Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dwayne Does Dallas

NBA Finals MVP Dwayne Wade (Getty Images)NBA Finals MVP Dwayne Wade (Getty Images)

For the first time since the Portland Trailblazers in 1977, a team won 4 straight games after going down 2-0 to win the NBA title. The difference here is that the Miami Heat won game 6 on the road.

And for all the talk about a new "offensive" NBA, Pat Riley and the Heat pulled out all the defensive stops to beat the more talented Dallas Mavericks.

The reason for Dallas's demise is simple. And it has nothing to do with the officiating. Nor does it have to do with the alleged comments of the Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban.

There are 4 fundamental things you must do to win a championship, regardless of the level of basketball.

1. You must get defensive stops.
2. You must get more rebounds than your opponent.
3. You must get points in the paint, either from your big men or from your guards driving to the basket.
4. You must not turn the ball over.

For 82 regular season games, 3 rounds of playoffs, 2 games of the NBA finals, and most of game 3, the Mavericks did all these things. From the 4th quarter of Game 3 onward, the Mavs suddenly forgot what got them there.

The most important causes of Dallas's demise are 2 and 3. In games 1 and 2, Dallas drove to the hoop every chance it got, got fouls, and got to the line. Also, in the first two games Dallas outrebounded Miami. No surprise that Dallas won both games.

After that game, Dallas was outrebounded. And the Mavericks stopped attacking the Heat basket, which causes the trips to the line to go down more than anything the NBA could have done.

U.S. prepares for Ghana

We all know the scenario by now for the U.S., they must beat Ghana and have Italy beat the Czech Republic to advance for sure. If the Czech Republic wins, or there's a draw, the U.S. has to beat the snot out of Ghana to ensure it has the goal differential.

However, on the other side of the coin, Ghana, the best African team in this cup, is in a must-win scenario of it's own. A win gives Ghana 6 points, eliminates the U.S. and puts the Czech Republic in a win or go home scenario. A tie means they have to have help from Italy in the form of a win or a draw.

So basically, Ghana, a very talented team with a number of players playing in European leagues, are going to be fighting for their lives. Motivation won't be a problem for them. Will it be a problem for the U.S.? We've already seen them take their opener off, which is why they are in this position in the first place. However, they did come to play in the Italy game, and played agressive even when down a man.

Still, people are assuming this is going to be a walkover and it isn't. None of these games were going to be walkovers. It's "The Group of Death" for a reason. Plus, Ghana is still the most talented team in this group.

At best, the U.S. gets a draw out of this game.

The rest of the World Cup

Who's In (so far)
Germany - This team has done nothing but put the pressure opponents, which has more to do with their undefeated record more than any "home field advantage". If they were playing the World Cup in Burkina Faso, they would still be undefeated playing the way they are.
Ecuador - Speaking of countries that play well regardless of venue, Ecuador was supposed to be bad when playing at lower altitudes. But, they've been aggressive in their 2 victories as well.
England - England has been short on strikers this whole World Cup. First they lose Wayne Rooney for 2 games, now they've lost Michael Owen for the rest of the Cup. In between, they've been disappointingly boring to watch. Still, they're on to the second round.
Sweden - Like Germany and Ecuador, they've been very aggressive on the offensive end, but unlike Germany and Ecuador, their results haven't reflected it. They should have won the game with Trinidad and done better against England.
Argentina - After demolishing Serbia-Montenegro 6-0, the Argentines bascially shut it down against the Netherlands. They should have come away from that match with more points than they did. Up until that point, there were really no questions about this team. Now one has to wonder if they can flip the switch back on after they shut it off.
Netherlands - Considering they had serious injury questions to begin with, no thanks to Australia, the fact that the Dutch are 2-0-1 going into the next round is a great story.
Portugal - Undefeated in Group play. How's *that* for redemption from 2002?
Mexico - Yeah, there in, but their results have been disappointing so far, particularly that draw against Angola.
Brazil - The current system for group play, instituted in 1998 when the field expanded to 32, favors the aggressive and creative. Not surprisingly, Brazil is 7-1 in group play since 1998. They're no slouch in the knockout round either, having been to the final of the last 3 World Cups and winning it 2 of the 3 times.
Spain - Yeah, they're probably going to win their group unbeaten. Let's see how they do against actual World Cup-quality competition before we declare them a favorite.

Who's out
Poland - With apologies to Rick Pitino, "Gregorz Lato is not walking through that door. Zbigniew Boniek is not walking through that door." Sorry Poland.
Costa Rica - Never recovered from a 4-2 loss to the host country
Paraguay - Considering the players this team had, and all the issues with their opponents, it's a complete mystery that this team is going home.
Trinidad and Tobago - Just happy to have played, I'm sure.
Ivory Coast - the "feel good" story of this World Cup goes home, but not before they scratch out a win against...
Serbia and Montenegro - So long former Yugoslavia, it's been nice to know you.
Angola - Another nice story, without a happy ending.
Iran - can go back to building nuclear warheads and funding terrorism like it usually does.
Japan - OK, technically Japan is still mathematically alive, but they're playing Brazil in their final game.
Togo - It's a little hard to put together a World Cup run when your country can't afford to pay you. Good luck against France.
Saudi Arabia - Also technically still alive, but they play Spain in their last match.

Key Games remaining
USA - Ghana (Thursday 9:00 AM Central, ESPN) - see above
Italy - Czech Republic (Thursday 9:00 AM Central, ESPN2) - Keep one eye on this game. The Italians need to win for the U.S. result to mean anything. Anything else, and the U.S. goes home.
Australia - Croatia (Thursday 2:00 PM Central, ESPN2) - This is basically a knockout game. Whoever wins goes on, whoever loses goes home.
Ukraine - Tunisia (Friday 9:00 AM Central, ESPN2) - Another knockout game. With Saudi Arabia likely to lose to Spain, this will determine second place in Group H.
France - Togo (Friday 2:00 PM Central, ESPN) - Yeah, this looks like a French victory on paper, but no one knows if France will actually show up for this game or mail it in.
South Korea - Switzerland (Friday 2:00 PM Central, ESPN2) - If this game gets out of hand, the losing team will be scoreboard watching the France-Togo game.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Kasey Keller hangs his head after his defense let him down again (Getty Images)

The headline is Bruce Arena's words, not mine.

The World Cup has increasingly become a stage where aggressive and creative soccer play is rewarded. The increase in points from a win from 2 to 3 in 1994 and the expansion of the field to 32 in 1998 have created this situation. No longer can you sneak into the Round of 16 with a 3rd place finish and 3 draws. So in order to advance in group play, you must play aggressive.

So the United States team, touted as our most talented, had no excuse for the 3-0 "performance," if you can call it that, which they put up in their first World Cup outing. For all their skill, they should have played more aggressive. Instead, they came out flat. They showed no emotion. They never pushed the attack.

Bottom line: The players never played to win.

For all the players' talk about wanting to win, about how anything less than a World Cup win would be a disappointment, they never showed that attitude on the field.

Landon Donovan? Not a factor. DaMarcus Beasley? Absent. Eddie Pope? Flat-Footed. Bobby Convey? On the back of a milk carton. Claudio Reyna? Off-target.

About the best player on the field was Oguchi Onyewu because he kept the high crosses out of the box and forced Jan Koller to use his feet instead of his head, and even he had critical defensive mistakes that led to goals.

ESPN's Wayne Drehs put it best:
All week long, he and his players had revealed the utmost confidence going into their match with the Czechs. "If we play to our abilities, I think we can play with anyone," Keller and teammates kept repeating.

Boy was that a big if. Yes, the Americans are at a point in their soccer evolution that if everyone shows up, they have the potential to beat anyone. On the flip side, though, if a few key players fail to show up, they can lose to anyone, too. Especially the second-ranked country in the world.
Hopefully, the U.S. has learned it's lesson. They have 2 must-win games ahead of them against very tough teams. Draws and losses aren't going to cut it.

The pre-game speech from coach Arena better include a line about how the players need to put their money where their mouth is.

Other World Cup action

Italy 2, Ghana 0
So much for gambling controversy killing the Italian side. I think we can also dispel the notion that Italy is the New Jersey Devils of international soccer. They blitzed Ghana into submission and never let up on Africa's best team in this competition. If the Italians can play aggressive and win, other teams should take note.

(For any international readers, the Devils are a NHL hockey club who won 3 Stanley Cups by playing nothing but defense, which was boring to watch and killed the NHL as a spectator sport long before the NHL strike)

Australia 3, Japan 1
Another game where aggressive offensive play was rewarded. Yes, they got 4 yellow cards for rough stuff, but Australia kept pushing Japan further and further back as the game progressed, and they got 3 late goals.

Brazil 1, Croatia 0
As we've mentioned before, since 1994, aggressive, creative, offensive soccer has been rewarded thanks to changing the format from 2 points for a victory to 3. Not surprisingly, Brazil, the most creative soccer team in the world, has been to the final every time since 1994 and won 2 of the 3.
And while a 1-0 victory may not seem like much, consider: Brazil outshot Croatia 19-8 and won the time of possession battle.

South Korea 2, Togo 1
This is a game where South Korea had to get 3 points. And they played like those 3 points were the most important thing on Earth. And once again, the more aggressive team was rewarded as South Korea had 21 shots to Togo's 11.

France 0, Switzerland 0
Not sure if this is a case of Switzerland having figured out France or France just taking a day off, but this really should have been a French victory. Now it puts France in a must-win situation against South Korea because Switzerland is facing Togo and will probably get 3 points out of that game.

College Baseball: Oklahoma eliminated

Rice's Josh Rodriguez put the final nail in Oklahoma's coffin in the 6th inning as he drove a 2-RBI single with the bases loaded to take the lead from the Sooners. Then Joe Savery hit a 3-run homer the very next at bat, and that was it for OU.

Final score: 8-5 Rice

Final Score for the Big 12: 7 teams in the tournament, none made it to Omaha.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Weekend Wrap-Up (Offseason edition) 6/12/2006

Boss, I'm gonna be sick today, I have World Cup Fever.

NBA Finals: Nowitzki leads Mavericks to 2-0 series lead

Yes, the Mavs are up 2-0, but there's something going on here that may be ignored in all the talk about Shaq's free throw shooting and poor play.

I think we're beginning to see a change in the perception of foreign-born players. At first, they were regarded as either complementary shooters or post players with no grit. Even last year, as France's Tony Parker and Argentina's Manu Ginobli were pacing the Spurs to a championship, the media was very quick to point out that "American" Tim Duncan (ironically born in the Virgin Islands), was the team leader and go to player.

Now with Dirk Nowitzki's performance this year, this is the first time that a foreign born player has been recognized as a team leader and a star who sets the tone for his team with his play. Granted, he was always this for Dallas, but it took an NBA Finals run for everyone to notice.

Big XII Baseball: Oklahoma the sole survivor

Only 2 Big XII teams were left on the road to Omaha after last weekends' regionals: Missouri and Oklahoma.

Missouri had the misfortune of facing powerhouse Cal-State Fullerton. Naturally, they went down in straight games. Neither was close.

That leaves Oklahoma, who won Game 2 of their Super Regional with national power Rice to force a deciding game 3 today (Noon, ESPN).

If Oklahoma needs any inspiration, however, they need look no further than last year's Texas squad, who, like this year's OU team, dropped the opening game in it's super-regional on the road, but came back to win the next 2 to advance to, and eventually win, the College World Series.

World Cup

Aside from Germany going ape and dropping a 4-spot on Costa Rica, the World Cup finals have been marked by a lot of shots on goal, but not a whole lot of chances converted. So the offense is there, it's just that teams are not finding the back of the net. Which means it can only go up from here. Hitting the highlights...

Sweden 0, Trinidad and Tobago 0
All the credit in the world goes to former Howard University keeper Shaka Hislop, who basically made up for Trinidad's lack of offensive punch. Sweden should have won that game because they were the more aggressive team, but Hislop kept them in check and the "Soca Warriors" got a gift point.

Not to rain on Trinidad's parade (or Tobago's for that matter), but if you want to make good on Stern John's guarantee, you need to give John some more help when the ball's in your attacking third. He can't do it himself.

England 1, Paraguay 0
Speaking of gift points...

A win may be a win, and England may be the most nit-picked club in the world, but let's face it, they won it on a flukey goal that skidded off the defender's head and into his own net. They did not convert their opportunities, they had crosses where no one was home, and they almost let Paraguay back in the game on several occasions.

Mexico 3, Iran 1
Think Mexico wanted to get off to a good start? Led by Omar Bravo's 2 goals, Mexico absolutely blitzed Iran into the ground. At halftime, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Mexico "the new Great Satan" and threatened to continue his nuclear enrichment program if Mexico continued to score on them.

Interesting that a country whose leaders have so famously denied the Holocaust went down in defeat in Nuremberg, the very city where many of the Holocaust's leaders were tried and convicted after World War II.

Netherlands 1, Serbia-Montenegro 0
Apparently, the Dutch can get offense from sources not named Ruud Van Nistelrooy. While the Serbian defense was concentrating too heavily RVN, Arjen Robben stuck one in. And that's all it took.

Ecuador 2, Poland 0

Probably the first real "shocker" of this World Cup as Ecuador wasn't expected to do much, they pushed forward more times than the Poles did, and were rewarded with victory.

Argentina 2, Ivory Coast 1
This one really could have been 3-1 except the Ivory Coast keeper either just stopped a ball from completely crossing the the line or yanked one out of the goal (depending on your point of view) early on in the game. Still Argentina showed the kind of playmaking and offensive ability we've come to expect from them over the years.

Today's Group E Matches:
Ghana-Italy (1:55 PM, ESPN2)
This could really be a breakout game for Ghana, Many of the Ghana players are familiar with the Italian side since they play in Italy, so they know what to expect. Plus, their midfield is better and their team is more athletic overall.

Czech Republic-U.S. (10:55 PM, ESPN2)
There's one thing I forgot to mention about the U.S. side that I like: Attitude. Everyone from Bruce Arena down to the 25th man is saying their goal is to win it all, and anything else would be a disappointment. They feel like they can win.

They're not playing the politically correct game that a lot of players and coaches play when it's World Cup time. They're not "happy to be there" like a lot of past U.S. teams. They want it badly.

I know some players articulate it(Terrell Owens) and some don't (Peyton Manning), but you don't become a champion by being politically correct all the time. You have to believe you can win deep down in your soul. That's what I mean by attitude, and this U.S. team has it.

Now, let's see if they can translate that attitude into goals.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

World Cup Preview

With the Major League's credibility as a sport hanging by a thread no thanks to steroids and unchecked free agency, the Texas Rangers basically on cruise control in the NL West, and the Houston Astros blowing up before Roger Clemens even throws a ball, it's time to look elsewhere for summer sports to write about. (Yes, we're going to talk NBA Finals, but I'm saving that for tomorrow)

Thankfully, this summer, we at least have the World Cup to follow.

That's right, the World Cup, the only time in the U.S. sports calendar where one can actually watch soccer and not have to feel shame for doing so.

For my generation, I know that a lot of our parents signed us up for soccer when we were between 7 and 10, so even though we don't play anymore, the World Cup conjures up images of happier times for a lot of us.

Plus, it's a big worldwide event.

Most people in the U.S. may not know how offsides works, or what it takes to get a foul called in soccer, but then most people don't know what a "Yurchenko" or "triple lutz" is either, yet we watch the Olympics every 4 years.

The Big Stories

Overt Racism at Soccer matches. Much has been made in the press here in the U.S. about the overt displays of racism at European soccer matches, which I think comes as a shock to most Americans, because Americans seem to regard Europeans as either "enlightened" or "overly politically correct" depending on which side of the political fence you land on.

But it does happen, particularly because Europe has been homogenous for so many years of their history, and have suddenly had to deal with the mass influx of people wanting to enter rather than leave. Of course it doesn't help that facist parties in Europe appear to be on the upswing.

FIFA, the soccer bigwigs, have promised to deal with racist behavior using a range of penalties, including stripping a team of points. It remains to be seen how they will enforce this, and whether or not the penalty applies to similar cases, say, Iranians making any sort of anti-Semitic signs or chants. (German officials have already let one prominent anti-Semite from Iran into the country, who knows how many more could arrive? Hopefully the Iran crowds will have enough Iranian-Europeans to mitigate this sort of thing.)

Plus, to a certain degree, there's an issue of freedom of expression involved. Players of all races get catcalled for poor performance. If that player is of color, will that cause a team to lose 3 points? Will teams get docked points for making noise about a referee's call if that referee is not of European descent.

Should be interesting to follow as the tournament progresses.

Non-European teams in Europe - Just as European teams never seem to win when the tournament is played in the Americas or Asia, only one team from outside Europe has won a European-hosted World Cup (Brazil in 1958).

However the second could happen this year, as many of the traditional European powers (England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France) have serious questions going into this World Cup, whether from injury, lack of chemistry, tactical issues, or disappointing results. Also, many top leagues in Europe have tried to get talent wherever they could, and as a result, the development of native-born players has suffered.

South America and Africa have been huge beneficiaries of the European talent importation, as they not only have their best players playing against the best in the world, there is more space in their national leagues for development of young talent. It's also made it easier for their national teams to adjust to European styles of play.

Also, the CONCACAF region (the one the U.S. is in) managed to place a record 4 teams, and 3 of Asia's biggest soccer powers, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia managed to qualify. Both Japan and South Korea, mind you, are coming off great results from the last World Cup.

That said, certain factors may work against the non-European nations. Second-tier soccer nations in Europe (Croatia, Czech Republic, Portugal, and Serbia-Montenegro) are also benefitting from the international search for talent by top European leagues in the same way that South America and Africa have been. So while the top teams may be suffering, the European contingent is still deep.

Also, thanks to upsets in the African qualifiers, Africa is probably fielding it's weakest contingent of teams ever. No offense to fans of Angola, Togo, or the Ivory Coast (whom, as Bono likes to remind us in the ESPN ads, enacted a cease-fire so everyone can watch the national team play), but they're not South Africa, Nigeria, or Cameroon and they don't scare people. (Ghana and Tunisia, with rosters that have European-based players, are a different story).

The U.S.A. and Group E

Many long time members of Sam's Army are looking at this group and probably having bad flashbacks. Back in 1990, when the U.S. began qualifying for the World Cup on a regular basis, the U.S. was placed in a group with Italy and Czechoslovakia. Needless to say, the U.S. did not fare well.

This time, the U.S. has a chance to extract a measure of revenge.

The Czech Republic, whom the U.S. faces on June 12, has been plagued by the injury bug and several of it's stars may be out. And while they did beat the host Germans recently, Italy is one of the oldest teams in the tournament, they are lacking in depth, and the last anyone saw the Italians in a World Cup, they were finishing second to Mexico in group play and getting beat by South Korea. It also doesn't help the Italians mentally that Italy's soccer federation is in the midst of a gambling scandal. Plus, the Italy-U.S. Game is in Kaiserslautern, home to the largest concentration of U.S. citizens in Europe thanks to nearby Rammstein AFB, making it the closest thing the U.S. will have to a home game in Germany.

That's not to say those games will be walkovers for the U.S. They're both going to be very difficult games for the U.S., and neither is going to go down without a fight, but those games are very winnable.

And then there's Ghana, who is younger, faster, and more athletic than any team in this group.

But the U.S. has one of it's best teams it's fielded since 1990, and Bruce Arena has this team better prepared mentally for a World Cup in Europe than his predecessor, Steve Sampson, did. In 1998, Sampson, like many coaches who worry too much about big game pressure, completely switched his tactics right before the start of the World Cup, and isolated his team from family, friends and injured team members. Naturally, the players were tight and the U.S. finished dead last. Four years later, Arena didn't make disruptive strategy changes, allowed the players to bring family, allowed injured team members to travel with the U.S. team, kept the team generally loose, and the U.S. actually made the quarterfinals. Arena plans to keep that same policy this time around.

The problem is the U.S. needs to win this group, not finish second, if they intend to make a serious run at a World Cup and finally stake a claim for soccer in America. Second place means playing Brazil, likely the champions of Group F. First place means playing either Croatia, Australia, or Japan and avoiding Brazil until the semifinals. While that still means playing Brazil, there's a huge difference in perception between making the second round and making the semifinals in terms of winning over the American public at large.

While second place in this group is likely, first place may be out of their reach. Ghana is most likely going to be the star of the group based on pure talent and athletic ability, and they can out hustle the U.S. and a depleted Czech Republic. Plus many of the "Black Stars" play in Italy and won't be intimidated by facing the Italians.

Group E Projection:

1. Ghana 2-0-1 (7 points)
2. U.S. 1-0-2 (5 Points)
3. Italy 1-1-1 (4 points)
4. Czech Republic 0-3-0 (0 points)

The rest of the field

Group A

Yes, World Cup hosts Germany have a rookie coach in Jurgen Klinsmann, and an inexperienced international squad, and they've been less than impressive in their runup against World Cup qualifiers Japan and Italy, but the Germans have been placed in a pool of teams that have their own issues, so a group win should be no problem at least.
If anyone has a chance to unseat Germany, in this Group, it's Poland. They were one of the highest scoring teams in the preliminary matches, and they're a little more than motivated after a disappointing 2002 Cup. They've got four years of pent up frustration to take out on the rest of the world.
Costa Rica comes in with one of the oldest rosters in the tournament, and a 3-match losing streak. It's doubtful they will improve on that come tournament time.
Ecuador, making it's second straight World Cup appearance, qualifield largely because they held serve at home in high altitude and won it's only road game in the high altitude of La Paz, Bolivia. Sadly, Ecuador is not scheduled to play in the Bavarian Alps once.

Group B

I'm picking Paraguay to be the surprise winners of this group. While Jose Luis Chilavert is no longer in goal for Paraguay, Justo Villar could very well be the next great Paraguayan netminder. Plus, this time the Paraguayans have something that previous Paraguayan teams didn't have: talent, depth, a bona fide scoring threat (Roque Santa Cruz), and a playmaker, (Nelson Valdez).
England, probably the most scrutinized and second-guessed team in the world, has waited with baited breath to see if striker Wayne Rooney has recovered enough from a hamstring injury. While he's "fit to play", that doesn't necessarily means he's 100%., and that first game against Paraguay's going to be brutal if he isn't at full strength. Still, they should make the second round.
While Sweden looked very impressive in World Cup qualifying, they went 0-1-2 in their warm up matches, all against non-qualifiers. As with any championship, you have to be playing well at the right time, and the Swedes need to turn it up a notch.
While Trinidad and Tobago will probably get waxed in all 3 games, MLS fans will probably recognize the name of Trinidad forward Stern John, who played 2 seasons with the Columbus Crew, and combined with Brian McBride to form one of the MLS's most effective forward duos in the league's early years.

Group C

When this group was assembled at the World Cup Draw, many labeled it the Group of Death. Now it's looking more like Argentina's group to lose.
Argentina is fielding it's youngest squad in recent memory. Aside from Hernan Crespo and Roberto Ayala, there aren't a whole lot of household names. At least not yet. Juan Riquelme inherits the #10 jersey, and while he's not Mario Kempes or Diego Maradona, he's a playmaker to be reckoned with. Riquelme's midfield mate Javier Mascherano helped Argentina win a gold medal at the Athens Olympics and is considered one of the best young players on this squad. And Lionel Messi is already drawing comparisons to Maradona.
This is the last World Cup for Serbia-Montenegro, as the last remnants of the former Yugoslavia are parting ways. But they may just get a parting shot in. On the pitch, they're a strong defensive team, which makes them dull to watch, but tough to play if you are facing them.
The Netherlands looked like strong contenders a week ago, then they lost 3 of their key players in a warm-up match against Australia, and are now on very shaky ground. Even if Philip Cocu, Wesley Sneyder, and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst return, their leg injuries will linger throughout group play.
The Ivory Coast has been a terrific "feel-good" story for this World Cup. We'd all like to see them do well simply because of all the internal strife that country has gone through. But, more than likely, the first-time participants are going to finish last because of a lack of "big game experience"

Group D

or Portugal, basically, that's what Group D boils down to. Slight edge goes to Mexico because this team can really light up a scoreboard, and this group will come down to Goal differential
After a disappointing 2002, where they were posterized by Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley on the way to a disappointing finish, Portugal feels like it has something to prove. They were the second-leading scorers during Europe qualifying and are peaking just at the right time, winning all 3 warm-up matches.
While Iran was one of the strongest sides during Asian qualifying, they're really outclassed by the top 2 teams in this group.
Angola, I'm sure, would like to be known for something other than it's basketball team being on the wrong end of a Charles Barkley dunk. Sadly, the only thing people will remember about Angola's World Cup experience is that they got to play their former colonial masters, Portugal, once.

Group F

Brazil: 5 time World Cup champs, defending World Cup champs, defending South American champs, defending Confederations Cup champs, current world player of the year in Ronaldinho, stars at every position... How many more reasons do you want?
Out of the other 3 teams, Japan, the current Asian champions, are poised to follow up on 2002's second round appearance with experienced Europe-based players like Hidetoshi Nakata, Shusune Nakamura, Shinji Ono leading the team.
Croatia has been something of a disappointment since 1998, when they made it to the semifinals and Davor Suker won the scoring title. Most of the key players on that team have retired, so it's up to a bunch of new faces to return the Croats to glory.
Australia has been accused of using rough tactics after 2 yellow cards, 1 sendoff and 3 injuries to Dutch players in their 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, which is not the best way for the Soccerroos to start their World Cup, because now the refs will be watching more closely. Besides the chances of them improving on their 0-fer in the '05 Confederations Cup are a long shot at best.

Group G

France was a disappointment in 2002 after winning it all in 1998, but you can't keep Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry down for long. Les Bleus have been on fire in their warm-up matches.
South Korea blew through the last World Cup like a tornado, winning it's group, making the semifinals and leaving Poland, Portugal, Italy and Spain in their destructive wake.
Switzerland was thought to be a threat to move on, but they have had disappointing draws against the Ivory Coast and Italy recently.
Togo's chief tribal priest is predicting that his nation's squad will make the second round. Apparently they play soccer very differently in the astral plane.
Take that prediction with the same grain of salt as you would if Pope Benedict XVI made any sort of prediction about his native Germany.

Group H

Spain is the perennial bridesmaid of international soccer. They are always strong contenders in whatever competition they enter, but they never seem to win. Still, they've been blessed with a weak group and should win it outright on pure talent.
None of the rest of the sides have been all that impressive, but the Ukraine gets the edge because of their qualifying run and recent match results. And because of Andriy Shevchenko.
Tunisia and Saudi Arabia will be battling to stay out of the cellar. I leave it to you to figure out which is the worse of the two

Knockout stage

2nd round
Germany over England
Argentina over Portugal
Paraguay over Poland
Mexico over Serbia-Montenegro
Ghana over Japan
France over Ukraine
Brazil over U.S.A.
South Korea over Spain

Argentina over Germany
Mexico over Paraguay
France over Ghana
Brazil over South Korea

Argentina over Mexico
Brazil over France

Third Place
Mexico over France

Brazil over Argentina

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Big XII hanging on by a thread in baseball regionals

You'd think a conference whose geographical territory covers much of Texas, where College teams frequently outdraw the Texas Rangers, the baseball hotbed of St. Louis, and a number of other places where State U. is the only baseball game in town, the Big XII would be much better at this college baseball thing.

Especially since 7 of the 10 baseball playing schools in the Big 12 made this year's NCAA baseball tournament, and 3 actually managed to land regionals.

Yet the Big XII finds itself barely hanging on as the regionals come to a close

The carnage started on Friday. TCU, like they did in football last fall, upset Oklahoma.

As if that wasn't surprising enough, Nebraska lost to Manhattan College. Manhattan College! Not only is the school misnamed (it's actually in the Bronx), the school is best known for launching the coaching career of ESPN hoops analyst Fran Fraschilla and his starch-sprayed hair.

Then the eliminations began. Texas lost to Stanford and NC State and Baylor lost twice to Rice, which wasn't so bad, but Kansas was eliminated by Hawaii, a state who's best baseball product is Sid Fernandez. Then Nebraska suffered it's second loss to the University of San Francisco, who would only be a baseball threat if they cloned Bill Russell and taught the clone to throw a curveball instead of block shots.

The worst ignominy: Oklahoma State was beaten by cross-state opponent Oral Roberts not once, but twice.

Thankfully Oklahoma and Missouri managed to save face. Oklahoma managed to fight its way through the losers bracket and beat Gene Stephenson's Wichita State Shockers twice to advance. Missouri fought through a brutal Malibu regional against UCLA and Pepperdine to advance.

But neither faces an easy opponent in the regionals. Missouri takes on Cal State-Fullerton and Oklahoma faces Rice.

So it's concievable that the Big 12 could wind up with no teams in Omaha for the first time in it's history.