Monday, May 31, 2010

Remember ...

I understand this is a holiday, and I try not to ask too much of people. I also try hard not to preach, especially when it comes to things not related to the goofy world of sports.

But Memorial Day is supposed to be about more than a day off work, barbecues, and time outside. This is a chance to salute those who have given their lives in defense of our freedoms.

Please remember that on this day.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

'There Are No Words'

I know I am late to the party on this, but I got burned out on the "History Will Be Made" ads, and didn't catch this one until today.

It's incredible. Watch.

Goose. Bumps.

Great work, NHL.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Serbia

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa

Apperance: First (was Serbia-Montenegro in 2006)
Last time there: First appearance
Best performance: First appearance

Known as Serbia-Montenegro since their separation from Yugoslavia, this is Serbia's first dance as a single entity.

The Serbs qualified out of their UEFA group by besting France, among others, even though Serbia failed to beat France in either of their head-to-head meetings. They went 7-1 for 21 of their 22 points against the other four teams (Austria, Lithuania, Romania, and Faroe Islands), while France only mustered a 5-1-2 mark against those four teams for 17 points.

Serbia will be dangerous because of their back line. They are a good defensive club that has some creativity up front. Nemanja Vidic of Manchester United is the ringleader of the defense. Vidic is a very aggressive player who is capable of crossing the line if he's not careful (he was sent off during a 2006 World Cup match). Branislav Ivanovic is another tough defender for Serbia. Vidic and Ivanovic will gladly set aside their Premier League rivalry for the sake of country -- Ivanovic plays for Premier League and FA Cup champion Chelsea.

In the midfield, Serbia has talent and grit, too. Dejan Stankovic can play as an attacking or defending midfielder, and Milos Krasic is dangerous on offense.

This draw isn't awfully daunting. This isn't a "Group of Death" or anything, though Germany will be troublesome, and Ghana can really attack. Serbia will make things tough on opponents, and they have a decent chance of advancing.

June 13 vs. Ghana (Pretoria)
June 18 vs. Germany (Port Elizabeth)
June 23 vs. Australia (Nelspruit)

Bettman's Venom at IIHF

In Chicago on Friday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman held his annual pre-Stanley Cup Finals press conference.

He was predictably optimistic about the state of the NHL, talking up the improving business and how strong most of the franchises are. While there are struggles -- and Bettman talked about the potential futures in cities like Winnipeg and Quebec City that want back in the league -- he is right that the overall picture is pretty good.

Bettman also talked about recent comments from Rene Fasel, the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Fasel was upset that many NHL stars chose to skip the World Championships, even though they weren't hurt. Names like Ryan Miller and Sidney Crosby are among those who sat out, despite being -- at least that we know of -- healthy.

The commish was a little perturbed, to say the least.

"You just hit one of my hot spots," said Bettman, with fire in his eyes. "If you remember the debate [IIHF chief] Rene Fasel and I had during my media availability in Vancouver, one of the things I said . . . was I don't believe the IIHF respects our game, our players, our business or our schedule."

"What was said by the IIHF during the World Championships," he continued, "was exactly that. As soon as I saw the article I put a call into Rene Fasel and I told him that what he said was inappropriate, out of line and simply wrong, and that he needed to make a public apology. So I'm not happy with the way the IIHF somehow feels it has an entitlement to these great athletes who risk their careers, and put themselves out of their own time without anything but love of country to be belittled by the IIHF." He finished the answer by saying, "If I sounded a little passionate on the subject I apologize," before briefly pausing and saying, "actually, I don't."

Bettman shouldn't be apologizing. It's an insult to the sport that Fasel hasn't apologized.

Fasel got what anyone in his position could have wanted in February. The quadrennial Olympic tournament was one of the most intriguing and entertaining hockey tournaments in the sport's history. The IIHF should have been proud of the nations and players who took part.

Instead, they got greedy, continuing to hold their World Championship in the Olympic years, stretching the product too thin and leaving themselves open to players skipping the tournament who might have otherwise been inclined to participate.

They also hurt themselves with timing. This event should be played in August or September, as a warmup to the NHL season, not concurrently with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The IIHF shows their immeasurable ego in holding their tourrnament when they do, because they just expect they'll get the proper media attention and that players will come out in droves to play in it.

When many of the sport's best players are still playing for their NHL team, how does the IIHF expect to run the best possible tournament?

Of course, since the IIHF has run things this way for years, they expect the NHL and its players to conform. There is no negotiation here. There is no compromise. It's the IIHF's way or no way.

That's too bad, because the sport deserves better. It deserves to have a World Championship, but not during an Olympic year. Why not be like FIBA, who only runs one World Championship every four years, and they do it in the even-numbered year where there are no Olympics? Sure, it might seem like a step back for the IIHF, but there really isn't any point in holding the tournament in an Olympic year.

Not only that, but it takes the strain off your best athletes, and it might mean you get more of them to participate in the event.

And maybe you'll stop pissing Gary Bettman off. Since he holds a lot of influence over whether you get to have the game's best players in the World Championships, methinks you might want to be a little more respectful of his feelings and concerns.

Just a shot in the dark on that.

Friday, May 28, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Portugal

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Fifth overall, third consecutive
Last time there: 2006, lost in semifinals
Best performance: Semi-finals (1966 and 2006)

The talent is mesmerizing. So why is everyone overlooking Portugal?

Look at this team, and you see great talents like Cristiano Ronaldo, Simao, Liedson, Deco, and Bruno Alves. But where are the results?

They've only advanced beyond the group stage in two World Cups. One of them was 44 years ago. They barely qualified for South Africa, stumbling through their UEFA group and needing a playoff win against Bosnia-Herzegovina just to make it.

Now that they're in South Africa, what should we expect out of Portugal? There is nothing easy about their draw, other than the match with North Korea, which should be a cakewalk. Ivory Coast and Brazil join Portugal in the group, and one of them won't move on.

For Portugal to avoid being "that guy," they're going to need three consistent performances. It's something they're capable of, but haven't always done.

They have a good goalkeeper in Eduardo. Ronaldo might be the best player in the world (Lionel Messi has a stake to this claim, too). Deco and Simao are elite players, and they get plenty of defense from Alves and Duda.

Problem: There is little depth, and there is little reason to think Portugal will perform at their peak as long as they're alive in the tournament.

Then again, we've seen it in other sports, most recently in the NHL. Sometimes, the talented team that barely qualifies for the tournament ends up being very dangerous when they get there. It's a short tournament, and anything can happen, including this very good and entertaining team getting hot at the right time.

June 15 vs. Ivory Coast (Port Elizabeth)
June 21 vs. North Korea (Cape Town)
June 25 vs. Brazil (Durban)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Paraguay

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa

Appearance: Eighth overall, fourth consecutive
Last time there: 2006, exited in first round
Best performance: Second round (1986, 1998, 2002)

Defense. Defense. Defense.

Simply put, this is Paraguay's mission when they take the field.

In 18 CONMEBOL (South America) qualifying matches, Paraguay conceded merely 16 goals, ranking them second in the region in that category (only favored Brazil was better).

Because of their ability defensively, Paraguay has to be considered a dangerous side in this tournament. Given that talent, they have quite the favorable draw.

Coach Gerardo Martino knows how to coach this defensive style, and he also has plenty of ammunition to use to movivate his team.

After all, Paraguay is perfectly capable of being the top squad from South America in this tournament. They've beaten Brazil and Argentina, who get all the love from the media when talk turns to South American sides.

What worries people is their inconsistency. Yes, they have beaten the "big two" from their continent, but they've also lost matches they shouldn't have, including to Colombia at home when they could have clinched second place in their group.

Goalkeeper Justo Villar was injured early in the 2006 finals, failing to even complete one match there. Villar is a good set pieces threat, and he's also very solid in goal. Dario Veron, Julio Cesar Caceres, Paulo Da Silva, and Denis Caniza are the main cogs defensively, with Da Silva's name being familiar to European fans because of his play with Sunderland of the Barclays Premier League.

When Paraguay manages to create scoring chances, they need Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz to finish. Both play club ball in Europe, and both are capable offensive threats on a team that largely lacks them.

If Paraguay can figure out a way to draw with or edge out Italy, they could win the group. They're a heavy favorite to move on, as neither New Zealand nor Slovakia are regarded as threats to advance.

June 14 vs. Italy (Cape Town)
June 20 vs. Slovakia (Bloemfontein)
June 24 vs. New Zealand (Polokwane)

Ozzie Guillen Rips Overzealous Umpire

So much for that mundane getaway day game in Cleveland Wednesday.

Before the Chicago White Sox held on for dear life to defeat the Indians 5-4, the game was already headline-worthy.

In the third inning, White Sox starter Mark Buehrle and manager Ozzie Guillen were ejected from the game after a dustup with veteran umpire Joe West, who was manning first base for the game.

Buehrle was called for two balks in the third inning. Neither of them were balks, based on virtually anyone's understanding of the balk rule. After the first call, Guillen came out to argue and was eventually ejected. Buehrle then got the gate after the second balk, when he flipped his glove to the ground in anger.

Apparently, a mundane act of frustration is now considered to be a blatant show-up of the umpire.

Here is the video, which includes White Sox television voice Hawk Harrelson -- probably my least favorite baseball broadcaster -- speaking the truth.

I don't get the "stick it right up his behind" theory, but Harrelson is right. West was out of line, deserves a suspension (remember, he was fined by baseball for his comments in April about the pace of Yankees-Red Sox games), and was obviously interjecting himself into this otherwise innocent afternoon baseball game.

After the game, Ozzie was, um, not happy.

"Because he's a f---ing a--hole, that's what he is. I just went out to ask him ... I wasn't asking about the balk because you're not allowed, anytime you go out there to ask about balk or whatever. The thing I went out to ask him about was why he was embarrassing Buehrle. I'm not going out to argue about the balk because the rule, but I went out to ask him why he's embarrassing Buehrle and he give me one of this [dismissing him with his hands]. When you're a professional and you have to respect the managers, the way we're supposed to respect the umpires, they are supposed to respect back. Obviously they have more power than we have and we have to wear it every time that happens. That's the reason I got tossed. I don't think he has the right and the power to let people know who is the chief on the field. We know he has to control the game, we know he has to control all the s---, but in the meanwhile, I don't think it was the right thing to do, like we balked him while we were on the field. Joe has been like that for a lot of years, and he's always going to be like this. I'm not going to change it, nobody is going to change it, but sometimes he thinks f---ing people pay to watch him f---ing umpire. He's the type of guy that wants to control the game, it's good for the game, and to me one of the best umpires in the game, no doubt. But in the meanwhile, those years are on his shoulders and kind of heavy and showing people who he is. I deserve respect and the players here deserve respect here, too. When you tell the manager to get the f--- off the field, I don't think that's a good way to handle situations. No matter what you say, what you do, how long you talk here, Major League Baseball doesn't do s--- for anything. I'll be waiting for my fine, get 'em the next day."

"I said why are you embarrassing Buehrle? He said, 'Well Buehrle was doing ...' well, you got two choices, the second choice he has, and he was wrong the first time or the second time, either one was wrong. Because you don't like what Buehrle did the first time you should toss him. You shouldn't embarrass him. That's the way he is."

Did you see the second one that got Buehrle ejected?

"It's not about balk. It's all different. Buehrle has been doing the same stuff, what? Seven years, eight years? All of a sudden [West] just gets up today and says, 'Well, I'm going to call a balk on Buehrle no matter what.' He's got the right, I don't know if it was a balk or not, you couldn't tell. In the meanwhile, I was kind of upset with the reaction. He thinks he's the s--- in the field. People pay to watch f---ing players play, not to see umpires and managers. I don't see any people say, 'I'm going to see Ozzie Guillen manage or Joe West f---ing umpire.'"

Hard to blame him. West's ego is out of control. Obviously, he's a bit set on making a name for himself, and he's done that already. Perhaps he should consider this singing career idea full-time, because he's burning quite a few bridges in baseball right about now.

There is something ironic about Guillen -- as guilty of attention-grabbing behavior as any manager in baseball -- talking about West being out to get noticed. But at least the manager in this case has a job. Guillen's gig there is to take the bullet so Buehrle doesn't get tossed.

West isn't sticking up for wronged umpires around the sport when he acts like an egomaniac. Instead, he's out for himself and only himself.

Guillen may be, too, but at least he has a viable excuse.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

U.S. Men's National Team World Cup Roster Announced

After a Tuesday night friendly loss to Czech Republic in Hartford, Conn., the United States moved to set their 23-man roster for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which begins June 11.

The Americans are placed in Group B for the tournament, and their first match is June 12 against group favorite England.

We'll have a preview of Team USA coming up before the tournament, but here is the roster, announced Wednesday on ESPN by head coach Bob Bradley.

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan.

Defenders: Carlos Boncanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Charles Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Oneywu, Jonathan Spector.

Midfielders: DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Jose Torres.

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez.

At first glance, it appears the inclusion of Findley over Brian Ching is the only major surprise. The front-line players are all there, including Oneywu, who was injured a few months ago and is obviously still recovering. He looked a tad rusty against the Czechs, and I would expect we'll see him in the friendly Sunday against Turkey that will mark the Americans' final match before leaving for South Africa.

Donovan didn't play Tuesday, but I'd expect we'll see him Sunday. While the Czech result was disappointing, we played a lot of the fringe roster candidates, and it's clear Bradley (Bob, that is, not son Michael, a midfielder on the team) wanted to get one last look at some guys before making a final decision.

Talented Charlie Davies was already ruled out for the team, still recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident last year.

The Americans will play Australia in a tune-up match June 5 in South Africa before the tournament opens the following weekend.

2010 FIFA World Cup: North Korea

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Second
Last time there: 1966, lost in quarterfinals
Best performance: Quarterfinals (1966)

The enthusiasm is high for this North Korea team. Coach Kim Jong-Hun is probably one of the nation's most popular people, as he led them to their first World cup since 1966. That 44-year drought is the longest among the nations in this year's finals who have been there before.

This team, however, will be hard-pressed to duplicate anything remotely resembling the success of the 1966 team that fell to Portugal in the quarterfinals.

For starters, North Korea were drawn into an impossible group. Many have labeled Group G the "Group of Death" this year, even though there are only three strong teams. Brazil, Portugal, and Ivory Coast are all heavy favorites against North Korea, who would probably do well to score a goal and pull a point out of their three matches.

Their defensive style might keep scores down, but it doesn't lead to a lot of chances the other way, either. The lack of talent will be exposed in each match.

To stay in games, they need goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk to be at his best. At only 23 years old, he's got a bright future, but getting this team past the preliminary round would rank as one of the greatest achievements imaginable. Jon Tae-Se and Hong Yong-Jo will lead the attack.

Expect North Korea to play a 5-3-2 formation, try to pack in tightly around Myong-Guk, and see what happens. It's not likely to be pretty, as such a formation and the talent gap leave North Korea vulnerable to anyone who can control possession and create in the midfield.

June 15 vs. Brazil (Johannesburg -- Ellis Park)
June 21 vs. Portugal (Cape Town)
June 25 vs. Ivory Coast (Nelspruit)

2010 FIFA World Cup: Nigeria

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Fourth
Last time there: 2002, exited in first round
Best performance: Lost in second round (1994 and 1998)

Fact: Nigeria, at over 100 million people, is the most populated nation in Africa.

You'd think they'd be a little better at soccer, but they have never really done much with that mass of potential athletes they have available.

After missing out in 2006, Nigeria qualified for this year's tournament amid plenty of adversity. A Tunisian loss to Mozambique clinched the Nigerians' trip to South Africa, but they weren't done dealing with controversy.

Coach Shaibu Amodu was fired after a third-place finish in the 2010 African Nations Cup. Swede Lars Lagerback was brought in with just a couple months to go until the finals, with hopes of stabilizing things and providing Nigeria with a chance to advance out of a top-heavy Group B.

On the field, there is talent, but Nigeria is not the stereotypical African nation. They don't mind playing a fast pace, but their game is more of a slowdown style. They don't take a lot of chances, and they lack the creativity teams like Cameroon and Ghana have. This isn't a bad thing, because if Obafemi Martins and Yakubu Aiyegbeni are at their best, this will be a tough team to beat, even if they're not scoring a ton of goals.

In the midfield, veteran Peter Odemwingie is a top-notch player capable of making huge plays, and he is a real leader on this team.

June 12 vs. Argentina (Johannesburg -- Ellis Park)
June 17 vs. Greece (Bloemfontein)
June 22 vs. South Korea (Durban)

Ken Macha is Tired of Your 'Poppycock'

Don't look now, but the Milwaukee Brewers have won two straight baseball games.

Even better, at least one of them was against a legitimate major league franchise, the Minnesota Twins.

As Lou Brown said in Major League II, not too long before he had his season-changing heart attack, "If we win tonight, its called a winning streak. IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE."

Jokes about the Astros aside, the Brewers really need a winning streak, especially at home. Tuesday's win lifted the Crew within a mere nine games of .500 at 18-27, which is probably the exact reverse record from what most figured this team would be at after 45 games.

All the problems on this team -- crappy pitching, spotty defense, questionable effort, awful bullpen management -- have led some (me!) to wonder what it's going to take for the Brewers to make a managerial change.

Ken Macha is the anti-Ned Yost. This is good in that he's not constantly embarrassing the organization with tactical errors and heated arguments with umpires who were clearly right. It's bad in that you get a situation like Friday, where Dave Bush is getting screamed at and cussed out by an unprofessional umpire, and it takes what felt like an hour for Macha to come out of the dugout and try to stop it.

Yost would have tried to kill Ed Rapuano, who was wholly out of line and should have been publicly reprimanded by baseball for his antics. Macha decided to try to talk it out. The Brewers lost 15-3, and Bush recorded one out on the night.

Way to talk it out, Ken.

Tuesday, the Brewers won a home game for the first time in nearly a month (April 26 to May 25). Before the game, Macha decided it would be a good idea to chew out a reporter who dared ask a question about the "vote of confidence" Macha had received from owner Mark Attanasio over the weekend.

"(Attanasio's comments) didn't really matter because all the negativism was coming out before," said Macha, whose team starts the home stand tonight with a 17-27 record after losing 11 of 13.

"I go about my job the same way all the time, and that's what I'm going to continue to do.

"I've had a lot of success doing it this way (in Oakland). If you run a business, and you run your business successfully, and all of a sudden you go through some tough times, what do you do? Panic and change everything you're doing, or continue the course?

"We come out here every day and get these players ready to play. Sunday was an exceptional day (in a tense, hard-fought 4-3 win in Minnesota). To have any negative questions in this meeting today is poppycock. We had a tough day on Friday, we had a game when we battled back on Saturday against a team that's leading their division in the American League at their ballpark, get a blown save, play extra innings and have everybody on the staff come in and volunteer to pitch. Then come back and beat them on Sunday.

"We came home on a high, and be posiitve and ready to turn this thing around. To continue the negative thoughts and negativism, it's not going to come around. So, all the Brewers fans should be positive. I know myself and my staff are positive. We have lots of good things happening in the bullpen now. We're going to try to correct the difficulties we've had. So, it should be a positive mood around here."

Nice to see the man show a little fire, let's not act like there is no reason for people to be down on the Brewers.

They entered this week's homestand at 4-14 at Miller Park. It's baseball's worst home winning percentage. By a lot.

For a team expected to contend to be 5-14 at home, well that's not very good. And it's more than enough for people who follow the team be disappointed about. The fact that the promised improvement from the pitching staff hasn't happened only adds to fans' exasperation.

Then they watch an umpire assail one of their starting pitchers on live television, while the manager sits in the dugout and watches it all play out.

It's enough to make people long for the days when the Brewers had a comically incompetent manager who at least would show a little fire and stick up for his guys once in a while.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: New Zealand

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Second overall
Last time there: 1982, exited in first round
Best performance: Has never advanced past first round

No one benefited more from the World Cup qualifying draw than New Zealand. Instead of being in the same region as neighboring Australia, New Zealand drew into a group with Fiji, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu, with the winner moving into a playoff with the team out of an Asian region.

New Zealand and Bahrain ended up paired off for a finals berth, and New Zealand forced a road draw before winning the return match 1-0 to advance.

It's just a wonderful thing for the Kiwis and their soccer program. This isn't, however, going to end well.

There is some talent to work with for coach Ricki Herbert. Forward Shane Smeltz can score, captain Ryan Nelson and Ben Sigmund work hard on defense, and veteran Simon Elliott is an okay midfielder. Herbert benefits from the fact that his team is probably the biggest underdog in the tournament, even moreso than first-time entrant Slovakia, who is also in Group F. The Kiwis will be underdogs, playing with no expectations, and they'll be well-acclimated to the climate, given New Zealand's location in the Southern Hemisphere.

The problem is that there just isn't any top-notch skill available, and there is virtually no depth. Even given a somewhat favorable draw outside of group favorite Italy, New Zealand figures to be a quick and painless exit from the finals.

June 15 vs. Slovakia (Rustenburg)
June 20 vs. Italy (Nelspruit)
June 24 vs. Paraguay (Polokwane)

Monday, May 24, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Mexico

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: 14th overall, fifth consecutive
Last time there: 2006, lost in second round
Best performance: Quarterfinals (1970 and 1986)

For Los Tricolores, the World Cup has always ended in disappointing fashion. The only two quarterfinal qualifications came when they hosted the event. Despite a perpetually talented squad, they haven't made it past the second round since 1986.

Mexico is determined to rewrite their World Cup history this year, and the CONCACAF runner-up might have a good shot.

Javier Aguirre took over as head coach during qualifying, after Sven-Goran Eriksson lost six of the 13 games he coached Mexico in. Aguirre immediately righted a sinking qualifying ship, leading the team to a rather easy time through the rest of qualifying.

He has a very good team to bring with him to South Africa. Veteran forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco is a leader, even though -- at 36 -- he isn't the player he used to be. Aguirre is smart enough to lean on Blanco's experience, and there's no doubt the man can still put the ball in the net.

Ricardo Osono is a strong defender who rarely panics in any situation. Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos are more-than-capable offensive players. Midfielder Andres Guardado lacks size, but he is a strong-willed playmaker who can make the middle go for Mexico.

Los Tricolores couldn't have asked for a worse draw. Put in Group A means they have to deal with host South Africa, and they get that match for the tournament opener. It's a deadly setup, as Soccer City is going to be rocking in anticipation of the first World Cup match ever in Africa.

Should Mexico get three points out of that match, they're virtually a lock to advance. Uruguay could be some trouble, but Mexico is good enough to beat them and France to go through as Group A winner.

June 11 vs. South Africa (Johannesburg -- Soccer City)
June 17 vs. France (Polokwane)
June 22 vs. Uruguay (Rustenburg)

Science vs. Emotion

It happens all the time. A person suffers a major injury, we find a way to blame someone or something, and we clamor for a rules change.

These campaigns are always well-intentioned, but they aren't always well-executed.

Such is the case with two recent movements in sports. Both are the result of injuries, both have some serious pros behind them, and both are bad ideas.

We'll start in college hockey, where there is a call for half-shields in place of full face masks on players.

Why? Well, there are some who feel the players would be safer if they didn't wear full protection over their faces. The theory is that if everyone wore a half-shield, they'd magically stop getting sticks up and hitting people in the head.

Of course, if you've watched 20 NHL games in your life, you know this is stupid.

Science also seems to disagree.

This study lumped partial face protection and full face protection in together, though the evidence shows a partial face shield is closer to having no protection than full protection. The number of concussions in each case wasn't statistically significant -- 4 with none, 5 with half, 2 with full --but the real difference is in facial injuries. 52 injuries with no face protection, 45 with half protection, and only 16 with full protection.

That theory I was talking about? It's rooted in emotion. While that isn't always a bad thing, it's not a good thing in this case.

Instead of protecting college hockey players, we're going to open them up to more serious injuries. If the half-shield plan passes, it will only last until an unsuspecting Yale defender is turned into Ian Laperriere.

Do we need to let that happen to someone? Why bother?

It's not a safety improvement. It's an emotional reaction to headshots, but what the people having the reaction don't realize is that those headshots are happening in the NHL, where the players wear half-shields. Guys still get high-sticked in the face, they still get hit in the face by elbows, and they still block shots and passes with their faces. In none of those cases will a half-shield offer more protection than a full face mask.

If you want the college game to be bloodier, vote for this!

Elsewhere in sports, emotions are taking over in California. There, a young pitcher's life flashed before his eyes, when a batted ball came flying at him faster than he could protect himself from it.

Now, his family and others are going to bat, trying to get the state government to ban metal bats.

Assembly Bill 7, which will be considered this week by the state senate, would impose a two-year moratorium on the use of metal bats in high school baseball in California.

... Sandberg's team and the entire league voluntarily switched to wood bats after the accident. Community members were selling "Got Wood?" T-shirts, with the proceeds going to help pay Sandberg's medical bills. California assemblyman Jared Huffman, who represents Marin County, authored the bill to ban the metal bats just weeks after the March 11 accident.

Of course, it's not that simple.

Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, said he's been devoting almost all of his time to defending the metal bat since Sandberg's accident. May has been plying lawmakers and members of the media with one study after another to show that accidents like Sandberg's are no more likely with metal bats than with wooden ones.

"We just want the decision in California to be made on facts and data, not emotions," May told FanHouse.

The metal bats of today are safer than those of a few years ago, May said, because of standards in place since 2003 to regulate the Ball Exit Speed Ratio (BESR) off metal bats.

"Many people don't realize that the baseball bat of 1980 can't be used today," May said. "People think bats have gotten more juiced up, and frankly it's the opposite."

May also said that the NCAA is adopting a standard to further weaken metal bats in 2011, with the National Federation of State High School Associations adopting it in 2012.

The next step is to engineer the metal bats to have a smaller sweet spot, but the science is there.

Meanwhile, a move to ban wooden bats makes the sport more expensive, at a time when we don't need to be doing that ... in any sport. The science is questionable, the change would be costly, and it's a story (rightfully) full of emotion.

(Give the California Legislature credit. This proposed ban is only for two years. It's not meant to be permanent, even if that's what would eventually happen.)

No one wants to see a kid debilitated by an injury, but we have better things to legislate than things that will not necessarily improve safety in sports.

Letting emotion get in the way of sound decisions based on science is not good. It doesn't help anyone, and it leaves us wondering in ten years what the hell we were thinking.

2010 FIFA World Cup: Japan

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Fourth overall, fourth consecutive
Last time there: 2006, exited in first round
Best performance: Second round (2002)

For a country that didn't make a World Cup until 1998, the Japanese sure have built a nice program.

In that short time, they have blossomed into one of the top teams in Asia, and they proved it again by being the first nation to qualify for the World Cup this time around.

Of course, it's Asia, so it's not like Japan has to go through Croatia or Sweden to qualify. They get to play Bahrain and Australia, which is hardly a Murderers' Row of soccer teams.

2006 was considered a step back. As co-host in 2002, Japan kept alive the streak of host nations advancing past the first round. They were expected to match or exceed that four years ago, but failed. Now, they are trying to figure out how to get back.

It starts with 2009 Asia Player of the Year Yasuhito Endo, who can play as an attacking midfielder, but is also effective as a defender. Endo is the leader, and his playmaking touch is the key to this team's success. He has to set up Shinji Okazaki, the top striker on the squad.

There is a bit of a gap between the veteran players and the young core in Japan. This year should help bridge that gap, as there is a good chunk of young talent ready to emerge beyond 2010. Asking them to play well in the World Cup this time around is probably asking too much, especially when none of Japan's better young players have been able to hold a gig with a top club team yet.

If Japan is to surprise, they did get a favorable draw to make it happen. Cameroon and Denmark are not unbeatable, even though the Japanese will likely be underdogs in both matches. A finish second to Holland in Group E is not out of the question, but it is also not expected.

June 14 vs. Cameroon (Bloemfontein)
June 19 vs. Holland (Durban)
June 24 vs. Denmark (Rustenburg)

Friday, May 21, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Ivory Coast

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Second overall, second consecutive
Last time there: 2006, exited in first round
Best performance: Has never advanced past first round

While the first World Cup for Ivory Coast ended quickly in 2006, they did win their last match, a 3-2 triumph over Serbia & Montenegro. There was promise shown, thanks to a creative attack and a group of midfielders that understood Job No. 1 was to get the ball on the foot of Didier Drogba, an elite striker for Barclays Premier League and FA Cup champion Chelsea.

Qualifying for South Africa was surprisingly easy, as they blew through unbeaten. However, Ivory Coast met up with adversity in the Africa Nations Cup, where they fell to Algeria in extra time in the quarterfinals.

That match, along with their 2006 finals cameo, showed both the brilliance and the potential agony of Ivory Coast. They are very strong on the attack, and quite weak on defense.

Drogba is the leader. He can play at this level, and he continues to prove that. His midfield, led by Yaya Toure and Didier Zokora, can get him the ball and let him make magic happen.

The defensive issues should dog this entry, however. Kolo Toure is a capable defender, but he gets himself in trouble by playing too emotionally at times, and there isn't enough help around him for him to be able to afford to lose his head.

The experience of 2006 and their relatively poor showing at the AFC a few months ago should be sufficient motivation. Ivory Coast might not have a winning pedigree in soccer just yet, but they've built a team around coach Sven Goran Eriksson that should be in better position to perform well.

The question now becomes whether they can survive being in Group G with Brazil and Portugal. Despite North Korea's presence, this has the feel of a Group of Death.

June 15 vs. Portugal (Port Elizabeth)
June 20 vs. Brazil (Johannesburg -- Soccer City)
June 25 vs. North Korea (Nelspruit)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Italy

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: 17th overall, 14th consecutive
Last time there: 2006 (champions)
Best performance: Four-time champion (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)

No introductions needed here. Italy is one of the elite sides in all of international soccer.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that they're a contender again this year.

The 2006 champions aren't back intact, but enough key players return, with help from oodles of depth available.

Look in the back. Goalie Gianluigi Buffon might be the best player in the world at his position. The Juventus star looks to be in fine form for this summer. He's helped by Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluca Zambrotta on defense, and Fabio Cannavaro, at nearly 37 years old, can still play at a high level.

The midfield in Italy's 4-3-3 formation features more of the world's top players. Daniele de Rossi and Andrea Pirlo are capable, experienced players who make up for maybe not being as lightning-fast as some of their counterparts with a wealth of experience and the ability to see things other players can't see.

Up front, there is more experience, as 30-somethings Antonio di Natale and Vincenzo Iaquinta lead the attack.

It's a very favorable draw for the defending champions, as New Zealand and Slovakia should provide little resistance, and Paraguay isn't as talented or deep.

June 14 vs. Paraguay (Cape Town)
June 20 vs. New Zealand (Nelspruit)
June 24 vs. Slovakia (Johannesburg -- Ellis Park)

2010 FIFA World Cup: Honduras

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Second
Last time there: 1982 (exited in first round)
Best performance: Has never advanced past first round

No matter what happens in South Africa, this is a nice story. Honduras has a strong team, and they knew the window wasn't wide open for them to advance out of the CONCACAF region. There are some older players on this team who might not be available in 2014.

When a U.S. draw against Costa Rica guaranteed Honduras a long-sought spot in the finals, the streets erupted in celebration. It was an awesome scene.

No, Honduras isn't deep, and they aren't the elite squad that Group H mates Spain are. They aren't the surprise entry that Switzerland is, nor the steady bunch you see with Chile. But they are in the group, and they have a chance to prove they belong.

To advance, Honduras needs a huge performance out of midfielder Wilson Palacios, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur of the Barclays Premier League. He played well in qualifying, and he is their best and most important player. His job will be to feed veteran striker Carlos Pavon, who was ten years old the last time Honduras made the World Cup. He's older, but still a dangerous player up front.

Captain Amado Guevara is 34, but he logged a ton of minutes in qualifying, and he is clearly a key player for Honduras.

Defensively, Maylor Figueroa is the most experienced, but look out for Marvin Chavez, who should also be an effective player in front of keeper Noel Valladares.

The group draw isn't as bad as it could have been, but Honduras will need a couple breaks to advance into the knockout phase for the first time ever.

June 16 vs. Chile (Nelspruit)
June 21 vs. Spain (Johannesburg -- Ellis Park)
June 25 vs. Switzerland (Bloemfontein)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Macha Refuses to Manage Brewers

The impact of coaches on their teams is often the subject of debate.

There is a circle of fans who believe coaches hold the key to player development and performance, and their strategic decisions have a great impact on the outcome of games.

It's also thought that coaches simply put players in a position, and it's the players' job to perform and execute the plan laid out by the coaches.

I've always sat in between, on the fence, if you will.

Coaches do have an impact on player morale and performance. They can impact development by not putting people in the right positions. They can drag down a team with poor decisions, overzealous antics, or in not showing any emotion.

There are some who simply don't get tough enough when the time is right.

It appears Brewers manager Ken Macha is one of those guys. When he was hired, Macha talked about the importance of not being a softie manager, not being too loyal to a struggling guy. It's something former manager Ned Yost was famous for -- among other things.

Anyway, here's what Macha said at his introductory press conference.

"I've got a couple things to say about that. No. 1, the job of the manager is really not to be buddies with all the players. You have to make very difficult decisions over the course of the year," he said. "Sometimes players get a little personal and think it's personal. It really isn't."

Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Fame closer once he's been retired five years. Outside of admitting to a steroid binge sometime around 1999, there isn't anything he can do that will change that.

In 2009, Hoffman was awesome in his first year as a Brewer. When he decided not to retire, it seemed to make sense that the Brewers -- a club he enjoyed playing for -- would want to bring him back.

It's not like Milwaukee is crawling with closers in their organization, after all.

Well, it's been a disaster this season. In ten save chances, Hoffman has blown five, or one more than he blew all of last year. He has a 13.51 ERA, and has already allowed 19 earned runs. He's allowed 21 hits and walked seven over 13 innings, and he has just eight strikeouts.

This is the Brewers' closer, people! And you wonder why they're threatening the basement in the National League Central.

Despite the mountain of evidence accumulated over his 14 appearances this season, Macha still wasn't ready to pull Hoffman from the closer's role after Tuesday's debacling.

Afterward, Macha was evasive when asked if Hoffman would be removed from the closer's role, saying he wanted to discuss it with pitching coach Rick Peterson.

This doesn't make any sense.

Neither does what Tom Haudricourt blogged after the game.

Hoffman has to go into manager Ken Macha’s office Wednesay and tell him to remove the 42-year-old right-hander from his role as the Milwaukee Brewers’ closer. The results demand it.

Since Haudricourt is well-connected, this leads me to a possibly unfair conclusion, because I don't believe Haudricourt pulled this concept from the back of his mind.

If he says Hoffman has to remove himself, it's because he believes Macha won't do it.

Well, if Mr. "Gotta Make Tough Decisions Sometimes" won't make this call, there's only one thing left for general manager Doug Melvin to do:

Find someone who will.

This is Job No. 1 for a manager or coach. When someone clearly doesn't have it anymore, you have to pull the plug. This isn't a time for blind loyalty, even to a decorated veteran.

The Brewers have two options here, and neither of them is enjoyable. They can either coax Hoffman into retirement, perhaps with a buyout of the money left on his contract, or they can put him on the disabled list, shelf him for two weeks, then send him to the minors to find that changeup that buckled knees around the National League for so many years.

If he doesn't find that changeup, he's as useless as any player in baseball.

As far as Macha is concerned, it's seriously time for the Brewers to consider a change. Not only have they lost eight straight, but it appears he doesn't have the stones to be the strong leader a struggling baseball team needs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blame Florida Acrimony on Athlete Entitlement

Many people look down on professional athletes for the money they make.

How often do you hear the phrase "He isn't worth that much money," or "Why can't we pay teachers, but (insert name here) can make $100 million?"

Reality is that most sports fans are smart enough to understand the business of sports. They know that players are going to make money because the owners are making it, and they're going to make more money as owners continue to find ways to rake in more dollars.

Fans don't really ask much in return for the big money. They want players to be accessible whenever it's reasonable to expect that, and they want the players to give 100 percent every time they're on the field.

A 162-game baseball season is quite a grind. It can become a real bear if you're playing for a non-contending team. While the Florida Marlins are a decent club, they're not really considered a threat in the NL East.

Shortstop Hanley Ramirez is one of the better young players in the game. He signed a six-year, $70 million contract in 2008, so he's stuck in Miami for a while, unless he can find a way out.

Of course, behavior like what we saw Monday might be his ticket.

After taking a foul ball off the shin, Ramirez had a ready-made excuse for half-assing a play in the field. Manager Fredi Gonzalez, incensed that his best player would do such a thing, took him out of the game.

Last year's NL batting champion, Ramirez committed a costly error in the second inning after Tony Abreu's looper dropped near him in short left field. The star shortstop accidentally kicked the ball about 100 feet toward the left-field corner and loafed after it, allowing two runners to score as Abreu advanced to third.

Ramirez, who eventually retrieved the ball, was replaced by Brian Barden the next inning. After the game, Gonzalez confirmed that Ramirez was pulled for not hustling.

Ramirez also was shaken up after fouling Edwin Jackson's pitch off his left shin in the first inning and was tended to by a trainer. Moments later, he bounced into an inning-ending double play.

"Hanley left the game because we felt -- he got smoked in the ankle -- but we felt whether he was hurt or not hurt or whatever it was, we felt that the effort wasn't there that we wanted," Gonzalez said. "There's 24 guys out there that are busting their butts. Cody Ross got hit with a ball 95 mph and it wasn't hit or thrown any slower and he stayed in the game making diving plays and battling, got two hits and an RBI.

"There are some injuries there, but we expect an effort from 25 guys on this team and when that doesn't happen, we have got to do something," he added.

Ramirez was not available for comment after Florida's 5-1 loss, which snapped a four-game winning streak.

"They don't leave the game without my permission, so I told him he needed to go inside and we are going to run Barden out there, who has a sprained ankle by the way, and he battled for eight innings in there with a sprained ankle probably killing him, but that's the effort we're looking at as an organization, as a team, and that's that," Gonzalez said.

Are you hurt? If so, and that's the best you can do trying save your team some runs, then you need to come out of the game. It's for your own good, and it's for the good of your team.

However, it seems that Ramirez was either dogging it to dog it, or he felt he could get away with it because he hit himself in the leg and appeared to be dinged up.

Either way, that's not cool. Too many people are paying good money to watch you play on a patch of grass. If you're hurt, come out of the game, get treatment, and let someone else who can go 100 percent take your position.

This is especially true when you're Hanley Ramirez, because it's not like you're going to lose your job by coming out of the game.

Oh, and when you do pull a stunt like this, at least have the decency not to bus-chuck everyone around you in response.

"It's his team. He can do whatever he [expletive] wants," Ramirez, referring to his benching, told reporters Tuesday.

... Ramirez said he didn't see the need to apologize to the team.

"We got a lot of people dogging it after ground balls. They don't apologize," Ramirez told reporters, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Ramirez might have a point: The team's 36 errors in 39 games lead the major leagues.

Earlier Tuesday, Wes Helms said that Ramirez needed to lead by example.

"A lot of guys, coaches, staff have told Hanley. With his talent, he definitely needs to be the leader of this team," Helms told reporters, according to "Mentally. Vocally. Everything. For me, to be a leader of the team, you have to lead by example. If you just lead vocally, and don't back it, I'm not saying you have to hit .300, it's the way you handle yourself. That's the way a true leader is. He definitely has the play to be a leader. But you want him to lead by example. It's what you're looking for."

... Ramirez said he wasn't giving up on the play, but his injury limited him.

"I wasn't trying to give up," Ramirez said, according to "That was the hardest I could go after the ball."

Ramirez took a shot at his manager on Tuesday for removing him from the game.

"That's OK. He doesn't understand that. He never played in the big leagues," Ramirez said, according to the Post.

Sounds like Helms is more of a leader than Ramirez is. Perhaps Ramirez should worry more about the other 24 guys on his team, and less about himself.

Then again, what does he have to worry about? Baseball contracts are guaranteed, meaning Ramirez is going to make $70 million between 2008 and 2014. It doesn't matter how much of a jerk he might be, or who he plays for. That's going to be what he makes. Like it or not.

Such entitlement is dangerous for some people. Ramirez knows he's being paid like a star, and no matter what Gonzalez says about everyone being expected to play hard and every player being a Florida Marlin and no different from one another, there is a difference. Ramirez expects to get away with this because he's a star, and because he believes his team can't afford to bench him.

It's the thinking you leave a guy with when you pay him that kind of money on a team with such a low total payroll. While Ramirez is ultimately to blame for his attitude, one has to wonder how much of this is his fault, and how much is simply human nature.

After all, if you're paid like a superstar, and generally treated like a superstar, and you usually play like a superstar, how do you stop yourself from thinking you have earned some sort of special treatment?

And how mad are you going to be when you realize you don't always get it?

2010 FIFA World Cup: Holland

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Ninth, second consecutive
Last time there: 2006 (lost in second round)
Best performance: Two-time runner-up (1974 and 1978)

Similar to Germany, Holland is an elite European team that faced virtually no adversity whatsoever in qualifying.

The Dutch moved through their group with relative ease, outscoring opponents 17-2 over an eight-match winning streak that made them the first side from Europe to make the World Cup.

The "Oranje," as they're known, aren't without controversy heading into the finals. Longtime star keeper Edwin Van der Sar -- a mainstay in goal for Manchester United -- isn't on this team, having retired from international play following Euro 2008.

However, there are some calling for his return, as the play of new starter Maarten Stekelenburg has been underwhelming at times.

That said, Oranje is back in the finals, and they have a tough team. Their midfield makes everything go. They have strong players there, namely Wesley Sneijder, Mark Van Bommel, and Nigel De Jong. Captain Giovanni Van Bronkhorst is on his last legs at 35, but still a formidable defender. Joris Mathijsen mans the central defense, and he is a good veteran presence, too.

While Cameroon's athleticism could cause problems, and Denmark's patience might frustrate the Oranje, they should have little problem advancing out of group stage.

June 14 vs. Denmark (Johannesburg -- Soccer City)
June 19 vs. Japan (Durban)
June 24 vs. Cameroon (Cape Town)

Monday, May 17, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Greece

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Second
Last time there: 1994, exited in first round
Best performance: Has never advanced past first round

Greece never makes anything easy.

A shocking run in Euro 2004 brought them a major international championship.

The response: Greece turned around and failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006.

This past qualifying season was supposed to be a cinch for the Greeks. They were in a group with Switzerland, Latvia, Israel, Luxembourg, and Moldova. Instead of going through that group like a knife through hot butter, the Greeks spun their wheels, finishing second to the Swiss and needing a playoff against Ukraine to move on.

Only a road goal saved them after a goalless draw in the first leg, but Greece was in the finals.

Their last World Cup trip saw them outscored 10-0 in three matches (Argentina, Bulgaria, and Nigeria). Oddly, two of those three 1994 opponents (Argentina and Nigeria) are back in Greece's group again, and they should be equally troublesome for a hard-working team that is severely lacking in depth.

Some of Greece's front line guys could cause trouble for an unsuspecting opponent. Theofanis Gekas scored ten goals in 12 games during qualifying. Captain Giorgos Karagounis is a capable midfield player. Look out for Angelos Charisteas, who might be Greece's most dangerous sub. He can score goals and is a good athlete.

Much pressure will be placed on goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias to keep the Greeks in games. Given that this nation won Euro 2004 with many of these players, there's no reason to completely dismiss them from this group. They could surprise if they stay healthy and play sound fundamental soccer.

June 12 vs. South Korea (Port Elizabeth)
June 17 vs. Nigeria (Bloemfontein)
June 22 vs. Argentina (Polokwane)

Friday, May 14, 2010

2010 FIFA World Cup: Ghana

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Second overall, second consecutive
Last time there: 2006, lost in second round
Best performance: Second round (2006)

For such an inexperienced side -- at least in the World Cup -- there is a lot of buzz about Ghana.

That buzz could work against this African group. They're a staple of soccer in that continent, as they're tied with Egypt for the most finals appearances in the history of the African Nations Cup (eight). Expectations for this team were brought up by their surprising run to the second round four years ago, where their World Cup was abruptly ended by a superior Brazilian team.

The "Black Stars," as they're known, qualified rather easily for South Africa, as they were the first of the teams from that continent to make it in the World Cup.

Now, they need to lean on their front-line stars, as depth is quite questionable on this team. Talent, however, is not.

They have striker Asamoah Gyan, who didn't score in four qualifying matches, but is highly unlikely to be shut out in the World Cup. Matthew Amoah, who scored five in qualifiers, should see some time in South Africa. Michael Essien, teammates with Germany's Michael Ballack on English club team Chelsea, is the most notable player on the Ghana roster. Essien is still under 30, and he has become a global star because of his ability to overpower opponents, as well as his consistent level of play. He doesn't take many matches off, and he should be at his best in this tournament.

Defender Isaac Vorsah plays club soccer in Germany, and while Ghana didn't use him much in qualifying, he was a big part of their AFC earlier this year.

Speaking of the AFC, watch for potential friction with midfielder Sulley Muntari, who can help this team, but was left off that team after he refused to play in a friendly. If there are any lingering hard feelings, it could impact Ghana's chances as they try to grind out wins over Serbia and Australia, which would help them take the pressure off when they close group play against the favored Germans.

June 13 vs. Serbia (Pretoria)
June 19 vs. Australia (Rustenburg)
June 23 vs. Germany (Johannesburg -- Soccer City)

2010 FIFA World Cup: Germany

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: 16th, 15th consecutive
Last time there: 2006, lost in semifinals
Best performance: Three-time champion (1954, 1974, 1990)

Let's not kid ourselves. The Germans are a tough, talented team, and they rarely disappoint on this big stage. In fact, Germany has reached at least the quarterfinal round of every World Cup since a second-round exit in 1978. It's a run of consistency unmatched by any country in the world, even commonly-recognized powerhouses like Brazil and Italy.

In that stretch Germany has just one championship, but they have been runners-up three times, lost once in the semifinals, and twice in the championship match.

Coach Joachim Low took over from Jurgen Klinsmann after the now-analyst decided to step aside in 2006. Low has proven more than capable of keeping the Germans at a high level. They blew through UEFA qualifying without a defeat, with the major flaws being two draws against Finland.

Why so consistent? There just aren't a lot of holes in their team. You won't find many steadier defenders than guys like Andreas Beck and Heiko Westermann. They protect a strong goalkeeper in the relatively young (25) Rene Adler.

In the midfield, captain Michael Ballack is a very strong presence. He is a great passer, and he contributed four goals during qualifying. Bastian Schweinsteiger is not only a great name, but he's a great player. He's younger than Ballack by close to a decade, and he shows it with his elite speed and playmaking skills. Mesut Ozil is a superb attacking midfielder, and the three will do their part to set up striker Miroslav Klose, who led his team in goals during qualifying and will be a tough player to shut down, especially once we get into the knockout phase.

The starting 11 is very strong. They have leadership, experience, talent, speed, strength, offense, and defense.

There are flaws, however.

Germany's lack of depth is notable, and it is likely to hurt them at some point in this tournament. While they did escape qualifying unbeaten, they were held off the board for long stretches, and it seems they can become frustrated offensively if they don't get enough open field to work with.

If they can stay healthy, however, they can beat any team with virtually any style imaginable. A group draw of Ghana, Australia, and Serbia probably doesn't threaten them much, though Ghana has some speed up front that could trouble them, and Serbia and Australia should at least be seen as teams that could grind out a goalless draw if Germany isn't controlling possession enough.

June 13 vs. Australia (Durban)
June 18 vs. Serbia (Port Elizabeth)
June 23 vs. Ghana (Johannesburg -- Soccer City)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Georges Laraque: Actor, Singer, Worst Hockey Pitchman Ever?

NHL enforcer Georges Laraque has been off the ice for most of this season. He played in 29 games for the Montreal Canadiens before being told his services weren't required. Since he had a no-trade clause (how the hell does Georges Laraque get a no-trade clause?), the Canadiens simply paid him to stay away from them.

Apparently, Laraque has been putting his time away to good use. He's honed up on his performing arts skills.

Kind of.

This might be one of the worst commercials involving a hockey player you'll ever see.

Sadly, "might" is as strong as we can get. Unfortunately, cheesy commercials are an epidemic among pro athletes, especially -- it seems -- hockey players.

Take Pittsburgh Penguin Max Talbot, who's done a series of them. Here's the best.

Ahem, worst.

Then there's this gem from a real "superstar," Washington's Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin's singing actually spawned a hilarious spoof put together by the Atlanta Thrashers.

Hockey players ... doing BAD commercials.

Oh, do I ever mean "bad."

Laraque joins a pretty large club. He's not the first, and he won't be the last.

2010 FIFA World Cup: France

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: 13th, fourth consecutive
Last time there: 2006 (lost in final)
Best performance: Champion (1998)

Of the "elite" nations in this tournament, there is not a more unpredictable side than France. Winners in 1998, they slumped to a first-round exit in 2002, backed by an improbable opening upset by Senegal.

Then in 2006, they dazzled at times, making the final before losing to Italy on penalty kicks. It seemed the France of 1998 was back again.

Qualifying for 2010, though, proved quite an adventure. After finishing second in their group to Serbia (?), France had to beat Ireland in a playoff to advance to South Africa. During extra time of the second leg, Thierry Henry's obvious (and inexplicably uncalled) handball led directly to the winning goal, and France was through to South Africa.

So which team will show up? The one that won it all in 1998 and was runner-up in 2006, or the one that lost to Senegal and almost didn't qualify for this year?

One thing is certain: Coach Raymond Domenech has a year's worth of criticism to lean on as he prepares and motivates his team for this tournament. If they're not fired up to prove the world wrong in their "They don't belong" contentions about France, nothing will ever fire this team up.

Henry leads the offensive charge. It might seem like he's played forever, but he's only 32. Nicolas Anelka is a nice complimentary forward. The midfield includes Yoann Gourcuff, who will play a similar style to former star Zinedine Zidane. Manchester United stalwart Patrice Evra is the top defender on the team. Hugo Lloris is one of the top young goalkeepers in Europe.

The draw is harder than it might look for Les Bleus. Mexico has to be considered a group favorite, given their pedigree, talent, and the coaching of Javier Aguirre. South Africa is the host, and they are trying to keep the long streak going (no host nation has ever failed to advance out of the first round). Uruguay can cause trouble if you aren't focused.

June 11 vs. Uruguay (Cape Town)
June 17 vs. Mexico (Polokwane)
June 22 vs. South Africa (Bloemfontein)

2010 FIFA World Cup: England

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: 13th, fourth consecutive
Last time there: 2006, lost in quarterfinals
Best performance: Champion (1966)

There might not be a bigger glamour team than England. That's not to say they are incapable of hard-nosed soccer, but instead it's more a nod to their heritage and pedigree in the sport, and the big names that play for them.

The fact this team failed to qualify for Euro 2008, and has missed the World Cup as recently as 1994, well, that should only serve as motivation.

Still seeking their first trip to the championship game since their last title back in 1966, England again presents a challenging group that will likely contend.

However, injuries could sink them. Forward Wayne Rooney has been banged up. Veteran midfielder David Beckham -- the biggest name in the sport -- is out with a ruptured Achilles. Defender John Terry hurt his foot in training with his club team -- Barclay's Premier League champion Chelsea -- just this week.

Three key players at key positions, and while two of them might play, we don't know for sure now.

This is a solid side, even without those three guys. Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole will protect aging goalkeeper David James. Ferdinand's size makes him a force on set pieces at the other end of the field. Cole is as close to a sure thing as you'll find in the back of any team's lineup. No Beckham, but the English still have Frank Lampard in the midfield, along with Steven Gerrard and Michael Carrick. I'd say they'll do just fine there. Up front, Rooney and Emile Heskey should get some support from tweener Theo Walcott and veteran Peter Crouch.

The 2007 loss to Croatia that cost England a berth in Euro 2008 was the last nail in Steve McClaren's coaching coffin. Italian Fabio Capello is the head coach now, and the highly successful club team mentor knows his team has a ton of pressure on it in South Africa.

The perception is that Group B is a one-horse race, that Team USA has no shot against England. That might not be right, but even if it is, Algeria could be a tough opponent, and Slovenia isn't likely to just play dead for everyone else, even if it is their first World Cup. England will have to play well to get through this draw unscathed, but they are practically a shoo-in to qualify for the knockout phase, no matter what happens with their group-mates.

June 12 vs. United States (Rustenburg)
June 18 vs. Algeria (Cape Town)
June 23 vs. Slovenia (Port Elizabeth)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pole Vaulter Disqualified Due to ... Yes, Really ... Friendship Bracelet

The things people who coach kids will do to gain a competitive advantage just make me sick sometimes.

A prime example of that is this story out of California. At a high school track meet, with the league title on the line, the deciding points were determined by ...

A friendship bracelet.

I swear I'm not making this up.

A high school senior was disqualified from this meet in Pasadena because she wore a friendship bracelet while she did the pole vault.

... the visiting girls team from Monrovia High was seeking its first-ever Rio Hondo League title against longtime powerhouse South Pasadena High.

With the teams separated by a few points and only the pole vault remaining, Monrovia needed a second-place finish in the event to secure the victory and obtain the title. Both teams gathered around the pole vault pit, loudly celebrating and agonizing over every clearance and miss. Although South Pasadena's Rachel Ma led at 7-feet-6, two Monrovia girls had cleared 7-feet to give their team the lead.

But South Pasadena's best vaulter, Robin Laird, had not competed yet. Now she stood at the top of the runway, preparing for her first vault of the long day -- an attempt at 7-feet-6 that could win the event, the meet and the league title. The crowd fell silent. A crosswind was blowing. Laird began to sprint down the runway through the gauntlet of spectators, but suddenly stopped; something didn't feel right.

"I was feeling nervous," she would later say, "because the whole league championship was on the line."

Laird walked back to the top of the runway, gained her composure, then took off again. This time everything was in sync. She planted the pole, lifted herself into the air and soared easily over the bar to give her team a 66-61 victory. While half the crowd cheered and the other half groaned, Monrovia coach Mike Knowles reacted by pointing to his wrist and gesturing toward Laird, who was wearing a thin, colorful string bracelet.

Knowles justified his decision to tattle by pointing out that he's coached the sport for 30-some years and knows the rules.

Opposing coach P.J. Hernandez doesn't dispute the ruling, but he seems to think there was some gamesmanship at work here.

"Mike Knowles was down by the pole vault pit, kind of waiting and sitting there, keeping an eye on our girl, waiting for her to attempt the vault and then make the call, " said Hernandez. "I am upset that he wanted to win so badly that he would do it that way. We feel sportsmanship is important, too, and that it is in question with him in this situation."

When is it okay for a drive and desire to win to take over for common sense and good sportsmanship?

No one argues that this rule doesn't exist or wasn't properly applied.

(It can be argued, however, that this is a really stupid rule. A blanket rule about jewelry probably is the easy way out for a high school sports league, but reality is that there are no competitive or safety concerns involved with a piece of string on someone's wrist. The blanket rule is understandable, but about as necessary as a batting glove for a tee-ball player.)

Later in the article, Knowles is quoted as insisting he didn't notice the bracelet until after the gal had cleared the meet-winning jump, and he "didn't want to have to do it."

Only in your warped, over-competitive mind, Coach Knowles, did you have to do anything. There was no obligation to "do the right thing" and tattle on Laird. In fact, the right thing to do would have been to keep your mouth shut until you had a chance to shake the winning coach's hand.

At that point, you kindly mention something like:

"I noticed your last pole vaulter jumped while wearing a friendship bracelet. I just want you to know that any jewelry on a competitor is grounds for disqualification as per Section 3, Article 3 of the National Federation of State High School Associations. I didn't have the heart to do it, but understand that even in high school sports, some coaches are over-competitive jackasses who will stop at nothing to win, even if it means tattling on a teenager for wearing a piece of string on her wrist. Congratulations to you and your team on a well-deserved win today."

That way, you address the issue without breaking the hearts of a bunch of people who had no clue.

Everyone learns a lesson, and your team learns the most important rule of all:

Just because you have a chance to gain a competitive advantage doesn't mean you should do it.

2010 FIFA World Cup: Denmark

We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.

Appearance: Fourth
Last time there: 2002 (lost in second round)
Best performance: Quarterfinals (1998)

It might be considered a bit of a surprise that the Danes are in the finals. Their qualifying group in UEFA included flashy Portugal and gritty Sweden. While Portugal eventually qualified, Sweden was left home, thanks in large part to Denmark's sweep of their two head-to-head matches.

Denmark was a bit on the iffy side in qualifying, sweeping Sweden, winning 3-2 at Portugal, and drawing with Albania.

The obvious underdogs in Group E, Denmark will be ready to play, and it's unlikely they'll be deterred by their status. As coach Morten Olsen told World Soccer, "No one gave us a hope of topping a qualifying group containing Portugal and Sweden."

Surely, Denmark can manage more people betting against them, as they will with Holland and Cameroon in their World Cup group.

The Danes sport a formidable goalkeeper in Thomas Sorensen, who plays for England's Stoke City. It's no coincidence that Stoke had a good season in the Premier League, because Sorensen can play.

Soren Larsen led with five goals in qualifying, but Jakob Poulsen and Thomas Kahlenberg scored the biggest goals, giving Denmark their matching 1-0 wins over neighboring Sweden. Midfielder Christian Poulsen is a big key to Denmark's ability to possess the ball.

Opponents will also have to watch out for Nicklas Bendtner, who tallied three times in nine qualifying matches.

The draw doesn't look favorable, but it would be unwise to count Denmark out.

June 14 vs. Holland (Johannesburg -- Soccer City)
June 19 vs. Cameroon, Pretoria
June 24 vs. Japan, Rustenburg

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The DECC expansion finally has a name.

Tuesday morning, it was announced that Amsoil, a local manufacturer of synthetic lubricants, has agreed to purchase the naming rights for the new building.

The deal, for $6 million for 20 years, means the arena that houses UMD hockey starting in December will be called AMSOIL Arena.

Here is the press release:

Thanks to the generosity of a locally-based national corporation, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s addition won’t simply be called “the new arena” when it opens this December. It will be called AMSOIL Arena.

On May 11, 2010 the DECC Board approved awarding naming rights for the new facility to AMSOIL INC., a world leading manufacturer of synthetic lubricants and a major Twin Ports employer.

“Throughout the planning and construction process, the DECC Board has always sought ways to make this great new arena even greater for residents of the entire region,” said Mark Emmel, the DECC's board chair. “One important way of doing that is through a naming rights agreement, and we wanted to team up with a company that’s local, has a reach far beyond this area, and has a reputation for excellence. AMSOIL not only met but greatly exceeded all of those criteria, and we’re looking forward to an exciting, long term relationship with them.”

Albert J. Amatuzio, AMSOIL’s founder, president and CEO, said a partnership with the DECC is a perfect fit.

“Although AMSOIL produces products that are used throughout the world, the vast majority of our employees live and work right here in the Twin Ports. This is our home,” said Amatuzio.

“We’re honored to be associated with a facility that is so critical to the community’s economy and image.

AMSOIL Executive Vice Presidents Alan Amatuzio and Dean Alexander echoed that sentiment.

“We have worked closely with the DECC for many years and have established a great relationship,” said Alan Amatuzio. “I think both sides of this partnership realized from the start that this was a good opportunity for everyone, and that includes the entire region.”

“We’re proud to be involved,” said Alexander. “We’ve had many opportunities throughout the years to relocate the company but have chosen to stay here. We’re committed to the area, and our decision to step up and do this deal reflects that commitment.”

The agreement calls for the DECC to receive $6 million over a 20 year term.

One way AMSOIL’s investment will enhance AMSOIL Arena is that it will provide funding that allows the arena to achieve the LEED Gold Standard, making AMSOIL Arena only the second in the nation with this important designation for environmental responsibility. AMSOIL’s funding will also allow the DECC to update AMSOIL Arena as upgrades are needed in coming years.

Great news, in that a local company stepped up and made this happen.

The building is still coming along quite nicely, and should be more than ready for the opening events at the end of the year.