gates. On the flight home to California, Artesia coach Scott Pera walked down the aisle to find his gifted but timid star. A 16-year-old James Harden sat sleeping, or at least trying to sleep, when Pera sat next to him and decreed what needed to be done. "We can't win," he said, "unless you start shooting more." Harden looked up, round-faced and clean-shaven, and digested his coach's words. "I don't want everybody to think I'm a gunner," he told Pera.

By this point, they had a rapport. Harden had arrived at Artesia as just another pretty talented kid in a gym full of pretty talented kids. "He could shoot the corner 3," former teammate Derek Glasser says. "That was it." With Pera's help, Harden had grown into a major Division I prospect — a wing scorer equally comfortable as a shooter or a slasher, he combined strength and vision like no other player in the state.

There had been long afternoons working alone together in the gym, rides home on days when Harden missed the bus, and conversations in Pera's office about the team's present and Harden's future. Then there had been the day when Harden's mother walked her son into Pera's office and issued her own orders: "This is your coach. Whatever he says goes." And now on the plane, Pera's command was clear: Shoot. Lead. Dominate. So Harden nodded, waited for Pera to leave, and then tried to go back to sleep.

They never lost again.

Six and a half years later, Harden stretches out on the floor at Santa Monica High School, just hours before Game 3 of a second-round playoff series against the Lakers. Eight days earlier, he was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year. Nine days before that, he played a fist-bumping, bunny-ears-flashing, aloof version of himself in a viral video with Kate Upton. And in the preceding weeks and months, he vaulted up the list of basketball's most popular players, due partly to his play, but also to his kaleidoscopic wardrobe and Brooklyn-meets-backwoods beard.

Harden shoots now — no more problems there. "I never want anyone to think I'm selfish or anything," he says, "but I usually know when to be aggressive." He doesn't mind playing third fiddle to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or coming off the bench behind defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. He's a top-flight talent playing a supporting actor's part, perhaps the best role player in the league. He is the perfect complement to his more heralded teammates: versatile, efficient, and, when necessary, ruthless. But with the Thunder's top players all younger than 25, Oklahoma City's long-term potential may hinge on how long Harden is willing to keep his current role.

In less than three years, he has become exactly the player the Thunder hoped he would be when they drafted him third overall in 2009. When general manager Sam Presti scouted Harden in college, he was impressed by the way Harden carried his Arizona State teams, but he was even more interested in the personality trait that made Harden reluctant to do so. "It was clear that he didn't always need the ball," Presti says. "He could be effective with or without it. He wouldn't be shouldering everything the way players picked that high are sometimes asked to. He would score but also make plays for other people and find ways to impact the game in other ways."

In high school and college, Harden had accepted the leading role — but only grudgingly. "Coming up, he was always the best player," says Glasser, who played with him at Artesia and Arizona State. "But he never played like he was the best player." Intensely competitive but eager to please, Harden only grew assertive when he realized that everyone — teammates especially — wanted him to. "Sometimes we would all just look at him, and it was kind of like, OK, let's go, buddy! We want to win, so we need you to take over!" Glasser remembers. "Whether he wanted to or not, he had to accept the fact that when the game was on the line, it was up to him. That just comes with the territory."

It's not that Harden was unwilling to dominate, but he was a reactive player who countered opponents rather than imposing his will on them. "James is like a martial artist," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek says. "He uses the force of the game against itself. He doesn't play with predetermined conclusions." On the first game of a northwest road trip his sophomore year at ASU, Harden dropped 36 points on 21 shots in a win over Oregon. Two nights later, against an Oregon State team that trapped and double-teamed him all night, he played the decoy role, and the Sun Devils won again. "After that game," Sendek says, "he was celebrating just as much as anyone. It didn't matter that he had barely scored."1

Though Harden was slotted near the top of most draft boards, Presti's decision to pick him over Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, and Stephen Curry was largely based on fit. Shortly before the draft, Harden sent Presti an e-mail explaining why he thought he belonged in Oklahoma City. "He made it clear that he understood the ethos of the organization," Presti says. "He understood the dynamic of our team, that it wasn't going to be a typical situation for someone drafted that high. Instead of being worried about it, he was motivated by it."2

Yes, Harden wanted to win. Yes, he wanted the chance to play alongside Durant and Westbrook, both of whom he had met and grown friendly with on the AAU circuit. And yes, he liked the culture of the franchise. But as much as anything, he wanted validation of his ability.

"The bottom line in that situation is that he's 19 years old and he's about to be a lottery pick," Pera says, "and he wants to go as high as he can go. He was happy to go no. 3, but if he could have gone no. 2 or no. 1 — even better."3

The Thunder have been fetishized as selfless and pure, all sacrificing their own glory for the sake of the team. And that narrative rings largely true. But we can dispense with the notion that any great player — Harden in particular — is bereft of individual ambition.

"It's about winning first," Harden says at the gym in Santa Monica, "but I want to be an All-Star, All-NBA, get individual awards. I know all that takes hard work and dedication, but yeah, I want that. Of course I do."

He has the Sixth Man Award. This summer he'll get a shot at the Olympics. All-Star appearances seem likely to follow. And perhaps one of these days Harden will finally get some recognition back at Artesia High.

The school's "Hall of Fame" sits tucked in a room right next to the gym, with jerseys and trophies sharing space with water fountains and bathroom doors. Above the fountain hang photos of Ed and Charles O'Bannon, the UCLA national champions and NBA washouts, long Artesia's most famous basketball alumni. Jason Kapono's photo hangs next to the bathroom, while there is no recognition for Renardo Sidney, who passed through Artesia on his way to Mississippi State and eventually, it seems, obscurity. Likewise, the room contains no evidence of Harden's existence, even though a former athletic director calls him the best player in school history.

That's fine by Harden, who — even as a 17-year-old — seemed confident that recognition would follow success. In high school, he walked around the hallways and the court as if he knew the campus was his stage, that eyes were drawn to talent — and he dressed the part. He wore plaid pants and bright sweaters to class, and then he showed up to senior prom rocking Nikes and a sky-blue suit.

So perhaps you could have predicted that someday Harden would be famous for resembling a tall, slender, hipster version of Mr. T. But still, technology coordinator and P.E. teacher Gerry Ellis says, "The first time I saw it, that beard freaked me out. From a marketing standpoint, it's brilliant — everyone knows him by it — but it came as a total surprise."

And therein lies the contradiction with Harden. You can't get two minutes into an interview without hearing how humble, how quiet, how selfless and unassuming he is, but when he takes the court, he looks like an artist turned athlete turned kamikaze, engaged in something resembling both competition and performance art. When the lineup is announced, he gives each starter a personalized greeting, whether a spinning chest-bump or a guns-drawn handshake. The show continues after the game begins, with Harden celebrating 3s, talking trash, and entering the lane with venom. He plays exactly the way you'd expect a bearded and Mohawked man to play, talk of quietness and timidity be damned.

So if he's so shy and unassuming, why does Harden treat the basketball court like a stage? "You're dealing with a person who's so eclectic, so unique, that he just doesn't fit into the natural expectations," says Presti. "There's an artistry to the way he plays the game. He's expressing himself out there. I think someday after basketball is over he's going to realize he has an artistic trait, that he's naturally a great painter or something. You have to have a unique confidence to be who he is."

While on the topic of contradictions, here's another one: If Harden is so wary of taking the spotlight, then where do moments like his shot-for-shot Drew League duel with Kobe Bryant come from?4 What about the way that summer pro-am battle carried over into a night of regular-season jawing with Kobe? And what about Harden's 15-point fourth quarter in Game 4 against Dallas? That game, Harden showed why he may be capable of carrying a team by himself — dominating possession almost every time down the floor, putting a merciless end to the Mavs' attempt at a title defense. That night, it was clear to everyone — from press row to the national TV audience to the players on the court — that Harden wasn't passing to anybody.

Doesn't that particular kind of greatness require a selfish side that no one seems to think Harden has? According to Harden, no. "That's always been part of my game — I don't back down from anybody," he says. "You can still be an unselfish player and have that. That's just about winning."

As a team, the Thunder embody a special kind of selflessness — the kind that rarely includes sharing the ball. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all get the "selfless" tag because they seem like nice guys and because so many people think you must be a saint to be young and black and rich and living — by choice — in Oklahoma City. But their games (Durant and Westbrook, especially) are not about selfless passing; they're about graciously watching each other take defenders one-on-one. Against a team like the Spurs, who have their own, very different style of unselfish basketball, the contrast is striking. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, when San Antonio erased a nine-point deficit and pulled ahead to beat the Thunder, the Spurs had seven assists while Oklahoma City had one.

At his best, Harden breaks the Thunder out of this pattern. Yes, he can play brilliant one-on-one basketball as the primary scorer and creator of the Thunder's second unit. And yes, his ability to shoot, drive and finish, and read defenses makes him one of the most effective pick-and-roll players in the NBA. But Harden's most crucial role may come near the end of games, when he shares the floor with Durant and Westbrook and becomes the Thunder's best facilitator and uses off-ball screens to remain a scoring threat. "It's really important for them to have someone who can get points but doesn't need to have a lot of possession," a Spurs basketball staffer told me during the second round. On top of this, Harden can carry the team if necessary, like he did in Game 4 against Dallas.

Ellis, the high school P.E. teacher who was close to Harden during his Artesia days, explains: "What happens with James — what's always happened with James — is that he hits a point where he understands, and he gets a look in his eyes, and you know something is about to happen. He knows when it's time. Then everything changes."

Inside Staples Center, just days before the Thunder will eliminate the Lakers and advance to the Conference Finals, Harden sits on the bench and watches the starters take the court. Coach Scott Brooks's decision to start Sefolosha over Harden was sealed over lunch in Oklahoma City last summer, when Harden volunteered for the role, telling Brooks he thought the team would be better off with him on the second unit.

"The biggest advantage to having him come off the bench is that it staggers our scorers," says Thunder forward Nick Collison, who often enters the game at the same time as Harden. "We know that when Kevin or Russ need a rest, we still have someone who can create offense. It's good for the team, but it's also good for James, and he understands that. When he's out there with the second unit, almost every screen is for him. He's always going to be getting touches."

After he arrived in Oklahoma City in 2009, Harden showed immediate promise but played a limited role, mostly used as a shooter and averaging less than 23 minutes and 10 points per game. "Yes, he had a small role, but he maximized that role," says Presti. "He didn't have to have external validation. He focused on what he could control, and that was just digging in and playing that role as best as he could." But soon enough, the external validation came. In February 2011, the Thunder traded Jeff Green, then the team's third-leading scorer, to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins. While thrilled to get a physical center, the Thunder were also eager to give Harden (and Serge Ibaka) more minutes. "James was next in line, and everybody knew it," says Durant. "He had to change his role in the middle of the season, and that's not easy to do."5

Though he's 22, Harden plays an old man's game. "He wasn't very athletic when he started playing," says Pera, "so he learned how to play the game from the ground level. It was about vision and body positioning and shooting. Everything else came later." Now, everything else includes physical drives to the basket, an underrated first step, crafty finishes near the rim, and an ability to use screens like emergency exits. "I've never played with anyone who's as good at setting his man up for screens," says Collison. "And he can do it on or off the ball."

But let's be frank: Harden isn't playing well in these playoffs. He's shooting 37 percent overall since the start of the Lakers series and only 35 percent on 3-pointers. Typically a competent defender, Harden struggled against Kobe, looking strong enough to guard him in the post but too slow to keep him from driving to the basket. In Game 1 of the Conference Finals, Manu Ginobili (the player to whom Harden is most often compared) outscored him 26-19, and nine of Harden's points came in the game's final two minutes, when the Spurs had pretty much sealed the win.

There was a moment early in the fourth quarter, however, when Harden showed what he can do better than almost any player in the league — use ball screens. Collison came to the top of the key to set a screen for Harden. Often, Collison sets up to allow Harden to drive to his preferred left hand, but sometimes Harden tells him to establish position wide on the opposite side, allowing Harden to set up his defender to the right before bringing the ball back to the left on his way to the rim. On this play, Collison did just that. Harden went right, then took a quick dribble back to the left, as if heading into the lane. Instead, he pulled up with plenty of space to hit a 21-foot jumper. "At his age," Collison says, "there aren't many guys with those kinds of tricks."

Minutes after Game 4 of the Lakers series, both Harden's shyness and his compulsion to perform are on display in the Thunder locker room.

On this night, like most every night, Durant and Westbrook have already retreated to the press room, with its good lighting and HD televisions and audience of Bill Plaschkes and Stephen A. Smiths. But here in the locker room, all eyes are on Harden — even when he's not playing the main stage, the man draws a crowd. He sits at his locker, lacing up studded orange sneakers over bright argyle socks and slipping a button-down over his undershirt. Once he's dressed, the questions begin, and Harden responds to each one with politeness and cliché. He doesn't seem to relish this audience, not the way he relishes the crowd when he's out on the court. Plus, no matter how flamboyant he may be, Harden clearly understands that the most efficient way to play the media game is to reveal little but respond to all.

The scene reminds me of our conversation the previous morning at Santa Monica High School. There, I wanted to know how Harden viewed himself, what he wanted from his career. Next summer, he may become a free agent, but Presti has indicated a desire to keep his four-man nucleus, even if it might push Oklahoma City perilously close to the new collective bargaining agreement's revised luxury tax thresholds. So Harden will have a choice to make: Does he want to keep this current position, to be the talented but subservient backup who knows his role and sticks to it? He has the talent to demand a max deal, and if he accepts one elsewhere, it will come with the accompanying expectations. Does he want to grow into a more fully actualized version of his current self — the ultimate Swiss Army knife sixth man — or does he want to transform into something altogether different, finally accepting an alpha role and alpha contract and all that those entail?

"I'm not worried about that," he said in Santa Monica, in the same way hundreds of athletes have answered that question before him. "I'm just focused on this series and these playoffs."

Hoping for a little more insight, I call up Pera, the man who sat next to Harden on that plane in 2005 and implored him to take control of their team. "I can't predict what he's going to do," Pera said, "but I do think it's about winning championships for him. That's just his makeup. If he can win multiple championships with the Thunder, then definitely, they will have his attention."

And if they're going to win multiple championships they'll need each version of Harden — Harden the reticent boy who sat with Pera on the plane and Harden the swashbuckling star-in-waiting who put the Mavs out of their misery; Harden the introvert and the showman and the painter and the martial artist; Harden the guy who can't easily be explained.

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Lionel Messi is still the best

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on May 26, 2012

Sooner or later, we all stop and gaze in wonderment at the marvels of the world. The Great Wall of China. How was that constructed? Stonehenge, Mount Rushmore or the Taj Mahal. How is it possible that mankind managed to create something so jaw-droppingly astonishing?

In soccer terms, so it is with Lionel Andres Messi.

This season, with one rather special match still to come, he has scored 72 times for his club, FC Barcelona, five times for his country and twice in friendly matches.

All those goals, plus 27 assists, meaning that his fingerprints are on more than 100 goals for club and country this term. It is a feat of such magnificence that, for the moment, it's hard to comprehend. The record Messi broke, that of Gerd Muller at Bayern Munich (68 goals), had stood for four decades and those on the list that Muller himself superseded mostly played 30-40 years before that.

Messi's 14 goals in the Champions League this season matched a record set by Jose Altafini with Milan in 1963 -- the Argentine is achieving what no other player has been able to in the modern era while these records lay untouched.

Already, at 24, this guy is Barcelona's all-time top scorer.

I fondly recall a debate in and around FC Barcelona at the start of the season about whether, in 2011-12, Messi could score the goals that would help him surpass Cesar's age-old club record. I remember nobody at all sounding or looking confident that even this little genius was capable achieving the 54 goals before the end of May to make this possible. Yet here he is having smashed that record, too.

But what is most attractive of all is his instinct for the big game. This isn't a predator athlete who inflates his statistics simply by grazing on the weak and the slow.

Thus far Barca has won three trophies this season. The Spanish Supercup against Real Madrid was an absolute epic -- Messi scored three times and created another. The European Supercup against a thuggish Porto side was a brutal test, and Messi scored one and made one. Then, the World Club Cup final was an absolute exhibition of a performance, worthy of applause from all around the planet -- Messi scored two, made two and won man of the match.

OK, Barcelona has lately given off signs of being human after all, but even in the games that left a black stain on the season -- namely the Champions League elimination by Chelsea and defeat to Real Madrid in the Camp Nou Clasico -- Messi was at the forefront. In the CL semifinals in London, he drew top saves from Petr Cech, hit the post with a shot at the Camp Nou and assisted Andres Iniesta with a gorgeous pass.

Against Madrid it was his burst from midfield, dragging players with him like mackerel in a trawler net, which helped create Alexis' goal.

Goals are only an end in themselves as part of the entertainment packet you sign up for when you become a hopeless soccer fan (usually a life sentence). Not every team can win a trophy and so goals are the decorations throughout those lean, wilderness years. One good strike can keep you warm for months.

But for Messi and Barca, his goals have supreme importance because they want to consistently win prizes and those strikes are a means to an end.

Thus it is that, because Madrid is celebrating its status as La Liga winners and Chelsea wears the crown as champions of Europe, there seems to be a slight tendency to underplay the enormity of Messi's achievements this season.

Three trophies, a fundamental part in each one, just short of 80 goals and leadership at a time when his two main strike partners, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez, have suffered major injuries and their contributions to the team have diminished.

Meanwhile, Messi has shouldered their work.

It's right to venerate Cristiano Ronaldo for his ambitious, aggressive, thrilling and ruthless season. But it was a bit daft of Jose Mourinho to suggest that none of Messi's half-century of La Liga goals were important because Barcelona didn't win the title. How quickly would the La Liga contest have been over without the Argentinian's prolific scoring? Almost single-handedly he gave us a title race.

This summer he'll turn 25, a significant staging point.

Mature and no longer a kid, maybe, but with at least seven or eight major years still ahead of him, the junction he's reached is an intriguing one.

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He's about to work under Tito Vilanova, only the third coach of his reign in the Barcelona senior team. Vilanova is one of the coaches who was in charge of Messi during his formative youth football years and has been instrumental in the flowering of the South American's genius over the past few seasons.

However, the world will be watching, hawkishly, to discover how Vilanova handles what is now an absolute megastar. In how he behaves, reacts, trains, plays and scores, Messi can help that process greatly. Bigger than that: the task ahead for Vilanova and Barcelona to try to overhaul an impressive Real Madrid outfit.

Attitudes need sharpening, hunger needs to be the middle name of every player at Camp Nou and slackness needs to be eradicated as if it were a rodent.

Messi can demonstrate standards, leadership and levels of work for others to follow, which is a byproduct of the fact that Messi is Argentine captain and thriving on that responsibility. Is there a case that after Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez, it is Messi, rather than Iniesta, Valdes or Gerard Pique, who should become captain?

Finally there is that annual garland, the Ballon D'Or.

Increasingly I'm hearing people, led by Mourinho, suggesting that in order to win the Ballon D'Or award a player must have won either the Champions League, the domestic league or a major international championship.

First, that argument ignores the three medals Messi has already won this season; second, it may also prove that Mourinho's criteria are no longer adequate; and finally, it's a clever tactic by the Madrid manager to throw some sweetmeats to his own player, Ronaldo.

However, because voting for the Ballon D'Or (Messi is already only the second person after Michel Platini to win it three straight years) is now open to all the captains and coaches of the international community and not just journalists, we will see a balanced picture in the final tally.

I suspect that Messi will win without meeting Mourinho's criteria simply because the professional footballers around the globe recognize that they are in the presence of utter genius and that scoring not far short of 100 goals in a season is a ridiculous feat.

Like the Great Wall, Mount Rushmore, the Taj Mahal or Stonehenge, Leo Messi defies belief. We could do worse than occasionally stopping to gaze at him in awe.

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Blue and Gold and Red All Over

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on May 26, 2012

Let us begin by waking up the echoes of a half-century ago, because if we are to address the future of Notre Dame football, it's pretty much impossible not to hearken back to the romantic myths of the past. In early 1964, a gregarious Armenian Presbyterian took up residence in the coach's corner office of the Knute Rockne Memorial Building, and in February he slipped on a warm scarf and delivered a rousing sermon to 2,000 students at a spontaneous gathering on the steps of a residence hall. Thus began the Era of Ara at Notre Dame, with Ara Parseghian's impromptu pep rally appearance heralding the rebirth of a program that had lain dormant for a decade while nearly drowning in its own apocrypha.

The Irish went 17-23 from 1959 to 1962. In 1963, they went 2-7 — and would have gone 2-8, if not for the cancellation of the Iowa game following the Kennedy assassination. But by November of 1964, under Parseghian, they were undefeated and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. "Notre Dame is winning again," Dan Jenkins wrote, and the students at Notre Dame Stadium, typically quick to embrace miracles, serenaded their coach with the chant, Ara, Stop the Snow!1 Two years later, the Irish won a national championship, and in 1973, they won another. During Parseghian's last home game as coach, the students again chanted Ara, Stop the Snow!2 and soon after, Parseghian joined Knute Rockne (1918-30, six national championships) and Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53, five undefeated seasons and four national championships) in the Holy Trinity of Notre Dame football. Then it all unraveled once more, and — with the exception of one 11-1 season — the Irish spent the remainder of the '70s and early '80s taking chances on walk-ons and high school football coaches and losing in the Aloha Bowl.

Twelve years after Parseghian departed, an exceedingly clever West Virginian named Lou Holtz took over. Holtz won 100 games and a national championship over the course of 11 seasons, and once again it seemed that Notre Dame was winning again and would always win again, merely because they were Notre Dame. But Holtz departed and eventually went on to pioneer cutting-edge methods of psychiatry, and 16 years later, here we are: The Irish have yet to win a single BCS game since its inception, they haven't lost fewer than three games since the 1993 season, and they've cycled through five different coaches since Holtz, if you include the one who fudged his résumé and never coached a single game. They never connected with Bob Davie, they lost patience with Tyrone Willingham after three seasons, and they grew tired of Charlie Weis's self-involved bluster after five mediocre campaigns.

And now they are starting to wonder about Brian Kelly, an Irish Catholic boy from Boston who arrived with high hopes. But after a pair of rickety 8-5 seasons, Kelly has yet to cultivate the kind of belief that Parseghian did in his first few months. The death of a student videographer during a windy practice session cast a pall over his first year; his second season was a turnover-riddled disappointment, and a few weeks ago, quarterback Tommy Rees was arrested after allegedly kneeing a police officer in the abdomen while escaping a house party being broken up on North Notre Dame Avenue.

"The question out there," one Notre Dame alumnus told me, "is, 'Does this guy get it?'"

The bigger question, of course, is whether anyone can really get it anymore. This is now the most fallow period in Notre Dame history; the longer it goes on, the more pervasive the sense that Notre Dame football is gone for good, that the Irish may hang around Saturday afternoons on a third-place network desperate for a foothold in the sporting universe, but will never really be relevant to the 21st century. With every Champs Sports Bowl defeat, the notion that a small, independent Midwest Catholic institution with high academic standards can become a national power — and can recruit nationally — in a sport weighted toward the South (and toward superconferences) starts to feel less and less tenable.3

"Davie and Willingham and Weis all led them to nine- or 10-win seasons," says Lou Somogyi, a senior editor at Blue & Gold Illustrated and a longtime chronicler of Notre Dame football. "But can they get to that 11- or 12- or 13-game thing? It's very hard. The world changes, and sometimes you have to be willing to change with it. Just because that's how you've always done it doesn't mean it's right."

This has always been the balancing act for the Fighting Irish — emphasizing tradition while maintaining modern relevance — and this is why the cult of personality at Notre Dame is more vital to its aura than at any other football program in America. Every college coach is a salesman at heart, but at Notre Dame, the pitch goes deeper: It must carry across every region of the country, it must echo through the hallways of Catholic schools from coast to coast, and it must sustain a myth 100 years in the making while also assuring 17-year-old recruits that the past is not all there is. The coach at Notre Dame must be a toastmaster with the alumni and a bullshit artist with the media and a dictatorial presence among his players, and he must be equally good at all three things.

"When you sign up for this job, that's a major aspect of it," Somogyi says. "You have to be the face of the program. It is unique unto itself."

The esteemed raconteur Beano Cook, who enjoys engaging in hyperbole about Notre Dame, once called it the third-hardest job in America (behind the mayor of New York City and the president),4 and I think he was right in this sense: Because of Notre Dame's singular identity, the job is more political than any other in college football. It requires an imperturbable, almost otherworldly presence — Michael Oriard, a respected professor and writer who played for Parseghian in the late '60s, referred to his coach as "a charismatic, all-seeing god on the high tower at practice."

This, I think, is why Notre Dame only thrives in certain periods: It's not easy to find someone with such a bearing, and given the modern scrutiny of coaches, it gets harder all the time. Rockne and Leahy had it, and Parseghian embodied it, and Holtz could be prickly and disingenuous at times but he was also an incredibly skillful politician and first-rate big-game coach. Davie was deficient on both fronts, Willingham brought in some uncharacteristically poor recruiting classes, and Weis seemed like the best hope since Holtz until his self-aggrandizing rang hollow. Kelly strikes me as a very good football coach who hasn't yet gotten a handle on the larger burden of the job, whose red-faced sideline tirades against his players have only diminished his stature.

Winning, obviously, burnishes one's stature rather quickly, and it is very possible that Kelly will find a way to win 10 games sometime soon. But to get to 11 or 12 or 13, he'll have to change the perception of who he is. He'll have to become as much an "all-seeing god" as a football coach, and it is hard to imagine that a man who couldn't prevent his own quarterback from allegedly plowing over a police officer will ever find a way to stop the snow in South Bend. Until he does, they will wait for the next miracle worker to come.

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Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 8: 'The Prince of Winterfell'

By: timbersfan, 11:08 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Whether you ask the president of the Seinfeld fan club or a wahoo in the cheap seats of a Kansas City Royals game, you’ll get the same answer: It’s hard to root for nothing. Still, a great deal of the second season of Game of Thrones has seemed intent on trying to convince us otherwise. Rather that settling on the viewpoint of a central, sympathetic hero — we lost that privilege when Ned’s neck got nicked — the show has instead done something radical, giving us multiple main characters and, in the process, cursing us with the gift of perspective. Not only are we privy to the hidden fears and failings of ostensibly rotten players like Tywin and Cersei Lannister — thus humanizing their otherwise unconscionable behavior — showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss are also dead set on demonstrating the fatal cost of nearly every action taken by the people we actually do like. Arya is easy to love when she’s a Muppet-eyed charity case, a step away from having a rodent bucket strapped to her scrawny chest or, worse, forced to listen to her chubby pal’s pie-in-the-sky palaver about dessert. But it’s another thing entirely after we’ve seen her walk untroubled through the hanging corpses she’s indirectly responsible for, the bodies of ignorant innocents swinging in the breeze like steers in a meat locker. George R.R. Martin no doubt takes pride in his calloused version of epic storytelling, ripe with ambiguity and laced with more bluster about moral equivalency than a freshman seminar on colonialism. But TV, while a newer medium, is decidedly more old-fashioned than prose. We don’t necessary need a stake in every fight, but a twig wouldn’t hurt. Cheering for futility only works in Cleveland. No matter how laudable it may be to remind us of the pointlessness of life in Westeros, after a while it begins to numb. There’s nothing particularly innovative about nihilism. (This guy knows what I’m talking about.)

With that in mind, I found “The Prince of Winterfell” to be quite a relief, a smuggled satchel of onions for a starving man. It was a relatively quiet hour, at least by Game of Thrones standards: no savage disembowelments, no dark, murderous queefs. But unlike last week’s equally placid installment, this one was gilded with numerous character moments as rich as Ducksauce and shot through with a delicious foreboding. Something far worse than winter is coming, and, like Stannis’s artfully (and budget-consciously) cloaked fleet, it could arrive at any moment. But it wasn’t just the calm before the storming of King’s Landing that impressed. “Winterfell” at long last devoted ample time to the tattered remains of nobility in Westeros. Not necessarily the behavior of the high-born — the sort who, as Talisa explains, have their slaves tattooed with images of their work so as to remove any need to hear them speak (this idea actually has some real-world potential, although my wife isn’t thrilled about the design I had sketched out of me watching The Walking Dead with my head in my hands) — but those like Robb Stark who “still believe in justice.” And those who, in place of starting wars or expanding domains, just want to go home.

This was a week to celebrate the few dogged strivers still stumbling around a continent that’s starting to seem more and more like one of Tyrion’s old cisterns. Up north, Jon Snow has been taught an icy lesson in the perils of flip-flopping. The bone-coated Wildling hunting party — fashion by Dead Hardy — want their prisoner buried, but Ygritte intervenes, arguing that the only person more interested in Jon’s body than she is Mance Rayder. Poor Jon looks absolutely bewildered over everything that’s happening to him, although that could just be frostbite (seriously, dudes: Get some hats). Then Halfhand wholeheartedly pushes our favorite bastard down a hill, encouraging him to transition from crow into mole. I’d like to think that Sam will rescue his pal sometime soon, but he’s busy enough now that he’s uncovered another Dharma hatch. (Forget the dragonglass and start digging! There’s hot food, hot showers, and an even hotter Scotsman just below the surface!) Jon appears closer to getting some answers out, but the questions keep taking him further and further in the wrong direction.

Brienne and Davos are also worth cheering for, if only because their stalwart, borderline insane morality preserves their dignity even if they keep finding themselves on the wrong sides of conflicts. Pairing the humorless, stoic Brienne with the Kingslayer, a man whose nonstop blasts of banter could melt the walls of Harrenhal, is an inspired choice — although there must be better ways to get to King’s Landing than rowboat. “All my life men like you have been sneering at me,” Brienne huffs. “And all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.” The strength of Coster-Waldau’s performance is that he captures the grim heart hiding behind Jaime Lannister’s glib tongue. Only a man disgusted with himself could laugh so relentlessly at others. (His chosen insult did make me wonder if the Seven Kingdoms have any sort of burgeoning animal-rights movement. First Ygritte suggests that the Night’s Watch has a thing for sheep and now Jaime asks after Brienne’s relationship with horses. No wonder Jon’s direwolf ran away!) As for Davos, his humble devotion to Stannis was finally cast in a logical light, as the world’s least interesting Baratheon flashed some justified resentment and anger over his decades of disrespect. (Don’t worry, Jaime: After Stannis’s experiences in a siege, he’s as interested in eating cats as he is in sleeping with them.) He, too, has a thirst for justice, but unlike Robb’s, it seems to be curdled by a seething sense of entitlement. Ned Stark’s vision of fairness involved accepting the hand you were dealt, even if that hand was holding an executioner’s blade. It seems as if Stannis’s anger will unseat him long before he has the chance to do the same to Joffrey.

Perhaps the purest vision of morality belongs to Jaqen, a homicidal fruitcake so divorced from the quotidian demands of reality that he speaks of himself in the third person, as if his life were a not particularly notable soccer match. But he takes his position extremely seriously: Despite what he says, he’s not “a man” as much as an ambulatory, dart-dealing scale of justice balancing the game by wiping errant pieces off the board. “Death is certain,” he muses, “the time is not.” He’s opaque and unshakable — except when he encounters someone willing to bend the rules, like Arya. Her gambit of trading Jaqen’s potential suicide for her own escape was smart, but not nearly as smart as the realization that she’s better off alive than she is risking her neck with a last-minute assassination attempt on Tywin Lannister. He, too, after all, is just a man. And there are plenty more ready and eager to take his place.

With her quick-thinking, expert manipulation and lack of patience with the gross appetites of others — even if those appetites are for relatively harmless things like cherry pie (these guys know what I’m taking about) — Arya once again reminded me of Tyrion. Whether he was defending the honor of his little worm or the life of his secret whore, Peter Dinklage was assembling clips for his Emmy reel last night, particularly in his scenes with the truly excellent Lena Headey. Tyrion’s sad, shaggy face skated a delicate line between the joy of playing the game and the terrifying horror of being played. But ultimately what makes Tyrion one of the few things on-screen resembling a hero isn’t his commitment to justice, it’s his outsize well of kindness. Despite his own father’s pronouncements about bravery, Tyrion is smart enough to be afraid and has been his entire life. He and Varys make for a logical partnership because both recognize that the faraway threat of baby dragons, and an even less mature Queen, is a problem for another day and, perhaps, another war. But Tyrion alone recognizes that while Stannis may have ships and Robb Stark may have emotion, there’s one thing that King’s Landing manufactures in quantities unseen anywhere else on the continent: bullshit. (Or at least pigshit.) Only a misshapen man like Tyrion with a similarly ludicrous twist in his personal fortunes could think to turn waste into a weapon.

Theon, of course, suffers from the opposite problem: He has no idea who he truly is. But what’s worse, everyone around him has had him pegged from the beginning. Yara, Luwin, even stupidly vicious Finchy — they all know what a joke the self-proclaimed Lord of Winterfell truly is, but none of them is laughing. Their disdain coupled with Theon’s desperate desire to be parented is a toxic combination. Has a single decision he’s made truly been his own? (Other than the one defying his suddenly soft sister’s entreaty for him not to stay behind and die, that is.) Poor, blinkered Theon shifted slightly last night from loathsome to pitiable. The Stark boys might not be dead — seriously, was anyone fooled by the crispy doppelgangers? — but Theon surely will be soon enough.

The weakness of his former quasi-brother only added majesty to Robb’s story this week. Nearly the entire season has taken place between battles, leaving the would-be king in the North with little to do aside from clapping bannermen on the back and teaching his direwolf how to retrieve the morning raven without devouring it. But it turns out the eldest Stark’s humble decency is what Game of Thrones has been lacking of late, a calm and reasonable reminder than not every character on this show is a venal backstabber (or neck-hacker, depending). Robb’s journey was just what the doctor ordered — Dr. Freud, that is. A windy, strollus interruptus in search of nuts with Talisa the Naughty Nurse ends with news that Jaime Lannister has escaped again, but this time the culprit isn’t an overeager squire with an overly bashable face: it’s Cat Stark, the AT&T of Northern Nobility. While Jon Snow tried to mature by keeping his Valerian steel sheathed, Robb hits the psychological jackpot by arresting his mother and then further burning the bridges of his past by sampling Talisa’s bedside manner. Oona Castilla Chaplin makes for an excellent little tramp, and it was nice to see people get what they want for once, even if what they wanted was hidden behind a ridiculous amount of strings, clasps, and buckles. (It was also nice to hear a five-minute monologue end with something other than soul-murdering devastation and depression. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one waiting for the second part of Talisa’s tale, in which her baby brother came back to life only to murder his fishy savior for serving him a rotten carp.)

In ways large and small, Martin seems devoted to demonstrating all the ways his various would-be emperors have no clothes. But for the sake of simple fandom, it was important to see Robb given a chance to get naked on his own terms. He, like an audience expected to tune in for the better part of a decade, deserves a little something-something now and again. But I know better than to expect more. When Talisa asked Robb what sort of king he wanted to be, his response was typically modest: “I don’t know. The good kind.” Both answers seem like the wrong ones in a show like Game of Thrones, where the best players are three steps ahead of everyone else and, when circumstances demand it, are able to unshackle their ethics like so much chain mail. Robb’s disarming reply warmed my heart. Which makes me fear for the future of his.

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What's the Matter With Fernando Torres?

By: timbersfan, 11:07 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Here is a photo of Fernando Torres holding the 2012 Champions League trophy and the 2012 FA Cup. Since 2008, Torres has won the European Championship (in '08), the World Cup (in '10) and these two trophies. Saturday, in Munich, he was on the field when Chelsea completed one of the most improbable Champions League runs — coming from 3-1 down against Napoli and defeating a heavily favored Barcelona in the semifinals — since Liverpool came from behind against A.C. Milan in 2005. He looks happy. So why does this 28-year-old with a full trophy cabinet sound so damn sad?

Many fascinating story lines have come out of the Champions League final, which Chelsea won 1-1 (4-3 on penalties): The fact that it was Didier Drogba's last game in a Chelsea shirt, that Roman Abramovich finally got to hold the trophy he coveted most; that, despite that fact, he still might not retain the services of interim manager Roberto Di Matteo; that Di Matteo was fired from West Brom last February, that John Obi Mikel walked up to Arjen Robben before the Dutchman took his penalty for Bayern and said, "Petr Cech knows where you are going to kick it," which clearly got in Robben's head, that since 2010, Arjen Robben has lost two Champions League finals and a World Cup final.

But the most curious and sad tidbit to come out of the wave of postgame interviews, by far, have been the bracingly honest statements of Torres. Speaking to Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, Torres spoke about his lost season and a half at Chelsea (he was bought from Liverpool for around £50 million last January), and the mixed emotions of winning the Champions League while barely contributing to its capture.

"In the end I was able to play a bit and help the team but there was huge disappointment when I saw the starting lineup, maybe the biggest disappointment of my life," Torres said of being left on the bench to start the game. He entered the game in the 84th minute. I'd love to tell you he was instrumental in Drogba's equalizer in the 88th, but in truth, he was wandering over at the far post when Drogba's colossal header went in. He knows it, too.

The Champions League final wraps up a bittersweet year and a half at Chelsea for Torres. When he was sold to the West London club, he was still considered one of Europe's top strikers, two years from a season (2007-08) where he was virtually unplayable.

Since being sold to Chelsea, Torres has scored 12 goals. Where he was a god at his former clubs — Atlético Madrid and Liverpool — he seems sullen and alienated at Stamford Bridge, regarded as one in a long line of expensive failures bought on a whim by Abramovich. Another Andriy Shevchenko.

But where the Ukrainian striker was clearly on the downside of a once-prolific career, Torres was supposed to be at the top of his game. His falloff has been precipitous and strange, almost inexplicable. And to hear Torres talk about his time at Chelsea, it seems to be largely psychological: "This season I felt things I had never felt [before]. I felt they have treated me in a way I was not expecting; not in the manner for which the club brought me here … [T]his is not the role for which I came. I'm not happy … The worst moments of my career have come during this season and I am not willing to relive those moments. There have been ups and downs, and moments where I've felt lost and didn't know what to do or where to be."

What struck me most about the interview, which probably could have been better timed on Torres's part, was how, if you strip away all the talk about the Champions League and playing time and whether or not he was selected to take a penalty kick in front of more than 65,000 people at the Allianz and millions watching on television at home, you basically read the words of someone who, almost disturbingly, sounds like any other 28-year-old with a lot of work problems. "The ideal for me for next season is if someone tells me what's going to happen … What role will I have in the team? What function? What is expected of me?" He wants to know the future. Don't we all?

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The Playoff Eclipse Chronicles

By: timbersfan, 11:06 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

You're gonna write about this, right?"

Someone asked me that during halftime of Sunday night's Clippers-Spurs game. We were in the home stretch at that point: In the previous 74 hours, the same spot in downtown Los Angeles had somehow hosted six playoff games, two elimination games, two doubleheaders and an allegedly important cycling race. If that wasn't enough, we also witnessed a solar eclipse and Antonio Cromartie's controversial halftime orgy with the Clippers dance squad. I only made one of those things up.

"Absolutely," I said. "I'm definitely writing about this."

"What's your angle gonna be? Just about going to all the games?"

"I only went to five of the six, but yeah."

"You should just lie and say you went to all six. That would be a good column."

"I can't lie, people saw me on Saturday night. I wasn't here."

"Yeah, that makes sense."

The person thought about it for a second. And then …

"I don't know anyone who went to all six. But in a couple of years, I bet a lot of people will say they did."

It's a great point. People love fibbing about fan-related stuff. Eight years after the Roberts Steal changed Boston sports history, 83 percent of the swollen Red Sox fan base claim they were in Fenway when it happened, and even better, that they never left to beat the traffic (even though so many others did). Every city has a handful of "I was there!" sports moments like that. You hear someone claiming to be there, you want to believe them … but you don't totally believe them. Hitting L.A. Live for six playoff games over the course of four nights? Harder than it sounds. You need connections. You need money. You need to be single.

Or, you need to be me. From this point forward, I'm just going to start claiming that I attended all six games. (And what an incredible weekend it was! I can't believe I went to all six games!) Nobody was happier about last weekend than AEG, the company that owns Staples Center and its surrounding real estate. A few years ago, that once-downtrodden area was improbably transformed from a collection of hideous above-ground parking lots to the perpetually happy "L.A. Live," a multi-block complex featuring dozens of offices (including Grantland's headquarters), restaurants, bars, the Nokia Theatre, a mammoth JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton, an obnoxiously big movie theater, bowling (that's right, bowling!), and enough parking to handle upwards of 35,000 people at the same time. You couldn't ask for a better host for consecutive doubleheaders, simply because it's such an underrated place to waste time.

My favorite L.A. Live story before last weekend: A few months ago, a Kings home game at Staples Center started at the exact same time as a Wiz Khalifa concert at the Nokia Theatre, inadvertently creating the single funniest swarm of congestion that's ever happened. Let's just say there wasn't a ton of overlap between the two fan bases. That story got supplanted by my new favorite story about L.A. Live, which happened Saturday during the first of two doubleheaders: Two of my friends caught the Clippers-Spurs game, then found themselves with three hours to kill before the Lakers-OKC game. Hmmmmm … three hours … MOVIE!

They checked out movie theater times and found a perfect window to see The Dictator. So they walk over to the Regal Cinemas, buy tickets, sit down … and who do they see in another row killing time like them? That's right, Jimmy Goldstein, the stylish millionaire who sits courtside for seemingly every NBA playoff game, wears colorful leather jackets, sits next to long-legged blondes and always looks like he just smoked the biggest bowl on the planet. You know, this guy. Did Jimmy bring one of those long-legged blondes to The Dictator? Of course he did! I'm anointing this L.A. Live's greatest moment ever, narrowly edging former Grantland editor Lane Brown ordering a cobb salad from The Farm of Beverly Hills for 38 days in a row last summer.

Actually, the entirety of last weekend was probably L.A. Live's greatest moment: At various points on Sunday, they had a bike race, a playoff hockey game, a playoff basketball game and a crew of people setting up for Tuesday's American Idol finale. Tell me when that's ever happening again. Their biggest mistake was not branding the weekend properly. When L.A.'s 405 freeway was shut down last July for two days of repairs, you might remember that weekend being panic-nicknamed "Carmaggedon." The locals worried that the ensuing highway traffic apocalypse would turn Los Angeles into The Walking Dead or something.

You know what actually happened? That moniker alone scared people off the roads, inadvertently creating the best summer driving weekend of the decade. In all my time living here, that remains the only time I ever topped 100 miles an hour on the 10. I loved Carmaggedon and wish we could run it back right now. More important … great name! And that's what last weekend was missing. Ten years from now, it's harder to remember something clunky like "That time they had six playoff games in four days" over something corny but memorable like "L.A. Alive" or "The Playoff Eclipse." I'm partial to "The Playoff Eclipse" because, again, I'm almost positive we won't see another American city host six playoff games in 75 hours during the same weekend as a solar eclipse. If you can beat it, feel free.

Looking back, one weekend story line stood out over the others, but that shouldn't stop us from ripping through all of them for posterity's sake. On Thursday night (Day 1), the Kings throttled the Coyotes and moved within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals. My daughter was happy because her favorite player, Anze Kopitar, scored a breakaway goal, dominated the game and did a bunch of Kopi things.1 In general, she loves attending playoff games because "the fans are louder" and "everyone tries harder." (Look out, Shaq, I think someone is gunning for your "Master of the Obvious" title.) She really loved the last two minutes, when Phoenix couldn't pull its goalie because the Kings were pressuring them so relentlessly. As it happened, the long-suffering Kings fans were standing, hollering, waving white towels and practically shattering the glass with their approval. It was all kinds of awesome. Every time I get worried about burning out on sports after four solid decades of giving a crap about total strangers, I find myself caught up in a moment like the last two minutes of that Kings game — when you're embedded in the heart of 20,000 people basically losing their shit — and you think to yourself, Oh, yeah, that's why I do this for a living. What a game.

The drama kept coming on Friday night, when the Lakers rallied in a must-win Game 3 to squeeze past a clearly superior Oklahoma City team. Any conspiracy theorist could have predicted the chain of events down the stretch: Kobe did a few Kobe things; the officials shifted into "we need this series to last longer than four games" mode; the Lakers sank an incredible number of free throws (41 of 42 in all, although it felt like 141 of 142 as it was happening); and the young Zombie Sonics squandered the pivotal possession of the game (and learned a valuable lesson for the next night). Actually, this deserves its own paragraph.

Trailing by one with under 20 seconds left, Durant drew a double on his drive and dished to a wide-open Serge Ibaka (bad move), realized his mistake and crashed the boards as Ibaka was mid-brick, retrieved the rebound, went right back up with a second shot and got belted to the ground. No call, game (effectively) over. Durant spent the next few seconds crumpled on the ground in disbelief, his freakishly long arms wrapped around his freakishly long legs, as Kendrick Perkins berated the offending official with one of those "How could you not call that? I know you saw it! You were right there!" sneers on his face. That's my enduring memory of that game. Sometimes in the NBA, it's just not gonna be your night. Let's leave it at that.

I had brought my buddy Geoff (visiting from Sonoma) to this game, which doubled as his first Lakers game ever. Other than being totally fascinated by Ron Artest — not just his ongoing insanity from play to play, but the fact that Laker fans screamed "Noooooooo!" at least three different times when it seemed like Artest might take a shot at the wrong time — Geoff was begrudgingly impressed by the passion of Lakers fans, saying simply, "I didn't think they'd be this loud" and admiring their collective confidence in Kobe.

And that's a crucial point: Even if Kobe's overrated crunch-time efficiency can be picked apart in about three seconds, when you're sitting there in Staples, you always feel like he's going to come through. He carries himself like that will happen, and really, so do Laker fans. I can't handle what happened in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals for a variety of reasons — most notably, the fact that the Celtics blew the title — but letting Kobe off the hook was my second-biggest regret. After Kobe single-handedly shot the Lakers out of that game, the Celtics only needed to score a couple of times in the third quarter to steal a title that, again, Kobe was gift-wrapping for them. Trust me, I was there. The fans were catatonic. You could practically hear them recalibrating Kobe's legacy in their own heads. Then the Celtics started missing shots, the Lakers kept crashing the boards, the game swung their way, and Kobe did just enough in the final eight minutes to make everyone (sort of) forget the first 40. Their confidence in Kobe Bean Bryant never wavered again. It's just one of the many reasons why I hate going to Laker games. If you were a Boston fan, would you want to willingly enter a world in which Kobe wears a superhero's cap, everyone wears yellow and "I Love L.A." blares after every victory? I didn't think so.

In case you were wondering, I didn't enjoy Game 3. Was it the second straight superb sporting event of the Playoff Eclipse? (Gritting my teeth.) Yes.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon just 14 hours later, another 20,000 fans piled into Staples to watch the Spurs erase a 24-point lead and beat the Clippers comfortably. Read that last sentence again. (Hold this thought; we're coming back to the Spurs later.) The Staples staff hustled everyone out, turned the arena over, burned some sage to get rid of Donald Sterling's aura, then reopened the doors for Game 4 of the Lakers-OKC series. I skipped this one because of an event for my son's preschool, because I couldn't stomach being around Laker fans for a second straight night, and because I couldn't afford to get divorced. And not in that order.

Just my luck: I missed the night when the increasingly confident Laker fans — who had watched their team steal enough close games that they couldn't help but start thinking, Maybe there's something going on here — got snookered by a double-digit lead, then unexpectedly stomach-punched by their sudden collapse. They'll deny this now, and they'll say stuff like, "I hate watching this team" and "The moment we got screwed out of Chris Paul, I knew this wasn't our year." Don't believe them. If the Lakers were beating Oklahoma City, they needed help along the lines of a "in 24 hours, we can tie the series at 2-2 before they even know what hit them" level. And they knew it.

Of those six Staples games, this one had the biggest big-picture ramifications: not just Kobe stubbornly shooting the Lakers' lead away, but Durant and Westbrook continuing to drift away from their once-dangerous Stringer/Avon dynamic. As we creep toward the Finals, you start looking for contenders with defined identities, which is what makes Oklahoma City so interesting. We know what the Zombies are at this point: They're going to thrive because of chemistry, athleticism, interior defense and shot making — in that order — but without Westbrook accepting those occasional "I was the best player tonight and the biggest reason we won, but Kevin made the game-winning shot and got all the attention" nights, the whole thing could collapse.

That's why Saturday was encouraging. Westbrook played an absolutely breathtaking game, but when the time came for Oklahoma City to plunge that final dagger into the Lakers' season (and, quite possibly, the entire Kobe era), Durant grabbed the honors with a soul-crushing 3 that almost seemed preordained. Move over, Kobe, there's a new sheriff in town. It was a moment that had been brewing for years, no different than MJ's Bulls finally toppling Magic's Lakers or Isiah's Pistons finally toppling Bird's Celtics back in the day. Sometimes, the laws of NBA history demand that these things play out in a specific way — and on Saturday night, Durant needed to make his 3 right before Kobe missed his. That's just the way this shit works. Just know that it couldn't have happened without Westbrook.

Somehow this wasn't the coolest moment of the weekend. Could we keep the momentum going on Sunday? The morning started off with an off-putting vibe because of the aformentioned bike race, which spawned a Carmageddon-like panic because it shut down so many of the morning's traffic routes. Kings fans were urged to show up three hours early and to even — gulp — take the subway to be safe. Personally, I would rather drive my car through the bike race and pancake some of the cyclists than take the L.A. subway. Fortunately, my special L.A. Live parking pass enabled my daughter and me to circumvent the traffic, park, grab brunch AND watch the first wave of cyclists fly by toward the finish line.

This ended up being one of my favorite father-daughter moments in a while. We stood in front of The Farm for 10 solid minutes waiting for the leaders as my daughter — becoming more and more excited by the second — fired questions at me like a district attorney. How many riders? How fast do they go? Do you think they'll have an accident? We heard the sound of police car sirens in the distance, as well as a helicopter hovering over us, then those same police cars started ripping by us, then people were cheering, and really, I think my daughter was expecting something totally awesome to happen … and just like that, a bunch of skinny guys pedaled by us. It was over in five seconds.

"That's it?" she asked.

"That's it."

There was a pause.

"That sucked."

"I tried to tell you!"

"Why would they close the streets for that?"

"It's a great question."

Another pause.

"Dad, that REALLY sucked."

In retrospect, this wasn't the greatest omen for the Kings game. My daughter jumped on their bandwagon this season after we bought Kings season tickets, quickly embracing them and the NHL in general. (This is a whole other column.) If you remember, my beloved Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years just a few weeks after she was conceived, so I wasn't even a little surprised when she turned around the unlucky Kings and made them a contender. (Note to Cleveland and Buffalo: We're accepting bids on her baseball and football teams.) During their improbable-but-not-totally-improbable-because-it's -hockey playoff run these past few weeks, she was probably the Kings' most confident fan, if only because she didn't know any better — she only knew the recent numbers (the Kings won 10 of their first 11 playoff games) instead of the historical ones (in 44 years, they only made the NHL finals once).

And on Sunday, she was taught the following sports lesson: Never assume anything. Everyone thought the Kings would roll over Phoenix like they did the previous three games, so when things started shifting the other way — a sketchy call against the Kings, a Coyotes power play goal, Smith out-playing Quick — the crowd panicked and eventually checked out altogether. You couldn't blame them; they were bitterly disappointed. As the third period limped along with the Kings trailing by two, my daughter vainly tried to get a few "Let's Go Kings" chants going, then turned around and yelled in frustration, "What's the matter with everybody?" At that point, I knew we'd be driving home with her in tears and me repeatedly explaining to her that the Kings had three more chances to make the finals (which is exactly how it played out). Little kid sports fans are the best. They really are.

Four hours later, I returned to Staples one final time to watch the Clippers get swept by the Spurs. At this point, all the games felt like they were blending into each other — my head hurt, my back hurt, my voice was scratchy and my concentration was totally shot. Playoff games are simply too intense; they weren't meant to be experienced as a series of events in rapid succession — you know, like Coachella or something — especially because we aren't allowed to do drugs in the stands. And had it been any other basketball team but the Spurs for that sixth and final game, I would have zoned out and said fewer words than Ryan Gosling did in Drive.

But that's the thing — if you love basketball and (more important) love watching basketball played correctly, the 2012 San Antonio Spurs have a way of grabbing your attention. They play beautifully together. They pull for each other. They make each other better. They score so easily, and in so many different ways, that you almost can't even process all the different plays as a whole. On Saturday, they eviscerated the Clippers by scoring 24 straight points in the third quarter, bringing back memories of the '86 Celtics dropping 25 straight against the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The biggest difference: The Spurs did it on the road. The biggest similarity: Everything else.2

You don't score 24 straight points because a couple of your guys caught fire. It happens because you're toying with the other team. It happens because you're getting so many good shots in a series that, occasionally, they end up clustering together and forming something special. It happens because you know you're great, and because great teams have a way of smelling blood and finishing opponents off — but also, you're doing it with a little extra flair because you're competing against the ceiling of what you can achieve (not your opponents). The last NBA team that said to itself, "We're playing for something beyond just a title here" was the 2001 Lakers — the best Shaq/Kobe team, as well as the last time those two guys were fully invested in each other's success. It hasn't happened since. It's happening right now, it happened at Staples Center, and it's going to keep happening through next month's Finals (and yes, they're going to win, barring an injury).

Beyond the creative brilliance of Parker and Ginobili, Popovich's superior coaching and Duncan's undeniable rejuvenation on both ends — just three months ago, he played the Clippers on one leg, passed up the chance to post up Caron Butler in big spots and made me mutter the words, "Man, I hate seeing Duncan like this," then something shifted for him, and now, he's playing his best basketball in five years — it's the chemistry of the 2012 Spurs that leaves you breathless. I know, that's a weird thing to write. How can chemistry leave you breathless? But in person, the little things stand out — you know, teammates feeding off each other, bench guys reacting to big plays, players always making the extra pass, guys constantly talking to each other, even simple moments like Duncan gleefully congratulating Danny Green after Green stopped Chris Paul at the end of Game 4. Duncan wasn't happy that Green came through for the Spurs; he was happy for Green as a friend. Big difference.

And once you build a foundation that strong — when guys aren't just teammates but friends, when nobody looks at their numbers, when everything revolves around the question, "What's the best way to win today's game?" — everything else is cake. On Saturday, the Clippers played their best possible basketball for the first 12 minutes, nailed the Spurs with every conceivable haymaker and had their fans standing and screaming. You couldn't have scripted a better first quarter. The Spurs never flinched, chopping the lead to 15 and eliciting the first of many panicked Clippers timeouts. Watching the Spurs and their bench reacting to that moment (totally locked in, totally expecting the Clippers to cave), you could just tell where the game was going. I even tweeted about it. Great teams know they're great. They trust the process. Scores don't matter, crowds don't matter, momentum doesn't matter — eventually, the process will win out. And they know it.

The following night, they staved off another Clippers rally and took a three-point lead with 1:47 to play on Parker's pretty floater, only the 790th easy shot San Antonio had gotten in those past two games. Lob City called a 20-second timeout and Layup City skipped over to its bench to celebrate what just happened. Duncan led the way, a small grin spread across his face, doling out dorky high-fives and generally enjoying himself. That grin said the following four things:

We are better than them. I couldn't be less worried. This game shouldn't have even been this close. Let's go home.

A few minutes later, they did. And so did we. Over everything else that happened during the Playoff Eclipse, I will remember the San Antonio Spurs waltzing through town, laying the smack down and leaving with a smile.

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Chelsea F.C.: Can't Buy Me Love

By: timbersfan, 11:02 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

If you take the long view with Chelsea — the view that starts on the day Roman Abramovich first wrote his name on the club in 2003 — the amazing thing isn't that they won the Champions League but that they won it the way they did — as underdogs, riding on luck and drama. Consider:

1. Chelsea became the champions of Europe while finishing in sixth place in their own country, the worst domestic-league finish of any team since the European Champion Clubs' Cup became the Champions League in 1992. If they hadn't won the tournament, they wouldn't have qualified to play in it next year.

2. In the quarterfinals, Chelsea overturned a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Napoli to win 5-4 after the home leg at Stamford Bridge. This happened after a late Lampard penalty forced extra time, allowing Branislav Ivanovic, who has scored eight goals in 107 appearances for Chelsea, to slot home a Drogba cross in the 105th minute.

3. In the semis, they blew a 1-0 first-leg lead against the hugely favored Barcelona, went down 2-0 in the away leg, saw John Terry sent off in the first half, and somehow, with 10 men, came back to win 3-2 when Fernando Torres — he of the recent 1,541-minute goal drought — scored on a breakaway counter in the 91st minute.

4. In the final, again playing against a favored team at that team's home stadium, and now missing four key players due to suspension, they again fell behind, needing late Drogba heroics, extra time, a colossal Petr Cech save against Arjen Robben, and a comeback during penalties (including more late Drogba heroics) to win. Bayern had a 43-9 shot advantage and a 20-1 advantage in corner kicks. Chelsea's one corner led to Drogba's match-tying goal.

You know those scenes in Friday Night Lights when Dillon comes back to win on a four-play, 240-yard drive that ends with a 90-yard Hail Mary with 0.001 seconds left? Chelsea did that in the Champions League against three straight opponents, two of whom (Barcelona and Bayern) finished 1-2 in both possession and pass-completion rate in Europe, one of whom (Barcelona) was an era-defining team that had won two of the last three Champions League titles. If it hadn't been Chelsea — a massively well-funded English club with global reach and an owner who owns multiple submarines — we would have talked about this as if it were the Cinderella run to end all Cinderella runs. No matter how dire their situation looked, Chelsea just kept surviving, trailing streams of exclamation points, and somehow repeatedly blowing up the clock a split second before the minute hand touched midnight.

It's hard to remember now what a disruptive force Chelsea was in world soccer during the first few years after Abramovich bought the club. Back in 2006 — the year the club won the second of its two straight Premier League titles under Jose Mourinho — the novelist John Lanchester joked that he was now supporting Chelsea "on Maoist grounds," and his friend responded, "I think that's more Pol Pot–ist." That was how Chelsea seemed back then: like a terrifying power that was either going to remake the game or burn it to the ground, if not both.

Years before Manchester City batted an eyelash toward Abu Dhabi, it was Abramovich's takeover at Chelsea that established the archetype of the shady superbillionaire who buys a soccer team to use as his personal plaything. The old, established hierarchy of powerful clubs — the Manchester United/Real Madrid cohort — certainly ran on money, but even the top clubs were shocked by the sums Abramovich could casually throw around — £21 million for Shaun Wright-Phillips, £24 million for Drogba, £31 million for (gulp) Andriy Shevchenko. Not all these players worked out (see previous gulp), but what difference did that make when Chelsea could go back to the well for £30 million whenever they felt like it? European soccer, which had no salary cap, no luxury tax, very little revenue sharing, no draft — almost no parity-fostering features at all — had no defense against this. Chelsea looked upon the dynamics of the sports economy and just luxuriantly did not give a shit. Any player in the world was potentially theirs for the taking.

This was also right around the moment when the Premier League stopped being an English sports league with international appeal and became an international sports league that happened to be based in England. Knowingly or not, Abramovich exacerbated all the tensions associated with the league's rush toward globalization. He was a trembly-lipped, bodyguard-flanked petro-oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin. He was the long-distance governor of a remote Russian province. (Chukotka forever!) He collected yachts. He built the club both with global capital and in the model of global capital — ruthless, chaotic, indifferent to local tradition. Arsenal had filled squads with foreign players, but only in the service of Arsene Wenger's finer principles; they had to buy this Ivorian and this Estonian, because of the harmony and balance that would result from bringing them together. Abramovich, by contrast, bought foreign players the way other people might shop for shoes online. It wasn't about team chemistry or even tactics. It was about acquisition for its own sake, about taking whatever you wanted. Or anyway, that was how it seemed.

Predictably, Chelsea was feared and hated. Abramovich compounded both emotions by hiring Jose Mourinho to manage the club in 2004. The new coach reveled in the panic Chelsea caused and did everything he could to provoke the English soccer establishment, from calling Arsene Wenger a "voyeur" to signing the widely loathed Ashley Cole as the team's left back.1 Mourinho created the mother of all siege mentalities around the club, and it worked frighteningly well: In 2004-05, Chelsea demolished the field during the most annihilating championship run since the Football League was founded in 1888: 95 points, 29 wins, 15 goals (15!) conceded all season. They won again in 2005-06. For four and a half years — 86 games, stretching from March 2004 to October 2008 — Chelsea didn't lose a single home game.

It was easy to hate them, but there was also something thrilling about the ease with which they turned English soccer upside-down. Top-level European soccer is essentially a racket that benefits the big clubs at everyone else's expense. The only thing capable of destabilizing the status quo is a massive amount of money. For around five years, from 2003 to 2008, Abramovich's billions were the most anarchic force in the sport. Chelsea wasn't staging a proletarian revolution; that's not how billionaires operate. But they were doing the next best thing — punching Manchester United in the mouth and swaggering off with both middle fingers up. Their audacity was its own kind of greatness, even if it was founded on an even more rigged game, global capitalism.

Naturally, this couldn't last. Chelsea spent three seasons as the flashpoint of English soccer — the club with the most money, the deepest and most talented squad, the most flamboyant coach, and by far the most controversial headlines.2 At some point, though, the rest of soccer started to catch up. More billionaires bought into the game. Some of them, like Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, were even richer than Abramovich. Other clubs got better at exploiting global finance, sponsorship, and the weird pathways of 21st-century commerce (cf. Real Madrid's plan to build a $1 billion resort island in the United Arab Emirates, which reads like something Jerry Jones dreamed up on a particularly sweaty peyote trip). UEFA passed Financial Fair Play, a set of rules that should/might/could possibly curtail runaway sugar-daddying in European soccer.

At the same time, Chelsea itself tore down some of the walls that kept it separate from other big teams. For years, Chelsea was at entertaining odds with the G-14, a supergroup of the biggest clubs in European soccer. After a lot of cloak-and-dagger maneuvering from then-Chelsea executive Peter Kenyon, the G-14 dissolved in January 2008 and was replaced by the European Club Association, a larger group that does include Chelsea. But the typical radicals-to-congressmen rules applied: Every time Chelsea made it a little further into the game's aristocracy, the club seemed a little less dangerous.

More urgently, Abramovich decided that winning the European Cup was his overriding top priority. After firing Mourinho's successor, the toadlike, thoroughly unqualified, and surprisingly successful Avram Grant — whose run included a 16-match unbeaten streak, a razor-thin loss on penalties in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, and a press conference in which he refused to answer any questions3 — Abramovich cycled through a sequence of far more conventional big-name managers like Phil Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, and Guus Hiddink. He demanded "entertaining football" in place of Mourinho's dull but punishingly effective 4-5-1. Where Chelsea had once seemed totally indifferent to the established ways of doing business, now they started to seem like another Juventus or Madrid — a big club answerable to the whims of the fans and the media. They even started sounding serious when they talked about turning a profit.

People (including me) still complain about Chelsea and their money, but the truth is that they've been pretty normal for a pretty long time. Manchester City has more or less taken over the "crazed and embattled vessel of the super-rich" role at this point, with the difference being that their most provocative antics now feel kind of homespun and familiar, because Chelsea's already been there. Soccer has a way of assimilating whatever weird new challenges the clubs throw at it, and the aging squad of ex-controversialists at Stamford Bridge is proof that the game will still be there when Carlos Tevez finally calms down.

The terror that Chelsea represented in those early years was that with enough money, all the surprise could be taken out of the sport. When you spend a hundred million and then concede 15 goals across a 38-game season, you raise the legitimate fear that you will simply buy all the talent, win all the matches, and conquer European soccer with your unstoppable army of math. The irony, of course, is that by winning the Champions League with a frenzy of improbable, last-second comebacks, Chelsea finally conquered European soccer behind exactly the sort of unpredictability that they once threatened to eradicate. Somehow, winning the biggest tournament in the game was the least fearsome and most accessible thing they've done in the Abramovich era. It took frantic adjustments, the way it does for everybody, and a different kind of good fortune. After nearly a decade under soccer's most iconoclastic rich dude, Chelsea now wins and loses on lucky breaks and heart, the way everyone loses and wins.

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Who's up and who's down

By: timbersfan, 11:00 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Poland, a co-host of Euro 2012, must be excited. Its standout performer, Robert Lewandowski, is on a roll with the country’s opener about three weeks away. Lewandowski leads the way in our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not with the tournament approaching. While Lewandowski is surging, there was disappointment for former England captain Rio Ferdinand.


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Robert Lewandowski, Poland

Talk about the right time to peak. If Lewandowski keeps scoring, it’s difficult to envision the co-host not getting out of a rather tame Group A that also features Greece, the Czech Republic and Russia, which is the group favorite.


Lewandowski netted a hat trick as Borussia Dortmund crushed Bayern Munich 5-2 in the German Cup final to complete the double (having already won the league).


Goals at the Euros would boost Lewandowski’s value further. According to reports, the 23-year-old is being tracked by Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.


Mario Balotelli & Antonio di Natale, Italy

Balotelli couldn’t stop making headlines off the field (for the wrong reasons) this season. And on the pitch, his often genius play was spoiled by petulance and indiscipline. But the lasting image Manchester City fans will have of Balotelli before the summer is the striker showing commitment to set up Sergio Aguero’s winner in injury time that handed City the Premier League title.


Italy manager Cesare Prandelli isn’t worried about Balotelli.

“He is motivated and determined to display all his talents,” Prandelli said.


Giving in, maybe, to public pressure in Italy, Prandelli also included di Natale in his initial 32-player squad. Di Natale scored more goals than any other Italian in Serie A this season – he also achieved the feat the previous two campaigns – to lead Udinese to a Champions League berth. At 34, he collected his last cap at the 2010 World Cup.


Yoann Gourcuff and Florent Malouda, France

It’s been a tough season for Gourcuff, once dubbed the “New Zidane.” An ankle injury hampered the playmaker in the build-up to the 2011-12 campaign, and he’s faced an uphill climb ever since. Overall, Gourcuff made a mere 13 league starts for Lyon. But French manager Laurent Blanc left the door open for Gourcuff last week, then included the 25-year-old in France’s provisional squad.


“He’s hardly played, and when he has played, he’s not performed well, but for France, his record is not that bad,” Blanc said when revealing his roster.


He can’t get a game at Chelsea, but given that Blanc said the lack of experience in midfield is a concern, the French boss named Malouda, 31, to the provisional squad. Judging by his words, he’ll make the final cut.


“You need to have the experience from having played a lot of international games to perform well,” Blanc said. “Malouda has this profile, even if he’s not very competitive in his club.”

The winger played for Les Bleus at the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.


James McClean, Ireland

Set in his ways. Perhaps that’s the way to describe Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni. But under the 73-year-old Italian, Ireland achieved its objective: qualifying for Euro 2012.


Not keen on infusing too much youth into the national team, Trapattoni, likely begrudgingly, included Sunderland winger McClean, 23, in his 23-man squad. James McCarthy, 21, ruled himself out of contention so he could spend time with his father, stricken with cancer. Only last year, McClean was playing for Derry City.

Sunderland teammate John O’Shea limped off against Manchester United on the Premier League’s final day, but his ankle injury isn’t as bad as first thought.


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United center back Rio Ferdinand will be a spectator at this year's tournament. © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Rio Ferdinand and Scott Parker, England


This isn’t the way Ferdinand wanted to end his international career. And after being overlooked by England manager Roy Hodgson, make no mistake, it likely is the end for Ferdinand in an England shirt. He thus misses out on the past two major tournaments, a knee injury the reason at the 2010 World Cup. There were rumors that Hodgson wouldn’t be able to select both Ferdinand and Terry because of the tensions between the two, but the head coach said it was purely a footballing decision to leave the United center back out.


The captain in England’s last game, Parker has been struggling with an Achilles injury and missed Tottenham’s final Premier League game against Fulham. Parker got the nod in Hodgson’s preliminary squad, but how healthy will he be?


Pedro, Spain

Here’s a fit Barcelona player who probably won’t be going to Euro 2012. In and out of the Barca starting lineup this season, Pedro – who featured at the 2010 World Cup – wasn’t selected for Spain’s last match, a friendly against Venezuela in February.


“Pedro has been trying his best, but he’s had an erratic season,” Spain manager Vicente del Bosque told Sport.


Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Russia

The winger, a regular at Euro 2008, left Everton for Spartak Moscow in a bid to earn more playing time and lock up a spot at Euro 2012. But Russia manager Dick Advocaat overlooked Bilyaletdinov and his sweet left foot when announcing his provisional 26-man roster.


“For me it’s come out of the blue,” he told Russian media. “My head is now swelling up. I can’t think.”


Younes Kaboul and Loic Remy, France

Kaboul, the versatile Tottenham defender, was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury, adding to back-four absentees Bacary Sagna and Eric Abidal. Even though striker Loic Remy made Blanc’s initial squad, he’s dealing with a thigh injury and Blanc admitted the outlook isn’t good. “Remy has a pretty serious injury,” Blanc said.


John Guidetti, Sweden

Could Guidetti be the heir apparent to Zlatan Ibrahimovic? The Manchester City owned striker, 20, scored 20 goals for Feyenoord in the Eredivisie and was certain to make Sweden’s squad. Certain, that is, until an illness struck. “The Euros were naturally the main goal, and it doesn’t feel great to not get the chance,” he said. “But I realize that it was not going to be possible, and I also don’t want to take any chances.”


Jerome Boateng, Germany

Coping with Lewandowski and Shinji Kagawa, Boateng and central defensive partner Holger Badstuber didn’t have their finest games in the German Cup final. With Per Mertesacker’s health remaining a question mark, Boateng and Badstuber might be the starting two in the center at the Euros.

Boateng struggled more and gave away a penalty late in the first half.

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The thrill of the Euros

By: timbersfan, 10:59 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

As domestic leagues conclude and soccer fans work out their next fix, there's no doubt that the Euros are a big deal, even though the likes of Neymar and Lionel Messi can't participate. UEFA reported that 155 million people watched the 2008 tournament -- Spain's 1-0 final win over Germany was broadcast in 231 countries -- yet, we don't really watch for the trophy presentation. (Intriguingly, no country has ever defended its crown, so apologies in advance to the Spaniards.)

2004 was the exception, when Greece, a country so vehemently unfashionable heading into the tournament, took home the cup after one of the most brutally impressive -- though mind-numbingly difficult to watch -- displays of defensive soccer in history.

But enough about the Galanoleyki; instead, the marginalia and moments of individual brilliance really lodge in the brain far more so than any coronation: Henrik Larsson's diving header against Bulgaria in 2004. Michel Platini's summer of dominance in 1984, notching nine goals in five games including not one but two perfect hat tricks (right foot, left foot, header). Antonin Panenka's glorious penalty-spot chip in 1976. Paul Gascoigne's flick-pivot-volley against Scotland in 1996. The Danish Dynamite of the 1980s.

And so, with all the above in mind, some questions bouncing around my mind as the tournament draws near.

Can we get a Germany versus Spain reboot in the final?

Tournaments don't always run true to long-standing form, with timely hot streaks resulting in plenty of upsets and underdog triumphs. But in 2012, I'm craving a competition in which the two best teams in Europe give us a tasty rematch of the Euro 2008 final. Thankfully, the draw kept them apart, pitting Germany in Group B and Spain in Group C, although if either fails to top its hand-picked quartets, the sides will run into each other in the semis. Given the pedigree on both squads, it's unlikely ... right?

And so, I'm already praying for Die Mannschaft and La Furia Roja to progress safely through the competition in the hopes of getting what it feels like we haven't had for some time in soccer: a really memorable showpiece final.

Michael Cox is right that when it comes to the Champions League, it's the semis that tend to churn up the most drama, and the same holds true on the international stage. Generally, finals are cagey, counterpunching affairs; the last two Euros finals ended 1-0, while the 2010 World Cup final was only really notable for the thuggish Dutch, referee Howard Webb's ineptitude and Andres Iniesta's T-shirt tribute. Ergo, a seismic, high-stakes battle of Mesut Ozil versus the inimitable Xavi is a dream of dreams for soccer nerds like me everywhere.

Yet why do I think a repeat of 2008's 1-0 snooze might be so wildly different if given a repeat in Kiev on July 1?

For starters, Spain isn't what it used to be. The lack of a decent striker (David Villa's still rehabbing a shredded knee, while Fernando Torres is half the Torres he was four years ago) coupled with Xavi's age and Carles Puyol's knee surgery means La Furia Roja show more than a few flaws.

As for the Germans, they're only just beginning their upward ascent. With dapper Joachim Low at the helm and an array of bright, young and lethal counterattacking tyros (plus ageless goal poacher Miroslav Klose) at their disposal, Die Mannschaft are a much stronger match in 2012 than they were in '08, when a grim Michael Ballack-led side could muster only four shots on goal in that 1-0 final defeat.

If Spain makes it and has the arguable pre-tournament favorite in its crosshairs, what level of desperate brilliance might it conjure to manage one final trophy? For Germany, how far will it go to smash European soccer's status quo? These questions are just the beginning. I hope we get the answers in the final.

England players with autobiographies will get their best material

A key element in being a Three Lions squad member is that you never approach a major international tournament without having a book ready. If you win -- let's face it, not happening -- you're blessed with a fairytale ending. If you lose, you're giving the fans plenty of behind-the-scenes drama and insight as to what went wrong both on and off the field. Guaranteed sales and elated publishers either way. And England may be feeling bullish about its draw in Group D against Ukraine, Sweden and France. But first things first.

Tournament and dressing-room gossip forms an essential third act, something Joey Barton sarcastically pointed out when Frank Lampard & Co. came home empty-handed after the 2006 World Cup and his memoir "Totally Frank" was fighting for shelf space with Ashley Cole's insipid "My Defence" (buy it now for $0.01!) and Wayne Rooney's "My Story So Far." Barton's response to the flood was typically brilliant: "England did nothing in that World Cup, so why were they bringing books out? We got beat in the quarterfinals. I played like %#@!. Here's my book."

Last summer's dearth of tepid "tell-all" memoirs following England's monumental failure in South Africa suggests that the English superstars are learning restraint and self-awareness, but I wouldn't be surprised if the two years since -- not to mention the Three Lions' impending implosion -- will supply ample fodder for yet more bland, sorry-we-screwed-up memoirs. Especially now that Roy Hodgson, the man no pundit or player hoped would take the mantle, is in charge with less than a month to conjure up a game plan.


Portugal has plenty of talent -- such as Nani -- but that hasn't translated into domination on the pitch.© Bruno Pires/AFP/Getty Images
The best player won't lift the trophy

Consider the 2010-11 season put together by Cristiano Ronaldo: 53 goals in 49 games for Real Madrid, a Copa del Rey victory over Barcelona and the kind of form that should steal some of Lionel Messi's headlines. (Although largely, he inexplicably remains in the tiny Argentine's shadow.) Then pile on top what he did in 2011-12, eclipsing Messi and the Blaugrana with 64 goals in 55 appearances, Real's first league title since 2007-08, and helping the La Liga club set records for points (100), goals (121), goal difference (plus-89) and wins (32 in 38).

Anyone who tells you that C-Ron isn't the best around -- though his Champions League struggles do blot the ledger -- is a fool, and his exploits as Madrid's fulcrum are impossible to dispute. But the other team he leads, Portugal, doesn't fare as well despite his brilliance at the helm. Not to mention pulling the Netherlands (rematch of the 2006 World Cup's Battle of Nuremberg, anyone?), Denmark and Germany in the group stage.

It's been nearly a full footy generation since Portugal finished runner-up in 2004 to the obdurate Greeks, beating Spain, England and the Netherlands along the way. But in qualifying for 2012, A Seleccao das Quinas were more Wolves than world-beaters: an 89th-minute equalizer doomed them to a humiliating 4-4 home draw to lowly Cyprus in Round 1, followed by a 1-0 defeat in Norway and a 2-1 defeat in Denmark in their final group game that forced them into that tense playoff home-and-away doubleheader against Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Although Portugal ultimately skipped past the Edin Dzeko-led Dragons with a 6-2 win in Lisbon, success in Poland and Ukraine is far from assured. If it's not the inconsistency of the team's back line -- missing seasoned defenders Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho, both of whom retired from international football due to disputes with current boss Paulo Bento -- it's the endless drama that can surround the likes of Ronaldo and Nani, who can be as self-destructive as they can be game-changingly brilliant.

Bookies William Hill have Portugal firmly in the middle of the pack at 20-to-1, but you can bet the house on some frustrating, manic moment derailing its fortunes long before the final.

The next generation of all-world talent

Another beauty of summer soccer is the emergence of new stars on the big stage. Germany has Leverkusen's big winger/striker Andre Schurrle and the diminutive Mario Gotze, an uber-talented attacking midfielder from Borussia Dortmund. (Fun fact to make us all feel old: When Gotze and Schurrle made their debuts in November 2010, they became the first players born after reunification to rep the German national team.)

Or how about young Danish maestro, Christian "The Next Laudrup" Eriksen, six weeks younger than Jack Wilshere and six times more explosive? Don't forget Yann M'Vila, a highly rated French defensive midfielder, or Sunderland/Ireland winger James McClean, plus the next wave of absurdly talented Dutchies -- PSV's box-to-box terrier Kevin Strootman, wide threat Georginio Wijnaldum and lanky FC Twente striker Luuk de Jong -- as well as Russia's new baby-faced assassin, Alan Dzagoev.

Although the elder statesmen -- the De Rossis, van Persies and Riberys -- will dominate the headlines and this future crop is already well-known in domestic leagues, there will still be plenty of limelight to spare for those names and faces that'll dominate the game for much of the next decade, which feeds neatly into my final point.

Players who can parlay a big tournament into a bigger payday

The Euros are a wonderful breeding ground for hype, especially now that the Internet can take any grainy YouTube video showing a handful of goals and some shaky-cam dribbling skills to whip transfer rumor mills into a frenzy. It wasn't always like this; in the pre-Internet age, scouts actually had to watch the games, but the captive, soccer-starved summer audience means that those under-the-radar or undervalued gems can flip a few brilliant performances into a rich, new contract at a top-tier club.

Karel Poborsky was largely unknown heading into Euro 1996, but his incandescent on-the-ball trickery propelled a stubborn, stodgy Czech team all the way to the final, besting Italy, Portugal and France on penalties along the way. (The highlight? His sexy dribble-and-lob against the Portuguese in a 1-0 win.) It's all but a footnote to Poborsky's tale that his side lost 2-1 to Germany, because his ticket was soon punched to Old Trafford, and off he went. (He lasted only 18 months with United, marginalized as David Beckham broke into the first team, but the wily Czech did manage a Prem winner's medal in 1996-97 before moving to Benfica in January 1998.)

El-Hadji Diouf did it at the 2002 World Cup, parlaying a run of form with the mighty Senegal into disappointing stints with Liverpool, Bolton, Sunderland and Blackburn, and then at the 2008 Euros, little Andrei Arshavin spearheaded the Russian side's rapid-fire evisceration of the much-favored Dutch (who'd stomped Italy and France in the group stages to set up their quarterfinal humiliation nicely) and became Arsene Wenger's Magic Russian Pixie the next January.

These players were obviously known to the soccer community, but the Euros undoubtedly pushed each of them further into the mainstream and foisted upon them the kind of attention normally reserved for Hollywood divas or heads of state.

Who will it be this summer?

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Beautiful game. Beautiful mind.

By: timbersfan, 10:58 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

ALAN SHEARER, the former England football captain, doesn't think much of my theory.


I'm loitering outside an interview room half a mile from the grounds of Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, waiting to interview the team's mercurial striker, Wayne Rooney, about his singular football genius. My suspicion: Behind his prominent brow and famously thick skull resides an underappreciated mind.


Shearer, the legendary center-forward turned BBC commentator, has just completed his own sit-down with Rooney, and when I ask him to rank the 26-year-old in the pantheon of football greats, he is resolute. Rooney, he says, belongs in the same exalted category as Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. "Wayne Rooney can do everything," says Shearer, 41, who scored 379 goals over his 19-year pro career. "If you ask him to play right back, he would be the best right back. Likewise center half. If he plays up front on his own, he can do that, no problem. Or he can play with a partner. He's now coming into his prime, which is a pretty scary prospect for all those defenders out there who think they got a chance of stopping him."


Shearer rolls on -- lauding Rooney's technique, admiring his courage, praising his growing maturity. He notes Rooney's accomplishments: the four Premier League titles, his role in United's Champions League victory of 2008, the six career Premier League hat tricks, most of any United player. But when I inform Shearer of my plan to ask Rooney about the thinking behind his game, he adapts a faintly pitying look: "I think he probably won't be able to tell you how he got his talent and his ability. He was born with it."

Rooney can do everything, in other words, except explain what it is that he does.


NATURE OVER NURTURE. Innate talent over hard work. These are deeply held notions in England, this most class-obsessed of nations, where a man's lot in life traditionally has been inscribed on his birth certificate. And nowhere is this clearer than in the country's view of Wayne Rooney -- the self-made genius cast in the role of dullard.


He is a far more complete player than, say, David Beckham. He shoots with power and precision. His close control is miraculous. His passing at times is stunningly perceptive. When the mood takes him, he can dribble and juggle like a Brazilian. He's scored 180 goals in 364 games with United and has shelves full of awards, including both the English football writers' and players' player of the year for 2010.


Yet few in Rooney's home country suspect that an intellect might lurk within his chunky frame. Ask them what they make of the player and they'll likely note the temper, the thuggery, how he left school without qualifications. He is, to many, an idiot savant, emphasis on the idiot. A nitwit with useful brute instincts.



Wayne Rooney received a three-match ban, which was later reduced by one game, for kicking Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic.© Michael Regan/Getty Images

He is not without blame in the building of this reputation. "Cheating Roo Beds Hooker." "Furious Rooney Threatens to Knock Out Fan." The tabloids have made a meal of him, and he's often seemed only too happy to provide the salt. He was sent off in the 2006 FIFA World Cup after apparently stomping on the genitals of Portugal's center half. He will miss England's first two Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine for hacking at an opponent in Montenegro. When he inked a riposte to his detractors on his arm -- Just Enough Education to Perform, the title of an album by his favorite band, Stereophonics -- the Daily Telegraph, perhaps willfully missing the joke, sneered that the tattoo "alludes to the fact he's not too bright."


It is not at all easy being Wayne Rooney. But Rooney doesn't always make it easy on himself.




ROONEY'S HISTORY WITH the media is clearly a complicated one. So when I sit down for our interview three days after United's 1-0 loss at Man City and announce that I want to ask him about his craft -- rather than the latest City-United spat -- he seems nonplussed. "Okay ..." he says warily. His agent, Paul Stretford, had warned me that as an "instinctive" player, Rooney might be unwilling or unable to discuss his game in conceptual terms. To warm him to the task, I suggest we start with his childhood.


Rooney grew up the oldest of three brothers in the Croxteth neighborhood of the largely working-class city of Liverpool. His father, also named Wayne, was a laborer, often out of work; his mother, Jeanette, worked part time cleaning schools. Today, Croxteth is noteworthy for being two things: a hotbed of gang violence and the birthplace of Wayne Rooney.


As a child, he played football for endless hours on the streets around his home or the asphalt five-a-side pitch behind his house. He played in darkness. He played alone. "You used to do it some days so long your sugar levels would be gone," he says. "But you'd just love playing football. From the minute I woke up, I had the ball until I went to bed." When his ball burst, he played with a pair of rolled-up socks.


Rooney developed games to amuse himself: He kicked balls over passing cars to hit a little road sign across the street. He imagined the wall in front of an abandoned nursery as a line of defenders to be dribbled past or beaten with a curled shot. At age 9, he scored 99 goals for his junior league club, and a scout for the local club, Everton, got wise and signed him. (The prevailing attitude at the club was that the boy's gifts were God-given and he couldn't really be improved by teaching. On the whole, coaches left him alone.)


When Rooney was 10, he made his "debut" at Everton's Goodison Park as a mascot for the derby game against Liverpool. In British football, mascots are young children chosen to appear on the pitch before the match, pose with the captains, even take a ceremonial part in the warmup -- the goalkeeper rolls the ball to the mascot, and the mascot kicks it back. Perfunctory stuff. But when Rooney's turn came, instead of obediently passing to keeper Neville Southall, young Wayne chipped the ball over the keeper's head and into the net. He'd been practicing the shot all week.


"Neville Southall didn't like that!" Rooney says. "He called me a 'flash git.'?" Rough translation: obnoxious show-off. "When I was younger," he continues, "I was quite cheeky, I think, but you need to be as well, because to be a top footballer you need to have a bit of arrogance, a bit of swagger about you."


It also helps to have a bit of genius, and here Rooney's began to reveal itself. Over the past decades, visualization has become increasingly common in sports, numerous studies suggesting that mental imagery coupled with repetitive training helps the brain create neural patterns, like building a circuit inside a computer. Earl Woods trained Tiger this way. Olympic sprint champion Michael Johnson pictured himself winning his races before they started. Wayne Rooney, a child in Croxteth, knew none of this. But he devised visualization techniques that he uses to this day.


“When a cross comes into a box, there's so many things that go through your mind in a split second, like five or six different things you can do with the ball.”
Wayne Rooney

"Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what color we're wearing -- if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks," he says. "Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a 'memory' before the game. I don't know if you'd call it visualizing or dreaming, but I've always done it, my whole life."


Did anyone teach you that? I ask. "No. When I was younger, I used to visualize myself scoring wonder goals, stuff like that. From 30 yards out, dribbling through teams. You used to visualize yourself doing all that, and obviously when you get older and you're playing professionally, you realize it's important for your preparation -- and you need to visualize realistic things that are going to happen in a game."


AT THIS POINT in our story, it's probably worth noting that Rooney has, shall we say, a unique manner of talking. He favors odd, back-to-front constructions. He overuses the word "obviously." He frequently refers to himself as "you." It's the Liverpool in him showing, and the result requires a patient listener. He'd make a good character in a Guy Ritchie film.


"I think, I suppose," says Rooney, when asked about his precocious genius, "when you are younger, you're always …you're a bit more advanced than the kids your age, so there are times on the pitch where you can see different things, but they can't obviously see it. So then it's like you get annoyed, but they are not obviously …It's like you said before. They can't calculate. I suppose it's like when you play snooker, you're always thinking three or four shots down the line. I suppose with football, it's like that. You've got to think three or four passes where the ball is going to come to down the line. And I think the very best footballers, they're able to see that before ... Much quicker than a lot of other footballers. So ..."


One can gather his meaning, if not diagram the sentences. But for the fullest definition, look no further than Rooney's second goal in a 4-4 home draw with Everton this season. At the 69-minute mark of the match, a ball sweeps in from the right and finds Rooney 30 yards out. Two defenders are closing in, but he has already solved the physical chess puzzle in his mind. He instantly lays off the ball to his right for strike partner Danny Welbeck to meet it just outside the penalty area. As Rooney's marker is forced to follow the ball, Rooney races into the unguarded space behind him. The other defenders sprint to cover the gap but are too late; Rooney is now a yard clear. When Welbeck's return comes, Rooney sweeps it in powerfully from just outside the 6-yard line.



"You need to visualize realistic things that are going to happen in a game," Rooney says.© Alan Clarke for ESPN The Magazine

Lost to many of his fans is that even such moments of creativity draw from Rooney's meticulous preparation, his study of spatial permutations in practice. "Basically you go in one position in the penalty box, and I'll have like 10 shots at the keeper," he says. "I'll tell him to go a bit early one time, and then you work out what decision is the best, and then if you get in that position in the game, that comes back to you. It's basically stored in your mind."


IN THE 1960s, a revolution took place in Holland. That's hardly surprising; it was a decade of revolutions. But this was a football revolution, one in which Ajax coach Rinus Michels and on-field genius Johan Cruyff began to develop their theories of "total football," a style that used space in a way never before imagined. Instead of rigid lines and fixed positions, Dutch players began switching positions fluidly, treating the field as a single space to be expanded and compressed at will. The Dutch drew on Vermeer, Mondrian and hundreds of years of a cultural tradition of measuring space in art and architecture. The kid from Croxteth got there by watching TV.


"I used to watch Jari Litmanen [the Finnish 'shadow striker' of the great Ajax team of the 1990s] a lot," he says. "I enjoyed how he moved and got into space. And he was patient. If you looked at him, he always never looked like he was rushed doing anything. He always used to take his time. Then, when the opportunity came, he found the space to get the ball in the net. The more you do it, the more it works. You need to know where everyone is on the pitch. You need to see everything."


Although the clock on our interview is ticking down -- we are, if anything, in injury time -- Rooney is fully engaged. It seems a fine time to ask about his famed bicycle-kick goal against Man City last season (see above). How much of the play was instinctive? At what point did he decide to try to score?


"When a cross comes into a box," Rooney says, his eyes darting back and forth as he works the play over again, making little feints with his head as if trying to bewilder a defender, "there's so many things that go through your mind in a split second, like five or six different things you can do with the ball. You're asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you've got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you've obviously got to try and hit it first-time. If he's farther back, you've got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it's obviously about the execution."


And in the case of that play -- with a crossing pass curling behind him, a trailing defender closing on his right side, a near defender on his left shoulder slipping momentarily in an attempt to readjust to the ball -- the unlikeliest option was, in fact, the most likely to succeed. Elevate, lay back, one-time, over the shoulder. Like he had probably visualized hundreds of times as a child. The product of an agile mind. A wonder goal.


"What people don't realize is that it's obviously a physical game, but after the game, mentally, you're tired as well," he says. "Your mind has been through so much. There's so many decisions you have to make through your head. And then you're trying to calculate other people's decisions as well. It's probably more mentally tiring than physically, to be honest."


Which, all in all, is pretty well put -- for a man, that is, who supposedly can do everything except explain what it is that he does.

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Italy's future full of promise

By: timbersfan, 10:56 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Facing an overanxious bunch of journalists huddled in the pressroom at the Luigi Ferraris after Italy’s historic first loss to the U.S. in a friendly in late February, Cesare Prandelli exuded calm. “I am not worried,” the head coach said.


Reassurances were offered. Even though Italy had not managed to find an equalizer after Clint Dempsey prodded home the only goal of the game in the 55th minute, Prandelli still found the reaction his players had given to falling behind worthy of praise. “With this spirit, we will have a great European Championship,” he insisted. Not everyone was convinced.


There were mitigating circumstances, of course.


Much of Prandelli’s squad had been involved in a heated polemic-filled top-of-the-table clash between AC Milan and Juventus three days earlier. They were physically and mentally tired. Injuries had also left him short of options, as did the Italian Football Federation’s rigorously enforced ethical code, which dictates that anyone banned for their club can’t be selected for their country. Experiments with players who hadn’t featured regularly if at all in qualifying meant some were still finding their feet.


All told, the result was taken for what it was by Prandelli: a friendly lost to a proud and deserving opponent. It was unrepresentative of his body of work as a whole.


He could point to how Italy has yet to be beaten in a competitive match under his tenure; how it booked its place in Poland and Ukraine nice and early, winning its group in relative comfort with the best defense across all of qualifying for Euro 2012; how it has performed above expectations in recording a draw away against Germany in Dortmund and a victory at home versus Spain in tests organized and designed to gauge his team’s progress.


On reflection, there was a lot to be proud of considering the soul-searching that had followed Italy’s relinquishment of the World Cup in 2010, when it finished at the bottom of a group comprised of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.


Prandelli has overseen a complete transformation of a national team. He has renounced tradition. His Italy would not be defensive and counterattacking. Instead, it would impose itself on opponents through control of possession, seeking to entertain the supporters with imaginative, not opportunistic, football.


His Italy would be inclusive. Twenty-two players have been given debuts. The door was opened to promising youngsters, tormented geniuses who might have once been dismissed as disruptive influences and so-called New Italians, too, players born elsewhere but with the ancestry and citizenship to make them eligible for selection.


His Italy would be respected. An ethical code was introduced to make players accountable for their actions and understand that representing their country comes with responsibility. His Italy would stand for something, too. It would be a force for good.


His Italy made a point of holding a practice session on a pitch in Rizziconi that locals were too afraid of playing on in case they disrespected the local mafia from whom it had been confiscated by the authorities. It was a show of strength and solidarity.


His Italy invited Simone Farina, the Gubbio defender who had refused money offered by match-fixers and reported them to the police, to come and train with the squad. It was a reward for his courage.


So much has been admirable about Prandelli’s brief time in charge. It’s a shame, then, that as Euro 2012 approaches, his best-laid plans have gone awry.


The defeat to the U.S. was Italy’s second in a row. The Azzurri had also come up short in another friendly, losing 1-0 to Copa America winner Uruguay in mid-November. There was no shame in that. While the result was bad, the performance was actually quite good.


As against the U.S., when it enjoyed 68 percent possession, Italy dominated proceedings once more, holding on to the ball for 64 percent of the time it was in play, as well as outshooting and out-creating its opponents. But Italy ended the game goal-less … again. Italy hasn’t found the net in slightly more than three and a half hours. The fear is that Italy resembles a post-Pauleta Portugal, a team that produces a lot, is easy on the eye, but has little to show for it in the finishing department.


This is a relatively new problem for Prandelli, for throughout qualifying his Italy had a settled and successful attack based around Villarreal’s Giuseppe Rossi playing alongside another interchangeable, bigger, taller center forward, with AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano in the hole. Then in October, great misfortune struck. Rossi tore the ACL in his right knee and Cassano, Italy’s top scorer with six goals, suffered a stroke caused by a congenital heart defect that had lain undetected for years. It posed a threat not only to his playing career but his life.


Prandelli tried to set each of their minds at rest, insisting that he would wait as long as possible for them. Cassano, quite miraculously, made his comeback with a substitute’s appearance against Fiorentina on April 7, after he received the green light to resume playing from a distinguished group of specialists. Rossi had penciled in his return for April 22 against Real Sociedad. Everything looked right on track. Only then came the shocking news that Rossi had relapsed and would require another surgery. He was out of the Euros and for another nine months.


There’s been one exception to Prandelli’s meritocracy – the one and only Mario Balotelli.© Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Obviously, it’s a devastating setback for Rossi, who was desperately unlucky to miss the final cut for Italy’s 2010 World Cup squad. But it’s a big blow for Prandelli and what he had in mind for this summer, too. Whereas he has certainties practically everywhere else on the pitch, perhaps with the exception of the fullback position, the composition of Italy’s forward line is the subject of great debate.


When Prandelli named his provisional 32-man squad on the final day of the season in Serie A, many were left aghast by how many household names were absent from his list. The most used striker in qualifying other than Rossi, Inter’s Giampaolo Pazzini, a player with whom Cassano had great chemistry at Sampdoria, wasn’t picked after he’d had an indifferent campaign, lacking in form. Neither were Genoa’s once-prolific Alberto Gilardino, Juventus’ Alessandro Matri, Fabio Quagliarella and Marco Borriello, and Roma’s Pablo Daniel Osvaldo.


Not swayed by reputation, Prandelli showed courage in his selection. “My decisions are exclusively meritocratic,” he insisted. After long resisting the temptation to call up Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale on the basis that at 34 his time might have past, he couldn’t justifiably overlook a player who was Serie A’s Capocannoniere in 2010 and 2011. “I challenge anyone to say that Toto doesn’t deserve the national team,” Prandelli said. “He has scored almost 100 goals in three years and can help us.”


Di Natale is the only attacking player over 30 on Italy’s squad. Remarkably, four of the six strikers Prandelli has chosen are 25 or under, and this will be their first major tournament. As with Di Natale, few would dispute that, despite his lack of size, Sebastian Giovinco does warrant a place on the plane to Poland and Ukraine after a 15-goal season at Parma. The uncapped forward Mattia Destro was hard to ignore, too, after breaking into double figures at Siena. No Italian striker aged 21 or under has scored as many as the 12 goals he got in Serie A this season since Roberto Bettega in 1971. Then there’s Fabio Borini, the Roma whippet, whose predatory instincts, demonstrated in a run of seven goals in eight games between February and March, caught Prandelli’s imagination.


The exception to the rule of meritocracy -- although it must be said he did score 17 goals this season and became the first Italian ever to win the Premier League – is none other than Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli. Father-like in his handling of the former Inter star, Prandelli appeared to lose his patience with him before the friendly with the U.S., excluding him on the basis that he disregarded Italy’s ethical code by receiving a ban for stamping on Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker. Moreover, Balotelli hadn’t gotten in touch to explain his actions.


“Call him, Mario,” wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Call for the love of God. Telephone Prandelli and swear that you’ll be good.” Prandelli got an apology, which he appreciated, and his protégé appears to have learned his lesson. When he was sent off against Arsenal for a second bookable offence in early April, he apologized almost immediately. Balotelli was lucky only to receive a three-match ban considering his horror tackle on Alexandre Song went unpunished retrospectively. Usually Prandelli would have taken exception and put his ethical code in effect, but this time he chose to forgive and forget.

“We have to give talented players [like Balotelli] another chance and he certainly doesn’t lack talent.”
Cesare Prandelli
Realpolitik has guided his thinking. Given the circumstances, he can’t afford to make another example of Balotelli and omit him from the squad, not when he has the ability to become a world-class player. The hope is that this will be a breakout tournament for Balotelli, much like Euro 2004 was for Cassano, though with the caveat that unlike on that occasion, Italy will also get out of the group stage this time around. “We have to give talented players another chance and he certainly doesn’t lack talent,” Prandelli said.


While Italy’s attack perhaps doesn’t induce the same fear as it once did in other European Championships, such as in 2000, when Dino Zoff could call upon the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Filippo Inzaghi and Vincenzo Montella, it has promise and potential. “I won’t waste time dreaming small,” Prandelli claims. If his team clicks up front in the weeks ahead, then Italy can maybe afford to think big and go further than anticipated this summer.

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Five stories to follow at Euro 2012

By: timbersfan, 10:55 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

The World Cup may be the world’s biggest international footballing party, but the most difficult? That honor is bestowed on the UEFA European Football Championships, with the current edition more affectionately known as Euro 2012.

Yes, the tournament has its powerhouses, with Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy among the favorites. But such is the depth in quality at this competition that the Euros aren’t above having an outlier sneak up and steal the trophy. It was only eight years ago that upstarts Greece road a defend and counter strategy all the way to the title. Twelve years before that, Denmark, a team whose players were called back from their summer holidays after Yugoslavia was expelled due to its civil war, shocked heavy favorites Germany to win the crown.

This edition, complete with the Group of Death to end all Groups of Death – Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Denmark – will no doubt provide its share of drama and quality. With that in mind, here are the storylines to follow as the tournament unfolds.

1. Will Spain make it into the history books?

There is more at stake than the chance to become the first repeat European champions. Spain – the reigning World Cup champions – can also become the first team to claim three international tournaments in a row.


Xavi and Spain hope to make it three majors in a row. © Getty Images

Will they? That largely depends on the form and health of its strike force. David Villa is still racing to recover in time from a leg fracture he sustained in December. Fernando Torres’ struggles have been well documented, his clinching goal in the UEFA Champions League semifinal for Chelsea notwithstanding. That could force manager Vicente Del Bosque to rely on untested Valencia forward Roberto Soldado or Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente – whose 6-foot-4 frame would give the team a different attacking element – to finish of Spain’s unparalleled approach work.


Much of the crew that claimed both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup is available, with Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas all on hand. Group C, one that also includes Italy, Ireland, and Croatia appears navigable as does the team’s path the semifinals. No doubt, at that point, the goal of making history will become much more difficult.

2. Will Cristiano Ronaldo shine on the international stage at last?

The Portuguese star is in the process of finishing off a splendid club season, one that could see him add another UEFA Champions League winner’s medal to the La Liga crown he is almost sure to win with Real Madrid. His 54 goals – and counting – point to a player at the peak of his powers.

Rare have been the moments when he has excelled on the international stage, however. His lone goal at the 2010 World Cup came during the 7-0 romp over North Korea. The rest of that tournament was a disappointment.

Of course, Ronaldo endured similar criticisms whenever Real Madrid faced Barcelona, but his game-winner in the Super Clasico on April 21 slayed that demon at last. His two goals in the 6-2 playoff romp over Bosnia-Herzegovina hint that perhaps Ronaldo is ready to stamp his authority at international level as well.

The broader question is whether Ronaldo’s team is of sufficient quality to enable him to shine. The defense looks solid enough, and the presence of Nani on the opposite flank should provide some much needed balance to the Portuguese attack. But once again Portugal looks short of forward options. That weakness, combined with a brutal placement into Group B alongside Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands may yet prevent Ronaldo from replicating his electric club form in a major international tournament.

3. Speaking of the group of death

It seems that whenever the draw in a major tournament is announced, a group is slapped with the Group of Death label. In this instance, the tag doesn’t do justice to the four unfortunates in Group B. While the FIFA World Rankings should be taken with more than a pinch of one’s favorite seasoning, in this instance they’re instructive. All four teams are currently ranked in the top ten. Denmark, the presumed weak entrant in the group, is currently ranked ninth, with Portugal fifth, the Netherlands fourth, and Germany second.

For reasons beyond rankings, Germany and the Netherlands are the favorites to go through. Germany in particular, with its young stable of talented attackers that includes Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, and Toni Kroos, ought to progress. But such is the talent elsewhere in the group that nothing can be taken for granted. The Netherlands are merely the 2010 World Cup finalists with Arsenal striker Robin van Persie enjoying the kind of form that can win a tournament on its own. The aforementioned Ronaldo gives Portugal reason to believe it can survive, and Denmark has long been a team greater than its component parts.


Then, once the group stage is over, will the teams that emerge be made stronger by their trials or will the tense encounters sap them of energy when the knockout stages commence? It will make for compelling viewing no matter what happens.


“Spain – the reigning World Cup champions – can also become the first team to claim three international tournaments in a row.”
4. “Il Trap” takes on the country of his birth

Prior to the draw back in December, Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni made no secret of his desire to avoid Italy, who he managed at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004. So of course, the footballing gods decided to place the two countries together in Group C. With Spain’s presence likely meaning that Italy, Ireland, and Croatia are playing for second place, Trapattoni will need to take out his former team in the third and final group game in order to reach the knockout stages.

It’s not the first time the two countries have squared off since the Italian took over Ireland back in 2008. The teams drew twice during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, although it should be pointed out that Italy eventually punched their ticket to South Africa while Ireland didn’t. Now Trapattoni has a chance to return the favor.

5. Will the hosts do themselves proud?

Put it this way, Poland and Ukraine can’t do any worse than the co-hosts in the previous tournament – Switzerland and Austria – neither of whom made it out of the group stage, and between them recorded just a win and a draw. Certainly the good folks at UEFA have done everything in their power to make sure such an embarrassment doesn’t happen again. Poland has been drawn into a ridiculously easy group alongside Greece, Russia, and the Czech Republic. Ukraine has a bit more work to do given that they’ll square off against France, England, and Sweden.

Will it be enough? Poland will have to hope that the Borussia Dortmund duo of forward Robert Lewandowski and midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski have enough left in the tank to get the goals needed to go through. (The journalists having to spell and pronounce their names, won’t be as keen.) Ukraine will need the aging duo of 33-year-old midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and iconic forward Andriy Shevchenko, who is 35, to reel in the years.

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The kings of diving

By: timbersfan, 10:54 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Every major football tournament should be remembered for great goals, great saves and pulsating matches. However, the beautiful game isn’t always so beautiful.

Diving and simulation continue to be an issue, making life difficult for referees, who don’t have the benefit of instant replay.

Which players at Euro 2012 are most likely to con the officials? Here are an unlucky six to start with.

Arjen Robben, Netherlands: Some players curb their diving as they mature. Not the talented Robben.

After the then-Chelsea winger went down clutching his neck when tapped by Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina in 2006, Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager at the time, famously uttered: “I am in a hurry because I must go to the hospital because the injury was so serious that maybe he will be there for one week.”

Defender Neven Subotic blasted Robben after he missed a penalty in Bayern Munich’s 1-0 loss to Dortmund last month in scenes reminiscent of Martin Keown’s taunt of Ruud van Nistelrooy (another Dutchman) at Old Trafford in 2003.

“I think I said something like I don’t like diving,” Subotic quipped.

Robben appeared to be fouled to earn the penalty, but his tendency to exaggerate has left him with a mixed reputation.

Netherlands manager Bert van Marwijk defended Robben at the World Cup two years ago, but of course, he was simply trying to protect his player.

Pepe, Portugal: Is there a dirtier player in world football than Pepe? Nigel de Jong? Mark van Bommel? Giorgio Chiellini? Those are but a few nominees.

Let’s give the nod to Real Madrid’s Pepe, who kicks his own teammates and has single-handedly tried to batter Lionel Messi.

Apart from being dirty, Pepe can be termed, to put it bluntly, a big baby. Not ashamed of clattering into opponents with no intent to win the ball, a faint touch sends the defender down. The latest example of his childish behavior came in the Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich, when Pepe writhed on the ground after Franck Ribery made mild contact with his arm.

We don’t see Pepe changing anytime soon.


Ashley Young has developed quite the reputation for hitting the pitch.© Matt West/BPI/Icon SMI
Ashley Young, England: For years with Aston Villa, Young dove. No one really paid much attention to it, though, since Villa isn’t considered – now, anyways – a big club.

But the spotlight is on anyone who suits up for Manchester United, and Young’s theatrics to win penalties against QPR and Villa in back-to-back home games in April were shameful.

“He’s the biggest cheat in the league,” Newcastle defender Ryan Taylor wrote in a tweet that was later deleted.

Red Devils manager Alex Ferguson even admitted, unusually, that Young “overdid” things.

Young has company on the England team. Steven Gerrard isn’t a saint, either.


Sergio Busquets has taken a bit of shine off Barcelona's football. © David Ramos/Getty Images
Sergio Busquets, Spain: Barcelona has deservedly earned plaudits for its attractive, suffocating style. But Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves and Busquets take the shine off a tad with their antics.

Busquets will forever be remembered for getting Inter’s Thiago Motta sent off in the Champions League semifinals two years ago after Motta – formerly of Barca – fended off the holding midfielder with an arm. Motta missed the final. That was Part 1.

Part 2 came when Busquets, still on the ground, offered a cheeky glance at the referee.

Then there was Busquets’ fall when he tangled with Real Madrid’s Marcelo (who goes down with the best of them, too) in the Champions League last year.

Mark van Bommel, Netherlands: Van Bommel is a highly skilled, valuable midfielder. His career boasts stops at Barcelona, Milan, Bayern Munich and PSV.

But van Bommel likes to offer up a little extra mustard on challenges, shall we say (and he’s been doing it for a while). He was fortunate, for instance, to get away with a stamp on Spain’s Andres Iniesta in the World Cup final two years ago.

Like Pepe, van Bommel amplifies contact – when he’s on the receiving end. Who could forget his embarrassing tumble when he clashed with Luis Figo at the 2006 World Cup?

At 35, this could be van Bommel’s swansong at a major tournament.

Ronaldo, Portugal: Ronaldo and Messi are often compared. They’re supremely skilled – scoring for fun – and are targeted by opposition sides. For the latter, they deserve sympathy. And Ronaldo has toned down his simulation since his younger days at Manchester United.

But not enough.

Ronaldo need only look at Messi to see how he should conduct himself. When Messi is on the ground, you know he’s not faking. The same can’t be said of Ronaldo – yet.

Notice how many Dutch and Portuguese internationals are featured here? The Netherlands faces Portugal in Group B on June 17, so the ref might be working overtime.

When they battled at the 2006 World Cup, Russian Valentin Ivanov handed out 16 bookings and four red cards.

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Rebirth of L.A.-San Jose rivalry?

By: timbersfan, 10:51 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Look around MLS these days, and much of the fuel that drives the league is centered on rivalries, from the New York Red Bulls/D.C. United to the three-team cage match in Cascadia and the enmity between Houston and Dallas.

Yet when the San Jose Earthquakes play the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday in the latest installment of the California Clasico, what will be on display is a rivalry that has lost much of its luster, especially coming on the heels of last weekend's SuperClasico between the Galaxy and Chivas USA.

"It's just another game to be honest with you," said Arena last week about the San Jose match. "I don't know about the past and all that, but it's just another opponent in our conference."

San Jose defender and captain Ramiro Corrales, whose roots in the matchup trace back to 1996, added, "I don't think it's the same as it was back in the day, to be honest. It's still a rivalry. We still like to beat L.A., but for us it's just another game, another chance to get three points."

For Corrales, "back in the day" means the early 2000s, when the intensity between the Quakes and the Galaxy was without equal in MLS and went beyond the traditional So-Cal/Nor-Cal hostility. Granted, MLS was a very different league back then. There were only 10 teams for most of that period. Conference opponents played each other four times during the regular season, and possibly twice more in the playoffs, providing plenty of opportunity for animosity to build.

The ownership situation was different as well. Both teams were owned by AEG, with L.A. taking on the role of MLS glamour club and San Jose that of red-headed stepchild. This was evident in the teams' respective home venues, with L.A. eventually taking up residence in the brand new Home Depot Center while the Quakes were stuck at aging Spartan Stadium. But most importantly, the two teams were consistent MLS Cup contenders during that period.

"I think that the bigness and largeness of L.A. and everything it's about, compared with what the Bay Area is about, lends itself to rivalry," said ESPN television analyst Alexi Lalas, who won a championship as a player with L.A. in 2002, and later served as G.M. for both clubs. "It was already there, but rivalries need to be competitive. And it was in this case because San Jose had a very good team, and we went back and forth at it."

Did they ever. The teams combined to claim four MLS Cups in a five year span, beginning with the 2001 MLS Cup final, when Dwayne De Rosario's strike in extra time saw the Quakes prevail 2-1 over their southern neighbors. L.A., thanks to the addition of striker Carlos Ruiz, wrestled the trophy back in 2002. In 2003 it was San Jose's turn to take the league crown. The fact that along the way the Quakes downed L.A. by staging the mother of all playoff comebacks, recovering from four goals down on aggregate to win 5-4 in extra time in the Western Conference semis, made it all the sweeter. The rivalry reached new heights in 2005, when San Jose hero Landon Donovan did the unthinkable, ostensibly leaving the Quakes for Bayer Leverkusen, only to come back almost immediately to MLS with the Galaxy.

"Donovan was such an integral part of San Jose and those glory years for them that when that happened that really upset a lot of fans," said L.A. defender Todd Dunivant, who has also played for San Jose. "Obviously, you'd want him on your team if you could have him. That was difficult for a lot of people to swallow, and when that happened, it intensified it even more." The Quakes prevailed 3-0 in Donovan's first game back in San Jose as a member of the Galaxy, but it was L.A. and Donovan who had the last word, eliminating that year's Supporters' Shield winners in the playoffs, 4-2 on aggregate. L.A. later went on to claim that year's MLS Cup.

"The games were intense, it was awesome," said current San Jose forward Alan Gordon, who spent parts of six seasons with the Galaxy. "I was young then, but it was real. There were a lot of guys left over from 2003 when I got there. They never wanted to lose. That game meant everything for the season, no matter where you were in the standings."

Corrales added, "Regular season games against L.A. back in the day were like a playoff game. That's the way we looked at it. I think that's the way they did too."

Incredibly, the rivalry then went into cryogenic freeze. After years of threatening to move or sell the Quakes, AEG relocated the team to Houston. Chivas USA had just entered the league, and filled the derby vacuum for the Galaxy. When San Jose was awarded an expansion team for the 2008 season, the enmity on the field had to be recreated from scratch and laid bare an incontrovertible truth about rivalries. As important as geography, great teams, and great games are, a vastly underrated component is simple continuity. Without it, the ability for the lore and emotion of a rivalry to be passed down to succeeding generations of players and fans is compromised.

"A lot of the new guys, when we were an expansion team, didn't really realize that there was that big rivalry," said former San Jose midfielder and current assistant coach Ian Russell. "As a coaching staff, we almost had to manufacture it."

That has proved to be as difficult as it sounds. While L.A. holds a 4-3-3 edge in the series since the Quakes returned, the Galaxy has been among the elite teams in MLS the past three seasons, while San Jose has for the most part struggled. Think Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. Hearing San Jose's 1906 Ultras sing until they're black and blue in the face about how much they hate L.A. -- regardless of whom the Quakes are playing -- shows that the rivalry means more to San Jose than it does to the Galaxy.

"We had a lot of anger when the Quakes moved," said Dan Margarit, one of the founders of the 1906 Ultras. "When the team came back, we were really looking forward to playing L.A. again and showing how much we hate those guys."

That imbalance is slowly changing, however, even as Donovan last week touted the SuperClasico as the best rivalry in MLS. San Jose appears to have turned things around on the field, and while L.A. is struggling at present, it's expected that it'll play some part in the playoff race by season's end. A San Jose win on Wednesday would certainly provide an uptick in intensity.

"It's kind of our job, so to speak, to bring that [passion] back," Gordon said. "As long as we make it competitive and beat them, trust me, it will come back."

The game is gaining more traction on the L.A. side as well. "There was something broken. The rivalry was a big thing, and it was just gone," said Carlos Dimas, one of the leaders of the Angel City Brigade, a Galaxy supporters group. "But there have been incidents that have intensified the rivalry back up. There have been situations between fans. It's really starting to build up to what it was before."

Dimas cites last year's 0-0 draw in San Jose as a prime example, when L.A. forward Mike Magee deputized in goal after Josh Saunders was controversially sent off. Such events can breathe life into a flickering rivalry and increase the passion.

All that's needed now is games with more at stake. Perhaps then, a great rivalry will be made whole again.

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Heath Pearce played his last game for Chivas USA on May 13. On Thursday, he became a New York Red Bull, and he'll face his former team on Wednesday.
Pearce's seamless transition: Heath Pearce admitted his head was still spinning from all that had transpired in the last week. Last Wednesday he was a member of Chivas USA. On Thursday he was a New York Red Bull, and on Saturday he delivered a solid performance in leading his new club to a 2-1 road win over Montreal. Pearce's sense of composure will be tested again on Wednesday when he'll square off against his former team.

"It's definitely going to be interesting to see them warming up on the field," Pearce said via telephone. "But once the game kicks off, it's going to be like any other game and we expect to get three points against them."

Pearce's impressive debut raises a broader question, however. How is it that some players adapt to new surroundings easily while others struggle? Pearce revealed that the Red Bulls organization has consistently checked in on him to see that his off-field needs are being taken care of. On the field, it's been a case of Pearce's skill set meshing well with that of the team.

"You can't really force chemistry in a team, but I feel like the style that I prefer to play is exactly the style that the guys here like to play," he said. "It's an extremely technical group, it's a group that likes to keep the ball, it's possession-oriented, attack with numbers. From my position, you're organizing in the back; you're putting out fires, and really try to dictate the style of play on the other team. In that sense, it makes it a lot easier to transition. If it was more of a long-ball type of system, it might take me longer to adjust. But I'm already feeling comfortable with the group."

If Pearce's assimilation proceeds apace, New York could find that the balance between defense and attack will be in greater equilibrium as the season progresses.

Sene makes his mark: Pearce isn't the only player to have adjusted quickly to new surroundings. New England Revolution forward Saer Sene has done much the same. His two goals in last weekend's 2-2 draw with Houston gave him six on the season in just 10 games, making him an early frontrunner for the league's Newcomer of the Year award.

"I'm new here, this is my first year in MLS, but it's a great group, very cool guys and a good team," he said via telephone. "The team has helped me to adapt."

Not bad for a guy who prior to arriving in New England was stuck far down the depth chart at German powerhouse Bayern Munich. Better yet, there is little in Sine's attitude to suggest that he once was on the books for one of the biggest club sides in the world.

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"At Bayern, I was with 30 great players, but there was not a lot of time to play," he said via telephone. "I learned a lot at Bayern, but MLS gives me the chance to play, and show I can play."

About the only thing that is worrying Sene these days is New England's penchant for coughing up leads, something they did twice against the Dynamo. But given the team's more compelling style this season, he's had few complaints.

"We're a good team, but we're a young team," he said. "Sometimes we make mistakes because we are young, but we've shown we can play football. We are strong when we keep the ball."

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Who's up and who's down

By: timbersfan, 10:50 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

A sprinkling of internationals who’ll be on show at Euro 2012 lined up in last week’s Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea. And three, in particular, had a major say on a dramatic night in Munich. Chelsea, the team of destiny, prevailed on penalties to lift the European Cup for the first time.

Here’s this week’s look at who’s hot and who’s not with kickoff in Poland and Ukraine a mere two weeks away.


Stock rising

Petr Cech, Czech Republic

In soccer terms, the Czech Republic has seen better days. The golden generation of the mid-‘90s featured Pavel Nedved, Patrik Berger and Karel Poborsky, with Milan Baros and Jan Koller arriving later.

If Cech, however, can maintain his stunning form, he could single-handedly steer his nation into the knockout stages. After all, the Czechs are pitted against Russia, Poland and Greece in Group A, arguably the weakest group of the competition.

Cech should have been named as the Champions League MVP in Munich on Saturday, stopping Arjen Robben in the first half and then denying the Dutchman from the spot. In the shootout, he kept out Ivica Olic and palmed Bastian Schweinsteiger’s effort onto the post.

Gary Cahill, England

Of the two Chelsea central defenders returning from a hamstring injury for the final, Cahill acquitted himself better than David Luiz. To be fair to Luiz, though, his injury was thought to be more serious.

Cahill anticipated well, was more often than not in the right place, and was never afraid to throw his body in front of shots.

Three of England’s starting back four against France on June 11 will probably come courtesy of Chelsea: Cahill and John Terry in the center with Ashley Cole at left back.

Morgan de Sanctis, Italy

With Gianluigi Buffon in the Italy squad, there’s not much hope for other keepers to get a game. Buffon was stellar last season for Juventus as the “Old Lady” went unbeaten in Serie A.

But de Sanctis, named in Cesare Prandelli’s provisional squad, boosted his chances of being included on the final roster by impressing for Napoli in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Juventus in the Italian Cup final. De Sanctis, in a faultless outing, was at his best in keeping out Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal.

Cup keeper Marco Storari started ahead of Buffon and made a costly error, hauling down Ezequiel Lavezzi to give Napoli a penalty, which was converted.

Robbie Keane, Ireland

In a group with Spain, Italy and Croatia, Ireland already has it tough. But if talisman Robbie Keane isn’t around, making the quarterfinals becomes much harder, almost impossible. Even at the age of 31, Keane remains Ireland’s most potent threat offensively.

So there was relief for manager Giovanni Trapattoni when Keane’s scan for a hamstring injury showed no major damage.

“Robbie for us is important,” Trapattoni said. “I think we have enough time for him to recover.”

Per Mertesacker, Germany

Mertesacker, ever present in the heart of the German defense, has recovered from the serious ankle injury he sustained in February with Arsenal. Now it’s about getting match fit.

Germany manager Joachim Low has options in central defense, but it’s likely that two of Mertesacker, Bayern’s Holger Badstuber and Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels will get the nod in Germany’s Euro 2012 opener against Portugal on June 9.


Stock falling

Arjen Robben, Netherlands

Robben already has a reputation for diving. Now some will also be calling him a choker.

It’s harsh but might be appropriate after Robben’s display for Bayern against Chelsea. Robben, who failed to convert on a breakaway in the most recent World Cup final, saw his shaky penalty saved in extra time.

There was much more. Of his 15 shots (a staggering number), only five were on target. Just after Thomas Muller’s opener in the 83rd minute, he spurned an opportunity to put the game away.

Robben will be thankful the Euros are on the horizon. It’s a chance for redemption.

Mario Gomez, Germany

Gomez appeared to freeze for Bayern, too, though not as badly as Robben.

No fewer than three times in the first half, he couldn’t take advantage when in promising positions inside the box, taking a touch when it wasn’t required or ballooning shots over the bar.

Not what you’d expect from a striker who scored 12 goals in the Champions League, trailing only Lionel Messi, and found the back of the net 26 times in the Bundesliga.

David Villa and Fernando Torres, Spain

If the stars aligned for Chelsea, they’re not doing so for defending champion Spain.

Inspirational defender Carles Puyol won’t feature due to a knee injury, and Barcelona teammate David Villa -- Spain’s all-time leading scorer -- hasn’t recuperated in time from the broken left leg he suffered in December.

“After not showing sufficient progress in his recovery in the last few training sessions, David Villa told [Spain manager Vicente] del Bosque that despite wanting to be part of Spain’s team in Poland and Ukraine, that he is not in optimal physical condition to play in a competition like the EURO,” Barcelona wrote on its website.

Torres was added to Spain’s provisional squad, so part one of the job is done. Making the final cut is the issue for the striker who barely started for Chelsea last season, although Villa’s omission helps El Nino.

But instead of fully basking in the glory of Chelsea’s Champions League title, he was quick to point out how frustrated he was at being left out of the starting 11 against Bayern.

“Right now I do feel it’s all worth it, but the truth is I’ve gone through some very bad moments,” Torres said. “The worst moments of my career have come during this season, and I am not willing to relive those moments.”

Didier Drogba’s departure from Chelsea should improve Torres’ mood.

Vasili Berezutski, Russia

Berezutski, one of Russia’s most experienced players and a regular in defense in qualifying, ruled himself out of Euro 2012 after he was unable to recover from a thigh injury.

“It’s a pity, but the situation is much worse than we thought,” he was quoted as saying by UEFA.com. “I tried to run and immediately felt pain and discomfort.”

His twin brother, Aleksei, though, is still in.

Wayne Rooney, England

England manager Roy Hodgson revealed that Rooney is suffering from a slight toe injury and will miss Saturday’s friendly against Norway. His omission isn’t a massive deal, since Rooney is suspended for the opening two games of the tournament, but the Manchester United striker needs to be fit if the Three Lions hope to advance past the quarterfinals.

When there’s a major tournament, Rooney always seems to be struggling physically.

How is he recharging ahead of the Euros? By going to Las Vegas. Nice and quiet, eh?

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Smashing football stereotypes

By: timbersfan, 10:49 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

One of the most fascinating aspects of football is how playing style differs across different regions. There is a Spanish style of football, a Scandinavian style of football, even a South American style of football -- and at international tournaments, these differences are at their most obvious.

Although distinct styles have survived through the globalization of football in recent decades, the playing style of each country and region evolves over time. Sometimes that is in accordance with the general change in playing style across the globe, occasionally it’s simply because of one coach’s impact upon the national team, or a dominant club side.

We’ve seen plenty of evolution among the four European powerhouses in the past few years, with Spain, Germany, Netherlands and Italy all moving away from their stereotypical way of playing, and all coming to mimic each other, in various respects. Here, we look at how those four proud footballing cultures don’t necessarily sum up their current side.


Spain has talent to spare when it comes to playmakers such as Juan Mata.© Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images
SPAIN

The stereotype: Talented yet unreliable; full of skillful players, but likely to lose their nerve in the knockout stages

The reality: Spain is one of the most dominant international sides the world has seen – between 2007 and 2010 it won 49 of its 54 games while winning the European Championships and the World Cup back-to-back. There is no longer a question about La Furia Roja’s mental strength. While its form has slipped slightly in the past couple of years, particularly in friendlies against strong sides, Spain possesses a huge number of players who offer consistency and an appetite for the big occasion. Xavi Hernandez’s continued influence upon big games, for instance, is unprecedented. Whereas Spain was once unpredictable, it is now calm, methodical and strategic.

It has such an array of stars that head coach Vicente del Bosque does not have wispy, enigmatic showboaters on his bench, but instead the likes of Juan Mata, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, among the most reliable playmakers in the world. That says so much about the sheer durability and reliability of the squad’s first-choice midfield.

Ironically, Vicente del Bosque’s problem might now be too many “safe” players; Spain won the World Cup partly thanks to the unpredictability of Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez on the flanks. Neither is in great form, but del Bosque must retain that element of surprise.

The current formula: The footballing culture of Netherlands, mixed with Italy’s tendency to start slowly but eventually prevail

GERMANY

The stereotype: Boring, functional, lacking creativity – don’t count them out, but they’re not one of the favorites

The reality: Germany was the most exciting side at the World Cup two years ago – whereas Spain won the tournament with four consecutive 1-0 wins in the knockout stage, Jogi Low’s side destroyed England 4-1 before defeating Argentina 4-0 in an equally dominant display. The pace, movement and width of the front four was the envy of the world.

Germany has a superb generation of young talent that is promising yet established, and the technical quality across the side is remarkable. It boasts the most fearsome No. 10 in the tournament in Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil, a talented yet selfless playmaker who has a wonderful appreciation of space and a brilliant ability to play angled through balls for forwards and wingers. Low has also experimented with a second playmaker in a friendly against Ukraine, fielding Mario Gotze alongside Ozil.

Bastian Schweinsteiger is one of the world’s most gifted central midfielders, and his Bayern teammate Toni Kroos is now a genuinely top-class midfielder himself. Then there are the Bender twins, Lars and Sven, plus Sami Khedira, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller, not to mention the various under-21 players likely to be dropped once the 27-man preliminary squad is reduced to 23, simply illustrating how deep Germany’s squad is littered with technically superb individuals.

The current formula: The excitement of Spanish attackers, yet the tendency of Netherlands to mess it up in the final stages


Netherlands' Bert van Marwijk favors a boxy system featuring two defensive midfielders ahead of the back four.© Cristof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
NETHERLANDS

The stereotype: Beautiful, free-flowing, attacking football with plenty of movement

The reality: Netherland’s brutal performance in the 2010 World Cup final left its reputation in tatters. Seven of the starting XI were booked, another was sent off, and Nigel de Jong’s horrendous karate kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso should have seen Netherlands reduced to 10 men within half an hour. Johan Cruyff complained of “ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic” football. “I thought that my country wouldn't dare to and would never renounce their style,” he said.

That was a hugely exaggerated example of Netherlands’ current strategy; it is not a particularly dirty team. But the shape of the side hardly illustrates fluidity, as Bert van Marwijk favors a boxy system featuring two defensive midfielders ahead of the back four, whereas Dutch football traditionally uses a classic 4-3-3 system, with one player sitting deeper than two attack-minded playmakers.

Were Holland any other side, its current run would be regarded as exceptional. Yet its history of wonderful football means it feels like there’s something missing from the current side. There isn’t – that is simply the football van Marwijk wants.

The current formula: The caution of Italy, combined with the efficiency of Germany

ITALY

The stereotype: Defensive and organized with experienced defenders and ruthless strikers

The reality: Cesare Prandelli is a forward-thinking coach, and a not a typically Italian one. He wants the side to play more proactive, intelligent passing football in midfield rather than the cagey football it has become renowned for. Of course, part of Italy’s defensiveness stemmed from its tendency to feature top-class defenders. But for the first time since 1978, Italy will travel to a major tournament without Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini or Fabio Cannavaro. Its best defender, Giorgio Chiellini, is barely world-class.

Up front, Prandelli has attempted to embrace the raw talent of Giuseppe Rossi (who's now out due to injury), Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, but problems with fitness and discipline leaves Italy lacking a reliable star player. There isn’t a brilliant No. 10 like Roberto Baggio, Alessando Del Piero or Francesco Totti, nor a potent No. 9 like Luca Toni, Christian Vieri or Pippo Inzaghi.

There’s also a lack of experience on the squad. Only Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gigi Buffon have more than 50 international caps, and few guarantee consistent performances. None of this is necessarily a problem, and talented midfielders like Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo will be given license to shine, but this is a particularly un-Italian Italy side.

The current formula: Spain’s insistence on playing open football without a true belief of success, with a dash of Germany’s tendency to lack star names

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Q&A with Barcelona's Xavi

By: timbersfan, 10:47 PM GMT on May 24, 2012

Lionel Messi earns the plaudits for Barcelona, but much of what he does wouldn't be possible without the man in the engine room, Xavi Hernandez. Watch as he controls the midfield: head in constant motion, swiveling as if on a pivot, to find a weakness in the defense and pick out the perfect pass. Whether it's maintaining possession or helping to launch an attack, Xavi arguably has been the most valuable to both club and country, as Spain has won the past two major international tournaments. Even Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff has given Xavi the big up as the best player in the world.

"If you see a guy like Xavi, who controls the ball and manages the pace of the game, he is also a great player," Cruyff said. "It is very hard to tell who is the best. [In my eyes,] the most spectacular is Messi, but the best is Xavi."

We had the opportunity to chat with Xavi this week. Talking points included Xaxi's new summer football camp. For 13 years, he's directed a camp in Catalonia; this summer, he brings the camp outside Spain for the time, to the U.S. at Lake Myrtle Sports Park in Auburndale, Fla., July 10-14 and July 15-19. It's the first Campus Xavi to take place outside of Spain.

We also chatted in-depth about Barcelona's season, which will conclude Friday with the Copa del Ray versus Athletic Bilbao, his future and fitness and, of course, Spain's defense of the Euro 2012 title.

Let's talk a bit about Campus Xavi Hernandez. I'd like to know why you chose the United States as the first destination outside of Spain.

The idea was born through my brothers. For many years, we'd been holding the Campus here in Catalonia for children of all possible ages and now we're going on 13 or 14 years, since I started as a professional inside Barcelona. This opportunity came through Aguilera, through friendships he has in the U.S. We were delighted; truthfully, we like it and it's a pleasure to hold the Campus here.

I hope many kids sign up. I have a lot of fun with them and, well, teaching the Barca values, which is a "school of life" for me, and teach them all the secrets of this school and the soccer values that I've been taught [is rewarding]. Delighted to be able to go there [U.S.] and we are really looking forward to it -- not only me, but the entire family and the entire Campus "Xavi" family, too.

What advice do you give a youngster who wants to become a professional player?

Well, enjoy [playing] and don't think about becoming a professional. To enjoy and play every possible hour and minute, all his spare time, when he comes out of school, when he's off on weekends. He should play, enjoy, have a good time and, most importantly, make contact with the ball. What I used to like as a boy was to take the ball, touch it, pass the ball, be in constant contact with the ball.

And then, at the Campus, with the coaches or with me -- since I will be present -- we will teach them the concepts that we deal with here in Catalonia or specifically at "Chez Barca." Above all the goal is that they enjoy, learn, listen. Everything related to this age. And then later on, if they have the talent to become professionals, then, hey, even better, right?

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LLuis Gene/AFP/Getty Images
Xavi on Guardiola leaving Barca: "No, I didn't get to talk to him personally, because he is a very reserved and introverted person. His role is as a manager and we want the best for him."
Changing the subject to a pure and tough sports topic: With the Copa del Rey final near, is there a sense of added urgency to win the Copa due to the disappointments in La Liga, the Champions League, and, well, since it will be Pep's last game?

We want to finish the season well. It started fantastically well with the two Supercopas, the Spanish and European. Then we went to the FIFA Club World Cup, where we competed well against Santos. And then, yes, there were two disappointments. La Liga slipped away from us at home versus Real Madrid. Also, the bad luck we had in the Champions League against Chelsea, as everyone saw, because we were superior in both games, but soccer has those peculiarities. Chelsea won the final also with that strong dose of luck in terms of penalties and the game we all saw in general. In the end, we did not have the luck necessary to reach that Champions League final, where we would have liked to face Bayern. We were not able to win those two titles, but we have this Copa final against Athletic, which is a team that has been a revelation and is playing well under [Marcelo] Bielsa.

And we want to finish well, also, obviously for [Eric] Abidal, the illness and surgery he had ... and for Pep as well, because he deserves it after these four years, for the joys and for having helped us become a champion team once again, so that we may say goodbye to him as he deserves and we hope to take the Copa to Barcelona again.

How do you look back at the season's shortcomings? And how important has Guardiola's role been?

We competed until the end in all of the competitions. We reached the Champions League semifinal while we really deserved to advance to the final. Everyone saw that we were superior to Chelsea, but the ball did not want to go in, above all, in Stamford Bridge. Even here at home, up 2-0 and them playing with a man less, we still suffered the misfortune of losing the game -- in this case, the knockout game.

In La Liga, we had the misfortune that during the month of January and February, we distanced ourselves by 10 points from Madrid, which weighed on us. Even so, we competed until the end and had the possibility at the Camp Nou of turning those 10 points into just one point, but the game slipped from our hands. We didn't have that dose of luck that we had the last three years, so perhaps we let this year go a bit.

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Xavi reflects on winning Euro 2008, and he'll play a key role once again this summer. But Spain will be without both David Villa and Carles Puyol.
And so, Pep's role has been fundamental for us. He has given us order, discipline, marvelous tactical concepts to be able to compete and to win the 14 out of 18 titles that we have won and, well, now 15 out of 19 if we win this one. It truly has been a wonderful era under Pep and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with him. And we hope it can continue being like this, now with Tito Vilanova. Let's hope there is continuity after Guardiola since he will not change much and we will try to compete as we have up to now. The team has not lost the hunger, just that this year we did not have that necessary and essential dose of luck so as to compete until the end.

Did you get to speak with Guardiola personally to persuade him not to leave?

No, I didn't get to talk to him personally, because he is a very reserved and introverted person. His role is as a manager and we want the best for him. I was convinced that he could continue one more year, but he gave his explanations for leaving. He knows the locker room is behind him to the death and that we would all like for him to stay one more year, but he did not think it so and we must respect his decision. He believes that is best for him and for the club, and we are also delighted with him and this decision.

Do you visualize Pep Guardiola as a national team manager in the future?

With the prestige he has, I imagine he could coach any club and any national team; he will receive many offers. I would think he'd want a sabbatical year to rest after the tension of these four years and then see what the future holds for him. We wish him all the best and no doubt it will go very well for him, because he is a meticulous and different manager who is very well respected in the soccer world.

How do you assess the fact that Jose Mourinho will remain in charge of Real Madrid until 2016?

Well, it doesn't change anything. It is our eternal rival. Mourinho has been there two seasons. The truth is we don't pay much attention, because obviously it is our eternal rival, but we try not to look elsewhere. Things have gone well for us looking inside our own doors and we must continue this line. Thinking about ourselves, the team we have, the team chemistry, our philosophy, that Tito is coming in, that he has been Pep's right-hand man and I imagine the chemistry will be the same. We have everything to continue winning titles next year and we will fight for that.

Do you think it's possible that Tito wins as many titles as Guardiola?

Hey, obviously I'd like to think so. I know it is very complicated because no team in history has ever achieved this [under Guardiola], even the six titles in one year was historic, but we will fight. We cannot guarantee titles, but we can promise that we will fight and give our maximum effort and our will to keep on winning titles for Barcelona. Logically, what we did under Pep Guardiola will be very hard to duplicate, but we have a strong team to keep fighting towards the goals, which is to win titles by the end of the year.

How do you see yourself physically and mentally heading into Euro 2012 as compared to the World Cup or the previous European championship?

Good, very good. I am very hopeful, to tell you the truth. First, the Copa final and then, I arrive well physically. The last few months I had muscle problems in the calf, in my left leg, but right now I am doing great, really. I have been training for 15 days at top level and I played against Betis in the last Liga game and truthfully, I feel very well. In truth, I am excited about this Copa final and also the Euro, where we would like to make history as a national team. We would like to make history and repeat the European title from 2008, which would signify the best historical phase for a national team, to win the World Cup and the European championship. We very much look forward to going there, competing and making it far.

Del Bosque has a tough decision to make at forward: Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente, Roberto Soldado, AlvaroNegredo up top, with David Villa out. But also, do you think Raul merits consideration after the season he had?

Yes, [Del Bosque] will surely consider him. In fact, there is much competition not only at forward, but in every area of the field. Even at goalkeeper, on defense, at midfield. It's true that one tends to always look at forward. There are many qualified players who can make the national team. They have all proven this. Raul himself, Soldado, Negredo, Llorente. They play at a very high level; now there is also Atletico Madrid's Adrian. There are many, many very good forwards and that is good for Spain and for the manager -- he has options. In that sense, the competition and competitiveness of the Spanish soccer player is good, that he is so gifted technically, physically; we have a great team and it will surely be difficult for Vicente to chose the 23 who will go, but it is something Spain welcomes.

Going to the Euro as defending champions, does that change a player's mentality and preparation?

I think it is a positive because before it was more so -- the sense of urgency. Spain had not won practically anything since the European championship in '64; we had not made the semifinals in any important tournament. And now our team is at peace. At peace in terms of winning an important title. We've been winning everything the past four years, the European championship and the World Cup and the team goes ready to compete.

Well, with that peace and tranquility we mustn't let it confuse us. We must keep fighting, maintain that thirst for a title. And we'll see what's in store for us, whether we have the same stroke of luck as in both events we won -- the European championship and the World Cup -- and we will try to reach the final and win it. It will not be easy, that's for sure.

Speaking of difficulties, who are -- in your eyes -- the favorites along with Spain?

Barring any surprises, I'd say the traditional ones. There's Germany, there's Holland, there's France, there's Italy, there's England, then there's also Portugal, who are very competitive. There are many national teams. Nowadays any team ... and it's not to deflect the topic, but that's how it is. They complicate your existence and it is very hard to beat them. Everyone prepares, they work well on defense and it will be hard for us to break through and score the first goal in many games. I picture Spain dominating, but they will really make things difficult for us. But there are many favorites this year, honestly. There are seven, eight teams who need to win, whether it be for historical reasons or due to an urgent nature. It will be very difficult, for sure.

Is there any team you fear more than others?

Spain has no fears. We simply play soccer, not changing our philosophy nor speculating about any rival, but obviously Holland itself, right? If we meet in the final, they are very strong; and Germany is also very tough. Perhaps they are the two teams ... but also, I don't want to disrespect anybody. France, Italy, even Portugal as well have a very good team, they are competitive.

Does Carles Puyol's absence on the defensive line worry you?

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Yes, because he is a player who, beyond what he contributes on the field, is a leader, a reliable and established presence inside the locker room. As a person, he is very concerned about the rest of the teammates, the youngsters. He is one of the captains, with a lot of history behind him. It is an important loss for the group which we must overcome, and, well, let us see who comes.

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Five thoughts on Chelsea v. Bayern Munich Champions League final

By: timbersfan, 11:45 PM GMT on May 18, 2012

The world's most important annual club soccer game is set to kick off in Munich on Saturday. Here are five thoughts on the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea (FOX, 2:45 pm ET).
1. How will suspensions affect the game? A grand total of seven players are suspended and won't play, four for Chelsea (John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, Branislav Ivanovic) and three for Bayern (Holger Badstuber, Luiz Gustavo, David Alaba). Those are significant losses for both teams, but they're also almost all defensive-minded players. The result, I suspect, will be an open game, not least because 1) Bayern and Chelsea have nearly their full complement of attackers, 2) defenses won't be at full strength (Gary Cahill and David Luiz in Chelsea's central defense? Jerome Boateng and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk in Bayern's? Yikes), and 3) Bayern is likely to push hard for an early goal in its home stadium, which would bring Chelsea out of its defensive shell. These may not be the best teams in Europe, but they should make for a fun game for neutrals.
2. Who are going to be the most influential players? Bayern striker Mario Gómez has scored 13 Champions League goals in as many games this season, with 11 of them coming at Allianz Arena. The man who resembles George McFly has been absolute money in front of the goal, and I expect that he will be again here. Bayern figures to dominate the left side on the attack, where Franck Ribéry is a handful and should have help from Philipp Lahm (who I expect will move from the right to fill in for Alaba). Lahm is the rare fullback who's just as dangerous on both sides -- he terrorized Fábio Coentrão in the first semifinal against Real Madrid -- and Chelsea will likely have to play the less-than-ideal Bosingwa at right back with Ivanovic suspended. On the Chelsea side, I do think the Blues will get a goal in this game. Bayern is depleted in the central defense, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Didier Drogba bag a goal.
3. Can Michael Essien turn back the clock? The Ghanaian midfielder hasn't been the same since his 2010 injury, but he may be asked to cover a lot of ground in a three-man Chelsea midfield if Roberto Di Matteo opts for him in Meireles's spot next to Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel. Yet Essien's legs aren't nearly what they used to be, and it may be too much for him if Bayern has a central midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. It's hard to think Essien could manage in this spot, but if he does Chelsea might have a chance. Which brings us to...
4. What circumstances could produce a Chelsea upset? The Blues have already pulled off the biggest surprise of the tournament, taking down Barcelona in the semis after scoring a legendary counter-attack goal by Ramires with 10 men in the Camp Nou. I didn't think Chelsea would be able to park the bus for 180 minutes and beat Barça, but somehow it happened. Doing it again for 90 minutes here would be easier than for two full games, but I'm not sure Chelsea's luck can hold out with those tactics. However, Bayern's supposed advantage, the crowd, could change into a negative influence the longer the home team goes without scoring and the pressure mounts. Bayern will push forward from the start, leaving space open for the Chelsea counter-attack, and Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech is capable of standing on his head. Put all those things together, and Chelsea has a chance.
5. Who do I like to win? Bayern just has too many things in its favor here: the home crowd, an opponent depleted by suspensions and a clear advantage on the attack with Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Gómez and others. Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League and overachieved just to make it this far under interim manager Di Matteo. And while Bayern hasn't performed up to potential in German domestic competition (getting smacked around by Borussia Dortmund) it's still one of Europe's top teams when it's in form. A fifth European Cup title is about to be won in Munich. My prediction: Bayern 3, Chelsea 1.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/18/bayern.chelsea.champions.league/index .html#ixzz1vGgLzLfw

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Bayern Munich: A model franchise

By: timbersfan, 11:44 PM GMT on May 18, 2012

The annual Super Bowl of world soccer is finally here. Saturday's UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea (2:45 p.m. ET, FOX) may lack the sexiness of recent European finals -- neither team finished at the top of its own domestic league, after all -- but I still think this should be a highly entertaining contest.
Why? For starters, Bayern will have plenty of incentive to attack on its home field, attempting to become the first team to win the European Cup at home since Inter in 1965. What's more, both teams will have a nearly full quiver of creative players. Of the seven players suspended on both teams for the final, all but one (Chelsea's Ramires) are defensive-minded. As long as Chelsea doesn't completely park the bus as it did against Barcelona (and I think Bayern will prevent that from happening with an early goal), this final will be a fun watch for the neutral.
If you want to hear more about the final itself, you can check out SI.com's preview podcast, but for now I wanted to provide a bit more information on one of the finalists. Part of my goal in becoming a full-time soccer writer in 2010 was to learn more about the world's top clubs and present that to the U.S. audience. On my way to Madrid a while back for a story on José Mourinho I stopped for a few days in Munich. I ended up writing about Bayern's star midfielder, Bastian Schweinsteiger, but I also got an audience at Bayern's international media day with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
A former star forward for Bayern and the German national team (he was twice named European player of the year), Rummenigge, 56, is now the chairman of Bayern Munich and the powerful European Club Association. What makes Bayern Munich special? Here are some of the things I found interesting from our 90-minute round-table conversation (in which Rummenigge spoke fluent English):
• Bayern's tradition of ex-players moving up to the board room is impressive. Bayern has a fascinating mix: It's a financially stable, smartly run SuperClub, and yet it's also led by a powerful board that has included fabulously successful former players such as Rummenigge, Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer. We've seen plenty of examples of great players who can't hack it as managers or club executives, which makes sense: The skillsets are completely different. So I asked Rummenigge how Bayern has made it work.
"We have a continuity in the club," Rummenigge says. "In the past 40 years we have had just three general directors. Uli Hoeness was nominated general director of the club in the late 1970s, and he was in the club for 30 years in a row. Thanks to him there's a football quality in the management. I never did study because football is maybe not easy to study. I played football and then I had the pleasure to be nominated as [Bayern] vice-president in the early '90s when Bayern was a members club. When we changed the structure into a shareholders company I was nominated as CEO. So I could prepare close to 10 years to do the job I'm doing today."
"I have the impression that many clubs around Europe would like to follow this kind of way, and many tried. In the end, for whatever reason they weren't successful. Maybe it's due to the continuity we always had in the club, and it was easier to do in Bayern than in other clubs."
Bayern has also gotten lucky that its star-players-turned-directors are naturally smart guys who've adapted well to the business world. Hoeness started a thriving sausage-making company, and Rummenigge shows a detailed knowledge of the economics of the sport. But he also can connect with current players due to his background as an athlete.
"I have one big advantage: I always know what the player is thinking about," Rummenigge says, "because I had these experiences in the past when I played football as well. Of course, today my main work is to care about the financial situation."
• Bayern is extremely well-positioned for the future. Bayern has reached two of the past three Champions League finals, so obviously it's competing well on the field these days, but even better fortunes may be on the way. When UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules kick in, Bayern could be one of the big winners in Europe, not least because it isn't saddled with a large debt like so many other top European clubs. "Our 340 million euro stadium, Allianz Arena, is completely privately financed by our club," Rummenigge says. "The big advance today of Bayern Munich is that our infrastructure is strong, not just our team. We invested 25 million euros here [in the team's training facility]."
"From the very beginning, we said if we follow the Italian way or the English way we will always lose, because we don't have that kind of money available. We have no sheik [like Manchester City], no Mr. Berlusconi [like Milan]. We have a completely different situation in Germany and have to find out the best way. That was a wise concept to follow, and today we are a safe club ... Bayern could be the model of the future for many other clubs."
• Bayern's stability includes a balance between smart youth development and targeted buys in the transfer market. As Rummenigge explains it, in the 1990s he and Hoeness wanted to learn how other sports teams did things in different areas. So they hit the road. They visited Ajax to see how its youth academy worked. They visited Manchester United to learn more about merchandising. And they visited the U.S., where they attended the Super Bowl and learned firsthand more about how the Chicago Bulls leveraged the success of Michael Jordan. Then they took those lessons back to Germany.
Now "we are very strong in our youth department with [academy-produced] players like Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Müller and Diego Contento," Rummenigge says. "They didn't cost a penny in transfer fees. We always want to have a strong youth department, because supporters love when players from Bavaria are playing for Bayern Munich. They also love players you can buy, like Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, but you have to find opportunities. We probably never could spend 95 million euros like Real Madrid spent in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, we can spend 24 million like we did for Robben."
The result is a Bayern Munich that is competing for Europe's most prestigious trophies while at the same time positioning itself economically for the future. It's a case study that more and more clubs figure to follow in the coming years.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/17/cl.final.preview/index.html#ixzz1vGgB Irpz

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Giuseppe Rossi's injury illustrates the very fragile nature of sports

By: timbersfan, 11:43 PM GMT on May 18, 2012

I've been thinking lately about Giuseppe Rossi, and about the twists and turns that a sports career can take, even for the most promising athletes. If you're a U.S. soccer fan, you know plenty about Rossi, the Italian-American New Jersey native who chose to play for Italy over the U.S. and became a budding star for the Azzurri and Spain's Villarreal (where he scored 32 goals in all competitions in 2010-11).
Now 25, Rossi should be readying to lead Italy at Euro 2012 starting next month. Instead he's in the middle of a catastrophic injury run. Rossi tore his right ACL last October and, just as he was preparing to return, tore it again in training last month. By the time Rossi is scheduled to play again in early 2013, he will have been out for at least 14 months from competitive soccer.
Things don't always turn out as you plan them in sports. I wrote a Sports Illustrated magazine story about Rossi three years ago, in the days after his two goals sank (of all teams) the United States in a Confederations Cup game in South Africa. I spoke at length to Rossi and his father, Fernando, a legendary high school soccer coach, and SI's Adam Duerson made the rounds in New Jersey interviewing people who were close to the Rossis.
In my experience with Giuseppe, he came across as a humble Jersey guy who had set extremely high goals for himself -- let's be honest, it's harder to make Italy's national team than it is the U.S.'s -- and had attained them.
But Rossi's SI mag story never ran. It was all ready to go, but the only thing that could have prevented publication was the most unlikely of results: The U.S. would have to advance from the Confed Cup group stage, which required beating Egypt 3-0 in the final group game while Brazil would have to beat Rossi's Italy 3-0 at the same time. What were the odds of that happening? 100 to 1? 10,000 to 1?
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. So I pulled an all-nighter in South Africa, wrote an entirely new magazine story and figured I'd write an updated Rossi story soon enough. But the timing never worked out. Rossi was on the bubble to make Italy's 2010 World Cup roster, so we couldn't risk devoting significant magazine space to a player who might not be in South Africa. (He ended up being one of Italy's final cuts, a decision coach Marcello Lippi no doubt regrets now after the team's dismal first-round exit.)
These days I'm getting a bit more magazine space for soccer, but now Rossi is injured. It's part of the sports media business, I guess. But I also felt badly that Rossi, his father and the others had taken the time to speak to me, and they were probably looking forward to his first significant story in SI -- which for some athletes and their families is an important moment.
Not long ago, I went back and tracked down the Rossi story I had written, the one that wasn't published:
In Italy, the home of the four-time World Cup champions, they call Giuseppe Rossi's remarkable sports journey "the American dream." And who could argue? How's this for a storyline: A 12-year-old kid from Clifton, N.J., moves to Italy, becomes a top soccer prospect, spends three years on the books at Manchester United (where he scores on his debut), lights up Spain's La Liga for Villarreal and blasts two goals for his national team at his first major tournament, the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. After years of searching, the world may finally have discovered the first U.S.-born soccer superstar, a dynamic 22-year-old whose transfer price tag (for potential suitors like Italian giant Juventus) is an estimated $25 million.
The only trouble with Rossi's American dream is that it's also an American nightmare. Those two goals at the Confederations Cup came *against* the United States on June 15, when Rossi was wearing the famous blue jersey of Italy, the nation of his parents' birth. Rossi's pair of second-half strikes gave the Azzurri a 3-1 come-from-behind victory, sending the U.S. into a tailspin that included an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Brazil last Thursday and a tk-tk koming on Sunday against Egypt.
In magazine parlance, we use "TK" and "koming" as place-holders for information that we don't know yet. In this case, those TKs spiked my Rossi story. But several aspects of the article are still pertinent today, from Rossi's personal story to the question SI was asking: When will the U.S. produce its first genuine global soccer superstar? To wit:
Perhaps the lesson of Giuseppe Rossi's rise to torment the Americans for Italy isn't so much that U.S. Soccer whiffed by failing to land Rossi for the Stars & Stripes -- "my dream was always to play for the Italian national team," Rossi says -- but something else entirely. Soccer superstars are more readily forged in a mature soccer culture, from the earliest age possible.
If you ask Rossi whether he could have developed into the player he has become by staying in the United States as a teenager, his response makes complete sense. "It would have been very difficult," he says in a sharp New Jersey accent, "because people know that the best soccer is played in Europe, and if a player wants to be the best and to learn from the best, then going to Europe is the best way to go." It's better, moreover, to go early. Several American players have moved overseas in their late teens, but soccer's superstars joined their clubs even sooner: Argentina's Lionel Messi with Barcelona at age 12, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo with Sporting Lisbon at 11 and England's Wayne Rooney with Everton at 10.
In New Jersey, where delis and pizzerias invariably have pictures of the Italian national team on the walls, Rossi grew up in the closest thing the U.S. has to an established soccer environment. On Sundays as a child, he'd watch Serie A games pulled in on the family's satellite dish and discuss them endlessly in Italian with his father, Fernando, a teacher and longtime soccer coach at Clifton High. Rossi's bedroom in Clifton still has the posters he put up on the walls of AC Milan stars Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, players he would imitate on the playground at Clifton School 3 in long hours of solitary training as an eight year old. "I would drive by and see Giuseppe there blasting the ball off the wall," recalls Bob D'Arco, a former board member of Rossi's Clifton Stallions club team. "Just him, alone. Not Fernando. He put lines on the wall and would kick at targets. At eight years old. What kid does that? He had the heart and the passion."
Whenever he traveled to club tournaments with the Stallions, Rossi provoked slack-jawed reactions from opposing teams, fans and even referees. "He stood out immediately, not only to me but to anyone who had any understanding of soccer," says Rich Gentile, who coached Rossi from age seven to 12. Rossi's childhood friend and teammate, Raffaele Lauretta, recalls Rossi's uncanny ball skills, his deadly left-footed shot and his ability to protect the ball with his feet as easily as though he were clutching it with his hands. "From the beginning these things were all clear," Lauretta says. "Honestly. These were things you would have said if you had seen him at age six, too."
By the time Giuseppe was 12, however, he and his family faced a momentous decision. Every summer Fernando and his wife, Cleonilde, took Giuseppe and his sister, Tina, on vacation to Italy, where they would visit a different region of the country each year. Giuseppe took part in a soccer camp and impressed a scout for Parma, who invited him to move to Italy and join the club's renowned development academy. "It was a really tough decision," says Fernando, who relocated to Italy as well in 2000 and spent the next nine years living in Europe with his son. (Cleonilde and Tina stayed in New Jersey.)
Fernando coached for 30 years in New Jersey, and he knew firsthand the limitations of youth development in American soccer. "Giuseppe grew up at Parma breathing soccer 24 hours a day," says Fernando. "The environment, the structure is totally different. Any professional organization, they start with kids that are seven years old and start molding them into professional players. Every year you might start with 100 kids and end up the year with five. Over here [in the U.S.] it's more on the recreational side. It's two different structures. I think we're lacking a little bit here."
At 17 Giuseppe moved to Manchester United, where he scored 70 goals in 72 games for the reserves but failed to gain a regular spot on the first team and went out on loan to Newcastle United and Parma. "I didn't feel Manchester United gave him a fair chance to play first-team ball," says Fernando, who asked Ferguson to sell Giuseppe to another club when United wouldn't commit to keeping him with the first team. Rossi joined Villarreal and scored on his debut, becoming perhaps the only player ever to do so for three different clubs (Manchester United, Parma and Villarreal). Rossi poured in 23 goals over the past two Spanish seasons, was the leading scorer at the 2008 Olympics with Italy and may now have made his breakthrough for the Azzurri's senior team, as fate would have it, against the United States.
Rossi turned down the chance to play for the U.S. in 2005, causing some American fans to label him a turncoat, but he maintains that he never seriously considered playing for his birth country. "Not really," he says. "It was a great honor that the U.S. said they wanted me to play for them, but deep down my dream was always to play for the Azzurri. The people of U.S. Soccer were very nice to me, and I think U.S. soccer has a great future."
***
There's another reason Giuseppe Rossi has been on my mind lately. Whenever I post anything about him on Twitter, a number of U.S. fans act like they're in a competition to see who can come up with the most outrageously negative responses about Rossi. Many of them are unprintable here, but they include celebrating his ACL injuries and calling Rossi everything from "Judas" to "turncoat" to "Benedict Arnold," all for deciding to play soccer for Italy instead of the United States.
Those people should be embarrassed.
Fans have every right to boo. I get that. But much of the over-the-top Rossi bashing crosses the line. It ignores the fact that the same U.S. fans celebrate the decision of, say, José Torres to play for the U.S. over Mexico. It ignores the fact that a current U.S. player like Jozy Altidore is a close friend of Rossi (his former teammate at Villarreal) and has been extremely supportive of his recovery. And it ignores the basic elements of classy fan behavior.
You may argue that fans are inherently irrational, but the worst of the Rossi behavior has no place in that discussion. "I think some people respect my decision," Rossi told me in 2009. "Of course there are people who don't, but that's not a problem. That's how life is. When a person makes a certain decision there's the positive and the negative side."
"People have to understand that it was a natural thing for Giuseppe to say he wanted to play for Italy," Rossi's father, Fernando, said three years ago. "Why? Because he grew up soccer-wise when he moved there at 12 years old. He went to school with the kids and went through every level in the [Italian] national team. So it's natural to say I want to play in Italy, with no disrespect for where he was born."
"For me, New Jersey is the best place in the world," Giuseppe said. "You have your friends, your family, your house. It's home for me."
The last two years have been tough for Giuseppe Rossi. He missed out on the World Cup. He has dealt with career-threatening injuries. And toughest of all, when Fernando died in February 2010 at age 60, Rossi lost the man who had been the most influential figure in his life and career.
There's a big TK on Giuseppe Rossi's future right now. But if you've spent any time around him, you hope he makes it all the way back in 2013. I'll be looking forward to writing an all-new story about his comeback in SI magazine when that happens.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/05/10/giuseppe.rossi.injury/index.html#ixzz 1vGg1Drp3

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Barack/Nixon

By: timbersfan, 11:41 PM GMT on May 18, 2012

The eerie similarities between two of our biggest sports fans in chief
By Bryan Curtis on May 18, 2012
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How do we know Barack Obama is a huge sports fan? Well, he discussed the matter with the editor of this site. You probably saw that.

Now, more evidence arrives from the New York Times. This month, the paper reported that Obama "spends far more time on his iPad checking scores on ESPN than obsessively reading up on Mr. Romney." That's funny, because back in 2008, when Obama was supposed to be reading up on Mr. McCain, the paper printed virtually the same anecdote. Obama and aide Robert Gibbs "were sending urgent-looking BlackBerry messages back and forth … following the fortunes of Obama's fantasy football team."

So Obama is a huge sports fan. What's interesting is that the White House talks so relentlessly, and self-consciously, about Obama's fandom. Spikes the football, to borrow a recent D.C. catchphrase. In this, Obama has started to sound a lot like a certain former fan in chief. Not the Texas Rangers co-owner. Nor the Michigan Wolverines center. No, Obama has started to sound a lot like Richard Nixon. Obama and Nixon are soul mates in their need to tell voters, "I am a sports fan!" If you understand why Nixon had to talk about sports, you begin to understand why Obama does, too.

Let's stipulate that every American president calls himself a sports fan. He throws out the first pitch, he brings the champs to the White House, he might even preside over something called Operation Wide Receiver. But ever since he was a would-be candidate, Obama has launched a sort of national sports ad buy, chiseling the fan-in-chief mantle into our psyches.

There is Barack-Etology.1 Barack's BCS-bashing. Monday Night Football2 and Monday Night Raw. Shootarounds with reporters, shootarounds with troops, and shootarounds with the Education Secretary. "I'm a big college sports fan," Obama is liable to say when he's asked about the Penn State scandal. When Obama is not talking with Bill Simmons, he is dispensing his own Simmons-style rules of fandom. "While I obviously differ with him on ideological issues," says Ari Fleischer, who served as George W. Bush's press secretary, "I think he really is a sports guy."

You have to go back to Nixon's White House to find a POTUS who announced his fandom this loudly. With Nixon, as with Obama, aides talked of having to pry the boss away from the game. "The budget got squeezed in between the dentist and football on TV," Bob Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff,3 wrote in his diaries. And: "Big problem on setting time for bill signing was to avoid conflict with any of the football games on TV. He's really become a total addict."

Nixon was as eager as Obama to impress the sportswriters. George F. Will, the political columnist who moonlights as a baseball writer, tells me Nixon once chatted him up about Frank Tanana. Robert Lipsyte, the former New York Times columnist, writes in an e-mail, "The only time I ever found Nixon appealing was when he told me a sports anecdote. His lips got wet like a new waiter describing the specials."

Obama had his sports powwow with Bill Simmons. In 1968, Nixon had his sports powwow with — wait for it — Hunter S. Thompson. The good doctor, who'd been picked from the press pool because he was the only one "seriously addicted" to football, got an audience with Nixon on a bus ride during the New Hampshire primaries. Thompson mentioned a wide receiver that had caught a pass in Super Bowl II. Nixon stunned Thompson not only by naming the receiver but his alma mater. "Whatever else might be said about Nixon — and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human — he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football," Thompson marveled.

We nod when Obama name-drops Jared Sullinger. But Nixon could go full nerd, too. His former aide Monica Crowley says he summoned the names of old ballplayers like he remembered faces on a rope line. In 1972, a reporter asked Nixon to pick his all-time Major League Baseball team. Well, Nixon did more than that. He emerged from his man cave with four all-time teams: American League (1925-1945), National League (1945-1970), and so on.

Historian Nicholas Evan Sarantakes notes that the all-time teams included seven pages of explanations and justifications.4 Newspapers printed the teams, like Obama's NCAA brackets, under Nixon's byline. It was a glorious high for a man who'd once said, "[I]f I had to live my life over again, I would have liked to have ended up as a sportswriter."

Yes, Obama quizzed Phil Jackson about the triangle offense in 2009. But it was Nixon who often called the home of Redskins coach George Allen, invited him to White House parties, and scrutinized his offense.5 And Nixon led the league in sports-as-war metaphors.

Why'd they talk up their fandom? Well, part of the Nixon mythos goes like this: He was a runty backup on the Whittier College football team, he got knocked around, and he spent the rest of his life as a jock-sniffer. "It's said that we're all failed baseball players," says George Will. "He was a failed football player." Obama is also a failed athlete. Really. Despite the constant refrain that Obama is a "great basketball player," he's better described as a midlife enthusiast. He rode the bench for his high school team (Hawaii state champs, but still). He has nothing in the trophy case to match, say, Craig Robinson and Arne Duncan. Like most of us, he failed.

Years later, Obama called his high school career a chance to learn "that not everything is about you." But in Obama's manic desire to schedule games, in his I'm-only-sorta-kidding boasts about his own game, you see a smidge of Nixonian regret. You see a senior year getting replayed past age 50.

If sports talk helped soothe old wounds, it gave something else to Nixon and Obama: It gave them the language of Joe Sixpack. David Greenberg, author of Nixon's Shadow, says that during the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nixon announced he'd be home watching college football — you know, like a real American. Yet a year later, when Nixon visited protesters before dawn at the Lincoln Memorial, college football was one of the only things he could think to bring up. Obama doesn't share Nixon's awkwardness with voters, but he's sometimes accused of talking in an academic drone. No one says that when he's talking about Derrick Rose.

But I think Nixon and Obama got something even bigger out of being sports freaks. It allowed them to go one-on-one with their most deadly caricatures. Before his 1968 campaign, Nixon was cast as an inhuman pile of ambition forever molting into a "new Nixon." Obama, way more slanderously, has been called a Kenyan-born, madrassa-schooled non-American. It's no wonder the POTUSes never shut up about sports. Nixon talked football and got to be part of the silent majority. When Obama talks sports, he shows America his birth certificate.

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The NBA's Award-Winning Playoffs

By: timbersfan, 11:40 PM GMT on May 18, 2012

Scoring is down and the games are ugly, but that isn't stopping the Sports Guy from handing out a few honors
By Bill Simmons on May 18, 2012
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Ragged! Gimpy! Tempestuous! Hard-fought! Creatively confusing! Strangely compelling! No, I'm not talking about television's upfront week — I actually mean the NBA playoffs, another event that makes you squint in confusion and say things like, "Wait, they're kidding, right?" In 54 playoffs games this spring, only once have both teams topped 100 points: Game 2 of the Lakers-Nuggets series, which the Lakers won 104-100. Not exactly a barn burner. Check out the league's playoff averages for points per game in the past decade.

2003: 96.0
2004: 88.0
2005: 97.1
2006: 97.8
2007: 94.2
2008: 94.9
2009: 96.7
2010: 97.5
2011: 94.0
2012: 90.5

Yeah, you're reading that correctly — it's the lowest-scoring postseason since 2004, you know, the spring that caused the NBA to change the freaking rules to encourage more offense. Originally, I blamed the condensed season for the offensive malaise, believing some sordid combination of injuries, banged-up bodies and better defense had slowed everything down. But the league averages for possessions per 48 minutes say otherwise: For instance, 2006's playoff teams (89.2 possessions per 48 minutes) outscored 2012's playoff teams (88.6 possessions per 48 minutes) by 7.3 points per team. The overwhelming evidence confirms what you've been thinking these past three weeks. Scoring is down because 2012's playoff teams aren't as good at scoring. (Good lord, I just turned into Joe Theismann again. Hold on, I have to take a pill.) But check out these numbers.

2004: 88.0 PPG, 42.1% FG, 32.4% 3FG
2009: 96.7 PPG, 45.1% FG, 35.7% 3FG
2010: 97.5 PPG, 45.3% FG, 34.9% 3FG.
2011: 94.0 PPG, 43.9% FG, 34.1% 3FG
2012: 90.5 PPG, 42.9% FG, 32.8% 3FG

Yeeeeeesh. That slide started last spring, invalidating the "condensed schedule" argument and opening the door for the dreaded "maybe defenses are becoming a little too good" argument. Last time (post-2004), the fixes were relatively easy: They catered to perimeter players by cracking down on hand-checks (opening up the slash-and-kick game), and they sped up the game (just a little) by shortening the 10-second rule and restarting shot clocks at 14 after violations. This time around? I don't know what you'd change short of adding power plays. You heard me — power plays! If you earn a technical or commit a "Flagrant 1," you have to sit at the scorer's table for 75 seconds while your team plays shorthanded. If you commit a "Flagrant 2," your team has to play shorthanded for three minutes. If two opponents get double technicals, both teams play four-on-four for 60 seconds.

(Thinking.)

You're right, that's ridiculous. Please, everyone, start making more shots. There's a reason nobody wants to watch 79-76 games … it's called the WNBA.

Thank God for the Spurs, an offensive powerhouse that has single-handedly saved the playoffs from turning into a rockfight. They're headed for a second sweep while pacing the league in points per game (103.7), shooting (49.1 percent) and 3-point shooting (42.7 percent). It's the best version of international basketball we've ever seen — the Spurs might as well be Argentina or Spain, only with superior players. Everything revolves around their slash-and-kick guys (Parker and Ginobili), their 3-point shooters (too many to count) and their versatile big men (Duncan, Diaw and Splitter, all of whom know where to go and what to do). And unlike Nash's high-scoring Suns teams from back in the day, San Antonio can also rebound and protect the rim, which makes them our single most dangerous playoff favorite since the 2001 Lakers. They aren't just beating teams, they're eviscerating them.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about "Footnote Titles" — when opposing fans pick apart a team's title by saying, "Yeah, but … " and point to an especially fortunate break that helped them win. If the Spurs keep playing this well, they're going to single-handedly wipe away every 2012 footnote (and there were many). Sometimes in sports, you just have to shrug your shoulders, nod your head and give someone an appreciative golf clap. We might be headed there with the 2012 Spurs, who have been quietly closing in on "Best Team of the Duncan/Popovich era" status for about 10 weeks now.

Even if Miami–Oklahoma City is the Pipe Dream Finals (just from an entertainment standpoint), no pure basketball fan would refuse a Celtics-Spurs matchup: an old-school battle featuring seven Hall of Famers, two elite coaches, and two proud teams that love playing together, and even better, know how to play together? Putting Duncan vs. Garnett, Rondo vs. Parker, Popovich vs. Doc, the 1997 lottery and every other subplot aside for a second, when you remember what decade we're in — here's a reminder, in case you forgot — the familiarity of that Finals matchup would make it more special than anything.

The Garnett/Doc/Pierce/Rondo/Allen Celtics have been together for five years; the Duncan/Popovich/Ginobili/Parker Spurs have been together twice as long. When basketball is humming the right way, it's not about throwing an All-Star team together — it's about familiarity, about knowing your teammates almost as well as you know yourself. Boston fans adore this particular Celtics team because we know them. We know when Pierce or Rondo is feeling it, when it's clicking for Garnett, when we're going to run that sneaky play for a 3 with Ray coming off a double screen … it's gotten to the point that when Rondo drives into the paint and pulls over Garnett's defender, we start reacting to the alley-oop lob to Garnett even before Rondo releases it. I'm sure Spurs fans know exactly what I mean. When the nucleus of a good team knows itself to the point that it permeates to the fans, that's when you've really accomplished something. It's what the Spurs and Celtics managed to build, it's what Oklahoma City has been trying to build … and as the Heat is learning, it's something that can't be thrown into a microwave and cooked like a frozen burrito.

It's also our best hope for these playoffs. Scoring might be down, but I still have high hopes for the last two rounds, if only because three of our contenders (the Spurs, Celtics and Zombie Sonics) know exactly who they are, and our fourth contender (Miami) has no freaking idea whatsoever. It's compelling. Ugly at times, but compelling. As for everything we've seen so far, I thought we'd hand out some postseason awards.

The John Travolta/Kelly Preston Award for "Rockiest Marriage That Seems Destined for Divorce"

To Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra, the latter of whom attempted to shrug off Wade's Game 3 hissy fit by playing the "it's basketball, you get mad at each other sometimes" card. Normally I'd agree with this — teammates yell at each other on basketball courts all the time, whether it's a pickup game, an AAU game, an NBA game or whatever. You let off some steam, then it's over. But this one felt different for a couple of reasons. First, people have been speculating about a Wade/Spoelstra rift since February; everyone thinks Spo is gone if they lose, for a variety of reasons — most notably, the fact that he changes his playing rotations the same way a hockey coach changes up lines from game to game (the no. 3 NBA coaching no-no behind "don't sleep with one of your players' girlfriends or mistresses" and "don't throw a player under the bus to the media"). Having Wade flip out in such a pivotal game didn't help.

Second, if I'm a Miami fan, here's what would really worry me: Did you see how quickly Juwan Howard and Udonis Haslem reacted to what was happening as Wade started to F-bomb Spo? Normally when you see something like that, there's a two-second delay when you think, Wait, is this really happening? And then you move. But Howard was moving even as Wade was starting to heat up, and by the time he was in full f-bomb mode, Howard and Haslem had already moved between Wade and Spo. You move that quickly if you're thinking, Oh shit, it's happening again, I have to stop this now.

And third, this Miami team has been something of a mess for two months. How many times did we watch them quit in nationally televised games as talking heads made excuses for them? They have no identity. They have no idea who their best eight players are. Last night, in Chris Bosh's absence, Dexter Pittman started for them. Dexter Pittman?????? Ever since the 2010-11 season started, they've been a three-man team with genuine instability at the center, wing, point guard, backup big man and backup wing spots and that's never really changed. Only the excuses keep changing. And on top of everything else, they relied on their top three to dangerous degrees — minutes, scoring loads, usage rates, crunch-time plays, you name it — in a league where anyone can go down at any time.

So you can't tell me Wade's Game 3 meltdown didn't mean anything. It went beyond the one incident — he played with the weight of the world on his shoulders, someone who was deeply concerned about his team's fate, someone who didn't trust anyone except for his superstar teammate, someone who couldn't get into the flow and then panicked because he knew that if he couldn't get going, his team was screwed. It was the single weirdest moment of the playoffs, and it's paved the way for our single most compelling game: Sunday at Indiana, which could end up being the equivalent of bouncers flicking the lights of the Heat Welcome Party and telling everyone to go home.

Meanwhile …

The Kcirtap Gniwe Award for "Most Improbable Reversal of the Ewing Theory"

To Chris Bosh, who's currently making everyone say, "Wow, I can't believe how much Miami misses Chris Bosh!" Who knew??? If Miami blows this Pacers series, do we say it happened because of the Gniwe Theory or just rename it the Bosh Theory?

The Kate Hudson/Wilmer Valderrama "There's a Reason We've Dated So Much" Award

To Ramon Sessions, the darling of Lakers fans heading into the postseason … only now, he might as well be holding a "THERE'S A REASON I'VE PLAYED FOR FOUR TEAMS IN FIVE YEARS" sign. At least they can replace him with one of their two no. 1 picks this summ— whoops, my bad.

The LaBradford Smith Award for "Worst Trash-Talking"

To Atlanta's owner, John Gearon, for pissing off Kevin Garnett before Game 6 of their series with those "KG is old and dirty" comments. It's always fun when someone who …

(A) Was once part of a "Big 3" that included Stephon Marbury and Wally Szezcerbiak;

(B) Was drafted four spots behind Joe Smith;

(C) Passed the 50,000-minute mark (regular season plus playoffs) in Round 1; and

(D) Is playing his 17TH NBA SEASON (!!!!!)

… takes offense because someone called him old, but hey, if that's what it takes to eke out some old-school 28-14's, world-class interior defense and generally spectacular play out of KG, we'll take it. In fact, I'd like to point out how old KG is. Feel free to run this quote on your newspaper, blog, podcast, radio show, Tumblr, Twitter feed, Facebook page, CB feed or however else you communicate to other human beings.

"It's just too bad that Kevin Garnett is so old."
— Bill Simmons

The Community Award for "Best Resilience in the Ongoing Face of Cancellation"

To Andre Iguodala, who surged ahead of Danny Granger, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng in the "Small Forward You'd Love Having on Your Team, Just Not for $15 Million a Year" rankings by making the second round for — wait a second, Andre Iguodala made the second round? What the hell just happened? Iggy made my single favorite play of Round 1: going coast-to-coast after Omer Asik gakked his clinching free throws in Game 6, passing up the Get Me On SportsCenter Playbook (dribble to the 3-point line, pull up and launch an inexplicable 3), going hard to the rim, drawing the foul and draining both freebies to clinch the series for Philly. Throw in a stellar two-way performance all spring and Iggy probably knocked himself out of the offseason trade rumor circuit for at least eight days.

(While we're here, let's give at least somel kudos to Granger — even if he's shot the ball poorly in the playoffs and done nothing to shed the "You're not winning anything if Danny Granger is your go-to guy" label, he's done an effective impersonation of a loose cannon in the Miami series. I loved how he went out of his way to mix it up with LeBron these last two games; Granger and David West clearly believe they're the toughest people in this series and carry themselves that way, even if that's not necessarily true.)

The Kris Jenner Award for "Best Impersonation of an Overbearing Momager During the Playoffs"

Normally you'd just pencil in Ray Allen's mother here, but no! Here comes Pam McGee charging down the stretch! AND SHE TAKES THE LEAD! AND SHE'S GONNA WIN IT!!!!!!! I'm actually going through Pam McGee withdrawal in Round 2 — couldn't we make her a sideline reporter or something? She always seemed like she was one bad call on McGee away from charging onto the court, grabbing one of the referees by their earlobe and making them apologize to her son as JaVale says, "No, Momma, no!"

The Theo Ratliff's Expiring Contract Award for "Most Times Per Minute That Someone's Name Is About to Be Ejaculated by ESPN.com's Trade Machine"

To Rudy Gay, who spent Round 1 being defended by Caron Butler (playing with a broken hand), Randy Foye (six inches shorter than Gay) and Nick Young (who spent the last 25 years carefully constructing his life so the word "defense" was never involved) and submitted these numbers: 19.0 PPG, 42.1% FG, 21.1% 3FG, 5.7 FTA, 15.2 PER … and in the fourth quarter of Game 7, had more turnovers (one) than made field goals (zero) as the Clippers pulled away in Memphis.

So what happens now? The Grizzlies are sitting at $62 million in 2013, and that's not counting O.J. Mayo (a restricted free agent). Should they dump Gay's contract to a young team with cap space (Toronto, Cleveland, Portland, New Orleans, etc.) for a 2012 lottery pick? Could they flip him to Minnesota for Derrick Williams? What if they flipped him for Tyreke Evans (who makes one-third as much money)? Am I overrating his value? Should they keep him and let Mayo leave? And how much easier would this decision be had the Grizzlies picked James Harden instead of Hasheem Thabeet? That reminds me …

The Sam Jones/Manu Ginobili/Dennis Johnson/Walt Frazier Award for "Best Job Lurking in the Weeds and Raising Your Game When It Matters Most"

To James Harden, who gave us the most important moment of Round 1: Game 4 in Dallas, when Harden drove the dying Mavs to the veterinarian's office and put them down himself. Oklahoma City's ceiling before that game: "If Westbrook and Durant aren't making jumpers, there's no Plan B." Oklahoma City's ceiling after that game: "Actually, there is a Plan B — they can just turn things over to Harden, let him create for everyone else and keep going to the rim."

Oh, and just in case you worried that performance was a fluke, Harden repeated it against the Lakers in Game 2. That spawned an "Is Harden an original prototype?" e-mail thread with me and two die-hard NBA buddies — we finally decided that he has a chance (repeat: a chance) to become Ginobili 2.0, an even more athletic/durable/potent lefty two-guard who gets better when it matters. It's in play.

(I will now go into my archives and destroy every snarky sentence I ever wrote about OKC taking Harden over Stephen Curry.)

The Ari After Medellín Award for "Most Panicked Performance by an Agent After a Colossal Stink Bomb"

With all due respect to Ramon Sessions's agent (Jared Karnes), I'm giving this one to Steve Novak's agent (the likable Mark Bartelstein), who probably had the following conversation with Steve right after the Miami series.

"Steve, what the hell happened?"

"I don't know, they stayed home on me — they wouldn't let me shoot."

"I mean … you realize we just flushed $16 million down the toilet, right?"

"Can't we just call Billy King and pretend I was hurt during the series?"

"Good point! I'll call him right now."

(On the flip side … )

The Robert Downey Jr's Agent After The Avengers Opened Award for "Most Times Someone Screamed Ka-Ching in a 72-Hour Span"

To David Falk, the agent of Roy Hibbert … a restricted free agent who might be looking at a Marc Gasol–like payday if he keeps dominating this Miami series like he dominated Game 3 (19 points, 18 rebounds, five blocks). Are you emotionally prepared to live in a world in which Roy Hibbert makes $15 million a year? Me neither.

The Bizarro Isiah Thomas Award for "Best Performance by an NBA Legend After His Playing Career Ended"

Do you realize that the Legend is the first human being to win a Rookie of the Year award, MVP award, "Coach of the Year" award and "Executive of the Year" award? Let's see THAT happen again! LONG LIVE THE LEGEND!!!!!


The Another 48 Hrs. Award for "Worst Title Defense"

Two schools of thought: (a) the only thing that matters is winning a title, and (b) part of winning a title is defending that title. I believe the latter, which is why I remain lukewarm on the '83 Sixers as an All-Time Greatest Team (they got bounced the following year in a humiliating Round 1 loss to New Jersey), and why I love the '86 Celtics so much (they were banged up the following spring and could have rolled over, but they didn't). Dallas's willingness to toss away their title defense for cap space (and the "chance" at Dwight Howard and Deron Williams) always seemed a little too clever, as well as a massive underestimation of everything Chandler did on and off the court.1

What rarely gets mentioned here: Had they convinced Chandler to take a little less to stay, they could have pursued Deron Williams this summer (with Dirk and Chandler as the bait) and maybe even used Chandler as trade bait for a sign-and-trade for Howard (either in February or this summer, which wouldn't have been any more callous than how they treated Chandler, anyway). And they could have actually defended their title.

Here's where a Mavs fan might say, "I don't care, we won the title." Yeah, but you also won the "One of the Worst Title Defenses Ever" title. In the Shot Clock Era, only two defending champs missed the playoffs: the '99 Bulls (no MJ or Pippen) and '70 Celtics (no Russell or Sam Jones), but since both teams were rebuilding, you can't totally blame them. Four other defending champs were bounced in Round 1: the 1981 Lakers (lost a best-of-three miniseries to Moses Malone's Rockets), 1984 Sixers (lost a five-gamer to Micheal Ray's Nets), 2007 Heat (swept by Chicago) and 2012 Mavs (swept by Oklahoma City). That's a short list. The Mavs outsmarted themselves; heck, they couldn't even complain about Lamar Odom as he stole money from them for four straight months, because Odom's agent (Jeff Schwartz) represents Williams as well.

And by the way … why are we so convinced that NBA free agents are so desperate to play in Dallas again? Because they want to play with Nowitzki … who's about to turn 34 and cross the 45,000-minute career barrier? Because they want to play for Cuban … who didn't take care of Nash in 2004 or Chandler in 2011 when both guys wanted to stay? You don't think players around the league noticed how Cuban handled Chandler's situation? Even if we've learned not to count out Cubes (especially when things look bleak), I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't grab a do-over for the last 11 months.

The MJ's Hitler 'Stache Award for "Funniest Ongoing Moment in the Same Commercial They Keep Showing During the Playoffs"

You know that iPhone commercial with Sam Jackson in which he keeps asking Siri questions? After a Phoenix reader named Patrick e-mailed three weeks ago, "Does anyone else keep waiting for Samuel Jackson to ask Siri, 'What does Marcellus Wallace look like? WHAT DOES MARCELLUS WALLACE LOOK LIKE???'" … I can't help it, I laugh every time. Can't they film a second commercial with Jackson and Travolta dressed like Jules and Vincent and asking Siri for directions?

Vincent: "Siri — take me to the closest sauna."

Jules: "Why the (bleep) do you want to go to a (bleeping) sauna, Vincent?"

Vincent: "You don't have to come, Jules."

Jules: "I just think it's weird, that's all."

Vincent: "It's weird to sit in a sauna and sweat out toxins."

Jules: "No — that part isn't that weird, but we both know that's why you aren't going to a (bleeping) sauna!!!!!!"

Vincent: "Settle down, Jules! I don't like what you're implying here."

Jules: "No, I'm not gonna settle down! This sauna thing creeps me out, Vincent!"

Vincent: "You're working my last nerve, Jules … "

The Scott Layden Award for "Shakiest Slew of Fringe Signings That May Have Inadvertently Crippled a Championship Contender Before It Won Anything"

Hey, Pat Riley … if you had to do it over again, would you give Haslem, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Joel Anthony and Mario Chalmers a combined $20 million this season?

The Herm Edwards "We Can Build On This!" Award for "Things You Can't Actually Build On, Even If You Say You Can Build On Them"

To the precocious Jazz, who unexpectedly barged into the playoffs before getting trounced by the Spurs to the degree that Al Jefferson said that he didn't know if anyone was beating San Antonio this spring … only they hadn't played Game 4 yet. Whoops. By making the playoffs, they also had to give a lottery-protected pick in a deep draft to Minnesota as part of the Jefferson trade from years back. Yes, I'm fighting off the urge to make the "anytime you can give up the 18th pick to get swept by an average of 16 points per game, you have to do it" joke.

(The good news for Jazz fans: David Kahn is making that pick.)

The John Stockton Award for "Dirtiest Star Who for Whatever Reason Isn't Actually Considered Dirty"

I love how Wade plays — he's a throwback to those halcyon days when NBA players acted like men, delivered hard fouls, stink-eyed opponents, tossed an occasional message elbow, flipped out in huddles and relied on the mental side as much as the physical side. You can't be against flopping and half-assed flagrant foul calls while also being anti-Wade. Then again, as Vegas reader Robert Anderson explains: "Wade DISLOCATES Rondo's elbow. Wade BREAKS Kobes nose. Wade BODY-BLOCK TACKLES Collison. Forget Metta World Peace, the biggest threat to player safety (and biggest NBA brat) is D Wade!!!" I wouldn't go THAT far … but he's one more "frustrated clothesline of someone" into becoming a borderline villain. At the very least, everyone in Indiana thinks Dwyane is a dcik. (Waiting.) Sorry, I had to.

Here were the other villains of the 2012 playoffs so far: the fire extinguisher that assaulted Amar'e; Derrick Rose's ACL; the ABC producer who didn't cut away from Baron Davis's knee in time (giving us five extra seconds to look at Baron's obliterated kneecap, which almost looked like it had five knuckles covering it; Shaq; Shaq again; my positive Clippers column last week (which somehow injured both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that same night and ruined the Clippers' season); the Clippers' stupefying comeback in Game 1 of the Grizzlies series (which, tragically, displaced one of my favorite Celtics victories ever to become the greatest playoff comeback ever); Mike Woodson's perfectly groomed circle beard (which makes all the other circle beards feel inadequate); referee Marc Davis (who's heard more anguished "DONAGHY!!!!!!!!" screams from fans this postseason than every other official combined); Joakim Noah's ankle sprain; and especially Carlos Boozer (a much-needed scapegoat for traumatized Bulls fans after his 1-for-11 stink bomb in Game 6).

The "HIS FATHER IS THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY!!!!!" Award for "Most Shameless Promotion of a New TV Show That's Destined to Fail"

Do I even need to say the name of the show? Here's a hint: It rhymes with "Jerk It."

The Brian's Song Award for "Sports Moment That Should Have Always Been Accompanied by Really Sad Piano Music"

To every shot of Derrick Rose sitting in his luxury suite during the last few games of the Philly-Chicago series.2 You know what I realized somewhere between the 79th and 103rd time? Isn't Rose the best basketball player who ever blew out his ACL? Considering no MVP winner ever tore an ACL the following year — or at any point in their prime, as far as I can tell — your default answer here might be "yes."

Digging deeper, the biggest NBA knee injuries ever were probably Elgin Baylor (Game 1, 1965 playoffs, was never really the same), Amar'e Stoudemire (the microfracture surgery that knocked him out for the 2005-06 season), Gus Johnson (ask your dad or granddad about him), Tim Hardaway (a terrifying offensive talent who was never totally the same after tearing his ACL before the 1993-94 season, when he would have played with C-Webb, Mully and Spree on a team that won 50 games without him), Rick Barry (during his ABA days), Billy Cunningham (abruptly ended his career), Danny Manning (derailed his career before it ever really got going), Ron Harper (young Ron was better than anyone remembers now), Wilt Chamberlain (ruptured his patellar tendon 12 games into the 1969-70 season and was never totally the same), Mark Price (his career was heading in a Stocktonish direction before he blew out his ACL in his fifth season), Greg Oden (whose career never got going, obviously), Bernard King (coming off a transcendent '84 playoffs and averaging 33 a game) and probably two more that I can't remember.

I don't know if there's any way to answer this (but that's never stopped me before). For me, Baylor's injury ranks first, just because of his pedigree (seven seasons, seven straight first-team All-NBAs when he went down) and its effect on the title picture (the Lakers made the Finals in '65, '66, '68, '69 and '70 AFTER Elgin's knee injury, and no, he was never quite the same). After that, it's Rose and Bernard in some order — you'd give Rose the edge because the 2012 Bulls were much more of a contender than the 1985 Knicks, but shit, Bernard was ripping through the league when he went down. Try to look at his March box scores without grunting out loud. Begrudgingly, I'm putting Rose second and Bernard third. But I had to think about it. Either way, this is depressing. Let's move on.

The John Carter Award for "Moment When You Realized Everything Needed to Be Blown Up"

To Oklahoma City possibly sweeping the Lakers … which, of course, will lead to the inevitable Bynum trade (for a one-year Dwight Howard rental) and the inevitable Gasol trade (for multiple pieces), as well as Mike Brown's inevitable firing, Phil Jackson's inevitable return, and everything else that will probably work out in their favor because this is what happens historically for the Lakers. God, I hate the Lakers.

The Lena Dunham Award for "Finest Performance in the Face of the Backlash to the Backlash of the Backlash's Backlash"

To LeBron James, who's the best player in the league, hands down, only we're never going to fully appreciate him for everything he does (and that's a damned shame) … but man, there's never been a better player who disappears more noticeably down the stretch or seems happier NOT to touch the ball on massive possessions. Then again, his crunch-time numbers are better than you think, and when you throw in his two-way intensity and his minutes load, what LeBron James does from night to night is incredible and you'd have to be an idiot not to appreciate it … but on the flip side, if he'd ever learned a real low-post game, maybe Miami wouldn't miss Chris Bosh this much, and if he had looked for a more complete team two years ago instead of aligning with two other All-Stars, maybe he wouldn't be playing so many minutes and doing so many things to cover up so many players … and that's fine, but he's this generation's best talent and WE NEED TO START FULLY APPRECIATING LEBRON JAMES FOR EVERYTHING HE DOES AND STOP PICKING HIM APART (!!!!!!!) … and (my head hurts).3

The Tim Tebow's Playoff Game-Winning 80-Yard TD Award for "Most Hard-Core Recent Evidence That the Mayans May Have Been Right About 2012"

As Kentucky reader Jonathan B. points out, "If the Heat blow this Indiana series, on May 30th, Cleveland has a 13.8% chance of fulfilling Dan Gilbert's prophecy of winning a title before LeBron does."

The John Bender Award for "Best Unfinished Story That's Probably Even Better If You Don't Know How It Finishes"

The funniest moment of the playoffs: when Barkley joked about an injured Caron Butler getting dressed so quickly during a Memphis-Clippers game that he took a "Cliff Robinson Shower," then Kenny and Shaq laughing knowingly, like they knew exactly what he meant … you know, like Cliff Robinson's showers were infamous within NBA circles. Did all three play with Cliff before? Were Cliff's showers so legendary within NBA circles that it didn't matter if you played with him or not? Did he shower and get dressed without drying off? Did Cliff have terrible B.O. — in other words, he didn't shower, and that was the joke? And which Cliff Robinson were they discussing here? Was it 1980s Cliff Robinson (Cliff 1.0) or 1990s Cliff Robinson (Cliff 2.0)?

Because my life revolves around wasting time to figuring out ultimately meaningless answers, I scurried over to basketball-reference.com to see if Cliff 1.0 and/or Cliff 2.0 had been a teammate of Chuck, Kenny and/or Shaq. Only Chuck played with Cliff 1.0 (in Philly from 1985 to 1989), so that's probably who he meant … but if that's the case, then why did Shaq laugh so knowingly, when Cliff 1.0 retired in 1992, the year before Shaq entered the league? I thought about calling TNT and asking Barkley directly, then I realized something. It's more fun NOT knowing. The Cliff Robinson shower can be whatever you want it to be. So here's how I'm choosing to interpret it: Cliff 1.0 never showered and stunk like holy hell, to the point that name-dropping him 20 years after he retired would still get a laugh.

The Diane Lane Award for "Most Uncanny Ability to Totally Defy One's Age"

We're splitting this award between Garnett and Duncan, both of whom are playing better than they ever have in years — repeat, YEARS — and reinvented their careers and teams in the process. In my 2011 NBA Playoff Preview I wrote, "Here's the reality: The Spurs were always Tim Duncan's team. Once he stopped being the best player in every playoff series, they stopped winning titles." Suddenly, they're looking like Duncan's team again, and just like Duncan, they haven't looked this good in five years. You could say the same for Garnett: The ceiling of the best possible Celtics performance is the highest it's been since January 2009, and only because of the way he's playing on both ends.

Coming off a brutally condensed regular season that was supposed to wear out the older players, does this make any sense whatsoever? NO!!!!!!!!!! It doesn't even begin to make sense!!!! In February, I saw both play in person and had the same thought for each: "Damn, it's a little tough seeing them playing on one leg like this." Now they're flying around like it's 2003 again? Do you want to make the "Did they charter a plane to Germany over the All-Star break?" joke, or should I take it?

(Let's just end this column before I jinx this whole thing.)

Permalink

Kerith Gabriel: Califf trade soap opera

By: timbersfan, 5:11 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

In what might go down as one of the most bizarre trades in the history of Major League Soccer, defender Danny Califf was the star of the Union’s latest mini-drama.

In fact, his deal completed the trilogy of daytime dramas starring former Union players. Remember “Oh Michael Orozco Fiscal, where art thou?” and who can forget January’s Academy Award winner: “A Le Toux scorned.”

I’m not sure what to call Califf’s tale of woe, but if I were to ask him for a working title, it probably would be one laced with expletives and disdain for a club he poured 2 1/2 years of blood, sweat and an offseason knee surgery into.

Califf’s version of the story, told first to the Daily News, is one riddled with angst and sleepless nights and devoid of wife Erin, who, when informed by her husband of his off-again, on-again trade situation, became “a wreck on the other line, 3,000 miles away.”

According to Califf, 32, he was told by Union boss Peter Nowak that along with Chivas, lowly Toronto FC also wanted his services. And that given the choice to weigh the two options it was a no-brainer.

But that wasn’t the issue here.

The issue for Califf was listening to Nowak on Wednesday spin the story his captain was eager to return to California to continue his MLS career where it began 12 years ago while a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“It made me want to throw up,” said Califf.

But while he repeatedly admitted that Nowak kept him in the loop, Califf said it still felt like being kept in the dark, at the same time.

“I think Peter was forthcoming in the fact that there were rumors, offers or whatever for a trade,” said Califf. “Between myself and Toronto and to be fair to him he did tell me about the offers. But at that point, how do you take that? Your coach is telling you there’s offers, but there are offers all the time so the only way you can take that is they were looking to get rid of me.”

Califf, however, remained mum until the dust settled late Thursday when it was announced that in return, the Union received allocation money and midfielder Michael Lahoud, a player joining an already crowded pool of young talent in the center of the park.

Don’t tell me this move wasn’t all about the Benjamins, especially with July’s summer-transfer window looming.

“Change is never easy and when you give your heart to something and much of yourself, and it all gets ripped out from under you, that part of yourself is essentially ripped away,” said Califf. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a scab and then ripping the Band-Aid off over and over and over again. I understand that these types of trades happen in professional sports all the time, I mean I am not stupid to this fact, but we were just in a really good place as a family [here in Philadelphia] and that’s why it hurt so bad.”

The Union pawning Califf lifts his six-figure salary off the books but it also removed one of the few outspoken personalities in the locker room. Califf was a leader as much on the field as off, visiting hospitals and reading books at schools and known to have a pint or two with supporters. It’s even rumored that during his end of days here in Philadelphia, he did the latter at a local pub.

“There was plenty of drama in Philly, plenty of stuff that doesn’t need to get rehashed, and a lot of that involves me unfortunately,” said Califf. “But I’m just trying to realize this situation, get my feet under me and wrap my head around the fact that I am walking into a locker room full of faces I don’t know.”

The whole deal was one for the bizarro-files, as in spite of the trade pending only approval from Major League Soccer, according to Nowak, Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser and Goats general manager Jose Domene saw things a lot differently. After getting wind of Nowak’s comments Wednesday, Fraser and Domene were seen leaving a morning training session in haste, with Domene telling an ESPN reporter that the two “have to put out a fire.”

The fire appears to be that while Nowak believed Califf was on his way, Fraser hadn’t read all the fine print, and according to an ESPN report, there was no deal yet at the time of Nowak’s presser. Though he admitted talks were ongoing, Fraser seemed miffed that Nowak would make such information public before things were finalized.

“At this point I would say … I guess until any deal is done, you can’t say for sure,” Fraser said. And when asked at the time if Califf would even join Chivas, he added, “I am not sure how to answer that, to be quite honest. I hate to be evasive, but I can’t say more than that. We are very much in a discussion with them.”

Except pending league approval, according to Nowak, the deal between the two sides was wrapped and on Wednesday (barring official announcement) Califf became the last non-rookie Union original to leave the locker room in exchange for a player to be named and “something else,” according to Nowak.

So why the secrecy from Chivas? That in itself was a mystery and a whole other column…

Perhaps the one person who played it smart in all this was Califf. When I reached out to him via text earlier this week, he responded only by saying: “I know I said I would talk, please don’t think I am dodging or ignoring you. Thank you, Danny.” It was perhaps the savviest play in this whole fiasco considering he’s the one caught in the thick of it. Erin Califf didn’t share her husband’s sentiment and posted on the Union’s Facebook page: “My husband DID NOT WANT to be traded — The Truth” after the reports of what Nowak said Wednesday got out. The post was later taken down.

The dust has settled on this situation, and in retrospect, with minimal damage. But it’s hard to deny that this is yet another occasion involving the Union where the transition hasn’t been seamless. When asked if he saw any similarities in the way he and many other former Union players took their final exits, Califf quipped: “The only difference is that my exit took a few days longer.”

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LA Story Part One: Chivas USA

By: timbersfan, 4:53 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

I'm standing on a patch of grass in the infamous Lot 13 of the Home Depot Center, as Julio Ramos, the unofficial Chivas Mayor and core member of the Union Ultras, towers aboveme, talking about his love for his team. Somewhere off to the left of us, on the other side of a hedge that functionsas a ceremonial divide between supporters groups, the Black Army 1850 are firing up the grill for their pre-game party. To our right Julio's fellow Ultra, the self-styled "Rey Misterio", is folding "Anti-Galaxy" scarves and unpacking a beer cooler for the Ultras' own pre-game ritual. Behind us, a temporary stage has been set up and a young dance troupe are performing a routine to a Jay-Z track, as a crowd yells them on.

Julio ignores the chaos as he tries to explain what Chivas USA meansto him, as someone raised in a Mexican family with ties to Chivas Guadalajara, and who is now raising a family himself in the Los Angeles epicenter of the Southern Californian immigrant experience. As he talks, numerous kids are swarming off to the side of us in a tactic-free pursuit of a luridly colored ball. It ricochets dangerously close to the Ultras beer cooler and Misterio glances up sharply. The kids look wholly unperturbed – the atmosphere at the Ultras pre-game tailgating is utterly unthreatening – the heat, the collegiate setting, the lawns and flower beds make this feel like a slightly boozy high school graduation party. Julio watches the scene indulgently. I ask him how he got his honorific of Chivas Mayor and he shrugs: "Everybody knows me round here. Everybody knows the passion I have for the team – for me it's not a team, it's a religion."

You need a special kind of faith to be a Chivas USA supporter in Los Angeles - let alone MLS. As our regular Chivas previewer for the Guardian, and editor of The Goat Parade blog, Alicia Ratterree puts it:

What is it like to be a Chivas fan? To me, Chivas USA don't like jumping on the bandwagon. They like an underdog, and have a bit of a contrarian streak. They have to put up with a lot of abuse from opposing fans, so they are tough. How many fans in MLS are told their team is a "failure" and that the club needs to fold? Only Chivas.

Leaving aside the difficulties and hang ups of sharing a stadium with the wealthy and (last season at least) all-conquering LA Galaxy side, Chivas USA arrived in the league too late to be one of the MLS originals, or near-originals, like today's opponents Chicago Fire, and too early to ride the wave of supporter-culture that characterizes the current success stories of MLS 2.0 sides such as the Cascadia teams of Portland, Vancouver and Seattle. As I talkwith Julio, he is quick to acknowledge there have been mistakes and that other sides seem to have reaped the benefit of the lessons, but he is resistant to the idea of Chivas as a cautionary tale. He's also insistent that all that is needed is for the team to do a better job with telling people who they are. It begs the obvious question, who are they then? Julio becomes animated by this:

Listen - Chivas USA, to me, is a team that represents the American dream for all the immigrants, because Chivas USA represents the pueblo. El pueblo is like the main hardcore people of Los Angeles -which are people from Mexico, Puerto Rico… everybody – all the immigrants that come to the United States. Because that is what the name Chivas USA is telling you – we all came to live the American dream. Chivas USA represents all of those people, hard-working people, where the only thing we want is to succeed and to give our best to this country and honor Chivas in this league.

As we talk more it becomes apparent that his sense of how best to honor that identity is a complex one – Julio is somewhat critical of the team's original public statements, emphasizing a Latino selection policy, that characterized the team's entry into the league (and which were, predictably, quietly abandoned asthe expansion side began to deal with the real-politic of operating within the roster restrictions of MLS). Now, he says, the fans just want the best team on the field, whether they're "Latino, Asian, whatever…".

To a supporter of any other side in MLS, such a statement would be a no-brainer, but such is the life of a Chivas USA fan - both proud of, and somewhat inhibited by, the legacy of parent team Club Deportivo Guadalajara. Historically, Guadalajara are the most successful team in Mexican soccer (notably, the club crests of the two sides are replicas, but for the 11 stars, for 11 national championships, that adorn Guadalajara's badge...), built on a legacy of exclusively using players of Mexican origin. When their 'little brother', Chivas USA, entered MLS in 2005, they brought that legacy, a recognizable brand, even a branchof the Guadalajara supporters club - but they also carried a weight of expectation and an identity that hasn't yet fully translated to the local market and the contingencies of the emerging domestic game in North America. What has happened though, is that supporter groups like the Ultras and the Black Army have taken shape - groups that try to support the team in the specific context of their existence in California and MLS, rather than as an imitation of another team that suffers by comparison. Many (most) are Guadalajara fans too, but have thrown themselves into celebrating their local team. And in celebrating what they have, rather than what they lack, they've found a voice.

I ask Julio what he thinks of the current incarnation of the team.He's impressed by Coach Robin Fraser's eye for a player, but less impressed by his conservative style of play ("We addressed the defense already. Believe in them. Believe in Kennedy… let our guys attack"). But he sees lots of positives in the squad: The excellent keeper (Dan) Kennedy, of course, and captain Oswaldo Minda, but also "Smith, Riley, The Columbians, Moreno...we have talented players. They just..."

He tails off. There's an undercurrent of anxiety before this game. Chivas go into it having lost each of their four opening home games 1-0, yet with puzzlingly good away form - though those who see Fraser's defense first approach as a problem sometimes point to the fact that the side looks unsure of themselves 'leading the dance' as a home side, whereas his cautious invitation to other teamsto break them down, can suit his team on the road. As it turns out they will take the lead tonight through a Juan Pablo Angel penalty, only to instantly concede an equalizer and a devastating Marco Pappa winner in stoppage time. But as the pre-game partying and back-slapping continues, that reality is still in the future.

Also in the future is the first SuperClásico of the season against their Galaxy "room mates" at the Home Depot Center. Both sides have struggled at home all season - Chivas with their litany of tight home defeats, Galaxy with a series of unexpected losses to Toronto, Real Salt Lake, New England and New York, to leave last year's unbeaten home record in tatters. By default this may be the closest contest between the two in years - since Chivas beat the Galaxy 3-0 twice in a delirious three week period in 2007, on their way to the Western Conference title, the Galaxy have won or tied every competitive game between the two - a period roughly coinciding with the Galaxy's media presence heading into the stratosphere in the Beckham years. You could understand the Chivas fans being bitter, and the Anti-Galaxy scarves suggest there's something to that, but Rey Misterio insists it's all done in humor and that while the rivalry is real, the Ultras have respect for some of the other fan groups:

You know what? We actually have a pretty friendly relationship with ACB (Angel City Brigade - now the largest Galaxy supporters group). But, you know, it's a friendly relationship when we're in the parking lot. We're having a beer and everything's cool, but once we go inside the stadium we hate each other the same way!

That particular friendly rivalry will be tested just prior to the SuperClasico (named for the nickname given to the clashes between Club América and Guadalajara), when members of the Union Ultras and Angel City Brigade will meet in their own BarraClasico game prior to the main event (The LA Riot Squad will also face off against the Black Army 1850 group). For now there are other rivalries to deal with. Looking over Rey's shoulder I notice a couple of Chicago Fire shirts who turn out to be familiar faces from the Section 8 supporters group who've arranged to meet up with the Chivas fans to tailgate before the game.

The Ultras party is well under way now - the 'Mayor' is circulating and Rey is in animated conversation with other members of the Ultras. I wander round to the Black Army side of the hedge but get waylaid and end up talking with the Section 8 guys, including their current events director Josue Gomez and original Section 8 chairman Marcin Tłustochowicz. The latter helped found one of the original Fire supporters groups, Fire Ultras, in 1998, alongside several other Polish ex-pats in the city. I ask him if he finds it unusual to be hanging out with the hardcore of opposing fans on game day and he says that on the contrary, he really appreciates "people who are into building that still fragile...ecosystem. You have to understand that there are very few of these people - and they are completely altruistic in what they do."

We talk some more about the history of Section 8 and its dizzying array of sub-groups, who somehow manageto come together to get things done, despite what Marcin jokingly calls the "Balkanization" of the support. He speaks with pride, without boasting, of Section 8's role at the forefront of the early TiFo displays to appear in MLS. We talk about his Polish roots and the passion for the game bred there - unlike Julio he doesn't want to describe it as a religion, but does say wryly that maybe he and his friends are like "Buddhist monks chanting their mantras" - it led to culture clashes and misunderstandings in the early days of their appearance on the MLS scene, he says. Opposition security teams didn't know what to make of their raucous presence and treated them as "the root of all evil." It's better now, he says, gesturing at the cheerfully indifferent Chivas security - "for the most part..."

I look past Marcin to where the dance troupe is finishing up their routine. As they clear the stage, the backdrop is clearly visible - a photo of the LA skyline emblazoned with the Chivas USA crest and the single word "Belong". Whether it's Marcin's generosity about his fellow supporters, or Julio's impassioned speech on the importance of Chivas for El Pueblo of Los Angeles, or just my own strange journey to living in this country and following MLS, from an unlikely start in Belfast, I find myself affected for a moment by the sight of that word (even as I'm berating myself for falling for a marketing slogan...). Just about everyone who has followed MLS up to this point has probably done so with a heightened sensitivity to what it means to 'belong' - at the very least to a sporting sub-culture that at times has clung on by its fingertips in North America. As we move deeper into season seventeen, and kids who've never known a time without MLS potentially start to enter the league as players, and TV networks push ever more global soccer onto US screens, an earlier evangelical fervor about belonging, on the part of that first generation, will inevitably become something else for those that follow. It'll definitely be bigger - watching the people around me, I can't imagine it will be better.

Graham Parker is a regular MLS correspondent for the Guardian.

Part two of this story - focusing onLA Galaxy - will appear next week.

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Title drought is over for City

By: timbersfan, 12:30 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

The result was what everyone expected, but the way in which Manchester City won the Premier League title -- its first in 44 years -- could never have been scripted. Well, it could have, but the script would have been thrown out of any Hollywood studio for being unbelievable, ridiculous even. You're having a laugh? Win the Premier League title in the fourth minute of stoppage time after throwing away a 1-0 lead in what was shaping up to be a monumental choke job? Get out of here. But that's exactly what Roberto Mancini's side did in beating a 10-man QPR team 3-2 in what was the most exciting finish to the league title race perhaps ever, and certainly since Liverpool versus Arsenal in 1989.

The surreal scenes that played out at Etihad Stadium were a microcosm of this crazy, oft-times inexplicable campaign that, as ESPN's Steve McManaman correctly pointed out, keeps making fools of all of us. Predictions? Good luck with that.

At Etihad Stadium, the team with the best home record in the league was going up against the team with the worst away record -- so, naturally, when Pablo Zabaleta scored his first goal of the season in the 39th minute to put City ahead 1-0, you assumed that it would be all academic from there. Riiiight.

But the Sky Blues started to choke, no two ways about it. In the 48th minute, ex-City man Shaun Wright-Phillips lofted a ball forward. Joleon Lescott, who had a subpar game and clearly a brain cramp in this instance, saw Djibril Cisse making a run off him and so headed the ball … right into the path of Cisse, who promptly blasted a volley past keeper Joe Hart.

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Joey Barton went mental in the match, first elbowing Carlos Tevez to earn a straight red card, then attacking Sergio Aguero.
The plot thickened when Joey Barton went postal in the 55th minute. Yes, Carlos Tevez took a swipe, but the notorious anger-management candidate then elbowed the Argentine in the face. The linesman saw the infraction, giving referee Mike Dean no choice -- straight red. Barton proceeded to chop down Sergio Aguero from behind and almost threw down with Mario Balotelli, who came out from the sidelines to join the fracas. The pinched-up, weasel-like face Barton made when he brought down Kun showed that no matter how deep down you lock your demons, they never truly go away.

Down to 10 men, though, QPR defended amazingly well. It'll be lost in City's miracle on grass, but the likes of Clint Hill, Anton Ferdinand, Taye Taiwo, keeper Patrick Kenny and Shaun Derry were all among the heroes, with the zero of Barton thrown in for good measure.

One of the key turning points in the match was when Yaya Toure came off at the end of the first half due to injury, replaced by Nigel de Jong. Mancini's men sorely missed the leadership and explosive game-changing runs of the Ivorian, and continued to show signs that they were snatching defeat from the claws of victory when, in the 66th minute, an unmarked Jamie Mackie got on the end of an Armand Traore cross. From there, City was in meltdown mode: Mancini was crouching on the sidelines a la Andre Villas-Boas, the horrors playing out in front of him. Missed chances, players snatching at balls, some bad luck -- all while United clung to a 1-0 lead at Sunderland.

This, truly, was what picture-in-picture was invented for.

Was this to be another United day to remember? Before the day's fixtures, Sir Alex Ferguson had hoped that something "stupid" would happen -- and it did, twice, for City by conceding two poor goals for a side that boasts the best defense in the league. And by the time it was announced that there would be five minutes of stoppage time, that had to be it, didn't it? Five minutes of funeral procession. City fans were in shock; some took out their frustrations on whatever they could grab (one young man laid the beatdown on his shirt a few times) while others stood there, silent.

But then Balotelli just missed a header on a cross, Kenny making another of the many top-class saves of the game, before Edin Dzeko, brought on shortly after QPR's second goal, headed home on another corner. The emotion in Etihad Stadium turned from dread to hope, as City restarted as quickly as possible. Then, in Minute 4 of stoppage time, Aguero wrote himself into the team's history books by winning the Premier League title. Thankfully, given the way QPR fought, clawed and grinded out on the pitch, Mark Hughes' side, while gutted, was not relegated. The "honor" went to Bolton.

The number of emotional twists and turns in this match were absurd. United fans' hopes were dashed, then buoyed -- after throwing away an eight-point lead on Easter weekend, the Red Devils looked to improbably, impossibly nip the title in the end -- and finally, crushed. Stomach-wrenching stuff, and City fans felt the same for most of the match. Fans needed Dramamine to get through the ups and downs.

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The last time the Sky Blues won, in 1968, they entered the final match day tied on points (56) with Manchester United before besting their rival. And no one, really, can argue that they were the better team for this season, a more powerful, dynamic side. At the same time, no one can really argue that Ferguson got the most out of his players, who were well below vintage United and will have to do some fairly considerable rebuilding for next season.

In the mind games heading into Sunday's matches, Ferguson warned that if City threw away this opportunity to win the league, it would end up haunting the club for ages, undoing all the good that some 800 million pounds of investment has done to rebuild this team. And for 94 minutes, SAF was getting his wish. But as the United players milled about the pitch at Sunderland, waiting for the result in Manchester, City staged a comeback for the ages. It had 81 percent possession to QPR's 19 percent; 19 corners to zero. But it's only the three goals that matter.

Check that, the number 44 matters most -- to City fans, anyway, while United supporters seethe at what almost was, and what may not be for a long time as the Sky Blues build toward a dynasty rich in talent and British pounds.

Now, after weeks of saying United were the favorites to win the title, Mancini can finally ditch his poker face and revel in a truly monumental achievement.

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Will you root for Chelsea or Bayern?

By: timbersfan, 12:27 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

I have cheered for the Germans just twice in my life. Once when my seventh-grade history class learned how Austria and Prussia joined Britain and Russia to put Napoleon back in his box after his return from exile in 1815. And a second time when Manchester United faced Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final.

I watched that game in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., at my local bar, which was overflowing with English Premier League fans. When Bayern's dead-ball specialist Mario Basler spanked a free kick past Peter Schmeichel in the Manchester United goal after just six minutes, I sprang off my barstool, punched the air and emitted a belly laugh that was James Earl Jones-deep in tenor.

To my horror, the celebration was a solo affair, met by crickets. The bar man, a gregarious United fan, broke the silence by publicly dressing me down. "Roger, you're English! How could you?" he exclaimed, adding, with a hint of jingoism, "Besides, they're German. Does war mean nothing to you?"

The bar was too packed and the game too gripping for me to debate the point. Suffice it to say, when United summoned two stunning goals in injury time to pull off a miracle victory (now known, in modern parlance, as "Manchester City-esque") I was as crushed as if I had been Bavarian, born and bred.

I will admit to experiencing a sense of unease in the wake of United's victory. A brief and rare period of self-examination followed in which I attempted to understand what had possessed me to renounce the land of my birth and emotionally invest my support in a foreign power, albeit for 90 minutes. I forget what conclusions I drew at the time, but any team featuring Gary Neville, David Beckham, Andy Cole and the Whitewalker, Jaap Stam, must have been all too easy to despise. If they had lined up against a "Historic Despots XI" featuring Vlad the Impaler in goal, Genghis Khan in the holding midfield role and King Joffrey slotting in the hole behind Attila the Hun, I would have cheered for the guys with blood on their hands.

On the eve of this Saturday's Champions League final, I am faced by the same predicament. Bayern Munich stars again, this time against the relentless Chelsea. Thirteen years later and, theoretically, 13 years wiser, I must define a rooting interest once again -- a task complicated by soccer support tending toward the emotional than rational, and is often all the more powerful for being inarticulate.

Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge made an early and bold claim that his team will be the neutrals' choice, proclaiming, "There are many non-Bayern fans who will be keeping their fingers crossed for us." But if you are an English Premier League fan of a team other than Chelsea, by what criteria do you go about making a decision?

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Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
Chelsea might not be the most likeable team, but Arjen Robben and Bayern Munich have their share of detractors, too.
1. If you believe in fairytales ...

Bayern impressed in outlasting Real Madrid on penalties after disposing of Basel and Marseille in convincing fashion, but Chelsea's Champions League odyssey has been carved from the same lore as St. George and the Dragon. Roberto Di Matteo inherited a confused squad low on confidence after the failed Andre Villas-Boas experiment. The collective levels of courage and determination the players displayed to come back from the dead against Napoli were awe-inspiring. Watching the muscle and resilience they used to vanquish Barcelona may have been akin to looking on helplessly as Gargamel defenestrated Smurfs, but the admirable qualities were undeniable.

For the final, Chelsea must go into the cauldron of Bayern's home Allianz Arena, crippled by suspensions to John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires. One more backs-against-the-wall performance will win it all.

Conclusion: If you love fairytales, albeit of the Brothers Grimm variety, Chelsea is the team for you.

2. If you like to wrap yourself in flags ...

The drama of the Premier League is driven by the intense rivalries forged over decades of competition, but once the teams cross the English Channel, there is a school of thought that suggests regional rivalries are trumped by national pride. My partner in the "Men In Blazers" podcast, Michael Davies, is the living embodiment of this perspective. Few men are prouder to carry the Queen's Crest on their passport. Few believe more ardently that the spleen and bile spewed within the Premier League on a weekly basis should simply fall away when there are foreigners on the other side of the ball.

Conclusion: If you are an Anglophile or believe the sun is yet to set on the British Empire, Chelsea, as an English Premier League representative, is playing for God and Country.

3. If you are a Spurs fan ...

Your team's roller-coaster Premier League season was sufficient to grab fourth place. You have one hand on the EPL's fourth and final Champions League place, which only a Chelsea victory can rip from your fingers.

Your choice is simple: Scream for Bayern as if you were at a Rammstein concert.

4. If in Arsene you trust ...

Arsenal fans view the world through the narrow prism of their North London rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur. Most hunger for the Chelsea victory that will deprive Spurs of their coveted Champions League spot, dooming them to the footballing circle of hell known as the Europa League. But a number of particularly sadomasochistic Gunners will pine for a more complex scenario, as the notion of Chelsea becoming the first London team to lift the Champions League trophy would be too much for their sensitive constitutions to bear.

Conclusion: Cheer for Bayern and hope that Spurs propensity to self-harm leads them to implode and suffer a speedy elimination in the Champions League qualifying round.

5. If you are handcuffed by a sense of morality and value ...

Outside of the Champions League, Chelsea's season has been stained by incident and controversy: charges of racism against Terry and the subsequent barracking of QPR's Anton Ferdinand, whose only crime was to be the alleged target of racist abuse; the ongoing saga of on-again, off-again prematch handshakes; the booing of Liverpool's minute's silence at Wembley. All have been well-covered. All can make Chelsea hard to empathize with.

But football is a game of the gray, not of black and white. Bayern Munich, Germany's powerhouse, may be adored by its fans, but elsewhere in the Bundesliga it is a roundly despised for its Evil Empire tendency and dubbed "FC Hollywood" or "Lucky Bayern."

Conclusion: This one may be a Sophie's Choice. Find something to root for that can sustain your interest in the game, like a meteor strike or a Hellmouth to reveal itself and swallow up the damned.

6. If you are Timothy Geithner or Suze Orman or enjoy fiddling around on TurboTax ...

The term "fiscal responsibility" is not often synonymous with global soccer, but the Guardian's David Conn has articulated the case that Bayern deserves praise for its collective ownership structure. Eighty-two percent of its shares are possessed by 130,000 members, ensuring a fan-friendly culture in which ticket prices are kept low, especially for young supporters. Chelsea's ownership structure could not be more starkly different. Step forward one Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.

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If the technical details of ownership structure leave you cold, there is one economic statistic that may yet register. Champions League glory is projected to be worth more than $178 million for the winners in terms of broadcast revenue and increased commercial potential. A treasure trove sufficient to enable Chelsea to rearm for the 2012-13 season by snapping up Napoli's Edinson Cavani, FC Porto's Hulk and Everton's Marouane Fellaini.

Conclusion: If you are a dollar-conscious fan of one of Chelsea's rivals hoping to challenge for the Premier League title next year, pray for Bayern.

The $178 million argument is sufficient to send me scurrying to storage to dust off the lederhosen. Bayern will be my team. A reality that has been sugarcoated by its recent, remarkable revelation of a secret anti-Nazi history.

So come kickoff, I will roar for Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to exploit the width with which they bypassed Real Madrid; beseech Toni Kroos to control the game with his precision passing; urge the clumsy yet deadly Mario Gomez to shin a couple tricklers over the line from point-blank distance; and hope to end the game singing, "Gibt es denn was Schöneres als einen Bayern-Sieg?" ("Is there anything nicer than a Bayern victory?")

A sentiment I will believe with all my heart, for one night only.

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The unofficial La Liga awards

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com
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A season of records. A season of surprises. A season of two footballing superpowers fighting each other to a standstill. The best battle to date between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a farewell to Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho's crowning triumph, plus goodbye to Villarreal and the resurgence of Athletic Bilbao.

The 2011-12 season has been epic and enjoyable; though all the prizes will not be properly distributed until the Copa del Rey final a week from Friday, here is our version of how the alternative prizes should be handed out.

The "And now, the end is Near …" Award
In many ways it is sad to be saying goodbye so soon to an innovator, winner and soccer stylist like Guardiola, but there have been some clear, and occasionally startling, visual indications this season that his temperature was reaching the boiling point and a cooling-off period might be appropriate.

For example, when Cesc Fabregas came off against Valencia having missed a glaring chance to score, he made a little joke about how the (crucial) third goal had taken a while to arrive. Guardiola grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, gave him a shove and used industrial language to point out that it was time he and his teammates stopped missing easy chances. The player felt that being en route to the ample final result (5-1) meant that the heat was off while the coach wanted the heat to remain at blowtorch level all season.

When Alexis pulled up injured at home against Sporting Gijon, his manager gave him a coruscating burst of anger -- again, including language we had better not reproduce here -- and even took his hand away from his mouth, where it had begun in an initial attempt to keep the outburst hidden from the watching TV cameras. Suddenly he didn't care about the world hearing his rant.

Increasingly Guardiola was edgy with the media, angry with his players and frustrated that small, important details were going awry.

By the time I saw him sitting on the bench against Real Madrid and Chelsea with his head in his hands as La Liga and the Champions League both slipped away, it was clear that the moment he'd always promised would come (burnout) had arrived. How Barcelona fares without him is not the point. It was time for a decent, intelligent, but seriously intense, man to move on. For his own good.

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Dani Pozo/AFP/GettyImages
Karim Benzema's in fine form heading into Euro 2012 -- 21 goals and 7 assists in La Liga this season, with his strike at Osasuna a major highlight.
Goal of the Season: Karim Benzema at Osasuna
There has been such a glut of goals from Messi that perhaps it should be obligatory to pick one of his to celebrate a feat that, to me, seems superhuman. However, Benzema's outrageously audacious strike in Pamplona at the most crucial time of the season needs to be given credit.

It came at a ground at which Madrid had lost two and drawn one of the past three visits and in the middle of a Liga spell that saw Mourinho's team drop six points in draws against Malaga, Villarreal and Valencia. In theory, the visit to Osasuna was a test of fire.

But in reality, the Frenchman's sixth-minute goal, volleyed from an acute angle back across Andres Fernandez into the far top corner from Ronaldo's left wing cross, broke the spirit of the home team and gave Madrid what was a vital push toward the title, in that it could play the subsequent Camp Nou Clasico with a healthy points gap. Chapeau, mon brave!

Saddest sight of the season
There are mere minutes left in what has been an anemic, damaging and often embarrassing season for Villarreal. On its bench there is a group of players bellowing at the opposition, Atletico Madrid's players, as they run to and fro.

What are they shouting? Well, World Cup winner Carlos Marchena and expensive flop winger Javi Camunas are urging Atletico Madrid to stop trying because Malaga, Atleti's rival for the final Champions League position, is winning. The concept, totally alien to the sporting values I was brought up with in Scotland, is that if things are going against you there is no shame in surrendering and, moreover, if you have the chance to do a favor to the other guys on the pitch by giving up, it's a no-brainer.

I've often stated here that Villarreal is admirable because of its achievements, the style with which it tries to play and its youth development system and because the "Yellow Submarine" has been a small dog that barks very loudly. So I'm sad that we will lose Villarreal to the second tier, but sadder still that this is the last image of its current spell in the Primera.

Raul Tamudo's late, crazy, emotional goal for Rayo Vallecano is what ultimately did for Villarreal altogether, but the players' concept that Atletico, coached by the ferociously competitive Diego Simeone, might just stop trying to do the Yellow Submarine a favor (thereby screwing Rayo into the bargain) stinks to high heaven. The fact the pleas fell on deaf ears and Radamel Falcao scored a late winner is pretty much all that those misguided players in yellow deserved.

What saddens me most of all is that in an era in which Spain's clubs are in debt to the tune of at least $1 billion and many owe great lumps of cash to the taxman, Villarreal is well-ordered financially, having sold Santi Cazorla to try to help balance the books and thus doesn't owe the Spanish taxman anything. Is relegation really a fair reward for that club, its fans and the board?

Quotes of the season
"He practically arrived at the match from the beach and wearing flip-flops but still scored three in two games against Madrid." --Gerard Pique, on Messi after Barcelona won the tumultuous Spanish Supercup, 5-4.

"If they whistled Zidane then why wouldn't they whistle me?" --Mourinho shows a bit of Zen as the Bernabeu fans jeer him.

"Coaching Madrid has been the most difficult job of my life. But the important thing is not to coach or play with Madrid ... it is to win with Madrid" --Mourinho opens up after winning the title.

"I'm empty." --Guardiola admits the cost of giving FC Barcelona the greatest four years in the club's history.

"I found out that Tito was going to replace me the same day that the club announced I was leaving." --Guardiola finding out that "The King is dead, long live the King" works as ruthlessly at the Camp Nou as it always has with monarchy.

"Even though I don't speak much Spanish yet, I reckon I'm the most entertaining guy in our dressing room. "I like being a sex symbol. "Doesn't everyone?" --Valencia's Adil Rami, a shy and retiring addition to La Liga.

"What's the point of a player having a contract if he doesn't get paid? We have to work hard to solve the problems in Spanish football." --Then-Mallorca coach Michael Laudrup, backing the players' strike.

"I'm going to retire on the pitch, not on the operating table." --Hard man Carles Puyol, prior to his second knee operation in a year. Two days after surgery, he was back in the gym.

"The defeat is the fault of one of my players who knew very well that there would be provocations like that but fell for it. I hand him part responsibility for the defeat and I've no problem in telling him that directly." -- Mourinho, on Khedira's red card in the away defeat to Levante.

"I don't have a remote control to make the players move; Cesc still has to learn that sometimes there are demands which mean that he needs to remain static rather than create anarchy." --Guardiola, on the man he bought to eventually replace Xavi.

"If I'm not optimistic about what lies in front of us, if I don't show my players that I believe that we can win then what's the point? I am the captain of this ship and even if everyone is pessimistic and loses confidence we might complete our voyage successfully but without confidence and optimism the journey will be long, tortuous and we might feel seasick. I intend that we and the fans enjoy this." --Real Betis coach Pepe Mel in October. No crewmembers were lost overboard in keeping the Verdiblancos in the Primera Liga.

"There will be no favored sons in my Spain squads." --Vicente del Bosque, on finally selecting Roberto Soldado, the very striker del Bosque signed at Real Madrid, for national duty.

Dead Heat of the Season
For the most unlikely, unpredictable and probably unrepeatable stories of this or any other campaign, it is a tale of top and bottom.

Little Levante may not have culminated its extraordinary season with a Champions League qualification place, but it will feature in the Europa League next season. Over the past three years Valencia's second club has spent just about $320,000 on signings, is working its way out of administration, has the oldest squad in La Liga and, in the remarkable 36-year-old Sergio Ballesteros, possesses the outfield player with the second-most minutes played in the league this season. UEFA action in 2012-13 will add some much needed revenue, but almost as importantly, it will raise the profile of what is now a well-run, happy club. I congratulate it.

And yet, I'm not sure how to separate Levante's uplifting tale from the astonishing events at Zaragoza. Little wonder the fans chant "Manolo Jimenez, que cojones tienes" at the coach, a song that venerates his reproductive equipment based on the remorseless bravery he's shown since taking over on Hogmanay last year.

At one stage, with the fans at war with the board and the stadium less than half full for home games, it not only looked impossible to achieve salvation but seemed like not enough people cared. But after a series of remarkable wins, 31 points in the second half of the season and a fight-back that has made Zaragoza the only team in Spanish history to be 12 points from safety but still avoiding relegation, Jimenez and his team took 45 coaches of fans to the final day win at Getafe.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File
Despite struggling as Sevilla manager, Manolo Jimenez' five months at the helm of Real Zaragoza saw a remarkable turnaround for the ailing La Liga side -- 31 points in the second half of the season helped the club avoid the drop.
The rescue operation was completed, and while there have been some who have questioned how it was achieved, I'm going to remain impressed until anyone proves that this wasn't one of the most remarkable escape acts in recent Spanish soccer history.

Biggest Sob Story
A close-run thing. Either the broken leg that cost David Villa as Barca was busy winning the World Club championship in Japan or the way in which a sumptuous Athletic Club ran out of steam in the Europa League final.
For Villa, not only did it leave his European Championship prospects in jeopardy, but the toll on FC Barcelona was enormous. Such is his character and such are his skills that I'll bet on him to return next season looking better than ever. But how soon he's able to come back will determine the size of the bill to be paid by Spain in Poland and Ukraine this summer. If it is as large as Barca has had to stump up without him, Villa is the sob story of the season.

However, the romantics will vote for Athletic. The Bilbao side, led by Marcelo Bielsa, has given us style, thrills and an outrageous European campaign, but the fact its depth of squad (in world-class terms) isn't enough to cope with so many demands was cruelly exposed in Bucharest. Hats off to Atletico -- Falcao and Diego Simeone in particular -- but we neutrals didn't get to see the soccer bonanza we deserved.

The "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" Award
We live in extraordinary times. Messi and Ronaldo scored nearly 150 goals between them this season (if you total club and country), a total that is almost unbelievable.

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The difference in their trophy haul is that while the team around Messi misfired at the crucial moment in which the two great trophies were up for grabs, Madrid (as it hunted down its first La Liga title in four years) did not.

However when Barca fired on all cylinders, Messi did what he always does -- performed on the big stage. Spanish Supercup, European Supercup, World Club Cup final -- goals and assists as Barcelona romped to all three trophies.

Ronaldo has never produced a more complete season -- 46 goals in the league and 12 assists. He has been Real Madrid's leader, scoring crucial goals in the defining victories at Atletico Madrid and Barcelona when the title was to be decided.

So respect to him and congratulations on a well-deserved La Liga victory. But Messi remains, by a distance the most complete and most dangerous footballer in the world. Some think that to win the Ballon D'Or, it's essential to win either the league title or the Champions League. I predict that the voters in this year's award will prove that to be false, and Messi, quite rightly, will win again.

As for next season -- bring it on. The sooner the better.

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The Premier League Is Sensational

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

A celebration of the 2011-12 season. With rhymes.
By Brian Phillips on May 17, 2012
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Like everyone else, I blacked out when Manchester City scored two goals in stoppage time to snatch the Premier League title from Manchester United. In my case, I woke up three days later, in a bathtub full of ice. My right kidney was missing, and a piece of paper containing the following text was folded in my hand. I have no idea what to make of this.

TO BE SUNG TO THE TUNE OF "MAJOR-GENERAL'S SONG."
With apologies to Gilbert, Sullivan, xkcd, and you.

It's very plain to see that the Premier League is sensational,
Its thrills defy laws natural and also gravitational;
If Fulham's form has frequently approached the magisterial,
Newcastle's owner looks like something found in breakfast cereal.
At Sunderland O'Neill has shown persuasive pluck and wherewithal,
At Wigan 15th place is like a potent hit of Roxanol,
And Arsenal's a paradise, utopian, spellbinding us,
As all their stars who've moved away are constantly reminding us.

The billionaire at Chelsea loves the lumpenproletariat,
While Joey Barton's mounting QPR like Secretariat;
In short, with thrills so thrilling that they're near-coeducational,
It's very plain to see that the Premier League is sensational.

Nobody noticed Swansea have the season of the century,
While Stoke somehow avoided getting sent to penitentiary;
It's true that Villa sank into deflationary tragedy,
But Norwich compensated with a fine canary strategy;
At Tottenham the situation's getting quite precarious,
Though Harry Redknapp plays a courtroom like a Stradivarius,
And Wanderers and Wolves at least have awe-inspiring alibis,
Unlike some Blackburn managers who'd like to stab Sam Allardyce.

Now, Liverpool won every year and every year would celebrate,
Till history stopped and never budged again, in 1988;
In short, for thrills that legally exceed the recreational,
It's very plain to see that the Premier League is sensational.

But Manchester's the city with the claim upon the laureate,
The place they stashed the only draft of "Land of Hope and Glory" at;
United gave the crown away, the feeling is unanimous;
I'd 8-2 meet them on a day when they weren't so magnanimous.
But if you want a club whose every action deleterious
Is countered by accountancy attacking and imperious,
Whose expeditious spending is a matter of no small chagrin,
At least for teams they greet by playing on a tiny violin,

Then you want City, champions, who'll banish Tévez, God forbid,
Before they'll forgo buying him like Everton or West Brom did;
Because for thrills numerical and hyper-aspirational,
It's very plain to see that the Premier League is sensational.

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The San Antonio Spurs VIP Experience

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on May 18, 2012

The San Antonio Spurs VIP Experience
A lifelong fan finally makes it to the good seats
By Carles on May 17, 2012
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Staying home and watching the NBA has become a comfortable routine — I've become that young guy who thinks that sports are best consumed through HDTV and an open laptop. I'm afraid of missing out on the nationally televised context through which 'America,' a.k.a. 'the Internet,' consumes the game. How could I miss all the instant Twitter humor and tidbits? Becoming a glorified 'writer on the Internet' has led me to mastery in simulating experiences as if I have actually experienced them in a personal or tangible way.

Recently, my editor ruined it all by forcing me to go to a Spurs game in San Antonio. I utilized a last-minute StubHub grab to maximize value and proximity. My mind-set was, 'If this is my only game of the season, I might as well sit really close.' There is nothing more empowering than the feeling of descending down aisles and aisles of seats. Your face makes the 'I don't belong here' grin. You wish you could build a time machine and tell your younger self that one day, it will all be OK, you will sit in the seats that you dreamed of. Then you feel like an a-hole, and realize some dude just scammed your inner child for mad bank on StubHub just because you are that à la carte consumer who has expendable income to waste on sports tickets.

I purchased proximity, status, and the opportunity to broadcast an elevated level of fandom to my social network.

I ended up sitting right behind David Robinson.

The city of San Antonio forces me to confront my past and evaluate the evolution of my fan behavior. I've gone to a few games in the past, but the majority of my Spurs memories were formed through television. This is a common middle-class experience. The only time you go to a game is when one of your parents takes advantage of a promotion through work that is basically aimed at filling some seats in the upper levels. You tell yourself that watching on TV is fine, there's no overhead, and you don't have to be one of those people who talk about 'going to the game' for the sake of inspiring the 'Where are your seats?' from the terrible people who are obsessed with status checking.

In order to 'get off the Internet' and enjoy real life, you have to surpass a break-even point that makes 'real life' worth it. A crappy seat with unlimited hot dogs, nachos, and sodas is no longer good enough for me. There is something inside all of us that is chasing the VIP experience, a special feeling that you are more important and relevant than everyone else in the context of your choice. I went through a phase of disenfranchisement and angst after too many sporting experiences in the upper deck. Sure, it's part of growing up and sitting in the cheap seats with the bros, but then you look around and see families in their 'as good as it gets' situation. I'd rather pretend that the priced-out fans don't exist, or at least hope they got a Black Friday deal on a massive television.

In a 'small-market community' like San Antonio, the franchise exists as this elite VIP status event. Basically, the city's wealthiest people create a country club of premium lower-level seats. They put on their post-frat tasteful button-downs, overpriced and strategically faded denim, and yuppie-approved seasonal shoes, then greet one another like neighbors in an exclusive gated community. These people are not exactly the 'car flag' purchasing demographic, but that's not to diminish their connection to the team based on their purchase of premium seats. Spurs fans are an army of faceless believers in our dynasty, maybe because we are the only people who believe it even exists. There really hasn't been a definitive local celebrity in the crowd since Eva Longoria informally gave up the right to attend games after the Tony Parker sext scandal.

I went to the game with my friend KevCops. We got the 'Oh this must be some a-hole off StubHub' look from the people who actually belonged in those VIP seats. KevCops seemed out of place in his post-ironic Los Spurs Noche Latina limited-edition jersey, but I think the country clubbers were eventually amused by his out-of-place heckles, especially after a gaze of death from Mo Williams. Becoming 'the class clown' is sometimes the only social survival technique for an outsider in any context.

In that moment of VIP-ness, all I could do was mimic the woman in front of me who kept taking terrible camera-phone pictures the entire game. I sent my blurry, out-of-focus photos to my closest friends and loved ones. KevCops took it further and began FaceTiming with online contacts. This was our broment, forever. It's difficult to orient yourself in your rented seats, and sensory overload can prevent you from even getting into the natural flow of the game. The game's clinching third-quarter run, where the Spurs ran away with the game, was more of an emotional experience than the usual process of neurotically checking the score in the bottom corner of your TV screen. I could get used to premium seats, but I think I would need an entire season to learn how to absorb the whole game instead of trying to read the body language of every single player.

It's always funny to discover VIP areas that you never knew existed in the lower levels of an NBA arena. Places where the hot dogs are grilled on an open flame, not left rolling on some weird metal hot dog maker. Bartenders serve cocktails to premium customers, instead of those diabetes-inducing frozen margaritas in large collectible cups. Employees in this section seem like they are trained in customer service, not just fetching stadium food. When it comes to the game, there's obviously so many 'nuances that you can only pick up in real life': the ability to notice size differences of players, seeing the passing angles that Chris Paul takes, being close enough to remind Nick Young that he'll always be a Wizard.

It's human nature to want to be close to something or someone that we love, but I feel like the hunt for the VIP experience within our beloved pastimes has created a new fan dynamic at any relevant cultural event. For some people this drive is a fatal personality flaw that makes them the most annoying people in their Facebook feeds, but it is also a driving spirit of our economy to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and into a VIP area. There is an ultimate VIP experience we're all searching for, in which we have unparalleled access, proximity, and the ability to broadcast to our immediate social network how close we are to famous people.

On the other hand, it's weird to 'be an adult' and finally understand how much things cost. Will I ever have enough money to buy premium season tickets, and if I did, wouldn't I just buy a sensible Kia to jump over? That's why I love the sports blogosphere so much. Not everyone can be a local sporting-event VIP, but we can hyperconsume information to compensate for any insecurities and inadequacies that we have. It's so much easier to base your self-worth on the size of your television and the type of computer you have than to actually attend a sporting event where you are visibly organized into a class system.

Whether it's a music festival, an NBA playoff game, or some dumb party where famous people are hanging out, sometimes you just have to remind yourself how much more a previous version of you would have enjoyed it. Then run back to the Internet and write about it in a way that makes you sound self-aware yet ungrateful.

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John Terry on England's roster

By: timbersfan, 11:52 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

WEMBLEY, England -- Former captain John Terry was included on England's European Championship roster Wednesday despite facing trial immediately after the tournament for racially abusing an opponent.

The Football Association's decision to strip Terry of the England captaincy in February over the alleged racial abuse of Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand led to Fabio Capello quitting as the national team coach.

Capello's replacement, Roy Hodgson, has included the Chelsea defender in his 23-man group.

"(The trial) is obviously very unfortunate for him ... but he is innocent until proven guilty," Hodgson said. "I realized when I selected him there would be people who would raise their eyebrows."

Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand, the brother of Anton, remains off the roster. He has not played for the national team since June 2011.

"It is purely a footballing decision," Hodgson said. "I had to decide ... on what I have seen in recent months, and influenced by the fact Rio hasn't played so much (for England) since the World Cup."

Steven Gerrard, who was Hodgson's captain during his six-month reign at Liverpool, will wear the England captain's armband.

"I shall be counting on him to help me ... build the type of team unity and environment we need to thrive in a tournament," Hodgson said.

England's opener is June 11 against France, followed by matches against Sweden and Ukraine.

Forward Wayne Rooney was included despite being suspended for the opening matches against France and Sweden after being ejected from England's last qualifier in October.

Hodgson will have to choose from among Danny Welbeck, Jermain Defoe and Andy Carroll for his front line against France and Sweden.

Hodgson has retained 11 members of the team Capello took to South Africa two years ago for the World Cup, a group that lost to Germany in the second round.

Hodgson gave first international call-ups to 18-year-old winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who started just six Premier League games for Arsenal, and Norwich's 25-year-old goalkeeper, John Ruddy.

Ruddy is being allowed to miss England's final warmup match, on June 2 against Belgium at Wembley, so he can go ahead with his wedding.

"It would have been a nightmare after 1½ years of planning to have to postpone the wedding, so it's a major relief that we can still go ahead," Ruddy said.

England's other warmup match is May 26 against Norway in Oslo.

The roster:

Goalkeepers: Robert Green (West Ham), Joe Hart (Manchester City), John Ruddy (Norwich)

Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City), John Terry (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Stewart Downing (Liverpool), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), James Milner (Manchester City), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Scott Parker (Tottenham), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Ashley Young (Manchester United)

Forwards: Andy Carroll (Liverpool), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)

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Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 7: 'A Man Without Honor'

By: timbersfan, 11:04 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

I believe it was noted nuclear physicist Dr. Emmett Brown who once sagely exclaimed: “It’s your kids ... something has to be done about your kids!” Of course, he was speaking to a teenager in a life preserver at the time, not the soon-to-be-headless head of the Stark family, and the good doctor’s preferred conveyance was a sports car with a fusion reactor soldered to the back of it, not a 7-foot simpleton who runs on walnuts. But the advice was universal and sound. Children need to be parented. The more time they spend unattended at critical ages, the more likely they are to make mistakes. Like falling headfirst into an icy ginger’s frozen honeypot, say, or choosing exactly the wrong moment to procure poppy milk with a comely field surgeon, or, I don’t know, eating mutton. Ned’s neck wasn’t the only thing severed that sunny day by the Baelor statue. So, too, was the final link between the Stark kids and their relatively peaceful childhoods. As last night demonstrated, the whole, scattered lot of them — young, old, male, female, bastard, and serious bastard — have been forced into a grown-up game before they’ve had nearly enough time to study the rulebook.

Still, even with this focus on the family, “A Man Without Honor” was a strange and digressive episode of Game of Thrones. It featured as many wonderful character moments as there are murderous Dean doppelgangers in Qarth. But the pacing felt stiff and uncomfortable, like it had just woken up from a long night next to Ygritte. In many ways, the episode functioned as an extended version of Jaime’s little family reunion in the polar bear cage. Meaty monologues like the one about the “painter who used only red” add much-needed shading to the otherwise monochrome grimness of Westeros, and give gifted actors like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau a chance to flex their muscles, even if they are chained to a post and sitting in their own filth. But it was all obvious prologue to a very unsurprising — if brutal — payoff. Jaime’s benighted squire was dispatched almost as quickly as Jaime himself was recaptured, but too many of the show’s other meanderings are beginning to feel years away from resolution. “Those in the margins often come to control the center,” purrs the once-and-future Qing of Qarth, but in a sprawling place like Westeros the margins can often feel very far away indeed. Winter could come and go again before Jon Snow’s misadventures beyond the wall have any bearing on his southern siblings, and, at this rate, Daenerys’s fire-breathing babies will be older than Pycelle before she ever sets sail for the mainland. I admire the world-building, but it would be nice to start seeing the map begin to fold over onto itself. It didn’t help that the episode’s two set pieces that were meant to shock merely confused. Is Ducksauce a dragon-napping power-grabber in league with Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner Jim Rash? Or is he just angling for a seat at the warlock’s multiplication table? And were the burnt ends on display in the final moments meant to be the house special at the Stark family BBQ? Usually when we see people who’ve been smoked, there’s also fire. But this episode as a whole never ignited.

At least there were the continuing growing pains of the Stark kids to follow. Manhood is what Jon Snow is both struggling to attain and to hide from Ygritte, but as anyone who’s ever slow-danced in middle school can tell you, no, that’s not Valerian steel in his pocket. Rose Leslie is too pretty and too clean by half to be believable as a wild woman with loose morals (and even looser fur pants), but she’s still tons of fun, strutting around on her leash moaning and groaning about how Jon’s icicle bruised her tailbone. I was all set for a few more weeks of this sexually charged The-Sun-Is-Still-Out-at-Midnight Run — the tension rising and rising even as the temperature falls, until poor Jon’s walnuts feel like a hungry Hodor’s been pawing at them — but it’s not to be. Ygritte leads him directly into one of her people’s hidey holes — and not the one she was bragging about just moments before. As crestfallen as Jon appeared, I can’t help but think part of him is a little excited. The more Ygritte talks about Wildling life, the better it sounds: a 24/7 arctic orgy of stones, bones, and, for the so inclined, the occasional spear up the ass. The sheep-less chastity of the Night’s Watch can’t compete with that. Poor Sam spent five minutes making googly eyes at a sister-wife and he’s taken up scrapbooking. Will it really take Jon so long to thaw out? Between this and Robb’s un-kingly decision to, ahem, “go to the Craig” with his illicit anesthesiologist at precisely the wrong moment, it appears that Ned Stark taught his boys how to decapitate a man, but not how to flirt like one.

Poor, traumatized Sansa has less of a choice in her maturation. A series of stabby dreams coupled with the Hound’s creepy conflation of murder, pleasure, and her father lead to her first period, something she’s desperate to hide from the Queen. But not even Shae and her pocketknife can change the sheets fast enough: The Hound is keeping track of Sansa’s cycles more vigilantly than Abed over on Community. Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, who also wrote the episode, did a nice feint in what came next. Rather than popping corks and preparing the royal nursery, Cersei speaks to Sansa as if welcoming her into the world’s saddest sorority. “The more people you love, the weaker you are,” she cautions. And while her advice about only loving one’s own children is admirable, it also rings hollow. She knows exactly who Joffrey is and what it means for Sansa. Later, Cersei weeps quietly to Tyrion, comparing her forbidden brotherly love with Jaime to the insanely incestuous Targaryens. Though she doesn’t know it, she and Daenerys do have one thing in common: They’ve both given birth to monsters.

Over in Harrenhal, that melty fortress/occasional human kiln, Arya must be hoping her Dial-a-Dart service doesn’t charge for collateral damage: Last week’s murder request has led to an investigation with a rapidly rising body count. But she seems oddly placid. Maybe it’s because she knows she’s unlikely to get a scene partner this good again. Charles Dance has stood out this season as perhaps the finest actor in a cast full of them — and he’s done so by barely leaving his mead-stained man cave. It’s a treat watching Arya’s pride poke through her servant’s disguise, even as she fantasizes about poking Tywin in the neck. Still, even the history-loving daughter of a made-up illiterate stonemason isn’t immune to the charms of a powerful man taking such an interest in her. “You’re too smart for your own good,” he tells her. Which kind of seems to be a recurring theme.

Of course, being smart still beats being whatever Theon is. After starting the season with just the right amount of sister-touching ambiguity, he’s now gone full heel, kicking over old farmers and using his best groping hand for knocking out insubordinates’ teeth. As I said at the top, I don’t believe for a second that Bran and Rickon are cooked, but Theon’s goose will be soon enough. The most self-aware characters on this show, when referring to the grand game at the center of it all, do so with humility — after all, any pawn or knight on the board is a potential threat. But not sloppy, pampered Theon. “Don’t look so grim. It’s all just a game!” he grins to Luwin while the hounds go Stark-hunting in the woods. Even if there are winners and losers, not every contest is meant to be fun. I have a feeling Theon’s about get his battleship sunk long before the Sea Bitch — the boat or his sister — can ferry him away. Nothing makes children seem more immature than when they’re playing at being adults.

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And a Girl Shall Terrify Them

By: timbersfan, 11:02 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

In his invaluable What Jesus Meant, historian and author Garry Wills reminds us that, during his time as a thoroughgoing Galilean religious nuisance, Himself did not take the time to make priests, create a "Church," or, certainly, devise in his own memory an inflated medieval anachronism like the modern papacy. I have found this helpful to remember whenever "faith" is used as an excuse by elements of organized religion to treat other members of the human race as inferior. Find another excuse. The Gospels are not your alibi.

We had another little somethin'-somethin' in that regard this past week out in Arizona. The baseball team from Mesa Preparatory Academy made it all the way to the finals of the Arizona Charter Athletic Association's tournament, where the Monsoons — and how cool is that, by the way? — were scheduled to meet Our Lady of Sorrows, a Catholic charter school from Phoenix that is run by the Society of St. Pius X, about which much, much more anon. As it happens, the Monsoons have a freshperson second baseperson named Paige Sultzbach, who is slick with the glove around the bag and who is also a female person. (Just for the record, Mesa's archery team is coed as well.) Paige was a softball player in junior high, but, because Mesa doesn't offer a girls' softball team, she tried out, and made, the boys' varsity baseball team, which is a formidable accomplishment for a 15-year-old. Her coaches and male teammates supported her, and good on them for doing that, too. This is the kind of story that makes celebrating the anniversary of Title IX worthwhile. Except that her opponents in the title game disagree, and they've dragged Jesus in as an accessory before the fact.

Despite the fact — or, the cynical heart would murmur, because of the fact — that Mesa and Ms. Sultzbach whacked them around twice this season, including an 11-3 pasting back on April 26, in their own ballpark, Our Lady of Sorrows forfeited the championship game rather than play against Paige Sultzbach, ace keystone-sacker and female person. (Being far classier than her opponents, Ms. Sultzbach sat out the two regular-season games at Our Lady of Sorrows in deference to her opponents.) Here is Our Lady of Sorrows's official excuse for not playing in the championship game.

"Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty," the statement read. "Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls."
This is all my left eyebrow, of course, unless you consider breaking up a double play to be some kind of sexual thrill ride. (OK, I know some TV baseball analysts who … but never mind.) But to truly understand it, you have to understand what the Society of St. Pius X is all about, and to understand that, you have to understand a little about the dead pope after whom the society was named. Pius X, who reigned from 1903 to 1914, was a steadfast opponent of what was then called "modernism," and he accelerated the momentum of the Church toward conservative theology, a dynamic that did not exhaust itself finally until the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Which brings us to the society that bears his name, and which also sponsors Our Lady of Sorrows, which apparently thinks infield practice qualifies as foreplay.

The most notable thing about the Society of St. Pius X is that they're a bunch of schismatics. Don't take my word for it. Hold a séance and talk to the late Pope Paul VI, who suspended the society's founder, renegade ultramontane French bishop Marcel Lefebvre, in 1975. Undaunted, Lefebvre consecrated four of the society's priests as bishops in 1988, earning him the not inconsiderable wrath of Pope John Paul II, who excommunicated him. The society is a radical rightist organization that has flirted not only with heresy, but with outright political fascism as well. Officials of the society have expressed support for, in no particular order, the French monarchy, the racist platform of Jean-Marie le Pen, and the Vichy government of the 1940s. One of the society's most prominent bishops, Richard Williamson, managed to put up a track record of public pronouncements that make Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps sound like Francis of Assisi.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Williamson is a raving nutball. Among his other charms, Williamson, who was one of the bishops whose 1988 consecration led to Lefebvre's excommunication, is a devoted Holocaust denier, telling a Swedish television station in 2009, "I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler." (He's also expressed his belief that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ancient Czarist forgery that has ignited anti-Semitism for almost two centuries now, is an authentic document.) He also believes that The Sound of Music imperils souls because it "places friendliness and fun in the place of authority," and that the United States government brought down the towers itself on September 11, 2001.

And, of course, more directly relevant to why Paige Sultzbach didn't get to play for the championship of her league last week, the society is a bit batty on the subject of women. For example, Williamson has argued that a kind of satanic "modernism" entered the church during Vatican II and it has resulted in an increased freedom for women, which is where all this comes back again to Paige Sultzbach, standing out there at second base, waiting for opponents who have taken their theology and gone home.

Williamson is opposed to women attending college, working outside the home, and — I am not making this one up — wearing shorts. "A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman," Williamson once said. "Did this lawyeress check her hairdo before coming into court? If she did, she is a distracted lawyer. If she did not, she is one distorted woman."

How Arizona saw fit to allow what is essentially an international anti-Semitic cult to operate a charter private school at all is probably a question for a later date. (Arizona is doing a lot of strange things these days.) Completely by accident, Paige and her teammates had found themselves caught in a dark, dank corner of reactionary Christianity, which admits no light, no warmth, only the cold, dead past, and which stinks of prejudice, decaying dogma, and the worst social offal of the 20th century. There's not a lick of Catholic doctrine that would forbid men and women from playing baseball against each other. There is nothing in the Gospels that would remotely touch upon the situation, and not even St. Paul, that censorious old blatherskite, said anything that can be stretched plausibly to forbid it, and people have been known to use Paul's Epistles like taffy to marshal their arguments.

For all the theological dust they've thrown up to cover their cowardly retreat, Our Lady of Sorrows plainly and simply didn't want to lose to a girl.
One thing is certain. Paige Sultzbach and her teammates deserved a chance to play for the championship. They were the only undefeated team in their league, and they'd already beaten Our Lady of Sorrows twice this season. They'd worked hard enough, and played well enough, to be allowed to win their championship on the field, and not have it handed to them because somebody hiding in a chapel somewhere decided not to give them the satisfaction. For all the theological dust they've thrown up to cover their cowardly retreat, Our Lady of Sorrows plainly and simply didn't want to lose to a girl.

This is an embarrassment to sport and to religion, the functional equivalent of bleeding statues and the face of Jesus on the side of the barn. This is the kind of thing of which Blessed John XXIII was trying to rid the Catholic Church when he called on the council to "throw open the windows" and release the stifling air of repression that had built up over the centuries. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn't want to play baseball against Paige Sultzbach because it's run by an organization that harbors an attitude toward women that differs very little from that of Bishop Williamson, its crackpot avatar. And, no, I don't have to "respect" the stand they took, or the beliefs that prompted it, unless I'm also prepared to "respect" the anti-Semitism and conspiracy-mongering that are at the heart of the beliefs in question. I'm not required to be as classy as Paige Sultzbach, state champion.

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You Will Never Sleep With a Woman Who Looks Like That

By: timbersfan, 11:01 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

If you discount countless, forgettable chunks of time spent at school, home, and 7-Eleven, I passed most of my waking hours from ages ten through twelve playing baseball and goofing off with friends at the Point Loma Little League fields. Those two adjacent baseball fields were about a mile from my house, and twice a week my team, the San Diego Credit Union Padres, would gather there to practice.

"You should just be called the Padres, not all that bullshit about credit unions," my dad said, as he drove me to the field on the opening day of the season when I was eleven years old.

"But the credit union pays for us to have a team," I said.

"Yeah, well, I pay for you to do everything, and you don't see me making you wear a shirt with my giant goddamned face on it."

"That would be a weird shirt," I said.

"Please. You wear all kinds of dopey shirts, and — what the fuck am I talking about right here? The shirt's not real, I'm just making a point. You got your gear?" he asked, pulling up to the field.

Saturdays were filled with a full lineup of games, all of which the league's players were required to attend, so my parents could drop me off bright and early and then do whatever they wanted all day until my game. The prospect of a morning to himself was very exciting for my dad.

"There's a lot of good teams this year, I think," I said, continuing our conversation as we arrived at the fields.

He reached over me and popped open my door.

"Fascinating. Now out of the car. Vamoose. Out! Out! Have fun and don't screw with anyone bigger than you. I'll be in the stands when your game starts," he said.

I put my hand up for a high five, and he used that hand to push me out of the car. Then his Oldsmobile screeched away up the street, like he was fleeing the scene of a double homicide.

When we weren't playing in a game, most of the Little Leaguers would keep busy playing tag in between the two fields or eating a spicy linguiça sausage made by the local Portuguese family that ran the snack shack above the field.

Every once in a while, someone would raise talk of venturing into the canyon that sat about fifty yards beyond the outfield fences. We were all scared of the canyon. It was packed with trees that grew so close together their branches became intertwined like a bundle of snakes. The canyon's ground was muddy, and it emitted an odor that registered somewhere between "maple syrup" and "rest-stop bath room." It was a group of cannibals short of being the perfect setting for an Indiana Jones film.

Every kid you ran into had a different theory about what lurked inside the canyon walls. "My brother found a pile of poo there that he said was too big to be dog poo or cat poo, but not big enough to be human poo. He said it's probably wolf poo," said my friend Steven as we waited for the game ahead of us to finish so we could take the field.

"Your brother's an idiot," said Michael, the chubby catcher on my team, who always wore his hat backward, so that the back of it came down right above his dark-green eyes. "A bunch of gays live in there. That's where they butt-fuck each other."

"What? Why wouldn't they do that at their house?" I asked.

"I don't know, I'm not a homo. But if you want to get butt-fucked, go into that canyon," he responded, inhaling a bite of sausage that would have killed a lesser twelve-year-old.

At that point in my life, the only two things that scared me were the movie Arachnophobia and that canyon. I tried to never get too close to it, for fear that something might reach out of the forest and pull me in. If I absolutely had to go near to chase an errant throw, my neck would stiffen and my breath would quicken as my body prepared to flee. I decided to run the theories about its inhabitants past my father to see if he had a scientific opinion on the matter.

"Why would gay people screw each other in a canyon filled with wolves?" my dad asked me as he drove us home after my game, my mom sitting beside him in the passenger seat.

"No, that's not what I said. One kid said there were wolves. It was a different kid who said the thing — "

"Hey, look at me, I'm screwing. My pants are off. Oh shit, there's an angry fucking wolf. Does that make any goddamn sense to you?"

"No. But that's not — "

"Plus," my dad interrupted again, "I don't even think wolves are indigenous to this area. Your school takes field trips. You ever heard them say shit to you about wolves? You gotta think about these things critically, son."

"No, I do. I didn't think that the wolves were — "

My mom turned to face me in the backseat. "Also, Justy, you know that homosexuals have sex just like heterosexuals do: in the privacy of their homes. Not in the woods."

"Although sometimes straight people do screw each other in the woods. Mostly when you're in high school, though," my dad added.

I decided to drop the conversation. But that week, on two consecutive nights, I had nightmares about the canyon. Each involved me finding something terrifying in a clearing at the center. In the first dream, I stumbled upon an aquarium that had a screaming Patrick Swayze trapped inside of it, begging me for help, but I was too scared to approach him. In the second, I was confronted by a large squid that had two or three sets of human legs. After that last dream I shot up out of bed, wide awake. I tried falling back to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I pictured the canyon, then Swayze, then Squidman.

Hoping it would relax me, I tiptoed out of my bedroom to grab some water from the kitchen. I was still shaken from the dream, and the shapes of the shadows on the hallway wall looked ominous. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move, and I froze in place. It's just a shadow that looks like a person, I told myself. It's not a person.

"What in the hell are you doing?"

I shrieked like a frightened monkey and jumped back, crashing into the bookcase behind me. As my eyes adjusted I realized that the shadow was my dad, sitting in total darkness in the La-Z-Boy chair that faced the windows to our backyard.

"Jesus H. Christ. Calm down, son. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I had a freaky dream," I said, trying to catch my breath. "What are you doing?"

"I'm sitting in the dark drinking a hot toddy. What the hell does it look like?"

"Why are you doing that right now? It's the middle of the night."

"Well, contrary to popular fucking belief, I enjoy a little time to myself, so I wake up early so I can have it. Clearly I'm going to have to start waking up earlier."

"Oh. Well, sorry. Didn't mean to bother you," I said, turning to head back to bed, glass of water forgotten.

"No apologies necessary," he said.

Maybe it was the bourbon in the hot toddy, or the serenity of the darkness all around him, but at that moment my dad seemed uncharacteristically at ease.

"Can I ask you a question?" I said, turning to face him again.

"Fire away."

"If something's freaking you out, what do you do to not freak out about it?"

"Is this about that Arachnophobia movie, again? I told you, a spider that large couldn't sustain itself in an urban environment. The ecosystem is too delicate. Not fucking plausible."

"It's not about Arachnophobia. It's just — if something's freaking you out, how do you get it to not freak you out?"

He raised his mug of hot toddy to his lips and took a big slurp.

"Well, scientifically speaking, human beings fear the unknown. So, whatever's freaking you out, grab it by the balls and say hello," he said.

I had no idea what that meant, and even in the dimly lit living room he could tell.

"I'm saying, if something's scaring you out, don't run from it. Find out everything you can about it. Then it ain't the unknown anymore and it ain't scary." He paused. "Or I guess it could be a shitload scarier. Mostly the former, though."

As I padded down the hallway back to my room, I knew what had to be done: I had to enter the canyon. There was just no way I was going it alone.

The next day I sat in my sixth-grade class watching the clock as the hour hand inched closer to 3:00. Michael was also in my class. He sat at the desk in front of mine, which meant that every day I spent eight hours face-to-face with whatever slogan was on the No Fear T-shirt he chose to wear that day. The inspirational messages printed on the backs of No Fear T-shirts all sounded like they'd been written by the president of a fraternity moments after he pounded his sixth beer. And the message on Michael's shirt that day was no exception: THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS. NO FEAR.

I tapped him on the shoulder. "Michael," I whispered.

Without looking behind him, he reached up with his left hand and grabbed my index and middle fingers, twisting them till I winced in pain.

"I just learned that in karate," he said, turning around, then letting go of my fingers. "I'm probably a year away from black belt."

I opened and closed my hand to get the feeling back in my fingertips.

"What's up?" he asked.

"You're going to baseball practice after school today, right?"

"Duh. I just got a new bat. It's part ceramic. It's awesome. You can touch it if you want," he said, pulling a bag from under his desk and unzipping it to show the blue-and-white bat inside.

He stared at me, then at the bat, then back at me, and I realized that his offer to let me touch it was more of a demand. We stared at each other for a moment, then I quickly poked it with my index finger.

He put the bat away. "Fucking awesome, right?" he asked.

"Yeah. It's cool. So anyway, I was thinking, since we both just go straight to practice after school, we could get there early today and go into the canyon."

Michael and I weren't friends, not exactly. He was a tough kid, the kind who spent most of his free time with older kids who had mustaches and were always throwing things at cars after school. But Michael was always willing to share with us what he'd learned from the older kids, and that was a real benefit to all of us.

I owed pretty much everything I knew about women at that point to Michael. During recess one day he pulled us into a corner of the yard behind the library and took out a folded-up picture. It was a page from a medical journal, featuring a photo of a forty-five-year-old naked woman, with possible postmenopausal cancerous areas highlighted on her body. Except for my mother, it was the first naked woman I'd ever seen. Michael pointed at the woman's crotch with his stubby finger. "That's where you stick your dick. They also pee out of that, and sometimes shit out of it if their butt's clogged."

It was this very wisdom and worldliness that inspired me to ask Michael to explore the canyon with me. I was, admittedly, a kid who was easily shaken. I wished I could be as fearless as my dad, but I seemed to have a different biological makeup when it came to courage. Michael was the only kid I knew who wasn't afraid of that canyon.

"So are you cool with going into the canyon with me?" I asked.

"I guess. If you buy me a Slurpee. Don't try and touch my dick, though."

One seventy-nine-cent stop at 7-Eleven later and we were walking toward the Little League field. The closer we got, the more I could feel the pit of nerves in my stomach tightening.

"So you've never gone really far into the canyon before?" I asked, trying to calm myself.

"Why are you so gay for the canyon?" Michael asked.

"I'm not. I just want to go in, look around, then come back out before practice."

"Are you retarded? You can't just go into the canyon and not know where the coach is," he said. "What if he gets to practice early, then sees us coming out of the canyon?"

"So what do we do?" Michael quickly laid out a plan that seemed foolproof and tossed his thirty-two-ounce Slurpee container into a bush as we arrived at the empty field.

Sure enough, he was right about Coach. He'd arrived early for practice, and would surely have caught us sneaking out of the canyon if we'd opted for my plan. The rest of the team straggled in soon after. My friend Steven, who I always warmed up with, grabbed a ball and walked up to me.

"Ready to warm up?" he asked, popping a ball in and out of his glove.

"Not today. Go warm up with a big dick," Michael said to Steven, grabbing my arm and dragging me to the far end of the field. I glanced back at Steven and winked, assuming he'd understand that something was up and he shouldn't take it personally.

Michael and I started playing catch in the outfield. At any moment, Michael was going to say the code words and it would be go time. The anticipation was unbearable. I could barely hold on to the ball, my hands were trembling so badly with excitement. Suddenly, Michael's face hardened. He looked at the coach who was helping another kid about fifty feet away, then looked back at me and uttered the code words: "My dog peed in the house yesterday."

I took a deep breath, reached my arm back, and hurled the ball at least ten feet above Michael's head. It shot well past him and deep into the darkness of the canyon behind him.

"Coach!" Michael yelled. Coach looked up from the lesson he was giving to another kid. "Our ball went into the canyon. We're gonna go look for it, okay?"

"Fine. But if you can't find it quickly, come back up," Coach replied.

We nodded and jogged through the outfield and down the twenty-foot grass embankment that led to the canyon. At the bottom of the embankment we looked up. It was impossible for anyone on the field above to see us.

"Okay," said Michael.

"Okay," I replied.

"Okay what? This is your thing, shithead. What do you want to do?" he asked impatiently.

"Oh. Right."

I looked into the canyon, now just ten feet or so away. I could see past the first layer or two of tree branches and bushes, but beyond that it dropped off into darkness. I took a deep breath. There is no Patrick Swayze in an aquarium, I thought to myself. There's no Squidman.

"Okay. Let's go in through that part right there," I said, pointing to a small path that crawled through two trees.

Michael took the lead, and within twenty seconds we were deep enough into the canyon that when I turned to look back in the direction we had come from, all I could see were trees. The floor of the canyon was covered with dead leaves and some garbage: a few candy wrappers, a few empty 7-Eleven cups, which I strongly suspected had been hurled there by my comrade. My nerves were slowly subsiding. The farther we went, the less there was to look at. Just more trees, dead branches, and bushes. The unknown was quickly becoming known.

Michael was about ten feet to my right when he waved me over. "Whoa. Check this out," he said.

I hopped over a fallen tree and made my way over to him.

Michael moved aside, pulled back a couple branches, and pointed to what lay behind them. As he stood there holding it open for me, my mind started racing. I do not want to look inside that hole, I thought. Yes, I do. I should look inside the hole. There's nothing there.

"Hey. I'm not your branch-pulling guy, asshole. You gonna check this out or not?" Michael sniped, still holding back the brush as he waited for me to make a move.

I leaned forward and stuck my face into the opening Michael had created for me. Just past those branches lay a clearing, much like the ones I had seen in my dreams. Except this time there was no Patrick Swayze. In his place was a dirty sleeping bag and several blankets surrounded by garbage.

"I think somebody lives here," Michael said.

I could hear myself breathing in and out as my hands began to tremble once again, this time in fear.

"We should go back to practice. Coach is probably wondering — "

"Coach can suck a dick," Michael snapped.

He nudged me out of the way, pulled the branches farther open, stepped on the trunk of a fallen tree below him, and in one motion hopped through the small hole he'd created for himself. The branches snapped closed as I stood on the other side of the clearing. I could hear Michael walking around but couldn't see him. I stood motionless, hating myself for being frightened. Then the small window of branches reopened and Michael popped his head back through. "Are you seriously going to be a bitch?"

He grabbed my shirt and yanked me into the clearing. As I stumbled onto the other side of the branches, I realized that more than one person might be living here. There were piles of clothes caked with dirt, and empty cans of beer were strewn everywhere. Michael approached the sleeping bag surrounded by the trash pile.

"I think this is a bum cave," he said, nudging a couple of empty cans with his foot. Then something in the pile of trash next to the sleeping bag caught his attention. He knelt down beside it. Suddenly his head whipped.

"HOLY FUCKING SHIT."

"What?"

"It's the mother lode! Look at all this porno!" he shouted, shoving his hands into the pile like a pirate who'd found a trunk full of gold doubloons. With a look of pure ecstasy, he held up two handfuls of the dirtiest porn I could have imagined. There must have been a hundred more pages at his feet. I picked a few up and fanned them out in my hand. I had never seen so many pictures of beautiful women, let alone naked ones. I pumped my fist in the air like I'd just hit the game winning shot in the NBA Finals. This was my greatest accomplishment. The adolescent equivalent of landing on the moon.

At the time, porn magazines were like Lamborghinis: You knew they existed, and though you'd never seen one in person, you were sure you'd have one when you got older.

"I can't believe this. I just — man, we did it. We did it!" he screamed.

There was only one problem: What were we going to do with it all? Leaving it behind was not an option. After a few minutes of brainstorming, the best option we came up with was shoving the pages into our pants and keeping them there till we were through with practice. Michael shoved a trial page in his pants, then took a step forward and backward, as if he was trying out a new pair of sneakers.

"It's too itchy," he declared. "New plan."

Eventually we decided the only option was to carry as much of the porn as we could out of the canyon and hide it beneath some leaves at the bottom of the embankment next to the field. After practice we could come back and get it. We started sorting through the loot, trying to decide which pages were must-takes.

Suddenly I heard a crack of a branch, as if caused by the weight of a foot. I jumped back, ready to run. We both looked around, but saw nothing. The silence was eerie.

"What if we just came back and got it later, or tomorrow, or next practice or something?" I said, fear creeping into my voice.

"Man, I like you pretty okay, but you're sort of a pussy. Just go wait outside the canyon and yell the code words if you see Coach. You remember the words, right?"

"My dog peed in the house yesterday," I muttered.

"Yeah."

As I walked out of the clearing, I was overwhelmed with shame.

I had gone into the canyon to defeat my fears, but here I was, leaving the canyon because I was too afraid to stay. I stood there thinking, eyes downcast, till I heard Coach's voice.

"Justin. What are you doing?"

I looked up and saw him standing at the top of the embankment.

"I told you guys: Don't spend all day down there."

I froze for a split second, but then recovered.

"MY DOG PEED IN THE HOUSE!" I yelled.

"What?" Coach said.

Then, from behind me, I heard the rustle of bushes and the sound of heavy breathing. Oh no, it's Michael, I thought.

"MY DOG PEED IN THE HOUSE!" I yelled in that direction, terrified that Michael was about to walk out carrying a huge stack of pornography.

"What are you talking — "

Coach never got the chance to finish his sentence. In a flash, Michael burst through the bushes, running full speed ahead and clutching the porn to his chest like a woman holding her infant as she fled an explosion.

"RUNNNNNNN!!!!" he screamed in terror.

He ran right past me, and without giving it another thought I sprang into a full sprint, hot on his heels.

"What in the heck is going on?!" Coach yelled as we rushed up the embankment toward him.

I turned to look behind me.

There, hightailing it out of the canyon, came two bearded homeless men, each of whom looked like Nick Nolte rendered in beef jerky. I had never seen homeless guys move so fast and with such a sense of purpose. The last thing I saw on Coach's face as we blew past him was the look of a man who had no idea how the next fifteen seconds of his life were going to transpire.

The other players on the field turned to watch, mouths agape, as Michael and I sprinted by them, followed by Coach and the two homeless guys. Michael slowed down just a touch so that I could catch up.

"Take some!" he shouted, shoving a handful of pages at my chest.

"Go right! I'll go left. They can't catch both of us," he said between breaths, gearing back up to a full sprint.

I could hear a chorus of shouts behind us. I'm guessing it was one of the homeless guys and not Coach who hollered "Gimmie back my titties!" but I was too scared to look back and confirm. When I reached third base, I took a hard right turn and ran off the field and across the street. I didn't look back until one mile later, when I rounded the corner of my street and headed down the hill to my house. My legs were on fire and sweat poured down my face.

There were no cars in the driveway, so I made my way to the side of the house, unlocked the gate to our backyard, entered, then slammed it behind me, and for the first time in about ten minutes I stopped moving. I took the stack of porn, some of it now stuck to my chest with sweat, and placed it on the ground. I leaned over, put my hands on my knees, and gasped for air. I looked down at the bounty that lay at my feet, but my joy was soon displaced by fear. What the heck am I going to do with all this? I thought.

Then it hit me: like thousands of thieves before me, I would bury my loot. I ducked into my house, grabbed some newspaper, grabbed a shovel from our shed, and started digging in the corner of our backyard. After I'd dug a hole about a foot deep, I gathered every scrap of porn and placed the pile gently in the ground, as if I were planting a seed whose fruits I needed to feed my family. I placed newspaper over the pages and then filled in the hole.

Hours later I sat in front of the TV, wondering what had happened at practice, whether Coach had called my dad, and, most of all, what awaited me in those buried pages. I had gotten a quick look, but I wanted to pore over those pictures like they were evidence in a crime I was investigating. Eventually my dad got home from work and set his briefcase down.

"So. How was practice?" he asked.

"It was good. Why? Did you hear it wasn't?" I said, trying to keep my cool.

"Son, no offense, but you play Little League. It's not the Yankees. I don't get daily reports about who's hitting the shit out of the ball."

When I went to bed that night, all I could think about was those buried pages. I had worked hard for them, and I was determined to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I woke up in the middle of the night, and before I even opened my eyes, I thought, The porno! I hopped out of my bed, still in my underwear, and snuck out into the living room, through the back door, and into the backyard. I went to the shed, grabbed the shovel, found the spot with the freshly turned earth, jammed the nose of the shovel's blade into the ground, and started digging in the moonlight. My shoulders burned, but I kept digging.

"Son. What in the fuck are you doing?"

I shrieked, dropped the shovel, and turned to see my dad standing behind me in his robe, holding a hot toddy.

"Oh my God, you scared me," I said, completely forgetting that I should offer up some kind of excuse for what I was doing.

He clicked on the flashlight he was holding and shined it in my eyes, then down over the rest of my body.

"Please explain to me right now why you're in your underwear digging a fucking hole in my backyard at three-thirty in the goddamn morning."

There was no way out of this. I exhaled in defeat, then told him everything: about going into the canyon, finding the porn, running away from the homeless guys, then burying my loot.

He waited for a moment, processing everything, then quietly said, "All right, here's the deal."

Calmly but firmly, he instructed me to take all that porn out of his backyard and fill in the hole pronto. The next day, he explained, I would carry the magazine pages back to the entrance of the canyon and leave them there.

"Why can't I just throw them out? I don't want to go back to the canyon," I said.

"Bullshit. Someone spent time collecting this shit. What if I threw out your baseball card collection? That wouldn't be right."

I nodded. His analogy made sense to me, and suddenly I felt a twinge of remorse, having deprived those men of one of their few — and probably most prized — worldly possessions. I bent down and lifted the big wad of dirt-covered porno out of the hole.

"Are you mad?" I asked, as I picked up the shovel.

"Nah. I don't think this even cracks your greatest hits of stupid. But there's one important thing I need you to know."

I stopped shoveling and looked at him. He pointed at the pile of loose, grimy magazine pages on the ground.

"You will never screw a woman who looks like that. Understand?"

I nodded.

"Okay, good," he said. He turned back and walked toward the house, then quickly turned back around.

"And women aren't going to screw you in all those crazy ways, either. You got it? They don't look like that and they don't screw crazy. That's what you're taking away from this, okay?"

"Okay."

"Come inside and fill in that hole tomorrow. I don't want the neighbors thinking you're batshit."

I put down the shovel and followed him inside. He sat down in his chair and turned on the small lamp next to him. "The canyon was what I was freaked out about. That's why I went down there, so I wouldn't be freaked out about it," I confessed after a moment of silence.

"Son, you're a little on the jittery side. It's okay. Don't beat yourself up about it. It don't mean you don't have a pair of balls, it just means you're more choosy when you use them. That's not always a bad thing."

He took a big sip from his hot toddy.

"Are you going to bed now?" I asked.

"No, but you are," he said, turning off the lamp and filling the room with darkness. "I'm trying to get a damned minute to myself here."

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Welcome to Another '30 for 30'

By: timbersfan, 11:00 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

Today marks the launch of the next phase of the award-winning sports documentary franchise
By Bill Simmons on May 15, 2012
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In case you missed the New York Times story today, ESPN is launching a second volume of our Peabody Award–winning "30 for 30" series that premieres this fall and runs through 2014. (To view the trailer, click here.) Or, as the project has been called internally, "They Screwed Us Out of an Emmy, Let's Run This Baby Back!" If the first series celebrated ESPN's first 30 years, then the second series will celebrate the storytelling form — not just with 30 new sports documentaries from 30 filmmakers (which won't just be confined to that 1979-2009 time frame this time, by the way), but our new "30 for 30 Shorts" web series that premieres monthly on Grantland starting today.

Why expand the series with short films? Because "30 for 30" needed its own Mini-Me. Because live streaming has gotten so reliably fast that we felt like we could pull this off. Because there are stories out there that we loved for four to 12 minutes, but maybe not for a full hour. Because talented filmmakers are usually juggling multiple projects, so sometimes it's easier for them to take on a shorter project than a bigger one. Because we wanted you to waste more time on your iPad, or possibly rear-end the car in front of you as you're watching these on your mobile device when you shouldn't be watching these on your mobile device. Because Pete Rose bet we couldn't do it. (Just kidding.) And most important, because we felt like there was a creative void sitting there for this specific form of storytelling. As you'll see with our first short film, you might not want to spend an hour in Pete Rose's world at this point of his life. But eight minutes? Absolutely.

On behalf of everyone at ESPN Films and Grantland, I'm proud to present our first "30 for 30 Short": Here Now, directed by Eric Drath.

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Where Do the Nuggets and the Grizzlies Go From Here?

By: timbersfan, 10:59 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

By Robert Mays on May 15, 2012 11:00 AM ET

STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES
Coming into this past weekend, the first round of these NBA playoffs had been an exercise in defining the league’s classes. The Bulls and their injuries aside, almost every other series seemed set to be over in no more than five games, the higher seed putting away the lower in convincing fashion. There appeared to be two types of teams in this year’s playoffs — those that were equipped to win a playoff series, and those that were not. That’s about when the Nuggets and Grizzlies decided they didn’t much appreciate the side of that line they’d fallen on.

In coming back from their respective 3-1 series deficits, and in each of their Game 7s, there were moments where both Memphis and Denver seemed poised to advance. Even with their terrible performance from the field Sunday, the Grizzlies were up one going into the fourth quarter, and Denver had more than its share of chances late after erasing the double-digit hole it’d dug in Los Angeles. The problem is how to manage a team whose ceiling seems to be a series win in the first round of the playoffs. For both the Grizzlies and Nuggets, it easily could have been a year where both were one round from the conference finals. The question is how each chooses to go from here.

Memphis

Last season, the Grizzlies felt like the young upstart set to make a leap. Those plans were sidetracked on New Year’s Day when Zach Randolph went down clutching his knee in Chicago and missed the next 34 games.

Memphis still managed the no. 4 seed in the West and the best winning percentage in franchise history with its 41-25 finish, including wins in its final six games. And until Swaggy P started lighting up the FedEx Forum in Game 1, it felt like this year’s first round would be a repeat of 2011. Memphis blew a 24-point lead after three quarters and followed that loss with two more in the next three games. Lionel Hollins and his team should get credit for forcing a Game 7, but with Sunday’s loss, there are some decisions that have to be made.

A year ago, Marc Gasol was a surprising story with a small price tag. Now, he’s set to make almost $14 million in 2013. Randolph rode his strong second half of 2011 to a $71 million extension that would have him making $17.8 million in the final year before his player option. (At $16.5 million, it's safe to say he's picking that up.) That number is only exceeded by the $19.3 million owed to Rudy Gay in the final year of his deal that was inked in 2010. Two years from now, the trio would make a combined $50 million. That’s a good chunk of money for a core that got outplayed by Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans two days ago.

Randolph might deserve the benefit of the doubt coming off the serious knee injury, but the excuses for Gay have all but disappeared. Memphis’s highest-paid player took two shots in the fourth quarter of Game 7, the second of which was a 30-footer with the Grizzlies down 11 inside 20 seconds to go. Gay is and will be paid like a superstar, and at this point, it still doesn't feel like he’s done much to warrant it.

The decision will be if and how Memphis decides to shake up its roster. The Grizzlies have pleasant surprise Tony Allen locked up through next year, but since Memphis has been trying to deal O.J. Mayo every season for the past 12 or so, it would appear that he might be gone as a restricted free agent. Mike Conley is signed until about 2030. It’s clear that they have to do something, which might include looking to deal one of those three big price tags. Because right now, standing pat just doesn’t seem to be an option.

Denver

There was a point in the second quarter of Game 7 against the Lakers when it became very clear why Denver was still in this series. It was about that time in the first half when starters begin taking a seat; both team’s bench players populated the court. For L.A., that meant Steve Blake and Jordan Hill. For Denver, it meant Andre Miller and Al Harrington.

Since it’s not 2001, Miller and Harrington probably aren’t going to be the main pieces of a contender, but there’s something to be said for a roster stuffed with those types of NBA bodies. That depth was missing even another 6-foot-8 frame this postseason after the season-ending injury to Wilson Chandler in mid-April.

Miller represents one of the club’s most pressing offseason decisions. An unrestricted free agent, Miller told the Denver Post, “At this point in my career, if I'm going to be a backup, I'm going to be a backup on a championship-caliber team. Obviously, this team is a good team that's going to get to the playoffs, but the thing is if they are committed to getting to that next level to compete for that championship."

Like with Memphis, that’s the question the Nuggets have to address. George Karl has made a living by taking solid rosters deeper into the postseason than they probably deserve to go, but what types of moves does Denver have make to become one of the league’s elite? The team is full of young, attractive contracts that would figure to be major trade pieces. It’s whether a star worthy of that type of move proves to be available, and at the right price.

But even without any sort of major move, the Nuggets should be just as frightening next season as they were for the Lakers in Round 1. Any offer for restricted free agent JaVale McGee is likely to be matched by Denver, and pairing him with Kenneth Faried inside gives Denver a young frontcourt able to dominate the glass. Ty Lawson will still be around next season for just $2.5 million before becoming a restricted free agent in 2014, and Chandler, Arron Afflalo, and Danilo Gallinari are all locked up for the long term. That's why, of the two teams to push their first-round series to the brink, it’s the Nuggets who seem to be the real threat moving forward.

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NBA Playoffs Shootaround: The Sixers Get a Smash and Grab, the Thunder Take What They

By: timbersfan, 10:58 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

o much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

From the Cradle: Evan Turner


This late-game, game-deciding layup came right after Kevin Garnett tried to turn Evan Turner's face into an ottoman. Most men would've needed to go to their happy caves, talk to their spirit animals, find their chi, whatever. Evan Turner? It's almost like no one gave him the memo. He's not scared because he doesn't know he's supposed to be. There he is waving his hands, asking for the ball, per usual. But after seeing this ball fake on Rondo and his Keith Byars imitation past Paul Pierce, I'm wondering: Maybe he should stop asking. He should start demanding. — Chris Ryan

Russell Westbrook Needs to Heat-Check His Wardrobe


Sometimes, TV transitions are accidentally perfect. This is one of those cases.

Sayeth Colleen Dominguez: "Last year in the playoffs, Westbrook was roundly criticized for making bad decisions. And tonight, he made all the right ones."

CUE RUSSELL'S SHIRT.

Also known as the opposite of "all the right" decisions. It's like he was watching Matilda over the weekend and told someone, "Hey, I need that little girl's shirt, but bigger. But not too much bigger." Thank you, Russell, for wearing this, but thank you even more, ESPN video editing staff, for doing everything right. — Rembert Browne

But Seriously … Russell Westbrook


Boshean's Eleven

On Monday night, the Sixers saw a little seed of hope sprout at the Garden and the Thunder made sure Kobe would never speak to Mike Brown again. But we know what's really on your minds, sports fans. How will Chris Bosh's injury affect Miami's NBA Finals odds? Enter Bill Barnwell:

"From Bovada.lv sportsbook manager Kevin Bradley:

Right now it has only affected the Game 2 line and if we see that no Bosh has the same sort of ripple effect like Rose had on the Bulls, which we doubt, after Game 2 their odds to win may shoot up a bit, but right now are still clear favorites at 11/10.
"So, basically, the whole world is trolling Chris Bosh."

Gimpy Old Men

Says Paul Pierce, “The knee was fine. I wore my knee brace today.” Look, I’m not going to go so far as to call anyone a liar, but I will say that the basis for any good relationship is trust and honesty. And, right now I’m not sure if we can trust you fully, OK, Paul? It was the seven points on 2-of-9 shooting and only two free throws in the loss against the Sixers on Monday night; more tellingly, it was the inability to pull up and stop the non-scoring skid in the abominable third, a.k.a. The Quarter Where Basketball Went to Die. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett continues to be a no. 1 option in a manner we haven’t seen for, quite possibly, the entirety of his Celtics run. Even in 2008, his first year in Boston, when he was a spry young thing, KG’s dominance came primarily via swats and stops and barking out defensive rotations. As the Boston Globe reports, the last time Garnett had a better point tally over two consecutive games than the collective 57 he put up in Game 6 against the Hawks and Game 1 against the Sixers was in 2006-07, when he was still with the Timberwolves. Over the two games of this series, Pierce has shot the ball 20 times to Garnett’s 32. Monday night, late, the ball was repeatedly placed in KG’s hands. As long as Paul’s knee continues to be "fine," neither of those things are likely to change. — Amos Barshad

Is Manu the Killer or the Hundred Dollar Bill Dollar Billa?


This new ad for the playoffs actually makes me like the Spurs. Mobb Deep really can do anything. — Ryan

On KG's Moving Pick and Being Put Out of Your Misery

When it was all over, when the last shot had caromed off the side of the last backboard, I tried to look up the stats, but somehow I couldn't navigate to ESPN.com. My mouse was clicking at below 36 percent. Whenever I tried to type letters into the address bar, I kept falling out of my chair, losing my keys, or breaking a window in a completely different part of the house. So I don't really know what happened, except that KG missed a free throw, Rondo made a weird play, and the referee correctly called what I assume was the first moving screen by any team in the last four years of playoff basketball. (Seriously, those guys stand still.) What can you say about that call, though? I mean apart from the fact that it ended a really, really painful basketball game? Honestly, sometimes the toughest decisions are also the kindest you can make. — Brian Phillips

On the Sixers Turning the Garden into a Grindhouse

During the regular season, Philly had the NBA’s third-best defense while lingering near the league’s bottom third in pace, offensive rating, and points per game. Their effectiveness comes from tireless exertion and (usually) responsible stewardship of the basketball, not athleticism or speed or size or skill. And things have grown even uglier in postseason duels against fellow defensive stalwarts Chicago and Boston: While winning five of eight games, the Sixers have shot 41 percent and held their opponents to a similarly impotent 42 percent from the floor.

During Monday night’s game, a spectacle with 33 combined turnovers and the refinement of a flamethrower fight in a crowded dim sum restaurant, the Celtics only managed to ring up 49 points before the fourth quarter. Boston is more talented, but Philly’s web of infuriating ineptitude infects all around it. — Ben Detrick

You're Welcome



(Via @KBrissy.)

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City Rivalries and the Greatest Sports Trivia Question

By: timbersfan, 10:56 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

As I watched the Rangers pull away from the Devils on Monday, I realized that in a few days, we might be in for a New York–Los Angeles championship series. The Kings, who face the Coyotes in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals tonight, are an 8-seed, but they have a 1-0 lead on Phoenix in the series and are 9-1 in the NHL playoffs. Right now, it seems there's a solid chance that America's two most populous cities will square off for the Stanley Cup.

The possibility got me thinking about previous New York–L.A. clashes. It turns out that in 336 combined years of American championships (big four sports only), the two biggest cities in the country have met just seven times. That was it. New York is 4-3. Hooray!

That limited history set my mind to wandering, and after an hour spent looking at lists of NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL champions, along with some furious notepad scribbling, I discovered the greatest sports trivia question of all time. It has to do with cities and championships, but after the time put into the research and the ensuing thrill of discovery, I'm going to be totally heartless and make you read a bit more.

First, a fantastic trivia question that will live forever in the shadow of the one that comes later:

Which cities have met in the most championships, in a single sport?

There are two answers to this question. The first is obvious, and will lure in almost everyone you ask: Boston vs. Los Angeles. Boston and L.A. have faced off in the NBA Finals 11 times, with Boston winning eight. The cities have never met in the NHL, NFL, or MLB finals.

The tricky answer: New York and New York. Sure, it isn't two distinct cities, but bear with me. Teams from the city of New York (I'm including Brooklyn here) have met in the World Series 14 times, but never in any other final. If you're keeping track at home, the Yankees are 4-2 against the New York Giants, 6-1 against the Brooklyn Dodgers, and 1-0 against the New York Mets.

Now let's look at city rivalries in earnest. (For simplicity, I focused my football research on Super Bowls only.) Obviously, certain limitations prevent a lot of matchups. Such as:

1. Regional Conferences
The NBA in particular has always had a West versus East championship format, meaning Boston and New York, or Boston and Philadelphia, or Chicago and New York could never meet in the Finals.

2. Leagues
The Red Sox and the Yankees have a rich history, but have never met in a World Series. Ditto for the Cowboys and Steelers Redskins, Celtics and 76ers, and on and on.

3. Westward Expansion
Teams sprouted up later on the West Coast and missed years of history; in the case of baseball and hockey — and aside from Boston-L.A. — most historical rivalries involve mostly clubs on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

4. Only 12 Four-Sport Cities

With that in mind, it's evident that the quantity of championship meetings between two cities is an incomplete measure of the rivalry. But it is fun. Here what I found out:

Early NHL finals, with the limited number of teams confined to a few cities, gave certain rivalries a distinct early lead. The Toronto-Montreal rivalry is in fourth place with eight championship meetings. These all came in Stanley Cup finals, the last in 1967.
Other hockey-based rivalries with high numbers include Montreal-Boston (7); Toronto-Detroit (7); Montreal-Chicago (5); and Montreal-Detroit (5).
For cities that could never meet in a Super Bowl (or NFL championship) or in the NBA Finals, Detroit and Chicago have squared off a respectable six times. The Tigers and Cubs have split four World Series matchups, and the Black Hawks (it was two words back then) beat the Red Wings in '34 and '61.
Boston and New York have only six, which feels low. The Giants beat the Patriots in the two recent Super Bowls, the Red Sox beat the New York Giants in 1912 and the Brooklyn Robins in 1916, and lost to the Mets in '86, and the Bruins beat the Rangers in '29 and '72.
Amazingly — or maybe not so amazingly — Boston and Chicago have met in championship clashes just twice, in the 1985 Super Bowl (Bears won) and the 1918 World Series (Red Sox won).
The most unlikely two-sport rivalry I found was Dallas-Buffalo, which met twice in the Super Bowl and once in the Stanley Cup finals. Buffalo, as it is wont to do, lost them all.
Besides the 14 New York World Series meetings, teams from the same city clashed with a title on the line on just two occasions — the 1906 World Series (White Sox defeated Cubs), and 1944 World Series (St. Louis Cardinals defeated St. Louis Browns).
As far as I could tell, Boston-Philadelphia and Boston-New York are the only city combinations to have met for championships in exactly three of the major sports. Hard as it is to believe, all other combinations (except one to be named later) have met in two of the sports at most. New York and L.A. can join this club if the Kings and Rangers advance.
Which leads us to the greatest sports trivia question of all time. No more beating around the bush.

Which are the only two cities to have met in the championship of all four major American sports?

Boston and Philadelphia came close. Tantalizingly, agonizingly close, but without a payoff. Then Boston and New York doubled the pain, with no meetings in the NBA Finals.

How about Philadelphia and Chicago? The Philadelphia Athletics beat the Cubs in 1910 and 1929. Baseball down. The Blackhawks (one word now) beat the Flyers in 2010 for the Stanley Cup. Hockey done. The Bears and Eagles have never met in a Super Bowl, but the Eagles and the Chicago Cardinals split a pair of NFL championships in '47 and '48. From 1947 to 1949, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was just the NBA by a different name, and in '47 the Philadelphia Warriors beat the Chicago Stags four games to one. Put a check next to basketball, and that's a clean sweep.

But did it count? It didn't feel satisfying, I'll tell you that much. I wanted the real thing, with Super Bowls and NBA championships. But one possibility after another closed off, foiling me. Just when I was ready to give up hope, I saw a strange little oddity that set off sparks in my brain and parted the clouds of frustration. The veils lifted, my friends, and now I present you with this.

Take a breath if you need it. Call your folks. Eat a snack. The answer is below this YouTube video of the Tragically Hip singing about Bill Barilko and the Maple Leafs in one of the great sports songs ever.


Answer: St. Louis and Boston.

Cardinals defeat the Red Sox in seven games in 1946! Celtics take down the St. Louis Hawks in seven in '57! Hawks get revenge the next year in six! Celtics strike back with a vengeance in '60 and '61, and the Hawks are so devastated they move to Atlanta a few years later! The Cardinals break Red Sox hearts again in '67, winning in seven! That pisses off the Bruins, who get in on the action with a clean sweep of the St. Louis Blues in '70! Things die down a little, but then Bill Belichick decides that football will be a lot easier if he knows the other team's plays, so he videotapes the Rams on the sly and then beats them in the 2002 Super Bowl! And just when you thought things were about to settle, the Red Sox end a World Series drought extending back to 1918 with a sweep of the Cardinals in 2004!

That's nine championships, good for third all-time, and the only clean sweep among the richest rivalries in sports.

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JaVale McGee's Crusade for Investigative Journalism and Non-Speculative, Facts-Based

By: timbersfan, 10:55 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

On the JaVale McGee front, news broke today that a bill has been filed in the Philippine House of Representatives to naturalize McGee as a citizen. Among other things, this would make him eligible to play for that country's team in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Fascinating story, one that I'm very excited to see play out.

But believe it or not, that's the second-most important JaVale McGee–related news of the week. The other piece of news is more important, because it involves me, you, JaVale.

To put it plainly, I think he's on to us, Internet. All of the articles and videos and tweets about JaVale being one of the goofier athletes to ever step foot on the professional hardwood weren't as under the radar as we all thought. We assumed we were talking behind this guy's back, but apparently JaVale has had the Internet this entire time and eventually began to understand how he's perceived in the media. So what does JaVale do to teach us all a lesson for the borderline cyber-bullying? He lofts those of us, eager to break "news," the easiest layup of a story since the unveiling of Nick Young's Olmec-inspired blouse. That story:

JaVale McGee apparently purchased a pair of platypus. Actually, let me not paraphrase the actual words of JaVale. That would be rude.

Pierre McGee

@JaValeMcGee34
Just copped a pet platypus .... #swag
14 May 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite
And then, about 40 minutes later, he tweeted a pic, without explanation:

Pierre McGee

@JaValeMcGee34
pic.twitter.com/Lh0Boh6m

14 May 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite
After alerting the world of his new "pets," JaVale went on with his evening and following morning, but the MEDIA did not. Stories were written about JaVale, talking about his odd acquisitions that he apparently just copped. Articles by "reporters" and "journalists" claimed that, in classic JaVale fashion, he had made an interesting platypus investment, but the "reporters" and "journalists" who wrote these stories never consulted the platypus buyer in question.

Just. As. JaVale. Suspected.

So this afternoon, the mastermind alerted the world that the platypus adoption was a hoax and the photo was simply taken from Flickr. He made sure he got his main point across:

Pierre McGee

@JaValeMcGee34
I can believe I fooled fans into believing I bought some platypus' but reporters?
15 May 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite
Pierre McGee

@JaValeMcGee34
Media: u guys didn't check ur sources before writing the story? All u had to do is go to google images...Smh...Sbn...Some others n dc. SHAME
15 May 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite
And that, my friends, is how you serve the media, courtesy of JaVale McGee. Using an issue as trivial and shockingly unimportant as the acquisition of a strange animal to domesticate, JaVale exposed himself as someone who is about more than big dunks and even bigger missed dunks. He's a champion for professionalism and proper reporting.

As someone who probably would have written about this had I not slept in and then spent the latter part of the morning looping Mandy Moore's "Candy," I'd be lying if I said my approach toward my job hasn't changed post-'GeeGate. Well, it hasn't exactly changed, but there's no way I'm getting clowned by JaVale McGee. I'll stop at nothing to make sure that doesn't happen. And I know if that day ever does come, that's officially the day I finally quit this Internet thing and finally push "submit" on my application to Hollywood Video.

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Manchester City Still Learning How to Win Gracefully

By: timbersfan, 10:53 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

Manchester City won the Premier League on Sunday. Sergio Agüero scored a last-second goal, everyone went bananas, and all was full of love. It marked the first time City won the title in 44 years, and they did so at the expense of their intercity rivals, Manchester United. Then they started celebrating. That's when things started going wrong.

Oh, it all started out pretty great. Liam Gallagher was throwing beer and Roberto Mancini was overwhelmed and team captain Vincent Kompany called their victory a "miracle." There was even a pitch invasion …



Things started getting off track when Manchester City forward Carlos Tévez (formerly of Manchester United) picked up a sign during City's celebration and parade Monday. He probably didn't look at it very closely. And much has been made about Tévez's, shall we say, lack of interest in the English language. But I feel like "R.I.P." is a phrase that transcends languages.



It's pretty clear that Carlos Tévez didn't stay up all night shading in an "R.I.P. Fergie" sign. Someone handed it to him and he held it up in the air. Tévez, for his part, apologized. "I got carried away in the excitement of the moment and I certainly didn't mean any disrespect to Sir Alex Ferguson, who I admire as a man and a manager," Tévez said. Maybe he knew what it said. Maybe he didn't. To their credit, United have accepted the apology. Chief executive David Gill said: "The club [City] acted pretty quickly. I think it was rather silly, frankly, in terms of what it said, but City acted with commendable speed."

Just as this tempest in a teacup was being … put back in the cupboard (high-five to me for the mixed imagery there), another minor controversy was stirred up, when another City player took a shot at his former club.

Samir Nasri, who not-so-amicably moved from Arsenal to City, early in the 2011-12 season, took a moment from celebrating City's title to throw some shade at the North London club. "People at Arsenal tried to make out that I came here for the money … I hope they are watching me now, collecting my Premier League winner's medal. I believe they have not won a trophy for many years now." Sick Premier League burn. I don't know why he's mad at Arsenal. It's not their fans who harassed him on a highway after a game. [Warning: Some bad words in below video.]


The thing is, it's not like City are the first team to have their players take their moment of glory as an opportunity to stick it to former or hated teams. Even United has a history of doing that …


But it will be interesting to follow how City handle their burgeoning new role of top-dog club. They know how to win on the field. Next comes winning off of it.

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The Coming of the Goldman Sachs Yankees

By: timbersfan, 10:52 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

One Saturday afternoon early last month, Trenton Oldfield typed out and posted his list of grievances, the thrust of which was a distaste for elitism, then swam wet-suited into the path of the boats in the rowing race on the River Thames between the teams from Oxford and Cambridge.

The pictures of the protest showed perplexed looks on the faces of the competitors.

And on their chests? Not Oxford. Not Cambridge.

Xchanging.

The name of a business process outsourcing firm.

Digital ribbons ringing the interiors of arenas. Miniature blimps dropping fluttering coupons toward grasping hands of fans. Candy bar decals all but Scotch-taped to basketball floors. Outfield walls. The back walls of dugouts. The whole of NASCAR.

Everything's for sale.

The outerwear of golfers and tennis players and soccer players. Game jerseys in the MLS. Game jerseys in the WNBA. Some practice jerseys in the NBA and NFL. Cricket players' faces. And of course the shirts worn in one of the stuffiest, sniffiest sporting events in the world.

Unused space is wasted space.

Ads are on players' clothing in pretty much every major sport pretty much everywhere but the United States of America, the most ad-driven, ad-covered country on the planet.

The chests of Stateside sports stars somehow remain a last bastion of sacrosanct space.

Why?

It's a good time to talk about ads on jerseys. NBA bigwigs are.

"We told our owners that it was not something we were considering doing for next season," league deputy commissioner Adam Silver said a few weeks ago, "but that it was something we should at least discuss doing for the season after next.

"We presented to our owners some mocked-up jerseys, mannequins, not models, that showed various iterations of logos, sizes of logos, placement of logos. We showed them some of the traditional soccer jerseys used in Europe and we showed them some of the valuations that soccer jerseys are getting and some estimates of ranges of values for logo rights on NBA jerseys."

By not putting ads on jerseys, the four major sports leagues in this country are leaving on the table a total of more than $370 million a year, according to a study done by Horizon Media.

"This is the ability for a brand to be literally woven into the fabric of the game," Michael Neuman said recently on the phone from New York. Neuman is a managing partner of Scout Sports and Entertainment, which is a division of Horizon.

For sponsors, it's especially attractive because it's a deal that travels — the Mercedes-Benz Lakers are still the Mercedes-Benz Lakers even in games in San Antonio, Minneapolis, or Boston.

"It's inevitable," Neuman said.

The NBA will be the first to do it.

The NHL probably will be the next.

The NFL and Major League Baseball almost surely will be the last.

"American football and baseball teams have never worn sponsorship in the past and have strong traditions associated with them," Dave Moor of Historical Football Kits said in an e-mail. "Administrators may fear that introducing shirts with ads might be viewed as a breach of this tradition and un-American."

That's because baseball and football have the best-made myths. Baseball isn't an evolving pharmaceutical playground. It's … this. Football isn't a multi-billion-dollar business built on the slow but certain destruction of men. It's … this.

Remember back in 2004 when MLB planned to put Spider-Man logos on the bases in a deal with Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios seeking to pimp Spider-Man 2? Remember when people went ape?

Almost 80 percent of fans said they thought baseball was "selling out," Bud Selig declared himself a "traditionalist," and the baseball people, the movie people, and the comics people scrapped the idea and scurried away from this burst of forward thinking.

"We didn't want to do anything to take away from their enjoyment of the game," the Columbia executive told ESPN.com.

Even politicians addressed this very important matter.

"We baseball fans will put up a fierce fight to protect our national pastime," a congressman from the state of Washington said. "Thanks to the support of fans today, America's pastime will remain pure tomorrow."

Ha.

Tradition is an incomplete explanation. That $370 million sits fat like a hanging curve. It takes a special kind of credulity to think owners of teams in major American sports who are so resolute in all manners of revenue extraction simply shrug their shoulders here because of some particular reverence for convention.

Ads on jerseys will unsettle the fans? They will not. It'll be like new Facebook or something, when everybody bellyaches for about 10 minutes and then it's just Facebook. We'll get used to ads on jerseys, and fast, and the owners know this. Because we always do. Because we get used to things like the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl and extra points getting kicked into not just a net but an Allstate ad. That's a Coors Light Cold Hard Fact.

So what's really the reason for this country's faux-prudish reluctance to put ads on jerseys?

Refer back to bothered, 35-year-old Trenton Oldfield, with his beard and his wet suit and his little manifesto, which decried "the transfer of our money into the vaults of a handful of corporations," "the devastation to public services," and "the reductions of tax burdens for the richest."

"There is," he wrote, "a concerted effort to disintegrate ideas of Our Public; to atomise and divide us."

Ads on a team's jerseys? They could interfere with or at least make more complicated certain players' individual sponsorship opportunities. Listen to this cool Freakonomics podcast. So if the Miami Heat, say, mandated that every member of the team wear, oh, Carnival Cruise jerseys, then LeBron James almost certainly couldn't shill for Royal Caribbean.

It's hard, I guess, to think this way when everybody involved seems so rich (and for the most part is so rich), but it's the principle. Ads on jerseys represent, at least in theory, a more equitable distribution of the money made by selling this last virgin space. No ads on jerseys, on the other hand, provides sustenance to a policy that actually funnels additional wealth to an infinitesimal sliver of the super-elite. The mere possibility of more collective benefit is thus scuttled.

What I'm trying to say is this: Team-first traditionalists, acolytes of one for all and all for one, should be rooting for the introduction of the General Motors Pistons, the Facebook 49ers, and the Goldman Sachs Yankees.

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‘Daddy’s Crying’

By: timbersfan, 10:50 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

For nearly three years, I've been giving myself the same speech. Since my one and only heartbreaking trip to Old Trafford in the fall of 2009, it's been the go-to pep talk for the voices inside my head.

Having supported Manchester City since the age of 11, finally daring to step inside Manchester United's famous ground as a 40-year-old and then being forced to witness City lose a soul-crushing classic to a Michael Owen goal that made it 4-3 nearly two minutes after the final whistle should have been blown, this became my mantra:

Nothing can ever hurt me again.

Which, of course, is the most laughable lie I've ever uttered.

What happened to City (and me) back in September '09 was a mere scrape compared to the face-first impaling we flirted with over the weekend. For 91 minutes on the final day of the closest title race in Premier League history, every bone and muscle ached for every long-suffering Blue on the planet. For 91 agonizing minutes of a match that would mercifully last 95, I was fairly certain that Jana Novotna would have let me cry on her shoulder, such were the historic depths of the unraveling to which Calamity City, as we've been called over the years, so nearly plunged this time.

By now, I suspect, you know the basics. And if for some reason you didn't catch SportsCenter's blessed two-day infatuation with this one-of-a-kind roller-coaster, here was the deal: Needing only a home win against the team with the worst away record in the division to clinch the club's first league championship in 44 years — with the visitors playing most of the second half with only 10 men — City tried instead to give us the soccer equivalent of that one-foot putt I.K. Kim yakked in April to cost herself a major.

That is, until City turned it all around with this and this to change the course of the club's history after four full decades of mostly sabotage.

So many people have asked me what it was like to watch it happen this way. The unglamorous truth: I spent the bulk of that frustrating half-hour after the sending-off of City castoff Joey Barton and before the goals of salvation sneaking looks at my kids' reactions to the unfolding disaster. I like to believe that my path to City fandom was destiny, but I couldn't stifle the feelings of guilt over Connecticut-born Alex (8) and Texas-born Aaron (5) adopting my club as theirs. Because they didn't need or deserve misery like this.

"Typical City" is what they've called it in Manchester since the '80s. And this was the ultimate exhibit: Fall a seemingly fatal eight points behind United with an Easter loss at Arsenal, miraculously erase the eight-point deficit with five near-perfect performances — including a win over United in the biggest Manchester derby ever — and then throw it all away at the finish line to hand the league back to the hated Reds and set up United for the most insufferable round of bragging rights imaginable.

This was so not what I was expecting on what they were calling Survival Sunday. I went into the QPR game convinced that we'd absolutely roll, borderline cocky in the belief that our time had finally arrived, having watched City play that virtually flawless football for a month after the Arsenal defeat when there was zero margin for error. If City could do that — if we had the steel to beat United on April 30 in the most hyped game in Premiership history and follow that up by going to high-flying Newcastle and winning there without a scare — how much resistance could Mark Hughes's lowly QPR really muster?

So when Sergio Aguero's goal went in with 94 minutes on the clock, after Edin Dzeko's header launched the resurrection when all had looked lost, I didn't even have the strength to celebrate. My kids were shouting and bouncing all over the room, but I just sat there in shock, completely overwhelmed, trying to hold back the tears. And failing.

My kids loved that just as much. They scampered away as I took it all in, screaming for Mom downstairs. They couldn't wait to inform her: "Daddy's crying!"

While the imperious Ian Darke and my old pal Steve McManaman were expertly capturing all the madness for ESPN's American audience, I later learned that Martin Tyler had summed it up neatly for Sky's viewers in the U.K., too: "From chokers to champions in five crazy minutes."

None of this, of course, would have ever been possible if City hadn't won the biggest sports lottery ever back in the fall of 2008. That's when Sheikh Mansour inexplicably decided to dip into his bottomless Abu Dhabi riches, invest billions into Manchester's beaten-down little brother, and instantly transform us into the richest club in the world.

But money alone could only catapult City back into United's zip code for the first time since the late 1960s, when the Blues, believe it or not, were the power brokers in Manchester. To take the gargantuan step of actually toppling United and winning the toughest league in the world — to trump Sir Alex Ferguson at last — it would take more than obscene riches. It would take the craziest of comebacks, in a game for the ages, to cap a season of unmatched drama … as well as a slice of long-awaited (and long-deserved) good fortune that no one could ever buy. Not even the sheikh.

So …

As much as I hate to admit it, The Sports Guy was right. Bill Simmons had the misfortune of watching a huge City-Tottenham game with me in May 2010, which meant watching me melt down in "Typical City" fashion as the newly rich Blues blew their chance to qualify for the Champions League for the first time, prompting the longtime Boston Red Sox devotee to write the following:

Yeah, I get it. You're not even that mad. You just feel empty inside. You head into every big game assuming you will lose, and when it happens, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. You claim that you have your guard up, only deep down, that guard is lowered just enough that you're hoping against hope that THIS game will be different. Only it never is. "I get it," I said. I tried to explain to Steiny Mo that these things can turn only in the most dramatic of ways. It will never be a typical win. It will be a life experience. It will break you down in sections. It will take you to the abyss and back. You will have to be stripped of any and all hope, and then — and only then — will you see a light. That's the way these things work.
Yup.

When City went down 2-1 to 10-man QPR, and never looked like scoring all the way into added time, I had given up. All hope seemed lost. I was balled up in my chair trying to come up with something smart to say to cushion the blow for the boys. I was searching for the words I'd need to fill the 140 characters of the most dreaded concession-speech tweet of my life. Most of all, I was wondering how my closest Mancunian buddies Martin and Alan Dodd and Barry Gate were coping from inside the Etihad. They were all there in person in '68, took me in as one of their own on my first-ever pilgrimage to the Great North West of England in 1996, and, like me, surely had to be wondering if it would ever be our turn to do what Fergie said we'd never do in his lifetime and consign the most famous worldwide brand in the sport to second place.

Turns out that the Blues had to bottom out one last time, imploding mere steps away from the tape, before they could rise up to overthrow the forces of "Typical City" once and for all. In those five crazy minutes, City turned what looked to be the sort of ghastly scar of a defeat we'd never, ever live down into a movie script that spawned record numbers of "I don't like your sport but that was one of the sickest things I've ever seen" tweets.

In England, there's a saying that comes in handy when trying to make sense of the unexplainable in this sport: "Football, bloody hell." For me, learning how to process success is clearly going to take some time. But something tells me that maybe, just maybe, I'll start figuring that part out from here.

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The Upfronts: Your Preview of the Best, Worst, and Weirdest New Shows on the Big Four

By: timbersfan, 10:46 PM GMT on May 16, 2012

Upfronts week is a propagandist’s dream, a nonstop cavalcade of lofty promises, shining stars, and room-temperature mock-maki. In lavish ballrooms extending from midtown Manhattan to the other side of midtown Manhattan, the broadcast networks trot out talent and psyche themselves up in an attempt to sell advertisers, and an increasingly attentive public, on their latest bill of goods (or at least mediocres). So why does it more often sound like they’re selling themselves too? “Why just watch when you can feel?” enthused emo ABC chief Paul Lee at the Alphabet’s shindig. It was a well-constructed bit of hokum that could be repurposed for nearly any of Lee’s rivals (CBS: “Why just watch when you can doze?"; The CW: “Why just watch when you can [SKRILLEX BASS DROP]?" NBC: “Why watch?”). ABC may be peddling a brand strategy that attempts to draw bright lassos of linkage between its tradition of heart-tugging Body Washes (you know: like soaps, but classier) and head-scratching array of newcomers, but the truth is that none of the networks have any real idea what they’re doing. In an atmosphere where an afterthought could redefine a company and a heavily hyped investment could cost everyone onstage their jobs, can those in charge really be blamed for playing it safe? Any of their new shows could fail, a very few could succeed. But anyone who tells you they know which is which before Labor Day is lying. On Tuesday, ABC led their clip package with the words, “When we share great stories, they touch our hearts and feed our souls.” Last year, the same people were touting the soul-nourishing properties of Work It. La plus ça change, la plus c’est la meme merde.

All of the shows that were unveiled this month with great fanfare and lukewarm coffee, from the promising (Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project) to the putrefying (Dane Cook’s Next Caller), were the winners of a particularly brutal behind-the-scenes Hunger Games, in which creators scratch, claw, and recast in a desperate bid to have the honor of potentially being canceled in ignominy come October. In a perceptive New York Times article from earlier this week, Brian Stelter chronicled the wasteful, depressing process in which each network whittles a list of 80 green-lit projects down to two dozen pilots (each of which have a price tag in the millions) and then halves them again before finally flashing the green light of success/surrender. If recent trends continue, only 30 percent of these winners will make it to a second season. Everything else is tossed in the compost heap (it is California), and the entire tilt-a-whirl starts again in June. It doesn’t take Malcolm Gladwell to identify this as an inefficient system — Malcolm in the Middle could have done it, too. It’s creaky, it’s expensive, and it makes the jobs of people like Paul Lee and his equivalent at NBC, Bob Greenblatt, extremely hard. Depending on your metric, their networks finished in either last or second-to-last place in 2011, and their hopes are now pinned to a process that’s uncomfortably similar to the NBA draft. If either of them hits on what boils down to a costly educated guess, they could be set for years. If they miss — as Lee did last year with Pan Am and Greenblatt did with just about everything — they’re stuck for at least another season.

Only perpetually front-running CBS is immune to this loony lottery. The former Tiffany network may be the butt of jokes for its old-skewing audience, but by targeting the one demo consistently ignored by cool-hunting cable execs, CBS has become a model of stability. (Other than hybrid success story The Good Wife, CBS’s dramas aren’t serialized, its comedies aren’t single-camera, and its failures are never canceled — merely disappeared. How to Be a Gentleman was six feet deep in the Meadowlands before Kevin Dillon had time to get his mail forwarded from HBO.) For the other three, including first-place (again, depending on your metric) Fox, 2012 promises a lot of big swings, an overreliance on comedy (still the only genre the Big Four do better than cable), and, inevitably, a ridiculous number of misses. With the enormous caveat that (a) I haven’t seen any of these things, and (b) good shows are rarely good from their pilots, let alone the teaser trailers for their pilots, here’s a first look:

ABC

Despite Paul Lee’s shaky taste in catchphrases and cross-dressing, his slate seems the most sensible of any of his peers, building nights like stations at a well-catered buffet: supernatural Sundays, family-comedy Wednesdays, casual Fridays.

INTRIGUING: Connie Britton in Nashville. The show itself seems like warmed-over grits: Two generations of sassy country divas face off in Music City against a backdrop of jowly politicos and good old bad boys with tasteful scruff and $200 boots. But Britton is the most consistently excellent actress on TV and has long been deserving of a mass-appeal showcase, even if it means drawling and brawling with the likes of Hayden Panettiere.


PERPLEXING: Last Resort, from cable capo Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers), is the ballsiest rookie on anyone’s schedule. Starring Andre Braugher as a guy who speaks sternly, it’s a high-concept, higher-budget serial about the crew of a rogue nuclear sub who set up a new, deterrent-dangling nation on An Island That Conveniently Looks Like Hawaii. It’s got great credentials, a great cast, and is exactly the sort of all-or-nothing gambit the network drama departments should be trying before sliding into complete procedural irrelevance. So why has Lee beached this thing on Thursdays at 8 p.m.? It’s either savvy counter-programming to CBS and NBC’s sitcoms or a high-stakes game of brinksmanship. One way or another, somebody’s getting blown up.


REVOLTING: It’s hard to get too exercised one way or another about The Family Tools and How to Live With Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life), the Alphabet’s latest attempts to mine laughs out of sh*t our moms and dads say. Instead, save the vitriol for The Neighbors, a half-baked premise seemingly mined from a wadded-up memo found in the late Brandon Tartikoff’s racquetball locker. (Since 1988, NBC has kept the entire thing intact and untouched behind a velvet rope, like Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom.) Everything here seems 20 years past its sell-by date, from the creaky premise (those suburban weirdos are from another planet — literally) and Jami Gertz at the top of the call sheet (she passed on Courteney Cox’s part on Friends) to the universal hilarity of Dick Butkus jokes. Some ideas are better left on Melmac.

NBC

As befits a network that needs the most help, NBC ordered the greatest number of new shows this cycle, from budget-busting thrillers to multi-cam comedies to reality shows starring Jenny McCarthy. But it’s hard to divine a method to the madness. Instead, Bob Greenblatt’s strategy seems to involve throwing as much stuff as possible at the wall, hoping something sticks, then claiming that was the plan all along. Not a bad idea, really. It worked over at ABC with Lost.

INTRIGUING: Speaking of polar bears, J.J. Abrams has bestowed the Peacock with another big-ticket idea from his brain freezer. Revolution picks up the story of Earth 15 years after all the power went out: The U.S. government has fallen into rebel factions, horses are under more strain than they were on the set of Luck, and people growing food in their backyards in Brooklyn are essential instead of annoying. Despite a recent graveyard of serialized sci-fi stinkers, I think our still-powered world is ready for another mutual obsession, and a little more Giancarlo Esposito is always a good thing. But the biggest red flag here is the sword-and-crossbow-wielding cast, a worryingly white collection of jutting jaws and bland good looks. Total societal breakdown? These pretties would barely survive a Patagonia catalog photo shoot.


PERPLEXING: Much of the talk this development season focused on NBC’s reportedly outstanding crop of comedy pilots — many of which would purportedly challenge ratings-deprived fan favorites like Parks and Rec and Community for a spot on the dial. Yet when Greenblatt took the stage on Monday, all the bubble shows were renewed in one form or another, and there appears to be very little primed to replace them. The most promising of the lot will be the first to premiere: Go On, starring pro’s pro Matthew Perry, has a loopy warmth, despite the pro forma premise (sportscaster loses wife, gains perspective via group therapy). (“Could this be any more like Dear John?” — Chandler Bing.) But even that potential seems mitigated by the presence of multi-cam mediocrity like Guys With Kids. With its central thesis of “Yuck, responsibilities!” the show would have fit in better with last year’s lame epidemic of vaguely misogynist manxiety. Mid-season replacement Save Me, in which the always interesting Anne Heche declares herself a prophet, sounds like a repurposed pilot from Greenblatt’s old gig at Showtime, while the rest of the lot depends on one’s tolerance for shrieking monkeys (Animal Practice) and/or Josh Gad (1600 Penn). Forget about “must,” this is Maybe See TV at best.


REVOLTING: It’s unclear which is worse: comedy “from the imagination of Ryan Murphy” (The New Normal) or from the vomitorium of Dane Cook (Next Caller). Either way, Whitney Cummings should relax: Critics have some new punching bags.

Fox

With six fewer hours to fill each week than his rivals, it’s not hard for Kevin Reilly to look like the smartest kid in the class. And the breakout success of The New Girl in 2011 afforded him the opportunity to do what his rivals only dream about: flex.

INTRIGUING: Mindy Kaling’s terribly titled The Mindy Project (which admittedly is a better name for a show about a disorderly gynecologist than the originally announced It’s Messy) is one of the few teasers to generate legit LOLs, mainly because few comic personae are as perfectly realized as Kaling’s Bridget Jones tripping over a drunk Jane Austen. It’s promising, and a perfect foil for Zooey Deschanel’s adorkability (and I’ve been saying so since January!). The only red flag is that some strangely intense directing choices make the show look more like Gossip Girl than a frothy rom-com co-starring the dude you get for your indie feature when you can’t get Mark Ruffalo, Chris Messina. Ben and Kate, also on Tuesdays, features the guy who won an Oscar with Dean Pelton as a manchild helping raise an actual child with his sister. Paired with Mindy, it’s the sort of urbane, heartfelt package that NBC should be spending money to develop instead of investing in all that cutting-edge chair-spinning technology.


PERPLEXING: I’m no fan of overly precious titles — I still think CBS’s canceled Unforgettable should have stuck with The Rememberer — but The Mob Doctor strikes even me as a bit on the nose. It also seems like a risk: the story of Jordana Spiro attempting to balance the Hippocratic oath with the code of the streets. It also features Friday Night Lights vet Zach Gilford as a second-string doctor forced into the big time, and William Forsythe, last seen playing a slab of kosher ham on Boardwalk Empire, as a Chicago mafioso. The M.D. — see what I did there — is the first attempt by another network to clone the success of The Good Wife, a show that sneaks premium-cable grit and depth inside the shaggy skeleton of a standard procedural. Still, Fox tends not to exhibit much patience with underperforming dramas that don’t feature alternate realities (the fact that Fringe is still making new episodes seems too far-fetched even for the show’s own producers to believe). It’ll be interesting to see how long this one lasts before getting whacked.


REVOLTING: Nothing much to complain about here. Just another plea for someone, somewhere to give Rebounding a shot. The Will Forte–starring basketball and bereavement comedy was a great script and (reportedly) a great pilot. It deserves a chance on the charity stripe at a network with more space in its gym.

CBS

Les Moonves has been recording new verses of Shaq’s classic anti-Kobe freestyle for years — and there’s no reason for him to stop inquiring about the flavor of his competitors' posteriors anytime soon. All of CBS’s new shows seem perfectly, impossibly CBS: like they’ve secretly been running for decades, you just haven’t realized you’ve been ignoring them yet.

INTRIGUING: Vegas, a period piece about cowboy justice running up against casino glitz, boasts a bananas cast (Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, and a dinosaur-free Jason O’Mara) and that grandfatherly CBS attention to detail that makes every frame seem somehow important, even if it’s just gruff, macho nonsense. But it’s not hard to think a show about a sordid, violent underworld might be better served on a network able to actually show some sordid violence without the fear of Morley Safer’s angina acting up.

PERPLEXING: Janet Montgomery is a beautiful, talented actress, best known for getting off on the original Skins and getting mostly cut out of My Idiot Brother. But she is most assuredly not Made in Jersey — she was made in Dorset, actually, a beach town on the English Channel, and she speaks with an accent better suited to Downton Abbey than to downtown Newark. But here she is, starring in a not–Ugly Betty, as a gorgeous goomah employed by Kyle MacLachlan’s swanky Manhattan law firm. If the tone is light, this could be fun. But CBS viewers tend to prefer their fun being sent off to jail by episode’s end, not embarking on a bridge-and-tunnel journey of discovery.

REVOLTING: There’s plenty of room in this world for numerous reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes, but not even a Holmes-ian dose of medicinal opium could make me root for Elementary, a slick procedural that appears to remove all of the wit and grime of both the original tale and its brilliant BBC descendent. In their place? Lucy Liu as "Joan" Watson. Ugh. Consider me Team Moriarty.

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The best eleven

By: timbersfan, 9:22 AM GMT on May 16, 2012

To change an old football cliché slightly, this was a season of two halves. The likes of Demba Ba and Jose Enrique were superb before Christmas but then faded badly, while Papiss Cisse and Paul Scholes had a superb impact but played only in the second half of the campaign. Then there are players like Lucas Leiva and Alejandro Faurlin, who excelled early on but saw their seasons end prematurely due to injury.

This season, more than any other, highlighted the importance of consistency. With that being a crucial consideration, here is a Premier League team of the season, complete with two backups at each position.

Goalkeeper:
Joe Hart, Manchester City

The league-winning goalkeeper by the narrowest of margins, Hart was ultimately the most consistent across the course of the season. Hart is a good all-round goalkeeper -- excellent in positional terms, good at dealing with crosses and great reflexes. His incredible man-of-the-match display at Anfield in November was probably his best performance, though the individual highlight was his repeatedly shouting "Don't wait for me!" as Scott Sinclair lined up a penalty kick, having worked out the Swansea winger's tendency to wait for the goalkeeper to move. Sinclair did wait, Hart saved and then restated his warning in jubilant fashion.

Elsewhere, two Dutch goalkeepers stood out -- Tim Krul with a string of fine saves for Newcastle, and Michel Vorm as the league's best "footballing" goalkeeper.

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Paul Ellis/AFP/GettyImages
Though the Prem struggled for quality right backs, Kyle Walker's energy and attacking gusto earn him a spot in this side.
Full backs:
Kyle Walker, Tottenham Hotspur

In his first full season at Tottenham after a successful loan spell at Aston Villa last season, Walker is a classic modern full back -- a superb athlete and capable of relentless attacking down the right flank. Defensively, there's still work to do, and while Walker's pace gets him out of difficult situations now, he will need to improve his positional sense. Still, his continued drive going forward, combined with his penchant for a spectacular long-range strike, means he gets a place in arguably the weakest position on this team.

Leighton Baines, Everton

Not as many goals and assists as in previous campaigns, and Everton can be exposed when a forward moves into the channel behind him -- as Luis Suarez showed in the FA Cup semifinal. But Baines remains technically excellent with the ball at his feet, able to play direct passes to forward players or whip fast, accurate crosses toward the back post. Factor in one of the more reliable set-piece deliveries in the league, and he has probably been the best left back in the league.

Bacary Sagna is probably the league's best right back but missed a long spell through injury, while Pablo Zabaleta was superb in City's run-in but started less than half his side's matches. Full back isn't currently blessed with great strength in depth on either side. Ashley Cole remains a very good player despite a shaky spell under Andre Villas-Boas, while Benoit Assou-Ekotto deserves more recognition for his consistency.

Center backs:
Martin Skrtel, Liverpool

Liverpool's player of the season. According to teammate Stewart Downing, there was no doubt about it. "Martin Skrtel has got to be the player of the season so far. He's always in the right place at the right time, a real unsung hero ... I can't remember him having a bad game," Downing says. "He'll head anything, block anything; all the lads are saying he's getting better and better." Skrtel was always a superb physical force, but he's become better in positional terms and more confident on the ball -- probably only Robin van Persie got the better of him over the course of 90 minutes this season.

Vincent Kompany, Manchester City

Solid and commanding at the back throughout the Premier League season, the Belgian also managed to come up with the winner in the season's key EPL encounter: City's 1-0 win over Manchester United at the Etihad. His aerial dominance has always been evident, but now he's more adept at moving out from the back to close down a forward dropping deep. Equally important has been his leadership -- this time last year, let's not forget, Carlos Tevez was City's captain. Kompany is far more deserving of the armband.

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Clive Mason/Getty Images
Liverpool's season may have been disappointing, but the poise and consistent excellence of Martin Skrtel in defense was a high point.
Other star center backs have included Fabricio Coloccini of Newcastle and Tottenham's Younes Kaboul, largely for their aerial ability, while less physical defenders like Laurent Koscielny and Jonny Evans have matured into fine players, highly respected by their set of fans.

Central midfielders:
Mikel Arteta, Arsenal

A panic buy on the final day of the transfer window, Arteta seemed to sum up Arsenal's desperation at the time -- he was an older, less dynamic Barcelona youth product when Arsenal was struggling to replace Cesc Fabregas. But Arteta's impact has been superb -- no player passed the ball more often per game, with the Spaniard constantly controlling the tempo, directing the point of attack and dropping deep to allow Alex Song to move forward into attacking positions. His dipping drive against Manchester City highlighted his attacking quality, and it took Arsenal until the final game of the season to win without him.

Yaya Toure, Manchester City

Arguably the best all-round player in the league. An immense physical force yet also possessing quick feet and a sudden bust of pace, Toure is one of the few players in the league who genuinely seems to overawe opponents when going in for 50/50 challenges. He also makes important contributions in front of the goal -- after his FA Cup final winner last season, his two goals at Newcastle meant the title race remained in City's hands going into the final day. Even when limping and about to be substituted, he still managed to tee up Pablo Zabaleta for the opening goal in Sunday's win over QPR.

Michael Carrick took a few weeks to force his way into the Manchester United lineup but was never dropped because of his outstanding consistency, while Leon Britton recorded a better pass-completion rate than any player in the league in his first top-flight season. Luka Modric enjoyed another excellent season for Tottenham, while Yohan Cabaye has also been superb -- he's made more tackles than any other player and has a fine eye for a killer pass.

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Wide midfielders:
Antonio Valencia, Manchester United

A natural winger who does the things the old-fashioned way -- getting the ball, roaring past the opposing left back and firing a cross into the box. Always hugging the touchline and stretching the play rather than crowding the centre of the pitch, Valencia also offers great protection for his full back. Thirteen assists in 22 starts is an excellent record, and when United appeared to be struggling -- away at Blackburn, away at Arsenal -- he came up with key contributions. Sir Alex Ferguson might regret not starting him in the crucial game at Manchester City.
David Silva, Manchester City

For the first few months Silva was sensational. His ability to find pockets of space between the lines of defense is remarkable, as is his ability to control the ball on the move and then thread a pass between two defenders before he's been closed down. The home game against Everton back in September was extraordinary -- David Moyes instructed Jack Rodwell to man-mark Silva all over the pitch, but Rodwell picked up a yellow card after 20 minutes. Moyes then decided to put Phil Neville on Silva instead -- and Neville barely managed two minutes before he was booked. Silva was causing the entire Everton side problems. His volleyed pass for Edin Dzeko in City's 6-1 win at Manchester United was one of the highlights of the season, while the utter confusion of Bolton's Paul Robinson about how to mark Silva summed up his intelligent positional play. It's just a shame his form dipped after Christmas.
Ramires has become a key player at Chelsea and seems to have become a right-sided midfielder, too. Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson also enjoyed a good campaign, scoring more free kicks than any other player. Juan Mata adapted superbly to the league but declined at roughly the same point Silva did, while Clint Dempsey came fourth in the Football Writers' Player of the Year award and may get a move to a bigger club.

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Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Scoring the crucial goal against QPR was just another highlight in a brilliant debut EPL season for Sergio Aguero. The Argentine forward notched 23 goals and 8 assists in 34 league appearances.
Forwards:
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Had the Argentine not scored the winner on Sunday, this spot would have gone to Wayne Rooney, who would have effectively won United its 20th league title with a poacher's effort at Sunderland. An overreaction to one small event? Perhaps, but Aguero provided the decisive moment on the most exciting day in Premier League history, and the value of that contribution cannot be overestimated. Besides, Aguero was going all season long -- with Mario Balotelli's disciplinary problems, Carlos Tevez going AWOL and Edin Dzeko dropping out of form, Aguero scored within eight minutes of his first touch in Premier League football, then finished the season as the Sky Blues' hero. There's more to come, but this was an undeniably impressive first campaign.

Robin van Persie, Arsenal

Many had faith that van Persie would become a world-class player despite his continued injury struggles, but few thought it would be as an out-and-out striker. He is now a great goal scorer but still a scorer of great goals -- as his volleys against Everton and Liverpool demonstrate. There were hat tricks, chipped penalties and, perhaps, most importantly, no fitness problems; RvP played in all 38 league games. Both the players' and football writers' Player of the Year, the Dutch forward has set a great example to the rest of the Arsenal squad in his first season as club captain.

Wayne Rooney scored 27 goals in a consistent if unspectacular campaign, while Luis Suarez made headlines for the wrong reasons but was occasionally impossible to defend. Emmanuel Adebayor was the only player to get into double figures for both goals and assists, while Grant Holt scored 15 goals in 24 starts for a bottom-half club, bullying defenders and consistently making superb runs.

Manager:
Alan Pardew, Newcastle

Fifth place seemed like something of an anticlimax after the Magpies' superb season -- but considering that few predicted Newcastle would finish any higher than midtable, it was a superb effort. Pardew started the season playing with a structured, square shape that focused upon good defensive play and Demba Ba's one-touch finishes -- but then adjusted to the signing of Papiss Cisse and went with a 4-3-3 that brought out the best of both Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa. Graham Carr deserves great credit for his scouting, but Pardew is a fine tactician and Newcastle was unquestionably the overachiever of the season.

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The Reducer, Week 37: Today Is Gonna Be the Day

By: timbersfan, 4:28 AM GMT on May 15, 2012

Manchester City wins the Premier League title in the most dramatic fashion possible
By Chris Ryan on May 14, 2012
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In the first-ever edition of this column, I wrote — by way of introducing the Premier League season and discussing the possible shift in power at the top of the table — that "it's up for grabs now." It was a reference to a famous bit of football commentary by Brian Moore. Here's the context: In 1989, Arsenal went to Liverpool on the last day of the season, needing to win by two goals to take the First Division title. With less than a minute to go, Arsenal went, in the words of Moore, "streaming forward." Alan Smith picked out Michael Thomas with a looping pass that allowed Thomas to split the Liverpool defenders and, well …


Who could have possibly predicted that, 23 years later, Sergio Aguero would have his own Michael Thomas moment, winning the title for Manchester City in the dying seconds of the 2011-12 Premier League season, bringing the topflight trophy to the blue side of the city for the first time in 44 years?

That moment was just one of many from a soap-operatic final day in English football. All 10 Premier League games kicked off at the same time on Sunday, meaning there would be no competitive advantage among the teams. It created one of the most nerve-mulching finishes to a league season, in any sport, that I've ever seen. With this in mind, there was only one thing to do: Boil all the matches down into a borderline insane retro diary of the events that transpired.

Kickoff: Here's what's in play (and it's a lot):

The Title: If City win, they win the trophy. Real simple. United can equal them on points by beating Sunderland, but have no chance of eclipsing City's huge lead in goal difference. Sir Alex Ferguson is praying his former player Mark Hughes, now manager of Queens Park Rangers,1 does him a favor. I think Mark Hughes once did someone a favor in, like, 1998, but it's just a rumor.
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JULIAN FINNEY/GETTY IMAGES
Champions League: Arsenal, Tottenham, and Newcastle are all competing for third. Ordinarily, four teams from the Premier League qualify for Champions League football the following season. But this year, Chelsea, who are currently in sixth, are playing in the Champions League final. If they beat Bayern Munich in Germany next weekend, they will be invited back into the competition to defend their title, allowing only the top three teams from England to compete. Arsenal is on 67 points, Spurs are on 66, and Newcastle is on 65. A lot to play for here.
Relegation: Wolves and Blackburn have taken some of the usual fun out of the final day of the season by already getting themselves relegated out of the Premier League. There's one more team going down, and it will either be Bolton — who started the day on 35 points and are visiting the balletic Stoke — or Queens Park Rangers, with their 37 points, who are at City. We like to talk about how much of a financial boon it is for clubs to be promoted into the Premier League, but it can be equally devastating to drop out. Despite parachute payments2 made to relegated teams, the losses (around £40 million) can be catastrophic. Ask Portsmouth.

Anyway, enough about financial ruin. Let's talk about personal sacrifice. I have a go-bag of smelling salts, energy drink, gauze, Fritos, Cap'n Crunch, Berocca, and some canned goods for good measure. I'm wearing an Allen Iverson arm sleeve brace. It's 6:30 a.m. in Los Angeles and I swear to God I think I just saw an Ewok walking around in my backyard. I am ready to change the channel at the drop of a dime (or the suggestion of Twitter). Let the games begin.


2nd minute: Well, BANG, that didn't take very long. Tottenham's Emmanuel Adebayor just scored in the opening two minutes. This comes from a great give-and-go with Rafael van der Vaart, who held the ball just long enough for Adebayor to get the right angle on his run. Kind of surprised Adebayor, the former Gunner and notorious Arsenal tormentor, didn't run right out of White Hart Lane and up the M1 to West Brom's Hawthorns stadium to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans. Couldn't be much longer of a run than the one he made when he was playing for City last season:


Pressure is on the Gunners now, who have looked lost since Mikel Arteta received the annual award given to an Arsenal player for achievement in the category of leg breaks or ligament damage.

4th minute: Scratch that! Arsenal's Yossi Benayoun just scored his third goal in five games, putting Arsene Wenger's tired, poor, huddled players in front of the Baggies, 1-0. Actually, that's really robbing West Brom's second-string keeper, Marton Fulop, of the glory. Fulop was first to a through-ball with Benayoun closing fast. Problem was the ball was just outside his area, so he couldn't pick it up. And whatever mental gymnastics he had to perform to make that decision prevented him from saying to himself, "I should probably hoof this into outer space." Benayoun was at the right place at the right time. I'd replace my Powerade with Knob Creek if I were Fullop.3

9th minute: Grant Holt looks like a Baggins on HGH. He just scored his 14th goal for Norwich this season. He's a fantastic success story, as are Norwich. The Canaries took on the Premier League titans with lower league talent, and somehow made it work. This achievement is best exemplified in Holt. Just a few years ago he was playing League Two football with Shrewsbury Town,4 now he's banging in goals in the Premier League against — well, against Aston Villa, who admittedly have played like a League Two side over these last few weeks. Still, I hope new England manager Roy Hodgson takes Holt to Euro 2012. It would be great to see Holtamania spread across Eastern Europe.

11th minute: West Brom's Shane Long scores and Arsenal's Girl, Interrupted season continues. The score is 1-1 now. How many goals were there scored against the Gunners this season that started with Arsenal defenders running desperately back toward their own goal and ended with keeper Wojciech Szczęsny shouting, "A GODDAMN SHARK ATE ME"? Seems like a lot. Thomas Vermaelen is one of the 10 or 15 best all-around players in the Premier League, but too often he has gotten caught — much like defensive midfielder Alex Song — seeing how the other half lives upfield. Yes, Wenger needs to buy goal-scoring help for van Persie this offseason (assuming van Persie stays), and he might want to look into a collar that zaps Vermaelen every time he ventures past the center circle.

12th minute: Do you believe in miracles? In the absence of miracles, do you believe in stone gargoyles coming to life and relegating Bolton? Jon Walters just scored the Stokiest stoking goal I've ever stoking seen. Matthew Etherington launched in a cross, Walters "controlled" it (much the way Sloth from Goonies "controlled" a Baby Ruth), chested the ball into the net, and ran over Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan (who has had a lot of redheaded-stepchild moments this season … I can say that because I'm a redhead). Bolton have been in the Premier League since 2001. In recent seasons, they've stayed up by the skin of their teeth, but their luck seems to be running out.

15th minute: Graham Dorrans passes to … Graham Dorrans (after a great setup from the underrated James Morrison), putting West Brom up, 2-1, on Arsenal. You know that scene toward the end of The Untouchables, the Potemkin scene, where Andy Garcia arrives just in the nick of time to save the day? Imagine if Andy Garcia showed up, like, five minutes later, asking, "What did I miss?" and there were just dead bodies and Kevin Costner making the Kevin Costner-welling-up face. That's how I can best explain what Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny just did. Dorrans looked offsides, but Arsenal's defense was again caught vacationing upfield. Stay at home!

16th minute: Steven Pienaar scores for Everton, putting the Toffees up, 1-0, and turning down the volume on Newcastle's unlikely symphony of a season. No team had a better January transfer window than Everton. They brought in the lethal Nika Jelavic from Rangers and brought Pienaar back from a wasted spell at Tottenham. Usually the January window is all smoke and no fire, but Everton have been tough to beat ever since they got their winter reinforcements.

20th minute: And now things get interesting. The New Jersey band Rye Coalition had a great song called "The Higher the Hair, the Closer to God," which I have thought of more than once while gazing upon Wayne Rooney's miracle-of-science head salad. Appropriately enough, Rooney nods in United's opener, shifting the pressure to City.

30th minute: Over at the Hawthorns, Arsenal's Andre Santos, who, charitably speaking, does not look like an athlete, was just wandering around at the bottom of my screen, looking like he was collecting his thoughts on Girls, Kitty Pryde, and Megan Draper. Then the ball landed at his feet and he roasted three Baggies players and snap-shot the ball past a diving Marton Fulop to equalize for Arsenal. I swear he looks like he's wheezing as he runs to celebrate.

31st minute: That will be the last John Terry goal this season. The Chelsea captain and former-teammate's-girlfriend-impregnator is suspended for the Champions League final and is on the outside looking in of the England national team. Couldn't have happened to a nicer man.

36th minute: Oh, you thought I forgot about City? Not a ton to say. Queens Park Rangers have built a 10-man wall in front of their goal, put on coonskin caps, and hung a sign on it that says "Queens Park Alamo." They are defending with their lives. Roberto Mancini is pacing the sidelines and Nigel De Jong is getting warmed up. Perhaps Mancini is trying to repeat last week's trick with Yaya Touré?

39th minute: Now things get interesting. City's Argentine fullback, Pablo Zabaleta, is on the receiving end of a pass from Touré. He pokes it toward goal, and though Paddy Kenny gets a mitt on it, it still gets into the back of the net. Hysteria. There's a guy holding a plastic banana.5 People are using inappropriate language around children. City players are piling on Zabaleta.

45th minute: Kevin Davies has played for Bolton for 206 years (OK, since 2003). And he may have scored one of the most important goals in the club's history, putting the Trotters ahead, 2-1 (following a Mark Davies goal). This brings the first half of today's action to a close on a high note. Whether Bolton stay up or go down, you can be assured of two things: (1) Owen Coyle will be wearing shorts, wherever he is, no matter how cold it is …

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CHRIS BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES
and (2) Kevin Davies scored one of the most graceful goals you'll see all day.

[HALFTIME BREAK. STARE AT LIVE PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE LIKE I AM GOING TO USE IT TO SOLVE ZODIAC MURDERS]

46th minute: OK, if Owen Coyle is wearing shorts and Roberto Mancini is wearing an overcoat and a scarf … one them is lying about the weather.


48th minute: If Sir Alex Ferguson runs a horse in the next Grand National called "Mad French Bastard With a Mohawk," it's going to be because of Djibril Cissé. This guy just Mola Ram'd Manchester City. Joleon Lescott, whose partnership with Vincent Kompany in the back has been the foundation of City's success this season, inexplicably headed the ball back toward the City goal, right into the path of a charging Cissé. 1-1. If it were to end now, United would win the total on points.

53rd minute: In the first game of this season, while still playing for Newcastle, Joey Barton picked Arsenal's Gervinho up off the ground by his collar, apparently incensed that the Ivorian may have dived to try to get a penalty. Gervinho and Barton scuffled, Barton took a blow to the face, acted as if he had just stared into the center of the sun from 11 feet away, and got Gervinho sent off. After that, he moved to QPR, talked a lot of garbage on Twitter, acted like he was the first human in the Western world to ever read a book without pictures, and tried to seem like a three-dimensional person by quoting Morrissey. But you know what? All the invocations of "Girlfriend in a Coma" can't change the fact that he put a cigar out on someone else's eye, beat the crap out of a teenager outside of a McDonald's, and ended a teammate's career after nearly blinding him.

So it should come as little surprise that Barton just ended his season in much the way he began it. After elbowing Carlos Tevez in the face, on the edge of the QPR box, at the most critical juncture in the QPR season, Barton gets himself sent off.

On his way off the field, Barton knees City's Sergio Aguero. City's Micah Richards is the only one standing between Barton and a thermonuclear Nigel De Jong. Oh, and now Balotelli is getting involved. Joey Barton and Mario Balotelli can't get into a fight. Why? Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molocule in your body stopping at the speed of light. Total protonic reversal. So, thank you, Micah Richards. You just saved us all. QPR down to 10 men. City back in the driver's seat. With a man advantage, you expect them to score.6



55th minute: Of course Arsenal go ahead on a corner, and of course it's tumbled in by Laurent Koscielny, a.k.a. French Mamba. Martin Fulop was practically terraforming on other worlds during a corner kick. Does anyone know if he owns stock in Arsenal? Koscielny is beating his chest in front of the Arsenal crowd. Martin Fulop is drinking (water) and has gone full-blown Kevin Costner-welling-up face.

63rd minute: Jermain Defoe seals it for Tottenham, but it's no matter. They know what's up at White Hart Lane. The Spurs fans are singing "There's only one Bayern Munich."

66th minute: I might as well watch the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey while listening to "Born Slippy," because I don't understand this life. Jamie Mackie has just put Queens Park Rangers ahead. A diving header. City had been pouring forward — Vincent Kompany so far ahead he was playing creative midfield — and they may have been a little slow in getting back into their defensive shape, as Paddy Kenny launched the ball upfield and Armand Traoré found Mackie on the far side of Joe Hart's goal. Is this part of a 20-year plan by Alex Ferguson to stab Manchester City in the heart? Is Mark Hughes a mole sent into the club to destroy it? Watching Roberto Mancini scream "FUCK YOU" at the field, in Italian and English, simultaneously, makes me think I'm on to something. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sparky?

75th minute: I've talked about Everton's Tony Hibbert before. Tony Hibbert looks like a guy who gets killed in the beginning of a Guy Ritchie movie. Tony Hibbert just scored against his own team. I feel like Tony Hibbert looks.

77th minute: Jon Walters just relegated Bolton. It seems unfair that a team that saw two of its best players — Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden — leave with season-ending injuries before the campaign even began, and had to deal with the emotional trauma of seeing a player suffer a heart attack on the field, would go down while a side that features Joey Barton would stay up. I guess deserving has nothing to do with it.

86th minute: I want to point out that Danny Graham just scored for Swansea, not because Swansea will likely beat Liverpool (they likely will), or because Swansea have been a blast to watch this season (they have), but because of Kenny Dalglish. For the sake of your scrolling, here's that Michael Thomas video again:


That's Dalglish managing Liverpool, 23 years ago, the same year as the Hillsborough disaster. Dalglish is as much a part of Liverpool's architecture as the famous Kop end. But after an incredibly disappointing league campaign, and his handling of the Luis Suarez controversy, it looks like Dalglish's second stint at Liverpool will likely come to a close.7 It's a disappointing end to one of the most storied careers in British football history.

92nd minute: Edin Dzeko just punched through the coffin like Uma Thurman. Manchester City lives. City were dealing with a phalanx-like QPR defense. To start the match, Mancini had been playing the Yaya & the Munchkins lineup, with Carlos Tevez, Aguero, David Silva, and Samir Nasri buzzing off of the giant in the center of midfield. But with Touré out injured, nothing was happening. Enter Dzeko. When facing eight to 10 defenders, rooted in their own box, the easiest way to get a goal is to put it up in the air for the tall fella. Dzeko heads it in.


94th minute: Sergio Aguero scores. Last week, when Djibril Cissé scored a game-winner for QPR (Stoke), the roughly 18,000-capacity Loftus Road jumped like it was on a trampoline. Kun Aguero just did that to the nearly 50,000-seat Etihad. Right now, for this moment, it is the Eastlands again. Right now it might as well be Maine Road. Ghosts are being killed right now. Forty-four years of them. Joe Hart is doing the Jason Terry dance, Roberto Mancini jumps into his assistant's arms, Liam Gallagher just threw a beer at someone in a VIP box.


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MICHAEL REGAN/GETTY IMAGES
Maybe it was Noel. God only knows. Today is gonna be the day. There's a pile of Argentines, two Frenchmen, a Belgian, a Bosnian, a Dutchman, at least one Englishman, and one crazy Ghanaian-Italian, who set the Aguero goal up. Balotelli. Of course it was Balotelli. This multinational band of mercenary brothers, of traitors, of job snatchers, of glory hunters. These noisy neighbors. You don't know noise. This is the new noise. This is Alex Ferguson, upon finding out Aguero had scored:

"An unbelievable climax to the league season." History repeats itself.

Permalink

House Tyrell

By: timbersfan, 12:30 AM GMT on May 13, 2012

House Tyrell Edit Talk0 1,171PAGES ON
THIS WIKI
House Tyrell

SigilA golden rose on a green field
Motto"Growing Strong"
TitlesLords of Highgarden
Wardens of the South
Lords Paramount of the Reach
High Marshalls of the Reach
SeatHighgarden
RegionThe Reach
LordMace Tyrell
HeirWillas Tyrell
VassalsHouse Tarly
House Hightower
House Florent
House Redwyne
The banner of House Tyrell of Highgarden, the rulers of the Reach.
House Tyrell is one of the Great Houses of Westeros. It rules over the Reach, a vast, fertile and heavily-populated region of south-western Westeros, from the castle at Highgarden. It is currently led by Lord Mace Tyrell. His third son Loras is a noted tournament knight and the lover of Lord Renly Baratheon.
The Tyrell sigil is a golden rose on a green field. Their motto is, "Growing Strong".

Contents [show]
HistoryEdit
BackgroundEdit
House Tyrell rose to prominence as one of the strongest noble houses in the Reach. The Tyrells became senior servants of House Gardener, the Kings of the Reach. They served them for centuries and even intermarried with the royal house. When King Mern IX was slain on the Field of Fire by Aegon the Conqueror, his steward Harlen Tyrell surrendered Highgarden and the Reach. Aegon rewarded Harlen by making him Lord of Higharden and overlord of the Reach.[1]
During Robert's Rebellion, House Tyrell remained loyal to the Mad King. However, the vast army and resources of House Tyrell was wasted on a siege of Storm's End (held for Robert by his brother, Stannis Baratheon). After the Mad King's death, the Tyrells surrendered and swore fealty to Robert Baratheon.

Military strengthEdit
The Reach is the most fertile and populous region of Westeros, allowing House Tyrell to gain immense wealth (through taxation of the large population) and also to muster an enormous army. The Tyrells can typically raise and equip almost twice as many soldiers as any other House in Westeros.
Season 1Edit
Ser Loras Tyrell suggests to his lover, Renly Baratheon, that the Tyrells would support a claim for the Iron Throne made by Renly with all of their formidable military and economic might. Renly is initially reluctant to make such a claim[2]. However, when Eddard Stark spurns his aid, Renly flees King's Landing by night with Loras[3]. He is crowned King in Highgarden and lays claim to the Iron Throne[4].
Season 2Edit
The Tyrells have raised an army of 100,000 men to support Renly's claim to the throne, outnumbering any of the other claimants' armies by a significant number. Robb Stark sends his mother to treat with Renly and seek an alliance against the Lannisters[5].
RelationshipsEdit
MembersEdit
Lord Luthor Tyrell, deceased.
Lady Olenna Tyrell, Luthor's widow, known as the Queen of Thorns, Mace Tyrell's mother.
Lord Mace Tyrell, the head of the family.
His wife, Lady Alerie of House Hightower.
His eldest son and heir, Ser Willas Tyrell.
His second son, Ser Garlan Tyrell, called Garlan the Gallant, noted for his valor and his skill with a sword.
His third son, Ser Loras Tyrell, called the Knight of Flowers, noted for his youth, valor and his skill with a lance.
His daughter, Margaery Tyrell, young and beautiful, the widow of Renly Baratheon.
Sworn to House TyrellEdit
House Florent of Brightwater Keep.
House Hightower of Oldtown.
House Redwyne of the Arbor.
House Tarly of Horn Hill.
Vassals and alliesEdit
Lord Randyll Tarly
Image galleryEdit

A shield emblazoned with the sigil of House Tyrell (right) on display at the Tourney of the Hand in "The Wolf and the Lion".

The banner of House Tyrell at the Tourney of the Hand in "The Wolf and the Lion".

The sigil of House Tyrell from the Maester's Path promotional campaign.

HBO viewer's guide icon for House Tyrell.

House Tyrell's sigil in black and white from the HBO viewer's guide.

A shield emblazoned with the sigil of House Tyrell from the HBO viewer's guide.

Small icon of House Tyrell from the HBO viewers guide.

Add a photo to this gallery
Family treeEdit








Luthor Tyrell
Deceased


Olenna Tyrell
nee Redwyne





































Mace Tyrell


Alerie Tyrell
nee Hightower

















































Willas Tyrell


Garlan Tyrell


Loras Tyrell


Renly Baratheon
Deceased


Margaery Tyrell


In the booksEdit
In the Song of Ice and Fire novels, House Tyrell is a powerful noble house. The Reach is the most populous region of the Seven Kingdoms and the Tyrells can field the largest army on the continent, although the Lannisters, being richer, can better-equip their troops. This makes the Tyrells formidable enemies but excellent allies.
Before King Aegon I Targaryen's invasion, the Tyrells were stewards to House Gardener, the Kings of the Reach. The Tyrells had responsibility for maintaining the castle of Highgarden, the seat of royal power in the Reach. In the battle known as the Field of Fire, King Mern IX Gardener and all of his issue were slaughtered by Aegon's dragons. Harlen Tyrell, King Mern's steward, surrendered Hightower to King Aegon and was rewarded with the title Lord of the Reach. House Florent of Brightwater Keep, which claims a superior blood-relationship to the Gardeners and the first King of the Reach, Garth Greenhand, has long disputed the suitability of the Tyrells to the title, since the Tyrell blood link to the Gardeners is only through the female line.

According to the TV series official pronunciation guide developed for the cast and crew, "Tyrell" is pronounced "TI-rul", as opposed to "Tie-rell", etc.

Members in the books

Lady Mina, Mace's older sister, now married into House Redwyne.
Lady Mina's children, Horas, Hobber and Desmera Redwyne.
Lady Janna, Mace's younger sister, married into House Fossoway.

Permalink

House Targaryen

By: timbersfan, 12:29 AM GMT on May 13, 2012


House Targaryen

SigilA three-headed dragon, red on black.
Motto"Fire and Blood"
SeatDragonstone (former)
King's Landing (former)
RegionCurrently in exile
(formerly the Crownlands)
LordQueen Daenerys Targaryen
Heirnone (Rhaego Targaryen, stillborn)
Cadet branchesHouse Blackfyre (extinct)
Agerulers of Dragonstone island since 500 years ago. Unknown amount of time beforehand as a noble family of the Valyrian empire.
Ancestral weaponBlackfyre (lost)
Dark Sister (lost)
The banner of House Targaryen of Dragonstone, the former royal house of Westeros, now in exile.
The banner of House Targaryen on a flag. A common error, even in Westeros, is to depict the Targaryen dragon with six limbs rather than four.
The surviving scions of House Targaryen, Viserys and his sister Daenerys, in Pentos.
House Targaryen is one of the former Great Houses of Westeros and the previous ruling royal house of the Seven Kingdoms, before House Baratheon took the Iron Throne. House Targaryen's symbol is a three-headed red dragon on a black background and their motto is "Fire and Blood".
According to the TV series official pronunciation guide developed for the cast and crew, "Targaryen" is pronounced "Tar-GAIR-ee-in", as opposed to "Tar-gar-yen" etc.

Contents [show]
HistoryEdit
BackgroundEdit
Once a noble family of the vast Valyrian Freehold, an empire spanning most of the eastern continent, the Targaryens were given control of the island of Dragonstone in the Narrow Sea some centuries ago. After the obliteration of Valyria in the Doom, the Targaryens launched a devastating invasion of Westeros using three dragons to spearhead their attack. In a short period of time, six of the seven formerly independent kingdoms had surrendered to the Targaryen leader, King Aegon I, unifying the continent under his rule. The last hold-out, Dorne, joined the kingdom through a political and marriage alliance some two centuries later.[1]
During the increasingly erratic reign of King Aerys II, his son Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna Stark of Winterfell for reasons unknown. This sparked a massive uprising led by Eddard Stark, Robert Baratheon and Jon Arryn. At the end of this war Aerys and Rhaegar were dead and the Targaryen power-base in Westeros destroyed. Aerys's youngest two children were taken by Targaryan loyalists into exile in the Free Cities of the East.[1]

Targaryens have some common genetic traits, such as their silver-white hair and possibly the ability to withstand higher temperatures than most people. Daenerys Targaryen is specifically shown to have this trait whilst Viserys is noted as not possessing it.

Season 1Edit
Viserys Targaryen arranges for the marriage of his sister Daenerys to the powerful dothraki Khal Drogo in exchange for a promise that Drogo will help him to reclaim his crown. The marriage was brokered by Illyrio Mopatis, a magister of Pentos. Illyrio gives Daenerys a trio of ancient dragon eggs as a gift.[2] Daenerys comes to love both Drogo and his people while Viserys is increasingly frustrated by Drogo's failure to deliver on his promise.[3] Daenerys becomes pregnant with Drogo's son and he is prophesied to be the "Stallion that mounts the world." Frustrated by the acceptance of Daenerys by the dothraki Viserys drunkenly threatens her unborn child and demands his crown. Drogo kills him by pouring molten gold over his head.[4]
Drogo then pledges to invade Westeros for Daenerys when she survives an assassination attempt.[5] He raids villages of the Lhazareen to enslave their inhabitants, intending to use them to barter passage across the Narrow Sea. He takes a superficial wound during the attack.[6] When the wound festers Daenerys turns to the captive Mirri Maz Duur to treat him. Duur's reputation as a "maegi" causes friction between Daenerys and Drogo's warriors. Daenerys allows Duur to use blood magic to treat him. Drogo's bloodrider Qotho violently objects, injuring Daenerys and triggering premature labour.[7] Duur's spell leaves Drogo catatonic and Daenerys's son stillborn. His khalasar splinters leaving Daenerys with only dozens of riders remaining. Daenerys kills Drogo to end his suffering. She then has Duur burned alive on his funeral pyre, also placing her dragon eggs among the flames. She steps into the inferno and emerges the next day unharmed with three newborn dragons.[8]

Season 2Edit
Daenerys's adviser Ser Jorah Mormont warns that rival khals will target her and advises that she flee into the Red Waste.[9] Her crossing is harrowing and she loses the majority of her horses and some of her people.[10] Upon arriving in Qarth she is allowed into the city under the protection of wealthy merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos.[11] Xaro makes a pragmatic marriage proposal, promising to fund Daenerys return to Westeros in exchange for becoming a king. Jorah counsels against entering Xaro's debt and reveals his own, unrequited, feelings for Daenerys.[12]
RelationshipsEdit
MembersEdit
King Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, slain by Ser Jaime Lannister at the end of Robert's Rebellion.
His sister-wife Queen Rhaella, also of House Targaryen, died in childbirth.
Their oldest son and heir, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, slain by Robert Baratheon at the Battle of the Trident.
Prince Rhaegar's wife, Princess Elia of House Martell, slain during the Sack of King's Landing by Lannister armsmen.
Prince Rhaegar's daughter, Princess Rhaenys, slain during the Sack of King's Landing.
Prince Rhaegar's son and heir, Prince Aegon, slain during the Sack of King's Landing.
Aerys and Rhaella's second son, Prince Viserys Targaryen, the Beggar King, in exile in the Free Cities. Killed by Khal Drogo for threatening his wife (see below) and unborn son Rhaego.
Aerys and Rhaella's daughter, Princess Daenerys Targaryen, in exile in the Free Cities. Widow of Khal Drogo of the Dothraki.
Daenerys and Drogo's stillborn son Rhaego.
Aemon Targaryen, known popularly as 'Maester Aemon', the uncle of Aerys II Targaryen, a maester serving at Castle Black. Still alive, despite being almost a hundred years old.
King Aerys's aunt, Princess Rhaelle, married into House Baratheon. Robert Baratheon and his brothers are her grandsons and the Mad King's first cousins once removed, giving Robert his claim to the Iron Throne that he pursued during the civil war.
































Aemon Targaryen


Aegon V Targaryen
Deceased


Unknown Lady Targaryen
Deceased






































Aerys II Targaryen
Deceased


Rhaella Targaryen
Deceased













































Rhaegar Targaryen
Deceased


Elia Targaryen
nee Martell
Deceased


Viserys Targaryen
Deceased


Daenerys Targaryen


Drogo
Deceased



































Rhaenys Targaryen
Deceased


Aegon Targaryen
Deceased








Rhaego
Deceased


Sworn to House TargaryenEdit
Household and alliesEdit
Ser Jorah Mormont - Adviser to Daenerys
Irri - Handmaiden to Daenerys
Doreah - Handmaiden to Daenerys
Jhiqui - Handmaiden to Daenerys
Kovarro - Bloodrider to Daenerys
Aggo - Bloodrider to Daenerys (missing)
Rakharo - Bloodrider to Daenerys (deceased)
Military strengthEdit
From exile Daenerys commands a khalasar containing only dozens of riders, less than half of whom are warriors. Her trio of hatchling dragons are not yet large enough to fight.
King Robert Baratheon expressed fear that even after all these years, there are still a sizable number of noble Houses in Westeros who are either secret Targaryen loyalists, or who later developed some grievance with Robert's rule, and would flock to the Targaryen banner if they attempted to retake the throne in open war.

Image galleryEdit

HBO viewer's guide icon for House Targaryen.

House Targaryen's sigil in black and white from the HBO viewer's guide.

A shield emblazoned with the sigil of House Targaryen from the HBO viewer's guide.

The sigil and motto of House Targaryen.

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In the booksEdit
In the books House Targaryen moved from Valyria to Dragonstone, apparently in fear of a prophecy predicting the destruction of Valyria a century before it happened. After the fall of Valyria, the Targaryens stayed on Dragonstone for a hundred years, apparently hoarding the strength of their dragons and debating whether to invade Westeros or to attempt to seize control of the Valyrian colony-states which later became known as the Free Cities. In the event, they chose to invade Westeros instead.
House Targaryen ruled Westeros for 283 years, during which time they survived substantial civil wars (including the Dance of Dragons and no less than five Blackfyre Rebellions), plague (the Great Spring Sickness) and even an attempted foreign invasion (in the War of the Ninepenny Kings). They were brought down when the Mad King's insanity became too dangerous to be ignored.

The Targaryens adopted the religion and many of the customs of Westeros, but two old Valyrian customs they continued to perform in defiance of public disapproval: Targaryen princes and kings were allowed to have multiple wives and Targaryens were allowed to marry brother to sister, something considered an abominable sin elsewhere in Westeros.

Due to constant inbreeding, insanity became a common factor in Targaryens. By the later centuries of their rule, it was joked that when a new Targaryen was born the gods would flip a coin to decide if it would be a brilliant statesman or insane. This does not mean that all Targaryens were as a rule mentally unstable, as seen with how Daenerys is mentally stable while her own brother Viserys is disturbed.

The generations of Targaryen inbreeding produced a distinctive set of physical features shared by all of their members during the House's three centuries of rule. This includes a generally pale appearance with silver-white (platinum blonde) hair, and purple irises. While pale they are not albinos, but even their eyebrows are white. The TV series opted not to portray Targaryens with purples eyes, given the logistical difficulty in matching up purple contact lenses for actors in every shot. Another slight difference is that they didn't dye the dark eyebrows of actors playing Targaryens (the actors playing both Daenerys and Viserys are actually dark-haired in real life).

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How QPR can beat Man City and West Brom can stifle Arsenal

By: timbersfan, 12:05 AM GMT on May 12, 2012

With the title, the Champions League places and the relegation spots all to be decided this weekend, there are plenty of interesting fixtures on the Premier League’s final matchday of 2011/12. But there’s only one place to start – Manchester City’s home game with Queens Park Rangers, crucial at both ends of the table.
While Newcastle were eventually defeated once Roberto Mancini moved Yaya Toure higher up the pitch last week, their general approach worked quite well against City – they sat deep and very narrow, making it difficult for Mancini’s side to play through the middle. With David Silva and Samir Nasri both moving inside from the flanks, City had no natural width, and when they were shown wide, their crosses were poor.
Therefore, the natural strategy for QPR this weekend will be to replicate Newcastle’s approach – to defend narrow and not bother trying to win the ball in wide positions. Trouble is, that’s the exact opposite of what they did last weekend at home to Stoke. Then, QPR’s players were told to stop the delivery from wide zones – so this weekend will be a good test of Mark Hughes’ side’s tactical flexibility.

Of course, if QPR fail to get a point, Bolton Wanderers can survive with a win over Stoke City. There’s recent history between these two clubs – Stoke thrashed Bolton 5-0 in last season’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, before Bolton got revenge with the same scoreline in November’s win at the Reebok.
That match was while Stoke were competing in the Europa League, however, and Tony Pulis was scathing about his side’s performance after the game. “It’s in the bottom three or four games in over eight years I’ve been at the club,” he said. “The way we’ve played is just not good enough…we were very, very poor all over the pitch.”
This will be a much more closely-fought match, and since Stoke currently have nothing to play for, Bolton might regret giving them such a beating back in November – it gives Pulis’ side motivation ahead of an otherwise meaningless match for them.

Meanwhile, Arsenal will be trying to secure third place against a West Bromwich Albion side that has often frustrated them at the Hawthorns in recent years – last season Roy Hodgson’s side earned a point in a 2-2 draw.
That performance from West Brom was a stereotypical display from a Hodgson side – barely any closing down high up the pitch, but instead two solid banks of four behind the ball, well inside West Brom’s own half. As the graphic below shows, no tackles were made higher than the halfway line, and only six of 28 interceptions were made in the opposition half.
West Brom are currently in 10th place, but could (in theory) finish 14th if they lost to Arsenal. That would mean a difference of £2.8m in prize money – a decent amount to a midtable Premier League club, so this game isn’t without meaning for a home side saying farewell to the next England manager.

Tottenham will be looking to take advantage of any Arsenal slip-up, with a London derby at home to Fulham. Spurs’ 3-1 win over Fulham in November looks like a comfortable victory on paper, but they actually struggled to create clear-cut chances throughout the game, with Fulham recording more than twice as many shots.
Tottenham generally created chances by playing the ball into central positions on the edge of the box, and the likelihood of them replicating these attacking moves depends largely upon the players Fulham use in the centre of midfield.
It will be two of Mahamadou Diarra, Danny Murphy and Moussa Dembele. Diarra brings most defensive protection, while Murphy is a distributor and Dembele provides attacking thrust. Martin Jol’s selection in that position will probably determine what type of game Tottenham can expect, and where they should try to create from.

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Newcastle sacrifice cult hero to appease angry god and seal Champions League spot

By: timbersfan, 12:04 AM GMT on May 12, 2012

Things are heating up as the Premier League season draws to a close, quite literally for one for St James' Park hero, as Back of the Net's John Foster reveals...
Fearing their Champions League bid may be derailed at the last by divine disfavour, Newcastle United have announced plans to appease the football gods by making a human sacrifice of cult hero Rob Lee.
According to a statement released by the club today, a pyre of wooden idols and animal carcasses will be erected outside St James’ Park before the club’s season-ending clash with Everton.
Ex-midfield general Lee, who made over 350 appearances for the Magpies between 1992 and 2002, will be bound to a totem in the middle of the pyre, his body painted with charms, mystic symbols, and the Champions League logo.
Then, director Derek Llambias, stripped naked and smeared in holy oils, will set the pyre alight, in the hope that the sacrifice of the club’s former captain will be sufficient to prevent Tottenham from claiming victory against Fulham, or Arsenal from claiming any points at West Brom.

“We’d hoped to have our destiny in our own hands going into the final day,” commented manager Alan Pardew. “But as it turns out, our destiny is, as ever, in the hands of the ichor god, Bel-Shamharoth.
“After the Man City game, it became clear that Bel-Shamharoth was angry. So I consulted some runes, had a chat with the chairman, and we both agreed the best way to appease his anger is with an offering of blood.”
Lee, 46, declared himself “honoured” to be selected for the rite.
“It’s not every day you offer yourself in burnt tribute to the Eater of Souls, but I’ve never run away from big decisions,” the one time Wycombe Wanderers midfielder told FourFourTwo.com.
“After all, finishing fourth is the most important thing these days.”
“Once in the Otherworld, I shall journey to the Dark Mountain to make entreaties to the Beyond Ones, and hopefully we can avoid a playoff against someone like Atletico Madrid.”
The sacrifice, which will be presented by Donna Air, will be shown live to subscribers of Newcastle United’s official television channel, and will be sponsored by Sports Direct.

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Roberto Mancini vs. Alex Ferguson

By: timbersfan, 11:33 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

Forty-four years of hurt will come to an end for Manchester City on Sunday. City needs simply to down lowly QPR at home to become a noisier neighbor in Manchester and win the Premier League, and the odds of the road-averse Londoners' spoiling the party on the final day are minimal. Mario Balotelli has a greater chance of trading in his shiny black Range Rover for a learner bike.

Former Manchester United keeper Mark Bosnich said this week that City manager Roberto Mancini had done the almost-unthinkable -- beating his United counterpart Alex Ferguson at mind games -- which contributed to City's late charge and United's blip. For so long Fergie has been the master, forcing Kevin Keegan to rant on television and Rafael Benitez to reach into his pocket looking like a sad tattletale.

Indeed, by constantly minimizing City's chances down the stretch and taking away the focus from his side's performances on the pitch, Mancini took the pressure off his players.

It's one of the oldest tricks in the book and something that Jose Mourinho -- who is a little more Special than Mancini -- does so well.

Before a crunch clash with Arsenal in April, Mancini said a loss to the Gunners would end the Citizens' title hopes. They did lose, and United held an eight-point advantage.

When City reduced the deficit to five points after thrashing West Bromwich Albion and United lost at rejuvenated Wigan, Mancini said: "United is a fantastic team, and I don't think they can lose five points. Now I think it is too late."

Even when the gap shriveled to three as United let a late two-goal lead at home to Everton slip and the Manchester derby at the Etihad stadium beckoned, Mancini, when asked who the favorite was, replied: "United, always. They're top, three points ahead. After the derby they have two easy games."

But in seeking to explain why the Red Devils relinquished such a hefty lead, crediting Mancini for outdoing Fergie mentally is too easy.

United didn't lose the Premier League because of mind games. Fergie's team wasn't as good as in years past. It was only because of City's mini-choke in March that the red side of Manchester overtook City in the first place. Youngsters Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck tailed off, for one reason or another. United has been without its best defender, Nemanja Vidic, for most of the season.

When it appeared that City would blow it, Mancini was widely criticized for his handling of Balotelli. He was too lenient with his fellow Italian, critics said, and others in the dressing room surely didn't like it, leading to divisions. The Carlos Tevez saga had a cumulative effect, detractors continued, and such off-field distractions couldn't happen on a title-winning team. Mancini was reportedly on the verge of losing his job.

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A few weeks later and he's a genius.

Mancini deserves credit for his approach in the Manchester derby. City showed from the start that it sought to win instead of trying to keep the match close and neutralize United in the first hour before going for a winner. Ferguson committed a tactical howler, reintroducing a rusty Park Ji-Sung.

Mancini also made the substitution of the season at Newcastle last week in the City win that realistically sealed the title, taking off Samir Nasri and moving Yaya Toure into a more offensive role in midfield. Toure then scored both goals.

Those were quantifiable, and more telling, moves.

The Champions League spots
The race for third and fourth will offer more drama Sunday than the battle for the top spot. City should beat QPR by at least three goals, and Sunderland won't be a pushover at home against United. Arsenal sits third with 67 points, one more than Tottenham and two more than Newcastle. How will it play out? Here's a guess.

Injury-riddled Arsenal won't win against West Bromwich Albion -- which is having its best season in the Premier League -- playing at home and bidding adieu to England-bound manager Roy Hodgson. A draw.

Tottenham, at home, will overcome Fulham in what could have been Clint Dempsey's farewell in a Fulham shirt, but the American has been ruled out with a groin injury. Spurs are unbeaten against Fulham at White Hart Lane in the past seven league games, going 5-0-2. Newcastle has a tough finale, at Everton. A draw.

So look for Tottenham to finish third, Arsenal fourth and Newcastle fifth. Such a scenario would mean the Gunners would miss out on Europe's top club competition next season if Chelsea beats Bayern Munich in this season's Champions League final.

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Plenty at stake in Week 38

By: timbersfan, 11:32 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

So here we are. After 37 hard-fought games filled with blood, goals, refereeing mishaps and passion, just a final 90-minute shift stands between Prem teams and the summer. Of course, with the Euros and Olympics ahead it might not be the most restful time away from club responsibilities, but you can bet that those without something meaningful to play for might not be so eager to de Jong one another or pull a hamstring.

Yet, in a weird way, all 20 still have something very tangible up for grabs (no, it's not pride): money. Though all teams share TV money and league revenue evenly, the Prem offers merit payments to all 20 clubs depending on their final league positions, a sweet little bonus for those sides unwilling to rest on any cushy mid-table laurels down the stretch.

Last season, champions Manchester United walked away with an extra $24.5 million for finishing first, while 17th-place Wolverhampton Wanderers (now prepping for life in England's second tier) bagged $4.9 million for their troubles. Now, the gaps might not trouble the ledgers of most EPL titans -- like Manchester City, whose cash flow for 2010-11 was revealed by the Daily Telegraph to be a whopping $288.5 million in the red -- but for a club like Stoke City ($13.1 million in arrears for last season), the money looks much more enticing.

(Coincidentally, Stoke has a lot to gain from a win Sunday; should it thump Bolton while Norwich, Swansea, Sunderland and WBA all falter, the Potters could bag an extra $5 million from leaping up from 14th to 10th. That's like adding a whole extra Cameron Jerome!)

So which teams will be scrapping to the finish this weekend, and which clubs will be easing up, powering down and praying that an ill-timed torn ACL doesn't ruin any planned summer holidays?

SUNDAY'S GAMES

Ranked in order of "Must-Win and Must-See" to "Pass Me the Suntan Lotion"

Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers

Sunderland vs. Manchester United

The first pairing is obvious: For City, win and the title is theirs. Or in United's case, win-and-make-sure-to-do-it-by-nine-or-ten-while-pr aying-City-doesn't and the title travels back to Old Trafford. As such, expect wildly different atmospheres and wildly different games, though both will be worthy of your attention.

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Julian Finney/Getty Images
Mark Hughes and Queens Park Rangers could spoil Manchester City's coronation, and the intrigue is threefold: Not only is Hughes an ex-United legend, but he was unfairly fired by City, and QPR need points to ensure Prem safety.
For City, playing to its raucous, faithful and champagne-clutching Etihad crowd, the feeling of accomplishment and dreams of fulfilling destiny might well be realized. For the side with not only the best home record in the league (17 wins, 1 draw) but the best home goal difference at plus-42, it seems almost preordained.

United's effort will be entirely different. Journeying to the Stadium of Light -- where the grim Sunderland of Steve Bruce has been replaced by the fleetingly brilliant, now just as grim Sunderland of Martin O'Neill (four points from its past 18) -- means a lack of sympathy in the stands and a heap of uncertainty in their hearts.

Look, there's no shame in second place (the Liverpool fan in me might auction off my own family members for such lofty finishes these days), but for Sir Alex Ferguson and his Red Devils squad, there is a palpable dread. Conceptually, United is the Premier League -- the winningest team since its inception in 1992, with 12 trophies in 19 seasons so far -- but contextually, to finish runners-up to them, that lot from across town? It simply doesn't compute, because it hasn't had to make sense for over four decades.

But one must allow for the most fluctuating of variables when sizing up the Prem title's likely final resting place for 2011-12: Queens Park Rangers. Despite being the worst away side in the league (18 points from a possible 54), last season's nPowership winner is just a Bolton Wanderers win away from yo-yoing back down to the mire from whence it just came. Think Adel Taarabt & Co. will at least try to be competitive with the title winners-elect? Not only that, but there's the Mark Hughes element, unfairly dismissed as he was by Manchester City before Roberto Mancini's arrival.

(Sunderland, meanwhile, will harass and haggle United but with little fire in the belly, warmly ensconced in mid-table as the Mackems are.)

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Stoke City vs. Bolton Wanderers

Another fizz-bang-wallop for the fixture list, given that Stoke is focused on a tidy conclusion to another average, heads-held-high season, while visiting Bolton (two wins in its past four away from home) knows it must win and pray for a typically bullying City victory over QPR to guarantee another season in the English top flight.

Weirdly, Bolton has been much more imposing on the road in 2011-12; its six wins are good enough for eighth-best in the EPL. Will that final-day fury (and the sobering thought of traveling to places like Hull City and Ipswich Town) be enough?

Everton vs. Newcastle United

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Fulham

West Bromwich Albion vs. Arsenal

This combustible trio, the "Champions League trilogy," loses a touch of spice given that all three main protagonists -- Newcastle, Spurs and Arsenal -- are all assured (pending the outcome of the Champions League final) of European action next season. The remaining tension simply revolves around figuring out who is playing where.

The three clubs are split by two points; Arsenal sits third, shading goal difference by one and a point over Spurs, which hold a considerable GD lead and a point over the impressive Magpies in fifth. Whichever team fails to get a win -- the odds might be longest on Newcastle, which travels to Everton (five home wins in its past six) -- will likely be forced to settle for the Europa "No Shame In That" League.

Of course, it's complicated further by Chelsea and the CL final -- should the Blues win, they would join the top three in next season's Champions League, while fourth place and fifth prep for the Europa. So third place has even more significance -- and it could go to any of the three teams above Chelsea.

Not only that, but assuming Chelsea loses, fourth place would be placed in the tricky final qualifying round that will surely be packed again with great teams from the continent. (Just ask Arsenal fans how nerve-racking the two legs with Udinese were last year.)

Wigan Athletic vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers

Roberto Martinez has once again worked his miracle down the stretch with the small-market Latics -- winning an insane 20 points from their past 30 up for grabs, including wins over Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle -- prompting many to wonder just why he waits until early March to wake his budget Barca 4-3-3 squad from a seven-month hibernation.

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Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Norwich City's Grant Holt will have his eye on a squad spot for England this summer, and his form in 2011-12 would justify inclusion. He has 90 minutes against Aston Villa to make his final case.
Regardless, the heroic run has cemented Wigan in the Prem for another year, so Victor Moses & Co. will welcome the crestfallen, drop-doomed Wolves side (albeit with a new manager for next season! One who's interesting and whom the media aren't quite sure how to characterize yet!) for a final slapfight before summer break.

Swansea City vs. Liverpool

Chelsea vs. Blackburn Rovers

Norwich City vs. Aston Villa

Might want to slide the final triptych of fixtures down to your bottomless DVR list given the lack of bite and the lack of real stakes at play. Sure, there's a bit of money here and a bit of pride there --Liverpool will surely want to end strongly and, with Newcastle's help, finish above Everton, plus Norwich might enjoy finishing above Swansea to be the best-placed promoted side this season -- but beyond that?

Maybe those players with Euro 2012 aspirations -- Grant Holt for England? Raul Meireles for Portugal? Charles N'Zogbia for France? (OK, don't laugh at that last one) -- will emerge from the dressing rooms encased in cotton wool to guarantee none of those late pulls and tears that could scupper their summer. Or maybe Alex McLeish will be launched into space at halftime.

Whatever thrills you're seeking this Sunday morning, don't expect to find them in these games (though you can join us for a final-day liveblog of all 10 Prem games, beginning around 9.15 a.m. ET). Did you know there's a title race yet to be concluded?

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New stadium, new hope

By: timbersfan, 11:31 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

When Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium hosts its first official game this weekend, it will be the latest in a long line of stadium unveilings for Major League Soccer. Backs will be slapped by the dignitaries present, high-fives will be exchanged by fans and the Houston Dynamo players will no doubt feel a buzz as they take in the sight of their new home packed with 22,000 true believers. Yet for a handful of Houston players and coaches, the joy of their stadium dream coming true will resonate even more deeply.

It was more than six years ago that the San Jose Earthquakes were relocated to Houston, and it was done so on the premise that the Bayou City could deliver what the City of San Jose couldn't, namely a soccer specific stadium. Ultimately, that goal came to pass, but not before what seemed to be an interminable wait. Four years elapsed between the time of the move and the groundbreaking of the stadium, with a fair number of false starts in between. Then there was the additional two years until construction was completed. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking for the players.

"The longer it took to get the stadium done, the more you began to wonder, 'Am I going to be around for this? Am I going to be able to be on the field when they actually have the stadium?'" said Houston captain Brian Ching, who was among the players who made the move from San Jose. "To finally have the opportunity to be a part of this, it's something I've always wanted as a professional athlete. Obviously, given my history of never really being in a stadium that the franchise could call its own, to experience that is pretty neat."

Not everyone who made the move east has been so lucky, even as the team won two MLS Cups. Besides Ching, Brad Davis is the only other player remaining from the Earthquakes side that relocated to Houston. Three members of the current coaching staff also made the move, a group that includes head coach Dominic Kinnear, current assistant (and former captain) Wade Barrett, as well as assistant Tim Hanley.

Kinnear, while lauding the fact the stadium has been built, wishes that more players who made the move east could have stuck around long enough to grace the field, especially given the sacrifices that were made in the beginning.

"That for me is the sad thing, because those guys who moved to Houston deserve to be here," he said. "We didn't know anything about Houston when we left San Jose. We all went there, and we had great success, and then slowly but surely, as it happens in MLS, successful teams break up for one reason or another. You want... those guys that made the move here to not just take part in the event, but to play."

Otherwise, there are nothing but positive vibes heading into Saturday's encounter with D.C. United. Even Barrett, who retired as a player after the 2009 season, doesn't sound the least bit upset that he'll have to take in the game from the home side's bench.

"There's no mixed emotions, I'm only excited," he said. "I can't say that anything is bittersweet because there's no bitter as far as I'm concerned. This is as long as the process took for us. No matter what I'm glad that we've got the stadium. The team has done well here in Houston, and I'm glad we'll have a place to call our own to kind of start building a history of our own."

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There will be other benefits beyond just having new digs. The Dynamo now have control over when they train and when they'll play, without having to make way for the University of Houston football team like they did at their previous home, Robertson Stadium. As Kinnear put it, "Our air conditioning will work probably 100 percent of the time. Just with preparation it helps a lot."

That doesn't mean there won't be challenges. For all of Robertson Stadium's faults, the Dynamo's regular-season home winning percentage of .677 is the best in MLS history. This was accomplished by making the most of Robertson's cozy dimensions, which placed a premium on winning second balls. BBVA Compass Stadium figures to be a couple of yards wider, but the current Dynamo side isn't quite as athletic as some of its predecessors, which had the likes of Ricardo Clark, Dwayne De Rosario and Stuart Holden in midfield. That could make the success Houston enjoyed at Robertson tough to replicate.

There is also a potential emotional letdown to be avoided. After completing its season-opening seven-game road swing on Wednesday in New York, Houston will need to resist the temptation of thinking that things will be easier now that there is a spate of home games coming up, although Kinnear appears to be ever-vigilant in that regard.

"Just because you have a lot of home games doesn't guarantee you anything," Kinnear said. "You still have to come out with the same attitude, the same focus, and the same willingness and desire to win the game. I think having the fans there, being close, having it nice and loud with the overhangs, I think that part of it will be special for the guys. But still in the end, they don't change the rules of a soccer game because you're playing in a new stadium. The other team is determined to do well, too."

Houston still has a talented side, as evidenced by the 2-2-2 record it has fashioned on the road so far. And one thing that won't change with the venue is the insufferable heat. Defender Geoff Cameron already told the Houston Chronicle that BBVA Compass Stadium is "an oven" and with Saturday's kickoff set to take place at 3:30 p.m. local time, players on both sides will likely suffer.

But no matter what the temperature is, the emotional boost of opening up the new stadium should do plenty to carry the Dynamo, at least in the beginning.

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Andy Marlin/Getty Images
Young defender Connor Lade started poorly for the Red Bulls, but with Rafa Marquez set to return from suspension and Roy Miller back from injury, his good form could give Hans Backe big decisions to make in the back line.
"You get out on the field, you see the orange everywhere, you see the pictures of the guys from the past on the pillars of the stadium," Ching said. "You see Pat Onstad, Stu Holden, Wade Barrett, Dwayne De Rosario, you kind of look around, and you smile and you think, 'This is pretty cool.'"

At least until kickoff.

While Backe mulls changes, Lade grows up: When a young player is thrown into the proverbial deep end, sometimes he sinks, other times he swims, and in the case of New York Red Bulls defender Connor Lade, there are moments when he does a bit of both.

Back on April 22, a spate of injuries thrust the 22-year-old defender into the starting lineup against D.C. United, and he looked completely overmatched. But in the two weeks since, Lade has proved to be a quick study. His performances have been more assured and his passing out of the back more precise. This was especially evident last weekend when he was involved in the buildup that led to Joel Lindpere's first-half goal; Lade also played out of some tight spaces to release teammates.

The young defender credits patience from his coaches, as well as some video analysis, for helping him to move on from his initial rough outing and become a contributor.

"I think [I improved] a lot on the tactical aspect, just knowing who was around me, and overall being aware of where those guys are and what spots I need to be in," he said. "If you lose concentration for a second, you get killed. That happened once or twice in the D.C. game, and just having that general awareness of everything on the field, taking pictures in my mind and knowing what's around me, that was one of the biggest parts. On the ball, being calm, simple and making quick decisions."

With Roy Miller getting back to health, it was thought that Lade's time in the lineup might be coming to an end on Wednesday against Houston. But New York manager Hans Backe hinted during Tuesday's media session that Miller wasn't quite ready to start, which means Lade should get one more chance to show how much progress he's made.

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Peter G. Aiken/US Presswire
Now that Jesse Marsch's ideas are taking root, the Montreal Impact, led by Felipe Martins and Sinisa Ubiparipovic, have three wins in their past five games.
The bigger question for Backe is what to do with Rafa Marquez, who is back from suspension. Backe insisted that Marquez's role was as either a holding midfielder or a center back, but if the Mexico international ends up in midfield, Backe would be forced to tweak Dax McCarty's role despite the fact the former F.C. Dallas midfielder has been outstanding while deputizing for Marquez. Given the physical nature of Houston's game, it will be interesting to see how Marquez fares if he does indeed slide into midfield.

Marsch has Montreal on the upswing: For an expansion team, building chemistry within the group is one of the biggest challenges. The team is brand new, at least to MLS, and it's necessary to try and integrate MLS veterans with players who are new to the league. But if Montreal's 2-0 defeat of early pacesetters Sporting Kansas City last weekend is any indication, then the Impact have already made solid progress in this regard as the expansion side delivered one of the more impressive road showings this season. Even when the Impact were invariably put under pressure, there was a confidence about the team's game that had been missing during the opening weeks of the season.

For manager Jesse Marsch, there was no single explanation for his team's improvement, which has seen it move up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Rather, it's all part of a long process he has planned out, but one in which his players are becoming more comfortable.

"When you're a new team, you can't underestimate how difficult it is to come up with common mentalities, and visions and understandings of what we want to be as a team," he said. "We still have a lot more lessons to learn. But how we talk to each other, how we train, the tactics, all of it, it's all coming along in the right way, I feel like."

Marsch added that in recent weeks this greater sense of cohesion has been most evident when the team has had a lead.

"Early on we were giving up leads," he said. "Sometimes it was on the road and everything else. Now you see when our team gets the lead, there's not a sense of panic, there's a sense of poise to our team. We understand how to kill the game at different moments. We understand that even at crazy times when teams are throwing a lot at us, we stay organized and stick to the things that we want to be organized about."

In describing his team, Marsch is quick to pull out the "it's early" caveat. But if Montreal's form continues to improve, it could find itself in rarified air for an expansion team: a playoff place.

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Have a Hart, Roy

By: timbersfan, 11:30 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an England football team in possession of a new manager must be in want of a captain. If there was one consistent theme to Fabio Capello's time in charge of the Three Lions, it was the endless hemming and hawing over The Armband; ultimately, the FA's decision that John Terry's forthcoming trial precluded him leading the team provoked Capello's resignation, which in turn set the stage for Harry Redknapp, except of course it didn't.

Now the responsibility falls to Roy Hodgson, and as far as squad harmony goes, he finds himself pretty well zugzwanged. He has to do something, but whatever he does, somebody, somewhere, is going to be seriously peeved.

In his first press conference, Hodgson -- in between fielding questions about Redknapp and, unexpectedly, apartheid -- ducked the captaincy question, on the not unreasonable grounds that he had absolutely no idea, he'd only been in the job five minutes and he didn't even know where his desk was or where the pens are kept or that you need to talk to Janet in procurement if your chair's broken. But it is a question that exercises the press, the players, and the public at large. All we know for sure is that it's not going to be Terry -- the FA was clear on that -- and Hodgson doesn't seem the kind of manager (or the kind of man) to fly in the face of an employer's edict.

So what to do? Time is ticking, and England's rivals are announcing their squads, identifying their leaders, and generally giving every impression of being well along the road to readiness.

There are two approaches that Hodgson could take. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is to sift through the rest of the squad for a Terry-cipher. Steven Gerrard is the obvious favorite, with Scott "Scotty" Parker close behind. Both are redoubtable footballers, and Gerrard would certainly be handy if England draws Olympiakos in the semifinals. The pair graduated with honors from the traditional English school of leadership ("our students excel in the three S's: shouting, singing, and shirt-thumping"), and each would doubtless be lauded for his bustle, drive and passion. But leaving aside the fact neither is guaranteed to start in Poland/Ukraine, both fit the template of "England captain" with a weary, almost depressing familiarity.

For too long, The Armband has been a distractingly totemic prize, an Elastic Band of Discord inscribed "For The Bravest". Choosing another battle sergeant would be conceptual continuity; Hodgson, preciously, has an opportunity to let a little fresh air into the dusty corners of English football, and to redefine the idea of captaincy.

Basically, he needs to give the cursed thing to Joe Hart.

Hart would not be your typical England captain. He's not his club's captain, for a start. And, by virtue of his position as well as his personality, he's not going to be called upon to inspire or energize or any of the other ephemeral responsibilities that captaincy brings; gone would be the curiosity that is "the Captain's goal." What he is, though, is (A) a pretty good footballer, (B) an apparently sensible and relatively articulate bloke, and (C) one of only three players guaranteed a first-team place. (The other two are Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole, one of whom is suspended for the first two games, the other of whom is Ashley Cole.) Hart will play every game, more than likely well, and he'll even look good in the pregame photographs now that England has abandoned that spearmint shirt atrocity.


Scott Parker has the fire and spirit to lead England, but is it even guaranteed that he will start at Euro 2012?© David Rogers/Getty Image
Obviously, making the decision on such a basis opens Hart up to the accusation that he is "captain by default." Yet this, perversely, would be his greatest strength. By doling out The Armband this way, Hodgson would effectively be saying, “Look, obviously we need a captain. Somebody has to toss the coin. But it really isn't all that important who does it.” There's a simple way to kill the presumption that the England captain has to be a roaring avatar of Englishness, you know, the veritable lionhearted lovechild of Boadicea and St. George: Just stop presuming.

Further, by diminishing The Armband, Hodgson would also minimize the significance of not being captain: As the symbolism withers away, so too does the sense of rejection. Not being the man who leads his country into battle sounds pretty depressing. But not being the bloke who exchanges pennants? That's no great hardship.

It might be possible for England just to give the armband to whoever has the most caps from any given XI, like Italy does, but adopting such an approach wouldn't sit comfortably with a country that still feels the need to have a monarch. The national team should probably reflect the nation, neuroses and all, and ceremonial figureheads matter greatly to this bonkers island. This is why it is imperative that the team find a figurehead as unassuming, as unpretentious, as default as can be.

In short, it needs to stop looking for Henry V and settle for Elizabeth II -- in the nicest way possible, Hart is from the pastel suit, pearls, and pillbox hat school of sovereignty. His appointment as captain, rather like Hodgson's as manager, would represent a modest step toward a less insane England. Give him the armband, let the whole thing simmer down and then pray to King Arthur, Britannia and the Venerable Bede that he doesn’t snap a hamstring.

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Turning points in Prem title race

By: timbersfan, 11:29 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

So it's down to this, the final day of the 2011-12 Premier League season Sunday. We've seen it all -- as Fugazi once sang, "Tell me something I don't know, is there anything left to know?"

A few things, actually -- a final relegation spot still beckons for one unfortunate side, while qualification for the Champions League is still up for grabs, as Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle battle for two spots (or one, if Chelsea wins the Champions League final). At the top, based on the reactions of pundits and over-the-blue-moon supporters this past weekend at Etihad Stadium, Manchester City is already champion for the first time since 1968.

While Roberto Mancini's team has dominated for large stretches of the season, the lead atop the table among various teams has changed 11 times. Will there be one more twist?

Until we get closure on City versus QPR and United versus Sunderland, let's take a look back at some key turning points and talking points that have gotten us to where we are now, in no particular order.

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Andrew Yates/Getty Images
Referee Mark Clattenburg showed Jonny Evans red, but the 10-man United kept attacking City -- which led to the 6-1 drubbing in October.
1. Game of goal difference

In "The Italian Job," Gianluca Vialli points out that in Italy when a team is losing by a couple of goals or more, it sets up shop in damage-limitation mode. As for England? Sir Alex Ferguson said it best: "We always try to come back. We don't have that rational way of thinking you have in France and Italy. It's not our way."

Indeed -- live by the sword, good knight. After falling behind 1-0 to City at Old Trafford in October after a first-half Mario Balotelli goal, Jonny Evans started the second half by pulling Balotelli down just outside the 18-yard box. Straight red, but the 10-men Red Devils kept attacking. "It was hard to believe we were 1-0 down, but that's retrievable," Ferguson said afterward. "The sending off was the killer blow. After that, we kept attacking. It's all right playing the history books, but common sense has to come into it. When we went to 3-1, 4-1 we should have settled for that. We kept attacking … that was suicidal, crazy."

More than anyone could know at the time. The 6-1 match represented a goal-difference swing of 10 that is roughly equivalent to United's deficit in the GD column. Mancini's postmatch words have turned out to be even more eerie: "But in the end there are only three points -- we don't take six points." True; this massive result may have taken much, much more.

2. Stomach for the fight

This isn't a single turning point, per se, but a troubling trend for United. The Red Devils failed to win a single match after conceding the first goal: 1-1 away to Liverpool; 1-6 home to City; 2-3 home to Blackburn; 0-3 away to Newcastle; 3-3 away to Chelsea; 0-1 away to Wigan; 4-4 home to Everton; and 0-1 away to City. Three points from a possible 24.

Compare that to City's efforts from losing positions. On March 22, at the Britannia Stadium, Peter Crouch went all Papiss Demba Cisse on Mancini's side, striking one of the season's wonder goals, which you can relive here, or the absolutely hilarious "FIFA 12" version in which Martin Tyler's screamo rendition almost tops Gary Neville's real-time, real-match reaction to that Fernando Torres goal that potentially threw light on Neville's (shall we say) private side. The scoring sequence was incredible, kicked off by Asmir Begovic hoofing the ball upfield; it never touched the grass before landing on Crouch's foot. Crushing blow, but City was saved by the man who has become synonymous with being the team's big-game savior, after Yaya Toure unleashed a bomb from 30 yards out -- yes, it look a wicked deflection off Ryan Shawcross, but there was no mistaking the big man's intent.

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Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
City players haven't always gotten on -- there have been training-ground bust-ups and this, an argument between Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure. But it hasn't stopped them from winning.
Less than a week later, at Etihad Stadium, City once again fell behind 2-1 to Sunderland (and then, with less than a half-hour to go, 3-1) after Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner scored in the first half. City appeared to be falling to bits: Balotelli and Toure got into a heated discussion while Micah Richards was being treated for an injury. Deep into the second half, after Aleksandar Kolarov won a free kick, why-always-him Balotelli and the left back were in each other's grills, with Vincent Kompany (aka the mature one) pushing Balotelli away. But the frustrations galvanized City, because Balotelli would strike in the 85th minute and Kolarov in the 86th minute, proving once again that a team doesn't have to get along to win.

Given that we head into this weekend with City and United tied on points, these two matches represent key results (and crucial points) for Mancini -- and the kind of fight back that United is typically known for.

3. Out of Europa League

Yes, we know -- no one cares about the Europa League (well, try telling that to Atletico Madrid), and certainly United and City didn't seem to prioritize it. Still, it was a dark day in March when both City and United were eliminated from the competition: Ferguson's side lost 5-3 on aggregate to Athletic Bilbao and Mancini's side on away goals with a 3-3 aggregate score to Sporting Lisbon. City showed more passion for the (ultimately losing) fight, but what about the fallout? Not being in Bucharest was no biggie, but you could make the argument that being out of the tournament was quite critical for the Premier League title race. After all, both United and City were eliminated from the FA Cup and Carling Cup (oh, the humanity) and were long booted from the Champions League. That left one trophy to play for -- and on that score, City held a decided advantage given the depth of talent on its squad.

In 2012, United had to bring back Paul Scholes to help beef up the team, and the old veteran was brilliant -- heading into the final weekend, he was fourth in the league in passes completed in the attacking half of the field. But Ferguson's side was always going to be up against it when City could pour all of its prodigious resources into the Prem.

4. Addition by subtraction

On April 8, against Arsenal, Balotelli was sent off for collecting two yellow cards, thus incurring a three-game suspension -- though it could have been more had the FA decided to mete out further punishment for a reckless tackle on Alex Song. It was perhaps the nadir for City, as the 1-0 loss to the Gunners saw Mancini's side fall eight points behind United on Easter weekend, prompting what became a mantra for the Italian -- the title is lost. He also suggested Balotelli was finished at the club: "With Mario, it's always a big risk. Every time we risk one [man] being sent off, even if he can also score in the last minute."

But losing Super Mario turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it opened the door for want-away Carlos Tevez. Having spent a chunk of the season on holiday in Argentina after that night in Munich, he had found himself back into the side from March 21 to April 8, serving out his purgatory as a late-game substitute and trying to regain his fitness. But with Balotelli gone, Mancini brought Tevez back into the starting XI -- and hasn't looked back since. Munich row? What row? Tevez scored in a 4-0 win over the Baggies, delivered a hat trick and assist in a 6-1 rout of Norwich and had an assist in a business-like 2-0 victory over Wolves.

Balotelli was back on the bench for the United match as an unused substitute, and wasn't even on the bench against Newcastle in the vital win at St James' Park.

Mancini came into the season trying to sell Tevez, and looks to be ending it with the Argentine as a key component rather than a throwaway. In the end, Balotelli turned out to be the bigger risk.

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
City fans show their support against United on April 30, a 1-0 win for Roberto Mancini's side.
5. Eight wasn't enough

United's eight-point lead vanished in about four weeks, an epic slide. Of course, every match counts the same over the course of the season, but two during this period stick out. One was the 1-0 loss to Wigan, the first time the club avoid defeat in 15 meetings with its northwest neighbors. If not for referee Phil Down mysteriously disallowing a Victor Moses goal, the far-superior Latics -- who have done their best to personify Barcelona of late -- would have heaped more embarrassment against Ferguson's side.

Then, two matches later, came the inconceivable: United threw away a two-goal lead in the final seven minutes against Everton at Old Trafford.

6. The substitution

Mancini has been raked over the proverbial coals for his often conservative substitutions. Because he has so much attacking flair in the side this season, however, we've seen more champagne football than last season -- for players such as Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Balotelli, attacking is in their DNA.

But during the spring, City did hit a tough patch and struggled to create goals. So when the dapper Italian took out Samir Nasri for Nigel de Jong in the 62nd minute at St James' Park, you could practically hear the groans from critics -- yet as we all saw, it was precisely this move that freed up Toure to play more aggressively and score twice in a match that was billed as the one that would win or lose City the title.

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Now it's up to Mancini & Co. to do United one better one more time, on Sunday against QPR before this wild ride comes to an end. Then, the victor can celebrate and the loser can see where it all went wrong. Put another way, since we started with a bit of Fugazi, "Provisional":

"Somewhere in these prying hearts
Conflicting histories tear us apart
And we hope we don't get what we deserve,
Hide behind the targets in front of all the people we serve
Now lie in it."

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The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

By: timbersfan, 11:27 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

After Paul Pierce single-handedly won Game 2 of the Atlanta series, a friend of mine e-mailed, "Has there ever been anyone quite like Pierce?"

The short answer: No.

The long answer is a little more fun. Statistically, there's never been a wing player like him. In the regular season, he's already played 37,785 minutes (39th all-time), scored 22,591 points (30th), averaged 22 points a game (30th), grabbed 6,164 rebounds (150th), dished out 3,935 assists (100th), tallied 1,499 steals (40th), earned a 20.7 PER (52nd), submitted a 27.8 percent usage rate (19th), accumulated 131.2 win shares (34th), made 6,101 free throws (17th) and drained 1,679 3-pointers (ninth). The first number (minutes) and the last two (free throws and 3s) explain Pierce's career better than anything: He's one of the finest, most durable inside/outside offensive players ever, and that's before you factor in his career shooting splits (45% FG, 37% 3FG, 81% FT). He also hasn't been a slouch in the postseason: In 116 playoff games (and counting), he's averaged 39.6 minutes (33rd), 21.4 points (34th) and 6.5 rebounds (117th) with 43/35/83 shooting splits, making 190 3s (11th) and 714 free throws (24th) and even winning a Finals MVP (in 2008). Combining the regular season and playoffs, Pierce could approach 45,000 total minutes by the end of Boston's current playoff run. With no sign of slowing down.


All right, so let's say Pierce plays four more years (realistic) and finishes with regular-season numbers like 45,000 minutes, 27,500 points, 7,000 rebounds, 4,500 assists, 7,000 made free throws and 2,000 made 3s. Again, those are SAFE estimates. Here's how those numbers would land on the all-time list today: 15th, ninth, 104th, 73rd, seventh and third, giving him a résumé that doesn't resemble anybody's — with one notable exception: Kobe Bean Bryant, who's headed for 50,000 minutes, 35,000 points, 7,000 rebounds, 6,300 assists, 8,500 made free throws, 1,900 made 3s and 45/34/84 shooting splits (if you're making an equally realistic projection for his next few years, removing all future Germany trips).

Even the biggest Celtics homer wouldn't compare Pierce and Kobe, not when Kobe is already one of the eight best players ever, a superior scorer and a consistently better two-way player. But from a longevity/durability/numbers standpoint? It's not so far-fetched. In 14 years, Pierce played 1,025 of a possible 1,100 games, and that includes the 2006-07 season, when Pierce missed 35 games (about 20-22 more than needed) because Boston was tanking for the Oden/Durant lottery. A few weeks before the 2000-01 season, gangbangers nearly stabbed him to death and he somehow played all 82 games. In 2003, Pierce got crunched by Amar'e Stoudemire, broke two teeth, spent the next day getting oral surgery and somehow played the next game. He's just a gritty mf'er, one of the toughest Celtics ever … and yeah, I know I'm opening myself up to dozens of wheelchair e-mails from the Los Angeles area.

Quick tangent: When I was growing up, Celtics fans revered John Havlicek for his legendary durability — by the time Hondo retired in 1978, he'd played a then-record 16 seasons, logged a then-record 46,471 minutes and scored a then-incredible 26,395 points. These numbers had no correlation with anything that had happened in NBA history — which, at that point, was only 32 years old and featured crummy sneakers, bad dieting, coach flights, smoking, poor medical care and everything else that lent itself to short careers. So the thought of another Celtic casually leapfrogging every Havlicek career benchmark would have been staggering in the late-1970s, even if it's not as staggering now. By the time Pierce's career wraps up, we'll remember him as the fourth greatest Celtic behind Russell, Bird and Hondo (in that order). There's just no way around it.

Pierce's career stands out for two other reasons. First, his size (6-foot-6, with some bulk) and speed (deceptive) allow him to play either wing spot and defend anyone from prototypical two guards (say, Kobe) to bigger two guards (say, Joe Johnson) to pure small forwards (say, Rudy Gay) to inside/outside forwards (say, Carmelo). You can play small ball and stick Pierce at the four if you want, and if you need to run your offense through him as a point forward, he can pull that off, too. On the "The Best 50 Players Ever" list (and he's on it, in the low-40s and climbing), only Havlicek and Scottie Pippen gave their teams the flexibility that Pierce provided Boston these past 14 years. You can't discuss Pierce historically without mentioning that. You can throw any four players next to him — as long as one could rebound and another could defend point guards — and fill in the blanks from there regardless of what their skills were. In Game 2 last week, Boston beat the Hawks with Kevin Garnett, Avery Bradley and a bunch of jump shooters and clumsy bangers while running their entire offense through their small forward (Pierce). Ask New York fans — that's even more difficult than it sounds.

Second, I've been watching Pierce for 14 years now … even if there were times when you may have said, "He's probably one of the best 10 players right now" (specifically: 2002, 2007 and 2009), you never would have called him great or anything. But here's the crucial wrinkle: He's a very good player who can, occasionally, be great.

How many guys have qualified for that specific statement? Let's see … Sam Jones, Walt Frazier, James Worthy, Manu Ginobili, Dennis Johnson, Reggie Miller, Tony Parker, maybe Pau Gasol, maybe Chauncey Billups and two guys I know I'm forgetting. Either way, it's not a long list, and Pierce has already had a better beginning-to-end career than any retired guy on it. He's proven that, in any seven-game playoff series, Pierce will become the best player on the floor for two or three of those games. It's not an effort thing; you never watch him saying, "Wow, Paul is really trying tonight!" And it's not a streakiness thing; he doesn't catch fire the same way that, say, Kobe does. It's something you can see within the first few minutes. You just kind of know.

Uh-oh, Paul is feeling it tonight.

After Boston beat the Clippers in Los Angeles two months ago, here's how I described that dynamic: "Whenever the team is locked in, and he knows it, (Pierce) starts carrying himself a little differently. Puffs his chest out, turns to his bench after baskets to feed off their reactions, struts around during stoppages doing his 'nodding and staring down the crowd' routine. Puts his swagger suit on, basically. His backbreaking 3 with 2:47 remaining didn't surprise me in the least, nor did his reaction afterward — the slow jog backward, the prolonged stare at his bench, the nodding that always comes with it."

That exact scenario happened in Game 2, when Pierce knew Boston wasn't winning in Atlanta without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen unless he had a great game. Not a very good game … a great game. And then he had one, which was what made it so great. At some point that night, every true Celtics fan knew Pierce's dagger 3/slow job/nodding/stare combo was coming — I would have bet my life on it — and with about three minutes to go, it finally happened, right on cue. Maybe we need to redefine the word "great" a little bit — when you've been watching someone for long enough that you know they're coming through, and then it happens in the exact way you expected, isn't that a form of greatness?

Of course, it's not officially a fun Paul Pierce postseason until he's playing hurt. Pierce tweaked his knee during a Sunday walk-around, then exacerbated it during that night's Game 4 and sprained his MCL. Random coincidence: I sprained my MCL last summer playing hoops, didn't realize it and played a couple more times before realizing something was seriously wrong. (I thought I had just tweaked it.) What's weird about sprained MCLs is that you can play at about 70 percent speed (as long as you have a brace), but you're always thinking about it, you can't plant hard on it, you can't really move laterally, and you're constantly worried your knee might cave on you. The only way it heals? By resting and not playing. (Which is what I eventually did. And by the way, I'm older and significantly less athletic than Pierce, to say the least.) Of course, Pierce didn't have that luxury, so he played at 70 percent in Game 5 (air balling the potential winning shot) and 70 percent in Game 6, if only because 70 percent of Paul Pierce is better than 300 percent of Marquis Daniels or Sasha Pavlovic.

Which is what made the following moment so great …

Trailing by three in the final 90 seconds of Game 6, with a petrifying Game 7 in Atlanta looming, Pierce (trapped in the left corner) rolled the dice for one play, drove hard along the baseline to the basket, up-faked Johnson and somehow willed the ball through the hoop, keeping Boston alive and setting up everything that happened next (Josh Smith's horrific 20-footer, Kevin Garnett's winning basket, Al Horford's missed free throw and a textbook Celtics escape).

We'll remember Game 6 for Kevin Garnett's vintage KG performance, and maybe even for Josh Smith turning into Josh Smith at the worst possible time. Just don't forget that Pierce layup. It was a great play by a very good player, the kind of moment that sets him apart from just about everybody who ever played basketball for a living. I will remember watching you, Paul Pierce.

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My Zombie Sweetheart

By: timbersfan, 11:26 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

My Zombie Sweetheart
An open letter to Seattle SuperSonics fans from an OKC Thunder supporter
By Brian Phillips on May 11, 2012
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Dear bereaved Seattleite,

So, last Saturday I came back from a Kentucky Derby party all pleasantly sideways on juleps and proceeded to watch James Harden do unspeakable and hilarious things to knock the Mavericks out of the playoffs, and I thought, God, it would be terrible not to be able to enjoy this.

And bam, there you were. Now, I spent a long time, Seattleite, trying to keep you out of my head, working to forget you ever existed so I could enjoy being a Thunder fan. (More on this in a minute.) Lately, though, you keep showing up in my cozy-happy fan-burrow — not constantly, but in brief flashes in the background of my brain, like the little girl in the horror movie who's there in the mirror for 0.02 seconds. I keep feeling … not exactly guilty, but that sort of half-theoretical queasiness you get when you know you're enjoying something mostly unimportant (sports) on the back of someone else's mostly unimportant (sports-related) suffering.

I feel awful about this. I really do.

Don't get me wrong here: I also feel absolutely fantastic. I grew up in Oklahoma during a time — that time ranging from "before the dawn of creation" to "circa 2006" — when the idea of having a top-line professional sports team within our state borders seemed about as plausible as starting a surfing academy in Tulsa. We were a college-sports state, not because we chose to be, but because we didn't have the numbers or the money to make a googly-eyed billionaire pay any attention to us. NBA franchises don't just fall from the sky when you live in flyover country. Where I grew up, the nearest one was a six-hour drive away.

There's more than one way of suffering for sports — that's my point here, Seattleite. There's the one people talk about, where you stick it out through thick and thin with a team that's two subway stops from your house. There's also the one people don't talk about, where maybe you love a game a lot, maybe for a long time, and have to resign yourself to the fact that seeing it played on a high level, in person, is just not in the cards for you. And sure, that's why the universe gave us TV. And who knows, maybe you take a trip to a sports town every now and again, when you've saved up enough or when you can swing a vacation from the cracker factory. The town on the jerseys is always somebody else's, though.

Lot of people in that situation, Seattleite. America's a big country, and there are dark zones on the major league map into which few explorers dare go.

So when an honest-to-god NBA team somehow landed in my home state, a stone's throw from my parents' house? And — wait a second — they were good? They had a young, mesmerizing, scoring-champion-class talent? They had (it's time somebody said this) the greatest beard in the history of professional basketball? You'd better believe I was onboard. For the first few years, I didn't want to hear a word about Howard Schultz, KeyArena tax proposals, or Aubrey McClendon's red-hot e-mail account. I just wanted to watch Durant sink stick-figure jumpers from the top of the key. I wanted to giggle with glee at the sight of Harden splitting two defenders before gliding in for one of those weightless-till-the-monster-drops-it dunks. The Internet could talk whatever trash it wanted about the "zombie Sonics" and the wrongs done to the soul of Eddie Vedder. I had an NBA team [Author's note: !!!] and I was going to enjoy every minute of it.

The problem, Seattleite, was you — those flashes I kept having. You don't need me to tell you this, you might even be insulted that I'm writing it down, but it sucks that you don't get to enjoy this team. In a way, only a Thunder fan can know how very much it sucks, because we're the ones who do get to enjoy it.

So I'm wondering, and I'm hoping we can figure this out: What do fans owe each other in these situations? Empathy? Something more than empathy? Should I send you a card? Part of the problem is that — you having recently lost a sports team and I having recently gained one — we're both standing at an unusually sharp angle to the question, What the hell is a sports team, anyway? What are we supposed to be able to expect?

I think about this a lot because, as a soccer guy, I'm constantly running into differences in the way the "sports team" concept functions in America and the rest of the world, differences that are often mildly startling, even though we're all pretty friendly on Twitter. In England, e.g., soccer clubs are seen as something like community institutions — not businesses interchangeably situated in arbitrary cities, but deeply rooted expressions of the identity of the place where they began. It almost never happens that a club moves cities, and when it does (cf. Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, 2004) you would think the world was ending in fire by the way people talk about it. Over the past 20 years, club owners have increasingly started acting like American-style profiteers rather than the responsible civic stewards they have traditionally been expected to be, and this has led to serious anger and protest. I mean real protest, the kind we tend to reserve for stuff like wars and TV-show cancellations. This is not a joke.

In the USA, obviously, that ship has pretty mercilessly sailed. We've mostly gotten comfortable with the idea that sports is a business. We're happy to call our clubs "franchises" (essentially profanity in England), we talk about games as "product," we memorize cap restrictions and contract details, we fiddle with the Trade Machine. We accept that players are going to play harder in their contract years. Most of the conversations I had after the Dwight Howard/SVG blowup last month involved analyzing the fallout potential for Dwight's "brand" — and this was with young and youngish sports fans and writers, people who were not obviously cynical or soulless. It's just the resting state of the culture at this point. We're used to interacting with our games as though we were part of the fantasy-entertainment industry that runs them. We are not naïve about sports, unless it's naïve to think that savviness about the ways in which we're being exploited makes us unexploitable.

So … yeah. We recognize that sports teams are mostly dumb corporations that don't care about us, which is why our outrage at their corporate-like behavior tends to be inconsistently applied and limited to specific cases. (Otherwise we'd have to be angry all the time.) In a way, it's weird to be just FURIOUS about the Zombie Sonics and totally at peace with the Zombie Lakers or the Zombie Dodgers or the Zombie Every Other Team That Abandoned Its Original Fan Base for Money. Yes, what happened to you, Seattleite, was somewhat worse, because of how it all went down, than what's happened to millions of other fans, but it wasn't a different kind of thing. Just a bigger fish from the same bad pond.

What I'm saying here is, it's disingenuous to live in the world of product and branding and @KingJames six days a week and then get mad about loyalty and community on Sundays. But it's as if we need the occasional issue on which to vent our subliminal resentment toward the Nike model just to remind ourselves that there is a loyalty-and-community dimension here, even if it mostly exists in memory and fantasy. Because if there isn't, then what the hell is a sports team? Which is the question I keep coming back to, now that I've got one.

What I'm absolutely sure of here is that none of the foregoing makes it any less painful to lose a franchise you've followed your whole life than it is delightful to gain the franchise you've never had but always wanted. Complaining about Clay Bennett may be like complaining about the weather — and no one knows better than you how futile that is, Seattleite — but there's got to be some tiny kernel of identification in realizing that we're all basically powerless to affect the forecast. That is, as long as we're choosing to participate in this bullshit economy of sales-tax stadiums and leagues that work for owners and not fans, we're all riding exactly the same roulette wheel. (I'm picturing a roulette wheel that's actually kind of a goofy Rube Goldberg device in which the ball rolls out of David Stern's mouth and down his comically extended tongue, but fill in your own details.) This week it screwed you over and helped me, next week it'll screw me over and help some prospective future diehard of the Peoria Sphinx-Moths. A blizzard in Pac-12 country becomes a rainstorm in the SEC. We are all united in helplessness together.

And if it's not too unutterably cheesy, maybe that's what we owe each other — to see it that way, to sympathize with one another. Loving a sports team always means giving your heart to something that could harm it. And for all our pretend MBAs, that's doubly true in America, where a team can kill you by losing and then kill you again by skipping town in the middle of the night. What we all have in common is that, for whatever reason, we choose to take the risk.

I'm going to enjoy every moment I can of the Thunder's playoff run, but I'm not going to try to forget you anymore, Seattleite. Instead, when I'm happiest about Durant and Westbrook, I'm going to try to see you in the mirror — even if it's only for 0.02 seconds.

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Wilt vs. Elgin: When Their World Was the Playground

By: timbersfan, 11:24 PM GMT on May 11, 2012

Two legends in the summer of '57
By Dave McKenna on May 11, 2012
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In the summer of 1957, Wilt Chamberlain came to Washington, D.C., on the promise he'd get to play Elgin Baylor on the playground.

And they played. Over several weeks, Chamberlain, a Philadelphia kid and the first 7-footer who mattered, scrimmaged Baylor on his home blacktop, just as the local phenom was introducing playground flair to the hoops realm. Chamberlain would return to D.C. a year later for an encore of their pickup games, shortly after which both he and Baylor would turn pro and put up numbers that will be drooled over for as long as the game is played — 61,798 points, 41,024 rebounds, and 24 NBA All-Star Game appearances between them.

But, before any of that, there was this streetball series for the ages.

Chamberlain and Baylor went at it in five-on-five encounters on various D.C. playgrounds around town. The city's top young black ballplayers played alongside the headliners, making for an ungodly assemblage of future NBA first-round picks, NCAA tournament MVPs, and Hall of Famers. Flash mobs created entirely via analog social media appeared wherever Chamberlain and Baylor played.

"It was people hanging on the fences, on the rooftops, everybody there to watch Elgin and Wilt," says Ernie Dunston, who in 1957 was a sophomore at Spingarn High School, and who would later follow fellow Spingarn alum Baylor to Seattle University.

No newspapers reported on these Eisenhower-era faceoffs. No movies or photos of the action are known to exist, and, obviously, no box scores of their pickup games were ever kept.

Chamberlain's dead, and Baylor, at 77, is as careless a caretaker of his legend as he's ever been. What should be a fantastical chapter of basketball lore has never gotten any attention from anybody other than the now sixty- and seventysomethings who had a hand in it. And, if left up to Baylor, the games would remain in obscurity.

"Me and Wilt just both happened to be on the same court," says Baylor, when asked to describe his vintage runs with Chamberlain. "It was just basketball."

Bah. To the rest of D.C's Greatest Basketball Generation and anybody else who cares about hoop history, saying Chamberlain and Baylor sharing a playground in 1957 was "just basketball" is like saying the Last Supper was "just matzo."

Those who watched or played in these clashes of young titans recall a feast of dips, dunks, shot blocks, hang time, and even trash talk that was way ahead of its time.

They've come to realize they were part of something … big.

"At that age, I didn't know what I was seeing," says Dave Bing, now the mayor of Detroit and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, who was just a 13-year-old dreamer when Chamberlain and Baylor held court near his boyhood home in D.C. "Hell, I'd never seen anything as tall as Wilt. But now, to have those guys come down to your playground at that time, and with us just clutching the fence surrounding it and watching them play, well, it's just amazing."

Chamberlain pulled into D.C over Memorial Day weekend in 1957 behind the wheel of a red-and-white Oldsmobile convertible with the top down.

Chamberlain had just gotten the flashy car, at the finish of his sophomore year at Kansas and his first as a varsity basketball player — the NCAA didn't let Division I freshmen play at the time.

He'd already been a phenomenon inside and outside his hometown for a while. He picked up basketball in junior high and honed it on the courts of the Haddington Recreation Center in West Philadelphia. "Of course I remember the first time I saw him," says Cecil Mosenson, 82, Chamberlain's coach at Overbrook High in Philly, which he attended from 1951 to 1955. "I'd never seen anything like him. But nobody had ever seen anything like him."

He once scored 90 points in a game at Overbrook, and averaged 44 points a game for his high school career. A 1955 article in the Sporting News said Chamberlain also "high jumped 6 feet, 6 inches, ran the 440 in 49.0 seconds and the 880 in 1:58.3, put the shot 53 feet, 4 inches, [and] broad jumped 22 feet." He would have leapt right into pro ball if the NBA bylaws didn't forbid players so young. A 1957 article in Life magazine titled "What It Took to Get Wilt" said KU used an "army" of recruiters and hinted that it took "under the table" cash to land Chamberlain, who according to the report was "sought by a hundred campuses."

He exceeded expectations immediately, setting KU records for points (52) and rebounds (31) in his very first college game against Northwestern. Chamberlain averaged 29.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game for the year.

But Chamberlain's season ended with a 54-53 KU loss in triple overtime to undefeated North Carolina in the championship game of the 1957 NCAA tournament, often called the greatest college basketball game of all time. Chamberlain was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament despite the second-place finish. But he was still peeved about the racist taunts from white fans at the Midwest regional held in Dallas, including serenades of "Bye Bye Blackbird," and bugged by the triple-teaming and gamesmanship that North Carolina threw at him in the finals. UNC coach Frank McGuire (who would be Chamberlain's coach five years later when he scored 100 points in a game for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks) sent out his smallest player, 5-foot-11 Tommy Kearns, to face the 7-foot Chamberlain for the opening jump ball.

So talk in the weeks following the NCAA tournament was that Chamberlain would be abandoning college. A report in the Washington Afro-American on May 7, 1957, said Chamberlain would be turning pro within weeks, and quoted Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein from Paris saying he was willing to pay the young superstar "much more" than the rumored $15,000 a year it would take to get him out of Lawrence.

To everyone's surprise, at the end of the spring semester, Chamberlain announced he'd be returning to Kansas. At about this same time, Chamberlain started driving around campus in a stylish set of wheels. The Olds convertible would eventually play an infamous role in KU athletics history. But for now, it was just a nice car and a way home for summer break.

"That Oldsmobile was beautiful," says Dave Harris, a fraternity brother and friend of Chamberlain's at Kansas.

Harris, 75, grew up in D.C. and was a revered athlete back home. He'd been a football star at all-black Cardozo High School, and had gotten attention for being on the receiving end of the first integrated touchdown pass in the history of D.C. high school football. That came at Griffith Stadium on December 5, 1954, in the waning minutes of a game matching an all-star team made up of players from the city's all-white or all-black public high schools against the all-white powerhouse squad from St. John's College High School, a private prep. Along with its historical significance, Harris's touchdown catch, on a pass thrown by quarterback Danny Droze of all-white Anacostia High, gave the integrated squad a 12-7 upset win over the previously undefeated Johnnies.

Harris earned a football scholarship to Kansas, and met Chamberlain during their freshman year in Carruth-O'Leary Hall, a dorm where a lot of Jayhawks athletes resided. They also lived together as sophomores in the Kappa Alpha Si house. Harris made the trip to Kansas City to cheer on his frat brother during the KU-UNC title matchup, and saw the emotional funk the loss put Chamberlain in. After his last exam for the spring semester, Chamberlain told Harris he didn't want to leave his fancy car on campus over the summer, so he'd be driving back to Philly and could use a companion.

Harris went along for the ride.

We all now take the Interstate Highway System for granted, but the ribbon cutting to open up the very first stretch of federal pavement, a section of I-70 in Kansas, had been held in November 1956. With the new thoroughfare, Chamberlain and Harris planned on making the 1,115-mile trip to D.C. straight through. But funny noises started coming from under the hood just outside Indianapolis, on the weekend the town was hosting the Indy 500.

"So we coasted into this gas station in Indianapolis, and Wilt gets out of the car," recalls Harris, now 75 and living in D.C. "A guy comes out of the garage and says, 'Goddamn! Wilt the stilt!' And he's yelling at people in the shop, 'Get Wilt's car right up on the rack!' And they fixed it right there, something with the carburetor, and the guy says, 'Wilt, this is on us! Keep on going!' I said, 'Wilt, they know you everywhere you go!' Wilt hated being called 'Wilt the Stilt.' Hated it. But he liked being taken care of like that."

When they got back on the road, and started talking about their plans for the summer, Chamberlain confessed he had some downtime. Harris suggested Chamberlain stay a few weeks in D.C. at his family's home. And he made Chamberlain an offer he knew his buddy couldn't refuse.

"I said, 'You know, Elgin Baylor's going to be around,'" Harris says.

Wilt didn't know Baylor personally. Baylor now recalls only meeting Chamberlain once before their playground matchup, at a brief gathering of top college players in New York put together by Look magazine for the March 24, 1957, broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show.

But Chamberlain, like all serious ballplayers, knew a lot about Baylor by then. Baylor had just finished his redshirt sophomore season playing for Seattle University, and was the only player in the country to put up better overall numbers than Chamberlain. Baylor finished fourth in the NCAA scoring race, with 29.7 points per game to Wilt's 29.6. And Baylor led the nation in rebounding percentage, regarded as a major basketball stat at the time, hauling in .235 of the total rebounds taken by both teams in all his games; Chamberlain's .227 was good for fourth place.

Baylor's college season, like Chamberlain's, ended with March sadness. Seattle, which was viewed to be as much a one-man gang as Kansas, was ranked fifth in the country at the end of the regular season, but bypassed the NCAA tournament to accept a bid from the then-esteemed National Invitation Tournament. In the days leading up to the New York–based event, Baylor got more coverage from the mainstream press than he'd ever gotten. Bob Feerick, coach of Santa Clara, told the New York Daily News that Baylor was "absolutely the greatest, the best I've ever seen."

"I've seen Chamberlain and [Columbia All-American Chet] Forte and [West Virginia All-American Rod] Hundley and most of the other hot shots," Feerick said in the NIT preview piece. "Wrap 'em all up in one, and I'll still take Baylor."

But despite being the top seed in the NIT and getting a first-round bye, the Chieftains got blown out in their first game by St. Bonaventure.

Harris, being a football guy, only knew Baylor by reputation. But, especially after the NIT loss, he had a hunch where Baylor could be found: On the courts at Kelly Miller Junior High in Northeast D.C., which at the time was the hottest spot for basketball players in the city.

"I told Wilt we could set up some games," Harris says.

Wilt agreed to stay. Baylor was the draw. Chamberlain wouldn't go home to Philadelphia until two weeks later, Harris says. He came back to D.C. after a few days at home and spent "about 10 more days" as Harris's guest, playing Baylor on the playgrounds day after day.

To that point in basketball history, there were only two cities with pickup basketball scenes with any reputation: Philadelphia, which stocked the historically robust Fab Five college programs, and New York, which produced talent for colleges across the country — all five starters on the North Carolina team that had just beat Kansas came off New York's courts.

Chamberlain's decision to forego Philly and Haddington Rec Center to spend so much of his break lacing up his Converse high-tops on D.C. playgrounds was a huge stamp of approval for the ball being played in the nation's capital. And for Baylor.

"We didn't ever think of Washington, D.C., basketball up here," says Sonny Hill, a childhood friend of Chamberlain's, and a guy known as "Mr. Basketball" in Philadelphia for being godfather of the city's streetball scene beginning in the 1950s. "Nobody did. It was just us and New York. Then Elgin Baylor came out and we all heard about it. He put D.C. on the map."

A few hours after Harris and Chamberlain hit D.C., the shiny Olds, with its top down, pulled over on 49th Street NE, beneath the fenced-in court on the hill at Kelly Miller playground. Baylor was already there.

Not all of Elgin Baylor's playground memories are good ones.

He once told me that he was barred from using the pool, softball fields, and tennis and basketball courts closest to his boyhood home in Southeast D.C. because he wasn't white.

"The police even put chain locks on the gates around the basketball court so we couldn't get in when the park was closed," Baylor said in a 1999 interview. "The older [black] kids would sneak in at night over the fence and play with whatever light they could get. But most of the time, we just played stickball in the streets."

Race would also impact Baylor's formative years of basketball. His last two years of high school were spent at all-black Spingarn, which opened in 1953 and ended up being the last school built for blacks in D.C.'s segregated school system. Then came the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held that D.C.'s legally separate but allegedly equal education system was unconstitutional. But that ruling wasn't handed down until the spring of 1954, at the end of Baylor's last year at Spingarn. So his high school squad never played integrated teams, and the major newspapers in town barely covered the black schools. When he broke the city's high school record for points in a single game as a senior, the feat attracted little attention from the mainstream press. (Baylor's 63-point game is still the city standard.)

But at the end of the 1954 season, Sam Lacy, the legendary sportswriter for the Washington Afro-American, a newspaper for the black community, helped put together an exhibition game to showcase the undersung hero. Stonewall A.C., an all-black traveling sandlot team Baylor formed with neighborhood kids as a high school freshman, was matched against a squad of white players, called the D.C. Scholastic All-Stars, in what the paper's headlines dubbed a "Mixed Race Battle." The white squad was headed by Jimmy Wexler, a multi-sport star from all-white Western High whose scoring records Baylor had broken. The gym at Terrell Junior High was rented out for the game.

Bill McCaffrey, then a senior at all-white Anacostia High, was tasked with finding white players to play alongside Wexler, who had graduated from Western a year earlier.

"I'd gotten a lot of the best players from the white schools to agree to play because they all wanted to say they played against Elgin Baylor," says McCaffrey, now 77. "But the principals at their schools found out they were playing against blacks and threatened to suspend or expel them. So I had to use mostly guys who were already out of school."

McCaffrey, ignoring his own principal's threats, put himself in the lineup, too. Admission to the Baylor-Wexler tilt was free. A reported 900 spectators got in to watch, and another 500 folks milled around outside.

"When I showed up, the police were there because kids were trying to climb into the gym through the windows," McCaffrey says. "Kids ran up to me asking if they could carry my bags, just so they could get in. Guys were literally hanging off the rafters. Everybody wanted to see Elgin go up against white kids."

Excepting the team McCaffrey had assembled and the cops, everybody was black.

Stonewall A.C. spanked the Scholastic All-Stars by 25 points. Baylor scored 44 points to Wexler's 35, according to the Afro-American's score sheet. Wexler died last year. But in a 1999 interview, he told me that for all his sporting accolades — along with being an all-city basketball player, he spent three years in the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers farm systems after high school — playing against Baylor left him feeling athletically fraudulent.

"Here I am guarding Elgin Baylor, one-on-one," Wexler said. "And he showed me basketball at a totally different level — another world, head and shoulders above anything I'd ever seen. He could do everything. He was a scorer. He could jump out of the gym. He reverse-dunked on me! You have to remember: Nobody did that before Elgin Baylor. That's not how basketball was played before him."

Stonewall A.C business manager John Jones, sensing the market for the high school star in his hometown, also promoted what was billed as an "interracial cage tourney," featuring Baylor and his all-black club facing squads made up of white college ballplayers. The event, which required paid admission, drew a reported 3,000 fans to Turner's Arena at 14th and W streets NW. (That's the venue where pro-wrestling visionary Vincent J. McMahon filmed the syndicated pro wrestling shows for World Wide Wrestling Federation, which was eventually taken over by his son, Vincent K.. McMahon, and morphed into the WWE.) In the featured game, Stonewall A.C. trounced a team led by Maryland's Gene Shue, a senior at the University of Maryland who had just broken all of that school's career scoring. The score was 90-68. Baylor was named MVP.

Shue was months away from being the third overall pick in the 1954 NBA draft. Baylor was months away from getting out of high school.

"I think about that game all the time, and still shake my head," says James "Sleepy" Harrison, who played alongside Baylor with Stonewall A.C. and against him on the playgrounds. "Here you have Shue, an [All–Atlantic Coast Conference player and] college senior, and Elgin's still in high school, but he put him in his hip pocket."

But when it came time for college, Baylor's race trumped his talents and local renown. Whereas the teams from Philly and New York colleges welcomed blacks from their respective towns in the 1950s, all the major universities in D.C. were still years away from integrating when Baylor left high school. George Washington University didn't have its first black basketball player until 1963. Maryland, Shue's school, held off letting blacks play basketball until 1965 (Billy Jones).

Georgetown didn't recruit its first black ballplayer until 1966 (Bernard White).

"Now, schools will look under rocks for black ballplayers," says George "Dee" Williams, a teammate of Baylor's at Spingarn and with Stonewall A.C. "But nobody came to D.C. back then. And we didn't have anywhere around here to go."

So while Chamberlain had his 100 offers by his senior year at Overbrook High, Baylor, despite a 34-points-per-game scoring average at Spingarn and all that fame in the black half of his hometown, was essentially ignored. Though some reports during his senior year said that Indiana wanted him, Baylor told me Virginia Union, a historically black school, was the only serious suitor. But he'd had enough of segregated schools. A Washington Post story in 1954 quoted Ralph Shaugnessy, identified in the piece as "chief scout for Red Auerbach's Celtics," saying that "if [Baylor] isn't going to college, we want him with the Celtics now." (Auerbach told me in 2005 that while he was a huge fan of the young Baylor and that his buddy "Shag" Shaughnessy may have been quoted accurately by the Washington Post all those years ago, the Celtics never seriously pursued the young Baylor. "I didn't have time for high school kids," Auerbach said. NBA rules outlawed signing teenagers, anyway.)

So Baylor considered that his playing days might be over after Spingarn.

"I wanted to be a gym teacher," Baylor now says, a career goal he also stated in his Spingarn yearbook. "That's really the only thing I thought about doing, because I enjoyed being in gym class, and looking forward I thought I might like that. I certainly never dreamed of playing pro ball. None of us did. In high school, I didn't think beyond playing high school basketball."

Baylor ended up heading out to the College of Idaho, following Dunbar grad Warren Williams, who got a football scholarship there via a family friend who played for the Harlem Globetrotters and had stopped by the essentially all-white campus in essentially all-white Caldwell, Idaho. Williams found out the basketball coach, Sam Vokes, was also looking for bodies.

"I said, 'I've got a friend who's the best basketball player in the country!'" Williams told me in 2005.

Williams got Vokes to save spots on the hoops roster for Baylor and Gary Mays, a one-armed phenom from Spingarn's rival, Armstrong High. Mays remains legendary among black folks from D.C. of a certain age for shutting down Baylor and leading Armstrong's upset of the undefeated Spingarn team that won the 1954 city championship, and also because he was the best schoolboy baseball player in the city despite the missing wing. (Mays played catcher, and, according to a story in the Washington Daily News during his senior year, threw out everybody who attempted to steal a base on him for an entire season.)

With the imported D.C. talent on its roster for the 1954-55 season (plus future San Francisco 49er R.C. Owens), the College of Idaho went 15-0 in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the first time in the NAIA school's history it posted an undefeated league record. In March 1955, Sports Illustrated wrote a story about how the College of Idaho had become a "basketball powerhouse" overnight and credited the influx of D.C. talent, particularly Baylor, called "a 6-foot-6-inch schoolboy flash." It was the first mainstream press Baylor ever received.

But the College of Idaho's administration, for reasons that were never made public, fired the coach who'd brought Baylor in and broke up the basketball squad after that one big year. Mays turned down an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters and, with Warren Williams, quit school and went back to D.C. But Baylor, who was courted by a car dealership in the Pacific Northwest that sponsored a powerful AAU squad, accepted an offer from Seattle University. Baylor says that before agreeing to play for the new school, he got the school to agree that he could handpick some guys from back home to join him.

"I told them that to get me to go there, they had to take my friends, too," Baylor says. "I knew the guys back home were good enough, and the coach wouldn't be disappointed."

Seattle accepted Baylor's terms. He invited former Spingarn teammates and longtime Kelly Miller regulars Francis Saunders and Lloyd Murphy, who were a year behind him in school and had just graduated.

"Elgin came to my home one night at the end of summer [of 1955]," recalls Saunders, "and he says, 'Pockets,' which was the nickname he gave me, 'where are you going to school?' I told him I wasn't going anywhere, I would probably join the military. But he says, 'I'm going to Seattle tomorrow. Come with me. I'll pick you up!' So I walk into the kitchen and say, 'Mom, I'm going to college tomorrow!' She got sad and said she couldn't afford to send me. I told her, 'Don't worry, Elgin's going to take care of it!' And he did! The next day, Elgin came by and picked me up and we drove across country. I went to college, and that never would have happened without Elgin."

Murphy and Baylor's brother, Sal Baylor, were also along for the cross-country car trip.

Baylor had to sit out the 1955-56 basketball season per NCAA transfer rules. Saunders and Murphy sat out with him, because they were freshmen.

All of them got lots of playing time once their eligibility kicked in. John Castellani, who took the head coaching job at Seattle for the 1956-57 season, still marvels at how advanced Baylor's game was.

"Elgin invented hang time. Everybody knows that he was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan," says Castellani, who at 86 is still practicing law in Milwaukee. "But he did so many things nobody else did, things with the ball, like putting the ball behind his back on a fast break while cutting from his left to his right, and from a guy his size! He was way ahead of his time, and he brought all these things from the playground, things nobody had ever seen. I remember the coach at Portland put a sign up in their locker room: 'If you're going to stand around and watch Elgin play, then pay admission!' That was perfect. I guess I stood around and watched him play, too. And it was a joy."

The Washington Afro-American continued covering Baylor religiously even after he went west. The March 5, 1957, edition of the paper gave three paragraphs to Chamberlain and Kansas's loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game. A report about the 42nd and 43rd straight wins of Stonewall A.C., the club team Baylor formed in high school, got twice as much space. Baylor was in town for those Stonewall games and served as coach. At that point in its history, the story said, Stonewall A.C. was 217-15, and had won 19 of the 20 tournaments it competed in. With Baylor out of uniform, Stonewall A.C. was led by Ben Warley, a student at Phelps High School, who scored 20 points in the 42nd-straight win, over Temple Cleaners. A year later, Warley, who played in the playground games during Chamberlain's summer stay in D.C., would have a major role in the scandal that hastened Baylor's jump to the NBA.

Chamberlain made an A-list entrance to his first playground game.

"I'll never forget that car. It was huge," says Harold Bell, then a student at Spingarn who went on to be a pioneer in black sports talk radio in D.C. in the 1970s. "Dave [Harris] was one of my heroes from Cardozo, and him and Wilt drove up, and when Wilt got out, man, I'd never seen anything that tall."

Bell says the crowd at Kelly Miller for the first of the games with Baylor was also memorably massive. "The mood was so festive," he says, "like a big event was taking place."

Chamberlain and Baylor also brought their games to courts at Brown Junior High adjacent to the Spingarn campus in Northeast D.C., Randall Playground in Southeast, and Lincoln Recreation Center in Southwest, the latter two within blocks of where the new Washington Nationals stadium, Nationals Park, now stands. Wherever the sandlot series resumed, the townspeople appeared.

"I'd say 2,000 or 3,000 people were there for some of the games," says Dee Williams.

Three thousand spectators? At a playground?

"Yes! This was big!" says Williams. "People came out to see Wilt and Elgin duel. There were kids, and lots of ballplayers there, too. Everybody."

Among the hordes at Kelly Miller who witnessed Chamberlain and Baylor: Dave Bing, who would later go to Spingarn, become a college All-American, NBA rookie of the year, basketball Hall of Famer, and member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, named in 1996. (Spingarn was the only high school in the country, public or private, to have two members of the All-Time squad.) Also in attendance was Jerry Chambers, who like Bing grew up blocks away from Kelly Miller and who in 1966 would be named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Final Four as a member of the fourth-place Utah squad. Later that same year, Chambers was picked in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers.

"Whenever Elgin played, there were crowds," says Chambers, now retired and living in Los Angeles. "There wasn't cell phones or Facebook or Twitter. I don't know how that happened. But I guess somebody at the court ran and put dimes in the pay phone, and all the ballplayers would come running."

George Leftwich also spectated. He was a rising sophomore at Archbishop Carroll High School. In January 1959, Leftwich's prep team, which also included future Georgetown coach John Thompson, began a 55-game winning streak throughout a national schedule and remains regarded as one of the top schoolboy squads ever assembled here or anywhere else. He later starred at Villanova, leading the Wildcats to a pair of NCAA tournament wins in 1962 and an NIT title in 1965.

Leftwich never got on the court during Wilt's stay. He now says he was years away from feeling worthy of calling "next."

"One thing about the playgrounds in D.C.: You had to earn your place," says Leftwich. "I wasn't ready to get in with those guys. I was there as a spectator."

Dee Williams also has a colorful recollection of the welcome Chamberlain got from Baylor at his home court.

"Before we played, Wilt went up to Elgin and said, 'I'm going to light you up!'" says Williams. "And Elgin said, 'You must have a book of matches, because that's the only way you're going to light anything here!'"

The games were played by standard D.C. playground rules of the day: Five-on-five, first to 30 points by 2s wins, win by two baskets. No shirts or skins. No refs. Players called their own fouls. Traveling calls were frowned upon, and fine-print infractions — 10-second or three-second violations — were ignored. "You make too many calls, and you're a crybaby," says Dunston. "That's a reputation you didn't want." The "rise and fly" rule was, as always, in place, which was the colloquial term meaning winners stay on the court, losers go to the sidelines and wait. And wait. And wait. "The pressure was incredible at Kelly Miller, any of the playgrounds," says Chambers. "You lose, and you might as well go home, because there was crowds five deep of guys who had next. You were done for the day."

There were exceptions, says Baylor. "Wilt didn't have to wait when he lost," he says. "He'd get picked by whoever had next."

And, according to Baylor, Chamberlain did a whole lot of losing during his weeks in Washington.

"My team won. Always. Every time," says Baylor.

Chamberlain is not around to rebut Baylor's recollections. But nobody's ever accused Baylor of exaggerating his accomplishments. Quite the opposite, in fact. And surviving players back up Baylor's account of what happened on the playground.

"Elgin was the highlight of all those games," says Francis Saunders, one of the rare D.C. ballplayers who will admit to occasionally playing on Chamberlain's teams during the playground summit with Baylor. "He set the place on fire, and there was just no comparison. Wilt could score whenever he wanted. But Elgin was so creative, and, by far, Elgin was the better ballplayer. That sounds a little like I'm beating the drum for Elgin, I know. But that's how I remember it. You had to see it."

Dee Williams's recollections are similarly pro-Baylor. He says D.C. pride played a part in the playground outcomes.

"Wilt did his thing, all sorts of dips and dunks and finger rolls," says Williams. "But we were at Kelly Miller, not in Philly, and we weren't going to let Wilt win no games here. We tore him up."

Willie Jones, whose skills and verbosity made him a D.C. playground legend in the 1950s — he's known as the city's original trash talker — is remembered as the most colorful performer in the Baylor and Chamberlain games. In organized ball, Jones played for the first integrated team at American University, where he made first-team small-college All-American and set a record for points in an NCAA Division II tournament game (54) that still stands. He also coached the University of the District of Columbia to an NCAA Division II title in 1982. But, at 75, his proudest basketball accomplishment is clearly inciting Chamberlain to give him a nickname back in 1957. Jones says that out of respect for Wilt, he showed no respect to Wilt.

"I cussed his big ass every other word," says Jones. "He was under the basket, goaltending everything. So I'd go out to the top of the foul line circle, and say, 'Fuck you, big man! Come off that block and I'll kick your ass! Check me! Bring your big ass out here, Big Boy!' That was my aura. I had to do it to Wilt, too. He called me Dirty Mouth. Good people."

Jones says he also dirty-mouthed Baylor, even though he was on the same team. "Nobody could shoot like me, and I was yelling at everybody that they better either pass the ball to Wilt, Elgin, or me," Jones says. "But it was like every shot I'd take, Elgin would be up in the air and catch it and dunk it. I'd be yelling, 'Leave my shot alone, motherfucker! It's going in!'" (Offensive goaltending was allowed at all levels of basketball in 1957. The NBA banned it in 1958. Legend has it the rule was put in place in anticipation of the arrival of Chamberlain, who was a year away from entering the NBA.)

Win or lose, Harris says Chamberlain was a perfect houseguest during his stays in D.C. "Wilt liked to be alone, to just think or read," he says. They did do some typical D.C. sightseeing.

"I showed him the Lincoln Memorial and the museums and Pennsylvania Avenue," says Harris. "We stopped at the White House, and I said, 'Big fella, now you can write a paper when you get back to school.'" (Some 11 years later, Chamberlain escorted Richard Nixon, who occupied the vice presidency during Wilt's '57 trip, through hostile crowds at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral.)

They got into Wilt's Olds and cruised U Street NW, then the main drag in D.C.'s black business district and hub of the city's nightlife. Harris says Chamberlain told him that he was approached by "hustlers" there who knew why he was in town and offered money to play against a team led by Baylor at Turner's Arena. Chamberlain declined. "Wilt didn't want to play with D.C. guys on his team," says Harris. "He said he'd only do it if they brought down some Philly ballplayers to play with him." The game never came off.

The crew also made a few trips to Simpson's, a restaurant on North Capitol Street NW. Gary Mays worked there. After playing alongside Baylor on the 1954-55 College of Idaho squad, Mays and Warren Williams quit school and went back to D.C. to work at the restaurant, a now-defunct operation that in the late 1950s was a hub of the city's bustling numbers game, an illegal precursor to the government-run lottery. That line of work kept him too busy during the day to run with Chamberlain and Baylor at the playgrounds, but Mays did his part to welcome Wilt to Washington.

"Wilt asked if I knew any ladies," Mays says.

He arranged a date between Chamberlain and a Spingarn beauty named Izola McGriff.

"Yes, I went out with Wilt a few times when he came here," says the former Ms. McGriff, now Ancar.

And?

"He took me to dinner, and we rode around town, and, yes, he made his intentions clear," she says, laughing. "But I let him know that wasn't happening, and he moved on." Ancar, who recently moved back to the D.C. area after years in Southern California, says she ran into Chamberlain in the 1970s at a party in Los Angeles hosted by Marvin Gaye, another D.C. native and friend from her high school days. "Marvin knew about me going out with Wilt, and asked him if he remembered me," Ancar says. "He told me I looked familiar, but that's it until I told him the story." (Marvin Gaye has a street and a park named after him just a few blocks from the playground at Kelly Miller, where the streetless and parkless Baylor ruled.)

Another local girl, then known as Ruby Saunders, who married Elgin Baylor in 1958 and divorced him in 1975, says she also tried getting a love match for Chamberlain. Alas, there's no evidence Chamberlain maintained the 1.2-conquests-per-day average required for him to attain the 20,000 partners he claimed.

"I set him up with one of my girlfriends," says Ruby Baylor.

And?

"They didn't last past his visit," Ruby says. "Because of Wilt's status, it wouldn't be easy to be his girlfriend. She ended up moving to North Carolina and marrying a doctor, so I guess it worked out all right for her."

Washington is as good as any town at honoring folks who made a mark. Yet there's nothing in the city named after Baylor, whose imprint on the city's sports history was inarguably monumental — no roads or parks or statues or basketball courts or anything (unless you count 1990s pop/R&B crooner Ginuwine, a D.C. native whose real name is Elgin Baylor Lumpkin).

Most of the blame for Baylor's invisibility can be put on Baylor himself. His presence in D.C. has been diminishing since he went to the NBA in late 1958, to the point where most residents likely don't even know he ever lived there. Bing says the lack of recognition for the greatest athlete the city ever produced is sad, but attributes it to Baylor being "aloof" and the distance he kept from his hometown after turning pro. He's had almost no contact with Spingarn or Stonewall teammates for years. Even when the NBA All-Star Game was held downtown in 2001, Baylor, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, didn't make the trip.

"He only comes back for funerals," says ex-wife Ruby Baylor, who moved back to D.C. from Los Angeles after their divorce.

I asked Baylor years ago why he avoids a place where so many folks revere him.

"I'm just busy, I guess," he told me.

But among many D.C. natives, the reverence still exists.

"Over the years, whenever I hear somebody say, 'So-and-so was the greatest there ever was!' I tell them to shut the fuck up," says Willie Jones when asked how good Baylor was. "Don't try to tell me! I've seen the greatest there ever was. I played with the greatest there ever was."

If the power people ever get around to hanging Baylor's name on something, the court at Kelly Miller would be a fine place to start. More than any other patch of blacktop, this is where the legend of Rabbit, Baylor's nom de playground, really took hold.

"Elgin won't talk about himself, he never would," says Dunston. "But I hope he knows his name was magic there. He was magic."

Baylor now accepts that basketball players from D.C. didn't get any college offers until he took his playground game out West. But, maddeningly humble to this day, he denies there's any correlation between his performance and other athletes from his hometown finally getting a chance.

"I know after I left D.C., colleges started going into the city, and players started going to college, and many of them did quite well," he says. "And, next thing I know, a lot of players from D.C. were playing in the NBA, including a lot of guys from Spingarn. But to give me credit for that? That's not me. God Almighty gave them the ability."

Well, as Lloyd Murphy, a high school and college teammate of Baylor's and a participant in the Summer of Wilt tilts, once told me: "Let me try to put this modestly: Elgin was a god around here."

Castellani says Baylor opened his eyes about the quality of hoops talent in the nation's capital.

"I didn't know anything or hear anything about D.C. ballplayers before I had Elgin," says Castellani. "But, oh, god, was I sold on D.C. talent after him."

How sold was Castellani? Well, on Monday, March 24, 1958, Ernie Dunston, a Spingarn junior, got called out of class and down to the principal's office. He was told that the coach of Seattle University was on the campus and wanted him to work out. The previous Saturday night, Seattle's season had ended with a loss to Kentucky in the NCAA championship game. As with Chamberlain a year earlier, even in a losing effort, Baylor was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Now, less than 48 hours after that crushing loss, Castellani was on a fishing expedition at Baylor's old high school.

"They told me to get my sneakers on and get down to the gym," Dunston says. "John Castellani came to D.C. straight from the championship game, looking for players."

Dunston went on to play at Seattle alongside John Tresvant, another Spingarn alum. Tresvant was a benchwarmer during Baylor's days at Spingarn, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduation. Tresvant signed with the school after his military obligation was finished, and set a school record for rebounds (40). He spent nine years playing in the NBA, including a stint alongside Baylor and Chamberlain with the Lakers.

But Castellani, despite bringing a team to the NCAA championship game, was gone by the time Dunston and Tresvant arrived. Shortly after the 1958 season ended, Castellani got caught improperly paying for an airplane ticket for Ben Warley, who'd played with Baylor on the playgrounds for years, including during Chamberlain's 1957 visit.

Castellani, just 29 years old when he took the Seattle job, admits he broke the NCAA's rules all those years ago. But Castellani has come to terms with the zealousness with which he pursued recruits from Baylor's old stomping grounds. "We would have won at least two NCAA titles had we got [Warley]," he says.

(Warley died in 2002. After the Seattle scandal, Warley ended up playing at Tennessee State and winning two NAIA championships there, then having an eight-year pro career, some of which was spent with the Philadelphia 76ers as Wilt Chamberlain's roommate. Warley's son, Carlin Warley, would break Chamberlain's career high school scoring record for the state of Pennsylvania in the late 1980s.)

Though penalized for not playing by the rules, Castellani clearly recognized where basketball was headed. Chamberlain and Baylor's playground tête-à-têtes, and the Seattle coach's pursuit of Baylor's Kelly Miller mates, came at the cusp of black dominance of college basketball. In March 1957, Tennessee State won the NAIA title for small colleges, becoming the first all-black basketball squad to win a national collegiate championship. The big schools were following suit: Chamberlain was the only non-white player on the 1957 consensus All-American team; just one year later, five of the six consensus All-Americans, including Chamberlain and Baylor, were black.

D.C. provided a lot of the color.

"After Elgin, through my high school and college years, there wasn't another area in the country that produced as many guys who could play — and I'm talking about All-Americans and NBA players — as D.C.," says Bing, who was a consensus All-American at Syracuse before his Hall of Fame NBA career.

The playgrounds prepped him for bigger venues.

Chambers also credits Baylor for kick-starting a boom in Kelly Miller exports to the rest of the basketball world.

"Elgin's the one who got us all to go to college," says Chambers. "He showed us it could be done. Nobody from D.C. had ever gone away [to play college or pro ball], so we all thought you had to be as good as Elgin to get out of town. We wanted to be like him. You cannot say enough about how much Elgin meant to guys in D.C." (After Chambers was named MVP at the NCAA Final Four, played in College Park, Maryland, his coach at Utah, Jack Gardner, was asked by a reporter from the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star if he was sticking around D.C.: "If there's another Chambers here, let me know," he said. "I'll stay a month.")

Baylor went pro after the 1958 season, shortly after announcing his engagement to Ruby Saunders. Though he still had a year of college eligibility left, Baylor was eligible for the NBA draft, since he'd sat out a year after transferring from Idaho.

Baylor told the press at the time he was leaving school "for personal reasons." He now says the firing of Castellani and the NCAA penalties inspired his exit.

"I was really upset with the fact that they got rid of the coach. I didn't think it was fair to break up the team after the success we'd had that season," Baylor says.

Chamberlain came back to D.C. for Baylor's wedding in June 1958, and a photo of Baylor lifting his bride high so she could kiss Wilt appeared in the Washington Post. The nuptials allowed Chamberlain another chance to take on Baylor on the playgrounds.

"I watched Wilt and Elgin play at Kelly Miller the weekend of the wedding. I think they even played the morning of the wedding," says Chambers. "It was like every ballplayer in town was watching those games."

Baylor says that when he decided to make the jump to the NBA, he was "most excited about being drafted by the Knicks, playing in New York." The Knicks had the third pick in the 1958 NBA draft.

Instead, the Minneapolis Lakers took Baylor with the first overall selection, and gave him a $20,000 contract as a rookie. He spent his whole playing career with that organization, with the franchise moving to L.A. after Baylor's second year. Management spent the next few decades mining Baylor's old hometown for talent: Baylor was just the first of five D.C. ballplayers chosen by the Lakers in the first round of the NBA draft between 1958 and 1984. (Chambers, Kermit Washington, Kenny Carr, and Spingarn alum Earl Jones were the others.)

That Olds convertible that carried Wilt to D.C. for his series with Baylor eventually helped drive him out of college. An AP story that appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette in May 28, 1958 went over how the car had aroused suspicions of rule-breaking. "I bought a cheap car several years ago and just worked up," Chamberlain said in the story. That tale didn't hold, alas. NCAA executive director Walter Byers put KU basketball on two years' probation. Byers, who was atop the NCAA from 1951 to 1987, wrote in his 1997 memoir, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, that his investigation into Chamberlain and KU found that the Olds convertible "had been provided to Wilt without cost" and that the school tried to hide the car by parking it indoors in a booster's garage.

After the 1958 season, Chamberlain was still ineligible for the NBA, because the league only accepted ballplayers whose original college class had graduated. The Harlem Globetrotters, however, had no such edicts preventing college kids from signing. Before KU's punishment took effect, Chamberlain agreed to a $65,000 deal to play with the barnstorming entertainment troupe. He applied for the NBA draft a year later.

Baylor ran into Wilt throughout their long careers in the NBA. They played with or against each other in nine All-Star games, and were teammates for the four years before Baylor's 1971 retirement. Baylor says that he and Chamberlain only discussed their playground games one time, near the end of his career. Wilt brought up the old days in the locker room.

"It was years after, and Wilt was still mad," says Baylor. "I said my teams always won, and he said that I only won because I also picked the teams. He said I got all the good players, because I was from D.C., and he had to take what was left."

Was Wilt telling it like it was?

"Of course," Baylor says. "Home-court advantage."

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Juventus return to their roots to land title

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on May 11, 2012

It has taken six years and many a heartbreak, but Juventus are finally back top of the pile in Italian football.
The club has come a long way in rebuilding its tattered reputation, from that 1-1 draw at Rimini on the opening day of the 2006-07 season, to the 2-0 win at Cagliari which, coupled with AC Milan’s derby defeat, ensured the Bianconeri could not be caught at the top with one game remaining.
Who knows how many honours the club would have collected in the meantime if the heart of the team had not been torn out following the events of Calciopoli and the subsequent demotion to Serie B, even if it their spell in the second tier only lasted one year.
One of the secrets of the Old Lady’s success through the 90s and into the new millennium was the rationale of not being afraid to allow a big name to leave as long as the sound foundations of the team – built through astute management and, of course, major investment – were not undermined.
The roll-call of star names passing through the vaulted headquarters in Turin included the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved, Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet and the two Fabios, Cannavaro and Capello.
When the bombshell hit in 2006, the name Juventus alone could not guarantee an instant return to the heights of previous decades, as the likes of Real Madrid and Inter cherry-picked the major assets, including title-winning coach Capello.
It has taken three presidents and six coaches to achieve this crowning moment, and although there was a third place finish on their return in 2007-08, and a runners-up spot in 2008-09 there seemed little in the way of continuity to suggest that a league title was in the offing.
At the higher management level, Giovaani Coboli Gigli arrived from a business background to lead from the boardroom, while the urbane Jean Claude Blanc put his business degree from Harvard to good use.
The Luciano Moggi-Roberto Bettega era would be erased from history, but the new line-up were mere babes in the murky world of Italian football. After a host of coaches came and left, having failed, it took a return to the past to finally get Juve back on an even keel.
It seems incredible that a club whose watch-word was once ‘stability’ would take so long to return to its roots, with the arrival of Umberto’s son, Andrea, the last male member of the clan.
The masterstroke was, of course, bringing Antonio Conte back in to the fold. As a player, the battling midfielder may not have shined as brightly as the likes of Alex Del Piero and Zidane, but he was a guardian of the Juve flame and knew what values he needed to reinstall within the playing staff.
Not only are the team unbeaten in all competitions, with an Italian Cup Final to look forward to, but they have also set a club record 21 clean sheets. Victory was built from the back in the best traditions of Italian football, while sporting director Giuseppe Marotta enabled Conte to sprinkle the side with a few sparkling diamonds.
Andrea Pirlo must be in the running for the player of the year award, proving that Milan were mistaken in not offering the playmaker a further two-year deal, while Mirko Vucinic was ripe to show off his talents in a new environment.
A return to the Champions League opens a new chapter, but it also brings with it a new set of difficulties, as Milan found to their cost this season.
But the Old Lady has at least re-applied her foundation, and she is finally back in style.

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Premier Pub Ammo: Shaky Szczesny, dead-eye Dempsey, penetrating Petrov...

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on May 11, 2012

Arsenal 3-3 Norwich City
Alex Song has managed 10 assists in 33 PL games this season, compared to four in 116 league games before this term. Norwich have conceded a goal before half-time in each of their last nine Premier League games. Grant Holt has scored eight goals this season against the Premier League's current top eight sides.
One of Norwich’s goals came courtesy of a Wojciech Szczesny error; overall this season Arsenal have registered 13 errors leading to goals and five own-goals, with that total of 18 self-inflicted goals six higher than any other team in the Premier League.
Arsenal mustered 11 shots on target against Norwich, their joint-highest total in a single Premier League game this season. Norwich scored three goals from just four shots on target, with Szczesny’s overall saves-to-shots ratio this season now just 63.3%, the third worst of any keeper to play 20+ games.

Newcastle United 0-2 Manchester City
Man City have scored a higher percentage of goals in the second-half than any other team in the PL this season (68%). After being pushed forward following Nigel De Jong's 61st-minute introduction, Yaya Touré netted his second Premier League brace. Touré also set up four shots.

Fulham 2-1 Sunderland
Clint Dempsey – who became the first American player to reach 50 Premier League goals – scored his second direct free kick in the league this season; only Sunderland's Seb Larsson has scored more (three).
Danny Murphy made the most passes in the PL this weekend (90). Moussa Dembelé completed seven dribbles: only three players have completed more in PL games this season. All four of Phil Bardsley’s Premier League goals have been scored from outside the area.

Queens Park Rangers 1-0 Stoke City
Djibril Cissé has either scored or been sent off in all seven Premier League appearances for Queens Park Rangers.
Aston Villa 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Emmanuel Adebayor has now been involved in 27 goals this season (16 goals and 11 assists), and is just one short of equalling his best campaign (07/08 – 24 goals, four assists). Tottenham had 19 corners in this match, the most by an away side in the PL since Opta started collecting that data in 2003/04, and the second-most in any PL game after Portsmouth (20 vs Fulham in November 2006).
Villa had just one shot on target in this match. Overall the Villans had just four shots, though this is actually one more than in their first meeting with Spurs this season (three), they didn’t have a single unblocked shot from inside the area.

Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-0 Everton
Wolves didn’t manage a single shot on target, but did manage to avoid equalling Sunderland’s record of 10 consecutive home league defeats.
Bolton Wanderers 2-2 West Bromwich Albion
West Brom got 10 shots on target, more than they've managed in any PL game apart from the 14 against Wolves in February. Excluding corners (two successful out of four), Martin Petrov made five successful crosses; the only player to manage more in the league this season is Wolves' Matt Jarvis, who has twice completed six.

Manchester United 2-0 Swansea City
United had 28 shots; they’ve only had more in one PL game this season (29 vs Aston Villa in April). Swansea achieved their lowest possession figure of the campaign (40.2%) this season, but Leon Britton completed all 27 passes he attempted.

Blackburn Rovers 0-1 Wigan Athletic
Blackburn had only 29% possession in the first half v Wigan. Rovers’ pass completion of 60.9% was their second lowest of the season and the eighth lowest of any team in any Premier League game this season. Paul Robinson has posted the lowest saves to shots ratio in the Premier League this season: 57% (the average is 69%).
Wigan's 20 shots equalled their best in a Premier League away game this season (they also managed 20 at Carrow Road). Franco di Santo created three chances, his best return in a Premier League game this season.

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Atlético Madrid to break romantic hearts in Bucharest

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on May 11, 2012

Wednesday’s Europa League final is another sure sign of why Atlético Madrid are known as one of the most unlucky, put-upon clubs in the world, in that most of a neutral bent watching the game will dearly want the Rojiblancos to lose the match. But not for who they are, but instead for who they aren’t - and that’s Athletic Bilbao.
As a cheesy tabloid would write, Athletic Bilbao are the People’s Players who have stolen the hearts of most in Spain and around the world for their homegrown talent, passionate football and never-say-die spirit, and for charitably giving Gaizka Toquero something to do in life. Giving Manchester United a good thrashing on a couple of occasions certainly sold them to the majority of the English market.
However, the watching world may be a tad disappointed come the end of Wednesday’s final as although Atlético Madrid are incredibly flaky in la Liga this season – their chance of finishing fourth on the last day of la Liga is due to everyone else being a bit hopeless rather than Atleti being particularly good – Diego Simeone’s side have been truly dominant in the Europa League both home and away, having won all eight of their knockout games against Lazio, Besiktas, Hannover 96 and Valencia.
Even the team’s domestic tendency of throwing away late leads in injury time has largely been absent in Europe, aside from a few wobbly moments in the Vicente Calderón at the end of each half against Valencia in the first semi-final. Nevertheless, even if Atlético are winning their fans won’t be even remotely relaxed until the final whistle has been blown.
Two years ago, Atlético beat Fulham in another battle to be the Best Side In Europe Likely To Finish About Seventh In Their League. However, the experience won’t weigh too much in Atlético’s favour, because they've long since lost the front four behind that victory, Diego Forlán, Kun Agüero, José Antonio Reyes and Simao. Their replacements – Falcao, Arda Turan, Diego and Adrían – aren't quite as sexy and strong but remain more than useful on their day.
The message from manager Diego Simeone – aside from the usual mantra about his players showing they are men, flapping their cojones about and giving it their all on the field – has been about having a bit of fun on the pitch too, as much as it is possible with leg-breaking tackles being dished out. “Experience is important, but passion is more so,” explained the Argentinian. “You wait for a final all your life. You can end up playing two or three, but you have to face them as if they were your last.”

Rivals Simeone and Bielsa, together in their Argentina days
While Atlético’s pre-match preparations may well have involved being shouted at for hours on end and charging into shop-window dummies with Fernando Llorente’s face fixed to the front, the more sedate Marcelo Bielsa will have been inflicting days and day of Atlético Madrid videos on his footballers, such is the geeky gaffer’s love of that type of thing. Indeed, LLL imagines Javi Martínez switching on his in-flight entertainment system hoping to catch something soothing involving Jennifer Aniston and finding a two-hour scouting report on Juanfran popping up on his monitor.
A reported 20,000 Spanish fans of both sides have made it to Bucharest and will be trying to hoover up some of the 32,000-odd tickets made available to UEFA, sponsors, the local beauty queen’s family and Vlad the Impaler’s cohorts. And those who get in will see a fine final between two teams with two very different philosophies.
While Athletic are most un-Spanish in that their campaign has been carefully thought through and is the fruit of many years of planning and steady progression, Atlético Madrid has been considerably more frenetic and frenzied, with the side’s philosophy as usual represented by the phrase ‘cobbled together’.
Nevertheless, while LLL’s romantic heart would like to see Athletic Bilbao returning to Spain as Europa League champions, the pragmatic head puts Atlético Madrid as Wednesday night’s winners with a second European triumph in three years.

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Manchester City can end a 43-year EPL title drought, one of many storylines on final

By: timbersfan, 11:50 PM GMT on May 10, 2012

The last day of a fascinating English Premier League season should be the final lesson in just how far an unthinkable amount of cash, in this case a cool half billion dollars, can take at team. Yet for all the lavish spending indulged by Manchester City's oil sheikh owners in pursuit of a championship, and with an EPL title now a single, tantalizing victory away, there is one factor no amount of money can eliminate.

QPR manager Mark Hughes aims to stop Manchester City on Sunday. (Reuters)
That would be soccer's extraordinary ability to conjure up the remarkable, the impossible and the downright ridiculous at the moments of greatest importance. It is why logic would dictate that City, having triumphed over Manchester United and at Newcastle in its previous two games, will be taking nothing for granted against Queens Park Rangers, one of the most inept teams in the division. City, so dominant in the early part of the campaign, has recovered spectacularly from a mid-season dip that saw it fall behind United and seemingly surrender its chance of being crowned English soccer's champion again after a 43-year wait.
Its home record has just one blemish, a draw against Sunderland in March, to go along with 17 wins, most by a comfortable margin. Still, soccer's perverse nature means the three points that would guarantee the title cannot be regarded as a foregone conclusion, even against QPR, 17th in the table and in real danger of being relegated.
To thicken the plot is the delicious irony surrounding Mark Hughes, the QPR manager who was sacked from the same role at City in December 2009. Hughes was embittered at the time and still harbors hostility toward his former employers over the manner and timing of his dismissal. Depriving them of the title would only be of secondary satisfaction to him, though, with QPR's own survival at stake. Hughes was hired in January and spent heavily on new players, but was unable to reverse the ambitious West London club's fortunes. Defeat, coupled with a Bolton victory at Stoke on Sunday, would send QPR down and probably cost Hughes his job.
[Related: English Premier League standings] As if more intrigue was needed, the beneficiary of a QPR miracle would be United, the team where Hughes spent most of his playing career and became a fan favorite over two separate stints as a hard-working and clinical forward.
Even though relations between Hughes and United boss Sir Alex Ferguson have become frosty, Ferguson still is hoping for a favor and has the Red Devils primed to capitalize on any City slip-up. United visits Sunderland on the final day level on points with City, but the two clubs' respective goal difference means United has a chance at winning the title only if City fails to claim all three points.
"You never know," Ferguson said. "Stranger things have happened in this game of football. They are red-hot favorites, but we have won the title three times on the last day and we don't mind doing it again."
City has proven its big-game mentality and with the most expensively assembled squad in English soccer history, it should have more than enough tools to get the job done. An example that money doesn't just talk, but screams its lungs out, came when Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure scored the two late goals needed to get past Newcastle last Sunday. Toure is a solid professional who generally shuns the superstar lifestyle, but his services do not come cheap. With a weekly pay packet of about $500,000, he is the highest paid player in the EPL.
While a title triumph would mean a great deal to every City player, the real beneficiary would be manager Roberto Mancini, who looked to have crumbled under an onslaught of mind games from Ferguson during the cold winter months, but found new life in the spring. Failure to win silverware could have resulted in Mancini being discarded in the summer, but now he might be one victory away from inking a lucrative contract extension.
At the other end of the spectrum, the day dubbed Survival Sunday carries extreme repercussions for those in danger of seeing their EPL life extinguished for the time being. What was a six-team fight for survival just three weeks ago has now boiled down to a two-way scrap. Wolves and Blackburn will play next season in the second-tier Championship, Wigan and Aston Villa have secured their top-flight status, and either Bolton or QPR will slip through the trapdoor. .
[Martin Rogers: Yaya Toure declines champagne gift, setting off soul-searching in the EPL]
Bolton carelessly let a two-goal lead slip against West Bromwich Albion last weekend when a victory could have boosted its chances, and it must beat Stoke then pray QPR loses at City. Watching on from the stands will be Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton midfielder whose heart stopped beating for more than an hour after he collapsed during a game at Tottenham last month and whose recovery has served as inspiration for his colleagues.
While money is flush at the top of the EPL tree, the financial ramifications at the bottom are even more significant. Dropping out of the EPL can cost a team up to $60 million and often leads to a fire sale of the highest-salaried players.
Survival Sunday will begin with no shortage of storylines and should have no shortage of drama.

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Soccer and religion meet on the pitch, where the English Premier League considers a c

By: timbersfan, 11:49 PM GMT on May 10, 2012

English soccer is poised to change one of its oldest traditions following an awkward moment at the end of Manchester City's dramatic victory at Newcastle on Sunday.

Yaya Toure didn't accept the magnum of champagne after Manchester City's win over Newcastle. (Goal.com)
Yaya Toure was presented with a ceremonial magnum of champagne for his man-of-the-match performance in the 2-0 triumph that left City just one win away from clinching its first English Premier League title.
Toure, however, refused to accept the bottle and immediately handed it over to teammate Joleon Lescott. Toure is a devout Muslim who does not drink alcohol.
"I don't drink because I am a Muslim," Toure told Lescott. "So you keep it."
Champagne is given as a matter of routine to the outstanding player in any televised game, a tradition that's been in place ever since the start of English soccer's modern era when the EPL was set up in 1992. It also has historic roots, with many clubs also giving a similar award after each home game, with a designated player being selected by the match sponsor and receiving a bottle of bubbly.
[Related: City on verge of English Premier League title]
Even before the incident involving Toure – the EPL's highest-paid player with a base salary of around $25 million – the EPL had already considered altering its policy on the grounds of cultural sensitivity.
"We sought advice from religious groups before concluding that the champagne was treated as a highly-coveted award," said a spokesman in a statement.
It now seemly like that the champagne award will remain in place in most cases, but the league is now planning to add a new element to the presentation, by giving man-of-the-match recipients a plaque to go along with the alcohol.
In instances where the player in question is of a religion that does not tolerate alcohol consumption, as is the case with Toure, or where the player has certain personal circumstances (such as having battled alcoholism or been convicted of drink-driving), only the plaque would be awarded.
The decision reflects the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the English league, which has seen a huge influx of players from every continent over the past decade. Some of City's most influential players are Muslim, including Toure, his brother Kolo, France's Samir Nasri and Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko. The club has even dedicated a prayer room to cater to its mix of cultures.
Newcastle is also considering adding prayer facilities as some of its leading players, like Papiss Demba Cisse, Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa all practice the Islamic religion.

Newcastle manager Alan Pardew says religion plays an important role for some of his players. (Reuters)
"Religion plays an important role for some of our players," Newcastle manager Alan Pardew told the Daily Mail. "You have to respect that some players have a different religion to most of the footballers in this country. We need different facilities for them. It is important that whatever the religion, we take care of it and understand it."
Toure's two goals against Newcastle took City to the brink of the championship and eased the nerves of the club's fans, who have suffered for so long in the shadow of local rival Manchester United. The last time City was crowned champion of English soccer was in 1967-68, well before the start of the EPL era.
One more victory, at home to struggling Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, would be enough to secure the trophy. City has won 17 and drawn one of its 18 EPL home games so far this season and is considered an overwhelming favorite.

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Shadows of Greatness: How Tim Burton and Johnny Depp Lost Their Way

By: timbersfan, 11:46 PM GMT on May 10, 2012

This Friday, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows will open at every single theater near you. Johnny Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, a vampire from the 18th century who returns from the grave to meet his descendants living in the early 1970s. I haven’t seen Dark Shadows, but I know (from commercials airing wall-to-wall during the NBA playoffs) that there’s a not-terribly-funny scene where Depp stares quizzically at the TV as The Carpenters perform “Top of the World.” I assume there are other scenarios playing on the culture shock experienced by the immortal undead during the Nixon administration, so if that’s your thing, enjoy. It also helps if you are still buying what Burton and Depp are selling, as they’ve been selling the same thing for quite a while.

Dark Shadows is Burton’s fifth consecutive film with Depp, and his eighth overall. It is the fourth film from this recent run (the exception being 2005’s animated Corpse Bride) that is a remake or adaptation. (Dark Shadows is based on a soap opera that aired on ABC from 1966 to ’71.) Also in keeping with recent Burton/Depp tradition, it's a comic period piece with the requisite “dark overtones.” These guys never met an Edwardian jacket or pair of bushy sideburns they didn’t want to put on and give a sinister twist.

In terms of commerce, the partnership is stronger than ever: 2010’s Alice in Wonderland grossed $334 million — Burton’s best tally ever, or about $80 million more than the movie you’d think was his most successful, 1989’s Batman. Alice in Wonderland might also be the least watchable movie Burton and Depp have yet made together. I won’t go so far as to call it unwatchable, but it sure makes the prospect of watching future Burton/Depp films a lot less enticing.

Creatively speaking, the union of Burton and Depp has become the worst kind of marriage: They don’t seem to have anything new to say to each other. In the last decade, Burton/Depp movies have become bigger (while delivering less), grander (though only in the lumbering sense), and way more ridiculous (and yet somehow also way less fun). In Alice, Depp “re-imagined” the Mad Hatter as a flamboyant, Bozo-haired hobo in the middle of the most expensive and sorta boring acid trip of all time. (Tom Petty probably spent 1/10,000th of Alice's budget for the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video, and yet his Mad Hatter — and his drugs — are noticeably superior.) In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Depp slit more throats than then the Geto Boys in “Mind of a Lunatic,” but Burton failed to put any emotional guts into the sour musical. (Depp, however, did somehow manage an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.) The curiously inessential Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is actually better than you probably remember, but you probably don’t remember it.

In the beginning, it was different. Tim Burton was the boy genius specializing in lightly subversive entertainments like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. He was strange, witty, and kitschy — qualities that were seriously lacking back in the staid, Driving Miss Daisy days of late-'80s Hollywood cinema. With Batman, Burton was given the keys to a guaranteed blockbuster, and yet he nearly steered it off a batshit cliff due to the sheer perversity of casting Michael Keaton and L.A. Forum–period Jack Nicholson for the cokehead-iest superhero flick ever conceived.

But Batman didn’t go over the cliff. It grossed a quarter of a billion dollars and put the spandex-clad Keaton on the bedroom wall of every kid ages 8 to 14. Batman allowed Burton to make his next project, Edward Scissorhands, his most personal yet. He was even more daring/batty with his choice of leading man this time around, forgoing sure things like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks in favor of the TV actor with the Meryl Streep cheekbones who honed his acting chops opposite future Night at the Roxbury running gag Richard Grieco.

This is what people always forget about Johnny Depp: He used to be Zac Efron. He was 27 when Edward Scissorhands was released — not necessarily old, but getting close to the age where people get over your looks and wonder if there’s something else there. Depp fought Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Vietcong in Platoon — who could’ve guessed that the former would be remembered more fondly by movie buffs a generation later? — before John Waters corrupted his teen-idol image in 1990’s Cry-Baby. But it was Edward Scissorhands that would most influence the future course of Depp’s career, not only because of the connection he forged with Burton, but also for how it made weird a part of his movie-star DNA.

Weird was Burton’s franchise, and Depp was wise to recognize that a little of what the director had, plus his pretty face and charisma, could carry him far. On paper, the director and actor seemed to be opposites — Depp the beautiful lightweight, Burton the respected goth-king — but they bonded over the central conceit of Scissorhands: a fragile man physically incapable of intimacy who is finally recognized as the great artist and thinking-woman’s heartthrob that he truly is. It was like the captain of the football team and the nerdiest kid in school realizing they were equally obsessed with Disintegration.

As a precursor to grunge’s takeover of mainstream rock the following year, Edward Scissorhands helped to usher in a new era. Thanks to Burton, the '80s were so over that Anthony Michael Hall was now being hired to play the musclebound heel. And Depp proved to be a perfect fit for these new times, with his Vedder-esque handsomeness and his Cobain-like leanings toward dark humor and the grotesque. Four years later, Burton cast Depp as another Ed who was misunderstood by the straights, in Ed Wood. And, once again, Burton and Depp struck a balance between oddball comedy and heartfelt drama deriving from a platonic love story between outsiders. (Though it should be noted that, unlike with Winona Ryder in Scissorhands, there’s no evidence that Depp hooked up with his sexy Ed Wood co-star Martin Landau.)

The evolution of Burton and Depp as a cinematic entity shares some similarities with perhaps the most legendary director/actor pairing ever. A little over 50 years before Edward Scissorhands, a cigar-chewing Irishman named John Ford strong-armed the suits into letting him use a handsome B-movie journeyman actor named John Wayne as the star of 1939’s Stagecoach. The film made Wayne a star, and established his screen persona as the pillar of all-American strength and our nation’s suppressed vulnerability. Wayne had worn cowboy hats onscreen many times before, but Ford was the one who made this image poetic and, ultimately, iconic.

Over the next 25 years, Ford and Wayne made 13 more films together, including two of the best of either man’s career, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 1956’s The Searchers. Over time the balance of power shifted as their work grew progressively darker and more reflective. By the time of their last film together, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne was one of the world’s biggest box office draws, while Ford was nearing the end of his career.

Ford might’ve made Wayne the ultimate personification of an idealized American West, but Wayne was not tied to Ford as his star rose. He was able to take the larger-than-life image Ford made for him and put it to use for other filmmakers, particularly Ford’s rival Howard Hawks in Red River and my favorite John Wayne movie, Rio Bravo (along with Rio Bravo’s lesser remakes El Dorado and Rio Lobo). After a while, unless you were a hard-core cinephile on the level of Peter Bogdanovich or Michael Bolton, it didn’t matter if Ford were directing the picture or not, so long as people still wanted to see a dusty John Wayne stand tale against a breathtakingly spare backdrop in Arizona.

Tim Burton single-handedly invented the surefire box office formula of dressing up Johnny Depp in fanciful clothes and letting him unleash his inner freak. In their early films together, the clothes were less fanciful and the freakiness more controlled. But once the Pirates of the Caribbean movies made Depp the richest actor to ever imitate a smacked-out Keith Richards waving a saber, he became the marquee name on the duo’s projects. Burton’s weird is now Depp’s weird. And as that change has taken hold, so has Burton’s willingness to “let Johnny be Johnny” and give in to spectacle that goes with it. Alice in Wonderland wasn’t a hit because of the unique mix of low-budget go-getterism, mainstream-skewering irreverence, and shy-eyed sweetness Burton once brought to his films. It landed among the highest-grossing movies ever because it starred Captain Jack Sparrow.

Burton is now just one director among a crowded field of Hollywood hired hands trying to harness Depp’s ability to make a mint out of his wardrobe-and-makeup free-for-alls. (As suggested by the publicity stills of Depp’s bizarre spin on Tonto from the summer of 2013’s tentpole-to-be The Lone Ranger, he is capable of being just as sartorially convoluted on his own as he is with Burton.)

If Shadows doesn’t seem especially momentous considering it comes from one of cinema’s most popular team-ups, perhaps it’s because what Burton and Depp do no longer seems unique to just Burton and Depp. You can tell Dark Shadows is a Tim Burton movie because Johnny Depp has pale skin, dark circles around his eyes, and a funny-sounding voice. You can tell Depp is playing a vampire this time because he also has pointy teeth. But Burton and Depp’s creative relationship has turned vampiric in real life, too, and this has diluted their once-singular personality strain across multiple films at the multiplex.

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On the Signing of a Giant

By: timbersfan, 11:45 PM GMT on May 10, 2012

And he's a legitimate 350!" I heard some analyst say during the week leading up to the draft, talking about some prospect or another, and I laughed, only not with much humor, because, honestly, if "legitimate" and "350" can be uttered in the same sentence, is this sport doomed, or what? Forget concussions and bounties. Just look at the size. We're breeding lab rats for our on-field entertainment, and that can't be good — I mean, for the rats. No matter how much sugar water we give them. For the people doing the experiments, well, monetarily, sure.

"Legitimate 350!" made me immediately think of a lineman named Shaun Rogers. It had been almost seven years since I'd sat down over the course of a couple of days with Rogers, who was then a 26-year-old defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions coming off a Pro Bowl season. This was about the time the NFL had started to unveil really, really large defensive guys with the overall agility of ballet dancers and the girth of the truly obese. I was in the middle of writing a book about the 1958 Giants, when linemen weighed what strong safeties do now, and I was finding myself geekily drawn to the new species of fat, insanely talented goliaths.

I wanted to write about the best of them. And Shaun was the best of the best. At just 6-foot-4, he weighed about 340 pounds. But he sure wore it well. At the Lions' training camp, in drill after drill, I watched him do the tiptoe thing through the crosshatched-ropes course with the finesse of a Fantasia elephant. I saw him dart past blockers with the moves of a water strider.

This was all more than a revelation; it was as if I were hallucinating. Despite a belly that was always afloat around his waist when he moved, like a mobile inner tube or water balloon, his synapse-twitch speed hypnotized me. As did his stomach. He was a good 50 or 60 or 100 pounds heavier than nature intended him to be. He was not only too good to be true, he was too large to be true, which meant that he was on a dangerous path. Upper bodies can always grow — from weight work, and nutrition, and supplements, and whatever drug — but knees and hips can't. The species' lower skeleton and musculature cannot support weight like that. Not for long. Let's save the brain for another discussion. This one is about much simpler physics.

Here's why I thought of Shaun instantly, the moment I heard about the "legitimate" 350-pounder: Rogers was not just agile, but one of the smartest, nicest, most thoughtful, self-deprecating, and likable guys I'd ever interviewed. He made a comedy routine out of the moments when he lingered in front of the pastry case of a local restaurant after a lunch we'd had, before imposing self-discipline and walking away. He chalked up all his success to everyone who'd helped him.

Half the time we spent talking in the hometown-Houston townhouse he'd just bought, we talked about life and stuff. When I asked him what he saw himself doing after football, he said he'd like to teach kids, maybe high school. One time, in the middle of a conversation in the kitchen, he spontaneously hopped up to sit on a counter, twisting and planting his butt on the linoleum like a gymnast sticking a landing. Or, at least, with the skill of someone who was fit and weighed 180. Except that he weighed, probably, twice that.

It worried me, that stomach, that upper body, kind of the way I'd worry if he were a cousin. Or a second cousin. But for me, that was a good flight home. I'd just happily hung out with a potential future Hall of Famer. I'm sure athletes think that most sportswriters are a pain — most sportswriters tend to feel the same thing about athletes. This was one time when I thought, I'd have paid my own airfare just to hang with this guy. It had been that much fun, and that rewarding, and that faith-inducing: Who knew? The big-sport machine produces real people sometimes.

That season, he was a Pro Bowl starter again. The next year, when Shaun was suspended for four games because of testing positive for a "banned substance" and his agent said it was an "appetite-suppressing" pill, I decided to believe it. Hey, I'd seen him use admirable discipline in turning down the cake.

The following season, in 2007, a late-night highlight clip caught my eye: a really fat defensive lineman intercepting a pass at his own 34, taking off toward the other goal line … and outrunning the entire offense. Shaun outran Denver's running backs. He outran their wide receivers. He went 66 yards, for a touchdown. Untouched. Unreal.

The following spring, Shaun was accused of assaulting an "exotic dancer" with a gun stuck in his waistband in a strip club on the west side of Detroit. I thought, Oh, Shaun, come on. You know better than this. You're blowing a shot at Canton, and immortality. You're the king of the giants. You don't have to hang in places like the Loose Ends Players Den. Literally or figuratively.

The woman's charges were dismissed one month later. Thereafter, his defensive stats started to lose weight, even if he didn't. Two years later, the Lions traded Shaun to Cleveland. Following that first season with the Browns, he was arrested and charged with trying to carry a gun through the X-ray machine in the Cleveland airport. At the end of the 2010 season, the Browns let him go, and three weeks later, the Saints, defensively coached by one Gregg Williams, signed him.

Last season, for the first time in his career, Shaun recorded no sacks, and when New Orleans let him go, I remember being tremendously relieved: Whatever was turning this optimistic, nimble, baby-faced kid into a shell of what he'd been, my guess was that it had a lot to do with the world of professional football. Finally out of the game, alive and intact at 32, he'd lose weight, find the teaching job, and, surrounded by sane people with long-term, big-picture values, salvage a real life, instead of a limping, concussed, tragedy of a final act.

Then, last month, on the first day of the draft, a team signed Shaun Rogers. My Giants. The team that's been the one constant of my life. The team to which my radio show is devoted. The team about which I've written a best-selling book. The team in whose upper deck I've stood and screamed more loudly than those two guys in front of me in blue construction helmets. The team that's as close to a religion as I have. We had signed an over-the-hill, too-big, vulnerable, aging athlete.

And here was my first thought as a fan when I read about the signing a few minutes after it had been announced — and it's still my only thought as a fan right now: This is a great signing. Sure, he's a shadow of the old Shaun Rogers, but this is a guy who might come off the bench for six sacks, and might face-plant a running back in the backfield on a key third down in the first round of the playoffs, or disable a quarterback (or two), the way LT used to.

So what if Rogers's judgment about life's choices seems to be forebodingly questionable? Hardly unique among my favorite pack of athletes. He's sure as hell more talented than our suspended-for-banned-substances interior-lineman pickup last year, Jimmy Kennedy, a first-rounder who plummeted into oblivion. And our last lovable but obese middleman, Fred Robbins.

No question: This was another great Jerry Reese off-the-radar acquisition.

Yes, sure, I'll grant you: Former players are shooting themselves, suing the league en masse about their dementia, declaring bankruptcy. And yes, as the father of a kid who was concussed once playing in high school, if I ever have any grandkids, I'll do whatever the hell I can to keep them off the football field.

But I'm not a man. I'm a fan: the guy who has always said that I hope I'd never have to choose between my marriage and my team, because my team would win. So let me speak for all Giant fans, Shaun: No matter what the risk to your own future might be: Go out and hurt someone this year, OK? Help bring us a second ring in a row, big man. Be a Giant.

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Oden on Oden

By: timbersfan, 12:13 AM GMT on May 10, 2012

In a rare and candid interview, the former top pick in the NBA draft discusses his injury-plagued career
By Mark Titus on May 9, 2012
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Greg: "So what is this article going to be about?"

Me: "Well, my goal is to humanize you and give people an idea of what the last five years have been like for you. You might not realize it, but you're one of the biggest enigmas in the NBA. Because of your injuries, most fans haven't seen you play. And since you never do interviews, they don't know anything about you off the court either."
Greg: "I know. And that's the way I like it."

It's hard to believe you could say this about a former no. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft who also had naked pictures of himself leaked onto the Internet, but Greg Oden is as private a person as I've ever known.

Our friendship dates back to the summer of 2001, when I joined Greg's AAU team shortly before we both entered eighth grade. My previous AAU team was comprised of a bunch of kids who were like me: upper middle class white guys from the Indianapolis suburbs. Greg's AAU team, on the other hand, was almost exclusively made up of black guys from the city. Because of this, as I entered the gym for my first practice, I felt as out of place as Christian Laettner on the Dream Team and wondered if I'd ever fit in. But it only took five minutes for this uneasiness to subside. Why? Because I realized that the tall, goofy-looking kid wearing Rec-Specs and shooting by himself on the side basket was just as shy as I was.

Since he was the only other introvert on the team, Greg and I immediately hit it off. On road trips, when the rest of our team would go out at night and do exactly what you would expect teenage boys who are visiting new cities to do, Greg and I would typically stay in our hotel room and watch TV, quote Will Ferrell movies, or discuss Laguna Beach. As we got older, I stopped growing, somehow became less athletic, and transformed into the scrub benchwarmer that I'm known for being today. Meanwhile, Greg ditched the Rec-Specs, figured out how to run without tripping over his own feet, and transformed into the best high school big man since Lew Alcindor. Yet despite the attention that accompanied being one of the most sought-after college recruits ever, Greg never really stopped being that goofy eighth grader who shied away from attention and just wanted to play ball.

And now, with his career in limbo after all that's happened to him, he's the same guy today. Last month, we met for dinner in downtown Indianapolis, just a few weeks after the Portland Trail Blazers released him to create a roster spot after trading Gerald Wallace to New Jersey. I hadn't seen Greg in a few months and I was surprised to hear that, after a record three microfracture surgeries and 338 missed games in five years, he was considering walking away from basketball completely. But he didn't seem depressed at dinner. He was just … Greg. For instance, as we were finishing our meal, three separate groups of fans approached him and asked for autographs and pictures. Like always, he granted their requests with an annoyed expression, didn't say any more than three words to anyone, and then shook his head as they walked away.

"You're a fun-loving guy with a ton of personality," I said. "So why do you hate it so much when people approach you in public? Why don't you let your personality shine through and smile when you take pictures with fans?"

"Because I don't understand why they are so excited to meet me," Greg responded. "I'm just a person. I guess I didn't really mind it when I was at Ohio State and even right after I was drafted, but it just seems so fake now. Like, why are you bothering me at dinner for a picture when I'm nothing now?"

"I get that," I countered, "but you've never really been yourself around fans, even when everything was going well and you were dominating at Ohio State. Why not just let loose and give people the chance to get to know you a little bit?"

"I don't know," Greg said, "but I've always been this way. I only open up to my family and friends because I trust you guys. Nobody else needs to know anything about me. That's why I don't like when people come up on the street to talk to me, and it's why I don't like to do interviews."

His emphasis on privacy explains why you probably didn't know the real reason he injured his wrist just before he got to Ohio State — you know, the reported basketball-related injury that sidelined him for the first half of his freshman season. What actually happened? He damaged ligaments defending himself in a fight with his hotheaded younger brother, Anthony. The incident occurred shortly before the Indiana state tournament, when Greg was a senior leading Lawrence North High to a third straight state title. Greg and Anthony's occasionally ugly sibling rivalry is similar to a lot of brothers' relationships, but the fact that one brother, Greg, was the best basketball player in the country during his high school years only intensified things. Even though Greg's success has always been a wedge between him and Anthony, Greg's first tattoo — the words "Always There" on his left shoulder — was meant to be a message of unyielding support and love for his brother. Unfortunately, that support has not always been mutual.

Greg's emphasis on privacy also explains why you probably didn't know that, during his lone season at Ohio State, his best friend since childhood, Travis Smith, died in a car accident the same night that Greg scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds in a two-point home win over Michigan State. Travis had planned on coming to that game until Greg's mother and grandmother stepped in and claimed Greg's remaining tickets. But a few hours before the game, Greg was informed they weren't coming because his grandma didn't feel well, which meant Travis could have attended the game after all.

Greg found out about Travis's passing shortly after the game. When he heard the news, he promptly left the gym and drove around the outer belt of Columbus while sobbing. He wasn't seen or heard from until practice the next afternoon. A few days later, he served as a pallbearer in Travis's funeral just hours before 14,000 Purdue fans rained boos on him at Mackey Arena during pregame introductions. Today, he never takes the rubber bands with Travis's name inscribed on them off his wrists. He still considers Travis's parents to be his own. He visits Travis's hometown of Terre Haute multiple times throughout the year, including every summer for a golf outing he helped organize that honors his fallen friend and raises money for the local Boys & Girls Club in Travis's name.

It's almost like a cloud has been following Greg since high school. He even had bad luck with the 2007 draft, landing in the same class as Kevin Durant. Experts spent two months comparing them and picking apart Greg's résumé, which didn't stop Portland from selecting him with the first overall pick. That summer, his right knee started bothering him and doctors determined that he needed microfracture surgery. Greg's rookie season was over before it even began. Portland fans, who endured the injury-ravaged careers of Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, freaked out. What those fans didn't know was that Greg's heart was still aching because of Travis's death; he was already headed down a destructive path of drinking and "doing things I shouldn't have been doing" (his words at dinner). The knee surgery only made things worse.

"For starters, Portland isn't a great city to live in if you're a young, African American male with a lot of money," Greg explained with an embarrassed grin. "But that's especially true if you don't have anybody to guide you. Since I was hurt the entire season, I was on my own a bunch and didn't have veteran teammates around to help me adapt to the NBA lifestyle."

Even while adjusting to the change in culture, Greg successfully rehabbed his knee and played in 61 games the following season, averaging nine points and seven rebounds in 21.5 minutes. He wasn't dominating like he had in high school and college, but he provided enough highlights to make Blazers fans feel optimistic about the team's future. It seemed to me while watching Greg on TV that he would be able to recover from his surgery and in a few years' time could be one of the premier big men in the NBA. But after longing for a veteran role model the previous season, Greg got exactly what he wanted in his second year, only the results were disastrous. That's because it wasn't an NBA veteran who took Greg under his wing in his second season — it was his veteran cousin from the Air Force who moved into Greg's house in Portland.

"If you know anything about guys in the Air Force," Greg explained, "it's that they drink a ton. My cousin got wrapped up in the NBA lifestyle and threw parties at my house all the time. So I got wrapped up in it too. When I played well, I'd drink to celebrate. And when I played poorly, I'd drink to forget. That second year in Portland I pretty much became an alcoholic."1

During the ensuing offseason, a much-needed period of self-reflection gave Greg the incentive to pull out of his rut. He stopped drinking, hired a chef to cook him healthy meals, and worked himself into the best shape of his life. Everything looked like it would pay off in the 2009-10 season — in his first 20 games, he averaged 11.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in less than 25 minutes a game. He was becoming the dominant center we had always expected him to be.2

And then this happened.

Greg Oden hasn't played a single NBA minute since.

This time, it was his left knee — a broken kneecap that made Greg the butt of jokes among NBA fans. And rightfully so, considering that he played less than a third of Portland's games in his first three seasons. Before too many Unbreakable jokes could be made about Greg's inability to stay healthy, however, even better material surfaced when nude pictures Greg had taken of himself in a mirror were leaked in January 2010. Few people who saw the pictures had any sympathy for Greg; the only real takeaway was that his genitalia are exactly as big as you would think they would be.3 This would have been the most embarrassing moment of anyone's life, but for an introvert who values his privacy?

After those pictures hit the Internet, Greg says he locked himself in his house for three straight days until Portland personnel knocked on his door and essentially dragged him to the gym for rehab. Going forward, he found it difficult to show his face in public, assuming everyone was thinking about the pictures and laughing to themselves.

"I wish it wouldn't have happened," he said. "But I'm not going to apologize for it. After all, I'm human and there are worse things that 21-year-olds could do. I just got caught up with women throwing themselves at me. When a girl sends me 100 pictures, I have to send something back every now and then. I'm not an asshole."

(Hey, we've all been there, right?)

Dealing with another season-ending injury and now nude pictures circulating on the Internet, Greg sought out sports psychologist Joseph Carr. In the spring of 2010, Greg began seeing Carr regularly, and he paid for their sessions with his own money. Months later, when the season started, the Blazers also hired Carr, who started showing up at games and practices. Greg said he saw Carr talking to Blazers front office personnel on several occasions. This seemed like a conflict of interest, Greg said, and he couldn't shake the suspicion that Carr was sharing details from their sessions with the team. In response, Greg stopped meeting with Carr and his distrust of the Blazers deepened.

As the start of the 2010-11 season approached, he believed he was making strides with his rehab but didn't think his body was ready to practice at full speed. Feeling guilty about missing so much of those first three years, he returned to practice against his better judgment. In hindsight, Greg said he regrets that decision as much as those cell phone pictures, because rushing back to practice played a big part in him needing another microfracture surgery, this time on the same knee he had been rehabbing because of the broken knee cap.

Although Greg never took my bait and blamed the Blazers for his premature return, it's impossible not to wonder if Portland's medical staff contributed to any of the problems Greg endured during his injury-plagued career. This isn't to say Greg never would've gotten hurt had he played somewhere else, but Portland's medical staff has long been rumored to be less than stellar.4 At any rate, nobody can deny that Greg genuinely felt pressured — either by the Blazers, their doctors, his own guilt, or all three — to return to the court before his body was ready. That's why he claims he wasn't surprised that he needed a second microfracture surgery. That's why he responded to the news by shrugging his shoulders and saying "OK" as if he had just been told by a McDonald's employee that the McFlurry machine wasn't working.

This second microfracture operation led to another missed season, which meant that in Greg's first four years in Portland, he played in only 82 games. Somewhat thankfully, the NBA lockout forced him away from the Blazers' facilities last summer, and he moved to Los Angeles to continue rehabilitating at a private clinic. Even if the change of scenery served him well, that clinic was juggling too many athletes to give him the personal attention Greg thought he needed, so he found a different clinic that was more hands-on. Greg's new physical therapist informed him that, while his left knee was healing well, it wasn't nearly as strong as it should've been. He referred Greg to a New York colleague who specialized in things like "making someone's knee better after it endures two devastating injuries in less than a year." Before Greg shifted operations to New York, however, the lockout ended and forced him back to Portland. Again, he felt rushed to return to the court before he was ready. And wouldn't you know it — he ended up needing another microfracture surgery in the same knee he was already rehabbing.

Look, I'm not trying to make excuses for Greg. He's a grown man. He shouldn't have done anything he didn't want to do. At the same time, he clearly needed direction and guidance. He needed someone to value the long-term over the short-term and tell him: "Don't come back unless you're 100 percent. Otherwise you're going to make this worse." For whatever reason, he never had that. Imagine, for a moment, that Oklahoma City, one of the league's best-run franchises, had landed the first pick in 2007 (even though they were the Seattle SuperSonics back then). Would they have handled Greg differently? Would they have been more careful? Would Greg have been in better hands? Would Greg be leading them in the playoffs right now? We'll never know.

As if all this career adversity and all these "what ifs" weren't bad enough, Greg's personal tragedies kept piling up. During his stay in Los Angeles, the blind dog that Greg had raised for the past four years crawled through a hotel balcony railing and fell eight stories to its death. Shortly thereafter, he found out that his cousin from the Air Force — someone who had remained close with Greg, even though they probably should never have been roommates — had been diagnosed with cancer. He died just six weeks later.

Then, another lost NBA season ended abruptly when Portland released him on March 15, finally bringing the Greg Oden era to an end. He's one of the biggest NBA draft busts ever, and even worse, he knows it.

Meanwhile, the NBA playoffs are under way, with big names from Greg's draft class like Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley Jr., and Joakim Noah all playing pivotal roles on their playoff teams. Once upon a time, Greg Oden was supposed to be leading this group. Along with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, he was supposed to be competing for the title every year as part of Portland's "Big Three." Instead, Roy is long gone (retiring in December after years of battling his own knee woes) and Greg is rehabbing a knee injury for the third straight postseason. Only this time, he's doing so without a job.

Just don't think for a second that Greg feels sorry for himself. And don't think that he carries any animosity toward other guys in the 2007 draft, most notably Durant, the second pick and someone whose name will always be linked with Greg's. Now an MVP candidate and a likely starter for this summer's Olympic team, Durant's career arc has been the polar opposite of Greg's. Greg knows this, too.

"I'd be lying if I said that it didn't suck to see Durant doing so well," he said. "Only because every time he had a good game in those first few years, I knew I was going to get a bunch of crap from all of my haters. But that doesn't mean I dislike him as a person or anything like that. He's a good guy and one of the three best players in the league right now. The only reason it hurts to watch him play is because I know that if I got the chance to show what I've got, I could be making All-Star teams like he and Horford are, too.

"That's the worst part about all of the injuries and the criticism. It would be one thing if I had been healthy for five years and just sucked when I was on the court. But I can't prove what I can do because I can't stay healthy. Not having control over the situation makes it tough."

I thought Greg might retire from basketball after Portland released him. That's not happening. Right now, his plan is to take off the entire 2012-13 season, move back to Columbus, take all the time he needs to rehab his knee back to full strength, and continue working toward the degree that he abandoned after one year at Ohio State. Once he feels ready, he plans to sign with an NBA team in 2013 and (hopefully) string together a few years of injury-free basketball. No NBA player has ever returned from three microfracture surgeries, so there's no denying that the odds are against him. But here's the good news: Even though his appearance would lead you to believe otherwise, he's only 24 years old. There's still enough time to salvage a decent NBA career and maybe even reach some of the potential that once seemed so limitless. Not that he's thinking about it that way, of course.

"I don't care about what all of these injuries mean for any legacy I might have," he said. "I just want to play basketball. I could've signed with a team after Portland cut me and just sat on the bench and collected paychecks, but that's not my style. That just seems really unethical. Besides, money doesn't matter to me. I've got enough money. All I want is to get 100 percent healthy and get back on the court."

"But what if you can't get back on the court?" I asked him. "What if a doctor examines you in the summer of 2013 and says that if you play basketball again, you might not be able to walk when you're 50?"

"I'd just have to accept it," Greg said. "I'm at peace with everything. I want more than anything to be able to play again. But if I can't, I'll still have a decent life. Getting cut (by Portland) kind of put everything into perspective. There's more to life than basketball, and at some point it's going to end anyway. I'm going to do what I can to get back on the court, but if it doesn't work out, I'll find something else to do and have a normal life."

Yes, in a lot of ways Greg Oden is still the same eighth grader who was uncomfortable with attention and just wanted to play basketball. For the next year or so, he'll finally get the privacy he always wanted. As for playing the game he loves, maybe he'll find the right franchise someday — the right coach, the right medical staff, the right teammates, the right everything. Or maybe he'll never play again.

But no matter what happens, he will find a way to survive, because he's been surviving all along.

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The Inquisition of Mr. Marvel

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on May 10, 2012

On the (surprisingly complicated) legacy of Stan Lee
By Alex Pappademas on May 9, 2012
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Sugar Ray Leonard says he's trying to wean himself off Red Bull. He's drinking a Red Bull as he says this, a big 16-ouncer he carried into the room. "After five or six," he says, "I get jittery." He says he tried a 5-hour Energy the other day. Somebody asks him how it was. "It worked," Sugar Ray says. He says it with a shrug, like a wine snob acknowledging that, yes, Boone's Farm will get you drunk if that's all you care about.

Sugar Ray — black suit, no tie, doll-smooth skin — is here in this hotel conference room in Beverly Hills to do a few photo ops promoting the HD network Epix and his new gig as an Epix boxing announcer, and (presumably) to inspire reporters to cover today's presentation (look at our premium content, look at the variety of screens on which you can watch it) like it's news. Come for the free lunch and eat it within sight of a living legend, stay for the press release.

Sugar Ray is not the living legend I'm here to see today, though. I'm here to meet Stan Lee. And I feel weird about it.

It's April 24, and in a few weeks, The Avengers — directed by Joss Whedon, based on characters Stan co-created for Marvel Comics in the 1960s — will open record-breakingly huge around the world. It'll surpass even the absurd expectations placed upon it, and what's more, most people will agree that it's great. Or at least good. Or at least better than it needed to be, given the extent to which its hugeness was a foregone conclusion. (I think it's great. Or at least good, given the number of masters it had to serve. You can see the seams a little, where Whedon-doing-Whedon gives way to Whedon supervising CGI punch/'splode activities; that's not a criticism, just an observation.)

But as of late April the movie's not out yet, and while a lot of the online chatter about it is the usual fanperson froth about blockbuster-induced self-soiling, there's also been this ongoing conversation about the ethical issues raised by the movie's relationship to its source material, and specifically Marvel's relationship with the estate of artist Jack Kirby. Almost all the main characters in Avengers — including Thor, the Hulk, superspy Nick Fury, and the movie's primary villain, the trickster-god Loki — were introduced between 1961 and 1964, in comics written and drawn by Lee and Kirby. During that same period — a generative streak basically unparalleled in American comics history before or since — they also introduced the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

Officially, Lee wrote the books and Kirby drew them. Officially, Stan supplied the realism — his heroes had flaws, they argued among themselves, they were prone to colds and bouts of self-loathing, and sometimes they'd forget to pay the rent and face eviction from their futuristic high-rise HQs, which were in New York, not a made-up metropolis — while Kirby supplied the propulsion, filling the pages with visions of eternity and calamity, along with action sequences that basically invented the visual grammar of modern superhero comics.

As Marvel grew, Stan was writing more and more books for Kirby and other freelance artists to draw. Sometimes, to keep the process moving and his artists busy, he'd just supply them with a rough outline, some plot points, a few ideas for action beats; when the finished art came in, Stan would fill in the words around it, a comics-creation process that became known as the Marvel Method. And — as time went on, especially when Stan worked with Kirby — the collaboration became even more fluid. Lee and Kirby would hash out the details of a story together, kick it back and forth. Or Kirby would come back with pages that departed significantly from Stan's initial idea and then Stan would adjust his story accordingly. Different stories came together different ways, but essentially they were co-storytellers. And the work they did together during those first few years transformed the American comic-book industry and laid the groundwork for the billion-dollar trademark empire Marvel would eventually become.

The difference between Stan and Jack was that Stan, in addition to being a writer, was management. He was Marvel's editor-in-chief and de facto art director; later, he was Marvel's publisher. Finally, around the turn of the '80s, he left behind the day-to-day business of comics and moved to Los Angeles to get Marvel's movie and television division up and running. Really, though, he became what we'd now call a brand ambassador. In his comics writing — and his monthly column, Stan's Soapbox — he'd cultivated a jivey, ironic, hipster-huckster editorial voice; now he applied that voice to a new career as a professional interviewee and talk-show guest. His role at the company became more and more ceremonial. Yet the words "Stan Lee Presents" continued to appear on the title pages of Marvel comic books whose content he'd had no more to do with than Walt Disney (d. 1966) does with Hannah Montana.

Q: People ask, "Is Stan Lee still with Marvel Comics." Are you still with us?

STAN LEE: Sure! Especially on pay day!
— Marvel Age magazine interview, 1983

Over the years, Marvel changed hands, went bankrupt, reemerged, restructured. Stan stayed in the picture. Each time he renegotiated his deal with the company, he did so from a unique position — half elder god, half mascot. Administration after administration recognized that it was in their best interests PR-wise to keep him on the payroll. For years, he received 10 percent of all revenue generated by the exploitation of his characters on TV and in movies, along with a six-figure salary. This came out in 2002, when Lee sued Marvel, claiming they'd failed to pay him his percentage of the profits from the first Spider-Man movie, a development the Comics Journal compared to Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It's unclear if Stan still co-owns any of Marvel's characters, but the company continues to take care of him. When Disney (which, full disclosure, is also the parent company of ESPN, which owns the website you're now reading) bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, part of the deal involved a Disney subsidiary buying a small piece of POW! Entertainment, a content-farm company Stan co-founded; another Disney-affiliated company currently pays POW! $1.25 million a year to loan out Stan as a consultant "on the exploitation of the assets of Marvel Entertainment."

Jack Kirby, on the other hand, was a contractor. You could sink a continent in the amount of ink that's been spilled on the question of whether it was Stan's voice or Jack's visuals that ultimately made Marvel what it was, but it's hard to argue that any of this would have happened had Kirby been hit by a bus in 1960. Yet like most comics creators back then, he was paid by the page and retained no rights to any of the work he did for the company or the characters he helped create; by cashing his paychecks, he signed those rights over to the company. It took him decades just to persuade Marvel to give him back some of his original art, much of which was lost or given away or stolen in the meantime; there are horror stories about original Kirby pages being gifted to the water-delivery guy.

Kirby never sued Marvel, over the art or anything else. But as the years wore on he blasted the company in interviews. He blasted Lee, its avatar. Compared him to Sammy Glick. Referred to him as a mere "office worker" who'd grabbed credit from true idea men. "It wasn't possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things, for that matter," Kirby told the Comics Journal in an infamous 1990 interview. "Stan Lee wasn't a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day."

And all this happened back when the comics industry only manufactured and sold comic books. Back when even the medium's most vocal champions wouldn't have dreamed of Marvel (which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996) being worth $4 billion to anybody.

In 2009, after the House of Mouse bought what used to be called the House That Jack Built, an attorney1 representing Kirby's heirs (Kirby died in 1994) sent notices of copyright termination to Marvel, Disney, and several other film studios involved in the production of movies based on Marvel properties Kirby said he created or co-created. The following year, Kirby's son and daughters filed suit against Marvel and Disney for a piece of the profits generated by those properties.

A federal judge, Colleen McMahon, ruled against the Kirby estate in July 2011. Near the beginning of her 50-page opinion, she emphasized that the case wasn't about who really created which Marvel character, or whether Marvel had treated Kirby "(and other freelance artists who created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers)" fairly. It was about whether or not Kirby's Marvel output qualified as "work made for hire" under the terms of the Copyright Act. "[N]one of the evidence submitted by Defendants," McMahon wrote, "makes so much as a dent in the 'almost irrefutable' presumption that the Kirby Works were works for hire."

It was a weirdly galvanizing defeat. The day after the ruling, comics artist, historian, and lecturer Stephen Bissette suggested on his blog that fans loyal to the Kirby Kause stop spending money on Kirby-derived Marvel product, effective immediately. In February of this year, writer/artist James Sturm wrote a piece for Slate about his decision to boycott the Avengers movie in solidarity with Kirby.2 Marvel's shabby treatment of Kirby has been public knowledge among comics fans for decades, but the buildup to The Avengers — a huge, splashy entertainment product based on Kirby's work, from which many people who are not Jack Kirby stand to make truckloads of money — gave bloggers and pundits a high-value target to protest.3 A Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet.

And, yes, OK, a Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet when Hasbro changed the name of a My Little Pony, too. The Internet makes protest effortless, and therefore weightless. But the outcry around The Avengers feels like more than the knee-jerk carping of an improperly serviced fan base. For years, loyal readers aware that Marvel is ethically (if not legally) in the wrong when it comes to Kirby and other work-for-hire creators have taken a we-need-the-eggs, "What, and give up X-Men?" attitude toward the whole situation. Comics are both a hobby and a habit; they depend on the deeply ingrained consumption patterns of a core audience, and the fact that some portion of this audience, however small that portion is, is even talking about giving up X-Men is a pretty big deal, culturally speaking.

Obviously, the calls for a boycott didn't even dent the film at the box office. But that's sort of the point. The Avengers is the end result of a gradual process of superhero-movie-denerdification that started around the first Iron Man. According to
exit polling, it's a multi-quadrant hit enjoyed by young and old, male and female. These movies are now mainstream cultural events that happen with or without the support of a niche fan base. And there's a lot of emotion swirling around this transition. I think the anti-Avengers movement was partly about a target market shooting back, resentful of the notion that they can be bought off with 3-D flash, the hiring of a geek-demigod writer/director, and a few nods to beloved threads of old-school continuity. I think it was about actual comics readers (a demographic that overlaps less and less with comic-book moviegoers) objecting to an emerging paradigm in which comics act as an IP farm for the movies, to the way the medium increasingly contorts itself to catch Hollywood's eye, and to the notion that movie interest somehow validates the art form.

Comics fans are protective and nostalgic and prone to overidentification with corporate trademarks, and the Marvel Universe is growing into something a lot of them don't recognize. The emotional undercurrent to the anti-Avengers outcry isn't rage; it's loss. Kirby's case — the story of a man Marvel left behind as it grew — is a convenient emotional focal point for people who feel similarly abandoned by what the company's become. And his martyrdom depends in part on the demonization of Stan, who doesn't deserve it, but has made it easy. Working the rope line at every premiere. Smiling and mugging. Acting like nothing has changed, like this was how it was always supposed to be.

So anyway: I'm sitting in a hotel conference room waiting for Stan Lee. Outside, in the spring haze, other reporters and invited guests are enjoying what I'm sure is a really nice luncheon. Not me, man. I feel guilty about covering a Stan-centric meet-and-greet and contributing to the celebration of Stan as the lovable grandpa of the Marvel Universe, and so I'm taking a stand. Waiters come by my table with perfectly formed olives on little silver spoons and I say no thank you. Is anybody bringing Jack Kirby's heirs perfectly formed olives on little silver spoons? I am reasonably sure that no one is.

And I'm nervous. I've been told by the Epix publicist who set this up — and here I'd like to pause to issue a blanket apology to her for all of the foregoing and all that follows, and note that Epix seems like a terrific network about which you should definitely ask your cable provider — that I'm going to get 10 minutes with him. Less than I was expecting. I should make it count. I should ask him something impolitic, broach something uncomfortable, try to make him mad. I should hold him to account, I should really stick it to (Stan) the Man, for Jack and every other onetime Marvel Comics freelancer who died building the pyramids.

On the other hand, I can't conceive of any scenario in which ambushing and pissing off a man who'll turn 90 in December will make me feel awesome. Stan has no power. He's a pensioner whose job is to travel around walking red carpets and telling people he approves of movies other people have made based on comics he wrote in the '60s. If Stan suing Marvel 10 years ago was like Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken, confronting Stan in 2012 about the injustice done to Jack Kirby by Marvel would be like grilling Mr. Peanut about the business practices of Kraft Foods.

Plus I know from every Stan interview I've ever read that there's probably nothing I could say that would elicit a response in the You're damn right I ordered the Code Red! vein. Stan doesn't go off-message. He's usually hard-pressed to remember anything but the most boilerplate, print-the-legend details of his early career, which is odd because that phase of his life is the only thing he's ever asked to talk about. A Stan interview is a transaction in which Stan delivers self-deprecating or winkingly grandiose jokes and anecdotes worn smooth by handling and then someone writes them down.

This is basically what happens in With Great Power, directed by Nikki Frakes, Will Hess, and Terry Dougas; it's a 80-minute recapitulation of the Stan myth, as Lee (kind of) remembers it.4 The first thing you see is grainy C-Span footage of Stan receiving a National Medal of Arts in 2008, for telling stories "reflecting America's inherent goodness." The presenter is George W. Bush. A different kind of movie might have opened with this image — one polarizing figure shaking hands with another — as a way of at least introducing the idea that Stan's career has not been untouched by controversy, but here it just establishes that Stanley Lieber from the Bronx has come a long way, and that we're about to see how that happened.

But first, heads talk: Nicolas Cage, Drive Angry blond, possibly wearing the Eye of Agamotto around his neck, calling Stan a giant. Jon Favreau, who directed Stan in Iron Man, and Kevin Smith, who gave him lines to say about Ben Grimm's wiener in Mallrats. Patrick Stewart with a mustache, looking like Patrick Stewart trying to buy pornography circumspectly. Then quick cuts of other luminaries delivering Stan-related sound bites in what looks like repurposed junket footage: Franco! Ringo! Paris! Chiklis! Brett Ratner! Most of these people are making their first and last appearances in the movie, although Chiklis (who was in The Fantastic Four) and Ratner (who has many gay friends) pop up later.

Marvel-superhero imagery fills the screen — the vast and varied product of Stan's imagination, we're supposed to think, although the fact that it's imagery means we're actually looking at a bunch of stuff drawn by people who were not Stan — and then it's on to biography. Stan's Depression-scarred boyhood, his family's struggles for rent and bread, the one-bedroom apartment where his parents slept on a fold-out couch. His early admiration of Erroll Flynn. The office-boy job he got in 1939, at Magazine Management, run by Martin Goodman; the animated visuals here imply that he answered a want ad, although in reality Goodman's wife was Stan's cousin. Goodman's Timely Comics imprint already employed Jack Kirby and writer/editor Joe Simon, who says of the 17-year-old Lee, "He had a little flute, and he'd sit in the corner and play his flute. It drove Kirby crazy." We hear about the rule requiring periodicals to publish prose in order to qualify for second-class mailing, which led to Stan's first assignment for Timely, a two-page text piece called "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge," published in Captain America Comics no. 3.

Stan decides to use "Stan Lee" for his comics work, saving "Stanley Martin Lieber" in a drawer for the Great American Novel he'd never write. Simon and Kirby defect to National Comics, which would eventually become DC, and Goodman installs Stan as Timely's editor, art director, and head writer until someone with actual experience can be found to fill the post. Then the United States enters World War II and Stan joins the Army; he's one of nine men whose official classification is listed as "playwright," along with William Saroyan, Dr. Seuss, and Frank Capra. He illustrates pamphlets about how to avoid catching venereal disease.

Back in the world in 1946 he meets Joan Boocock, British war bride and hat model, at a cocktail party. She's married; Stan sees this as a minor inconvenience. "And then six weeks later I was in Reno, spending his money," says Joan. Joan's maybe the best part of this movie. Joan's a pistol, a grown and glamorous Gwen Stacy. Later on she'll tell a story about fighting with Stan and smashing the Remington Noiseless on which he typed the first Fantastic Four script; we'll also see her overcome with emotion while reading a poem Stan wrote for her (on Spider-Man stationery!) as an anniversary gift, and forcing a wallflowerish Stan to dance with her to "The Girl From Ipanema" in their living room. Joan says, "You know how lucky we are to be able to move like this at our age? Sweet Jesus."

Stan talks about how, in the early '60s, he got fed up with writing trend-chasing junk aimed at children — Westerns one week, romances or monsters or funny animals the next — and expressed to his wife a desire to quit the comic-book business, and Joan told him he should, just once, try writing the kind of book he really wanted to write, a book he could be proud of, because the worst they could do was fire him. So he wrote a story about four ordinary, flawed people who develop extraordinary powers after being bombarded with cosmic rays during a doomed space mission. Stan's account of how he created the Fantastic Four is one of the cornerstones of the Stan myth. It postulates Stan as the father of the Fantastic Four, and thereby of the whole Marvel age of comics, while implying that it was all Joanie, really, at the end of the day; that he couldn't have done it without her. It's a sweet story that takes the focus off of all the other people he couldn't have done it without.

Fantastic Four no. 1, published in November 1961, is a smash; the hits keep on coming. Lee and his artists come up with more iconic, enduring comic-book characters in a shorter time than anyone before or since. The Hulk. Thor. Daredevil. The X-Men. We hear from Stan's collaborators (including Joe Simon and Gene Colan, who both died in 2011) about Stan's energy, how he'd act out fight scenes in his office to show his artists what he wanted, sometimes jumping up on his cluttered desk, always demanding dynamism. We hear about his embrace of topical subject matter and hot-button issues, but not about how equivocal it always was, how infrequently it seemed to stem from any real conviction aside from generic humanism and the belief that zeitgeist-chasing was smart business.

We hear about Stan's emergence as a big draw on the college-lecture circuit, as kids who'd grown up on early Marvel and gone on to postsecondary education filled halls to hear him do 20 minutes of patter followed by an endless gulping Q&A. Stan admits he always looked at it as market research; he'd come away from the Q&As with a better understanding of what his audience was responding to. Philosophy majors loved the Silver Surfer, forever wandering the lonely spaceways agonizing over man's inhumanity to man. The college gigs were smart branding. Having sold Marvel's comics to children, he then sold them to college kids, then took the idea that college kids were into them and sold it to the world at large as proof that what he did wasn't junk, that comics could punch their weight alongside literature and cinema and modern art and rock and roll. That they might even have something to offer adults. He wasn't the only person who believed this back then (and he may not have believed it at all).5 But at the time, as spokesman for Marvel and therefore for comics in general, he was basically the only one saying it, with a convivial grin, to Dick Cavett and Rolling Stone and the Washington Post. This is no small legacy.

Then Stan moves out to Los Angeles. Archival footage: Stan, grinning outside the West Coast office, saying, "Welcome to Marvel Productions, near Hollywood, California!" The office was actually in Sherman Oaks; symbolically, that "near" says a lot. Near was as close as Stan ever got to moguldom; With Great Power acknowledges this, montaging through Howard the Duck, the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, and the TV movie where David Hasselhoff played Nick Fury. Avi Arad arrives. Blade, based on a relatively obscure character from Marvel's Tomb of Dracula, puts a reconstituted Marvel Studios on the map. The movie rights to Spider-Man (tied up for years in multiple lawsuits involving five different studios) are sorted out. Stan says, "When Jack Kirby died" — cue violins, literally. The dispute is skated past. Stan says, of Kirby, "He never did less than his best." Stan says the word "mobisodes." An animator laid off during the dot-com-bust collapse of Stan's first Internet-content venture, Stan Lee Media, plays an answering-machine message from a distraught Stan apologizing for how things went down. Stan goes to some movie premieres. Stan does goofy cameos in Marvel movies. Stan works a full-time job as STAN!, subsumed by his own legend.

Subheads listed under "Career" on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stan_Lee:

2.1 Early career
2.2 Marvel revolution
2.3 Later career
2.4 Action figure

Well put, right?

Stan has thick fingers (like the people in Jack Kirby's drawings do, oddly enough). Stan's glasses are bi- or possibly trifocals, tinted like the windows of a sports car, and the arms rest high up on his head, well above his ears. He's wearing a tan cashmere sweater, tan slacks, tan Nikes. His hairline is implausible.

It's hard to be fully charmed by someone when you know ahead of time that they have a reputation for being charming, but Stan is pretty charming. He asks me to talk a little slower because he doesn't hear as well as he used to; otherwise, he seems remarkably sharp for 89. He punctuates each answer with a grin, as if smiling is a resting state he's returning to.

You were almost 40 when Fantastic Four no. 1 came out, I say. Before that happened, were you worried that the window had closed for you, and that you'd missed your chance to do something great?

"No," Stan says. "I wasn't thinking of what I meant to do, I was just thinking, I'm bored with my work. I was writing stories to please my publisher, who had no respect for his readers at all. He was sure they were very young children or illiterate older people …. And one day I looked in the mirror, and I said, 'You're 40 years old, and you hate what you're doing,'" and then he tells the story about Joan giving him the best advice anyone could have given him.

A waiter comes by; Stan turns down something on a cracker. He tells another story more or less verbatim from the documentary, about how he came out to California on business in the late '70s, decided he wanted to live in paradise, and hatched a scheme — "I'm a schemer" — to make that happen, telling the people at Marvel that for the good of the company he'd be willing to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles to set up the movie division. "I wasn't coming out to make movies," he says. "I wanted to live out here!"

I ask him if trying to sell Marvel movies to studios back then was a frustrating experience, if the execs he was pitching didn't get the potential of these characters. He pivots, says the problem was with the people running Marvel at the time.

"I remember, at the time, there was a movie called 10, with a woman — what was her name?"

We both say "Bo Derek," simultaneously. He says he had convinced Derek "to play the Black Widow, or one of our characters," but the Marvel people nixed the project, worried that if the movie bombed it might negatively affect comic sales.

(Derek was actually briefly attached to star in a movie about Dazzler, a mutant superheroine/disco singer introduced in the pages of Uncanny X-Men in 1979; former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter's account of how the film almost happened is an interesting story that mentions Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart, Lenny & Squiggy, and Harlan Ellison, but not Stan Lee.)

We talk about whether comics-reader apps for the iPad and iPhone will ever replace printed comics, how you can't sell an 8-year-old a comic book to save your life these days, how Stan's still making comics through POW! but they're a small part of the company's business model. He plugs his book Mighty 7, which he thought up but didn't write. I ask him if he owns the characters.

"Me?" he says. "Oh, no, no. This little company, POW! — I'm just one of the executives of POW! The company owns these things. And we have to hope that they'll do well."

I just wondered, I say, because there's been all this controversy lately6 about the ownership of these iconic characters, and —

"I've never been one of these people who worries about [that]. I should have been. I'd be wealthy now, if I had been. I always felt the publisher was the guy investing all his money, and I was working for the publisher, and whatever I did belonged to him. That was the way it was. And I was always treated well, I got a good salary. I was not a businessman. Now, a guy like Bob Kane, who did Batman — the minute he did Batman, he said, 'I wanna own it,' and signed a contract with DC. So he became reasonably wealthy. He was the only one who was smart enough to do that. Did you read that the check that Siegel and Shuster got for Superman — I think it was four hundred dollars, or two hundred dollars — just sold at auction for $140,000?"

I murmur something what-a-world/you-never-know-ish. Then I ask him if he feels, in general, that the comic-book industry has been fair to comic-book creators.

"I don't know," Stan says. "I haven't had reason to think about it that much." Five-second pause. "I think, if somebody creates something, and it becomes highly successful, whoever is reaping the rewards should let the person [who] created it share in it, certainly. But so much of it is — it goes beyond creating. A lot of people put something together, and nobody really knows who created it, they're just working on it, y'know? But little by little, the artists and the writers now are a different breed than they were, and most of them, if they create anything new, they insist that they be part owners of it. Because they know what happened to Siegel and Shuster, and to me, and to people like that. I don't think it's a problem anymore. They make much more money than they used to make, when I was there. Proportionately.

"Everybody thought that I was the only one that was getting paid off, but I never received any royalties from the characters. I made a good living, because I was the editor, the art director, and the head writer. So I got a nice salary. That was all I got. I was a salaried guy. But it was a good salary. And I was happy."

And you got to live out here, I say, gesturing to the patio, where there is sun. It's funny — you're much more tan in photographs taken of you after 1980. You turned into George Hamilton, a little bit.

"That is funny," Stan says. "The funny thing is, when you live here, you're not that tan. The only people who get tan are the people who come here on vacation, because they make sure they're in the sun."

The room is filling up; it's time for the presentation, which will involve an Epix functionary demonstrating the way you can stream their content through your Xbox and scroll through menus with a hand wave or a voice command, just like Tony Stark. When it's over, I'm on my way out. Stan is on the patio, tinted glasses now fully engaged, eating some lunch. He's in the sun, as he will be, no matter what.

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The New Clipper Nation

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on May 10, 2012

The talents of Chris Paul and his young guns are quickly shedding decades of laughingstock baggage
By Bill Simmons on May 9, 2012
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Let's say your cousin took seven years to graduate college, bounced in and out of rehab a few times, married someone to keep her in the country (and then she stole money from him and disappeared), borrowed $50,000 to start a frozen-yogurt business that bankrupted him, spent three years living in Mexico "doing odd jobs" … and now, he lives 20 minutes away, he's been sober for six months, he proposed to a shockingly normal woman, and he just remembered buying Apple stock in 1997 that's now worth $50 million. He hired a financial adviser. He bought a killer house in a wonderful neighborhood. He's saying all the right things. Everything seems fine.

"I've never felt this good," he tells you. "I finally turned my life around."

Do you believe him? How much baggage is too much baggage? When does the past stop mattering?

Welcome to Clipper Nation, a place where baggage never stops piling up. It's almost like the NBA's version of Hoarders. We were just breaking apart the guest bedroom and, my God! I think that's Keith Closs Jr.!!! Actually, Keith showed up for Game 4 of the Clippers-Grizzlies series on Monday night, wearing his old jersey (no, really) and cheering on his old team as they pulled out a thrilling overtime victory. Supposedly, fans took pictures with him, high-fived him and didn't find this goofy at all. It's just part of the Clippers experience. For Lakers playoff games, you might see legends like Magic, Big Game James, Elgin and the Logo in the house. For Clippers playoff games, you see Keith Closs Jr.

Ever since they trumped the Lakers in the Chris Paul Sweepstakes (with a massive assist from David Stern), the Clippers have been juggling identities like a rejected superhero from The Avengers. There's the exciting contender that features two All-Star Game starters, dominates YouTube, has a recognizable hook ("Lob City") and keeps pulling out close games because of Paul's incomparable brilliance; and there's the laughingstock of a franchise that's been owned/mutilated by the aggressively incompetent Donald Sterling, made just four playoff appearances in the past 35 years (before this season) and piled up so many injuries, bad breaks and idiotic decisions that I could barely cram them into this 2009 column.

Which identity would prevail? The Clippers started out 19-9, then unhinged after blowing an impressive victory over San Antonio in the most unlikely way: As Paul fetched an inbounds pass to dribble out the clock, he lost his balance and improbably threw the ball right to San Antonio's Gary Neal … who even more improbably sank the game-tying 3 in a sports-movie ending that any producer would have rejected. San Antonio's overtime victory spawned a textbook Clippers free fall: They won just seven of their next 18, making headlines in mid-March by not firing Vinny Del Negro, then pretending five solid days of internal teetering about the coach's future never happened. It happened.1

If you remember, Sterling hired Del Negro for a decidedly Clipperish reason: The Bulls were covering half of Del Negro's salary last season, which meant Sterling only had to pay for half a coach. You get what you pay for, whether it's a recycled coach, a hooker or a slum building … and reportedly, Sterling has paid for all three. But that's beside the point. Del Negro survived March for a decidedly Clipperish reason: It was simply too late to find a decent replacement. This didn't matter on Monday night, not with Dr. Paul performing yet another crunch-time surgery on Memphis. You know the recipe by now: Paul setting up everyone else for 44 minutes, then going into Isiah 2.0 mode and taking command down the stretch. The Clippers lead Memphis 3-1 in the series; all three wins came down to the final minute; all three wins happened because Paul controls the final minutes of tight games better than anyone. He's incredible. That's the only word that applies. It's not just the plays themselves, or his innate ability to make the correct decision nearly every time, but the way he carries himself as it happens.

There was a remarkable moment in Game 4 — last play of regulation, tie game, Chris looking for the winning shot against Tony Allen (one of the league's best defenders) — when everyone stood and cheered and expected Chris to take care of business, only he waited a second too long, rushed his hesitation move, got throttled by Allen and ran out of time. I was there — the fans were genuinely stunned that Chris failed. It was like watching Dom Toretto lose a street race or something. We watched him saunter back to the huddle, furious at himself, nodding to his teammates as if to say, "Don't worry, I got this."

Full disclosure: I attended just enough Clippers games this season to know when Paul gets "The Look." It's not rocket science. The Look usually happens in close games — and only because Chris has more self-confidence than anyone except Kobe — but it might surface other times, like if a clumsy center elbows him in the head, or someone sets a violent pick that Chris doesn't appreciate. When Chris gets The Look, it's all over. Somebody has to pay. He starts doing his old-man walk — when he sticks his ass out and stomps around violently, almost like he's annoyed that someone pushed him to this place — and starts yelling at teammates and directing people around like an angry traffic cop. I swear this is true — even the officials fall in line when Chris has The Look. They suck up to him. When he yells at them about a missed call, they react the same way Obama's staff would react if the POTUS was pissed off. I'm sorry, Mr. Paul. You're right, I DID miss the call. You're making some great points. I'll try to do better, I promise. After blowing that final play in Game 4, Chris had The Look heading into overtime. Memphis didn't have a chance.

Look, Clippers fans have been appropriately scarred over the years. They fully expected that stupid Kia to cripple Blake in the Slam Dunk Contest, just like they wouldn't be shocked if the video scoreboard fell on Chris right as he was dribbling out the clock in Game 7 of the Finals. But that 27-point comeback in Game 1 was a seminal moment for a profoundly messed-up franchise. If they can erase a 27-point lead and guarantee themselves a spot on NBA TV Hardwood Classics for the rest of eternity, what else can happen? Has their historically low ceiling been removed?

These last two home games, I found myself mildly frightened by their unwavering optimism — almost like watching a buddy fall a little too hard for a stripper or something. They wore matching red T-shirts, cheered loudly from start to finish, jumped to their feet after every big play, started unprovoked "Let's Go Clippers" chants and basically acted like college kids. Like three decades of frustration had boiled over and turned into something else. Remember, the Clippers have always been "The Team That Sold Season Tickets to People Who Couldn't Get Lakers Tickets and/or Just Wanted to See the Other Teams."2 A superior playoff atmosphere paid immediate dividends — in particular, Griffin flew around in 19th gear in Game 3 (to his own detriment), then found the right energy/intensity calibration for Game 4 and played one of his better games. It's been an unlikely three-way match: an unexpectedly rambunctious playoff crowd, the best player in the series … and the Los Angeles Clippers.

At halftime on Monday, a friend of mine (a Lakers fan) said to me, "I didn't know Clippers fans had it in them."

It was a backhanded compliment. He didn't mean it that way. Or maybe he did.

A quick story about how optimistic Clippers fans were heading into this season: I sit in a section of "Eighty-Four" accounts, the sales staff's nickname for any season-ticket holder since the 1984-85 season (when the Clippers moved to L.A. from San Diego). These fans have seen everything — they're like an emotionally scarred cross between the camp counselors at Crystal Lake and the police department in Haddonfield. At halftime of the team's only preseason game, just a few days before Christmas, a nice lady from the Eighty-Fours asked me to join their annual wins pool — throw in a dollar, then guess the team's total wins for that year. I gave her a dollar and guessed high: 41 wins. She laughed.

"You're not the first one who picked 41," she said.

Uh-oh. You never want the words "high expectations" and "Clippers" in the same sentence. After acquiring Paul and splurging on $67 million in starters (DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler), Clippers fans were thinking big. If the Los Angeles basketball scene was ever flipping, couldn't it only happen after a seminal, double franchise-altering moment like "The Veto?" Lob City debuted on December 30 in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd. Somebody sang the anthem who wasn't nearly famous enough. The visiting Bulls were introduced to cheers (from the Chicago transplants and residue MJ fans in the house) and boos (from the Clippers fans who were pissed off that they can't attend a big game without 20 percent of the building rooting for the other team). The lights went dark as the fans started buzzing happily, sounding like giddy Springsteen fans in those moments right before the Boss strolls out onstage. You couldn't screw this moment up. It was impossible.

Well, unless you're the Clippers.

As cheerleaders scampered onto the court and waited for a cue that never came, there was a pause … and it kept going … and it kept going. The mammoth video screen tried to play something, failed miserably, then started skipping that clip without sound. It didn't just last for one or two seconds … it kept skipping and skipping. And wouldn't end. So much for the giddy Springsteen buzz. As fans alternately grumbled and giggled in disbelief, just then, the video stopped. Now we were standing in the dark again.

And I swear, right then, I fully expected Donald Sterling to turn into a fiery centaur and murder everyone inside the arena. After all, if that ever happens — and don't rule it out — wouldn't that have been the perfect moment?

Instead, another 10 seconds passed before the video mercifully started again. And, of course, it couldn't have been more dreadful. Instead of crafting a so-easy-my-young-son-could-have-edited-it highlight video called "Welcome to Lob City, Population 18,000" — just Blake and DeAndre slamming home alley-oops with a happy hip-hop song blaring — the Clippers went for a graphic-heavy, artistic think piece that was apparently directed by Tommy Wiseau. We watched players and coaches CGI'ed in front of different buildings, with some dunks thrown in, and … I have to be honest, I don't know what the hell was going on.3 By the time that visual carbuncle ended, the life had been completely beaten out of the crowd. So much for the Opening Night buzz.

Somebody had the bright idea that every single 2012 Clipper should jog out, one at a time, from underneath the bowels of the Staples Center. That would have been fine, except three of the first four Clippers introduced (Billups, Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Evans) were injured and wearing streetclothes. Instead of running, they slowly ambled out like broken-down senior citizens, killing any and all remaining momentum. By the time they rolled out the Clippers' starting five, it was 11:30 at night. Or, it just felt that way. And just when we thought it couldn't get any more awkward, the rattled announcer introduced Mo Williams as "Chauncey Billlllllllllllllllllllups!!!!!!!"

What else could go wrong? Would they finish things off by having Penny Marshall run Blake Griffin over in a Kia? When the lights finally (and mercifully) went back on, everyone was laughing and shaking their heads — the same way you'd laugh when that same aforementioned black-sheep cousin makes an inappropriate joke at Christmas dinner, and nobody even gets pissed off because he's your idiot black-sheep cousin and he's been doing those things for his entire life. You laugh, shake your head and move on. That's what you're conditioned to do.

As a friend e-mailed me a few seconds later, "Biggest home moment in history and they couldn't even get that right. I love the Clippers."

Exactly. That's why a certain group of Los Angeles natives were patiently waiting for the Clippers to revert to being the Clippers again. Before the season, these people sneered at Chris's MVP odds dropping to 5-to-1 and his team fetching 8-to-1 title odds. They pooh-poohed any notion of a local basketball rivalry, refusing to acknowledge that the young-and-hungry Clips could ever supplant the old-and-satiated Lakers. They did an inordinate amount of scoffing and guffawing. They never wavered. They were Lakers fans. They were the hammer, and the Clippers were the nail. That's the way it would always be. Or so they believed.

Chris Paul believed differently. From day one, he said the right things, adopted everyone else's deep-seated contempt of the Lakers, even signed off on Blake being introduced last for home games — a bigger deal than you'd think because it's like getting the biggest piece of chicken at dinner (copyright: Chris Rock). Chris expected the Clippers to contend for an NBA title because he was Chris Paul, one of the best eight players on the planet, someone fundamentally wired to make a shitty team mediocre, a mediocre team good and a good team great. His swagger, talent and intelligence would trump decades of baggage. That's what he expected.

Less than three months later, his bravado seemed a little foolish. The Clippers were bumbling their way out of the playoffs. At the time, I made the mistake of mentioning that to Jimmy Kimmel (a Lakers fan). Here's what he e-mailed back.

"I don't know why you keep falling into this trap. The Clippers are the Wile E. Coyote of basketball. They can't win. If they win, everything is ruined."

You might not remember this; you may have blocked it out of your mind. I know Clippers fans have. But during another hopeless season last year, the Clippers dumped Baron Davis's contract on Cleveland for Mo Williams and stupidly gave the Cavs an unprotected first-round pick for their troubles. Had this been any other team, the word "unprotected" wouldn't have come back to haunt it. But it was the Clippers, so naturally, that pick ended up winning Cleveland the lottery. Clippers fans spent the summer consoling themselves by saying, "Well, at least it was a lousy draft" and "maybe Kyrie Irving will be a total bust." Then the season started … and, of course, Irving turned out to be an absolute stud, one of the league's best young players. In an alternate universe where the trade didn't happen (think Lost), a nucleus of Irving, Griffin and Eric Gordon would have rivaled any under-27 nucleus in basketball except for Oklahoma City.

And if you think Clippers fans weren't obsessing over this fact in mid-March, you're crazy. The Lakers were rolling; somehow they had survived the non-Gasol trade AND the Odom trade, kept Kobe and Bynum healthy, and managed to become contenders again. Meanwhile, fans of the floundering Clippers were freaking out about the summer of 2013 … you know, when both Chris and Blake can flee as free agents. Or, as it's more commonly known, the Clipperocalypse. Can you think of a more Clipperish scenario than Chris, Blake AND Irving making the 2014 All-Star Game for different teams while the Wile E. Coyote Clippers were headed for their umpteenth 12-70 season? It was just realistic enough that, again, Clippers fans were freaking the eff out.

They needed a fall guy, and frankly, so did the people running the Clippers. That's when #firevinny became something more than a hashtag. In their defense, it's perplexing that any NBA team would swing a blockbuster deal for a superstar point guard, splurge for Jordan and Butler, then bring back the cheapest coach possible. And maybe assigning too much blame to basketball coaches is one of my default weaknesses, right up there with accidentally swearing in front of little kids and forgetting to purchase gifts until the last possible minute. But trust me, Vinny was missing basic things. He kept leaving his players on the bench too long, couldn't stick to a rotation, routinely screwed up offense/defense situations … never, not ever, did you feel like you were in good hands. You can tell when a team is quitting on its coach (please read this footnote4). In mid-March, the Clippers were quitting on their coach. Period. That's why they almost fired him. And that's why Vinny doesn't have a contract for next season.

Quick tangent: On Monday night, remember when Vinny played Chris for the first 14-plus minutes of the second half, rested him, then didn't bring him back until there was 4:30 remaining in the game, and you kept thinking to yourself, This is weird — why isn't Chris Paul playing right now? Or remember late in overtime, with the Clippers nursing a two-point lead and Memphis needing to foul, when Vinny accidentally left Reggie Evans (a .522 career free throw shooter) on the floor, realized it was too late, then called timeout right as Kenyon Martin was throwing an inbounds pass to a wide-open Mo Williams — by the way, the team's best free throw shooter — followed by Martin and a few other Clippers yelping in disbelief, then Vinny using that timeout AND a 20-second timeout so he could diagram a play that ended up with (you guessed it) the ball being inbounded to a wide-open Mo Williams?

Vinny made those head-scratching moves all season, to the point that the 2012 Clippers could have been sponsored by Head & Shoulders.5 Again, he only survived March because they couldn't find anyone else. An optimist would say that everything happens for a reason, that the turmoil galvanized the Clippers and propelled them to a 40-win season (and a no. 5 seed). A cynic would say that things turned only when the players realized Del Negro wasn't going anywhere. A wiseass would quip that the Clippers can't even quit on their coach without screwing it up. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

In Vinny's defense (three words that haven't been written too often), the team's biggest issue was philosophical — they were two teams crammed into one. The young'uns wanted to run-run-run-run-run-run, but Paul wanted to slow everything down, save his knees and grind out the halfcourt game (his bread and butter). That works for the playoffs, but in the regular season, when you're trying to entertain fans and find ways to remain engaged? Not as much.

And that's where Billups helped the most. Before his injury, even though a 35-year-old Chauncey couldn't defend Yi Jianlian's chair, and even if Chauncey still believed in that Mr. Big Shot nickname a little too much — he brought a certain credibility to the proceedings. There's a reason Chauncey was and is the league's single most respected veteran. During the lockout, whenever insiders were ripping Derek Fisher (and it happened often), they always pointed to Chauncey as the one who should have been running things. I asked one of those people what made Chauncey special — that person said, "I don't know, some people just HAVE it." You know how we know this is true? Before Chauncey got hurt, even Chris Paul (a dominant personality and alpha dog in every sense) deferred to Chauncey to maddening degrees.

Sure, Chauncey, I'll play off the ball for a few plays, I'm only the best pure point guard in 20 years.

What???? After watching everyone fall over themselves to follow Chauncey's lead, I started wondering if Billups could have cruised past Willard Romney for the 2012 Republican nomination. Here's how much Chauncey means to the Clippers: After his season-ending Achilles tear, the team kept dressing Chauncey's locker (situated right next to Paul's) for every home and road game. You know, like he's still there. Jerseys, shoes, socks, everything. Like they didn't want to admit he's gone. Not so coincidentally, Billups returned to the Clippers bench two days after their embarrassing Phoenix loss, started traveling with the team and doing Chauncey things, and within a few weeks, the Clippers looked like a contender again. To Vinny's credit, he embraced having Chauncey there — on the sidelines during Game 4, there were times when they almost seemed like co-coaches.

Throw in Chris and the Clippers actually seem … (hold on, I just want to make sure my fingers can type these words) … stable.

Remember, a basketball team follows the lead of its coach and its best players. They have to be in synch or everything falls apart like it's the end of a Jenga commercial. That's why the Spurs never go away — because Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan built something that transcends the grind of any season. That's why the Lakers never cave — because Kobe's teammates are petrified to let him down. That's why the Celtics never folded before the 2012 deadline — because Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo and the vets had built too much collective pride to get submarined by rumors and hearsay. That's why Miami ebbs and flows depending on the moment — because their best player (and the league's best player, by far) can't totally decide what he wants to be.

And right now — even if they did it ass-backwards, and even if you can't help staring at the Grim Reaper (Sterling) at midcourt during these playoff games just to remind yourself, "Oh yeah, they still have one of the worst sports owners of all time" — the Clippers suddenly seem like they know who they are. You're always looking for identities in May and June; the Clippers definitely have one. They can play big or small depending on the matchup. They can shoot 3s. They can play above the rim and ignite their fans in the span of 2.2 seconds. They have Vinny and their frustratingly spotty free throw shooting to keep everyone on their toes. They are the biggest wild card in the playoffs, hands down; nobody else comes close.

The worst thing you could say about them? I wasn't even a little shocked when they fell behind by 27 in Game 1.

The best thing you could say about them? I never turned the channel … and I wasn't even a little shocked when they started coming back.

Of course, none of this happens without Chris. And that brings us back to the baggage question. At what point do you just throw it out? The jerseys didn't matter on Saturday or Monday; neither did the coaches, the general managers, the owners, the histories, anything. All that mattered was that the white team had Chris Paul. For the first time since they moved to California, the Clippers have a player who can back up the three most valuable words on a basketball court: "I got this."

Time and time again, he pounded the ball 35 feet from the basket, surveyed the clutter in front of him, figured out a plan, then executed that plan. To clinch Game 3, he dribbled into the paint to shoot his patented stepback floater, changed his mind at the last possible second, then found a cutting Griffin in stride with a what-the-F-just-happened bounce pass for the finishing dunk.6 To clinch Game 4, he swished consecutive 15-footers from the same spot even though the Grizzlies — a quality defensive team, by the way — knew exactly what he wanted to do and exerted an inordinate amount of effort trying to keep Paul from getting to that spot. They failed. Almost always, Chris gets what he wants.

Playoff basketball can be exceedingly simple. Sometimes, one team has someone who can say the words "I got this" … and that's that. There are two levels to that mind-set. The more common level is something I called "The Hero Complex" during the darkest points of Paul Pierce's career, when he wanted to be Jordan and didn't quite know how to get there, so he thought it meant clearing everyone out and taking game-deciding 20-footers and 3s.7 If you're lucky, you graduate from that level to "I Got This," which is what happened to Pierce in Game 2 of the Atlanta series, when the Celtics were missing Rondo and Ray Allen and couldn't compete unless Pierce played a transcendent game. It's one thing to run your team's offense, catch fire at the right times, score 36 points, make every dagger shot, defend the best player on the other team and win a crucial game. It's another thing to do it when you got dressed that night thinking to yourself, Unless I play great tonight, we're going to lose. That's why Game 2 immediately went into the "Paul Pierce's Greatest Hits" collection. Few players can say the words "I got this" and actually mean it.

Anyway, if you watched Chris Paul in New Orleans, you know two things: He shifted to a higher gear in the playoffs, and he leaned heavily on teammate David West in big moments. Together, they figured out every hairy situation. There will come a time when Griffin assumes that partner-in-crime role for the Clippers, but he's just not ready yet. For now, it's Chris and Chris only. He's fine with that. Actually, he couldn't be more fine with that. He wants it that way.

I got this.

Keep saying it, Chris. You might as well be talking about the whole franchise.

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The Devils get their due

By: timbersfan, 11:47 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

The T-shirts began appearing in downtown Manchester six weeks ago, while United was eight points ahead of City in the table. "Champ20ns" they proclaimed on the front, as if United's record 20th league title was bagged, tagged and in the freezer on the way to Old Trafford.

And just to make sure their neighbors got the message, the back of the shirt added this cautionary note: "Money only gets you so far."

For sale: one T-shirt, heavily discounted, after City's seismic 1-0 victory over United on Monday at the Etihad.

Beyond that, whatever creative genius came up with that slogan should be forced to watch an entire Aston Villa match, as that is the lamest combination of letters and numbers since I sat through "Lucky Number S7evin." 2wice.

As for the B-side, we get it. City has spent a lot of money to bolster its squad. But so what? How many millions did Liverpool splash out for the honor of a mid-table finish? What's the current GDP on Chelsea's fifth-place effort? Did United grab all its players off the shelves at a post-Thanksgiving fire sale?

At least City has earned the right to say this now: If the Sky Blues win their remaining two games, including a daunting away fixture against high-flying Newcastle, they will win their first league title since 1968. After 44 years of enduring the gloating and taunting -- "a small club with a small mentality" -- from their smug crosstown rivals, they are on the brink of finally shucking the United monkey off their backs and stomping it to death. That's why Monday's surreal derby win felt more like an exorcism than an ascension to the Prem throne.

Not that they treated the soccer-loving world to the kind of spellbinding performance a game of this magnitude deserves, especially if you bought into the prematch hype that made Barca-Real look like a pub league kickabout. But at least they didn't buckle under the weight of the occasion like F3rgi3's team.

In retrospect, how hilarious was it that Sir Alex Ferguson assured the United faithful that "we're definitely going for the win" before wheeling out a bold, adventurous lineup that left Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov on the bench? OK, that's unfair; Berbatov is always on the bench. But that's still a pretty decent array of attacking talent, particularly when you field a team that was unable to manage a single shot on target all game.

That's right. For the first time in three years, United didn't produce a shot that required a save. Nada. Zilch. For all the work he had to do in goal, Joe Hart could have jogged to the other end of the field to lend David de Gea a hand. In fact, the only real attack United mounted all game was when Fergie was menacing Roberto Mancini on the touchline late in the second half.

With Wayne Rooney isolated up front and unable to repeat his "poor little Wazza" routine that succeeded in getting Vincent Kompany sent off the last time City and United met, the Red Devils were bereft of any other ideas.

Not only did Kompany score the game's only goal, but the nails-hard City captain also stuffed Rooney so far down into his back pocket that all you saw were tendrils of his signature $50,000 hair transplant peeking out.

For much of the game you could have been forgiven if you thought it was Ferguson rather than Mancini who had grown up in Italy while being thoroughly schooled in the dark arts of risk-averse soccer. So negative and conservative was United's approach that you had to wonder whether a manager who had always prided himself on playing a swashbuckling attacking style had suddenly lost his nerve and reverted to the same cowardly tactics that led to unceremonious exits this season from both the Champions and Europa League competitions.

True, unlike City, United could settle for a draw, but Ferguson badly underestimated his neighbor's attacking intent. City seized the initiative from the opening kickoff with its quartet of tiki-takaing smurfs -- David Silva, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri -- taking turns running at an increasingly jittery United back four. On those occasions when United contained them at the edge of the area, the majestic Yaya Toure would come thundering forward accompanied by Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy galloping up the flanks.

City was relentless, and didn't let up until it had scored the vital goal just before intermission. It came from a Silva corner, the kind that once upon a time United's defense, anchored by their fearsome captain Nemanja Vidic, would have cut out with impudent ease. But the Serb went down with a season-ending injury in December and his replacements, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, have proved inadequate no matter how many times Ferguson hails their defensive prowess. Smalling -- starting in place of Evans, who was undressed by Everton in last week's 4-4 draw -- lost Kompany for a split second, long enough for the Belgian defender to outjump him and, with one powerful snap of his head, achieve City immortality.

When Kompany's header flew in, the camera panned to Mancini pumping a fist and Ferguson chewing furiously. For the first time in my life I felt sorry for a wad of gum. But that's really no way for me to speak about a legendary manager.

Fortunately, United is nothing if not resilient and with 45 minutes remaining, no one in the Etihad would have been surprised if the Red Devils had equalized and regained control of the title race. Surely Fergie would throw on a couple of his marquee attackers and give Rooney some much-needed support. Wasn't the interval between hairdryer blasts the perfect time to inject, say, the pace and power of Valencia into the game, given that the Ecuadorean has proven so adept this season at finding Rooney in the box with his dangerous crosses? In his infinite wisdom, Fergie decided to husband the biggest remaining gun in his holster until the 83rd minute.

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AP/Photo
Park Ji-Sung provided little before being replaced in the 58th minute.
Rather, just shy of the hour mark, Park Ji-Sung, the out-of-form good luck charm, was mercifully removed and replaced by Welbeck, who had dovetailed so well with Rooney in the Everton game. While Welbeck was lively, he and Rooney lacked their usual slick interplay.

Now it was Mancini's turn to motion to the bench. Would he completely repudiate his catenaccio-inflected DNA and go for the carotid artery by bringing on Mario Balotelli in the hope of scoring a second goal?

Mad Mario was certainly ready, dying his Mohawk white for the occasion and rocking a pair of low-grade weapons on his ears that would have looked at home on Diego Maradona, who was at the Etihad to cheer on his son-in-law Aguero and to get more television face time than even City's resident muppets, the risible Gallagher brothers.

But Mancini stayed true to his roots and chose to bring on Nigel De Jong, a player who is most comfortable when both tempers and studs start to rise, as they did when he launched into his first challenge. Welbeck served as the victim du jour, and while the tackle was perfectly legal, Ferguson flashed back to De Jong's World Cup kung-fu moment. High hilarity ensued as Sir Alex, the blood pooling in his face, raged first at the fourth official and then turned his vitriol toward Mancini. The City manager responded with the old sock-puppet hand gesture, telling him to shut his yap. For a brief moment it looked like we might get one of those slapstick managerial brouhahas Fergie once specialized in with Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez. Sadly it turned out to be nothing more than Bert and Ernie chatting about the number one.

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"He refereed the game," Ferguson said of Mancini, without a soupcon of irony or self-awareness. "He was out on that touchline the whole game haranguing the fourth official and the linesman."

If nothing else, it was heartwarming to see that the 70-year-old Scot will not go gently into the good night. He still hasn't lost his maniacal appetite for winning, even if his bullying tactics look increasingly silly for a man of his age.

This was one of those nights when the wily old fox may have outsmarted himself. At the end, he was reduced to one last desperate gambit, bringing on "The Penalty Area Diver" in the 82nd minute. Even that move failed to have its desired effect, as United couldn't get the ball to Ashley Young in the box so he could hurl himself to the ground.

When the final whistle blew, Ferguson didn't break stride as he gave Mancini a perfunctory handshake and headed down the tunnel.

Meanwhile, the City players lingered on the field basking in the rare glow of their place at the top of both their city and the Premier League.

Of course, they could lose to Newcastle, so let's hold off on all T-shirt sales until we know what's what.

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REVEALED: New leaked Blackburn letter lays bare crisis and torment inside Ewood

By: timbersfan, 11:44 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

An extraordinary letter written in late December by Blackburn Rovers’ deputy CEO Paul Hunt to the club’s owner, Anuradha Desai, has laid bare the crisis that has been gripping the club all season. READ THE LETTER IN FULL on our Facebook page
The 2,500-word document, dated 21 December 2011 and written just hours after Rovers had lost 2-1 at home to Bolton on 20 December, details financial problems then afflicting the club, hints at a massive rift between the owners and other executives over the future of manager Steve Kean, and implores Mrs Desai to allow people she had appointed – Hunt included – to run the club.
Blackburn have never appointed a CEO to replace John Williams and so Hunt has been in de facto control at Blackburn since his own appointment last year. What the letter clearly shows, however, is that ultimately control has always rested in India.
Sportingintelligence, which has authenticated the letter as genuine, has had sight of the letter and understands it is in circulation and is likely to published in full imminently.
Hunt begins by writing: “I have been your senior officer at the club for six months now and I feel that I must now write to you to ask you to make some significant changes to save the club, perhaps from relegation but also perhaps from administration.
“In 20 years of the Premier League there has been only one side that was bottom of the league at Christmas that has survived relegation at the end of the season.
“With the bank closing in, I fear that they will look to foreclose and have the potential to implement financial restrictions upon the club that could (as a worst-case scenario) enforce administration.
“I have kept quiet for a time now out of utmost respect and I trust that you realise that I am only emailing you now as I want what is only the best for Blackburn Rovers and the owners.
“I am very much of the opinion that we can save the club and I have always been very supportive and positive towards the owners. Therefore I hope you know that what I am saying is considered, honest, constructive and from the heart.
“I ask that we instigate all the changes below in this 10 point plan.”
Regular readers of Sportingintelligence will know many of the key development’s in Blackburn’s story under Venky’s. AN ARCHIVE OF STORIES IS LINKED HERE.
Paul Hunt’s 10 point plan to save Blackburn appears to be the last throw of the dice by an executive deeply concerned about turning around a troubled ship.
Unfortunately for fans – who saw their club’s relegation confirmed last night – he was ignored.
The 10-point plan seeks clarity on Hunt’s own position, and then moves on “Owners to invest in the club”.
That section says: “As you are aware Barclays have asked for the owners to put £10m into the business. This needs to happen and I am confident that this could only be a loan as we would increase the value of the club significantly. With all the speculation in the press the playing staff value and overall club value is depreciating on a daily basis.
“By putting an end to this the owners would be protecting their investment, putting their trust in the executive team and the club. The position with the finances is a cause for grave concern.
“Auditors KPMG have put as many obstacles as they can in the way of signing off the accounts due to their concerns. We continue to try and work with Barclays but they are very quickly losing patience as we cannot give answers. We have been forced to agree to additional spending against our wishes (Christmas hampers, sponsoring the Princes Trust event etc) and I am fearful that the situation will only get worse.
“During January we need additional funding to pay wages etc.”
Point 3 of the 10-point plan is extraordinary and says Kean had not only lost the crowd but also the dressing room.
It says: “Publicly I have been asked to support the manager and I always have as I personally like Steve. I have supported him from the start and have been desperate for him to do well. However, I am now of the opinion that it isn’t working and he is ready to go.
“He has lost the crowd and as a result of this evening’s game has lost the dressing room as well – the players no longer want to play for him. It is a shame and disappointing but we must act now to save the club. The board should be asked their opinion in who should be the new manager.”
Point four asks Mrs Desai to allow her executives at Ewood to run the club, point five calls for a more cohesive PR strategy, point six calls for more trips by Ewood executives to meet the stayaway owners, point seven asks the owners to visit the club more and point eight asks for the Ewood executives to hire and fire – rather than Mrs Desai making these decisions.
Point nine says: “We are losing fans/customers at an alarming rate. I am very concerned that fans are voting with their feet and not attending, not purchasing and not engaging with the club.
“Research shows that only 5% of ex season ticket holders will ever return. We are losing sponsors and suppliers. I am concerned we will lose Umbro if we continue to manufacture Rovers shirts in India for the RoverStar programme. Their contract specifically disallows this and we are putting at risk £800k of annual revenue.
“The Blackburn Rovers and Venky’s brands are both suffering terribly. Whilst there are negative goings on such as protests, complaints, media stories, unhappy fans etc, then both brands are losing brand equity and consequently, losing value.
“I am also concerned that the Premier League will intervene soon as they may take the view that their brand is being tarnished by association too. It is all reparable of course but we must start to act now by building bridges with fans and the media as above.”
The letter finishes with point 10, essentially a drawn out message of regret that the owners have not allowed the club to be run properly from Blackburn. It ends: “I look forward to hearing your thoughts. With very best wishes for a bright future, Paul.”

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Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 6: 'The Old Gods and the New'

By: timbersfan, 11:41 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

Usually when I call a show “visceral,” I mean it figuratively. It’s a convenient adjective to have in the ol’ word holster to describe emotional beats that land not through dialogue, but via images of shock or “aww,” tear-inducing scenes like a beloved character’s death on The Wire or crying over every single thing that ever happened on Friday Night Lights. By comparison, Game of Thrones is literally visceral: “The Old Gods and the New” featured more violent probing of innards than a foie gras protest video. I’d say I didn’t have the stomach for what the Hound did to Sansa’s would-be rapist, but, then again, by the time the Hound was done with him, neither did he. Maybe I’m just venting my spleen here, but what this episode accomplished took real guts: The chaos and animal savagery that has always lurked just below Westeros’s scrim of courtliness and gentility has finally broken through the surface and is bleeding out everywhere. While Cersei and Tyrion bicker over how best to arm King’s Landing, the starving wretches in the street are more interested in disarming royalty — or at least their assorted priests and hangers-on. All hopes the littlest Lannister may have had for neatly resolving this crown controversy were lost the minute Joffrey’s impatient subjects transformed into flesh-rending extras from The Walking Dead. In medieval times — the actual era, not the novelty restaurant — wise men would consult the entrails of the recently deceased to divine the future. We learned last night that the subjects of bloodthirsty Westeros aren’t ones to stand on ceremony, or even wait for the test subject to be all the way dead before treating his body like Indiana Jones treated the Temple of Doom. And you don’t need to be a visionary to predict what it all means. Even Hodor could tell that it’s only going to get worse.

Previous Game of Thrones Season 2 Recaps

Episode 5
"The Ghost of Harrenhal"

Episode 4
"Garden of Bones"

Episode 3
"What Is Dead May Never Die"

Episode 2
"The Night Lands"

Episode 1
"The North Remembers"
Of course, not all of the ferocious cuts came from the broadsword of Sandor Clegane. Some originated in the writers' room. It may have seemed sudden that Theon managed to prance his way to the gates of Winterfell in the time it took Daenarys to change from one gown to another, but it was actually a relief. The continuing misadventures of the Sea Bitch sounds more like Hagar the Horrible fan fiction than like interesting television. And, to steal a page from Bran’s dream journal, why waste time watching the waters rising outside the walls when we can fast-forward to the flood? Regardless of how he got there, it’s clear the neediest Greyjoy burned up the last bits of his humanity along with the Dear Robb letter a few episodes back. Theon claims his old stomping grounds with Joffrey-esque villainy. (Bran, to his credit, does yield, but not before greeting his quasi-adopted brother with what appears to be a classic case of lazy Sunday girlfriend face. Seriously, Bran was so chill about this whole surprise invasion thing I expected him to start listing potential brunch spots and making catty jokes about the "Vows" section of the Times.) When crusty knight/beard-braid visionary Ser Rodrik Cassel (no relation to Ser Matthew Cassel of House Arrowhead) gets fresh with his former charge, Theon threatens him with imprisonment. But Finchy, his deputy, raises the stakes from the last time he had to deal with disrespect like this back in Slough. It won’t be enough to toss Ser Rodrick’s boots over the castle. He must pay with his head. And so, in one of the more disturbing scenes in a show that specializes in them, Theon hacks and slashes with all the grace and subtlety of a Fruit Ninja armed with a rusty katana. The macho swordsmen of Westeros put a high premium on “good” deaths not because they’re swaggering figments of a machismo-starved imagination — though they are that, too — but because it’s something to look forward to at the close of an unpredictable life that’s likely to be miserably short. By denying Roderik a clean end, Theon has most likely guaranteed the same fate for himself.

Quite honestly, it was amateur hour for all of our current baddies. Theon is easily seduced by the goodies Osha has been hiding behind her wall, and, exhausted from a night of doing the wild thing with a Wildling, he lets his guard down and allows the two mini-Starks to escape. (Actually, it’s his guard who lets him down, by falling for the classic kiss your face/slit your throat grift. Come on, dude. Haven’t you ever been to Vegas?) And what more can we say about the cartoonishly evil Joffrey? If Jack Gleeson were even remotely capable of growing a mustache, there’s no doubt that he’d spend every moment of screen time twirling it. This week’s greatest hits include mocking his brother for crying and escalating a lone instance of flying manure into a homicidal shitstorm. When Sansa is separated from the group and trapped in an alley by some vengeful 99 percenters, only Tyrion and the aforementioned Hound even bother to remember her. “We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with both,” the imp spits just before slapping his useless nephew. As enjoyable as it will be to see both Joffrey and Theon get their inevitable comeuppance, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that whatever nemeses are lurking around the bend will be even more cruel, and a good deal more capable.

One of those baddies is already here, of course. Charles Dance is so imposing as Tywin Lannister that he even makes a movie-of-the-week memory about teaching his dyslexic son to read sound terrifying. Tywin hates illiteracy almost as much as he hates the Starks, as we learned when he banished his one uncultured cousin from his council. So it seems he’s developed a soft spot for the educated Arya — a relationship she uses the second of her magic murder wishes to protect. As for the other Starks, they’re torn between defending their home base and continuing their assault on King’s Landing. Even though a compromise is made — something about a bastard going north to deal with that bastard Theon — I can’t shake the feeling that Robb’s chances would be improved if only his mother were still wandering in the woods somewhere. Catelyn’s just bad mojo, barely back an hour before she’s cock-blocking her eldest son, who just wants to play field hospital with his new naughty nurse pal. (This was in keeping with what my podcast partner Chris Ryan calls Cat Stark’s ruinous habit of freelancing. “Everything she does ends up backfiring,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “She is Queen Makes Things Worse.” To which I added, “She is Queen Makes Things Worse in the North.”)

The biggest threats, of course, are the ones none of these silly quibblers takes seriously, the ones no one seems to see coming. To the north, Jon Snow and his mates pull a successful surprise raid on some Tuskan Raiders, er, Mance Rayders. The lone survivor is revealed to be … why, it’s Gwen from Downton Abbey! It wasn’t a typist’s job she left for after all — it was a new career as an ice hunter! Sure, the hours are bad, but you really can’t put a price on the opportunity to freeze to death on your own terms. There are no glass ceilings north of the wall. Of course, there are no ceilings at all. But still: Progress is progress! (Side note: Between Rose Leslie and Iain Glen, I’m hoping we’re witnessing the beginning of a dedicatedly incestuous relationship between the casting departments of Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey. I know I’m not the only one interested in seeing the dashing Mr. Pamuk as the world’s prettiest Dothraki, Daisy the scullery maid as Daeysey, a scullery maid, and Burn Face as a plot-wrecking monster that would terrify even Melisandre.) Anyway, left alone to deal with his prisoner, Jon Snow establishes that proper decapitation technique just wasn’t part of Sanford Meisner Luwin’s curriculum at Winterfell Academy. Ygritte, the fiery redhead, melts his frigid sympathies, and soon the two are sledding down a fjord like a couple of doomed kids in a depressing Edith Wharton novel. Abandoned and alone, the only way for them to stay alive is by spooning. But the closer Ygritte wiggles, the more likely she is to wake up Jon’s sleeping direwolf. I think all of us who have seen The Blue Lagoon know where this is headed.

And to the east, in the still-delightful fresco that is Qarth, Daenarys has managed to transform Ducksauce from suitor into secretary. But the meeting he arranges with the Spice King doesn’t go according to plan. When asked for a fleet of ships in return for future Queenly considerations, Captain Cardamom gently de-myrrhs: “I cannot make an investment based on wishes and dreams.” This is not a good line to use on Dany, who explodes like a delusional American Idol contestant in the audition rounds, screaming, “I’m no ordinary woman! My dreams come true!” (Sure they do, honey. Now calm down. We can’t all be Bikini Girl.) Dany’s tantrum is impressive (she rages about her treatment at the hands of the Spice King, Silk King, and Copper King, yet remains strangely silent about her audience with the Mattress King), but short-lived: While she was breathing fire, someone was stealing her dragons. Even worse, her entourage has been completed turtled; it appears she now has as many friends in Qarth as she does in the strange Kingdom she intends to rule. Halfhand’s words to Jon Snow seem as relevant here as they did beyond the wall — or anywhere the game of thrones is being played: “You start thinking you know this place, it’ll kill you.”

Violence and death aren’t the inevitable destinations for those who desire the crown — they're clearly an inescapable part of the journey. Sure, the first season wasn’t exactly a model study in Quakerism, but it seemed as if there were rules; Ned’s head never should have been detached from his body, but at least the executioner’s blade was sharp and true. If there’s one thing Sandor Clegane — and, in fact, the entire episode — taught us, it's that nowadays once you start cutting people, there’s no telling what might come spilling out.

Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!

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NBA Playoffs Shootaround: My Man, My Melo

By: timbersfan, 11:40 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

Ride the Carmelocoaster

In roughly only a year and a half with the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony has vacillated between two polar roles — franchise-morphing savior and cancerous villain — with the abruptness of a character on prospective TBS program The Adventures of LaLa, International Spy Hunter.

Here's a quick recap of the various roles Melo has played since becoming a Knick.

Last season, after the Knicks wedged half their roster in the back of a Denver-bound Wagoneer and brought Melo back to his (nominal) hometown? SON OF RED HOOK, DROUGHT-ENDING DIVINER OF SWEET VICTORY JUICE!
Earlier this year, after he throttled Linsanity, defended with ambivalence, and eased the air out of former coach Mike D’Antoni’s tires? CRAVEN BALL HOG, FLESHY ASSASSIN OF COMMUNIST COACH!
When the Knicks surged toward the playoffs under Mike Woodson and Melo’s field-goal percentage rose, dizzyingly, over 40 percent? ALPHA DOG UNTETHERED!
After setting an NBA record for postseason futility and shooting miserably in three playoff games against the Heat? PEA-SHOOTING STOOGE, DECADE OF KNICKERBOCKER POSTSEASON FAILURE INCARNATE!
Sunday, following the dumping of 41 points on the noggins of the Heat in a hard-fought win? RESTORER OF PRIDE, FRANCHISE CORNERSTONE!
And what should be said after Anthony goes 9-for-26 in their forthcoming season-ending loss? GUY WHO SCORES LOTS OF POINTS WHEN HE TAKES A LOT OF SHOTS! —Ben Detrick

All Rondo Everything

It’s been only four games, but everything that Rajon Rondo is has been on display this postseason. He gets suspended a game for chest-bumping a ref, and another round of "Rondo is a brooding loner" chatter is unleashed. (Apparently the only person he trusts on the team is …Keyon Dooling?! Right. OK. Got it.) On Friday he comes back with a strangely ugly triple-double performance, nicely summed up by the game-clinching play: Rondo pulling off a sick Dream Shake move to get wide open — and then blowing the layup. KG salvages the situation with a putback and follows it up with an apt, dismissive head pat.


And then, Sunday's romp, Rondo at his best: 16 assists, one turnover, and stuff like this.


Rajon Rondo is large. He contains multitudes. —Amos Barshad

Shine Blocker


Tyson Chandler had such a Tyson Chandler game Sunday. His line should be bronzed: one point, six fouls, nine boards. He only notched one block (the above kick-punch to the face of a Dwyane Wade shot), but watching him stomping around the court, banging his head as if he were listening to a screwed and chopped version of Master of Puppets, was a thing of beauty. I defy you, despite the Melo, Bron, and Wade wattage on the court, to tell me there was a more charismatic, imposing player at the Garden than the Defensive Player of the Year. —Chris Ryan

Five Joe Johnson–related Game 4 Stats That Make Rembert Want to Jump in the Deep End with Ankle Weights On

1. Shots taken on Sunday night: Kobe, 25; LeBron, 21; Granger, 20. Joe took eight.
2. Pierce had 24 points in 17 minutes. Joe had nine points. In 31 minutes.
3. Joe had nine points. Keyon Dooling had 10.
4. Only five Celtics who played 10 or more minutes had fewer points than Joe (Bradley, Stiemsma, Pietrus, Daniels, Hollins).
5. KEYON DOOLING HAD MORE POINTS THAN JOE JOHNSON. THEY PAY KEYON IN CHICKEN WRAPS.

I can't do this anymore. It's too painful. —Rembert Browne

Avengers Assemble



I really have no idea whether or not this picture was taken Sunday, after the Sixers beat the Bulls, or at the MGM Grand on Saturday night (is it possible that Lou Williams went to Mayweather-Cotta and then flew back to Philly?) (let it be possible), or at Club Liv in December. (Club Liv is really nice at Christmas.) Meek Mill tweeted it Sunday. I feel pretty good about it. I feel even better about the suede (?) shoulder pads on LouWill's sweater. —Ryan

Scenes From the Atlanta Bench



There are so many things to see in this picture. Sure, there's that horrific thing in the bottom right corner, but there's so much more. There are three different ways to utilize a towel (scratch nose, wipe cheek, make ascot) and three slightly different hairlines to study. I see three different types of arm tattoos, and then there's the Boston fan/employee about to put his hand down his pants. Oh, and then the emotions.

Oh, the emotions.

One could derive a lot from this freeze frame to make assumptions on what's going through these guys' heads. But after staring at this for about seven hours, I think I've narrowed it down to two possible options:

Option 1:
Teague: Ew, man, that stanks.
Joe: Whatever, Jeff. I'll fart on Marvin whenever I want. Is this game over yet?
Marvin: I made all my free throws today. I'm hungry. Nachos. What's that smell? Smells great.

Option 2:
Teague: I got a booger.
Joe: I wonder if this pout conveys true sadness/emotional investment to the television viewer.
Marvin: I'm on TV! —Browne

Charles-ism Presented Without Comment

"No disrespect to Mr. Couscous."

We Could Have Been Contenders

As the clock ran out Sunday in Philadelphia and the Bulls left the floor one game from elimination, I thought back to the only game I’d seen in Chicago this season. It was New Year’s Day, the fifth game of the year, and the Grizzlies were in town. With the team back in contention, the United Center was again one of the best buildings in sports, and despite a collective hangover, the crowd brought it from the moment the lights went down and The Alan Parsons Project kicked in. The intros ended like they do, with a 6-foot-3 guard “from Chicago!,” and when they did, I thought about how great it was for this city to love basketball like this again.

That day, as the Bulls cruised to a 40-point win, it felt like everything was in front of them. The youngest MVP in league history was back with no signs of slowing down. The defense that defined Tom Thibodeau’s first season somehow looked more relentless (they gave up 64 points). One year later, they were ready to give Miami everything it could stand. Instead, they’ll be heading home before Mother’s Day.

There were plenty of detractors last year when Rose was handed the MVP trophy in what some considered a punishment for LeBron James’s decision to join the Heat. The argument was that it was the Bulls’ defensive improvement that allowed them to make the jump, and Derrick Rose was far from a major factor in that. This postseason has shown just how much Rose touches every bit of the Bulls. When he’s slashing to the rim, playing with no regard for his body, scoring at will, Joakim Noah is a better defender. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you I’ve seen it enough to know. They looked to him, and without him there's nowhere to look.

Windows are never guaranteed. The most famous team in the history of Chicago sports is a would-be dynasty that instead managed just one trip to a championship game. With Luol Deng’s wrist surgery looming and Rose not expected to be at full strength until midway through next season (even then, he won’t be), 2013 may be lost as well. What looked to be a stretch where the Bulls and Heat would have a yearly battle for the Eastern Conference is looking more and more like a reign of dominance. My hope is that by this time next year the stretch of bad luck is replaced with enough breaks to give this team a shot. Because Chicago deserves what I saw that Sunday in January. —Robert Mays

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The Case for the 20-Year-Old Age Limit in the NBA

By: timbersfan, 11:38 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

When Kentucky won John Calipari's first national championship earlier this year, it spawned a fierce debate in basketball circles about the NBA's age requirement. Some believe the league should raise it from 19 to 20 years old; others believe it should remain the same; a third faction wants to restore the old rule (which allowed prospects to join the NBA straight out of high school); and there's even momentum for adopting baseball's stance, which allows high schoolers to enter the draft right away OR commit to three years of college before becoming draft-eligible again.

There are valid reasons for any of the above courses, but I believe the NBA would best be served by raising its age requirement to 20 years old. Fans and critics have assorted opinions about morals, ethics, education, fairness, and law, but to me, this really comes down to a single issue: Would the NBA's business be stronger by raising the age requirement? I say yes for the following six reasons.

1. Player maturity.

I have been involved in the league for the past 24 years, either as a player, a general manager, or (currently) as a television analyst for TNT. I love what I'm seeing right now — the league is teeming with young talent, the style of play is wide-open and fun, the rules have been successfully tweaked to encourage more movement and scoring, and most games are played at an undeniably high level. Unfortunately, there's a collective immaturity that troubles me, especially with some of the league's more talented players. Many enter the NBA as child prodigies: physically gifted, but lacking any concept of how hard the day-to-day work is, or even how the NBA functions as a whole.

True story: I once had an extremely young teammate ask me when our Christmas break was. He then became visibly shocked and saddened after learning that we didn't get to go home for a week or so. Another time, a different young player asked me how the NBA's playoff format worked. We entered the first round of the postseason and he had no idea what "best of 5" meant. These were players who were ready to be professional athletes?

That level of immaturity naturally leads to growing pains; it's why so many young players struggle for a season or two as they adjust to the workload, schedule, travel, stress, and media scrutiny, and especially, with seemingly basic off-the-court stuff like managing money, paying bills, and dealing with pressures from their extended family. Even with a few NBA seasons under their belts, that lack of life experience and the backbone of a college education hampers many players' ability to handle adversity and/or make difficult decisions. (See Howard, Dwight.) The league would obviously benefit by its rookies arriving with a little more seasoning, both on and off the court, armed with a little more life experience to prepare them for the oncoming challenge. A more mature workforce means a stronger league. Even one extra year of college would help.

2. Financial costs

NBA franchises spend anywhere from 50 million to 100 million on yearly salaries, plus another few million per year evaluating and developing players. For a scout or general manager (I've only been the latter), seeing a prospect for one measly four-month season of college ball increases the risk of being wrong about his potential. Remember, talent evaluation is a business in which, in the words of Jerry West, the greatest GM of all time, "Being right 51 percent of the time means you're doing well." Having an extra season to assess the potential of college players would cut down on the personnel mistakes that teams inevitably make in the draft, something that could potentially save the league tens of millions of dollars every year.1

Of course, that extra season pushes their moneymaking timetable back, which is why certain agents hate this idea so much. For NBA rookies drafted in the first round, there's a four-year contract scale; after that, they become free agents (and eligible for much more lucrative deals). Had LeBron not been allowed in the NBA until he was 20, his first max deal wouldn't have happened until 24 (not 22), and his second one would have happened at 28 (not 26). That's why certain agents (some of whom influence collective bargaining more than anyone wants to admit) push to keep that age limit in the teens, even if it's counterproductive for their clients. Do you think Tim Duncan or Ray Allen ever looks back at his career and says, "Man, I wish I'd skipped college and gotten my max contracts started earlier!" I'd bet anything that they look at it the other way — without college ball, they wouldn't have been as good (and would have earned less money).

3. Player development

Why should NBA franchises assume the responsibility and financial burden of player development when, once upon a time, colleges happily assumed that role for them? Think about the 1980s, when the best college players usually played at least two or three years before entering the draft. Stars like Michael Jordan (three years in college), Larry Bird (four years), and Magic Johnson (two years) used their college time to hone their leadership skills, improve their games, and deal with real pressure (all three played for national championships). They learned how to deal with media scrutiny, how to handle game pressure, even how to handle success and failure under a pretty sizable spotlight. By the time they were drafted, they were ready to succeed at the highest level and compete for titles immediately. Bird and Magic won eight of the league's next nine championships after they entered the league in 1979; Jordan won seven scoring titles and three NBA titles in his first nine seasons. All three thrived immediately as rookies.

Larry Bird, 1979-80: 38.0 MPG, 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 47% FG, 20.5 PER, 11.2 win shares, 61 Celtic wins (lost in Eastern Finals).

Magic Johnson, 1979-80: 18 ppg, 36.3 MPG, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, 2.4 spg, 53% FG, 20.6 PER, 10.5 win shares, 60 Laker wins (Finals MVP).

Michael Jordan, 1984-85: 38.3 MPG, 28 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.4 spg, 52% FG, 25.8 PER, 14 win shares, 38 Chicago wins (lost in Round 1).

Compare those numbers to the rookie stats/records of four of today's best players (all of whom arrived straight from high school):

Kevin Garnett, 1995-96: 28.7 MPG, 10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 49% FG, 15.8 PER, 4.4 win shares, 26 wins (Minnesota missed playoffs).

Kobe Bryant, 1996-97: 15.5 MPG, 7.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.3 apg, 42% FG, 14.4 PER, 1.8 win shares, 56 wins (Lakers lost in second round, with Kobe famously firing two air balls in the last minute of the final loss).2

Dwight Howard, 2004-05: 32.6 MPG, 12 ppg, 10 rpg, 52% FG, 17.2 PER, 7.3 win shares, 36 wins (Orlando missed playoffs).

LeBron James, 2003-04: 39.5 MPG, 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 42% FG, 18.3 PER, 5.1 win shares, 35 wins (Cleveland missed playoffs).

Other than lost salaries, what would have been the downside of those last four guys playing two years in college? Garnett and Bryant needed the extra playing time (and added responsibility of carrying a college contender); meanwhile, LeBron and Howard were thrust into unfair positions as saviors of lottery teams, and after seeing how their careers have unfolded, maybe those burdens affected them more than we realized. Neither played a postseason game until his third season; meanwhile, Garnett didn't make it out of the first round until his ninth year, and Kobe didn't start logging big playoff minutes until his third season. You're telling me two years of leading elite NCAA teams wouldn't have been a better basketball/life/social/teamwork experience for those four guys?

4. Marketing

In the old days, college basketball was the NBA's single best marketing tool. Nearly all of the league's future stars were well known by the time they were drafted. I'll never forget watching the lottery in 1985, when the Knicks won the right to select Patrick Ewing with the first pick. NBA fans had followed Ewing for four years as he dominated college basketball at Georgetown; by 1985, they couldn't wait to see him on a bigger stage. They knew that whichever team landed Ewing would contend for the next decade, at least. This was a common occurrence back then: college stars like Jordan, Bird, Magic, Hakeem Olajuwon, or David Robinson entering the league to great fanfare and anticipation, poised to change the fortunes of franchises immediately.

How often does that happen today? Even if Washington fans were excited to draft John Wall two years ago, and Cleveland fans were ecstatic about picking Kyrie Irving last year, none of them were actually thinking, We're back! Look out, playoffs!

5. A sense of team

Even if today's players are incredibly gifted, they grow up in a basketball environment that can only be called counterproductive. AAU basketball has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development in the teen years. I coached my son's AAU team for three years; it's a genuinely weird subculture. Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure. Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren't happy with their son's playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.

And for elite players who play one college year before turning pro, that process remains stunted. That's the single most important part of a player's development and we ignore it like it doesn't totally matter — basic foundation points like learning how to commit to a team, embracing the unity of a group, trusting your teammates, and working within a larger framework. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker puts it well, saying, "We've become a culture of skipping steps." So many young NBA players might be physically gifted, but they skipped crucial development steps along the way. It would help if they were forced to make one or two more of those steps within the framework of the college game.

You know what also helps? Being part of a college program for more than a year — an experience that, if it unfolds the right way, can affect you forever. Quick story: I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago for the Final Four and saw a great scene. Late one night I was walking outside my hotel when I came across Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves, and Steve Smith, all talking animatedly, laughing and joking around. Those three Spartans — none of whom played together, whose careers spanned 22 years at Michigan State — were bonded by their days wearing the green and white. To me, that's so important and so underrated. Green has a foundation for his future success: great mentors, a real connection to a school, and a group of teammates that will live with him forever. I believe that Green's experience playing for Tom Izzo (and such a terrific program) will give him a legitimate advantage as an NBA rookie. As always with these things, we will see.

6. Mentoring

This won't be the case for everyone, but let's say a player attends school for two years and plays for a superior coach — not just someone who knows his stuff, but a genuinely good person who cares for his players during their two playing years and beyond. That isn't a huge asset for any player? Think about the impact Dean Smith had on Jordan. The joke back in the day was that the only person on earth who could hold MJ under 20 points was Dean Smith. (And it was true: MJ averaged 17.7 points per game in three seasons at Carolina.) But what was Smith really doing while making Jordan pay his dues and share the ball? Teaching him how to be a good teammate, how to work, and most important, how to deal with success and adversity. Did MJ's experience at UNC help make him the champion that he became in the NBA? Even if there's no way to prove it, I believe the foundation and guidance Smith provided ended up being a big reason for Jordan evolving into the greatest player ever. In fact, Michael even admits this, saying many times that Coach Smith was one of the biggest influences in his life. Their relationship remains important to Jordan to this day.3

Doesn't this mean … something?

Wouldn't an extra year have the same effect on dozens of college players every decade? The backbone of the current league isn't just the influx of talent, it's the maturity and professionalism of veteran stars like Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Grant Hill, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, and Paul Pierce — guys who spent multiple years in college — setting the tone for everyone else. We need more of them.

The arguments against raising the age requirement hinge on civil liberties, points like, "Who are we to deny a 19-year-old kid a chance to make a living when he can vote, drive, and fight in a war?" If this were about legality or fairness, you might have a case. But it's really about business.4 The National Basketball Association is a multi-billion-dollar industry that depends on ticket sales, sponsorships, corporate dollars, and media contracts to operate successfully. If the league believes one rule tweak — whatever it is — would improve its product and make it more efficient, then it should be allowed to make that business decision. If an 18-year-old basketball whiz wants to earn a living right away, he could play overseas or in the D-League for those two years. Regardless, it shouldn't be the NBA's responsibility to provide working opportunities for teenagers, just like it's not the NFL's responsibility to do so. The NBA should only care about running its operation the best it can. That's it.

So why hasn't the age limit been raised when David Stern is already on record saying he'd like to add a year? It's an issue that, by law, must be collectively bargained with the National Basketball Player's Association. During last year's lockout, there were more pressing matters for both sides — really, the lockout was all about money, with each side fighting for its share of the pie. The league was fighting to shorten contract lengths, alter the percentages of raises, and bring down total salaries. Anything with a quantifiable price tag became a priority; since the financial impact of a raised age limit is so difficult to quantify, that issue was placed on the back burner. The union wasn't giving that up without getting something in return; the league was doing a lot of taking and very little giving; and many of the agents certainly didn't want to pursue it. That's how the age limit slipped through the cracks.

And it's a shame, because both sides would have been helped by that age limit bumping to 20. The league would be stronger for every reason discussed above. The union would benefit because veterans would hold their jobs for an extra season. And fans would win because the game would be better — we'd see an influx of elite young talent arriving into the league more prepared, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. If that translates into better basketball, then isn't that what we all want? I realize I may sound like the old guy — stuck in his ways, out of touch with today's players — but I know what college meant to me; I know what it meant to most of my peers. And I know that the NBA would be a stronger league if its players stuck around school a little longer, too.

Steve Kerr is a five-time NBA champion.

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The Reducer, Week 36: You Take the Champagne

By: timbersfan, 9:51 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

This coming Sunday we will all be overwhelmed by an overwhelming amount of Premier League football. I'm seriously overwhelmed just thinking about it all. All the Premier League teams will take part in matches, all kicking off at the same time so that no competitive advantage can be had by any one club. We'll get to Manic Sunday in a bit, but for now, let's take a different kind of look at this past weekend's proceedings: three snapshots of three goals in three games that hugely impacted the Premier League's second-to-last weekend.

Manchester City 2, Newcastle 0



In the 61st minute of Manchester City's Sunday clash with Newcastle, Roberto Mancini substituted Samir Nasri with Nigel De Jong. On the surface — in that it was both tactically defensive and a bit dickish1 — this was a typical Mancini move. When De Jong walked up to the fourth official at St. James' Park (or Sports Direct Arena), sharpening his Adamantium claws, waiting to check in to the game, it seemed like the Italian manager's conservative instincts were glory-blocking City on the road to the English Premier League title. Level with United at 83 points (at the time of kickoff), City had an insurmountable goal difference lead on their Manchester rivals; they needed three points. Anything less would give United a chance to usurp the trophy.

What seemed like a bet hedge turned out to be a kill shot. Mancini plays favorites, burns bridges, and, yes, shades toward defensive football. But he's no dummy. He knew that in midfielder Yaya Touré, he had the most in-form footballer in England. He just needed the rest of his boys in blue to get out of his way.

With De Jong installed as resident kick puncher, next to the slightly more subdued Gareth Barry, Touré was given license to ill. Positioned behind Carlos Tevez (and later Edin Dzeko) in an attacking midfield line with Sergio Aguero and David Silva, the Ivorian behemoth did pretty much exactly what he did last week against Manchester United: He took over the game.

Touré made space-creating dribbles, one-touch passes to Carlos Tevez, and looping, long-range deliveries to Pablo Zabaleta. Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye tried to stop him, but he splintered apart on contact, like a ship crashing into a rock. That's the thing about Yaya Touré: There may be no player in Europe right now capable of mixing grace and strength in quite the way he does.

Newcastle were trying — unlike so many other clubs, the Magpies actually had something to play for here, trying make the improbable dream of Champions League football next season come true — but it didn't matter. In the 70th minute, Aguero received a pass from De Jong. The Argentine wrapped it up, put a bow on it, left a really thoughtful note, and then Touré threw a sinker from about 25 yards out that Tim Krul will probably need scream therapy to forget about.

That's what money buys.2 That's a goal that knocks teams "off their fucking perch." That's a goal that changes the course of events. That changes a city and a footballing country and a league. Touré did it in the FA Cup, he did it against United the week before, and he did it against Newcastle on Saturday. In celebration, Touré ran over to the right-hand corner of the pitch and fell down, flat on his back. There were the names: Kun, Silva, De Jong, Zabaleta. You could make a joke about the pile of money on the ground. But right then and there, they just seemed like football players, not acquisitions. And that sound, that delirious reaction from the traveling City fans, felt earned. If that's what money buys, maybe it's well spent after all.


Arsenal 3, Norwich 3



I would love to just talk about Robin Van Persie's first goal of the game, and how the PFA Player of the Year is an athlete we should all feel lucky to watch, but instead I'm going to talk about how Arsenal biffed it.

This is the thing with the Gunners: They soar or crash. They can't just do what needs to be done. They are capable of producing such incredibly satisfying, life-affirming football. The aforementioned RVP goal came from yet another inch-perfect Alex Song Hollywood pass. Van Persie's run was perfectly timed, Song's delivery was so inventive that you can practically see the Norwich defenders say, "I didn't think he was going to do that" to one another, and the Dutchman's finish is perfectly calm and laser-guided accurate. It was a moment of football where your heart takes flight.

Of course it was surrounded by 94 moments where you wondered whether Arsenal had any business in the top half of the table. And nowhere was this more evident than in Grant Holt's 26th-minute strike to put the Canaries up 2-1.

I say "strike" loosely; Holt was headed toward goal with the ball at his feet and Kieran Gibbs marking him. He took a hopeful shot that careered off Arsenal's young, English fullback and looped over the mournful head of Wojciech Szczesny. As Holt peeled off to celebrate, the Arsenal players could do nothing but drop their heads and rue their luck. There was no Szczesny-tearing-strips-off, no defensive midfielder or central defender clapping to get his team back into it. Just acceptance. Like they had seen this movie before.

Of course they have, haven't they? The movie, the sequel. They bought the Blu-ray. The Carling Cup final last season; Robin Van Persie's yellow (and red) card for time-wasting at the Camp Nou in last season's Champions League; hell, even Szczesny's butterfingers handling of Wes Hoolahan's earlier equalizer. It's like these guys listen to "Lose Yourself" in the locker room and say to one another, "Cool! Let's do the opposite!"

Going into Saturday's match, Arsenal were given three chances to all but seal automatic Champions League qualification, with matches against Wigan, Stoke, and Norwich all more than winnable. They drew all three, putting them in on the spot in a hair-graying last weekend where they need to beat a West Brom team playing for their soon-to-be-off manager. They are where they are because of a 30-point haul, accumulated from February 4 (when they stomped Blackburn) to April 11 (when they won their 10th straight match, defeating Manchester City). For 10 games they were world-beaters; for the other 27, they have been a prettier Fulham. Average. Stuck in the middle of the pack. Van Persie has kept them afloat this season; if they lose him (and it looks like he's keeping his options open), there will be a lot more head-hanging at the Emirates next season.

Queens Park Rangers 1, Stoke 0



If I had a dollar for every time I ruined a perfectly reasonable conversation about a sport other than football by squawking about how much better every other sport would be if it had promotion and relegation, I could probably buy Coventry City and promptly sign myself to play attacking midfield.3 I'm starting to wonder about relegation, though. Yes, it is sports Darwinism played out in front of us, and, yes, it makes the games played by the worst teams as important as those played by the best. But they are the worst teams, you know? Just because the games are important doesn't make them any good.

I'm sure next weekend will provide some drama, just like Stephen Hunt's skin-saving goal for Wolves did last season.


But after sitting through Blackburn-Wigan on Monday, the highlights of which were a chicken running onto the field, a topless fat man verbally abusing Blackburn manager Steve Kean, and a postgame insurrection by disgruntled Rovers fans, you start to wonder whether more than three teams should be given the trapdoor exit. Or whether teams should be allowed to just go about their business without worrying about falling out of the league in which they are competing.

Then something like this Djibril Cissé goal happens. The fact that this guy has more leg injuries than Cricket from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia might have something to do with it. Or maybe I just find the fact that the French striker is only capable of scoring goals or getting red-carded completely endearing.

Actually, no, you know what it is? It's the way Loftus Road shakes when the goal goes in. The way Cissé doesn't even know what to do with his celebration (HE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO JUMP INTO THE STANDS AND TAKE HIS SHIRT OFF).


It's the way Anton Ferdinand and Jamie Mackie and Clint Hill have to chase him down. It's the way Jeff Stelling loses his mind on Soccer Saturday …


Even if it's ugly football, it's still football. And even if you have to slog through hundreds of minutes of grotesque long-ball merchants, played out in front of half-full stadiums, sometimes you get moments like that.

Manic Sunday Step Overs

Here's how this will break down:

The Title
Real simple, City beat Queens Park Rangers and they win the Premier League title. Simple? If Mark Hughes woke up in Belize sleeping next to Sofia Vergara and had Mario Batali in the kitchen preparing him breakfast, he'd still have an ax to grind. So just imagine how he's feeling going into Sunday, taking his QPR team to the Etihad — where he was fired to make way for Roberto Mancini — with the chance to deliver the title into the loving hands of his old manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Mad axes in play here! To say nothing of the fact that Bolton are going to be playing a Stoke team that seems to already be on the golf course, mentally. QPR! Do you believe in miracles?

Prediction: This ain't Lake Placid. City stomps out QPR, Mancini shrugs as Vincent Kompany lifts the trophy, and Mario Balotelli sets off his own personal firework display.

The Champions League Spot
I say spot because if Chelsea win the European Cup in Munich, only three other teams from the Premier League will compete in the Champions League next season.4 So Tottenham, Newcastle, and Arsenal are all playing for one spot, basically. Arsenal play West Brom and Spurs play Fulham. Neither WBA nor the Cottagers have much to play for other than pride. Depending on what happens Sunday, it could be the last time we see Robin Van Persie play for the Gunners or Gareth Bale and Luka Modric play for Spurs. Something inside me (history, I guess) tells me …

Prediction: Arsenal squeak out a 1-0 or 2-1 win.

Relegation
This is between QPR and Bolton. I think, as stated above, QPR get their wigs pushed back up in Manchester. But, and it pains me to say this because Bolton have been cursed this season …

Prediction: Bolton have been cursed this season. Losing Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yong, the gut punch of seeing Fabrice Muamba suffer a heart attack during a game. Nothing has gone right for Owen Coyle's team this season, and I don't think the worm turns on the final day. QPR stay up.

Goal of the Week: Clint Dempsey, Fulham



He'll probably be banging in goals for a bigger club next season, but here's to Deuce's 50th Premier League goal, scored with this brilliant free kick against Sunderland.

Quote of the Week: Joleon Lescott, Manchester City

Lescott on City fans anticipating a league title: "I'd say to our fans, keep a lid on it this week."

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Knee-Knockers: Celebrating 120-Years Of Oregon Soccer

By: timbersfan, 9:32 PM GMT on May 08, 2012

by George Fosty Sr. Editor Boxscore May 6, 2012

Over the years, of all the regions of America that I have visited or travelled through, I confess that the State of Oregon ranks among my most favorite. Perhaps it is the pioneering spirit of her people that appeals to my senses or, then again, simply the sheer beauty of her lands. Whichever the reason, whenever I am there I feel at home and at ease. Oregon is a place to go to. It is a destination. A land where a task is completed with rolled-up sleeves and strong handshakes. A place where one's neighbors still welcomes you to the morning, and the neighborhood kids are as comfortable in your home as they are their own. It is where one's word can still mean something, and friendships often last a lifetime.

In terms of land area and population, Oregon is America's ninth largest and 27th most populace State. Yet, in terms of history, it stands second to none. For more than 15,000 years, prior to the arrival of the first Europeans, the land was home to a number of Native tribes. In 1543 the Spanish were the first Europeans to make note of the region on their naval maps, though they never landed to explore. In 1778 the British explorer Captain James Cooke charted the coastline and made initial contact with some of the coastal tribes. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived. They looked around, documented their findings, and left. After Lewis And Clark moved out, French Canadian and American explorers and fur trappers in the employ of the Northwest Company, the Pacific Company, and the Hudson's Bay Company, moved into the region. In 1811, the fur trader John Astor, founded Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River creating the first permanent European settlement. Forty-eight years later (1859), the Oregon Territory would become America's 33rd State.

The city of Portland, the largest city in Oregon, was incorporated in 1851. At the time of incorporation Portland boasted a population of 821, of which 653 were men, 164 women, and 4 were identified as "free colored." By 1885, the population would stand at 17,500. Fifteen years later, the city would register 90,426. By 1910, it would boast 207,214. During these years, Portland would distinguish itself as one of the most forward thinking cities in North America. A visionary approach that often split over into the realm of sports, among which included the game of soccer.

1890: The Birthplace Of Oregon Soccer

View of Astoria, Oregon, a wood engraving published in Harper's Weekly, May 30, 1868.

The first organized soccer team was founded in 1890 in Astoria, Oregon. Astoria was a small fishing town known for its canneries and large Finnish and Chinese populations. The earliest known reference of the Astoria team appears in an Outing Magazine article dated October 1894. The magazine reported that the Astorias had travelled outside of the state to play a military team based at Fort Canby, Washington. At the time, Fort Canby housed a contingent of troops from California who had previously been stationed in San Francisco. Prior to their arrival at Canby, the Californians had been active in the Pacific Association Football League. Of the match, there is little reference. The game between the two teams being described as a contest wherein the Californians had "outclassed" their opponents and turned the event into a humbling "learning experience" for the boys from Oregon.

George J. Cameron And The Rise Of Portland Soccer, 1891-1910

Panorama of Portland, Oregon, United States in 1890. Mount Hood in the background. Photo courtesy US National Archives.

Not to be deterred by the failure of the Astorias, in February 1891, the Portland Football and Cricket Club held their inaugural meeting in an effort to create a permanent athletic club structure and to advance the sports of Association Football and Cricket in the Portland and Pacific Northwest. Though seen as overly ambitious, their efforts proved successful and within a few months, the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club was born. By year's end, membership in the MAAC was approaching four hundred. The name Multnomah is of the native Chinookan people who lived on Sauvie Island in the Columbia River approximately ten-miles northwest of Portland. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition had made contact with the Multnomahs on Sauvie Island reporting in their journals that the island was home to a series of longhouses housing approximately 900 individuals. In total, the Multnomah peoples numbered about 8000 at their peak. Tragically, the Multnomahs were decimated in the 1830s by what is believed to have been a malaria outbreak.

Initially, the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club was located on the third floor of the Willamette Block just off of Second Street. The facility housed a gymnasium and complimentary dressing and meeting rooms. As part of the overall effort, a structured Association Football program was initiated which included an all-star squad of players known as 'The Portlands.' The Portlands were the brain-child of George J. Cameron. Cameron, a young attorney, had moved to the West Coast from Almont, Michigan where he had been active in that region's association football efforts. Of Cameron's early life, little is know. He was undoubtedly a great organizer and well-spoken. He also appears to have been associated with and/or in the employ of the Union Pacific Railroad.

The Multnomahs had designed their organization specifically for the purpose of creating travel teams in three major areas: Association Football, Cricket, and Track & Field. However, it was primarily in the realm of track & field that the Club elicited an early reputation and following. By 1893, the Multnomah's had moved from their Second Street lodgings to a newly built clubhouse on the corner of 10th Street and Yamhill Avenue -the current location of the Portland Public Library. For the next 7-years the Club would operate from this location until its move to Chapman Street in 1900. They would remain on Chapman Street until 1910 when, in that year, a fire destroyed the clubhouse.

In terms of Association Football, within two-years of the launch of the Portland team, a second all-star squad of Portland players were organized in association with the Union Pacific Railroad. Known as the Union (Pacific) Athletic Association (UAA), they too had been organized by Cameron and apparently affiliated either through shared members or association with the Multnomahs.

The UAA's took to the field on September 22, 1894 by marking their debut in a six-a-side tournament in the Kearny (also spelled Kearney) section of Portland. The tournament, featuring six teams and was organized by Cameron and sponsored by the UAA specifically to showcase the new team and to further promote the game of soccer in the region. In total, six teams of six-men each played five round-robin games with the Union Pacific (No. 1) Team emerging as tournament champions. The results of the round-robin tournament are significant as they serve to identify the original league teams affiliated with the Portland Association Football League and what was technically the Multnomah's affiliated program. In the first round of play, the UAA (No.1) Team defeated the Kearny Caledonians (No.2) by a score of 5-1. Game Two saw the Kearny Rangers (No.1) defeat UAA (No.2) 2-0. The third game would see the True Blues lose 3-0 to the Kearny Caledonians (No.1).

In second round the UAA (No.1) would defeat the Kearny Rangers 3-0. The UAA would subsequently move on to the championship game eventually defeating the Kearny Caledonians (No.1) by a score of 2-0.

The 1894 Season was also significant as it showed the strength of Oregon Soccer and the sport's meteoric rise. References can be found of eleven separate senior men's clubs during the 1894 season: The Astorias, Portlands, Union Athletic Association, Kearny Caledonians, Kearny Rangers, Berlin Rangers, Belleville Celtics, Seaforth Hurons, True Blues, Teutonic Rovers, the Prestons, and the Galts. Statistical information and game accounts remain scant, however, we do know that the first game of the season was played on September 15th. On that day, the Teutonic Rovers defeated the Kearny Caledonians by a score of 5-2. Six-days later, the Belleville Celtics downed the Kearny Rangers 2-0. Seven-days later, two games were played, wherein the Seaforth Hurons claimed a victory over the Berlin Rangers by a score of 2-0 and Preston defeated Galt 1-0. How well traveled these teams were remains in question. However, the Portlands did play an exhibition match against the Fort Canby's, the result of which is unknown.

Limited information exists on Oregon soccer during the decade between 1895 and 1905. Of the information that does exist, it is clear that the Multnomahs and George J. Cameron continued to play dominating roles. In fact, Cameron had become so well known and well-placed through his sporting ventures that he would be appointed to the positions of District Attorney, District Judge, as well as the President of the Portland Chamber of Commerce. In 1910, following the destruction of the Multnomah Clubhouse all business was subsequently conducted out of Cameron's Chamber of Commerce and District Judgeship offices.

Beyond Portland, 1910 -1917

The destruction of the Multnomah Clubhouse had nearly curtailed the Fall 1910 launch of the Portland Association Football League. However, Cameron-directed organizational meetings held in late September insured that play would go ahead with a total of four area teams participating; The Multnomah Athletic Club, the Portland Cricket Club, the National Football Club, and the Oceanic Football Club. At the same time, agreement was reached for the establishment of an Challenge Cup to be awarded annually to the respective league champions. Known as the Cameron Challenge Cup Trophy, the award would become the iconic symbol of Oregon soccer achievement. It would be awarded until the mid-1970s.

The 1910 -11 season would turn out to be the last time that the men of Multnomah would claim the league title. A year later, the National Football Club would win the league championship three years running. In the period between 1913-1917 the league would be dominated by a University of Oregon club organized by the former Canadian university soccer star, Colin V. Dyment.

In 1910, the Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis (81-miles south of Portland) , the University of Oregon in Eugene (110-miles south of Portland), and Willamette University (47-miles south of Portland) announced plans to create varsity men's soccer teams. Immediately Cameron and his league cohorts set out to bring the three schools into the Portland League's fold. It was a move that seemed simple enough as there appeared to already have been some form of soccer club structure on those campuses and the idea of bring Portland clubs south to play the schools was not considered a problem. Delays in implementing the launch of the varsity programs, along with the destructive Clubhouse fire, meant that plans to create a statewide league were put on hold.

In 1911, former President Theodore Roosevelt, while on a trip through the Western States was invited to the sod turning ceremony for the new Clubhouse. An avid sportsman, he jumped at the opportunity. It was a high moment for the Multnomah Club and George J. Cameron. By 1912, the new building was complete and located on Salmon Street. With the new building came the push to expand the league and incorporate the outside collegiate clubs. Because the varsity programs at the three schools were designed to be first-rate, it was believed by the Mulhomah's that a select team would have to be assembled in order to compete against these newcomers. Therefore, between 1913-1915 the club set out to build the best team in the State, comprised of former British and Scottish nationals, as well as local high school all-star players. It was a team built on skill and speed. Still, things did not progress as had initially been hoped by club organizers, as the 'Mighty Multnomahs' lost their first two matches before finding form. The Multnomahs were led by John D. Dwyer. The first names of the players have been lost to history, however, we do know their surnames: Leonard, Duncan, Mackie, Pudget, Jacobburgher, Wright, Morris, Shay, Conley, Shevlin, Gray, Greer, Nixon, and Mackenzie.

By 1915, the effort to create varsity soccer programs at the three universities and colleges had not gone as planned. Only at the University of Oregon was soccer fully established. In fact, the school was the only institute of higher education in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and Idaho) to claim a structured varsity-level program. Not to be outdone, a year later, the Oregon Agricultural College (today known as Oregon State University) added a competitive program making Oregon the de facto hotbed of varsity soccer north of San Francisco.

At the same time, in Portland, soccer was exploding at the high school and primary school levels. By 1916, there were 5 Portland High Schools with quality programs. In addition, 32 area primary schools also boasted structured programs. A recently discovered image of the Portland's 1914 Lincoln High School Boys Team is a case in point. The image, part of Stryker-Indigo New York's Futbol Heritage/Boxscore News Soccer Archive, is significant as it shows a couple young 'Knee-Knockers' sporting leg wounds following a soccer match.

The Men Of O, 1913-1917

Newly discovered photos show a large crowd standing along the sidelines as the UofO battles OAC in 1913. Photo courtesy The Futbol Heritage Archive/Boxscore World Sportswire.

The University of Oregon ( U of O) soccer varsity program had been initiated in 1913 as a natural outgrowth of an unofficial club structure that had existed on campus for years. The team's first "varsity" coach would be Colin V. Dyment. Dyment, a journalism professor, had been the captain and a star player at the University of Toronto in 1899. Following graduation, Dyment had moved West. By 1909, he had taken residence in Portland subsequently finding himself working as the Manager of the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club. In the Summer of 1913, Dyment moved south to Eugene assuming his new career as a professor. That year, serving as the chief organizer, coach and captain, he led the U of O in a series of league games against Portland teams as well as two victories against the newly-formed and short-lived club team from Columbia University of Portland.

Within a season, the University of Oregon had distinguished itself as the premier soccer power within the State. Aside from Dyment, the team included Neal Ford, an all-star player who had transfered north from Stanford University. Prior to his arrival in Eugene, Ford had been named to the All-California Soccer Team on account of his dominating skills. Three other players were also of note. Frank Campbell, playing at full-back, was an All-American athlete from The Dalles. It was said of Campbell that he was a natural at the game. In fact, he was so good that he quickly earned the respect of his team and replaced Dyment as captain. In addition, the U of O boasted a stand-out goal keeper named Walter Kennon as well as the midfielder, Herb Heywood. Of Heywood, it was claimed he was one of the best players north of San Francisco - quite a the statement considering the skill level of his fellow teammates. Lastly, the U of O boasted two powerhouse players on the forward line: M.T. Nelson and James Sheehy. Both men were known for their speed and scoring touch.

Under Dyment, the U of O squad had created so much interest on campus among the student base that an estimated 500 fans turned out to cheer the team on during their opening 1913 match against the Oregon Agricultural College. In January 1917, Dyment left Oregon to take up a teaching position in Seattle at the University of Washington. His departure was sudden and unexpected and subsequently marked a major turning point for the University program. In four years, the 'Boys of O' had lost only one game, a 2-1 decision to the Multnomah Amateur Athletic club.

It is interesting to note that the University of Oregon's Soccer team does not appear on the champions base of the Cameron Cup. This can possibly be explained by the fact that Cameron and Dyment were rivals and appear to have possessed a deep hatred of each other. In early 1916, Colin Dyment had written an article for the 1916 NCAA Soccer Guide in which he claimed to have been the originator of organized soccer in Portland - citing his efforts in 1909 while working at the Multnomah Athletic Club. By doing so, he had deliberately eliminated the previous 19-year history of Association Football traditions as well as denied George J. Cameron his rightful place in the national spotlight as Portland's 'Father of Association Football.' Dyment also took credit for the creation of the University of Oregon program though it had been initiated at least 3-years prior to his hiring and arrival in Eugene. These factors, more than anything, likely explain why the U of O name does not appear on the Cameron Cup - as well as why Dyment suddenly packed up his bags and left Eugene.

Sadly, Dyment is not the first schemer, hoodlum, or hoodwink to falsely claim credit for the founding of an American soccer program. American soccer has a long tradition of pretenders who have - even to this day- been credited with originating programs that they themselves had very little part in. In fact, most 'official' American soccer histories have tributes to individuals of questionable character and accomplishment, some of whom would surely have claimed to had been at the Creation had God not first claimed it himself.

The Portland Senior Football Association, 1917 - 1939

During the Fall of 1917, hoping to continue the winning tradition, nearly 40 players came out for try-outs in hopes of being selected for the University of Oregon squad, effectively making the process of selection one of the most competitive too date. Ironically, the 1917 season would be short-lived as the sport came to a grinding halt on account of the sudden U.S. entry into World War One. For the next two-years, no play would occur. In the Fall of 1919, the senior league soccer returned to the fields of Oregon. Between 1919 -1922 the Peninsula Football Club would win two Cameron Cup Titles losing in 1920-21 to the Canadian Veterans Club, a team comprised of returning soldiers who had served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War.

In 1925 the Portland Senior Football Association (PSFA) introduced the Bennett Cup, a league championship trophy designed to be awarded annually to the top team of the PSFA Spring season. The Bennett Cup was named in honor of Judge Alfred Silas Bennett, the 49th Associate Judge of the Oregon Supreme Court. Alfred Bennett had been born in Dubuque, Iowa on June 10, 1854. In 1865, his family moved west along the Oregon Trail settling in Oregon's Washington County. In 1870, at the age of 26, Bennett left home moving south to The Dalles. A decade later, while working as the Superintendent of Schools, he successfully passed the Oregon State Bar. Within three years, he was appointed to the position of Judge of the Eastern Oregon's 8th Judicial Circuit. In the decades that would follow, he would gain a national reputation as a master legalist having argued a number of high profile cases at the United States Supreme Court. Bennett had died on November 28, 1925. As a memorial to the man, a trophy cup was commissioned and quickly awarded to the Portland-based Camerons Football Team, the Spring 1925 Senior League Champions. A few months later, it was again awarded, this time to the 1926 Spring Champions, the Whiteheather Club. The Bennett Cup would be awarded annually for the next 52 years, before the tradition was effectively ended in 1977.

For five years, beginning in 1925, the Longview Soccer Club would dominate the Portland Senior League winning four Cameron Cup Titles (1925, 1926, 1927, 1928) and two Bennett Trophy Titles (1927, 1929). In 1930, the Longview domination was ended by Germania S.C. Germania would meet their match a year later, falling to the Portland Scottish Football Club . The Scottish would in-turn dominate the Portland soccer scene for two years before the club was disbanded. In the later half of the 1930s five separate clubs would claim championship title wins including the Portland Vikings, winners of the 1931 and 1939 Cameron Cup titles.

Wartime And Postwar Soccer, 1941 - 1960

From 1941 to 1947 senior league soccer would be cancelled, on account of the United States' entry into World War Two. In lieu of senior men's play, women's soccer quickly gained a foothold and limited recognition. This was particularly the case at Oregon State College (OSC) in Corvallis. Though details are few, we do know the names of four of the OSC women's coaches and organizers: Florence Hupprich (c.1943-45); Mary Sweeney (c.1943-45); Laura McAllister (c.1943-45); and Margaret Millikin (c.1950-1952). At the same time, girl's high school programs were also in full swing across Oregon with the most notable believed to have been at Jefferson High School in Portland (a team coached by Patricia Brownell c.1942-1945) and at Elmira High School (a team coached by Patricia A. Mounts c.1951-1953).

In 1947, men's soccer resumed with the creation of the Portland Soccer League. Boasting four commercial club teams: Clan Macleay No. 122, Pacific Department Store, West Oregon Chemoite, and Dahl & Sawyer. That year the Clansmen had rolled over the competition with a record of 14 wins, 2 losses, and 1 tie. They were followed by the Pacifics with 12 wins, 3 losses, 1 tie. The West Oregon Chemoite and Dahl & Sawyer teams brought up the rear posting a combined record of 7 wins to 24 defeats (Chemoite: 4 wins, 12 losses; Dahl: 3 wins, 12 losses). For three years, the Pacifics would dominate league soccer winning three Cameron Cup titles (1947, 1948, 1949) and two Bennett Trophy titles (1947, 1949). The only title they would lose would be the Bennett Trophy in 1948 won by the Clan Macleay No. 122.

Within four years, all four of the teams would be replaced by traditional, non-commercial clubs. In 1952, the Portland Vikings Soccer Club travelled north to battle the Seattle Vikings for bragging rights to the Sandy Bergman Scandinavian Trophy. Portland would lose two straight games in what had been expected to be a best-of-three series. That same year, a team sponsored by Seattle's Buchan Bakery defeated the Clan Macleay No. 122 to claim the championship of the George Washington Trophy Tournament. A year later, the Seattle Vikings would travel down to Portland for the Scandinavian Championship. They would play one game, defeating Portland by a score of 5-1 before Portland would throw in the towel.

By 1954, regular matches between visiting clubs from Seattle and the Canadian province of British Columbia were the norm. In addition, a number of matches were also played between Portland clubs and visiting ship's teams. The highlight of the 1954 season was a match between the Oregon All-Stars and a team comprised of players from the Royal Navy battlecruiser, H.M.S. Superb. The game, played on the new lighted field at Lincoln High School was a hard-fought affair with the Superb squad claiming a 3-2 victory. The HMS Superb was a swift-sure class light cruiser. It housed a crew of 867 men. The surprise showing by the Oregon All-Stars against their British counterparts was seen as vindication as to the growing quality of soccer on the West Coast, especially in Portland where the game had long developed in the shadow of better-known, and more respected programs, in the West Coast U.S. and Canadian cities of San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, Los Angeles, Tacoma and even Nanaimo.

The 1954 Portland League consisted of four teams: Germania Soccer Club, the Skyline Rangers, George White Veterans, and the Vikings Sport Club. Germania would claim be the Bennett Cup Champions, the Oregon Cup would be won by the Vikings, and the James Cameron Cup by the Vikings.

The 1955 Season began in September and lasted until April of the following year. Along the way, the league struggled to complete its schedule due to heavy unseasonable rains, floods and inclement weather. The season was also memorable as the league now boasted five teams following the entry of a Portland State College squad. Early in the season, it appeared that the Vikings would maintain their dominance, as they defeated the Germania and the George White Veterans to claim the Judge Cameron Trophy. However, as the season progressed, the Skyline Rangers began to dominate. During the Spring schedule, the Rangers were bested by Portland State College, a team that continued to improve. During the Spring League play-offs Portland State dominated the championship final downing the Rangers by a score of 7-0. Later, in April, the Northwest Championships were held in Portland wherein the College squad made it to the finals losing by a score of 2-0 to the Norselanders Vikings of Seattle. The championship game between the two clubs was also significant for the 300-spectators who were on hand for the match. Overall, it was an impressive rise by Portland State.

The Spring of 1955 was also significant for it marked the launch of the 1st Annual 5-Aside Tournament. Eight teams total entered the fray, with the Vikings Sport Club claiming victory. During the entire competition, the Vikings had been undefeated and had cruised through the tournament without allowing a single goal to be scored against them. Later, Portland would send four teams to compete in a similar but larger 5-aside tournament in Seattle. In total, 21 teams would compete in Seattle, with participants coming from across the region including Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The 1950s had redefined the sport of soccer in Oregon. The proud soccer tradition that had for years been a part of Portland's sporting culture rested on the shoulders of only a handful of soccer diehards determined to continue its progression. These individuals for the most-part have been forgotten. However, there are some names of note that deserve recognition for their efforts have never been sufficiently celebrated. They are: Mark Topich, Forest H. Udy, Arthur J. Darby, Henry S. Harton, Kenneth Anderson, Paul Riseley, Donald Hughes, Herman fisher and Kenneth Butler. All these individuals either held positions of organizational authority in the Portland Senior League or ran, as was the case of Herman Fisher the Manager of Germania S.C., storied soccer clubs that celebrated the past and ensured the continuation of a legacy. Because of Fisher and others, the Germania Club exists to this day.

The Growth Of Collegiate Soccer, 1960 -1975

The 1960 Portland Senior League had started on October 6th finishing up a week before Christmas on the December 18th. That season, the team from Portland University had difficulty mustering players due to scheduling and exam conflicts, leaving the door wide open for Germania S.C. to claim the Fall title. At the start of the season, Germania had won their fifth Cameron Cup (1930, 1935, 1954, 1960, 1961) defeating the Hollandia Soccer Club by a score of 5-1. At the time, no one could have known that the Germania S.C. win would be their last Bennett Cup title for nearly a decade. In the Spring of 1961, the elevens from Portland University rebounded and claimed the Spring league title. With the Germania's claiming victory in the Fall and Portland University claiming the Spring honors, the decision to have a winner-take-all tournament to decide the Bennett Cup Champion was initiated. In the end, Germania would defeat Portland University by a score of 2-1, the winning goal being scored in the last 2-minutes of play. The fine showing by Portland University was significant. Not since the days of Dyment and his powerful U of O team had a college or university eleven dominated the Portland league. It was also significant on account of the make-up of the Portland squad. Coached by Father John Waldeschmidt, a Roman Catholic priest, the university's starting elevens were consisted of players from four countries: 8 players from Chile, 1 player from Canada, 1 player from Formosa (Taiwan), and 1 player from Greece.

Following their league championship victory, Germania travelled north to Seattle to battle the Seattle Hungarians Soccer Team. The Hungarians, comprised of a number of recent immigrants to the United States following the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, were the State of Washington Senior League Champions. The Hungarians would win by a score of 5-3. In a second match, pitting presumed underdog Portland State College against the University of Washington, the game got heated and ended in a fray as the Huskies downed the visitors by a score of 2-1. Though the boys from Portland had lost both contests, the close scores against two of Washington's finest soccer teams was not lost on anyone and spoke highly of the quality of play that existed in the Portland League.

In 1960, the Portland Soccer League had boasted six teams: Germania S.C., Hollandia, Portland University, Portland State College, The Rangers, and Amsterdam F.C. A year later, the league would boast eight teams with the addition of the Portland Air Base and The Tara F.C. Team Tara would shock everyone by winning the Cameron Cup two-years in a row (1961, 1962). It is of interest to note that their name does not appear on the Bennett Trophy during this period as the champions for that year are not recorded. Was this league politics? We may never know though the absence of a listed Bennett Cup champion during the years when the upstart Taras dominated Portland soccer appears to be more than a coincidence.

The decade of the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the expansion of collegiate soccer across the State of Oregon. For the most part, the earlier collegiate traditions initiated at the University of Oregon and other institutions had been forgotten as had been the significance and importance of the Cameron and Bennett Cups. Since the early 1930s, the Cameron Cup had ceased to be a symbol of League Championship dominance during the Fall, but instead had become the award presented at the beginning of the Portland Soccer Association's start-to-the-season Fall tournament. The Bennett Cup, rather than being the symbol of Spring League excellence was now an annual award given to teams with the best combined Fall and Spring records. The redefining of the trophy awards and their significance had more to do with internal league politics in the early 1930s and the manipulation of a the Portland league by a handful of clubs than it did anything else. Tradition be damned - all that mattered to these groups had been bragging rights.

In October 1960, Roger Wiley, an instructor at the University of Oregon, organized a soccer clinic in an effort to gauge the quality of senior soccer in the Eugene area. Seventy-players attended. Through his efforts, Wiley was able to develop a competitive soccer club program on the U of O campus. By 1967, the U of O boasted a successful varsity-level club soccer program capable of competing at the NCAA Division I level. By 1967, five Oregon universities had men's soccer programs of the first order: University of Oregon, Oregon State, Portland University, Lewis & Clark and Reed. Of these, Portland University, coached by Bill Rose, was the most dominant and successful. In 1967, Rose had inherited what was by then a fledging Portland University program. In his first year at the coaching helm, his team would post a modest 4 wins, 2 loss, 1 tie record with a Goals For of 9 and 7 against. Clearly, Rose had decided to initially restructure his team based on defensive principles at the expense of offense power. By 1971, Rose would reverse his strategy as that year his team would post a record of 11 wins, 2 losses, 1 tie, and a Goals For of 83 compared to 18 goals against. It was an amazing transformation and accomplishment.

During the first half of the 1970s collegiate soccer programs continued to be developed across the State. By 1975, new schools had emerged ad potential powerhouses with a total of 17 Oregon colleges and universities boasting competitive men's soccer programs playing under the Oregon Collegiate Soccer Conference. The Conference was comprised of two divisions, Gold and Blue, the Gold Division consisted of solid Division I and II programs whereas the Blue Division was classified as Division II and III clubs. In the Gold Division was: Oregon College, Lewis & Clark, Portland Community College, Reed, Willamette, University of Oregon B Team, Judson Baptist, Pacific Oregon, Oregon State B Team, and Portland University. In the Blue Division: Southern Oregon, Lane Community College, Mt. Angel Seminary, Linfield, Clackamas Community College, and Wagner Pacific. In addition, both Oregon State and the University of Oregon had A Teams that played in the Northwest Collegiate Soccer Association.

A snapshot of the 1975 season shows Oregon with two dominant soccer programs: Oregon College and Lewis & Clark College. Oregon College had cruised through the Gold Division posting a 9 wins, no loss, no ties record. They had decimated the opposition outscoring their opponents 60 goals to 14 against. Close behind them was Lewis & Clark College with 8 wins, 1 loss and 35 goals for and only 5 against.

In The Age Professional Soccer 1975 -2011

In 1975, the North American Soccer League (NASL) awarded a professional franchise to Portland. The new team, named the Portland Timbers, were part of a 5 - city North American expansion that brought the NASL up from a 15-team league in 1974 to a 20-team league at the start of the 1975 season. In only their first season of existence, the Timbers reached the championship Soccer Bowl final before losing 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. There early success was enough to ensure that the team would record the best overall fan support in the NASL and earning Portland the nickname "Soccer City USA." The Portland franchise would last seven-years before folding in 1982. The high cost of player salaries, travel expenses and dwindling ticket sales -in part due to an economic recession, spelled the end to the club.

In recent years, there have been attempts by some to credit the NASL Portland Timbers with the establishment of soccer in Portland as well as the surrounding areas. These false claims are just one more example of the efforts to rewrite the past for the benefit of a few. The Timbers were a storied club, their greatest legacy securing national recognition for Oregon as a leading American soccer region. The team also helped reinforce the long time soccer rivalries that existed between Portland, Seattle and the Canadian city of Vancouver, British Columbia. These three cities have between them shared a soccer tradition and competitive spirit going back well over a century. In 1985, three years after the end of the NASL franchise, F.C. Portland was formed as part of the Western Soccer Alliance. The Western Soccer Alliance was an independent league consisting of both professional and amateur players. In 1989, in an attempt to rebrand the team and to benefit from the NASL legacy, F.C. Portland was renamed 'The Timbers.' That same year, the Western Soccer Alliance changed their name to the Western Soccer League (WSL). Almost in the same breath, the League announced a merger with the the American Professional Soccer League (APSL), at the time the premier professional soccer league in North America. The merger and name change came too late. In 1990, the Timbers team owner, Art Dixon, folded the franchise claiming more than half-a-million dollars in losses in just two-years of ownership. In 2001 the Timber were resurrected playing in the United Soccer Leagues and were Western Division Champion in 2004 and Commissions Cup Regular Season Champions in 2009. In 2011, Major League Soccer announced the creation of a new Portland Timbers franchise. As part of this professional soccer rebirth and MLS strategy, the Timbers were joined by the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps effectively re-igniting and adding fuel to long and slow-burning regional rivalries.

Rebuilding Oregon's Soccer Legacy

In the decades since the mid-1970s, Oregon Soccer has continued to grow and mature on all levels. Today, Soccer is the most popular and fastest growing sport in Oregon. It is also one of the few regions of the country where serious efforts have been initiated in hopes of rediscovering and recording the State's soccer heritage.

In the early 1990's the local Portland sports historian, David M. Porter, himself a former area soccer player, set out to document the early history of soccer in Oregon. Porter was concerned by what he saw as the lack of appreciation and knowledge of Oregon's soccer past. At the time of his efforts, much of the early history had been forgotten. Through sheer determination and hard research he effectively rebuilt elements of the past creating a blue print for future research. His efforts are worthy of praise for they are both unique and timely and fly in-the-face of American soccer trends of the 1990s. Nearly twenty-years on, his work remains significant as it is one of the few American articles one can find anywhere that documents pre-1990s American amateur soccer history. See: http://www.oregonadultsoccer.com/history_of_soccer _in_oregon.htm.

Porter's research and findings were released a year before the run-up to the 1994 U.S. hosted World Cup. To fully appreciate the timing of his work, one must recognize that, just beyond the view of all of the celebration and joy as defined by the 1994 World Cup, just beyond the less-than-intrepid eyes of the media and public, a nasty battle was being waged both nationally and locally over the future of American amateur soccer and its defined legacy. Across the country, individuals who had worked unselfishly for decades to build local soccer programs were often finding themselves replaced by individuals or groups who wanted to take soccer in new directions. This was the time when amateur American soccer suddenly became "a business under new management." The old guard was being shown the door, in favor of a generation of brand conscious preppy clubs, coaches, directors and parents excited at the new-found importance of the sport. In the eyes of these newcomers, the 'beautiful game' was suddenly an 'American beauty" and the sport was as much a social statement for those who wanted 'to be seen' as it was a simple past-time to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Many of these corporate and business newcomers possessed no previous background in the sport. Under new management, soccer leagues were no longer comprised of local clubs, but instead were the amalgamation of 501 Non-Profit organizations. Children were no longer assigned to teams based solely on age and gender but instead, were judged by their personal level of skill. Prior to the 1990s, few American amateur youth leagues had ever heard of the words: travel team, select team, all-league team, or elite squads. For some, the purging of the old guard is evidence that amateur American soccer, like other sports, has lost its innocence. As part of this new order, many local soccer histories have been allowed to fall by the wayside. The last thing many of these new groups want to do is to credit people whom they had so unceremoniously opposed or replaced. To this day, the rewriting or abandonment of American soccer history is evident in the countless American amateur and collegiate soccer websites that claim their programs originated in the 1990s. The deliberate downplaying or disappearance of American soccer history over the past two-decades has done untold damage to the sport of soccer in the United States. Instead of building upon a proud legacy, many soccer organizations through their short-sighted actions and rewriting of the past, have diminished their own importance and ties to their communities. If people remain ignorant of the past, then the historic role and importance of the sport of soccer to American culture and society will continue to remain unclear.

In recent years, as part of the efforts by Stryker-Indigo New York and the Society of North American Historians And Researchers (SONAHR) to document and preserve the early history of American soccer, the story of Oregon's proud soccer past has continued to come to light. The effort has been a tedious process, as much of the information has been found in piece-meal form, often times with little or no context. However, like pieces of a puzzle an image of the past is slowly taking form. What it shows is quite profound, revealing that soccer is an American sport with a proud tradition and roots going back centuries. Or in the case of Oregon, at least 122-years.

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Homage to Guardiola

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on May 04, 2012

Pep Guardiola liked to remind his players to have fun. Under normal circumstances, "go out there and have fun" is the emptiest sort of yapped-around-a-whistle coachspeak, but with Guardiola "normal circumstances" often felt like something more profound, and also stranger, than that: He made you believe that he meant it. He had the very disorienting gift of making banal sentiments seem to come from a place of deep soulfulness. Whether he was actually banal or actually soulful was a problem you could think yourself dizzy trying to solve,1 but either way he brought results: His Barcelona teams, especially during their astounding three-year run from 2008 to 2011,2 ran on a kind of sustained collective joy that was thrilling to watch precisely because it seemed so sincere.

Guardiola announced last week that he was stepping down as manager of FC Barcelona. He'll stay till June 30, when his contract expires, but watching the press conference, it was hard not to conclude that he was already gone. He's only 41, but he looks careworn, even haggard